On location: Budapest

boutiq bar Mark Ludmon explores the “ruin bars” and cocktail destinations of Budapest

At the global final of this year’s Bols Around The World cocktail competition in Amsterdam, I witnessed Hungary’s Gábor Onufer triumph in a tough competition that featured top bartenders from far-flung locations such as China, New Zealand, Colombia and Aberdeen. So when I came to visit Budapest two months later, his bar was at the top of my list of places to visit.

Boutiq’bar (pictured) in Paulay Edu Street is a plush, womb-like venue with a classic feel that deserves its reputation as one of the world’s best bars. Sadly, Gábor wasn’t working when we visited, but we enjoyed some fantastic cocktails, listed in the menu according to which bartender created them. Naturally, I had to try Gábor’s Welcome to Tijuana, a delicious mix of tequila, Aperol, pineapple and cinnamon. Another favourite was the Mile High Manhattan, created by bartender Kocsis Lilla, combining bourbon with vanilla, orange liqueur and absinthe.

Boutiq’bar also offers plenty of classics such as a Hanky Panky and a Vesper Martini, listed in the menu with the years of their creation. Cocktails here are generally priced around 1,650 Hungarian forints which is only about £4.60 – incredible value for money for visiting Brits.

Another great place for cocktails is the small Bar Domby in nearby Anker Köz Street, with a stylish and glittering gold and black interior. Its team serves up a good selection of well-made classics alongside an extensive range of spirits, especially whiskies, and reportedly promotes itself as the place for the “art of elegant alcohol consumption”.

No visit to Budapest is complete without a visit to a “ruin pub” – a type of bar that has been created in abandoned buildings, sometimes for only the summer, sometimes all year round. One of the best – and supposedly the oldest – is Szimpla Kert in Kazinczy Street. It is a maze of nooks and crannies, furnished with mismatched furniture and lighting, with several bars scattered across two levels including a central open-air space. Beers, wines and cocktails are available but this is a party venue for enjoying unpretentious drinks in a laid-back atmosphere. Another popular late-night party bar is Szoda in Wesselényi Street, with quirky, mismatched 1970s-style furniture and manga cartoons on the walls.

Budapest’s bar scene is concentrated on Pest – the part of the city on the eastern side of the River Danube, across the water from the historic castle area of Buda. Down on the river itself is a moored boat that houses the large restaurant and bar complex Spoon. The drinks here are adequate, with a standard list of cocktails, but the selling point is its location.

Like many bars and restaurants, Spoon has an extensive list of pálinka – Hungary’s national spirit. An eau-de-vie made from Hungarian-grown fruit, it comes in a wide variety of styles and quality. Popular ones are wild sour cherry, apricot and plum, and you can pay up to £15 a shot (as we accidentally discovered). This is still very much a spirit for sipping neat – and largely unknown outside of Hungary – and you will struggle to find a bar using pálinka in mixed drinks. However, some producers are looking to grow the category, including leading brand Gusto which has developed cocktail recipes with the team at Boutiq’bar.

More accessible is the incredible variety of Hungarian wines available in their domestic market, from the famous dessert wines produced in the Tokaj region to some good whites from Sopron and Somló and red wines from Eger, Villány and Szekszárd. While the cocktail scene is still small and the local beers unremarkable, the wines are particularly worth exploring, with vineyards in the Buda Etyek region – well-known for its aromatic white wines – close enough to Budapest for a day trip.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the September 2012 issue of Bar magazine.

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