Today’s nexus of cocktail culture is definitely Old World

London calling: today’s nexus of cocktail culture is definitely Old World

Jack Robertiello

Everyone knows London is one of the world’s most expensive cities, but its taken a while for word to get out that it’s now the headquarters of the cocktail revolution.

Can it be true? Has the cocktail, usually considered with jazz and Hollywood, part of an American cultural triumvirate, really been conquered by London barkeeps? Listen to what America’s King Cocktail, Dale DeGroff, who frequently works with a major London bar management group, has to say:

“They’re doing the most fantastic things there, and the competition to out-do one another is really something,” says DeGroff. “It’s something you must experience to understand, but they are really raising the bar.”

Like in many U.S. cities, most new high-end operations in London (called style bars) must feature custom-made cocktail menus. But bartenders here, encouraged by customer response and friendly competition, are likely to be more adventurous than their American counterparts in crafting the lists, creating cocktails with a wider range of flavor characteristics and presentations. Rather than focusing on variations of the flavored-vodka-and-fruit-juice combo, these bartenders look to develop winning beverages with balance among bitter, sweet, salty and sour tastes.

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They’re also reaching back and tweaking very old cocktail recipes with contemporary presentation styles and ingredients while maintaining the core concept.

Gin seems to be as popular as vodka, and ports, brown spirits and bitters are widely employed in new beverages. Freshly squeezed juices, tropical fruits, essences, marmalades and edible flowers are all among today’s bar essentials. Sakes, sojus, absinthes, amaros and obscure international liqueurs are only part of the mix; here, you better know your Flip from your Fizz and your Sour from your Cobbler. And if you can’t come up with a handful of drinks off the top of your head using muddled fruit and fresh herbs, chances are you won’t be getting work at the high-end.

MAKING A NAME

Bartenders here can become household names through newspaper columns and cocktail books; consultant Ben Reed, named cocktail bartender of the year in 1997 at the Met Bar and a participant in the Cheers Beverage Conference in February, shines on the BBC as well. Salvatore Calabrese, formerly of the Lanesborough Hotel Library Bar and about to conduct the swank new bar, Salvatore at Fifty, inside a casino, has written a series of books, and has become known for his cognac expertise and beverage creativity (for a princely sum, he creates cocktails for high-rollers whom he first interviews at length).

Tony Conigliaro, a roving consultant now working for a group that owns two of the hottest Asian-themed restaurants (Zuma and Roka), says the ten years since the opening of the cutting-edge Atlantic Bar & Grill have paved the way for greater opportunities for bartenders and started a real revolution in what customers expect from top operations.

FRUIT BASKET

“Now, for instance, using fresh juices and fresh fruits in the cocktails is the routine, and we try to adapt the ingredients to each other,” says Conigliaro, who also is scheduled to take part in the Cheers conference. At Zuma and Roka, bartenders use sake and soju as cocktail bases, and Conigliaro infuses them with such ingredients as fuji apples and charred bits of cedar, plums, seasonal white French peaches or cherries. At other bars, the trend for infusing vodkas has evolved from Mars or Snickers bars to better bourbons flavored with plums or cherries.

Some of the favorites at Zuma do, admittedly, employ vodka, like the Southeast Asian Cooler (Zubrowka Bison Vodka, passion fruit juice, cinnamon, mint and fresh apple juice) but there’s also the Geisha San (Martell Cognac and vanilla-based Mexican liqueur called Xanath, with pressed and roasted pineapple and fresh apple juice) and the Rubabu (rhubarb-infused sake, vodka and passion fruit).

At Roka, the walls of the bar are lined with used soju barrels, and jars filled with Conigliaro’s infusions, which are served in cocktails (using vases and oyster-shell glasses) and as individual shots alongside Pear Bellinis and Licorice Whiskey Sours.

Many London bar stars credit Dick Bradsell as the key driver in London’s cocktail revolution. Called one of England’s top fifty foodies by SlowFood, Bradsell helped launch numerous London scenes and hit his stride with restaurateur Oliver Peyton at the Atlantic Bar & Grill, where the bar still bears his name. Now a consultant and columnist for U.K. bar trade magazines, Bradsell helped start a groundswell of interest in real Martinis in the 1990’s and came up with uniquely British variations like the Dillitini (vodka and aquavit shaken with a handful of fresh dill).

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RIDING THE WAVE

Others, sensing a change in London night crawlers, did the same. Jonathan Downey, who heads up seven units in his Matchbar Group, including Milk & Honey, one of the favorites among bar business folk, set his sights on making good drinking more affordable and widely available, but with the same high standards. And he’s encouraged cross-Atlantic pollination, bringing in DeGroff to rejuvenate drink menus.

