Top 10 Craft Cocktails in Lower Connecticut

Lou Gorfain

“We've come through the Dark Ages of the Cocktail," observes Gretchen Thomas, Director of Wine and Spirits for Barcelona and Bartaco.. "There was a time here when the spirit of choice was mainly Vodka, and the best we could do was flavor it.”

Though Connecticut may be a bit late to the party, the Craft Cocktail has finally, fully arrived. In fact, the drinks created at many local bars are as artful and artisanal as what's cooking in the kitchen.

Today’s barcraft is almost culinary … reflecting the way we now cook and dine: with fresh seasonal ingredients, locally sourced and often hand crafted.  Re-mixes of the old classics are updated with super premium, small batched spirits and served with stunning visual presentations and precisely balanced flavor constructions.  

“Cocktails have become part of the meal,” notes Jeff Marron, who heads up the beverage programs at Bill Taibe’s restaurants in Westport.  They are enjoyed for flavor and complexity more than potency.

The much celebrated legacy drinks of the Prohibition Era were often filled with unreliable spirits that were masked by powerful mixers.  And the boozy indulgences at Mid-century served as Mad Men escapes more than savored enjoyment.  After Viet Nam, mixed drinks barely survived the counter cultural revolution.   It took a new millennium to revive the cocktail’s pleasurable role in America’s drinking and dining.

Indeed, the eras of Gatsby, Draper and Joplin have long passed, and the Golden Age of Cocktails has come to the Gold Coast. So here’s our toast to the 10 top local Craft Cocktails…  and the men and women who are raising the bar.  Cheers!


4TH & CLYDE by 116 CROWN -- New Haven

Created by John Ginnetti 

  • Hendricks’s gin
  • Maker’s Mark bourbon
  • St-Germain Elderflower
  • Local honey
  • Salemme Red Chili Flakes

John Ginnetti was in a sophomore slump.  A year earlier, he had opened 116 Crown in New Haven, to great acclaim, sparking what would turn out to be a cocktail revolution in Connecticut.  But now he seemed to have lost his touch.  Desperate to break the doldrums, Ginnetti mixed together his two most popular bases – gin and bourbon.  Voila, they became kindred spirits: the upper cut of the gin rounded off by the oaky bourbon. He next shifted his sensory axis, wanting to counter the cold of the drink with heat.  He remembered some chili pepper flakes made by his pal Tom Salemme. The first time John tasted them on a pizza, he knew someday he’d find a place for the flakes in a drink … and this was it.  For sweetness, Ginnetti went local again, incorporating honey from a nearby beekeeper. He then introduced floral accents by adding St-Germain Elderflower liqueur; and for citrus, he selected lime juice, rather than lemon, which was a "better fit for the palate."    

After perfecting proportions, Ginnetti created what has since become the bar’s favorite cocktail. The sensory banquet begins visually with a frosted cocktail glass presented on a simple but elegant doily.  An amber hued liquid swims in the bowl, beckoning a first sip, as do subtle fragrances of elder and lime. 

After the lips meet the cold rim of the glass (chilled with liquid nitrogen). the gin and bourbon immediately warm things up, augmented by the heat of the peppers.  The sweet honey helps prolong the finish, which continues the interplay of hot and cold, sweet and sour, floral and grain.  Complexity and balance are the hallmarks of a craft cocktail, and that perfectly describes the alchemy of “4th & Clyde.”  

(The name references a canal in Scotland, where Hendricks Gin is distilled.  When we complimented Ginnetti on how the gin elevated the drink, he grinned, “It should. Check out the first three letters of my name.”)

116 Crown, New Haven.  (203) 777-3116


As crafted by Tim Cabral  

  • High West Double Rye, 
  • Bitters
  • Simple Syrup 
  • Duplais Absinthe Rinse

When we asked Tim Cabral, Ordinary's co-founder, to recommend a legacy drink, he immediately suggested a Sazerac, American's oldest cocktail. What could be more befitting in a place with so many memories? There's been a drinking establishment at the corner of Chapel and College in New Haven for over three centuries (back when "Ordinary" meant "Tavern" and the word “cocktail” didn’t exist.)  

"We want to respect the history of our drinks," Tim told us, "And the stories behind them."  The Sazerac was first mixed in New Orleans in the 1850's, named after the cognac which first formed the foundation of the drink, before being replaced by Rye.  For years, the drink enjoyed great popularity (because of its simplicity, power, and precise balance of flavors).  However, after Prohibition, it was forgotten in all but New Orleans, and only recently rediscovered at lounges in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.   Add New Haven to the list.

Cabral has not reinvented the wheel.  He remains true to the classic ingredients and their precise preparation, which ensures that every Sazerac served at Ordinary will taste exactly the same.  Tim blends the rye, bitters, and simple sugar in a Japanese beaker, chills with ice, and then strains the drink into a double old fashioned glass, which he has misted with Absinthe.  A garnish of orange peel, squeezed to release it oils, is placed skin side down on the rim of the drink, so that the bitters, absinthe and zest combine to offer a pungent, sweet olfactory invitation to sip.

