Old school cocktails
London‘s top bartenders are turning the clock back to rediscover forgotten English drinks. Time Out meets the mixologists championing such wildly extravagant ingredients as home-made lavender bitters and nettle syrup
The English have never been very good at blowing their own trumpet – which is possibly why it has taken a Frenchman to come up with London’s first cocktail list dedicated to celebrating the art of the English mixed drink.
‘Everyone wants to do classic cocktails from New York – Manhattans, Martinis,’ says Charles Vexenat, manager of west London watering hole Lonsdale, ‘but we wanted to do cocktails that were created specifically in London, with a statement of name and date.’
Lonsdale's Nettle berry Sangaree
The result is a cocktail list peppered with historical events, famous names and places – the Savoy, Dickens, royalty, James Bond and even the RAC all make an appearance, while the drinks span several centuries, ranging from early twentieth-century classics such as the Whizz Bang, the Princess Mary and the Mayfair cocktail, to more mystical-sounding drinks such as flips, bucks, cups and sangarees from the 1700s and beyond. And if some of the old-school recipes sound a little challenging (the Corpse Reviver – a mix of gin, Cointreau, lemon juice, vermouth and absinthe created in 1930 at the Savoy – springs to mind), there is also a section highlighting the best cocktails from London’s current crop of bartending talent.
‘In the early twentieth century, gin, Calvados, Cognac and Scotch had a big influence on English cocktails,’ says Vexenat. ‘There was also a lot of vermouth, aperitifs and bitters. So I got rid of almost all my vodkas, some rums, some Scotches, and expanded the vermouths and bitters and gins. All our rums are now from ex-British colonies, except Havana Club to represent Cuba.’
Red wine was also a popular cocktail ingredient in the 1700s and 1800s, so Vexenat has included two claret-based recipes on the list: an English claret punch from 1892 and a claret cup said to be a favourite of Charles Dickens, made using cucumber syrup, amontillado sherry, Lillet Rouge vermouth and maraschino liqueur.
At Hawksmoor in Shoreditch, master mixologist Nick Strangeway has been breathing new life into colonial classics such as the Pegu Club, a mix of lime, Cointreau, Angostura Bitters and gin created in 1920s Burma, and the Bengal lancers’ punch, a blend of rum, claret, Cointreau, mango and orange juices, topped up with champagne.
‘I think it’s legitimate to say the US invented the cocktail, but the mixed drink? No,’ says Strangeway. ‘If you’re talking about the cocktail’s precursors – punches and cups – it’s really a case of drinks starting in the East and moving through to the West, going via England. For example, the word “punch” comes from the Hindi word “panch”, which means five, and is a reference to the number of ingredients in the drink.’
Strangeway’s forays into the flavours of a bygone era have also led him to add borage flowers to his punches, and experiment with oak-ageing gin: ‘The oak casks that used to be used for transporting gin must have had an influence on the flavour. So I’ve got a few bottles of Beefeater behind the bar with sticks of Limousin oak in them, which I might use to give cocktails such as the Martini forerunner, the fancy gin cocktail, more depth.’
The resurgence of this DIY approach – bartenders making their own infusions, liqueurs and bitters rather than just buying them in – is very much in the spirit of old English drink-making, says Strangeway, who confesses to being a big fan of Mrs Beeton: ‘They made loads more syrups and bitters than we do, things like capillaire, a syrup made from maidenhair ferns and orange flower water, which is used a lot in old punch recipes.’
Vexenat, meanwhile, has been busy raiding the English country garden for the Lonsdale list, which abounds with home-made lavender bitters, nettle syrup, rosemary-infused lime cordial, rosehip eau de vie, fresh raspberries and elderflower cordial.
But there still remains one mystery, says Strangeway: ‘If you look at the English cocktail books they go up to the 1930s and then they just
stop. Between the ’40s and the ’90s there is a missing period – so in fact, rather than identifying the golden age of English drinks, it’s probably easier to identify the dark age.’
Quite why this happened, Strangeway is not sure. But it does suggest that an English revival is now well overdue.
Lonsdale, 48 Lonsdale Rd, W11 2DE (020 7727 4080) Westbourne Park or Ladbroke Grove tube.
Hawksmoor, 157 Commercial St, E1 6BJ (020 7247 7392) Liverpool St tube/rail.