Saturday, April 16, 2011

Travel Tales: London 2011

I'm fresh back from a trip to the London Book Fair this week, where I was also able to fit in an amazing tour of London's cocktail scene. So much was covered in my three nights out that in-depth reviews of each location would be impractical. So I've decided to write up a travelogue to share all the highlights with you.

During this trip I wanted to take in as much as possible so the focus was less on the cocktails themselves and more on the theater of the London cocktail scene. I was able to visit London's top destinations and meet legendary bar masters both old and new.

The first night out, I met my colleagues at The Academy, (formally "the Lab" 12 Old Compton Street, London, W1D 4TQ +44 20 7437 7820), which is considered to be the cradle of the London's modern classic cocktail scene.

In 1996, when the Lab (an acronym for the London Academy of Bartenders) was opened by Douglas Ankrah, the bar's focus on properly made cocktails put them well ahead of the current craze. The interior is casual with a dark, "70's chic" lounge-like feel. Clean lines, leather, formica. It's strangely retro and modern, and the years have given it a well worn patina allowing it a friendly dive-like feel.

In 2010 the bar was (ahem) "rebranded" as the Academy, and though the bartenders that originally made this location famous have moved on to bigger and better things, this is still a good place to find a great drink. The list is comically large - resembling a book more than a menu and covers more than a hundred recipes.

I enjoyed a Double Barrel which was "A Demerara sugar cube, pimento dram and rhubarb bitters stirred together with Havana Club barrel proof, Lagavulin and a touch of ginger beer."

It was served in a double rocks glass over cracked ice with an orange twist and quenched my thirst nicely after a long day at the fair.

Brian Silva behind the bar at Rules, London
We were off to the bar at "Rules" restaurant next. Rules, which was established in 1789, is known as London's oldest restaurant and is one of London's most exclusive locations with a very long history of catering to London's upper crust.

The interior is old-world posh full of dark wood, red carpeting, gold accents, and stuffed leather. A large wheel of first-rate Stilton cheese sat on a silver serving cart next to the fire place, and the big wooden bar boasted a world-class selection of spirits.

Behind the bar was Brian Silva, a legend in the industry well-known for his work at Home House, Scott's and the Connaught.

Brian has brought the Rules bar program into the twenty-first century with an impressive combination state of the art technology while preserving the old world looks. The back of the bar has been retrofitted with stainless steel cold storage drawers and freezers. We were even treated to tours of Brian's private office and storage areas where he showed off more techy bar gadgetry and rare bottles.

A big believer in the fundamentals, the Silva doctrine is: "Don't try to be clever, just focus on making great drinks", and both the bar and his product reflected the credo.

I enjoyed a "Swedish Diplomat" which I remember as having included swedish punsch, diplomat whiskey and fernet. It was served in a massive rocks glass (75 ml) over a huge clear chunk of hand carved ice. Though the portions were normal, it was excellent presentation making you feel that you were getting a very substantial drink.

I also tried a sample of Brian's famous bloody mary, which reminded what an enjoyable drink it could be. It was thick and delicious with fresh horseradish and wonderful spice.

All of our drinks were solidly built and thoroughly enjoyable, but it was Brian's skill as a host that truly elevated the overall experience and brought life to both the bar and the drinks. A skill which is a barman's best asset, and is too often neglected by many aspiring to learn the craft.

Our schedule demanded that we reluctantly move on.

We had to rush off to keep our reservation at Lounge Bohemia (1E Great Eastern Street, London, EC2A 3EJ +44 (07720) 707000) lest we prove ourselves less than punctual for the eccentric molecular mad genius, Paul Tvorah.

We managed to make it on time and the Czech barman welcomed us to his subterranean lair where we were shown into a recessed seating area in a back corner. A cozy spot, we settled in and were presented with the cocktail menu which was pasted into the middle pages of a battered novel.

There was a pronounced bohemian feel here without being over the top. The decor reflected it, but it was more the attitude of the staff and the patrons. Apparently there is even a "no suit" policy!

