Heading out for a night in the West Country would traditionally be seen as a prime opportunity for consuming vats of delicious, cloudy scrumpy. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, but Bristol has far more diversity in its liquid refreshments than fermented apples. The city is home to some of the UK’s best cocktail bars, if you’re cunning enough to find them. Here are five of the best to check out during your city break:
Aurelius Braunbarth’s brainchild is a regular in “best bar” lists, not just for Bristol but the UK as a whole. It’s the original (and arguably still the best) cocktail bar in Bristol, seeing off some strong competition to continue drawing discerning drinkers out to Clifton. Harking back to the days when speakeasies survived by being hard to find, Hausbar requires a few passes along Upper Belgravia Road and Whiteladies Street until you spot the doorway. Ring the doorbell and step through a portal into pre-war Berlin and a whole world of eccentric flavours and seriously suave service. The drinks place an emphasis on top quality spirits and classics done incredibly well.
If Hausbar is Bristol’s nod to the underground drinking culture of Berlin, then Hyde & Co. is its American counterpart. Again, it would take a devoted Prohibition Agent to find the place; this speakeasy is positively buried beneath kebab shops, with just a hat to denote its presence. Once you’re inside, the vibe and the lighting are both low key. And while the menu may be a far cry from Blue Lagoons and Jägerbombs, pretension isn’t on it. Instead, these are top class cocktails that draw their influence – much like the décor – from the US of days gone by. The little details are what makes this place special, from the secret room behind a bookcase to the piano that isn’t just for decoration. For a special treat, book the cocktail masterclass and learn a thing or two in the process.
From the same master craftsmen as Hyde & Co., Milk Thistle is more central and more expansive than its Clifton cousin. It’s a place of beauty, from the stained-glass windows to the elegantly dishevelled furniture. The only thing ruining the 1920s-speakeasy vibe is the clientele’s modern duds, so make an effort. Booking is also pretty much essential as even though The Milk Thistle takes up four floors, it’s a reassuringly popular spot and gets full quickly. Like Hyde & Co., cocktail masterclasses are available and there are private rooms available if you want somewhere extra special for a function or party. The menu is a mixture of classics done to perfection and house concoctions that sound irresistible, such as the Milk Thistle Daisy, which combines gin, lemon juice, spiced pear syrup and fizz.
Bristol may be home to the godfather of graffiti in Banksy, but there’s nothing of note about the graffiti that marks the entrance to Red Light. Instead, this nondescript doorway on nondescript Unity Street looks like it was tagged by someone who failed their GCSE art exam. The key is the telephone beside the door. At night, it’s lit up in a red haze that suggests something a whole lot more untoward than cocktails. Pick up the handset and ask nicely and you’ll be let into one of Bristol’s best cocktail bars. No 1920s speakeasy vibes here, instead Red Light stays true to its name and is decked out in the leather and deep red velvet of a 1950s brothel. The staff are incredibly well-informed and only too happy to guide you towards the right drink or rustle up something special.
Somewhat confusingly, the Rummer Hotel is not a hotel and its speciality is gin, not rum. Refreshingly though, it’s a rare cocktail bar that is aware that we’re in 21st Century Bristol, not 1920s America, and that it’s easier to walk in through the door than spend an hour searching for a secret entrance which requires a secret knock and a password before you’ve any chance of getting a drink. Ironically, if this was 1920s America, the Rummer would have more to fear than most as it’s a functioning still as well as a bar, producing craft gin to go with the enormous collection of spirits behind the bar. It’s also an excellent restaurant, allowing you to temper the effects of the alcohol with some high-quality cooking from chef Andy Clatworthy.