Can Wellingtonians talk while drinking? Greg Bruce finds out.
Entering the private room in which I was meeting Mittens, I - Aucklander and idiot - wondered: "Why a private room?" That was before I entered his presence.
He had just finished a lengthy photoshoot and was rehoused in his cat carrier, which seemed strange for a cat that has made his name as one of history's greatest nomads. It was early evening, and by then I'd been in Wellington all day and all day I'd been hearing stories about him: Mittens miles from home, Mittens crossing the road at zebra crossings; Mittens waiting patiently for the green man before crossing at intersections; people coming across large crowds in central Wellington, thinking there must have been a terrible accident, only to find Mittens happily at their centre.
Somebody showed me a pencil drawing he'd made of Mittens, someone else showed me a rubber stamp she'd had made featuring Mittens' image. Somebody told me Mittens drinks only from a crystal tumbler. Mittens! Mittens! Mittens! Has any animal ever meant so much to a city as Mittens means to Wellington?
I wanted him to come out of the cat carrier so I could see what all the fuss was about. First, I tried to get his attention through the door of the carrier but he ignored me, so I began ignoring him, then he began trying to get my attention. Having won this sad little psychological battle, I said to his owner, Silvio Bruinsma: "I think he wants to come out."
His owner said: "No, I think I'll leave him in there."
I had imagined his owner, who is known to the world simply as "Silvio", as a stylish and exuberant heavily accented Italian immigrant in his late 50s, sockless, in moccasins, with a luxurious white beard, drinking Campari straight from the bottle and leaning casually on his Vespa, with Mittens perched on his shoulder. I was shocked to discover a conservatively dressed corporate Kiwi bloke, an accountant and father of two young children, with a strong sense of social responsibility around his famous cat.
"There's this lady in Colombia," he said. "She's like, 'My dad has dementia. The one thing he looks forward to every day is [gestures at Mittens]. How does your heart not go out to that? The guy is 93. And you're like, 'If you've helped some good in this world through a cat that gives people a different perspective on life, I think that's positive'."
LBQ had created a cocktail - The Furball - in Mittens' honour, upon which Bruinsma was sipping happily as we talked. When I asked what was in it, he said: "He listed about 15 ingredients. I can't really remember." Bruinsma said he's more of a wine drinker and, since having kids, not really much of a drinker at all: "There's nothing quite as bad as having a hangover when a baby walks into your room at 6am, crying," he said.
When we'd finished talking and Bruinsma stood up to leave, much to my amazement he picked up the glass of water I hadn't quite finished, tipped the remains into an adjacent jug and placed the glass in his bag. And that's the story of how I came to be drinking a cocktail made with water and the saliva of New Zealand's most famous cat
JUSTIN MCKENZIE, HAWTHORN LOUNGE
Shortly after I arrived, bar manager Alex picked up Justin McKenzie's ringing cellphone and showed him the screen. It was McKenzie's mother, arguably Wellington's most famous dance teacher, Deirdre Tarrant. "Nup," McKenzie said, then paused for a second, possibly flashing back through a lifetime of love and support, possibly not.
"She wants the punchbowl," he said to Alex, "The campari punchbowl. Is it here?"
Alex looked unsure. McKenzie waved the phone away. "I'll do it later," he said.
McKenzie said it was about the third time his mum had rung chasing the punchbowl, which he believed she needed for a function: "She, every so often, will ring and demand something," he said. "It's quite funny."
"We're really lucky both grandmas are in Wellington and they both want to be involved and that's a massive blessing and absolute nightmare at the same time. So my mother will take them to go and do gym and a little activity after school and it'll involve icecream, hot chips and hot chocolate, and they don't go to sleep. The other grandmother, they'll turn up with another tiara and plastic wand that they just have to have."
McKenzie is one of Wellington hospitality's most well-known personalities and the Hawthorn is the bar he's best known for. His brother, Bret, is one of Wellington's most well-known celebrities.
Justin McKenzie had hired Alex after he gave a satisfactory answering McKenzie's famous interview question: "How would you make a gin and tonic?" After making him a Milano Torino, Alex retired to the far end of the bar where he sat reading the classic 1948 book, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, by David Embury and making extensive notes. He said he'd already read it five or six times.
Alex said: "It's how much care and effort you take into making the most simple drinks. How much love you put into that. That's kind of the test.
"How do you serve it? When do you put the ice in? Do you mix it all together or do you just let it sit? Or do you put in a tiny bit of ice? It's just the level of detail with which you describe that you would make it. You can't make a gin and tonic wrong - there is no such thing - but you can definitely make one really well."
A Milano Torino has two ingredients: Campari (from Milano) and vermouth (from Torino). It's a negroni without the gin. McKenzie said he's always been a big negroni drinker but took to Milano Torinos during lockdown last year: "I'll be honest: I think the first time I ended up doing it, the gin had run out, and I just had the vermouth left, and we'd run out of soda water to make it into an Americano, so it was just: 'I'll drink that.' Shortly after that, I drove to the bar and got some gin.
"It's just a wonderfully balanced drink and a testament to classic cocktails. There are three ingredients, balanced out and it works. And when you look at drinks through the ages there's this wonderful thing. We were talking before about breaking all the rules, and you do all that and you go: 'You know what? ... Let's go back to the start'."
MONIQUE FISO, NIGHT FLOWER
The stairwell to Night Flower is graffitied, uninspiring and unlikely, and the entrance door from the stairwell unpromising, which makes the impact all the more impressive when the room opens to you, dramatically and enormously.
