PLYMOUTH GIN LONDON COCKTAIL PILGRIMAGE 2009: IN THE COMPANY OF GOOD SPIRITS
So here’s the thing.
Imagine I am high above the earth in the basket of a hot air balloon. The sky is blue and the ground below dappled by the sunlight through what few clouds there are. To my right is a bartender, whose single task it is to provide me with a constant supply of perfectly made Martinis, to the left, is a chef whose role is to feed me rich sweetmeats until I am as inflated as the balloon.
Suddenly, we begin to lose altitude at an alarming rate. As we hurtle towards the ground, my life flashing before me in a rapid procession of gin, hookers and regret, I realise that we have to jettison some of our extra weight. I consider my two companions and I am not going to lie to you, but if it comes to a contest between a good bartender and a good chef, then the chef might as well be wearing a t-shirt reading “SANDBAG” because knife boy is going over the side.
The decision would be made not just on the basis that I prize a well made cocktail more than I do a well made meal, but also on the fact that experience tells me that people who are involved in the bar and cocktail world are usually much nicer people than those who spend all day cooped up in a kitchen with only dead animals for company. It’s not a universal, of course and I have many cheffy folk I am chuffed to call friend. But, my true affinity is for the brewers, distillers and mixers of this world.
The last couple of weeks have seen me attend two events, which provide evidence for my contentious theory. Last week, I attended the launch of Joe Warwick’s new restaurant free sheet, Galley Slaves. It promises to be fun and so indeed did the event, which was held at Mark Hix’s new joint in Soho. That is, of course, until I recalled that you can never really have a proper conversation with anyone in the restaurant trade because they are always looking over your shoulder for someone more important to talk to. In my case that’s not a very hard task and after many abruptly ended conversations, I soon found myself slinking out unnoticed and making my way to Rules, where I knew a cheery greeting and a great Martini would be waiting.
Move on to Tuesday this week and I found myself being greeted with genuine friendliness by those of the cocktail trade who had been invited to Plymouth Gin’s 2009 London Cocktail pilgrimage. I am not in the business, other than as a punter and I had only met most of them a handful of times, but their affection for anyone with a passion for their trade was palpable. Ago from The Connaught, Lucca from China Tang, Toby from Pinchito, Gabby from Rules, Charles and Nick from Hix and Sean and jack from The Merchant Hotel in Belfast. It was a great group and the list could go on and on.
The notional excuse for the day was to examine the capital’s fundamental role in the development of the cocktail and, as our host, Plymouth had flown in raconteur and lauded drinks historian, Dave Wondrich. After a fortifying bacon sandwich, we made our first stop in Borough at The George Tavern where, in 1690, a Mr Stoughton began to sell the first bitters, which he mixed with sweet wines as a tonic.
From there, the art of mixed drinks moved across to the US, leaving Britain in the clutches of rather fiendish punches, like the warm “Rum Fustian” we sampled at The Cheshire Cheese pub on Fleet Street. Later, the “American Bar” style of mixing spirits and flavourings with ice made its way back to London and over the course of our day we stopped at various places of interest to hear of their history and to sample their most famous cocktails, made and transported for us by the rather wonderful people of The World Wide Cocktail Club. Although many of the buildings no longer exist, hearing Dave describe places like John Ashley’s Punch House, while sipping on an appropriate drink brought it all back to life.
Stops at two building sites, The Savoy and The Café Royal showed how rapidly London is changing, although the drinks we sampled, A Savoy White Lady and A Toreador, both from the 1930’s would be very familiar to any fan of cocktails today. They also showed that during the dark days of prohibition in the US (up until 1933) the art of the mixed drink had its home very firmly in London.
Two more stops later, at the glorious Criterion Restaurant (most beautiful room and some of the worst food in London) and on Orange St, the site of Ciro’s, the most famous night club of the 1920’s and it was time to repair to Duke’s Hotel for supper. Not only to eat, however, but also for one last cocktail treat. This time a Martini made by the hands of the legendary Alessandro Palazzi himself. His Martini is, as he says himself, from the “old times” and made with frozen glasses (frozen while still wet, which adds extra dilution) a spritz of vermouth and frozen Plymouth gin. It remains one of the world’s truly great tastes and his skill was admired not only by a rube like me but forty of the world’s best cocktail makers including the equally famous Peter “American Bar at The Savoy” Dorelli and Salvatore “Library Bar” Calabrase.
The evening was a bit of a blur. Not just because of the drinks, which had been flowing all day, I had actually been very sensible and sipped rather than slugged. It was because I was in the company of some of my favourite people in the world talking animatedly about one of my favourite subjects in the world, the mixing of superb drinks. Even though I am not one of them, I felt very much at home. When, as we left, I was presented with my own “Dipsomaniac’s Delight” a portable cocktail making kit, it only confirmed my theory of with which group of people I most enjoy spending time. As much as possible in future, I intend to spend my time mixing with the best possible spirits.