5 Best Cocktail Bars in America

Drink Lists America

In an era of celebrity chefs and televised cut-throat culinary competition, you’d imagine we’d have an Oscar-status award ceremony recognizing the exceptional folks in the food industry. Well, as it turns out, there is one! The James Beard Awards are our country’s most prestigious culinary awards, honoring chefs, restaurants, writers, filmmakers, cookbook authors and other elite gluttons for their forward-thinking creations in the food and drink world. And, just three years ago the James Beard Foundation added a new category, Outstanding Bar Program, to recognize the achievements of those who focus on booze.

“Restaurants are increasingly putting as much thought into their bar programs as their menus,” says Providence Cicero, chair of the James Beard Awards’ restaurant and chef committee. “Bartenders are reviving classic cocktails, sometimes reinventing them, and creating lists of original cocktails that often change seasonally, as menus do.”

Here’s this year’s top-five finalists for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Bar Program, carefully selected from thousands of entries and voted on by top gourmands from around the nation. Check back May 5 to find out which of these five bars takes the limelight.

The Violet Hour, Chicago
Third-year James Beard Award Bar Program nominee

Saturday nights at eight o’clock, you’ll find a long line of thirsty people snaking from The Violet Hour’s sign-less, mural-painted façade into the heart of the speakeasy. The bar, in Chicago’s hip Wicker Park neighborhood, opened seven years ago this summer and boasts one of Chi-town’s longest and strongest cocktail menus. And, judging by its long queue, it’s well worth the hour-plus wait in Chicago’s wintery wind. “We were essentially one of the first bars in Chicago focusing on the cocktail and mixology scene,” says bar manager Patrick Smith.

The bar’s menu of 35 drinks changes with the season, but they keep three staples year-round. The Juliet and Romeo (Beefeater gin, mint, cucumber and rose water), Dark and Stormy (Brugal Anejo and Cruzan Black Strap rums, lime and ginger syrup) and the Awash in Moxie (bitter R. Franklin Besk, lemon, Dolin Dry vermouth, Crème De Cassis blackcurrant liqueur and plumb bitters). The latter cocktail uses R. Franklin Besk, a newly produced liqueur based on Malort, a bitter Swedish wormwood liqueur that is exclusive to the Chicago area. Wilder drinks on the menu right now include the Ma La Colada, a Szechuan peppercorn-infused Banks 7 rum, tropical Coco Lopez with lime, ghost pepper and pineapple that leaves your “mouth tingling and tongue numb.”

Cheers! The Violet Hour’s bar staff is revealing their intoxicating recipes in a new series cocktail classes.

Bar Agricole in San Francisco
Third-year James Beard Award Bar Program nominee

Nearly four years ago, Bar Agricole began as a buy-local eatery in San Francisco’s SoMa (South of Market) neighborhood, sourcing veggies and meats in proximity to the Bay Area, practicing whole-animal butchery and focusing on from-scratch cooking. Their food philosophy translates beyond their kitchen to the bar, a realm where you’d think it’s almost impossible to convey a slow food ethos. “Trying to find sustainably, classically made spirits is not easy,” says co-owner and bar manager Eric Johnson who has worked in the beverage industry for nearly two decades. “That’s the direction for ourselves.”

“To be an actual tequila or Bourbon or Calvados or certain types or rum they have to come from a certain place,” says Johnson. The bar, after all is named for Agricole cane juice rum only found in Martinique, and like that region-specific liquor, Bar Agricole prides itself in representing a certain place and its terroir.

Bar Agricole’s owners travel the world visiting beverage producers and distillers, jet-setting to Mexico to try tequilas, Calvados and Cognac, France to sample brandies, and Boulder, Colo., to sip Leopold Bros. gin and whiskey. “There is so much rich untapped history in the 150 years of cocktail books that is not being explored,” says Johnson, “and that is what we are looking to do.”

Cheers! The owners of Bar Agricole just opened their second restaurant in the heart of San Fran’s Financial District. The venue, Trou Normand, is named after a French tradition of drinking a small palate cleansing digestif in between meals.

