A Sazerac cocktail is set before me on a neatly folded napkin atop the marble bar at the Langham hotel’s Artesian bar in London, and the moment it arrives I say – perhaps a bit too emphatically – “Aaah!”
Now, “Aaah!” is not an unambiguous remark. It can express deep satisfaction, or it can express bafflement, or it can be a stalling tactic to figure out which you actually mean. At the Artesian, it expresses pretty much all of the above. There’s satisfaction, because I really do love a Sazerac, the famed drink born of old New Orleans. But there’s also bafflement: A low, dense smoke wafts over the surface of this Sazerac, then cascades over the lip, like one of the River Thames fogs of the Sherlock Holmes era. It seems more like a miniature stage set than something to drink.
Alex Kratena, the head bartender, puts on a wry smile as he explains that he’s taken the drink’s traditional elements and adapted them using decidedly non-traditional means. Instead of American rye, he’s poured a Dutch-made, rye-based gin. Instead of a dash of absinthe, he’s charred the botanicals found in absinthe (like wormwood and anise) in a miniature smoker, then layered the ethereal vapour atop the drink, adding a rich, slightly sooty aroma.
I take a sip. I set the drink down on the bar. Again I say, “Aaah!” This time, it’s a sound of pure satisfaction.
Artfully mixed drinks have long been assumed to be an American invention that was exported east, with England’s cocktails regarded as pale imitations of the originals. (There’s that fabled British disdain for ice, to begin with.) But if you spend a little time rooting through the cocktail archives, it becomes clear that London may well have been a leader rather than a follower in the history of mixed drinks. “The guy who invented bitters” – a Brit named Richard Stoughton – “was talking about his bitters mixed with brandy in ads in 1710,” cocktail historian David Wondrich told me. “So the theory of the cocktail was clearly known beforehand, if not the name and institution.”
Perhaps emboldened by the idea that cocktails are, in fact, evidence of native genius rather than a mere talent for assembling recycled parts, London bartenders have over the past few years displayed a new-found confidence, plumbing the murky years before the modern cocktail era and now reinventing contemporary drink for the future. And unlike some high temples of North American bartending, most bars here have happily remembered something essential – that a drink is supposed to be fun, and not a doctoral examination in liquid chemistry.
At Portobello Star, wedged into a narrow spot in the Notting Hill neighbourhood, co-owner Jake Burger told me that adult beverages have been served here in one form or another since 1740. “The first time I walked in, two dogs were fighting,” said Burger, “and the second time it was two guys fighting.” He bought the place anyway, then closed it long enough to give it a full renovation two years ago. “We call it a cocktail tavern.”
I ordered a Guinness punch, a Caribbean favourite made with stout, Jamaican rum, condensed milk and a smattering of spices, served in a pewter tankard. Surprisingly tasty, starting sweet then finishing slightly bitter, but about as light as something from a Dairy Queen. I asked for something less dense, and Burger prescribed a manhattan, using a recreation of the original (and vanishingly rare) Abbott’s Bitters, once popular in the 19th century. This seemed the perfect antidote to the rum-and-beer punch – the complex, tangy bitters turned the drink into something sun-dappled and ineffably exotic, like the alcoholic equivalent of a Turner landscape.
After the doorman checks you in at Purl, you descend into a basement of hidden warrens that give it the feel of an antiquated hedgehog’s lair. The night I arrived, the bartenders were employing generous amounts of dry ice, and great plumes of dense vapour descended from the bar and swirled along the floor toward my couch near the fireplace. I started out with a tiny wassail – an espresso-size warm drink made with cider, honey, absinthe, star anise and cinnamon. “I like coming out of the cold and having a small, warming drink to start,” said co-owner Tristan Stephenson, and I had to agree. Then it was onto a twist on another early favourite, the Tom and Jerry – made with an eggnog ice cream frozen with liquid nitrogen, then dramatically thawed with a flask of poured flaming brandy. (Molecular mixology, meet the 19th century.)
