Austria may be best known for its spritzers, but Vienna’s drinking scene has much to offer beyond wine and soda. Cocktail bars serve up inventive, creative drinks that compete with those served in Europe’s biggest cities, while wine bars offer numerous grape varieties, some of which are produced within the city limits, such as white wines grüner veltliner, riesling and the red blaufränkisch. And the beer? It’s practically water here.
“Vienna is not Berlin and it’s not London,” says Katharina Schwaller, the newly minted bar manager at The Ritz-Carlton’s D-bar in Vienna and an award-winning bartender. “But we’re moving in that direction. Over the last three years, people in Vienna have become more opinionated about what they want to drink.” As Schwaller explains, Viennese customers are increasingly informed about spirits and more adventurous with their drink orders. And the city has started to move away from its traditional drink offering, with Schwaller explaining that gin is now the spirit of choice in Vienna for those eschewing classically Austrian drinks. She met with Culture Trip to give her tips on the best bars to drink at in Vienna.
Viennese bars run the gamut from cocktail lounges and speakeasies to traditional taverns and heurigen. Wine and beer are the most popular drinks in the city, and Vienna even has its own version of Oktoberfest, called Wiener Wiesn-Fest, which runs parallel to Munich’s. Austria is also the birthplace of the spritzer (sparkling water and wine), which can be ordered using the phrase “Weißer Spritzer, bitte.” But if you prefer undiluted wine, say, “Ein Weißwein/Rotwein, bitte” (the ‘w’ is pronounced like a ‘v’). September and October, when the grapes are in season, are the best months to try sturm, a juicy, potent wine made from young local grapes that leads to rowdy tavern crawls, especially in the city’s more pastoral districts. The name means ‘storm’; be careful to limit your intake to a few glasses (the alcohol content can range between 4 percent and 10 percent) or face the next day’s consequences.
One of the best ways to experience D-bar, located on the ground floor of The Ritz-Carlton in Vienna, is to travel the globe via its passport-style menu, which features drinks inspired by countries around the world. There’s a British-themed G & Tea for 2, a concoction of gin, milky oolong, vanilla syrup, Noilly Prat vermouth and milk served afternoon tea style. Or from Russia, try The Spicy Matrjoschka, a mixture of Siberian-pepper-infused vodka, white port, lime juice, cranberry juice and honey syrup served in Russian nesting dolls. The final component of the drink, dried cranberry with gold dust, is hidden in the smallest doll. D-bar is all about the details, and one of its unique features is the ice it serves in its drinks. After one of the bartenders travelled to Japan to learn about ice making, D-bar began making its own special ice blocks: non-cloudy ice cubes that freeze at -18C (-0.4F) and are hand-carved for different drinks.
The only sign indicating the presence of this bar from the outside is a gold-plated number seven. Ring the bell to enter the cosy speakeasy, which feels more like a living room, and where the complimentary popcorn never runs out. Here, bartenders work without a menu, building €18 (£15.50) cocktails based on each guest’s taste and base liquor preferences. “They’re old school,” Schwaller says. “They’re really focussed on the spirit. No infusing, no sous vide.” To guarantee entry, make a reservation beforehand.
“They have the best technical skills in Austria,” Schwaller says of the bartenders at Josef Bar. “They’re focussed on perfection.” Josef Bar is named after the grandfathers of the couple who still run it, both of whom were named Josef. Inside, the Baroque decor has accessories that have been passed down through the owners’ families: crystal glasses, dishes and a chandelier are all family heirlooms. Visitors might be surprised by Josef’s location, which is near Schwedenplatz, a busy area that isn’t typically known for its restaurants and bars. “It’s a funny location,” Schwaller says, but the reasonable prices make it worth the journey. “You can buy 10 tequilas for €10 [£8.60] there.” Like the location, the drinks combine high- and low-brow sensibilities. The bar draws on popular cocktails of the ’80s, like the piña colada and the M&M (a sweet, candy-inspired cocktail), but gives them a contemporary update with impressive techniques and ingredients. Try the Safroni, a tribute to the negroni, which consists of Campari, gin and red wormwood and is topped with an espuma (foam) of saffron, champagne and orange.
