Photo: Robbie Caponetto
A fresh crop of cocktail dens across the region are raising the bar. They're a throwback to a time when whiskey and Champagne were sipped by elegant folks in sleek social rooms. These new hot spots shed the pretentiousness that made a parody of cocktail culture—mustachioed bartenders, chemistry-lab-worthy concoctions, and snooty hostesses—in favor of a more laid-back (yet refined) approach, with skilled drink pros thirsty to elevate the craft. They combine the quality of a top-shelf joint with the rocking spirit of your favorite dive. Here, we distilled the list to 20 new establishments that best define the modern-day craft bar. Welcome to a new era. Cheers!
THE BACK ROOMS
Hidden gems tucked behind closed doors
Jackson, MS | The Apothecary at Brent's Drugs
After hours, longtime soda fountain Brent's Drugs unlocks the door to its former medicine room, now an intimate lounge flanked by an early-1900s pharmacy cabinet. The menu recalls a time when docs prescribed boozy elixirs to cure ailments, such as An Apple a Day ($10) with Calvados brandy and chamomile bitters.
You're Having: The Doc Noble ($10): pecan-and-cayenne-infused rye whiskey with demerara sugar, named after a 1960s Brent's pharmacist. 769/257-3517; Date Friendly; Hidden; Happy Hour; Good Grub; Dapper Dress Code
Decatur, GA | Paper Plane
Rising cocktail star Paul Calvert mixes up bold, spirit-forward drinks (with a preference toward Scotch and cognac, among others) at this 60-seat retro-mod stunner behind hipster lunch hub Victory Sandwich Bar + Emporium. Tall leather booths and wood paneling give a nod to a '50s spot where Don Draper might have been found drinking his lunch.
You're Having: The Permanent Collection ($11), a riff on a brandy old fashioned with cognac, Fernet Branca, and Bénédictine D.O.M. the-paper-plane.com; Date Friendly; Hidden; Good Grub; Dapper Dress Code
Inviting pads dedicated to the art of the drink
Dallas, TX | Bar Smyth
Go here to discover your new favorite tipple. With no set menu, the bartenders have free reign to improvise at this subterranean den. Despite the buzzer, secretive location, and suited bartenders, Smyth doesn't feel at all stuffy thanks to the friendly staff who are pros at translating patrons' whims into inspired sippers.
You're Having: Whatever the bartender wants. But if you'd rather not give up control, know they make a mean cucumber gimlet ($12). 214/520-0900; Date Friendly, Hidden, Dapper Dress Code
Houston, TX | Capt. Foxheart's Bad News Bar & Spirit Lodge
Walk up stairs and through a door marked by a fox into this dark loft that evokes a Victorian-era saloon. The main attraction: the 50-foot wooden bar where Houston native Justin Burrows serves up everything from a $2 Full Sail Session beer to an Old World Gothic ($9) with French vermouth and aged gin.
You're Having: A Riverboat Bobsled ($12) with bourbon, walnut liqueur, and orange bitters. 308 Main Street; Date Friendly; Hidden; Happy Hour
Washington, D.C. | 2 birds 1 stone
The art of 2 birds 1 stone is its simplicity. In a world of clever mixings and 100-item menus, Adam Bernbach (Estadio, Proof) culls a tight list of six straightforward (most have only three ingredients), perfectly stirred cocktails and a nightly punch. We love the cartoonish menu Adam hand-draws.
You're Having: The punch of the day ($9). 2birds1stonedc.com; Date Friendly; Hidden; Dapper Dress Code
Luxe lobby spots that make you want to stay
Miami, FL | The Broken Shaker
The Broken Shaker at Freehand Miami is eradicating the $20 South Beach cosmo. Here, all the lure of Miami's nightlife is reinvented: tropical drinks made with house-grown herbs in lieu of syrupy martinis; rock 'n' roll instead of house music; craft spirits in place of mainstream brands on the shelves. Go on Mondays to join Miami's cool kids in clinking sangrias.
You're Having: The CQ Float ($13), a bright gin and elderflower drink topped with prosecco and cucumber foam. thefreehandmiami.com; Fun & Games; Good Grub; Outdoor Seating
Bentonville, AR | The Hive
The bar at the newest 21c Museum Hotel outpost is a showpiece in itself. The whimsical space melds mid-century mod with a rotating art exhibit, setting a sleek and polished arena where bartenders use local produce to put an Arkansas spin on the classics.
