At C. Grace, the fizzy gin creations are shaken to puffy perfection. At Hummingbird, the pink and orange hues of cocktails in vintage high ball and gimlet glasses are almost too pretty to drink. A classic Sazerac or Manhattan is a solid option at a cozy watering hole like Dram and Draught or Foundation, and at Bittersweet, you can have a pick-me-up when you’re winding down, with a coffee cocktail.
Raleigh has more cocktail bars than you can shake a swizzle stick at and we spent the last two months doing the legwork to bring you our list of the city’s very best. At each stop we made, we sidled up to the bar to determine the following: does the establishment use fresh squeezed juices and garnish? Are cocktails served in suitable glasses and strained (or served) over fresh ice? Does the menu offer thoughtful, unique creations as well as tried-and-true classics and is the bartender friendly and willing to make recommendations? Finally, what’s the atmosphere like and would we want to come back?
Each bar you’ll read about here ticked all the boxes and we’re pleased to report on a vibrant, burgeoning cocktail scene. Brad Farran, a local bartender and consultant who’s worked at Ashley Christensen’s now-shuttered Enoteca Vin and at the New York City cocktail bar Clover Club, says Raleigh’s had a boost from the city’s concentration of culinary talent and sharing of ideas.
“The people plying the trade know one another, they mostly frequent each other’s establishments, there’s an ongoing conversation,” he says. “[That] sense of community has always been there and the conversation is largely why Raleigh has a cocktail ‘scene.’”
That’s not to say the city at the heart of the second-fastest growing county in the nation doesn’t have room for improvement. Farran says, going forward, he’d like to see bar owners get even more creative and innovative with their concepts, and with their drinks—because good things come when folks take more risks.
“Too often I hear, ‘oh, that’s cool, but people wouldn’t get it,’” Farran says. “Or, verbatim, ‘that would never work here.’ Yes, it would! But we’ll never know until we try.”
We’ll drink to that, and we hope you, too, will stop in at your favorite drinkery—whether a speakeasy, luxe lounge or cherished hole-in-the-wall—and raise a glass. Here’s to all the great cocktail bars that Raleigh already has; we can’t wait to see what’s next.
16 E. Martin St.
As its name implies, Kim Hammer’s Martin Street establishment melds the concepts of a coffee-and-desserts cafe with a traditional cocktail bar, to the most delightful effect. Each drink served within the confines of Bittersweet’s sleek, white-tiled walls is an Instagram-worthy creation; think fluffy layers of spiked coffee and cream, and frothy gimlet glasses of gin fizz. Gin lovers are particularly in luck, with more than two dozen varieties on offer, and fans of vodka and bourbon cocktails have excellent choices too. Bittersweet’s menu rotates seasonally but some classics, including coffee cocktails mixed with liqueurs, rums and whiskeys, are a sure bet year-round. RM cocktail favorite: Day Drinker created with bourbon, ginger beer, chilled espresso, Crude grapefruit-rosemary bitters.
207 Fayetteville St.
The long and narrow Anchor Bar, stowed away on the corner of Hargett and Fayetteville Streets, resembles a ship’s hold. Circular window-style mirrors, hanging lights and a stainless steel bar top are so evocative, you almost expect to start swaying any second. Anchor Bar’s cocktails are also onboard with the nautical theme, with staples and staff picks such as the Stormy Morning, the Mississippi Mule and the Imposter. They’re unique, too, with their own accessories and glasses and surprising ingredients such as matcha and coconut cream. RM cocktail favorite: Sake to Me created with Nigori Lychee Sake, fresh lemon, simple syrup, Hibiscus essence oil, Amor di Amanti Prosecco and lemon twist.
3055 Medlin Dr.
Blind Barbour is a modern day speakeasy, drawing from the Prohibition era for the bar’s atmosphere, and its name. Back in the days when the country was dry, asking to see “the blind pig” at a speakeasy granted you admission to enjoy a drink. Owners Joey & Michelle Barbour opened the cozy bar just off Medlin Road and Dixie Trail in February of 2016, with the goal of learning the name of each guest that came in. Blind Barbour offers an extensive list of whiskeys and uniquely crafted cocktails. RM cocktail favorite: Smooth Operator created with Plantation Rum, Cruzan Dark Rum, lime, Chile Morita syrup, egg white.
407 Glenwood Ave., cgracebar.com
At C. Grace on Glenwood South, the 1920s vibe is totally immersive. Dark, cavernous rooms, lamplit corners and vintage decor give it the distinct feel of a jazz club and from the little black tables fronting a red velvet-curtained stage, you can catch a live jazz band on busy nights. Of course, the trappings would be for naught if C. Grace’s drinks didn’t live up to its dreamy ambiance. Be assured, they do. The spot’s craft cocktails are skillful riffs on well-known classics, stiff, fizzy or flavorful depending on your mood. RM cocktail favorite: Indian Summer created with rum, grapefruit, lime, cinnamon, Grand Marnier.
