Experiments and eclecticism: how London’s new generation of bartenders created the world’s best cocktail scene.
You could have knocked the global bartending fraternity down with one of those twirly girly Del Boy-esque umbrellas when Audrey Saunders declared London to be “the best cocktail city in the world”. Coming from the high priestess of cocktails and one based in New York to boot, her statement made discerning drinkers put their glasses down and sit up and take notice. “If I hadn’t started Pegu Club, I’d probably be in London,” Saunders announced in the article in the New York Times, “I just love what’s going on in the scene.”
She has a point. Her statement was made four years ago and it still stands today. When it comes to sheer diversity, quality and talent, London’s bar scene is still pretty hard to beat. If you need proof, consider this: at the prestigious Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards in New Orleans earlier this year four major awards came back to Blighty. And we’re not talking rubbish ones either. Best International Brand Ambassador went to Dan Warner, representing that most British of brands, Beefeater gin which is distilled in Kennington. Best International Bartender of the Year went to Erik Lorincz from the American Bar at The Savoy. The Savoy was also crowned World’s Best Hotel Bar, while Artesian at The Langham picked up World’s Best Cocktail Menu.
“I certainly believe we have some of the best bars around at the moment,” says Liam Davy, bar manager at Hawksmoor London. “Design-wise other cities might be better but as far as the drinks go, we’re steps ahead.”
He wouldn’t have said that 30 years ago. Back then it was all about badly made, overly decorated libations with cringe-worthy comedy names. Sure you could get a good cocktail at most of the five-star hotel bars but on the whole, these were the domain of an older, more classic crowd. If you were modest of pocket and young at heart, it was a safer bet to drink wine or beer.
Brian Silva, bar manager at Rules cocktail bar agrees. “When I first arrived in London from Boston in 1989, I was absolutely horrified,” he says. “There was no cranberry juice let alone freshly-squeezed juices in bars and bartenders would serve ice with a teaspoon. Having worked in bars in the States I found it easier to stick to whisky on the rocks or a glass of wine.”
Then along came Dick Bradsell. Like an invigorating charge of tonic, the mixing maestro from the Isle of Wight freshened up the drinks offering in London’s clubs and suddenly cocktails in the capital were sophisticated, sexy and cool. Timing-wise his emergence was absolutely spot on. Here we were, having flourished through loadsamoney ‘80s Britain and young, influential, power-suited professionals were looking for ways to flash their cash. Cocktails in trendy clubs fitted the bill perfectly.
Fred’s, the Zanzibar, the Groucho Club, Lonsdale, MatchBar, Dick’s Bar at Atlantic Bar & Grill… You name it, any bar worth going to in the 1980s and 1990s bore Bradsell’s stamp. He shook up the classics and served them up with a twist of modernity. His creations, including the Espresso Martini, Bramble, Russian Spring Punch, The Treacle and Cowboy Martini, will go down in liquid history.
“Dick spawned a lot of the guys who have gone on to make cocktails in London so exciting,” says Brian Silva. “Nick Strangeway and Tony Conigliaro are just two of many who have made a huge impression on the international stage.”
Robbie Bargh runs the Gorgeous Group, a London-based, award-winning consultancy service for bars and restaurants including the refurbished American Bar and its minxy younger sister the Beaufort Bar, both at The Savoy. “I know that my overseas clients buy in to the London-effect,” he says. “There’s a confidence and appreciation of design and style we have here that you don’t seem to get anywhere else. We take risks and push boundaries – we’re very creative. In places like New York everyone sticks together but in London we cross cultures in a refreshing and energising way.”
From uptown hotel bars in the west, to low down and dirty dive bars in the east, modern interpretations of the speakeasy in the south and specialist spirit dens in the north, wherever you find yourself in the capital, you’re never too far away from a darned good cocktail. And the beauty is, unlike before, the people behind them are in it for the long haul.
“The whole scene has changed enormously,” says Tony Conigliaro, one of Bradsell’s protégés and a cocktail legend in his own right. ”Consumers are much more knowledgeable, drinks have become much better and there’s a pride in the crafting of cocktails that wasn’t there before.”
That observation is echoed by Brian Silva. “I much prefer bars over here now. Unlike the States, you won’t find a soda gun in any good establishment – that goes for the upmarket bars as well as the independents, everything has become much more bespoke. The skill, passion and care is like it was in the 1950s – the careerist bartender over here puts as much thought into the cut of the ice and the taste of the tonic as they do in the spirits they use in their drinks.”
Erik Lorincz, World Class Bartender of the Year 2010 and Tales of The Cocktail Spirited Awards Best International Bartender of the Year 2011 is one such barman. “Living here for almost a decade, for me London has become the capital of fine artistry, mixed drinks and the home of the creme de la creme of bartenders.”
We say cheers to that.
This article by The Cocktail Lovers originally appeared in The Telegraph Online 13 October 2011
Photo: WR Publishing / Alamy