• A gin-lover’s tour of London

    I’ve written a little about the history of gin here, but I know that’s not what you’re really interested in. Judging by the number of “could you recommend a bar…” texts I receive, what you really want to know is where to drink it. Lord knows there are enough of these round-ups, but here’s my spin: the best cocktails, bar-by-bar. 

    SOHO

    Tasting menu, London Gin Club at the Star at Night
    Four gins, plus Fever Tree mixers and garnishes to match each one. Mix, sniff, sample and share to your heart’s delight. What’s not to like? The Star at Night might look like a grotty boozer from the outside, but inside the deal is table service and reservations.

    Stiff upper lip, Mark’s Bar
    Expensive, yes, but this louche lounge beneath Hix is worth the cover charge for the atmosphere alone. It’s also the only place where you can try green-pea-infused gin with ginseng, cider vinegar and mint. Their claim on the menu is right: it is time to give peas a chance.

    Paint-tin punch, Graphic
    Graphic, er, really does deliver what it says on the tin. Aside from a collection of nearly two hundred different gins, there’s a short range of easy-drinking paint-pot cocktails that suit the laidback atmosphere. Try the green one: a mix of Hendrick’s, cucumber and lemon sherbet. Whether the glittery film on top is designed to be ingested remains up for debate.

    St Germain des Prés, ECC
    I’m loath to include ECC. Their rude staff, bemusing walk-in policy and ridiculous prices are well documented – and I’ve experienced them all – yet, well, sometimes it’s fun to disappear through an unmarked door in Chinatown and ensconce yourself in a velvet armchair for an hour or two. The price of a basic two-course meal will buy you a champagne saucer of St Germain des Prés: Hendrik’s, egg-white, cucumber and a mysterious spiced tincture.

    Savoy American Bar

    COVENT GARDEN

    A custom job, The Savoy’s American Bar
    You might as well put bartenders of this pedigree through their paces. Sit at the bar and request a bespoke creation from their arsenal of Tanqueray No. 10, Sipsmith and more. This slice of old London needs no introduction.

    Gin and tonica, Port House
    Gin and tonic might be firmly enmeshed in the history of our capital, but more recently it’s made inroads in Spain. At the Port House, alongside generous plates of tapas, you can try the daily “gin and tonica” special, served in a balloon-shaped copa glass. Impressive for a Spanish restaurant that hails from Ireland.

    FITZROVIA

    Gardeners’s tea break, Bourne & Hollingsworth
    Bourne & Hollingsworth were doing prohibition-style drinking well before Shoreditch covered itself in flocked wallpaper. The gardeners’s tea break is another Hendrick’s and cucumber job, with added green tea and mint. Best of all, it comes with a tiny cucumber sandwich on the side.

    Bourne and Hollingsworth

    Clerkenwell

    Dry martini with a twist, Gin Joint
    Everyone knows how they like their martini, and this is how I have mine. Gin Joint is a bit corporate – it’s a Searcy’s brasserie after all – but they can mix a damn fine drink. Brutalism sceptics need not apply: you’ll probably spend an hour lost in the Barbican centre before you get here.

    Negroni, Café Kick
    Sure, this might not be the best-made negroni in town, but there’s no beating this gin, Campari and vermouth combo on a summer evening on Exmouth Market. I’ll always remember a American friend’s incredulity that drinking on the street is allowed here. The only downside is that gin and table football skills do not go hand-in-hand.

    THE CITY

    Black cat martini, Worship Street Whistling Stop
    I don’t have a clue how they make this. The secret ingredient is “removed cream”, which turns Tanqueray and vermouth into something special – and very strong. The Worship Street Whistling Stop is the sister bar of Purl. It’s a sort of speakeasy crossed with a Victorian apothecary.

    Winter negroni, Duck & Waffle
    I really hope Duck & Waffle bring this cocktail back. It came in a tiny bottle sealed with a beer cap, along with a glass of ice, twist of orange and a bottle opener. Fiendishly bitter, this was one for the hardened negroni fan. One two many and the forty-floor descent became even more nerve jangling.

    Sushi Samba

    Shoreditch and Hoxton

    Negroni, White Lyan
    Yes, there are too many negronis on this list. (I’m a big fan.) But this one is different. White Lyan use no ice and no citrus, so what you’re left with is a centimetre or so of intense, lightly chilled booze. The real surprise? It tastes almost exactly like the original.

    Hendricks and tonic, Boundary Rooftop
    If you’re going to wrap yourself in a rug and watch the sun set over the City, you might as well stick with a classic drink. It feels like a members’ club up here, yet the only barriers to entry are the queue and slightly pricy menu.