The Bar at the NoMad Hotel, New York City
Second-year James Beard Award Bar Program nominee

In New York City’s “golden era,” hotels were the epicenter of society, buzzing with travelers from abroad and savvy businessman from Wall Street. “Famous hotel bars were the birthplace of the cocktail,” says The NoMad’s bar manager Leo Robitschek. “They still exist but don’t shine like they used to.” The NoMad, located on 2nd and Broadway, is the perfect intersection for travelers and locals today. “We really want this to be one of the best cocktail destinations in the world,” says Robitschek.

The NoMad’s bar is known for an extensive menu of 50-plus drinks that changes with the season. Daunted by the menu or wanting to try something new? Just order the Bartender’s Choice ($16). Based on a quick interview with the bartender, he will whip up something special with his name on it. The drink menu, based on classically driven cocktails, focuses on the spirit and uses ingredients to enhance its flavors. Other boozy beverages to note are The Sippy Cup, which isn’t as innocent as it sounds with Averna Italian liqueur, Vermouth di Torino, ginger and lime.

The menu is split between “light spirited” and “dark spirited,” and even includes a selection of non-alcoholic “soft cocktails” with flavors like refreshing basil-fennel and pineapple jalapeno-infused agave.

Cheers! “We crank out cocktails in high volume,” says Robitschek, adding that they serve anywhere from 1,200 to 1,400 cocktails each day. Mixing that many drinks all day, every day, you know that consistency is key.

Maison Premiere, Brooklyn
First-year James Beard Award Bar Program nominee

Oyster bar and cocktail lounge Maison Premiere opened in early 2011 with the intention of filling Brooklyn’s void of a cozy cocktail den. The restaurant, which has the ambiance of a Parisian brasserie meets New Orlean’s Bourbon Street bar, now has the largest collection of absinthes (currently 22) in The Big Apple, a menu of 30-plus oysters, and a recently constructed wine cellar with a brag-worthy selection of French vintage wines, as well as biodynamic and organic wines.

“We are focused on every category of the beverage program,” says bar director Maxwell Britten, who was born and bred into the restaurant industry. “We have a sense of pride, and we take in ceremony with any kind of drink—absinthe, wine or cocktail. We really care about having the greatest level of integrity in all departments.”

Glance at their menu, and you’ll know what Britten is talking about with their curated list of old-world wines, Champagnes by the glass, European bottled beer, American drafts and Caribbean rums.

The establishment favors ceremony and tradition, which can be noted by their salute to the Green Fairy. An absinthe fountain takes center stage at the bar and is a replica of the marble absinthe fountains from the Olde Absinthe House on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street.

Maison Premiere’s menu even includes a section dedicated to eight absinthe cocktails. One, an absinthe frappe ($12) and another, an absinthe colada ($14). “We wanted to preach to the world the traditional way of serving absinthe with the drip, and we thought we could get people to embrace it by making a delicious cocktail that is a great gateway to the traditional way to drink it,” says Britten.

Cheers! Maison Premiere throws awesome parties to celebrate The Kentucky Derby, Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day. “We really thrive at throwing over-the-top American holiday parties,” says Britten.

Clyde Common, Portland
First-year James Beard Award Bar Program nominee

Clyde Common’s bar, located in the heart of Portland, has been mixing up classic cocktails while also pioneering new drink trends since opening seven years ago. “We are consistently pushing the boundaries of spirit selection and service,” says bar manager Jeffrey Morgenthaler.

The bar, located next to the lobby of hip Ace Hotel, changes up the drink menu regularly, but there are a few staples they keep 24/7, like the Bourbon Renewal ($9), a mix of bourbon, lemon, Crème de cassis blackcurrant liqueur and bitters. The bar is also known for their daily punches. (Think boozy concoctions of Jamaican rum, brandy, lemon juice, apricot and black tea.) The bar manages a list of classic and classic spin-offs, as well as bottling their own carbonated cocktails (Campari sodas and Americanos) in six-ounce bottles.

Also hugely popular are their barrel-aged cocktails, which are made in large formats and aged for two months in Tuthilltown whiskey barrels. “It’s been a bit of a beverage trend for the past few years,” says Morgenthaler.

“Every time we come up with something new we try to share it,” he says. “The barrel-aged cocktails and carbonated cocktails are an example of that. Those a have become big trends around the world, because we have shared our techniques with other people.”

Cheers! Along with their list of top-shelf whiskeys and Bourbons, Clyde Common has a handful of absinthes from Switzerland, France and Washington that they serve in the traditional style with sugar cube and ice water.

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