One thing we know about London is that the cocktail scene is as competitive as a spectator sport (and we’re not just talking football – or soccer, to us North American types). Bartenders hop, skip and jump from trend to trend as nimbly as Beckham bends it, and bring a historic-meets-new-millennium innovative approach to mixing a drink.
Recipes, some handed down from barman to barman over generations, are coveted and kept under wraps, while ingredients can run the gamut, from fresh-from-the-herb-garden botanicals to infused bitters to macerated fruit to far-flung ingredients like yuzu and hickory smoke.
And another thing we know: Brits really love Gin.
Gin and tonic is the go-to drink, with a gin martini a close runner-up. Gin “Palaces” abound, while many hotels and bars are offering special Gin tasting menus – we’ve taken a few and brought back a recipe or two just for you, dear reader – while tour companies such as Gin Journey (one of their lovely bartenders, above) offer tours in the trendy Shoreditch and Bermondsey neighbourhoods of London (they also offer gin journeys in the English towns of Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh in Scotland. While on tour, you’re chauffeured around to five of the most innovative bars in the area – our tour included a stop at a gin distillery as well as the World’s 50 Best Bars top-rated White Lyan, where even the mix is made fresh everyday, with no refrigeration and ice cubes be damned! www.ginjourney.com
The Chesterfield Mayfair Gin and Tonic Experience
I have a soft spot for The Chesterfield hotel in Mayfair. This member of the Red Carnation Hotels portfolio was the first proper four-star hotel I stayed at as a solo adult, when I was able to strike out on my own, and discover the amazing city that London is. Since then, I’ve always endeavoured, at the very least, to book my first night in London there, as there’s nowhere else quite like it for curing the jet lag. The kitchen’s cooked-to-perfection scrambled eggs, a cappuccino followed by a glass of bubbles at the Terrace Bar is just the right mix of protein and jet-lag busting hair of the dog – no matter what the time of day.
But I digress. This story is all about Gin. The mixologists at The Chesterfield bar have taken the typical G&T to the next level. First, they start with the glass. The Copa de Balón, a large, balloon-shaped goblet, comes straight from the Basque region of Spain, the craft of gin mingling with creative and unique tonic waters has been elevated to new heights. G&T bars have sprouted up all over Spain, and the trickle down effect has made to the glass. It seems that its balloon shape boosts the botanicals and qualities of the gin, amplifying the flavours and giving plenty of room for the garnish to tickle the taste buds and the olfactories.
Say hello to Eddie (seen above, mixing up one of his molecular cocktails – a completely different experience, and also worth having), the top barman at the hotel, and tell him I sent you. He and his bar team will bring all a tray that looks straight from the apothecary’s shelves, with little glass jars of juniper berries, peppercorns, edible flowers, cardamom and more sensational tastes, and cork-stopped bottles of gin, so that you can mix and match your own unique blend.
Recipes courtesy of Mrs. Bea Tollman, Red Carnation Hotels founder and president, from her collection, A Life in Food.
1 egg white
500g pecans or walnuts
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Three quarters of a teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground coriander
Whisk the egg white with a tablespoon of water until foamy, then coat the nuts with the egg mixture. Mix the sugar and spices in a bag, then stir into the coated nuts. Bake at 125°C for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 100°C and bake until crunchy.
The Savoy: American Bar
OK, soft spot #2: The Savoy. The reason? Well, it is a Fairmont managed property and my Canadian pride for the True North influence on hospitality is in high gear whenever I visit this spectacular property. I feel like I’m home here, and it is part of the attraction to this classic showstopper on the Strand along the banks of the River Thames. The renowned Savoy Theatre is its twin, sitting just to the side of the hotel’s grand driveway. And not too far up from the drive way, just across the street, is Covent Garden, the famed neighbourhood that’s seeing a revival. But it’s the classic American Bar, winner of Europe’s Best Bar 2016 in the annual World’s 50 Best Bars listing, which makes me want to return again and again.
Yet, even an icon needs a little makeover once in a while, and the American Bar is no exception. The design studio helmed by Robert Angell took on the project, paying close respect to the history of one of London’s longest “living” cocktail bars, with drinks being sipped here more than 100 years ago. “The re-design of the American Bar serves to pay homage to the incredible lifetime’s dedication of the bar’s great and talented bartenders, who have over the past 126 years each brought a unique presence and personality to the place,” says Angell, who lists Hilton, Belmond and Dorchester among his hospitality client list. “The bar’s popularity is famous and so, together with The Savoy, we have extended the space with an additional room to allow even more guests to enjoy the legendary delights of the American bar and adding to its truly unique history.”
