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To understand the genesis of the cocktail, you need to understand punch—a super-strong mixture of spirits, citrus, sugar, and spice that bears little resemblance to the blends you chugged in college. And you need to have it at Clover Club in Brooklyn's Cobble Hill to get why it ruled the pre-cocktail landscape from the 1670s to the 1850s. Recipes are inspired by bartender-historian David Wondrich, who literally wrote the book on the subject (Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl).
New Orleanians lay claim to inventing the first cocktail in the 1830s, the Sazerac, and while debates range on the city's best, the pleasantly fusty Napolean House in the French Quarter mixes up a mean one.
Nothing beats an icy mint julep, the quintessential bourbon cocktail, especially when it's been mixed and confined to a deep freeze for a week before being served over hand-chipped ice, as Savannah's Elizabeth on 37th does. Kentucky might claim out-of-state sacrilege—it is the official drink of the Derby—but sipping out of the traditional sterling silver mug in a history 1900s mansion just feels right.
To straddle the brown-clear liquor line, head west for classic tequila and rum drinks. Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco offers a boozy tour of the Caribbean with more than 200 rums.
Historians argue where the Manhattan was invented, but classic powerbrokers head to Manhattan’s 21 Club where it was perfected—stirred, not shaken (sorry, Bond). Their Manhattan—essentially a rye martini with sweet vermouth instead of dry, plus bitters—is a worthy alternative.
For more than a century, political deals in Washington, D.C., have been greased with a Gin Rickeys, a cocktail invented in the 1880s and brought to modernity at Chinatown's The Passenger.
Ever since it was invented at the St. Regis' King Cole Bar in 1934, the Red Snapper (a.k.a. Bloody Mary), possibly the most complex of classic cocktails, has been helping ease next-day burdens.