A Sip of New Zealand Cocktail Culture

Grant Martin raises a glass to the charming class of cocktail mixers who don’t phone it in on a Monday night.

NZdrinks.jpgThere isn’t much to do on a Monday night in Wellington, New Zealand.

As many travelers know, socializing is an important part of any cross-country trip – meeting new locals, absorbing culture and evolving your itinerary as you learn. Monday is just not a day for merrymaking; bars tend to close early, clubs don’t open at all and everyone takes a collective breath from a good long weekend.

And so, at 9 p.m. on a Monday night, the traveler who is all caught up on email, postcards, journal entries and ramen noodles finds himself alone at one of the only open bars in town. In Wellington, you find yourself at Matterhorn.

Here you meet Claire, the Scottish bartender with dark flowing hair tied in a ponytail, wearing an olive drab, short sleeve, button-down shirt and tattoos from her shoulders to her elbows. Only Claire isn’t busy like she is on Fridays, bouncing from snifter to dishwasher to customer, pouring Woodford or 42 Below. It’s a slow night, and as you watch her patiently clean barware and meticulously line up bottles you know she’s got time to talk.

Sidecar. Vodka tonic. Gin and tonic. With careful measure she pours each drink into a mixer, properly chills the concoction and deposits it into a prepared glass. “Where are you headed?” she’ll ask you, in a light Scottish accent that’s starting to fade into Kiwi.

No plans.

“It’s poker night at Havana,” she suggests. “Up Cuba Street, down a dark alley. You could walk right by it.” She smiles. And so you go.

Havana didn’t used to be open on Mondays, the Canadian behind their dark wooden bar will explain. But things started to pick up, people came, so they stayed open. Now, poker starts at seven every Monday and most games are finished by nine or ten. Since you’re too late, you’ll stay for a drink. Maybe the best mojito that you’ve ever had, perfectly muddled with fresh mint. Maybe a Cuba libre with the right amount of lime and Havana Club rum of your choice.

At Havana the trend of a well-made cocktail comes to light. Every drink takes the care and precision of a surgeon, the measurement of a chemist and the speed of a short-order chef. Quality is emphasized; bad mint leaves are thrown away, ice is hand-crushed, glasses are patiently chilled and each cocktail, if necessary, is shaken by hand.

It was like that at Matterhorn, and it will be like that at Hooch, where the Canadian leads you after a phone call and a promise. Fast Eddie is waiting for you when you arrive, a jar of homemade infused rum in his left hand and a crooked smile for visitors on a Monday. They call it Captain Shabbybeard’s Rum, and it’s part of the best damn cocktail that you’ll have in this small corner of the world.

Of the cocktail culture? Eddie shrugs. “It’s always been like this. We do a good job on weekdays, when we’re slow and on weekends when we’re busy. It’s just the way we are.” He smiles his crooked smile and tightens the lid on his prized rum as he carries it to the back. But you’ll learn that about New Zealand. The outdoors, the food, the culture, the people. They’re all done well, and it only follows that their cocktails — down to the last drop released from the bottle – should be perfect too.

Grant Martin is the editor of Gadling.com, where you can read the entire In the Corner of the World Series about New Zealand over the next two weeks.

Photo: You can have the bar to yourself at Hooch on a Monday night. by Grant Martin


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    February 10, 2010, 6:15 am

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    November 25, 2009, 10:43 pm
  3. jondth
    November 18, 2009, 6:23 am

    The cocktails from new zealand like brandy, gin, vodka and rum cocktails are very tasty and i love all these.
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    August 17, 2009, 10:09 am

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    April 28, 2009, 4:42 am

    Is that picture on the blog of Grant Martini? If so, then it’s a very gorgeous place.