The cocktail boffs who put Cape Town bars on the world stage

The cocktail boffs who put Cape Town bars on the world stage
The Art Of Duplicity Old Fashioned. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

Three Cape Town bars are among the best 100 in the world. South Africa is taking its place on the global stage, making the lists of the best bars, restaurants and vineyards.

Why do fancy bars use one big block of ice in their drinks? I always thought it was because, well, they’re fancy, but it’s because they melt slower and therefore don’t dilute your slow sipping drink while keeping it cold. Isn’t science great?

This was explained to me by bartender Philip Burrows at The House Of Machines, and in the course of putting this story together – about the three Cape Town bars to feature on the 51-100 list of World’s 50 Best Bars in 2022 – it became patently clear that the people in the cocktail business are all mad scientists. They dabble in cordials and syrups and tinctures, with centrifuges, liquid nitrogen and candy floss. All this before they even begin to concoct a libation. They stir and shake and twirl and taste and pour, all for your drinking – and visual – pleasure.

Cause Effect Cocktail Kitchen was placed at 53, The Art Of Duplicity at 88, and The House Of Machines at 92, all in Cape Town; Joburg bar Sin + Tax is number 100.

Cause Effect Cocktail Kitchen, founded by Kurt Schlechter in Park Road, Gardens, is at the V&A Waterfront and Camps Bay. Two new bars will be opening soon, in Stellenbosch (where it will have its own distillery, and where they will make their own vermouth) and Rondebosch. These will by chance coincide with the four pillars that support Cause Effect: the mountain, fynbos, vineyards and the ocean.

“We use elements from our surroundings, right now it’s fynbos,” said Yorick Faict, bar manager, but please don’t call him a mixologist. 

On the advice of David Donde, owner of The Art Of Duplicity, I sampled an Old Fashioned at each of the bars. “I’m an Old Fashioned drinker,” I said at one point. No wait, let me rephrase that: “I’m a drinker of Old Fashioneds.” So I suppose I’m a bit old-fashioned too; it’s a classic cocktail made with bourbon, sugar, bitters, garnished with orange and a maraschino cherry.

“Dating back to the 1800s, the Old Fashioned was a popular drink served at Gentlemen’s Clubs and is often associated with an aristocratic and more mature drinker. Those who pick an Old Fashioned today are said to enjoy a more traditional way of life but still have an air of risk and challenge to their personality,” says website Delish, so there you have it, you don’t even need a horoscope.

At Cause Effect, the bourbon is substituted with brandy; it’s not sweetened with anything as mundane as sugar, heaven forbid (none of them is), and the bitters are Angostura (barman’s salt and pepper, said Faict) as well as hibiscus and artemisia. If you thought the waving and squeezing of orange peel over the drink is pretentious nonsense only done for show, think again; Faict demonstrated with a lighter how much citrus oil is released, which I filed away as a possible future party trick. It will never beat Richard at the Purple Turtle who would spew Stroh rum into a Bic lighter, however, which was all fun and games until the night my hair caught fire and I had to be smacked about the head. 

The Old Fashioned at Cause Effect. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

This was followed by a Table Mountain: brandy, naartjie spice bitters, rooibos cordial, mint and caraway, citrus and soda. It was beautifully prepared by Vince Nhanga, and tasted like I could drink 10 and not feel a thing, which would obviously be a grave error. 

The third drink was Faict’s recipe, Umami Martini, made by Rebecca Melvill. It’s caper-infused gin and dry vermouth with a lemon twist. It’s a “sake serve” which means you must not pour your own first drink, that must be done by the maker of the drink. It comes with a bowl of feta cheese, black and green olives and chilli oil in a pipette. It was an interesting taste; I picked up dark chocolate; enhanced by not being able to see the drink in its ceramic jug and cup.

“We all get an opportunity to create cocktails and Kurt pushes us to do so. I’ve got three on the menu at the moment,” said Faict. “We used to change menus four times a year according to season, now it’s twice a year.”