The key to the cocktail, Tim told us, is when the liquor hits the back top of the tongue, opening the palate and mouth to taste every flavor at once.   We found the finish long and lingering, and not as boozy as we expected. That said, the cocktail is liquid dynamite, meant for relaxed sipping and savoring.  Though the ingredients are few and simple, the magic is in their exact ratio, creating a sum far greater than its parts.  Like the history of the location, memorable. 

990 Chapel St,(203) 907-0238

KYUSHIKI by KAWA NI -- Westport

As calibrated by Jeff Marron --KAWA NI -- Westport


  • Evan Williams Bourbon
  • Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curacao
  • 2:1 simple syrup
  • Angostura Bitters

The featured drink at Bill Taibe’s new Kawa Ni roughly translates in Japanese to “Old Way.”  Or Old Fashion.  Indeed, that’s what a Kyushiki is.  Jeff Marron, Taibe’s beverage guru, told us his Kyushiki is truly an old fashioned ,Old Fashion -- mixed the way it was done when club soda was non extant and barkeeps didn’t muddle fruit.

Respect for history and precision of technique, presentation and service distinguish Japan’s cocktail craft. Jeff is also a technical bartender.  This means he strictly adheres to vectors like ratio, dilution, temperature, etc. (He serves his Kyushiki chilled to exactly 40 degrees).  But sometimes, especially when it comes to an Old Fashion, Marron likes to play with some of the rules.  

Although whiskey drives Japan’s cocktail culture, and an Old Fashion is classically a whiskey based drink, Jeff often will ask a customer if he or she would like to substitute another spirit such as a gin or tequila.  He plays the card mid service, and after the first sip, the patron is invariably pleasantly surprised.

To Marron, an Old Fashion is really a format or platform: a spirit, sweetened with anything from maple syrup to honey, and accented with a bitter.  The combinations are almost infinite.  But economy, precision, and balance are unwavering constants in a perfect Kyushiki , like any fine Japanese work of art.  

19 Bridge Sq.    (203) 557-8775


Performed by Adam Patrick – Match – SONO

  • Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin
  • Extracted juice of English cucumber and fresh basil
  • Squeezed lime juice
  • Japanese Sencha Green Tea simple syrup

The Rathbone.  Whimsically named by its creator, Adam Patrick, in honor of the basil that is part of his cocktail's distinctive botanical signature.  Basil Rathbone, of course, was a Hollywood star of the 30's and 40's, the classical era of dapper American drinks -- so the name comes with a sly wink and subtle salute. 

The recipe was 3-4 years in the making. Originally, Adam served the drink as a Cucumber Vodka Cooler on the rocks.  After much iteration, it has evolved to a shaken gin cocktail, juiced with Thai basil and whole cucumber extractions, and sweetened with Green Tea Simple syrup.  He designed the drink for length, meant to be sipped for a long time. 

The thoroughly modern Rathbone represents a long journey in cocktail years, from those debonair black and white drinks Basil urbanely sipped on screen.

Adam presents the drink in muted high definition color:  a Coop Glass, more bowl than stem, frames a vibrant slapped leaf of Thai Basil floating on top of a foamed, light green surface. The visual is verdant, like a fragrant garden after a summer shower. The first nose comes as basil accented with lemon and pepper, a hint of the herbal complexity ahead. The front taste begins with cucumber, followed by a slight bitterness from the tannin of the steeped tea. an astringency offset by the sweet syrup.  The gin hits at mid palate, with subtle notes of lavender and citrus, which tie back to the herbal invitation that began the sip.  Adam describes The Rathbone as "fluid," pun very much intended, just like the cocktail’s name, and part of the fun of Match’s creative beverage menu.  

Patrick joined Chef Owner Matt Storch's team as Bar Manager when the restaurant re-launched early this year.  

98 Washington St.   (203) 852-1088


Reimagined by Shawn Longyear --  THE SPREAD -- SONO


  • Cilantro Infused Tanqueray Gin
  • Gosling’s Ginger Beer
  • Lime juice

The Spread’s sexy post-industrial cool is 180 from the grand elegance of Peacock Ally at the Waldorf.  Nonetheless, pony-tailed bartender and co-owner Shawn Longyear has gone back a century to update Peacock Alley’s swankiest highball for his hip, moderne clientele.

The classic Fog Horn was a sparkling mix of sweet gin spiked with ginger beer and a squirt of lemon --a light but potent cocktail for a swell, turn of the century crowd.   Sean decided to add even more sunshine to the drink -- and a deeper botanical flavor -- by infusing a drier gin with fresh cilantro, which also pairs well with the ginger beer.  The result is a dapper, garden to glass cocktail that is at once retro and contemporary.

