SOMETHING is afoot in the London cocktail world. Does London have a cocktail world beyond binge drinking in Shoreditch on a Saturday night, you may ask? Well yes it does now. The above is an example and one of the most delicious things I have tasted.
It is called a Prairie Oyster, in fact a misnomer as it has little to do with P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves hangover cure as administered to the errant Bertie Wooster. Or even Agatha Christie’s requiem for Mr Ratchett in Murder on the Orient Express. This variation is in essence the perfect Bloody Mary served like a shot on a single spoon to look like a PO only that is not egg nor an oyster but a spherical time bomb as served at Tony Coniglaro’s tiny flagship 69 Colebrook Row off Essex Road in Islington.
Colebrook is not a restaurant – although you may have to book – but just a front room manned by cocktailistas in white jackets. I make no apology for including it here because in terms of taste and flavor it is right up there. A restaurant is coming soon for Albemarle Street in Mayfair, where Coniglaro will be teaming up with chef Rob Roy Cameron in the spring but the influence of his Drinks Factory is already significant. For me it is a turning point. These bars have broken the stranglehold of what we think of as drinks and drinking.
They distil and flavour their own alcohols which leads logically to a whole new vocabulary. Gin is no longer Gordons, whisky no long Bells. As an example at Untitled in Dalston, another bar where the Drinks Factory is involved, we have a drink called Violin which comprises dark oak, pine, beeswax, benzoin, black pepper and vodka infusion. The first taste is abrasive but as these different elements collate the realization dawns that this is in fact a whisky surrogate, vodka turned into whisky. Benzoin is more commonly used as an inhalant to relax the throat.
To achieve such tricks the Drinks Factory has a kitchen’s arsenal of water baths for slow cooking of purees, rotavaps for distilling and thermomixers for cooking and mixing at the same time. In the jargon the whisky might get a fat wash, which you could try by mixing melted butter with whisky and then freeze and separate. The result is butterscotch, obviously. You can do it at home but machines do it better. More fundamental is the peach puree for the bellini at Termini in Soho’s Old Compton Street which is transformed into one of the great peach purees of all time. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph Coniglaro revealed that he started on this road looking for a better puree of pears.
At Termini there is also a distillate of clay and lichen called Terroir, which invokes in abstract a glass of wine.
Notably these are not drinks for getting drunk. Most are gentler, aperitifs if you like, drinks where the alcohols have been subjugated to other factors.
The Vieux Kir at Zetters Townhouse in Clerkenwell developed by Erik Albarran is not white wine and cassis but a composition of different elements, a subtle infusion, listed as an oaked yeast liquer mixed with Perrier Jouet champagne. The Hope Gimlet is pretty good too which is cognac, bee pollen and dry ice pear cordial.
Coniglari’s Drinks Factory is not a lone light. Max and Noel Kenning do similar at Three Sheets in Dalston – their French 75 comprises star of Bombay, verjus, clear lemon, moscato, orange flower and a carbonation. Matt Whiley, previously at Peg and Patriot in Bethnal Green and now at Scout off Old Street takes a more vegetarian spin on things. His amuse includes Marmite pickled black kale, pea shoots and vinegar gel. The sustainably minded Ryan Chetiyawardana has opened Cub in Hoxton mixing food and drinks. There are enough to say this is a movement.
For me these guys have slipped into the culinary space that Ferran Adria occupied. Plus you might make the case that a cocktail bar is better medium for exploring such disparate flavours than a gauche, clunky tasting menu in a restaurant. One up to the boys and girls in the bar.