“I wouldn’t miss this for the world; it’s going to be absolutely brilliant.” When a bartender in a waistcoat and a pocket watch says something like this in one of Bristol’s best cocktail bars, accessed by ringing a doorbell and waiting to be allowed in, you know that you’re going to be in for an above average night.
The contenders were the Milk Thistle and Hyde & Co, the former the bigger but younger cousin of the latter, and hosting an evening this week which saw each bar take over a floor and going all out to impress.
Both bars had free reign over their own hour or so in the spotlight. On the ground floor, the Milk Thistle decided to go for full theatricality, with barmen dressed as the undead and one drink poured from a full-size coffin.
In the members lounge on the first floor, Hyde & Co decided to recreate the best of their bar, but ‘on tour’, with a few twists of their own such as copious amounts of dry ice, not usually what you would expect coming out of a tea pot.
“Zacapa Yes Yes, Zacapa Yes Yes, Zacapa Yes Yes”. The words of the incantation that my table had to chant give a clue to the sponsor of the evening, which wasn’t just a head-to-head between two bars, but also a celebration of the 30th birthday of their owner, Nathan Lee.
We were told by our resident shaman that the chants were in order to break an old voodoo curse placed upon the bar by an ancient medicine man from Guatemala and that some drinking rituals needed to be carried out to lift the curse.
That led us into an extraordinary hour which involved consuming a swamp green liquid made with herbs and spices, colourful pickled quails eggs, ceiling-high flames, and a savoury rhubarb fool, all set to a jingly jangly piano accompaniment.
It would have been nigh-on impossible to match the theatrics. The Milk Thistle doesn’t normally employ such trickery, and has two bartenders, Matt Fairhurst and Rich Tring, in the final of this year’s World Class, the most prestigious bartending competition on the planet.
So it was a welcome respite as we knocked on the door of ‘Hyde On Tour’ to be welcomed into a room with comfy chairs and dim candles. Their drinks selection included first, in a cut crystal glass, a Zacapa cocktail with their signature house aperitivo blend, followed by a cider barrel-aged Ketel One Martini.
A palate cleanser was Talisker and shrub sorbet with dry ice (above), served with dry ice filled tea pots aromatised with lemon verbena on the trays with the sorbet.
The final drink of the evening was a particular favourite: deconstructed smoked Pina Colada, Zacapa rum with coconut water and homemade salted pineapple syrup, served in a medicine bottle pumped full of smoke from burning desiccated coconut, served with a delicious homemade pineapple and dark chocolate truffle.
After a spectacular evening’s entertainment, we voted for the victor by placing a coloured poker chip in a top hat. Winning by just five votes was the Milk Thistle, who were presented with the inaugural Zacapa Cup (below).
Milk Thistle therefore currently hold the Bristol bar wars bragging rights, and I now look forward to My Burrito and Mission Burrito battling each other burrito for burrito, or Caffe Gusto vs Boston Tea Party in a latte art death match.
Photos by Rachel Ramshall-Smith (www.ramshall.com)