Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. HayesAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado
Linda HayesThe Absinthe fountain that sits on the bar at Absinthe Restaurant in San Francisco.

“The best city in which to get a drink,” so the saying goes, “is any city which you happen be in.”Recently, while sitting behind a glass of Rye whiskey at the J Bar, I was contemplating this very axiom, and it got me to thinking about which American cities are, indeed, the best in which to get a drink.As one man’s opinion is as good as another’s, I asked the bartender for a pen and began to sort it all out on a napkin. I came up with five standouts.

We’ll start with the town that was at the epicenter of Prohibition and the one most responsible for its ultimate repeal. Chicago is the quintessential shot and a beer town. Every community, in fact every street, has a corner bar that serves as a gathering place as much as a place to get a drink. It can be said that the character of the city, and the characters within it, can be found in places like the century-old Green Mill Cocktail Lounge Uptown, and the original Billy Goat Tavern, found in the bowels of the Tribune Building. Currently there is a boomlet in the Gastro-Pub world in Chicago. I recommend Publican as a place where one can get the aforementioned shot and beer, as well as a craft cocktail made by a bartender looking jaunty in a jockey cap.

Seattle has always been a good drinking town, but three things have elevated it to iconic status over the past 25 years or so. First, the emergence of Washington as one of the great wine regions in the country. From the Columbia Valley to the dry, hot lands of the eastern plains surrounding Walla Walla, Washington is producing epic wines of both colors. Second, the growth of the craft brew business owes a debt to the town formerly know as the “Queen City.” Redhook and Pyramid are great breweries and their Ales flow freely from taps all along Puget Sound.Third, and most importantly to cocktail connoisseurs, is the mere presence of Murray Stenson, a.k.a. “Mur the Blur.” Perhaps the most legendary barman in America, Stenson is the Ichiro of Seattle’s bar scene. He consistently hits for average but also exhibits grace and power behind the bar. Designated the Best Bartender in America by his peers at the 2010 Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, he can currently be found artfully creating cocktails on Capital Hill at a place called Cannon. Try spending a rainy evening at the bar there if you get to what they now call the “Emerald City.”

As the gateway city to America’s premier wine regions and a town that is chock full o’ tech money, San Francisco is arguably the most sophisticated drinking city in the nation. Every restaurant has a wine list with something worthy. Beers that you never heard of from places ranging from right down the street to the other side of the world are found on tap. And the cocktail scene has gone from cultish to mainstream.Bar Agricole, Rickhouse and Bourbon & Branch are all examples of cocktail driven bars that are contemporary, hip and great places for a drink. Bartenders at all three are obsessed with creating interesting concoctions using the freshest ingredients and the most innovative blends. My favorite moment on a recent trip to San Francisco came while sitting at the bar at Absinthe, a cocktail centric restaurant that celebrates the formerly forbidden spirit. Adjacent were two gentlemen eyeing the bartender as he prepared their Absinthe cocktails using an Absinthe fountain, a large jar filled with ice water that had a pair of spigots at the bottom.The bartender placed a pair of sugar cubes on top of specially made slotted spoons that teetered atop the rims of two glasses. As the water dripped from the spigots onto the cubes, they began to melt and drip into the glasses, which had the sacred spirit already in them. The water and sugar combo “opened” the Absinthe and gave the spirit its full herbal nose and taste.As the bartender served the gentleman their drinks, they toasted each other on this, their 35th anniversary of togetherness. Only in San Francisco.With this, I ran out of space on my napkin. And yet, I have only revealed three of my five cities. While I trust you can guess the rest, I will order another Rye, pull out another napkin and begin work on next week’s column. There I will share what I consider to be the two Best Drinking Cities in America.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at


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