I’ve never been a big cocktail drinker. With the exception of an occasional margarita at a Mexican restaurant or gin and tonic on a game drive, you’ll rarely see me sipping liquor. I feel like most cocktails are 80 percent ice, and I find myself finished after five minutes and wishing I’d ordered wine instead.
However, I’ve recently been to three new bar/restaurants in Joburg that transformed my perception of cocktails, inspiring me to write my first-ever cocktail blog post. Here they are:
1) Social Kitchen + Bar
Social Kitchen + Bar is notable for several reasons. First, it’s a restaurant inside Joburg’s largest and best known retail bookstore: Exclusive Books in Hyde Park Mall. Second, Social Kitchen + Bar has one of Joburg’s top chefs, Russell Armstrong, and the food is spectacular. (I haven’t eaten a full meal there yet but I’ve tasted some mind-blowing samples.) Third, the bar takes inspiration from its location and offers a creative menu of literature-inspired cocktails.
A cocktail inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, made with Bulliet bourbon, lemon, orange marmalade, and Angostura bitters. Underneath the cocktail are several other books that inspired drinks on the menu.
I discovered the Social Bar + Kitchen cocktails during a work assignment, when I went to photograph the drinks for my friend Marie-Lais’ “Other Side of the City” column in the Saturday Citizen newspaper. This turned out to be a most delightful photography assignment, as I sipped cocktails, nibbled delicious food, and laughed a lot while taking photos of the most photogenic drinks I have ever come across.
My only criticism of Social Kitchen + Bar’s literary cocktail menu is that there are no South African or African books included. Apparently that is set to change in 2017 though.
Social Kitchen’s cocktails range in price from R60 ($4.40) to R95 ($7) — not cheap but totally worth it.
2) The Shadowboxer
UPDATE (2019): Sadly the Shadowboxer has closed.
The Shadowboxer is a new restaurant and bar on Greenway Road in Greenside. The Shadowboxer is just up the street from Happy.me, the bubble tea franchise, and owned by the same people who own Happy.me. Therefore it should come as no surprise that the Shadowboxer serves — you guessed it — BUBBLE TEA COCKTAILS.
This is a blueberry tequila sour with blueberry popping pearls. If you don’t know what popping pearls are, well…They’re difficult to explain. You need to find a bubble tea shop and try them out, or just go straight to the Shadowboxer for the alcoholic version.
I imagine there are probably other places in the world that have merged the idea of bubble tea into alcoholic cocktails before, but definitely not in Joburg. I find the idea quite revolutionary.
The Shadowboxer’s menu is varied, offering Asian-inspired dishes as well as pizzas, burgers, and flatbreads. I tried the spicy pulled pork steamed bao buns and found them pretty good, although not as awe-inspiring as the hand-cut chips (fries) with delectable dipping sauce that came on the side. I’m keen to try the burgers next time. The Shadowboxer also serves a nice selection of wine, beer, sangria, craft iced tea (yes, that’s a thing now), and non-alcoholic bubble tea drinks.
The Shadowboxer’s cocktails range in price from R35 ($2.50 — what a deal!) to R58 ($4.25).
Sin & Taxes (working name – may change)
UPDATE (2019): The correct name of this bar is Sin + Tax.
Sin & Taxes, which just opened in December 2016 and may be renamed, is a speak-easy: a “secret” bar modeled on the underground drinking holes of Prohibition-era America. It’s a little pretentious but I have to admit, it’s a cool gimmick. Pretentiousness works sometimes.
Sin & Taxes is located in the brand-new, ultra-trendy Bolton Road complex in Rosebank, but the only way to get in is to enter Coalition (which serves delicious Neapolitan-style pizza and deserves a post of its own), walk through to the back passage past the bathrooms, and knock on the unmarked metal door. The door slides open and you find yourself in the bar.
Renowned mixologist Julian Short conceived Sin & Taxes, and watching him mix cocktails is a sight to behold.
The Sin & Taxes cocktail menu (there are only cocktails for now) is two-fold, with one page of “House Classics” and one page of specialty cocktails focused on a certain topic. The current specialty menu is a travel menu, inspired by Julian’s own travels to different countries around the world.
I chose the No. 9 cocktail from the travel menu, a Mexican-inspired drink: “Blanco Tequila + Joven Mescal + Smoked Pomegranate Shrub + Caramelized Lime Juice + Coriander Leaf”.
My friend Fiver’s selection: the “Joburg Cocktail” from the House Classics menu. “South African Gin + Caperatif + Orange Bitters + Naartjie Tincture”. (Naartjie is the South African word for tangerine.)
Sin & Taxes’ cocktails are expensive by South African standards. My drink cost R93 ($6.80) and the most expensive drink on the menu is R122 ($8.90), which is the price of a decent dinner at most restaurants. But these drinks are works of art, meant to be consumed slowly. It took me more than half an hour to finish mine; I had to savour every sip.
So go forth, drink, and be merry. And call an Uber when it’s time to go home.