The bar’s most requested drink is Mr. Hyde’s Fixer-Upper, and it’s plain why. Stephenson described it as a variation on not one but two great cocktails – the old-fashioned and the rum and coke. The drink came served in a wax-sealed bottle, with fresh applewood smoke also encased inside. (Pause here to wonder: Is smoke the new bitters?) I cracked it open and poured it over jagged shards of ice in a glass – the Fixer-Upper is made with aged Guatemalan rum, a housemade cola syrup and chocolate and orange bitters. And there’s this: It’s outstandingly complex and delicious. It made me lift a glass to Dr. Jekyll, wherever he might be.
Many consider the 1960s a nadir of cocktail culture, a time when a younger generation found cocktails fusty and turned its attention to, er, other forms of mood enhancement. But this basement retreat a couple doors from Portobello Star finds much worth celebrating in the era. Self-described as having “the E-Z-boy feel of a low-rent, mid-’60s California Valley bachelor pad,” it carves out a classic rumpus room esthetic, with wood panelling and oversize paintings of doe-eyed, long-haired women. The effect is not so much tongue-in-cheek as pure cheeky.
The drinks match the decor, including tiki potions that recapture the glamour and (surprisingly) refined taste of the early wave of faux-Polynesian drinks. It’s a great place for reacquainting yourself with some of these classics – they also serve refreshing tiny, 50-ml martinis – but the bartenders are often happy to depart from the classics catechism and venture someplace new. The Colada Nueva, for example, is made with a secret rum grog mixed with a combo of pineapple, passion fruit, mango and coconut juices, the frothy top delicately decorated with bitters, like an artistic cappuccino. Cowabunga.
“I never understand why bartenders always focus on fruit,” the garrulous and often excitable bar manager Esther Medina told me at Roast. “There are all these vegetables, too.” Medina should know. Roast is an airy restaurant and bar set in the portico of a former flower market above the lively Borough Market. You can look down from the bar and see mounds of fresh produce below. (Roast’s slogan: “Imbibe it while it’s lively.”)
Medina held up some mushrooms and celeriac to demonstrate the point, and I’ll admit that my heart sank – my feeling has long been that there are very good reasons for bartenders to ignore vegetables unless the words “Bloody Mary” have been uttered. Yet Medina made a convert of me, producing a fresh and deeply structured drink consisting of juiced watercress sweetened with apple juice, then spiked with vodka and vermouth. The fancy drinks menu includes other barrier-busting combinations, like the Gin Est Belle – Plymouth stirred with vermouth and served with Campari-soaked pearl onions. Or put yourself in Medina’s hands and order a Market Tipple, constructed from whatever produce looks inviting.
You’ll know you’ve found this small, unmarked subterranean bar when you see the sign reading “Dress Code: No Suits” in the entry hallway. It’s overseen by a young cocktail magician named Paul Tvaroh, who’s originally from the Czech Republic and looks a bit like Johnny Depp after a week-long bender. I was part of a group of four, and Tvaroh prepared a five-course drinks menu for us, which he based on the daily meal plan.
The first drink involved a flaming beverage with an egg broken into it (this turned out to be a hollowed egg filled with liquor) and tasted full-bodied and slightly smoky. Tvaroh then appeared tableside with a silver tray and cover. “You’ve had your breakfast,” he announced, yanking back the cover to reveal four unmarked toothpaste tubes. “Now it’s time to brush your teeth.” He passed out the tubes, which we then opened and sucked out the contents. They were filled with a curious alcoholic paste of minty rum, crème de cacao and mushy green peas.
And so the evening went, with Japanese noodles laced with wasabi-infused vodka for “lunch,” and then an “afternoon” treat, which consisted of a two-foot-high tree of cotton candy, made with Becherovka, an herbal Czech bitters. It was then that I got a sense of what Tvaroh was up to – playing against expectations and stereotypes, forcing you to savour flavours anew. (He never tells you the flavours beforehand, and will ask you to guess before he reveals the ingredients.) As my friend Rhiannon put it, “It’s part drinking, it’s part magic act, it’s part whatever. Just let it happen.”
