Eccentric owners, strange locations, unusual drinks and draconian dress codes – Neil Ridley celebrates some of the UK’s most maverick drinking dens
With the growing number of themed bars and chain pubs cluttering up our already homogenised high streets, it’s time we started championing those establishments that still embody the spirit of independence. The kind of places where you may not be able to find the front door, but you’ll invariably find the owner behind the bar. The kind of places that embrace the DIY spirit, and serve drinks that are as eccentric as they are inspiring. The sort of establishments that sometimes make no business sense from the outside, but remain firm favourites in spite of it. To all those bars and pubs out there that are all about this level of passion and imagination – we salute you.
Hausbar – Bristol
Bringing a bit of Berlin to Bristol since June 2006, Hausbar was set up by Aurelius ‘Auri’ Braunbarth, who grew up in a Michelin-starred kitchen where his father worked as a chef. Braunbarth soon realised that although he loved cooking, he’d much rather be running a bar. His experiences in various German establishments including Harry’s New York bar gave him a sense of how his own bar should look and feel. Guests are treated to minimal lounge-style décor with classic 1930s simplicity at its heart. ‘Hausbar is a fairly unusual place for the West Country,’ explains Braunbarth, ‘one of the most important things was being able to sit at the bar and also having table service for drinks – I don’t believe in people having to queue up for their drinks.’ The extensive cocktail list is made up of 95% classic drinks but, as Auri points out, ‘We’re always open to new things, [although] on our house list you’ll see it says “no foam and no jelly” – I’m not a fan of drinks you have to eat!’
Signature drink: The Hausbar Sazerac – ‘It perfectly represents our classic styling and is a sensational and quite delicate balance of flavours to make for your customers.’
Colebrooke Row – London
It may occupy a corner building on a nondescript Islington side street, but the interior of 69 Colebrooke Row, a minute bar, is a tribute to Dolce Vita-style 1950s chic, with bartenders dressed in well-fitted white jackets, an upright piano, vintage drinks posters on the walls and a regular programme of soirées that has garnered it a passionately loyal local following. But it’s upstairs in the attic where all the real secrets lie – here, co-founder Tony Conigliaro has assembled a boutique ‘flavour laboratory’ featuring a vacuum still, sous-vide cooker, dehydrator, centrifuge machine and a host of other gadgets to create a spectrum of flavours and aromas for his drinks that range from freshly cut grass and liquorice, to leather and lipstick. With a background in fashion and art, Conigliaro cites a broad spectrum of influences in his work: ‘Sometimes a movement in cuisine, or a book can affect me. Perfumers, for example, bring something very new to the equation.’ Science has never tasted so good.
Signature drinks: The Somerset Sour, complete with a miniature hay-scented ‘bobbing apple’ floated on top, or the Lipstick Rose, featuring raspberry and violet syrup with rose vodka, topped with champagne and served in a glass smeared with an edible lipstick.
The Old Cannon Brewery – Bury St Edmunds
On entering this traditional coach-house styled building, one is met with the incredible sight of two large, silver brewing vessels, and it immediately becomes clear that this pub does things very differently to most others. ‘There isn’t really anywhere else in the area where you can drink a beer which has been made in front of you!’ laughs Judith Shallow, co-owner of the Old Cannon Brewery. ‘We have a brewing run three times a fortnight (making 2,200 pints at a time) and so our lunchtime visitors can really become part of the process.’ Not only does the pub offer an incredible range of up to eight house-produced ales but they are also trying to support other locally-produced drinks and food, including Suffolk lagers and wines on the menu. The sustainable angle even extends to some of the local cattle, which are fed on the spent grain from the brewing runs before ending up on the pub’s food menu.
Signature drinks: The three staple beers, including Gunner’s Daughter (abv 5.5%) a strong yet well-balanced ale which pairs nicely with the locally made Gunner’s Daughter sausages on the food menu. Also Blonde Bombshell (4.2%), a golden ale with a clean and refreshing character, originally brewed as a summer seasonal but now available all year round.
A drink in Bramble almost feels like time standing still for a moment. Marrying exposed brickwork and whitewashed walls with vintage furniture and an eclectic music playlist, it’s the kind of place that makes you forget about the world outside for a while. The impressively seasonal 20-strong cocktail list features some playful twists including Rum ‘n’ Coke Float, and Blueberry Soup (a blueberry and vodka sour served in a teacup and saucer) along with a number of classics big on gin – the bar lists between 35 and 45 brands at any one time, making it one of the best gin bars in the UK. For owner and manager Mike Aikman, being ahead of the pack is also crucial, which means developing the house ingredients. ‘We try to be new and innovative and do the opposite of most other bars. We’re currently developing our own vermouth, and we’ve also bought some casks of whisky, the first of which will be matured next year.’
What to try: The Mint 500 – a mix of Hendrick’s gin, fresh apple and lime juice, elderflower cordial, vanilla sugar, mint, basil and peach bitters, served in a bone china teacup mounted on the stem of a Martini glass.
