If you ask the bartenders in Auckland’s best establishments what their top bars in the city are, a name that will no doubt keep popping up is Caretaker. Following the advice of the professionals, we made our way down the cocktail den to meet with co-founder Ali and find out what was so special about this spot.
Located behind a paint-chipped door bordered by shelves stocked with dripping wood varnish and emulsion cans, the underground venue feels like a secret backroom bar reserved for those in the know – the building caretaker’s inner circle of honest working-class folks looking for a place to unwind in familiar company. Recently painstakingly renovated by the team, it is bedecked with low-slung tan leather chairs, lacquered repurposed wooden tables and over 1,000 spot-lit broomsticks fixed to the ceiling that have an almost bamboo-like appearance and which give the space a bit of tongue-in-cheek, up-cycled chic.
We make our way to the bar, behind which lies half opened vintage safes filled with recognisable spirits brands. Overhead, all manner of oddities that might belong to the fictitious caretaker, hang in the jumbled manner of a hoarder’s half-forgotten treasures.
Ali tells us that they have now been open for two and a half years. Things must be going pretty well as their second Auckland bar, Deadshot opened nine months ago, with a similar offering albeit a slightly different setting.
“Myself and my wife (Heather), learnt our trade in Melbourne but decided to come back here to set up shop”, Ali tells us as he prepares a drink.
“Everything in New Zealand is relaxed and chilled. We wanted a working-class version of a speakeasy and the décor is like the caretaker of a building collecting his bits and pieces behind the bar. The focus is on classic cocktails. There’s no menu; you just tell me what you like to drink – boozy, citrusy or creamy – and I’ll make you something.”
It’s a great idea for a classic cocktail bar that adds an engaging experiential element whilst showcasing the lesser known drinks out there. We announce our preferences – boozy, brown, not sweet – which prompt some follow-up questions from Ali – “Scotch or Bourbon? What are your thoughts on dry sherry?” – before we are presented with a Woolworth (Scotch, Dry Sherry, Orange Bitters, Benedictine). Strong yet balanced with a gentle, dry bitterness and orange zest aroma, this is something approaching a dry Bobby Burns or Scotch Martini.
“With all our spirits we blend different spirit brands together to get the house pour that has the flavours we want”, states Ali when we ask after the Scotch used. “We want to push the conversation away from brands and onto flavours, which is also why we keep the branded bottles in the safes so that people can’t just see a label they recognise and go for that straight away”. That being said, they are certainly not short on beautiful spirits (their Bourbon selection is especially impressive) and, if a certain bottle is asked for, the bar team will happily pour out the requested serve.
As Ali vigorously shakes up the next drink, this time with the instructions “gin-based, citrus, sour and dry”, explains how they’ve developed an ice mould for the shaker so that instead of using bone saws and the like to create the right sized ice for each drink, they are able to get the cocktail down to the temperature they want without too much dilution. This is pretty useful as it means drinks at Caretaker can be enjoyed leisurely without fear of them getting watery.
A punter next to us hands one of the bar staff a small leather notebook, which is placed in a shelf behind the bar with a stack of others. On enquiring after this practice, we’re told that these are books for the bar’s regulars and contain names of cocktails they’ve had at Caretaker, notes about the thoughts on them, and other titbits of information about the customer. Some choose to take these away with them and others leave them on the premises and add to them on their return.
Service is certainly at the heart of all that is done at Caretaker and, as we sip on our next cocktails, the self-named Caretaker – an exceptionally complex and well-balanced dry vermouth cocktail with a lovely lingering menthol from fresh mint leaves in the actual stirring, syrupy Maraschino sour cherry note and bitter Ramazzotti – and the pleasantly fruity, sweet-sour Siesta, we understand why every bartender we’ve come across recommends the experience.
We sit back, cast our eyes over the now bustling bar and enjoy the live music that has just started up behind us. With its chill Kiwi vibe, faultless cocktails and welcoming service, Caretaker is a place that all should visit at least once whilst in Auckland, and that we can see ourselves returning to every time we’re in town.
Caretaker, Downstairs, 40 Customs Street, Britomart Pl, Auckland 1010