A colleague, my wife, and I were leaving Baba au Rum, one of the oldest of the new breed of craft cocktail bars in Athens, with the idea of heading to The Bar in Front of the Bar, another leading saloon. However, we got turned around amid the bustling, narrow pathways of Athens’ historic center and were soon lost.
We weren’t adrift for long, though. That crowd over there, the one spilling onto and all but consuming the street — was that something? It was. They were the patrons of The Bar in Front of the Bar, an outdoor hole in the wall with five bar stools that was barely visible behind the sea of humanity it had attracted.
Between Baba au Rum and The Bar in Front of the Bar, we had traveled all of 400 meters.
Drinking in Athens is like that. The capital of Greece — which has one of the most exciting, accessible, affordable, and just plain fun cocktail cultures in the world right now — not only boasts a vibrant cocktail scene, but also one of the most compact, despite doubling in size over the last two years. In cocktail cities like London, Paris, Berlin, San Francisco, and Sydney, you’ll wear yourself thin and rack up a hefty Lyft bill trying to hit all the hot spots. In Athens, you need only a good pair of walking shoes. Most of the important cocktail destinations are within toasting distance of one another, nestled among the tangle of ancient streets to the north and west of the Monastiraki neighborhood.
The Baba au Rum/The Bar In Front of the Bar scenario repeated itself again and again during my recent visit to the city. Barro Negro, the city’s leading agave bar, proved to be a one-minute walk from The Clumsies, the city’s most renowned cocktail destination. One night I visited the popular rooftop bar at the A for Athens hotel, where I was lodged. The next night, a friend invited me to another hotel rooftop bar called 360. As I sipped my Martini and admired the unimpeded view of the Acropolis, my gaze drifted across the square to the people at another rooftop bar. It was none other than the A for Athens bar, close enough to lob an olive at.
Most of the best Athens bars are small, snug, and nimble on their feet. The Bar in Front of the Bar is so ethereal it almost doesn’t exist as a business, but rather as an extension of the street.
That said, the must-see Athens cocktail bar of the moment did require a healthy car ride. This was Line, launched in early 2022 by some of the same people who founded The Clumsies a decade ago. The space, formerly an art gallery, is roomy with high ceilings and a vaguely industrial feel. And there is a lot of industry going on inside. Line’s gimmick is that they make a great deal of what they sell from scratch, including an array of fruit wines they cheekily call “Why-ins.” These they serve alone and mixed into cocktails. A pomegranate Why-in finds its way into the house sweet vermouth, which ends up in the house Negroni. The drink is then finished with the more prosaic store-bought Fords Gin and Campari.
Line’s hyper-DIY approach to mixology is a running theme within Athens’ cocktail culture. Baba au Rum — which helped kick off the Athens craft cocktail movement when Thanos Prunarus opened it in 2009 — has its own rum. The Bar in Front of the Bar employs zero-waste techniques; the leftover coffee from the previous day is used to make coffee syrup that goes into Espresso Martinis. And Barro Negro produces and bottles Med Liqueur, the orange liqueur it puts in its Margaritas. In fact, nearly every drink on the Barro Negro menu contains some ingredient made in-house. The Oaxaca Negroni features homemade vermouth made entirely from Greek wines, while the Mayans Punch contains homemade tepache, coffee distillate, and passion fruit cordial.
Credit: Baba Au Rum
Barro Negro was founded by George Kavaklis and Stelios Papadopoulos in 2019, and is, somewhat astoundingly, Athens’ first dedicated agave bar. It is a measure of the relative youth of the Athens cocktail world that many recently opened bars can claim that they are the first this or the first that. This includes Odori, which is Athens’ sole vermouth bar. Like Line and Barro Negro, Odori has its own house sweet and dry vermouths. Odori also makes some darn fine pizza. Each pie is named after — and meant to mimic — a different cocktail. I ordered the Tom Collins pizza, which was topped with tomatoes, bacon, sausage, mayo, crispy lime zest, and enough shredded lettuce for a salad. Strangely enough, it did taste something like a Tom Collins. And it went well with vermouth.
