There are enough great pubs in London to keep the ghosts of Oliver Reed and Peter O’Toole busy for weeks, not to mention plenty of heaving nightclubs willing to sell you an overpriced spirit and mixer. However, finding a really top-class cocktail in the city requires a little insider knowledge. The best places are tucked away, safe in the knowledge that only the truly discerning drinker will seek them out. And since we know you, dear reader, are one of those discerning drinkers, I’m going to give you a tour of the best cocktail bars in the city.
Portobello Road, Notting Hill
Most of the cream of London’s current crop of cocktail bars cluster around Soho, or out east around Hoxton and Shoreditch, but we’ll start our drinks odyssey in the west of the city at Trailer Happiness. Down in a wood-panelled basement on the Portobello Road, this tiki bar plays classic Seventies funk while doing brilliant things with rum. Order a ‘Hell In The Pacific’, which is made with 73% overproof Plantation rum from Trinidad but thanks to the maraschino, lime and pomegranate molasses it’s far from overpowering. If you’re feeling adventurous, there’s a rum punch called a Don Zombie, which they light on fire. It invariably sets off the fire alarm, but this is the sort of place where raising hell won’t result in so much as a raised eyebrow.
The Langham Hotel, Marylebone
London’s hotel bars are particularly crucial if you’re looking for a drink during the daytime. No shame in that, particularly if you subscribe to Bogart’s view that: “The problem with the world is that everyone is a few drinks behind.” The Artesian at The Langham hotel near Oxford Circus is a legend in cocktail circles. It’s no longer a bar attached to a hotel—more a hotel attached to a bar. It was recently named the world’s best for a third time. They recently launched a new menu called ‘Unfolding and Exploring’, which includes experimental concoctions like the ‘Vodkatini Waiting To Become A Manhattan’.
Galvin at Windows
The Hilton, Park Lane
If you’re looking for great views while you drink, Galvin at Windows is the Hilton’s rooftop bar. Located right on Park Lane, as the name suggests there’s no outside area but there are spectacular views through the glass walls over Hyde Park and Battersea Power Station to the west and the London Eye and the city to the east. They’re bringing in a new menu called ‘Constellations’ which features a series of drinks inspired by the night sky like the ‘Little Bear’, a type of vanilla sour served in a bear-shaped jam jar. The pick of the new list is the less showy: a delicious Benedictines sour served with prunes, which they call the ‘Lizard’.
Sofitel, Pall Mall
For a more traditional hotel bar ambience, try The Balcon on Pall Mall. The ornate art deco interior punctuated with illustrations by the cartoonist Ronald Searle gives the place an ambience of “old school tie” Englishness. Their signature drink is ‘1921’, a mixture of pink vodka, jasmine syrup, rose liquor, lime and cranberry with a Bergamot mist, which was inspired by Coco Chanel and is named for the year of the launch of Chanel No. 5. One to impress your date with.
Bruton Lane, Mayfair
Also in Mayfair is Mr Fogg’s, a well-renowned bar done out in Victorian era miscellanea. The pick of the drinks is the Moscow Mule, which is made with Fair Trade vodka and served within a smoke-filled bowl. This being Mayfair they tend to enforce a dress code, so don’t turn up in trainers.
Experimental Cocktail Club
Gerrard St, Chinatown
From Mayfair it’s a short hop into Soho, where many of the city’s best cocktail bars can be found. The Experimental Cocktail Club (ECC) in Chinatown revels in its secretive status. It’s located behind a completely unmarked plain back door, although you’ll be able to spot the doorman loitering outside. Charm your way past them and you’ll be presented with a menu that lives up to the “experimental” tag, but be warned: during the after-work rush you may find yourself spending most of the night tottering up and down staircases looking for somewhere to sit.
Brewer Street, Piccadilly
At MASH (Modern American Steak House), take the lift down two floors to the wood-panelled, art deco-meets-steakhouse restaurant and its circular bar. The place has the feel of an upmarket, boozy American diner. Bring back a touch of Englishness by ordering a Boston Tea Party, made from Hendrick’s Gin and Quince Liquor and served in a fine china teacup with a lemon biscuit.
Hoxton Square, Hackney
As the night draws in, head east to Hoxton and keep your eyes peeled. It’s here you’ll find the city’s best underground bars—and in some cases they’re literally subterranean. Happiness Forgets is located at the bottom of a dark set of stairs in front of a place called Ruby Café/Bar. It’s worth tracking down, partly for its prohibition era shtick but mostly for the ‘Perfect Storm’, made from Skipper’s dark rum with honey, fresh lemon and ginger juice and a dash of plum brandy. Bars rarely come more intimate than this—the room itself is strictly limited to 55 as everyone must be seated, so they won’t even let you in if you’re in more than a group of six.
Hoxton Street, Hackney
White Lyan on Hoxton Street has made its name as the most high-concept of London’s new bar scene. It has a strict ‘no perishables’ philosophy, which means no ice cubes and no fresh lemons or limes. Everything’s pre-made on site, with the idea being that every drink comes out tasting exactly the same.
Rivington Street, Shoreditch
There’s a more relaxed air at Portside Parlour. It made its name as east London’s only specialist rum bar, and while they change their menu seasonally ask the bar manager Sean Fennelly for ‘Lost In The Woods’. A perennial favourite, it’s a rum-based twist on an old fashioned, smoked in apple wood.
Rivington Street, Shoreditch
As your night draws to a close, you could do much worse than head further down Rivington Street in search of a taste of New Orleans. Go through the unpromising entrance of the Bedroom Bar and take the staircase to the right and you’ll be rewarded with entrance to another world. NOLA’s bar manager Ian McIntyre has a knack for putting a new spin on traditional favourites, so try the Banana Manhattan—a Nick Detrich-designed drink from New Orleans, which sounds like a disaster but adds a sweet edge to an old classic. For a more traditional whiskey drink to end the night you can’t go wrong with a Bourbon Street Blues, while the flaming Blue Blazer will warm your bones before you’re sent off into the cold of the British night and towards tomorrow’s unforgiving dawn.
Kevin EG Perry is a writer based in London. His work has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Vice and GQ. Follow him on Twitter @kevinegperry.