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Five of the best historic bars around the world

We make our pick of the bars that loom largest in cocktail history, from the American Bar at The Savoy to New York’s King Cole Bar.

By Zane Henry
Published 31 Jul 2019, 12:15 BST
American bar, The Savoy
American bar, The Savoy
Photograph by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

When it comes to cocktails, the history can be hard to pin down; a lot of what we know is apocryphal or vague, with facts often proving malleable by hangovers. That said, there are some indisputable nodes of drinks history: those times and places where a bartender did something for — if not actually the first time — the first time in the presence of someone sober enough to note it. Drinking at these spots is always special, whether because of the persisting tradition of excellence or the thrill of drinking a cocktail in the place of its birth.

A word of warning though: getting a taste of history usually doesn’t come cheap. Get drunk enough, however, and you won’t mind as much.

The American Bar at The Savoy, London

The American Bar is so very much itself that ideas of style and fashion don’t seem to apply here. The vibe is quiet, understated luxury, with no ostentation in terms of the decor or the presentation of the drinks. All the energy that could have been diverted into the latest trends is funnelled into making innovative, delicious — and admittedly pricey — cocktails. The garnish is minimal, but the flavours and techniques are intricate, with ingredients transformed through infusions, washings and assorted tinkering.

This interplay between the past and the present is reflected in the current menu, the Savoy Songbook, a collection of drinks created with the bar’s most iconic musical moments in mind. The menu is accompanied by a live album recorded by resident pianist Jon Nickoll, who performs tracks from it on the bar’s baby grand.

Try this: Any of the newer cocktails are worth a try, particularly the dreamer: Grey Goose vodka, Damascan rose, Muyu Jasmine Verte liqueur, argan tincture, Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque rosé and champagne. Make sure to try a hanky-panky, invented right here by bartender Ada Coleman in the 1930s; it’s an unassailable classic of gin, vermouth and Fernet-Branca.

Harry’s Bar, Venice

Harry’s Bar is one of the most notable spots on Venice’s tourist map, with a queue snaking outside at most hours. It’s unassuming, surprisingly tiny and has the look and size of a station platform waiting room, all gleaming wood and soft yellow light.

The bar has long been a favoured haunt for celebrities, and has counted Ernest Hemingway, Alfred Hitchcock, Truman Capote and George Clooney among its clientele. The drinks skew heavily towards the classics, so don’t expect too many modern concoctions.

Try this: It has to be the bellini, invented here by founder Giuseppe Cipriani. Feather-light and velvety smooth, it remains one of the best incarnations of the prosecco and peach juice drink. For an added treat, have it with the beef carpaccio (also invented here).

King Cole Bar, New York City

With a strong claim to having been the birthplace of the bloody mary (known here as the red snapper), the King Cole Bar is a must-visit when in New York. It’s a beautiful, high-ceilinged room in Manhattan’s St Regis Hotel, named after the jaunty mural that stretches across the back wall of the bar. There’s a fairly strict dress code after 16.00, but the stellar drinks and excellent service make it worth the effort of dressing up.

Try this: Start with the red snapper, then work your way through the extensive bloody mary section of the menu. You’re guaranteed to be a merry soul by the time you leave.

Bar Hemingway at the Ritz, Paris

Bar Hemingway, hidden towards the back of the Ritz Paris in the city’s 1st arrondissement, is crammed with leather upholstery and memorabilia. Entire walls are dedicated to Ernest Hemingway, who famously ‘liberated’ the bar from the Nazis after WW2.

It’s small and comfy, and the friendly staff are very happy to make recommendations. They specialise in classics — the french 75 hits as hard as a missile — but visitors should also make sure to sample creations like the sorrento: limoncello, prosecco and orange bitters on ice.

Try this: The clean dirty martini is a crystal-clear dirty martini that has all the olive flavour with none of the murk.

Long Bar at Raffles Hotel, Singapore

Heavy on the tourist appeal, this one is perhaps more of a bucket-list entry than anything else. The teakwood bar and wicker chairs have old-school charm, and it’s fun to crack into the copious free peanuts and drop the shells onto the floor (an activity that’s encouraged, apparently). The real draw here, though, is the singapore sling, invented here in 1915 by Ngiam Tong Boon.

Try this: The singapore sling is a deceptively complex drink. The grenadine and cherry brandy suggest a syrupy sweet experience, but the Bénédictine and gin give it bountiful intrigue.

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