We have been given plenty of opportunities to rediscover our own incredible backyard over the past couple of years. And that’s exactly what I did on a recent road trip between Auckland and Otago. As is often the case, dining and drinks were high on the agenda and, although I fancy myself as pretty knowledgeable in this area, I opted for a different approach this time.
That approach? Ask a local. No one knows a city better than its locals and tapping into that insider knowledge puts you on a fast track to the best cafés, restaurants and bars the region has to offer. Sure, most dining spaces and bars can mix a gin and tonic, or make a Manhattan, but to find a world-class cocktail is not so easy.
Whether built, stirred, shaken or blended, a great cocktail requires the right ingredients, and quality matters. Sourcing local producers, using bespoke tonics and fresh juices – it’s all part of the matrix. Then, of course, there’s the atmosphere, the staff, the attention to detail.
By chatting with locals, I found myself in some of the best cocktail bars in New Zealand. Here, I pass on some of those fab finds.
Dome Bar, Gisborne
Dome Bar and Cinema is all about the journey. From that historic building aroma to the absorbing colour palette, from the striking projected images to the eclectic décor, you will find yourself in awe from the moment you arrive. Located in Gisborne, on the east coast of the North Island, this curious yet inviting space delivers classic cocktails as well as an array of signature drinks. Try the Pleasure Dome. Made with Galliano and rum, it is the perfect companion as you soak up the surrounding art and atmosphere.
Of course, the bar team can mix your favourite drink too, or help you out with a local wine or beer. The tapas menu is another Dome Bar treat. The venue is conveniently located in the city and stopping at the bar for a tipple before heading to the cinema is a popular Gisborne pastime. I can certainly see why.
Bar Teresa, Napier
Bar Teresa is an exciting, modern and fun place to visit. Hidden in the back of Harvest Deli, the small speakeasy has an indoor-outdoor flow, while the atmosphere is welcoming and uber-friendly. Proprietors Sarah Mitchell and Andrea Marseglia, along with Dylan Pope make a formidable team and aim to capture the essence of the Italian aperitivo. At least for now, Teresa is a walk-in only venue so be sure to get your drink in early or, if you want to explore the beverage menu more extensively, find a quiet corner and have fun. The cocktails are, of course, excellent. Try the Meridiano, made with Widges Gin, chamomile liqueur, salted white chocolate and citrus leaf stock, and garnished with lashings of peach foam.
Mad Hatters, Hamilton
If you’re going to serve your cocktails in teapots, then Mad Hatters is probably the perfect moniker. Located in Hamilton, this unique, visually entertaining venue combines the quirky with tradition for a memorable experience. The bar team can mix you a classic cocktail if you want to get a sense of how they treat traditional ingredients, or just jump headfirst down the rabbit hole of less standard combinations. The Ribena, for example, is a eye-opening concoction comprising vodka, apple juice, blue curacao, Red Bull, grenadine, and passion pulp.
Kismet is a whisky bar, created by whisky lovers for whisky lovers. But it is so much more than that. Located on Hardy Street in the heart of Nelson, Kismet Cocktail and Whisky Bar is a welcoming space with a solid reputation as one of the go-to places for excellent cocktails, food and speakeasy surroundings.
Since opening in 2018, the philosophy has concentrated on bespoke drinks, excellent service and a relaxed atmosphere. High ceilings, hard floors softened with throw rugs, exposed brick and banquette seating build on the welcoming environment, although you’d be forgiven for overlooking these elements in favour of the incredible bar.
With more than 300 bottles, Kismet is the largest whisky bar in the top of the south and one of only four SMWS (Scotch Malt Whisky Society) bars in Aotearoa. “It’s been important to us from the outset that our guests never feel intimidated by the scale of our bar, or that their choices could be scoffed at,” says Kismet manager Kymberly Widley. “We are whisky lovers at heart, sharing this passion is what is important to us.” Try the Naked and Famous (mescal, green Chartreuse, Aperol and lime juice) and the Secret Garden (absinthe, vodka, Buddha’s Hand oleo sa ccharum and manzana verde).
