Boozing in Buenos Aires – Touring the Cocktail Bars

Backbar at Verne Club

Before leaving for Buenos Aires I combed the internet for hours putting together a list of bars to try out. As usual on these trips, there were more bars on my list than we actually got to, and some stomach problems at the end of the trip took out two evenings, but we still did well in hitting the essential places. With a few exceptions, most of the noteworthy cocktail bars on my list were in the Palermo and Recoleta/Retiro neighborhoods. If bars and nightlife are your thing, Palermo is an ideal place to consider calling home.

I don’t speak Spanish and my two years of high school Italian are quite rusty so it took me a while to piece together the basic everyday words I needed to know. At restaurants I depended on Carrie for much of the menu interpretation – it helps that she has a food background. But cocktail menus in Spanish – that was a challenge I looked forward to! I’m a pretty obsessive menu parser so I wasn’t about to throw in the towel that quickly. It helped that many of the ingredients included brand names. However, the names of juices, syrups, bitters and such tested me at first. I was particularly proud the first time I came across “Clara de Huevos”.  Knowing “Huevos” was eggs and with my background in drink patterns and what I might expect in a drink, I quickly figured out it was egg whites.

The perception I formed was that the best bars in town made some great cocktails, but the truly cutting edge stuff was about five years behind what I find in the US. For instance some bars are doing infusions but they were infrequent and rudimentary – Bacardi with cinnamon was popular. Bitters were in use but I didn’t notice large collections of exotic bitters and I don’t recall seeing much in the way of house made bitters. I only observed one barrel aged cocktail the entire time. In short, it felt like the bars had mastered the basics of classic cocktails and were making interesting variations with local ingredients, but relatively few mixology showcase drinks like you’d find at Seattle’s Liberty or Trick Dog in San Francisco.

Being from Seattle, I don’t blink at a $12 US cocktail, so even though cocktails are considered expensive in Argentina, from my perspective it was always happy hour with half-price drinks. Drinks were regularly in the 55-70 peso range, so about $7 US.

Here’s where we made it to in order of visitation.

Verne Club

Tucked away a wee-bit off the main nightlife corridors, Verne Club has a dark, classic vibe of 1930’s art deco – Very Jules Verne futuristic. Dramatic lighting under the backbar gives the liquor bottles a dramatic feel, and interesting glass-covered gear contraption inlays in the bar look like they’ll start moving at any moment. Verne club is worth a visit for the ambience alone. The cocktails were a solid 7 out of 10, with many being house originals. One I remember in particular was dramatically smoke infused.

The food menu was decently sized for a bar and everything we ordered was well executed including the gourmet hot dog, one of their specialties. It was a Sunday night so there were few customers, giving us the opportunity to get to know the bartender. His English was good enough that I could convey my enthusiasm and we ended up talking for a while about various spirits and other bars we should visit. We liked Verne club enough that we attempted a second visit on a busier night, but the bar was full and the music was thumping so we took a pass.

Bar counter at Verne Club
Smoked cocktail prep at Verne Club

Basa Basement Bar

Basa was a late addition to my list as an “As time permits” entry. On our second night in town, after trekking across the city in a massive downpour, we found ourselves soaking wet in front of a closed Floreria Atlantico (below.) It seems that it was random national holiday (there are many), and there was no notification on Floreria Atlantico’s Web or Facebook page that they were closed. Luckily I had plotted out all the bars on a map and Basa was close by and more importantly, open.

We arrived at Basa around 8 PM, i.e. incredibly early in Argentine culture. The upside is that we had prime seats at the bar and the staff had enough time to work with our broken Spanish. Basa wouldn’t be out of place in Hollywood or Miami Beach – Mirrors, stage lighting, lush décor, etc.  I got the impression it’s a “See and be seen” kind of place.

Not knowing what to expect, and seeing the “glitz” worried me initially because I thought the drinks would be soulless vodka-tinis typically found in “nightlife” restaurants. Scanning the drink menu I found more than a few drinks that intrigued me. I cautiously ordered the first one – it arrived in a veritable cornucopia of ice and was quite delicious. My second and third drinks were all quite different and equally flavorful. Carrie had fewer drinks and switched to wine, but my extensive sampling of her cocktails found them equally winning. As much as it would have surprised me when I first walked in, I’d rate Basa’s cocktails an 8.5 out of ten. We ate dinner there, splitting an enormous rib eye steak, appetizers and dessert. All total we spent around $100 US. Le Bargain!

