Spirited ... the bustling Employees Only bar. Photo: Rob McFarland
Close your eyes and imagine the world's best cocktail bar. Perhaps it's perched on the edge of a cliff on a Greek island. Or on the rooftop of a Bangkok skyscraper. Either way it's probably filled with a social-pages crowd of white-suited George Clooney lookalikes and statuesque supermodels. It's guest-list only, obviously, and a round of drinks will relieve you of a week's rent.
At least that's what you might think. However, according to the judges of the Spirited Awards, a prestigious ceremony held as part of the annual Tales of the Cocktail bar-tending festival in New Orleans, you'd be wrong. Last July they declared a small, view-less bar in New York's West Village, with no guest list and a frankly disappointing lack of statuesque supermodels, the best cocktail bar in the world.
This isn't somewhere you come to chug margaritas.
Employees Only (EO) is the brainchild of four bartenders who worked together in the Russian-themed New York bar Pravda in the 1990s. At the time, New York's bar scene was dominated by large, flash nightclubs and expensive bottle service. They wanted to create a relaxed bar where restaurant employees and industry people could enjoy great drinks and impeccable service. Together with a fifth member, they opened EO in December 2004. The name referred not only to their intended audience but also to the fact that the owners all worked behind the bar. Their ethos was simple: use the freshest, highest quality ingredients and provide the best service possible.
An Employees Only bartender weaves his magic. Photo: Alamy
It's an approach that's clearly worked because despite being in one of the world's most fickle bar markets, seven years later they're still going strong.
From the outside there's little to indicate that EO is even a bar.
A green awning shades a simple glass frontage with a red neon sign advertising the resident psychic (every night of the week there's a psychic or tarot card reader wedged into the corner of the hallway when you enter).
Open the main door and it's like stepping into a speakeasy from the 1920s. Warm, wood-panelled walls; white-veined marble floors; low, flickering candle-lit tables. Art deco touches abound, from the tin-pressed ceiling to the green strip lighting illuminating the shelves.
A long, thin wooden bar stretches down one side of the room behind which two bartenders in immaculate chef-style white coats both shake, stir and muddle.
I arrive 20 minutes after opening time on a Wednesday night and already there are only two seats left at the bar. The room is an infectious buzz of music, conversation and laughter accompanied by the rhythmic background percussion of a cocktail shaker.
I catch up with one of EO's founders, Dushan Zaric, a tall, striking Yugoslavian who still works behind the bar once a week. He explains the rationale behind the cocktail menu, which is comprised of both new recipes and re-envisioned classics. After experimenting with substituting and adding various ingredients to classic recipes, the team often found they preferred their versions.
As Zaric eloquently puts it: "Sometimes the cover of a song is better than the original."
The judges at the Spirited Awards agreed. EO also won world's best drinks selection.
Of course, a cocktail is only as good as its ingredients and EO is fanatical about using the highest-quality produce.
Behind the bar is a towering wall of exotic spirits and all juices and mixers are made fresh on the premises. Drinks change throughout the year depending on what's in season. In winter the Ginger Smash is made with cranberries; in spring, cumquats; summer, pineapples and autumn, pears.
I press Zaric for his favourite drink and finally he relents and says the Provencale, a lavender-infused Plymouth gin stirred with a herbs of Provence-infused vermouth and Cointreau. It's the liquid equivalent of a lazy summer's afternoon in the hillsides of Provence - delicate, floral and dangerously strong.
Next I try a twist on the classic Prohibition-era cocktail the Millionaire. The Billionaire is a heady mix of Baker's bourbon shaken with lemon juice, home-made grenadine and absinthe bitters. It tiptoes nimbly between sweet and sour with the pomegranate and absinthe offsetting the rich, lingering flavour of the whiskey.
Like the Provencale, it is also worryingly potent. This isn't somewhere you come to chug back a dozen frozen margaritas; these drinks need to be sipped and savoured. Thankfully EO has a small adjoining restaurant to which I retire for some sobering sustenance. Its late-night menu runs until 3.30am.
After a succulent seared rib-eye steak followed by a heavenly chocolate milk cake with caramelised banana, I'm ready to try one final libation. I opt for a Roselle, a simple but delicious mixture of Tanqueray gin, hibiscus cordial and freshly squeezed lime and grapefruit juice.
By now, it's 9pm and standing room only. It's three deep at the bar and Zaric and his team are a blur, effortlessly juggling bottles of spirits while laughing and joking with an appreciative crowd.
Surveying the room, I can't see a single white-suited George Clooney lookalike or statuesque supermodel anywhere. In fact, EO is refreshingly free of the pretension that so many high-end bars seem to actively encourage. No one's staring moodily into the middle distance hoping to be noticed; everyone's too busy enjoying themselves. Which, let's face it, is what going to a bar is all about. As Zaric puts it: "My job is simply to make sure you leave happier than when you arrived."
United Airlines flies daily from Sydney to New York via Los Angeles and San Francisco. 13 17 77, unitedairlines.com.au.
Employees Only, 510 Hudson Street, New York. Cocktails cost $US14-$US15 ($13.40-$14.40). Mains in the restaurant range from $US24-$US42. employeesonlynyc.com.
The writer travelled as a guest of United Airlines and Employees Only.