Gin’s having a bit of a ‘Thing’ in London at the moment. The ‘Thing’ actually started some years ago, but shows no signs of morphing into a momentary “Fad”, so I think we can continue to call it a ‘Thing’.
In the 80s and 90s no woman worth her extra thick shoulder pads would be seen dead drinking anything but a kooky flavoured vodka. Gin was definitely the wallflower at the party of the 90s. Had we all bought into the urban folklore that blamed gin for our teary outbursts at the end of a wild night out? Or was it that most of us had been imbibing the cheap toxic stuff of cleaner fluid fame and desperately needed a class in Better Gins 101?
Whatever the case, roll on the naughties when a few clever distillers started fiddling with the innocuous liquid to produce a smooth, flavoursome, sophisticated spirit. And then we couldn’t get enough. And still can’t.
The renaissance has seen a wave of premium gins enter the market – Tanqueray, Sacred, Slipsmith, Portobello Road, Hendricks, Monkey 47, to name a few. And gin clubs and cocktail bars with elaborate gin menus are now ubiquitous in central London.
Here are five of my favorite London gin spots. At all of these bars the ambience, interiors, service and food supports the delightful juniper berried beverage. Sip away, long or short, straight or mixed, muddled or over ice and I promise, if you head home in tears with streaky messy mascara on your cheeks, it won’t be the fault of the gin.
The Warwick’s had a bit of a nip and tuck recently and created a “Gin Emporium” to focus on boutique and lesser known gins like Boodles and Elephant Gin. No nasty labels here. I was recently invited to a tasting with all the pomp and ceremony of a wine tasting. There were spitoons, crystal water glasses for in-between quaffing cleanses and instructions to dilute the spirit with just a few drops of water to bring out the flavours of the botanicals. Olivia, the lovely mixologist gave us a 101 in gin history which was tres educational and more fascinating than you might think. Together with bits and pieces I gleaned from her colleague Sorrel, my gin related educational black hole is much smaller now. These are the highlights I found most interesting:
– Gin’s British, isn’t it?
Well not exactly. The Brits have influenced its development but it was originally an emigre from Holland. It was in the 17th century that the English discovered Dutch soldiers drinking it to boost morale. And that’s where the nifty expression ‘Dutch Courage’ comes from. Quite the souvenir to bring back.
– Little known quirky fact?
43% of all gin globally is consumed in the Philippines. Each year, they drink 22 million cases of their local brew – Ginebra San Miguel.
– Best gin/food pairing?
According to Sorrel it’s: “Seafood for me; scallops, mussels, oysters go perfectly. Smoked salmon too.”
Why: Do you need to ask? It’s a “Gin Emporium!” We sampled nine gins at the tasting. But wait, there’s more…
What: Faves were the Portobello Road and Whitely Neill
Who: It’s a pretty young crowd upstairs but there’s a quieter downstairs section if you’re a Nana and find the hard surfaces too noisy
The plush interior of the Polo Bar at this Mayfair institution is highly seductive. Lush royal blue velvet settees, Swarovski and Fendi details and an inherent glamour reminiscent of the 1930s is the perfect backdrop to a night of one (or half a dozen?) G&Ts.
An original and unusual gin menu from Polo’s General Manager Elias Yiallouris and Tanqueray’s mixologist, Tim Homewood, brings a fresh lens to the classic G&T and makes it difficult to follow the ‘just one’ rule. Believe me (hiccup). The chaps are calling their gin menu the ‘Botanical Brew Experience’, as they use an assortment of botanicals to create the six bespoke combinations.
Having tried a few (ahem), my favorite is the pink peppercorn and orange peel infusion, which is both spicy and sweet and has lovely rounded citrus notes. Being shallow, I was also wowed by the cute presentation, with the infused gin arriving in a jug swimming around an infuser of pink peppercorns.
Of course, they do a great classic G&T too, but really, why would you bother?
Why: Six Bespoke Botanical Infusion Gins to try
What: Pink Pepper & Orange Peel Infusion
Who: Anyone looking for Mayfair’s glam of Swarovski and Fendi details with the comfort of a warm and charming hospitality team
Well known London chef, Mark Hix, opened his Soho restaurant in 2010 and received Time Out’s award for Best New Restaurant that same year. What he really should have received, was an award for Best New Bar.
Mark’s Bar is the bar Soho should always have had.
If you can dodge the hostesses on the door to weave your way downstairs you’ll find a room of leather chesterfields, smoky mirrors and low, sexy lighting. It all feels a bit naughty, and that’s before you lay your eyes on the cocktail list.
My gin beverage of choice at Mark’s Bar is The Dragon, and not only because it plays nicely with the slightly risqué environs. It’s barrel-aged 1615 Quebranta pisco with smacked mint, lime juice, Demerara sugar and a ‘remnant’ of Plymouth Navy Strength gin.
Why: Great cocktail list. Fab bar snacks
What: The Dragon
Who: Gay boys. Well dressed lesbians. ‘Those in the know’
UPDATE: October 2014
Despite the gorgeous space, warm hospitality and excellent gin slings, One Kensington has closed. It’s in the process of metamorphising into a different creature, one we haven’t met yet, so the details here may not apply. Use your wits. Or twitter. And when we’ve been back to check it our we’ll update again. For posterity, this is what we found at One Kensington in June 2014.
One Kensington is a truly stunning space. It’s all high ceilings, duck egg leather banquettes and stainless steel bar tops. Slick industrial meets comfort and glamour. Gin feels quite at home here.
From a design perspective, they’ve cleverly integrated heritage grandeur with slick contemporary styling. There are two cocktail areas. A traditional bar running the length of the room and a second bar, which is apparently where the old safe lives (the building was a Bank in a previous life). Ask the delightfully friendly staff to show you the hidden ice buckets in the front bar, or just order a bottle of Bolly and you’ll see how handy it is.
My gin of choice here is a classic Gin Sling. I love the way the Plymouth gin plays with the sweetness of vermouth and cane syrup with the lemon juice and aromatic bitters grounding it.
Why: Gorgeous space. Warm, hospitable service
What: Gin Sling
Who: Anyone looking for ‘accessible glamour’. Enjoy the swanky setting without having to get a credit card extension.
This place is a Gin Palace on steroids. With over 260 different types of gin, if you can’t fin a gin you like here, you’re just not trying hard enough. Or maybe you’re fussy. Or maybe you just don’t like gin?
The aesthetic is ‘cool’ and design-savvy. Hard surfaces, funkster-chic. One for hanging with your homeys rather than slinking into the plushness of a velvet sofa you may never be able to extract yourself from.
Twice a month, on a Monday, there’s ‘Mass’ for serious gin-fanciers at the Juniper Club. Talks and tastings from specialist gin creators from 7pm
It’s hard to commit to a single gin at this palace, but at a push I’d say the Monkey 47 from the Black Forest in Germany, is my current fave. They tend to serve it with a sherbety Fentimans tonic and cranberries.
Where: Golden Square, Soho
Why: I told you before. 261 Gins!
What: Monkey 47
Who: Young funksters. Gin obsessives.