For a city known for tearing down its history nearly as fast as it can make it—for scraping culinary landmarks like The Four Seasons and Café Edison without so much as backward glance—New York has done a remarkable job (so far) of hanging on to the icons of the cocktail revival.
In researching A Proper Drink, my new book about the history of the worldwide cocktail renaissance, I frequently revisited the bars that got the ball rolling—places like Angel’s Share, which set the template for the influential speakeasy Milk & Honey or Flatiron Lounge, which figured out how to get customers well-crafted cocktails that didn’t take 15 minutes to make. Today, they remain a piece of living history, the best of them subtly changing with the times while remaining true to their founding principles.
If you, too, want to experience these trailblazing bars first hand, you can do so easily. They’re all clustered in a relatively small chunk of downtown Manhattan. And if getting a solid cocktail from a careful bartender is one of the hallmarks of the movement, all six bars listed below remain as relevant as ever.
The speakeasy bar genre crept into town in 1994 when Angel’s Share opened with zero fanfare in a hidden space off a second floor Japanese restaurant in the East Village. The owner’s aim was to create a style of exclusive, ornate cocktail bar found in Tokyo. Large parties were not welcome, standing was not allowed and bartenders hacked away at large blocks of ice and served Martinis with small sidecars, while customers—mainly twosomes—conferred quietly in the bar’s various nooks and corners. New Yorkers didn’t know what to make of it. But a would-be bartender named Sasha Petraske did. He saw in Angel’s Share the bones of the kind of bar he wanted to open, a place where decorum and professional dignity would be served along with the drinks. He would ever after cite the bar as an influence on Milk & Honey, the craft cocktail bar heard round the world. Angel’s Share, always stubbornly traditional and insular, hasn’t changed much since it opened. You can still see what Petraske saw.
Attaboy (formerly Milk & Honey)
The original Milk & Honey became Attaboy in 2013. Though the vibe is now more boisterous and open and the byzantine reservation system has been kicked to the curb, the space’s aura of sequestered, studied elegance hasn’t changed much, and there’s still no menu. The cocktails, too, are still pure Petraske: precisely balanced and elegantly served in chilled glassware over large-format ice. Attaboy is owned by Sam Ross and Michael McIlroy, an Aussie and Irishman who were trained by Petraske and would became Milk & Honey’s most visible bartenders. And you can still order the cocktails that, from 2000 on, helped to make the bar’s reputation: the Gold Rush, Penicillin and the Greenpoint among them. Thought its footprint may be small, its impact was large. There is a Milk & Honey-inspired bar in every major city in the world today.
If the bars listed here were “The Magnificent Seven” of the New York cocktail revival (I know: I’ve listed only six, but humor me here), Flatiron Lounge would be Brad Dexter—the one people tend to forget about. It opened in 2003 and did what a tiny cove like Milk & Honey couldn’t: bring craft cocktails to the masses. There was no secret entrance and business was good from the get-go. Co-owner Julie Reiner, who went on to open Brooklyn’s Clover Club, devised new ways to turn out drinks efficiently without stinting on quality or execution. And she trained an army of mixologists who would become the elite mixers of their generation, including Phil Ward, Lynnette Marrero, Katie Stipe, Tonia Guffey and Giuseppe González. The bartenders working there today are just as good, and the crowds haven’t subsided. Order a Flatiron Martini, a mix of vodka, Cointreau and Lillet—it’s what the thirsty cocktailians were drinking 13 years ago, and it’s still just as good.
The craft cocktail bars that opened in the early years of the cocktail revival in New York were all unlike one another. Employees Only was no exception. It was opened, in 2004, by a colorful group of veterans from Keith McNally’s Pravda and Schiller’s Liquor Bar who hailed from Belgrade, Sarajevo, New Orleans, New York and … Jersey. The hidden West Village bar was a weird combination of Old World formality (white jackets for the bartenders) and modern ribaldry (free-poured drinks and a certain bad-ass, boys-club bawdiness). Customers ate it up. Today it remains almost as it was 12 years ago.
Pegu Club was the first New York craft cocktail bar to get the royal treatment from the media. When it opened its doors in SoHo in 2005, it received the kind of coverage and early scrutiny usually reserved for new restaurants. Co-owner and bar director Audrey Saunders put together the most formidable team of mixologists the city had seen to date—including the aforementioned Ward, Brian Miller, Toby Maloney and Chad Solomon. Cocktails were workshopped within an inch of their lives, a kind of obsessiveness that went on to become an ingrained feature of modern cocktailing. Today, perhaps more than any other Manhattan cocktail bar, Pegu Club remains a time capsule; the menu is nearly identical to the one the bar opened with, featuring a wealth of modern classics like the Gin-Gin Mule, Old Cuba, Earl Grey Mar-TEA-ni, Little Italy, Fitty Fitty Martini and the Tantris Sidecar.
Death & Co.
The modern New York cocktail aesthetic of brown, bitter and stirred—still the most prevalent style practiced today—was born at Death & Co. The bar, which opened in the East Village in 2007, was run by the bartenders, with owners David Kaplan and Ravi DeRossi willingly ceding control to their team of young stars. (A number of them were drawn from the Pegu Club crew, including Ward, Miller and Jim Kearns.) The menu, meanwhile, grew to book length, a textual ballooning that would be imitated by many subsequent bars. And even though the team recently decided to shrink the number of choices to a mere 30 or so, I still have trouble choosing from the ever-relevant list of drinks.
As far as the renaissance is concerned, after Death & Co., there was no turning back. New York possessed a cocktail scene—solid and serious. A decade later, it still does, only it’s ten times as big. You can go to a new cocktail bar every couple weeks if you so desire. Still, it often pays to go back to the wellspring.