21 cities, 102 bars, more than 400 drinks drunk, 34,462 miles traveled and one year of their lives spent in the quest to find the best cocktail bars in America and, as things turned out, the folks at GQ magazaine could've made things a lot easier on themselves simply by admitting to what we already knew: That our fair city sports not one, but two of the best cocktail bars anywhere.
Photo courtesy GQ.com, via Zig Zag Cafe Best. Bar. Ever.
Seattle bookended the list, scoring both the first spot and the 25th. At the bottom (a space to which the phrase "the least among the best" doesn't do any kind of justice because just making the list at all is a colossal achievement) is Needle and Thread, the half-private, not-too-hidden "speakeasy" above Tavern Law, accessible only by phone and written about (at length) by yours truly just a couple weeks back after a night of downstairs cocktails and upstairs glasses of Del Maguey mezcal. The GQ editors loved Needle and Thread for all the same reasons we do: for the laser-like focus on drinks and nothing more, for the menu-less environment and the opportunity to have a drink custom-made just for you, its ingredients sometimes depending on only the vaguest and most poetic requests. "I spend all day on a tractor," the GQ article quoted one customer saying. "Make me a drink that reminds me of the farm. You know, of dirt and diesel." And the result? A blend of blackstrap rum, Fernet-Branca, sugar syrup, Cynar and lime juice called, of course, the Dirt 'n Diesel. That's what it takes to be #25
And to be the best in all the land?
Well, that takes something else entirely. That takes Mr. Murray Stenson, a "bartender superhero" according to GQ, and one of the cocktail world's true rock stars.
Yes, it was the Zig Zag Cafe that brought home the honor of being named the best cocktail bar in America--a joint that's just walking distance from Pike Place Market and (thankfully) my office, and the second place in this city where I bent an elbow, shortly after arriving (like, within hours). "Each drink Murray pours is a mini-revelation," says GQ, "an introduction to rare spirits and a bold use of common ones. Behold the Sayonara, whose slow, intense pepper-infused-tequila burn can only be soothed by the sourness from a sip of the same drink: fire and extinguisher in a single glass."
The love continues: "Still, if you ever have doubts about Murray's talents, do this: Sit near the end of the crescent bar. Peek behind it. Look closely at his workstation. Five drink racks. About twelve bottles in each. Artfully tiered from floor to torso, like a medieval organ powered by Dubonnet, kirsch, and Tuaca. If you think any ordinary bartender could play such an instrument, you'd be wrong."
Between the Zig Zag and Needle and Thread come 23 other bars, scattered around all points of the compass. From Angel's Share, Clover Club, Death & Co, PDT and the Pegu Club, all in and around New York, to The Alembic in San Francisco, Tiki-ti in L.A., Arnaud's French 75 in New Orleans and Drink in Boston, the GQ crew really put in the legwork just so you'd know all the best places to drink, no matter where you are.
To read the full list, you can check out the slideshow on the GQ website. And if you're looking for more info on the Zig Zag and Tavern Law, it just happens that I reviewed both places together at the end of June. Granted, I was talking mostly about the food, but still. In addition to the great drinks upstairs at Needle and Thread, the kitchen downstairs at Tavern Law happens to make the greatest goddamn fried chicken I've found in the city so far.
You know, just in case you're looking for the city's best chicken to go with a couple of America's 25th best cocktails...