I am regularly asked which bars serve the best cocktails in Harrogate so I dedicated my recent HCR show, Apero Time, to that question.

First, I’d say that it is less about the bar than the personnel behind it. Every great cocktail bar has a manager or cocktail waiter who is highly skilled, knowledgeable and creative. It is this person who drives the quality of cocktail-making. When they move on – as hospitality staff like to do – the bar risks suffering a loss of quality. On the other hand, when a great bartender moves into a bar, it can quickly become THE place to go for a sophisticated night out.

To become the skilled, knowledgeable, creative person described above, the waiter needs to have spent a significant number of years making cocktails, to hone their art and understand the spirits and methods they’re using. I would argue that that cannot happen without knowing the classics: such cocktails as the Old Fashioned, Sidecar, Dry Martini, and Caipiriña – cocktails from the first golden age of mixed drinks that have become the parents and grandparents to every cocktail that follows. It’s like a musician practising scales and arpeggios: nobody’s playing Bach toccatas or composing modern songs without knowing their way around the keyboard!

Experienced bar staff, of course, cost money, and so does the selection of specialist liqueurs and spirits a cocktail bar needs. All of which has to be passed onto the customer. Most bars hope to make 75% margin on the price of their drinks, so you can expect a well-made cocktail to cost you somewhere in the region of £10-£15. A bar that can afford to serve you a pair of mojitos for a fiver is cutting corners somewhere, either on the quantity or standard of rum, or by losing the fresh limes and mint in favour of a flavoured syrup. (I’d wager both, to be honest.) Make sure the staff make the cocktails in front of you, where you can see what they’re using. You should recognise most of the spirit brands used and notice that many cocktails are made without a shaker. Talk to your waiter about the ingredients and methods they choose. Hospitality staff love to talk about what they do and will happily explain these things to you – another sign they understand the details of their work.

With all that in mind, where and to whom would I go for the best cocktails in Harrogate?

My first port of call would be Matt at Pranzo in Cold Bath Road. He used to make cocktails at the old Porco Rosso in town, which more or less collapsed as a cocktail venue when he left. Matt has a deep understanding of the spirits he uses, and I’d say nobody in Harrogate understands how to work with Bourbon like he does. Working in an Italian wine bar/restaurant, he is frequently to be seen mixing Negronis, spritzes and their variants. Why not order a Boulevardier next time you’re out and experience his subtle way with Bourbon and bitters?

For the best classics in town, I’d head for Bijou and Wylde in Cheltenham Crescent. It’s a smallish bar that aims for a “speakeasy” feel. As such, the staff know their Prohibition-era cocktails as if they were old friends. This is where I would go these days for a proper French 75, Dry Martini or Manhattan. It can get quite lively at times, and I worry the Prosecco and beer crowd might turn the best staff off. Those of us who know a good cocktail need to go regularly, to make sure it keeps its identity!

I’d recommend Three’s a Crowd as a great all-round cocktail bar. The owner, John Quinlan has been the driving force behind a number of Harrogate’s bars in the past. He makes customer service the hallmark of his establishments, and all his staff receive extensive training before they are allowed behind a bar. With good knowledge of a huge range of classic cocktails, they are encouraged to innovate, and there’s healthy rivalry among them for who can get their latest creation on the monthly specials list. Incidentally, Three’s a Crowd is the only bar (anywhere) where I have been asked which spirit I’d like them to use for a Sazerac – a million gold stars for that, Tony!

Finally, for a lively atmosphere and funky new cocktails, you should get to know Jesper Callisen in his eponymous bar/café/restaurant on Prince Albert Row (opposite the Everyman cinema). Jesper is full of life and energy, open and enthusiastic. Although he has encyclopaedic knowledge of the classics, he has made innovation his thing. He is always trying new twists on old recipes, new creations, new ways of seeing cocktails, usually with a burst of humour or an unexpectedly delicious, surprise ingredient.

Looking through my recommendations, I’m struck by the first point I made – that the key issue in cocktail-making is who is behind the bar. The cocktail styles at each of the establishments I’m recommending reflects the personality of the bar manager: careful and subtle at Pranzo; sophisticated and classic at Bijou & Wylde; warmly familiar yet contemporary at Three’s a Crowd, and funky and lively at Jesper’s. I sincerely hope these fantastic creatives stick around to serve us for a good while to come.

You can read more about my approach to hospitality in my own websitetheaperitifguy.co.uk.

Paul Fogarty

Paul Fogarty

Sommelier, writer, presenter; host & bon vivant; food & drink specialist; classic cocktail fan, Paul Fogarty is the host of Apero Time, the radio programme about Entertaining.

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