We sipped our way across town for our bar guide issue, and while we now have a pretty impressive headache, it was worth it to bring you the best in local booze. Whatever your pleasure, we’ve got you covered. Read on for our choose-your-own-adventure-style bar guide and some behind-the-scenes tips for imbibing from us and friendly local barkeeps—and check out the other half of our feature for some on-the-town advice and stories that will have you rolling. Cheers!
Choose your own barventure
Do the twist
Let’s call this wave of bars updating classic cocktails what it is: a clever marketing idea. It’s hard to make a “cocktail”—a spirit mixed with a sweetening agent and a bittering agent—that isn’t in some way a take on a classic. No new ideas, right?
Still, there’s something about telling us bargoers we’re drinking a concoction people have been enjoying for a century, tricked out with the bar’s own twist. It makes us feel like we’re being let in on a cool secret.
“When you go to a place that only does classics, they’re unapproachable,” Parallel 38 owner Justin Ross said. “Classic cocktails are austere. When you go to a place that twists that cocktail around, they make it more approachable. Anyone can follow a recipe that was developed at a Paris hotel in 1907; what can you do to make it new?”
Here’s a look at five places that are getting this marketing device exactly right.—Shea Gibbs
The .38 Special at The Local: The Local’s cocktail list is so consistently good it’s hard to single one out, but the .38 Special is the most obvious update on a classic. The Belmont gastropub takes the Old Fashioned, traditionally whisky, sugar, bitters, and a twist, and amps it up with Bulleit Bourbon, local honey, Canton Ginger Liqueur, bitters, and muddled cherry and orange. The result is a glass of brighter flavors that weave in and out of the spicy-sweet whisky.
Murano at Maya: Maya bar manager Ted Norris wanted to update the classic cosmopolitan martini with pear vodka, so he used an Absolut-sponsored cocktail contest as his proving grounds. The problem? He’s not a fan of Absolut’s pear vodka. Once he found the right spirit, he figured he was onto something: Grey Goose La Poire, triple sec, white cranberry, and drops of Midori, blue curacao, and grenadine. The result is a sweet update on the traditional vodka, orange liqueur, and cranberry juice you’ll find in a cosmo, with a stained glass effect floating at the bottom. The tribute to Murano’s glassmaking tradition is best enjoyed during happy hour on Maya’s patio, where the natural light can bring out the colors.
Manhattan at Whiskey Jar: The Whiskey Jar’s take on the classics are for the most part only slightly altered, and the Downtown Mall bar’s Manhattan is no exception. Typically whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters, the Whiskey Jar gives you a choice of bourbon or rye and subs out the vermouth for Cardamaro, a wine-based digestif flavored with cardoon. The take is complex, challenging even, but the bourbon in particular plays well with the Cardamaro, making the sweet, dark cocktail the perfect end to a good meal.
Persian Collins at Parallel 38: The Persian Collins at Parallel is graduate level cocktail making. The small plates joint in The Shops at Stonefield makes its own vinegar and mint syrup (a take on a shrub), muddles cucumber, and adds Hendrick’s gin and house made sour mix. The result is an especially tart, refreshing take on the Tom Collins, usually made with gin, lemon juice, sugar and carbonated water. Ross likes the drink so much, he’s planning to serve it when Parallel cooks at the renowned Beard House later this year.
King and Queen at Pasture: Pasture is all about simplicity in its cocktails, according to barman Wiley Kimball. Most of the drinks contain two or three ingredients, and the goal is to make all the flavors distinct. That makes the King and Queen, a subtly flavored mixture of Bombay Sapphire and house made ginger beer, the perfect representation of the Stonefield spot’s cocktail menu. It’s a simple update on the Moscow Mule (vodka and ginger beer). “We want you to be able to taste the gin and ginger beer in tandem,” Kimball said. They succeeded.
More bang for your buck
Drinking on a budget doesn’t have to mean holding your nose and throwing back forties of Miller High Life and handles of sour apple Burnett’s. PBR and Boone’s Farm may always hold a special place in our hearts, but we’re adults now; let’s see if we can drink on the cheap without resorting to the battery acid that we slugged on our 21st birthdays, shall we?
The martini list at Bang! includes more than 40 hand-crafted cocktails, which feature liquors ranging from bottom-shelf rum to tequila fit for a king. According to restaurant manager and long-time bartender Laura Price, there’s a time and a place for less expensive spirits.
“It depends on how cheap we’re talking,” Price said. “Something like Aristocrat, that’s going to be hard to mask, and that’s not what we’re trying to do here. We want to enhance and complement the flavor of the liquor.”
The cocktails at Bang! are all $9-12, and Price said some drinks lend themselves to substitutions better than others. The martini-like drinks like the Banghattan, a Manhattan-style concoction using Knob Creek bourbon, are built around the flavor of that particular liquor, she said, and shouldn’t be tampered with.
And don’t be deceived by the hefty price tag on some liquors. Not all booze is created equal, and cost is not necessarily reflective of quality. Price said she’s now using Tito’s for the Pantydropper, a popular tequila-heavy martini that used to feature the much pricier Patron.
As for what to order (or make at home) if you want to keep it cheap without sacrificing too much in terms of flavor? Price recommends mixing rail liquors with soda water and a splash of fruit juice. Pineapple and cranberry juices, she said, can go a long way in masking the harshness of the cheap stuff.—Laura Ingles