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Where to Buy Spirits in Manhattan: The Best Liquor Stores

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[Photographs: Roger Kamholz]

Manhattan is one great place to shop for booze. It's almost crazy how much square footage of this oh-so precious sliver of schist has been given over to the sale of bottled alcoholic beverages. It's hard to walk more than a few blocks and not run into a spirits shop. Many of them do just fine serving passersby who are en route to a party, but above this indistinguishable fray are a set of spirits shops that stand out.

We're talking about shops that go the extra mile to deliver quality service, low prices, and an extensive selection. Manhattan's best liquor stores stock rare and unusual booze from the world's new generation of craft distilleries to satisfy the spirits nut. They train their floor staff to answer the novice's questions. They create a comfortable shopping experience. And the very best of the best do all these things at once.

I hit the streets (and subways) recently to seek out the finest spirits shops this island has to offer. After visiting a great deal more than what's listed below, I came away with 12 shops, spread across a wide swath of Manhattan, that are doing top-notch work as they serve us imbibers.

Where should you shop for liquor in Manhattan? Here are 12 recommendations (in alphabetical order) for standout shops to seek out.

Price Check, Aisle 3

To help compare value, I've included the prices from each location of a common basket of products for those who make cocktails at home: a gin (either Tanqueray or Broker's, depending on availability), a bourbon (Maker's Mark or Buffalo Trace), and a sweet vermouth (Dolin, if available.)

Ambassador Wines and Spirits

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Do go to this Midtown East shop when you're seeking out something unusual or obscure, or when you want to stumble upon something entirely new to you. Don't go when you're simply stocking up on mainstream staple brands...because they either don't carry them or charge much more for them than other shops do (a result of their buying in small, undiscounted volumes). In other words, Ambassador's liquor selection is largely geared toward the spirits enthusiast (read: nerd). In my conversation with the passionate, friendly staff (we ended up doing shots of mezcal with Oaxacan gusano, aka worm salt, together), they told me they taste every product before it's sold at the shop. This policy means that the Ambassador team makes thoughtful, personally recommendations.

While Ambassador runs deep in several spirits categories, its selection of Scotch whisky is easily its most expansive. There's a slew of Signatory bottlings, for instance, as well as a few different ages of Islay Mist, which one of the staffers described as "baby Laphroaig." The mezcal wall is packed, as is the wall of bourbon and rye whiskeys. Among the unusual finds were bottles of Pow Wow Botanical Rye, a saffron and orange peel-infused rye whiskey, and Bloom Gin, a London Dry flavored with honeysuckle, chamomile, and pomelo. Ambassador is the liquor store I wish I had in my neighborhood; you find yourself wanting to hang out there, even if you don't really need to buy anything.

Price Comparison:
Broker's Gin .75 L: $25.99 (Tanqueray not available)
Corner Creek Bourbon .75 L: $32.99 (Maker's Mark & Buffalo Trace not available)
Dolin Rouge Vermouth .75 L: $15.99

Ambassador Wines and Spirits: 1020 2nd Avenue, New York, NY 10022 (map) 212-421-5078; ambassadorwines.com

Astor Wines & Spirits

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Is Astor Manhattan's best liquor store? Probably. The prices are among the lowest I observed, the spirits selection is comprehensive, and there are numerous so-called "Astor exclusive" products that have been hand-selected by the staff, such as an Elijah Craig 12-year single-barrel bourbon and a special bottling of 10-month barrel-aged Ransom Old Tom Gin. On top of all that, the shopping experience is exceptional for a Manhattan liquor store. Tons of aisle space; helpful, informative note cards describing each product; frequent product tastings (Bruichladdich Scotches were being poured during my visit); shopping carts to lighten your load; even decent lighting.

Astor is surprisingly strong in absinthe, among many categories. I came across several interesting finds, including St. George Dry Rye Reposado Gin and Yuu Baal Madrecuixe mezcal. Astor is the Metropolitan Museum of Manhattan spirits shops: at once encyclopedic and well-curated...and the one liquor store I'd most like to hide out in overnight.

Price Comparison:
Tanqueray Gin 1 L: $29.99
Buffalo Trace Bourbon .75 L: $25.99
Dolin Rouge Vermouth .75 L: $13.99

Astor Wines & Spirits: 399 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10003 (map) 212-674-7500; astorwines.com

Beacon Wines & Spirits

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Beacon has one of the narrower selections on this list of great spirits shops, but it goes beyond the expected, utilitarian selection of spirits often seen at your average neighborhood liquor store, and for the Upper West Side, that trait seems notable given the lack of options in the area. Fairly low prices and a strong Scotch whisky selection are two of Beacon's big draws.