Delicious punch at Basa
Scotch Egg at Basa
Great Ice and color at Basa
Backbar at Basa

Floreria Atlantico

As we chatted with bartenders throughout the city, the question they all asked was “Have you been to Floreria Atlantico?”, so it had a lot to live up to. The day after our rain-soaked first attempt to make it there brought much better weather and after retracing the prior night’s steps, found ourselves in a flower/wine shop.  The clerk correctly assumed our intentions and guided us towards a walk-in refrigerator door. Down a set of steps into a dark subterranean cavern we went as our eyes adjusted to the dim light. Finally we had arrived at one of the top 50 bars in the world, and only one in South America.

Floreria Atlantico is a long, narrow space that curves along the outer edge of the building above. It has big posts that split the bar into sections so it’s hard to take it all in at once. The painted, rough cement walls and exposed ceiling gave it very rustic feel, perhaps the world coolest basement. The backbar occupies one wall, and tables/booths for diners were long the opposite wall.  Running in-between them was the long polished wood bar counter where we sat.

The cocktail menu is organized by countries, with five or six countries and each country consisting of four drinks, for a total of about 24 cocktail options. The drinks are a mixture of classics and house originals. I give them a solid 7.5/10. My favorite discovery was a metal Mate straws tipped with a tight spring that was used in some drinks.  Up to that point in our trip we hadn’t noticed anybody drinking Mate, so at Floreria Atlantico we were baffled but bemused by them. Later in the trip we found some at a craft market and scooped up a set to bring home.

While I was there for the cocktails, Carrie was there for the food which is highly regarded in its own right. We sat at the bar, sharing several appetizers and steak while working our way through the cocktail menu.  I’d highly recommend it if you’re looking for good cocktail/food options in one spot.

Floreria Atlantico
English style drinks at Floreria Atlantico
 Floreria Atlantico Tapas menu
Cocktail with mate straw at  Floreria Atlantico

Sky Bar, Hotel Pulitzer

This bar had been written up as one of the best rooftop bars in Bueno Aires.  It’s a relatively small space, although we had the entire bar to ourselves that evening. The cocktails were pretty basic standards and nothing I’d consider “mixology”.  I went off-menu and ordered a Negroni, my go-to safe-bet drink in these situations. Cocktails were a 4/10.  At 12 stories above the street, the view at night was OK but not particularly sweeping – nothing to write home about. Part of this is that BA just doesn’t have a particularly amazing skyline in my opinion.

Sky Bar Pulitzer Hotel

Grand Bar Danzon

The Grand Bar Danzon has a lot of positive reviews so I had high hopes but left feeling underwhelmed. It felt more about glitzy nightlife crowd rather than innovative, original mixology creations.  The bar counter has tiny LEDs embedded throughout for a starry effect and the bottles on the back bar were lit from below, as you do. We had nearly the whole place to ourselves but I wasn’t able to engage the bartender in a spirits discussion.

The cocktail menu was large and there were many special lists on boards on the wall, but was mostly just variations of the basics, or uninteresting vodka-tinis. In my book, a rum-based Old Fashioned is not particularly innovative despite my deep love for rum, so I had to search for a while to find something that piqued my interest. Your mileage may vary, however. Rating: 6/10

Bar 878

Like Floreria Atlantico, Bar 878 is regarded to be in the top tier of Buenos Aires craft cocktail bars. Our opportunity to visit was at midnight on a Wednesday. My hope was that being a school night, we might reasonably expect to grab a seat at the bar and strike up a conversation with the bartender. No such luck; the place was packed and I couldn’t get anywhere near the bar, much less find a seat.  Determined to make the best of it, we secured a small table near the bar. From that vantage we could easily observe amorous activity at other nearby tables.

Bar 878 is in a large brick space with high ceilings, very dimly lit. Between a candle and my iPhone I was generated enough light to scan the extensive cocktail menu. Despite the size, it took me a while to find something that qualified as an interesting house-original cocktail, although in fairness the drink menu’s ambition is a step or two up from Grand Bar Danzon. After sampling four drinks, my rating is 7/10. I believe that if we’d gone at a better time I might right it higher.