The staff were dressed in Prohibition-era outfits and there was no menu. I asked them about an article in which they had been quoted as saying they served 300,000 cocktails. They laughed and said they had no idea where that number had come from. They weren't sure of the precise number but said it was a little more than 300.
New Zealand's hottest chef, Monique Fiso, arrived and sat in a corner booth. She's a regular here, and almost always starts with a gin sour before letting the staff choose her next drink. "You'll ask for something," she says, "and they'll say, 'We don't have that but we have this', and it makes you branch out into something that could be your new favourite drink. And I like that. I like being exposed to things I might have not necessarily have tried."
Last time here, she felt like a pina colada but knew they wouldn't give her one. What she got instead, "was like this clarified coconut drink and it had like the essence of a pina colada but it was clearly not a pina colada, but it stuck with me because it was so delicious and I was kind of looking at it, like: 'How did they do that?'"
We called over the bartender. He told her it was a milk punch, one of three they serve here, made with coconut milk, coconut sugar and desiccated coconut. The construction of the drink, he said, was a three-day process, using fresh fruit, including pineapple, infusions of several different teas, notably green tea, and a selection of spices.
Fiso said drinks have become increasingly important at her freakishly hot restaurant Hiakai, where it's currently impossible to get a reservation. "I used to be somewhat disconnected from it," she said. "There was a line in the sand: 'That's my part, that's your part.' Now there's a lot more of a blurred grey area."
The same is true of the restaurant's food, she said. It used to be she was the only one with a say in the menu, but she's in the middle of developing a new menu for later this year and she's brought her team into it. Control is important to her and she's struggled at times with letting go of that.
"The devil on this shoulder was like: 'One voice to rule them all!' and the other was like 'Yeah, but these are really great ideas.' It was this weird thing I was going through, funnily enough just last night. And then I shut the notebook and was like, 'Okay, we need to take a break from this. Come back to that tomorrow'."
The barman had just brought her out another milk punch. There was no sign she would be coming back to anything else anytime soon.
HUGO GRRRL, CRUMPET
Hugo Grrrl told barman Ross to pick and choose from any of the following ingredients: "Ginger, lime, mint and all of the berries."
"I'm wearing pink," he added. "So I think I should go with something full camp."
Hugo Grrrl (real name George Fowler), 30, is a trans man who was raised as a girl and is now one of Wellington's leading drag performers. For years, he said, after being raised and socialised as a girl, he was uncomfortable with his body and life, then one day it hit him, who he really was.
He said: "For some people it is gender dysphoria - just like 'Something's wrong! Something's wrong!' But really, it was when I started being like 'Oh damn!' - you call it gender euphoria, when you suddenly put something on and you're like 'Interesting! This feels good!'"
It was a decade of struggle, of not feeling good, of not being able to articulate why he didn't feel good. It was the day he put on a white button-up shirt that everything changed.
"Literally my face swam into focus in the mirror. Having been super dysphoric, it literally felt fuzzy and then I remember like this 'Pfooof!' of just suddenly seeing yourself for the first time. And you're like, 'Mmmm, this is correct'."
Fowler hasn't drunk in years, so Ross made him a mocktail. Then another mocktail. And then one more. "There aren't that many places to hang out if you're not drinking," Fowler said, "so places like this are amazing."
Fowler was wearing an elegant pink jacket with matching thigh-length pink shorts. "This is separate components that I've doused in pearls. Something that interests me is that this is a traditional Chanel suit, which is very drag-queeny, but I was like, 'What if we twist it?' That really interests me."
KATHERINE MANSFIELD, THE LIBRARY
I sat on one of the couches by the window and read The Garden Party, Katherine Mansfield's famous story of downward social contempt set in and around the house in which she grew up in Tinakori Rd, Thorndon.
The Library Bar is deliciously rumpty, non-striving, lined with bookshelves, well stocked with cosy reading couches and topped by a disco roof. I tried to summon Mansfield's spirit, or at least to imagine her presence here, powerfully observant, sucking up all around her for regurgitation in her fiction. I thought she might find the roof interesting.
I had contacted the Katherine Mansfield House to ask what sort of cocktail they thought Mansfield would drink. Although they didn't know, they were able to dig out a decade-old cocktail recipe made and named after her by a Wellington barman, but The Library Bar's manager Peter Lowry was friends with that barman, who now lives in Australia, and was in no way going to allow himself to be influenced by him.
Lowry based the drink on the classic white lady cocktail, using a local variation on Pimms and a syrup made from Runaway Rose Tea, which was a little play on Mansfield being Wellington's own runaway rose - a joke Lowry correctly assumed she would hate. He wanted the drink to be simple, classically structured, with some sourness: traits he saw as Mansfieldian: "On the outside this drink is pretty and summery," he said, "though the aromatics and taste are much more complicated."
The story The Garden Party was based on an experience Mansfield had as a child, which she universalised and elaborated on, to speak to and about the oblivious rich, wherever they may slither. Issues it addresses include disregard for the feelings of the poor and to a lesser extent those of children, the subjugation of human feelings to appearances, and the reduction of females to the value of their appearance.
I read the story on the comfort of the couch, accompanied by the comfort of the booze. It's not accurate to say this was pure pleasure, because The Garden Party is arousing of certain emotions which can't accurately be described as pleasant, but stories - like life, like booze - work best when they're not all sweetness.
Highball, New Zealand's only cocktail and spirits festival, is held at the Wellington's Dominion Museum Building on May 7-8, followed by Wellington Cocktail Week (May 10-16). Highball tickets are available at highball.co.nz.