Monday, 8 December 2008

Top of the Tree cocktail challenge, 4 London bars

For anyone who's ever plucked up the courage to order a Mojito in any number of bars in London, only to be handed an oversweet glass of flaccid liquid stuffed with week-old mint leaves, I do sympathise. There seems to be no way of knowing from the outside, by the prices charged or by the spirits lined up behind the bar, whether a place knows what they're doing when it comes to cocktail-making or if you're going to leave disappointed and the price of a Ryanair return to Barcelona worse-off. It seems that the old adage "you get what you pay for" is never more wrong as when used regarding cocktails - two recent examples:

The bar at the very swanky and exclusive St James Hotel near Piccadilly, where I was served an expensive, warm martini before my equally disappointing meal at Andaman last week. They didn't even keep their martini glasses in the freezer, for goodness' sake, and then charged me £13 plus service. Not one I plan on revisiting.

A selection of drinks made at The Bureau, behind an anonymous black door round the back of Kingly Court in Soho. Not only were they all expertly made with lovely fresh ingredients and looked as good as they tasted, but from the bar menu I could see that they didn't break the bank either. Bureau is my new favourite bar in that part of town.

You may notice I only looked at the bar menu in Bureau out of interest, because on this particular night these lovely cocktails were provided to a few lucky London bloggers gratis. We had been brought together by the people behind Whitley-Neill gin, who donate 5% of their proceeds to the charity Tree Aid and who had organised a cocktail-making competition amongst several central-London bars. First stop was the Lobby Bar at One Aldwych, a grand, columnated space which was a very welcome sight after a cold, miserable trudge through London in December. I will list all the cocktails we were served that evening at the end of this post, along with my scores, but I just want to point out that the nibbles we were served with our drinks at One Aldwych were superb, and if they are a regular feature and not just laid on specially for us that night then I will definitely be back. A plate of large, almost luminescent Italian green olives which tasted like butter, and a selection of dainty sugar-crisped physalis without a hint of bitterness. They brought a chorus of approval from all gathered there that evening.

Next we bundled into a cab for the private members bar at Quo Vadis in Soho. My thoughts on the food served at the restaurant below still stand, but the hidden bar above is quite lovely, cosy and smart and with some very interesting drinks. They do, however, have a rather worrying habit of serving the long drinks with a single, cylindrical chunk of ice running the length of the glass. A nice idea perhaps, but I'm afraid being the shallow, giggling infantiles we are it just seemed... wrong. Have a look at this picture over on Londonist Chris' Flikr page and maybe you'll see what I mean.

Next was the lovely Bureau, where we managed to somehow gatecrash Dianne Abbot MP and colleagues celebrating Barack Obama's win in the US elections. We timidly huddled in our corner while she made a speech, then got on with the serious business of drinking. Bureau even go so far as to make their own marmalade - just one example of the kind of energy they put into their drinks.

Finally, the old favourite Match Bar on Margaret Street served the final contenders for the prize. By this stage we were getting rather peckish so a couple of "Borough Market selection" were ordered, consisting of some cold meats and pickles. They were pretty standard, but did their job. I still like the Match Bar, despite it having lost its edge amongst the latest wave of London Bars. It was one of the first affordable cocktail joints in the city and it's great that it still takes its drink-mixing seriously and is prepared to enter competitions such as this.

So there we have it. Finally, apologies for the lack of photos but when I tell you that they all came out like this from my iPhone then I hope you can understand:

And now without further ado, the finalists and my comments and scores:

Bar: The Lobby Bar at One Aldwych
Cocktail name: The Lost Cherry
Ingredients: 40ml of Whitley Neill
15ml Noilly Prat vermouth
15ml Maraschino infused with fresh cherries
Glass: Martini
Method: Pour all ingredients in a shaker and shake well, double strain
Garnish: 1 x large maraschino cherry at the bottom of the glass
Not sure about this one. I think we're missing an ingredient here because I definitely detected a lot of rose syrup, which overpowered all the other flavours. Also too sweet for me. 3/10

Bar: The Lobby Bar at One Aldwych
Cocktail name: Africa
Ingredients: 1 Star anis
15ml lime juice
50ml Whitley Neill gin
25ml Amaretto
1ds sugar syrup
Glass: Martini
Method: Muddle star anis with sugar and lime juice, add other ingredients, shake and double strain
Garnish: Orange peel, cinnamon stick
Again, a bit sweet for me and with quite a strong Amaretto hit. Drinkable enough. 5/10

Bar: The Lobby Bar at One Aldwych
Cocktail name: Savannah Plain
Ingredients: 50ml Whitley Neill gin
10ml Sugar
10ml Lime
10ml Punt e Mes
10ml Southern Comfort
10ml Mango juice
4x Physalis
Glass: Martini
Method: Muddle star anis with sugar and lime juice, add other ingredients, shake and double strain
Garnish: Orange peel, Cinnamon stick
Lovely bitter aftertaste, mango the main fruit flavour though. Not bad at all. 6/10

Bar: Quo Vadis
Cocktail name: Une Amandine
Ingredients: 60ml Whitley Neill gin
20ml Almond Milk
10ml Maraschino liqueur
15ml lemon juice
5ml Elderflower liqueur
dash of Absinthe
Glass: Champagne flute
Method: Shake all ingredients and double strain into a champagne flute
Garnish: lemon twist (discard) and an edible flower
I didn't get to try this one! But others said it was nice.

