Two 30-something men in suits approached the bar in Cardiff, Wales, and scanned the menu. When the bartender greeted them, one confessed: "I'm not much of a gin drinker."
That was unfortunate because the menu, nearly broadsheet-size, is a Homeric catalogue of gin - from England, of course, and from Wales and Scotland and Japan and Germany, made with saffron or truffles or exotic Asian herbs.
The bartender, clearly having heard this one before, asked the gentleman what he typically ordered. Whisky, he replied. So the bartender swivelled around, grabbed a bottle from the jam-packed shelves behind him and poured a measure into the glass for the guest. It's barrel-aged gin, he explained, so you'll get that oaky flavour you'll recognize from whisky, and also other flavours. The man tried it and within an instant, a transformation: He became a gin drinker.
This scene played out at Gin & Juice, a bar with Victorian-style chairs and lamps in the backroom, a short slab of weathered mahogany in the front room and old-timey photos hanging everywhere. The gin is served in gorgeous, heavy chalices that round out the vintage atmosphere.
Like many establishments in Cardiff, this one is in an arcade that has housed businesses since Victorian times. In the daytime, Gin & Juice is a cafe. It opens at 8 a.m. and serves fresh juices and breakfast bites. Then at 5 p.m., it's one of the growing number of bars helping to turn Cardiff into a destination for cocktail lovers and doing so with open arms; these establishments eschew esoteric trappings even as bartenders create the kinds of complicated drinks typically affiliated with exclusive bars or majestic high-end establishments.
This was immediately evident on my first night in this harbourside city, which sits 240 km due west of London. I sat at the bar at the Alchemist, an airy restaurant on a main thoroughfare with sweeping windows overlooking bustling St. Mary Street. At night, young people - mostly students - queue up outside nearby clubs but in here, bartenders make spectacles with blow torches and dry ice.
This restaurant is one of 15 Alchemists throughout the United Kingdom, proof of the democratisation - and demystification - of esoteric drinks. How esoteric, you ask? As a group of young women clustered at the bar to take selfies with the bartender, who concocted drinks that fizzed and spattered, I sat with my drink, poking at a sphere of purple liquid sheathed in a gelatinous casing until that carapace popped, releasing the inner measure of blackberry liqueur into my gin-and-citrus libation.
With train tickets starting around $45 and bus tickets at an eye-poppingly cheap $9.50, Cardiff is an attractive add-on to a visit to England's capital. It has a very compact downtown. Cardiff as a whole, in fact, is quite compact. With a decidedly small-city feel, it is to London what Philadelphia or Boston is to New York - much more manageable for a visitor than its sibling megalopolis while steeped in history, and packed with cultural attractions and creative restaurants, cafes and bars.
In the 19th century, Cardiff was one of the world's busiest ports. At its peak in 1913, 12 million tons of coal was shipped from the harbor before industry declined and the waterfront became a muddy afterthought. In the early 2000s, however, the city invested in major projects including the $275 million Wales Millennium Center, a sleek and modern performing arts hall that opened in 2004; and the Senedd, a glass-windowed marvel with a cantilevered roof, which opened two years later and serves as the country's primary government building.
The rejuvenated waterfront is a buzzy district with restaurants, cafes and a paved pathway along the shoreline. For easy access, there's residential construction on the stretch between the water and downtown (less than a couple of km). All of this has made Cardiff an attractive home to young creative types who see opportunity for new businesses. Like cocktail bars.
One of the earliest players was Lab 22, which opened in 2012. Situated up a dark set of stairs illuminated only by a disco ball, the spacious bar has an L.A.-style vibe about it. There's a small patio off to one end and a separate lounge space with low tables through a doorway on the other side. A painting of Einstein sticking his tongue out hangs by the stairway, a signal of the bartenders' attitude here.
Their cocktails are exercises in glorious exhibitionism. The popular Botanical is a fragrant, prosecco-fueled gin drink served on a coaster-size tin box containing dry ice that creates a geyser-like stream of scented mist.
The bar is located on Caroline Street, a narrow road that locals call Chippy Lane because of the dozens of fish-and-chip shops that come alive in the late evening. A drink called Fission Chips is, naturally, a tribute to the bar's locale. The mix of tequila, citric acid, pea and mint shrub, and a few other things that sound like they were swiped from a sorcerer's pantry, is served in a small bottle wrapped in newspaper and poured into a glass mug.
Lab 22, I came to learn, is an incubator of sorts for young bartenders who ultimately open bars of their own. Alex Taylor is one such alum. He opened Pennyroyal, an apothecary-themed hangout around the corner from Alchemist, in July 2017. The menu is a pile of cards bound together with a single ring. On one side of each card is a colorful illustration; on the flip side, a narrative of what inspired the drink - typically some sort of ancient myth - and the ingredients.
