London Calling

An on-trend bar crawl during World’s 50 Best Bars week recaps some top watering holes of the year, and what leading bartenders are mixing up for the coming year.

The legendary martini cart at The Connaught Bar. Charlene Rooke photo

Pandemic be damned, I went to London for the World’s 50 Best Bars event in December 2021. Here’s a curated crawl of award winners, bars to watch and insider hangouts that hints at what the bar world might deliver in 2022.

Luxury Lives On

What does it feel like to be among the very first imbibers at The Connaught, after it’s toasted as the World’s Best Bar for the second year in a row? Lucky, luxurious and lubricated. Director of mixology Agostino Perrone will wheel out the cart and, from a choice of six house bitters anoint your drink with his signature “Dr. Ago” bergamot-scented blend, stirred using subarctic slow-frozen ice and served with elaborate flourishes—a river of gin strained from a height, lemon peels misted on the stream, cut-crystal Martini glass—you’ll never forget. The snacks, like truffle on lobster-tail disks, perfect one-bit sashimi and crostini, are your only hedge against this very tall, perfect drink.

For research purposes only, this reporter also made a later visit to Duke’s Hotel to calibrate whether the legendary freezer-chilled gin, vermouth-rinsed-glass Martini there could possibly be deeper and therefore slightly more dangerous than the Connaught’s. It still is.


High-concept Menus

A lesser-known part of the annual bar rankings is the Best Cocktail Menu Award (won by Lab 22 in Cardiff, Wales, in 2021.) High-concept menus are a hot commodity—just ask Vancouver’s own Laowai, which competed for the same award and sees its own elegantly bound volume stolen so often, it’s now for sale (Volume 1: A Dreamer’s Abode, comes in a limited edition of 100 with two bottled cocktails, from the bar for $65 while supplies last).

A personal favourite this year, the Meta Menu at the Blue Bar at The Berkeley, uses clever quasi-scientific design to indicate the ingredients, flavours, glassware, potential allergens, best time of day for imbibing and, usefully, the ABV, of each drink. The Blue 2020 martini, with turquoise limoncello pearl nestled in the V of the glass, was a treasure.

Artesian at the Langham, a previous World’s Best Bar, has a Covid-cozy Connections themed menu that divides drinks into Wellness & Mindfulness, Celebrations, Community, Happiness and Sustainability. The moral of these menus: mere Classics and Originals sections no longer cut it.


Back-bar-less Bars

Trailblazing bartender Remy Savage (who helped put aforementioned Artesian on the world stage) opened A Bar with Shapes for a Name earlier this year, metaphorically hanging out a shingle of Bauhaus-influenced primary-colour shapes in East London. More surprising than the Prince-like nameless name is that it’s a back-bar-less bar: there is no bottle-stacked back wall, just a long mahogany bar. Like the design, the drinks are inspired by minimalism, filled with mostly batched cocktails that help ensure quick service, although they’re prepared using an elaborate bag of technique tricks to produce complex flavours. (The Elementary side of second-place World’s Best Bar Tayer + Elementary also favours fast-service cocktails, here kept on draught taps.)

Similarly, Abajo (the bar below Sucre restaurant in Soho) is a basement bar themed around the vinyl-driven underground scene of 1980s Buenos Aires, in the years leading up to military rule. With a gleaming long bar at its heart, it also has no back bar of bottles. The founders have said it’s a symbol of the spirit of openness Argentinians craved at the time. For anyone whose favourite drinking game is spot-the-unfamiliar-bottle-on-the-back-bar, it’s a slightly disaffecting development, but it undeniably makes small rooms and bar design more flexible.


Side Hustle’s tequila Mai Tai. Lateef Photography

Agave All Day

Mezcal and tequila bars have taken London by storm, with virtually every bartender I chatted with declaring allegiance to agave spirits. The basement bar (mind the steep stairs!) at El Camion in Soho is a hot late-night industry hang slinging tequila shots, margs and beer until 3 a.m., and the basement Mezcaleria at the elegant restaurant KOL in Marylebone has its own bottlings of exquisite rare agave spirits, like its brine-and-pine scented El Pino Tepextate mezcal from San Augusti Amatengo in Puebla.

Side Hustle, the bar at the NoMad Hotel London near Covent Garden, brings an haute American gastro-pubbish influence to the bar and a Mexican bent to its bar snacks and cocktails, like a tequila Mai Tai in a skull glass. Café Pacifico in Covent Garden, La Mezcaleria El Colmillo and La Bodega Negra in Soho are just a few of the other notable agave bars.


The Whisky Room at The Londonder Hotel. Supplied photo

Clubbing, Privately

For those in the know (or with in-the-loop friends), London’s member bars are going strong. On a busy night in Marylebone, members-only Home House hosted a few quiet parties and its lounge was a chill and serene place for a Negroni.

It’s the chic new The Londoner Hotel in the West End that’s reinventing the private-bar experience. The so-called “super boutique” hotel, with the 300-plus room scale of a luxury chain but the bespoke amenities of a design hotel, has a guests-only area called The Residence, akin to the club level at a top hotel. Instead of a club floor’s business orientation, this is leisure class: sure, you can tap away on your laptop or phone in The Drawing Room, but it’s more fun to play Scrabble, flip through Assouline tomes or nibble antipasti from the ever-changing all-day snack cart. Get chummy with senior bartender Cesar Correia, and he might just usher you through a faux-exit door in the powder room—actual a portal into The Whisky Room inner sanctum. With a menu of rare drams of Scotch, Irish, American and Japanese whisky behind glass, take a guided tour of some rarities and oddities, from a relatively modest £22 to a whelp-inducing £2000, for The Macallan 1960.

—by Charlene Rooke

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