The World’s 50 Best Bars celebrates the cream of the crops of the international drinks industry. On 3 October 2019, the 11th edition of the list was revealed at the Roundhouse in London. This list, ultimately, is a guide to the best bars in the world and our drinking bucket list just got a whole lot longer.
“The World’s 50 Best Bars awards is an evening of international celebration, bringing together the best bartending talent from around the globe, with a live countdown of the list, culminating in the announcement of The World’s Best Bar, sponsored by Perrier.” https://www.worlds50bestbars.com/about.php
Johannesburg speakeasy and secret bar, Sin + Tax made this year’s extended list and came in at number 88, the only African bar to make the list.
Sin + Tax, a not-so-secret, secret bar in Johannesburg, has upped the ante for the City of Gold’s booming cocktail scene. With a special façade to hide behind, you will only find it if you know exactly where to look…
Written by Kate Morgan
Photographs by Dylan Swart
My first real cocktail experience was in 2016 at a speakeasy called The Jerry Thomas Project in Rome. It involved a password, a dark alley, an intimidatingly adamantine door, an equally daunting bouncer, a waiting list and, after half an hour of lingering on the pavement, the finest gin cocktails I’ve ever had. It was an amalgam of dry gin, artfully crafted sugar syrups, cordials and bitters. I sipped it, slowly… It was transcendental. After two more gin elixirs, I walked home along the banks of the Tiber River and felt that, because of that experience alone, the trip had been worthwhile.
Later that year, restaurateur Shayne Holt called me about something special he had planned, something that had to be shown rather than told. It involved a dark alley, an intimidating door, a waiting list and cocktails. I was over the moon.
Fast-forward to today, I meet up with Shayne and his trusted bartender, the world-renowned mixologist, Julian Short, to look back on the unveiling of Sin + Tax. Together, we reminisce about their journey over the past year and a half.
You’d know Shayne from his other successful endeavours: Eatery JHB, Parliament, Thief Restaurant and Coalition. I ask about his background and he responds with a wonderfully comical and self-deprecating summation that involves living in London, being a barman, a restaurant manager and a “plonker” – not necessarily in that order.
Shayne won’t admit it, but he’s an extremely talented, self-taught chef and restaurateur with a propensity for good ideas.
Julian, who’s the head mixologist and a shareholder at Sin + Tax, is more of a talker. “I was working as a sound engineer and ‘roady’ for bands like Prime Circle. I also had my own band where I sang and played the guitar – I wanted to be a rock star,” he says.
In the midst of this, Julian took a job as a bartender at Social on Main in Johannesburg, where he met Gareth Wainwright, the man who would later become his mentor.
After that, he joined Gareth’s team at his Joburg venue, The Landmark. Here, Julian embarked on a cocktail education where he learnt the importance of creating balance between sweet and sour, about using spirits to enhance the cocktail experience and, most importantly, about understanding the rules in order to break them. He started entering competitions and soon began winning them.
After returning from one such triumph in Mexico, Julian told his parents that he’d found his calling. When the time came, Shayne and one of his business partners, Jason Cederwall, approached Julian with the concept of Sin + Tax and asked him to come on board. Julian accepted the challenge and started experimenting with menu ideas while helping out at Coalition until Sin + Tax got its all-important liquor license.
Coalition is a Neapolitan-style pizzeria that was meant to be nothing more than a front for the bar. Shayne smiles as he explains, “Coalition began as a joke; we wanted to hide the bar behind something and I asked the investors if they wanted to do it behind sandwiches, coffee or pizza, and they all said ‘pizza’. We started exploring a unique pizza concept andthat’s when we came up with the idea for a Neapolitan pizza place.”
Not only do they make their own mozzarella, they’re also one of the first pizzerias to use locally made, rather than imported, 00 flour for their famed, charred and bubbled pizza crusts.
The main purpose for Coalition, Sin + Tax opened in December 2016 and immediately became the go-to bar in Joburg, with just one snag being the space – it can only hold a maximum of 40 guests at a time.
“It’s been a learning curve. We’ve been called ‘pretentious’, because we won’t pack the bar beyond capacity; sometimes this results in people having to wait in the alley for long periods of time without being able to sit down, relax or have a drink. So it was fortuitous when the space next door opened up,” Shayne says.
Their new bar, Speak No Evil, is an extra space, or as Julian calls it, a “waiting room”. “It was meant to be a dive bar in contrast to Sin + Tax,” Shayne adds. But, of course, it isn’t. Shayne and Julian don’t take themselves seriously, but they’re very serious about what they do and how they do it – simply put, they’re perfectionists.
Both Coalition and Speak No Evil are styled in muted black and white tones, with a chic and slight industrial feel to both. At first sight they’re nothing remarkable, yet they both have a sense of expectation from carrying a secret behind their walls – the world of Sin + Tax.
Entering this hidden bar is like going down the proverbial rabbit hole: it’s dark and edgy, yet plush and sophisticated. The ornamented bar is framed with a handsome marble countertop and surrounded by tables set against bare brick walls. The allure and intimacy is enhanced with moody lighting and candles at every turn – it is truly magical.
Since opening its doors, Sin + Tax has become the stomping ground for local and international celebrities like David Higgs and David Beckham. “It’s very cool to have the attention,” Julian says. “But the charm of Sin + Tax is that it doesn’t matter who you are, because everyone’s treated the same.
When you arrive and we’re full, you’re asked to wait just like everyone else; and when you come inside, you’re treated like gold, just like everyone else.” Fortunately, they have started taking online bookings until 10pm and reservations at the door until 1am.
To best understand the cocktail experience at Sin + Tax, I’d compare it to visiting a fine dining, à la carte restaurant. Julian and his team work seasonally and sustainably, with the menu changing quarterly. Each cocktail is a work of art – the result of weeks of experimentation and refinement. “We aim to show people that cocktails can be so much more than you think,” Julian says.
Over the past 18 months, they’ve showcased five vastly different menus. Their latest instalment, Tasseomancy: High Tea with Elephants, is the culmination of this journey. It’s an ode to nature and Julian’s childhood days spent at the Londolozi Game Reserve in Kruger National Park, merged with the practise of tasseomancy: a form of fortune-telling that interprets patterns in tea leaves, coffee groundsor wine sediment.
“My most favourite memories are of heading out on evening game drives and stopping for sundowners at a watering hole. The game ranger would open a big, green cooler box filled with drinks, and all the adults would go nuts for this thing called a ‘gin and tonic’,” Julian explains.
Every cocktail on this menu has an element of tea and uses warming spirits and spices associated with winter. Julian explains that they’re also doing a lot more preparations in the kitchen. “For the Crème Brewlé cocktail we use slow-roasted Rooibos tea and a coconut and vanilla foam that’s been cooked sous-vide. The hot foam is spooned over the ice-cold tea cocktail and brûléed.”
The look of amazement on my face jostles a laugh from him. “If that’s too much for you, don’t worry – you can still come here and order an Old Fashioned or a daiquiri,” he grins.
For a bite to eat, guests can order pizzas from Coalition or they can nibble on Sin + Tax’s signature bar snacks. Julian insists that their spiced popcorn is a must. “People come here for the cocktails, but they stay for the popcorn,” he jokes. “We fry the kernels in coconut oil and add different salts, peppers, spices and zests.”
CORNER OF BOLTON ROAD & JAN SMUTS AVENUE, ROSEBANK, JOHANNESBURG; 010-900-4987; SINTAXBAR.COM