Though it may be in the heart of the 1st district, an area full of pricey designer stores and high-end restaurants, Die Weinorgel is anything but pretentious. Set inside the Gothic vault of a former inn, situated in a building from the 13th century, the atmospheric wine bar is regularly filled with punters. With fair prices and tasting-size portions, it’s a great place to try local wines, such as blaufränkisch (an indigenous red grape), zweigelt (a newer variety that’s a cross between blaufränkisch and st laurent) and grüner veltliner (white, and Austria’s most widely planted grape). Discarded peanut shells adorn the floor and wine barrels function as tables here.
Both a restaurant and a bar, Bruder focusses on fermentation. The bar is lined with jars of home-made amaros, bitters, vermouths and liqueurs derived from tree bark, fig leaves, fir and more. Hubert Peter, who runs the bar, forages for drink ingredients, such as rose hip, blackberry leaves and pine cones, in the city’s woods. “He is a virtuoso,” Schwaller says. In line with the nature-first approach at Bruder, the wines on offer are biodynamic, natural or both.
Set between two pillars of Austrian culture, the Vienna State Opera and the Albertina museum, is this unexpectedly down-home watering hole: an Australian pub. Serving Australian, British, German and Austrian beers and ales, as well as a few house brews, the pub takes its name from another pub in the Australian outback that a grandparent of the owners ran long, long ago. Foodwise, the menu at Crossfield’s covers pub classics, with burgers, chicken wings and fries, but also offers some unusual options, such as grasshoppers, kangaroo curry and crocodile schnitzel. Come on a Monday night for the pub quiz, in which winners receive a €50 (£43) Crossfield’s voucher.
It may be an urban capital city, but Vienna is also the home of some of the best vineyards in Austria. Head to the city outskirts to visit a heuriger, or tavern, where you can try local wines, including sturm. Drink it straight, as Schwaller explains: “In Vienna everybody spritzers everything, but sturm? No, never.” Mayer am Nussberg is the perfect place to lounge on weekends and holidays when the weather is good enough (otherwise it’s closed – check the website to be sure, and look out for the phrase heute geöffnet, which means ‘open today’). The wine bar is located in the 19th district, and has plenty of outdoor seating offering views over the city; there are also snacks such as mountain cheese served with onion-pepper chutney and prosciutto plated with truffle camembert. A word of warning from Schwaller: “Don’t drink too much sturm. You’ll have a bad headache the next day, but it’s delicious.”
The Sign Lounge is a place that truly embraces the theatre of mixology. Here, you’ll find drinks presented in unicorn mugs, popcorn buckets and fish bowls (with fake fish, peppermint syrup, sherry and tonic); cocktails spritzed with ingredients stored in perfume bottles; and an old-fashioned that comes with an unusual side dish: bacon. “He’s always using really new stuff, special combinations, new spirits, and is really fancy with the optics. He’s really innovative,” Schwaller says of the owner, Kan Zuo. The decor is modern, with geometric leather furniture.
A giant chandelier made of 80,000 freshwater pearls decorates the ceiling inside the Bauernmarkt, which houses Roberto American Bar. Beneath this, bartenders mix classics such as the gin fizz, the moscow mule and the mai tai. With 42 cocktails on the menu, most of which you will have heard of before, Roberto American Bar is interested in perfecting tradition, not in reinventing the wheel. “They’re good at working flair,” Schwaller says, explaining, “Flair bartending is an older version of showing competence in bartending.” But this practice of putting on a show while mixing drinks is sometimes more show than substance. Working flair combines real expertise with some of the moves of flair bartending. “Now we’re more focussed on the mixology side. With working flair, you’re working pretty. It’s productive, it’s useful and it looks good.” Come between 4pm and 6pm and partake in a free aperitivo of truffle salami and comté cheese.