It’s easy to fall into a gin cocktail rut. After all, the classics are reliably excellent, and offer so much potential for personalisation. It’s important, however, to get reacquainted with all that the spirit can do … even within the confines of the canon. My personal drinking habits have tended toward the gin- and whiskey-centric over the past few years, and at home, I stirred up more Negronis, Martinis, and Old Fashioneds than I’m frankly comfortable admitting. By Brian Freedman
This is all to say that a recent jaunt to London was eye-opening and invigorating. Over the course of just three days in the city, I sampled as many gin cocktails as I could, in hopes of discovering how the city most associated with the London dry style of gin (it’s in the name for a reason!) is employing its totemic spirit right now.
What I discovered is that gin is more than alive and well in the English capital — it’s positively vibrating with life and innovation. Cocktail bars are using gin in ways that bridge the gap between classic and forward-thinking, with wonderful results.
Here’s how you can take yourself on a gin cocktail tour in London
Any scientific inquiry requires a control against which to compare findings. In the case of this highly scientific investigation (or, you know, something like that), the logical place to start is Dukes Bar, the venerable Martini palace in the hotel of the same name. Tucked into the subtly glamorous Mayfair section of St. James — Buckingham Palace is just a ten-minute walk — Dukes is renowned for its bracingly booze-forward gin Martini. It’s helmed by the legendary head bartender Alessandro Palazzi, whose dedication to detail and craftsmanship is rivalled only by the wry charm he brings to his Martini construction behind the cart he rolls tableside.
The classic Dukes Martini is built on a base of nearly frozen gin, which is poured into an equally chilled Martini glass that’s been moistened with vermouth that Palazzi helped create, and then shaken out. The glass, in other words, is essentially rinsed with vermouth, not unlike the way a highball is with absinth for a Sazerac. From there, he pours in the ice-cold gin, and anoints the concoction with oils from Amalfi coast lemons — those oils are somehow more floral, more lifted, more ephemeral than the lemons I buy at Whole Foods; again, it’s good to get out once in a while — and serves it.
It’s a deceptively simple cocktail, with gin playing a more pronounced role than it does in the classic ratio (five-to-one is often cited as the standard, though as with everything else cocktail-related, that’s up for serious and often vociferous debate). Each sip is different, growing more citrus-forward as the chill comes off the glass, and more juniper-centric, too. By around three-quarters through mine, one of Palazzi’s colleagues arrived with a new frost-clouded glass, removed the lemon peel from my original one with a pair of oversized tweezers, and proceeded to pour the remains into the new glass, revivifying it with a fresh chill.
On the other end of the spectrum is The Connaught, ranked as one of the top (and, in some years, the top) bars in the world. No wonder: It perfectly splits the difference between subtle glamour and a joyous sense of welcome. Their Martini is a more elaborate affair, also in Mayfair but clothed in more contemporary clothes. Here, director of mixology Agostino Perrone and his team begin their tableside-cart cocktail construction by dripping a card with five different bitters and explaining them all. You smell them and choose which to use in your personal cocktail; I went with a blend of Dr Ago (ginseng and bergamot) and cardamom. He then drips the bitters down the sloped sides of a Martini glass. From there, multiple vermouths and gin (in my case, Sipsmith) are stirred with ice and poured from on high as the ribbon of shimmering liquid, spritzed with oils expressed from a lemon peel, cascades down.
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The result was impossibly complex, less a framing for the gin than a brand new expression of it. They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes; disappointment is sure to result. So while I arrived at The Connaught with a hearty sense of caution, I left dealing with the opposite emotions than I expected: How good could the so-called best bar in the world be? A thousand times better than I’d even been led to believe.
A close relative of the Martini, the Alaska is a cocktail that I didn’t expect to be wowed by, but the one served at the fantastically named A Bar with Shapes for a Name (Google it: The listing actually has a trifecta of primary-colour shapes before any words appear) is an off-menu dream. The bar is pleasantly spare space in Whitmore Estate, Hackney, more Bauhaus in aesthetic restraint than nearly any other bar I’ve been to. The jumpsuit-clad team seems to be just as much a collection of mind-readers as cocktail wizards, and on the recommendation of Jack, who was helping us that evening, I ordered their riff on an Alaska.
It was ingenious. The gin base adopted complex herbal sweetness from Chartreuse MOF (a unique blend of Yellow Chartreuses done with the Meilleur Ouvriers de France Sommeliers), nuttiness from Tio Diego Amontillado from Valdespino, a bit of orange zest in the tin, and three dashes of salt solution. The result was easily the best Alaska I’ve tasted, ethereal and deep all at once. Their London Calling cocktail is also notable, bringing together Botanist gin with what they call recomposed lime, sherry, and quince.
Chameleon, the justifiably popular Tel Aviv-inspired restaurant in Marleybone, not only has a spectacular menu (Jerusalem bagel with sweet harissa, za’atar, and pomegranate molasses! Lamb rib Yemeni tacos with smoked barbecue sauce!), but also an accomplished drinks program. Notably, the Hibiscus Royale sweetens up Fords gin with hibiscus and the fruity sparkle of Prosecco. It’s great on its own and alongside the layered spice of so much of the menu. If you’re in London, it’s well worth making a reservation.
Less far-ranging but deeply appealing in its own right, the Silver Birch, a subtle and sophisticated restaurant in Chiswick, clothes vodka in gin-like flavours with the Rosemary Martini. This drink ingeniously incorporates proprietary rosemary- and bay-infused vodka with vermouth olive bitters, and the results are likely to be appealing to both avowed gin Martini drinkers as well as vodka devotees who want to dip a toe into more gin-inspired waters. If it hadn’t been lunchtime, I would have ordered two.
London has always been a fantastic cocktail destination, but on this visit more than any other, I felt a deep sense of conversation between the past and the future in so many of the glasses placed before me. Even just a short trip to the city showcased the depth and excitement that’s lighting up the world of gin cocktails in London right now. I cannot wait to return. I’ll start hydrating now.
This story first appeared on www.foodandwine.com
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