Where Cocktail is King

A search to find real, genuine bars in the Granite State

Griffin Starr works a little mixology magic while chatting with a customer at 815 Cocktails & Provisions on Elm Street in Manchester.

Apparently bar preference, much like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Or, in this case, the imbiber. Researching this feature, I cast a wide net, asking friends from Nashua to Pittsburg for recommendations. But my request often got lost in translation; I got the names of all kinds of bars, from neighborhood dives to wine-tasting establishments. And while those spots all have redeeming qualities, that’s not what I was looking for.

My goal was to uncover real bars, genuine bars, places that put a premium on a well-crafted cocktail and a top-notch setting. Essentially, bars where the star of the show was a refined drinking experience. A welcoming atmosphere — sophisticated but not phony — was the only other requisite.

Now, before going any further, I should explain how I got here. I came of age in the mid-1970s, when the drinking age was 18, and have a treasure trove of fond memories of bars from Manchester to Nashua, and of course Durham, home of our flagship university. The bars of my youth — such as the dearly departed Salty Dog Tavern and Red Onion, located just a few steps from one another in downtown Manchester, and Scorpio’s in Durham — had character: sticky floors, spotty lighting, less-than-antiseptic restrooms, pitchers of cold beer and rudimentary cocktails (can you say Tequila Sunrise or Sloe Gin Fizz?). The atmosphere was really what you made it, with lively, often raucous banter between friends present and future.

So, I’ve still got a keg-size spot in my heart for the quintessential dive bar — or “neighborhood bar,” if we’re being kind — that defined my late teen and early adult years. I’m not casting aspersions. But things changed as I grew older, more, dare I say, “mature.” That evolution actually started in the newsroom in the early ’80s, when I was a cub reporter. My editor would chide me for my “regular” Dunkin’ coffee (the morning equivalent of the Puritan Backroom’s famous “Frozen Mudslide”). 

“You should drink it black,” he told me. “Then you’d actually taste the coffee, not the sugar and cream.”

He was right. Soon, I applied the same thinking to my choices in cocktails. I learned to drink scotch neat, acquiring an appreciation for single malts and peat content. I made my margaritas simply, with good tequila, Cointreau and fresh lime (no sour mix). I took Anthony Bourdain’s advice and tried a Negroni (though my preference today is the drink’s bourbon cousin, the Boulevardier). 


Sian Quinn makes the Commissioner Gordon at 815 Cocktails & Provisions.

Interestingly enough, over time, I found I didn’t drink more; in fact, I drank less. But I began to drink better. I developed a more refined palate, enjoying the subtle differences between my spirits of choice. And I’m not alone.

“Our guests are, by and large, quite knowledgeable,” says Ryan McCabe, who, with business partner Sarah Maillet, opened 815 Cocktails & Provisions in Manchester in early 2014. “The great thing about our industry is there is always something to learn on both sides of the bar. We have a cocktail in the menu called the ‘Mixed Tape,’ which is basically an at-whim cocktail that our staff will make for our guests after a quick conversation and some parameters.”

In a scenario straight out of “Field of Dreams,” Manchester circa 2014 didn’t have the type of bar that McCabe and Maillet envisioned. So they created their own, believing customers would come. 

“Ryan had always wanted to own a whiskey bar, and it seemed like prime opportunity to get the ball rolling,” says Maillet. “We used to travel into the bigger cities out of state for good cocktails, and decided it was our chance to bring both the classics and the creative to New Hampshire.


Starr behind the bar at 815.

“We had visited some cocktails bar in New York City and thought our space fit the speakeasy vibe,” she says. “I sometimes think of us as the grandparents of the cocktail movement in New Hampshire, bringing an elevated cocktail awareness into the state.”

In a nutshell, that was what I was looking for. It wasn’t just a matter of “what” I drank, but also “where.” I sought out quiet, low-key settings of a “real” bar, places where I could enjoy a nice conversation with my wife or friends without shouting over the din of a large crowd or blaring sound system, or being inundated with big-screen TVs. Those bars could be attached to restaurants, since it’s always important to avoid imbibing on an empty stomach, but it needed to stand on its own merits. 

Essentially, a bar shouldn’t be an appendage to the restaurant. It should be a place where the cocktail is king.

“We felt that the art of bartending had, for the most part, been lost,” says Jeremy Hart, who owns Industry East in Manchester along with business partner Dan Haggerty. “We wanted to open a craft cocktail bar, and we’ve stayed very true to that vision.”

In two short years, this small spot on Hanover Street has established itself as a force in a crowded bar scene. Hart and Haggerty have a combined 45 years of restaurant experience, and have employed that know-how.

