For wine lovers, Napa, Sonoma and Willamette valleys are the premier stateside destinations; for beer, Portland, Ore., has become a must.
For cocktails, the most promising land is New York City - specifically, a dirty little side street on the Lower East Side lined with graffiti-clad metal storefront shutters and rubbish swirling hopelessly in its gutters. Venture down that street one night, as so many before you have, and you'll happen upon a certain unmarked door that opens into what arguably is the most important venue in modern mixology: Milk & Honey.
Founded by spirits guru Sasha Petraske more than a decade ago, Milk & Honey has thrived (not merely survived) in one of the least forgiving cities in the world by remaining as timeless as the drinks it serves, from classics such as gin martinis and Tom Collinses to unique concoctions mixed up at Petraske's and his staff's whim according to a particular customer's desires. Priding itself on its speak-easy culture, from an ever-changing phone number to a list of house rules, Milk & Honey remains as difficult to get into now as it was when it opened in January 2000.
What has transpired in New York since isn't so much a string of Milk & Honey spinoffs as an empire of smart, like-minded cocktail shrines, spawned by Petraske and a new generation of cocktail revivalist perfectionists. There are a few other speak-easies on the serious imbiber's radar. There are restaurants that pride themselves on cocktail menus derived exclusively of tequila- and mezcal-based drinks so good they don't need garnishes. There are svelte lounges bravely dedicated to specific spirits - brandy, gin - and, as all trends return after so many years on the back burner, New York's Prohibition-era cocktail revival is gradually making room for a resurgence of tiki bars.
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What this all means for the tasteful cocktail enthusiast, of course, is that a trip to drink in New York's vibrant mixed-drinks establishments is not only essential, but also difficult to do over a weekend. On a recent trip dedicated to this purpose, I managed to sample cocktails at no fewer than 19 establishments in four days, certainly not an itinerary for the faint of heart (or the weak of liver).
Toast the classics
Milk & Honey is a must, but if reservations are hard to come by, consider exploring one of two Brooklyn go-tos: Clover Club, where the "liquid brunch" menu is more than adequate to fuel up for the day. Collinses, fizzes, swizzles and punches all grace the helpful menu, while the sepia-toned decor provides a respite from the busy Boerum Hill neighborhood. Brooklyn Heights' Henry Public serves modern takes on old classics, using steadfast ingredients (bitters, egg whites) whipped into unpretentious, deliciously easy-to-sip tipples. And if you can stand the line, Petraske's Little Branch is well worth the wait for a vibrant rec-room-like atmosphere. Take a chance on the Bartender's Choice, and let the staff shine.
Hit the hot spots
A hot dog joint-turned-speakeasy is PDT (Please Don't Tell), whose entrance via a telephone booth in East Village's Crif Dogs delights new visitors every time. At Broadway and Houston Street is Pegu Club, Audrey Saunders' pioneering cocktail palace that last year celebrated its fifth anniversary. The celebratory drink menu paid homage to all of the talented bartenders who have gone on from Pegu to succeed in their own right, including PDT's Jim Meehan and Nate Dumas. Two blocks south of PDT, Death & Co. asks drinkers to embrace the "new golden age" of cocktails, of which dozens are categorized by spirit in its innovative menu of modern classics.
Delve into decadence
When visiting Hotel Delmano in the fall, I was warned by staff not to take snapshots, lest I pay the price: Photographers rent out the dreamy Sofia Coppola-esque lounge in Brooklyn's Williamsburg area by the day for fashion shoots. As for the drinks? They more than match the aesthetics.
Carved into a tiny restaurant in the East Village, Mayahuel serves some of the most simply delicious drinks I sipped during my stay (think jalapeno-infused blanco tequila), presented sans pretense. The ultimate gin lover's indulgence? Madam Geneva, a hidden-away hotel lounge serving a menu derived entirely of gins from all over the world (including London Dry, if you must).
Cocktails ahead of the curve
No doubt it's old news in New York, but for the rest of us, the tiki trend is a wagon we can hop on. Recommended: Painkiller, though be sure to pace yourself among the many mai tais, Bastards and Zombies (limit one per customer - no joke). While it's far from exclusively tiki, Williamsburg's Dram channels the easy vibe via wood-paneled decor and pineapples at the ready. Many of the five boroughs' best bartenders take shifts here, making the Bartender's Choice option a no-brainer. The next big thing in cocktails? Coffee, if the relatively new Randolph Coffee Bar has any say in it. Classic spirits (Laird's Applejack, Pisco) make their way into coffee mugs here, with deliciously eye-opening results.
Caffeine-fueled cocktails? Especially when visiting the city that never sleeps, it's not a bad idea.