A journey through the capital’s weird and wonderful speakeasies and liquor lounges.
On a walk through Wellington’s entertainment district, you’ll find laneways and side-streets crammed with breweries, clubs, restaurants, an opera house or two. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble on a hidden gem. Emphasis on the hidden. Wellington is home to a surprising number of cocktail bars, and some of them are easy to find. But many lurk in the shadows, out of sight to all but the most in-the-know locals.
In an effort to broaden my horizons, I gathered a group of people far cooler than me, and set out on a mission to try Wellington’s most interesting mixed drinks. Here they are, in no particular order:
Cuckoo Emporium is a cosy little place, hidden among the central city’s waterfront venues. It’s more comfortable than conspicuous, with soft velvet couches, warm-toned walls, and glossy wooden bar. We decided to sit in the outdoor section as the sun went down, to make the most of the summer evening.
As we made ourselves comfortable beneath not one but two hanging NZ flags, the sole bartender came over to take our order. He seemed quite flustered when we left our choice of drink to him, but soon returned with a Hey Arnold – basically an alcoholic peach iced tea.
Maybe it was the dying sunshine turning everything into gold. But I suddenly felt like this was the perfect drink to kick off a perfect night. I could see myself returning with a group of friends after a swim, getting tipsy on more than a few of these. It was simple, sweet, refreshing. Dangerously drinkable.
No idea why it’s named after a cartoon character who doesn’t wear a kilt, but some things should remain a mystery.
Best place to enjoy some summer evening vibes.
Worst place to vote in an unbiased flag referendum.
CGR Merchant & Co.
After finally locating their door that seems to disappear and reappear when you least expect it, we climbed the stairs leading to the barn-esque lounge that is CGR Merchant & Co.
CGRs manages to pull off a 1700s sea-faring theme without being overly kitschy. Different map projections serve as the main decorative flair, and dim, warm lighting provides the ambience. The real highlight is the sandbags lining the rafters. Sitting in the solitary booth available felt a bit like being smuggled.
Our waiter tried his best to get us to order a tasting paddle of gin and rum, but we opted for a Terry’s Old Fashioned as our cocktail of choice. I’m a sucker for chocolate oranges.
When they came, our drinks smelled of citrus, but the first sip tasted like straight chocolate. CGRs is famed for their gin and rum infusions, and it really came through in this cocktail. Simple, but effective flavours, with the right amount of alcohol to go down easy. It was like-for-like with the real Terry’s (or a jaffa) – bang on perfect.
We paired it with a bucket of cheerios off their menu. Somehow, it all just worked.
Best place to host a cosy, nautical-themed wedding.
Worst place to meet friends, because no one can find the front door.
Night Flower is a modern living space decorated by a homely vampire. The walls are dark, hung with classic gloomy Victorian portraits. A mishmash of chandeliers provides just enough light to be mistaken for candles and mirrors. The bookshelves are decorated with bookshelves from my uni English papers. All in all, they are committed.
Our server wore breeches, and told us we had a choice of five punches, and 350 cocktails. Night Flower’s thing, he told us, is to create custom versions of classic 1950s-esque cocktails, based on our mood. He suggested their French 75; A gin base, with lime, elderflower, dry prosecco. Light, fruity, slightly at odds with the dark decor. It came topped with bright purple flowers.
It definitely gave summer night vibes. The different layers mixed together for a drink that was refreshing, kind of sour, but very drinkable. You could see the original inspiration, and how it had been twisted – a little bit quirky, just like the venue itself.
Normally, the table we were at would have been dark by this time of night. But we had the setting sun coming through the window, mixing with the low strain of a jazz trumpet. It felt like a scecene from A Streetcar Named Desire, without all the patriarchy.
Best place to reenact Jane Eyre.
Worst place to try improv comedy.
Hanging Ditch is like if a wealthy expat left a basement for his student son to use as a rumpus room. The result: an eclectic mix of old-money decor and high school art-project.
A forest of bungee cords suspend liquor bottles above the bar. Several bookshelves sit against the walls, next to vintage posters and a dehumidifier hose sticking out the window. We also spotted a viking helmet, a pirate sign, and a couple on what looked like a first date. He was wearing expensive shoes, she looked bored.
The cocktail menu didn’t say what’s actually in each cocktail. Instead, we were given three words that describe what they’re like. Our charismatic server talked us through it all in a bit more detail, and we settled on a Pain Aux Ryan. She described it as “like a hot cross bun”, but it was more festive than that. It was like a baileys and an eggnog got a little too merry underneath the mistletoe. It smelled of cinnamon goodness, and got better the more I drank. Darker, richer. Basically joy in a cup.
Literally the only bad thing any of us had to say about this place was that the chairs were a bit meh.
Best place to write your Master’s thesis.
Worst place to try ditch a bad date.
The Library is filled with wall-to-wall bookshelves, stacked with hundreds of books no one else seems to want. Their feature wall is a gradient of books sorted by colour; quantifiably the worst possible system. There’s something really calming about being surrounded by books, and that was true of The Library, despite the duelling live music and songs on speakers. For some reason, there was a giant clam shell tucked away next to us.
