The city’s craft cocktail revival of yore has given way to a period of heightened imagination and innovation. A creative quaff can now be had in every corner of the city, from speakeasies manned by mustachioed bartenders to bars playing up postmodern experimentation to, yes, Applebee’s. Indeed, these are heady times for Orlando’s spirited tipplers and this list presents the best haunts to procure a proper cocktail.Read More
Orlando’s 18 Essential Cocktail Bars
The must-try cocktails throughout the City Beautiful
The Imperial at Washburn Imports - Sanford
Picture a store selling some of the most unique furnishings from India and Southeast Asia. Now picture a bar in the middle of the store and that pretty much describes the Imperial inside Sanford’s Washburn Imports. Sure the Imperials in Ivanhoe Village (the original) and the one that opened in Winter Park have similar aesthetics, but only the Sanford outpost serves liquor, and their cocktail program caters to connoisseurs. Besides, how many joints can sell you a quality Sazerac and the seat you’re sitting on?
This intimate tiki bar inside Tuffy’s Bottle Shop has a sizeable rum list but limited seating, so be sure to make resys before heading to Sanford. Down as many zombies, mai tais and Singapore slings in the two-hour limit, but don’t go overboard – sip a few too many namesake Suffering Bastards and your morning will be a bitch.
One of the progenitors of the city’s cocktail craze, the Courtesy still lays claim to the tippler’s haunt of choice thanks to the scholarly nerds behind the bar and the locally sourced and seasonal ingredients going into their mixers and garnishes. Its move from the downtown core to Winter Park didn’t affect the vibe any – its throwback apothecary motif and intimate layout is still a boozer’s sanctuary. And be patient – well-constructed cocktails take time and precision. Literate types will want to give good study to the nifty selection of absinthes.
It’s the spot for bullfighting vampires to get their drink on, though those with a penchant for enjoying spirited beverages in dimly lit parlors will find this Ivanhoe Village haunt just as appealing. The Matador is the quintessential neighborhood bar with its easygoing mien, but that’s not to say it doesn’t get a bit raucous come the stroke of midnight. Patrons often pour out onto the patio sipping their gin and tonics and Torontos for all of Virginia Drive to see.
Quality quaffs in pretense-free digs is lure enough for liquorists to the Guesthouse in Mills 50. By day, the large square bar at the space’s core is bathed in sunlight and potted plants happily photosynthesize around its perimeter. By night, the bar takes on an ethereal complexion as guests purposefully sip between two ferns (or more) and barkeeps swizzle and shake potent potables of the highest order. Out on the back parking lot, an Airstream trailer serving cocktails keeps the party going.
Given they open their doors at 6 p.m., the Sunroom is typically sun-less but there’s plenty to beam about at this throwback terrazzo-lovers’ dream. The ultra-chill vibe is reflected in beachy, tropical cocktails like the “Bonswa Swizzle,” an homage to Haitian-style tippling with Saint Benevolence rum and gin fruited with pineapple and spiced with cinnamon. Lime, orgeat and bitters round it out but it’s just one in a bevy of creatively focused potions that have made this sister bar to the Guesthouse a fave among the cocktail crowd. Its “Golden Hour,” from 6-8 p.m., is like a ray of sunshine made from $8 cocktails.
Joined at the hip to legendary live music venue Will’s Pub, Lil Indies is a gathering ground for hipsters, subversives and anti-corporate activists who fancy a properly crafted seasonal cocktail while discussing strategies on how to change the world, all while listening to the croonings of a local act. Dingy collides with French Provincial in the oddly shaped rooms, and a rotating cocktail menu with names like “John Waters Is Dead” (it’s got dill Aperol, gin, genepy, egg white, lime and local Smiling Goat shrubs) keeps things equally amusing.
While many consider Tori Tori an izakaya, it’s actually a no-resy, walk-ins-only Japanese bar that just so happens to serve some of the best pub grub around. Bites of whole binchotan-grilled Japanese flying squid and chicken skin tare pair perfectly with effervescent highballs and creatively concocted stiffer sips like the coconut shinobi and the Japanese slip n’ slide with Haku vodka, midori, dry curacao, lemon, and egg white.
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No surprise that one of the finest restaurants in the city would have a high-caliber cocktail lounge attached to its hip, and this one pops. The lounge isn’t large, but the star power certainly is, as are the bangin’ cocktails borne from the mind of Tim Durett, infusing Japanese and Southeast Asian ingredients and flavors. Oh, the lounge’s food menu, borne from the mind of James Beard-nominated chef Henry Moso, is a perfect complement.
