Ok, this is a post of two halves. The first deals with a new venture I’m involved in. The second with that near legendary gem of a bar, 69 Colebrooke Row.
And we kick off with the first half. The new venture is the London Cocktail Society which had its inaugural meeting on 8 September. The society, (well, it’s more of a club really but we couldn’t call it the London Cocktail Club as some darn fools had already nabbed that moniker) is a friendly little group that meets monthly in bars across the capital.
The meetings are part social mixer (where you can chat with other cocktail drinkers, swap tips and, obviously, drink cocktails) and part cocktail-themed event. Depending on the bar we go to, the event could be a talk on techniques, a flair demonstration or a tasting. You can find out more and sign up at the London Cocktail Society website.
And now for a neat little blow of the segue whistle for the second half of this post: our first meeting took place at 69 Colebrooke Row (from now on referred to as 69CR), an auspicious venue for the first gathering. I’d been to 69CR a number of times before and always felts it’s the kind of place you want to keep quiet about so as not to spoil the fun for those in the know. But as the cat is long out of the bag, I feel no qualms whatsoever in discussing it now.
Run by the quietly inimitable Tony Conigliaro, it is in itself a quiet kind of place. The tiny bar’s speak-easy style decor (which although stylish enough I find a little 3/4 in height and not conducive to comfort during long visits) and small cocktail list attracts people happy to pay a fair whack for unassuming yet perfectly thought-out and, mostly, perfectly executed drinks.
On this occasion our evening started with a tour of the upstairs lab. For some reason I’d imagined this as a futuristic, pop-art inspired set from 60s Hollywood sci-fi. The reality was less Barbarella and more Ealing studios (think The Man the White Suit) and probably more interesting for it. Every surface was covered with jars, test bottles, shelves of ingredients and small-scale chem-lab and culinary equipment such as rotavapours and bain-maries. We got to taste a number of ongoing experiments, notably horseradish vodka created in the rotavapour. This takes 20 minutes and produces controlled results – unlike the stuff I make at home which although equally delicious can blow your head off if I leave it too long.
With most molecular mixology, the science is used for showmanship. Here it takes place behind the scenes with the aim of refining each ingredient to make the best drink possible. It wasn’t until I had this insiders view that I really appreciated the effort and thought that goes into the drinks at 69CR.
Back downstairs the first round was a Martini (Dry Essence, Beefeater Gin and Martini Extra Dry) a Gonzales (Tequila with caramel liqueur, honey water and Tuberose Hydrosol) and a Serafin (Tequila with Poire Liqueur, lime juice and Fever Tree Ginger Beer). The Martini was very good, though I can’t say the “Dry Essence” (a separate distillation of phenols) noticeably raised it above the offerings of a dozen other London bars. The Gonzales was perfectly balanced though a little sweet for my taste but it was interesting to test out the Tuberose hydrosol which we had sampled in the lab earlier. This is a steam distillate with an intense rose scent and is much more subtle when used in this drink. The Serafin was more refreshing but equally delicious.
Round two included a Spitfire (‘69’ House Cognac, Crème de Peche, Lemon Juice, Sugar, White Wine), a vintage Manhattan (bottle aged Bourbon, vermouth and bitters) and a Liquorice whisky sour (Cutty Sark Whisky, lemon juice and liquorice syrup). I’m not a huge fan of peach flavours but the Spitfire was a lovely, well-balanced drink. We had tried the cognac earlier in the evening where Tony explained it had been developed especially for this drink – and personally I felt it could have handled a little extra dash of cognac as it was somewhat overpowered by the peach. Fortunately the vintage Manhattan proved as full bodied as one would expect this classic to be, albeit just a shade smoother than usual from it bottle-ageing.
The aroma of the whisky sour reminded me, not to pull any punches and I must stress this is an entirely personal view, of nothing so much as sick. This has led me to replace the last word in my number one rule of cocktails, which previously read ‘Cocktails should neither taste nor smell of fish’.
Aside from the Licqourice sour, all the drinks were so polite and well-behaved that by the end of the evening I couldn’t help longing for something a little wild, something unbalanced and maybe a little crazy. Just as a contrast. Having said that, 69CR is indubitably one of London’s finest bars. It’s one of a handful to offer this standard of drinks outside of the hotel bars which seem to dominate the top end of the London cocktail scene. A thinking man’s bar perhaps, it’s also the perfect place to go for pre or post dinner-date drinks (or preferably for both).
One last tip. The huge success of the evening was the Bloody Mary made with the horseradish vodka we’d tried earlier. It was bloomin’ marvellous. Word has it that small bottles of said vodka will be available to buy so I recommend getting down to 69CR pronto and getting hold of a bottle before they sell out.