Bar manager Yorick Faict making the Old Fashioned at Cause Effect. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

The current menu was created along with graffiti artists who provided inspiration for the cocktails, which are served in sustainable glass by Ngwenya. The menu is in the form of a small book, vibrantly colourful with graffiti art, and containing dozens of cocktails in all the categories, from spritzes and Sidecars to fancy drinks (yes they are A Thing) and nitro drinks. There are classics and superstars, highballs and punches. Finally, from one extreme to the other, virgin cocktails and shooters. There’s also a story about the world famous Porn Star Martini, created by the recently deceased Douglas Ankrah. There’s more to the story than Schlecter telling him the passion fruit he was eating is called a granadilla in South Africa; ask the bar staff to tell it to you.

There is theatre and drama aplenty at Cause Effect; at The Art Of Duplicity, it’s a fully immersive experience. It is not visible from the street, and when you arrive, the man at the metal door will deny any knowledge of it. When he eventually gives in, armed with a baseball bat, he shows you down an alley where washing lines are strung with panties. A password is required of you, without which you may not proceed. You are led through a bathroom to another big door with a sliding peephole, and finally admitted to the bar. Sacks of coffee beans fill the shelves along the wall, a juxtaposition for the opulence of the decor. This is a speakeasy.

Service is at your table, and there are no bar stools. If you absolutely must, you will be permitted to stand at the bar to watch your drink being made. When you first take your seat, a glass is presented, with a bowl of monkey nuts – sparkling non-alcoholic vodka, you are told, and instructed to throw the shells on the floor. A tin cup is put down in front of you, with a till slip and a “thank you for coming, here’s your bill”. It can cause a bit of panic but it’s all in good fun; the paper is the menu. “Oh I love this!” said my friend, who had been flummoxed by the password requirement being related to Prohibition. She said she was confused because she thought it was 2020, not 1920, which is both funny and sad.

Here, my Old Fashioned was sweetened with molasses. I also drank an off-menu Whisky Sour spinoff creation made with grapefruit poached in red wine and coffee infused vermouth syrup, and winter spices like star anise, cassia bark and nutmeg. It has no name. Ask for the Daily Maverick, see what happens. 

Illustrating Justin Shaw’s (Donde calls him the Spirit Guide) objective to pack as much flavour into the cocktails as possible, I had a Glory Gloria, which will be on the menu soon if not already.

“The first coffee cocktail (coffee, spirit, sugar) recorded got the name Gloria. The coffee would have brandy floated on top, and lit with a flame. A spoon-like device was then placed over the top of the burning mixture and sugar placed into the spoon. This sugar would then melt into the coffee and brandy blend,” said Shaw. 

“The name is said to be named for the prayer, Glory be to God, said before and after meals. As this would coincide with the times the coffee cocktail would be served, it became known as the Gloria. My version is paying homage to the cocktail.” 

It is indeed quite glorious.

King Charles (not that one; the chef in the kitchen) – bourbon, ginger, peat – at The Art Of Duplicity. (Photo: Crave Concepts)

“We’re doing wrong, right. Kitsch is cool. We have really kitsch glassware that is still ornate, still beautiful, and carries delicious flavour. That is one thing I don’t want to undersell and that’s the amount of flavour we’re putting into the cocktails,” said Shaw.

A lot has changed since The Art Of Duplicity opened in 2018. Donde said three years but I said four, and my Facebook memories this very week confirmed it. It’s okay, we’re all still confused about how many years have passed this decade. “It’s getting more popular and there’s more demand; we’ve managed to become less generalist and more specialist,” he said. “You’ve got to keep people happy in the beginning – and we’re still doing that and giving them what they like, but it’s more about doing what we do well. They’re coming for the unexpected. 

“We don’t serve beer or ciders at all, or wine other than MCC and Champagne. It is about the cocktail experience – but not the Cosmo. Any bar of our calibre can’t get away without making an exquisite martini or Negroni.”

