The cocktail revolution, for all its swagger, has been largely dedicated to looking backward. Just think about it: legions of bartenders brewing their own bitters, scouring history books for pre-Prohibition curiosities, and opening so many old-style speakeasies and retro lounges. They hold forth on obscure liquors and the correct dilution and shaking velocity, and—please—do not even get them started on the proper ice.
But just when it seemed the “revolution” could be taken no further, something genuinely new began to take hold. This year two of the world’s most innovative chefs got into the bar business: Ferran Adrià in Barcelona, and Grant Achatz in Chicago, both rethinking what we have come to expect in a glass—and in Achatz’s case, rethinking the glass too. They are not the only ones. This year, around the world, cocktails are reaching new heights of creativity and head-spinning drama. And that is before the first sip.
For nearly a year, a fascinated food world watched Grant Achatz build the Aviary in Chicago. Every chef’s tweet, every interview, every YouTube video was endlessly picked apart to fathom just what Achatz meant by “a cocktail bar, redefined.” On opening night in late April, the cognoscenti flocked to the trendy West Loop to line up and wait—as long as six hours—to see if Achatz did indeed do for drinking what he had done for dining at his Michelin-three-star restaurant, Alinea.
Even with all the buildup, the Aviary is proving to be something beyond imagination: a bar without a bar (a birdcagelike grille separates the drinkers from the drink makers, hence the name), serving cocktails of breathtaking invention. The Old Fashioned arrives encased in a hollow “egg” of ice that must be cracked before the drink can be sipped. The Manhattan, rechristened the Blueberry, is served in a terrarium-like decanter artfully filled with fruit and flowers. The Rooibos, a hot toddy masquerading as a science experiment, is steeped at the table in a double-cylinder glass vacuum coffeemaker: Warmed by a butane burner, a measure of Hendrick’s Gin wells into an upper chamber filled with rooibos tea, lemon wedges, lemon verbena, lavender, crushed almonds, grapefruit and lemon zests, and assorted spices. A smoldering cinnamon stick serves as the stirrer. Then it returns to the lower pot colored a deep, vivid orange and impregnated with all those aromatics.
The idea is to “elevate the preconceived notion of what a bar can be,” says Craig Schoettler, Aviary’s executive chef. And indeed, there is a playful sense of surprise at the Aviary that most tipplers have not felt since their first hard sip. Those Schoettler deems “clearly groovin’ ” on the vibe may be invited into the Office, the Aviary’s private, 16-seat basement lounge, which sports a clubby look, classic drinks, and, yes, an actual bar. It is worth angling for an invite for the walk downstairs alone. It is a peek behind the curtain, with a glimpse into the room where the “ice chef” makes the 22 varieties of cubes, balls, fluffy powders, and jagged mini bergs for the drinks, and into a kitchen of Next, Achatz’s equally innovative restaurant next door. —Bill Daley
The Aviary, Chicago, 312.226.0868, www.theaviarychicago.com
The Adriàs’ Next Round
What would happen if the same minds that made caviar out of mango juice, or Slinkies out of caramelized olive oil, began to consider, say, the Tom Collins? That is exactly what brothers Albert and Ferran Adrià have done with their new Barcelona bar, 41º. For more than 20 years, the two revolutionized cuisine from their tiny restaurant up the coast, El Bulli—Ferran in the savory kitchen, Albert in the sweet. Then Albert left to open Inopia, a traditional tapas bar that has become Barcelona’s most popular. Now, with El Bulli set to morph into a gastronomic foundation, they have opened 41º. “Why not?” says Albert. “We’ve shown we can do everything else.”
Given the brothers’ history, 41º is decidedly less weird than you might expect. Most of the drinks are classic: mojitos, Manhattans, and Bloody Marys, each made with obsessive attention. With 45 varieties of gin, gin and tonics (an Adrià favorite that is in vogue in Spain right now) come in for particularly special treatment, with the distinctive flavors of the spirit, such as cucumber and licorice, matched to the lavender and pink pepper of tonic. The bar also creates some new editions, including a bright red G&T made with freeze-dried raspberries and a Bloody Mary seasoned with chipotle.