Bar: Quo Vadis
Cocktail name: Reciprocal Cocktail
25 ml Whitley Neill Tincture
Pink peppercorns
Grapefruit Zest
10 ml white Cacao
Campari (rinse)
Glass: Pony/martini
Method: Stir with ice (except Campari) and strain into a chilled pony glass rinsed with Campari.
Twist orange or grapefruit zest over the glass from a height and discard.
Garnish: No garnish
One of the best we tried that evening. Sophisticated and balanced, this was almost a heritage cocktail, bringing to mind prohibition-era drinks such as the Old Fashioned. Very good. 8/10

Bar: Bureau
Cocktail name: Tippler's Tree
Ingredients: 50ml Whitley Neill gin
15ml Giffard Abricot
15ml maple syrup
20ml lime juice
4 dashes chocolate bitters
Glass: Martini
Method: Shake and strain
Garnish: A chocolate maple leaf
Punchy, citrusy but ultimately quite straightforward. Moreish. 7/10

Bar: Bureau
Cocktail name: Passing Thyme
50ml Whitley Neill
3 x sprigs fresh thyme
20ml lemon juice
15ml sugar syrup
2 dash of peach bitters
Top with soda
Glass: Collins
Muddle, shake, strain, top with soda
Garnish with lemon wedge and thyme sprigs
A lovely concoction that matched the thyme and juniper flavours to brilliant effect. Another highlight. 8/10

Bar: Bureau
Cocktail name: Rise Marmalade
3 bar spoons (two table spoons) of Rise Marmalade (see below)
25ml lemon juice
50 ml Whitley Neill gin

Rise Marmalade:
Starting with 250ml of water, ending with a volume of 200ml preparation
12 sun dried apricots
2 handfuls of sun dried wolf berries
1 handful of raisins
1 orange, peeled and cut
6 cardamoms
2 cinnamon sticks
5 cloves
3 pinches of crush chillies
1 tea spoon of sumac powder
2 tea spoons of ginger powder
big squeeze (around 40ml) of honey –up to your taste or whatever you have in the cupboard; I used Gale’s Wild Blossom
Boil high heat for 10 minutes. Cover and boil low heat for another 30 (or a bit less, depending on the consistency desired). Stir occasionally. Leave to rest overnight.
Remove the spices - you might blend it if seeking a smoother paste.

Shake and serve up (single or double strained depending on your taste)
Spray orange peel oils all over the glass
Another very impressive cocktail. Rich and satisfying as a Christmas dinner, this was seasonal and unique and went down very well. 8/10


tim_g said...

can anyone go to bureau or is it a members club? i'm always on the lookout for somewhere w/ good affordable drinks

Chris Pople said...

@tim_g Bugger, you're right. I knew QV was members-only but didn't realise Bureau was too... Oh well, maybe I won't be a regular after all.

Anonymous said...

Makes sense! Bars that you can't find because they are so hidden and understated and that have no name on the door = members bar :-)


Chris Pople said...

Not necessarily, Niamh! See Lounge Bohemia (Shoreditch). But yes, usually.

Anonymous said...

So, the drinks (pretty much) got better as the night went on?
Funny that!

Unknown said...

I agree with you about the often crap and overprice Mojitos in London. It is all about the freshness of the mint and the Cubans do it best. The cocktail crawl sounds fantastic, I was going to go as well but sadly had something else on - sounds like I missed out.

Aromy said...

I love love love cocktails! I'm going to have to try some of these recipes when I get hold of some alcohol and a cocktail shaker.

Chris Pople said...

Matt: Yes alright, but I tried to stay as level-headed as possible. Bureau were clear winners, certainly.

Gourmet Chick: The best mojitos I've ever had were all from Cuba. They are geniuses at drinks over there. As for the food... :S

Hollow Legs said...

What? Bureau was a member's bar? Gutted! It was my favourite of the night, I think.

Anonymous said...

Hi The Rise Marmalade- is 3 bar spoons really 2 tablespoons? Seems like a lot of marmalade! Thanks!

Chris Pople said...

Anonymous: Ah yes, perhaps they mean teaspoons. Well spotted.