Desmond tastes us through the three additional ingredients added to the elegant Beefeater 24: Japanese sencha tea, grapefruit peel, Chinese green tea


One jumps at the chance to spend a day at London’s Beefeater Distillery, particularly when given a personal tour by Beefeater’s master distiller Desmond Payne. Gracious and mannered, Payne has been making gin for over 40 years, his early days being at Plymouth Gin. An English picnic in Kensington Gardens and a week full of fine food and cocktails at some of London’s top bars made for one unforgettable week.

English picnic in Kensington Gardens w/ the latest issue of Horse & Hound

Join me on a photo tour through the distillery (in operation since 1820) – the longest running London Dry Gin actually made in London.

Outside the distillery - we arrived in Beefeater cabs to the Kennington district of South London where the distillery is located

Yeoman Warders (aka Beefeaters) guard Her Majesty's palace and the Tower of London... the memorable, London-centric symbol of Beefeater Gin









Two years' supply of juniper berries (mostly from Umbria, Italy) are kept in a cool storage room for back-up if there's ever a bad crop

Giant stills

Distilling at Beefeater



Beefeater’s unique process is that they steep their nine botanicals (juniper, angelica root, angelica seeds, coriander, liquorice, almonds, orris root, Seville oranges, lemon peel) for 24-hours in copper pot stills with water and a neutral grain base of English wheat. All this with only five year-round staff? Impressive at over 2 million cases a year.

Payne produces a series of seasonal releases, like Beefeater Winter Gin this past December, a 2010 Summer Gin (floral notes from elderflower and hibiscus), and a brand new London Market Gin (with kaffir lime and cardamom) that sadly we won’t see released in the US.

Desmond discuss gin through ages, including early days where it was occasionally dangerous to drink yet was mistakenly blamed for many societal ills until the 1750's when licensing of gin production regulated quality

Beefeater's sexy, comfy in-house lounge/bar

A savory Gary Regan creation, Everest, laden w/ curry & coconut




Dan Warner, Beefeater’s global brand ambassador, mixing up a wide range of Beefeater drinks in the distillery bar

Dan grates fresh nutmeg over the Everest cocktail (he also made a simple, delightful gin classic, Army & Navy)

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Down a garden path for a surprise picnic in the hills outside Plymouth: English tea & Pink Gin made w/ fresh reservoir water

Plymouth, England

Plymouth distillery

A 3 1/2 hour train ride through the rolling, green English landscape (yes, dotted with sheep and cows), remains as idyllic as my memories. Ten years ago I explored the central and northern parts of the country, feeling strangely at home in the English countryside and moors. This Summer brought me to the southwestern coast of England and the town of Plymouth.

The streets of Plymouth

Famed as the port from which the Mayflower and pilgrims set sail for America and as home to the British Royal Navy, Plymouth is also known for Plymouth Gin, distilled here since 1793 in the Black Friars Distillery. It is the most atmospheric distillery I’ve yet visited, oozing history. Stone, wood and signature navy blue colors (an homage to its seaside location and the town’s navy ties) define its look. A gorgeous in-house bar evokes both farmhouse and chapel with wood ceiling and warm, red walls.

Distillery tour with Sean Harrison

I’ve long been a fan of mixable Plymouth, a true bartender’s gin as its smooth profile stands up ideally in many a great gin cocktail recipe. Their Navy Strength Gin is a bracing 114 proof and is not available Stateside (I love its smooth intensity)… neither is their bitter/sweet Sloe Gin.

Master distiller Sean Harrison is one of the most delightful I’ve met: genuinely gracious, hospitable, and an engaging conversationalist on numerous subjects. He took us out for haddock and chips, toured us through the distillery, taught us how to make our own (basic) gin, and treated us to a surprise English tea in the woods alongside a river.

Here are photos commemorating an unforgettable trip as a guest of Plymouth, truly an institution in the spirits world …

Plymouth gin produced in the atmospheric 1400's Black Friars Distillery

Room where we distilled gin (which any visitor can do) using our own hand-chosen mix of botanicals & Plymouth's laboratory equipment

Sean teaches us how to distill our own gin

Striking ceiling of 1600's distillery bar












A cocktail reminiscent of a Pimm's Cup but made w/ Plymouth's Fruit Cup in the Plymouth Distillery bar

Plymouth's Distillery Bar serves a number of winning cocktails including a robust Negroni made w/ Navy Strength Plymouth Gin














English tea in a clearing through the woods in the hills above Plymouth

Sean draws fresh water from reservoir to make Pink Gins

Pink Gin with Angostura bitters and pristine reservoir water













Port of Plymouth in the southwest of England

Comparing gins side-by-side & interacting with botanicals used in Plymouth

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Wandering Traveler

Tobago single estate chocolate, beautiful with Angostura 1919 Rum at Taste of London


Curries cooked up in huge vats at Borough Market

It was 10 years ago that I spent a month in England, a country I felt immediately at home in. Returning to the incomparable London last month certainly revealed changes – most for the better, including the ignited culinary and cocktail scene (I covered cocktails last issue). Maybe it wasn’t as devastatingly amazing as some claimed (and produce still falls far behind what I’m used to), but over two weeks, I ate well and broadly, pleased to see London has become a world-class dining city, along with its other endless assets.

"It's Pimm's O'Clock"!

Foodies, do not miss Borough Market, the ultimate London food destination. It may not be a produce mecca like our own Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, but it shows off the best of local foods like cheese, sausages, meats, warm savory pies and pasties, fish, curries, fresh juices (from Natural Smoothie Co.), and, yes, produce.

