Athens cocktail culture: Acropolis now

27 July, 2023

The capital of Greece may be best known for its historical ruins, but the thriving bar scene has brought it bang up to date in the cocktail pantheon.

Athens isn’t the most obvious candidate for an internationally significant cocktail city. It’s always been a great food town but a decade ago, to visitors it served as a steppingstone to the islands rather than a destination. But the Greek capital now has three spots on the latest edition of The World’s 50 Best Bars. That’s the same number as Barcelona and Dubai and more than the Asia Pacific cocktail capitals of Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore. But there are things more important than international plaudits, feeling and identity carry far more weight, and Athens has those in spades.

For a city with so much history, a surprising amount of importance is placed on looking ahead and no place is that more evident than in the city’s bars.

“In every bar in the city, not just the ones in the 50 Best but neighbourhood bars and even dive bars, there is a feeling that they owe the same high standards to the customer,” says Giannis Miliotis, bartender at To Lokali and global brand ambassador for Greek spirit brand, Axia.

“It’s not about having a bar with a lab, it’s about the taste. We have this Mediterranean taste profile that the teams behind bars are trying to showcase to the world. We have so many Protected Designation of Origin products – vegetables, fruits, wines – and people are making their own homemade wines and beers using the fresh ingredients that we have.

“We’re a small country but our logistics aren’t the best, so we have to find amazing tastes that are near to us. We have lemons, we don’t have limes. We don’t have lapsang tea but we have a lot of chamomile and sage. All over the world, people are using local ingredients, but with our climate we have so many options and we can approach local ingredients in so many ways. We’re lucky to live here.”

Part necessity, part identity, Greek bartenders have a rich bounty of fresh ingredients to pull from and it’s not just the variety but the quality too.

“The quality of our raw ingredients is great, and this gives us a significant advantage when it comes to mixing,” says Stelios Papadopoulos, co-owner of Barro Negro.

“We are blessed for this and it’s a factor that positively affects our taste and skills when it comes to creating a recipe. I know I speak for many colleagues and guests when I say that these days the rich variety of cocktail bars will offer you pretty much any type of serve you want in Athens.”

The result is that many menus across Athens have a distinctly Mediterranean feel. Tomato, and particularly tomato water, is commonly seen, as are olives, but it’s not just obvious ingredients that shine.

“So many of our ingredients, our wines and our cheeses and different foods have their roots in ancient history,” says Miliotis.

“If you’re working as a bartender and if you have passion and you love what you’re doing, then why not use all these products with so much history? We have olive oil, cherry tomatoes, peaches with kumquats, citruses like tangerines but also so many different cheeses from goats or sheep. You can use them as a garnish or even in a drink as a fatwash and make people understand these tastes in new ways.”

The secret behind the quality of Greece’s ingredients is its climate. Its dry hot summers and mild wet winters are ideal conditions for growing many crops that have been farmed in the country since antiquity. And this tradition of understanding the best way to use the land, the climate and its produce can still be found today.

“We need to make the most of the abundance, work with the seasons and make the most of the freshness of ingredients – I think that’s true for the whole Mediterranean area,” says Vasilis Kyritsis, co-owner of The Clumsies and Line.

“Seasonality plays a main role now in our bars. We’re not a country with a big tradition of cocktails or spirits but seasonality is really important. Even in your local grocery store, you’ll find locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables every day.

“The ingredients we have are quality. It’s the weather, it’s the terroir, it’s the way that farmers are treating the fruits and you can see the results in cocktails because you can create layers of flavour. You can take a fruit or vegetable and use the skin, the seeds, the pulp, the water, the juice and you get so much more because of the freshness of the ingredients.”

The history

When talking about the genesis of this modern wave of forward-thinking cocktail bars, the conversation quickly turns to Baba au Rum. The pioneering urban tiki bar owned by Thanos Prunarus has been a mainstay on 50 Best lists since 2013 and was instrumental in placing Athens on the international stage.

“A few years ago, bartenders in Athens were looking to the US or the UK and trying to recreate those drinks here,” says Miliotis. “We saw a lot of Margaritas and Mojitos. When the guys at Baba au Rum and Gin Joint came along, they began to educate the guests about cocktails. We’ve always been famous for our gastronomy, but no one was applying that gastronomy to drinks. Baba and Gin Joint began to get the attention of the international scene. Baba au Rum was the first to recognise all the products that it had around and use them to evolve its cocktails.”

Prunarus and his team’s strength wasn’t just in channelling the influence from outside of Greece into his bar, but doing it in a way that was uniquely of Athens.

“I’m proud to say that Baba au Rum was one of the very first European cocktail bars of the new era,” says Pruanrus.

“But the kind of drinks we are creating and serving at Baba Au Rum changed a lot over the years. When we started we served real classics and twists from the 19th-century era, such as creative Crustas, Juleps and Daisies, but also contemporary cocktails using the techniques of the time like infusions and homemade bitters.

“Now we are keeping the soul and the core of those drinks to create post-tropical drinks using new technologies and techniques, such as fermentation and rotovaps, to help us take the most advantage of every ingredient.”

Outside of the glass, there are other reasons to visit cocktail bars in Athens.

“Our sense of hospitality is a crucial factor,” says Papadopoulos. “It is something that defines us as Greeks – and what we refer to with a specific term, philoxenia [‘friend to the stranger’] – and that has been setting our bar industry aside over the past decade. But also our community. If you get a chance to spend some days in Athens and visit our bars, you will soon realise how close-knit the bartending network is. There’s a great amount of support and positive influence between bartenders and bars and this is what continues to push our cocktail scene forward, locally and internationally. The atmosphere around town and in bars is vibrant, and so is the offering.”

Miliotis continues: “In Ancient Greece, hospitality was an institution that was protected by Zeus, it was an insult if you weren’t a good host to your guests. The idea of hospitality in Greece goes back to the ancient philosophy and Olympian gods, so it is just something that has been passed down from generation to generation.”

One of the great things about drinking in Athens is how much variety can be filtered through the lens of Grecian flavour and tradition. Yes, there are bartenders using typically Mediterranean flavours – at The Clumsies you can order a Gimlet that tastes exactly like a Greek salad – but there are also bars like Barro Negro taking inspiration from Mexico. Innovation within cocktails comes from a combination of talent, creativity and confidence with a healthy dose of self-awareness, Athens has the lot and it’s a lot of fun too.

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