I found it an easier job to choose my top 15 cocktails from all the glasses I drained during the last twelve months than I did in 2017. Maybe that’s because so many great new bars opened in 2018. Or maybe it’s because, given the state of things in D.C. and abroad, I just drank a lot more this year. (My money is on the latter.) But, either way, I wholeheartedly recommend and salute all of the following cocktails, which are listed in chronological order, from first drink drunk to last. The recollection of each of them has kept me warm as the days have grown colder.
Tall Boxes | Prairie School, Chicago
Jim Meehan’s ambitious, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Chicago bar didn’t last a year. But Tall Boxes, its interpretation of that Midwestern staple, the Brandy Old-Fashioned, will be forever lodged in my taste memory. Meehan kept the brandy domestic, but used the superior Sacred Bond, a 100-proof spirit from Kentucky’s Heaven Hill. He then fine-strained out the muddled orange and cherry “garbage,” creating a silky and deceptively simple drink.
Call me Ish | Simon & the Whale, New York
Simon & the Whale, Gabriel Stulman’s new restaurant inside the Freehand Hotel in Manhattan, proved a breakout favorite with critics and diners when it opened in February. The bar held up its end. Head bartender Drew Nemetz and Billy Nichols came up with this inspired liquid essay in simplicity, made of equal-parts bourbon, Spanish brandy (Torres 15) and Amaro Meletti, plus orange bitters. Nemetz said he had been inspired to pare down the cocktail creation by the book 3-Ingredient Cocktails. That he was, at the time, unknowingly serving the drink to its author had nothing to do with my liking it so much.
Telegraph | Death & Co., Denver
The Death & Co. crew brought their “A” game when they opened their second bar by that name inside The Ramble Hotel in Denver this year. No better proof of this came than Tyson Buhler’s Telegraph, an elegant pre-batched and frozen Martini variation in which pear eau de vie, Cocchi Americano and Mathilde Poire liqueur scrimmage in place of the usual vermouth. A drop of eucalyptus extract adds a touch of mystery—something every good Martini ought to have.
Trash-Tini | Broker Shaker, Los Angeles
The Trash-Tini is the opposite of Death & Co.’s drink; it’s on the rocks and casual, an Oscar to the Telegraph’s Felix, and proud of it. What do you expect from a rooftop, poolside, Los Angeles bar? Still, a surprising amount of precision and care goes into this multi-layered creation by Christine Wiseman. The mix includes gin, vodka, Luxardo Bitter Bianco, charred onion-infused dry vermouth, celery shrub, sherry vinegar and two garnishes: an olive and a cocktail onion. The kitchen sink never tasted so good.
Oliveto | Marvel Bar, Minneapolis
The Marvel Bar in Minneapolis has been serving rafts of Olivetos since it opened in 2011. But I tasted their signature drink for the first time this year, so on the list it goes. On paper, the Pip Hanson drink looks very last decade: gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white, Licor 43 and a half-ounce of extra virgin olive oil. It’s a Gin Sour with a couple left-field touches that were once all the rage in craft cocktail circles. But there is magic in the mixture—the olive oil and egg white yield an unusual texture that elevates this sour above its fellows.
Aviation | Tattersall Distilling, Minneapolis
The Aviation has never been a favorite of mine. So when I encounter a version I like, it gets my attention. That happened at the in-house bar at Tattersall Distilling in Minneapolis. The deployment of the Aviation’s defining ingredient, crème de violette, has always been the monkey wrench in this blend: Too much and the drink tastes like scented bath soap; don’t use any and the drink isn’t really an Aviation. The distillery seemed to have solved this problem by using their own Tattersall Crème de Fleur, a lovely distillation of six flowers. The liqueur brought the drink the delectable floral quality, as well as the palatability that I always find so elusive in the Aviation.
Double-Barrel Winchester | The Polynesian, New York
Brian Miller’s gin Zombie, the Winchester, was already known and loved before he opened his palatial tiki palace, The Polynesian, this year. His new digs seemed to demand an upgrade. The various modifiers (grenadine, ginger syrup and St-Germain) were adjusted to tone down the sweetness. And he upped the number of gins used from three to four, one of them being the overproof Perry’s Tot, which performs the same rocket-booster duty that an overproof rum does in a typical tiki drink. It’s as if the old Winchester has been hitting the gym.
The Smillie | Broken Shaker, New York
The Manhattan iteration of the popular cocktail-bar chain Broken Shaker put a smile on New Yorkers’ faces from the moment it opened this summer on the roof of the Freehand Hotel. The Smillie helped tug out some of those grins. Created by head bartender Evan Hawkins, and named after chef Justin Smillie at the restaurant Upland, it is a dazzling rainbow of a drink. The tangy-savory blend of tequila, lime juice and agave syrup infused with golden beets, ginger and turmeric, is given a striking visual accent in the form of a half-and-half rim of golden turmeric salt and red beet salt. Optically, it is the best sort of Tequila Sunrise. Culinarily, it tastes far better.
