TRUE TRAVEL TALES: Splashing through the British capital's cocktail scene
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TRAVEL TALES Twenty-five bars, from Notting Hill to Hoxton. I did some serious exploring when I splashed down in London's famed cocktail scene this June, from cutting-edge experimentation to dive-y comfort, legendary classics to just-opened destinations. I sipped with cocktail luminaries like Nick Strangeway, imbibed incognito at world famous haunts, and raised my glass at good old-fashioned pubs. Here are some of my experiences, served neat.
A SHOT OF INNOVATION
It's true: there's some cutting edge stuff going down in London Town. Among them, 69 Colebrooke Row is considered a standard of experimentation, if not mad science, with drinks pioneer Tony Conigliaro at the helm. A visit to its test lab, Drink Factory — "a collective of like-minded bartenders and artists" — was a revelation. There, unexpected flavors are subjected to rigorous R&D via a dazzling collection of lab equipment ranging from sous vide thermal immersion circulator to tube-tangled "vacuum machine." (Press comparisons of Conigliaro to Willy Wonka have grown cliched but remain effective.).
Drink Factory rhubarb gimlet, post-centrifuge
By no means are Conigliaro and crew's concoctions fussy. When you taste a rhubarb gimlet, for example, you get the pure tart of fresh rhubarb stalks, their essence extracted via centrifuge. This gimlet — among the best cocktails I encountered in London — may have had a complex origin but it contained a mere three ingredients: rhubarb, Beefeater gin, and a twist of grapefruit.
The Colebrooke crew recently took on the fabulous new Zetter Townhouse bar. They've created a cocktail menu of understated, intricate sips like the Flintlock: Beefeater gin, gunpowder tea tincture, sugar, Fernet Branca, and dandelion and burdock bitters. Zetter's British drawing room, whimsically peppered with taxidermy (a full-sized kangaroo!), a gramophone, and mismatched furniture, complemented by a stately yet quirky basement gaming room, is among London's nicest spots to linger over drinks.
Another standout was the spanking new Worship Street Whistling Shop. I chatted with bar manager Ryan Chetiyawardana, formerly of Bramble Bar in Edinburgh and 69 Colebrooke Row. Candlelight glowed warmly against dark wood fixtures and a classic organ with more than a hint of Victorian influence in the basement bar's decor. Chetiyawardana showed us their Rotovap (for distilling at low temperatures) in a tiny, glass-walled "lab." Here the Whistling Shop elves create bitters, tonics, and ingredients like "walnut ketchup" (port wine, green walnut, chocolate, saffron, and spice).
Wonders are many, from a house gin fizz using vanilla salt, orange bitters, extra virgin olive oil, and soda, to a conversation-starter called the (Substitute) Bosom Caresser, layered with baby formula milk (you heard right), Hennessy Fine de Cognac, dry Madeira, house grenadine, salt, and pepper bitters. A pricey Champagne gin fizz (80 pounds a bottle) takes No. 3 gin, lemon, and sugar, fermenting the ingredients with yeast via méthode champenoise, a classic process of secondary fermentation in the bottle. Elegant, integrated beauty.