One of the things I love best about Birmingham is the secretive nature of some of it’s best venues. Sure, you can walk along New Street and find the usual parade of enormous ad boards and restaurants plying their wares, but move just a little off the beaten track and you’ll discover the very best places are just a little bit tricky to find.
18/81 is a classic Birmingham jewel in that respect. The new bar’s social presence lists only Thorp Street as their address, and a vague instruction to just ring the bell…
18/81 is co-owned by Independent Birmingham founder Joe Schuppler and local cocktail god Robert Wood. They’re aiming to deliver high quality drinks in a laid back environment, with no advance bookings, and no faff with your drinks. I’d follow Rob Wood and his drinks just about anywhere, so I put my adventuring face on and set off to search for this elusive new venue.
I’m not going to give the game away (and for the same reason, I’m not going to share pictures of the bar itself, only the drinks) because the surprise is half the fun. What I will say is that you need to be eagle-eyed. Head to Thorp Street and look out for clues. When you’ve found the door, ring the bell and a cocktail experience awaits you inside.
The menu has a rotating list of seasonal drinks, a list of quality spirits and accompanying cocktails and a ‘set menu’, in the tasting menu style of Rob’s bar Smultronstalle. The serves are unfussy, with simple glassware, minimal garnish and the clearest single chunks of ice I’ve ever seen. There is beauty in the simplicity, allowing each cocktail to speak for itself. The current Summer menu is all based on rum.
We start with a Kissy Suzuki for Dave, and a French Cuban for me. The Kissy Suzuki is as sexy as it’s Bond Girl name, with punchy passion fruit flavours. This was a tricksy thing, with the first sip I’m allowed to try fooling me with sweet, syrupy fruit, which settles almost immediately into something far sharper and more delicious. My French Cuban is not as delicate as appearances suggest, instead packing refreshing summer flavours of elderflower and lavender. Both come served in little glass bottles for you to pour yourself over a chunk of rectangular ice, and a bit of Spaghetti in place of a straw.
The Old Mulata uses Doorly’s XO Rum from Barbados, Belgian dark chocolate liqueur, lime stock, cocktail bitters and a mystery house made elixir. The top is scattered with 100% chocolate, which creates an incredible, rich aroma as you drink. The chocolate notes hit all those pleasure sensors in your tastebuds, making a rich drink, with a sour note from the lime.
My Bankers Punch combines Panamanian Abuelo Rum with Private Reserve Port, raspberry, Orinoco Bitters and lime. The nutmeg on top adds a spicy scent to this fruity drink. This might be one of the best things I’ve ever drank; strong, laced with sharp fruit and very, very drinkable.
In total, our bill for four drinks is £33, which I think is perfectly reasonable for such top quality drinks, with most cocktails priced under £9. You could spend the same in far worse establishments in the city.
18/81 is serving up nothing short of cocktail perfection, and proves the best cocktails are kept simple. You don’t need a million ingredients, set on fire, poured through a virgin’s shoe and then sprinkled in glitter to make a good cocktail. This bar is the perfect antidote to the city centre bars’ insistence on over-styled syrupy nonsense sold as quality. Just ring the doorbell.