NYC is whiskey town. A 2016 survey put the spirit at the top of those ordered in NYC bars—by a fair measure. While whiskey does include an array of brown liquors, it’s hard to deny how popular the main American varieties—bourbon and rye—have become in the City. It’s not just on cocktail menus: producing it locally has become an established craft, with Kings County, New York Distilling and Van Brunt Stillhouse (to name a few) distilling it and providing tours or tasting rooms to sample the spirit.
Similarly, a number of bars in the boroughs have dedicated themselves to promoting the wonders of American whiskey, curating enormous collections and lending a hand to guide you through the bourbon wilderness. They offer tasting flights, knowledgeable barkeeps and the sense you’re in some sort of shared community. We cover eight of the best places below, getting advice from a rep of each to help navigate their extensive liquor lists.
A few tasting notes
There’s a myth that bourbon must come from a certain county in Kentucky, but it just needs to use a mash of at least 51 percent corn and be aged in a charred new oak barrel. It’s typically a bit sweet, unlike rye, which tends to be spicier and is made with a mash of at least 51 percent rye. When tasting, keep in mind a few suggestions from the experts (those reps we mentioned): “Know where it came from,” “smell before you sip” and “be open minded.” How to have it? Any approach will do—neat, or on ice, or with a splash of water or in a cocktail—though to appreciate all the nuances, start with the first of those options before progressing to another.
Occupying an unassuming West Village corner, this watering hole is a beloved local haunt—serving up whiskey and late-night eats since the 1990s. Its chicken wings are some of the more celebrated specimens in town, but its weighty tome of spirits is what sets it apart. It’s fittingly known as “The Book” and comes with a précis on what makes a bourbon as opposed to a rye and a so-called Black Page with esoteric and rare bourbons.
Well whiskeys: Evan Williams Straight Kentucky (bourbon), Old Overholt (rye)
Nice find: A. H. Hirsch 16-Year (owner Phil Casaceli says they have one bottle of this rarity; a dram goes for $600).
Recommended bourbon cocktail: The Daddy-O, with Wild Turkey Rare Breed Barrel Proof bourbon, Wild Turkey American honey liqueur, Gary Regan’s orange bitters and a drunken cherry
Bourbon pairs best with…“ice. And great conversation,” as Casaceli puts it.
Owned by the same gentleman who ran Brooklyn’s dearly departed Char No. 4—a haven for bourbon aficionados—this Flatiron restaurant serves a similar role to its forebear. The golden-lit bar and dining room tees up Southern flavors, both in dishes (croquettes with grits instead of rice) and drinks (their version of the hurricane uses bourbon instead of rum). Give your palate a workout during “Early Bourbon” (weekends between 3 and 6pm) when the bourbon and rye cocktails and pours are about half price.
Well whiskeys: Old Crow (bourbon), Pinhook (rye)
Nice find: Pinhook Bourbon, a newish brand that pays homage to Kentucky racehorses
Recommended rye cocktail: Boulevardier, with rye, sweet vermouth and Campari (“Bitter and boozy, yet oddly refreshing,” says general manager Alex Smith)
Bourbon pairs best with…“grilled and smoked foods,” says Smith.
The Moonlight Mile
Home to more than 200 American whiskeys, Moonlight Mile (named for a Rolling Stones song) also puts an emphasis on craft beer—though even in that, their true colors show: one recent brew on tap was a Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, aged in charred barrels. Edison bulbs overhang a compact bar area, behind which you’ll find the neatly arranged collection of whiskeys. Vinyl night is a good time to come enjoy a tasting, though a free jukebox full of rock classics serves a similar purpose the rest of the week.
Well whiskeys: Old Forester (bourbon), blend of Old Overholt and Rittenhouse (rye)
Nice finds: Garrison Brothers Texas Bourbon, Johnny Drum Private Stock (“a nice whiskey for the money,” says owner Garry Embry)
Recommended bourbon cocktail: The Moonlight Mile, with Old Forester, honey syrup, lemon juice and champagne
Bourbon pairs best with…“anything, or alone,” according to Embry.
