Cocktails in Catalonia
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If ever there was ever a time to do a bar crawl in Barcelona, that time is now. The city’s bar scene is currently experiencing an explosion of creativity. “Barcelona has long been known as a capital of gastronomy, but over the past few years its cocktail scene has really come into its own,” says Mark Sansom of The World’s 50 Best Bars, which hosted its annual awards in Barcelona earlier this month.
The city has lately enjoyed an influx of bar talent from overseas. “Being near the sea gives the city a different energy, it puts people in a good mood,” says Simone Caporale, who left a high-flying hospitality career in London (during his tenure, Artesian at the Langham won World’s Best Bar multiple times) to launch Sips in L’Eixample with top Spanish bartender Marc Alvarez. “Good sites are more affordable, there’s less red tape and more of a sense of creative freedom. It’s easier to do your own thing.”
Everything about Sips’ “drinkery” seems designed to gently disorientate. Under cover of darkness it takes on the air of a bar adrift in outer space. In place of a menu, there’s a QR code. And the uniformed bartenders prep cocktails around a central pod, rather than behind the bar, like a team of Formula 1 engineers.
Many of the drinks are playful. A cocktail of whisky, port and nashi pear is served in a pair of cupped, chrome hands; another comes topped with a bubble of scented smoke. But they also display real technique: one of my favourites was a vodka highball served over nine discs of ice and nine different types of citrus leaves, layered up like a millefeuille.
Out the back is a 14-seater bar, Essencia, where things get even more surreal. “You might, for example, have a menu on the theme of ice,” says Caporale, “that includes a snowball inserted with pine needles dipped in pine honey; you suck the tips of needles and pour liquid over the snowball to make a drink that tastes like fresh air in the mountains – you get the wood, the pine, the crisp, clean air. You taste the silence of being in a forest.”
As he says this, there’s a twinkle in his eye. He knows how to do high-concept, and yet, somehow, keep it light.
Caporale is also behind the rejuvenation of Barcelona’s oldest cocktail bar, Bar Boadas. Established in 1933 by an alumnus of Havana’s famous El Floridita, this art deco bar achieved worldwide fame, but had grown tired of late. When Caporale was offered the chance to become a co-owner, he didn’t hesitate. “We don’t want to change anything, just give it a new lease of life,” he says. “We’ll pay homage to the classics – the Martini, the Daiquiri – and also reintroduce some forgotten vintage drinks.”
Another Barcelona highlight is the “five-star dive bar” Two Schmucks. Hidden away down a backstreet in the boisterous El Raval, this tavern-like drinking den does high spirits and great cocktails mixed by tattooed guys and girls who ooze unself-conscious cool. The current menu, designed like a brasserie’s carte, was inspired by favourite dishes of the cosmopolitan team, who come from a far a field as Thailand, Poland, the UK, Spain and Sweden.
Bar Brutal barbrutal.com
Boadas Cocktails @boadascocktails
Dead End Paradise @deadendparadise.bcn
Morro Fi morrofi.cat
Quimet & Quimet quimetquimet.com
Two Schmucks two-schmucks.com
Sitting on a vintage leather stool at a bar cluttered with memorabilia, I try an anise-y French Polish with calvados, chartreuse, carrot and parsley, and a highball of strawberry, rhubarb and dill oil. A crystal-clear riff on the Thai dish Tom Kha made with coconut, lime leaf, Thai basil, lemongrass, rum, smoky whisky and chilli is a mixological magic trick.
The music is loud, and the language is blue, but service is professional to a tee – they’ll decant your Martini into a freshly iced glass if it’s getting too warm, but will just as readily serve you a beer and shot of whisky.
Just a few doors down will soon be Dead End Paradise – the latest bar from Jad Ballout, a leading light of Beirut’s bar scene. The ground floor will be an all-day bar and terrace doing Iberian cocktails and tapas. Upstairs, meanwhile, guests with a code will be able to access a disco bar with light-up floor: “You’ll dive into a loud, fun and colourful room doing modern twists on highballs including Sex on the Beach and Long Island Iced Tea.”
New for the trendy Gràcia district is the soon-to-open Foco. Table-hopping is encouraged, says co-owner Tom Godfrey, especially on the large, plant-filled terrace: “We want it to be all about meeting new people and swapping stories.” Signature drinks include a raspberry Clover Club spiked with menthol and a salted Espresso Martini topped with frothy cream.
Natural wine bar of the moment is the bustling Bar Brutal in El Born – a restaurant that marries distressed concrete walls and red neon light with the warmest of atmospheres. As planchas sizzled and service bells dinged around us, we drank pithy orange wine from Purulio in Anadalucía with a succession of pitch-perfect small plates: iberico ham, tiny scallops, oysters and sourdough with labneh and mint.
And you can’t leave Barcelona without a pit-stop in at least one vermuteria. The tiny Quimet & Quimet is lined floor-to-ceiling with interesting aperitifs. I leaned on the narrow counter and ate pan con tomate with a glass of the local vermouth Fot-Li. At the spartan Morro Fi they write the vermouths in marker on the white-tiled wall. And you know what? That €2.50 glass of house-made vermut negre may have been the best drink of all.