Last year, in a nod to austerity, I gave up my membership to Milk & Honey, a cocktail club in Soho. I rationalised that as a non-member, I could still book a dimly lit, silver-toned booth downstairs to enjoy their delicious Penicillin – a reviving concoction of peat whiskey, honey, ginger and lemon – at least until 11pm. However, as I sipped my farewell M&H dry martini, made with a twist of lemon and some fragrant Junipero gin, it struck me that there is something comforting in having a regular drinking den. Clearly, research was needed.
My requirements were simple: superlative cocktails, convivial atmosphere and within walking distance of home. Life takes on a different perspective if you can stroll through London streets after a negroni or two. As I quizzed friends on their favourite hidden drinking dens, it emerged that bars are like old slippers; they’re loved because they fit comfortably with the drinker’s personality. Was I the sort of person who enjoyed tumbling down the stairs of the St Moritz in Soho, or a more sophisticated Dukes bar drinker? Did I like keeping classic, or prefer a more modern approach? There was only one way to find out.
I started my research with Purl, a basement bar in Marylebone that specialises in molecular mixology, the latest fashion in cocktails. According to director Tristan Stephenson, this means using liquid nitrogen, foams, fogs, dry ice and sperification (tiny jellied balls of flavoured liquid) to create drinks that still resonate with the past. Think Ferran Adrià meets Dale DeGroff. If it were not for the burly doorman, you could easily pass by Purl’s railings without knowing that the 18th-century vaults beneath your feet were full of Londoners quaffing Mr Hyde’s Fixer Upper (made from smoke-injected Ron Zucapa rum). The extreme chilling of liquid nitrogen changes both the taste and the texture of alcohol, making even the driest martini strangely sweet and syrupy. So, molecular mixology was struck off the list.
Several people had mentioned Bart’s, a speakeasy bar with no address. Since it was hidden within Chelsea Cloisters, it was going to have to be very good to justify the walk across London. It proved to be more like a private Sloane-ranger club — youthful, jolly and obliging, with a list of colourful, sweet cocktails that you could pour from a teapot. It failed on quality, so my drinking character was taking shape: I needed sophistication.
My next choice was another recommendation: Dukes Bar at Dukes Hotel, famed for its martinis. Very St James’s with its midnight blue velvet chairs and well-travelled clientele. You might think that one martini is much like another, but you’d be wrong. Dukes Bar serves a ‘naked’ martini. A frozen glass is sprayed with the merest hint of vermouth before neat gin or vodka is poured into the glass, straight from the freezer. No stirring or shaking over ice — this is pure alcohol, finished with a twist of Amalfi lemon peel. You need more than a bowl of nuts to stay focused after such a drink.
Trusted friends within the drinks world had told me that I also had to visit the upstairs bar at Rules restaurant in Covent Garden, as under the auspices of Brian Silva it had become the place for top-notch cocktails. It’s tucked above the restaurant and is curiously reminiscent of an Oxford pub with its swirly burgundy carpet, undulating floor, latticed windows and hunting scenes. Looking round, there were none of the glamorous blondes and media types that you find amid the buzz of Mark’s, downstairs at Hix in Soho. Nor were there the strange drinks combinations that you get at the Experimental Cocktail Club in Gerrard Street, such as sweet chilli pepper purée in vodka. Instead, there is a convivial atmosphere, comfortable seats and perfectly balanced, utterly delicious drinks made with true sensitivity. As Brian Silva explains, ‘I try to modernise drinks by retaining their balance.’ The small drinks menu changes regularly, but like all true bars, they can read their customers well and create exquisite drinks to suit their taste. It is the sort of place you feel that Samuel Johnson might have enjoyed had he discovered cocktails rather than tea. I’d found my new drinking den.
Sybil finds dry martinis the perfect antidote to austerity.