The news shook the hospitality industry like an energetically shaken Martini. Barflies all over the world nearly fell off their stools. Of the seven best bars in the world according to Drinks International magazine’s 50 Best annual ranking, one was in London, one in New York, one each in Paris and Mexico City. But the other three—including the overall winner—were in Barcelona.
There was surprise, but also incredulity. How was it possible that a Spanish seaside city better known as a consumer of cheap sparkling wine should have stormed the cocktail citadels of Mayfair and Manhattan? Doubters and cynics pointed to a curious coincidence: the awards ceremony on October 4th 2022, at which Barcelona crashed the top ten so spectacularly, happened to be held in… guess where? Barcelona.
It doesn’t do to take those league tables too seriously. Still, my curiosity was piqued. Barcelona’s sudden ascendancy as a cocktail capital seemed to merit a closer look, so I planned a reconnaissance trip. My three-day mission: to boldly go into the heart of the local cocktail scene, to ask whether it really stood up to the hype, and to learn something about modern mixology in the process.
As a veteran reporter from the frontline of restaurant reviewing, I’ve fought my way through some of the toughest tasting menus on the planet. But this looked like being my hardest assignment yet.
I would have to proceed with caution. Two drinks a night might be a safe limit. I’d begin with the long-established bars, the ones that are proudly upholding the traditional arts of the classic cocktail, moving on from there to the movers and shakers, the avant-garde places that are winning the awards.
My shortlist held a dozen names. Down in the old town there was Boadas and Caribbean Club, Negroni and Two Schmucks (crazy name, crazy place). Over in the bohemian Born, Marlowe and Paradiso. Uptown in the posh Eixample, Dry Martini, Tándem, Solange, Sips, Ideal… As more tip-offs came in the list grew and grew. The pins on my Google map began to look like markers in a military campaign. To the initial roster I added Especiarium, Dr Stravinsky, Hemingway, 14 de la Rosa, Galileo, the Punch Room at the EDITION hotel, Libertine at Casa Bonay. I wasn’t sure if I’d make it to them all, and if I did, whether my liver would survive the onslaught.
On a crisp February evening I touched down in Barcelona. Even at this low point of the low season the city looked busy to me. The tree-lined avenue of the Ramblas was a river of traipsing tourists—few of whom, I imagined, would have Boadas on their radar. This little bar on a corner of the Ramblas and Calle Tallers is what the Spanish call de toda la vida: “it’s been there forever”—more precisely since 1933 when it was founded by Miguel Boadas, a Catalan emigré just off the boat from Cuba. I scoped out the triangular room with the wood-paneled walls, the old photographs of Señor Boadas with Salvador Dalí and Sofia Loren, the barmen in black dinner jackets and bow-ties. Boadas had recently changed hands but the new regime had the good sense to leave the menu, as well as the décor, intact. Barman Federico Daniele fixed me up a Sazerac, the great New Orleans classic (rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters, sugar cube, the glass rinsed with absinthe, no ice) and I felt the alcohol seeping into my nervous system, gently smoothing down the day’s rough edges.
Spain’s second city has had a few rough edges of its own over the past few years. There was the botched declaration of Catalan independence in October 2017, the suspension of the regional government, and the flight of its leaders. Then came the pandemic, which tore Barcelona’s all-important tourist economy to shreds. Over it all hovered the specter of over-tourism and the backlash against the cruise ship industry, low-cost airlines, and Airbnb.
Little wonder the city has turned to drink.
In a city with an awful lot of bars—5,140 of them according to one estimate—there’s nothing a barcelonés loves more than propping up a bar, preferably sipping something cold, maybe nibbling a tapa or two, grazing and schmoozing. This town has always had its favorite drink-related routines – the vermouth on the rocks with a slice of orange before lunch, or the G&T served in a glass like a goldfish bowl late on a Saturday afternoon. Were these the gateway drugs, I wondered, that had led Barcelona on to the hard stuff?
One crucial precursor of the current boom was Javier de las Muelas, who opened his first bar, the Gimlet, during the 1980s when, for Spaniards, cocktail sipping was the kind of antiquated, slightly fusty pursuit their grandparents might have enjoyed. Forty years later de las Muelas presides over a cocktail empire whose flagship is Dry Martini, on its corner site in the select environs of the Eixample. I made my way there under cover of darkness, dodging the groups of locals out and about on a Friday night. This part of the Eixample was a happy hunting-ground for old-style coctelerías, I knew: just nearby were two well-established ones, Tándem and Ideal, both still run by their founding families.
