What makes a bar the best in the world?

With the announcement of the World’s 50 Best Bars, Joel Harrison considers the formula for a perfect watering hole

Words by Joel Harrison

The best bar in the world? This Barcelona hot spot just won the accolade (photo: Paradiso)

Earlier this month, the annual World’s 50 Best Bars list was announced to much fanfare at a ceremony held in the Catalonian capital, Barcelona. For the past few years, the announcement had been held in London, but the choice to hold the 2022 awards in Barcelona was a smart one, as it is a city that has seen a recent uprising of excellent bars.

Either by accident or by design, the winning establishment happened to be from the very same city the ceremony was being held in, the speakeasy Paradiso (the entrance to which is through a fridge hidden inside a pastrami shop) toppling luxury London hotel bar The Connaught to take the number one spot.

Paradiso won top spot at this year's awards thanks to its cocktail excellence
(photo: Paradiso)

All 50 bars on the list, it must be noted, are in major cities. This is in stark contrast to the sister list, World’s 50 Best Restaurants, which counts establishments in Atxondo, Gardone, Rubano, Senigallia, Castel di Sangro, and Getaria in the top 20 alone, and sounds more like the weekly subs bench at a Premier League football match; I’m not ashamed to say that I had to Google most of these places just to see which country they were in, let alone which city they were near.

Now, I like food. (Who doesn’t?) In fact, food is so popular that people will travel to obscure places to dine from a menu that is so brilliant, it doesn’t matter where the restaurant is based; next year, I fully expect to see both Narnia and Hogwarts on that list. But maybe that could happen for drinks, too?

I like a drink, too. So much so, that it became my job. My passion for them has taken me to some of the most interesting bars in the world, and not all of them in major conurbations, either. I’ve been lucky enough to dink in a fair few of the bars on this year’s list, including nearly all of the top 10, which range in location from Mexico City to London, Cartagena to Paris.

For me, the single most important element at each was the welcome. Certain bars are better at this than others, and the very word, often printed on a doormat or flippantly said at a reception desk, is rarely understood. The reality is that ‘welcome’ means a warming smile on arrival. It means attentive staff and attention to detail. It means a place where you can relax and feel at home. In the words of the Cheers theme tune, it’s a place to take ‘a break from all your worries’. And for me, it’s often found in the simple offer of a glass of water on arrival.

Top-notch Martinis are the drink of choice for Harrison at the second-best bar in the world, east London's Tayēr & Elementary
(photo: Tayēr & Elementary)

Every one of the bars in the World’s 50 Best list will have this ingrained in their DNA. As the brilliant drink historian, author and co-founder of Sipsmith gin Jared Brown once told me, ‘Nobody goes to a bar for a drink. You go for the experience’.

However, the drinks are why you stay. Or even more pertinently, why you return and recommend. The best bars nail the classics, but also introduce their audience to new creations. There is nothing more of a letdown than a bar that has pre-batched an innovative, clarified cocktail but can’t make a good Daiquiri (the single best test of any bartender, by the way). The last time I was in London’s Tayēr & Elementary, now the second-best bar in the world, I had one of the best Martinis of my life. On top of this, it was placed in the freezer for the duration of my visit to the bathroom. High five for that alone.

There is nothing more of a letdown than a bar that has pre-batched an innovative, clarified cocktail but can’t make a good Daiquiri

If you do find yourself in a bar with a drink that isn’t to your taste, don’t hesitate to politely ask for something else instead. Most bar staff will appreciate that not every one of their creations will appeal to all, and they’ll want you to leave with a smile on your face. After all, drinking out is not cheap (and the likelihood is that, with the cost of living crisis pushing hospitality to the brink, it will only get more expensive), and you want to feel as if you’ve had the kind of valuable experience the drink’s price tag comes with.

Location plays a part too - Mexico City is home to one of Harrison's favourite cocktail bars

The biggest tip for judging a bar, however, is if you would go back again. If I had the chance tomorrow, I would jump on a plane to Licorería Limantour in Mexico City (no.4 in this year’s list) and not just because it would take me back to CDMX, a place I adore. This bar, along with most of the others on the list, could be in one of the obscure small villages home to some of the world’s 50 best restaurants, and I’d still make the effort to go. Why? Because there is nothing better than a well-made drink, garnished with a proper welcome, and served with a side of warm hospitality.

Get out there and explore some of the world’s best bars (and some of the not so good ones, too, for contrast) and make your own list. Everyone will have small details that appeal to them, or flavours they favour over others. And when you find the bars you really love, hold them dear, and visit them often. The last few years have not been kind to bars, and the future doesn’t look great either, so do yourself a favour and make sure you pop by to your most-loved venues for a drink. Maybe even buy the bartender or owner one, too. Goodness knows they deserve it, world’s best or otherwise.

What Joel has been drinking…

  • Glenmorangie is a single malt Scotch that is known for pushing the boundaries of innovation alongside an excellent core range. The latest limited release from the distillery, and the brainchild of their whisky maker Dr Bill Lumsden, is called A Tale of the Forest (£80), and uses barley kilned with woodland botanicals including pine needles, moss and juniper. The result is a unique flavour that comes with a hint of autumnal forest floor smoke.
  • Tequila is a spirit that it increasingly in demand – not just in my house, but across the whole of the UK. Currently, I’m making my Paloma (Tequila and grapefruit soda- next year’s G&T, don’t ya know) with 1800 from the house of Jose Cuervo, who have been making tequila since 1795 and know a thing or two about great spirits. They have also produced a coconut version of 1800 (£31, Master of Malt) infused with natural coconut flavour. Use the regular edition in your Paloma, but try the coconut one in a Margarita. It could change your drink forever.
  • On a recent trip to the south coast of England to stay in an excellent new hotel (the Relais Cooden Beach in East Sussex), I stumbled across a small farm shop just outside of Lewes. Unbeknown to me, Middle Farm is home to the National Collection of Cider and Perry (and plenty of other apple-based products too). A quick supermarket sweep saw me come home with apple and quince keeved cider from Pilton and a bottle of local rhubarb and apple cider, as well as some strawberry mead. The latter, I will use to make a Negroni. If you’re passing by Middle Farm, do stop. You’ll love it.
Joel Harrison
By Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and spirits consultant for Club Oenologique.