Some of Whistling Shop's profoundest joys came from a row of mini-casks behind the bar where an intriguing mix of ingredients are infused into a range of spirits. Though the barrel-aged cocktail craze has swept the world, I've yet to see this range at any one bar. WS2 "Whisky" ages Balvenie with beech, maple, and peat syrup in new oak. WS2 "Genever" captivates with Tanqueray gin, Caol Ila Scotch, green malt, and spices, aged in sherry oak. Wherever you turn at this bar, you'll find the unusual, while the staff and vibe are comfortable, classy. Just the kind of place I'd love to have in my own city.
TRADITIONAL, WITH TWISTS
Smokin': Hawksmoor's julep and Tobacco Old Fashioned
Hawksmoor is the territory of visionary mixer Nick Strangeway, where friendly bartenders continue his tradition of well-crafted drinks. I was delighted to order from a menu loaded with classic juleps, cobblers, punches. St. Regis mint julep is a 1930s new Orleans recipe: rye whiskey and Cuban rum form the base, while homemade grenadine rounds it out. it comes, wonderfully, in a traditional julep cup (atypically caked in thick ice, however) with a vivid garnish of berries and mints, tasting like a proper southern julep. compared to other smoke-infused cocktails, I would have liked to taste more tobacco in the Hawksmoor's tobacco old fashioned. But with rye and house tobacco bitters, the drink was still beautifully executed.
AND THEN ... NOT SO MUCH
It's incredible how many acclaimed London menus are still littered with flavored vodkas and fruity, chichi, or just plain played-out drinks. I witnessed entire groups of friends each with a mojito in hand in bars that carried extensive, fascinating menus.
The 1930s tunes and classy, basement vibe of Nightjar worked in terms of a speakeasy-themed bar. But clientele appeared to be not a day over 18, making the place feel like "kindergarten just let out," as my companion the Renaissance Man said. Fine — but the flamboyantly garnished yet crappy-tasting drinks really sank the place. Despite a beautiful menu, "signature" cocktails tasted of juice (Pedro Pamaro) or smoky tea (Name of the Samurai) but not at all of alcohol. The only win was a surprisingly good canape platter. For a mere 6 pounds, one can get six tasty, generously-sized canapés until 2 or 3 a.m. This is significant when you realize how impossible it is to get even a bite to eat in London's hippest neighborhoods after 11 p.m. (just try!)
POMP OVER TASTE
My expectations were high for my visit to the lauded Artesian Bar at the Langham Hotel. The gorgeous, airy room is illuminated with Asian-meets-French decor, romantic and intimate. An extensive menu hosts a brilliant flavor-profile map to help choose a cocktail to suit your mood. All seemed to confirm how special this place was. And then ...
Yes, I was prepared for pricey cocktails (15 pounds) but not for the menu to read better than it tasted. The standout was Cask Mai Tai, a cask-aged Mai Tai, deeply spiced and autumnal, with tart lime and fresh mint. However, Silk Route, an intriguing milk punch of Batavia Arrack, Pimento Dram, and Elements 8 Platinum Rum was bland with a funky aftertaste. I yearned for its sun-dried roasted coconut and lime elements to shine through. Alexino sounded luscious: Ron Zacapa 23 Rum shaken with whipping cream, red bean paste, and aromatic spices. I tasted little red bean or spice, while the bean paste sat sludge-like at the bottom of the glass. Granted, red bean is not an easy ingredient to mix into a drink. But at roughly $25 a cocktail, each should be exemplary.
SOMETIMES CLASSIC IS BEST