There's something lovely about going underground in high summer. Open the old yellow glass-panelled door to Caretaker and the dark, leather-clad interior wraps you in its cool, comforting arms. Caretaker's ethos and cocktail list is modelled on classic New York cocktail bars, but rather than ritzy glitz, the design here is all low-key and well-worn.
The imagined hidey-hole of a hard-working caretaker, explains co-owner Alastair Walker, has been decked out in reclaimed materials including tables made from lacquered old doors, broomsticks across the ceiling, walls made from pressed tin found in the crawlspace above this old waterfront basement room, and heavy old iron safes used in place of cabinetry.
Alistair and his co-owner and wife Heather Garland met while working in lauded cocktail bar The Everleigh in Melbourne's Fitzroy.
They opened Caretaker three months ago in what they describe as an affiliation with The Everleigh (which was co-founded by Sasha Petraske, owner of the hallowed former New York bar Milk & Honey).
In essence, they're upholding this industry-famous standard, giving Auckland a world-class cocktail lounge.
Caretaker is inspired by the golden era of bartending, with fresh ingredients called upon, and no skimping on quality or technical skill. Juices are fresh-pressed, ice is hand-cut from big blocks. "We spend most of our time bent over the chest freezer out the back making ice," Heather says, laughing, while Alastair points out what a difference quality can make: "We made a decision to use a really good Champagne in our cocktails, rather than a cheaper sparkling wine that's the norm, and it really does taste so much better."
Those Champagne cocktails, and in general most cocktails here, go for $19 which isn't the cheapest deal in town, because that's not what Caretaker is about. "We're not into the idea of selling lots of drink, we focus more on the experience of enjoying a drink." To that end, bartenders at Caretaker are eager to enter conversation, find out your likes and dislikes, and, accordingly, fix you the ultimate refresher.
The owners and staff at Caretaker are all bartending aficionados without being all arrogant about it, which makes it the best place to clock up some hours becoming a cocktail-drinking aficionado without feeling like a pretentious wannabe.
WHAT'S THE DEAL?
Caretaker doesn't offer happy hours or drinks specials at all, but you can bet what you're drinking is expertly curated and you'll certainly taste the difference those fresh, quality ingredients make. A short list of bar snacks includes charcuterie and cheeses and there is table service. It's open seven days a week, 5pm-3am and there's live jazz on Wednesdays from 9pm.
THE LONDON MAID
"This, funnily enough, actually isn't a classic cocktail," Heather says, "but very popular and summery and you can change the base spirit: if you use rye whiskey it becomes a Kentucky Maid, or tequila makes it a Mexican Maid."
1oz fresh lime juice (30ml)
3/4 oz sugar syrup (22.5ml)
2oz gin (60ml)
Small handful of mint leaves
1 piece of cucumber
Shake and strain over ice, garnish with three slices of cucumber.