There’s nothing like enjoying a delicacy in its native land. The sophisticated traveler gets an extra thrill from nibbling salty little pearls of caviar in Moscow; indulging in still-wiggling, practically dripping-with-seawater sushi in Tokyo; and sipping a little bubbly amid vine-laden fields in the north of France. So, would it be a surprise for thirsty globetrotters flock to London to sample the latest trends in cutting-edge bartending?
Although the “cocktail” as we know it originated in the United States, London has become the world’s Mecca for classic and contemporary cocktail culture. The British Capital influences the nuances of modern Mixology from New York to San Francisco to Sydney to Singapore.
Many Victorian-era alcoholic drinks (often made with gin) were created there, and have been incorporated into our modern-day roster of classic staples. Updated classics have also come from London, and several of the best barmen around the world, today, have cut their teeth in the tea-soaked Empire of yore.
While at least a dozen “dens of inebriety” are well worth a mention, I'm sharing four of the top-tier drinking holes I had the pleasure of visiting the last time I was in London. Each establishment draws from a traditional base and shakes things up with innovative twists.
The highly urban, design-forward Lonsdale, in Notting Hill, brings a pre-Prohibition-era cocktail party to an Austin Powers-style shag-a-delic hotspot. Brainchild of nightlife leaders Dick Bradsell and Henry Besant, Lonsdale’s colored mood lighting and fiberglass-fabulous textures and shapes give it a spacey Jetsons ambiance while presenting drinks with Old World pomp-and-circumstance.
Considered London’s best cocktail lounges, Lonsdale features a unique method of serving its libations. Rather than forcing guests to crowd around the bar, maneuvering for a bartender’s attention, mixing carts are waltzed directly to tables, as done in elegant ballrooms of the last century.
Charles Vexenat, recently voted Theme Magazine’s Best Bartender in the UK, created a cocktail list for the supper club-style drinking establishment, and many of those appear on the Daily Trolley List, and can be whipped up, tableside.
Again, pulling from traditional methods, bartender Jim Wrigley (right) explains that Lonsdale is “serious about vermouth” and mixes its martinis in a 7-1 (gin – vermouth) ratio. Additionally, instead of “bruising” the drink in a shaker, he prefers to employ a tall mixing glass, in which he lovingly stirs the alcoholic potions. One unusual – and delicious – ddrink, which incorporates both classic and modern influences, is the Rose Petal Martini made with Bombay Sapphire gin, rose liqueur, lychee juice and a dash of bitters.
Since its opening in 2006, the jewel box sized, sophisticated-yet-friendly cocktail bar known as Montgomery Place presents old-time favorites like the Martinez, which is the predecessor to today’s “martini.” The décor is one part 1920’s underground elegance, one part neighborhood drinking hole, shaken with masculine accents (such as dark wood and hues of brown throughout) and garnished with a sprinkling of Old School Vegas memorabilia.
The staff is well versed in not only cocktail formulas but the history behind each drink. Here, for example, one can learn that the Montgomery Martini draws its name from WWII British Field Marshall Montgomery who liked his martinis very dry (15-1: gin-vermouth ratio).
However, the three young bucks who own and run this bar follow some of the most advanced bartending trends, such as “aging” the ice so it is rock-hard and cools the drink without watering it down.
Montgomery Place has been referred to by its peers as “a bartender’s bar” because of the quality and care that goes into every glass; the use of fresh herbs and juices and house-made bitters, grenadines and syrups. As explained by one owner, Italian-born Ago Perrone (right), “For us being a bartender is like being a chef. We want to create the best drinks possible.” Considering the several honors already awarded the 50-seat hotspot, including “Best New Bar” in Theme Magazine and nomination for “Best Bar” in Time Out, it’s safe to say they’re accomplishing that goal.
The American Bar
The American Bar at the Savoy Hotel is a trip down Mixology’s memory lane. Although it first opened in the late 1890’s, the bar got its current name after the arrival of Harry Craddock, in the 1920’s. Craddock, an American bartender, traded the Prohibition-era United States for roaring London, and brought the love of the cocktail to a largely port and ale-drinking crowd.
Other notorious Yankee liquor-lovers such as Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ira Gershwin raised a glass at Craddock’s bar during the same time period. The now classic “White Lady” (gin, Cointreau, lemon juice) was created here by Harry himself, according to the 1930 “The Savoy Cocktail Book,” and although the “Dry Martini” was regularly enjoyed in places like New York, Craddock is said to have popularized it with Londoners. (As shown in the photo at left, Bombay Sapphire's London-based Mixologist Jamie Walker and American Bar Chef Jonathan Pogash, it's still a blast!)
Today, Salim Khoury (crowned Bartender of the Year multiple times) reigns over this boozey landmark, and is hailed one of the world’s leaders in drink making. Peter Dorelli is almost as classic as some of the drinks served, being one of four remaining head barmen who’ve worked at the American Bar over the last century.
Patrons range from hotel guests (largely an older American demographic) to local hipsters swinging through “The Strand” on a Saturday night. Early arrivals can snag a sofa, upon which to relax and take in Terry O'Neill’s photos of Hollywood Legends such as a provocative portrait of Elizabeth Taylor.
Art Deco accents and scattered orchids enhance a decidedly glamorous atmosphere. And, a younger version of a Rat Pack crooner belts out lounge favorites through a devilish smile, while tickling the ivories Monday – Saturday. Drink prices begin at $20 but imbibing here is simply something that must be experienced at least once in a cocktail-lover’s lifetime.
Salvatore, at Fifty
Fifty is a private, members-only club, boasts what some call the best cocktail bar in the United Kingdom. Its lounge, Salvatore, is under the watchful eye of its namesake: Italian cocktail legend, Salvatore Calabrese, who spent a decade as head bartender of the Library Bar at the Lanesborough Hotel, and is sometimes referred to as the Best Bartender in the World.
Traditionally stylish, and modernly sleek, Salvatore features floor-to-ceiling windows, wood paneling and ornate chandeliers making for a grand atmosphere, and reflecting the talented instincts of world-renowned interior designer, Jeffrey Beers.
First opened in 1827 as an upper-class gentlemen’s gambling hall and drinking club, Fifty was one of the most talked about luxe establishments by globetrotters of its day. England’s Duke of Wellington socialized alongside the French Count D'Orsay, and feasted on culinary delights from the chef who had once manned the kitchens of Louis XVI. Today, women and men enjoy fine dining and a little bit of liquid Heaven in the privacy of an exclusive environment.
Calabrese’s cocktail menu boasts many aromatic creative fantasies, which blend sweet, spicy and herbaceous tones, in a myriad of combinations. Possibly his most famous cocktail is the Breakfast Martini (photo left) which is made with gin, Cointreau, fresh lemon juice and bittersweet English marmalade.
Salvatore’s collection of vintage Cognacs serves to establish him as an expert in the area, and he has been featured on TV, radio and in print.
The next time you're headed to the London, take a little stroll through its cocktail wonderland. Just mind your "p"s and "q"s. Though the natives are known to get a little wild, it is a civilized country, after all...