At one of the myriad events leading up to the reveal of the 2023 North America’s 50 Best Bars in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, this May, Roberto Berdecia, co-founder of San Juan’s beloved La Factoría, introduced a friend of his to a small group in conversation. “This is Charlotte,” he said. “She’s in the industry… but not.” It was clear she knew most people in the room, but that she didn’t work for a cocktail bar or spirits brand, and wasn’t involved in any other adjacent role. Instead, she’s a 50 Best chaser — a cocktail bar fanatic devoting herself to visiting every bar on “the list.”

Some people set about visiting every national park. Others keep constant tabs on how many countries they’ve visited, or aim to visit all 50 states. In 2023, though, some have a different set of 50 in mind: the World’s 50 Best Bars. The growing, if niche, segment of the population represents a dedicated set who plan their entire travel calendars, and to some extent, much of their lives, around visiting as many of the 50 Best Bars as they can.

“It’s my entire identity,” says a laughing Charlotte Butler, a professional in her mid-30s who quit her job as a realtor last year in order to travel the world. Her current bar tally, proudly showcased on her Instagram profile, has her at 66 of the current top 100 bars, and she hopes to boost that to about 80 before the 2023 edition is announced in Singapore this October.

Get the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.

“I’ve followed the list ever since I knew it existed but was just using it as a guide,” Butler says. But when she sold her condo in Atlanta last year and took to the road as a nomadic traveler, she realized she could base her itinerary around the list itself. “I decided I would see how many I could get to before the next list was released, and use that as a guide for where I would travel to.”

Best Bars Lists Are the New Bucket Lists

The World’s 50 Best Bars list debuted in 2009 and in the decade and a half since has expanded into a fiefdom incorporating numerous expanded and regional list variations. It’s an ever-expanding universe of recommendations and rankings, first doubling in size to include a top 100 ranking in 2015, then adding Asia’s 50 Best Bars in 2016, followed by the launch of the Discovery system in 2019, which showcases a broader set of unranked bars and restaurants. The most recent list addition came in 2022 with the debut of North America’s 50 Best Bars.

“I had dreams of being the next big cocktail or travel blogger but realized it was just more fun to continue it casually.”

As a boxing fan, it reminds me a bit of how the onetime “world championship” of each weight division now includes four individual belts backed by different sanctioning bodies, which may further subdivide and dilute their own worth with regional, interim, or “super” titles. With the advent of an established, worldwide consortium of lists, though, it made it intuitive for cocktail enthusiasts to prioritize pilgrimages to a certified, international coalition of the world’s best bars. Butler isn’t on her own out there, chasing the lists, either. On Mrinal Mohanka’s Instagram profile, the 33-year-old bank worker lists himself as a “cocktail tourist” and showcases his 50 Best count (33 of the world’s top 50 as of the time of this writing). After first tuning into the list in 2014, Mohanka began giving it more credence when he saw the accolades his favorite bars at the time, Dante and The NoMad Bar, were receiving. “But it was only after the 2022 list came out and I counted and realized I’d been to 24 of them, that I thought it could be fun to see how many I could get to,” he says.

When Annie Yuan quit her desk job in 2018 to spend half a year backpacking around Europe and Asia, an introduction to high-end cocktail bars in Singapore changed the trajectory of her travels. “I saw a side of hospitality I’d never seen before and for the first time in several months of solo travel didn’t feel alone,” she says. “From that point I reoriented the purpose of my trip towards visiting all the best craft cocktail bars in Asia, and haven’t looked back since.”

Yuan, whose Instagram declares that “espresso martinis are my entire personality” and showcases her country count, is up to 76 of the world’s current top 100. She’s now back in New York with a full-time advertising job, but continues planning her travels — with the help of unlimited PTO — to align with her imbibing adventures.

Keeping count is one thing, but developing a platform to showcase a more sweeping set of data is another. Kate Mikkelson turned her work analyzing data sets in Excel and her hobby of visiting bars into a personal bar-logging spreadsheet, and then morphed that into the publicly accessible World’s 50 Best Tracker. The comprehensive spreadsheet has more than 350 individual bars, listing how many times they’ve been on the list and their average rank, and tracking each bar’s year-by-year placement, indicating if they’ve been moving up or down the list. She also records if and when she’s visited them.

“The longer I kept up with the log, the more interesting the data became and the more useful it became when people started asking me for recommendations,” Mikkelson says. “I had dreams of being the next big cocktail or travel blogger but realized it was just more fun to continue it casually.”