Sip a Pimm’s while sampling jamon from Tapas Brindisa (loved chorizo rocket sandwiches they were grilling outside). More highlights included African sauces (like coconut chili) from Bim’s Kitchen, Exquisite Deli’s Tyrolean sausages and salami, and a Rosé Spritzer (rosé wine, lemonade, Pimm’s) from Borough Wines. See more favorites below under CoffeeChocolate, Spirits & Wine Shops.

Grapefruit/Campari/Lime Pops from Polka Gelato at Taste of London

Yauatcha's Crispy Duck Salad

Another event I was privileged to attend was Taste of London in idyllic Regent’s Park, similar to food and drink tasting galas in the States. Walking along purple carpets across muddy grass (it has just rained, thankfully clearing in time for the event), we tasted under tents and in makeshift cafes… an excellent way to sample from some of London’s hottest chefs and artisan food and drink purveyors. Highlights were many:

– Caramel-rich Angostura 1919 Rum, paired beautifully with just-launched Tobago Estate, a dark, lush, single-estate chocolate from the West Indies

Walking the purple carpet

– Raved-about restaurant Yauatcha served some of their truly excellent dim sum, including Sweet Potato Mei-Si, Venison Puffs and a Crispy Duck Roll
– Brand new Polka Gelato: the owner and her ice creams/sorbets are delightful, particularly a Pink Grapefruit/Campari/Lime Pop
Creole Soda Bread: I wish I could find a website for these guys, though I did run across a local blogger who felt the same as I did about these addictive breads; each one was better than the last, from Carrot Cherry to Ginger Fig

Union coffee

Union Hand-Roasted Coffee is fair trade – they were doing single drip cups just like I’m used to at home; they roast small-batches, delivered to individual homes, restaurants and cafes
Hendrick’s Gin hosted a gin garden party, complete with a retro-clad hostess (dressed similar to much of my own wardrobe), and refreshing Hendrick’s cocktails
– None other than Heston Blumenthal had an ice cream cart with two flavors: Chocolate & Rosemary, and my tops, Salted Caramel Popcorn

Gelupo gelato

- Ice cream showed strong at Taste… I was crazy about Gelupo, creamy, sexy gelato (with a shop in Soho); just try not to fall in love with their Ricotta & Sour Cherry Ripple; they also served a Granita Cocktail: fresh cucumber and their rose granita doused with Hendrick’s Ginperfecto!

**One note when dining in London: be aware that a majority of mid-to-upscale restaurants offer a dizzying number of menus, different ones for tasting, a la carte, weekends, weekdays, lunch, dinner and so on. Wanting freedom of choice, I found a la carte usually served me best and didn’t lock me into costly tasting menus.

Hendrick's Gin garden at Taste of London


Pinchito's garlicky baby eels

Pinchito, ShoreditchPinchito is your quintessential tapas bar. It’s casual, convivial, and most importantly, delicious. Rounds of padrón peppers, warm cod fritters, patatas bravas, and pork belly with mango flow. Things step up a notch when a garlicky, comforting bowl of Gulas al Ajillo (baby eels) arrive, glistening in oil, slippery like fine noodles. I sip a classic Daiquiri and dive in.

Hawksmoor Porterhouse

Hawksmoor, two locationsHawksmoor claims the best steaks in London… and they may be right. One of the juicier, medium-rare, dry-aged steaks I’ve ever had, their Porterhouse (£6.50/100g) is a lesson in steak perfection with just the right amount of charcoal crust. With a hefty bone one is tempted to grab onto and gnaw off, a side of plump, colorful tomatoes in olive oil adds a feminine yin to the steak’s manly yang.

Hawksmoor Julep

Starters of a half Dorset Crab (£15) with hazelnut butter or Potted Smoked Mackerel (£6) on rustic bread please. Do not miss their impeccable cocktails, which I raved about last issue. One of their visually striking and refreshing-tasting juleps makes an ideal companion to all that North Yorkshire cow.

Cinnamon Club

The Cinnamon Club, Westminster – In the Old Westminster Library, Cinnamon Club’s clean-lined, high-ceilinged library is a memorable space for upscale Indian dining. Scents of curry waft down the street as you pass Westminster Cathedral on your way inside this elegant respite.

Start off with Cinnamon Bellinis. They are better than they sound, evoking the space’s signature spice with effervescence. Executive chef Vivek Singh’s creativity with Indian flavors is impressive: you will likely have dishes here in ways you’ve never experienced them before.

Artful Cinnamon Club dessert plate

Tasting menus are a pricey £75 a head. There was a Maharaja’s Express (a luxury train the chef recently traveled with) menu at £50, but I was happiest going a la carte. Thankfully, I got to try one dish each from both tasting menus: Cwalior, a selection of street-food chaat/snacks (like mini-bhel puri), and an innovative Chickpea Cake, moist, with a hint of Indian spices and mint sauce. Out of the ten dishes I tried, a key stand-out was vegetarian: Plantain ‘Kofta’ (£15) came with beetroot chutney in a yoghurt coconut sauce. Layered and exciting, it was bright, healthy and full of flavor.

