American cocktail culture is evolving in tandem with our priorities. As exciting as it is to now find excellent Negronis or Manhattans in big cities and small towns nationwide (and it really, truly is), we have also come to expect more from our favorite bars.
The country’s best bars innovate, embracing an array of ingredients or techniques, and reinvigorating old spaces with new concepts. They seek to engage their communities and create inclusive environments where all feel welcome to pull up a stool — or, in the case of one Bay Area bar, a refurbished vintage airline seat.
In 2018, some bartenders looked to Cuba and Japan for inspiration. Others focused on incorporating cutting-edge technology. Socially conscious bartenders paired progressive politics and policies with quality drinks.
To compile our list of the top new cocktail bars of 2018, we surveyed the landscape, polling our staff and contributors, as well as industry insiders across the country. We analyzed results by region, using the same geographic boundaries as the esteemed James Beard Foundation.
Here are the top 10 new cocktail bars in America in 2018.
GREAT LAKES (IL, IN, MI, OH)
Location: Chicago, IL
Punk-rock vibes and progressive politics headline this welcoming River North destination. Drinks by Sophia de Oliveira (Cold Storage/Swift & Sons, Devereaux) include an amaro-spiked Black Manhattan, Oaxacan Old Fashioned made with Vida mezcal, and pulls from a Toki highball machine, a popular guest star in many American bars in 2018. The kitchen turns out burgers and creative snacks like Nashville hot-fried duck livers. More enticing still? De Oliveira hires at least 50 percent people of color and women staffers, provides paid vacation for full-time employees, and offers paid training workshops and 40-hour work weeks. “My employees are my bottom line,” de Oliveira told the Chicago Tribune in August.
MIDWEST (IA, KS, MN, MO, NE, ND, SD, WI)
Location: St. Louis, MO
“This isn’t going to be a dimly lit, exclusive bar,” Tim Wiggins said before opening this “bustling” bar and restaurant in St. Louis’s Central West End. Instead, Wiggins and Travis Howard, who co-own the nearby Retreat Gastropub, pair a menu of sophisticated, rum-centric cocktails with seafood from a “Top Chef” alum in a bright, energetic space with a sleek bar and ample seating. The result is a fun, welcoming establishment that takes beautifully made cocktails out of self-serious dens and into the light.
WEST (CA, HI, NV)
Location: San Francisco, CA
Tiki gets a dark, moody makeover at this Duboce Triangle spot specializing in what it calls “Polynesian noir.” It’s decked out with decorative skulls, tropical foliage, and various air travel allusions, including vintage American Airlines seats-turned-bar stools. The drinks list was created by the Horsefeather team, and includes a Mai Tai made with agricole and Jamaican rum, and “Valley of the Shadow,” featuring bourbon, amaro, rum, and spiced yerba mata honey. “By going dark, the bar manages to retain tiki’s escapism by sidestepping many aspects of the style that feel problematic: the co-opting of religious iconography and ritual, the erasure of a history of violent colonization and dehumanization of native peoples,” writes Maggie Hoffman in the San Francisco Chronicle. This is 21st-century tiki for those who drink thoughtfully.
NORTHWEST (AK, ID, MT, OR, WA, WY)
Location: Portland, OR
A weekly cocktail pop-up gets a permanent home in this sleek spinoff of Holdfast, the avant-garde tasting room helmed by Will Preisch and Joel Stocks. The industrial-chic space provides a larger venue for bartender Adam Robinson, who cut his teeth at Momofuku Ssam Bar in NYC and Taiwan’s Ounce Taipei, to serve his wildly imaginative drinks. Highlights include modern takes on classic cocktails, such as the Metropolitan, a Cosmo spinoff made with aperitivo liqueur; plus house creations like the Diplomatic Prince, which combines bitters and vermouth with a surprisingly delicious cabbage-infused aquavit; plus some stellar non-alcoholic drinks.