Lounge Bohemia's current "molecular" selection.
Paul visited our table and went over the current offerings with us. I had the "old castro", my colleagues had a "russian breakfast" and a "holy smoke". This was my first experience with a true "molecular" cocktail. Paul's molecular approach is not only for show, he also has his feet firmly planted in the classics.

The drinks arrived with stories to tell and transformations to take place before our eyes. Paul sprayed an atomizer around the table full of a special blend to heighten the olfactory experience.

The Holy Smoke arrived with the glass upside down on a silver tray. The glass was full of frankincense and myrrh smoke which was up-righted so that the leather infused courvoisier vsop exclusif in the accompanying mini-carafe could be poured in. The gifts of the three wise-men made for an earthy blend, pungent with spicy aromas and barest hints of leather amplifying and exploding the flavors of the already exceptional expression of courvoisier.

The Russian Breakfast came with a very convincing "caviar" that went amazingly well with the dry chocolate infused vodka. The "caviar", a concoction which is a signature part of molecular mixology, was a fun thing to be able to experience as part of my intro to molecular cocktails.

Perhaps the most impressive transformation was the old cuban though. The drink on the platter arrived with a chilled double rocks glass filled with fluffy white vanilla candy floss looking like billowing smoke in the glass. A rolled cinnamon stick-like piece of bark was stuck in the glass looking like a cigar in the dim light.

The Hanava barrel proof rum infused with "cuban cigar, vanilla and orange bitters" came in a cigar tube which Paul opened and poured over the candy floss which dissolved as he stirred with the bark. When the transformation was complete he tucked the bark into the cigar tube and bid us ado.

The effect was along the lines of a rum old fashioned. The cigar was there but only as a distant hint, the sugar, vanilla and orange bitters effectively balancing the rough edges. It was an enjoyable drink and a fun experience overall.

At this point we really needed food, so we caught a quick bite at the Soho location of Busaba Eathai, which is a local chain of upscale Thai eateries with a half-dozen locations in London.

We sat at the large, square communal tables in the large, open, high-ceilinged dining room and enjoyed some fast and fresh food. I had one of the best "jungle curry" dishes that I've ever tried, and my companions enjoyed some delicious green curries. It was the perfect place to fuel up for the rest of the evening.

Then it was up and away to Callooh Callay (65 Rivington Street, London EC2A 3QQ, +44 020 7739 4781), where we ran into none other than former LAB star Victor Nordelöf, who once again treated us not only with great drinks, but great hospitality as well. 

The cocktail menu here was literally comical, presented by the "Shoreditch Comic Cocktail Group" we tuned in to the Summer Edition 2011 No. 5 "Battle of the Rivington Heroes".

The group ordered:

I was able to try my companions' drinks, the popcorn & cola was actually not bad. Every bar should have a well thought out "beginner" drink like this. It's easy and approachable with a fun name, and is currently very popular at the bar. The "Black Cadillac" had nice complexity and balance and I would have enjoyed having one of my own to finish had we stayed for a second drink.

I had the Hawthorne which was as advertised, a fruity, lighter take on the Manhattan. Not having tried the Byrrh before, Victor was kind enough to pour me a sample which I found to be very interesting. On its own it would be a bit unctuous as a stand-alone sweet vermouth replacement in a recipe, but mixed with the Martini Rosso it added some nice fruit and extra sweetness to the drink.

The surroundings were a bit unremarkable but certainly comfortable. We had a great time here, chatting about a few vintage pieces of barware they were using, trying a few new spirits. After a few more stories and a celebratory round of shots of Laird's bonded (dealer's choice), we were sent on our way once again with smiles on our faces.

We hopped in a cab and made our way to Tony Conigliaro's ("Tony C") new spot in the Zetter Townhouse (behind the Zetter Hotel, 49-50 St John’s Square, Clerkenwell Road, London. EC1M +44 (0) 20 7324 4401). 

Current Cocktail menu at the "ZTH " Townhouse Bar

We made our way through the dark courtyard to the entrance. We paused and looked around to see if we were in the right spot. A glass lamp over the door with the letters "ZTH" scribed subtly on the side was the only indication we had found our destination.