“We’ve found that people are generally more mindful of what they spend their money on, and are looking for something a little more creative,” says Hart. “We set out to create a bar that we would want to hang out at, a place where you could get a great cocktail, but also where you could get a shot and a beer, and feel comfortable either way.”

Comfort is crucial. That’s why I was yearning for the low-lit, ambiance-rich bars of yesteryear, places with an understated vibe and sumptuous leather furnishings. Just as important, I wanted knowledgeable bartenders who would engage curious customers. It wasn’t enough to get good service; I wanted an experience that included not only a good drink in a nice setting but also a chance to broaden my own horizons. 

“Consumers now are definitely more informed about what they are ordering, although that doesn’t stop us from trying to change their mind about certain ingredients,” says Hart. “Whenever someone tells me they ‘don’t like gin,’ my normal response is, ‘Challenge accepted.’ We offer a drink called, ‘Lemme Get Uuhhhhh,’ where our bartenders will ask you what you like, or what you don’t like, or about any allergies, and create a drink just for you.”


The Ladd Street entrance to Portsmouth’s Slow Burn Lounge, illuminated in neon.

My shifting bar preferences dawned on me a few decades back, during my clan’s mid-winter romps through New Hampshire’s North Country, at places like The Balsams in Dixville Notch, the Inn at Thorn Hill in Jackson, the Stonehurst Manor in North Conway and Omni Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods — places with an aura of relaxed sophistication from a bygone era. 

Among my favorites was The Cave at Omni Mount Washington Resort. Originally built as squash courts, The Cave was later transformed into a speakeasy before Prohibition. With its rough-hewn stone walls, arched brick ceilings and large wood bar, the place bleeds history (Joseph Kennedy, sire of the famed Kennedy clan, reportedly sold the hotel bootlegged liquor during the 1920s). You can still see the secret windows where staff could watch for local authorities coming up the main drive.

“Everyone was prepared to change out gin for tea in the event of a raid,” says Michael Paquette, Mount Washington’s food and beverage manager. “The Cave remains popular due to its historic nature.”

But a rich history, without staying current, would be an exercise lost to time. Instead, the best bars blend the two seamlessly. 

“We place a great deal of emphasis in the bar side of the business, as that’s an important component to our guest experience,” says Paquette. “Guests are becoming more knowledgeable and discerning about their cocktail choices, and we find that, while guests are becoming acquainted with more traditional classic brands, some focus on the new trends in the industry.”

This shouldn’t be surprising. Many of New Hampshire’s great “grand hotels” were the standard bearers more than a century ago, when New Hampshire was a playground for the rich and famous from Boston and the New York metropolitan belt. They were defined by a sense of refinement and soft-spoken elegance. And when you’re in a place that clearly cares about appearances, it’s easy to feel good about yourself. 


Bartender Luke Mello of Slow Burn Lounge in Portsmouth creates a cocktail.

“It’s impossible not to feel important at the Library Lounge,” says Michael Rego, longtime bar manager at Stonehurst Manor in North Conway, home of the Library Lounge.

Of course, that’s the whole idea. You want to feel good and have a good time. Claremont native Liu Vaine knows this and, together with various partners, has created an amusing collection of whimsical speakeasies that not only serve great drinks, but serve as a reminder that having a cocktail isn’t serious business. Vaine and company operate Chuck’s BARbershop in Concord, CodeX B.A.R. in Nashua, the CrowBar Hardware Store in his hometown of Claremont, and Sole’s B.A.R. in Keene. All require a little imagination and ingenuity to get into (they are, after all, speakeasies). 

But, once inside, you’ll be transported back in time, to a place that’s a veritable candy store for cocktail fans. And you’ll find well-educated staffers who know how to enjoy themselves and know how to help their customers “laissez le bon temps rouler.”

“The reception has been amazing,” says CrowBar’s Executive Chef Michelle Dionne, who co-owns the establishment with Vaine and Liz Gallacher.

Plus, it’s important to note that  many bars have shuttered in the past three years, often due to the onerous weight of the COVID pandemic and its subsequent restrictions on public gatherings. But most of the bars mentioned here have  not only survived but managed to thrive. That speaks volumes. 

“We have been grateful to have the support of the community throughout all of it,” says 815’s Maillet. “We think it’s important to keep growing and evolving overtime.”


Quinn Macvittie enjoys one of the many fine cigars offered at the Slow Burn basement lounge in Portsmouth.

But not all high-end bars follow the same tried-and-true formula. My search also led me to an establishment I knew little about, but won’t soon forget: the cigar bar. Unlike many of my friends, I never took to cigar smoking. The taste just never agreed with me. I did, however, enjoy that distinct cigar aroma. 