Otto’s High Dive
The swank neighborhood rum bar oozes all the midcentury Cuban charm and lively conviviality without the deafening clamor and clang. Experienced bartenders shake, stir and pour refined Cuban-inspired rum-based cocktails like the “guava pastelito” and espresso-roasted “Bustelo Biafra,” but there’s a focused selection of Cuban fare to be had as well.
A fixture of downtown’s cocktail scene, the Woods is yet another bar housed inside a historic building, the 1924-constructed Rose Building on N. Orange Avenue to be exact. Just make sure to head up the stairs to the second-floor bar as the Lodge on the ground floor has a decidedly different (read drunken) vibe. The Woods is chill, in a Twin Peaks-y sort of way, and house cocktails can sometimes take on Lynchian kookiness (reposado tequila + Italicus + falernum + Domaine de Canton + green Chartreuse + mulled fig syrup + bitters + lemon = an Enamorada). That said, the vast selection of whiskeys and ryes keep hooch hounds content.
From the brains behind the Wildflower in Baldwin Park comes this downtown stunner that serves coffee by day and cocktails by night from the historic Angelbilt Hotel. The bar’s design invokes the mysterious, escapist and moodily tropical setting of an Agatha Christie novel. Reading Murder on the Orient Express in a cozy nook while sipping on an Espresso Train would be entirely apropos here.
Aku Aku Tiki Bar
Even those with a love/hate relationship with tiki culture will find it hard to find fault with this nostalgia-filled bar – it’s got enough South Pacific kitsch and rum to keep Richard Rodgers and Captain Morgan amused. Rattan furniture, grass skirts, and over-the-top cocktail vessels aside, there are some stiff drinks to be had, most notable of which is the signature and rum-less, “Tiger Fucker” – a fuschia-hued drink of 44° North potato vodka, jalapeno-blackberry syrup, lemon juice and passion fruit juice in an ice-filled schooner glass. It’s then garnished with a flaming sugar cube atop a lemon slice. Needless to say, it’s lit.
Mathers Social Gathering
Boutique spirits, seasonal ingredients, cordials, bitters, and syrups are all necessary requirements in modern-day cocktail making, but what Mathers Social Gathering brings to Orlando (apart from another speakeasy) is a level of big city sophistication. It’s like the city’s very own Soho House, sans the high fees, but with all the style. The spacious bar is housed on the third floor of an 1884 building replete with vintage furnishings, antique accents, soaring bookshelves and cozy brick-lined nooks. While drinks have that old-timey flair, their pricing reflects a current age, that is, pricey. Dress dapper.
The barkeeps at this downtown haunt two floors beneath Hanson’s Shoe Repair are liquor literates who’ve earned the right to be a bit self-assured, but ‘tude or no, it’s hard to deny their prowess in mixing well-crafted drinks. Brick walls, a low ceiling, and narrow confines lend a moody, intimate air ideal for sipping and savoring. The seasoned clientele are eager to be taken out of their comfort zone by the alchemists tending bar, all of whom are more than happy to oblige.
The Robinson Cocktail Room
Equal parts Brooklyn loft and West Elm showroom, the second-floor bar in the historic Robinson Building is a paean to pomo art and poisons in every way. It’s from the same group that brought Mathers Social Gathering into our cocktail consciousness and who envision the Robinson Cocktail Room to be “a bastion for the avante-garde.” No doubt, that ethic is reflected in drinks incorporating a dose of the uncommon with a dash of molecular gastronomy. Think the boozy and bitter riff on a Martinez called “Death by Elocution” with Treaty Oak Old Youpon and Bristow barrel-aged gin, a vermouth blend and maraschino foam. It’s then dusted with the powdered skins of lacto-fermented kiwis. If that isn’t out there enough, take a swig and stare at the skeleton display of a sabre-toothed tiger encased in glass.
Hanson's Shoe Repair
The speakeasy thing has become a somewhat tired novelty, so once entry to Hanson’s Shoe Repair has been secured by procuring the password from the Twitters (@HansonsShoeShop), head to the Hanson Building (generally considered to be the oldest building in Orlando) and give the person minding the door on the third-floor the “secret” code. Once seated inside the tight, dimly lit space, relax and savor the stiff potions designed by Rene Nguyen, one of Orlando’s finest cocktail creators. There’s even a small outdoor area for those feeling a bit claustrophobic. Oh, and don’t be overly nonplussed by couples making out — it’s a thing here.
AC Sky Bar
The elevated 18th-floor setting of this downtown haunt generates plenty of buzz for its cocktails with a view splendor, but the bartenders aim high with classics juiced with some big-city swagger. There may be no better spot to enjoy a sunset margarita, though happy hour can get a bit dodgy with imbibers jockeying for seats.
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