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A field guide to recognizing and finding Atlanta's best cocktail bars 

In this week's Food & Drink section, I take a look at Atlanta's burgeoning cocktail culture. Below, I suggest how you can tell if a place has impressive beverages, and provide an incomplete (but growing!) list of establishments worthy of your imbibing patronage.

How can you if a restaurant or bar is serious about cocktails? Some rules of thumb:

• Do they have a cocktail menu? If so, it should be weighted toward classics like the Ramos Gin Fizz and Rusty Nail, rather than daiquiris and fruity martinis.

• Do the cocktails complement the style of food served? Are there savory drinks as well as sweet? Does the mixologist have a list of original concoctions? If the answers are yes, you're on the right track.

• Check out the spirit selection. If you see Maraschino liqueur, Crème de Violette and Leopold Bros. small-batch gin, those are good signs. If the bar is lined with flavored vodkas, Hiram Walker liqueurs and Malibu, get your coat.

• Serious cocktails don't come from mixes. Make sure the bartender uses fresh-squeezed oranges and lemons. He gets extra points if the soda water comes from an old-school seltzer bottle, not the soft-drink nozzle.

• The best cocktail bars tailor the choice of glass, and even the ice, to your particular libation. Some places chip the ice by hand or shape it into spheres.

• Order a traditional cocktail, such as an Aviation or a Manhattan. If the bartender can't handle an old standard, you probably won't like his custom drinks.

• Finally, talk to the bartender. Is he simply moonlighting while he gets his MBA or does he geek out when discussing brands of amaro and the merits of West Indian rhum agricole vs. Brazilian cachaça? If it's the latter, grab a seat and say, "Surprise me."

Recommended cocktail destinations:

Abattoir -- Short cocktail list that's heavy on the classics. 1170 Howell Mill Road. 404-892-3335. www.starprovisions.com.

Bistro Niko -- Even the venerable Buckhead Life group has caught the cocktail bug. 3344 Peachtree Road. 404-261-6456. www.buckheadrestaurants.com.

Drinkshop -- Chills its highballs with help from a 300-pound block of ice. 45 Ivan Allen Jr. Blvd. 404-582-5800. www.starwoodhotels.com.

Flip -- Details make the difference, such as smoked cherries in a Manhattan. 1587 Howell Mill Road. 404-343-1609. www.flipburgerboutique.com.

Holeman & Finch -- Atlanta's culinary cocktail powerhouse; we hear the food's decent, too. 2277 Peachtree Road. 404-948-1175. www.holeman-finch.com.

Iberian Pig -- Expansive restaurant bar that earns its real estate with thoughtful drink-making. 121 Sycamore St., Decatur. 404-371-8800. www.iberianpigatl.com.

JCT Kitchen -- Southern theme is carried into drinks that reflect the flavors of the region. 1198 Howell Mill Road. 404-355-2252. www.jctkitchen.com.

Leon's Full Service -- Playful cocktail concoctions, energetic bar staff. 131 E. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur. 404-687-0500. www.leonsfullservice.com.

Miller Union -- Cocktails can be selected from the bar's library of old-school recipes. 999 Brady Ave. 678-733-8550. www.millerunion.com.

Prohibition -- Time-warp to the golden age of the speakeasy, in a haze of cigar smoke. 56 E. Andrews Drive. www.prohibitionatl.com.

Restaurant Eugene -- Specialty of the house: pairing cocktails with menu items. 2277 Peachtree Road. 404-355-0321. www.restauranteugene.com.

Serpas -- Varied drink menu for all palates. 659 Auburn Ave., #501. 404-688-0040. www.serpasrestaurant.com.

Shaun's -- A robust cocktail program has always been a priority for Chef Doty. 1027-29 Edgewood Ave. 404-577-4358. www.shaunsrestaurant.com.

Sotto Sotto -- As with the food, the drinks pay homage to rich Italian traditions. 313 N. Highland Ave. 404-523-6678. www.urestaurants.net.

Top Flr -- The bartending staff shows a knack for invention reflected in the lively drink selection. 674 Myrtle St. 404-685-3110. www.topflr.com.

Woodfire Grill -- Cocktails complement the farm-to-table, pork-a-licious menu. 1782 Cheshire Bridge Road. 404-347-9055. www.woodfiregrill.com.

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