Dry Martini had a well-upholstered, gentleman’s-club ambience, with pictures of dogs in gold frames and a speakeasy bar-restaurant reached through the kitchen. A smartly dressed uptown crowd were taking their ease in blue leather armchairs. I sat at the bar with Gerard Acereda, for 33 years a stalwart member of the 17-strong team, who told me something I didn’t know: it was American officers from the Sixth Fleet, based in Barcelona harbor during the 1950s, who first taught local barmen the authentic recipes for an Old Fashioned and a Tom Collins, creating a seedbed for cocktail connoisseurship to flourish.
Over the years the menu at Dry Martini has blossomed into frappés, new-wave Gimlets, and exotics like the Carnyvore (pisco, Szechuan pepper, passionfruit, and a carnivorous flower). But the biggest seller by far is still the uber-classic Martini. An LCD display on the wall gave the number served since the bar opened: a million and counting. I watched the white-coated barman go through the time-honored ritual for my benefit, his movements as solemn as a priest at the altar. The result, as close as I could imagine to a top-flight Martini in New York or London, was featherlight on the vermouth, heavy on the gin, so cold as to feel almost oily in the mouth – and so strong I felt like the comedy drunk as I tottered into the street to hail a cab.
Next morning was a Saturday; the city was full of shoppers and sightseers. I swung by The Cocktail Shop, Barcelona’s first emporium specializing in syrups and bitters, jiggers and shakers, and other paraphernalia. Behind the counter was Albany Garofalo, a Venezuelan-Italian who told me the shop’s after-work cocktail courses were much in demand by businesses as team-building exercises and by groups of friends looking to mix it up at home.
Until quite recently, said Garofalo, the city’s favorite mixed-drink tipples had been mojito and daiquiri – easygoing, fruit-based, sweetly refreshing slurps for a Spanish summer night. “But cocktail making is an art form, and you need to study. The flavors need to be balanced. It’s true that in New York or London there’s more culture, more knowledge, but Barcelona is learning fast. Cocktails are everywhere these days.”
She was right: this thing was a craze. In my walks around town I saw pizza joints that did cocktails, brunch spots that did cocktails, even a coffee bar where you might have a Moscow Mule with your flat white. Not content with pulling pints of Guinness, McCarthy’s Irish Bar on Via Laietana now offered Tequila Sunrise and Sex on the Beach.
The next phase of my assignment, however, would take me beyond such fripperies. From now on I’d be moving among the new-fangled places, the avant-garde cocktail joints where experimentation is key and the request for a mojito is like asking the DJ for “anything by Madonna.”
I hit the ground running at Sips, the bar placed third in that 50 Best ranking. Sips described itself as a “drinkery house”: this was definitely an up-to-the-minute coctelería. There was no bar as such, but a series of curvy islands with stools grouped around them. The locale was dark—nightclub-dark, not posh-dark—with black-painted walls and a deep house soundtrack. Next to me at the table a young Chinese guy had just taken delivery of a Krypta (Sipsmith gin, calvados, clarified kiwi fruit, all in a spherical lab-style glass container) and was snapping it from all angles with his phone. Instagram-readiness being an important factor in the contemporary cocktail scene.
My Primordial, meanwhile, was a sweet and pungent mixture of Macallan whisky, ruby Port, and nashi pear juice served in a gold-shiny receptacle shaped like two cupped hands—striking to look at, but tiresome to drink from. It made me think of those restaurants in the 2000s where foam-topped creations were presented on all manner of challenging tableware. The analogy is valid: Marc Álvarez, one of the partners at Sips, was formerly head barman of Ferran and Albert Adrià’s restaurant group. I’d go further: there’s a sense in which Barcelona’s contemporary coctelerías are the spiritual heirs of the Spanish revolution which brought chemistry and microbiology into the kitchen. Most of these places now have their own R&D departments where the mixologists pore over their bitters and falernums, their decoctions and concoctions of fruit, herbs, and flowers.
Two Schmucks, in a former taco joint way down among the sketchy streets of the Raval district, was another of the groovy ones, coming in at seventh on the list. This self-styled “five star dive bar” was opened in 2017 by Moe Aljaff and AJ White—the two schmucks of the name.