I had to seek out a staff member's help on my visit, while at other shops employees typically asked if I needed assistance. But, once engaged, one of the Beacon staffers made some thoughtful recommendations, including a Tomintoul 16-year single malt Scotch for something unusual and Buffalo Trace bourbon for a good-value, all-purpose mixing whiskey. As far as unusual finds, a Kosher dry vermouth called Kedem caught my eye, as well as Juniper Green's organic London Dry gin and a 'vertical' of Macallan bottlings.

Price Comparison:
Tanqueray Gin .75 L: $26.99
Maker's Mark Bourbon .75 L: $28.99
Dolin Rouge Vermouth: .75 L: $15.99

Beacon Wines & Spirits: 2120 Broadway, Manhattan, NY 10023 (map) 212-877-0028; beaconwine.com

Bottlerocket Wine & Spirit

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I dig the vibe at Bottlerocket. The Flatiron space is bright and airy, and I was impressed by a super-knowledgeable, super-friendly, and completely un-pushy staff member who gave me an extended tour of the shop's latest and greatest spirits offerings...and there were many.

Cool finds: Sacred Spirits Company's gins, English-spiced vermouth, and vodka; Dolin's pungent Génépy des Alpes; Vergano Bianco Vermouth; French-made Brenne single malt whisky; and Chief Gowanus New-Netherland Gin, a relatively new offering from New York Distilling Company riffing on an old American recipe for Holland gin that was unearthed by David Wondrich.

Price Comparison:
Tanqueray Gin .75 L: $38
Buffalo Trace .75 L: $29
Dolin Vermouth Rouge: .75 L: $17

Bottlerocket Wine & Spirit: 5 West 19th Street, New York, NY 10011 (map) 212-929-2323; bottlerocket.com

Bowery & Vine

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From the full-length windows looking onto the street to the shimmering hammered-tin ceiling to the reprints of vintage cocktail manuals to the intimate alcoves of the 'liquor library,' Bowery & Vine is full of charm. It's equally stocked with great spirits.

Prices skew a little high in general, but rare bottles abound. Whiskeys from Brooklyn's Van Brunt Still House, Uncouth Vermouth, Seneca Drums Gin, and Westchester Wheat Whiskey are among the many locally made spirits available. From farther afield come all three ages of organic 123 Tequila, Benjamin Prichard's Double Barreled Bourbon, and San Francisco's No. 209 Gin.

Price Comparison:
Tanqueray Gin .75 L: $30.99
Maker's Mark .75 L: $32.99
Dolin Vermouth Rouge .75 L: $17.99

Bowery & Vine: 269 Bowery, New York, NY 10002 (map) 212-941-7943; boweryandvine.com

Chelsea Wine Vault

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I almost walked out of Chelsea Wine Vault as quickly as I entered after surveying the spirits wall from a distance. There just didn't seem to be much meat on the bone. But, upon closer inspection, Chelsea's spirits offerings prove to be smart and well-chosen. I can't say the same about the staff, though, who on my visit were of very little help. I inquired about a bottle of Gabriel Boudier Parfait Amour Liqueur—a floral, Dijonnais curaçao and something I didn't come across anyplace else I visited—but no one working there knew what it was.

So go for the selection and not the service. You can snag a bottle of Buffalo Trace's experimental Single Oak Project whiskey and alpine-style Amaro Braulio, or dip into locally made products such as Brooklyn Roasting Company's Colombia Coffee Liqueur and Bittermen's lineup of exotic liqueurs.

Price Comparison:
Tanqueray Gin .75 L: $33.99
Maker's Mark Bourbon .75 L: $35.99
Dolin Rouge Vermouth .75 L: $16.99

Chelsea Wine Vault: 75 9th Avenue, New York, NY 10011 (map) 212-462-4244; chelseawinevault.com

Financial District Wine & Liquor

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This small shop punches above its weight class, stocking extreme rarities like 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle. In the neighborhood, you can't do much better.

I was impressed to find a good variety of mezcals, Vieux Carré Absinthe, and saffron-kissed Amaro Meletti, a personal favorite of mine.

Price Comparison:
Bombay Sapphire Gin .75 L: $26.99
Maker's Mark Bourbon .75 L: $33.94
Bossiere Vermouth Rouge .75 $9.99 (Dolin not available)

Financial District Wine & Liquor: 120 Nassau Street, New York, NY 10038 (map) 212-933-1092; fidiwine.com

Mister Wright Fine Wines and Spirits

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Can a liquor store carry too much product? Negotiating the narrow aisles at Mister Wright makes you think the answer is yes. But you can't argue with the breadth of this shop's spirits selection. The walls are lined with amari, numerous Scotches, and several great gins. Between here and Vintage Grape, listed a few entries below and a mere six blocks away from Mister Wright, the Upper East Side is surprisingly flush with great booze.

