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In cocktail bars across the USA, bartenders are shaking and stirring up something new.

The Manhattans, sidecars and cosmopolitan martinis of yesteryear all still have their place, but bar menus have become more diverse over the past decade, with mixologists inventing original craft cocktails and putting their own twists on the classics.

A Culture of Creativity and Quality

David Nepove, president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild, says that an emphasis on creativity and quality ingredients such as fresh-squeezed juices and house-made syrups set craft cocktails apart from more standard mixed drinks.

“What makes a great craft bartender is someone who truly embraces the history of the cocktail,” he says. “To invent an original drink isn’t as important as understanding how the classics were made and then using that knowledge to inspire your creativity.”

True to their international roots, Americans drink cocktails made with vodka, rum, tequila, gin and other liquors with origins from all over the world. But the country’s quintessential spirit may be bourbon, a whiskey that’s predominantly produced in the southeastern state of Kentucky. Bourbon plays a prominent role in the Old Fashioned (bitters, sugar, water and bourbon or rye whiskey, served over ice). Nepove calls the drink a “benchmark” cocktail — one that can instantly show whether or not a bartender knows the craft.

“If a bartender is passionate about the craft of the cocktail, it will show in a drink as simple as an Old Fashioned,” Nepove says, adding that he’s instantly put off by “mistakes” such as muddling fruit in the drink or adding club soda. (In the traditional recipe, fruit is used only as a garnish.) “If you make a good Old Fashioned, you are showing your respect and passion for the classics.”

Bourbon is also often used to make the whiskey sour, another delicious classic. At a high-volume nightclub, this drink might be made hastily with a syrupy store-bought sour mix, but Nepove says craft bartenders will instead use fresh-squeezed lemon juice and real sugar. For a twist, some will then add egg whites, shake the mixture with ice and strain the drink into a coupe glass.

An Old-Fashioned

An Old-Fashioned
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Where and What to Drink in San Francisco

If you’re looking for a quality cocktail in San FranciscoCalifornia, Nepove recommends bars like ABVTrick Dog and Dirty Habit. At ABV, beards and flannel shirts are a de facto uniform for bartenders, and the cocktail menu features the scotch-based Whiskey in Church, the gin-based Tarragon Collins (a twist on the classic Tom Collins cocktail) and even craft nonalcoholic drinks like the Pineapple Basil.

Two cocktails on the ABV menu feature mescal. Though not as popular in the USA as tequila, this agave-based spirit from Mexico is quickly becoming trendy with U.S. craft bartenders. Nepove explains that mixologists like to “rediscover” liquors like mescal and sherry (a fortified wine) to inspire new recipes.

“When we rediscover a spirit and find that it can be used in a cocktail, it opens up whole new doors for creativity,” Nepove says. For example, the Quicksand cocktail at ABV features mescal, dry curaçao, quina and orange bitters.

Bars like Dirty Habit in San Francisco, California, serve up inventive craft cocktails made from fresh ingredients.

Bars like Dirty Habit in San Francisco, California, serve up inventive craft cocktails made from fresh ingredients.
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Where and What to Drink in New York City

In New York CityNew York, bars like Clover ClubThe Dead Rabbit and Employees Only anchor the craft cocktail scene. Employees Only, which was prominently featured in the 2013 documentary Hey Bartender, exudes a speakeasy vibe and is known for its stellar service. The cocktail menu includes the Billionaire Cocktail (bourbon, fresh lemon juice, grenadine and absinthe bitters) and the Maserati (gin, fresh basil, homemade chamomile cordial, apple liqueur and fresh lemon juice).

Where and What to Drink in Chicago

The Violet Hour, a swanky bar in ChicagoIllinois, mixes up drinks like the gin-based Juliet and Romeo, the rye whiskey-based Armageddon and the classic rum concoction Dark & Stormy. The Violet Hour received the 2015 James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program.

Nepove calls out The Aviary for its bartenders’ inventiveness. “They’re doing amazing, creative cocktails and using cutting-edge technology,” he says. To make a drink called the Bitter, for example, The Aviary’s bartenders trap smoke in a cocktail glass by applying a blowtorch to a coaster made from a bourbon barrel stave.

The Violet Hour in Chicago, Illinois, won a 2015 James Beard Award for its creative cocktails.

The Violet Hour in Chicago, Illinois, won a 2015 James Beard Award for its creative cocktails.
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Michael Robinson/The Violet Hour

Where and What to Drink Elsewhere in the U.S.

Elsewhere, bartenders are pouring craft cocktails at Drink in BostonMassachusettsAnvil Bar & Refuge in HoustonTexas; Fools & Horses in PortlandOregon; and Arnaud’s French 75 Bar in New OrleansLouisiana.

Nepove says imbibers can identify good craft bars in any city by paying attention to the ingredients the bar uses and how well bartenders treat their customers. “A great bartender is going to say, ‘What do you normally drink? What do you usually like? Are you in the mood for whiskey or rum?’ And then they can find a variation,” he said. “They include the guest in the decision-making process and make them feel welcome.”

“Every city in the country has a great cocktail bar,” Nepove added. “You just have to make sure you find it.”

A good bartender will help you choose the perfect cocktail.

A good bartender will help you choose the perfect cocktail.
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