If a drink can be described as “appetizing,” this Fog Horn is downright delicious.  Served in stemware chilled with liquid nitrogen, the drink is immediately refreshing, given the natural effervescence of gin as well as the sparkling bubbles from the ginger beer. It’s related to the Moscow Mule, but delivers a ton more flavors. Still, Longyear has kept the drink simple, letting the Gin predominate from start to finish, accented by the cilantro, ginger and citrus.  

Who knows how this artisanal riff on a classic would suit a snooty Yankee Doodle Dandy in top hat and tails.  This is certain: it’s a total hit with those kewl Connecticut Yankees who have made it the Spread’s most popular drink.  

The SONO hot spot is co-owned by Shawn and three other former bartenders.

70 North Main St.   (203) 939 1111



As authored by Bryan Walsh 

  • Jim Beam White Bourbon, steeped in Tahitian Vanilla
  • House made Cinnamon Syrup
  • Fee Bros. Black Walnut Bitters
  • Crown Organic Maple Syrup
  • Cinnamon stick garnish

Mark Twain famously wrote that if he couldn’t drink bourbon in Heaven, he wouldn’t go there. One place he would certainly enjoy is Bailey’s Backyard, just down the road from Twain’s home in Redding.  They pour Jim Beam, the same Kentucky distillery that barreled his favorite bourbon, Old Crow.  What’s more, mixologist Bryan Walsh has named a cocktail after Twain, and we think the literary master would surely appreciate the craft – and underlying humor -- behind its creation.

In The Mark Twain, Walsh has come up with a plot twist on a traditional Manhattan.  He decided to infuse the bourbon with Tahitian vanilla, replace the sweet vermouth with a dab of house made Cinnamon syrup complemented by a dot of organic Crown maple syrup from nearby Duchess County, swap Black Walnut bitters for the traditional Angostura, and garnish the drink with spicy cinnamon sticks rather than an expected maraschino cherry.  He stirs the drink and pours it over a jumbo 2 ½ inch ice cube The result is a playful narrative meant to be savored and enjoyed, like any good ‘tail.

The drink opens with a flavorful and aromatic meld of cinnamon, maple, and vanilla, as the spicy bitters counterpoint the sweetness of the maple. The bourbon then hits, its natural vanilla deepened by the infusion, the alcohol taking over the back end of the sip. Though far more complex than a traditional Manhattan, the Mark Twain is still perfectly balanced. 

The menu also includes a bevy of dessert cocktails.  We couldn’t resist the Almond Joy Martini, inspired by our favorite candy bar. What fun.  And say, isn’t that an amused Samuel Clemens watching Bryan and Executive chef Forrest Pasternak at play in Bailey’s Backyard?

23 Bailey Ave   (203) 431 0796 


Constructed by Gretchen Thomas – BARCELONA -- Greenwich, Stamford, South Norwalk, Fairfield, New Haven, West Hartford


  • 4 Roses Bourbon
  • DOC’s Maple Syrup, grade B
  • Cocchi Torino Vermouth
  • Scrappy’s Cardamom and Lavender bitters
  • lemon juice 

Once upon a time, drinking whisky in general and bourbon in particular, were considered a rite of manhood.  But today that gender discrimination is just a fairy tale. Bourbon is now a popular women’s call, especially drinks like Gretchen Thomas’ Bourbon Spice Rack, which enjoys both bite and aromatic complexity   In fact, its name is homage to the bouquet that Gretchen loved to smell when opening her mom's spice rack.

Cardamom and Lavender bitters confer a spicy flavor and aroma to the cocktail, but the creative story starts with DOC's Maple Syrup, produced locally at a farm in upstate New York.  A few years ago the farmer approached Barcelona about using their maple syrup in the kitchen.  But after one taste, Gretchen immediately decided to create a cocktail around the vitamin rich syrup.  After two days of experimentation, she had her drink. Thomas used the amber syrup to complement the bourbon -- and the spices to counterpoint the syrup’s sweetness.  They add their own aromas to the maple and oak. Gretchen chose Grade B maple because it is a mature, woodier, and more textured syrup.  (Grade A is younger, clearer and smoother, better for morning pancakes than evening cocktails).

With all that potential sweetness, the drink is not cloying, but remarkably refreshing. It finishes clean and smooth, leaving subtle bourbon memories on the tongue.  Served in a lowball glass, the visual presentation is dominated by 2 giant 1 x1 inch Kold-Draft ice blocks. The crystal clear oversized cubes keep the drink chilled without the melt and dilution of smaller ice.  The whimsical size just adds to all the fun of a very happy drink, laced with sugar and spice and everything nice.

