A bar crawl of Barcelona with Moe Aljaff is not for the faint-hearted.
The Spanish are said to have more drinking establishments per head than any other nation. On a still-warm night in October it feels like I am being taken to most of them. Moe has invited me down to his neck of the woods to see how Barcelona is drinking these days.
We start at his own flagship joint, Two Schmucks, in the El Raval neighbourhood. The bar has been ranked 26th best bar in the world, and it’s tipped to improve its position at the next ranking, announced next week. Aljaff recently handed over day-to-day operations to Juliette Larrouy and Pom Modeste, two charismatic French women who have inherited the “schmucks” mantle and overhauled the menu to create something fresh.
“The comedian George Carlin had a rule that at the end of every year he would throw out all his old material,” Moe says. “That’s what I told Pom and Juliette. You have to do it your way.”
We work our way through the new drinks list, which is inspired by food as much as cocktails. There is Juliette’s favourite, a mix of melon, gin, vermouth and burrata; a tribute to mango sticky rice; even a drink inspired by beef bourguignon, which sounds revolting but somehow works, although I wouldn’t advise trying to recreate it at home.
The balance and elegance of the drinks is set against the slightly knockabout aesthetic of the bar, whose walls are adorned with pop-culture references and where the shoes of old bartenders hang from their laces over a high beam, like bats. You can see why the Two Schmucks describe their ethos as “Five Star Dive Bar”.
A tattooed – aren’t all bartenders? – and boyish 31, Aljaff has a restlessness in his blood, to go with all the alcohol. His parents are Kurdish Jews who fled Iraq after the first Gulf War, when Moe was a baby. After moving through Europe the family were eventually granted refuge in Sweden, where Moe grew up. When he was 18, Moe left Sweden to learn the bartending trade. In Oslo he met AJ White, who would become his business partner – the pair moved to Barcelona and became Two Schmucks, starting as a pop-up before opening a permanent site in 2017.
The irreverence of the name belies a serious dedication to cocktails. Two Schmucks has proved such a hit that it has spawned two more bars: Fat Schmuck, which is mildly more food-focused, and a brand new hangout, Lucky Schmuck, which has a full suite of beers to complement the spirits. All three are located on a single narrow stretch in the El Raval district, a road Moe fondly calls “Schmuck Street”.
It’s a strange moment for hospitality in Barcelona. The city’s left-wing mayor, Ada Colau, has been hostile to luxury tourism. With the prospect of Catalonian independence hanging in the air, international brands are heading to Madrid instead. But the situation has created ripe conditions for improvisation and innovation.
After Two Schmucks we visit a crepe bar, Creps al Born, which doubles as a bustling margarita joint, lanterns swinging above the heads of the diners and the smell of sizzling batter mixing with the scent of squeezed limes. Then on to Marlowe, named in tribute to Raymond Chandler’s detective, which specialises in gimlets. Or at least, I think it does. By that point in the night things become a little unclear.
At the other end of the anarchy spectrum is the eternal Boadas, an Art Deco gem of a bar opened in 1933, not far from the Ramblas. Waiters in bow ties and dinner jackets fix martinis for a mix of locals and visitors. Another bastion of Barcelona tradition is the Caribbean Club, a subterranean bar founded in the 1970s and run by Juanjo Gonzalez, who looks like an old film star and knows more than anyone in the city about rum. To step inside is to walk into a smart bar in Bridgetown, Barbados, in 1980, in the best sense.
The characteristic image of drinking in Barcelona is of punters spilling out into the road clutching glasses of beer or cava, but there are secrets behind closed facades: the Barcelona crowd are not used to bars in hotels, so even the gorgeous Punch Room at the Edition Hotel, complete with full-size pool table, goes criminally underused.
A mile or so up the road from Two Schmucks is Sips, a new ‘drinkery house’ from Simone Caporale and Marc Alvarez, two international superstars. Italian Simone ran Artesian at the Langham, which has been crowned World’s Best Bar four times in a row, while Marc was in charge of cocktails for the ElBarri group. At Sips, the twist is that they have done away with the traditional bar altogether. Instead, the bartenders walk freely among the guests and prepare their cocktails at tables. The effect is stylish but laid-back.
“It was not the easiest opening,” says Simone. “But we are finding our feet.” He serves me his signature, the Sips, served in a gorgeous hand-blown glass. He is not the only British import. During an unexpected downpour I dive into 14 de la Rosa, run by Dean Shury, who spent years at Quo Vadis and the Groucho before running the bar at Chiltern Firehouse.
Seeking a better balance of life for his family, Shury moved to Barcelona and took over an old spot down a quiet side street, which he has turned into this cocktail haven. He makes me a Silver Bullet: an easy drink to get wrong but immaculately balanced in his hands.
Somewhere between the new, the old, the classic and the experimental, Barcelona’s bars betray the energy – sometimes calm, sometimes chaotic – of a city working through some questions. Alcohol might not provide all the answers, but the world always tends to look clearer after a martini or two.