Bottles of beer stashed in buckets of ice, waiters circulating with trays of ice-cold draft beers, and caipirinhas, of course, in the classic lime-cachaça combo or with vodka, saké and as many weird and wonderful flavours as there are fruits in Brazil: this is the fuel that powers São Paulo’s egalitarian bar culture.
But fizzing away at the more expensive end of the spectrum is an intrepid clique of bartenders, blending cutting-edge mixology techniques with the kind of TLC and attention to detail you need to create perfectly balanced, high-calibre drinks worthy of their R$25-plus price tags.
Because while it might be fashionably late to the party on a global scale, the city's cocktail scene is far from lacking when it comes to creativity. We’ve seen bartenders ignite chips of oak to infuse booze with smoke; we’ve seen instant carbonisation with pressurised C02; and we’ve witnessed the slow, meticulous care behind bespoke home fermentation.
But the magic isn’t just infused into liquid libations: we’ve also slurped up slippery solid cocktails and sampled flavoured nitrous oxide foams, bringing a dash of the molecular to mixology.
Pull up a stool at one of these bars – serious cocktail lovers take ringside seats – and watch as the experts muddle, shake and swizzle their way to the most exotic of drinks, often working off-the-wall ingredients into their creations, from bacon and beef stock to cotton candy and tongue-numbing flowering herbs from the Amazon. Read on for the what, the where and the how of São Paulo's most creative cocktails.
Rua Jacques Félix 405, Vila Nova Conceição (3849 6940/
restaurantekinoshita.com.br). Price R$25.
Long the preserve of margarita rims, salt is seeing a renaissance as an essential ingredient in original tipples.
At the sleek, contemporary Japanese restaurant Kinoshita, perch up at the long, central bar to see salt being deployed in an otherwise classic martini – the Água do Mar.
The cocktail, whose name translates as ‘sea water’, features floral notes of Tanqueray gin, lent a more savoury aspect by a shakeup with Maldon sea salt and olive brine, before being served with a twist of lime rind. Read more on Kinoshita
Rua Augusta 523, Consolação (3825 1960/ labclub.com.br). Price R$7.
The jury’s still out on solid cocktails. If there’s an elegant way to consume a slippery cube of a drink, we haven’t found it yet.
There’s also the disproportionate waiting versus consuming time: after five minutes of mixing, injecting and straining, the results are all too often dispatched in just one messy mouthful.
Of all the places in São Paulo you’d expect to find this branch of molecular mixology in action, trashy Rua Augusta is the last. But at Lab, a dark club set in a former warehouse, solid cocktails are the bar’s number-one calling card, and the novelty of caipirinha spaghetti, injected through a syringe onto a dish, hasn’t worn off quite yet – though for a club styled on a love of experimentation, there’ve been few changes to the menu since the club first opened in 2010.
For a sensorial experience, go for the sex on the beach – a yolk-like sphere of vodka, peach liqueur and orange and peach juice with red balls of pomegranate syrup. Read more on Lab Club
Avenida São Luis 282, República (3258 6385/ casaramona.com.br). Price R$24.
The bloody mary is a classic cocktail – as indulgent in its powerful spicy punch as it is bold in its flagrant disregard for social norms, being one of the few cocktails that can be drunk before noon without eyebrows being raised.
Ramona, the coolest downtown restaurant to open in 2012, just two doors along from its sister establishment, the rock club Alberta #3, has taken the bloody mary up a notch, blending freshly-made tomato juice with Tabasco, salt, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, Ketel One vodka and – here’s the curve ball – two crispy slices of bacon, nonchalantly poking out of the drink and laughing in the face of thirsty vegetarians. (Ramona would like it to be known, just for the record, that the drink can be ordered meat-free, too.)
The smoky bacon balances beautifully with the sweet juice and the spices, and also doubles up as edible cocktail stirrer which, let’s face it, makes for a far more satisfying nibble than a stick of celery.
Rua Padre João Manoel 1231, Jardim Paulista (3061 3326). Price R$23.
Mario Leite, Press image
One of the hot new openings of 2012, Brasserie des Arts is a slick mix of bar and bistro, and the Brazilian sibling of the eponymous original in St Tropez.
Wood, concrete, super-sized lamps and muted shades of leather and suede form the backdrop for the well-heeled crowd, rocking short skirts, crisp shirts and oversized jewels to the sound of ambient house music. Whether that’s your idea of heaven or hell, this place is a must-try for the interesting menu that head bartender Marcelo Serrano has created.
Nothing beats the lip-tingling surprise, however, of the Manauara cocktail – a nod to Northern Brazil in which Serrano shakes up vodka with limoncello, Frangelico, chocolate bitter and pulp from the sour, pungent Amazonian fruit cupuaçu, before serving it in a clay cup and topping it off with a frothy jambu foam, pumped from a cream siphon.