If you’re in Blenheim hankering for a gin and tonic, a martini or a negroni, then Scotch is the place. With a restaurant on one side and a wine shop on the other, the Maxwell Road hot spot can sort your night out from start to finish. Although the establishment has been around for close to a decade, current owner Jacob Anderson took the reins in late 2020. “Our focus is showcasing local produce through our tasting menu alongside a constantly evolving beverage list,” Anderson says. The cocktail list is small, but the team can recreate your favourites, too. Be sure to give the excellent local Roots gin a go.
Crumpet Bar, Wellington
More than just a fantastic name, Wellington’s Crumpet Bar has built a faithful audience thanks to its extensive food and drinks offering. Team members at this Boon Brothers venue pride themselves on drilling down to discover what it is you really want to drink, even when you’re not so sure yourself. They do this in part with a flavour wheel, which helps you select core ingredients and additional elements to create your perfect drink. And isn’t that what a cocktail should be? The perfect drink just for you? There is also a handy Rolodex, filled with recipes to inspire. You’re bound to find something different, if that’s what you’re looking for. For me, one taste of the bourbon peanut butter and I was hooked. Although the bar was named after the English slang for a pretty woman, it also happens to offer the tasty griddle bread on the menu.
Lodge Bar, Queenstown
Queenstown is a celebrated destination for all manner of reasons: the adventure, the people, the colour and, of course, Lake Wakatipu. For a front-row seat to the lot, you must try The Lodge Bar. Set just back from the water and with sweeping views, the space features large windows from which to watch the world go by, sheepskin- covered furniture, a fireplace and high- backed couches.
Yet warm and cosy is just the beginning. The bar is part of the Rodd & Gunn company (you’ll notice the specialist menswear store in the adjacent room) and the brand’s rich heritage is certainly on show. Queenstown was the first site for Rodd & Gunn’s Lodge Bar series, which now includes iterations in Auckland and Melbourne with a Brisbane edition en route.
The cocktail list honours Rodd & Gunn’s trademark sophistication and elegance. The Vodd & Gunner, made with local vodka, imperial ginger ale and ginger beer, fresh citrus and bitters, is one of my favourites. Likewise, the Rose Gold Negroni, with Reid & Reid Pinot Noir Barrel Aged Gin, Cocchi Vermouth Di Torino, Cointreau and Campari. Even as the venue’s master sommelier, I am drawn to the intriguing cocktail list. Dining is also a venue highlight. The seasonal menu is designed by executive chef Matt Lambert and heroes locally sourced produce.
Gin Gin, Christchurch
Whether you’re after an electric vibe in the evening or the hustle and bustle of daytime activities, Gin Gin is one for the hit list. One of the Garden City’s many exciting cocktail bars, the New Regent Street venue offers a selection of more than 100 New Zealand gins and a vibrant space in which to enjoy them. Says Gin Gin manager Luke Dawkins: “We offer a seasonal selection of drinks and cocktails that change alongside our food menu. We try to reflect as much of the seasonal changes in our drinks selections. We are mostly dedicated to New Zealand wine, spirits, liqueurs and whisky, but have a focus on gin.”
After relocating from Victoria Street to its current location last year, Gin Gin has developed an on-site native garden, which offers a more private and relaxed feel. The team has also developed its own London Dry house gin, aptly named ‘Gin Gin’ Gin. It’s an award-wining spirit and is used in a number of their cocktails.
Auckland offers dozens of great cocktail- bar experiences from Clipper and Chapel in Ponsonby, to Caretaker and Talulah in Britomart, and The Lodge Bar at Commercial Bay. There are a growing number of rooftop bars with some of the better ones located in city hotels. Rooftop at QT, for example, is a spectacular setting for cocktail hour and beyond, while the bar and lounge space at The Hotel Britomart is excellent, and puts you close to plenty of great places to kick on.
Looking for more recommendations? Discover these 10 fantastic wineries in New Zealand.