Reading’s great. There, I’ve said it. (The town East of London, not the bibliophilic activity, should there be confusion. Though I actually love both.)
I’ve been here a year now, and in honesty I had my doubts to begin with. Descriptions I heard prior to moving featured “grey”, “dull”, “functional”, and “close to Slough”.
Happily, those descriptions must have been conjured by people who hadn’t spent any meaningful time in Reading, or who hadn’t been bothered to look around properly. (Though it is close to Slough). Because thanks to the superb food blog Edible Reading, and the discovery of a drinking companion whose alcohol tastes were as small-‘c’-catholic as my own, I’ve rather got to know my new home town. And you know what? I like it.
But it doesn’t really have a whisky bar.
Ok, caveat: it has The Purple Turtle. And I’m still not sure what to make of that place, but you can read about a previous misadventure here. The problem is, it has a superb selection of US whiskey…but I’m really not sure who goes there to drink it. Other than me that one time.
It just isn’t the sort of place you go for a quiet drop of something fancy. Because – and I must be blunt here – if I’m having something fancy, I’d quite like to be sober for it. And if you go into the Turtle sober then may God have mercy on your soul.
But I wanted to be proven wrong. I wanted to discover some tucked-away gem where exciting whiskies and creative cocktails were just waiting to dazzle and mildly befuddle me. An online perusal didn’t raise my hopes much – both Slug and Lettuce and TGI Friday’s were suggested by Dr Google.
So instead I picked the brains of my Reading-drink-scene consigliere, Liv, and a rain blattered Sunday afternoon saw the two of us make our way to a place called Caffeine & Cocktails…
Caffeine & Cocktails
5, The Walk, King’s Road, Reading. RG1 2HG
Might as well get something straight right away. This is not a whisk(e)y bar. It has 13 or 14 bottles, some of which, such as Nikka From The Barrel and Rittenhouse 100 proof, I rate very highly. But nothing that a mildly enthusiastic whiskonaut won’t have stumbled upon before. Put it this way: I don’t have the wallet to be a collector. But even my collection is bigger than Caffeine & Cocktails’
That aside, it’s a nice place to sit. Fairly high roofed, which alongside the glass-panelled walls give the impression of airy spaciousness. I’ve never been to C&C to eat (or indeed drink caffeine) before, but my understanding is that they’re pretty good in both respects.
Oh, and they have Happy Hour on Cocktails a lot.
From Monday to Saturday between 4pm and 7pm, and for the whole day on Sunday a good range of Cocktails are just £4 each. This being the South of England, that works out around the price of a pint, and I make that pretty good value. (The cocktails, not the pints – don’t get me started on the price of pints in the South.)
Should you venture to C&C outside of Happy Hour (saying “Hour” seems to really undersell them incidentally!) their cocktails range from about £7.50 to £8.50. That’s the same range that last month’s Jenny’s and Berry & Rye worked in, and which I’m coming to think of as “appropriate value for a decent cocktail.” Because I don’t live in London.
There’s a broad selection, including a double page spread featuring caffeine-based cocktails, which seems appropriate. Oh, and for what it’s worth, C&C wins many points from me for their cocktail name puns!
Anyhow – to business. I opted for a Tom Collins, not wanting to go too hard at 3pm on a Sunday, and Liv picked a Bellini. (They have several Bellini options – Liv had peach.)
This may not be the usual thing to comment on in a bar review, but I ought probably to mention in passing that the graffiti in the toilets may not be to your taste. Liv thought the offerings in the ladies’ was pretty funny; the writing in the gents’ is a little sexist for my taste. Takes all sorts, I know, but seems a little unnecessary. Happily it’s confined to the toilets, and I suppose you can always just cross your legs…
The cocktails on arrival were well worth £4 each. My Tom Collins was just the right side of too sharp, which is exactly the level I like. Liv’s Bellini was…a Bellini. In honesty, they always leave me a little cold. The overall verdict was that we probably wouldn’t want to pay £7.50 for them, but at Happy Hour prices no complaints whatsoever.
Our visit was short and sweet – a little like the Bellini. It’s a nice place to sit; I’ve never been at what you might call ‘peak time’, but I’d definitely recommend stopping by during Happy Hour. If you’re after the upper echelons of mixology, or a challenging and bewildering range of Aqua Vitae, however, you may want to look elsewhere.
Which is what we did next, in the shape of Cerise Bar, at the Forbury Hotel.
The Forbury Hotel, 26 The Forbury, Reading. RG1 3EJ.
I’ve been to Cerise before, for my birthday meal last year, and can confirm that the food there is smashing. My mother rated her dessert the best she’d ever eaten, which is high praise indeed.
It is, however, not somewhere you go when you’re after saving a few pennies. Its website claims that it is becoming “the place to be seen outside London,” which rather says it all. The interior – and staff – are very smart indeed; Liv and I aren’t exactly scruffy, but we felt pretty underdressed until a chap helpfully bowled in sporting a hoodie.
The restaurant is slightly separate from the bar, and there’s a particularly comfy-looking lounge into which you can take your drinks, should you feel so inclined. Their outdoor area is also worth mentioning, as it’s a gorgeous place to sit, with a high wall and a fountain. It’s even covered during the rain, and sufficiently heated to make it almost worth sitting outside in the winter.
That being said, to get into it, you have to go through the restaurant. That wasn’t a problem on this occasion, as it was still a little early for diners, but I’d feel slightly awkward swinging through, Old Fashioned in hand, if groups of people were tucking into their grouse. (Other fine dining options are available.) But perhaps that’s just me.
I say Old Fashioned because that’s what I ordered, whilst Liv opted for an Espresso Martini. And here I encountered a quibble. The menu doesn’t specify which whiskey they use in their Old Fashioned, and when I placed the order the barman asked me if I had a preference.