Bar 878 backbar
Small snippet of the menu at Bar 878
Cocktails by candlelight at Bar 878

Bernata

Bernata was a little gem we discovered near our hotel, and the only bar we visited twice. It’s a Spanish Tapas restaurant and the bar itself is tiny – A total of six seats which we had all ourselves both times. Our first visit was a quick stop for drinks before heading to a nearby Parrilla for dinner. The drink menu is entirely Gin & Tonic based – I counted 16 different variations.  The bartender spoke a passable, halting English, but once he understood we wanted amazing original drinks with local flair, he was a joy to talk to as he painstakingly created each G&T. We scanned the tapas menu and decided it was worth coming back for a second visit.

On our second visit the same friendly bartender was there and a very fun couple of hours passed by as we ate and drank our way through both the cocktail and tapas menus. Ranking just the Gin & Tonics I give a 7/10, but everything about the place is so cute that the overall experience is even higher.

Micro backbar at Bernata
Dining room at Bernata

Pony Line Lounge

With our remaining time in BA rapidly dwindling, Pony Line became the best option to squeeze one more bar in and I’m glad we did. I knew it was in the Four Seasons hotel but assumed it was tucked away somewhere in the bowels of the hotel or on the top floor. Instead, it’s at ground level, just to the right of the Four Seasons main entrance. Step out of your cab and your inside in seconds. The space is an over the top funky Rodeo Drive / Western décor with lots of leather, polished chrome and horse stall inspired booths. We rightly chose to sit at the bar and met the very friendly bartender who was happy to talk about mixology in BA.

The drink menu was moderately sized, but nearly everything looked intriguing enough to order. I eventually chose a well-executed “Brazillian Mai Tai”, and Carrie’s drink was also a winner.  Sadly, my stomach trouble a prior few days prevented a round two for me. Although the Pony Line is fundamentally a hotel bar, the quirky ambience combined with better-than-average cocktails make it a place I’d recommend. Rating: 7.5/10.

Pony Line Lounge backbar
Pony Line Lounge cocktail menu
Pony Line Lounge cocktail menu
Pony Line Lounge

The ones that got away

Although we covered a lot of bar territory during our too-brief tour of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, time ran out and we didn’t make it to either Frank’s Bar or Doppelgänger. If you’re a cocktail wonk and find yourselves in Buenos Aires, consider checking them out for me.

In my final post on Buenos Aires I’ll talk about the bounty of spirits I brought back!

Boozing in Buenos Aires – Part 1, Observations on Spirits in Argentina

 

A relatively well-stocked high-end Buenos Aires Bar

My wife Carrie and I are travel junkies, always looking for the next international travel destination. Since we’re both still Workin’ for the Man, we use US holidays to take two day weekends and turn them into 4+ day weekends.  With luck and planning we can get 9 straight free days while only using three vacation days. Over Thanksgiving 2013, we jetted down to Buenos Aires with a side trip to Uruguay. As usual in our international travels there was plenty of good food (Carrie handles that part of the planning), and plenty of time at bars- my bailiwick. There’s lot to tell about this trip, liquor-wise, so I’m splitting it over several posts. This first post is my general observations about what spirits are found in Buenos Aires.

It’s been said that “Argentines are a nation of Italians who speak Spanish and think they’re British living in Paris.”, and that was certainly my experience.  There were many moments walking down the street where I snapped to with the sudden realization that I wasn’t in Europe.  As with France and Italy, wine and beer are produced domestically, are plentiful and inexpensive, and so are the dominant types of alcohol consumed. Spirits are a much less straightforward story as I discovered while talking with many bartenders and stopping into countless stores while hunting for an elusive bottle.

What I saw over and over in bars were the same well-established brands, but with many gaps that surprised me. Spirits like Fernet Branca, Campari, and Bacardi are everywhere while other well-known spirits were nowhere to be found.  I’ve heard that a large reason for this is massive taxes on imports. It’s prohibitively expensive to get certain brands, even though a competitive brand may be available relatively cheaply. I’d also bet a large number of Argentine Pesos that back room deals impact what’s available.

With some local exceptions discussed later, nearly everything I saw while scanning backbars was well-known, established brands from major liquor groups – Campari, Diageo, Bacardi, etc….

I rarely saw anything that I didn’t recognize or that I’d call boutique or artisanal like you’d see in high-end bars in the US.

The big vodka brands were well represented including the usual rogues gallery of flavored vodkas – no surprise there. The gin selection is decent, likely because Gin and Tonics seem to be the rage, as they are in Spain. One surprising find for me was Bols Ginebra (genever) as I’m a big genever fan. Bols isn’t owned by a major liquor group like Diageo, but I saw it in stores everywhere. More striking was its price – About US $3 for a liter. You read that right! I constantly re-checked the shelf label, thinking I had misread it.

