Visiting 4 of NYC’s Most Acclaimed Cocktail Bars

Though my May New York adventures brought me to some of the city’s newer treasures (see June 15 issue), I also made sure I hit up some of the greats of the past decade for a sip of what they’ve been serving lately:

Milk & Honey classics (L: Paper Plane; R: Penicillin)

Milk & Honey, Lower East Side – Through its dodgy, unmarked door into a musty yet romantic (?) interior, Milk & Honey remains one of the best bars in all of NY, father of the speakeasy renaissance (opened in 2000), even if cocktails are a whopping $15 or $16 each. Ice is of highest, hand-chipped quality, and the Penicillin, created here, is always the go-to drink for the uninitiated. But my recent visit held the beauties of a boozy Paper Plane (Amaro Nino, Aperol, bourbon), and a brilliant variation of a Corpse Reviver, along with the company of lovely regulars we chatted with for ages at the bar.

Death & Co’s Southern Exposure & Pearls Before Swine

Death & Co., East Village – In the early days, this bar was mellow, sophisticated, with impeccable cocktails. That still holds true, while required table seating thankfully attempts to keep the mellow part in check, but it is a scene now and doesn’t always feel like a bar filled with cocktail lovers. This is apparent from the (kindly) bouncer, the long waits to get in, etc… Fabulous, new Cienfuegos is on the same block so if the wait is too long, head there instead. But Death & Co. creates some of the best cocktails in New York, evidenced by their double win last week (it was exciting to be at the Spirited Awards in New Orleans – more next Perfect Spot) at Tales of the Cocktail for Best American Cocktail Bar and World’s Best. Not sure I’d call it either, but it remains a wonderfully fine bar.
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My last visit showed range and contrast between the spicy, vibrant Southern Exposure (jalapeno-infused Chinaco Blanco, Sombra Mezcal, lime, petit cane syrup, fresh red pepper puree, kosher salt) and a lightly creamy, intriguing Pearls Before Swine (Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength Gin, lemon, orgeat, greek yogurt, lemon curd, rose water). The latter was a delicious stand-out. I respect (when well done) this kind of experimentation in cocktails.

The spread at Flatiron Lounge

Flatiron Lounge, Flatiron – Though I don’t think Flatiron Lounge has held up in the cocktail renaissance compared to some newer, better bars (I’d rather go a block or two away to Raines Law Room), Julie Reiner (who went on to help launch Pegu Club and Clover Club) opened this place ahead of the resurgence, back in 2003. It has historic touches like an original 1927 mahogany bar from The Ballroom that Sinatra and other celebrities frequented. These touches make it special, even if the space is a little lacking in warmth or transporting mood. Cocktails (mostly $13) are solid, if not revelatory, from a refreshing King Rose: gin, basil, strawberries, lime; Vincente’s Antidote: silver tequila, Green Chartreuse, elderflower liqueur, lemon, grapefruit bitters; to Ship to Shore: cognac, dark rum, earl grey tea, figs, lemon, sherry.

Little Branch, West Village Little Branch, from the unstoppable Sasha Petraske of Milk & Honey, is (similar to M&H) a musty bar that comes off a little like a bowling alley bar tucked in a basement during Prohibition. The menu is short, sweet, sticking to classics. But what these bartenders make best is off menu. It is pretty much about spirituous classics here and I go with bartender’s choice, knowing they’ll always satisfy my thirst with well-crafted libations.

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