“People enjoy cigars and pipes to relax, de-stress and reflect, and are looking for ways to do so now more than ever,” says Kurt Kendall, owner of K.A. Kendall’s 7-20-4 Lounge in Londonderry. “We prioritize creating an atmosphere where men and women can enjoy the cigar and pipe-smoking experience to its fullest, with the help of friendly and knowledgeable staff.”

In New Hampshire, the cigar bar is a different animal compared to restaurants. Licensed by the New Hampshire Liquor Commission (as opposed to the Department of Health and Human Services), these establishments must maintain a balance of 60 percent cigar sales to 40 percent liquor sales. But that’s for the bean counters to worry about. For the cocktail enthusiast, it’s more important to know that these bars pride themselves on offering drinking options that match their cigar choices. 

“The vibe is a relaxing ‘make yourself at home’ atmosphere, providing excellent service with a range of spirits for everyone to enjoy,” says Kendall, who founded Twins Smoke Shop 26 years ago. “We specialize in ‘barrel picks’ from all major distillers, from Tennessee, Kentucky and Mexico, making this a very busy destination for cigar and spirit lovers.”

Speaking of destinations, the venerable Federal Cigar (first established in 1921, the oldest cigar retailer in the state) has launched a pair of cigar bars closer to the Seacoast. Few bars can match the genuine speakeasy atmosphere of the first, the Slow Burn Lounge in Portsmouth. With its subtle side-street entrance, basement bar and Colonial-era red brick and stone décor featuring heavy wooden beams across the ceiling, this lounge is a gem for cigar and cocktail connoisseurs alike. Dover’s Slow Burn, which opened four years later in 2015, features a Federal Cigar store out front and more of a Madison Avenue vibe reminiscent of “Mad Men” in the back.

“Both locations have state-of-the-art, hospital-grade ventilation systems that are the most important component in having a space that’s enjoyable for our patrons,” says managing partner Jeremy Soares. “We specialize in brown spirits, and have multiple ‘barrel picks’ of exclusive whiskeys. In fact, we will have the first collaboration between Bob Dylan and the Heaven’s Door brand.”

Get a membership and your own private locker with a $1,000 Federal Cigar gift card purchase. And if Aphrodite-Michael Cotoulas is behind the bar at either location, treat yourself to one of her specialty Manhattans. (I had mine made with Old Forester 100-proof bourbon. Literally, the best I’ve ever had.)

So, there you have it. The drinking scene in New Hampshire is a wonderfully eclectic collection of high-end bars, taverns, pubs and lounges. The establishment that best suits you may not be in your backyard, but you can find one with minimal effort. And when you get there, enjoy yourself, responsibly. Cheers. 


The “warm, artsy, kind of funky, dim-lit living room” of 815 Cocktails & Provisions, as co-owner Sarah Maillet calls it.

10 Lovable Bars

815 Cocktails & Provisions

Originally opened as a modern-day speakeasy, 815 has since moved away from that ambiance toward something more familiar. “The vibe is like a warm, artsy, kind of funky, dim-lit living room with couches and leather chairs,” says co-owner Sarah Maillet. “From cocktails to the décor, it feels like home.” And it’s getting a makeover. Co-owners Maillet and Ryan McCabe  decided to roll up their sleeves and do a full remodel. But expect the same commitment to artisan cocktails. 

815 Elm St., Manchester / (603) 782-8086 / 815nh.com

The Cave

Unlike many speakeasy newcomers, The Cave, dating back more than a century, is the real deal. “It’s a cultural thing,” says Craig Clemmer, Mount Washington’s marketing director. “We have this romanticized vision of the era that people can’t get enough of. But they also want authenticity, and that’s what makes the Mount Washington so special. You can come here and walk the same spots that the Rockefeller and Vanderbilts once did. It’s not a hotel built to look like it comes from that era — it’s from that era, and The Cave really brings that out for people.” 

Omni Mount Washington Resort, Bretton Woods / 603-278-1000 / omnihotels.com

Chuck’s BARbershop

This fabulous spot, wedged right into a back alley in downtown Concord, celebrates its Prohibition Era heritage with a mural of Al Capone, heavy drapes, brick walls, wood-planked floors, a beautifully-shaped bar, entertaining staff and a cocktail menu that would make Scarface proud. Weekly specials keep things fresh and interesting.

90 Low Ave., Concord / (603) 856-7071 / facebook.com/ChucksBARbershopNH

CodeX B.A.R.

