With the tentative reopening of our night life, and after such a long absence from any sort of social life, you might be wondering where to head to for a round of drinks with mates long unseen.
As a fan of Chiang Mai’s then-emerging cocktail bar scene, I decided that the best way for me to dive back in would be to simply follow ‘The List’. Posted on Facebbook last year, The List by @maythefoodbewithmei which went viral at time of publication, features over 40 bars in Chiang Mai. The List, which at the time was picked up more by Bangkokians than we locals, features some of the old haunts that many of us are familiar with, but Mei also listed a lot of hole-in-the-wall spots and niche little prohibition-style cocktail bars that a lot of us cocktail enthusiasts didn’t know.
Yours truly had to temporarily suspend my private exploration of the full list when the third wave of restrictions set in; so you can expect a sequel to this article in the coming months. For now, however, here’s a taster of recommendations so far.
Reader, drink responsibly – but do go out there and support our vibrant bar scene! As long-term residents know, there wasn’t much of a cocktail bar scene here a decade ago, and the pandemic has been tough on a lot of businesses. Some spots like Prohibition Chiang Mai folded, and Rustic & Blue has let go of their Nimman location (they’re still at their farm). So if you want these places to survive, support them! I’ll make the same disclaimer as Mei: please check with the bars directly about the locations, and also, check if they’re still open. Also, follow @maythefoodbewithmei on Facebook and Instagram!
You might be tempted to dismiss this as a student bar, but there’s a good reason aside from the solid live music that this small two story location opposite Maya mall pre-pandemic was always packed on a weekend night. The bartenders are extremely talented and their signature cocktails have unique flavours. The cocktail prices are comparatively steep in the 300-360 baht range, but they definitely have a kick: try กุลาบรัก (Rose Love) if you want a refreshing long drink, or if you’re a negroni person, they do the best negroni (their ‘Newgroni) in town with a cube of ice that takes long to melt: this can easily be sipped for half an hour.
If you don’t want to compete with CMU students for a table or you are more keen on having a conversation (not that easy with the live band in a small space like East Bar), and you’re wondering where the next best negroni is, head to this very new hole-in-the-wall spot. It’s right at the bend of the road and if you think you’re walking into someone’s driveway, you’ve found it. The garage door opens to a lovely cosy space with a nice collection of spirits. The presentation is gorgeous and if the menu doesn’t appeal to you, ask the bartender to make something on the spot for you. Their martini glass is not much bigger than a shot glass so you might not feel you are getting a lot for the price, but they have a great sense of how delicate flavours can come together. If you want to know who named the place after a 20th century French philosopher, it’s the brother of one of the group of owners. (Admittedly, I first went there to find out who else likes to talk Foucault as much as me but the drinks made me return.)
This might be the tiniest location reviewed so far, a smidge smaller than Nophaburi Bar even, so definitely book your table and don’t choose this spot for a large group. The vibe is definitely Prohibition era and could easily be imagined as a location on Boardwalk Empire (or most Scorsese productions to be honest). If you’re a martini lover, definitely give this a try: the bartender freezes the glass as well as the gin to get just the right flavour with miniature floes of ice. This place is attached to Sanmai Ramen, which usually runs out of ramen quite early in the evening, and the ramen team often wander over to the bar once they’ve wrapped up.
The White Rabbit
Keeping up the speakeasy vibe that many of the new cocktail bars are going for, this place is very committed to the Alice in Wonderland theme: I definitely could not find it when I first looked and had to get directions from the bar across the street. First tip: go behind the Japanese restaurant in front, Gekko. There is a small sign by an innocuous door, you’ll have to go up a flight of rickety stairs and notice a mirror block with the directive ‘Do Not Touch’: go up another set of stairs and old furniture, a creepy doll or two: once you get to the couches and a rabbit’s head on the door, you’ve found the place. It’s a narrow but long bar with a few tables on the right side; a good idea to book if you’re more than two people (and even then you might have to wait). They’ve got a great collection of small batch gin, so if you’re not feeling experimental get a gin and tonic with one of their special gins. Their cocktails are not very strong, but the signature ones are quite unique, using pandan, apple slices, and other innovative elements, and any drink on the rocks gets a little rabbit stamp on the ice cube. Yes, I did say they’re committed to the theme. So make like Alice and drink these cocktails…is probably the message.
If you’re wondering if there’s a choice that has good cocktails but isn’t a tiny speakeasy, Looper is a good bet. It’s a coffee shop during the day, and in the evening switches to a bar. This was the first of the locations where I couldn’t find my partner in cocktail investigation adventures even when we were in the same room because we got tables on opposite sides of the bar when we arrived. Try Peach Pit for something fruity, or Love at First Gin for something more refreshing. Using flower petals, egg white, and novel elements to present their cocktails, this one like White Rabbit and Bar Foucault is very Instagrammable, but with more space. The evening lighting is also very flattering so this is the spot for a mini photo shoot without getting in people’s way.