The vibe here was like a house-party, just short of raucous. A message on the wall read: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like a shmuck.” The music was R&B and trap; the barmen were open-shirted and tattooed and nose-ringed. The cocktails here had fun names like Plumped and Bubble Cosmo, and my Polish Battle Royal (gin, fino sherry, elderflower liqueur, absinthe, lemon juice, cava: a battle of flavors) was certainly a blast.
A couple from Spokane, Washington, had just asked for two Tartines (Bourbon, toasted sourdough distillate, raspberry liqueur, oloroso sherry, butter). They looked to be in their twenties—which reminded me of another thing that had been puzzling me. At a time when booze is less fashionable than ever, Gen Z barely touches the stuff and half the planet is on the wagon, isn’t it somewhat counterintuitive that cocktail drinking should once again be all the rage? Then again, you might say this is another example of “less, but better.” Perhaps cocktail culture generally has a civilizing effect.
And so the days passed, losing their edge slightly as one evening blurred into another. Certain things have stuck in my memory: the ingenious “James Bond” cocktail theme and plush 1970s décor at Solange. The sparkling silver punch-bowls at the Punch Room, where the cocktails were made for sharing – a brilliant conceit–and the antique pool table is lined with sunflower-yellow baize. The wonderful Negroni, austerely chic in its minimalist room, where the music was 60s soul, the eponymous cocktail a bittersweet thing of beauty with just one large, perfectly clear ice-cube.
But there was still one major gap in my Barcelona bar crawl. The reputation of Paradiso, said to be the World’s Best, goes before it both as a hotbed of cocktail innovation and as a witty re-invention of the speakeasy. What you see from the street is a sandwich bar, no more than a kiosk, where the signature order features a sensational home-cured pastrami courtesy of Barcelona’s Rooftop Smokehouse. The bar itself is reached through what looks like the door of an old-fashioned fridge: a coup de théâtre that never fails to thrill.
‘‘¡Hola! Hi guys! Welcome to Paradise!” chorused the staff as another group of dressed-up young women climbed through the fridge door. Like the boss man Giacomo Giannotti, formerly of the Artesian bar in London, the young barmen in their coordinated outfits all hailed from Italy. Indeed, the dynamism and poise of the Italian bar ethos has been fundamental in building Barcelona’s cocktail reputation.
On this Saturday night, Paradiso had a line snaking down the street. The interior, an extraordinary space with undulating ribs like the belly of a whale, was rammed and noisy, with the particular buzz of a place that knows it’s hot to trot. The menu, a slickly produced document, was entitled The History of Humanity, with chapters dividing into Fire, Roots, Metal, Time, and so on. Among the ingredient lists I noted rose water, agave, olive oil, saffron, sesame, seaweed, kaffir lime. Mediterranean Treasure, one of Giannotti’s long-time hits, came in a shell tucked within a tiny chest which, when opened, emitted a smoky puff of Mediterranean herbs. Another of his creations involved wearing a VR headset. I ordered a Fleming 1928 (tequila, Mancino vermouth, miso, beer syrup, coconut, grapefruit, and lemongrass)—apparently a homage to the discovery of penicillin, with some kind of fungal spore dusted around the rim of the glass. I sipped it gingerly, trying hard not to think about The Last of Us.
There was no faulting Paradiso’s ambition, nor its impressive entertainment value. Doubtless this kind of high-concept contemporary cocktail experience is just what the sector needs to bring in a new generation of up-for-it consumers. But the best bar in the world? I supposed it was possible. What you thought of Paradiso’s lofty position in the 50 Best ranking might have a lot to do with your age and character, not to mention your natural skepticism.
As for me, this three-day mission had taught me something about my own taste in cocktail bars. For me, I’d realized, the good bar was not a place of relentless sensory stimulus but a refuge, a haven at one remove from the turbulent world. And while this tranquility was easy to find at Barcelona’s been-there-for-ever places, it was much less so at the state-of-the-art places. I could enjoy the laughter and loud music, the wildly original mashups of flavor and color and presentation. But secretly I preferred the timeless rituals, the quiet communion between the drinker and the icy liquid in the plain and simple glass. Call me Old Fashioned, but in the matter of cocktails it seemed to me that “less” was very often “more.”
The Punch Room at Barcelona EDITION
Avinguda Francesc Cambó 14
Tándem Cocktail Bar
c/Rera Palau 4
c/Joaquín Costa 52
c/Joaquín Costa 46
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