As Team New Zealand ferried the Auld Mug down Queen Street, turned right onto Customs St, left again towards the port and onwards into the Viaduct, a few things were clear. One, this wasn’t the flashest parade - Japanese trucks and Arabic air hostesses don’t have much to do with New Zealand - and two, it was a parade which would be rained on regardless of quality. The deluge began as the procession hit Quay Street. It rained for a day and a night.
And it was into the downpour that this writer ventured several hours later, forging through streets slick with oil, into the warm and hazy cocoons of some of Auckland’s finest cocktail bars.
“I really hope Annabel’s does well,” said Andrew, our uber driver. “There’s nothing at this end of town.”
A cabbie who knows his beat - refreshing in this age of the gig economy. And he was right!
Co-owners Henry Temple and Oliver Scutts describe it as a “place to go on the way to where you’re going”, whether that’s home or onwards into some hedonistic heaven.
“[We] wanted to create something you don't see anywhere else, slightly away from the hustle of Ponsonby or the CBD.” the pair told Viva. “Those areas are spoken for. We didn't want to be the ‘old something’, we wanted our own stomping ground.”
Designed with Kiwi architect Rufus Knight, Annabel’s is a narrow, minimalist affair, with booth-style seating and a formidable shelf of jarred lemons. A wine rack parallels the bar with drops like Alpha Zeta and Corvina wrapped in lights that highlight the shape and colour of the bottles. Dark wooden tables and warm candles soften features and throw flattering shadows.
Conversations feel intimate at Annabel’s, despite the people on either side. Stylish bare bulbs hang from the ceiling, their filaments casting golden light on the whitewashed, antiquated walls.
The negroni’s at Annabel’s are delicious - strong and peppery with heavy citrus vibes- though these were closer to refreshing summer drinks than winter warmers, especially with a palette of summer tones. They were wintery only because of their alcohol content, but that’s all the barman promised, and he delivered in style. I could easily have stayed for one or three more.
But it was onwards into the night, walking through the rain in search of the secret door to the Tavern of Power and slipping inside into its warm bowels. There were candles on tables, candles on the bar, candles on every surface including spirit bottles. Somewhere cinnamon was burning, a perfect pairing with the red lighting and orange flames. There was live music - deep, apocalyptic jazz-cum-house - and not a blazer to be seen. Golden Dawn is spatially less snug but significantly more comfortable to this young hipster.
We were served two Hot Toddy’s (a ridiculous name) - one with rum and one with whiskey. The toddy’s at Golden Dawn are created with a homemade ginger syrup and mixed by a freshly crowned champion bartender. Now these are true winter drinks: they smell wintery, they look wintery, they have cinnamon rolls and orange peels studded with cloves, and they even come served in those old brown cups that teachers drink tea from. Golden Dawn has the best posters too, however there are points lost for a bathroom floor covered in pee.
After the opium den aesthetic of Golden Dawn, Mea Culpa was a step up in class but a step down in comfort. These were not my people - not a nose ring to be seen. That’s a matter of personal preference, however, and there was certainly no denying the upmarket, professional vibes at Mea Culpa. These were big boy cocktails.
Mea Culpa switches up their menu weekly, choosing seasonal produce sourced within 100km of Ponsonby Road. The bartender Ifan recommended a Paper Plane; “It’s just unbelievably balanced, it doesn’t need juice, it doesn’t need syrup, it’s the nature of the produce that makes the drink.” Anybody who talks about the nature of produce has my trust, and Ifan didn’t disappoint.
There was freshly squeezed pink grapefruit, cardamom crushed on the spot, and an astounding array of spirits behind the bar - including an eminently drinkable gin infused with green matcha tea.
Whatever your preference, three cocktails in three hours is sure to warm your belly, and maybe your wallet too. But it’s infinitely more fun than wooly socks and a cup of tea, and like fine dining, the presentation and overall experience is half the fun. Fortunately the top shelf has something for everyone.
A week after Don traversed Auckland’s favourite alcoholic strip of bars and restaurants, I returned to photograph the drinks, and their makers. While waiting for my wife to finish work - and sober drive me around Ponsonby’s bars - I sat at the bar of gorgeous French bistro, Augustus, discussing my mission with the bartender. After mentioning the Negroni, he suggested I try their barrel aged Boulevardier. The Negroni’s gin has been replaced with bourbon, and the whole cocktail aged in a small barrel that sits on the bar. The smooth sweetness and spice of the bourbon warmed my insides. The vanilla notes mixed with barrel’s oak made for a perfect drink to begin my journey into a cold winter’s night.