Benares dips and pappadum

Benares, MayfairBenares may not have been as seamless (or in as beautiful a setting) as Cinnamon Club, but it’s another upscale Indian restaurant with attentive service and inventive Indian food. I could eat Chicken Tikka Pie in a flaky pastry shell with wild berry sauce over and over again. I wasn’t going to complain about Tandoori Pigeon Breast either, especially with beet puree and vanilla beetroot accents. Their satisfying Tandoori Ratan means you can try Fennel Lamb Chop, Mustard Chicken Tikka and King Prawn on one platter. Also a pricey restaurant, a la carte is the best way to go.

A feast in the basement of Hix

Hix, Soho – Over punchbowls with Nick Strangeway, we were treated to an hours-long, private dinner in Hix‘ atmospheric, candlelit basement. Our Chop & Trout Feast just kept coming. Rounds of asparagus salad topped with with soft-boiled Burford brown eggs, British Isles rock oysters, and potted smoked salmon flowed. The baked Bone Marrow shimmered with garlic and herbs, buttery slathered on toasts. It may be the exemplary bone marrow dish among the many I’ve had. Lemon Ginger Nut Cheesecake arrived shaped like a creamy egg, a fine finish to a true feast.

Marrow at Hix

St. John’s, FarringdonFergus Henderson and his restaurant St. John’s revolutionized London (and the world’s) dining scene since it opened in 1994. Nose-to-tail, whole animal, offal… whatever you call it… had its renaissance at the hands of Henderson via this humble restaurant in an open, rustic room, tables lined with butcher paper.

St. John Bone Marrow

Other than having a downright snotty French waiter, which did not suit the environment (and is really unforgivable any time), we enjoyed famed Roasted Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad (£7.10 – although I preferred Hix‘ version, above), Venison Saddle alongside green beans and pickled walnut (£9.70), Ox Tongue with fennel & green sauce (£16.70), and a comforting slice of Welsh Rarebit (£5.20). Though pretty, a Chocolate & Cherry Pot (pot de creme) was an ok finish. Stick to the animal parts as that is what St. John’s is all about.

"Caviar" Blini at Saf

Saf, Shoreditch – I know it may seem strange for a carnivore in London to “waste” a meal on all vegetables, particularly when underwhelmed with produce throughout my weeks here. But it may be because of this very reason I wanted to know there was a place doing produce right and inventively. I’d heard from a couple sources that Saf was hands-down the best vegetarian in London. After I visit, I can see why.

Saf's Aubergine (Eggplant) Manicotti

Eating at the original, sit-down location (not their more casual restaurant in Whole Foods), portions may appear small, but entrees were larger and by meal’s end, I was full. Nothing is over £15.50), which is a steal in London for a hip restaurant such as this.

Of the eight dishes I tried, stand-outs included raw ‘Caviar’ Blinis (£7.50), or rather sweet potato blinis topped with beetroot & herbs balled into tiny ‘caviar’, and a Taco Trio (£14.45) of three mini-blue corn shells filled with pineapple relish, guac or tomato. They were having fun with cocktails like Sgt. Pepper (£8.85): Cazadores Tequila, pink peppercorns, red grapes, peach liqueur, lemon juice. I asked them to tone down the peach liqueur to make it less sweet – they obliged and as I hoped, pink peppercorn and tequila shone through.

Hakkasan's stir fry

Hakkasan, Mayfair - Hakkasan is big in India… and London. The bar serves cocktails on the chichi, fruity side, though there’s a broad spirits selection. With subterranean basement and deafening roar, it’s a bit scene-y for me, but thankfully the upscale Chinese food satisfies. Their dim sum platter is particularly artful, loaded with traditional options like scallop shumai and har gow, but brightened with roe and colorful dumpling wrappings. Meat dishes and stir fries are all tasty, though not exactly traditional Chinese. Crispy Duck Salad was the best dish, with its sweet/salty shreds of duck accented by pomelo, pine nut and shallot.

Guac & chips at El Camino

El Camino (which has become El Camion, though sign still says Camino), Notting Hill – For a hint of where NOT to go, I was struck by just how bad “Mexican” food was at otherwise adorably hip El Camion (sans a single Mexican on staff during my visit). It tasted not much better than the “Mexican” I had in London 10 years ago, though a Mexican food craze has swept the city in recent years. There must be better than this around town (?), but I still find without a significant Mexican population, it seems hard to do Mexican right. Most of the US and the world generally don’t get it right, it only makes sense that London doesn’t either (despite claims I’ve heard to the contrary). That is, unless you consider gummy gunge to be guacamole (with stale grocery store chips), or thick flour tortillas and a worse-than-Pace-Picante red paste (I mean “salsa”) to be the real deal. (PS – in typical London fashion, you’ll also pay nearly $15 US dollars for two little tacos).


Corn Onion Pancakes at Ottolenghi

Ottolenghi, Islington - Brunch at the original location of ever-popular Mediterranean bakery Ottolenghi was as delightful as I’d heard (Yotam Ottolenghi himself is in SF this week and has been blogging rave reviews about the experience). In a clean, white space, creative savory and sweet baked goods make a dramatic mountain piled atop the counter. Just try to decide which cake, tart, muffin or other glorious baked goods you’ll choose. Their breakfast menu is likewise fresh and enticing, especially Sweet Corn & Spring Onion Pancakes (£8.50) with roasted tomato (a British staple), bacon, avocado cucumber salsa, and sour cream.

