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Inventive Cocktails in (lower) Manahattan

I will be with four other adventurous eaters who will be spending a food-and-drink-centric four-day weekend in lower Manhattan.

And, because I am the serious cocktail enthusiast in the group, people are relying on me to recommend the cocktail places to visit.

My interests are in inventive, classic cocktails with infusions, bitters, and fresh ingredients. Generally I eschew vodka, and anything fluorescent colored or sweet.
I've been following the scene for a while, and have my own preconceptions and ideas, but I would appreciate anyone's advice and information.

First, some background: Five foodies, on a budget, who will be (mostly) casually dressed, and traveling Manhattan in search of fine dining, cheap ethnic street food, restaurant supply stores, grocers, farmer's markets, bakeries, salumerias, craft beers, and well made cocktails. Mostly from downtown, through Chinatown, SoHo, the villages, NoHo, up until Midtown. I mention this, so that you may get a mental image of the five of us walking, riding subways, windswept, and probably with bags of bread, charcuterie, and wine in hand. What I am trying to say is - we should probably not visit Bemelman's Bar at the Carlye, this time round, since we will not be in our suits and finery.
Fully prepared to pay the approximate $15 for a good hand-made drink, and more likely to have just one drink per person and then move on to the next place.

Already definitely on the list:
Painkiller: thenew tiki bar on Essex St, I've already read some great things about their new place.
Mayahuel: I've read only good things about the Mezcal-focused cocktails, and the menu of small tapas-style plates will be perfect for our group.
Spotted Pig: for pints of cask-conditioned ale.

Now, to add a few more options, here are the additional places I was contemplating...

PDT: Originally, I intended to take everyone here, because of the speak-easy schtick with the hidden entrance, but I've read some recent mixed online reviews. Has PDT jumped the shark and been on auto-pilot for a while? Or have customers just tired of the speak-easy, and just getting snarky now?
Raines Law Room: It's the romantic, old-fashioned part of me that is attracted to the speak-easy entrance and Victorian ambiance inside. But is it style over substance?
Little Branch: Another speak-easy that has long been on my list, but now I am having second thoughts. More snarky customer comments apperaring on NYTimes, yelp!, and urbanspoon.
Death & Company: Also on my long-time to-do list. Still as inventive as ever?
Apotheke: I've stopped in once before, prior to opening hours, and was impressed. Because we spend a good deal of time in Chinatown, this place will probably fit in.
Clover Club: Slick website. Lots of drinks on the menu. Has anyone been here?
Pegu Club: World famous. Must visit?
Flatiron Lounge: This place was on my list, but now, for the life of me, I can't remember why.
Double Crown/Madam Geneva: I'm intrigued by this place that is all gin-based.
Elizabeth: I've been reading a lot about Somer Perez, and her cocktail consulting. Elizabeth looks more like a nice restaurant, but is it a cocktail destination?
Rye House: Looks like they opened in November of last year. Anyone know anything about them?

Anyone have any thoughts on these places? Any new places that deserve our support? Any bartenders that are doing creative things in obscure places?

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Spotted Pig
314 W 11th St, New York, NY 10014

Little Branch
22 Seventh Ave South, New York, NY 10014

Flatiron Lounge
37 W 19th St, New York, NY 10011

Pegu Club
77 W Houston St, New York, NY 10012

Bemelmans Bar
35 E 76th St, New York, NY 10021

Apotheke
9 Doyers St, New York, NY 10013

Raines Law Room
48 W 17th St, New York, NY 10011

Mayahuel
304 E 6th St, New York, NY 10003

Rye House
11 W 17th St, New York, NY 10011

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  1. The list you have pretty much reads a the bible for creative cocktails in NYC. Enjoy.

    1. I'm not sure what you mean by creative AND classic. There is are a bunch of bars that DO do infused liquors, and some that don't. The Milk & Honey / Dutch Kills / Little Branch family are more about classic cocktails with 4-5 ingredients made VERY well and less so about infusing liquors; the basis of their cocktail lists really is classic drinks with some modern modifications/variations but most of their cocktails have a very clear lineage that traces back to something from an earlier era. Whereas PDT, Mayahuel, Death & Co. do infuse liquors and use more nouveau ingredients and have more complicated cocktails (sometimes with a LOT more components).

