I spent much of the past year on the lookout for candidates for this annual list. The search is always unpredictable: One can go months without a single drink making the cut, and then, within a week’s time, encounter multiple shoo-ins. All of the below cocktails are excellent, while a handful bear the earmarks of future classics. (You know a winner when you taste one.)
This year, we have further fine-tuned the list, bringing the number of showcased cocktails down from 15 to 10—who ever heard of a year-end Top 15 list anyway? As always, the cocktails are listed in chronological order, from first drink drunk to the last.
Japonaise, The Rockwell Place, New York
Cosmo creator Toby Cecchini has been known to make an impression with a cocktail. His sui generis Boulevardier and signature Gimlet were on the debut menu at his Long Island Bar in 2013 and quickly became the bar’s foundational drinks. When he opened The Rockwell Place in December 2018, the main attraction was the Japonaise. His extrapolation on Jerry Thomas’ Japanese Cocktail splits the traditional Cognac base with aged rum, adds some acidity in the form of lemon and lime juice, and—ingeniously—bolsters the orgeat with Calpico Concentrate, made from the popular Japanese yogurt-based soft drink. It’s a highly original mélange that tastes like nothing else.
Pira Pira, Goodkind, Milwaukee
Some of the best cocktails in Milwaukee are served at a restaurant, Goodkind, a cozy neighborhood joint dishing out elevated comfort food. This mixture of blended Scotch, Calvados, bianco vermouth, pear brandy and nutmeg tincture, served up, is the brainchild of bartender Katie Rose, one of the city’s leading lights in the industry. While it seems like a delightful liquid tour of Europe, the drink was actually inspired by pear and apple trees found around Rose’s childhood home in rural Wisconsin. Either way, there’s a comforting autumnal aura to the cocktail.
Tuxedo Tails, Jewel of the South, New Orleans
Jewel of the South, which takes its name from a legendary 19th-century bar owned by Brandy Crusta inventor Joseph Santini, dedicates itself to the legacy cocktails of New Orleans. But it also succeeds with at least one distinctly Northern libation, the Tuxedo. This gloriously decadent rendition of the gin classic ties in elements of the Tuxedo No. 1 (gin, sherry and orange bitters) and No. 2 (gin, vermouth, maraschino liqueur, bitters and absinthe), while generously garnishing the drink with a chilled dish lavishly filled with a cocktail onion, olive, lemon peel and pickled quail egg. As long as a drop of liquid or a nibble of garnish remains, you will temporarily live in the drink’s enveloping world, and happily so.
Wondermint Malted, Best Intentions, Chicago
The Wondermint Malted is the signature drink at Best Intentions, a welcoming neighborhood bar of newish vintage but with a lived-in soul. Though the drink has been around for a while, I only first tasted it this year. Composed of Wondermint, an oddball liqueur from Death’s Door distillery in Wisconsin, gin and hazelnut liqueur, it’s essentially a boozy malted milkshake. It’s also a winking nod to the ice-cream drinks the Midwest loves so dearly, but is indisputably of a different caliber.
Caminante, The Cabinet, New York
If a bar is going to dedicate itself to rye whiskey and agave spirits, as The Cabinet in New York’s East Village has, it better have a superlative agave cocktail on the menu. Here, it’s the Caminante. With its unique combination of orgeat and Giffard Menthe-Pastille, the cocktail illustrates once again that agave spirits (in this case, jalapeño-infused tequila) can mix with almost anything. The interplay of the almond, hot pepper and mint is endlessly beguiling. It’s a perfect concoction, both surprising and seamless.
Puerto Rican Heartbreaker, Colita, Minneapolis
It’s difficult to choose from among the many standout cocktails at Colita, the second Minneapolis restaurant to feature the talents of the Midwest’s cocktail wizard Marco Zappia. But the Puerto Rican Heartbreaker does the trick. As with any Zappia drink, there are a lot of working parts here, including a fermentation meant to evoke classic French pastry, a complex tequila blend, and a finishing spritz made of rose water, tonka bean tincture, neroli extract, calamansi extract and orange blossom water. All your senses really need to know, however, is that a Paloma and a Twentieth Century went on a date and gave each other flowers.
Pistacchio, Bar Pisellino, New York
Ever wish pistachio were a cocktail and not just a flavor? Jon Mullen, formerly of Bar Pisellino, the new jewel-box aperitivo bar in Greenwich Village, heard your prayer and answered it. The Pistacchio takes gin, genepy, lime juice, a couple dashes of Angostura (both orange and aromatic) and creams them up with a housemade pistachio and green cardamom orgeat. The whole is served over crushed ice and crowned with pistachio dust. On a menu that focuses on classics that proved themselves long ago, this piquant, yet lush original creation more than justifies its presence.
Stayton’s Secret, The Stayton Room, New York
Like the Caminante, Japonaise and Pistacchio, Stayton’s Secret strikes the taste buds as an instant modern classic. It is the namesake cocktail at the Stayton Room, set inside the Lexington Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, and is the work of veteran barkeep Frank Caiafa, who managed the Peacock Alley Bar at the Waldorf Astoria for many years. The rich drink brings together aged Barbados and Jamaican rum alongside cardamom-infused white rum, oloroso sherry, lime juice and a full ounce of Tempus Fugit Crème de Banane into a vaguely tiki-esque, yet dignified, whole. It is ambrosia itself.
Pan Am, Valkyrie, Tulsa
Every time I feel like railing against eight-ingredient cocktails, something like the Pan Am comes along. The spirit base is made up of tequila, anise-infused cachaça and Giffard crème de pamplemousse. To this mixture are added lime juice, ginger syrup, and dashes of absinthe, green Chartreuse and salt solution. The unexpectedly unified result comes off like a creamy, herbal Margarita served on crushed ice, and goes down like a soothing scoop of boozy anise ice cream. If the bartenders are as talented as Valkyrie’s Ben Walker, I say let them have their eight ingredients.
Martinis, Parovoz Speak Easy, Kyiv, Ukraine
In service of my recent book, The Martini Cocktail, I sampled a lot of Martinis this year. Many were good. Many more could have used a bit of guidance. But few matched the heights of nearly everything on the dedicated Martini menu at this classically oriented Kyiv cocktail bar. The menu takes the drinker on a journey through history, offering versions of the cocktail as they were served in the late 1800s up until today. I tried a few, including the circa-1904 Dry Martini (equal parts Plymouth gin and Martini Riserva Speciale Ambrato vermouth, with orange bitters); and the circa-1935 “A Yellow, A Mellow Martini” (three parts Seagram’s yellow gin, one part dry vermouth, orange bitters). Both could not have been improved upon. They make me want to fly back and sample the rest of the list.