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The Top 15 Cocktails of 2017

Contributing editor Robert Simonson shares the best cocktails he drank this year.

You’d think it would be easy to pick out 15 memorable cocktails from a 12-month period? Actually, it’s not. Though I sample hundreds of drinks in my line of work, precious few actually linger in the memory. This is not because my powers of recall have been washed away by alcohol. It’s because, basically, I’m spoiled. A cocktail really has to bring the goods if I’m going to remember it with pleasure weeks or months later. Here are the 15 that stayed with me throughout 2017, in the chronological order in which I drank them. (And, yes, I live in New York. How’d you know?)

Brandy Fix | Fresh Kills, Brooklyn, NY

The fix—simply a sour served over crushed ice—was a staple drink of 19th-century American saloons that has somehow gone neglected by the cocktail renaissance. The late Sasha Petraske was one of its great champions (he held the fix as one of the five basic types of drink in his book Regarding Cocktails). And while he’s no longer around to make them, his disciples have kept the fix flame burning at their bars. No one celebrates the drink more prominently than Richard Boccato’s Fresh Kills in Williamsburg; I order one every time I’m in the bar. They’ll make one using most any spirit—and all are good, but the brandy version (actually an off-menu option) pleases me most. [Recipe]

Penichillin | Diamond Reef, Brooklyn, NY

By the time bartenders Sam Ross, Michael McIlroy and Dan Greenbaum opened their sprawling new Brooklyn bar last March, Ross’ Penicillin cocktail (a mix of blended Scotch, ginger-honey syrup, lemon juice, with an Islay Scotch float) was a worldwide household name. To telegraph the casual-drinking message of Diamond Reef, Ross took that recipe and threw it in a slushy machine. The Penichillin was born. It is the bar’s most popular drink: Smoky, sweet, soothing and deceptively strong, it’s no wonder. [Recipe]

Penichillin Diamond Reef

The Penichillin at Diamond Reef [Recipe] | Photo: Lizzie Munro

Ce Soir | The Hawthorne, Boston

Boston bartender Nicole Lebedevitch invented this gem back in 2010. But I didn’t enjoy my first until this year. For this Sazerac aficionado, it was love at first sip. A mix of two ounces of Cognac, with touches of yellow Chartreuse and Cynar, and both orange and Angostura bitters, it is simple, potent and elegant—and deserves to be better-known. [Recipe]

Daiquiri Al Pastor | Leyenda, Brooklyn, NY

There have been a lot of fat-washed cocktails since bartenders Eben Freeman and Don Lee began playing around with the process in the mid-2000s, but few have been as successful and original as this beauty by bartender Shannon Ponche. The drink, featured on Leyenda’s summer menu, is basically a liquid interpretation of an al pastor taco. Its base is pork fat-washed rum, supported by pineapple juice and agave nectar infused with achiote, a rust-colored, peppery seed. The garnish is a Mexican pork rind salt rim. Here’s hoping it will get an encore next summer. [Recipe]

Martini | The Bar at The Grill, New York

Thomas Waugh, the director of bar operations for the Major Food Group, knew the bones he was working with when he inherited the legendary square bar in the former Four Seasons space in midtown Manhattan. The power brokers of decades past downed Martinis there by the bucket, meaning that his debut menu would have to feature a killer version. And kill it does. It is made with two gins (Plymouth and Tanqueray) and two vermouths (Noilly Prat dry and Dolin blanc), served in a crystal glass and rested on a gold-rimmed coaster. Premixed and chilled, it’s a dry, ice-cold, beaker of bracing urbanity. It tastes like prosperity. [Recipe]

Martini the Grill NYC

The Martini at The Bar at The Grill [Recipe] | Photo: Lizzie Munro

House Vermouth Service | Vermuteria, Hotel Madrid, Milwaukee

The sleek bar at Milwaukee’s hip Hotel Madrid not only has vermouth on tap, but makes the vermouth that comes out of that tap. Most bars that play at vermouth-making get it wrong, but Vermuteria’s is on the money and full-flavored. It’s a Spanish style, semi-sweet vermouth featuring Spanish saffron and Mediterranean thyme, and it’s equal part sweet and savory. You can get it neat, on the rocks or with seltzer. 

Grasshopper | Tujague’s, New Orleans

Tujague’s, one of the oldest restaurants in the French Quarter (or in America, for that matter), welcomed back its former head bartender, Paul Gustings, this year. Gustings, a legend in New Orleans drink circles, brought with him his personal recipe for the Grasshopper—a cocktail long associated with Tujague’s. Pre-batched and refrigerated, the deeply flavored drink includes both light and dark crème de cacao and white and green crème de menthe, plus a half-ounce of brandy and heavy cream. You’re unlikely to find a Grasshopper that surpasses it. [Recipe]

Grasshopper | The English Inn, Fish Creek, WI

Yeah, yeah, I know—two Grasshoppers on the list? I tried to fight it, but this drink has dogged me for half a year. If part of a good cocktail’s job is to grab hold of your taste memory and not let go, the Grasshopper at the humble English Inn along Highway 42 in Door County, WI, did its job. This drink is nothing like that at Tujague’s (above). This is the Dairy State, after all, where most dessert drinks are made with ice cream and a blender. A ton of ice cream, in this case: five scoops of vanilla. The English Inn knows what it’s doing; it sells about 2,800 ice cream drinks a year. The one I had was huge, rich, creamy and gorgeous to behold. I finished about one-fifth of it and I’m going back for the other four-fifths next summer.