We entered the warm, low ceiling room and were greeted by the hostess. When we asked if this was Tony's new bar we received a large smile and a welcome in. The Georgian interior was right out of the 1800's. We were led to overstuffed chairs and a couch around a coffee table, one of several little seating areas situated around the room.

My colleagues ordered a "Master at Arms" and a "Flintlock". I had the "Nettle Gimlet". The drinks were all good, well made and interesting. The Master at Arms' port evaporation really transformed the Meyers rum into something new and enjoyable. The gunpowder tea tincture added some peppery spice to the flintlock and worked well with the Fernet Branca and Beefeater 24.

The Nettle Gimlet had a nice lingering aftertaste that I assume came from the homemade nettle cordial. The lime and sweet were in nice balance allowing the robust flavors of the Beefeater gin to still come through.

As we took in the surroundings we couldn't help but be drawn to (and a bit creeped out by) at the taxidermy kangaroo in boxing pose around the corner in the adjoining dining room. The rooms were stuffed full of decoration and we spent a bit of time wandering and pointing at one oddity after another. The lighting was dim but not dark. The overall effect was that of a warming and cozy nineteenth public house. Great place to take a date!

Next we stopped in at El Camion, formally "El Camino", to see if Dick Bradsell was working, he had already left for the evening though so we moved on to ECC.

As it was our 6th bar and 8th stop for the evening, we met the Experimental Cocktail club a little weary eyed and with admittedly well worn palates. I remember being a bit surprised when we came upon the now famous door in London's Chinatown.

We made our way up to the first level bar, found some seats and ordered a round of drinks. ECC is lucky enough to have a license allowing them to stay open until 3AM, but technically they become a "club" after 11PM and are required to charge a cover of £5. 

I couldn't swear at this point as to what my companions had ordered. I do remember being disappointed by the Havana that I had ordered. It started out nice but had a bit of a muddy, almost ashtray like finish. Possibly it was just the end of the evening and my taste buds were shot, but as I passed it around for tastes we all got the same impression of the drink. Maybe they left the cigar in the bourbon too long, but maybe too it was just the buildup of too weighty of expectations.

On the second night, after a business dinner I met my companions at the Savoy's famous "American Bar" where I found them in a corner conversing with two legendary barmen, Peter Dorelli and Salvatore Calabrese!

As we sipped on barrel aged Hanky Panky's, Mr. Dorelli's own special blend, he led me around the newly renovated space pointing out portraits of his former patrons and regaled me with a few stories from his 30+ years as head bartender here.

The famous curved white bar was resplendent with the finest spirits the world has to offer and the white tuxedo clad barmen worked with expert care and precision. It was Peter that oversaw the 1972 transformation of the American bar from the Tiki look to the current "70's retro deco" I'll call it. The bar was restored as part of the recent 3 year, £220 million renovation of the property.

The tables in the bar are original to the 1972 remodel and were brought in by Peter from his last bar. The chairs were refurbished. The art and photos saved and rehung. After a painful split with the Savoy's last owners, it was clear that Peter was satisfied with the new ownership's restoration.

Peter and Salvatore have been friends since the dawn of time and the stories they told reflected their long history both in and out of the bar. Seemingly quiet and reserved in comparison to Peter's expansive personality and booming Italian accented speech, Salvatore's accent has become an odd mix of his homeland of Italy and that of a conservative Londoner. His speech brings you in as if he were sharing with you a great secret.

Listening to them talk of some of the times that they have shared was a rare treat indeed. Though they had professed a need to leave, as they dug into the subject of "bar theatre" and the importance to the craft of being a good host and bringing life to a drink, they one upped each other several times with "one more story and then we have to go".

They could not underscore the point enough, and it's true enough whether you are making a drink for friends or family or behind the bar. Drink making skills alone are not enough. You've got to be able to connect with your audience and entertain them. The glass is your canvas, the liquor the color, and this your is up to you  to bring that art to life for your customer through your words and your connection with them.