Of making the prestigious list, Donde said he believes it’s validation of doing things the hard way. There are no shortcuts to excellence, and nowhere to hide.

“How awesome is it to have three out of 100 top bars in Cape Town?” said Donde. “Cape Town is punching above its weight, it’s quite something. We’ve got the talent, we’ve got the creativity, we’ve got the environment, we’ve got the ingredients.” 

Coconut, peanut, Oreo and bourbon go into My Kitsch Doesn’t Sink at The Art Of Duplicity. (Photo: Crave Concepts)

One does not simply turn up at The Art Of Duplicity. The man at the door won’t have it. Bookings are via Dineplan, for two sittings a night, with a deposit payable. It’s up to the staff to make it worthwhile. “What happens here and the service excellence is what sets us apart – the theatre, the way we interact with guests, the stories we tell,” said Shaw.

There are games afoot too… maybe you find something written in lipstick on the mirror in the bathroom and if you smudge it with your thumb, and show it to the bartender, you’ll get a surprise drink. 

At The House Of Machines, the Old Fashioned is one of the most popular cocktails, a signature cocktail even. The preparation involves charring a plank of wood with a blowtorch and capturing the smoke inside the glass. This is not a quick drink at a busy bar on a Friday night and yes, I’ve been That Person who bellies up and orders six at a time, shame. The recipe is a secret; Burrows wouldn’t give me permission to share any of the details, some of which he didn’t tell me at all. This “off the record” nonsense is too much. If you knew half the things I know but can’t tell…

The House Of Machines Old Fashioned, one of its signature cocktails. (Photo: Allison Foat)

While The Art Of Duplicity is a bar hidden behind a coffee shop, The House Of Machines is both at the same time. It opens at 7am and goes all the way through till late, from the early morning coffee drinkers to the party folk who come for the vibe, and the live music every night. Families too, on a Saturday afternoon, why not? 

“It’s a house, which needs to be a welcoming space, whether you’re a regular or it’s your first time,” said manager Davide Rossi. “You are welcome; there are other places where you have to climb a social ladder to be included.”

Besides the Old Fashioned and the other fan favourite, the Negroni, The House Of Machines serves cocktails like Dark & Stormy, Vodka Gimlet, Lynchburg Lemonade, Mezcal Espresso Martini, Margarita, and Aperol Spritz. Beer, cider, wine and bubbles are on the menu but not Coca Cola. If you’re hungry the Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants dark kitchen upstairs makes burgers, dogs, wings, fries and sides; and a burger salad which sounds jolly nice.

Every afternoon, Tuesdays to Saturdays, the bar staff put on their thinking caps and come up with a list of new cocktails based on the nightly sponsored spirit, often with a twist of some kind. They call it Shake & Bake, and there’s a “high level of creativity that happens behind the bar on the fly,” said Rossi, adding that THOM earned its place on the list because of its consistency and its approach to experience. 

The House Of Machines is a vibe. (Photo: Allison Foat)

“Out of this wonderful 100-odd square metres, the approach to the product is to keep it tight, simple and perfect. There are imitations so perfection can come out of it.”

Interestingly, not one of these Old Fashioneds was garnished with a maraschino cherry. If that’s what a modern take on a classic is about, I’m all for it. DM/TGIFood

For more information about the World’s 50 Best Bars, click here

Art Of Duplicity | Cause Effect | The House Of Machines


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Donald Moore says:

    When any of the barmen serve an alcoholic drink do they ask “are you going to be driving?” If not then the barman who fails to ask this question may be responsible for any motor accident that the drinker has after he has finished his or her drink. Think about it alcohol no matter how fancy causes motor accidents!

    • Gavin Wilson says:

      Absolute nonsense!! the barman is serving customers who should have answered the question posed, for themselves!? This pathetic blame avoidance culture must not be tolerated! Get a life.

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