Words: Chris Madigan; Illustration: Lauren Rolwing
‘Mi mojito en La Bodeguita, mi daiquiri en El Floridita.’ Whether Ernest Hemingway actually said these words about his Havana drinking schedule is a matter of debate. But it’s true that he drank only the smooth, blended cocktail in the sophisticated restaurant bar, whereas the hole-in-the-wall was where he went for the rough, muddled mix. While most bars have followed the principle that they should be able to mix any cocktails, a growing number is following the single-dish restaurant trend and concentrating on doing one thing supremely well.
Given the knowledge that Ian Fleming drank – and, supposedly, came up with the recipe for the Vesper – at Dukes Hotel in St James, head barman Alessandro Palazzi offers variation in vodkas and gins (including his own truffle-infused vodka), as well as garnish. He has introduced a high level of theatre, mixing the cocktail at your table and throwing vermouth from the frozen glass over his shoulder like salt. That other stalwart cocktail, the Manhattan, has become strongly associated with Oblix, which serves green tea & hibiscus and fig versions, as well as the classic. They are sold in an 1,800ml decanter, having been premixed and ‘mellowed’ for six months. And when Quaglino’s reopens in October, Michal Zawerbny has designed a champagne-cocktail menu, including such wintry variations as Xante liqueur, pear juice and cinnamon syrup topped up with fizz.
Martinis and Manhattans are classics that Londoners have been comfortable with for decades, but some barmen are pushing into more unusual styles. When the London Edition Hotel opened on Berners Street in Fitzrovia, Venetian Davide Segat had a cosy back room at his disposal. Rather than make it a run-of-the-mill whisky bar, he decided to do something else: ‘We have the lobby bar for a wide range of cocktails, but here we had the opportunity to concentrate on one thing. Edition hotels always try to reflect the city they are in. It seems to be accepted that Americans invented cocktails, but in fact it was the British who first started mixing drinks when they went to India. It was known as “panch” – five, in Hindi – because that was the number of ingredients. The spirit was a coconut rum called arrack and it was mixed with citrus, sugar, water and tea – the sort of spiced tea that makes chai. And, of course, they also took punch to the Caribbean and around the world.’
‘One bar has taken things a step further and specialises in distilling its own spirits’
Punch Room is intimate, seating-only and booked by email. The punches, which come in bowls with a ladle, are not the ‘lob in all the leftover booze and add fruit juice’ variety; the list is only 10 items long, divided between traditional punches – ‘in the 18th and 19th centuries, if a family hosted a party and served a good punch with expensive ingredients such as nutmeg, it would be written about by commentators,’ says Segat – and the team’s own creations. Of the old school, milk punch is a pleasant surprise – it uses clear whey along with arrack, cider brandy, rum, green tea, lemon juice, spiced syrup and pineapple. But Segat’s nod to his Italian roots, the Teddy Hook – Martini Gran Lusso, grappa, lemon juice, sugar syrup, hibiscus tea and basil water – is sublime.
Some specialists concentrate on timing: the rise of the aperitivo is largely down to the Polpo group of restaurants, each of which has a bar beneath. While they are largely banging out negronis and Aperol spritzes, the menu does cover cocktails based on the entire range of amari (bitters) – including a Manhattan substituting bitter-sweet Montenegro for vermouth, and a gin fizz with artichoke-based Cynar.
The latest trend is for dessert bars. Basement Sate (as in ‘sate your appetite’, not peanut sauce) has just opened on Broadwick Street. Don’t expect the sweet and creamy likes of White Russians, though. Owner Cathleen McGarry explains, ‘We focus on sharper, savoury tones, using the likes of beetroot, grapefruit and salted caramel, which cut through the desserts’ richness. Fruitier desserts, on the other hand, are balanced by the sweetness of our homemade syrups.’
Homemade syrups, infusions and aged cocktails are becoming commonplace, but one bar has taken things a step further and is distilling its own spirits. In the Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green, Matt Whiley and his team at the Peg + Patriot have two vacuum stills called rotary evaporators. ‘We’d altered the flavour aspect of our cocktails before, at my previous bars, Worship Street Whistling Stop and Purl, but wanted to shift the goalposts. We don’t have to work with the same list of spirits as everyone else.’ Whiley’s a shaker-maker, as it were.
The results are startling: a sazerac with a finish of dry-roasted peanut; tequila with a nose of gin botanicals; and the barely credible Pho Money Pho Problems, with a spirit that’s rich with fennel seeds, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, onion and oyster sauce – it tastes almost exactly like the Vietnamese soup. In the past, they’ve created a salt-beef beigel spirit and drinks from which the spirit has evaporated away, including a Campari soda ‘placebo’ that’s spot-on for flavour.
‘We’re happy to stand by the still and talk science,’ says Whiley, ‘but, really, this is just fun. When I see someone’s reaction to their first Pho Money, it always makes me smile.’ Davide Segat says this city is one of the few places where such specialisation is possible: ‘Londoners are open to exploring an idea and all its possibilities.’