Poached Tamarillo at Modern Pantry

Modern Pantry, Clerkenwell - Downstairs from our fabulous Zetter Townhouse, off a cobblestone cul de sac, is this charmer of a restaurant. I recommend Modern Pantry’s airy, light-filled space for breakfast. Service was about the most caring I had anywhere in London. When I didn’t finish one plate (due to ordering too many and thus full), they were concerned we didn’t like it. Without a guilt trip, they wanted to replace it and make it right. I insisted all was lovely. And it was. Try Spiced Red Wine-poached Tamarillo (£5.80): tart and robustly red, warm fruit, in a creamy Greek yoghurt drizzled with Manuka honey.

Kipferl's sausage & sauerkraut platter

Kipferl, Islington – Just opened in April, Kipferl, an Austrian café off darling Camden Passage (a narrow, cobblestone-lined street evoking Old World Europe), is nearly museum-like in its quiet. It’s a bit unnerving if you wish to talk (sit in the back for that). The majority of solo diners are in the front room, bright under big, picture windows. I heartily recommend it as a respite to read, write, work or think over a Viennese coffee. Pastries are a bit hit-and-miss (I had a dry poppyseed cake), but made with care, while a long Austrian sausage oozes with cheese inside, draped over a mound of near perfect sauerkraut.

Caravan, Clerkenwell – At the Aussie/Kiwi-influenced Caravan, coffee is impeccable while lemon curd/cream cheese/coconut bread is topped with rhubarb and served for breakfast. Get a table outside along the cobblestone, pedestrian-only Exmouth Market street, and it feels truly like Europe.

Arnold Bennett at The Wolsley

The Wolsley, St.James/Mayfair - Touristy or not, the gorgeous Wolsley Hotel (around the corner from my St. James hotel, Duke’s) hosts a breakfast evoking Old World elegance. Coffee is strong, served in delicate white cups, paired well with a flaky pain au chocolat.

The elegant Wolsley dining room

The real winner is a traditional British omelette, the Arnold Bennett (£10.75), originally named after Arnold Bennett at the Savoy Hotel as he loved it there so much, he insisted it be made for him wherever he traveled. It’s a creamy, egg-y dream, salty with smoked haddock, in a creme fraiche and Parmesan cheese sauce. The lovely Sophie Dahl shows you how to cook one  of these sinfully rich breakfasts here.

Blanche, Hammersmith – Out in the friendly, peaceful neighborhood of Hammersmith, I loved Blanche Eatery, a closet-sized shop making an excellent cappuccino, delectable baked goods (like lime poppyseed cake) and various to-go salads (quinoa, Mediterranean-style, etc…)


Monmouth Coffee

Monmouth Coffee, Borough Market near London Bridge – You can’t miss Monmouth Coffee at the edge of the ultimate British market, Borough Market (with two other locations). It’s Blue Bottle-esque for all you Bay Area folk, i.e. lines stretch out the door all day long. And it’s of that caliber. Probably the best cup I had in London.

Caravan on Exmouth Market

Espresso Room, Bloomsbury – On a rainy day (one of many), as I wandered the streets of Bloomsbury and explored Charles Dickens house, Espresso Room was like a beacon in the chilly June air. I was on the hunt for it, knowing it immediately by the carved-wood coffee cup hanging from a storefront on a mostly residential street. I could have been in the Mission in SF watching young hipsters grind beans in a tiny, wood-walled shop. It warmed up the grey day immediately (another nearby respite is The Lamb, a 1700’s pub all-the-more cozy with a good book – purportedly Dickens hung out there).

Third wave, robust coffee – and just a plain good cup – has hit London full force. There’s a long list of spots to sip a proper cup. Here are just a few more to recommend: Taylor Street Baristas, Flat White, Milk Bar, Dose, Store St. Espresso and Kaffeine.


Paul A. Young, Islington – On par with the best chocolates I’ve had anywhere in the world, Paul A. Young’s truffles (£2 each) are so fresh and luxurious, not to mention unusual, I’m still dreaming about them.

Paul A. Young's dreamy chocolates

With a shop on charming Camden Passage (near Kipferl, above), Young was also at the Taste of London. He rose to fame as pastry chef for the likes of Marco Pierre White. Yes, he can do a Sea Salted Caramel and Dark Chocolate Champagne truffle like no other. But try Marmite for earthy, funky fun, or Passion Fruit & Vanilla, or Peppermint Leaf. Even among the best chocolatiers, I love some truffles and not others. But eight truffles later, I was loving every one of Young‘s.

The Rabot Estate, Borough Market - The chocolate stop at Borough Market, Rabot Estate is a rustic, hip shop with staff roaming the store pouring cups of free dark hot chocolate, salvation on chilly, rainy days.

Rabot Chocolates and bright cacao bean

A dark chocolate chili bar particularly won me over with lush base of their Santa Lucia-grown chocolate. You can also order bites from their menu like banana, salted caramel & cacao nibs on toasted brioche or duck confit salad with chocolate dressing and orange marmalade. You can see why I love this place.

Artisan du Chocolat, Borough MarketArtisan du Chocolat is at numerous London shops and high-profile department stores such as Selfridges. I bought a box at Borough Market. Unlike with Paul A. Young, I was disappointed in a number of their truffles, though they are at least half the price of Young’s chocolates. Artisan du Chocolat makes intriguing flavors like banana & thyme, tobacco, or lumi (sun-dried lime). I just wish all tasted as amazing as they sounded.

Spirits & Wine Shops

Borough Market

Whisky Exchange, Borough Market - About the best whiskey shop in the world? Whisky Exchange just off Borough Market could easily contend for that tile. A leading website for whisky, they sure know their Scotch, Irish and Japanese whiskies. But I was impressed with their expertise on American whiskies. Having met many of the world’s greatest distillers, Hector swapped stories and favorite bottles for a good hour with us. He’s a veritable whisk(e)y encyclopedia. We left with a couple special whiskies they bottle in-house. Spirits aficionados, don’t miss this place on your next visit to London.