Now I know this is my fault. I know that the cheap answer here is “just the house one, please”. But that’d be a little dull, so instead I opted for Knob Creek. What I hadn’t accounted for was quite how expensive the Knob Creek would be, compared to whichever their standard bourbon is.
Which brings me neatly to the selection and prices of their whiskies. Size-wise, it’s medium, to medium-light. It’s not a whisk(e)y-focussed bar, but the bottles they have include some interesting juice: Dalmore 25, Talisker 18, Yamazaki 12, Hibiki 17 etc.
But their pricings are absolutely all over the place. There’s no consistency to the markup; Yamazaki 12, which costs about £90+ online is £9 for a single. That’s not bad. Talisker 18, however, which with very little effort you can pick up for £70 a bottle, they charge £19 a throw for. I did the maths, and that’s about a 700% markup. And those are just two examples.
Cocktails took a little longer than anticipated, given the bar was relatively empty at the time. That being said, they were very good. Ironically, having been fussy about the whiskey in my Old Fashioned, I actually preferred Liv’s Espresso Martini. But both were excellent.
The thing is though, they weren’t any better than those at Berry & Rye, covered last month. And they were considerably more expensive. Once the 10% discretionary service charge had been added, the two came to just shy of £27. That’s more or less what I paid for a round of four in Liverpool.
It’s unquestionably a lovely place to sit, Cerise. The food is stunning and the drinks are very well made. But the bar prices are inconsistent, and I’m simply not sure that you always get your money’s worth. Happily they have a menu which details the selection – something none of the Liverpool bars offered – but you do need it, because otherwise there’s a chance you’ll end up burned.
I’ll probably go back, because there aren’t many restaurants like it in Reading. And I’ll probably have a cocktail with my meal. But if I’m asked what my spirit preference is, I’ll probably just say “just the house one, please,” next time. And for a spirits enthusiast that’s a pretty sad admission.
Liv and I left it at that for the evening, as the third bar I wanted to inspect doesn’t open on Sunday. So at this point we flash forward to Thursday evening to find me back in town centre after work, and heading for Milk.
8, Merchants Place, Reading. RG1 1DT.
Milk is my favourite bar in Reading. It actually leads a double life, because during the day it is Shed, which holds a special place in my heart for making My Favourite Sandwich In All The World.
But come evening the ciabattas are cordoned off, the outrageously good Jerk Chicken refrigerated, and the building throws on its cowl to become the spirits bar Reading needs.
Unfortunately for me, that spirit is Rum.
In a parallel universe I suppose there is an Adam who sets out his stall as The Rum Pilgrim. That Adam would go to Milk and say “yes, my search is over. This is the bar I wanted Reading to have.”
Because it’s a fantastic place. Usually busy, but seldom overcrowded; the staff are brilliant; service, despite the number of cocktails being made, is efficient and friendly, and their Rum selection is indeed prodigious in breadth and variety.
But wasted on me. There may come a time when neat Rum and I set aside our differences and become bedfellows, but it is not this day. An hour of sugar and Caribbean exoticism, but it is not this day. This day I am the Whisky Pilgrim, and Rum doesn’t quite do it for me.
They do have whiskies. Indeed they offer a ‘Rum and Whisky Wednesday’ service, with discounts and everything. (Which begs the question: why was I there on a Thursday?) Occasionally they get brand ambassadors in, which means that from time to time something more interesting appears on the shelves. (Or rather, lurks behind the first row of bottles; whisky visibility is set to “foggy” at Milk – not much tiering I’m afraid.) But again, the 20-bottle-strong bunch at Château Wellsy is – forgive my bragging – superior.
Milk’s cocktails are also decent. Rum-focussed, of course, but other spirits, whisk(e)y included, get a page each. Prices largely sit around the Caffeine & Cocktails mark, and to this taster the quality is slightly higher. But I fancied something neat, and opted for a Balvenie 14. Which, needless to say, is finished in Rum casks. Call it my concession…
So: drinking in Reading.
On the one hand, a good night out is to be had. Something carefully selected and pretty well made in Cerise to begin with, followed by what’s left of Happy Hour at C&C. Then on to Milk for its fantastic ambience and friendly feel. Hell, I might even give Rum another chance sometime.
The thing is, I can have a good night just by going to The Allied Arms, which is a really first-rate pub in the town centre. But that’s not really the point of The Great British Bar Hunt.
I’m after a place with an exciting and broad whisky selection; with decent prices, and perhaps a good cocktail range. I’m after somewhere I’d pop into two or three times a week if I lived close by, spend a few hours there each time and gradually get to know the bottles and the staff. I’m after places that prove London doesn’t have a monopoly on interesting drinks.
A few onths ago a few whisky friends from The Smoke had made their way west and asked for bar recommendations since I wasn’t around in person. I wanted to send them to Milk – I genuinely think it’s the best bar in Reading. But these chaps wanted a whisk(e)y range, so with a heavy heart I directed them to The Purple Turtle.
Because however incongruous it seems at half past one on Saturday morning amidst the mingling whiffs of Jäger and sweat and bad judgement, Turtle has Reading’s premier whisk(e)y selection. It just does. Some of the Bourbons and Ryes there are first rate; prices are very reasonable, and the range is vast and growing.
I want to take that range and re-house it in Milk. I want Reading to have a chilled out bar somewhere that I can make my own, excitedly point friends towards, and continuously explore. But it just doesn’t.
So perhaps the answer is to go to The Turtle at the time of day and week that you feel least inclined to drink whisk(e)y. To specify that you don’t want your double to be served in a pint glass, and to quietly and solitarily enjoy the liquid treasures on offer.
But somehow that doesn’t quite seem like strong consumer advice.
Sorry Reading – I still think you’re great. But nowhere’s perfect.