Salt Lake City has quietly become a fantastic place to drink. Who would ever have expected these words to appear in print? The city’s restrictive and byzantine liquor laws have historically made Utah a tough place to imbibe, but these codes are slowly relaxing and a solid core of legitimate cocktail programs have emerged over the last couple of years. The obstacles (old and new): state-run liquor stores (closed on Sundays), 4% ABV beer, mandated 1.5 ounce pour spouts on bottles at bars, nontransferable liquor licenses, and no happy hours allowed. Even more egregious were the laws that identified bars as “private clubs” in which one had to buy a membership (often around $20) in order to have a drink, or else be “sponsored” by an existing member of that “club” in order to gain entry. Bars had to serve food in order to serve liquor—if they wanted to avoid the private club stigma—but then their guests had to order food in order to drink. The folks at Copper Common told us that building up a legitimate back bar was a huge headache because they too are at the mercy of the state-run liquor stores and if they need some non-standard booze (easy to find in other states), they have to order at least a case of it and have it shipped—if they are lucky enough for it to be available at all. Difficult when your case of French génépi is going to take 50 years to go through because you are using ¼ ounce each month!
Fortunately some of these laws are changing, but to be a craft cocktail bar in Salt Lake City requires a certain level of commitment and that is why many of them are top notch. Bar managers are passionate and the public is curious. It’s a small- to mid-sized city and the traffic and pretension and massive crowds that plague Los Angeles are refreshingly absent here. Best of all, our top five bars in SLC are within walking distance—it takes a stroll of seven blocks to visit all of them. Granted, these are hefty blocks with wide streets to cross—wide enough to U-turn a team of oxen in—but still, people, there are only seven of them. According to the Google, it’s not quite a full mile. Total.
So get cracking!
1. Bar X – 155 East 200 South (Mon-Fri 4pm-2am, Sat-Sun 6pm-2am)
Start the crawl at Bar X, Salt Lake City’s best venue for cocktails since Modern Family’s Ty Burrell took over the dive bar in 2011. Or better yet, warm up with brats, Belgian Fries and a pilsner in the Bavarian beer hall atmosphere of Beer Bar next door before heading through the curtain into the windowless confines of Bar X. A drinking establishment should be this dark and cozy, and the building-length bar and colorful array of bottles focuses your attention where it should be. The rotating cocktail menu is comprised of ten creations from their bartenders—I always believe it is good manners to try the drink designed by the person serving you if it is within your sphere of interest. If you are not feeling adventurous, you can stick to a well-made speakeasy-era standard. If you are adventurous then choose one of the menu items or make it bartender’s choice. You are in good hands. The place can get overrun by hipsters on weekends so that is why you are heading here first in the late afternoon!
2. Under Current – 279 South 300 East (Mon-Sat 4pm–1am)
Bar X’s revival in 2011 seems like the Dark Ages when you consider that Under Current, Current Fish & Oyster’s industrial chic lounge space, opened about five months ago. It seems that the traditional absinthe preparation is a thing in Salt Lake City and if you are into that ritual then we should let you know that Under Current takes their absinthe seriously. Very seriously. I also have a soft spot for their cocktail program, which skews toward nautical/travel themes (Don’t Give Up the Ship, Lou’s Voyage, Glasgow Sazerac) and endeavors to slam disparate ingredients together in simple three-ingredient cocktails. I nurtured my adversarial love interest with Batavia arrack in the Wilson (a Castaway reference featuring Smith & Cross, arrack, and lime), while my friend enjoyed the Patio TV (reposado tequila, aquavit, lemon, lime), although he suggested that a half-empty can of warm Tecate would make the Patio TV experience truly complete. The kitchen is shared with Current Fish & Oyster in case you want some quality bites before trudging onward.
3. Copper Common – 111 Broadway S #190 (Every Day 5pm-1am)
Copper Common received so many raves from the locals that even some middling, inattentive service one night couldn’t keep us from returning. This time we were treated better and enjoyed a modified (and delicious) Strega Sour and a Tiki Peat (Pig’s Nose Scotch unexpectedly trespassing in an allspice dram and pineapple tiki formulation), two items that may not still be on the constantly evolving drink menu. If you feel good about your bartender try the Market Cocktail or some other riff. Copper Common has a beautiful glowing bar, indoor and outdoor seating, and great food if you are feeling hungry. The homemade, squared-off tater tots are legendary. Also, it’s halfway between Under Current and The Rest, which is where you really want to go.
4. The Rest – 331 S Main (Tues–Sat 5pm-1am)
I didn’t think it was possible but Bar X’s reign as our favorite place to drink in Salt Lake City has ended. The usurper is a two-year-old upstart called The Rest, which lurks under Bodega, a living room-sized tavern and connected convenience store stocked with random items. Bodega looks fun enough, with numerous canned beer and taco options in a tiny space, but the real draw is the Rest, which one must gain access to through a locked door and a flight or two of descending stairs guarded by a taxidermied moose head. Welcoming and talented bartender Zade Womack hooked us up with a couple of his creations, the Caffe Kingston Negroni (Smith & Cross, cold brew coffee, and the usual Negroni ingredients) and the Caffe Sazerac. Fortify yourself with these caffeinated cold brew creations—vodka and Red Bull for discriminating palates—before pouring yourself toward the last destination of your SLC craft cocktail crawl. If you’re into a traditional absinthe preparation, they can do that too. Enjoy the cigar store Indian, steampunk lighting, 19th century library space, and the Steely Dan on the turntable. Be sure to nab one of their business cards written in Braille. And, oh yeah, prepare also for the pleasure that vibrates through your being when you emerge into the Bodega above and they are turning people away from the secret door from which you just emerged—so you better get reservations and the only way to do that is online.
5. The Vault at Hotel Monaco — 202 South Main Street (Every Day 11am-3, 5:30 to Midnight)
Finish your evening at the Hotel Monaco’s gorgeous and high-ceilinged bar, the Vault. This is an excellent hotel bar, especially worthy if you are staying here and enjoying your Hotel For Dogs and goldfish-in-the-room privileges. We were able to enjoy some delicious classic cocktails here and my friend was able to source some very-hard-to-find (especially for Salt Lake City) Laddie Ten in the upper reaches of the vaulted back bar. The wine list and wine-by-the-glass list are also impressive if you are thinking of switching gears. If you finish the crawl very early, SLC-style, you can have a late dinner at the Hotel Monaco’s laudable restaurant, Bambara. The Vault is a perfect place to talk through your post-crawl analysis before crashing upstairs. But if you are getting a late start on this Salt Lake City craft cocktail adventure, you might consider starting here instead. Emerge from the Vault and proceed on this walking tour in reverse order—starting with the Rest—so that you arrive at Bar X before they close at 2 am. This will buy you an extra two hours. If you are feeling old, you can spread this crawl out over a weekend. But watch out for Sunday closures!