London just can't get enough of cocktails at the moment and we don't mean cheeky vimto - oh no, we're talking artisanal tipples. Bartenders have taken a leaf out of the food world - quite literally in the case of one West London bar using foraged Mojito ingredients. Provence & authenticity are on the rise - we want to drink cocktails made from spirits which have been hand-bottled in a Hackney micro-distillery and based on a long-lost Victorian recipe.
Pretentious? A little. But being a bit more discerning about your drinks, rather than just throwing them down the hatch, is a much more enjoyable experience for everyone involved. Drinks are being designed with a more refined palate in mind - it's no longer a case of slapping in some tonic with a slice of lemon and house gin. You have to pair the garnish, and ideally the tonic water too, with the botanicals in your spirit. For example, Hendrick's goes best with cucumber, others with grapefruit or orange. Mixologists are getting more experimental too, even scientific with their concoctions. We recently spotted a rotary evaporator in one speakeasy - something from the world of Molecular gastronomy.
Gin has become fantastically popular and with a nod towards the Victorian era, there are Gin palaces & speakeasies popping up right, left and centre. Keep an eye out for the antifogmatics and corpse revivers - old-fashioned cocktails designed to be drunk in the morning to protect you against the cold weather or simply to numb a hangover. Only two corpse reviver recipes are known, due to the fact they were included in the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Handbook. One a mix of cognac, calvados and sweet vermouth, the other gin; triple sec, lillet and a dash of absinthe. These are regularly served with breakfast at Hawksmoor's Guildhall restaurant - apparently they go down well during early morning meetings between city-types. Clearly gin's seedy past as a catalyst of decadence and debauchery has now become one of it's major selling points.
Cocktails are now being served differently too. You can't walk past a bar in East London without seeing a hipster sipping from a jam jar. You see it's not just the drink which has to be authentic - but also the vessel you're drinking from. Vintage glassware is now all the rage - think Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca rather than Tom Cruise in Cocktail. It's time to run up to the loft and grab those Babycham glasses your nan left you - or run off to the nearest charity shop for some cut-glass crystal glassware - the sort once championed by Hyacinth Bucket. They don't have to match either, in fact, it's probably better if they don't...
So now you're up to speed, here are our suggestions for places to go and try some good quality cocktails. There are a few places renown for being at the forefront of the London cocktail revolution - 69 Colebrooke Row, Calloo Callay, Whistling Shop, Nightjar. West London also has some fine offerings, you have Purl in Marylebone, Milk & Honey, the London Gin Club in Soho does gin tasting menus & The Star in Portobello road is home to the Ginstitute. Each of these offer a unique venue which is is part and parcel of your cocktail experience - whether you're in a Prohibition-style speakeasy, a Victorian apothecary or even a makeshift candy store - and it's this carefully crafted experiential element which is key to the bars' success.
If you still can't quite justify the additional expense, here are the some additional reasons for choosing an artisan spirit: A. The quality (better taste, less hangover) B. The enjoyment that comes from knowing the provenance of your alcohol. C. You are now eligible to tell everyone in your immediate surrounding (and we mean everyone) about the history of your beverage/spirit - and there's a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction to be had in this. It provides you with the perfect anecdote, should you find yourself needing to impress in a social situation involving alcohol. Like those annoyingly well-informed wine buffs who can look through a wine list and somehow know that 1990-whatever was a particularly good year for red wine in some obscure region of Croatia, you know that Sipsmith's copper still is named Prudence - which makes you one of the cool kids.
So are artisan drinks here to stay? Well, there's a distillery in Battersea making whisky which is going to take several years to be ready - so they for one must be sure that this trend will be a long-lasting one. So a final piece of advice - hold onto your jam jars, you may well need them next time someone comes round with a bottle of artisan gin & angostura bitters!