10 best cocktail bars, according to a world champion bartender


Kate Gerwin mixes up a drinkKate Gerwin mixes up a drink — Photo courtesy of Crystal Birns

Kate Gerwin, a widely celebrated restaurateur and mixologist, is well-known in the bartending world for being the first woman and first American to win the Bols Around the World Bartending Championship in 2014, but this is just one of her many worthy accomplishments.

In her more-than-20-year career, Gerwin has been named by Drinks International as one of the industry’s “Top 100 Most Influential Figures in the World,” worked as a certified sommelier for some of Napa’s top wineries, consulted on the docuseries Bar Rescue, taught at the Le Cordon Bleu campus in Scottsdale, Ariz. and the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt.

And we’d be remiss not to mention, as she puts it, her “favorite crowning moment:” being inducted into the Dame Hall of Fame, which celebrates the contributions of hard-working women to the spirits and cocktail industry.

But it is her consulting work that she is most passionate about, specifically that which she does with small market bar programs. Sometimes she’s called in to help train and educate teams at struggling bar programs, almost like a real life Bar Rescue, and other times she is hired to design bar programs in small tertiary markets that don’t yet have a cocktail bar scene.

She explains, “We come into a town and open these places that become institutions, teach people the ins and outs, and then they go on to open their own places, and these little ripples get the town started. Those are the things that make small market work so incredibly satisfying.”

Most recently, Gerwin has been at Front and Cooper, a relatively new bar at the Abbott Square Market in Santa Cruz, Calif. Before that, she helped establish and design HSL Hospitality, a group of upscale cocktail bars and restaurants in Bismarck, N.D.

Up next, Gerwin and her partner, flair bartender Blaze Montana, are back where they met in Albuquerque, to plant roots in a new “public market” style concept downtown. The crown jewel will be their own cocktail bar, Blue Hippo, which is scheduled to open in spring of 2020.

With her vast knowledge and extensive industry experience in cities all across the country, we decided to reach out to Gerwin and ask her about her ten favorite drink spots. Here’s what she had to say:

Maxine’s Tap Room | Fayetteville, Ark.

Maxine’s is what bartenders look for in cocktail bars. Believe it or not, veteran bartenders rarely go out on the prowl for cocktails. We typically sip on fermented beverages and straight spirits in our downtime and prioritize environment over cocktails, but Maxine’s has both – environment and noteworthy cocktails.

They have a fun and playful menu, and they don’t take themselves too seriously, but their cocktails are crushable.

Bitter & Twisted | Phoenix

I am always so impressed by the creativity, thought and time investment it must take to design the menus at Bitter & Twisted. They are constantly creating cool and delicious cocktails. Each menu cycle has a theme, and they pull out all the stops.

When they did video games, I thought it would be my all-time favorite, but then they came out with fairy tales. The menu was literally a fairy tale book. Their cocktails take you on a journey.

Harlem Hops | New York

Harlem Hops, a craft beer bar which opened in 2018, is exactly how I love my bars – full of passionate, educated people who care deeply about their community. If you love beer and good vibes, this is your spot. The music flippin’ rocks, and you’re automatically made to feel welcome when you walk in the door.

Swordfish Tom’s | Kansas City, Mo.

Nothing about Swordfish Tom’s is an afterthought. Jill Cockson is the owner and operator of this tiny little pre-prohibition cocktail bar in Kansas City, and when you are here, you know 100% that it is a labor of love and passion. Jill has put so much of herself into every aspect of the bar that you can feel the energy in every detail.

It’s hard not to especially love a drink that you know was carefully and painstakingly created for your enjoyment.

Thomas & Moriarty’s | Mandan, N.D.

Yes, within this “bustling” town of merely 22,000 people lies a craft cocktail bar, named in part after the Godfather of Bartending, Jerry Thomas. Bartender-owner Michael Kashey geeks out on all things cocktail and prides himself on having created a cozy little “bar for the social anti-social.”

When the self-proclaimed “professor” is in, guests belly up and gab about the long lost historic tales of all things “spirit-ous,” especially absinthe, while sipping the night away.

Small Change | St. Louis

Small Change is the kind of neighborhood bar that reminds you why you enjoy going to bars. While they have a serious bar program, they don’t take themselves too seriously, which makes it a favorite amongst off-duty service industry folks. The room is decked out in old St. Louis memorabilia, the backbar is papered in pennies and a rocking playlist is always to be expected.

Highland Cigar Co. | Atlanta

I worked in a cigar bar for a few years, so I have a bit of nostalgia for them. They have a special ethos that you can’t get in other bars, and the Highland Cigar Co. is no different. Craft cocktails, an incredible spirits selection, and people appreciating some of the delicacies in life over a conversation on a leather couch or the enthusiasm of a game on the TV: it’s kinda what bars are all about, ya know?

The Jasper | Richmond, Va.

The Jasper is a really lovely and unassuming cocktail spot. They’re named after one of the first preeminent black bartenders of the pre-Prohibition era, and the drinks are amazing. Their slogan is “Full pours and honest prices” and they mean it, which makes them pretty legit in my book.

Saturn | Birmingham, Ala.

Can I select the entire city of Birmingham, Alabama? It’s one of the hottest cities in the U.S. for great libations, and I can’t pick just one. The Atomic, Paper Doll, Collins and Queen’s Park are all must-visit bars, but my favorite is Saturn.

It’s an incredible live music venue. They have a vintage video game night, and the cocktails are simple, delicious and craveable. I still can’t get over the Port & Tonic that the bar goddess, Steva Casey, introduced me to there. I was so impressed, I put a similar drink on my own menu at Front and Cooper.

Merchant | Madison, Wis.

I love bars that become local institutions. When a “cocktail” bar finally opens in a smaller market, it becomes the hub for budding bartenders to learn. Then those people go off and open their own bars and restaurants, spreading the “bug” and changing the way the community drinks.

Merchant, a casual farm-to-table restaurant with a serious craft cocktail scene, is one of those bars. At night, after the kitchen closes, the deli counter becomes a platform for various DJs and the bar transforms into a fun and lively dance party.

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