Once upon a time, whiskey was the currency of cowboys and grandfathers. Then the story changed. Over the past two decades, Scotch, bourbon and Irish whiskey have become some of the fastest growing spirits in the world.
In the United States, it has become increasingly easy to find bars specializing in uisce beatha. (That’s Gaelic for “water of life” and the source of the word “whiskey”). Most feature bartenders who work in a sommelier-like capacity to answer questions and offer suggestions that best suit your preferences. Here are some of the best spots to slake your whiskey thirst. And curiosity.
Brandy Library: New York, New York
There’s a casual elegance that pervades the Brandy Library, which opened in 2004, earning it the badge of first whiskey bar in New York. (As legend has it, owner Flavien Desoblin christened it “Brandy Library” instead of “Whiskey Library” because when he opened the place, whiskey wasn’t a fraction as cool as it is now and he worried it might turn people away.)
Brandy Library, in the posh Tribeca neighborhood, is a full-immersion experience. Shelves line several walls in the sepia-toned, living-room-like bar. Add to that copper lighting fixtures inspired by liquor stills and a gorgeous leather-bound menu arranged by region, and you have a Mecca-level destination worth a pilgrimage.
The Silver Dollar is located in the heart of Bourbon Country © Liza Weisstuch
Silver Dollar: Louisville, Kentucky
There are many reasons to visit the Silver Dollar. Architecture junkies will be intrigued by how this 1890 fire house, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was transformed into one of Louisville’s hippest hangouts. (Yes, the fire pole is still standing.)
Music-lovers will appreciate how it stands as a tribute the Bakersfield Sound, the classic country music style credited to Buck Owens, who, in the 1950s, infused Nashville’s popular swinging country with the strumming Mexican conjunto music he discovered in his local California bars. The fact that bartenders play country music on vinyl only elevates the vintage vibe. Similarly, the southern regional cuisine on the menu has a spicy Mexican accent. And then, of course, there is the American whiskey, which is in no shortage here in the bourbon capital of the world.
Inside the Jack Rose © Greg Powers
Jack Rose Dining Saloon: Washington, DC
The Jack Rose is less whisky bar and more whisky kingdom, of sorts, offering a range of environments for imbibing in Washington, DC’s, vibrant Adam’s Morgan neighborhood. The main bar and dining room is a handsome dark-wood-and-leather affair lightened with soaring ceilings, tall windows, and a marble bar. Those high ceilings are necessary to house the nearly 2700 brands of whiskey, many of which are accessible to the bartenders only by ladder.
Not sure what you like? No pressure, you can buy anything as a half-ounce pour here so go on and experiment. Upstairs is a seasonal tiki bar as well as an open-air terrace with a bar of its own featuring a barbecue pit area equipped with heat lamps so you can chill out in the winter. Speaking of barbecue, food here leans southern and hearty, with fried green tomatoes and cornmeal fried oysters playing leading roles on the menu.
Julep Cocktail Club: Kansas City, Missouri
Art Deco glamour meets mid-century modern simplicity at this classy yet laid-back whiskey bar in Kansas City’s increasingly hip Westport neighborhood. Outside of Chicago, Julep Cocktail Club has the biggest whiskey selection in the region, clocking in at about 500 bottles. The drink list skews American, but Scotch, Irish, Japanese and Canadian are all accounted for, too.
Bartenders are knowledgeable and ready to reply to any of your brown-water questions. Flights, which change regularly to showcase a region or a theme, are a popular choice here, as are their outstanding mint juleps, which come in three varieties: vintage, traditional and modern. The food menu is an appealing assortment of pub grub elevated with an Asian twist.
The hunting-lodge stylings of Seven Grand in LA © Liza Weisstuch
Seven Grand: Los Angeles, California
If there’s one thing you should know about Seven Grand, it’s that its whiskey menu is 44 pages long. Yes, 44 pages. You could say that this antique-y, dimly lit hunting-lodge-chic bar, which opened in 2007, is the antithesis of Los Angeles, where so many bars and restaurants are airy and light. Or you could argue that Seven Grand is quintessentially LA, what with its transportive movie-set-like ambiance, complete with details like mounted deer heads and vintage furniture.
Regardless, it claims the biggest whiskey collection in the West, making it an attraction for aficionados and the whisky-curious. The whiskey list does soar to super-premium heights, but the vibe here is very down-to-earth. (See: pool tables, live music.) And for those in-the-know, there’s Jackelope, an intimate Japanese-style whiskey bar tucked away in the back.
Fiori D’Italia: Anchorage, Alaska
When an earthquake struck Anchorage, Alaska, in 2018, many of whiskey bottles from the collection of more than 400 at Fiori d’Italia hit the ground and shattered. Building the collection had been an ongoing pursuit for the young bar manager Ylli Ferati, whose family owns and runs the discreetly tucked-away Italian restaurant. But thanks to his perseverance and vast industry connections, he was able to rebuild the biggest whiskey selection in Alaska.
The restaurant, which is owned and run by Ylli’s parents, immigrants from Macedonia, is decidedly old-school Italian, and while they do indeed have a wine list, Ylli encourages exploring whiskey pairings with the food, a fine way to understand the spirit’s universal appeal.
The massive collection in the Multnomah Whiskey Library lines the shelves on the wall © Dina Avila
Multnomah Whiskey Library: Portland, Oregon
There is a good chance that you’ll stop in your tracks the first time you walk into the Multnomah Whiskey Library in downtown Portland, Oregon, and behold its grandeur. True to its name, it’s set up as like a library reading room, complete with long tables and desktop-style lamps. But don’t expect quiet contemplation here. After all, its shelves are not packed with books, but with about 2,000 bottles of whiskey, plus a healthy assortment of rum, tequila and cognac.
If cocktails are your preference, you’re in for a treat: the service here involves a dedicated bartender who takes the order at your table and makes the cocktail tableside. While not a speakeasy, its entrance is a tad discreet, so stay on the lookout for the “Whisky Library” sign. And pro tip: It’s a spacious place and very popular, so arrive early to get your name on the list.
Delilah’s: Chicago, Illinois
For many years, the term “whiskey bar” conjured up images of high-end fusty affairs. The recent bourbon boom has made brown water a more democratic drink, but before bourbon became a hipster spirit, there was Delilah’s, which stood out – and continues to gather fans – for the way it uniquely captures whiskey’s freewheeling, rock’n’roll soul.
This Chicago hangout has a dive-y vibe, complete with weathered banquettes, Christmas lights, and live rock bands. You’ll find as much pretension here as you might in your local CVS. Yet the global whiskey selection is world-class and the bartenders can each provide a thorough whiskey education.