How to find the best cocktails in Atlanta—and what to avoid

Consider this a love letter to cocktails and a primer

Aziza cocktails
Demario Wallace of Aziza puts the finishing touch on the Bird and the Maccabees, a mix of pisco, Campari, pineapple, and labneh.

Photograph by Martha Williams

The first cocktail I ever drank was at the top of the Champs-Élysées. As an 18-year-old passionately interested in the taste of all things, I walked to splashy Le Drugstore, now in its sixth decade, and sat at the counter by myself. “I’ll have the Pimm’s Cup,” I said, without the faintest idea of what was coming my way. It was summer, and I remember being struck by the coolness and beauty of that tall, icy glass; the dark amber, mildly alcoholic liquid tasting of cucumber and fruit; the clinking of the cubes and the feeling of sophistication, of who I wanted to be.

I’ve had much experience with cocktails, exhilarating and otherwise, in the decades since. And I’ve realized that, for me, there are only three kinds: classic, magic, and a waste of money.

When ordering a classic cocktail, consider the genre of the restaurant or bar. You definitely want a martini or a Gibson at Bones and a Mai Tai at Trader Vic’s, not the other way around. Save the Bellini for Italy, and drink margaritas only in places that squeeze their own juice and have a great choice of tequilas. What is wrong with bartenders who want to put their own twist on something as timeless as an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan, a Sazerac, or a Negroni? Nothing, as long as they don’t usurp the name.

When it comes to creative cocktails, some bartenders are far more talented than others. You probably already know the names of the city’s most seasoned magicians, bold and inventive practitioners such as Greg Best, who revolutionized Atlanta’s cocktail game a dozen years ago at Holeman & Finch and now owns Ticonderoga Club with two other top bartenders; the unflappable Miles Macquarrie of Kimball House and Watchman’s Seafood and Spirits, whose seasonal creativity and mastery of absinthe have no equal; Mercedes O’Brien, who dazzles with daring, textured, and layered drinks, formerly at Gunshow and now at Cold Beer; Kellie Thorn, who has been creating low-proof, high-intensity, beguiling drinks for all of Hugh Acheson’s restaurants, including the latest, By George.

Once a rarity, female teams such as Kathryn DiMenichi and Holli Medley at Cardinal and Faielle Stocco and Katie McDonald at Banshee are mixing some of the finest drinks in town. A new talent to watch is Demario Wallace, who leans on the Middle East with ingredients such as orange flower, resinous herbs, sumac, and yogurt to great effect at the newish Israeli restaurant Aziza in Westside Provisions District.

Aziza cocktails
The Bird and the Maccabees at Aziza

Photograph by Martha Williams

If Paper Crane Lounge (above Staplehouse) and Himitsu (the Umi-adjacent, reservation-by-approval speakeasy) aren’t in your budget, you can turn to a new trend: high-octane and high-quality canned cocktails, available from two local companies. Post Meridiem’s smooth Mai Tai and its vodka gimlet with lemongrass deliver instant and effortless class to your dinner party or tailgating spread. And Tip Top Proper Cocktails, whose recipes were crafted by Macquarrie, manages to capture the brilliance of an Old Fashioned in a can. The result is equal parts classic and magic.

This article appears in our February 2020 issue.