Over the following months, we are going to try and delve behind the scenes into the world of cocktail and bar culture in Bristol. To kick off the new year, raise a glass and ask yourself the (not depressing) question of: ‘Why?’

Why do we drink? Why do we go out? Do we seek the thrill of social adventure and new sensations? Do we as a species feel an inexorable pull towards other people, for one reason or another? All of these reasons and more have shaped the landscape of modern drinking culture into one that’s unrecognisable when compared to the barbaric pastimes of our ancestors. But are we really so different? To that end, we are going to zoom in on the world of cocktail culture and explore the key reason many of us can be found in any of the city’s excellent booze rooms: escape, as well as taking a potted look at the way Bristol’s cocktail culture has evolved over the last decade.

#1 In The Beginning

Ever since primeval man first shambled out of his cave and was harassed relentlessly by sabre-toothed cats, escape has been at the forefront of the human condition. The same rings true today. We live in a stressful world and people need to vent some of that pressure. At its best, a cocktail bar can offer the human spirit a true place to escape; a five star retreat from the rest of humanity, where well made drinks are more than just a casual stroking of the bartender’s ego.  At its worst, well, you don’t need me to tell you. 

escape has been at the forefront of the human condition

My first foray into a cocktail bar was a fairly transformative experience. I had been working for years in a dreadful bar and had come to the conclusion that all that existed for an aspiring bartender was chain bars and hopelessness. Back when the entrance to Hyde & Co (top of Park Street) was on its opposite side, no words can do justice the feeling pulling back that curtain and stepping into a low-lit world that looked like it had been ripped straight out of a fifties noir novel. It was only open two nights a week in those days and it was mostly a pleasant surprise to find anyone other than yourself in there. Hyde & Co wasn’t the first however, with the city’s now sadly retired Hausbar opening some four years earlier, in 2006.

a break from the norm, a new and exciting frontier and some respite from the busy bars of the city centre

Exploring these bars back then took a lot less time, but those that were open for business offered the drinkers of Bristol something they hadn’t seen in a long while; a break from the norm, a new and exciting frontier and some respite from the busy bars of the city centre. Walking into any of the city’s high end cocktail bars for the first time and being given a complimentary glass of water and bowl of pretzels made you feel like the most important person in the room. A heavy focus on service and these little accoutrements might be considered the norm now, but oh boy did I love those pretzels. So it seems, did everyone else, because the idea kept growing.

#2 The ‘New Golden Age’

The cocktail train had left the station and it was showing no signs of slowing down. I personally managed to trick my way into employment in a cocktail bar and have been jack-knifing between them at breakneck speed ever since. People were becoming more interested. The concepts that first blew my mind were now having the same effects on the city. People could barely believe they had to ring a doorbell to access a bar. Some laughed, others were confused and some were downright angry (well, one man, once, for no discernible reason). Whatever the reaction though, people were finding in them their own form of escape. Case in point, how often have you heard people refer to bars like The Milk Thistle or Red Light as ‘prohibition bars’? Prohibition refers to a time in history, a different place, a different world. The fact that prohibition bars were in fact little more than tumbledown shacks with no music, selling liquor made by barely-qualified hicks that could maybe kill you but almost certainly blind you is of little consequence. People were talking about the romantic idea. The Hollywood standard of the word. The escape.

Prohibition refers to a time in history, a different place, a different world

Bristol was experiencing what is commonly referred to in the professional cocktail community as the ‘New Golden Age’, in itself a tip of the hat to those simpler times. Old ideas and approaches to service and hospitality, but with none of the pitfalls that our then lack of understanding caused (I’m looking at you, blindness whiskey). But nerding out over the early days of cocktails is something for another day.

#3 Metamorphosis

With the rise of social media, the scene in Bristol continued to evolve. The refined and elegant bars of the waistcoat variety were being joined by a different sort of animal. Bars that still relied heavily on amazing service and delicious drinks, but operated a little differently. Bristol’s fascination with cocktails was still as strong as ever, but people were looking for something new. Something more tongue in cheek. Her Majesty’s Secret Service in Clifton Down opened in 2015 and was one of Bristol’s frontrunners of a new type of venue. Drink serves that were so ludicrous and eye catching, we didn’t know what to make of them. The fact that they still operate now with great success and continue to grow is testament to the fact that they were more than just a novelty.

Her Majesty’s Secret Service (…)  was one of Bristol’s frontrunners of a new type of venue

Bars evolving with the times is an evolutionary necessity if they want to stay relevant, and people are more savvy than ever when it comes to cocktail culture. But the fundamental truth remains: these are havens where we can flee the world. Places which, when done right, can be the most incomparably welcoming and engaging places on Earth. 

For Bristol, looking forward, where do we have to go from here? The world of cocktails, good food and a thriving music scene doesn’t look to be going anywhere soon. Innovators continue to innovate, and more and more people are taking their first, shaky steps into the world of cocktail culture. A good bar will never ask anything of you. A good bar will never judge you. A good bar is hard to find; but if you scratch the surface of Bristol’s city streets, just a little bit, you might find exactly what you’ve been looking for.

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