      Painkiller: doesn't have that many areas to seat 5. I think there are two booths meant for 4 (guess you could conceivably fit 5 if you squish, and then this larger open booth with two smaller tables, we had half of the booth and only comfortably fit 4 people. Also the drinks are QUITE strong and they don't have any food yet (supposed to have free hot dogs at some point in the near future). However, some of the cocktails are only $12 (a few are $16), which is surprising for how good they are. I've tried a bunch of different ones and been pleased very much so far (mai tai, painkiller, cradle of life, zombie, banana daiquiri, strawberry daiquiri, and a few others I can't recall). They do allow standing but only at the bar, and the bar is VERY narrow. It's also very cold in the seated area due to their brand new, arctic blast-ing air conditioner.

      Mayahuel: I would say they are focused on both tequila and mezcal, not just mezcal. It's a fairly large facility as far as craft cocktails go in NYC, which is nice, and it should be much easier to get 5 people in the door. The food is pretty good, not the absolute best, but it hits the spot (I think the D&C food and Pegu food is a little bit better). The drinks are really great and interesting. They do some with tea and tea infused tequila, jalapeno infused tequila, celery bitters, mole bitters, etc. I love the Loop Tonic, Slight Detour, Watermelon Sugar, Pilot Punch, La Vida Rosa. No standing.

      Spotted Pig: haven't really explored the cocktail list here.

      PDT: A party of five can realistically only fit into one of the larger booths, of which there are only two. It is very small, VERY VERY popular, and the drinks list is not quite as extensive as, say, Death & Co or Pegu Club. I think a lot of online reviews can focus too much on the difficulties of getting in and the faux speakeasy schtick and high price of cocktails/price of food compared to food cost. I still like it a lot but I think logistically, it's a pain to get in, so I don't go as often as I used to. Their bacon fat infused bourbon old fashioned is one of the most innovative drinks in the city and one of the early forebears of the fat washing movement. No standing.

      Little Branch: their philosophy is fine dining standards applied to classic cocktails in a place where you can relax without being unnecessarily hit on if you don't want to (hence I don't put a lot of stock in the Yelp reviews with complains that run counter to the concept). They usually don't bring the check until you ask. BUT they do allow standing in the bar area (as opposed to the tables/booths they have towards the back) and there's a line to get in due to, well, the fire code/occupancy laws (if a bar violates the fire code it can have its liquor license taken away). Live jazz, but only Sunday through Thursday. I like it a lot -- but the menu is rather short. This place works best if you are a repeat customer doing "bartender's choice" and the bartender can learn your tastes over time. But if you do go, go early (they open at 7pm) and ask for a pisco sour with Peruvian bitters if you go.

      Death & Company: Personally, though, I enjoy Death & Co and Mayahuel the most because I love how varied the lists are (check out their new rum punch spot too, Cienfuegos). D&C also just launched a new menu last weekend. Their menu is huge and divided into base spirit and whether you want a stirred or shaken drink; they'll also do bartender's choice in request. I love the innovation here with the infusions, house made syrups, etc. and they brought back punch service into fashion. I think if you really want something more cutting edge, here and PDT are you places to go (RIP Tailor). But you might have trouble getting your party of 5 in the door (I think they have maybe 3 booths? 4 booths? that would work for your group). I only go to D&C on off nights before 8pm. If you like bourbon based cocktails, try a Little Engine or a Castle to Castle. They also have a red pepper puree and jalapeno tequila one called Southern Exposure. Although who knows if any of these are on the menu any more! No standing allowed.