If you don’t know jambu, you soon will, as the analgesic effects of the Amazonian flowering herb kick in, the tingling sensation creeping across your lips, followed by mild mouth-watering and finally a tongue-numbing ache. Definitely one for after dinner.
Rua Chilon 364, Vila Olímpia (3846 7112/ tantrarestaurante.com.br). Price R$19.90.
Tropical plants, yards of bamboo and the twinkle of hundreds of candles in the half-light lend a sensual tone to an evening at this Vila Olímpia Mongolian grill, popular with big birthday groups, tourists and the odd couple, locked lip-to-lip in dark corners.
But the seductive start slowly gives way to a realisation that the theme here is more novelty gimmick than Eastern exoticism – a feeling that’s not helped by the thunder of planes flying low overhead.
To go with that novelty vibe, there are some left-field surprises on the drinks front such as the Sweet Dreams: a syrupy blend of red fruits, Absolut vodka and a dash of balsamic vinegar, it comes with a precariously balanced 15cm-high mound of pink cotton candy on top, sprinkled with lavender seeds.
Clamp your lips to the straw and don’t stop till you’re done – it’s a race against the clock, because within a minute, our cotton candy was capsizing in a mess of melting sugar, leaving the table, not to mention our hands and lips, in a sticky, sorry state. Read more on Tantra
Rua Wisard 88, Vila Madalena (3032 4295). Price R$25.
Catherine Balston, Press image
One of the city’s more unassuming spots, just far enough off the well-trodden Vila Madalena path without being hard to find, Rothko continues to impress with its creative use of ingredients and the cool, rock vibe engendered by the staff members, whose carefully crafted facial hair and tattoos are as much a part of the uniform as, well, the lack of any uniform.
The bocados – small, beautifully presented dishes – chalked up on the blackboard mostly change from one day to the next depending on the availability of ingredients, but one enduring favourite is the porco bebinho (R$22) – pork ribs, marinated for 24 hours in caipirinha before being slow-roasted until sweet, sticky and fall-apart tender, and served on top of cubes of cooked banana.
That unusual approach to ingredients is carried through to the bar – a length of black basalt running from one end of the restaurant to the other, behind which barman Henrique serves up a handful of funky blends in amongst a lineup of the usual suspects.
The most left-field is the ‘BBQ’ cocktail, with a complex layering of flavours and a sneaky meaty surprise: the sweetness of tomato juice and the tartness of lime dominate at first, giving way to the saltiness of beef demi-glace and the smoky bitterness of hickory smoke essence, with Jack Daniels fumes escaping as you sigh with delight. Read more on Rothko
Rua Delfina 163, Vila Madalena (3815 1364/ subastor.com.br). Price R$25.
Mauro Holanda, Press image
A hostess pulls aside the heavy, red velvet curtains to reveal the low-lit tones of red and black in this sassy basement bar. It’s essential to hit SubAstor early (before 10pm), while there’s still a chance of finding a seat. And for the full cocktails experience, the only place to sit is up high at the long, illuminated white marble bar.
The way to go here is to dive in and try some of the riffs on classic drinks – funky experiments that deconstruct standard cocktails, imaginatively reassembling the ingredients. The Chef Killed Bloody Mary (R$21), for example, remixes the bloody mary by serving up vodka and orange bitters in a martini glass topped with a cocktail stick of basil leaves and three cherry tomatoes, each injected with salt and a dash of Tabasco.
The Foam Margarita is a must: instead of the standard salt-rimmed glass, the Mexican cocktail comes topped with a delightfully dense, lightly salted citrus foam, pumped in using a cream siphon, and finished with grated lemon and lime rind. Read more on SubAstor
Rua Bela Cintra 1709, Jardim Paulista (2609 3673/ nohbar.com.br). Price R$35.
Smoke machines, nitrous oxide canisters and vacuum chambers: we’re a long way from the world of muddlers, spoons, shakers and strainers that once comprised the bartender’s essential kit.
And if there’s a new-fangled molecular mixology gadget out there, and it’s not behind the bar at Noh, then the next round’s on us. At this new Jardins bar, opened at the end of last year, the glossy, brochure-like menu excels in novelty, though not always in flavour, with some concoctions veering towards the overly sweet.
Striking a good balance between theatrical flourishes and distinctive taste are the cocktails infused with smoke, which is siphoned down a hose from a burning chunk of oak chip, and pumped into the glass. Try the Mr. Bombay Deluxe and enjoy the drama as the bartender removes the cover from the glass in a flourish of smoke wisps, to reveal a blend of Bombay Sapphire gin with bitters, lemon zest and Luxardo liqueur. Read more on Noh
*Prices were correct as of December 2012
- Armanda's tea-based cocktails, blending teas and spirits from countries around the world, were featured in the original list. The bar-restaurant has since closed.
- The Physalis Mule from MyNY Bar was also featured in the original list. MyNY closed at the end of July 2013