21/09/2020 On this page find out about London's drinks scene
The grey skies of London and the preponderance of pubs are part of what drives its denizens to drink, and over the past decade or two, the cocktail scene has grown into an all its own incentive. It shouldn't be too surprising: after the "epicurean travesty" of the U.K. food in the 1970s and 1980s, as Will de-Ferry Foster put it, radically changed the culinary scene of the city.
Today, London is one of the world's leading food cities, and cocktails have benefited from it. "There's been a stage where you've got the food scene, the drink scene intertwined," states Tony Conigliaro, who runs Drink Factory, a crazy scientist's lab where he creates some of the city's most inventive alcoholic concoctions. Foster, Conigliaro, and several other liquor-scene experts were asked what sets the city apart. Here's what they revealed: The agreed on 1. A Certain Irreverence, 2. Drinking = Tradition, 3. London as an Incubator, and 4. The Melting Pot Effect. However, we're going to cover one and two.
A Certain Irreverence
In the U.S., it's difficult to imagine a glamorous lounge with a "smart casual" dress code like the Artesian serving a drink that resembles a child's toy, but that's just the kind of freewheeling, anything-going approach found at many cocktail bars in New School London.
At Casita, a cubby of a watering pot with a jovial crew and a loyal pack of regulars, Foster has no trouble pouring shots from his branded Jägermeister system or mixing a dose of Swine Flu (tequila, lime, grapefruit, and Tabasco) and following those with an expertly made cocktail.
Most of the best cocktail bars in town are also the most relaxed. Both Conigliaro and Sebastian Hamilton-Mudge, a long-time Londoner and global ambassador for Beefeater and Plymouth gins, say they're frequenting Happiness Forgets off Hoxton Square, which offers "high-rent drinks" in the "low-rented basement" (as the bar's slogan goes), the stereo flickering all the time.
CalloohCallay in Shoreditch takes whimsy to the extreme: both space and the drinks feel like a trip down the rabbit hole (or maybe through the closet, because that's how you get to the back room). The decor is so eclectically retro and vibrant that half of you expect servers to appear on roller skates. The menu concept changes every few months (it was printed on Pantone color samples last April) and drinks are all over the map — geographically, stylishly, etc. Maybe you'd like a pisco sour with a pleasant touch of nettle? Or maybe a cocktail that's basically a tequila soup? There is always a drink sharing on the menu meant for a few people who, on our tour, were served in a fishbowl ringed with garden gnomes.
Drinking = Tradition
It's easy to break the tradition, we suppose, in a country with such a long and long history of drinking. From the beer that was drunk in the U.K. Since the pre-Roman days, to "Mother's ruin," i.e. gin, which was famously decried as a moral hazard in the 18th century, the British and the liquor have gone back.
Most people have heard the story of the gin-and-tonic invention: it is said that the British East India Company introduced the quaff to its army in the hope that the quinine in tonic water would fend off malaria, and it was a common U.K. Drink ever since. "It's certainly a regular gin and tonic," says Conigliaro. "This is the traditional home of gin. People are more used to it. It's something that's been around here."
One location where gin has been around is the Duke's Pub, at the Duke's Hotel in Mayfair. The historic watering hole ('smart' dress only, please) is popular for its martinis – James Bond's author Ian Fleming used to love them here, and he learned here to prefer 'shaken, not stirred.' The classic tableside martini is made of Plymouth gin, only a drop of vermouth, and a lemon twist. Place your order, and a waiter in a white suit jacket rolls up a glittering wooden cart and stirs your drink so lovingly, filling a chilled highball glass to the brim.
The only place with the perfect service is the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel, where bartenders wear impeccable cream-colored three-piece suits and are skilled not only in excellent cocktail-making (which you'll pay for, particularly at the exchange rate) but also in that old-fashioned art: conversation.
Score your seat in one of their barstools, and you feel like the most important person in the world. The history of hotel bars selling top-quality drinks and amenities dates back to the 1920s — and Prohibition on our shores. When the selling of alcohol was banned in the U.S., the top bartenders moved across the ocean, setting up locations where they could still see their rich American clients — hotels.
As in the Savoy, several of these watering holes have been dubbed "American Bars" to draw transatlantic clientele. In reality, the American Bar at Savoy's first head bartender, the world-famous Harry Craddock (author of the bartender bible The Savoy Cocktail Book), was a state-owned importer who brought his skills and techniques with him when he embarked a Europe-bound ocean liner in 1920.