“In an effort to combine leisure and business, we base our travel schedule on maximizing our ability to visit as many World’s 50 Best Bars as possible.”

Bartenders are in the game, too, of course, and getting on the global guest shift circuit is a useful hack for visiting as many of the world’s best bars, and the cities with globally recognized scenes, as possible. Roving bartender and beverage consultant Nico de Soto — he’s the co-owner of two bars in the current top 100, Mace in New York and Danico in Paris — may be the best case in point.

“In 2018, I went to all of them,” de Soto says. He doesn’t just count the world’s top 50 or 100 (91/100) though, he keeps track of his visits to North America’s (35/50) and Asia’s (89/100) lists, as well as the broader, unaffiliated Top 500 Bars list, where he’s rung up a staggering 381 of 500 inclusions.

Others pursue this path as a type of out-of-office but on-the-job training. Brandon Ristaino, co-founder and beverage director of Good Lion Hospitality, which has five concepts in and around Santa Barbara, Calif., and his wife combine personal passions with professional pursuits with their travel plans. “In an effort to combine leisure and business, we base our travel schedule on maximizing our ability to visit as many World’s 50 Best Bars as possible,” he says. The duo is up to 39 of the current top 50, and takes home something conceptually from all of them, whether the music, design or concept of a space, or inventive flavor combinations.

How Cocktail Tourists Impact Bars

Many bar owners have more of a love/hate relationship with the attention and tourist traffic that being highly ranked brings. It has the ability to raise the profile not only of a specific cocktail bar, but an entire city’s bar scene — as it’s done for places such as Athens and Barcelona, and is doing right now for Mexico City — but the traffic and attention can be overwhelming, and the expectations and demands of guests can become challenging to manage as well.

Even being outside the list but under that larger umbrella and sphere of influence, including the aforementioned Discovery system, can be a useful way for bars to grow their businesses.

“We’ve been waiting for people like you to come here,” Jiří Mališ, bartender at Whisper Sister in Tallinn, Estonia, says to me, amid my own nomadic travels. I may not be a hardcore list chaser, but the first thing I do in a new place is look up the best cocktail bars in town and plan a visit.

The idea of one day graduating from Discovery to an official nod in the top 50 or 100 is a tantalizing one for a bar in a city that’s entirely off the global cocktail map — and therefore removed from the guest shifts, international accolades, and votes that come with that. “Though the Discovery list was never meant to be a significant accolade, in 2021 it really felt like a pat on the back and confirmation that we are on the right path,” Mališ says.

“Nowadays it’s crucial for a bar to be ranked in international rankings. It can impact revenues with an estimated yearly increase of 20 percent.”

For Alf del Portillo, who runs the Basque and Italian cocktail bar Quattro Teste in Lisbon with his wife, gaining admittance into the realm of international awards was a major boon that allowed them to stand out among the city’s crowd of well-known dining institutions and drinking establishments.

“When we got onto 50 Best Discovery, we saw that people were coming in and visiting for sure,” del Portillo says. Gaining recognition and seeing traffic coming through the bar has been a positive start for the bar, which has been open for a year and a half. “We don’t know who voted for us or visited us for that, but it’s fantastic.”

“Nowadays it’s crucial for a bar to be ranked in international rankings,” says Benedetto Guarino, co-owner of REM Trastevere in Rome, whose bar has appeared in the Top 500 Bars. “It can impact revenues with an estimated yearly increase of 20 percent, but I don’t think it is the main and only KPI to be taken into account when it comes to rankings.”

The Cocktail Chasing Community

There’s no denying that cocktail tourists are part of the bar world ecosystem. If there weren’t an audience thirsty for this type of experience and intel, the lists would be drying up as opposed to spreading across the globe in steady fashion, like a drink spilled across a countertop.

Notching up visits is about more than the act of checking off a list, though. It’s about receiving a unique lens with which to view a particular place or culture, and meeting an international crowd of likeminded enthusiasts.

“Bars are truly the crossroads of life: You get to observe people from all walks of life interacting with one another, have meaningful conversations with strangers you wouldn’t meet otherwise, and just generally soak in the local environment,” Yuan says. “You don’t get that kind of experience going to museums, or taking guided tours or doing other typical tourist activities.”

For some, it’s not a casual hobby. It’s a lifestyle. “It defines me,” Butler says.