1073 Cocktails and 238 Bars now listed
A buzzing young bar in central Oxford with its own games room, private terrace with Philippe Starck sofas and a seriously well thought out cocktail list. The House is an intimate yet lively venue.
I am in Cocktail Heaven.
So far the drinks at House Bar have been good. Really good. But the ‘bar’ has just been raised – I’ve been served the most beautiful gin martini and am utterly, utterly charmed. I’ve had concoctions in 5* hotels in New York that aren’t this delightful.
And the taste is only half of it.
But let me start from the beginning. I’m sitting on a stool at House Bar, watching the guys mix drinks in a highly competent fashion. If the name ‘House’ conjures up an idea of somewhere homely and cosy, then think again. This is one of central Oxford’s more modern, swish watering holes. Lots of tan leather upholstery, monochrome lamps and low mood lighting. The bar is dark wood dotted with chic tea lights, and outside sits a very trendy plastic couch from Phillippe Starck. No wonder it was voted one of Elle’s top 25 bars in 2010.
But this is still Oxford (aka student-town), and so House Bar doesn’t want to alienate it’s core drinking demographic by being overly swanky. Upstairs is a pool table for fun and games, and there’s a very decent Happy Hour that runs every day. Since I want to sample as many of the concoctions as possible, I of course happen to arrive at 5pm when this offer starts. And I bring a friend, so we can chat cocktails and I can also steal half of hers in the name of ‘research’.
The menu is nicely laid out, and the selection is surprisingly large, with nearly 40 cocktails available for under £5. I’m immediately drawn to the Raging Bison – it’s a long drink (a wise idea to begin with) and has a base of Zubrowka Bison Grass vodka – a favourite of mine when choosing the Clear Spirit. Famously paired with apple, this cocktail adds some vanilla schnapps, fresh mint & lime juice for a fresh and fruity twist. This selection of ingredients are as well suited to each other as Kim and Kanye’s egos, so there would have to be a serious cocktail-cock-up if the drink tasted bad. Luckily, it’s delicious. The vanilla and apple combine to make a flirty sweetness against the mint and lime, and the whole thing is refreshing with a smooth finish.
My friend goes for an Almond and Apricot Sour. It’s actually a lot more tart than expected, and although the apricot liqueur is lost a little amongst the amaretto and the lemon, the consistency is perfect, and just the right amount of lemon is added for a zesty edge.
I look to the House Classics now, where I could choose a Bloody Mary, a Negroni, a White Russian… but instead decide to have a Basil Jam. This uses Stolichnaya vodka and fraise liqueur and is shaken with strawberry and basil, then topped with ground pepper. I smell the basil before I taste it, which helps balance the juicy ripeness of the strawberry, and although I probably could have done with a touch more black pepper then it’s still a very well constructed cocktail.
The second cocktail favoured by my drinking partner is the Tiki House – Koko Kanu, crème de banane and coconut cream shaken with pineapple and lime juices. It definitely looks the part when it arrives, and after a few longing glances while she sips happily away then I wrestle the drink from her and take a sip. It’s delicious – the cocktail equivalent of Rihanna on a banana boat – an ultimate Caribbean treat. Definitely not something to get tipsy on though, as it’s pretty heavy, but the sharp acidity of lime makes the coconut stand to attention nicely.
Another one is needed – we’re on a role here, and there’s a lot more Happy ‘Hour’ to go. My friend orders a Gecko – Morgan’s Spiced rum, apple schnapps, lime, apple juice and passion fruit. There’s a good amount of passion fruit, which compliments the golden spirit and makes for another summery, exotic drink, only this time the rum gives it a robust kick.
I’ve had two vodka drinks, so it’s on to something different – gin, I think, and the Martini section is calling out to me. It has loads of exciting options – including French, Espresso, Breakfast, and a Carrot Cake variety that combines Butterscotch schnapps, Baileys and Goldshläger shaken with cream (not to my taste, but I applaud the invention).
But I feel in the mood for something clean and classic – perhaps the décor and soft glow of the overhead bulbs is having an effect. Plus it’s only right that I have something off the full priced menu, where you can order classics like a Mojito, Manhattan and Sazerac. But it’s the Martini for £10.50 that I want (second most expensive on the menu, beaten only by the F.U Gently which is Absinthe Parisienne, caramelized sugar and passion fruit topped with Blanc de Blancs for £11.50)
I love my Martini’s a drop on the dirty side served with olives, and ask the bartender to whip me one up. And that’s when this little beauty of a drink is served.
I watch as the vermouth is stirred into the ice, and then discarded, and then I watch further as the gin is added. But what comes next is a little more unexpected. The crystal-clear drink is poured into a glass decanter, which is then set on a bowl of ice upon which rest three plump olives. Then, from out of the fridge, I’m served an ice-cold mini-martini glass, big enough for about three sips. It’s laid down in front of me like the paraphernalia for an ancient ritual.
I love stuff like this – I’m such a sucker for it. The decanter holds enough martini to top my teeny tiny fairy-glass up thrice – just matching the number of olives I have – and ensues I’ve always have a steel-cold cocktail to sip. The Beefeater 24 gin has just a whisper of dry vermouth, and the brine makes it salty, savoury, but doesn’t compromise the alcohol. In fact, it’s so good it’s exceedingly dangerous. Before long I’ve finished my second mini-glass, forgetting that I’m actually merrily sipping away on pure alcohol. We decide it’s time to head into the fresh air before I wobble off my bar stool and slip, not quite so elegantly, to the floor.
But it’s not just the Martini that excels in panache (although this is certainly my favourite of the evening). All of the cocktails are delivered with a touch of class, and all look the part. There are no cutting corners, and the standard is consistently high. Considering the drinks are half price and the bar staff could have churned them out quickly if they’d been so inclined then this is something to really appreciate. For value, quality, and a fabulous wide variety of drinks to enjoy in a sleek and chic environment then House Bar is the place to go. Only don’t leave without trying the Martini.