London Cocktail Week is a little like Open House London, but for boozehounds. Your objective? Drink your way through as many of the 250 bars scattered around the city as you can stomach in seven days. Give up early and concede defeat if you must.
This year was my third round of London Cocktail Week-ing, so I’m starting to feel like something of a veteran. I’m sure my liver is too.
This glorious event, now in its seventh year, is the perfect excuse to explore boozy London and discover your new favourite bar that you’ll spend the rest of the year in (here’s to you, Discount Suit Company — found my first year when it was probably the only place in Zone 1 you could get an expertly made cocktails for £6.50.)
How London Cocktail Week works
LCW is essentially a festival of drinking. Buy a wristband and then make your way around as many of the 250 bars as possible, you know, to get your money’s worth. In each bar, you’ll ask for the special London Cocktail Week cocktail for £5. Before the event starts, order a wristband online from Drink Up London for £10, or wait patiently until Time Out does a 2-for-1 offer on wristbands and buddy up.
Unfortunately, instead of starting your night wherever you want, you’re funnelled into one of two ‘Cocktail Villages’ to pick up your wristband, this year at Spitalfields and Soho. Fingers crossed that the event organisers can make friends with Royal Mail and post the wristbands out in the future.
Favourite Bar Discovery: Merchant House of Fleet Street
Drink on offer: Émigré: Irish Whiskey, fresh Bramley apple, rhubarb and elderflower.
Hidden down an alleyway that looks like it’s only used for lunch takeaways and pub fire exits, this newly opened whiskey bar specialises in bottles from Ireland and the Scottish coast, but has an impressive selection from all over the world. The 500-some whiskey bottles line an entire wall, and you’re likely to feel as overwhelmed as a kid in a candy shop when trying to make your pick.
Fortunately, the staff at Merchant House were some of the most friendly, helpful and knowledgeable I’ve ever encountered in London. In addition to our cocktail, we got a separate glass of the whiskey so we could taste it on its own, and when my whiskey nerd friends asked nerdy whiskey questions, they got answers as well as free samples the size of an actual drink.
If there were any journalists left on Fleet Street, they would surely be drinking a stiff one here, if they could get over the pink-painted interior.
Get your own: Merchant House of Fleet Street, 8 Bride Ct, London, EC4Y 8DU. Rail City Thameslink or Tube Blackfriars.
Best Bar Finally Ticked Off my List: White Lyan
DRINK ON OFFER: Tennessee Nitro Martini: Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey, Sandow’s cold brew coffee and Mr Lyan cola.
White Lyan first landed on my radar when it was featured on the 2014 list of the World’s 50 Best Bars. Ever since then, I kept promising myself I would get a drink there, and shame on me for taking two years to get around to that.
Some cocktail snobs turn their nose up at this place because every drink that’s served is premixed, and you won’t find any ice, citrus, sugar or Coca-Cola labels here. The mixology magic happens before the drinkers arrive, but you can be sure it continues until the last beat drops.
Tragedy struck our news feeds a few weeks after London Cocktail Week when White Lyan announced that they are sort of closing in 2017 to become a ‘development space’ for the Lyan brand instead of a bar you can waltz into. Make your 2017 New Year’s resolution to get your drink on at this bar while you still can.
Get your own: White Lyan, 153-155 Hoxton St, London, N1 6PJ. Overground Hoxton.
Best Bar for Food: Opium Cocktail & Dim Sum Parlour
DRINK ON OFFER: Rose Fizz: Martin Miller’s gin, antique rose tea, fresh grapefruit and lemon juices, hibiscus cordial topped with champagne.
If the London Cocktail Week drink was anything to go by, the beverages at Opium are made with intriguing ingredients, but are, quite frankly, missable. But don’t make the grave error of ordering a drink without food because the dim sum is absolutely divine. The prawn dumplings (har gau and siu mai) were the freshest I’ve ever had, and the mushroom and truffle dumplings were a nice spin on a traditional favourite.
Xiao long bao (soup dumplings) were sadly missing from the menu, but if this place ever combines forces with Beijing Dumpling around the corner, I’m not sure I’d ever be able to eat dinner anywhere else.
Get your own: Opium Cocktail & Dim Sum Parlour, The Jade Door, 15-16 Gerrard St, London, W1D 6JE. Tube Leicester Square.
Best for Bar Snacks: Tramshed
DRINK ON OFFER: In The Woods: Rum, Pedro Ximenez sherry, bramley apple puree, honey water and fresh lime juice.
Rocking up at a popular restaurant in Shoreditch on a Friday night without a reservation is a fool’s errand, especially when the hostess asks if you’re there for dinner and looks a little concerned when you say you’re not. Little do you know that that will work in your favour.
We were informed that Tramshed isn’t allowed to serve alcohol without food, and like magic, a few plates of crackling and apple sauce appeared with our drinks. It was an absolute steal for £5, with the added bonus of admiring Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde cow.
Get your own: Mark’s Bar at Tramshed, 32 Rivington St, London, EC2A 3LX. Tube Old Street.
Best Time at an Old Favourite: Worship Street Whistling Shop
DRINK ON OFFER: Negroni Stellare: Gin, Cocchi di Torino vermouth, Bruto Americano and a bitter foam.
Nothing says a quiet Monday and starting your London Cocktail Week off right like the bartender setting the bar alight at Stop #2. The Victorian-style drinking den at Worship Street tops the list of cocktail lovers in London and the globetrotters at the World’s 50 Best Bars agree. The bartenders here are wonderfully friendly and will help you navigate the art piece of a menu and might even let you test out some of their experiments (negroni sorbet, anyone?) if no one else is around.
