The world of bartending has long-focused on the US and Western Europe. But now there’s a new capital emerging in the East. MIXOLOGY author Andrew Wilkin, with the help of some industry insiders, took a look at the city of Sofia, Bulgaria.
Sofia isn’t often the first name on the lips of European barflies—but that’s about to change. “Bar culture in Bulgaria is in a creating mode still,” says World Class bartender Dimitar Dimitrov regarding his home country, but it’s definitely a scene making positive advancements. Kenji Jesse, director of the drinks consultancy Spiritual Advisors, concurs, noting that he has witnessed the “slow emergence of the mixology culture being built alongside [the country’s] strong country IBA roots”.
Many things led to the fledgling popularity and liveliness of the capital’s bar scene: the emergence of low-cost travel across the continent, low prices, and the immigration between Greece and Bulgaria after the Greek economic crisis. Three years of Diageo’s World Class competition have occurred in Bulgaria – with star bartenders Dimitar Dimitrov and Samet Ali going on to represent the country abroad.
Bulgaria was a land previously most-known, in a beverage context, for its consumption of local liquors, most notably Rakia – a fruit distillate made from grapes, apricots (in the Dobrudja region) or plums (in the Troyan region). Now, consumers are branching out and this can be seen in the capital’s bar scene – a place where there’s a growing appetite for new ideas to go alongside older traditions. Here’s our top 5 places to check out that epitomize this new wave.
The Cocktail Bar – the glass-walled pavilion
The simple name conceals that The Cocktail Bar has more to offer than your standard cocktail joint. Located in one of Sofia’s most pleasant parks, the bar, recommended by Ariel Leizgold of Tel Aviv’s Bellboy, is located in a glass and cast-iron pavilion open all day into the evening. Serving up coffee alongside light snacks and meals – we’re talking quiches, ciabatta, focaccia, and the like – in the evening it deftly switches into the role of cocktail server.
“After getting past the gold fish feeling of a round glass-walled establishment in the center of town, I absolutely love the atmosphere,” notes Kenji Jesse. Led by head bartenders Ilia Zotkov and Nikos Chliapas, the menu incorporates some non alcoholic cocktails and according to Dimitar Dimitrov, a notable Greek influence – not surprising, with Chliapas being Greek.
A constantly buzzy spot with an indefinable Parisian flair, The Cocktail Bar far exceeds all expectations for its glass bowl.
The Happy Pig – experimental chops
The Happy Pig is one of Sofia’s top destinations for the libation-lover, but it’s also a big foodie destination too. The restaurant-bar is kitted out in a somewhat retro style, with red and white seating and a back wall scribbled over in chalk with drawings of various food stuffs. That’s not to mention the greenhouse-esque ceiling constantly flooding the space with light.
In addition to the experimental kitchen led by the acclaimed chef Jun Yoshida, there’s an audacious cocktail offering by Maria-Margarita Gelemenova too. The Bloody Mary, notable for the addition of red peppers, has been a constant favorite since the Pig – as the locals call it – opened two years ago. The Bourbon blended with figs too. For a truly taste-expanding night on the tiles, the Pig is a great bet.
By The Way – the queen
The grand dame of the still fledgling scene, By The Way has been open for 15 years. It’s got a classic look, with an oak bar and wooden seating on two levels, and it offers up excellent standards of hospitality to boot.
“I love the guys there and they have this sense of hospitality that makes you feel like you’re at home,” says Manolis Lykiardopoulos, co-owner and head bartender at Odori Vermouteria di Atene in Athens. “It’s a cozy place with a good vibe, perfect for drinking unique cocktails made with love and passion.” He particularly recommends the New Fashioned Way, made with Metaxa 7*, Caramel Syrup infused with sundried tomatoes, 2 dashes of cardamom, and peach bitters.
Kenji Jesse concurs with Lykiardopoulos, saying they “really give a damn about the quality of your cocktail”. It’s been an industry favorite for years for these very reasons.
One More Bar – an all-rounder
“Definitely the coziest cocktail bar in town, it feels like you have been invited around for drinks in a friends eclectic living room,” Kenji Jesse notes about One More Bar, a warm, convivial bar perfect for a winter drinking session.
Located in an old house just off one of Sofia’s most famous streets, One More Bar deserves more attention than its – ironic – title gives it. It’s been one of the city’s prime cocktail spots for years now and for a long time very traditional, has recently shaken up its cocktail program to reflect newer trends. It’s also a top spot for coffee and brunch and offers up a big garden for long summer nights. A veritable all-rounder, some might say.
Sputnik Bar – not a satellite
Sputnik is the newest entry on the list. A bar that’s shaken up the Sofia bar scene since it opened just over one year ago – it’s undeniably trendy, but don’t ignore its excellent cocktail cred.
At the long bar, the bar team smash out cocktail classics and twists underneath a jagged gold light installation. World Class bartender Dimitar Dimitrov has been particularly impressed by their use of homemade ingredients on a menu adorned with a big picture of astronaut. It’s a menu that shows high level of daring, with a focus on the classics but new destinations too…
“As a relatively new bar to the Sofia scene, the cocktail crew attitude have really smashed their way into people hearts through their cocktail buzz and funky music,” says Kenji Jesse. The style harks back to Bulgaria’s past, particularly with one wall adorned with old vintage carpets. The summer brings al fresco seating outside.
Just a note to close with. The bar manager until recently was the acclaimed Dragomir Ivanov but there’s been a shakeup and a whole new team inputted lately. Who knows what the future holds for Sputnik. But if it’s anything like the last year, we hold no fear!
Bildquelle: Sofia via Shutterstock.