Mark Twain once observed, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough”—a philosophy Americans are increasingly taking to heart. In 2013, sales of the heavenly brown liquid outpaced all other spirits, and specialty bars are popping up at an overwhelming rate.
“Five years ago, you could count the good whiskey bars on two hands,” says Lew Bryson, managing editor of Whisky Advocate. “Now it’s impossible to keep up.”
So what makes a whiskey bar stand out from the crowd? A solid selection (at least 50 bottles) is imperative, according to Bryson, as is staff knowledge and enthusiasm. “I want servers who actually drink the stuff,” he says. It’s also promising if a bar hosts a whiskey tasting club, as does L.A.’s Seven Grand.
Some whiskey fans seek out bars stocking an encyclopedic variety, from American small-batch rarities to Japanese single malts. At Seattle’s whiskey emporium Canon, you’re spoiled for choice between a menu that runs more than 100 pages, a selection of tasting flights, and craft cocktails like the Skull and Blackberries (Canon select double rye, dark rum, Rossbacher, blackberry, blueberry smoke).
For others, bourbon is king. And the seat of that kingdom is Kentucky, where the Bluegrass Saloon serves bourbon from nine regional distilleries, including every variety imaginable from companies like Bulleit and Wild Roses.
Bourbon, rye, Scotch—all these types of whiskey are distilled from fermented grain. Yet the flavor can be infinitely affected by variables like type of grain (bourbon legally has to be 51 percent corn, for instance) and the barrel in which it’s aged.
To get the most out of each whiskey’s flavor, Moiz Ali—cofounder of Caskers, a crafts spirits club with hundreds of thousands of members—recommends tasting it neat first. “For high-proof whiskey, I might add a few drops of water or a cube of ice,” he adds. “This helps open up the whiskey’s aromas and flavors, which can be masked behind the high alcohol content.”
As a first pour, we’ve rounded up 16 notable whiskey bars across the nation. While fans will have their own favorites, we can all get behind the meaning of the word whiskey: “water of life” in Gaelic.
Washington, D.C., is our nation’s capital, and a visit to Jack Rose may convince you it’s also the center of the whiskey universe. The Adams Morgan saloon serves whiskey on tap and stocks an incredible 1,800 bottles of the golden stuff. Consider a spirit like the 15-year-old Jefferson’s Reserve from the Rare Bottlings collection. You can savor it in the cozy, wood-paneled whiskey cellar, on the open-air terrace, or in the dining saloon itself, where cigars are also on the menu.
Nashville has recently attracted national attention for its food and drink scene. Credit goes to innovators like the 404 Kitchen, located within a 40-foot former shipping container adjacent to the 404 Hotel. Here, whiskey aficionados will find more than 150 varieties, including super-rare spirits from Ireland to Utah—and a sizable collection of Japanese “juice.” Hungry? You’ve come to the right place: 404 is a James Beard Award semifinalist, known for locally sourced Italian-style dishes like delicata squash soup and cornmeal-crusted fluke.
Since 2009, 2.5 million tourists have traveled the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to tour its nine historic distilleries, including Bulleit and Woodford Reserve. So a Lexington bar better be legit: patrons are guaranteed to know their stuff and expect to be impressed. Bluegrass Tavern comes through with 230 kinds of bourbon, including scarce vintages like Four Roses Limited Single Barrel.
Seattle may be famous for its coffee, but not to the detriment of other vices. Canon, the rainy city’s very own whiskey library, offers the largest selection of American whiskey in the Western Hemisphere. Stacks upon stacks of bottles are piled high to the pressed-tin ceiling, and Canon’s booze book dedicates nine to rare batches alone. Guests can browse old-school bartending books while they wait for a craft cocktail and helping of Angostura-bourbon nuts from the ever-changing menu.
Manhattan’s premiere whiskey destinationcharms patrons with nearly 500 varieties—some accessible only by ladder—as well as highly informed whiskey guides, live jazz music, a swanky setting (plush banquettes, cabaret-style tables, chandeliers), and A-list people-watching. You can even get schooled during one-day classes in its private upstairs room. Just be sure to make your reservation ahead of time. As Flatiron’s website states: “We love our guests. So much so that we are willing to turn some away so the ones inside can best enjoy their experience.”
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