Now, no matter what the food concept, it seems, a well-built cocktail menu is essential. Take what bartender Massimo Di Paola provides at Indian restaurant Deya: eight Juleps alone, including the Pudina Janoon (anejo rum, passion fruit liqueur, lime, mint, brown sugar, passion fruit and soda) and the Amazon (dark rum, kiwi, kiwi liqueur, lime, mint and soda), as well as such no-holds-barred concoctions as the Indiana Deya (Bombay Sapphire, lime, mint, avocado and papaya) and the Hara Deya (Polstar Vodka, absinthe, lime, yogurt, Tabasco, melon and rose petal).

Among the driving forces behind bartender creativity here are spirit companies and magazines that frequently host drink competitions. Bartenders work diligently on their latest, seek critiques from visiting bar stars and openly share ideas.

Conigliaro, a bar version of chef Ferran Adria (who dazzled the world with combinations like squid ravioli filled with coconut milk topped with ginger-soy vinaigrette and mint oil), has played with creating Whiskey Sour chips, Cosmopolitan popcorn and frozen Bellini balls, although it’s doubtful any of those will get far from the lab. But his comprehensive expertise is well known, and at Sir Terrance Conran’s new Floridita Club, amid the Pineapple Sage Mojitos and Strawberry Elderflower Daiquiris, an aspiring cocktail competitor seeks out his advice.

FRIENDLY COMPETITORS

“Winning one of these competitions can really change things,” says Claire Smith, a former award-winning bartender and now brand ambassador for Belvedere Vodka. Smith, who became a bar manager after discovering that practicing law wasn’t for her, won a regional competition and was scooped up by Wyborowa Vodka to represent the brand. She, like many London bar stars, finds herself moving from brands to bars and back, and apparently loving it.

Smith talks while perched on a banquette at the ultrahot Lonsdale, where she’s worked with Bradsell revamping the cocktail list, and where current bartender Barry Chalmers is beta-testing his Cherry Hennessy (Hennessy Fine de Cognac, sour cherry juice, Wyborowa Almond Vodka and orange bitters) for a competition. Chalmers, who whips up a Violet Martini topped with a pansy float and a frosty Peach Julep in an aluminum mug, seeks assurance that the flavor from the newly imported Wyborowa Almond melds well in the cocktail. “The level of bartender competition here really gets people to work on their creativity, and all involved benefit,” Smith says.

“When you talk about just the drink, I believe London is the leader in the world in innovative cocktail-making,” says Tai Altman, co-founder, IPBartenders, a bar training and spirit consultancy. How the Apple Martini fared in London is a prime example of the differences between the two countries, especially in terms of a drink’s sweetness profile, he says.

“The Apple Martini was usually something simple in the States – sour apple liqueur and vodka, with some variations, and it took off. Here, it’s more likely someone would serve it made with vodka and perhaps calvados, maybe apple schnapps, and fresh-pressed apple juice, introducing elements of freshness, quality and balance,” says Altman.

ALL STARS?

Altman, though, touches on the problems that begin once you get below the upper reaches of bartenders. “Every time I’ve been to America, you can get six or seven of the standard cocktails prepared well everywhere. Over here, it’s either brilliant cocktails or absolutely awful ones.”

And some experimentation simply doesn’t work. “Take the Strawberry-Basil Martini; it’s a brilliant drink, but you’ve got to get it right because the basil flavor can be very strong. You find bartenders who want to be mixologists, they will put just too much in a drink, not just too much of one flavor, but too many flavors. We base our training in the classics, and four ingredients in a cocktail are usually enough.”

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Another problem in adapting London style to the U.S. is the sheer volume of work required. Behind most style bars are clusters of bartenders scooping, squeezing, shaking and straining all at once, ringing up labor costs few American operators would allow, no matter that drink prices routinely run from $12 to more than $20.

Ben Reed, part of IPB, says getting other than style bar operations to meet higher standards is a major challenge, so IPB has decided to focus on motivating and inspiring bartenders at the mid-range chain and smaller city bars and restaurants.

“These guys not at the top level may still be thinking that this is something you do when you can’t do anything else. Bartending has always been a transient job with very few over 35 years old working because it’s difficult to support a family. What we try to do is to let them know that we have a viable business, we’re professional bartenders whose parents aren’t hesitant to tell their friends what we do anymore, and you can further yourself if you want to develop your schools.”

OLD FAVORITES

Then there are those like Cas Oh, bar manager at the Groucho Club, who oversees a cocktail list of finely crafted oldies, like the Corpse Reviver (gin, Cointreau, Lillet blanc, lemon juice and absinthe), Blood and Sand (Scotch, Cherry Heering, sweet vermouth and orange juice), and an unparalleled Espresso Martini. Young and well traveled, his skills are a sign that someone well trained is employable anywhere.

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Amid a town overrun with Pineapple Ginger Martinis and Lemongrass Collins’s, the dapper master Salvatore Calabrese “can barely wait until we open,” although only cracked plaster, rather than ancient cognacs, are in sight at Salvatore at Fifty. Philosopher/barman Calabrese adheres to the belief that the best bartenders already have long been working at the level of chefs and sommeliers, and that the industry needs to do more to assure that bartending is treated as a serious job. As long as operators look to the bar as a place to cut corners and costs with short cuts and cheap ingredients, raising the bar country- or worldwide will take some doing.

