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NYC Cocktail Classics: Where to Find the Best Martini, Manhattan & More

By James Mulcahy
March 19, 2014

A martini is a martini, right? Not so much. Although the ingredients may be the same, the craft behind the drink and the environment in which it's served makes a difference. Subtle differences - from the type of olive to the size of the ice, can make a big impact on the final product. We've scoured NYC's liquor-verse and landed on 20 examples that do justice to these classics.

  • Photo by: Clay Williams

    Manhattan: Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle

    One of the classiest of all the old-school cocktails, this potent creation is best sipped in an elegant setting that channels Gotham glam. We like the Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle Hotel, where you can drink your combo of whiskey and vermouth underneath a gold-leaf ceiling to the tunes of a live piano player. There are other hotel haunts that pay homage to the same era as Bemelmans, but drinking here you'll get all of the class without any tourist trap vibes. Oh, and we especially like the Manhattan because of the extra little bit that comes in any mini-pitcher alongside - even though this place is pricey (the drink is $36), it makes you feel like you are getting a little extra for free.

  • Photo by: Clay Williams

    Sidecar: Bar Downstairs at Andaz

    Cocktail lovers know that this is one of Midtown's best-kept secrets for a drink, and although they have plenty of swell custom options, the old-timers are your best bet. The Sidecar has fallen out of fashion as everyone has become more interested in whiskey, but the Cognac-based drink provides a good bridge between sweet and savory, and this bar's dimly lit setting is as classic as the recipe itself.

  • Photo by: Clay Williams

    Pimm's Cup: Employees Only

    Although it is becoming popular among the city's in-the-know imbibers, this U.K. drink isn't in most Big Apple bars yet. The boys behind the bar at this West Village cocktail den have mastered this drinks mix of Pimms, ginger and lemon. Oh, and for the record, the Employees Only bartending maestros will make you an awesome version of any drink on this list.

  • Bloody Mary: King Cole Bar

    Have the Bloody Mary in the place that it was born. The King Cole Bar in the St. Regis Hotel was given a spruce up, which is reason enough to stop by for a visit.  Despite the fresh new look, history is still alive on the beverage list. Just note: you'll have to look for a drink called the "Red Snapper" - when the bar debuted the drink way back in 1934, the beverage's bloody moniker was deemed too vulgar.

  • Photo by: Clay Williams

    Martini: Pravda

    This subterranean venue on Lafayette Street may seem a little tired these days, but that only adds to its charms. It's like a fading Soviet outpost - complete with an overabudence of vodka. Many of the trays being toted around the room by the staff (who are still attractive, unlike the worn-around-the-edges interior) contain the bar's signature drink - opt for the classic, straight up. To get fancy, try out their caviar martini, which is spiked with a spoonful of fish eggs.

  • Photo by: Clay Williams

    Daiquiri: PDT

    No, we are not talking about those frozen concoctions you get on a cruise ship. The classic daiquiri, which is largely underrepresented in the NYC bar scene, is rum, lime and sugar - done and done (think of a mojito as a daiquiri plus). If you're going to order the classic, head to this East Village cocktail haunt, where the bartenders will know how to make it right.

  • Photo by: Clay Williams

    Whiskey Sour: Rum House

    How can you tell a good whiskey sour from a lackluster one? Look for the eggs. The bartenders at Rum House know that a premade sour mix is an unacceptable shortcut, and they froth up some egg whites to add the silky texture that is a must for this drink. Even better are the brandied cherries that provide the garnish. This Midtown watering hole, which sometimes gets lost amid a sea of Broadway theaters, shows that it only takes a few extra flourishes to give the classics the love they deserve.

  • Photo by: Clay Williams

    Sazerac: Ninth Ward

    A moody, dark bar is the perfect place to drink this tipple, which is considered to be one of America's oldest cocktails. Developed in New Orleans, the high-proof mix of rye and sugar and bitters is poured into a glass that has been washed with absinthe - kind of like an Old Fashioned, but for those that want even more booze. This East Village bar manages to channel NOLA without any kitsch, and you should tuck yourself into one of their booths and let the illusion sink in as you down a few of these (without ice, just like the pros prefer).