Credit: Line Athens
Another recent first for Athens is Avra Bar, a high-end hotel bar as posh as any you’d find in New York or London. Located deep within the luxurious Four Seasons Astir Palace Hotel, which is about an hour outside Athens (and yet still part of the city), Avra is all mirrors and marble and light, and looks out onto the Saronic Gulf. It reads and feels like a watering hole for the 1 percent. However, anyone may visit and sample the drinks found inside its thick book of a menu, which is firmly rooted in international classics, both old (Martinez, Sherry Cobbler) and new (Penicillin, Paper Plane). Each drink is accompanied by a story connecting the drink to a personal experience of one of the bartenders.
Athens cocktail culture is a party culture regardless of the space. This is not a city for studied, quiet cocktail dens. The wave of warm hospitality is constant and is matched by the happy hedonism of those being served.
Aesthetically speaking, however, Avra Bar is an anomaly. Most of the best Athens bars are small, snug, and nimble on their feet. The Bar in Front of the Bar is so ethereal it almost doesn’t exist as a business, but rather as an extension of the street. It is composed of air, light, a bit of building material, and some LED screens that flash slogans like “We serve humans, too” and “Streets are the new family.” The menu changes daily and draws on local, seasonal ingredients.
The Bar in Front of the Bar is so famous that it’s easy to overlook the actual bar it is in front of. That is called Rumble in the Jungle. And, yes, it is named after the famous 1974 boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. The outdoor bar was actually intended as a pop-up, serving drinks while construction on Rumble continued. But it proved too popular to scrap, so now the owners have two bars at the same address.
Rumble’s interior is the opposite of the minimalist outer bar — all lush, verdant colors and neon, a hidden, cocoon-like drinking oasis. Otherwise, however, the energy inside Rumble mirrors that found outside. The only difference is the crowd is enclosed by four walls. Athens cocktail culture is a party culture regardless of the space. This is not a city for studied, quiet cocktail dens. The wave of warm hospitality is constant and is matched by the happy hedonism of those being served. (The Athens Bar Show, which I attended, may be the most bacchanalian of all cocktail conventions. There were seminars and tastings, to be sure, but it was easy to forget about them amid the non-stop revelry.)
It was at Rumble that I had the most memorable drink of my stay, a rich clarified milk punch named, with wonderful simplicity, After Dinner. The drink was inspired by famed Spanish pastry chef Jordi Roca. It is made of Bulleit Bourbon, Coal Ila Scotch, ice cream, and “cigar,” which is actually a distillate of toasted barley infused with cigar smoke. A large clear cube acted as a raft for a single dark cherry, which was handpicked in July and cooked with caramel, brandy, and bourbon. The cocktail drank as advertised; it was a perfect after-dinner drink.
Credit: The Clumsies on Instagram
Against this citywide backdrop of creativity and conviviality, it was perhaps not surprising that the least impressive stop of my stay was The Clumsies. For many years, The Clumsies was the only Athens cocktail bar to receive global attention. When I visited, however, the atmosphere was subdued and the service disinterested.
But that sort of gradual transformation often happens in white-hot cocktail cities like Athens. As exciting new bars open at a rapid clip, early pioneers fade into the background. It is, in its way, a sure sign of a rapidly exploding scene.
The current menu at The Clumsies, by the way, is called Happy Accidents. Among the drinks I tried was the Forgetting the Umbrella, made of Cardhu 12-year-old single malt, nori, peach mirin, edamame, and prickly pear wine. It was raining that day and, yes, I had forgotten the umbrella, so the cocktail seemed like a natural choice. And it was on that day that I discovered that Barro Negro was just down the street. A happy accident indeed. It wouldn’t be the last.
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