You're Having: The crisp Arkansawyer ($10) with gin, fresh lavender, and ginger. thehivebentonville.com; Date Friendly; Open Before 5 p.m.; Good Grub; Dapper Dress Code
Charleston, SC | Básico at Mixson Bath & Racquet Club
Summer lives on year-round at this social house inspired by a country club, but without the stuffiness and high fees. (Annual dues start at $600—about the price of a monthly gym membership.) A 30-foot-tall bar separates Mixson Bath from its (public) bar, Básico, where the margaritas and Spanish wines like cava are the focus.
You're Having: A Spicy Grapefruit Margarita ($7) made using tequila infused with Charleston peppers. basicombrc.com; Happy Hour; Fun & Games; Open Before 5 p.m.; Good Grub; Outdoor Seating
Nashville, TN | Pinewood Social
This latest venture from the Catbird Seat and Patterson House team is Nashville's unofficial new clubhouse. Network over Crema coffee in the morning, sip cocktails created by renowned bartender Matt Tocco, and fill up on classic American fare created by chef Josh Habiger (using 1800s menus dug up at The New York Public Library). Bonus clubhouse amenities: karaoke rooms, a bowling alley, lawn games, and—later this summer—a pool.
You're Having: The District 9 ($12) with 1776 rye whiskey, grenadine, and lemon. Pair it with chicken livers on toast (2 for $5). pinewoodsocial.com; Date Friendly; Fun & Games; Open Before 5 p.m.; Good Grub; Outdoor Seating
Casual haunts that foster community
Birmingham, AL | Carrigan's Public House
A creative-yet-approachable cocktail program made this pub an instant hit when it opened last summer in Birmingham's burgeoning downtown. Owner David Carrigan—a stonemason by trade—hand-built the space to reflect the city's industrial roots, with elevator shafts turned into private booths and electrical boxes as wall art. The team led by Eric Bennett, one of the city's brightest bartenders, is trained to mix up the perfect Manhattan—even on a busy Friday night.
You're Having: The Morris Avenue ($10), a mix of single-malt Scotch, Campari, nutty Frangelico liqueur, and Bell's Two Hearted Ale. carriganspub.com; Good Grub; Outdoor Seating
Tulsa, OK | Valkyrie
This laid-back Brady District gathering spot is home to one of the best cocktail programs in Oklahoma. Look to the 6-foot-tall chalkboard for classic Corpse Revivers, Jack Roses, and local brews. If you're feeling indecisive, tell your bartender what you're craving—floral, herbaceous, bitter—and just let 'em riff. You're in good hands.
You're Having: A Buenos Aires Mule ($10), Argentina's take on the Moscow mule with Fernet Branca. valkyrietulsa.com; Date Friendly
Where signature spirits play the starring role
New Orleans, LA | Cane & Table
Rum aficionado Nick Detrich runs this French Quarter hideaway inspired by a Colonial-era public house. A respite to the area's rowdy drink scene, C&T uses rare rum varieties, such as 12-year Angostura 1824, and house-made syrups like Falernum to re-create classic tiki drinks.
You're Having: The Boss Colada ($11), an update on the tiki favorite with orgeat instead of coconut. 504/581-1112; Date Friendly; Happy Hour; Good Grub; Outdoor Seating
Washington, D.C. | Mockingbird Hill
One of three spots opened last year by D.C. bar luminary Derek Brown, Mockingbird Hill reclaims sherry from the depths of old dusty cabinets, fast-tracking the rebirth of fortified wines. Equipped with 50-plus bottles, Derek and his team convert District drinkers into fans with "gateway cocktails" like the Sherried Old Fashioned, made with aged sherry.
You're Having: The Adonis ($11), a riff on a Manhattan, with Amontillado sherry and vermouth. drinkmoresherry.com; Date Friendly; Good Grub
Houston, TX | The Pastry War
Bobby Heugel and Alba Huerta's ode to tequila puts other bars of its kind to shame. With a stock of high-end varieties (the 1996 Herradura blanco is worth the $25 half-shot) and a staunch position against low-quality mainstream brands like Don Julio and Jose Cuervo, they aim to educate patrons on the vast catalog of Mexican agave spirits.
You're Having: The Mezcal Margarita ($9). 713/226-7770; Date Friendly; Happy Hour
Spots created by beer geeks for beer geeks
Washington, D.C. | The Arsenal at Bluejacket
The Capital City's most anticipated brewery opened in October, with 25 distinct beer styles ranging from light and sweet (Seersucker; $6) to dark and dry (The Wake; $8). In the center of this 5,600-square-foot compound sits The Arsenal, where you can sample the latest brews.