The cocktail list, appropriately, features a section called “manipulative mixology” (“Things are not always what they seem,” it warns), which includes one bracer called a Holy Smoke, made of a leather-infused cognac with a frankincense and myrrh smoke (“Aaah!”). My head was spinning when I left, and not for the usual reasons.
The bars of London explore cocktail eras as much as they do unique spirits – from the distant past to the distant future (toothpaste tube cocktails!). But the bar where I enjoyed that smoky Sazerac borrowed not only from various epochs but also from geography.
Alex Kratena, in sleeve garters and an elaborate paisley vest, made me a classic mai tai, which was as much a tour de force of aroma as of taste. The terrarium-like garnish of dried pineapple, sugar-dusted mint and cherries infused with chocolate liqueur and rum brought a small tropical adventure with every sip. (The drink itself is aged two to three months in a small cask, imparting to it an uncommon depth.) He also mixes a Martinez variation inspired by a recent trip to Moscow, made of walnut- and cherry-infused gin and served in an ornate hand-painted goblet.
But the drink that stood out most for me was the Prosperity – a wildly inventive spin on the famous Prohibition-era Cuban drink called El Presidente. Kratena crafted it with aged Trinidad rum, Japanese plum-infused sake and his own yuzu bitters (made from the tart Asian citrus). It was presented in a lacquered masu sake box and was everything I hope a drink to be – familiar yet not, soothing yet layered, full of mildly conflicting yet oddly harmonizing tastes that showed up from every point of the compass.
I took a sip, then another. I put it down and said, “Aaah!”
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For a look at five small-batch British distillers, check out Tweaking the Tipple.
Where to Stay
With their neutral colours and cherry wood detailing, the rooms at the Belgravia neighbourhood’s Halkin reflect an Asian vibe of refined austerity. After your meal at the Michelin-starred Thai restaurant Nahm, cap the evening with a cocktail at the friendly Halkin Bar, off the lobby.
Halkin St., 44-20-7333-1000, halkin.como.bz
Sister property of the Halkin, the Metropolitan London has a more modern sensibility, with pear wood and lots of bare white walls. Find out why the king crab tacos are famous at the Michelin-starred, Japanese-Peruvian restaurant Nobu.
Old Park Lane, 44-20-7447-1000, metropolitan.london.como.bz
Where to Drink
Get a taste of London’s cocktail scene at these fine watering holes.
69 Colebrooke Row 69 Colebrooke Row, N1, 44-7540-528-593, 69colebrookerow.com
American Bar Within the Savoy, Strand, WC, 44-20-7836-4343, fairmont.com/savoy
Artesian Within the Langham, 1c Portland Place, W1, 44-20-7636-1000, artesian-bar.co.uk
Callooh Callay 65 Rivington St., EC, 44-20-7739-4781, calloohcallaybar.com
Connaught Bar Carlos Pl., W1, 44-20-7499-7070, the-connaught.co.uk
Lounge Bohemia 1E Great Eastern St., EC, 44-7720-707-000, loungebohemia.com
Mark’s 66-70 Brewer St., W1, 44-20-7292-3518, hixsoho.co.uk
Met Bar Within the Metropolitan London, Old Park Lane, W1, 44-20-7447-1000, metbar.co.uk
Portobello Star 171 Portobello Rd., W1, 44-20-7229-8016, portobellostarbar.co.uk
Purl 50/54 Blandford St., W1, 44-20-7935-0835, purl-london.com
Roast The Floral Hall, Borough Market, Stoney St., SE,44-845-034-7300, roast-restaurant.com
Trailer Happiness 177 Portobello Rd., W1, 44-20-7065-6821, trailerhappiness.com