50 Best Bars – Thoughts & Updates

Spreadsheet Updates: The 2023 Asia’s Best Bars list has been included. Statistics page has some updates and additional data. Minor error fixes to 2011 & 2012.

Ever since my 50 Best Bars tracking spreadsheet got mentioned in an article recently, I’ve wanted to talk a bit more about why I track this list, what I’ve learned from it, and some of the things I don’t love about it. It’s taken me a little longer than planned to sit down with all this, but I was busy making candy for Tales of the Cocktail and then busy giving away candy at Tales of the Cocktail. (And then busy recovering from Tales of the Cocktail.)

I was going to start with why I started paying attention to the list but today, someone sent me the link to a really thoughtful and interesting discussion about awards and lists in the bar world in general. Tyler Zielinski (@bon_vivantito on Instagram) led with “Bar awards and cocktail comps shouldn’t be popularity contests” and went on to talk about integrity in the voting process and avoiding preferential treatment. Both the posts and the comments are worth a read.

The 50 Best Bars tracking spreadsheet started as a simple way to see all 14 years of data in one place, and see a few simple trends. Over the years, I have become more involved in the hospitality industry through the United States Bartenders’ Guild, made more friends in all corners of this industry, and experienced more bars around the world. And with all that, I’m gleaning more, new, and different knowledge from my spreadsheet and the lists in general. These days I think my experience has changed into a more critical look at what ties some of the winners together and what factors get them to the top.

A martini at American Bar at The Savoy in London, July 2017.

When I was emailing back and forth with Jake Emen about the “’50 Best’ Chasers” article, I had a few ‘lightbulb’ moments – several of which were very similar to opinions displayed in the comments on Tyler’s Instagram post. As a self-proclaimed hospitality nerd, I believe that good cocktails are important but genuine hospitality is key. It’s fascinating to visit a “world’s best bar” as an outsider or tourist, despite being something of an insider at home. How does the bar feel to someone coming in as a relative nobody? Do you have to know someone or be someone in order to have the “50 Best” winning experience? Is it still a winning bar if they don’t know or suspect you might be a voter?

As a fierce supporter of our local Minnesota industry, I want to know what the 50 Best Bars have that our local bars don’t. I feel confident saying it’s not drink quality, it’s not creativity, and it’s not hospitality – but it probably is voters. I think 50 Best has as fair a voting system as can be expected, but it’s always going to be weighted towards the cities voters either live in or travel to – leaving smaller markets a little ignored. I’d love to know what bars are getting votes but not making the list – that’s where I want to go next (and why I include the 51-100 lists). Their launch of the “Discovery” program is probably as close as we’re likely to get to that info.

A martini at Marvel Bar in Minneapolis, March 2017.

There have been 1100 opportunities for a bar to be on The World’s 50 Best Bars list (including numbers 51-100 when available) since 2009. The list has included 356 unique bars from 89 different cities – but just eight cities make up more than half the list. London, New York, Singapore, Paris, Sydney, Tokyo, Barcelona, and Hong Kong certainly have a high density of amazing bars, but surely there are some gems beyond this subset of major cities.

I don’t think best of lists and awards should be the be all and end all of how to find new drinking holes, but they serve a purpose – they can be a good starting point for exploration and comparison. Just like any opinion, they should be taken with a grain of salt – there’s no perfect way to rank/grade/judge anything. I don’t envy the people (hopefully) trying to make these systems more equitable and more representative, it’s a near impossible task. But it’s a task worth doing.

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