      Pegu Club is a must visit just for historical reasons. Audrey Saunders is one of the reasons WHY we have a plethora of cocktail lounges to choose from these days. A lot of places who make their own ginger beer are really just using her recipe. The Gin Gin Mule is a modern classic. If you like gin or ginger, this is the place to go as their gin and/or ginger beer based drinks are outstanding, but Pegu doesn't go as wild and crazy with the infusions as, say D&C or PDT. They also allow standing, so you could conceivably go later on in the night and still get in; but if the bartender is slammed, the quality tends to dip a little bit and it's a bit too loud to talk. I like going on the early side and quietly sipping a Gin Gin Mule, Jamaican Firefly, or an Old Cuban.

      Clover Club and Flatiron Lounge are both sister bars, if you do one, don't do the other. I like Flatiron but it allows standing and can get really loud quickly when it fills up. But if you're a party of five, it might be one of the few places you can get in, later on in the night. Just don't expect to sit down. They also have a lower level they sometimes open up, too, with a secondary bar. Try a Clover Leaf if you get a chance. NB: Clover Club is in Brooklyn.

      Rye House: I've only been once but the drinks were quite good, as was the food. The service style here is a little different in that they allow standing and it's a much more casual place with a big communal table. They have a chorizo infused drink, which you might find interesting.

      See also:
      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/609073

      Geographically, I'd group Pegu Club, Little Branch, etc. into one crawl. Consider adding on Employees Only. And I'd put PDT (make reservations), Mayahuel, and D&C into another crawl. Consider adding on Cienfuegos, Summit Bar, Louis 649, and/or the bar at Yerba Buena (restaurant) or Black Market to your crawl. And Flatiron Lounge, Raines Law Room, and Rye House are also relatively close together as well.

      Also if you're coming on a four day weekend with a party of 5, you're going to find it harder and harder to get into places as the night goes on. A lot of these places, particularly PDT and D&C are in high demand and quite small. A hostess or doorman can certainly take down your name/number, but they have no idea how long people are going to stay: could be for one round, could be for five. It's not like a restaurant, where you can check and if someone's having dessert, you think you'll be able to turn the table in 20 minutes, you know?

      For Friday night and Saturday night, it might be better to get somewhere early and stay there, because if you leave, you risk not being able to get int anywhere (unless you've a reservation at PDT or Milk & Honey). And perhaps do more of a cocktail crawl on Sunday night (and Monday night if you're only leaving on Tuesday morning). Also note that Rye House and Clover Club do brunch. Rye House also serves weekday lunch.

      -----
      Spotted Pig
      314 W 11th St, New York, NY 10014

      Little Branch
      22 Seventh Ave South, New York, NY 10014

      Employees Only
      510 Hudson St, New York, NY 10014

      Flatiron Lounge
      37 W 19th St, New York, NY 10011

      Pegu Club
      77 W Houston St, New York, NY 10012

      Yerba Buena
      23 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009

      Mayahuel
      304 E 6th St, New York, NY 10003

      Louis 649
      649 E 9th St, New York, NY 10009

      Rye House
      11 W 17th St, New York, NY 10011

      Cienfuegos
      95 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009

      Black Market
      110 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009

      7 Replies
      1. re: kathryn

        Wow, Kathyrn, thank you for your very detailed response!

        Yes, I mistakenly put 'classic' AND 'inventive' together in the same post.

        My intention was to hint at my preference for old-school 'cocktails', rather than Pink Cosmopolitans and Double-chip-choco-tini's, and whatnot. But you understood what I meant.

        I am going to take your suggestions and add PDT, D+C, and PeguClub, to our list, in addition to our original choices of Painkiller, Mayahuel, (and Spotted Pig and Blind Tiger for ale.) Seven Bars in Four Days. Hmmm.

        Your suggestions on specifics to order, and when to arrive were also appreciated.

        Thanks for mentioning Louis 649, Tailor, Yerba Buena, Cienfuegos; I have not heard of these places before. My 'to-do' list is getting larger!

        -----
        Blind Tiger
        281 Bleecker St, New York, NY 10014

        Yerba Buena
        23 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009

        Louis 649
        649 E 9th St, New York, NY 10009

        Cienfuegos
        95 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009

        1. re: jerryc123

          Tailor is closed, unfortunately. That USED to be the most creative place in town with fat infused liquor, nut infused liquor, a "bubblegum" flavored old fashioned, and "solid" cocktails (done using molecular gastronomy techniques)! Their head mixologist was Eben Freeman, who I believe is now doing consulting work.