Dram & Draught
623 Hillsborough St.
Dram & Draught is the epitome of the neighborhood watering hole, a place where you can drink solo or with your squad and always feel completely at home. In July of 2016, Kevin Barrett and Drew Schenck opened the bar in a vacant gas station at the corner of Hillsborough Street and Boylan Avenue. Dram’s roll-up doors provide an inviting indoor-outdoor experience on beautiful days and a cozy intimate environment on less beautiful ones. In addition to more than 300 whiskeys, Dram’s cocktail menu includes the standards and around 10 unique seasonal drinks created by bartender Ian Murray and his team. RM cocktail favorite: The Farmhouse Social created with Social House Vodka, NC Farmer’s Market jam, fresh lime juice, soda, mint sprig.
407 Glenwood Ave.
You know not to judge a book by its cover, and, as Empress Room proves, it’s also wise not to judge a bar by the same measure—by its entrance, that is. Once you’re through the nondescript doors of this Asian-themed lounge, you’ll notice a gong and the Buddha statue behind the bar. The space is colorful, with beaded booths, a turquoise bar top and red chandeliers. Soft background music plays from a piano in the center of the room, subtle enough to create a relaxing ambience without deterring conversation. Like its downstairs sister bar C. Grace’s, Empress Room offers a fantastic drink menu with unique and delicious cocktails. RM cocktail favorite: Anastasia created with gin, cucumber, lemon salt and soda.
213 Fayetteville St.
Imagine the coziest dungeon, basement or cave where you’d willingly wile away a few hours and you’ve got Foundation. Tucked away down a flight of stairs on Fayetteville Street, Foundation is a perfect, dimly-lit escape from the heat, the cold or the day-to-day hustle and bustle. A whiskey lover’s dream, Foundation offers dozens of Bourbons, Ryes and Scotches (and Tennessee and Irish whiskey, and more). But if you’d prefer a gin, vodka or rum cocktail, they’ve got those too, with a choice of timeless classics and seasonal favorites. RM cocktail favorite: Old Fashioned created with Evan Williams 1783 Bourbon, Free Brothers Old Fashioned Bitters, simple syrup, orange twist.
Fox Liquor Bar
237 South Wilmington St.
Raleigh chef extraordinaire Ashley Christensen’s only dedicated cocktail bar is part speakeasy, part ultramodern liquor lounge, what she calls a “subterranean drinking den” with cocktails both classic and contemporary. Tucked away behind Beasley’s, Christensen’s booming fried chicken joint, Fox is dark and sprawling, with comfy black leather furniture and stainless steel bar stools. The drinks are creative and well-crafted and the glasses they’re served in are sketched onto the bar menu so you have a good idea of what you’re getting. Unique to each drink is its ice; whether it’s crushed into a tall glass or frozen into a cube or long rectangle, it’s a slow-melting small touch that’s extra refreshing. RM cocktail favorite: Dark Side created with Campari, Plantation Dark Rum, Cruzan Blackstrap Rum, Averna Amaro, Carpano Antica Vermouth, chocolate bitters.
555 Fayetteville St., #115; thehaymakerraleigh.com
According to its website, Haymaker on Fayetteville Street is “inspired by fighters and 90s rappers alike.” Beyond song references in some of the drinks’ names, we’re not entirely sure what that means, but it’s definitely working for them. Eschelon restaurateur G Patel’s Charter Square bar is small but beautifully decorated, with natural light spilling through panels of square windows, leather and wicker furniture and a colorful floral mural on the bar’s back wall. Cocktails come in glasses, tea cups, even punch bowls, and drinks tend to have a slight twist: a dash of curry syrup here, a green tea infusion there. Perfect for grabbing after-work drinks with friends, Haymaker’s atmosphere is modern, friendly and fun. RM cocktail favorite: Sing Like a Bee created with Early Grey Tea Infused gin, orange, lemon, honey.
The Green Light
108-1/2 E. Hargett St.
A hidden room inside the frequently bustling Architect Bar on Hargett Street, The Green Light is downtown Raleigh’s best-kept secret. A lit-up green lightbulb in the Architect’s entranceway is your cue that The Green Light is open for business; just follow the path through the bookcase door. Sliding behind the bar is like taking a trip back in time to a 1920s speakeasy. A velvet curtain vestibule, lush booths and small tables make the secret room, formerly an architect’s office, intimate and cozy. RM cocktail favorite: No. 828 created with Conniption Navy Gin, fresh blueberries, ginger and lemon.
Restaurants Raising the Bar
When it comes to quality cocktail service, these places stand out.
Driftwood Southern Kitchen
8460 Honeycutt Rd, #112
RM cocktail favorite: Raspberry Caipirinha created with Leblon, raspberry moonshine, house made raspberry syrup and lime.
Gallo Pelon Mezcaleria
106 S. Wilmington St.
RM cocktail favorite: Head Shrinker created with dark rum, Agricole, dry Curacao, pomegranate, Tamarind and lemon.
