When you travel to a region in the United States, you go prepared knowing the sports team, the signature dishes, and the cultural and historical landmarks. If you're really thorough, you toss in a regional slang word or two. But the distinct charms of cities and entire states can also be felt when you sit down at a bar—drinking cultures throughout the country are as diverse as dining traditions. We pounded the pavement to explore the watering holes of America and learn how to drink like a local, wherever you find yourself.
1. Washington, D.C.: The Gin Rickey
Politics can be difficult. That might be why the Gin Rickey, considered the official cocktail of Washington, D.C., is not. Legend has it dating back to 1883, the Chester A. Arthur administration, when Democratic lobbyist Colonel Joe Rickey suggested the gin/lime/soda water mix to a busy bartender at a German tavern on Pennsylvania Avenue. It caught on, becoming so entrenched in D.C. bar culture that the Colonel’s 1903 obituary in the New York Times read, “Col. Joseph Karr Rickey, famous throughout the country as the originator of the concoction bearing his name, died suddenly yesterday.” In 2009, July was christened Rickey Month in the District, and since then local bartenders have been showcasing their own creative versions of the drink, adding everything from muddled ginger to blackberry puree and swapping out club soda in favor of sparkling wine.
2. New York: The Martini
Think New York City, and chances are the first drink to come to mind is the Manhattan. You’d be remiss, however, to overlook the martini. While there's no geographical identity in its name, it remains the most popular cocktail at New York’s many handsome steakhouses, as well as in classic joints like Sardi’s, a Theater District institution. And consider the ode penned by Dorothy Parker, the 1920s-era poet and bon vivant who, for 10 years, famously gathered with her fellow literary wits—known as the Algonquin Round Table—at the regal Algonquin Hotel for daily lunches that involved drinks, wisecracks, gossip, drinks, conversation, and drinks. She wrote, “I like to have a Martini. Two at the very most. After three I'm under the table. After four I'm under my host.” Pop into the historic hotel bar today and raise a toast to this quintessential New Yorker.
3. Texas: The Paloma
According to a Nielsen survey, the margarita is the most-called drink in the United States—and given their proximity to Mexico, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Texans enjoy more than their share of the tequila drink. But in a somewhat surprising twist, the state that appears to be inextricably linked to the classic cocktail has a less obvious favorite. South of the border, the drink of choice is the Paloma—one part tequila and three parts grapefruit soda, like Fresca, stirred over ice—and the longstanding Mexican tradition has become a Lone Star State staple.
4. Louisiana: The Sazerac
Sezerac (Alp Aksoy/Dreamstime)
Before cocktail bitters were a bartender's staple, they were medicine, and the distinctive formula from Antoine Peychaud, an apothecary in New Orleans in the 1830s, was said to have a strong curative effect. Same went for the brandy-based cocktail he served at his shop, which eventually became known as the Sazerac because Sazerac-de-Forge et fils was his preferred French brandy. Over time, bartenders swapped the French spirit out for American rye, but the use of Peychaud’s distinctively piquant bitters was a constant. The Sazerac’s popularity endured throughout the decades, and in 2008, the Louisiana state legislature proclaimed it New Orleans’s official cocktail. As the classic cocktail movement has evolved around the U.S., any bartender worth his weight in hand-carved ice could certainly mix one for you, but it's best enjoyed in one of New Orleans’s vintage watering holes, as notes of jazz drift in from the sidewalk.
5. Maine: Allen's Coffee Brandy
Maybe it’s Maine's remoteness that lends itself to keeping traditions the way they've always been—if it ain’t broke, after all. Case in point: Allen’s Coffee Brandy, one of those products you likely don’t know unless you’ve been there. And if you do go, you can’t avoid it. Introduced in the 1960s, the coffee-flavored liqueur has been the state's best-selling alcohol product for several decades, raking in $10 million in sales in 2017. It’s most often sold mixed with milk, a drink largely known as the Sombrero, though locals also refer to it as Gorilla Milk, Jackman Martini, and other names involving more colorful language. If you take a fancy to the stuff, look for it in the shops, where it's used as a flavoring for donuts, gelato, and other desserts.
6. New Jersey: The Jack Rose
The Jack Rose was, as legend has it, created by a New Jersey bartender at the beginning of the 20th century. But the simple mix of applejack, grenadine, and lemon juice encapsulates the Garden State for reasons beyond its origination point. Applejack, an American style of apple brandy, is the unofficial spirit of N.J., thanks to the state’s tradition of distilling local apples, an industry that dates to the Colonial era. The Lairds have been doing just that since around the time of the Revolutionary War, making the Laird & Co. distillery the oldest in the United States. Lisa Laird Dunn, who oversees the operation today, is a ninth-generation descendant of the founder, and her products are, without a doubt, are the most popular apple brandies among bartenders in the U.S. Whether you’re chilling at the Jersey Shore, hanging out in the increasingly trendy enclaves of Jersey City or Hoboken, or on your way to catch a flight from Newark Airport, this classic cocktail is as local as you can get.
7. Hawaii: Mai Tai
Mai Tai (Martinmark/Dreamstime)
The story of tiki drinks as the kitschy, umbrella-garnished tropical tipples we know them as today is the story of a New Orleans-based American businessman with a serious case of wanderlust. Shortly after Prohibition, he looked to his travels through the South Pacific when he opened the famous Don the Beachcomber, a tropical-themed restaurant, in Hollywood. It remains a mystery how the mai tai, a cornerstone of the tiki canon, became synonymous with Hawaii, where it’s the most-ordered drink, while more complex tiki drinks fell into oblivion until the cocktail renaissance of the early 2000s. Some blame Elvis, who had one in hand for most of his screen time in Blue Hawaii. But perhaps the best explanation is simply that a sweet rum drink in a Polynesian-style mug fits the Hawaiian scenery as naturally as an ice cream cone works in a boardwalk setting or a bottomless mug of coffee suits a diner.
8. Maryland: The Orange Crush
There’s a bit of a “happy accident” element in the origin story of the Orange Crush, the refreshing sipper that endures as a favorite among many in coastal Maryland. The staff at the longstanding Harborside Bar & Grill in West Ocean City has been churning out its house cocktail since a Sunday afternoon in the fall of 1995, when a few of the bartenders started tinkering with Stoli O. Little did they know that the vodka/triple sec/orange juice recipe they came up with would become a local staple. The recipe is as much about the spectacle of making the drink, which involves quickly yanking an industrial juice press to flatten orange halves, as it is about the vibrant flavor. The frothy juice that results is added to a pint glass filled with ice, vodka, and triple sec. Baltimoreans have watched as this no-frills, user-friendly drink moved beyond Charm City’s borders, but they'll insist that it just doesn't taste the same when you’re not near the Maryland shoreline.