A server wearing a great shade of purple lipstick recommended we try something off their featured menu, which celebrates iconic Wellington landmarks. We opted for “Smaug and Mirror-Mars”, because dragons are always the correct choice. The drink absolutely lived up to its name. First, a cloud of spicy smoke was released in an accompanying jar. The highly-alcoholic first sips are like french-kissing a salamander. The flavours changed and mellowed the more I drank, until what was left was a perfectly sweet syrup at the bottom or the glass. It wasn’t just a cocktail, it was a whole experience. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have tried to eat the dragonfruit garnish. It was really more theme than flavour.
Best place to see drink-based theatrics.
Worst place to shelter during an earthquake.
Hidden behind an unfortunate amount of scaffolding is a fairly new wee cocktail bar, Kuikui Lane. Named for and inspired by the owners’ kuia, it’s light and sunny and very, very modern. The first thing I noticed was the colour scheme: greens, browns, golds, stone. Earthy, nature-inspired. The feature wall had a simple painted whare motif, and an art piece printed on woven harekeke. Afrobeats in the background completed the vibe. I took the opportunity to go to the loo. It was lush, like peeing in a bougie tropical rainforest.
The kind and attentive bartender recommended that we try their hokeytini, a martini with hokey-pokey-infused vodka. It didn’t disappoint. Although it was sweet, there was a complexity to it that hinted at flavours it didn’t actually contain. Ginger? Lemon? Whatever was going on, it was elegant. For a cocktail bar, Kuikui Lane has a real family feel to it. Despite all the class, it was homely and welcoming.
Best place to relax and be comfortable.
Worst place to be messy drunk in the bathroom.
Nestled between the Opera House and the Wellington Homeless Women’s Trust is Crumpet, a real local institution. What it lacks in size it makes up for in character. The front half feels like a Parisian cafe, with black-and-white-chequered tiles and glass doors open to the breeze, while the back end is more classy dive bar. The entirety of one wall is covered with black and white photos and prints. We were all immediately drawn to a small picture of three naked men with their backs turned.
Even though it was well into the new year, Crumpet was still serving their festive menu. Everyone seemed more than up for some holiday cheer, so we ordered a Figgy Pudding. What we got was something that smelled like straight Christmas. Like a mince pie, or a brandy-soaked fruitcake, or, presumably, a figgy pudding, only I’ve never had one. It was beautifully presented, with a wee apple garnish that was especially tasty when dunked. Highly alcoholic, it’s definitely a cocktail to sip and savour.
Special shoutout to the mocktail menu, which was designed alongside their cocktails, rather than as an afterthought. As a former teetotaller, the effort was much appreciated.
Best place to live out your stereotypical French daydreams.
Worst place to take an elderly Catholic relative.
Hawthorn Lounge a prohibition themed speakeasy that is so well hidden we wouldn’t have found it if my cousin hadn’t already been before. We walked through a big green door, up a windy staircase, and into a deep red lounge – they’re very big on the big, bold colours. We sat down at a table next to an old piano none of us had the courage to touch. There was definitely a more serious feel to this place, like we’d just walked into the living room of a 1930s railway tycoon. The effect was only slightly punctured by the view out the window to a multi-storey carpark.
As we began to relax and enjoy the jazz standards playing in the background, a bartender approached our table. Like Night Flower, Hawthorn Lounge is all about individual taste, and he was aghast when we asked for a single recommendation for the whole group. Eventually, he landed on Tory Street – a cocktail that’s been on the menu for 17 years. It contains vodka, garam masala, honey, and egg white, amongst other things. When it arrives, the fluffy top layer is bisected by a single red line.
Tory Street is all about the complementary flavours and textures. The egg whites contrast the cool liquid, and vanilla really does go with garam masala – who knew? There was something comforting about it, although that might just be the Indian in me.
Best place to read the Great Gatsby.
Worst place to find an instagrammable view.
By our last stop, I was several drinks down, and in a really good mood. Luckily, Lulu seemed like the perfect place to literally let my hair down. Their bathrooms were bright pink and the mirrors were massive. Behind the Hawaiian-shirted bartender singing 2000s pop was a neon sign that read, “You had me at Aloha”. It told me all I needed to know; this place is fun, in a highly instagrammable, slightly cultural-appropriation-y kind of way.
I asked for something that sums up the Lulu lifestyle, and the bartender told me to go for their piña colada. It takes two to three days to make, he explained, through a highly involved process he eagerly talked me through. Unfortunately, I got lost after step one (grilling the pineapples). Still, you don’t need to know what’s gone into it to enjoy this drink. I’m a basic bitch at heart, and Lulu’s piña colada is basic done well. Sweet, creamy, coconutty goodness, in a novelty pineapple glass. There weren’t even any ice blockages in my straw, which is nothing short of magic.
By the time we leave, the live band was starting up. We made our exit past a giant mural of pasifika wahine and another witty neon sign. “Tropical state of mind” indeed.
Best place to take a cute profile pic.
Worst place to consider the far-reaching effects of neocolonialism.