Get your own: Worship Street Whistling Shop, 63 Worship St, London, EC2A 2DU. Tube Liverpool Street.
Weirdest Cocktail: Hix Oyster & Chop House
DRINK ON OFFER: Gremlin No. 2: Gin, homemade parsley syrup, lemon juice, a dash of absinthe, pepper tincture and cardamom-infused Lune d’Abricot.
Perhaps the name should have given it away, but it was late that night, and I didn’t listen.
What is going on here. Small bubble packets of parsley drift innocently around the glass until you decide that you want a sip, and then they sneak up on you like tapioca pearls in bubble tea. Except this time you get a taste that should have been sprinkled on the potatoes you had for dinner a few hours ago.
I’m not against savoury cocktails, but … OK, maybe I’m against savoury cocktails. Maybe Hix is serving gin-infused roast potatoes?
Get your own: Hix Oyster & Chop House, 36 Greenhill’s Rents, London, EC1M 6BN. Tube Farringdon.
Best Cocktail: The Grill on the Market
DRINK ON OFFER: Smokey Old Fashioned: Woodford Reserve Bourbon, maple syrup and oak smoke.
The smokey old fashioned has been a staple of the bar at Grill on the Market for the last few years, and you should taste why. An old fashioned is sometimes too much to handle on its own, but mixed with a sweet drip of syrup and an almost homey flavour of wood, you’ll be back at the bar ordering another one in no time. The atmosphere at the Grill is pretty blah, but you can drop by during happy hour for an almost London Cocktail Week-like deal.
Get your own: Grill on the Market, 2 West Smithfield, London, EC1A 9JX. Tube Farringdon.
Most ‘Are You Sure We Should be Here?’ Bar: Quaglino’s
DRINK ON OFFER: Judit: Rum, lemongrass and ginger cordial, fresh lime, orange and pineapple juices and a splash of Pernod absinthe.
There are a few things will set off the discomfort radar of almost every Londoner (born, bred or naturalised), and one of those is being too close to Piccadilly Circus. The opposite sides of the spectrum that this area of London attracts is astounding. You’ll find both the people who think it’s acceptable to visit M&Ms World and people who live in one of the city’s most exclusive and secretive addresses.
Immediately, I’m suspicious of Quaglino’s, which I’ve never heard of and could cater to either side. I can blend in with the M&M dwellers, but I have a harder time putting on a pretentious accent. In we go anyway.
You enter via a dark, muted space that could be the coatcheck before an immaculate ballroom, and then smooth, voluptuous art deco lines carry you down a grand golden staircase to the bar, where a trio of doo-wop singers were crooning to a few tables of suited businessmen. Uh oh, Dorothy, we’re not on the M&Ms side of the spectrum.
But the staff were so attentive and friendly that I started to feel comfortable enough to let my dirty, not-name-brand shoes hang out from under one side of the table. The drink was delightfully fresh, and maybe the touch of absinthe was just strong enough to make me hallucinate that I could inhabit this world.
Get your own: Quaglino’s, 16 Bury St, London, SW1Y 6AJ. Tube Green Park.
Most Fist-Pump Worthy Bar: Oriole
DRINK ON OFFER: The Duke of Savoy: Hennessy cognac, calvados, hazelnut sugar, quince cordial and lemongrass juice.
After being turned away earlier in the night, we managed to weasel our way past the bouncer to get in to the darling of London’s cocktail scene, Oriole, hidden away on one of the grimier streets of Smithfield Market.
Okay, fine, so by the time we got in, the live music had finished, the place had pretty much emptied out and the night was inching dangerously closer to last tube, but somehow the bar was still buzzing, the cocktail was perfectly blended and we had the best table front and centre. Oriole is a fantastic addition to any cocktail lover’s to-drink list, but to get the really good stuff, you’ll need to plan it a little better than a shitfaced Smithfields stumble.
GET YOUR OWN: Oriole, Smithfield Market, East Poultry Ave, London, EC1A 9LH. Tube Farringdon.
Best Value Cocktail: The Artesian
Drink on Offer: Mediterranean Daisy: Herradura Blanco Tequila, Lemon Juice, Oregano Tincture and Mediterranean Tonic Water.
Don’t laugh. Awarding the value award to one of London’s most expensive bars? Hear me out.
London Cocktail Week introduced a new thing this year where for a price slightly above the normal cocktail rate of £5, you could get food paired with your beverage. And seeing how a single cocktail on the Artesian‘s usual menu will set you back at least £18, a cocktail from the former best bar in the world plus a snack for £15 could pretty much be called a bargain.
The London Cocktail Week drink lacked the ooh-aah presentation of the normal menu, where your drink could be served in anything from a foot-long metal ant to a Lego elephant to a hollowed-out rock, but I suppose a bog-standard glass is what you get when you’re just there for the sample. Needless to say, the cocktail, something akin to a fresher margarita, was on point, and the accompanying fish tacos and endless refills of crisps and peanuts were enough to convince us to order the drink in the ant anyway. Damn it, Artesian, just take my money.
GET YOUR OWN: The Artesian at the Langham, 1C Portland Place, London W1B 1JA. Tube Oxford Circus.
Best Bar to Finish London Cocktail Week at: City Social
DRINK ON OFFER: Wheys a Tun: Ailsa Bay Scotch whisky, apricot brandy, clarified milk, fresh ginger, winter spice.
Wave goodbye to another glorious London Cocktail Week from the 25th floor as the sun sets over the city. Cheers. See you next year.