    Ramos gin fizz, NOLA
    There’s nowhere better in London to try this “decadent New Orleans classic”, gin shaken with lemon, sugar, orange-flower water, cream and egg white. Spot-on decor and regular live jazz go a long way to evoke of the spirit of the French Quarter. Those prone to sudden bouts of wanderlust beware.

    NOLA

    SOUTHEAST LONDON

    Bombay bomfire, Bar Story
    A neon-green, gin-kiwi-elderflower-lime martini somehow feels much less twee when drunk at a picnic table in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Bar Story‘s excellent bar staff also go some way to make up for the most terrifying toilets in London. In summer, Peckham’s infamous rooftop Campari bar is just a stumble away.

    Jensen’s gin and tonic, 214 Bermondsey
    When on Bermondsey Street, you have to try Bermondsey’s own gin: Jensen’s. It’s super-dry, designed in the style of gins from the 1800s. The bar itself is tucked beneath the Italian restaurant, Antico, and they are serious about their spirits: they even mix their own tonic.

    Have I missed your favourite? Let me know below. 

  • The ultimate G&T

    It’s fitting that mother’s ruin has seen such a surge of popularity in London. No other spirit has played such a part in our city’s history.

    The only small blip (drat!) is that popular opinion credits the invention of gin to a doctor in The Netherlands in the 1400s. From here, it is believed to have found its way to Britain via soldiers fighting in the Thirty Years’ War. According to Sipsmith, this is where the phrase “Dutch courage” originated.

    The arrival of gin perfectly filled a gap in the market. Beer production was leaving large quantities of unwanted grain, the perfect material from which to create a base sprit. Supplies were sold cheap and fast, and by the 1720s London was in the throes of a period known as the “Gin Craze”. Various statistics suggest that people were drinking anywhere from two pints a week to half a pint a day (children included).

    After many attempts, the “Gin Act” of 1751 finally curtailed the boozing, with Hogarth espousing the horrors in his etching of “Gin Lane”. It was not until the 1800s that gin became a more civilized drink, and the fabulous gin palaces sprung up around London.

    Tonic has a separate and fascinating history. It was originally a true “tonic”: a brown liquid high in quinine (the primary anti-malarial used in the colonies) which was mixed with gin to mask the taste.

    – – –

    Today, the recipe for gin has been somewhat refined, and typically comprises two distillations. The first stage is to create a neutral base spirit with a minimum of 96% alcohol. This is usually made from wheat in a modern column still. The second distillation is where the botanicals, which give gin its distinct taste and aroma, come into play. The base spirit will be steeped in the botanicals before a copper still is used to vaporise it. The vapours  pass through a “swan neck” pipe and a basket of more botanicals, before condensing into a second tank. Finally, water is added to reduce the strength, usually along with a very small amount of sugar.

    To be legally called “gin”, the spirit must be dominated by the flavour of juniper. Due to EU regulation, gins are also neatly split into three styles:

    London dry gin is made solely by the process above, with no further additions or flavourings. Traditionally, it has always been seen as the higher end product.

    Distilled gin is also made by the process above, but additional flavours may be added after the second distillation. This method is increasingly popular and used by Hendrick’s, among others.

    Compound gin is not really worth mentioning; this is the cheat’s way out. The base spirit is simply flavoured with artificial flavourings, eliminating the second distillation all together.

    – – –

    So, what makes the best gin and tonic? I headed off to Bombay Sapphire’s “ultimate G&T workshop” at the Hoxton Hotel to find out. I went to the Urban Junkies preview, thanks to a friend of mine who has an unrivalled knack of winning competitions (and teddy bear claw machines).

    Bombay Sapphire, I must admit straight off, is not usually my gin of choice, but I was impressed by the event. After being swiftly welcomed with a large G&T in their signature bowl glass (to enhance the aromas), we were free to potter around the  “Apartment Kitchen” for a few minutes. The masterclass kicked off with a cheesy demonstration of how to pour the perfect drink (drain water from the ice, tip in gin, add double the amount of tonic, in case you weren’t quite sure).

    Bombay Gin 1

    Bombay Gin 2

    Bombay Gin 3

    Bombay Gin 4

    The real focus of the evening began as we gathered around the large communal table, where it emerged the decorative pots filling the shelves each held one of Bombay’s ten botanicals: juniper, lemon peel, grains of paradise, coriander, cubeb berries, orris root, almonds, cassia bark, liquorice and angelica. You can read about them in detail on their website, here. These were passed around to smell, taste and nibble – and there were certainly some surprises.

    The aim of the recipe is to create a balanced gin, with citrus, spice and earth tones complimenting one other.

