5 places you need to visit in Wellington for seriously good cocktails
No one makes a pour decision at a Wellington happy hour like our cocktail correspondent Bryce Pedersen. Follow his guide to the best drinks in town.
1. Hawthorn Lounge
I visited Hawthorn Lounge on a Friday night. In a speakeasy hideaway, upstairs on Tory Street, it has a carefully curated cocktail list and highly knowledgeable service from a floor show of bar staff slapping, tossing, stirring, flinging, spearing, whisking, drumming and garnishing your drinks to perfection.
A jazz soundtrack, plus low, flattering lighting that makes everyone look good, and you have all you need for adulting cocktail time, either at the start of your evening or in the very early morning.
The Rapscallion is a Manhattan-style drink with a sweetness like raisins from the sherry and star anise, and salty smokiness from olives and whisky. The Vodka Sour has vanilla vodka, mānuka honey instead of sugar syrup, lemon, bitters, egg white and the spiciness of garam masala. This bar is not afraid of bold ingredients and inventive flavours, making it a very sophisticated place for conversation, whether with friends, colleagues, out-of-town visitors, or the international bar staff telling the stories of how their cocktails came to be.
2. Hot Sauce
I got to Hot Sauce at the QT Hotel after being caught in a sudden rainstorm and immediately realised my night had taken a happy turn. You can expect a friendly greeting from efficient staff in sleek surroundings, a list of six signature cocktails and a soul-filled soundtrack in a bar that’s approachable and easy, whether you’re a slightly drenched lone drinker or in the after-work crowd.
The cocktails are modern, Asian-influenced spins on the classics, such as the Yuzu Sour, a take on a Whisky Sour, with a sweeter whisky, lemongrass syrup, egg white and yuzu syrup instead of citrus. In a similar vein is the Japanese-style Negroni, with Campari, plum liqueur replacing vermouth, Kokuto Umeshu instead of sugar, and a Roku gin made of six botanicals. The tastes lean to tart rather than sweet; I advise pairing them with popcorn chicken.
3. Black Sparrow
The Black Sparrow is a smart-casual, subtly stylish basement bar at the end of Courtenay Place. It’s inside the Embassy theatre, which boasts two small cinemas and the largest screen in town.
With everyone making a movie-star entrance down the long and glamorous hallway, this bar could be part of a whole cocktails-and-a-film night out, but it’s also worth a visit in its own right.
The cocktails are eclectic, each one referring to a film poster on the wall, which the bar staff are happy to chat about. I had the 36th Chamber, which my Hong Kong friends were quick to explain is a tribute to a 1970s kung-fu film. It’s a short, sharp high kick of a Negroni with gin, Bénédictine, Campari and Cocchi Rosa (a fortified wine, used instead of vermouth).
The Black Sparrow is a great place to meet for a drink before a festival film in one of the smaller cinemas or a beer before a blockbuster on the big screen.
4. Hanging Ditch
Put Hanging Ditch on your list of locations for low-key times, such as rainy afternoons or Sunday evenings. It has a comfortable pre-dinner/post-dinner feel, courtesy of its old leather seats, 1960s and 70s music, exposed brick walls and wooden floors. This is a bar that doesn’t take itself seriously – you might even find cocktails inspired by the work of Dr Seuss.
Tonight, the menu wants to take it easy, presenting a selection of simple drinks of fewer (but still interesting) ingredients that also ensure speedy service. The Ebony Falcon contains cynar (bitter artichoke liqueur), smoked spiced rum, Licor 43 (a vanilla liqueur), lime and pineapple.
Whereas that drink is a soulful balladeer, the Larry Sherbert is pure pop princess: vanilla vodka, lemon, passionfruit, pineapple and coconut in a glass rimmed with popping, fizzing sherbet that tickles your lips. Hanging Ditch is an ideal destination for chilling and hanging out – just like the liquor bottles hanging from bungee cords behind the bar.
5. The Library
Upstairs on Courtenay Place, The Library is known for its fast and friendly service, great bar food, live music and cosy booths for huddling in. But the best time of all might be sweet-tooth time, because their cocktails come with matching desserts.
Try the classic Kir Royale or the cheeky Lower Hutt Lemon Meringue cocktail (with vanilla vodka, lemon curd, lemon juice and a blow-torched meringue topping) partnered with the Ooops…I Dropped It! – an upside-down ice-cream cone filled with chocolate mousse, fairy bread crumb, strawberry gel and vanilla gelato. The Twentieth Century is lemon, lime, gin and white chocolate liqueur paired with a dark chocolate dessert. If you like your drinks less sweet, try the Hemingway Mai Tai, which combines three types of rum, including a gunpowder one made with actual gunpowder.
A feel-good spot in which to celebrate life and enjoy the company of a group of friends, The Library and its delicious novelties are a result of real thought and effort from the staff creating the stories behind each cocktail, on a list that changes every six weeks to reflect the mood of the city.