          Louis 649 is really interesting is that it's a very old bar that's been operating for a while (was built out entirely by hand by a carpenter and there's a lot of gorgeous woodwork inside), and slowly, they started getting into craft cocktails. I think they only started out doing it one day a week. They also have a weekly open "class" on Tuesdays where different brands, etc. present. It's very casual.

          Yerba Buena's cocktail list is also really great. It was done was someone who worked his way up as a barback at Pegu Club. Also, surprisingly, the drinks are a little bigger than a lot of other places (5oz. vs 4 oz.). I love the rose-infused gin they have there, as well as the Poquito Picante, which uses cilantro, jalapeno, and cucumber.

          Re: Cienfuegos, make sure you enter through the Cuban sandwich shop. Go towards the back and up the stairs (it's still a work in progress). Last night (a Thursday), it opened at 6pm and filled up before 9pm. It's a very pretty room, and can accommodate large groups -- I was eyeing a gorgeous wooden table with candlesticks that could seat 5-6 -- but gets cramped when it's full.

          Oh, and so far I've tried the Punch and Judy (very good), Vinales (excellent and coconut-y), Rosa Verde (probably my favorite so far -- it has a nice grassy element thanks to the arugula infused simple syrup), the Tuesday punch (also good), Isla (good), and La Estrella (the coconut ice cream component sounded good but it wasn't really my thing). Also liked the cuban sandwich, less so the sloppy joe sliders and crab croquettes.

          Be also aware that the $32 punch bowl size holds actually enough punch for 3-4 people! The menu has evolved from what's online, so some of the punches are no longer available as a single serving (I thought this might happen given the labor involved), only as bigger sizes.

          -----
          Pegu Club
          77 W Houston St, New York, NY 10012

          Yerba Buena
          23 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009

          Picante
          3424 Broadway, New York, NY 10031

          Louis 649
          649 E 9th St, New York, NY 10009

          Cienfuegos
          95 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009

        2. re: kathryn

          Just to add, Pegu and Flatiron are related as well. Pegu is the one where I felt the drink was balanced enough that they truly pulled off the "mixology" approach.

          Second to that, Death & Co. but the room is really uncomfortable.

            1. re: thew

              The bar is a little cramped, and the banquette can also be a little cramped, but if you get one of the booths, it's quite comfy. I'm fine sitting at the bar (I prefer it to the banquette) but the hooks for your bag don't really align with where your stool is sometimes. To me, it's worth it for the drinks, especially on a quieter night (Sun-Wed). I can get a little irritated at the crowd on weekends. :)

              1. re: kathryn

                guess i've lucked out and always had a booth.

              2. re: thew

                the tables are too close together. it offers no privacy. getting in and out means sliding the tables and trying not to wack $30 worth of drinks on the table next to you, in any one direction. if you or someone next to you orders sliders, they're practically eating in your lap.

                that's just not conducive to a speakeasy style relaxed cocktail atmosphere. maybe the corner tables are less compressed.

          1. Usually, reviews on Yelp and Urbanspoon are useless for cocktail bars. The vast majority of those reviewers are not cocktailians in the slightest, probably have no patience for housemade infusions and bitters, and are happy ordering vodka and sodas. Read those reviews carefully to figure out which people know what they're talking about.

            Death & Company and PDT are must visits. They are the best cocktail bars in the city, along with the sort-of-semi-private Milk & Honey. Show up right at opening time to get seats (PDT takes reservations for tables the day of at 3PM, but they're gone within 10-15 minutes), especially on the weekend. I'd put Clover Club, Little Branch, and Pegu Club in the second tier. See above for kathryn's thorough descriptions.

            Mayahuel is a must if you're a tequila and mescal fan. I wouldn't go to the Spotted Pig just for cask-conditioned ale, since there's a plethora of beer-specialty bars that have a much better and deeper selection to choose from. In Manhattan, consider Blind Tiger Ale House. But by all means, pay the Spotted Pig a visit if you want to try their food, though you should do your best to avoid peak times.