Casita – London
This amazing microbar can proudly claim to be the smallest on our list – and one of the most eccentric. Seating just a handful of guests on stools, this shoebox-sized venue is loosely styled on a Latin American theme, and has gained something of a reputation as a place for bartenders in search of a cheeky break-time beer and a shot, as well as locals after a well-made Margarita. One visit might find you befriending the strangers next to you over a bowl of homemade chilli con carne, while the next could see you crammed in with a mariachi band as bartenders whiz up jugs of fresh sangrita or Bloody Marys with bacon sarnies on the side. Owner Will Foster took his inspiration from a childhood spent in Madrid cafés and bars, which welcomed both customers in suits and workman’s clothes. ‘We rely on a very relaxed yet informed approach to service,’ says Foster, ‘drinking with our guests and treating them as we would in our own homes. The size of the bar makes it more conducive to a house-party feel.’
Signature drinks: The sublime Hemingway Daiquiri, or one of Will’s new creations, the Bloomingdills, made with Bloom gin, sake, fresh dill, cantaloupe melon and sugar, muddled, shaken and strained, with a dill sprig to garnish.
The Britons Protection – Manchester
50 Great Bridgewater Street, Manchester, M1 5LE
It may be a pub, but The Britons Protection could give any specialist whisky bar a run for its money. Situated next to Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall music venue, it’s one of the oldest pubs in the area, with a licence dating back to 1811. Owners Markus Stephens and Peter Barnett have spent the last 15 years assembling a collection of around 200 whiskies (from Scottish single malts, through to blends and other international whiskies) firmly putting it on the map for connoisseurs across the globe. Markus is rightly proud of the pub’s dedication to the spirit, despite the growing economic demands on the British publican. ‘We haven’t changed the way we run the pub at all, and one thing we won’t do is cheap beer,’ explains Markus. ‘Even when the smoking ban came in, a lot of local pubs put on two-for-one offers to entice people back, but we’ve never followed that way of thinking and decided to ride it out – fortunately most people are very loyal to us.’ The pub also gets its fair share of Manchester’s celebrity drinkers, keen to enjoy a relaxing dram – from members of Elbow through to the cast of Coronation Street and comedian Alan Carr, who even fondly mentions the pub in his autobiography.
What to try: Rare Japanese single malts, small batch bourbons and, Markus’s favourite, Tullibardine scotch whisky.
Callooh Callay – London
Inspired by Lewis Caroll’s Jabberwocky, Callooh Callay takes its name from a poem about total nonsense, and the concept has proved an unequivocal hit, allowing grown-ups to indulge in escapist nights that start by entering through a Narnia-esque wardrobe into a mirrored world of twinkling chandeliers, miss-matched furniture, walls tiled in cassette tapes, and punches served in gramaphones. Styled variously to resemble a tube map and a newspaper, the highly original cocktail list succeeds in being adventurous and yet playful enough to tempt even the most cautious souls into trying the likes of feijoa vodka, brewer’s yeast and Punt e Mes in no time. ‘Great bartending isn’t about showing off your skills and making the drink you like,’ points out owner Richard Wynne. ‘It’s about great service on a personal level, appealing to a wide range of palates.’ For an even more exclusive experience, members can now also visit the tiny Jubjub bar upstairs, where bartenders from around the world regularly drop by to show off their skills.
Signature drink: The award winning Ale Of Two Cities, an incredible fusion of malt syrup, 42 Below vodka, nettle cordial, apple juice and sweet vermouth, all served up in a traditional dimpled half pint glass.
Lounge Bohemia – London
Lounge Bohemia is something of an enigma; an unmarked door, a website with only a mobile number and a brusquely enforced ‘appointment only – no suits, no office wear’ door policy ensures only those truly in the know get to sample the bar’s hospitality. ‘I’m glad I stuck to my guns,’ points out Czech owner Paul Tvaroh, ‘because I have a bar that is full of really interesting, friendly people.’ Kitted out in Tvaroh’s collection of designer 1970s Czech furniture (as featured in Wallpaper* magazine dontchaknow), this intimate basement bar specialises in absinthe and sensational molecular (or ‘manipulative’ as Tvaroh likes to puts it) cocktail creations including rose vodka caviar in a tin and Becherovka candy floss served on a tree. This is all the more intriguing when you consider that Tvaroh is perhaps the only non-drinking bartender in the capital. Due to this ‘limitation’, Tvaroh often takes inspiration from food. ‘This is one of the reasons why we have such a huge range of in-house infusions’ he explains, ‘from things like mace blades, poppy seed, digestive biscuit and leather. Mostly because I find standard spirits and liquors don’t enable me to make the flavour combinations I want to create.’
Signature drinks: The Old Castro – a take on a rum Old Fashioned, but where the sugar is replaced with vanilla candyfloss which is then combined with cigar-infused Havana Club rum in a chilled cigar tube.
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – January/February 2011