New Yorkers are often teased for inflating their city’s importance, proclaiming it “the center of the universe” or “the greatest city in the world” without reserve. To take a more objective view, it’s highly plausible (in fact, it’s indisputable) that other cities are, say, cleaner, have more bike lanes or better schools or lower poverty rates or an overall superior quality of life. But when it comes to one very important element of urban culture—drinking, of course—there is no denying that New York City is, indeed, the center of the universe.
The history of drinking in Manhattan—from the early tavern days to the rise of the hotel bar to the last wild years before Prohibition—has always been colorful, full of cocktails, champagne, prostitutes, barons, degenerates, gamblers and all manner of grit and glamor.
And though it’s been shined and polished a bit (okay, a lot), New York drinking culture is still very much the same in love of all things new, its soft spot for the obscure and unabashed tendency toward excess. The island of Manhattan, a borough of more than 1.5 million, is home to nearly as many bars and restaurants, all of which are filled to the brim, nightly. Explaining what it’s like to drink here today is hard enough. Explaining how we got here is best left to bound books.
In terms of cocktails, New York has been leading the charge since the early aughts when Dale DeGroff, Audrey Saunders and a handful of others began to think about mixing drinks in a new way, employing fresh juices and forgotten spirits. This newfound knowledge progressed into a decade of speakeasy-style bars and their appropriators, places where serious, suspendered bartenders lorded over intricate cocktails consumed under dim lighting and on tufted furniture. But of late, a different kind of bar marks a shift away from the hidden shrine and toward a model that feels looser and more confident. New York City bars are shedding their Victorian parlor atmospheres and discarding the notion that cocktails must be strong, stirred and bitter to be taken seriously. And while the early pioneers (Pegu Club, PDT, Death & Co.) persist—and do so with unwavering relevance—places like Nitecap and Attaboy are eschewing reservations for more spontaneous clientele who appreciate a well made Old-Fashioned as much as they do an Aperol Spritz.
When it comes to drinking wine here, the oft-overused claim to have “something for everyone” is not hyperbole. From lists stocked with the greatest wines of the 20th century to natural wine bars to restaurants that instigated and continue to fuel the modern renaissance of Italian wine, Manhattan’s ambitious wine scene really does have it all. This is also a city that does not follow trends; it sets them. Here, “avant-garde” and “obscure” mean something different than they might in a city less prone to adopting and refashioning all of the cultural bounty that washes into its harbors. This is a place that rewards the adventurous wine drinker, whose only difficulty is deciding where to drink well, not how.
Because cocktail bars and wine destinations are not enough to sustain this frenetic city of Type A personalities and adventurers, Manhattan is also home to whiskey bars, bars on boats and rooftops, craft beer bars and bars dedicated to single-subject nerdery (sherry, mezcal, natural wine and Japanese whiskey). If you have a hobby, Manhattan will produce a bar just for you.
But for those who prefer the trappings of a different time, the borough is rife with hotel bars and artifacts of another era. Ever looking back while rapidly moving forward, the story of New York’s love affair with drinking is two-fold, and—unlike any other city in the world—it encompasses past and present with drinks and drinking rituals whose lineage and legacies span across centuries.