Utobeer, Borough Market – A truly impressive little section inside Borough Market, Utobeer wows with a well-curated beer selection, including a number of the US’s best craft beers from Goose Island in Chicago to OC’s The Bruery. As some London locals tell me, many Brits don’t believe America has any clue what a good beer is, one of many reasons Utobeer‘s selection is a rarity and a boon for the city. I was particularly impressed with London-brewed craft beer from The Kernel, wishing we had that one here.

Utobeer at Borough Market - an impressive beer selection

Berry Bros. & Rudd, St.James/Mayfair - Around the corner from my St. James hotel, Duke’s, Berry Bros. & Rudd may exhibit a bit of a rarified air, but is a classic spirits and wine shop. Their spirits selection is far smaller than at Whisky Exchange, but extremely well-curated. First and foremost, it’s a wine-lovers destination. Open since 1698, the space evokes Old World London with creaky wood floors, old chandeliers and coffee scales from its original shop. Along with neighboring Fox of St. James, a cigar shop frequented by Winston Churchill who’s chair sits in the basement smoking lounge, and the unreal artistry of John Lobb, a very high end shoe shop and cobbler, St. James Street is lined with historical, evocative shops worth spending time in.


Wandering Traveler

The incomparable Alessandro Palazzi at Duke's prepares martinis tableside

7 Themes in Exploring London’s Cocktail Scene

A perfected Rhubarb Gimlet made in a centrifuge at Drink Factory

Twenty-five bars across multiple areas, from Notting Hill to Hoxton… I did some serious exploring of London’s famed cocktail scene, from cutting-edge experimentation to divey comfort, legendary classics to just-opened destinations. I sipped with cocktail luminaries like Nick Strangeway over dinner at Hix, and imbibed incognito. As I dig into the scene in any city I travel, here’s my take-aways from London.

1. Incredible experimentation and creativity – It’s true: there’s some cutting edge stuff going on in London Town. 69 Colebrooke Row is known as a standard of experimentation thanks to drink pioneer Tony Conigliaro. Visiting their test lab, Drink Factory (“a collective of like minded bartenders and artists”), is a revelation. Here they explore numerous flavors via a collection of expensive lab equipment from sous vide to centrifuge. This is far beyond infusions.

Dzedelanis explains a rotavap

When you taste a Rhubarb Gimlet, you get the pure tart of fresh rhubarb stalks, its essence extracted from a centrifuge. This gimlet was among the best cocktails of my visit to London. Simple yet complex, it vibrantly showcased rhubarb and Beefeater gin with a twist of grapefruit.

Bartender Marcis Dzedelanis walked us through the lab equipment, making a dirty martini with olives in the centrifuge – a briney, smooth imbibement. I put drops of their aromatic tinctures on my wrists, releasing intense aromas. Conigliaro’s team works as perfumer, scientist and alchemist combined (even if they seemed a bit serious and subdued).

Zetter's kangaroo

The Drink Factory/Colebrooke crew recently took on the fabulous, new Zetter Townhouse bar (the top hotel of my trip). They’ve created a cocktail menu (£8.50 each) of understated yet intricate sips like a Nettle Gimlet with Beefeater gin and house nettle cordial, or a musky Master at Arms with Myers rum, port evaporation and homemade grenadine.

I like the funky Flintlock: Beefeater gin, gunpowder tea tincture, sugar, Fernet Branca, dandelion and burdock bitters. Zetter’s British drawing room, whimsically peppered with taxidermy (a full-sized kangaroo!), gramophone, mismatched furniture, plus a stately yet quirky basement gaming room, is among London’s best spots (old or new) to linger over drinks (reserve a table ahead during prime times as it remains packed at nights – it is open all day).

Zetter's charming bar/lounge

My other real stand-out bar was spanking new (only 4 weeks old at the time I visited): Worship Street Whistling Shop. Difford’s CLASS magazine just posted an article this week on wood in barrel-aging cocktails, mainly talking with one of Whistling Shop’s owners, Tristan Stephenson. I chatted with bar manager Ryan Chetiyawardana, who some may know from his Bramble Bar days in Edinburgh and a stint at 69 Colebrooke Row.

The glow of Whistling Shop

First off, the atmosphere enchants. Candlelight glows warm against dark woods and a classic organ, with more than a hint of Victorian-era influences in the basement bar. There’s a Prohibition-era nod to bathtub gin in a small room with antique bathtub, and, yes, plenty of gin, including some real rarities. There’s also a tiny, glass-walled ‘lab’ where Chetiyawardana showed us their Rotovap (for distilling at low temperatures). Here they create bitters, tonics, and special ingredients like “Walnut Ketchup” (nothing like ketchup but rather port wine, green walnut, chocolate, saffron and spice – used in a lovely Punch & Judy cocktail (£9.50) with Ron Zacapa 23 rum and crisp, clean malic acid).

