James Lawrence takes a look at the changing face of the English cocktail scene – and comes away impressed.
The United Kingdom has long been associated with a prominent, and indeed infamous, drinking culture. Other countries, especially those where binge drinking is a rarity rather than the norm, are aghast at the sight of young men and women for whom an evening out means quantity rather than quality, with predictable results.
However, a recent sojourn into the nightlife scenes of several major UK cities suggests that times are changing. Of course, the rowdy and raucous are still catered to but younger consumers do, by and large, seem to be moderating their alcohol intake, searching for something altogether more relaxed and dare I say it, social-media friendly. Today, the sheer diversity inherent to the UK’s bar scene – not to mention the constant wave of new openings – would astonish any UK dweller returning after a decade or more away. So too would the rise of 1920’s speakeasies, the transformation of local pubs into gastronomic havens, and the sheer amount of raw talent and innovation on display.
Yet despite this radical transformation, the London’s historic hotels still play an important role in maintaining excellence – the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel was voted World’s Best Bar in October 2017, ensuring that three London venues (including Dandelyan and The Connaught) made it into the top five on the list. However, this is not to suggest that all the excitement and innovation resides inside the four walls of London’s most exclusive hotels.
The past 10 years have witnessed a meteoric rise in American-style speakeasies across the UK, in addition to lounge bars and chic wine bars. And whatever direction our bar culture takes, at least one thing is now certain. Residents and visitors alike can no loner complain that their upmarket options are limited to the number of fingers on one hand. Today, the dilemma is where to start, rather than a problem of lack of choice. However, I’ve narrowed it down to my favourite 5 below:
A perennial favourite of cocktail lovers, Artesian unveiled an innovative new menu in April consisting of cocktails made solely from just two ingredients. It’s is an ode to simplicity, elegance triumphing over fuss and faff. A refined list of 22 cocktails includes unconventional pairings such as Perrier Jouët Grand Brut and cream; Star of Bombay Gin and golden beetroot; Thai Basil Ketel One Vodka and melon liqueur; and St Germain Elderflower Liqueur and red carrot.
Of course, a new menu alone cannot propel a bar to classic status but in this regard Artesian has also the bases covered. The excellent service is led by head bartender Remy Savage, who was named ‘Europe’s Best Mixologist’ by Mixology Bar Awards 2018.
For my money, there is no better place to start an evening in London than sipping a cocktail at Artesian, a stunning destination housed inside London’s best hotel, the Langham. Epically tall ceilings, doric columns, chandeliers and insanely comfortable leather chairs set the scene, and yet this stunning venue remarkably delivers its services without a hint of pretension.
The Langham, London, 1C Portland Pl, London, W1B 1JA
020 7965 0165
The Milk Thistle
Wood panelling and taxidermy are the name of the game at The Milk Thistle, a multi-floor cocktail bar that is still one of Bristol’s finest, despite the introduction of new faces across the city. The quality of mixology is exceptional, while heir sister restaurant The Ox offers prime streaks aplenty, and quality IPAs on tap. As if you needed an excuse.
Quay Head House, Colston Ave, Bristol, BS1 1EB
0117 929 4429
Talk about the perfect symbol of Leeds’ post-industrial transformation; this former textile mill is now one of the city’s premier destinations for cocktails. A substantial makeover has given this historic building a wonderful lease of life – the ground-floor beer hall sells its own pilsner straight from tanks lining one wall, while the upstairs cocktail lounge and roof-terrace packs in the crowds during summer.
Bramleys Yard, The Headrow, Leeds, LS1 6PU
0113 245 9370
I love Red Light, a sophisticated cut above the noise and boisterous antics of Park Street. Outside the entrance you’ll find a payphone – press the button and hey presto, it’s a speakeasy style cocktail bar which oozes class. Customisable classics, new creations and excellent service ensure that Red Light has few peers in this part of Bristol.
1 Unity Street, Bristol, BS1 5HH
0117 929 1453
Arcane is a cut above; a chic, stylish venue where bespoke cocktails are expertly curated and delivered to a well-heeled, sedate crowd. The décor is no less impressive – a exposed brick and tile theme is offset by the rich leather banquettes. Fun yet refined is the aim here.
2 South King St., Manchester, M2 6DQ
0161 834 6452
James Lawrence @jameswinelover