No two players experience the world of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in exactly the same way. Gameologist Joe Keiser, for instance, sees it through the lens of the game’s wide-ranging literature. John Teti, on the other hand, lauds the rough “incongruities” you find in the chilly climes of Skyrim—as he wrote, “You might be anointed by an ancient priesthood as the greatest warrior in all the land, only to walk 10 yards down the road and get slaughtered by a stray bear.” As a subscriber to the idea that beers are preferable to bears and that your chances of a random mauling go way down while setting on a barstool, I tend to engage the game through the world’s many watering holes, both the bustling taverns and the remote, windswept dives. The following is a brief survey of my favorite Skyrim bars, where every Nord knows your name. (It’s Dragonborn, for the record.)
Considering the town’s central location and the fact that it’s home to a large band of heavy-drinking werewolf mercenaries, you’d think that Whiterun would have a better tavern than The Drunken Huntsman, a dreary hovel named for the time one of its owners got drunk and accidentally shot his brother—the bar’s other owner—in the ass with an arrow (by light of the full moon, naturally). Fortunately, right outside of Whiterun proper is the Honningbrew Meadery, where I once did a favor for a guy and can now get an unlimited supply of this high-king’s nectar straight from the frost troll’s teat. Those interested in the mead fermenting process can tour the adjacent boilery, but don’t stray too far—I recommend not getting yourself eaten by the giant vermin lurking in the basement.
Best New Bar
One of the problems with being a barfly in Skyrim, as in many places in Tamriel, is that often the experience is unremarkable—getting shitfaced on Black Briar Reserve at the Four Shields Tavern in Dragon Bridge is, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable from guzzling wine at the Moorside Inn over in the forgettable hamlet of Morthal. And the people…if I have to hear one more sob story about how business is bad or this person’s mother was slaughtered by rampaging undead, I’ll just scream. Skyrim’s citizens might be awesome at forging Orcish helms and collecting odds and ends and that sort of thing, but their talents don’t usually manifest in the realm of interior design or cheerful bonhomie.
For a less depressing night out, you have to leave Skyrim entirely. Jump on the party boat Northern Maiden and head to Solstheim, the ash-demon-infested Cancun of this world. Here, the Retching Netch—named for an incident involving a naked elf, a tentacled cattle, and projectile vomit—offers a nice getaway from the relentlessly depressing low-lifes propping up Dead Man’s Drink in Falkreath.
Markarth is far and away my favorite city in Skyrim. Instead of the usual Skyrim building materials of thatch and horse turds, this mining city is made entirely out of stone, and it sits on the kingdom’s mountainous far western border. Its citizens are generally pretty surly, and that suits me fine.
In a town full of insular jerks, my favorite malcontents run the Silver Blood Inn. Upon entering, you’re greeted by the innkeeper Kleppr, who promises strong drink and clean rooms. But his wife, as Felix to his Oscar, promises instead rotten furniture, “cheap and soaked with ale.”
I could watch these two lovebirds go at it all day, but there is a huge fireplace in the back that demands attention. Around its warm embrace, you can almost always find a great conversation with a random traveler or terse local. I’ll never forget the time a not-unattractive orc woman asked me, “What’s a milk drinker like you doing here?” Milk drinker! I love mammal humor.
It’s not all smelling of stale beer and bar fights. Sometimes I like to class it up a little, and for that, there’s the Winking Skeever in Solitude, Skyrim’s largest burg. Instead of wearing my usual rags, for a night at the Skeever I’ll put on my Sunday finest—the royal clothes I stole from the still-warm corpse of the Emperor of Tamriel after I assassinated him on his private yacht. Sure, there are still a few spots of arterial spray around the collar, but you just don’t see threads like this every day.
Not only does the Skeever cater to a better class of drunk, it also happens to be located in the same area as the famous Bard’s College, which usually makes for great music. Last time I was there, I requested a bard named Jorn play a rousing rendition of Journey’s “Wheel In The Sky,” but all he seemed to know was a patriotic diddy called “The Age of Oppression.” Classic Skyrim.
Traditionally, hipsters—the postmodern yuppies—are expected to be on the forefront of a neighborhood’s gentrification wave. They infest the city’s less-affordable areas, gradually pricing out families that have lived there for decades. (This only partially explains their popularity with locals.) Soon enough, vegan coal-fired pizza, bike shops, and used-record stores pop up like smallpox. Riften, the crime-infested cesspool in Skyrim’s southeastern corner, is a prime candidate for such a flannel-wearing influx.
And the Bee & Barb is preparing to capitalize. The B&B’s brewmeister, Talen-Jei, has already introduced three new craft beers: “White-Gold Tower” (heavy cream, layer of blended mead, lavender, with Dragon’s Tongue on top); “Cliff Racer” (wine, brandy, flin, and the stamina-boosting potable Sujamma); and “Velvet LeChance” (blackberry, honey, spiced wine, and a touch of nightshade). What’s next? A Skyrim Apparel selling skintight, unisex greaves?
Riften hasn’t been totally ruined for normal folks. The Thieves Guild still maintains a presence there, and the dandified gentrifiers should at least provide them with a host of new marks. The Ragged Flagon, located in the Ratways underneath the city, is difficult to find, but it will soon be the only not-insufferable establishment in town. Like any good speakeasy, you have to know where to look for the secret entrance, but once you’re in, you’re in. Vekel The Man (possibly Skyrim’s finest nickname) will serve up good dishonest, non-local fare, and no one will hassle you as you unwind after a hard day of stabbing. Funny story: once I made the mistake of striking up a conversation with a bar patron named Dirge. After exchanging pleasantries and death threats, he informed me that he was “too tired” to punch my face in. I love this place.
Best Expatriate Bar
Skyrim’s Nords, a race of cold-weather-loving, human-like warriors, are notoriously distrustful of outsiders. Mixing that xenophobia with alcohol can be unhealthy for out-of-towners who patronize Nord saloons. The New Gnisis Cornerclub, nestled in a dark corner of Windhelm, offers safe haven for the oft-persecuted outsider to get a drink free from the worry that a hopped-up Nord will pick a fight. Sometimes the Cornerclub’s oaken door is all that stands between a hapless visitor and certain doom. I remember this one time, a fellow at the bar asked me to help him out of a bind. An assassin was after him, as reprisal for a bit of harmless diplomatic espionage, and he was afraid to walk around in the open. Well, if there’s one thing I detest, it’s financially motivated murder. (If you’re going to murder in Skyrim, it should be murder for its own sake.) I went and had a “talk” with this ruffian, and let’s just say that no one was going to be assassinating anyone after that. For the Dragonborn, defending the downtrodden can be a 24/7 job.