"I don't want anyone to be stuck sitting with a menu they don't understand. Cocktails are fun; they're escapism," Taylor explained. "If you haven't made it easy to order, well then it's not all that fun."
Pennyroyal is a lot of fun. Consider, for example, the Supernatural Mushroom, a gin-based cocktail involving plum sake, yellow Chartreuse and a few other fragrant ingredients, then finished off with a garnish of three different mushrooms and shiso leaves. It's a garnish like something out of a Grimm's fairy tale fever dream.
As I flicked through the deck, overwhelmed by the choices, Taylor suggested Idunn's Treasure, inspired by the tale of a Norse goddess who protected enchanted apples in a pine forest. The cognac-based drink, accordingly, incorporates ice cider and a pine element, resulting in a rich, warming potion. It's as if "you turn Hugh Hefner's crushed velvet dressing gown into a cocktail to sip by the fireplace," he said.
Whimsy is a cornerstone of yet another bar, the Dead Canary, which is in a former club on a stretch behind the pedestrian-heavy thoroughfares. Its discreet door is marked with a "fire exit" sign and a feather painted above a buzzer. The bar - with its grim name and charming decor (birdcages, maps, vintage posters) - is a tribute to Wales's mining heritage, when canaries were sent into the coal mines to test carbon dioxide levels, as owner and manager Mark Holmes explained to me. Welsh pride defines the clever cocktail list, which is designed as a folder of business cards, each one appearing to belong to a Welsh personality - actors, politicians, athletes, writers - and featuring a matching drink.
I ordered the D. Thomas, a fittingly intense, raucous mix of two single malt scotches - smoky Ardbeg and brighter Glenmorangie - coffee liqueur, chicory, lemon, egg white and poetry. "A very rare, exotic ingredient, that poetry," the bartender told me with a wink.
As I walked back to my hotel that night, I paused at the dramatically lit 11th century Cardiff Castle in the city center. I had toured it earlier in the day and thought about the stories the guide told me about the centuries' worth of eccentric residents. As I continued past, I thought about the stories I learned from bartenders about the cocktails they pour each night. It brought to mind a conversation I had a few days earlier with Adam Marsden, the senior assistant general manager at the Alchemist.
"The community aspect," he said, "is inherent in Welsh people - we talk, we communicate, and that sometimes seems lost around the world."
WHERE TO DRINK
22 High St., Cardiff
Brick-walled and heavy on wood furniture, including the bar built from old pallets and scaffolding board, this vintage-style cocktail bar features a spirits selection so extensive that bartenders climb ladders to reach the top few shelves. Many of the elaborate drinks on the ultra-creative menu are inspired by ancient legends. Open 5 to 11:30 p.m.Tuesday through Thursday and 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sundays and Mondays. Drinks start at about $14.
Gin & Juice
2-6 Castle Arcade, High Street
By day, this stylish hangout with antique-chic furniture and decor sells fresh juices, smoothies, sweet and savoury bagel sandwiches and other breakfast fare. But in the evening, you can choose a gin from a menu with more than 350 options. Open 8:30 to 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 9:30 a.m. to 11 p.m Sunday. Gins and cocktails start about $11.50; fresh juices start at about $6.50; smoothies start at about $6.50; bagel sandwiches from about $4.
22 Caroline St.
The clever periodic-table graphics that explain the cocktails on the menu here is a dead giveaway of the emphasis this bar puts on science. Butter-washed bourbon, champagne syrup and pineapple foam are all part of these bartenders' arsenal. The vibe is chill and quiet during the week. On weekends it's more energetic, verging on clubby late at night. Open 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Monday and Thursday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday, 5 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Friday and 2 p.m. to 2:30 a.m Saturday. Cocktails from about $10.25.
117 St. Mary St.
Part of a restaurant group with venues throughout Britain, this place offers drinks both inventive and flashy, but accessible. Located in a historic building that was originally a bank, the space is refined but relaxed with huge windows overlooking the high street. The eclectic menu includes appetisers both familiar and creative, like seitan chicken and halloumi sticks (from about $7.80), burgers (from about $9), and entrees like fajitas and curries (from about $16). Open 10 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, 10 to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 to 11 p.m. Sunday. Drinks from about $9.
The Dead Canary
Situated on one of the quieter strips of the bustling City Center, the Dead Canary is where locals go for creative drinks in an old-timey setting. It was the first cocktail bar in town to do table service, so expect a knowledgeable server to explain the menu of signature drinks. Open 5 p.m. to midnight Tuesday through Sunday 5 p.m. to midnight and until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Drinks start at about $11.70.