Chetiyawardana pours a Champagne Gin Fizz

Wonders are many here, from a ‘simple’ House Gin Fizz (£8.50) utilizing vanilla salt, orange bitters, extra virgin olive oil, and soda, to a conversation-starter, The (Substitute) Bosom Caresser (£9), layered with baby formula milk (you heard right), Hennessy Fine de Cognac, dry Madeira, house grenadine, salt and pepper bitters. A pricey Champagne Gin Fizz (£80 for a 75cl bottle) takes No. 3 gin, lemon, sugar, fermenting the ingredients with yeast via méthode champenoise, a classic process of secondary fermentation in the bottle usually reserved for high-quality sparkling wines. The fizz is an elegant, integrated beauty.

Some of Whistling Shop‘s most profound joys come from a row of mini-casks behind the bar where a range of spirits sit infusing with an intriguing mix of ingredients. Though the barrel-aged cocktail craze has swept the world at this point, I tasted a range here I’ve yet to see at any one bar.

Cocktails aging behind the bar

Gin & Pep (£9) salutes the Victorian era with gin and vintage Crème de Menthe in new oak. WS2 ‘Whisky’ (£30) ages Balvenie with beech, maple and peat syrup in new oak. I found the WS2 ‘Genever’ (£10) one of the most captivating: Tanqueray gin, Caol Ila Scotch, green malt, spices, aged in sherry oak.

Wherever you turn at this bar, you’ll find the unusual… most of it balanced and delicious, while the staff and vibe are comfortable, classy. Just the kind of place I’d love to have in my own city.

Expertly-made and inventive drinks at Worship Street Whistling Shop

2. Well-made classics (with a twist) - You’ll hear more from me on the juicy steaks at Hawksmoor (two locations). But for now, let’s talk cocktails. This is Nick Strangeway territory, where friendly bartenders continue his tradition of well-crafted drinks.

Hawksmoor Julep & Old Fashioned beauties

I was delighted to order from a menu with line-up of juleps, cobblers, punches, et. al. My St. Regis Mint Julep (£7.50) took a long time to be made (nearly 15 minutes), but was worth it. In this 1930’s New Orleans recipe, rye whiskey and Cuban rum form the base, while homemade grenadine rounds it out. It comes (blessedly) in a traditional julep cup (though non-traditionally caked in thick ice), with vivid garnishes of berries and mints, tasting like a proper Southern julep. Compared to other smoke-infused cocktails, I would have liked to taste more tobacco in their Tobacco Old Fashioned (£8), but with rye and house tobacco bitters, it was still a beautifully-executed Old Fashioned.

Visual appeal at Montgomery Place

Montgomery Place is retro meets modern: mellow, classy, where we made friends with fellow bar patrons (even Stanley Tucci sat by us – adore him since Big Night directing days). This is a place I’d return to for environment alone. I can’t say drinks overly impressed, though presentation is top-notch with dramatic garnishes. I stuck to house cocktails rather than ordering classics I can get anywhere at home (and make myself). The menu is extensive so there are surely pleasures inherent, although sipping a couple from the Acqua Vitae (whiskey) section of the menu produced drinks either too sweet or underwhelming. Bar Manager Ales Olasz’ passion is absinthe, so absinthe paraphernalia and fountain line the bar. He emphatically recommended C. F. Berger Verte Suisse 1898, and it took me a minute to realize that’s Ted Breaux‘ higher-end absinthe, which I enjoy but have had a few times – would rather have gone with something harder to locate in the States.

Breathtaking St. Pancras

3. And then… not so much – It’s incredible how many acclaimed London menus are still littered with flavored vodkas and fruity, chi-chi (or just plain played-out) drinks. I witnessed entire groups of friends each with a mojito in hand in bars that carried extensive, fascinating menus. Eager and expectant to have my mind blown by London’s drink scene, I hate to say there were more disappointments than I anticipated. Of course experiences can be outstanding, but one has to be more choosy than just going to the most lauded cocktail havens.

Copper punch bowls

If you are nearby, peek inside the brand new Booking Office in the other-worldly St. Pancras hotel. After years of restoration, this Victorian Gothic masterpiece (a film site for “Harry Potter” movies) just re-opened while I was in London, reflecting its full glory in massive arches and cavernous ceilings. Drinks were solid, particularly a Pimm’s No. 1 Cup and a punch-of-the-day, Billy Dawson’s Punch (Jamaican rum, demerara sugar, lemon, VSOP Cognac, Batavia Arrack, porter), served out of copper bowls, while Charles Dickens Punch was pleasing but sweet. The short menu given in the bar seemed generally basic (download the full menu here), particularly from expert consultants Nick Strangeway and Henry Besant. The letdown was that vibe, clientele and bartender knowledge (or lack thereof) felt strictly tourist hotel bar, though service aims to please.

Name of the Samurai

1930’s tunes and the classy, basement vibe of Nightjar work in the scheme of speakeasy-themed bars. But clientele appeared to be not a day over 18, making the place feel like “kindergarten just let out”, as The Renaissance Man said. Flamboyantly garnished but crappy-tasting drinks make it a place to avoid rather than go to. Despite a beautiful menu, “signature” cocktails tasted of juice (Pedro Pamaro) or smoky tea (Name of the Samurai) but not at all of alcohol. The only “win” was a surprisingly good canape platter. For a mere £6, one can get 6 tasty, generously-sized canapes until 2 or 3am. This is significant when you realize how impossible it is to get even a bite to eat in London’s hippest neighborhoods after 11pm (just try!)

Wax Jambu

Islington’s Wax Jambu attempts to elevate fruity cocktails. Their bartenders are delightful, garnishing creations with fresh fruit, herbs and a wink. But the inventive sound of cocktails like Junglist Julep (£8) didn’t taste as good as they looked. A bartender described it as savory with Bitter Truth’s fabulous celery bitters but instead it was soapy/floral due to a heavy hand with house rose syrup in Four Roses bourbon, plus flavorless mango.