You're Having: The Butcher ($7), a malty lager seasoned with local butcher shop Red Apron's half-smoke spice mix. bluejacketdc.com; Open Before 5 p.m.; Good Grub
Atlanta, GA | Monday Night Brewing
Tired of the nine-to-five, the three guys behind Monday Night Brewing hung up their ties to open this taproom in Atlanta's industrial-chic Westside district. Ten dollars gets you six 5.3-oz. pours to get a taste of the operation that grew out of the trio's weekly Monday-night ritual of home brewing.
You're Having: The light and caramelly Eye Patch Ale ($5). mondaynightbrewing.com; Fun & Games; Outdoor Seating
Asheville, NC | Wicked Weed Brewing
The South's breakout beer star, Wicked Weed, has been racking up awards and garnering a national following since opening just over a year ago. Led by the popularity of its Freak of Nature Double IPA (a generously hop-laden Imperial IPA), the brewery sets itself apart for its output of funky farmhouse-style Belgian beers.
You're Having: Troy & Sons Old Fashion ($5.25), aged four months in North Carolina whiskey barrels. wickedweedbrewing.com; Fun & Games; Open Before 5 p.m.; Good Grub; Outdoor Seating
Stellar food, with drinks that measure up
Richmond, VA | Heritage
This restaurant in Richmond's trendy Fan neighborhood applies the same thought-fulness to its cocktail menu as it does to its seasonally driven food. With concoctions like the Wasp Nest ($9), with bourbon and absinthe, mixed up by young, respected bartender Mattias Hägglund, Heritage leads the city's growing cocktail scene.
You're Having: The Bitter About My Hot Friend ($9), tequila, Campari, and habanero pepper tincture. heritagerva.com; Date Friendly; Happy Hour; Good Grub; Dapper Dress Code
Louisville, KY | MilkWood
The menu at chef Edward Lee's newest restaurant takes all the guesswork out of ordering what you're craving, with drink names arranged around a sketch of an open mouth that highlights the five basic tastes. Want bitter? Try the Jaliscan Spring. Into sweet? The Daisy Saves Me with brandy, Lillet Rouge, and sparkling wine will do the trick.
You're Having: The MilkWood ($10) with nigori sake and chartreuse. milkwoodrestaurant.com; Date Friendly; Happy Hour; Good Grub; Dapper Dress Code
Baltimore, MD | Shoo-Fly Diner
Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen debuted this all-American diner last fall. Look past the menu of cast-iron fried chicken and crab rolls, to find playful libations like the Mudslide milkshake ($10) with house-made 4% alcohol soft serve.
You're Having: A pear cider slush with Maryland Rye ($10). shooflydiner.com; Date Friendly; Happy Hour; Good Grub; Outdoor Seating
BARTENDERS TO KNOW
Bobby Heugel | Houston, TX
Home Bars: Anvil, The Pastry War
Known For: Putting Texas on the cocktail map
His Go-To Drink: Mezcal margarita with extra mezcal
Best Local Dive: "West Alabama Ice House—a classic since 1928." 713/528-6874
He's Loving: "Mezcal. There's never been such an amazing selection on this side of the border."
This Time Next Year You'll Be Drinking: "Japanese whiskey. We're on the brink of a whiskey revolution."
Greg Best | Atlanta
Home Bar: Working on a yet-to-be-named project for 2014
Known For: Inspiring the next generation of Atlanta barmen
His Go-To Drink: The Sazerac
Best Local Dive: "The Righteous Room. Greatest jukebox ever!" 404/874-0939
He's Loving: "Classic Stingers (brandy, crème de menthe) and variations thereof. Minty and delicious."
This Time Next Year You'll Be Drinking: "Mai tais. This tiki trend is not going away."
Derek Brown | Washington D.C.
Home Bars: The Passenger, Columbia Room, Mockingbird Hill
Known For: Leading the charge in the District's drink scene—a bar-within-a-bar, sherry, a punk-rock oyster bar—he did it first.
His Go-To Drink: Bourbon straight or Scotch and soda
Best Local Dive: "Showtime Lounge in the Bloomingdale neighborhood." 113 Rhode Island Avenue NW.
He's Loving: "Sherry. Grab a bottle of Tio Pepe Fino or Lustau 'Los Arcos' Amontillado and you have a whole new repertoire of classic drinks."
This Time Next Year You'll Be Drinking: "Vermouth as an aperitif. Rather than mixing it in martinis and Manhattans, bartenders are going to pour it on the rocks with a twist."