It was an honor to be able to spend time with the two living legends, and listen to the stories that they must have told many thousands of times, but for which they still had a relish in the relaying of.

Beaufort Bar in the newly renovated Savoy Hotel, London

After thanking Salvatore and Peter for their time and bidding them a good evening, we headed over to the see the Beaufort bar's renovation.

The bar is raised a few steps on a stage-like dais in the center of the back wall of the room. Thick black velvet curtains on either side accentuate the stage feel of the bar. The entire room is black and gold, reeking of old world power.

The room was surprisingly lively with most of the tables full. We were met by the lovely Gabriela Moncada Peña behind the bar. She treated us to some very nice drinks including a few unusual creations to try. One was a champagne jello topped with elderflower candy accompanied with a glass of champagne with a vanilla soaked sugar cube fizzing away at the bottom. It was quite good!

Much of the cost of renovating the Beaufort bar room was in the gold leaf applied to these alcoves!

On the third day I was able to get out to do a little shopping and made my way to Gerry's wine shop in Soho.

Gerry's probably has the best selection in London, and it was here that I was able to find the holy grail of rye whiskey, Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13, a delightful rye well deserving of a review post in the near future.

My last night in London began at the Dorchester's China Tang bar (The Dorchester Hotel, Park Lane, London, W1A 2HJ +44 (0) 20 7629 9988) where bar manager, Luca Cordiglieri took excellent care of us. Luca is the current V.P. and former chairman of the U.K.B.G.and another of London's elite barmasters. He was everywhere at once, working the crowd and guiding the staff ensuring that his bar program was running as a well oiled machine.

I was excited to find a Sazarac on the menu made with the same Van Winkle Family Reserve rye, the same bottle I had procured on my afternoon trip to Gerry's. I wouldn't have to wait until I returned home to try one!

It was very robust, big, dry and full of oak. As it warmed it mellowed quite a bit, a wonderful combination that I really enjoyed savoring and lingering over. Luca sent us some dim sum from the kitchen, that were amazingly flavorful.

One odd thing I couldn't help notice is that for such an amazingly well organized program, there was no tiered shelving for bottles. The back bar wall was beautifully decorated and lit, but all the bottles were on a level shelf which was full all the way from the back wall to the front edge.

The Bar at the Dorchester
On our way out we went upstairs to see the main bar "The Bar at the Dorchester", which was full of hand blown red glass spears, mahogany, velvet and mirrored glass. The long, curved and lit bar was impressive.

After ogling the new Merc gullwing parked out front as we departed the Dorchester, we made our way to the Connaught (Carlos Place, Mayfair, London, W1K 2AL +44 020 7499 7070).

The drinks were amazing all around. There we met head mixologist Agostino Perrone behind the bar and I had a "Mulata Daisy", the recipe for which he won the 08/09 Bacardi world cup. It was sweet, the rim coated in cocoa powder, but deep and with good sour balance. Approachable for any level of drinker.

The Martini Cart at the Cannaught
Ago has brought the martini cart back to life and delivers white glove table side assembly. A selection of vanilla, ginger, grapefruit, liquorice, lavender, or coriander bitters allows the customer to chose flavors that best suit their taste. He spins tales of the drink as he spins the mixing spoon expertly in the Yarai mixing glass mixing, never shaking, the customer's ideal martini. Ago has the hospitality gene and amazing skill in creating new recipes, it was easy to see why he is currently London's most sought after talent.

The room was dimly lit with glass and marble gleaming in the ambient light. The back bar had some great conversation pieces including the largest shaker I've ever seen, which apparently was made by a specialty shop and which Ago won as a trophy for a competition.

Chinatown, Experimental Cocktail Club (13A Gerrard Street, Chinatown, W1D 5PS, London +44 02 074 343559).

After seeing so many London establishments and having been here once before with mixed results I held no strong expectations for our return one way or another. There is a lot of hype around this bar. For a new school "speakeasy" the place was roomy. High ceilings on each floor, tables packed in but the place never seemed crowded.

