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Classic cocktails come of age - An in-depth survey on the state of the classic cocktail in 2015
We trawled 40 of London’s finest cocktail bars to report on the very latest news and views from the world of the mixologist. Yes, it’s been tough work, but someone has to do it.
There’s never been a better time in history to be a cocktail drinker. Restaurants and bars can no longer pass off below-standard booze with sugar and a gaudy umbrella. Creative bartenders have worked hard to revive the art of cocktail mixing, so any establishment worth the salt on its Margarita glass now serves a sophisticated selection of spirited beauties.
Given our passion for heritage at LoveAntiques.com, cultural antiquities and style icons of days gone by, it’s natural we’re celebrating the comeback of the classic cocktail.
To mark the rebirth of 42 treasures, ranging from the 1850s’ Brandy Daisy to the Common Market (created in 1973 to mark Britain’s entry into the EEC), we’ve devised The 2015 Classic Cocktail Map Of Britain. The map highlights 159 bars, up and down the UK, with a reputation for mixing classics to perfection, or with an innovative, contemporary twist.
Our selfless reporters worked noon, night (and even later night), to delve deep into the drinking culture of London, capital of the classic cocktail. Talking to 40 of London’s top mixologists brought fascinating results.
We discovered an industry that’s recaptured its groove. Recipes from the Prohibition Era are being reworked, using futuristic technology and interesting new ingredients, to make the flavours of the 19th and 20th centuries make sense to the palates of the 21st.
Our Classic Cocktail Survey London 2015 revealed:
of bartenders have seen an increase in demand for classics over the past few years.
of bartenders produce their own infusions, syrups, bitters or purées.
of bartenders believe that preserving the original presentation of a classic cocktail is important
of bartenders agreed with the statement: ‘The Classics can be improved’.
The bars we visited were in:
is by far the most popular classic in the
bars surveyed, followed by the Martini (19.1%),
Mojito (8.5%), Margarita, Negroni,
Sazerac (6.4% each), Manhattan,
Cosmopolitan (4.3% each), Daquiri,
Planter’s Punch and the Mai Tai (2.1% each).
Central London 17
West London 5
North London 5
The City 3
What defines a classic cocktail? Staying power. Plantation holders in old Havana drank the same Mojitos as today’s accountants on a night out.
The Southern Belles of yesterday share the love of a good frozen Julep with today’s girls on a hen night. Sharing the taste for Martini with Frank Sinatra and James Bond is a major part of the charm.
In 1806, a reader wrote to an upmarket New York newspaper to ask what the word cocktail meant. ‘Cocktail,’ the editor replied, ‘is a stimulating liquour, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters…it’s supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion.’
The earliest cocktails were simple, but spirited, with the base spirit packing a punch. Few include more than five ingredients and many use just three.
In the Prohibition, cocktails such as the Gin Rickey were designed to mask the illicit alcohol, so when that age ended, cocktail quaffers developed a liking for drinks that tasted strong, such as the Old-Fashioned.
Tastes have changed through the eras, from the sweet and sour Margarita to the bittersweet Negroni, the savourysour Bloody Mary and the fruity-creamy Piña Colada.
Newly-professional bartenders are now turning to old recipe books to unearth long-lost gems and reinvent vintage favourites.
How do London’s mixologists handle classic cocktails?
“If you don’t know the classics, how can you make any other cocktail?”
E R I K L O R I N C Z
American Bar at
The Savoy Hotel, London
Reverence towards the classics varies among bartenders. Erik Lorincz at the Savoy’s American Bar, London’s oldest cocktail establishment, and Thamas at Rules restaurant, once frequented by Charles Dickens, view classics as the cornerstone of the cocktail industry.
The American Bar serves an Original Sazerac, made from the original ingredients: 1858 Sazerac de Forge brandy, 1950s Pernod absinthe and Peychaud’s bitters from the early 1900s.
Management at Barrio East in Shoreditch and nearby NOLA agree that you can’t improve on a classic recipe. ‘If a customer orders a classic, that’s exactly what they should get,’ they say.
In other newer bars, such as the London Cocktail Club, thought has gone into crafting a list that combines classics with contemporary cocktails, including the Pornstar Martini.
Daniel Stoilaki, Head Bartender at Mint Leaf, believes classic cocktails are “the base of the drinks industry.” He says that customers and bartenders are richer for knowing their classics, as it makes them more willing to experiment and understand how alcohol f lavours bring out the best in each other.
To Hebe Richardson and Nate Brown of the Merchant House, it is the style of a classic that makes it interesting.
Rather than sticking to the precise approach of David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948), they give their team freedom to express themselves with original twists.
