It’s almost like something out of a movie.
It's a setup you might find in a classic film noir where a nodding doorman who doesn’t ask questions shows you the way before wishing you a good time. There’s a door just off to the left of the big business, the one on the main drag — a place that has been there for almost a decade. Everyone knows this joint but you have to descend some stairs in the near dark to get there.
Once you arrive you know that you will be sticking around for quite some time. It is magnificently dark as no natural light can get in. It's comfortable, it's relatively quiet, and with the inclusion of a façade of barrels that look like they’ve just rolled down the chute before getting cracked open, you now feel that you are a part of that movie.
The name of the place is Snake & Barrel and it is the basement love child of Batch. You are most likely familiar with Batch. If you’re not familiar with Batch, the bar opened on New Year's Day in 2016 offering high-quality whiskey from around the globe along with delicious homemade doughnuts. Those two elements have earned Batch countless awards and much applause from those who appreciate a good buzz and a good doughnut — myself included.
As the popularity of Batch grew and continues to grow, owner Ronnie Spece hatched a plan to expand his cozy boozy empire but wanted to remain on the well-trodden strip of Congress Street. He didn’t look too far or try very hard because there was a basement used for storage and he knew that space would be perfect for the concept.
“Yeah, this whole thing was sort of a pipe dream,” said Spece. “It was from the beginning when we found out we had this basement. It started to get realistic around 2019 when we had an architect drop some preliminary plans. But then there was COVID along with the whole building being in flux as it was for sale. It was last year when things started to get serious as we finalized plans and, yeah…we bought the entire property.”
With a successful above-ground concept crackling with exquisite spirits and tasty doughnuts, the underground cocktail lounge needed a life of its own. An initial flash of inspiration could be a certain pirate ride from a certain mouse-helmed theme park that spawned a certain series of movies with Captain Jack Sparrow.
You get the idea.
It’s the inclusion of the barrels tumbling down in suspended animation just right from the bar that gives it that below-deck yo-ho-ho and a barrel of hooch ambience. But that is the only touch from that franchise. Otherwise, Snake & Barrel is a sleek and satisfying speakeasy with a minimalist approach because who needs the superfluous dance when all we came here to do is drink?
“Snake & Barrel came from a logo we had been using since the inception of Batch,” said Spece. “Basically, we had a barrel with a snake wrapped around it with the idea that a lot of popular spirits are finished in barrels and the snake representing ‘pick your poison’. Another reason for the barrels located by the bar seating area. All we really wanted to do was serve craft cocktails without them being craft cocktails if that makes sense. We wanted to keep it simple but with extremely quality ingredients. We make our own syrups, use fresh citrus, local products, and the best spirits we can get a hold of. Simply, it’s that simple.”
Now, I am not a big gin drinker. Enter Snake & Barrel’s Polaroid Picture cocktail.
Spece straight promised and assured me that it would change my mind about a gin-fronted beverage. After taking a sip, I grinned and thanked him because it was so refreshing. With a very high-end dry gin backing up the swirl of their own signature vodka and Lillet Blanc, which is a French aperitif bitter, the whole experience was as if Mr. Bond himself was sitting at the other end and raising his glass in approval.
Next up was a fine brew thusly dubbed Vert Der Ferk.
As a longtime Muppets fan and huge supporter of their Swedish Chef and everything he puts or has to pound into his pots, the title made me smile. After that first sip and the ones that indubitably followed, my smile grew visibly wider. Inspired by Spece’s grandfather, who hails from Stockholm, Vert Der Ferk delivers a punch with Swedish Punsch (clear booze mixed with simple syrup, citrus, and spices), singed orange, and tequila blanco.
This one was probably the most “complicated” drink of the night but in its essence, not really. Those flavors boasted much joy on the palate and gullet and to quote the famous mustachioed chef, I proclaimed loudly, “bork, bork bork!”
One of my longtime favorite bands has to be Judas Priest so I had to sample the drink dubbed Living After Midnight.
It is smoky and affirmative in every aspect of taste and character. The use of mezcal, the spiced aperitif Cardamaro, and an apricot liqueur had me totally living for this potent potable. Rob Halford (lead singer of Judas Priest) would be so proud.
Speaking of childhood heroes, one of mine has always been Ronald McDonald’s good pal Grimace because I have no idea what it is. I’m also not sure if Snake & Barrel named its Purple Drink after the fun-loving, purple goof.
Even in the blessed dark of the room, the elation blend of white rum, blueberries, lime, and soda will have you seeing visions of breakfast-bosting birds and mayors with stacked burgers for heads in no time. This is where the evening came to an interesting if not blissful conclusion. Purple Drink went down probably a little too easily and the mirth it created on all fronts was the reason for the rosy cheek merriment that glowed among the ambient light.
“I want people to come to Snake & Barrel to see how different it is from Batch even though it has the same backbone,” said Spece. “It’s the same thought process behind the cocktails with a completely uncomplicated vibe. I love it when people walk down here and go ‘wow! It's way bigger than I thought.’ Think of Snake & Barrel as a craft bar that is also a neighborhood bar. This isn’t a special events place. This is a few times a week place. We just want people to hang out and appreciate a real drink in a really approachable space, that just happens to be underground.”
Just like a movie, you step out of the dark and back into the street light, heady, glad you bought the ticket because there will always be a happy ending when you visit Snake & Barrel. At least that was my take.
Batch and Snake & Barrel are located at 118 E. Congress St. and open from 5 p.m. - 1 a.m. on Wednesday - Saturday. For more information, visit batchtucson.com and follow Snake & Barrel on Instagram.
Mark Whittaker began his journalism career in San Francisco around 1997. It was for a small Northern California music magazine that segued into contributing to numerous magazines, websites, newspapers and weeklies throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s. Mark interviewed bands,...