Everyone knows London is one of the world’s most expensive cities, but it’s 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:
Bar magician Salvatore Calabrese
“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.
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. Sakés, 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 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).
IP Bartenders (left to right)
Ben Reed, Alex Turner
Tai Altman and Alex Kammerling
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 a real revolution in what customers expect from top operations.
“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 saké 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 saké, 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.)
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 (a