Before jazz, automobiles, Hollywood films or cheeseburgers, America gave the world cocktails. Bold, glamorous but slightly vulgar, like the nation itself, these concoctions of spirits, sugar, bitters and ice emerged in the mid-19th century.
The Prince of Wales, the explorer Sir Richard Burton and other prominent Victorians sailed across the Atlantic to sample them, and returned as enthusiastic converts.
The golden age of American cocktails, when celebrity bartenders earned more than the Vice President, and could pour liquid rainbows of alcohol through the air, ended with Prohibition in 1920.
For the rest of the 20th Century, the art of mixology withered away, and its nadir came in the Eighties, when a typical cocktail was a fish-bowl filled with random spirits, drowned in fruit juice, and sweetened to the point of sickliness.
In the past decade, however, there has been a renaissance of pre-Prohibition cocktails, and its capital is New York, where so many of the drinks were invented in the first place.
A new generation of mixologists, many of them tattooed, bearded, and steeped in the lore of bartending, have led a craft cocktail movement that has dramatically improved the quality of mixed drinks all over the city. The main danger now, when hunting for the best cocktails in New York, is an excess of artisanal gimmickry — foams, gels, vapours, infusions, the use of eyedroppers and tweezers.
For the traveller, nothing is more satisfying than a perfectly made classic cocktail at the bar of a grand old New York hotel, especially if he or she is in the happy position of staying in one.
The Carlyle on the Upper East Side and The St Regis in Midtown both have legendary cocktail bars, and both get crowded. So make a reservation, or pick the hour carefully and, if possible, sit at the bar.
A cocktail is a performance. After a rattle of ice cubes, a dash and a splash, the bartender pours it with a flourish, perhaps garnishes it with a twist, and then places the marvellous concoction in front of the customer.
With the first sip, the chilled flavours spread across the palate, the alcohol climbs into the brain, and a kind of illusion takes place. Right here, at this very moment, the drinker is getting exactly what he wants out of life.
Deco Delight: Bemelmans Bar
“People come for the martinis,” says the old bartender. JFK certainly came for the martinis and always sat in the same chair at the end of the black granite bar. Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart were regulars here.
Apart from the computer, nothing much has changed in 60 years, and that’s the beauty of it. No modern luxury hotel would build a bar this small. It’s an art deco lounge with an intimate subterranean feel: low ceilings decorated with 24-carat gold leaf, black glass tables and leather banquettes, white-jacketed waiters and a grand piano tinkled by a jazz musician.
The bar is named after Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of the Madeline children’s books, who drank here and painted the whimsical murals on the walls that feature ice-skating elephants and picnicking rabbits.
The clientele today is a mix of socialites, politicians, movie people, and well-heeled tourists. The drinks are big and expensive. A champagne and cognac cocktail goes well with the surroundings, and there is nowhere better to drink a dry martini, stirred not shaken for transparent silkiness and maximum chill.
Sky High: Bar 54
The problem with most rooftop bars in New York is thumping DJ music, screeching fashionistas, and gelato floats on clumsy cocktails. The views are incredible, but who wants to hang around?
Bar 54, on the 54th storey of the Hyatt Times Square, claims to be the highest cocktail lounge in Manhattan, and it’s refreshingly calm and unpretentious.
From the outdoor terrace, there are spectacular views of the Chrysler Building, the city’s southern skyline, and both rivers. The cars look like miniature toys on the streets far below and, at dusk, it’s a pleasure to watch the city gradually turn its lights on.
Inside, the decor is a little mediocre, but the craft cocktails are first-rate.
The bearded Brooklynite bartender works with a stellar collection of spirits, wines and house-made bitters. Bowls of punch are available for larger parties, and the small plates include porchetta sandwiches and Spanish octopus with chickpeas and beetroot.
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Modern Master: Pegu Club
The original Pegu Club was a British colonial officer’s club in Rangoon, Burma, circa 1900, and this sophisticated lower Manhattan lounge has been influenced by its mystique, oriental furnishings and mixology.
The signature Pegu Club Cocktail is a crisp and snappy blend of gin, bitters, orange curaçao and lemon juice — a slight variation on the original enjoyed by Rudyard Kipling, and exceedingly delicious.
The owner, Audrey Saunders, aka the “Libation Goddess”, was a pioneer of the craft cocktail movement, and the Pegu Club, now in its tenth year, has become a bastion of excellence.