Hinoki Martini | Katana Kitten, New York
A lot of the drinks at barman Masahiro Urushido’s new Greenwich Village bar work beautifully, but the Hinoki Martini might be the first among equals. As befits a bar that tries to straddle Japanese and American cocktail styles, this Martini is an international affair, made with French vodka, Colorado gin, sake and sherry. This is accented by a tincture inspired by hinoki, a type of cypress tree native to central Japan; as hinoki is not available in the U.S., a close species of cypress tree from Colorado is used in its place. The tincture is applied in both dash and spray form—five of each—and lends a woodsy, cooling air to the graceful drink. It’s served in a conical glass, nestled among ice in the traditional square box that sake is served in.
Barry Huffman | Existing Conditions, New York
The owners of the most important bar opening of the year make it hard to single out one great cocktail on their menu. But I’m choosing the Barry Huffman, perhaps because it illustrates how the bar team can come up with solid cocktails without enlisting the help of its Laboratory of Wonders. The drink is simply Old Duff genever, Wray & Nephew rum, Bénédictine, green Chartreuse and an acid-adjusted lemon cordial, plus a few drops of saline solution, served on a large cube in a rocks glass. It is advertised “malt and herbs” and possesses the low-key flavor complexity that is the bar’s hallmark.
Nilsson Schmilsson | Hidden Pearl, Brooklyn, New York
Bartender Jeremy Oertel has a way with crushed ice and coconut cream. He used those two tools to famous effect a few years ago in the Brancolada, the standout cocktail at Brooklyn’s Donna. Now, he’s worked his magic again at Hidden Pearl, another Brooklyn bar, tucked behind a ramen restaurant. Whereas the Brancolada went heavy, using rum and Branca Menta as its base, the Nilsson Schmilsson tacks lighter to match the bar’s bright, airy feel. Navy strength gin is combined with sake, lime juice and vanilla syrup, then lemon zest and toasted coconut crown a hill of pebble ice. It’s a dreamy-tasting drink that has you ordering a second before the first one is half done.
Tuxedo No. 2 | The Varnish, Los Angeles
One expects standard-bearer craft cocktail bars like The Varnish to get the classics right. But when they get it this right, it still comes as something of a surprise. The bar’s recipe for success with this drink calls for Beefeater gin, Dolin dry vermouth, maraschino liqueur, two dashes of orange bitters and a rinse of Pernod absinthe. Nothing so surprising there, but Lord it came together. (And yes, I had a Tuxedo No. 2 on my 2017 list, too—from Flora Bar in Manhattan. What can I say? I get lucky with this cocktail.)
Old-Fashioned | Doppelgänger, Buenos Aires
I’ve been served hundreds of Old-Fashioneds, but none like the one I got at Doppelgänger, a wonderful neighborhood bar in Buenos Aires. Following local custom, the bartender coats the inside of a rocks glass with a thick crusta of mixed sugar and 10 dashes of Angostura bitters. They then muddle an orange slice (pith removed) and fill the glass with cracked ice, then pour bourbon (Wild Turkey 101 or Jim Beam Black 6 Year) over it and garnish with a cherry and a small Old-Fashioned spoon. Because the sugar is not fully integrated, the drink tastes like straight whiskey at first, but the bitters and sweetness trickle in bit by bit as you sip.
Negroni | Amaro Library, Washington, D.C.
A Negroni is a mysterious thing—so simple a formula, yet so hard to perfect. Every now and then this liquid slot machine yields a winner in terms of gin, vermouth and bitter liqueur choices. I found this one at the Amaro Library, a new bar attached to the restaurant Officina in Washington, D.C.’s newly rejuvenated The Wharf. The equal-parts blend uses the typical Campari, but makes unusual choices otherwise, using Edinburgh Gin, a London dry gin made in Scotland and Contratto Vermouth Rosso, a heritage vermouth brand from Turin. Jackpot.
The Lincoln | Bar Bantam, Rochester, New York
The Lincoln is named for the Lincoln Tower, the original name of undulating white skyscraper that is home to Rochester’s new lobby watering hole, Bar Bantam. The drink is as sturdy and dignified as its name. Conceived by Charles Cerankosky as a Manhattan variant in the vein of the Greenpoint or Red Hook cocktails, it has a bourbon base (Old Forester 86), with equal parts Cap Corse Mattei Quinquina Rouge and five-year-old Madeira acting as modifiers, plus a couple dashes of cardamom bitters, all served on a large rock. The Madeira, in particular, furnishes it with the character of a classic cocktail from the old days.