            -----
            Spotted Pig
            314 W 11th St, New York, NY 10014

            Blind Tiger
            281 Bleecker St, New York, NY 10014

            Little Branch
            22 Seventh Ave South, New York, NY 10014

            Pegu Club
            77 W Houston St, New York, NY 10012

            Mayahuel
            304 E 6th St, New York, NY 10003

            1 Reply
            1. re: hcbk0702

              hcbk0702;

              Thank you so much for your input. Yes, I do not pay too much attention to the "reviews" on yelp and urban spoon, and prefer the in depth summaries and discussions that go on here at chowhound.
              Thanks for recommending Blind Tiger for cask-conditioned ales. That is on our list of course, I had just forgotten.
              Cheers.

            2. perhaps my opinion has no value, as i yelp a lot, and have yelped several of the places you have mentioned - but perhaps my actual experience will count for more than any baseless bias against yelp.

              here is my yelp list of cocktail reviews:
              http://www.yelp.com/list/mixology-nyc...

              PDT is excellent, but for a party of 5 you need to call at 3pm exactly and make a reservation, especially of it a weekend night. you could try to be there when they open at 6pm before they fill up and tke a chance, but be aware, you are taking a chance.

              Little branch is a place i really love - there is a drink called a gershwin there that won the bartender who invented it a bartending award, that is delicious. gin/ginger/rosewater and i dunno what else. they mix old school classic cocktails perfectly.

              apotheke didn't really appeal to me. the drinks i had were OK, the crowd was not to my taste, and the whole thing felt a bit overly kitsch to me

              pegu club. perfect cocktail place. in my review i wrote "This place is exactly what the mind imagines when thinking about a new york city cocktail bar. "

              Death & co - great place, great cocktails, good nibbles. can be hard to get into if you don;t go early, but worth it. truly skilled.

              B Flat - japanese jazz themed place. was only there was but really enjoyed it.

              angel's share - lovely and romantic. wait - they won't allow parties of more than 45 i believe. never mind

              public is a good restaurant that makes damned good cocktails too.

              -----
              B Flat
              277 Church St, New York, NY 10013

              9 Replies
              1. re: thew

                i second B Flat. good vibe. causal. close to chinatown. interesting, not really high quality drinks though. juice from the box, etc. but interesting.

                PDT to me is as good as ever. i guess in general, cocktail is partly about novelty. the place is no longer as secret and special, so people start to complain. the phone booth trick doesn't impress anymore. blah blah. but they still have a number of drinks that really work for me. benton's old fashioned. paddington. black flip. (on autopiloting: i never see jim meeghan the man there these days, but david who works there on weekend is very good)

                i would skip pegu club, actually. to me it truly has got boring. place rather stuffy.

                if you can stand feeling bit underdressed or whatever, i'd go to brandy library instead of pegu. there they do the classics really well. excellent steak tartare too.

                between death and co and little branch, i'll do the latter, if you can't get into milk & honey. the ice alone is worth the trip. just as nobody thought that rice can be (is) more important than the fish in sushi, who would have thought the ice can make such a difference?

                -----
                B Flat
                277 Church St, New York, NY 10013

                1. re: another_lau

                  i would agree pegu is stuffier than the others, but it isn't uncomfortably so to me, and i am no fan of stuffy. I think it works there, part of the charm of the place is its oldschooliosity.

                  i was thinking about checking out ward III tomorrow night. anyone been? any thoughts?

                  1. re: thew

                    I've only been once but liked it. Pretty room, rather spacious for a cocktail lounge, and much more relaxed since they allow standing. I also like their approach to bartender's choice, by presenting you with a list of adjectives.

                  2. re: another_lau

                    I don't know if I'd characterize Pegu Club as stuffy, but the decor has an Asian slant, which makes it less hip than PDT's taxidermy or D&C's dark speakeasy look with velvet curtains or Cienfuegos' white and blue Cuban bedroom. If anything it's more touristy than the others because it opens earlier, is in every guide book, and is located in Soho.