Price Comparison:
Tanqueray Gin .75 L: $28.99
Maker's Mark Bourbon .75 L: $33.99
Dolin Vermouth Rouge .75 L: $16.99

Mister Wright Fine Wines and Spirits: 1593 3rd Avenue, New York, NY 10128 (map) 212-722-4564; misterwrightfinewines.com

Park Avenue Liquor Shop

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This is one of Manhattan's storied spirits shops. It's been around practically forever and has garnered praise from the New York Times' Robert Simonson, among others. It's an institution, albeit a cramped one.

Besides an extensive Scotch selection, Park Avenue Liquor is well-stocked with new-wave gins. The staff is well-informed and opinionated to boot—two helpful traits to those looking for a recommendation. The shop exudes a pleasant, old New York warmth, too; I'd love to do my holiday shopping at Park Avenue (which after a relocation is no longer on its namesake street). The only trouble is the layout: most of the booze is on shelves behind the counter, making it difficult to browse.

Price Comparison:
Tanqueray Gin .75 L: $28
Buffalo Trace Bourbon .75 L: $31
Dolin Vermouth Rouge .75 L: $18

Park Avenue Liquor Shop: 292 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10017 (map) 212-685-2442; parkaveliquor.com

Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits

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If Astor is the Metropolitan Museum of Manhattan spirits shops, then Sherry-Lehmann is the opera house. There's even a red velvet rope and brass stanchion standing guard before the stairs leading to the second floor. This is where you come to marvel at august (read: stratospherically priced) bottles of Armagnac, such as those procured by the Lehmann family from noted French producer Laubade. I saw bottles on display containing juice distilled in 1934.

The room may be a tad stuffy, but the staff at Sherry-Lehmann was refreshingly approachable and warm. Asking what's new and interesting, I was directed toward Qui Tequila, a clear añejo that is re-distilled after aging, and Cornelius Applejack from Harvest Spirits, a New York distillery that grows its own apples.

Price Comparison:
Tanqueray Gin .75 L: $28.95
Maker's Mark Bourbon .75 L: $28.95
Dolin Vermouth Rouge .75 L: $14.95

Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits: 505 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10022 (map) 212-838-7500; sherry-lehmann.com

Vintage Grape Wine & Spirits

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There's no one spirits category that stands out as Vintage Grape's specialty. Instead, this shop does very well with pretty much all of the usual suspects. Plus, there is a whole host of fun bottles lurking on the shop's expansive liquor shelves. I came across Guyanese Lemon Hart Rum, Skinos Mastiha Liqueur, from Greece, and French-made Guillaumette Génépi.

Price Comparison:
Tanqueray Gin .75 L: $30.99
Buffalo Trace Bourbon .75 L: $29.99
Dolin Vermouth Rouge .75 L: $17.99

Vintage Grape Wine & Spirits: 1479 3rd Avenue, New York, NY 10028 (map) 212-535-6800; vintagegrape.net

Warehouse Wines & Spirits

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Wide selection and sharply discounted prices. If these two factors are all you care about in a liquor store, then Warehouse near Astor Place is your go-to. But shopping there is what you might call a hard bargain. The word is obviously out about this place, so expect big, cramped crowds, especially as the weekend approaches. I found myself caught in one of the store's many tight corners multiple times, blocked in by other shoppers and their carts.

The employees on the sales floor are predominantly shelf stockers and won't be a great source of advice when it comes to the shop's more esoteric spirits. (Yes, Warehouse does carry some unusual stuff.) That said, there are usually several checkout lanes running, facilitating a speedy exit from the scrum. Basically, Warehouse is for buying, not browsing. Get in, get out, save a few bucks.

Price Comparison:
Tanqueray Gin .75 L: $24.99
Maker's Mark .75 L: $25.99
Dolin Vermouth Rouge .75 L: $14.99

Warehouse Wines & Spirits: 735 Broadway, New York, NY 10003 (map) 212-982-7770; warehousewinesandspirits.com

About the Author: Roger Kamholz is a food journalist living in New York City. Before moving to NYC he covered the Chicago food and drinks scene for four years. In addition to Serious Eats, Roger's writing and photography has appeared in TimeOut Chicago, Refinery 29, Grub Street, and Chicagoist. Check out more of his work at rogerkamholz.com.

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