The “B.A.R.” stands for Books, Antiques and Rarities, continuing owner Liu Vaine’s penchant for clever names and entertaining speakeasies. Yet few bars tiptoe the tightrope between traditional and trendy quite as deftly as CodeX, with it’s pitch-perfect period décor as a nod to the Roaring ’20s. The CodeX crew focuses on craft bartending using classic cocktail recipes with ingredients handmade in-house, including fresh-squeezed juice, bitters, sour mixes and syrups. You’d be hard pressed to find a finer Whiskey Sour, Old-Fashioned, Sazerac or Negroni than the ones served up at CodeX. Live piano on Friday and Saturday nights.

1 Elm St., Nashua / (603) 864-0115 / codexbar.com

CrowBar Hardware Store

The CrowBar Hardware Store is clearly a labor of love for owners Liu Vaine, Michelle Dionne and Elizabeth Gallacher. The 1920’s décor is absolutely exquisite, with plush period furnishings and soft jazz music practically begging you to relax. And although the food is very, very good, the cocktails (in my humble opinion) are even better. In addition to the classics, you’ll typically find more than a dozen wildly creative specialty drinks. Don’t believe me? Sample the “Earl Grey Marteani” (Earl Grey tea, London Dry gin, lavender simple syrup, lemon, egg white and bitters), and then we can talk.  

38 Opera House Sq., Claremont / (603) 504-6085 / facebook.com/CrowbarHardware

Industry East

Industry East, despite its small space, comes up big with anything placed in front of you, whether an adult beverage or locally-sourced food. Though bourbon is my typical go-to when I’m craving something south of the border, I’ll opt for Industry East’s “Thousand Dollar Pillow Fight” (mezcal, Cointreau, lime, orgeat syrup, snap pea, pineapple and habanero) or “C.R.E.A.M.,” which means Cucumber Rules Everything Around Me (Tequila Mi Campo Blanco, Ancho Reyes Verde, cucumber, lemon and jalapeno). Look for the opening of their new venture, The Stash Box, on Elm Street in Manchester.

28 Hanover St., Manchester / (603) 232-6940 / industryeastbar.com

Library Lounge at Stonehurst Manor

The quiet grace of the Library Lounge is difficult to duplicate. That might explain why this upscale watering hole draws both hotel guests and locals. “The massive ornate wood fireplace and leather-upholstered chairs makes for a bar that takes your breath away,” says Library Lounge Manager Michael Rego. The same can be said for some of Rego’s signature martinis, like “Lola’s New Groove” (mandarin vodka, St. Elder elderflower liqueur and fresh lime juice) or “Mr. Bigelow’s Basil-tini” (basil-infused vodka, pineapple juice, lemon juice and Peychaud’s Bitters).  

3351 White Mountain Hwy., North Conway / (603) 356-3113 / thewildroserestaurant.com

K.A. Kendall’s 7-20-4 Lounge at Twins Smoke Shop

This bar is situated off Interstate 93, in what looks to be a split-level, white-collar office building. Don’t be fooled. Downstairs is Twins Smoke Shop, with “one of the largest walk-in humidors in the country, housing more than 250,000 cigars,” says owner Kurt Kendall. Upstairs, the open and expansive K.A. Kendall’s 7-20-4 Lounge “features a massive collection of whiskey, tequilas and signature cocktails crafted by our expert bartenders,” says Kendall. “We pride ourselves in cultivating a relaxed and inviting atmosphere.”  

80 Perkins Rd., Londonderry / (603) 421-0242 / twinssmokeshop.com

Slow Burn Lounge — Portsmouth

If any bar could give The Cave a run for top honors in the “Most Historic Bar” category, it would be Portsmouth’s Slow Burn Lounge, tucked below street level, underneath Federal Cigar’s flagship store, in a building dating back to the 1700s. The lounge boasts the largest selection of fine bourbon, whiskey and scotch in New England (more than 150), including many label blends. Pricey, but worth it. Patrons can smoke cigars on the premises, where a state-of-the-art filtration system routinely refreshes the air.

36 Market St., Portsmouth / (603) 319-6920 / slowburnlounge.com

Slow Burn Lounge — Dover

What it might lack in terms of character compared to its sister establishment in Portsmouth, Dover’s Slow Burn Lounge makes up for with its long marble bar and tall wood-and-leather chairs that invite guests to rub elbows, as well as well-appointed tables for more private conversation. I love the portraits adorning the walls with celebrities — ranging from Jack Nicholson to Morgan Freeman to Madonna — savoring a good smoke, and an air-circulation system that reduces the heavy cigar scent. 

505 Central Ave., Dover / (603) 742-4427 / slowburnlounge.com

Categories: Food & Drink, Wine & Spirits