More creativity is poured into the bar snacks, and the menu includes many of El Bulli’s greatest hits, such as the famous spherified olives, the savory ice cream sandwich filled with a frozen Parmesan mousse, and a grilled brioche gooey with mozzarella and redolent of truffles. There is also a Bulli-esque take on an oyster bar, with plump specimens swaddled in a choice of flavors—a mint broth dotted with the tart, caviarlike pulp of finger limes, for example.
Reservations are required before 11 pm, but mercifully easy to make on the bar’s website. Harder, at least for first-timers, is locating the door. To enter between 7 and 11 pm means finding the secret passage through Tickets, the Adriàs’ boisterous tapas bar next door. But once you part the heavy velvet curtain, the appeal is apparent. With its industrial-chic decor softened by plush seating, and the alluringly intimate murmur that runs through its blue-tinged light, 41º, you realize, may well be the platonic ideal of a cocktail bar, simultaneously soigné and soothing, cutting-edge and ever-so-slightly old-fashioned. —Lisa Abend
41º, Barcelona, www.41grados.es
Shaken, Stirred, or Aged?
Bartender Shaun Layton is one of the reasons Vancouver is becoming as known for its cocktail scene as for its restaurants. Now Layton has a new perch—L’Abattoir, in the Gastown neighborhood, between Gaoler’s Mews and the old Blood Alley meat market—and he has fully let his creativity off the leash. His original concoctions include a Spot of Tea, an Anglophilic cocktail of gin, Pimm’s, marmalade, and tea syrup, served in an antique teacup, and a twist on the classic Hanky Panky that involves a mixture of gin, vermouth, and Fernet Branca aged for several weeks in a used whiskey barrel. Other creations include a simple banana daiquiri made adventurous with smoky Islay single-malt whisky, and the deep and ponderous Slaughterhouse, with Cognac and a misting of Chartreuse—cocktails bold enough to match the neighborhood’s bare-knuckle history. The bar itself is housed in a historic, exposed-brick space adorned with tipsily askew bar shelves and Mason jar lamps hung from meat hooks. Chef Lee Cooper is the ideal partner in crime, with a French-influenced menu that is the equal to Layton’s audacious cocktails. —Paul Clarke
L’Abattoir, Vancouver, 604.568.1701, labattoir.ca
A Chef’s Table for Cocktails
The Columbia Room is actually a bar within a bar, an intimate, reservation-only enclave within the Passenger, in Washington, D.C. Drawing inspiration from the compact bars in Japan that place a premium on impeccable drinks and service, owner Derek Brown created a bar experience that is more omakase-at-Masa than drinks-with-the-boys, with three servers for a maximum of 10 guests, and a three-drink tasting menu that encourages guests beyond their boozy comfort zones.
The cocktail flight starts with a communal-style punch—late spring featured a mixture of bitter Campari and tart rhubarb sorbet—followed by an original house drink made with seasonal ingredients (many from the rooftop garden) and paired with an amuse bouche. (Brown followed the Campari punch with a Montana Rusa—silver tequila with strawberry, white pepper, and basil—and a butter lettuce salad with strawberries, hazelnuts, goat cheese, and a balsamic tuile.) By the third round, Brown and his bartenders have learned enough about each guest to get personal, designing bespoke cocktails on the spot (or breaking out obscure oldies) as a bibulous finale to the evening’s experience. Serving an exclusive audience is nothing new for Brown—his recent gigs include mixing drinks at the White House for the first family’s holiday parties—and in the intimate confines of the Columbia Room, every guest joins the list of D.C. VIPs. —Paul Clarke
The Columbia Room, Washington, D.C., 202.393.0220, www.passengerdc.com
Waiter, There’s a Farm in My Glass
The idea sounds simple: Create a bar that gives equal emphasis to food and drink, and sources everything as locally as possible. But in the hands of four talented veterans of the San Francisco restaurant scene, the result—Bar Agricole—is what restaurant critic Michael Bauer declared a “blueprint for the future.”
