The Athens cocktails scene is straight up booming! I went to Greece recently to take part in a roundtable hosted at Line Athens on the state of cocktails in our respective cities. While there, I tested many of Athens’ best cocktail bars, talked to industry pros, and researched drinks in the capital. After my deep dive, I realized how apropos that roundtable topic was because this city’s cocktail bars are burgeoning.
It takes more than just a handful of bartenders with drinks know-how to build a better bar scene. In Greece, the hospitality professionals have deliberately unified, diversified, and evolved to create an Athens cocktails scene with a uniquely Greek twist that is definitely more than the sum of its parts.
Building a unified Athens cocktails community
While megacities like London and New York battle it out for the most award winning bars and media mentions, smaller capital cities like Athens are stealthily gaining ground when it comes to the best urban cocktail playgrounds. This progress is thanks, in large part, to an actively unified bar community living by the adage that “all boats rise with the tide.”
Drinks writer and World’s 50 Best Bars Academy chair Leah van Deventer, who also took part in the roundtable, sums it up nicely: “While Athens may once have been a city that tourists simply passed through, it’s certainly now one to visit in its own right. This is not an accident; bar owners like Vasilis Kyritsis, Nikos Bakoulis, Thanos Prunarus, Alex Tselepis and many more have intentionally collaborated to build up the city’s reputation as a cocktail destination, and their effort has paid off in spades. It shows what can be done when stakeholders unify for the greater good.”
It’s not just the bars that are elevating hospitality in Athens, but the Ministry of Tourism seems to have an eye on that sector as well. In a recent interview with Ready2Board magazine Minister of Tourism, Vasilis Kikilias, talks about reviving the sector in Athens through the launching of campaigns like “Greekend” which targets nearby European countries to encourage weekend visits to Athens and Thessaloniki – an area in which the local bar community can certainly add value. In the same article, the Minister also speaks about extending the tourism season and Athens as a “city that is transforming, opening up its coastal front with significant investments for visitors, but also strengthening the hospitality dynamic of the center”. All of that certainly bodes well for continued growth of the city’s cocktail culture.
Athens cocktail bars that are shaping the city’s scene…
The Clumsies: All day cocktail bar in the center of Athens
The Clumsies is a global reference for craft cocktails in Athens where co-owners Vasilis Kyritsis and Nikos Bakoulis (both past Greek World Class Winners) and their hardworking team dream up meaningful liquid creations in their in-house lab. The current Feelings menu provides a hit of positivity following the pandemic via drinks that fall under one of three emotional categories: happiness, excitement, or tenderness. The result is both love from the locals and international recognition. The Clumsies regularly places on the World’s 50 Best Bar list and was named best international high volume bar in 2018 at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards. In 2019, they topped Time Out’s list of the 36 best cocktails in the world with their sea-blue Aegean Negroni.
This all day, city-center bar offers something for everyone with its quieter vibe in the afternoon or aperitif hour to high volume shenanigans as the sun goes down. While they are known round the world for their cocktail program, they elevate all their drinks and serve quality coffee and other softs. Housed in a restored 1919 neoclassical mansion, the venue offers two floors and multiple rooms for clearly defined spaces each with unique ambiences that include the main bar, seating area under a retractable roof, a back room with a long communal table, and bustling front sidewalk.
The Clumsies has played a pivotal role in shaping the Athens cocktails scene and downtown nightlife. As Kyritsis explains, when they “first opened, this street was almost dangerous and now it is one of the hotspots in the center. That means good projects with nice concepts can help each city to change in a better direction.”
Tip: You can book their swanky private room upstairs with personal bar service for 6 to 10 people.
