Cocktail menus can be overwhelming, with all the puntastic tipple titles and fancy foams, vapours and distillations. If you really need to know what to drink in London, here's a good place to start. We've gathered up the best signature serves from some of our favourite cocktail bars in London.
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An all-time classic from the Crescent City
The sazerac is the signature cocktail of a very different city – New Orleans, Louisiana (Nola), where it was invented some time in the mid-nineteenth century. In that French-influenced enclave, cognac was originally used, but patriotic spirit won out and it’s now mostly made with rye, sugar and bitters in an absinthe-rinsed glass. It’s as strong as it sounds, but made properly (as it always is in this passionate tribute to the Big Easy) it’s the ideal soothing nightcap.
Gin, vermouth, ice. The holy trinity
‘Shaken, not stirred’: it’s the most famous cocktail order in history. James Bond has knocked back more than his fair share of booze over his 62-year stint as 007 (including, a bit incongruously, Heineken in ‘Skyfall’), but it was in this discreetly situated hotel bar in the poshest bit of central London that creator Ian Fleming dreamed up his super-sleuth in the 1950s. It’s swanky, suave and sophisticated, and its gin martini is lauded the world over for being about as perfect as such a drink can be.
Rum, rum, rum and more rum – a mighty fine mai tai!
Trader Vic himself, a bar entrepreneur from California, is long gone, but his legacy lives on. Not in the rather sad chain of bars in bland high-end hotels that bear his name, but this creation, which along with the daquiri is the absolute best use of rum. At this Caribbean-heavy bar in Notting Hill, it’s made with four types of rum, orange liqueur, almond, lime and sugar. Rum Kitchen is more St Barts than Haiti, but nevertheless a single sip of this classic will transport you from west London to the West Indies.
A whale of a time, in a glass
The ingredients in this cocktail are listed as Mr Lyan rye, Peychaud’s, ambergris, absinthe rice. Rye is slightly earthier, spicier whiskey. Peychaud’s is bitters. Ambergris is a secretion of the sperm whale which washes up on beaches in New Zealand. And absinthe rice: well, you’ll just have to go and see. But it works like a dream, and tastes unlike anything you’ve ever had before (unless you’re an orca – they love eating sperm whales).
A punch worth fighting over
Who is Edwina and what was her affair? We may never know, but we do know that this cocktail in Dishoom’s King’s Cross cocktail bar is pure Raj. It’s a celebration of the good things about British India (let’s ignore the oppression and famine), with gin, cardamom, candied rose petals and mint. Across Dishoom’s three London sites, the cocktails are all great: many are served in delightful little copper mugs, and incorporate Indian ingredients into simple but stylish serves. Beats an ice-cold Cobra any day.
A proper ‘old fashioned’ – about 2,000 years old, in fact.
One of London’s most consistently creative bartenders, Tony Conigliaro, has assembled a menu at Grain Store that uses unusual savoury ingredients – if you’re skipping dinner, these might almost convince you that they’re nutritionally balanced. Peas, smoked paprika, tuberose are all involved – and in this ‘Greco-Roman’ wine, camomile flowers, frankincense and verjus (unripe grape juice) is stirred with gewurztraminer into an infusion unlike any seen in London for centuries.
No tricks, just a cheerful £5 mix
A fiver. Five pounds. One blue drinking voucher. Here’s proof that not every bar in London is intent on emptying your wallet: the Ginger Mojito served at this perfectly kitsch party-time bar may not be the most sophisticated drink in the city, but we love it because it tastes great and comes without a drop of pretension. Plus, it’s served in a plastic cup, which means you can take it on to the dancefloor and swig while you jig.
Bloody hell, what’s that?
It’s a bloody mary, but a bloody mary as reimagined by a cocktail physicist. Most of its constituents are recognisable (sherry, celery salt, horseradish vodka), but it’s served with a partially solidified ‘tomato yolk’ on a ceramic half-shell. It’s to be thrown back in one like a real oyster, whereupon the drinker’s mouth is flooded with all the spicy, fruity flavours of the drink it vaguely resembles. Work your way through the menu at this smooth, jazz-filled cocktail den, where everything is worthy of becoming a signature drink.
A controlled explosion in a glass
It’s a small but powerful martini-style concoction with Beefeater gin, Fernet Branca, dandelion and burdock bitters, and gunpowder tea tincture… But there’s an extra secret ingredient in there, which ensures your evening goes with a bang. It’s representative of the man behind this eccentric Clerkenwell bar, Tony Conigliaro: for years he’s been at the forefront of cocktail innovation in London. Ahead of the curve behind the bar, you might say.
The drink that turned London bitter
In the dark days, cocktails were sweet, fluorescent and stuck with more umbrellas than an Oxford Street bin on a rainy Saturday. The Italians know though that bitter is better, and of all their appetite-sharpening aperitifs, Campari is king. Along with gin and red vermouth it forms the Negroni, a drink that’s now found on cocktail menus from Wimbledon to Walthamstow. It’s rarely done better than in this diminutive Soho spot, which specialises in all that’s great about Italy (for the rest, see Bella Italia).
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