The gin drinks are particularly good: the Gin-Gin Mule and the Earl Grey MarTeani have been hailed as modern classics. The menu also contains an enticing page called “Champagne Opportunities”, with a quote from Winston Churchill: “In defeat I need it, in victory I deserve it.”
Bar snacks include chicken satay and smoked-trout devilled eggs. Seasoned hands say beware of the Pisco Punch.
American Gothic: Death & Co
This legendary East Village craft cocktail emporium, now with its own recipe book, specialises in creative updates on pre-Prohibition drinks.
A doorman calls when seating becomes available; no standing is allowed.
Behind heavy scorched-wood doors is a dark, velvety Gothic room, with black tables, suede banquettes and fashionable people beautifully lit by glimmering chandeliers. Some items on the cocktail menu look a little overwrought — does rye whiskey really need infusing with camomile tea? — but invariably, they taste superb.
A house innovation was to introduce tequilas and mescals from Mexico into traditional American cocktail styles. The Oaxaca Old Fashioned blends these spirits with agave nectar, bitters and a twist of flamed orange peel to create a smoky masterpiece.
For a resurrected American classic, the cognac and chartreuse-based Jimmie Roosevelt is everything a great cocktail should be. A perfectly balanced blend of sweet, sour, savoury, aromatic and bitter flavours, it delivers its alcohol in a fast, vigorous jolt.
Brooklyn Belle: Clover Club
A pioneer of the nouveau-antiquarian cocktail movement, Clover Club in Brooklyn features a 19th-century mahogany bar, marble tables, a pressed-tin ceiling, and what America’s pre-eminent cocktail historian and writer David Wondrich has called “the best cocktails on earth”.
For an added bonus, it’s not smug and snooty, but low-key and light-hearted. When the music moves them, the wizards behind the bar will dance, and syncopate their rattling cocktail shakers to the beat.
The menu is divided into Sours and Cobblers, Punches, Collins and Fizzes, Royales, Seasonals, and Cocktails.
In 19th-century terminology, a cocktail was simply spirits, bitters and sugar; more elaborate creations were filed in these other categories. Start with the namesake Clover Club, a drink with a 100-year lineage containing gin, dry vermouth, lemon, raspberry and egg white. Then perhaps a New York Sour with a red wine float, and a side of potatoes fried in duck fat.
Secret Speakeasy: Attaboy
There’s no sign, and no phone or website. Walk down a shabby street in Chinatown and look for the letters “AB” stuck on a battered old door next to 134B.
Knock gently and it opens part-way. A young man takes a phone number, and says: “Half an hour”. When he calls back, the customer is permitted to step through the door into a long, narrow candlelit room only 2.5 metres wide with a steel-and-wood bar, T-Rex playing on the sound system, and shelves of old books.
Once upon a time, this was a Chinese tailor’s shop and, in a certain way, that tradition continues: the bartenders, who include the managers Sam Ross and Michael McIlroy (previously of private club Milk & Honey), like to tailor their drinks to suit the individual customer. They ask for likes and dislikes, what mood the drinker is in, and come up with suggestions.
Half the fun of sitting in Attaboy’s tight, intimate space is being able to watch them work at close quarters — hand-chipping ice from big blocks, zesting and crushing fruit, stirring, shaking — while they talk to customers.
There are several of these speakeasy-style bars in the city now, but Attaboy has the edge both for hospitality and the excellence of its drinks. Fans of bourbon and absinthe should go for a Waldorf, which is a glorious blend of vermouth and lemon juice. The Scotch-based Penicillin in a house favourite.
Grand Hotel: King Cole Bar
Salvador Dali used to live at The St Regis and feed peanuts to his pet ocelot at the bar. A scene from The Devil Wears Prada was filmed here, and real-life fashion mavens and movie stars join the nightly throng.
Aside from its high-flying clientele and the sumptuous decor, the bar is famous for its drinks — and one in particular. In 1934, the head bartender, Fernand Petiot, made a few improvements to his recipe of vodka and tomato juice (he added Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper and cayenne pepper). He called it the Red Snapper, but it became known as the Bloody Mary.
The King Cole still refers to it by its original name. Behind the bar is a playful neo-classical mural painted by the artist Maxfield Parrish for the hotel’s first owner, John Jacob Astor.
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This article was written by Richard Grant from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.