The New York 50
Newsletter #6: The 50 Most Iconic Cocktails in New York
Ten years ago, the San Francisco-based cocktail writer Camper English wrote an article for 7&7 Magazine about what he considered to be the city’s fifty iconic, must-try cocktails. Since then, he’s returned to the exercise periodically—most recently a couple weeks ago. I always thought the piece a nifty gambit, a sort of check-up on the health of San Francisco’s drinking culture, both past and present. (I have tried seven of the fifty drink on the current list, which I consider a pretty respectable showing for someone who lives on the opposite coast.)
It occurred to me after reading the recent edition that no one had ever done the same service for New York, which seems odd and wrong. Gotham certainly has enough iconic cocktails to fill up such a list. So I’ve taken the task upon myself to compile the following tally, drawing on 34 years of NYC-based drinking.
Had I attempted this article a couple years ago, it would look considerably different. The city has changed an awful lot during the pandemic and we’ve lost many good bars, as well as the drinks in which they specialized. So there’s no Southside at “21” Club on this list. Same goes for the Start Me Up at The Nomad Bar; Penichillin at Diamond Reef; Brancolada at Donna; the soda-machine bottled cocktails at Existing Conditions; In the Rock at Aviary; the Winchester at The Polynesian; and any number of drinks from the Pegu Club menu. It makes me sad and mad and thirsty just thinking about it.
But New York still has plenty of great watering holes left, thank heaven. Here are the cocktails you should order when you get to them, in alphabetical order by cocktail name.
Bartender’s Choice at Little Branch
Bartender’s Choice—an ordering strategy now practiced around the world, in which the bartender comes up with a drink based on your stated preferences—began at Milk & Honey. But it was first put on the menu as such here. So let the bartender choose.
Benton’s Old-Fashioned at PDT
Does anyone go to this bar without trying this fat-washed Bourbon favorite? Doubt it.
Blue Negroni at Temple Bar
Sam Ross and Michael McIlroy put a Blue Negroni on the menu of the newly revived NoHo icon to get attention. It worked.
Boulevardier at Long Island Bar
Toby Cecchini didn’t invent the Boulevardier. But he may have perfected it. This is the best version of the cocktail in town, and justly famous.
Carondolet at Maison Premiere
This attempt at a stirred Ramos Gin Fizz, by Maks Pazuniak, has been on the menu at this New Orleans-themed Brooklyn bar since it opened. For good reason.
Cosmopolitan at Odeon
The best Cosmopolitan in the city isn’t served here, but the drink was invented at this restaurant, long, long ago. So have one and feel historical.
Flavored Vodka Martini at Russian Samovar
There are a couple dozen jars of house-infused vodka behind the bar of this old-school Russian joint in the Theater District. Choose one as the base of your king-sized Martini. (I recommend dill.)
Frozen Painkiller at Super Power
A crowd-pleasing mainstay at what might be the most unsung tiki bar in the city.
Garibaldi at Dante
The name of this Campari and “fluffy” orange juice highball is painted on the pillar by the bar for a reason. Take the hint. Order it.
Gibson at Dear Irving
Finally, someone in New York took the Gibson seriously enough to get it right. Thank you, Meaghan Dorman.
Gin Tonic at La Vara
If you want a proper Spanish-style “Gin Tonic,” go to a proper Spanish restaurant.
Gin Blossom at Clover Club
The house Martini at this trailblazing Brooklyn bar. Your drinking experience at Clover Club begins here.
Gold Rush at Attaboy
A whiskey sour made with honey syrup, this was Milk & Honey’s first his original cocktail back in 2001. It’s still a favorite at M&H’s successor.
Gun Metal Blue at Porchlight
The breakout cocktail at Danny Meyer’s first stand-alone bar was made by Nick Bennett with mezcal—and it was blue. It’s still the standout.
Happy Hour Sazerac at Elsa
I don’t know anyone else in New York who makes a good Sazerac for $8. Bless them.
Hard Start at Grand Army
This shot—its half Fernet Branca, half Branca Menta—was created on the fly by Fernet-besotted bartender Damon Boelte at the dear, departed Prime Meats and is now sold here. A rare case of a shot being a bar’s best-known drink.
Hinoki Martini at Katana Kitten
A vodka-gin Martini served in a stemless, conical glass, over crushed ice in a wooden masu box. The presentation makes it a little difficult to put the ice-encrusted glass down once you pick it up. But why would you want to put it down?
Insanely Good Midori Sour at Up & Up
Irish Coffee at Dead Rabbit
A couple gentlemen from Ireland founded this bar. They know the drink deeply. And the Buena Vista Café is 3,000 miles away. Enjoy your coffee, cream and booze.
Japonaise at Rockwell Place
Long Island Bar owner Toby Cecchini’s attempt to give his second bar its own signature drink. He succeeded.
King Cole Martini at Maison Premiere
One person comes to your table to make you a Martini from the ingredients on a tray. Another person holds that tray. You, actually, are the king in this scenario.
Manhattan at Campbell Apartment
That the Campbell Apartment serves their Manhattan on the rocks is kind of square in a basic-suburban-commuter way. Which makes it kind of cool.
