The New Millennium Cocktail Bar Revolution, Shaken Not Stirred

In 1998, if you like a well-made gin martini and lived in a major city, there was probably a bar that could take care of you, as long as you liked that martini very, very dry and didn’t mind if it was sometimes shaken and not stirred as God and our ancestors intended. If, however, you had a hankering for any of the classic old-movie drinks that Americans used to consume with such apparent pleasure—that rye Manhattan, an old-fashioned, a sidecar, a Jack Rose—that was a different matter. I started writing a cocktail column for Esquire’s website a year later in 1999, and I used to joke to friends that I was doing it so that one day I could go into any bar in America and have a decent rye Manhattan. Then we’d all laugh. (Hell, there was basically only one brand of rye left, and good luck finding it.)

But even as we were laughing, everything was changing. You could see the change at the bar at New York’s Rainbow Room, which reopened in 1987, presided over by Dale DeGroff, a genial perfectionist who demonstrated the rewards in recovering those forgotten formulas. By the early 1990s, a small clutch of bars, such as Grange Hall in New York and Enrico’s in San Francisco, had adapted the Rainbow Room’s focus on carefully executed classics. The first time I visited New York’s Milk & Honey, a year after it opened at the end of 1999, I saw something entirely new coming from its owner, a young Army veteran named Sasha Petraske: a sense of mission. M & H, as it was known, wasn’t just a bar that made good drinks. It was dedicated to them, built around them. Even more, it wove them into a subculture.

As the new millennium revealed itself as a profoundly unsettling time on many fronts, that subculture—centered on the cocktail bar as a haven of professionalism and civility—became more and more attractive. Here was a tangible argument that things could get better, that what was broken could not only be fixed but also carried to new heights. You could invent new drinks just as delicious as the venerable old ones, open new bars just as elegant and revivifying—and people did.

Word began to spread, newly accelerated by the internet. Geeky cocktail blogs were launched, those new bars opened, and newly serious how-to books appeared, by names like DeGroff and Gary Regan and Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh. High-volume bars, such as Absinthe in San Francisco and Employees Only and Julie Reiner’s Flatiron Lounge in New York, proved that you could pull in more than just the geeks if you knew what you were doing, that if you gave people a true cocktail, properly made, they had a hard time going back to apple martinis and raspberry margaritas. 

By 2005, that subculture was a movement. Bars such as B-Side Lounge in Boston, Zig Zag in Seattle, and Audrey Saunders’ Pegu Club in New York were not only serving excellent drinks but also training bartenders who went on to spread the gospel nationwide. By 2008, there were “craft cocktail” bars in almost every major city in the country, and now there are hundreds. And every one of them will make you a decent, entirely legitimate Manhattan, with rye.

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