The beginning of this century has seen a dramatic shift in bar trends. First there was the flair bartender, using pre-fab mixers to flip and toss sweet drinks that often tasted like the sun screen left behind at the tanning booth. Then came the glorious return of fresh ingredients and pre-Prohibition nostalgia. But this sometimes resulted in be-vested barkeeps building cocktails with too many ingredients and enough tinctures to confuse a licensed pharmacist. It’s been fashionable for these to be consumed in hidden locations so exclusive they can make one forget that drinking is supposed to be fun.
The latest shift is much more customer-oriented. As drinkers declare their allegiance to certain spirits, bars are opening with a single-category focus.
New York City has been leading the trend. Some bars not only showcase one type of spirit, but also distinguish themselves within each subgroup.
Smokehouse Cocktail at Dram Photo Courtesy Dram, Mountainbrook, Alabama
In the gin category, the Dutch-influenced menu at Vandaag features a list of gin and aquavit cocktails. Madame Geneva elegantly celebrates gin’s popularity in Victorian London, while Whitehall is a more modern take on British bon vivance. Bathtub Gin creates its own roaring twenties time capsule.
Mexican restaurants at the very least focus on the usual national drinks, but newer establishments have dug deeper into the versatility and complexity of agave. These include Mayahuel , Añejo, Agave, Toloache, Casa Mezcal and Viktor and Spoils. Manhattan even has its own Pulqueria now, a restaurant with an entire section of its menu devoted to the oft-forgotten, traditional beverage made from agave milk sap.
Whiskey is perhaps the most represented single-spirit category in New York City. Many “bi-spiritual” bars such as Walkers, Angel’s Share, D.B.A., the Astor Room and Jake Walk keep a notable selection of whiskies on hand. Ward III not only keeps a great collection on the back bar, they also offer a series of free tastings almost every Monday night with revolving presenters for different brands. For Scotch drinkers, there’s St. Andrews, Highlands, Noorman’s Kill, Vintry Wine and Whiskey and Brandy Library, to name a few. Char No. 4 is the perfect place to match house smoked meat dishes with a huge selection of Bourbon, while Idle Hands pairs it with beer and a rock soundtrack. Then there’s the trifecta of Whiskey Tavern, Whiskey Town and The Whiskey Brooklyn making sure enthusiasts south of 14th St. never go thirsty.
Amor y Amargo is New York’s only bitters tasting room, made even more unique by offering its own house made vermouth and an Americano cocktail on tap. Then there are rum bars like the old world Cuba-styled Cienfuegos , the tiki-themed Lani Kai and the revamped theater district destination, the Rum House.
What about the rest of the country? In California, Los Angeles is just catching up with each of the categories listed above, most notably at Las Perlas, which is known for its inexpensive small pour sample pricing. Aside from the usual white and brown spirits-focused joints, San Francisco has a cachaça bar (Cantina), and a pisco bar (Pisco Latin Lounge).
But the single life is not relegated to the coastal cities. For whiskey lovers down south, there’s Haymarket Whiskey Bar in Louisville, Kentucky and Dram in Mountainbrook, Alabama, which not only features a comprehensive menu, but geeks out by listing Bourbons by county and Scotches by region.
Proving just how popular this trend has become, corporate entities such as Richard Sandoval restaurants and the InterContinental hotel chain have each opened single-spirit themed franchises throughout the U.S. Aside from Sandoval’s collection of New York-based restaurants with extensive tequila and mescal menus and special tastings, there is also Verde in Pittsburgh, Barrio in Seattle and Lone Star in Boston. Intercontinental has taken it a step further by designing their various in-house bars with a single-spirit theme particular to that location: Buckhead, Georgia has Bourbon Bar, Boston is Rum (RumBa), D.C. is Scotch (Round Robin), San Francisco is grappa (Bar 888) and Montreal is Absinthe (Sarah B.).
Even if you play the field a little bit in terms of your drinking habits, these are often great places to further your spirits education and try new things. Whatever the next cocktail trend may be (garnish bars anyone?), this one makes it easy to fall in love with your favorite hooch all over again.