Manhattan at Employees Only
They slip a little Grand Marnier in their house Manhattan. Because: fancy.
Martini at Keens Steakhouse
People have been drinking Martinis at Keens for more than a century. You should, too. There’s no cocktail menu. Just tell the bartender what you’d like.
Negroni at Dante
Of course the bar that brought Italian-style aperitivo drinking to New York is going to have a great Negroni.
New York Sazerac at 67 Orange Street
This drink has been on this Harlem speakeasy’s menu since it opened in 2008, and deservedly so. One of the best in the city.
Oaxaca Old-Fashioned at Death & Co.
The most famous cocktail this famous cocktail bar ever produced. And one of the simplest (it’s a Tequila-Mezcal OF), which is also a virtue.
Old Cuban at Bemelmans Bar
You pay through the nose for the ambiance and history here. And it’s worth it. But it doesn’t hurt to have a good cocktail, too, in the form of this Audrey Saunders modern classic.
Old-Fashioned at Dutch Kills
Just a straight-up Old-Fashioned. They do it the Sashe Petraske way, still. Which means the best way.
The Pandan Drink at Mace
Mace proprietor Nico de Soto has a thing for pandan, so there’s always a cocktail on the menu that is built around the herb. The drink changes. But it’s always good.
Paper Plane at Attaboy
A few bars merit two or more drinks on this list. One of them is Attaboy, formerly Milk & Honey. Because no one’s going to make me choose between the Paper Plane and the Penicillin.
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Perfect Martini at Gage & Tollner
This reborn Brooklyn chop house does classics well. So do other places. But no one else does a Perfect Martini (a Martini with equal parts sweet and dry vermouth) this perfectly.
Penicillin at Attaboy
Milk & Honey founder Sasha Petraske didn’t think much of inventing original cocktails. His bartender Sam Ross didn’t take heed. Good thing, too, or we wouldn’t have this cocktail.
Pickleback at Bushwick Country Club
You probably have some feelings about this drink, good or bad. But give the joint credit. They invented the damn thing.
Pistacchio at Bar Pisellino
This elegant, jewel-box, aperitivo bar focuses on the classics. But this original drink by Jon Mullen—made of gin, genepy, lime, bitters and house orgeat—stands out nonetheless.
Queen of the Desert at Sugar Monk
You don’t have to ask what the most popular drink is at this stylish Harlem bar. Because this green Tequila drink is on every table.
Red Snapper at King Cole Bar
The United States was introduced to the Bloody Mary here. Only it was called the Red Snapper. Still is.
Remember the Maine at Sunken Harbor Club
Owner St. John Frizell revived this forgotten Charles H. Baker Jr. drink many years ago, turning it into a beloved classic, making this the best place to get one right now.
Salty Plum Old-Fashioned at Mr. Fong’s
This artsy bar with dive pretensions’ deft nod to its Chinatown location.
Sakura Martini at Bar Goto
How can it be that no one thought to garnish a Martini with a cherry blossom before this?
Sangria at El Quijote
If you’re in the oldest Spanish restaurant in New York, you’re going to have Sangria. Good thing that, in this new incarnation of the 1930 Chelsea eatery, the sangria’s actually delicious.
Shakey Pete’s Ginger Brew at Hawksmoor
Now that the London steakhouse icon has opened in New York, you can drink this Hawksmoor classic here. Given its gin-ginger-lemon-ale make-up, however, it still tastes like London, though.
The Shark at PDT
New York’s OG blue cocktail, on the PDT cocktail menu since forever.
Sharpie Moustache at Amor y Amargo
What? Are you going to turn down a cocktail that comes in its own mini-flask, dressed up in a moustache? No one ever has.
Slushie at Mother’s Ruin
Want to know why frozen cocktails became legit in New York a decade ago? This is why. This drink on offer changes regularly. The quality doesn’t.
Three Martini Lunch at The Cafe at the Morgan Library
The wittiest interpretation of the Martini in town—three mini-Martinis, one with an olive garnish, one with a lemon twist, one with an onion—is, improbably, at a museum cafe. It’s not always on the menu. But they have the mini-glassware on hand. So order it.
Tuxedo at The Grill
So what if the bar at the former Four Seasons pours its Tuxedo—and all of its pre-batched Martini variations—directly from a chilled decanter into the glass. It’s still excellent. And sooo cold.
Tia Mia at Leyenda
Want a mezcal Mai Tai? You and a thousand others. Here it is.
Wildest Redhead at Raines Law Room and Raines Law Room at The William
This honey Scotch sour by owner Meaghan Dorman isn’t currently on the menu at either bar, but all the bartenders know how to make the fan favorite.
One Light, One Dark at McSorley’s Old Ale House
Not a cocktail. They don’t actually serve spirits of any kind at this ancient tavern. Only light and dark ale. But McSorley’s is as iconic as it gets in New York. Sue me.
Coming up this week on “The Mix” for paid subscribers: A modern cocktail classic is enjoying a moment; Calling a truce on a famed sandwich battle in Brooklyn; more “Odds and Ends”; and maybe a Field Report—you never know!