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Gin with a view - our review of Durham's historic Old Tom's bar

When it comes to drinks al fresco there can be few places that offer a more historic view than Old Tom’s.

Saturday, 7th May 2022, 4:55 am

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Lying in the shadow of Durham Castle and Cathedral with views of the River Wear as it meanders under Framwellgate Bridge, Old Tom’s terrace offers a picture postcard setting as you work your way through its extensive gin menu.

If gin’s your thing, you’ve got more than 250 varieties to have a go at sampling here, from North East-distilled spirits such as St Mary’s gin from Northumberland, Poetic License from Sunderland, Little Quaker from Darlington and, of course, Durham Gin, to big hitters such as Sipsmith, Slingsby and Bathtub, with prices ranging from £4-£6.

Our server Niall was really knowledgeable in advising us on some serves that would suit our differing palates. I prefer savoury and he brought out a gin quite unlike any I’ve had before. A home-infused gin, it had notes of sun-dried tomato, basil and chilli – it was like a liquid arrabbiata. It’s not to everyone’s tastes, but I relished the chance to sup on something other than a bog-standard pub gin.

What to expect from Old Tom's Bar at The Riverwalk, Durham

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Cocktails more your tipple? Then there’s also a good range of classics with a twist, such as a negroni (£7.95) with a hint of chocolate orange that was a revelation. The beauty of the servers having so many bottles and botanicals at their disposal means they can tailor drinks to your tastebuds, so it’s worth asking staff for their suggestions.

Soak up the alcohol with the bar’s small, but perfectly formed, food menu which has some great grazing options on there, such as cheese boards and baked camembert with plenty of bread for dunking (£9.95).

We really enjoyed our cheese and charcuterie board, which was good value at £14.95, with plenty for the three of us to gorge on with good-sized hunks of Brie de Meux, Rutland Red, Bassett Blue and a punchy Godminster Cheddar, with crackers, walnuts and chutney, along with a selection of cured meats, which are supplied by artisan food specialists Harvey & Brockless. Perfect picky food.

It’s a small terrace, with just 20 or so seats, but if you don’t manage to bag one on a sunny day, head indoors to soak up the atmosphere and marvel at its quirky features.

One of the meat and cheese boards, washed down with gins

It’s a real curiosity shop inside the Jacobean-style pub, which is full to its rafters with antiques and trinkets, from old trumpets and skulls to parasols and peacock feathers.

Ye olde coaching inn vibes is very much a fitting theme for the Grade I-listed building, which can trace its history back to the 16th century, with its Medieval beams carefully preserved when new owners, the Davis family, took over the site in 2017.

In the past few months, it’s been joined on The Riverwalk by more and more neighbours, albeit contemporary ones, as the £30million leisure development comes to life, with new additions including Pizza Punks and Turtle Bay all helping to make this more modern corner of the historic city a real hot spot.

Big gins at one of world’s smallest bars

The Riverwalk offers some of Durham's best beer garden views

After some more gin? Make the short walk over to sister bar Tin of Sardines on Elvet Bridge.

With capacity for just 16 inside (don’t worry there’s still space for a loo), it’s one of the world’s smallest gin bars – and certainly Durham’s teeniest.

Despite being pint-sized, it’s got plenty of character inside and fewer customers means you can get a more personal service from the staff. It’s creative use of a narrow space and one that means you can avoid shouting over yourselves as you do in bigger bars.

One wall is floor to ceiling with gin, but there’s also a small selection of wines and other tipples if mother’s ruin isn’t your thing.

The Old Tom's interior is filled with curiosities

If you don't manage a bench seat inside, there’s also seating outside on the path over Elvet Bridge which is a prime people-watching spot to take in the hustle and bustle of this historic city.

Like what you read? This is a flavour of what Sunderland can expect when a sister Tin of Sardines opens in the former toilet block in Pier View, Roker.

There’s been some delays, but the bar is finally taking shape with a total transformation of the unit, including the creation of a new terrace which makes the most of panoramic views of Roker Pier and across the coastline.

The new site will offer a similar range of gins to that of the Durham site, as well as sharing platters to enjoy as you watch the moon rise over Roker.

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The building can be traced back to the 16th century and is Grade I-listed.
It became a pub in 2017
Old Tom's has plenty of character
The Tin of Sardines on Elvet Bridge. Owners Trevor Davis and Ben Davis