MARGARITA by Bartaco -- Stamford, Westport, West Hartford 

Perfected by Gretchen Thomas  


  • Maestro Dobel Tequila
  • Luxardo Triple Sec
  • Fresh lime juice
  • Agava nectar

“Just create The World's Best Tasting Margarita."  That was the simple assignment the owners of BARTACO (The Barcelona Group) handed to Gretchen Thomas.  She decided not to do a " version,"  but to remain absolutely true to the 4 classical ingredients of a Tequila.  Her goal: a legacy drink, “simple and crave-able."

Her bar became a lab. After first calibrating the best balance of the 4 ingredients, Gretchen then painstakingly tested 65 different Tequilas in that mix.  After months of experimentation, she found her perfect flavor profile in Maestro Dobel, a high-end blend of different barrel-aged tequilas.  With all colors filtered out, the tequila may look blanco, but tastes reposado.  

Triple Sec plays a delicate role in any Margarita. It should work in the background like a soft melody to help harmonize the flavors.  Again only the best would do, so Gretchen chose Luxardo, a liqueur distilled from oranges, not flavored with them.  The taste registers fresh orange peels; the fragrance is of blossoms. Gretchen completed her recipe with squeezed-to-order lime juice and a touch of succulent agava nectar.  Giant ice cubes "keep the flavors sharp and laser beam fresh." 

The taste opens tart, with just a hint of sweetness.  After the "attack," the barrel spices and herbal notes of the tequila emerge and linger through the finish, with a slight orange flavor present in the background throughout.  Aromatically, the sequence begins with the scent of fresh lime, then tequila, spice and orange.

"The World's Best Tasting Margarita"?   Let's just say that if Plato drank Margarita's -- Bartaco's would come close to being his Ideal.

24 CARATS by NAPA & COMPANY -- Stamford

Designed by Eric Ribeiro 


  • Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon
  • Osborne Sherry
  • Carrot-Ginger syrup,
  • Ginger Beer
  • Lemon Juice
  • Apple Bitters
  • Chinese Bitters
  • Candied Ginger
  • Herb garnish

A Parisian trained chef, Eric Ribeiro brings a culinary background and approach to the bar.  Case in point: his signature cocktail, 24 Carats. In this complex hand crafted drink, Eric deftly plays vegetables (a syrup of ginger and carrots carbonated with ginger beer) fruit  (lemon juice and sherry),  herbs, bitters and spirits (bourbon and sherry)  against each other. It’s as if he were inventing an Asian American fusion dish. A garnish of ginger candy completes the culinary theme, working as either a pre-prandial hors d'oeuvre or a sweet dessert.

Ribeiro likes a cocktail that delivers 4 distinct flavors:  sweet, acidic, alcoholic, and bitter. That’s the exact flavor profile of 24 Carats.

A sip begins with the sweet taste of Carrot and Ginger syrup at the tip of the tongue, counterpointed by the pungency of the lemon.  The citrus also brightens the Bourbon -- which gives a bite to the drink as the fruity Sherry smooths it.  This sequence is what Eric describes as the “body” of a cocktail.  It is followed by the “Legs”, the finish, which is extended on the palate by the Apple and Chinese Bitters.

As for the Ginger Beer … those bubbles add sparkle to 24 Carats – just what a gem deserves.

75 Broad St.  (203) 353-3319 

THE PALOMA by Aarón Sánchez' PALOMA -- Stamford’s Harbor Point

Interpreted by Olie Berlic 


  • Rubyred grapefruit and lime
  • Sea Salt
  • Purified Water
  • Camarena Reposado Tequila
  • Grapefruit Crème Brulee nectar

Fittingly, “The Paloma," is the signature drink at Aarón Sánchez's new Paloma .  Olie Berlic, the restaurant's renowned beverage director, took the basic ingredients of the drink -- tequila, grapefruit, lime, salt and soda  -- a step further.  "Grapefruit became ruby red," he tells us. "And thinking of flavors and combinations, creme brule popped into my head."  So Berlic confected a brulee of caramelized sugar with grapefruit and fresh lime juice. Wrapped in a saddle of grapefruit zest, the berry shaped garnish affords a visual and aromatic preview of what's to come in the Paloma, itself.

The sip begins with a sensation of the sweetness of the soda, then pungent fresh juice, followed by the mellow, smokey flavors of the aged, high quality reposada.  The drink finishes slightly sweet and totally refreshing.

What distinguishes every cocktail on Paloma’s menu is the purity of the water. The restaurant's customized filtering system removes most of the fluoride and chlorine, and a multitude of the toxins found in faucet water. Every cocktail is served with a back of water. We recommend sipping it first, before tasting the cocktail.   Its crystal clear purity prepares the tongue and palate for the pungent and sweet flavors to follow.  Olie believes Paloma’s water will be the purest most patrons will ever drink. And indeed, he had us at H2O.

15 Harbor Point Rd.  (203) 998-7500