Spirits Confidential with Max Solano
London: At Top of the Cocktail World Part 1 of 4
In our marvelous food and beverage industry (and, it is truly marvelous) how many countless “Best of…” articles have been written over the years? Whether the writers are speaking on something as specific as Bourbon, ceviche or more general topics like restaurants, nightclubs or bars, even? Yet, everyone’s opinions, experiences, preferences and palates differ from one another’s, right? Yet, whimsically and amusingly, the countdowns or lists are released and the impressions are made on the readers.
Anyone who knows me, knows that most of these articles leave my head shaking uncontrollably in confusion and disagreement in many cases. But, as a reader, for once, I would like the author to just spell out the judging criteria and how and why things were scored and evaluated to simply gain a better understanding and appreciation.
Another year went by, and this year, once again, London bars crushed the cocktail scene at the annual Tales of the Cocktail Awards Ceremony in July. I am unclear of how many TOTC judges have actually visited these bars in the past year or what their specific criteria entails. With this said, very recently I went on a quick trip to London with two very close friends and Master Mixologists at Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits: James “J.R.” Starkus and Michael Przydzial. The mission: Visit 15 of the “top” Mixology & Cocktail destinations in three days.
This, by no means was an easy task. And, an even harder task is how do I fairly write about and depict each unique bar experience given the small amount of column space? So, I thought it would be fun to break up this article into multiple segments over the next few issues and provide you with our own countdown from least to most favorite.
Before we do, let’s discuss how London rose to the top of the cocktail world. The definition of “cocktail” from its earliest debated 1800s origins is a beverage which consists of one or more base alcohols (typically distilled), sugar, water and bitters. From there, over the next century, many different categories of cocktails (many defunct, today) emerged. As the originator of cocktails, the United States’ bars flourished. However, it wasn’t until the Volstead Act (aka Prohibition) went into effect in January 1920, that put our bartenders and mixologists in a pickle. The bartender, which was considered a very well-respected profession and member of society, at that time, had to decide to either give up their career and seek another line of work or flee the country and take their craft and knowledge abroad, which included London. And, thankfully, many did flee! London already had a long history of alcohol, but this was a new era of cocktails that were coming out of countries such as England, France and Italy among others. It wasn’t until December 1933 that Prohibition was repealed, but many drinking trends had changed from when alcohol was last legal in this country. Throughout the 20th century, London continued its strong cocktail trends and worked diligently at perfecting their craft. It had been several years since I had last visited London up until this very recent visit. Some of our key takeaways from the London cocktail scene are as follows:
• Most cocktail bars, but not all we visited, warrant their well-earned reputation and accolades, in some cases. Some of the lesser-known ones were exceptional and maybe even deserved a better standing than those that are highly-awarded.
• Most of the cocktail menus were over the top! There was so much extensive work and creativity that went into their production. Many featured a minimum of 30 cocktails and more that were organized by various categories and heavily inspired by one or more themes. Many of the cocktails would also contain in excess of eight ingredients or more.
• Much, much prep work takes place prior to the shifts in order to promote quick execution of cocktails and service, including many venues pre-batching many of their cocktails. In some cases, there are test labs and kitchens dedicated solely for this.
• Pride of ownership and hospitality is over the top! The staff is proud of their venue and happy to be there. The level of service and knowledge were above and beyond! As a matter of fact, most bars trained their entire staff on all front of house positions. So, an employee could be a bartender one week and a cocktail server the next. We would also see the maître d' heavily interacting with the guests and helping create the experience.
• There was clearly more flexibility regarding health code regulations. Things like exposure of ingredients, ice handling, use of unique materials, vessels and props were all on display.
Next month, I will not only begin our London bar countdown, but also lay out for you our detailed judging criteria for each of the specific venues. Til then, chaps!