In Depth

Where Bartenders Drink: A remarkable cocktail renaissance

Drinks expert Adrienne Stillman's new book offers bartender recommendations of the best places to drink around the world

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I discovered cocktails late one night in the autumn of 2005. With a swoosh of a velvet curtain, I was ushered into Milk & Honey, one of the bars that sparked the cocktail revolution in New York City in the early 2000s. I was hooked at the first sip of my gold rush – a cocktail made with bourbon, lemon and honey. Over the past ten years, the cocktail scene has exploded around the globe. In some ways it's easy to see why: once you've tasted a great cocktail, you never go back.

There used to be only a handful of bars where you could get a proper Manhattan; now New York teems with them – and so do London and Paris, Tokyo and Singapore, Melbourne and Buenos Aires. Even more excitingly, great cocktail bars are no longer only a thing of metropolitan cities – they're cropping up in small towns and out-of-the-way places at a high rate. Slowly but surely, the old fashioned has gone back to being a boozy whisky drink instead of a fruit salad. Manhattans are stirred, not shaken. The Negroni has become a cocktail-menu staple. People are rediscovering all kinds of spirits and liqueurs, and inventing new ones. It's an exciting time to be a discerning drinker.

The cocktail is an American invention. The first "Golden Age of Cocktails" occurred in the United States from the late 1800s to 1920, and it was during these years that many of the classic drinks we know today, including the Manhattan and the martini, were invented.

On 16 January 1920, however, cocktails were dealt a heavy blow: Prohibition, which banned the sale of alcoholic drinks in the United States, went into effect. As a result, many bartenders and their patrons escaped to Europe – especially Paris and London – where they helped establish a cocktail culture.

Fast forward to the 1970s and the classics were all but forgotten, passed over in favour of drinks such as the Long Island Iced Tea, designed to serve as much alcohol as possible while masking the flavour. Drinking ceased to be about enjoying something delicious and became about getting drunk as quickly as possible.

But by the mid-1980s, new glimmers of hope emerged with Dale DeGroff in New York, Dick Bradsell in London and Charles Schumann in Munich. Swapping sour mix for fresh citrus, bringing vermouth out from the cobwebs and retiring those radioactive-red cherries, they planted the seeds for what has been called the second Golden Age of Cocktails that we are experiencing right now.

It must be said that without the chef movement that came before it there would be no cocktail movement. Our appreciation for, and access to, fine food has spilled into drinks: we are no longer content to drink a mediocre red wine with our Wagyu beef. We want more than a Jack and Coke. It is incredibly exciting to watch the cocktail world truly come into its own amid this highly creative environment.

My book is a collection of 700 bars, recommended by close to 225 of the world's top bartenders, who are part of this incredible cocktail renaissance of the past 20 years. But they are not all cocktail bars. Far from it. As one bartender told me when I started my interviews, "You know your book is going to be all dive bars, right? Because that's where bartenders drink."

Certainly, many of the world's top cocktail destinations are included in its pages, but so are many dive bars and unsung neighbourhood pubs. Because sometimes you want a perfectly executed old fashioned served over a perfectly clear cube of ice, and other times you want a shot or a cold beer – and maybe a hamburger. This diversity is the strength of the book: there is truly something for everyone and every mood.

Where Bartenders Drink by Adrienne Stillman (Phaidon, £16.95) is out now; phaidon.com

ADRIENNE STILLMAN is the co-founder of Dipsology, a curated digital guide and online community for cocktail enthusiasts. She also oversees strategy and marketing for wine, spirits and hospitality clients and is a certified sommelier

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