South Africa has historically been a beer- and wine-drinking country. But the artisanal cocktail movement has exploded in recent years, together with the craft gin movement. Today, there are many great spots in Jo’burg with sophisticated, carefully curated cocktail menus without a Long Island Iced Tea or Sex on the Beach in sight.
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Sin + Tax
Modelled on the concept of an American speakeasy, Sin + Tax is hidden behind an unmarked door in an alleyway in Jo’burg‘s Parkwood neighbourhood. (To find it, look for the giant elephant graffiti mural painted on the wall.) Like any respectable speakeasy, the inside of Sin + Tax is dark, without any windows. Acclaimed bartender/owner Julian Short creates a new seasonal menu several times yearly. The drinks, each one carefully concocted with mostly house-made ingredients, are served with free popcorn.
Mix Cocktail Bar
Mix Cocktail Bar is at the back of the swanky, members-only Mesh Club in Rosebank’s Keyes Art Mile. The private club opens to the public at 4pm, when the party starts at Mix. The bar’s decor is modern and bright, and the outdoor balcony has a great view of the sunset over Jo’burg’s northern suburbs. Each cocktail is a work of art, incorporating as many seasonal ingredients as possible.
Tonic, as the name implies, is a gin bar specialising in gin and tonics. Located in the friendly-yet-trendy suburb of Linden, Tonic is known for its lovely interior featuring a graffiti-like portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth II. A cursive neon sign reads: “When life hands you lemons, make a G&T.” Tonic has a massive selection of gins that can be constructed into cocktails of all shapes, sizes and colours. The adjoining restaurant, Tanen, is under the same ownership and offers excellent tapas to Tonic’s drinkers.
The Little Fox
The Little Fox is also a gin bar, hidden in an old warehouse at the end of an alleyway in the downtown 1 Fox Precinct (around the corner from Urbanologi restaurant). The Little Fox adjoins the Ginologist, a local gin distillery. The Little Fox is somehow grungy and elegant all at once; the dark furniture and elaborate light fixtures create a steampunk-like feel. Hungry customers can order pizza from the Mad Giant Brewery next door.
Smoking Kills is the closest thing Melville has to a speakeasy, with an entrance that is nearly invisible during the day when the bar is closed. At night, Smoking Kills becomes a high-end cocktail joint masquerading as a dive, specialising in rum drinks and Cuban sandwiches. Only the coolest of the cool know Smoking Kills exists, yet the vibe is fun and unpretentious. True to its name, Smoking Kills somehow manages to flout South African law and allow smoking inside.
A Streetbar Named Desire
Obviously named for the classic Tennessee Williams play, A Streetbar Named Desire is one of Jo’burg’s hottest Friday night hangouts. The first-floor balcony, which overlooks the busy corner of Chester Road and Jan Smuts Avenue, does have the feel of a 19th-century New Orleans mansion, although curiously the menu is Mediterranean tapas and bar snacks. (Go figure.) But Streetbar’s food is tasty, and the cocktail names – “The Kindness of Strangers”, “A Woman’s Charm”, “Epic Fornications” and “Coarse Behaviour”, to name a few – evoke Williams’ sultry prose. Arrive early on weekend evenings to avoid the crowds.
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