We ended up on the second floor bar this night and were seated in a corner to the left of the bar by the windows. The Toreador I was brought as an opening drink was a little on the sweet side, they could have used a more robust tequila and it would have worked better. The second drink was much better, unfortunately I have no recollection of what it was!

We moved on to El Camion (formally El Camino, 27 Brewer Street London W1F 0RR) where this time we did find the legendary Dick Bradsell working the Baja room). The group was a few heavier as a couple bartenders from ECC were going off shift and decided to join us. We also ran into Antonio, a bartender from Rules, there that was working under Brian the night we visited. It ended up a blur of shaken madness, a great end to the evening and the trip.

Dick Bradsell is a different kind of London legend. He created some of the very best drinks to come from the 80's and 90's barscene. The Bramble, The Wibble, The Russian Spring Punch, The Cowboy Martini...the Espresso Vodka (aka Espresso Martini), and the Treacle. Unassuming but spirited behind the bar he managed the expectations of a very demanding crowd with ease and grace. His staff knew exactly what they were doing and performed their jobs very well, and they were all excellent hosts.

We were greeted with a round of tequila blanco shots with a spicy tomato juice chaser of Dick's own special blend. As I waited my turn in the group to make my order I noticed a bottle of Del Maguey Mezcal Vida on the shelf and asked if he would make me something with it. I was treated with an adaptation of his Pink Chihuahua subbing the mezcal for the tequila. Here's the original recipe:

Pink Chihuahua
(Dick Bradsell- El Camion, 2010) 

50ml Altos Blanco Tequila,
25ml Fresh Lime Juice,
25ml Freshly Squeezed Pomegranate Juice,
20ml Orgeat Syrup,
10ml Eggwhite,

Shake with Ice, then strain into a Cocktail glass; Garnish with a lime wedge.

I was able to try the Treacle, the Bramble, a Wibble and a few others that night. We had a great time and closed the place out at 3AM with the bouncer doing his very best to be polite as we lingered to say our goodbyes. 

All in all, the trip was spectacular. I was able to meet, talk to, watch in action and learn from some of the very best bartenders in the world. I ventured into some of the most storied watering holes, new and old, that the city has to offer. I met many wonderful, warm, gracious hosts that made me feel right at home.

What was learned this trip? Never forget to be a good host. The theatre of the bar is so very important. How the customer is greeted. The look and feel of the place, does it match the drink list? Is the host interested in sharing the 4 recipes for each drink (the classic recipe, the current standard, how the bartender prefers the drink and how the customer likes it) and drawing out the best match for the customer's mood? Has the customer (or friend) been made to feel comfortable and at home?

These are the skills that I found common in each of the legendary professionals I met. Yes, they all made very good drinks. Above all though, they were all excellent hosts. 

I sincerely thank every one of them for their genuine hospitality.


  1. Excellent post. My wife has been bugging me to go on a tour of London (and surrounding) gardens. Now I know what to do in the evenings!

    I made a cocktail tour of DC recently but my notes were pretty sparse. I will have to do better. You got to meet (or already knew) all the bartenders. On my DC trip I was really only able to connect with a few bartender (Gina Chersevani at PS7 in particular was an excellent host). Did you go with a contact who knew these folks, or were you there on an off night? Or are you a cocktail celeb in your own right?

    In any case, thanks for the excellent write up and let me know if you need some help drinking the Van Winkle!

  2. Glad you liked the post, it was a fantastic tour. Off nights are always helpful and we were there midweek. I have a few well connected friends in the cocktail world that graciously share their access with me. Out of respect for the friendship, I refrain from using their names and keep personal stories and references out of the blog. Still, you can have a similar experience by planning ahead, making your reservations, and visiting during off-peak hours. Hope you get to go and enjoy the scene!

  3. Thank you for Great Article!!
    Golden Bee is a new city lounge & cocktail bar located on Old Street bar London with a newly refurbished upstairs bar, terrace & spacious rooftop bar & area.