As with most other international locations I’ve been to, the high end liquor in Buenos Aires is Scotch, although a relatively limited selection compared to what I see in the US. The big American bourbon brands seemed woefully underrepresented, with Jack Daniels being the dominant player. I don’t recall seeing Tequila anywhere and certainly no mezcal.

Being a rum aficionado, I was quite interested in what rums were available. Sadly, the basic Bacardi variations (Silver, Gold, Bacardi 8), and Havana Club were consistently the only rums I saw on bar and store shelves. The only exception was at a private dining club where after dinner the proprietor rolled out a special covered wooden cart with about fifteen sipping rums, of which he was obviously very proud of. Alas, while a nice selection, there was nothing I couldn’t readily get at home. I’m sure his collection was acquired the hard way, one bottle at a time from friends or from his own travels.

The Italian influence on the available Argentine spirits is quite strong – Campari group products are huge in Argentina, with Campari, Aperol, Cynar and Cinzano vermouths nearly everywhere.  Some of them are now being made in Argentina so they were extremely inexpensive relative to what I’d pay at home. A 700 ml bottle of Campari for US $6? Yes please! Interestingly, for a country that consumes as much vermouth as Argentina (the Italian influence again), I never saw a bottle of Carpano Antica Formula anywhere, despite its Italian provenance and the very high esteem that cocktailians hold for it.

And what of Fernet Branca? You may know that Fernet Branca is huge in Argentina and it’s frequently said that Fernet and Coke is the national cocktail. What you might not know is that Fernet Branca is made in Argentina, in addition to Italy of course. As with other locally made spirits it’s very inexpensive by US standards. I purchased a liter of it for 82 pesos, which works out to about US $10 at the prevailing “blue dollar” rate. What really surprised me was that Fernet Branca has competitors in Argentina, and that they’re even more insanely inexpensive. In the little bodega across the street from our hotel, I saw two or three Fernet competitors.  For US $3, I purchased a half-liter of Fernet Capri just to consume with Coke in our hotel room. It was literally so cheap that even if it was horrible I was only out $3. It was a reasonable facsimile in case you were wondering.

Hotel Cocktails! The Coke nearly cost more than the Fernet Capri.

Besides Fernet Branca there’s also a handful of other spirits made in Argentina that I consistently saw. Given the Italian-affinity of the country, the majority fall into the amaro/bitters category. One exception people seem particularly proud of is Principe de los Apostoles Gin, which is made with Yerba mate, eucalyptus, peppermint, and pink grapefruit. It’s relatively new to the scene, very popular and I’ll have more to say about this gin in a subsequent post.

Another non-amaro-style spirit made in Argentina is rum. There’s an Argentinian brand called Isla Ñ that I’d hoped to pick up. Unfortunately, despite much looking and asking, I couldn’t find it anywhere. Most people had never heard of it, and the one who had dismissed it as not being particularly good. I found this rather strange given the intense Argentine pride I saw elsewhere.

Tracking down novel bottles for your collection while in Buenos Aires requires tenacity and planning. Spirits are treated as an offshoot of wine so finding a wine store that happens to carry a decent spirits collection is your best bet. Searching for Vinoteca is a good place to start. There weren’t any large “liquor stores” like BevMo or Total Wine and I didn’t encounter a single store that focused predominantly on spirits.

No single store had a fairly complete selection of spirits, at least for the indigenous spirits I was after. There is a few chains (“Winery”, “Ligier”) with a number of shops throughout the city, however their spirits selection, while large by Argentine standards, didn’t seem well stocked with Argentine-specific spirits.

Typical Argentine liquor store. About 1/5th is devoted to spirits.

On the other hand, many grocery stores carry an assortment of local spirits, so if you’re focused on bringing back unusual bottles the trick is to scope out a number of locations, including grocery stores.

Hunting spirits in grocery stores. Prices are in pesos.

The best store we found was in Palermo, Malambo Vinoteca Y Almacén Criollo. The owner (or at least he seemed to be) spoke reasonably good English, was very helpful, and once he understood my mission (“Bring home unusual, local spirits!”), pointed out several bottles I would have missed otherwise. I was surprised to learn that some bars will actually sell you an entire bottle, although we didn’t take an opportunity to do so before it was too late.

Stay tuned for my next post on all the cool bars and cocktails we experienced in Buenos Aires!