Over the past decade or so, thanks to the craft cocktail movement and the advent of social media, the rise of the “star bartender” has created a paradigm shift in the profession. No longer the stereotypical out-of-work actor or surly lifer, bartending has become a respectable career option staffed by deeply knowledgeable professionals. These men and women take their jobs seriously and spend much of their time off supporting each other’s bars.
Just as it’s worth finding out who styled your stylist’s hair, knowing where the best bartenders in town head when off shift is like having an inside track to some of the best gin joints in the city. The fact is much of the time bartenders—especially those slinging complex $15 drinks—prefer to wind down with a quick beer, whiskey neat or a shot of Fernet-Branca before grabbing a few hours’ precious sleep. When they do venture out, their hangs tend to be either comfortable corner joints near home or venues as good as the ones they service. It’s as much about enjoying a well-made drink as meeting up with old friends both behind and in front of the bar.
“Is it wrong if I say Attaboy?” asks Otis Florence flashing his signature smile. Florence honed his craft at the East Village’s elegant Pouring Ribbons, until last year when he hitched his wagon to Attaboy (134 Eldridge St., no phone). The space previously housed Milk & Honey, New York’s original neo-speakeasy, and bartender Sam Ross took over to open Attaboy in 2013. The overall feel is lighter: less “wood-paneling-tin-ceiling speakeasy” and more “Kubrick Contemporary,” says Florence. One wall sweeps seamlessly toward the ceiling before intersecting a beige brick wall behind the bar, which dominates the narrow front room with 10 seats now instead of four.
“The drinks are always on point and everything is always delivered flawlessly,” Florence insists. He cites two classics: the Dark & Stormy (Gosling’s Black Seal rum, soda, lime juice and house-made ginger syrup) and the Negroni (gin, sweet vermouth and Campari). “Even though I work there, you can find me there as many nights a week as I can fit in.” If you’re a scotch fan, order a smoky Penicillin (blended scotch, honey syrup, lemon juice, ginger and an Islay Scotch whisky rinse).
Not every mixologist hews so close to work. Very often, a bartender who’s pulled double shifts, tallied all the receipts, tested new recipes, and cleaned and prepped everything for the next day needs a decent late-night bite and a quick drink close to home.
“I like The Penrose (1590 Second Ave., 212.203.2751),” says Houston transplant Adrienne Byard, who slings drinks at Corkbuzz Wine Studio (13 E. 13th St., 646.873.6071) and, come spring, the Roof at Park South Hotel. “Not only is it near my apartment, but it has a great spirits selection and a cool little wine list, where you can get terrific wines by the glass, which is an arena where bars are stepping up their game. Plus they have a killer spiced beef sandwich, served late!”
The rustic gastropub opened two years ago as part of a new wave of Upper East Side spots bringing some Downtown character to a neighborhood more commonly viewed as traditional. It can get crowded on weekends, but a selection of more than 60 whiskeys and an inventive food menu (fried-oyster sliders dressed with bacon, pickles and remoulade on fresh brioche minibuns as well as crispy shishito peppers) make it worth the jostling.
More recently, the increasingly trendy Upper East Side became host to The Gilroy (1561 Second Ave., 212.734.8800), one of the most well-regarded bars in the city, period. James Menite, an award-winning bartender, vice president of the New York chapter of the U.S. Bartender’s Guild and bartender at the new Palm Court Bar in the Plaza Hotel (768 Fifth Ave., 212.546.5300), is a regular at owner Josh Mazza’s comfortable corner spot. “They serve food really late,” says Menite. “They have a petite beef Wellington that’s one of the best dishes in town, their specialty drinks are really good and they always have great draft beer selections.”
The Gilroy is best known for bringing adventurous craft cocktails to the area. On the menu, a half-dozen riffs on the classic Negroni like the Oaxaca (swapping out gin for mezcal) or the Old Pal (highlighting rye), along with the “Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition” (a Monty Python nod), featuring rum, sherry, walnut liqueur and espresso. Gilroy also offers updated gatropub bites and live music, but Menite credits the hospitality of Mazza and his cohort Steven Laycock as the reason the spot is a frequent destination.
Menite’s Palm Court is also worth swinging by. Here you’ll find craft cocktails from mixologist Brian Van Flandern and small bites designed by Chopped judge Geoffrey Zakarian. Highlights include a classic Hemingway Daiquiri (rum, maraschino liqueur, grapefruit juice, lime, cherry juice) and the Barbados Red Rum Swizzle (white rum, 15-year rum, lime juice, ginger beer and simple syrup, served in a custom tiki glass). If you’re feeling flush, try the $75 Johnnie Walker Blue Blood and Sand (Johnnie Walker Blue Label, blood orange juice, sweet vermouth) or the $3,000 Century Sidecar featuring 100-year-old Rémy Martin Louis XIII “Black Pearl” Cognac, vintage Cointreau and lime juice, served in a Baccarat crystal coupe (yours to keep).
Though Mazza opened The Gilroy specifically so he could have a decent drink close to home (he lives above the bar), he’s also a fan of nearby English-themed Jones Wood Foundry (401 E. 76th St., 212.249.2700). “It has all three things I need in a post-work refuge,” says Mazza. “Good food, good drinks and good chat.” The draft beer and wine lists are well curated, “and the fish and chips are the best in the city by a margin.” But it’s socializing that Mazza finds especially appealing here. “It’s lively, and the bartenders are always personable and attentive. They know when to engage you and when to leave you be. It’s an underappreciated skill in this new age of skill-based bartending.”
Not all the action happens Uptown of course; most of New York’s best “bartender bars” are still found south of 14th Street or in Brooklyn.
Ivy Mix, co-founder of the international female-only bartending contest / breast cancer charity Speed Rack, and widely considered one of the city’s best bartenders, spends her days pouring drinks for thirsty fans at Clover Club (210 Smith St., Brooklyn, 718-855-7939). A frequent contender among the top 50 best bars in the world, Clover Club offers an extensive craft cocktail menu, excellent food, live music and festive holiday events. When she’s not working, Mix makes a point of making the rounds, supporting friends around the city. But she often gravitates to Fort Defiance in Red Hook, Brooklyn (365 Van Brunt St., 347.453.6672).
“I love it for all of its charm and ‘Not in NYC’ feeling,” says Mix of the trendy, off-the-beaten-path bar/restaurant. “I eat chicken liver pâté and deviled eggs. In cold weather, owner St. John Frizell excels in hot drinks like the Irish Coffee (rated the best in the city by The New York Times) or Hot Apple Toddy. Or I’ll get a Sumo Collins (a massive Tom Collins), a glass of excellent wine or one of the many Charles H. Baker (an early-20th-century cocktail book author) drinks he has up his sleeve.”
Editor’s Note: Bartenders are a creative, fluid lot. An interviewee’s workplace and after-work bar of choice may have shifted by the time you get to read this. Call ahead to make certain venues are open and available.