The New York winds were bitterly cold last week as we trawled the city looking for its best drinking spots. From dive bars to hotels and tiny cocktail dens, this is a city that’s always been billed as the best place to get a mixed drink, in the whole world, ever.
New York is one of those cities that everyone has a list for. A little black book of where to get lasagne at 3am (PJ Clarks), the best ramen (Minca), a flawless lobster roll (Pearl Oyster Bar) and cocktails near the Statue of Liberty (Blacktail). Yet somehow you never get around to trying any recommendations – there’s just too many.
It has a drinks scene that is physically impossible to cover in a week let alone a weekend. And that’s just the cocktail bars – forget the iconic dive bars, wine bars, beer bars and even a cider bar. The size and scope of drinking in New York is simply unrivalled by any city in the world.
And yet. And yet London, our wonderful home, is often up there on the podium alongside its New York friends, receiving awards and plaudits for its bartenders, bars, brand ambassadors, drinks and design. In the tale of two cities it isn’t always clear which of these international destinations is truly the world’s cocktail capital – size aside.
Grab any American passing you by and ask who invented the cocktail – they’ll probably all say it was the yanks. And they’re not entirely wrong either, for certainly the short, quaffable single drink we now all call the cocktail came from the States. But its forefather, a giant mixed bowl of booze, citrus, sugar and spices (sound familiar?) came from England. So while America was busy glugging down their fizzes and fixes we were slurping in a more communal matter. However, it was all within the realm of the mixed drink.
From that point on our cocktail cultures grew in quite different directions. While New Yorks dive bars are all easily wandered into, the city hasn’t been able to shake its love of the cocktail speakeasy. At least there’s some authenticity to them though, after all this is a place that’s gone through Prohibition and genuinely needed to secret away its bars and liquor. Today many of its best bars are still tricky to get into – from Death & Co to Attaboy and PDT. London, meanwhile, was all about the hotel bars – very possibly to keep all the travelling Americans quenched as they escaped the doldrums of a dry country – and it was in this era that the likes of the American Bar in the Savoy flourished. Today it is still one of the top cocktail destinations in the world and has been joined by more recent hotel bars such as Dandelyan in the Mondrian hotel and the Punch Room in the London Edition.
New York can claim the invention of some pretty spectacular drinks, from the modern day Penicillin (smoky Scotch, ginger, honey and lemon) to the far older and eponymous Manhattan (bourbon or rye, sweet vermouth and bitters). And just like its namesake drink, New York is very good at short, sharp and boozy.
We drank all across town, from the Suffolk Arms to Pouring Ribbons, Dead Rabbit, Maison Premier and Amor y Amaro, and discovered great drinks at each turn. With such choice across the city you’d be pushed to find a terrible drink. Absinthe Coladas paired with oysters at Maison Premier was a particular highlight, as was original drinks such as the Horseapple and Duke of Suffolk at the Suffolk Arms with a cheese toasty and tomato soup.
New York certainly heroes the classics, with bars like Underdog solely focusing on original recipes and subtle modern twists. It feels like each drink has a heritage and roots, a family tree from which to trace its linage.
London, on the other hand, has only a handful of bars which stay true to cocktail history. Satan’s Whiskers being one of them where the menu is almost exclusively classics. Then we have bars such as Happiness Forgets which certainly have that New York style of keeping drinks clean and tasty. And while London can’t claim the invention of a drink as iconic as the Manhattan, we have the Espresso Martini, the East 8 Hold Up and the Twinkle. Not as serious, certainly, but delicious nonetheless.
Where London comes into its own is with bars like Dandelyan – inventing brand new concepts and drinks which push the boundaries. Places like White Lyan don’t exist anywhere else in the world, which can only make us grateful that Ryan Chetiyawardana was born in England.
Immigration has shaped the way both New York and London approach their cocktails as well. The close European connection has meant many of London’s best bartenders were born in Italy, Czech Republic, and Greece. Places like Bar Termini wouldn’t exist if all we made were British cocktails. New York’s Dead Rabbit likewise wouldn’t continually rake in the awards without its Irish owners and authentic pub downstairs.
In terms of drinks, these are two cities that are capable of slugging it out toe to toe, Espresso Martini versus Penicillin. The real difference comes down to experience – the time you have in the bar and what feelings you come away with. There’s something equally distinct about drinking in New York as there is in London, the two don’t feel the same. One isn’t better or worse, they’re simply different - whether it’s a subtly of service or style of venue. For us, New York wins in terms of what’s available; the amount of great bars and how late you can drink (which certainly adds to its charm) but London’s inspiring creativity is where we call home. Now if only it would stay open a few hours later…