The World’s Next Great Cocktail Cities
As the booze industry continues to spread its spirited wings, pockets of cocktail creativity are opening up worldwide. Cities known for their mixology prowess like New York and London are finding themselves in new company, with cities like Cape Town and Singapore making a case for their fledgling cocktail cultures.
According to Euromonitor, over the past five years consumption of spirits has risen by 26 percent in Africa and the Middle East, 15 percent across Asia and 22 percent in China alone. This is in no small part thanks to the nomadic lifestyle of today’s bartenders, who frequently pack up their bags of mixology tricks to travel the globe in search of inspiration, peppering the planet with ideas as they go.
Here, a look at some of the new cocktail hubs around the world and the bartenders putting those cities on the map.
The French take their traditions seriously, and when it comes to drinking, wine reigns supreme. Aside from the occasional apéritif in the evening, such as a glass of pastis or a Kir Royal, serious cocktails were, for many years, in short supply.
Now, all that has changed. It began in 2007 with the Experimental Cocktail Club, based on New York’s original modern speakeasy, Milk & Honey. Shortly after came bars such as Little Red Door, a veritable imagination factory of drink ideas, and Candelaria, a taqueria hiding a secret cocktail bar in the back. As more and more of these creative cocktail bar opened, stylish Parisians began to embrace a more laissez faire attitude towards eating and drinking.
The team behind Candelaria has gone on to open four more bars, changing the face of Paris’ night scene. Their most recent opening is Hero, a Korean fried chicken hotspot with soju cocktails. Just up the road, bartender Joseph Akhavan is leading a rum renaissance—in a city that notoriously favors homegrown goods over imports—with Mabel. Taking the opposite approach, Le Syndicat makes every one of their drinks with French spirits—including French gin and whiskey.
Finally, native Nico de Soto, who cut his teeth at the Experimental Cocktail Club, first in Paris, then London, and now in New York where he co-owns Mace, has returned to his homeland to open his own 2nd Arrondissement bar, Danico, which is very chic, vaguely nautical and pleasingly French.
These days, Singapore has much more to offer than its eponymous Sling. The tiny nation won three of the top spots in 2016’s World’s 50 Best Bars list, making it a stand out amongst its regional peers. These entries include the sumptuous Manhattan bar at the Regent Hotel, the apothecary-style Operation Dagger, and the trailblazing 28 Hongkong Street.
A melting pot of nationalities, Singapore was primed for a cocktail revolution. And as bartenders from around the globe began migrating to the city, the burgeoning scene quickly grew into something amazing. A few of the more notable transplants include Australian bartending duo Luke Whearty and Aki Nishikura, who opened Operation Dagger; and America’s Steve Schneider, a former marine who earned bartending fame at New York’s Employees Only and now heads up the bar’s Singapore branch. Local talent include pioneers such as Din Hassan, godfather of the Singaporean cocktail scene, and young guns like Peter Chua, named Singapore’s best bartender several times.
But by far, the most important figure in Singapore’s cocktail culture is Zdenek Kastanek, the man behind 28 Hongkong Street and now Proof & Company, an independent spirits business, which is fueling the city’s boozy evolution. Kastanek believes that Singapore is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Asian cocktail cities. “Singapore is not a lone island in a cocktail desert,” he says. “It’s the one helping to put the spotlight on the bar scene in Asia, but it would be nowhere if we didn’t have amazing bars opening up in Bangkok, Seoul, and the madame of the Asia scene, Hong Kong, or in newcomers like Bali and Kuala Lumpa.”
Shanghai is all about the speakeasy, with barely a notable bar in town whose entrance isn’t hidden behind a vintage Coca-Cola vending machine or antique map. The most famous of these is Speak Low, which hides behind a sliding bookcase and down a tunnel. Owned by bartender Shingo Gokan, of Japanese cocktail den Angel’s Share in New York, Speak Low also houses two more hidden venues within its depths. And then there’s Tailor Bar, which can be reached via an unmarked lift next to a Chinese pharmacy. The bar prides itself on its prescription cocktails made with ginseng, Sichuan pepper and cassia bark.
But it is Texan-born Yao Lu’s Union Trading Company that has moved the scene beyond the allure of a secret door, with its laid-back, bare-brick vibe and open arms ethos. Lu cut his teeth at Houston’s Anvil before relocating to Shanghai, where he has become a mentor to many up-and-coming barkeeps.
“Shanghai is the melting pot of cocktail cultures, with formal Japanese influences balanced by creative Western mixology, fusing to form a distinctly Chinese bartending style,” says Paul Matthew, bar owner and consultant, who has worked in the Asian bar scene for many years. “There’s a great variety of world-class cocktail bars, from high end hotels to hidden whisky bars, not to mention the potential for a beer and shot at the city’s street vendors.” By a shot he means the national drink baijiu—only for the brave.
Cape Town may not be turning heads just yet in the global cocktail community, but it’s certainly taken a leading role in the region, with South African bartenders traveling to the city to train and compete in cocktail competitions. The Orphanage Cocktail Emporium is widely considered to be the leader of the pack, with ground-breaking bartenders. One of those bartenders is Nick Koumbarakis, who started at Orphanage and went on to open his own bar, The House of Machines, a coffee bar/cocktail den/boutique/live music venue with a menu of classically-influenced cocktails that changes weekly, as well as its own ice program.
Around the corner, you’ll find the newly opened Outrage of Modesty, a collaboration between local bar talent and Singapore’s Operation Dagger team, which is further evidence of how new ideas travel alongside bartenders. Its menu, which harnesses South Africa’s incredible biodiversity, features ingredients such as sea figs, num-nums, and spekboom. Many of the ingredients are foraged. The bar has also established a “closed loop” low waste philosophy with many products made and recycled in house.
Bar school and consultancy Shaker South Africa has seen an increasing number of students each year, as young people there start to see bartending as a viable career option. According to John O’Keeffe, president of Diageo Africa, the continent will be the fastest growing total beverage alcohol region in the world over the next five years. Craft spirits are increasing in popularity and small producers are entering this arena, with consumers starting to request artisanal brands.
Mezcal and beer: That’s what you drink when in Mexico City. Though now you can add some beautifully crafted cocktails into the mix. Licorería Limantour, which opened up in 2011, is credited with this change. Head bartender Mafer Tejada was the first female to win the title of Mexico’s World Class Bartender of the Year in 2015, forging the way for other women in the industry. The team has since opened two more bars. The latest, Baltra, is more informal and waiter-free. It offers cocktails inspired by Charles Darwin’s travels through the Galapagos Islands.
Tales of the Cocktail, New Orleans’ esteemed annual booze conference, took their Tales on Tour—a roving festival intended to highlight and nurture up-and-coming mixology markets beyond the USA—to Mexico City in 2015. And it worked. In the wake of Tales, a number of bars have already opened, such as reservation-only secret hotspot Hanky Panky, and the poolside bar at the absurdly hip Hotel Carlota. And that’s only the beginning.
[Postscript: Notable mentions go to Athens, Montreal, Seoul, Melbourne, Beirut, Tel Aviv, and Stockholm, not to mention smaller U.S. cities such as Pittsburgh, PA.]