Housed in a sleek concrete-and-glass building in the South of Market district, the repurposed timber bar is stocked with meticulously sourced ingredients—from spirits to vermouth, tonic water to intriguing housemade bitters, organic berries to biodynamic tomatoes. The herbs in some drinks are plucked from the courtyard out front, where they grow alongside the communal tables and French steel chairs. And the cocktails, by master barmen Thad Vogler and Eric Johnson, include the Presidente (a dreamy mix of Haitian rum, farmhouse curaçao, orange bitters, and a drop of grenadine) and the simply brilliant Tequila Cocktail (a tumbler of Herencia Blanco tequila, Dolin sweet vermouth, stone-fruit bitters, and a touch of orange).
The wines, selected by former Slanted Door wine director Mark Ellenbogen, exude terroir and character. The menu, by chef Brandon Jew, a San Francisco native who has worked at Zuni Café, Quince, and Camino, is wonderfully concise and strong on housemade charcuterie and dishes based on ingredients from local farms—fitting for a place whose name means “farm bar.” —Elizabeth Blake
Bar Agricole, San Francisco, 415.355.9400, www.baragricole.com
A Dash of Intrigue
Behind a battered, unmarked door fronted by a nondescript doorman—a seeming layabout clutching a comic book instead of the usual guest list—lurks London’s most stylish take on the vintage tavern. The Experimental Cocktail Club Chinatown, the second edition of the bar that took Paris’ hip Montorgueil district by storm, opened last year in the heart of Gerrard Street, Chinatown’s main pedestrian-only byway. As for that doorman, those with a reservation will be nodded right in. Those without: Prepare for a long wait.
The club is spread across three intimate stories, with pressed-tin ceilings, exposed brick walls, chinoiserie wallpaper, and bespoke seating areas, all conceived by interior decorator Dorothée Meilichzon. The retro trappings extend to the mixologists in sleeve garters, who concoct stellar libations such as the Opium Express (vodka infused with purple shiso leaf, goji liqueur, dragon fruit, and poppy seeds) and the even jazzier Jamaican Pogo (a rousing amalgamation of Appleton V/X Rum and green Chartreuse with homemade smoked-pineapple syrup, lime juice, and Jamaican Jerk Spicy bitters). There are a dozen other well-curated cocktails on the menu, often listed with the name of the mixologist who created it from establishments around the world. For the less adventurous, there are also heady bottles of Champagne and beer. But of course, adventure is what brought you here. —Farhad Heydari
Experimental Cocktail Club Chinatown, London, +44.207.434.3559, www.chinatownecc.com
Polishing the Cutting Edge
New York has more private clubs than some cities have bars, and most are members-only when it comes to drinking and socializing. The latest incarnation of the theater district’s Lambs Club—a last-century gathering place for actors—retains that exclusive aura but is open to anyone with a taste for cocktails concocted with rigorous precision.
The setting, upstairs from the lively Lambs Club restaurant in the Chatwal Hotel, feels glamorous and theatrical, with light fixtures in the shape of the Empire State Building strung over the bar and neon from the jazzy street flashing through floor-to-ceiling windows. But the drinks are the thing.
Sasha Petraske, the downtown drink visionary who almost single-handedly changed New York cocktail culture, designed the 12-choice drinks menu, polishing his rough-edged sensibility for an uptown audience. He preserves some classics (such as mojitos that are better than those you will find in Havana) and tweaks others (the bracing Lambs Cup is a variation on a Pimm’s, with gin, bianco vermouth, and St. Germain plus muddled cucumber and ginger). Bar snacks are well paired, particularly seared shisito peppers. And the spirits menu is smartly curated, with 20 single-malt scotches alone. —Regina Schrambling
The Lambs Club, New York City, 212.997.5262, www.thelambsclub.com