Review – The Cocktail Shack
Fancy a cheap and cheerful cocktail? Then you’re in luck – countless Brighton bars serve them up by the gallon. But a small handful of truly exciting, original establishments are really shaking and stirring up the city’s cocktail scene.
One of the best mixologists in town, Ali Bell, runs the Cocktail Shack on Regency Square, a tiny bar with an increasingly big reputation among the city’s more discerning drinkers.
Essentially the hotel bar of the fabulous Artist Residence, the Cocktail Shack is easy to miss: keep an eye out for its shabby blue and pink door framed by palm trees. Inside you’ll find one of Brighton’s most intimate hideaways, a Caribbean-inspired rum shack with a bar made of corrugated iron and reclaimed West Pier wood. A single window serves up sea views; there’s a mere handful of tile-topped tables. Reggae, dub and ska play on the stereo.
Well-travelled Ali, who perfected his craft at Merkaba and Plateau, is in his element here. “We opened in February and I took my time getting the exact menu I wanted up and running,” he says. “It’s a short menu – there are just twelve cocktails. It’s concise and a little bit experimental. I don’t have to worry about making a hundred different cocktails every night. I spend time preparing the ingredients for each one exactly as I want them.”
The menu itself is broken into two parts: ‘Twisted Classics’ are Ali’s takes on established cocktails. The La Condesa – loosely based on a Manhattan – is made with his own blended sweet vermouth, while the Banana daiquiri, made with homemade banana rum, is crisp and refreshing, rather than syrupy and blended.
Of the ‘House Originals’, I love the Jack Dempsey punch, a mouth-puckering concoction of Mount Gay Eclipse rum, Fernet Branca, lemon and sugar – it’s tart, clean and a perfect aperitif. Not into rum? The Truth Be Told – gin, pineapple, lemon, coriander, jalapeño water, absinthe and egg white – is a savoury cocktail with layers of flavour, while the East Meets West – rhubarb vodka, apricot liqueur, lime and tonic – is summer in a glass. Cocktails are all under a tenner, with a small selection of beer and wine also available.
Ali’s kit includes a dehydrator and a food smoker, bringing a touch of alchemy to his already innovative menu. He’s letting his imagination run wild, and described to me a new idea he’s toying with: a gin martini consisting of nori seaweed-infused gin and a garnish of sea purslane. “That’s when it starts to get a bit weird, but we can afford to experiment here,” he says. “People aren’t coming for dinner, they’re not coming for a coffee. They come for the cocktails.”
“There’s absolutely no stress in the Shack at all,” he continues. “It’s a big escape from Brighton, and an easy place to lose a few hours. After dark, the room becomes very warm, very chilled, very relaxed. You can walk through that door – which is battered, worn, stripped back – and just disappear into the Caribbean for a while.”
Words by Suzanne Rose
First published in the Brighton & Hove Independent 25/07/2014