From where he stands, bartending is about not only the drinks, but also the intangibles of service, sales and sympathy. It helps, though, if you possess innate creativity. He proved that great cocktails are not dependent upon obscure ingredients and odd presentations with drinks like his Breakfast Martini (gin, Cointreau, lemon juice and orange marmalade), a beverage born to be enshrined on every brunch menu.

And his modestly named Maestro (1 1/2 ounces Stolichnaya, 1/2 ounce strawberry eau de vie, 1/2 teaspoon maple syrup, 1/2 teaspoon 8-year-old balsamic vinegar and a dash of lemon juice) may be his next greatest idea. That is, after the way he figured out the secrets to selling glasses of 200-plus-year-old cognac for nearly $3,000.

RELATED ARTICLE: Pubs Alive

Cocktails may rule among the trendenistas in London, but the British pub still endures, even as contemporary developments like the “gastropub” (a bar attached to a restaurant serving serious food) thrive.

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Perhaps the smallest pub in town is also one of the busiest. The Nell Gwynn, in the heart of the theater district, is the size of four toll booths, but even on a bright autumn afternoon, it’s standing room only inside, with pints of Tetley’s and Courage backed up on the bar top. At The French in Soho, things are busy enough on a Saturday night that the bartender sends bottles of hard cider surfing along the top of the crowd to customers jammed into the doorway.

One of London’s oldest pubs is Old Dr. Butler’s Head, named after a “physician” who became known for his epilepsy cure–a pistol fired right next to a patient’s skull. In the financial district, the Head is a good spot for glasses of Shepherd Neame, supposedly the first beer brewed in England.

For beer nuts, the one absolute stop is The White Horse Pub in residential Parson’s Green. Leather Chesterfield couches line the walls, deep farm tables are littered with newspapers and on Sundays, a fire in the hearth and all-day Scrabble matches are common. The food is gastropubby (crispy Cornish haddock and chips fried in nut oil and smoked salmon with scrambled eggs and toast, among others, all paired with beers) but it’s the bitter ale selection that makes Americans salivate. About a half-dozen different cask ales are usually there–regulars include Adnam’s Broadside, Harvey’s Sussex Bitter, Oakham JHB, Fuller’s and Rooster’s Yankee–along with pilsners and Belgian brews, and bottles of the occasional American specialty like Anchor Steam and Alaska Smoked Porter, and every Trappist-produced brew.

–JR

RELATED ARTICLE: Rest for the Thirsty

London hotels have long been known as a key stop on the route ambitious hoteliers must take on their way to the top, but they have also become important for U.K. bartenders as well.

An essential part of a great hotel’s character revolves around its bars and restaurants. Long considered the leader of the pack is the fabled American Bar at the Savoy Hotel, where the head bartender job is so coveted, only 10 men have held the position since it opened in the 1920s. Known best for the international bar bible “The Savoy Cocktail Book,” written by bar creator Harry Craddock and updated most recently by former head barman Peter Dorelli, the American Bar is also known as the place where the White Lady (gin, lemon juice and Cointreau) was created.

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The smart deco bar is a beautiful throwback, a jewel box where servers in smart white waistcoats present bowls of olives, nuts and snacks. Today, Salim Khoury, working at the Savoy since 1969, multiple winner of various bartender of the year competitions and a second-place finisher in 1993 in the International Barman of the Year, runs a tight ship, creating award winning drinks like the Blushing Monarch (Campari, gin, orange curacao and passion fruit juice). Longevity here makes sense; it seems the bar is always crowded with theatergoers, hotel guests and the deep-pocketed curious.

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Cognac and cocktail expert Salvatore Calabrese has left the Library Bar at The Lanesborough (see main story), but the hotel is still a place to see and be seen and take the cocktail pulse at the higher end of London.

At the hipper, hotter end of the spectrum is The Sanderson Hotel, where the 80 foot-long, minimalist, glowing onyx Long Bar dominates the first floor. A former wallpaper factory, The Sanderson is an ultra-modern hotel from the mind of Ian Schrager. After hours, it’s the Purple Bar, decorated in a riot of lavenders and violets. Open to guests, members, and holders of a Schrager worldwide card, the Purple Bar is small, quiet but fairytale-like, but its mirrored walls and deep purple colors can be a bit much for some.

But more than 130 vodkas are stocked here, and drinks like the Thai Martini–hot pepper infused gin, coconut, fresh lemongrass, cardamom and ginger–are perfectly balanced and beautifully presented late at night, in the Purple and Billiard Rooms. The prices at places like this demand something special, and customers get it.

As in the U.S., other hotels have spiced up their bar setting to keep the night crawlers in the house. At The Trafalgar Hotel, for instance, the Rockwell Bar offers what is considered the largest bourbon collection in London, as well as classic throwback cocktails such as the Horse’s Neck and Sazerac–it’s a must stop for homesick Yanks and bourbon fans on a London bar tour.

–JR

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