Whimsical Ninety Eight

Shoreditch’s brand new Ninety Eight Bar & Lounge is a chic surprise down a curvy, wrought-iron staircase. White walls and furniture, animal prints, quirky touches like lamps made with balloons, Louis XIV French design… it’s high-end eclecticism. The idiosyncratic space is a pleasure to linger in, as oddly inventive as its owner, who chatted awhile with us over cocktails. Upstairs there’s a mixology classroom with individual, well-equipped bar stations for teaching cocktail craft. I’m not sure who’s teaching (seems it’s mostly being rented out by corporations for staff functions), but it’s an impressive set-up.

Back room of Ninety Eight

The downside? The drinks. Sweetness plays a heavy hand in drinks like Apricot Jam Comfort (what’s with all the SoCo I saw flowing in London?), utilizing apricot-infused SoCo with apple juice and apricot jam. Tasting the infusion on its own, yields sugary excess. Off in the Clouds is a memorable presentation of fluffy white, cotton candy ‘clouds’ with sky-blue, gin & lavender-infused vodka poured over. I’m not sure how why you wouldn’t use gin vs. vodka in the first place but I couldn’t taste lavender, only sugar.

Ninety Eight's infusions

Baked Bean Delight (Karlsson’s vodka infused with black peppercorn, baked beans and egg white) intrigued but came off sludgy, though they are using one of the best vodka brands out there. Surprisingly, Labito worked best – a lavender mojito with rum, blueberries and mint – was refreshing and well-balanced. I tasted a number of their infusions: some creative, some typical, many needing more time (or having had too much in the case of apricot SoCo). I like the staff and unique vibe of Ninety Eight and trust that drinks could be improved upon?

Striking Artesian at the Langham Hotel

4. Pomp sometimes outweighs taste - Expectations were high for my visit to the lauded Artesian at the Langham. The gorgeous, airy room is illuminated with Asian-meets-French decor, romantic and intimate. An extensive menu hosts a brilliant flavor-profile map to help choose a cocktail to suit your mood. All seemed to confirm how special this place was.

I was prepared for pricey £16 cocktails (roughly $25), but wasn’t prepared for the menu to read better than it tasted. The stand-out was Cask Mai Tai (£15), a cask-aged Mai Tai, deeply spiced and fall-like with tart lime and fresh mint.

Lush Cask Mai Tai

However, Silk Route (£15), an intriguing milk punch of Batavia Arrack, Pimento Dram and Elements 8 Platinum Rum, was bland with a funky aftertaste. I wished for its sun-dried roasted coconut and lime to come through. A pipette of bitters to squeeze into the drink was a nice touch, adding some dimension to what tasted mostly of milk.

Alexino (£15), inspired by a classic Alexander, sounded luscious: Ron Zacapa 23 Rum shaken with whipping cream, red bean paste and aromatic spices. It could have been the perfect dessert, but I tasted little red bean or spice, while the bean paste sat sludge-like at the bottom of the glass. Granted, red bean is not an easy ingredient to mix in a drink, but at roughly $25 a cocktail, each should be exemplary.

Perrone prepares a martini tableside

At stunning hotels, I was served by star bartenders. At the Connaught, it was Agostino Perrone, who I watched win Tales of the Cocktail‘s International Bartender of the Year last year. He’s suave and professional with an eye for presentation. I was rather shocked, however, after tasting 10 different cocktails, each dazzling with elaborate garnishes in varying glasses, to find that only two of the ten actually worked for me. One was too sour, another, too sweet, one actually tasted like Fun Dip. An off night?

Even the theatrics of his famous martini cart, a visual treat prepared tableside, didn’t quite deliver in taste. Perrone adds one of his house bitters to gin and dry vermouth – in our case, it was cardamom, a flavor I adore but one that didn’t necessarily enhance the martini (I’d rather return to Duke’s – see point # 7 – for a classic martini). That being said, the Connaught is still an elegant, refined respite for drink, romance and conversation.

The elegant Connaught Hotel

5. Spirit of fun… a saving grace from annoying members-only bars - Despite my heightened anticipation for the C.S. Lewis-meets-Lewis Carroll vibe and fine drinks I’d heard about at Hoxton’s Calooh Callay, it disappointed for two reasons: velvet-rope crowds and its back room policy.

Inside the unforgettable St. Pancras hotel's Booking Office

I understand reservations for “secret” bars, having done that for years in SF and NY. I prefer quiet spots to enjoy with friends, loathing clamoring “scenes” and reservation-only bars often make this possible. But memberships are another thing. I noticed widespread members-only bars and restaurants in London. Memberships are often very expensive just for the right to make a reservation in a space. Through Calooh Callay‘s wardrobe door (a la Narnia), sat a half empty room. When we couldn’t stand the body-to-body screeching of the main bar, we wandered to this blessedly mellow space. They didn’t bother to explain the room was members-only, only that they they were “booked up”. It’s frustrating as a spirits/cocktail aficionado to find exclusivity hits against the people who would value a place most. I guess it was better the room sat half empty in order to maintain its exclusivity?