  • Photo by: Clay Williams

    Mojito: Cafe Habana

    The muddled mint in this Cuban classic is a punchy pick me u,p and it's best enjoyed in an environment that contains an energy on par with what's in your glass. Cafe Habana is a SoHo institution, always full of fashionable, young patrons in the mood for a few drinks and some of their famous grilled corn. When you visit this corner shop, you're basically guaranteed a fun time, along with one of the best mojitos in NYC.

  • Photo by: Pat Dimon

    Dark 'n' Stormy: Rusty Knot

    Sure, a lot of folks love this West Side pseudo-dive for their pickle backs, but that wallop of whiskey and brine has yet to make its way into the cocktail canon. The Dark 'n' Stormy, on the other hand, is a Caribbean-inspired must-try, and here this mix of ginger beer and rum is the bomb. They make their own ginger syrup for the mix, and it packs a nasal-clearing punch. Pair that with the old-school tiki cup that the beverage comes in, and you've got one of the finest examples of this breezy beverage in town.

  • Photo by: Clay Williams

    Old Fashioned: Maysville

    The creators of Mad Men should be given a medal (or another round) for popularizing this classic, which is one of the most ordered cocktails in present-day NYC. Thanks to their massive bourbon and rye selection, this Southern-inspired restaurant in Flatiron is the place to go for this blend of bourbon, fruit and bitters. They can mix up countless variations of this classic recipe just by using one of the many bottles behind their coolly lit bar as a base.

  • Mai Tai: The Butterfly

    How many bars in NYC make an acceptable version of this rum-soaked booze bomb? We could count on two hands. Our favorite version of this ditty - which should be more popular than it is - is currently being served at The Butterfly, which is doing its duty to try to resurrect old-school drinks that deserve more love. For their version, grandmaster barman Eben Freeman mixes Curaçao, lime and Brugal 1888 rum that's been infused with a housemade spice mix.

  • Negroni: Saxon and Parole

    This Bowery restaurant has a popular bar scene and the list embraces classics and new creations alike. The classic Negroni keeps things simple: Campari, Beefeater Gin and vermouth - it's a no-frills take on the trendiest drink du jour. If you want to take a step toward the future, check out their bottled Champagne Negronis, which add some bubbles to the mix.

  • Caipirinha: Churrascaria Plataforma

    Made with Brazilian Cachaca - essentially the country's version of rum - this classic doesn't make many appearances outside of NYC's Latin and South American restaurant scenes. We're fond of the versions at this Hell's Kitchen steakhouse, which offers a wide variety of flavored options (all made with fresh fruit). Start with the classic lime and go from there.

  • Gin and Tonic: Cata

    This LES tapas joint has an entire cocktail list devoted to this summery classic. You can go ahead and get the standard mix of gin, tonic and lime, but the fun here lies in the customizations on offer. They'll add ingredients ranging from bay leaves to Thai chiles to fresh cinnamon, and they mix up the type of tonic to bring out the drink's best flavor notes. Expect brands like Fever Tree and White Rock mixed in with more familiar brands like Schweppes.

  •  Mint Julep: Maison Premiere

    Decked out in New Orleans style, this Williamsburg bar had to get their julep right, and they nailed it. In fact, once you're ready to deviate from the classic variation, they will hook you up with creative options that switch out the Bourbon for another base spirit. One is spiked with rye and sherry and another with gin and Green Chartreuse - whatever your spirit of choice, all the juleps come in a snazzy stainless steel cup.

  • Margarita: Empellon Taqueria

    We love Alex Stupak's take on Mexican cuisine at his West Village gem, and we can't get enough of the margaritas (or the tacos, so we always leave tipsy and full). The standard is made with a smoked salt rim, and a little exploration of the menu will score you ingredients like jalapeño and cucumber in the mix. Need extra proof that this is place to go for tequila? Our surveyors called the drinks "killer" in our last restaurants survey. Just don't let that hangover follow suit.

  • Pisco Sour: Raymi

    When you're in the mood for a frothy offering from Peru, this sprawling Flatiron eatery is the place to go. The large bar here serves over 30 varieties of the grape-based, South American liquor pisco, many of which are infused with unique ingredients in house. Start off with a classic Pisco sour, preferably during happy hour, when Pisco drinks are $6 a pop. You can snag the deal all night on Sunday-Tuesday and on Wednesday through Saturday from 5 to 7 PM.

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