Espresso-deep club chairs, a silver leaf ceiling and glamorous leather, nickel and ebony details recall the bar’s distinct golden age-era personality, while white-suited bartenders play behind the Royal Circle Bar, shaking and stirring. It’s intimate, yet not intimidating; sophisticated but still light-hearted.
To go with the new digs, the bartenders have created a new cocktail menu as well, inspired by London and its tony neighbourhoods, such as Camden, and cool streets like Abbey Road. At the helm is the award-winning head bartender, Erik Lorincz; but Martin (above, showing off his cool-as-ice skills), my favourite mix master there, is a genius, with cocktails and conversation. And, of course, being my favourite, he gave me his recipe for, what else? Punk Rock. And being the bad boy he is, he skipped the gin and gave me rum instead. That said, we did manage to get two gin cocktail recipes as well. We are in London, after all, so never mind the bollocks. www.fairmont.com/savoy-london/dining/americanbar/
PUNK ROCK (by MARTIN)
15ml ANCHO REYES
30ml PINK GRAPEFRUIT JUICE
15ml SUGAR SYRUP
10ml PEYCHAUDE BITTERS
1/2 BARSPOON HICKORY SAUCE
Shake. In a rocks glass, pour over rocks ice.
ISO MALT SUGAR HAIR STYLE
GREEN PARK (by ERIK)
50ml JENSENS OLD TOM GIN
30ml LEMON JUICE
15ml SUGAR SYRUP
3 DROPS CELERY BITTERS
DASH EGG WHITE
5 BASIL LEAVES
Well, I don’t quite have a soft spot – yet – for The Connaught, but it’s growing on me. Especially the secret Champagne Room (above), hidden behind a pair of spectacularly ornate doors and through a spectacularly rich pair of curtains off a hallway passage. It’s like unwrapping a present and discovering all that glitters inside. The narrow room is sexy, intimate and, yet, it still has light. Light, in the form of an oval moon roof – a glassed-in oculus that reveals a living green wall, a golden sculpture in Adonis-like form and a glimpse of the courtyard above the room. Prestige champagnes are poured into the tallest of Baccarat crystal flutes, prompting the bubbles to dance and rise up, delighting our eyes.
But it’s the Connaught Bar that’s brought me here, and a hankering for a martini. The 2016 winner of The World’s Best Cocktail and Best International Hotel Bar was announced at the 10th annual Spirited Awards and chosen by more than 100 industry insiders from around the world. No doubt, it was the innovative cocktails combined with Agostino Perrone’s sense of theatrics. Perrone, the hotel’s director of mixology (above) introduced the bar’s signature Martini Trolley, stirred – never shaken – at tableside, with a choice of bitters presented to the guest. Each bitters’ aroma is inhaled and savoured. Then, based on what the guest finds the most appealing, a martini is born – unique, bespoke, every time. Perrone was kind enough to share a few of his award-winning cocktail recipes with us, one for his fabulous martini and one for Champagne. Now, I’m stirred too.
75ml Gin or Vodka
15ml blend of dry vermouth
5drops bitter of choice (Cardamom, Lavender, Liquorice, Grapefruit, Vanilla, Ginger, Coriander seeds)
In a mixing glass, stir the vermouth and spirit over ice and strain into a chilled martini glass coated with bitter of your choice. Garnish with lemon zest or olive.
Innovative cocktail luxe at Artesian, The Langham, London
Check in to the Langham London. This is one of those historic hotels that just keep getting better with age. In fact, for its 150th birthday, the property underwent a strategic facelift recently and, man, does this grand dame have good bones. So good, that age is just a number here.