Straightforward & delicious drinks at Calooh Callay

Though we left that obnoxious setting as fast we could, the saving grace was the bartenders’ gaiety. Young guys slinging bottles and shakers through the air were clearly having a good time, despite a mobbed room. They answered my questions with good cheer, engaging me with jokes. Best of all, drinks didn’t come with extensive garnishes and excess show as I’d grown accustomed to elsewhere around the city. They were all balanced… and delicious. Playful drinks on a comic book menu heightened the fun. Beetroot gets proper treatment in Beets Me (£9) with a touch of passionfruit, Beefeater 24 gin, Aperol and lemon. Slightly bitter, earthy and sweet, it was perfectly harmonious. The Helm (£9.50) did Scotch right serving Glenmorangie Original with lemon, orange, orange bitters and red currant jelly. Turbulent Truce (£9) had fun with Pisco Aba, maraschino liqueur, lemon, tarragon sugar. Batavia Arrack adds complex notes, while egg white keeps it light.

Cozy, worn basement of Happiness Forgets

A welcome watering hole is months-old Happiness Forgets, a chic dive, if there ever was one. Owner Alastair Burgess has lined up rotating, star bartenders serving classics and straightforward cocktails. Burgess is having a good time with his little Hoxton respite – a place for conversation in dim, basement setting, at a welcome £7 per cocktail. Sipping a Mexican Sunset (tequila, Campari, lemon, agave, bitters), I appreciated the menu’s promise of “Mixed Drinks and Mischief”. Happiness Forgets doesn’t take itself too seriously… all while serving fine drinks.

Notting Hill’s Trailer Happiness is maximized “American” kitsch. It’s an oddly delightful amalgam of topless Hawaiian hula statue at the entrance, underground 1970’s den replete with shag carpeting, wood-paneled walls, and Tiki/Caribbean cocktails. The menu has Tiki, rum, classics, and house classics sections, slumming it with the likes of SoCo in drinks such as Bueller made with Woodford Reserve, Southern Comfort, Grand Marnier, lemon and peach puree. Better yet, prices hover in the £7 range.

1970's meets Tiki at Trailer Happiness

On the same Notting Hill block as Trailer Happiness is another quintessential hangout with good tunes. Portobello Star is small, intimate, full, yet not obnoxious. Everyone has a seat and though bartenders are slow to get drinks out, no one bugs you to keep ordering. Sit in conversation as long as you like. It’s mellow, with the warm glow of a cozy, neighborhood bar. Pina Coladas and Strawberry Daiquiris sit alongside a Whiskey Smash or Bramble (in the £7-8 range), all well-made, the menu offering a little history behind each cocktail.

Fiesta spirit at tiny Casita

Another joy of a bar is the closet-sized Casita in Shoreditch. With the coolest, laid-back bartenders making playful sips with names like Rhubarb & Custard, it’s a fun spot with Mexican luchador spirit (and masks). They also make the best sangrita, a green twist on the traditional, spicy with jalapenos, tart with lime, luscious.

6. Cocktails are way over-priced – As with everything in London, cocktails will cost you. Expect to pay £12-18 for most cocktails in hotels and £8-14 at bars. In US dollars, this is roughly $19-28 (!) or $12-22. Often cocktails are not superior to what one can find in great cocktail cities elsewhere, in fact, many cost that much made with brands like Jim Beam or the aforementioned SoCo.

7. Sometimes classic is best - It was a thrill to visit the dazzling Savoy, legendary for celebrities who frequented the bar (like Sinatra, Chaplin, Noel Coward, Judy Garland).

The legendary Savoy

Among cocktail lovers, it’s known as a key place cocktails (an American invention) were popularized in Europe, thanks to Harry Craddock, a US citizen who fled to London during Prohibition, publishing the Savoy Cocktail Book, a must-have in any serious cocktailian’s library. Called the American Bar, it definitely feels a bit touristy with schmaltzy vocalist (I’d love some instrumental tunes from that stately grand piano at the center of the bar). White-jacketed bartenders maintain the retro vibe though over-sized, average cocktails don’t as much.

Cocktails at Savoy's American Bar

The Hanky Panky was created here by Ada Coleman – the ultimate Fernet Branca cocktail. I sampled an amped-up version here made with all kinds of spirits, including Fernet, that should not have worked together, but did. The recent and extensive revamp of the Savoy has restored it to full glory, and a mini-museum in the bar showcases its vibrant history. Cocktail enthusiasts should visit once in their lives.

I’ve saved one of the best for last: Duke’s. This elegant, small hotel (where I stayed first on my trip) is a temple to the martini, though they also house the new PJ Lounge for champagne, plus a cognac and cigar garden. I can see why the bar was frequented by James Bond author Ian Fleming and other martini lovers over the years: I cannot recall a more perfect martini I’ve had anywhere. Head barman Alessandro Palazzi is among the most delightful, consummate bartenders I’ve had the pleasure to be served by. As he wheels out a trolley laden with olives, lemons, ice and gorgeous barware, he impressed immediately with his gin knowledge.

Perfection: Gin Martinis at Duke's

Asking where we were from, he immediately launched into his love of San Francisco gins, 209 and Junipero, saying he’s long been extolling the glories of Junipero. He knew distillers Arne and Fritz, and is well-versed and intimately acquainted with the best gins the world over. A world class bartender.

I asked for London’s Sipsmith gin in my martini. Alessandro proceeded to bring out another locally-produced, small distiller, Sacred, so we could compare side-by-side. He mixes his martinis to icy perfection, gin’s bite tempered with the refreshing cool of dry vermouth and a hint of lemon. This tiny, quiet haven remains among my favorite memories of London. Three cheers for Alessandro!

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