    Bombay Gin 6

    Bombay Gin 7

    Bombay Gin 8

    The tasting concluded with the obvious highlight, a make-your-own G&T session. We first picked from one of their myriad infusions (orange and clove), before being recommended a garnish (fresh orange and rosemary) and one of Fever Tree’s mixers (bitter lemon). While I struggle to see these as a true gin and tonics, mine was certainly a fine cocktail.

    Bombay Gin 16

    Bombay Gin 17

    Bombay Gin 18

    Recipes for the infusions (including freeze dried raspberries, rhubarb, lavender and ginger) were just one part of the goodie bag, which also contained a bottle of Bombay, a Fever Tree tonic and one of their balloon glasses. At £25 a pop for a ticket, you most certainly get your money’s worth. If you’re interested in going along, which I’d highly recommend, there are classes on the 11th, 18th and 25th of June – details here.

    I’m afraid, though, that Bombay Sapphire haven’t quite converted me to their product. While the infusion was fantastic, it masked the flavours of the gin itself. For now, I’ll still plump for Hendrick’s given the choice. While it might be less traditional, I love the cucumber scent and almost sweet note from the rose petals, both of which are added after the second distillation.

    – – –

    So, gin drinkers out there, what’s your favourite? And how do you drink it?

  • Tapas at the Cookery School

    The few roads north of Oxford Circus are some of the most discordant in London, stuck in-between the chain-store tat of Londoners’ most hated mile and Marylebone’s bijou boutiques. But with the Wallace Collection, Zoilo and the Riding House Café all hidden away here, I find myself fighting through the melee increasingly often.

    I had been aware for a while that this patch is also home to the Cookery School. I’d perused their website on several occasions, but never quite made a booking. Blame it on cramming for the terrifying WSET exam, which satisfied my thirst for culinary knowledge at least temporarily. With several kitchen disasters under my belt since then (including a spectacular exploding earl grey and chocolate torte), it became clear my cooking skills needed a bit of work to catch up with my boozing abilities. So, I jumped at the chance to attend the Cookery School’s tapas class two weeks ago. 

    The “classroom” is a little smaller than you might expect, just a ground-level shop space off Little Portland Street. Inside, three spotless, stainless steel high tables are set out in front of a small professional kitchen, with a slanted mirror above to make sure everyone can see the stove.

    Cookery School stove

    Cookery School setting

    We were welcomed with a glass of Xarel-lo (a zingy Spanish white; one of the three varietals traditionally used in Cava production), which aided the necessary awkward introductions. This is a great place to come alone: all but two of our group were solo.

    From the ingredients  lined up at the side and our personally named aprons, it became pretty clear that this was going to be a hands-on session. And no sooner than glasses were drained, the bread-making began. Pre-proofed dough was divvied out between us so we could try to master the baker’s technique of whirling it around whilst tucking the edges to create a neat roll.

    Fingers limbered-up and first jokes cracked, we split into groups to each work on one of the tapas dishes. The word tapas, as I have now learnt, derives from the saucers traditionally placed atop drinks to protect them. Proprietors would place a little amuse bouche on each saucer, and from this humble beginning, tapas gradually became fancier and fancier.

    On the menu were:

    • “rustic” bread rolls
    • chorizo and chicory salad (courtesy of Moro)
    • potato tortilla
    • patatas bravas
    • pimientos de padron
    • orange and almond cake

    5

    6

    10

    While we worked in three groups, everyone crowded around to watch and taste when anything was taken to the stove. The dishes were perhaps a little conventional (I would have loved to have seen croquetas or some killer garlic and chilli prawns), but it was the technical advice that stuck in my mind at the end of the day: how to crush garlic with the flat blade of a knife, working through the clove and adding salt for traction; how to tuck in your fingers when chopping, so the knife grazes your knuckle rather then removing a fingertip; and how much salt we should really have each day (a lot, if you ask me).

    11

    After an hour and a half of cooking, while we were busily blackening pimientos de pardon (a Galician classic), the work tables were whipped out of the way and a communal table was laid for dinner. Wine was poured, plates were loaded and I was taken by surprise by the the food. Even the tortilla, which will never be my first choice, was rich and moist. It’s the orange and almond cakes though, that I’ll be rushing to recreate.

    Maybe it was the second glass of Xarel-lo, but I left the class enthused. I was impressed by the standard of teaching, the quality of the ingredients and the structure of the afternoon. The group meal was particularly effective at bringing the class to a leisurely conclusion.

    13

    14

    You can find details of all the Cookery School’s classes and courses online here. I found the level, aimed at the serious home cook, spot-on.



    Disclosure: I was kindly invited to attend this class.