Step back in time to an era of clandestine rendezvous, whispered passwords, and locations only disclosable by those in the know. Tucked away behind unmarked, doors or disguised as innocuous storefronts, these new Cape Town bars offer an exhilarating escape from the ordinary for those who dare to seek them out. The idea of a speakeasy is obviously not a new one, originating during the Prohibition era in the 1920s when, more out of necessity than appeal, illicit drinkeries popped up on the back of the US liquor ban. These covert establishments have seen a modern resurgence, drawing in patrons with their elusive, exclusive ambience and expertly crafted libations. And the secret is kept, ensuring a clientele of like-minded cocktail connoisseurs and enthusiasts. The most recent additions to the Mother City’s bustling cocktail scene are two such bars, Nightcap and The Queens.
Sea Point, Cape Town
Sitting at a popular Sea Point eatery, wrapping up dinner, you may be lucky enough to receive an invitation to this hidden bar. “Would you like to join us for a nightcap?” asks the hostess as she sweeps past our table. Naturally, the answer should always be “yes”. And tonight, it is. We settle our bill and are ushered through a neighbouring restaurant, down a series of passages, across a parking lot, and into what looks like an under-used storeroom, housing an industrial ice machine, next to which a bouncer is stationed. The ice machine is pulled forward and the concealed door opens to reveal an intimate and exquisite cocktail bar, the design merging contemporary touches with 1920s flair and more than a dose of Gatsby-esque glamour.
Welcome to Nightcap. Plush banquet seating runs around most of the room. It’s moody yet comfortable, glamourous and sexy, the space illuminated by retro lamps and crystal chandeliers, the low, round marble tables encouraging guests to lean in. There’s also a DJ booth, for those evenings when the occasion calls for something a bit more high energy. I glance back at where we entered — from this side, it looks like merely another addition to the well-curated décor: shelving next to the bar.
The industry rumour mill puts every bottle behind the bar at a grand or upwards. While this isn’t entirely true, given the nature and style of the space, the team do tend to lean towards the premium end of the price spectrum. It’s an impressive selection, for sure. We’re handed menus and advised to familiarise ourselves with the house rules first — requests ensuring that things are kept civil, enjoyable and, of course, a secret.
“Invite only who you are elated to see,” reads one of the rules. Onto the drinks and there’s a concise offering of 17 cocktails, for the most part spirit-forward, created with fresh ingredients, presented well, and packed with considered and curated flavours. If classics are your calling, go for the modern-classic, scotch-based “Penicillin” — given a twist with peach bitters. The Octomore-finished drink walks the line between peaty and sweet with every sip. The Mezcal Negroni is another favourite, the gin here replaced with smoky Montelobos mezcal, adding an extra dimension of flavour to the bittersweet pour. A sprig of rosemary adds additional aromatics while a square of dark Lindt chocolate just seems to make sense with the elements of smoke and orange.
Those who prefer something on the fruitier side of the spectrum can opt for the “Down the Apples and Pears”, a long serve incorporating vodka, cloudy apple, matcha, and bitters, while the “Netflix Refashioned” offers a playful take on an Old Fashioned with a butter-washed bourbon and popcorn elements. It’s clean, concise, and clever cocktail making, well-suited to the ambience of the secret location and the clientele they hope to bring through their doors.
To find out more follow @___nightcap (that’s three underscores) on Instagram.
The Queens Whisky and Cocktail Lounge
V&A, Dock Road, Cape Town
Along the bustling V&A precinct’s Dock Road, in a restored building that dates back to the late 1800s, through an inconspicuous door in the middle of an iStore, and up a flight of stairs is where you’ll find The Queens, Cape Town’s newest and perhaps most secretive whisky and cocktail bar. Open only once a week, usually on Thursdays, but not always. It’s an enigmatic place, opened by an enigmatic man, whose love for fine spirits first saw him venture into the world of whisky with Single & Single — a whisky brand that sources and bottles rare, atypical casks, creating a range of limited and often once-off releases. The Queens acts both as a spiritual home for Single & Single and as a meeting place for likeminded connoisseurs to explore, indulge, and discover — and is strictly by invitation only. The building, originally a hotel on the harbour shoreline, has been refurbished but maintains exposed original brickwork and the wooden floorboards and ceiling beams said to be from long-gone ships. The bar, in a stark contrast to the modern iStore through which you enter, draws on Victorian and industrial design, creating a grand space for those lucky enough to gain entrance.
Bartender Matthew Cox runs the space, creating menus and crafting experiences for the exclusive few. While there’s a standard menu, every week a special selection is created in alignment with the international cocktail calendar, be it Vermouth Week or International Sabrage Day, for instance. Naturally, the cocktails tend to have a whisky slant, but that’s not to say it’s exclusively the case. On the whisky front there’re the likes of “The Milky Way”, which blends a dram of Milk & Honey Classic with spice, citrus, and ginger ale; and the “Natsu”, which sees Blanton’s Bourbon, Talisker, crème de cassis, Fernet Branca, and hickory smoke come together with remarkable effect.
Those who prefer gin can opt for an oceanic-inspired martini with seaweed-infused gin, cucumber vermouth, ginger, and oyster water. Brandy lovers can indulge in the twist on a Sidecar using local Cape brandy, bitters, almonds, and fresh citrus. As with Nightcap, the exclusivity is very much based on knowing the right people and those in the know inviting likeminded people with an appreciation for the art of cocktail making and, most importantly, its enjoyment. It’s this ethos of curating communities that seems to be at the core of what these bars are hoping to achieve.
To find out more, follow @queens_cpt on Instagram
• From the June edition of Wanted, 2023.