There’s a spare, old-fashioned feel to Noorman’s Kil, helped by the reclaimed touches—lamps, banquettes and a U-shape wooden bar complete with a vintage radio at the end. The Williamsburg location means you might find a younger crowd, but they’re still serious about what they drink: a curated list of ryes and bourbons that seems to have no end. Free whiskey tastings take place periodically, and an outside space provides extra seating on nice evenings.
Well whiskeys: Heaven Hill (bourbon), Old Overholt (rye)
Nice finds: Four Roses Single Barrel (Noorman’s Kil Private Selection), Hudson Maple Rye Cask
Recommended bourbon cocktail: Kentucky Sunset with bourbon, acai berry liqueur, sour mix and lemon
Bourbon pairs best with…“grilled cheese, but I’m a little biased,” says co-owner Marcel Simoneau (the bar has a special grilled-cheese menu). Another option? “This might sound weird—light beer,” he says.
It’s no speakeasy, but it would be easy enough to pass by this Flatiron drinking lounge without taking much notice. An understated exterior gives way to a spacious marble bar and back room that accommodate a lively crowd. They come for refined pub food and, of course, the eponymous spirit—along with many well-chosen examples of its bourbon brethren. Select flights revolve around New York State offerings and rare bottles.
Well whiskeys: Old Forester 86 proof (bourbon), Redemption (rye)
Nice finds: Weller Antique, Thomas Handy Rye, Pappy Van Winkle’s 15 Year Bourbon
Recommended rye cocktail: old-fashioned, with Blanton’s or Eagle Rare 10 Year
Bourbon pairs best with…“anything with sweet, smoky or slightly spicy flavors,” says beverage director Goran Remes.
A few years back, the proprietors of a long-standing family diner in Astoria decided to expand and modernize. They also decided to emphasize a beverage program centered on American whiskey. So you can come for an upscale bistro meal, or you can take a seat at the 22-foot-long backlit bar to delve into the 200 or so bourbons. “Everything is in the collection for a reason,” says co-owner Gus Karalekas.
Well whiskeys: Old Forester (bourbon), Sazerac (rye)
Nice finds: Ancient Ancient Age, Kentucky Owl, Michter’s 25-Year Rye (which Karalekas thinks might be the only bottle in the City; it’s $190 a pour)
Recommended bourbon cocktail: Brown Derby, with bourbon, grapefruit juice and honey syrup
Bourbon pairs best with…“different types of meat, particularly spit-roasted, smoked or barbecued,” Karalekas says.
There aren’t many similar spots in Hamilton Heights to this cozy drinking den, which sports a long lineup of American whiskeys and classic cocktails complemented by snacks like meat and cheese plates. Bartenders are eager to share their knowledge and help you find the right choice for your mood and palate. Along with bourbon, Uptown celebrates music on vinyl, spinning vintage rock and soul tunes on a turntable.
Well whiskeys: Evan Williams (bourbon), Old Overholt (rye)
Nice find: Four Roses Al Young 50th Anniversary—a one-time release that’s gotten some good press
Recommended rye cocktail: the old-fashioned, with rye, demerara sugar cube, orange oil and a dash of proprietary apricot tincture
Bourbon pairs best with…“a welcoming seat at the bar, good company, a healthy pour and good music,” says beverage director Elena S. Davila.
The Whiskey Ward
This Lower East Side drinking den has a saloon-like feel, warmed by exposed brick and a tin ceiling. It’s a casual, unpretentious spot to try a reasonably priced whiskey flight or to just saddle up to the weathered bar with your usual pour; whichever the case, you’ll have a lot to choose from, including a scroll full of limited-edition bourbons. A pool table and free peanuts add to the atmosphere.
Well whiskeys: Old Crow (bourbon), J. P. Wiser’s (rye)
Nice finds: Mic Drop 8 Year Barrel Proof Bourbon, Barrell Bourbon Batch 014, Midwinter Nights Dram rye
Recommended bourbon cocktail: Guardian “Angel” Sour, with Angel’s Envy Bourbon – Port Cask Finish, Aperol, agave and fresh lemon juice
Bourbon pairs best with…“more bourbon!” according to co-owner Sandee Wright.