Baba au Rum: Unconventional rum drinks and avant garde cocktails
This is where happy, dancing people groove to great music, an ice-cold cocktail in hand. Opened in 2009 by the visionary Thanos Prunarus, Baba au Rum was one of the first Athens bars reviving craft cocktails with a clearly defined concept. And that concept is rum; they have one of the largest collections in Greece. The menu celebrates its namesake spirit with “unconventional and exotic tiki and rum cocktails”. But, you can also get drinks made with a range of alcohols from the Avant Garde selection like the delightfully refreshing pine spirit based “surrealist long drink” Les Fleurs des Mals. Perhaps the secret to this bar’s endurance on the city’s nightlife scene is its dual personality of old school and modern, small and big as it successfully plays the part of both local hidden gem and noteworthy international player.
Tip: Check out their blog post The Dry Martini and the Abstract Art Truth for a taste of the bar’s personality.
Rumble in the Jungle: A Hidden Cocktail Bar in the Heart of Athens
While Athenians love drinking outdoors in warm weather, Rumble in the Jungle proves that the hidden bar can thrive in this sunny Mediterranean city. Any fun-seeking cocktail lover would be happy to stumble across The Bar in Front of the Bar, with its chic and simple white decor, a daily changing menu, and lively crowds spilling out onto the front sidewalk. But, within, an unmarked door transports patrons to a secret jungle of verdant vegetal statement wallpaper and cozy green corners. A framed image of the boxing ring knock out scene from the famous 1974 Muhammad Ali and George Foreman match indicates the inspiration for the bar’s name: Rumble in the Jungle. And the best part? The cocktails are spot on. While the team focuses on zero waste and employs some serious cocktail wizardry, you don’t have to get into the minutia to simply stroll in and enjoy a damn fine drink.
Tip: Rumble organizes both guest shifts and DJ’s so keep an eye on their Insta for specially scheduled fun.
Barro Negro: Athens’ First Tequila Bar
This busy bar keeps the city on trend in terms of spirit-centric bars with a focus on agave based alcohol. The owners of Barro Negro share a passion for Mexico’s spirits and the culture and stories behind them – even the name comes from a style of pottery from Oaxaco, a city known for Mezcal. Here you won’t find sombreros or other appropriated Mexican chotskies, but agave spirits served with respect in classics, twists on classics, house creations and punches. The interior is small enough to create an intimately lively ambience, while the large open front lets in plenty of air, light, and lively discourse from the patrons packed into the sidewalk tables.
Tip: Order a paloma. Barro Negro joined forces with spirits brand Three Cents to create the Paloma Embassy and deliver the “best paloma in town!”
Odori: Athens’ only vermouth bar
No self-respecting cocktail destination is without a dedicated vermuteria, and thankfully Athens has Odori to fill that role exceptionally well. Here’s where you go for low alcohol aperitifs and cocktails inspired by the city’s different neighborhoods. It’s not just the drinks that impress, but also the beautiful bar design with luxurious green and gold decor punctuated by ornate birdcages. With the lighter ABV focus, a spacious terrace, and a full food menu including brunch, it’s easy to extend any visit to a large and enjoyable slice of your day.
Tip: Try the bar’s own brand of vermouth
Bar Shows and Cocktail Festivals reinforcing the city’s Athens cocktails reach
Athens’ cocktail shows and festivals are solidifying the professional community, spotlighting the city on a global stage, and introducing the general public to cocktails and spirits. For a city of its size, they’ve put in the effort to pull off a handful of high quality, large-scale events, the growth and proliferation of which highlight the city’s upward mobility on the global cocktail scene.
The Athens Bar Show is an annual educational expo for bartenders and bar professionals. At more than 9,000 visitors last year, its attendance has grown nearly ten times since its start in 2010 (then called “The Bar Academy Show”), and will likely surpass that with this year’s November 8 – 9 2022 show.
This year also kicked off the first annual Athens Cocktail Festival followed by Athens Cocktail Week. Co-founder, Eleni Nikoloulia, explains “unlike the Athens Bar show, this event is really geared towards the general consumer rather than the industry pro,” which only widens the spread of cocktail culture in the capital.
