Nestled among eateries and drinking dens boasting sidewalk seating and overlooking Milan’s Navigli canals, those who seek it will find a tiny, seemingly anonymous window churning out classic cocktails in well-sealed paper cups. Congratulations: You’ve uncovered one part of BackDoor43, estimated to be the smallest bar in the world.
Lest you be confused by the masked man whose only visible trait are the hands serving your drink, you haven’t just reached one of Milan’s speakeasies, but you are actually near the city’s only takeout bar. The four square meters that make up BackDoor43 (yes, there’s a bathroom in there) include the takeout window and and an interior space with four stools, which accommodate the 90-minute reservations available each night from 7 p.m. through 3 a.m.
The spot is co-owned by Marco Russo and Flavio Angiolillo, proprietors of five other venues in the Italian city, including 1930, currently ranking at number 80 on The World’s 100 Best Bars list, presented in association with Dutch spirits brand Bols Genever.
“The idea for the bar was born sort of randomly,” recalls bar manager Francesco Bonazzi via telephone from Milan. “We also own the bar next door, Mag Cafè, and we were looking for a spot to expand. We noticed a space next door, there was just a painting on the door representing what looked like the inside of the place, a sink.”
Purchasing the space with the intention of setting up a takeout cocktail business (drinking on the street is permitted here, following strict regulations), the drink gurus were surprised by the requirements that such an endeavor actually called for, from an in-house bathroom to a closet.
“So we said to ourselves, you know what? We can put a little table here, we can place a person making drinks here: let’s set up the smallest bar in the world,” says Bonazzi. “We found out later on that it was actually the smallest bar in the world. We haven’t recorded it in the Guinness World Record Book because, politically speaking, it was a bit complicated.”
Officially or not, one thing is certain: BackDoor43 is tiny, yet fits right into the rapidly changing drinking culture that has come to define Milan. “We’re in the Italian city where the aperitif reigns supreme, think Campari and vermouth,” explains Bonazzi. “For years, the cities that functioned as capitals of mixology in Italy have been Milano and Rome. Now, cities like Florence and Torino are catching up, but I feel confident in saying that the beacon of cocktail culture is Milano.”
The desire to appeal to the segment of the population craving a well-made cocktail ran so deep, it inspired the owners to come up with a few gimmicks. When approaching the takeout window, for instance, patrons are able to select from a limited menu of eight classic cocktails prepared by a professional donning a Guy Fawkes mask. As Bonazzi explains, the bartender should serve drinks of such a high caliber that they make you forget about who was actually making them.
“[Since our opening in 2015], the bartenders were the stars of the scene, so many people forgot about what they were drinking,” says Bonazzi. “If someone tries to look through the window while ordering, they’ll only see a masked barman. We actually had a lot of people get scared.”
BackDoor43’s program centers around whiskey tastings (there are over 300 varieties available), and the bar serves all kinds of cocktails. But there is no formal drink menu, and patrons are encouraged to chat with the bartender, if so they wish. (“Conversations have even led to dinner invitations outside of the bar!” exclaims the manager.) Whatever your spirit and mixer of choice, the bartender will deliver, and actually record your preferences in a notebook that includes the “drink lists” of all guests who’ve ever entered the premise.
A reservation, made a suggested one to two weeks in advance, will guarantee you one of four seats for 90 minutes, and there is no drink minimum. “You only pay for what you drink inside,” says Bonazzi. “Some people might like to drink and have four cocktails in an hour and a half while others might indulge in one single drink or a whiskey tasting only,” he explains. “We don’t impose anything on our patrons.”
Even the name of the joint has a serpentine background. Based on the Gin Act of 1751, enacted by the British government in the hopes of reducing the consumption of alcohol, the bar concept was inspired “the period of time in London when there were secret doors hidden around the city with small fixtures. People would knock and say a special word and gin would literally be pumped through the fixture,” explains Bonazzi. As for the number 43, that is the venue’s building number and “even our alcoholic products have a gradation of 43 degrees,” says the bar manager.
The number 43 had one more role to play. When brainstorming how to spread the word about a new bar shrouded in secrecy, the team purchased 5,000 books and stuffed them with bookmarks that included noted a phone number and a note: “You’ve found your first clue, find the door to drinking well in Milan.” That number was connected to a cellphone that was passed among the team for 43 days straight. “At any time of the day, one of us would pick up the phone and we’d say: ‘We’re opening. Follow the clues and find us,’ and we’d hang up,” recalls Bonazzi. A Facebook page was created at that same time and every day at 11:43 a.m., the team would post a clue about the new space. On the 43rd day, the bar opened.