                    -----
                    Pegu Club
                    77 W Houston St, New York, NY 10012

                    Cienfuegos
                    95 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009

                    1. re: kathryn

                      asian can be hip! ok jk. i don't really care. maybe i was biased by a single experience, when i was surrounded by bunch of suits and ties on a friday night. the drinks there were good of coz, but somehow it lacked the kind excitement factor for me. maybe the place is also bigger, thus it feels less cozy than the other bars.

                  3. re: thew

                    Correct -- the Angel's Share doesn't allow parties of greater than four. Oh, well! It is a rather nice room and if you're lucky you get a window seat looking down on the sidewalk. But the drinks at Angel's Share have not really impressed me.

                    I don't really think Brandy Library is the place to go for classic cocktails. Yes, they have a rather extensive list, but the level of craft isn't as high there as it is elsewhere. And I think sometimes they freepour, which is one of my pet peeves. If you're there, go for their food (GREAT gougeres) and spirits list. You can get flights and pick their brains on what brands you might like more than others (especially if you get Ethan, who is really welcoming and great and knowledgeable). Brandy Library also closes its doors when it gets too full, BTW.

                    -----
                    Angel's Share
                    8 Stuyvesant St, New York, NY 10003

                    Brandy Library
                    25 N Moore St, New York, NY 10013

                    1. re: kathryn

                      yeah kathryn you're right, BL bartenders always freepoured my drinks. of course they count, but it can't be as precise as jiggers i suppose. somehow i'm partial to their old-fashioned and manhattan though; maybe it's the brandied cherries.... the flights are excellent. great rye selection too.

                      1. re: another_lau

                        Do they make their own brandied cherries? Or use Luxardo Maraschino cherries? I know that PDT and D&C (and probably the other high end cocktail bars) use the Luxardo ones (small and red).

                        1. re: kathryn

                          yeah they make their own. positive. delicious stuff. i think they cure their own foie gras w/ cognac too, though this one i'm less sure

                  4. At the risk of permanent excommunication from the Manhattan board, I will add another possibility to your list...

                    We recently did a week in NYC and managed to hit Death & Co, Raines Law Room, PDT, and Hotel Delmano (in Williamsburg). I would rank PDT and HD as equals for best drinks, with D & Co. and RLR a notch below.

                    1. Gee, I was just in Bemelman's Bar last Wednesday at about 3PM. My wife and I, in our usual birdwatching finery, waltzed in fresh from a walk in the Ramble. Tommy was perfectly happy to mix up a couple of French 75s without a hint of condescension over our scruffy attire. Perhaps things are a bit different later in the day, when the evening shift comes on.

                      -----
                      Bemelmans Bar
                      35 E 76th St, New York, NY 10021

                      1. I'll add my two cents...

                        PDT is worth the reservation, if only to get the Benton's OF once. It's a brilliant little creation. Also, the "haute dogs" on the menu make the hassle worth it - there'a couple of really good ones.

                        D&C & Mayaheul, both great choices. I kind of like the vibe at Mayaheul more, but the drinks will be great either way.

                        Apotheke I liked at first but I grew less enchanted with - I find the drinks lean towards the sweet, which maybe is what their audience is looking for. I like them better on weeknights, as the weekender crowds can be a little "sceney" - also, you can get one-on-one with the bartenders if it's less crowded, and one thing they're very good at is coming up with drinks on the fly to your taste. One time my girlfriend asked them to "approximate borscht" and, while there were no beets handy, they whipped up something involving a red bell pepper infused tequila(? I think) and house made dill bitters that was VERY impressive, savory, and just barely sweet.

                        One place I'd consider adding to your list would be the bar at WD-50 - Tona, the bar chef / mixologist / whatever they're called these days is whipping some really amazing things. And even if you're not planning to dine there you can order a few things off the menu just to get a little bit of the Wylie Dufresne experience as well - something every foodie visiting NYC should do at point, anyway.

                        -----
                        WD-50
                        50 Clinton Street, New York, NY 10002

                        Apotheke
                        9 Doyers St, New York, NY 10013