I was tipped off about The Dark Horse by a restaurateur friend in east London, while we were chatting about our favourite cocktail bars around the UK. I was heading to Bath for the weekend, and I wondered what nightlife there was beyond the usual tourist haunts. The Dark Horse, he assured me, was what I was looking for. After a spa day and a superb supper at Dan Moon at The Gainsborough, I walked around the corner to Kingsmead Square, and down a set of basement steps into what would immediately become my new favourite bar.
The team behind The Dark Horse manages to get everything right, from the pagan-style woodcut graphics of the bar’s branding to the arrangement of stools and booths that mean there isn’t a bad seat in the place. The lighting is low and warm, as is the music (something so many bars get horribly wrong). There are flourishes of architectural salvage – most notably a giant bird of prey sitting on the bar itself – and appealing art that is all, apparently, curated by the owner. At the furthest end of the space, there’s a private bar called Black Bird.
I was immediately taken by the ambience, and a total lack of pretension and attitude, but it was the drinks that flagged up just how savvy the whole operation is. The friend I was with wanted “something like a gin and tonic, but more interesting”. She said her preferred flavour profile was citrus. The barman reached for a new gin just in from Japan and produced a concoction that she instantly loved.
The pagan aspect of the bar features in some of the cocktail names: there is a Woden, a Horn of Plenty and a Rune (each £9.50). That last drink incorporates a primarily British mix of Sipsmith sloe gin, Somerset cherry, Cynar, lemon and Orchard Pig cider. After an impressive white Negroni, I wanted to see what they’d do with what is secretly my favourite cocktail of all time: the much-maligned piña colada. Their version was a revelation; sophisticated and boozy, it was made with Appleton Signature, Plantation XO and Trois Rivières rums, with home-made coconut and salted pineapple sorbet. And smart as it was, it still tasted like a whole lot of fun, which perfectly sums up The Dark Horse to me.