18/81

18/81, Birmingham

They never gave much away when 18/81 first opened. No address, telephone number, or real idea of what to expect. We all had our suspicions. At first I thought they had opened a bar specifically for the age range of women I date, until I saw that it was a project from Rob Wood. I’m scared of Rob. Not in a fear that he might beat me up way, but that I could be crushed by his knowledge and ability to make drinks of impeccable balance. There is nothing the man doesn’t know about booze. He is an encyclopedia of the correct way to do liver damage, the pioneer of the brilliant drinks scene that we now have in this city, the guy who put The Man in The Manhattan (although I should point out that this drink does not identify with a gender). He once resulted in my girlfriend being an hour late for dinner because he was talking to her about achieving total clarity in an ice cube. I still haven’t forgiven him that.

So, 18/81. You won’t believe this but they have actually opened a bar specifically for the age range of the women I date. I’m kidding. It’s a bar as hard to label as it is to find. A kind of speakeasy-ish, laid back mecca for world class drinks with the USP of those drinks being pre-mixed so that the flavours amalgamate and the wait time to your table is a lot less. To find it you should head to Thorpe Street to the place that does burgers, turn towards the carpark and follow the signs. You’ll be rewarded for your efforts in a room of neutrals with tasteful additions, and a killer playlist that meanders through genres. It’s relaxed and unprententious.

We’re here on this occasion for the Valentines tasting menu: four courses, topped up by an additional couple each at the end because I’m greedy and bad with money. Perched on stools at the bar we start with slices of apple compressed with yuzu juice, designed to reset the palate. It works. A further nibble of pea tart with miso and mint is the ideal bite for the first drink of the evening. A gin infused with various shrubbery from Rob’s allotment is topped with champagne, tonic, and a couple of peas for the visual cue to it’s name ‘two peas in a pod’. How sickeningly romantic. It is light and fresh and has Claire requesting it for a wedding that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Following this is vermouth infused with tomato, basil, and oregano. It tastes like pizza; incredible stuff. It is called ‘First Dates’, which is a lie. I only started taking my girlfriend out for pizza when I stopped trying to impress her.

Part of Rob’s genius is creating a tasting menu that slowly evolves in weight and substance (it’s just a drink; what have I become?), as we move from a drink with tokaji sweet wine laden with lemon notes, through to the final course with aged rum, hazelnuts and dark chocolate. The latter is the boldest drink of the menu; a bloody delight. I mention to Rob that it tastes of Ferroro Rocher. He laughs. It probably tastes of something far more finessed than a Ferroro Rocher.

Slightly inebriated and having far too much fun we stick around for two more drinks each. Claire has The Duchess – a riff on afternoon tea with gin, darjeeling tea, clotted cream and apricot – and another that I can’t remember. I have Butter Scotch, a fat-washed, whisky based cocktail that fills the mouth with big flavours and the heart with happiness. This is a very, very, very good drink that blew my socks off without requiring a large extractor fan, or faux double-barrelled shotgun. And for those who have made it this far (well done, you have far more resilience than me) here is your reward: The Dead Rabbit Irish Coffee. The off-menu homage to the legendary bar in south Manhattan will make you look even cooler than you already aren’t by ordering it. And you should, it’s absolutely class.

Six cocktails apiece and three hours later we saunter out over a ton lighter. Yes, that is a lot of money for drinks, but I see it as value. This trip was a night out, having arguably the best drinks in the city made by unquestionably the man who started the drinks scene off in this city. The detail that goes in to these drinks is comparable to the finest restaurants; they are complex and balanced, made using the finest ingredients. I never anticipated this blog covering off a cocktail bar, but I’m here to talk about the very best, and 18/81 fits firmly in that category. My girlfriend is adamant that this is her favourite place to while a night away; I think she may be right.

A2B will get you to and from Thorpe Street. The rest is up to you.

It was dark and I was tipsy so my pictures were a disgrace. The majority are kindly stolen from the 18/81 Instagram account with permission.

Birmingham’s Top 5 Cocktails

I went and saw my doctor the other day. He asked me how much I’ve been drinking, to which I glanced away nervously into the sterile corner of the room and shook internally, incurring further damage to the organs which I am worried about. I reluctantly told him the truth. He wanted more detail on the type of booze; I said the expensive stuff, mostly blended into expertly crafted drinks. My doctor leans forward, the smell of stale coffee filling the decreasing void between his face and mine. “Sounds fucking fantastic” he says, “You must utilise your multi-award winning blog to write about these, because I need to try them pronto. But heed this warning, young Simon: do not get caught-up in the in the grandeur of awards; even Adolf Hitler won Time Magazine Man of The Year in 1938”. What a wise doctor he is, even if he is the last remaining man alive to use the word ‘pronto’.

So here is a list of the best Birmingham drinks, which, after multiple trips to some place called Londium, really do stand-up to anything in the country. We’re so blessed with what we have here in Brum, which is a small group of hugely talented people bringing the best out of one another. No Pornstar Martinis have been harmed in the making of this list. Give them a go and tell them Ol’ Meaty from the Interweb sent you. You’ll get nothing, but I might get a free drink out of it somewhere down the line.

5) FKD, £7, Nocturnal Animals

The name might be a giveaway, but this is a witty take on teenage boys’ favourite fingering juice. It’s neon blue in colour, bloody lovely in flavour, and rather brilliantly poured on draft straight out of the tap. Nocturnal Animals is too new for me to remotely consider myself an expert on their drinks program, but this is already a highlight for a venue not afraid to take the piss out of fickle aspects of modern life.

4) Negroni, £10, Legna

Ordering a Negroni is like watching Babestation drunk; rarely satisfying. Everywhere in Birmingham has them, very few do them well. For me the best is at Legna where the gin has been steeped in parmesan to give the drink added length and umami. It is up there with the negroni at Bar Termini, which, if drinks is your thang, is the ultimate in Negroni-based compliments.

3) Champion Cobbler, £12, 40 St Pauls

All hail the greatest gin bar in the universe. I’m not making that up, they really are. Right now I’d say get down there for the salted caramel gin hot chocolate, but otherwise take the Gin Cobbler; a fruity little number that comes in a trophy. Because you, Dear Reader, are a deserving champion.

4987AA7C-7C8F-454A-810E-3023724C7CF02) Hit The Rum Jack, £12, The Edgbaston

Simply my favourite place in the city. Indulgent, luxurious, with perfect service, it is everything the bar of a luxury boutique hotel should be. Settle in for the night and work towards this drink; a short, boozy, and complex rum based drink that works on nutty flavours. The truth is you’ll be hard pushed here to find a drink that you didn’t like.

1) Amber Nectar, £10, 18/81

Honestly, the reason I knocked this list up. I was a bit taken aback when I recently tried it; it’s not just one of the best drinks I’ve had in Birmingham, but one of the best drinks I can remember ever having. For what is essentially a double measure of a single malt whisky, they have managed to add a dashes of maple, pecan, and tonka bean to draw out the flavour profile of the whisky. A world class drink that converted Claire to the joys of the fire water.

8057EA13-A94D-43AB-9322-778B3EA07CB2Don’t drink and drive, kids. Take an A2B Radio Car like I do.