Cocktail Bar Review: The Milk Thistle, Bristol

Cocktail Bar Review: The Milk Thistle, Bristol
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The Milk ThistleWhy is it that taxidermy animals are now synonymous with Speakeasy bars? I thought the point was that everyone was busy making moonshine gin in their bathtubs out of potatoes and their mistress’ nail polish, not shooting badgers and then artfully dressing them in comedy bowler hats?

Still, it seems that it’s de rigeur  in these 1930’s bars, evident as I entered The Milk Thistle and was confronted with a glassy-eyed weasel wearing a waistcoat. Quite a snazzy waistcoat, as it happened.

You see, The Milk Thistle is a cool place. It’s dimly lit, the fittings are eccentric and opulent and a bit quirky all at once, and you feel quite swanky just being in there. It’s all dark wood fittings, candlelight, potted ferns and gliding waiters, but somehow it doesn’t seem pompous.

It’s worth a visit, if you can locate it. We had to ask around, and even then figured someone had misled us when we found ourselves standing outside a large black door. But then we spied a discreet buzzer, pressed it, and in a moment a well-dressed chap was ushering us indoors, to a foyer with a swooping staircase, parquet floor, and gilt frames on the walls.

The actual bar, next door, isn’t very large – just big enough to not feel crowded, but still with an intimate air. Red leather booths line one wall (usually booked at weekends), and there are stools at the bar for perching and showing off stocking-ed legs. Then a number of tables to relax and enjoy the ambience – let your eyes wander to a stuffed stag head above the fireplace, or the old Singer sewing machine gracing the shelves. It’s a regular gentleman’s club of curios, and I’m a sucker for this kind of place.

But we were here to try cocktails – no more eyeing up the décor, and wondering who had painted the portrait of a rabbit wearing a ruff around its neck. A waiter (looking dapper in a shirt and waistcoat, although not quite as ritzy as the weasel) came and gave us a leather bound menu (naturally).

I must say I was grateful at the selection. With only fourteen cocktails to choose from, it wouldn’t be the turmoil of indecision I sometimes found myself in. And one shone out immediately – ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ used Miller’s Westbourne strength gin, honey syrup, rosemary infused dry vermouth and peach bitters. At £9 it was one of the slightly pricier options on the menu, but I had high hopes.

The cocktail took a little while to arrive (which I usually take as a good sign), and gave me a chance to look at the other clientele. The early Saturday night crowd were a mixed bunch – trendy Bristol fashionistas, older gents, groups of friends – but the general feeling was that everyone was here to enjoy a good cocktail. No lairy booze hounds or hen parties. It’s the kind of place you’d feel very comfortable wearing a nice dress. Or a bit of sparkle. Or just a shirt that makes it seem you’ve made an effort.

When the cocktail arrived it looked beautiful – a golden honey colour, served in an old fashioned champagne glass. Truth be told there didn’t look a whole lot of it, but one sip and I was blown away. Amazing. Possibly one of the best I’ve had in a long time. It ticked all the boxes for my perfect cocktail – every small sip had my taste buds dancing, but it was strong enough that I couldn’t chug it so fast that I was ordering my next before the waiter had even laid down my napkin. No, sipping and appreciating the flavours were the order of the day, and they were great – a strong lip-smacking hit of gin, with the smoothness of honey to take the edge off and enough vermouth to balance it out.

For my next concoction I went for a good old Aviaton. Made using Tanqueray Gin, Maraschino Liqueur and fresh lemon, it was a fabulous version of a classic. Again, perfectly balanced flavours, nothing too sweet, and strong enough that I could sip it in enjoyment.

One more before hitting the road, and this time I asked the waiter for some advice. It was between the Desmond No.2 and the Jamaican Sazerac. ‘Well,’ he answered, tapping his chin. ‘It really depends what you’re looking for. Do you want a cocktail that’s smooth and gentle like a velvet glove, or one that’s going to smack you around the chops?’

Hmmm. Tough one. But since it was only 9pm and I had places to be, I opted for the Desmond No2, since apparently the other was just pure alcohol. All I can say is, if this is a velvet glove, I’d hate to be there when that particular waiter got out the Iron Fist. The booze content was staggeringly satisfactory. And yet the tastes were still spot on – plum and cinnamon Chairman’s Reserve aged rum, Punt e mes vermouth, Somerset Pomona apple liqueur, demerara sugar and Peychaud’s bitters. Sounds like a lot of flavours, but the result was something sharp, slightly fruity and exciting that tasted different with each sip.

And that’s how you know The Milk Thistle is a class act joint. The cocktails are small but mighty, alcoholic as sin but never ever compromise on taste. It’s brilliant value for money, and what’s more you get to feel like you’re sitting in an old mansion parlour waiting for the Lord of the Manor. As my friend remarked, as we were sipping away, ‘it’s not just selling a cocktail, it’s selling an era’. And I couldn’t agree more.

4 stars


Rebecca Milford


Written by Guest Author

Posted: July 2, 2014