The Aegean Cocktails & Spirits Festival showcases Greek spirits such as tsipouro, ouzo, metaxa, and other local liquids. This year was the third edition of this domestic drinks celebration.
Denny Kallivoka and Eleni Nikoloulia are both involved in the organization of the two latter events mentioned above, but they are also the editors of Greece’s Difford’s guide, making it one of the very few countries with its own dedicated version of this highly regarded online industry cocktails and spirits authority.
The evolution of cocktails in Athens’ hospitality industry
For craft cocktails to take their rightful seat at the table alongside other beverage categories, we need a paradigm shift that moves mixed drinks from short-lived trends to mainstream standard. Line Athens is the kind of project that shifts perceptions in that direction and exemplifies the value of evolving to remain relevant.
As owners Nikos Bakoulis, Vasilis Kyritsis, and Dimitris Dafopoulos sought to grow professionally, the trio brainstormed projects to capitalize on their interests and strengths. As Kyritsis tells it, they were “always searching for the new concept, the one which includes inspiration we gain from our traveling, trends combined with classic things, the new product we might create and Line is a combination of all of them”.
Line is a venue featuring fermented products like bread, fruit wine, and beer. So, why is this important for cocktails? While Line stretches creatively with their cocktails, for example, incorporating seasonal vermouths made from their housemade fruit wines, they also place cocktails into larger contextual offerings without a lot of fussy fanfare. This combo of creativity and inclusiveness means cocktails are not just the purview of drinks geeks and enthusiasts, but, like wine, beer, coffee, or tea, are an expected norm at quality drinking and dining establishments.
The Line project also builds on the community spirit that has been so important in growing cocktail culture in Athens. They work with local producers for fruits and products as well as collaborating with local and international bars for guest shifts and special events.
Finally, ground zero for Athens’ craft cocktail culture is its city center where the best bars are found. As in other cities where craft bar scenes flourish, it took one or two pioneers to move into unchartered parts of the city. As with their first venue, The Clumsies, which started in a ‘dangerous’ area devoid of bars, the team has ventured into new territory for Line. Let’s hope this is just the beginning and we’ll see more pockets of great cocktail spots popping up around the city, and around Line Athens.
The secret ingredient: Greek hospitality and Mediterranean flair
Athens cocktail bars are not just keeping up with current global practices around sustainability, tools, and methods, but also bringing their own personality to the mix.
Athenians like drinking outdoors when they can, so there is a great terrace culture. Patrons spill outside of the bar onto the sidewalk, tables or no, making for a very festive feel. The scene is lively with a lot of standing, moving, gesturing, chatting and fun that almost blurs the line between cocktail bar and nightclub. In short, these people know how to have a good time!
But on the other side of the bar is something important. You really get a sense that there is something special about Greek hospitality. Τhanos Prunarus, of Baba au Rum, explains: “Athenians are outgoing and have a great sense of hospitality in their everyday life. Once you see a local treat you with friendliness, be sure this is what they do anyway, no matter who you are. That’s the secret of the great Athenian bars as well. They want you to have good times while drinking fine drinks and pioneering concoctions.”
And it’s not just the friendly people and surroundings, but the larger location of Greece itself. It’s hard not to fall in love with the city for everything it offers as a backdrop to its lovely cocktail bars.
Fellow cocktail writer, Leah van Deventer, agrees: “Athens might just be my overall favourite cocktail destination at the moment, or at the very least it cracks my top three. It has everything you could wish for when visiting a place specifically to enjoy the bar scene: a wide array of venues, situated within walking distance from one another; pedestrian streets, for maximum walkability; all-day outlets, where you can activate holiday drinking mode at leisure, moving from freddos, to apéritifs and finally harder drinks; multiple eateries to partake of the local cuisine; warm weather; friendly people; nearby beaches and vineyards; and of course, a fun but serious cocktail culture. Added to all that, what’s not to love about a city that charms you at every turn with ancient ruins, myth and lore?”
I can only wholeheartedly second that.