Wellington is a fabulous place to get cocktails. You walk everywhere, and everything is close by. There is a cocktail bar for every occasion, and if your Cocktail day starts at 5pm, there is a bar until 5 am. How do I know? Years of practice … or, shall we say, bitters experience …
Caught in a sudden spring rainstorm, I got to Hot Sauce at the QT Hotel by the waterfront at 5pm, and immediately realised that my weekend was off to a good start, right then and there. Friendly greeting, efficient staff, in sleek, bright surroundings, with a list of six signature cocktails, and a soul- filled soundtrack, this bar is approachable and easy, whether you’re in an after- work crowd, or a slightly drenched lone drinker. The cocktails are modern Asian-influenced spins on the classics, such as the Yuzu Sour, a take on a Whisky Sour, with a sweeter whisky, lemongrass syrup, egg white and yuzu syrup instead of citrus. Likewise, the Japanese style Negroni – campari, plum liqueur replacing vermouth, Kokutu Umeshu instead of sugar, and a Raku gin made of six botanicals. The tastes lean to tart rather than sweet, with all the sugars replaced by natural ingredients. Pair their cocktails with popcorn chicken, and Friday night has begun!
Later that Friday night, I visited Hawthorn Lounge in a speakeasy hideaway, upstairs on Tory Street. A carefully curated cocktail list, with highly knowledgeable service from a floor show of bar staff slapping, tossing, stirring, flinging, spearing, whisking, drumming, and garnishing your drink to perfection. A jazz soundtrack, plus low, flattering lighting that makes everyone look good, and you have all you need for Adulting cocktail time, either at the start of the evening or in the very early morning. The Rapscallion is a Manhattan style drink, with sweetness like raisins, from the sherry and star anise, and salty smokiness from olives and whisky. The Vodka Sour has vanilla vodka, manuka honey replacing sugar syrup, fresh lemon, bitters, egg white and the spiciness of garam marsala. This bar is not afraid of bold ingredients and inventive flavours, making it a very sophisticated place for conversation, whether with friends, colleagues, out-of-town visitors, or with the international bar staff telling the stories and histories of how their cocktails came to be.
Black Sparrow is a smart casual, subtly stylish basement bar at the end of Courtenay Place, inside the beautiful Embassy theatre, which boasts two small cinemas and the largest screen in town. This bar is part of a whole night out – cocktails and a movie – but also worth a visit on its own, with everyone making a movie star entrance, down their long and glamorous hallway. The cocktail list is eclectic, each one referring to a film poster on the wall, which the bar staff are happy to chat about. I had the 36th Chamber, which my Hong Kong friends were quick to explain is a tribute to a Kung Fu film of the 1970s. It’s a short, sharp high kick of a Negroni, with gin, benedictine, campari and Coochi Rosa (an aperitivo fortified wine, used instead of vermouth). The Black Sparrow is great to meet friends (or a date) for a cocktail before a festival film in one of the smaller cinemas, or a beer before the big screen.
The Library is upstairs on Courtenay Place. Known for its slick, fast and friendly service, great bar food, and live music three nights a week, and huddling into one of their many booths. But the best time of the day is Sweet Tooth Time, because their cocktails come with matching desserts. Try the cheeky Lower Hutt Lemon Meringue, with vanilla vodka, lemon curd, lemon juice and a blow torched meringue topping, partnered with the Whoops I Dropped It which is an upside down ice cream cone filled with chocolate mousse, fairy bread crumb, vanilla gelato, and strawberry gel. The Twentieth Century is lemon, lime, gin and white chocolate liqueur, paired with a dark chocolate dessert. If you like your drinks less sweet, try the Hemingway Maitai which combines three types of rum, including Gunpowder Rum (made with real gunpowder). These delicious novelties result from the thought and effort the staff take, creating the stories behind each cocktail, with a list changing every six weeks to reflect the mood and the times of what is happening around the city. The Library is a feel-good place to celebrate life and enjoy the company of a group of friends.
The Hanging Ditch is great for quiet, low-key, easy times such as rainy afternoons (Wellington? No!) or Sunday evenings with a friend or a date. It’s got a pre-dinner or post-dinner comfortable feel, with old leather seats, 60s and 70s soul music, exposed brick walls, wooden floors, and at the same time, quirky, with all the liquor bottles hanging from bungy cords from the roof behind the bar. This is a place that does not take itself seriously (a soon -to- be – planned menu may feature the cocktails of Dr Suess). Their cocktail menu wants to take it relaxed and easy, too – simple, approachable drinks of fewer (but interesting) ingredients, for quick service. The Ebony Falcon has cynar (artichoke bitter liqueur), smoked spiced rum, Licor 43 (Spanish vanilla with 43 botanicals), lime and pineapple. While that drink is a soulful balladeer, their Larry Sherbert is all pop princess. It consists of vanilla vodka, lemon, passionfruit, pineapple and coconut, the glass rimmed not with sugar, but with fizzing, popping sherbert to tickle your lips. The Hanging Ditch is the place to chill and hang out – just like their bottles!