SOUTHWEST (AZ, CO, NM, OK, TX, UT)
Location: Houston, TX
“Where else you can hear live music at night for free during the weekend?” Christa Havican, a former bartender at Goodnight Charlie’s, asked the Houston Chronicle. Havican has a point. This rollicking Montrose hangout combines affordable entertainment and welcoming vibes with bar menus courtesy of co-owner and Master Sommelier David Keck. Drinks highlights include mezcal Palomas and Bee’s Knees cocktails on tap, house creations featuring Texas spirits, and the Rhinestone Cowboy, which is a bottle of Champagne served with 12 tacos for $200.
SOUTH (AL, AR, PUERTO RICO, FL, LA, MS)
Location: New Orleans, LA
Celebrated bartenders Chris Hannah (French 75) and Nick Detrich (Cane & Table) opened this Cuban-inspired rum bar to honor friend and mentor Manuel Carbajo Aguiar, who worked at Havana’s legendary El Floridita and passed away last year. “He gave me a crash course in becoming a cantinero,” Detrich told Liquor.com. And so the friendly, dedicated staff at Manolito prepares several cocktails cantinero style, or poured between glasses in long streams, and serves a beautifully balanced frozen Daiquiri and blended Papa Doble in snug French Quarter digs decorated with destination photography taken by bartender Danny Valdez.
SOUTHEAST (GA, KY, NC, SC, TN, WV)
Flamingo Cocktail Club
Location: Nashville, TN
Style and sustainability make excellent bedfellows at this chic, zero-waste WeHo destination from Alexis Soler and Angela Laino, previously of Old Glory and Good Night Sonny, respectively, and Freddy Schwenk of Analog and Geist. Located in a former church alongside The Falcon, its sister coffee shop, Flamingo uses its soaring space to host community events and weekly Motown, funk, and disco dance parties. The staff uses only compostable, biodegradable, organic, and recyclable materials in its seasonal cocktail list, which includes the Sunny Side Up, made with gin, Maraschino, lemon, strawberries, and black pepper.
MID-ATLANTIC (DC, DE, MD, NJ, PA, VA)
Location: Pittsburgh, PA
Sip excellent drinks in low-key surrounds at this 50-seat bar located alongside a fast-casual restaurant that has its own wine shop (no, seriously). It’s helmed by local luminaries Spencer Warren and Carrie Clayton, who co-own the consultancy firm Subversive Cocktails, and have worked at some of the city’s top spots, including Butcher and the Rye, Tako, and Poros Downtown. Sip a sumac-spiked Whiskey in a Teacup or flawless Japanese Highball in the stylish, midcentury space, but don’t be surprised if a round of drinks suddenly turns into dinner, featuring everything from tater tots to pork buns to sushi from the adjoining Penn Cove Eatery.
NEW YORK CITY
Order a Japanese Highball with elegant crudite or a yuzu-kosho-spiked grilled cheese at this bi-level West Village cocktail den. The kitchen serves Japanese-American-accented fare while the staff makes beautiful cocktails without an ounce of pretension. Run by Masahiro Urushido (Saxon + Parole) and Cocktail Kingdom Hospitality’s James Tune and Greg Boehm, Katana Kitten is bright, fresh, and unabashedly fun. It brings fresh energy to a cocktail scene recently dominated by solemn, contemplative temples to liquid antiquity.
NORTHEAST (CT, MA, ME, NH, NY, RI, VT)
Location: Boston, MA
In 2009, bartender Ran Duan turned his parents’ Woburn restaurant, Sichuan Garden, into a cocktail destination, debuting its now-legendary internal Baldwin Bar and eventual second-story spinoff, Baldwin & Sons Trading Co. Several awards later, Duan is reinvigorating the Sichuan Garden in Brookline Village, serving the restaurant’s signature dan dan noodles and pork dumplings alongside cocktails like the Caracas Express, made with solera rum and brown butter, and a chupalina-rimmed tequila drink. Crucially, the smart concept and cocktail list do not come at expense of hospitality. “Although it looks like a different restaurant, Blossom Bar retains Sichuan Garden’s longtime neighborhood clientele,” Devra First writes in The Boston Globe. We’ll drink to that.