Grasshopper Tujagues

The Grasshopper at Tujague’s [Recipe] | Photo: Randy P. Schmidt

Mezcal Margarita | Mayahuel, New York

Maybe it was just the power of nostalgia and sentimentality, but this Mezcal Margarita, drunk on the last night of service at Mayahuel, the trailblazing agave bar in the East Village, was the best one I’ve ever had: potent, piquant, perfectly balanced. I suspect they were draining bottles of the good stuff before last call. [Recipe]

Tuxedo No. 2 | Flora Bar, New York

The Tuxedo (gin, vermouth, sherry) and Tuxedo No. 2 (gin, vermouth, maraschino liqueur, absinthe) enjoyed a twin revival this year, with both Martini variations popping off on menus in several states. I sampled a good many of them. But the one that won me over immediately and stayed in my dreams is served at Flora Bar, a handsome watering hole that sits below the Met Breuer on the Upper East Side. Flora uses a heavy two and one-quarter ounces of Plymouth gin, plus sparing amounts of Dolin blanc vermouth and maraschino, along with an absinthe rinse and four dashes of orange bitters. It’s then garnished with both an orange twist and a cherry. It’s exquisite. [Recipe]

Gibson | Better Luck Tomorrow, Houston

The Gibson has enjoyed a comeback in recent years, with the Martini’s onion-clad brother getting a respectful treatment at U.S. bars from coast to coast. One of the best to be found is Alex Negranza’s take at the convivial, loose-limbed Better Luck Tomorrow, opened by Houston bar impresario Bobby Heugel earlier this year. The gin is infused with onion juice, and blanc vermouth is paired with a bit of pear liqueur. The cocktail’s briny and sweet sides are perfectly balanced. Adding a bit of savory fun is a multi-garnish of pickled green garlic and pearl onion wrapped in red onion. [Recipe]

Gibson Better Luck Tomorrow

The Gibson at Better Luck Tomorrow [Recipe] | Photo: Kirsten Gilliam

In the Rocks (NYE Celebration) | Aviary NYC, New York

Aviary’s molecular mansion in the sky shook up the New York cocktail scene with its arrival this fall. The menu offers plenty of showmanship, but none more than Aviary’s most famous creation, In the Rocks, a cocktail encased in a fragile frozen globe. The three-pronged Manhattan variation is subtitled “New York Celebration,” a combination of bourbon, Scotch, Champagne syrup and a green Sichuan peppercorn tincture. It sits on a bed of crème-de-cassis granita, while a small glass of Champagne stands to the side. It is, to my mind, the ideal Aviary drink: It keeps your mind and taste buds in thrall long after the elaborate packaging is unwrapped.

Beefsteak Martini | Long Island Bar, Brooklyn, NY

Cocktail wizard Phil Ward doesn’t invent as many new drinks as he used to; instead, he spends his time clocking working-Joe hours at Long Island Bar. But every now and then he pulls something out of his sleeve. This subtle Martini variation is not even on the LIB menu yet (he only gave it a name after I asked him to). The ghostly herbal aftertaste in this simple mix of Plymouth gin, Carpano bianco vermouth and Dolin dry vermouth comes from letting the liquor sit upon a bed of shiso leaves for a minute before it is stirred over ice and strained into a shiso-rubbed glass. (Beefsteak plant was one of the herb’s previous names.) [Recipe]

Japanese Highball

A Japanese-style highball. [Recipe] | Photo: Lizzie Munro

Japanese Whisky Highball | Bar Goto, New York

Japanese-style highballs—sleek, refreshing, subtle, balanced, bubbly—are everywhere these days. Many bars and restaurants are turning them out in fine form. My favorite, however, might be the most basic. Bar Goto uses only an ounce or so of Toki whiskey from Suntory and four ounces of plain old Schweppes club soda. The whiskey is kept in the freezer to ensure the drink stays chilly, all the way to the bottom. [Recipe]

Valiant Little Taylor | Grand Army, Brooklyn, NY

Tamarind liqueur is the key to this curious drink’s power to bewitch. The only brand I’ve ever heard of is called Von Humboldt’s Natur Wasser and is made by Tamworth Distilling in New Hampshire. And the first time I encountered it is in this cocktail by Damon Boelte of Grand Army. Turns out tamarind—tart and tangy—goes great with mezcal, which is backed up by a supporting cast of moscatel sherry and allspice dram. That’s four very specific flavors meeting in an original and beguiling quartet. This cocktail found me late in the year, completely by chance. Just goes to show you: keep sipping—you never know. [Recipe]

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