2519 Fairview Rd.
RM cocktail favorite: Winter Gin Fizz created with Cardinal Barrel Rested Gin, house made cranberry reduction, lemon, egg white, burnt chartreuse and bitters.
205 E. Franklin St.
RM cocktail favorite: Gin Rummy created with Reserve Gin, Aged Rum, Sangiovese Syrup, Lime, Aromatic Bitters
500 Glenwood Ave.
RM cocktail favorite: Amortentia created with Butterfly Pea Blossom Infused Tanqueray, Kummel, simple, Elderflower-Lemon Cocktail foam
201 W. Martin St.
RM cocktail favorite: Berried Alive created with vodka, blackberry shrub and ginger beer.
1053 E. Whitaker Mill Rd.
Raleigh’s newest cocktail bar begins each day serving breakfast and lunch, but come 5 o’clock, the drinks start flowing. Hummingbird’s bar top is a slab of stunning white marble, with 12 yellow bar stools in a line underneath. The back of the bar pops with turquoise tiles, while the upper walls feature a signature hummingbird mural. Each of the bar’s cocktail names are wordplay on flower parts and rock songs—think Love is the Anther, Stamen It All on Love, and Sex Pistil. Hummingbird is PoshNosh Catering owner Colleen Speaks’ first cafe, cocktail bar and eatery. RM cocktail favorite: Big Willy Style created with Flying Pepper vodka, Campari, lemon, raspberry and habanero shrub.
Hotel Cocktail Bars
10th & Terrace
616 S. Salisbury St.
Downtown Raleigh’s tallest rooftop bar, located on the 10th floor of the Residence Inn on Salisbury Street, opened in August. The indoor-outdoor bar offers incredible views of downtown, including the classical columns of the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. RM cocktail favorite: Orange Dahlia created with Absolut Mandarin vodka, NC honey, fresh lime juice, splash of Campari and orange zest.
101 Park at N Hills St.
Level 7 is the one-of-a-kind rooftop bar in Raleigh’s midtown, located on the 7th floor of the AC North Hills hotel. Level 7’s cocktail menu offers a spin on your most-loved cocktail classics. RM cocktail favorite: Pick Me Up created with Ketel One, espresso and Kahlua.
410 Glenwood Ave., #101; ncmilkbar.com
No, the Milk Bar doesn’t serve milk; it’s named for its location in Glenwood South’s historic Pine State Creamery building. Milk Bar opened in May of 2016, with the goal of being a great neighborhood bar. Patrons get live music on weekends, free skeeball and pool games every day, as well as fresh, seasoned popcorn with drinks. RM cocktail favorite: Mulled Cider Sangria created with Backpack Rowdy red wine, Amaretto, fresh pressed lemon, apple cider, allspice and cinnamon syrup with muddled orange.
322 Glenwood Ave;
Parliament, which opened under the Rockford on Glenwood South last summer, is a little bit different from the other cocktail bars on our list. Besides its distinctly girly vibe—think big bay windows, crystal chandeliers, sleek modern furniture and lots of pink—most of the cocktails on Parliament’s small menu are Prosecco-based. You can even order the bubbly drink on draft. That’s just fine by us, as these sparkly cocktails are delicious. RM cocktail favorite: Garden Gimlet created with Hendricks, simple syrup, fresh lime, club soda.
Watts & Ward
200 S. Blount St.
Another bar in the speakeasy style, the underground Watts and Ward resembles a 19th century mansion in the English countryside: all plush leather sofas, marble-top wooden tables, fireplaces, bookcases and antique-looking decor. Niall Hanley’s South Blount Street bar was named for two pieces of legislation—the Watts Act of of 1903 and the Ward Law of 1905—that sought to ban alcohol sales in North Carolina nearly two decades before Prohibition became the official law of the land. The menu’s classic and house cocktails are solid and tasty. RM cocktail favorite: Moore Square created with gin, white port, honeydew syrup, green chartreuse, lemon, edible flower.
William & Company
616 N. Person St.
William & Company is a neighborhood bar with a Latin flavor, which you can chalk up to owner Lily Ballance’s hailing originally from Mexico City. Wilco, as it’s affectionately known, offers some of the tastiest cocktails in Raleigh and is warm and welcoming with a cozy lounge vibe. Exposed brick walls and wooden floors, fresh cut flowers and comfy upholstered furniture creates a fun, laid-back ambiance. Ballance, a friendly and exuberant hostess, named the Person Street spot after her own young son and is something of a mastermind when it comes to mixing cocktails. Her creations are refreshing and surprising, with touches like celery juice, apple butter and pomegranate tea syrup. RM cocktail favorite: Edward Teach created with Kraken Black, St. Germaine, blackberries, lime, simple syrup.
Note: Standalone bars (that is, establishments whose food sales don’t exceed 30 percent of total receipts) are required by state law to be registered as private membership clubs. Joining is typically a formality with a nominal membership fee.