Drink Like a Bandido at this Hidden-away Mexican Cocktail Bar

More Havana than Gatsby, Clandestino appeals far beyond its niche.

Many have attributed Vienna’s consistently high quality-of-life rankings to factors like clean air, high culture and public transport. Why doesn’t anyone mention the city’s bars? The scene has certainly improved: Gone are the days where Piña Coladas and Cosmopolitans were the most exotic drinks around, and while you still find vodka-Red Bulls, it’s far more likely you’re enjoying infused gin and tonics or elaborate concoctions aromatized with perfume sprayers. Barely six months old, Clandestino is among the latest of this new breed, a small basement bar underneath the upscale Peruvian-Japanese fusion restaurant Mercado.

As the name implies, Clandestino aspires to the ongoing speakeasy trend – secretive dives that replicate Prohibition-era illicit drinking with unmarked entrances like Tür 7 or krypt. In this particular case though, the concept falls short. It only really feels secret once Mercado closes at 23:00, and you have to ring a doorbell before slinking downstairs through the dark restaurant. Otherwise, you can simply walk in.

All in all, the vibe is more Mad Men than Boardwalk Empire, with charming vintage mid-20th century décor setting the tone. But even if Clandestino’s nostalgic appeal is three decades off, it does have several things going for it – 15 premium varieties each of tequila and its cousin, mezcal.

Hernando’s Hideaway

Drawing on 10 years in Barcelona, barkeeper Daniel Schober, who also had a hand in creating krypt (see “A Cellar of Secrets,” MET April 2018), has set this venture apart from the flow of endless gin inventions by championing these underappreciated Mexican spirits. And while the dozen drinks on the menu include some exceptional scotch, gin and vodka-based creations that prove Schober can infuse-and-spray with the best, it’s when he’s working with agave-based drinks that Clandestino truly shines.

Take the El Bandito (silver tequila, lime, vanilla sugar, bell pepper juice and cayenne pepper with a twist of red bell pepper): the vanilla brings out the agave’s natural sweetness while the cayenne pepper kicks it into high gear, the surprisingly sweet bell pepper bridging the gap for a fruity-yet-spicy sensation. Or ask for the Oaxaca Massaker, currently not on the menu: the mezcal’s earthy flavor is emphasized with beet juice and agave syrup, but kept from overpowering the palate with grapefruit bitters and vinegar. Fittingly blood red, it has a fresh citrus aroma but tastes like smoky barbeque sauce. Add a simple-but-exquisite Rum Gimlet and a variation of the Margarita with tangerines and wasabi salt, and you may think you’re somewhere in Key West rather than Stubenring.

So Clandestino may fail to evoke the Prohibition era, but it still feels like a shady back room; you half expect to see a Joe Pesci lookalike in a Hawaiian shirt playing pinochle or plotting the Bay of Pigs invasion with cigar-chomping Cuban expats. The energetic Schober’s passion for his craft borders on missionary zeal, as does his love for Star Wars: He’s hidden multiple bits of memorabilia around the bar, adding levity to the secrecy. Perfectly attuned to the restaurant above, Clandestino has managed something far more elusive than capitalizing on the speakeasy fad: It’s memorable.

1., Stubenring 18 (beneath Mercado), Wed-Sat 19:00-2:00 (summer break: May 19 till Sep), clandestino.at

Binu Starnegg
Manila born, Brooklyn bred and a longtime resident of Vienna, Binu Starnegg is currently managing editor for Metropole, where he completes myriad tasks with style and aplomb. Photo: Visual Hub

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