“There’s a new breed of cocktail coming from London’s mixologists,” said a member of the FT Weekend politburo. “They’re communist, they’re molecular – you must taste them.” Orders are orders. So we decided to assemble our Yoof Panel (average age: 22) to get the most contemporary verdict possible. The Carnivorous Undergraduate (CU) and the Digital Native (DN) were joined by two debutants – the Recovering Anthropologist (RA) and the Theatrical Impresario (TI). But could we unleash a group of young men and women on a drinking spree in London unsupervised? They might end up occupying Fortnum & Mason, after all. So we sent along the Gluttonous Pig (GP) as gauleiter. A bit of re-education was necessary, since it turned out he thought cocktails should only be consumed in the Savoy’s American Bar while listening to Noël and Gertie. Once we’d brought him 80 years up to date, the team was despatched into the night to three über-trendy bars.
First stop was the Zetter Townhouse in Clerkenwell. The lobby of this hotel has been enhanced with a bar whose design owes as much to the art of the apothecary as that of the bartender. Ancient recipes for tinctures and cordials are mixed with modern spirits. Our top cocktail here, Twinkle, blends Wyborowa vodka and Perrier-Jouët champagne with elderflower cordial: “refreshing pick-me-up after a marathon” (GP); “a sweet summer wind” (GU). We also liked the Nettle Gimlet – Beefeater gin with nettle cordial: “original” (RA); “ambrosial” (DN). Less to our taste was The Flintlock, which combined Beefeater 24 gin, Fernet-Branca, gunpowder tea tincture and dandelion and burdock bitters: “medicinal” (RA); “stripped my throat” (DN).
Into a taxi for a short ride to fashionable Shoreditch and the weirdest/cleverest combination of culture and chemistry you could hope for. Lounge Bohemia offers “communist” cocktails to men-with-beards on utility furniture listening to “nice” jazz. Our waitress even had an authentic Russian accent. Yet when we complained that our order had been delayed, instead of treating us with Stalinist disdain, she charmingly brought us a complimentary treat – jelly balls made of gin and basil. Was this real or were we already hallucinating? The intense flavour and the entirely original mouthfeel was real enough. This is what “molecular” cocktails are all about – applying the laboratory zeal of Heston Blumenthal to the art of mixing.
The panel was astonished by Holy Smoke, one of the bar’s “manipulative mixology” cocktails described as “leather-infused Courvoisier VSOP Exclusif, frankincense and myrrh smoke”: “fabulously inventive” (DN); “Anglo-Catholic communion wine” (GP). We were less captivated by Old Castro, though you can’t help liking the description – “Havana Club Cuban Barrel Proof rum, infused with a Cuban cigar, vanilla and orange bitters, served chilled with vanilla candy floss”. Then came our cocktail of the evening – Russian Breakfast (a stakan of Stolichnaya Elit and dry chocolate served with dark chocolate and Bernard “caviar”). The caviar turned out to be smaller jelly balls with an intense almond flavour: “a Cossack of a drink” (DN); “bittersweet delight” (RA); “chocolate vodka heaven” (TI). This was exciting. Up the revolution.
Our third port of call had to be an anti-climax after this, and it was. Purl, in London’s West End, is also into molecular mixology but with a more uneven result. We quite liked its Ketel N2 – described as Ketel One Vodka stirred and chilled in a liquid nitrogen bath, dispensed into a vermouth-worked coupe, with a frozen lemon twist and choice of bitter pipettes: “cleverly ultra-dry” (GP); “challenging” (RA). But our worst experience of the evening has to be the Mr Hyde’s No 2. Was it the combination of cola and chocolate bitters, or the “saved PX smoke” or the “Lapsang fog”? Search me, but we found it barely drinkable.
Lounge Bohemia, 1 Great Eastern Street, London EC2A 3EJ, 07720 707 000; loungebohemia.com
Zetter Townhouse Cocktail Lounge, 49-50 St Johns Square, London EC1V, 020 7324 4545; www.thezettertownhouse.com
Purl, 50/54 Blandford Street, London, W1U 7HX, 020 7935 0835; www.purl-london.com
All cocktails priced between £7 and £14