The bartenders’ alleged transgressions are scrawled on the black walls of Casa del Pez: All drinks are served by descendents of criminals. Grisly images a la Garcia Alix line the wall. The ornate carved floor-to-ceiling shelves seem too opulent for this bar, albeit beset with bottles. La Casa del Pez stocks nearly two-dozen brands of gin, all served with an unexpected garnish and a stiff pour. Whitley Neill (which has botanicals from the African baobab tree) is gussied up with lychees; Palmers and Plymouth are poured over cucumber slices and crimson rose petals; French label Saffron Gin, a slightly sweet, honey colored vision infused with saffron and met with an orange slice, is by far the sexiest.
Naked light-bulbs cast a dim glow on the bar. The burly Polish bartender (an ex-professional soldier) grinds black pepper over a glass of Blue Ribbon with a tattooed arm, and in English murmurs, “Old school.” “We don’t make cocktails, and we don’t want to be posh,” he explains. In this neighborhood, environed by prostitutes and old man bars, posh is not an option, and considering that Spain has little regard for gin, Casa del Pez has found its niche.
The bar’s name has been preserved from the original digs, a café with shadowy roots. Centuries ago, Madrid’s two greatest chess players met there daily to play, always ending in a tie—until one of the men fell off his horse en route, and as numinous fate would have it, the other died of a heart attack that night. It was decided that both should be entombed with a chessboard in the cave beneath the bar. According to legend bequeathed over myriad g and t’s, their ghosts are doomed to play nightly, and patrons still hear the click of the pieces over the board.
All ghost stories aside, not to be missed is a nectarous concoction of gin, fresh mint, lime and ginger ale, mixed under the moniker French Mojito. With the exception of the latter, all drinks are a democratically low six. That’s half of what bars around town charge—meaning you can drink twice as many.
Case del Pez, Jesús del Valle, 1 28004 Madrid, Spain, www.casadelpez.com