5 Amazing Bars in Unexpected Places

Not all the best drinks in the country are in big-city cocktail bars. Try one of these more out-of-the-way stops for incredible beverages.

By: Jason Horn

Sure, most of America’s best bars are in places where you’d pretty much expect to find them—cool neighborhoods in big cities, downtown spots bustling with tourist traffic, the lobbies of hip urban hotels.

But there are lots of other hidden gems serving amazing drinks in more out-of-the-way places. From coast to coast, there are establishments serving up incredible beverages from suburban strip malls, roadside motels and small-town main streets. To find some of the best of these, we asked a group of drinks-industry experts who travel extensively. Here’s what they suggest.

Maxine’s Tap Room, Fayetteville, Ark.

Photo by: Meredith Mashburn Photography

Meredith Mashburn Photography

As national sales manager for Haus Alpenz, which imports a staggering variety of vermouths, liqueurs and other high-end cocktail ingredients, Jake Parrott has visited a lot of bars around the country. And Maxine’s is among his favorite discoveries. His first visit was “a regularly scheduled sales call on a regular day of regular sales calls,” he says. “But what I found was a tight-knit team in a fabulous old room—fixed stools, popcorn machine, the works—turning out well-executed classics and simple original drinks and having a great deal of fun doing it.”

Photo by: Meredith Mashburn Photography

Meredith Mashburn Photography

Originally opened in 1950, the establishment features a 71-foot bar, literally the longest in the state, and has been beloved by University of Arkansas students for generations. It’s named for founder Maxine Miller, who ran the place herself for more than half a century. After Miller died in 2006, her family partnered with the owners of a bakery across the street to restore and renovate the space, and Maxine’s was reborn in 2013 as a craft-cocktail joint. “Maxine's represents all of the best parts of the modern cocktail world; that you can teach yourself to do it, and that you can find an appreciative community of drinkers anywhere in the world,” Parrott says, “particularly if you are nice to them.”

The W, Lee’s Summit, Mo.

Photo by: Andrew Grumke

Andrew Grumke

A reservations-only classic-cocktail lounge with a seasonally rotating menu and more than 1,000 different spirits on hand (more than 350 of them whiskies), The W could be on the top-bars list of any major city in the world. But it’s in Lee’s Summit, a quiet suburb about a 30-minute drive from downtown Kansas City.

“It’s a little gem!” says Los Angeles bartender Karen Grill, who’s worked at several of the city’s top spots and now serves as brand ambassador for Chareau, an aloe liqueur made in California. Grill was helping launch Chareau in Missouri when a Kansas City bartender sent her to The W. “He told me about this spot that I couldn’t sleep on,” she says. “The room itself is small but comfortable, and looks like you've been transported to another time. I couldn't recommend this place enough!”

Photo by: Andrew Grumke

Andrew Grumke

Though it opened in 2015, The W has a Prohibition-era speakeasy feel, with its second-story location accessed through a narrow stairway behind a small wooden door labeled only with the street number, 6 1/2. And its owners really embraced that: Nearly all the decor, glassware and other items in the place are authentic 1920s-vintage. The just-launched summer menu is a mixological journey around the world, including the Pompeii Italia, a mix of Italian liqueurs topped with scoops of frozen limoncello granita, and the Jalisco, a variation on Mexican favorite the Paloma, with tequila, club soda and a house-made grapefruit-jalapeño syrup.

Reilly’s Irish Pub, Anchorage, Alaska

Photo by: Visit Anchorage

Visit Anchorage

As both national brand ambassador for Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey and an actual Irishman (he grew up on an egg farm north of Dublin), Tim Herlihy is perhaps one of the world’s foremost experts on the Irish pub. And he discovered this Alaskan example in 2016, during his quest to visit one Irish pub in each of the 50 states in the 30 days leading up to St. Patrick’s Day.

Photo by: Visit Anchorage

Visit Anchorage

“It’s an Irish pub meets an Alaskan log cabin,” Herlihy says of this bar, which opened in 1957. “A homey, cozy, Irish neighborhood bar known for their Guinness and famed for their Irish Coffee. Great hospitality and bar full of charming characters—a great spot!” Herlihy has high praise for all the cocktails at Reilly’s, whose other house specialties include the Old Fashioned and something called the Otto, a sort of Margarita-Bloody Mary hybrid with tequila, lime and muddled tomato.

Photo by: Aaron Ingrao

Aaron Ingrao

Like many other small craft distilleries, Wood’s High Mountain Distillery makes a few types of whiskey, gin and liqueur that you can find throughout Colorado. But what makes it special is the bar in its tasting room in the mountain town of Salida, high in the Rockies at the very center of the state. As a distillery, Wood’s can only serve alcohol made on the premises—no outside spirits, liqueurs or even bitters are allowed. So the place just makes its own.

Photo by: Aaron Ingrao

Aaron Ingrao

“They have one hell of a cocktail program, especially given their state-mandated legal restrictions. Campari alternative for a Negroni? Covered. A long list of bitters? Covered. All made in-house,” says Aaron Ingrao, a photographer from Buffalo, N.Y., who’s spent much of the last seven months crisscrossing the country in a vintage 1964 Thunderbolt camper, documenting bars, bartenders and cocktail culture for his project Keepers of the Craft: Cocktails Across America. He visited Wood’s while shooting photos in the Denver area and was hugely impressed with the cocktail list, a creation of bar manager Taylor Howell (pictured), who’d worked previously in some of the Mile-High City’s top bars. “Taylor created the entire program from scratch, using their own bitters and tinctures created there. They have a wonderfully creative cocktail menu,” Ingrao says. Besides impressive cocktails, the tasting room also features regular live music and even dance performances.

The Sip 'n Dip Lounge, Great Falls, Mont.

Photo by: Really Montana Photography

Really Montana Photography

Plenty of tiki bars have kitschy midcentury decor and brightly colored tropical drinks. Not many also have mermaids swimming behind the bar. And only one of those is in a small town in central Montana.

“Yes, it’s in the middle of nowhere, and yes, it’s worth it!” says Ashley Marsh, West Coast brand ambassador for Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum. She found the Sip ‘n Dip completely by accident: On a road trip in Montana, she pulled into the O’Haire Motor Inn for the night and discovered that “this unassuming motel is home to one of the greatest tiki bars around,” she says. “I spent the evening bellied up to the bar sipping a Blue Hawaiian, watching the mermaids swim by and listening to Piano Pat rockin’ on her keyboards.”

Photo by: Really Montana Photography

Really Montana Photography

Preserved in near-perfect condition from when it opened in the 1960s, the Sip ‘n Dip has all the campy nautical decor you’d expect of a tiki bar. But its main attraction was added a bit later, in the 1990s: A window behind the bar looks in on the motel’s indoor pool and features costumed mermaids performing underwater six nights a week—plus every other Sunday afternoon for Mermaid Brunch. Piano Pat (her last name is Spoonheim, and she’s been performing here for more than 50 years) also provides live entertainment Wednesday to Friday nights starting at 9:30, and of course there are plenty of fruity and elaborate rum drinks on offer.

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