Start with cocktails at Artesian, the award-winning bar at the hotel. Named best bar in the world in 2015 by The World’s Best Bars Academy (www.worlds50bestbars.com) and its 412 worldwide bar experts, and The World’s Best Bar by Drinks International Magazine four years running, it’s a bit of a heady place, in that you never know how your cocktail is going to show up. The new and avant garde team has just introduced its new cocktail extravaganza – Perception – where the menu focuses on incorporating the senses into every drink. Edible shards, smoke and mirrors, Pandora’s boxes, miniature copper stills and aging barrels, aloe and agave, all mix masterfully. Experimental, yes. And who doesn’t like to experiment? We do like to start on top. www.langhamhotels.com
The Den, St Martins Lane Hotel, Covent Garden
If you think you’ve accidentally stumbled into a gentleman’s lounge, you’re not too far wrong. The room – rather, “The Den,” as they call it here at St. Martins Lane Hotel – is a plush, dark wood and leather boîte just off the hotel lobby. Known for having a way with Gin cocktails, the bar and the hotel’s chefs are now experimenting with Afternoon Tea and, boy, are they having fun.
There’s nothing girly about this tea; savoury sandwiches are substantial artisanal-bun delights, eclairs and tarts are big enough to share. We were lucky enough to have a quick chat with Ludovic Mesplé, the head pastry chef who, well, has a way with pastries (don’t pass up the éclair!), and making a dainty sandwich a more, well, substantial affair. A Gentlemen’s tea, indeed. Our sweet tooth thanks you, Mr. Mesplé. But with that in mind, we still want our tea with a Gin Cocktail! www.morganshotelgroup.com/originals/originals-st-martins-lane-london
Cocktail: Pudding and Pye
Cocktails for two at the Polo Bar, The Westbury Hotel, Mayfair
The mixologists at the Polo Bar in the Westbury Hotel have definitely got many things right, but this one tops my list: it’s easy to get cocktail envy once you see the magical concoctions that arrive at table. But no reason to doubt your choice of drink. If you’re not sure which libation to have, they’ll provide you with a mini version of your companion’s drink to try. Brilliant. And pleasing to the eye, too, served up in mini coupes and martini glasses, you won’t be seeing double, just a mini-me version.
The Westbury is also a big fan of the theatre, and are offering a unique pre-theatre menu at Tsukiji, its jewel-box sized Japanese restaurant – we love the red wood interior offset by big windows showcasing the hip Mayfair ‘hood – yes, we said Japanese pre-theatre menu. And why not? The fare here is light and fresh, and the menu changes by the season.
Optics aside, if you’ve got time to take in a pre-theatre drink or post-theatre nightcap, classic cocktails with a historic twist top the menu at Polo Bar, and a renaissance of Pre-Prohibition recipes are whetting the appetites of the barmen and the patrons, alike. And you can’t help but want to linger and just sip. From the glittering Swarovski crystal and luxurious Fendi details to the sparkle of the bar’s habitués, the room is as much a part of the experience at this award-winning hotspot. www.westburymayfair.com
Here, two historic recipes that we think you’ll like to try:
Prince of Wales
Dukes Bar, Ian Fleming, James Bond and a killer martini
When Alessandro Palazzi joined the team at Dukes Bar at Dukes Hotel London (a Small Luxury Hotels of the World member) as head barman 10 years ago, he was already well-versed in the history of this upscale watering hole. “Ian Fleming’s writing inspired me to create the menu,” he tells me, as he prepares, at table from the legendary Dukes trolley, one of his now world-famous martinis. “It’s here, that Fleming was also inspired, to write the line “shaken, not stirred” for the Vesper martini. Palazzi, of course, mixes up the Classic Vesper (with Gin and Vodka), and his twists on classic Vodka martinis, including Odd Job (with Galliano) and Le Chiffre (a hint of orange liqueur), and cocktails such as Miss MoneyPenny (Ivan the Terrible Vodka, triple sec, fresh lime and, naturally, passion fruit juice), among many others, inspired by the 007 books. A friend and fellow tippler had warned me, the Martinis are spectacular at Dukes, but they are potent. Even a second helping may have me spinning, just a bit.
I, however, couldn’t resist something else from his menu, Strangways, after the ill-fated character James Strangways, an MI6 agent stationed in Jamaica and fellow spy of James Bond. For the Strangways, Palazzi combines:
fresh lemon juice
Palazzi serves it in a chilled vintage coupe. Stunning and delicious.
As you can see from his minimalist recipes, Palazzi likes to freestyle it with his measurements, no “exact” anything. “There are already too many rules to remember in life,” he says, “so your Martini shouldn’t come with a set of instructions.” He suggests mixing it up a bit, and personalize your Martini. Want to stir it, rather than shake it? “Go right ahead!” he says, “if you love a Martini a certain way, that’s what makes it the most memorable, and perfect drink of all.