Drinking in 2020 was, well, different. It began with two months resembling normal there at the start, and then, in March, the world turned upside down. Bars closed. When they reopened—at least in New York—it was only for takeout. Suddenly, the city acquired the atmosphere of New Orleans as the streets filled with a drink-wielding public. Next came another first: outdoor seating all around. Almost every city block mimicked a beer garden. And in the heat of summer, bars that had never dabbled in frozen drinks began to give them a spin. In turn, when the air turned chilly, bars rolled out inventive hot cocktails to warm the hordes of outdoor drinkers. I experienced every phase from my bunker in Brooklyn.
Typically, this year-end list encompasses the entire nation. But since travel became all but verboten, the tally this year is necessarily New York-centric. There was still plenty of quality to be found, and given the every-day-a-new-adventure terrain, a great deal of ingenuity.
Is the best Crusta in the United States in Louisville, far from the drink’s 19th-century birthplace in New Orleans? As far as I’m concerned, it is. When Joseph J. Magliocco of Michter’s whiskey opened the Bar at Fort Nelson above the Michter’s distillery in downtown Louisville, he enlisted cocktail historian David Wondrich to create the inaugural drinks list. Wondrich’s vision of a house Crusta was built on 10-year-old Michter’s Bourbon (“because I could,” said Wondrich). To this he added a barspoon of rich simple syrup, a barspoon of honey (which lines the inside rim of the glass), a touch of lemon juice, a few dashes of Bitter Truth Creole Bitters and a quarter-ounce of yellow Chartreuse. (Wondrich’s original spec featured Strega.) Drawn from the lip of a sugar-encrusted glass that held a long spiral of lemon peel, the mixture was simply the most decadent, succulent Crusta I’d ever had. Many rich cocktails are called nectar. This one makes actual nectar look anemic.
Charles Cerankosky, the owner of several bars in Rochester, including Good Luck, was inspired to put a thrown Martini on his cocktail menu after a visit to Barcelona, where the practice—in which the bartender theatrically tosses the ingredients from one tin to another until chilled—is common. The choice, he reasoned, would effectively nullify the tedious debate of shaken versus stirred. A 2-to-1 rendition using Hayman’s London Dry gin and Dolin dry vermouth plus Regans’ Orange Bitters, the Good Luck Martini is a light affair made even lighter by the added aeration.
Anyone who knows The Long Island Bar knows it’s owned by the guy who invented the Cosmopolitan way back in 1988. And that, if you ask nicely, you can get Toby Cecchini to make you one—even though the drink is not on the menu. For years, Cecchini’s recipe has remained the same, unswayed by the vicissitudes of fashion. But when Cecchini saw that his only available business option this summer was to serve his guests outdoors, he invested in a slushy machine and created a frozen version of his most famous drink. “The whole point was just to have something, when it was cursedly hot out there, that just sopped up the heat and made fun of our insane situation,” said Cecchini. It quickly became known as the Frozmopolitan. Served in a paper cup, it looked like a strawberry shake and tasted like a muted, soothing version of the beloved Cosmo. And we all needed some soothing this year.
It was impossible for me to not order the Gin & Tonic tasting menu at The Grey, chef Mashama Bailey’s acclaimed restaurant in Savannah. Coupes of three different gins (Beefeater, The Botanist, St. Augustine New World Gin) arrived, accompanied by a bottle of Fever-Tree Indian Tonic Water, a glass of ice and a few wedges of lime—what was not to like? But apparently, being the resourceful lush I am, I attacked the order in an unorthodox manner. Instead of selecting the gin I liked best and making a G&T with that, I made a trio of mini Gin & Tonics, dividing the ice, tonic and limes among the three. It seemed elementary to me that three drinks would be better than one. The staff told me later that no one had ever done that before, but I bet they wish they had.
With the cocktail revival going on more than 20 years now, the chances of uncovering and resurrecting lost cocktails that are actually good are slim to none. But chef Tyler Akin managed to pull off that trick when he opened Le Cavalier at the Green Room, a new restaurant in a historic space inside Wilmington’s landmark Hotel du Pont. He brought back the Hotel du Pont Cocktail, a drink that goes back to at least the 1950s, but had been long forgotten. Composed of equal parts Cognac and fino sherry (Akin uses Guillon Painturaud Cognac and Alvear fino sherry), it is an austere cross between a Bamboo and a Metropolitan, and well in keeping with the elegant surroundings of the Green Room.
Once quarantine descended on New York, I didn’t go much of anywhere except to check in on my elderly parents-in-law in Barnegat Light, a maritime community on the northern tip of Long Beach Island, a moneyed barrier island on the New Jersey coast. I entertained myself in that sleepy community by harvesting wild beach plums off the nearby dunes. These I combined with water and sugar to create a syrup. I made several beach-to-glass cocktails with the beach plum syrup, but the best was a Whiskey Sour variation: 2 ounces bourbon, ¾ ounce lemon juice, ¾ ounce beach plum syrup. Sometimes making do does just fine.
The Oaxacan Wasp showed up at Leyenda, the Brooklyn bar dedicated to the spirits of Latin America, in the fall. Bartender Jesse Harris was inspired by an old Milk & Honey drink called the Midnight Stinger, a classic fix with a split base of bourbon and Fernet-Branca. For the Wasp, Harris went with equal parts mint-infused El Tesoro blanco tequila and Fernet-Vallet Mexican Fernet, shaken up with cane syrup and a muddled half lemon. The result, topped with a spritz of mezcal, is sweet, bitter, bright and aromatic—a drink both simple and heady. Harris says the drink “showcases how modern techniques can improve drinks while still valuing simplicity.” I couldn’t agree more.
I made one of my few ventures into Manhattan this year to experience the tableside Blue Blazer at Dante West Village, one creative response by the new Dante extension to the coming cold weather. But it was the bar’s scrumptious take on the simple Hot Toddy that unexpectedly won me over. Called the Hot Smoked Toddy and created by Chris Moore, formerly of Coupette in London, it is composed of Monkey Shoulder blended Scotch that’s been fat-washed with cacao butter, Lagavulin 8-year-old single malt Scotch, manzanilla sherry, Tempus Fugit Crème de Cacao, a cordial made of ginger, lemon and marmalade, and lapsang souchong tea. So many layers of so much liquid luxury, it is a toddy you can tuck yourself into and happily slumber away.
Donna was one of several excellent cocktail bars that New Yorkers lost to COVID-19 this year. Over the years, I’ve had many excellent drinks there, not least of all the justly celebrated Brancolada. But Donna had one more surprise in store for my final visit before the bar closed on November 28: a frozen eggnog by head bartender Fanny Chu. I had no expectations when ordering it—how interesting can eggnog get? Very, it turns out. Chu’s contains bourbon, Cognac, cachaça and orange liqueur; milk, cream and half-and-half; and cinnamon syrup. Lush and lovely, it put every other eggnog I’ve had to shame. Heaven’s door, indeed.
Every bar in the country—those in states that took COVID precautions seriously, anyway—has had it tough since March. It’s been a day-to-day battle to survive, one assisted by city, state and federal forces either barely or not at all. The silver lining, if there is one, is that the crisis has led to a blazing burst of mother-of-invention creativity. How can we make our cocktails travel-ready? How do we package them? What cocktails travel best? New York’s bars responded to these challenges with aplomb. In a gesture of support, I ordered to-go or delivery drinks from as many city cocktail bars as I could afford. To the last, each was as good as any cocktail I had had inside the bars in better times—and perhaps better. Because in each plastic container, glass bottle, coffee cup or Solo cup was not just a drink, but endless effort and heart.