Unfortunately, I usually visit Connecticut in the fall. The leaves are a kaleidoscope of rich reds and oranges, the cider mills and apple orchards are bountiful and inviting, the weather is warm enough for strolling through Stars Hollow-esque towns, and I’m too busy enjoying it all to do any serious bar-hopping. Luckily, this time I visited New England, the weather was drab, the trees were bare, and despite the freezing temperatures, there wasn’t enough snow to make it charming. I have finally been able to dedicate myself fully to exploring the drinking spots everyone should visit in Connecticut.
Perhaps because of its proximity to New York (paired with its access to farm-fresh local ingredients), great cocktails in Connecticut are plentiful. While time, my liver, and my in-laws wouldn’t allow me to sample every drink in the state, I was able to experience a number of excellent Connecticut cocktail spots and I’ve listed them here. Go visit them all.
Cocktails in Mystic, CT
If you like your cocktails paired with chowder, oysters, salt water taffy, and early American history, Mystic is unmissable. While all this quaintness will obviously attract a few tourists (hi, that’s me), it’s also home to high-quality creative drink destinations loved by locals. The Engine Room and Oyster Club are at the top of that list.
My first visit to Engine Room was in 2016, and I was honestly surprised to find such exciting cocktails in such a small town. Years (and several visits) later, their cocktail program has only gotten stronger. While I enjoyed a lovely seasonal eggnog and a memorable sazerac variation this visit, I was even more impressed with this savory gibson riff, “Swing Away Merrill,” featuring sun-dried tomato, lemon, and red pepper (they playfully describe it as a “pizza martini” but that doesn’t do it justice). I know I’ll be craving another for months to come.
Oyster Club (owned by the same restaurant group) is a newer addition to the Mystic food and drink scene. While still rustic and un-fussy, it boasts a quieter and more formal dining room perfect for date nights. They’ve also got a seasonally rotating drink menu and a killer oyster happy hour.
Cocktails in Essex, CT
Essex is one of my favorite towns to visit in Connecticut. It’s hard not to fantasize about taking up sailing, dressing like Hemingway, and living in one of its KJP-perfect homes every time I go.
Until recently however, this area was lacking progressive culinary and cocktail options. Fortunately, The Essex has done a tremendous job of elevating the food and drink scene. The highly-lauded Chef Colt Taylor opened The Essex in 2016, and thanks to his use of fresh local ingredients and an intriguing mix of New England and international inspiration, the Essex was awarded “Best New Restaurant” by Yankee Magazine. The cocktails are a major emphasis here with an inventive menu by the talented Michela Zurstadt. Whether you’re ordering off her menu or asking for a riff on a classic, Michela’s interest in showcasing custom ingredients from their kitchen and locally produced spirits makes her cocktails shine.
The second spot worth dropping into in Essex, the Griswold Inn, isn’t as much of a cocktail bar as it is a 100% necessary drinking destination. The Griswold (also known as “The Gris” to locals) is one of the oldest continually operating taverns in America, and it takes great pride in its heritage. With walls covered in old books, vintage posters, ancient guns, and weathered sailing paraphernalia, if you’re looking for a bar that will make you believe your next stop is the Pequod, this is the one.
And if you’re lucky enough to stop in on a Monday or Tuesday night, you’ll get to witness The Jovial Crew. They sing “songs of the sea, pub, and shore,” and all the locals in the packed bar seems to know every word of each shanty (I’m not sure what classifies something as a shanty, but if a song is accompanied by a squeezebox I think it counts). One woman claims she hasn’t missed a performance once in the last five years. If I lived any closer, I’d be tempted to beat her record.
Cocktails in New Haven, CT
Commitment to achieving high quality cocktails is particularly heroic in a college town like New Haven. Bars near schools can often get away with pretty unimpressive stuff; some of their audience is new enough to drinking to make them decently awed by a mere Moscow Mule. But while these bars don’t HAVE to be excellent, choosing to be means they can have a meaningful impact. They can set 21 year olds’ cocktail standards higher for the rest of their lives and engender a taste for better stuff from the beginning of their drinking careers. Elm City Social and Ordinary Bar are doing the job well, with fun and high-quality cocktails perfect for kids from 21 to 92.
Elm City Social was rated one of the best new restaurants by Connecticut Magazine, and here you’ll find bold flavor combinations in their carefully made original cocktails (shout out to Daniel Rek who authored the menu), well-executed classics like their perfect Irish Coffee, and playful presentations (check out the rubber ducky garnish on their signature). Their list also is pretty diverse; whether you want warm, cold, boozy, sour, fun, sweet, fun, or serious, there’s something for every frame of mind.
Ordinary Bar is right around the corner. I didn’t get to try their standard menu (they were the happy home of the Miracle pop-up during my visit), but the Christmas-y twists on a mai-tai and gimlet were excellently made. Tim (the owner) and Roger (behind the bar) were passionate believers in New Haven’s cocktail and food scene and gave us an intimidatingly long list of spots worth eating and drinking at in New Haven (that we promptly forgot thanks to the previously mentioned excellent cocktails). Sorry.
Lastly, we stopped by The Owl Shop for whiskey and cigars. While you’re generally not allowed to smoke in Connecticut bars, this place is so old that they were grandfathered in and are exempt from the rule. Enjoy a dram and a cigar accompanied by some high-quality East Coast accents at neighboring tables.
Cocktails in Hartford, CT
We’ve heard Little River Restoratives referred to as the best bar in Connecticut by local cocktail aficianado @matthew_cocktail, and we can see why. They’ve got a wealth of knowledge when it comes to deep-cut classics, and a crazy knack for guessing what their patrons are in the mood to drink. Thankfully they’ll soon be safely on the opposite side of the country from me, because proximity to their incredible nog isn’t safe for my health.
Whether you’re a local or just visiting, I hope you get a chance to drink your way through the cocktails of Connecticut.