Steve Mankeltow, Manager at Chelsea’s Goat, agrees that the classic cocktail recipes are as ‘concepts,’ which can be adapted to suit our modern palates. “If Harry Craddock, David Embury and Gary Regan all have different recipes for a ‘classic’, which is correct?” he points out.
“You take the classics and play around with them… you take an Old Fashioned and you can do anything you want to it — as long as it tastes right!” PAOLO TELESCA Manager The Ape & Bird
Is old and new the ultimate classic combination? Paolo Telesca thinks it’s vital for a bar to develop its own personality, reflected in its drinks menu.
Order an Old Fashioned in The Ape & Bird and you’ ll be offered their speciality, a Rye London Old Fashioned, made with rye whiskey, f lamed orange peel and Amaro London.
Stephen Pennack, Head Barman at The Zetter Townhouse Clerkenwell, presides over a plush bar, full of antique sofas, carpets, gramophones and paintings, including one of ‘The Great Aunt,’ affectionately known as ‘Wilhelmina.’ To resonate with the décor, his cocktails are made with traditional English ingredients, such as nettle, dandelion, burdock, port and sherry.
Head Bartender at The Artesian, Alex Kratena says: ‘Mixing a cocktail is like a work of art. Both the bartender and the customer need to unfold and explore its flavours.’
Fred of the Portobello Star believes that classics should only ever be changed for a reason – for example, to complement food – but has no problem with experimentation, which is how the classics came about in the first place.
Maria Jordan, of Canvas Bar in Old Street maintains that the original flavours of a classic must still be present in any new interpretations. Referring to their Smoked Old Fashioned, she says it is: ‘a combination of elegance and sophistication, yet it upholds the classic taste of the original cocktail. Putting a twist to a classic is an art and getting it right is absolutely essential.’
"It is hard to improve on a classic. But interpretations and twists can be good. In the same way a talented musician riffs on a standard tune and makes it his own.” E D M U N D W E I L Owner NightjarNightjar
Old School, High Tech Living Ventures, a Manchester-based company behind some 25 bars, including The Alchemist, in the City of London, believes in innovation on the technical side of bartending.
Behind the scenes, their mixologists use various proteins and chemicals to bring a drink closer to its ‘perfect’ edition. Shane Dobson, Head Bartender at The Alchemist, tells us their Smoky Old Fashioned takes 10 minutes to reach optimum dilution, giving it intense depth of flavour.
The Zetter Townhouse Clerkenwell collaborates with 69 Colebrooke Row in producing bespoke ingredients which bring out the best in their cocktails.
Using modern techniques such as centrifuging, sous-vide cooking and rotary evaporating to extract flavours, their lab produces ingredients such as rose-essence sugar cubes to tie up their cognac-based champagne cocktail with a flourish.
Twist and Shout Lab Bar manager, Marco Piroli, sees it as his duty to push boundaries.
He’ll serve you a rum matched with peanut butter or bourbon with marshmallow. Your Mint Julep will be made from Bovril, maple syrup, Gentleman Jack, fig, mint and bitters, served with a garnish of beef jerky. It might surprise some drinkers, but he insists the flavours go wonderfully well together.
Peter at The London Cocktail Club, and Charlotte Irvine of Trader Vic’s, are also ground breakers, but agree that if you’re twisting a classic cocktail, it should be renamed. Think the Espresso Martini and Sunset Negroni.
The pros agree that the customer must come first and if they ask for a particular cocktail, that’s what they should get. According to Nate Brown of the Merchant House: ‘The palates of the 1920s are a million miles from modern tastes. It’s important to us to adapt the way in which a classic is put together, in order to bring the most out of the premium spirits that we use in our bar.’
This is a view shared by Maria Jordan and James Huertas of Canvas Bar and Trailer Happiness respectively. James points out that the quality of alcohol has drastically improved, so less sugar is needed today.
Should classic cocktails be presented in a classical way?
“If it looks good, it tastes good.” SHANE DOBSON Head Bartender The Alchemist.
Daniel at Mint Leaf believes classic presentation is important, although he allows experimentation with garnishes on his bar. He is especially keen on garnishing whisky drinks with fresh chocolate. He believes the drink itself will only account for 90% of the customer’s experience and the final 10% can be reached only through exceptional presentation.
Ruben, of Zenna Bar, weights the visual experience of a cocktail at closer to 50%.
Living Ventures’ top bartenders pass through a training program called ‘The Top 100,’ where they are encouraged to experiment and innovate with every aspect of a drink. Many of them enter cocktail competitions, where the visual impact of a drink is scored as much as the way it tastes. As a result, like many Living Ventures bars, The Alchemist is a highly theatrical place.
Nonetheless, 85% of the bartenders we spoke to placed great importance on serving the classics in the expected way.
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