Strange potions are mixed and guzzled in the Old Town’s cocktail bars. What fun, then, to experience them all in one night, spirits and liqueurs from all corners of the Earth mingling inside your belly as the city lights pass by in an all-enveloping blur.
And a stumbling, befuddled time was what we expected. Yet all the booze blended tastefully, subtly and imaginatively with a refreshing variety of juices, nectars, herbs and extracts, easing the impact, and we can just about remember how our night ended.
You don’t have to do it this way, of course. Any one of the places we tried would be fun on its own. But imagine the frustration of staying just a night or two in Vilnius and having to cram in all of these great bars before your time in the city is up. In sympathy, we decided to see if such a cocktail tour was possible. So, mid-evening on a Saturday night, we called in at our first stop.
On the shelves at Apoteka (Visų Šventųjų 5) are tinctures of chili pepper, beakers of lime, ancient tequilas, little-known local herbs and musty chemists’ tomes penned by mad professors. Taking a seat at the bar we asked for something sour yet fruity with rum – and it was hard to keep up with the whirl of hands as the apron-wearing pharmacist threw one thing after another into a mixing glass. It was like he had eight arms.
We saw at least two rums and maybe some cognac go in, plus bursts from nameless flasks of richly scented pineapple and peach, before the potion was stirred, strained and carefully poured into a unique ceramic cup with a grinning Aztec face on the front. The barman then arranged with precision some exotic grasses and caramelised citrus slices on top. The potent result was refreshing perfection. We had obviously started at the right place, and it could only go downhill from here.
And so it was, topographically speaking. We made our way down quiet Arklių to the Town Hall, stubbornly resisted the invitingly noisy bars on Vokiečių, and reached Rhum Room (Vilniaus 39) where we snatched the last available seat, at the end of the bar. Groups of meticulously dressed, hairsprayed and floppy-fringed locals were clearly enjoying themselves amid the minimal Cubanesque décor and perky Caribbean tunes, while two chin-stroking gents beside us discussed the merits of Pyrat XO from Guyana versus Dictador 20YO of Columbia, bottles and curvaceous glasses of both in front of them.
Busy, smartly attired bargirls saw to our request for Floradora 1990, a jumble of Tanqueray, raspberry liqueur, lime (of course) and ginger, a delicious, spicy continuation of our night’s rum scrum. Bottles of rum from everywhere from Belize to Thailand adorned the shelves. It’s possible to drink the sugarcane straight or get it mixed with egg white, green tea or basil.
Just around the corner is Distilerija (Vilniaus 28), an intensely lively, clubby venue with a vibe, where by chance we grabbed a seat just as an affectionate couple were leaving. Bombarded by pulsating techno and competing voices, we screamed our order into the waitress’s ear pointing at the dog-eared menu of 12 cocktails and assorted snacks: Saffron Old-Fashioned, plus gin-marinated salmon tartare. We were feeling peckish.
Underneath a chandelier cunningly made of chemistry lab equipment, heads nodded to the beat, images lit up on smartphones and waitresses boldly elbowed their way through the crowd. Barmen craned for bottles on a sliding ladder behind the bar. Lots of beer, champagne and mojitos were getting swallowed. Our order arrived promptly – a big, broad glass of Monkey Shoulder whisky with homemade saffron syrup and an orange-zest aroma, puddled by a tennis ball of ice. The salmon was equally delectable, with a subtle taste of gin, and resting on a bed of chopped cucumber.
Not many steps away, luckily for us, was Alchemikas (Islandijos 1), whose concoctions are legendary in Vilnius and whose master shakers have gone on to create their own bars of distinction. Its oldy-worldy lounge interior harks back to the 19th century, era of inventions and crazy experiments. The entertaining menu lists 90-odd elixirs, subdivided into classics, alchemical concoctions, shots and – the unusual. We naturally gravitated towards the latter. Actually we wanted two.
Pernod Green Beast was the best, its anise and absinthe flavours combined in a highball glass with lime, sugar syrup and incredible swirls and spirals of cucumber. Go ahead and spear them out of the glass – we did. Coctel Algeria followed, a Pisco recipe with Cointreau, apricot liqueur and orange juice that was milder but very particular in its combination of tastes.
Shielded by the curved bar, the staff tried their best to get everybody smashed – and it was working. A band of brothers balancing precariously on stools did shots of red stuff. A bald chap yawned noisily and fell asleep despite the hubbub, annoying his girlfriend.
Next! Sidestepping the domino line of bars on Vilniaus Street – knee-to-elbow Bardakas, beery Republic, seriously clubby Matérialiste – we made it to our next stop, Switch (Labdarių 8), whose face control was so lenient, the barman so affable, the clientele so young, that we silently awarded it the tour highlight for sheer juvenile exuberance. Despite the unavoidable fact that everyone was half our age and the lights were so bright we could see the bags under our eyes, we gazed over our weak Millionaire (bourbon and grenadine) to watch as the kids played computer games and foosball, hunched uselessly over their drinks or made use of the free wifi.
We took our cocktail and sausage-and-nuts snack down to the brick cellar where students chanted and danced to popular tunes. It’s an adventure park down there of different rooms, eclectic décor and Chinese hieroglyphics from the location’s previous guise as an Asian restaurant.
Finally, triumphantly, we stumbled to the last stop on the tour. Paparazzi (Totorių 1) is the kind of fun, emancipated space whose expertly mixed classic cocktails feel amply rewarding after a long, hard journey. On this particular arrival, from this particular odyssey, there could be no more rewarding drink than a Cuba Libre, that caffeinated cocktail of cola and rum, whose chilled, lime-wedged energy burst gave us the strength to take to the dancefloor – no, really – and make fast friends with some fantastic and uninhibited girls and boys.