When I first moved to East London in 2005, my friends and I lived above a derelict pub on Brick Lane, and we spent our weekends dancing until dawn at the gritty basement club Plastic People or the always-messy Public Life, housed in an old public toilet. Thanks in large part to the cheap rents and influx of artists moving in, East London had become the creative hub of the capital. You went to the area for warehouse parties, the best bagels in the city, BYOB curry houses or to check out the cheap-as-chips Sunday markets; you didn’t go there for cocktails.
All that has changed over the last decade, and there are now more cocktail bars of note in East London than any person can reasonably visit in an evening—or several.
Callooh Callay was the first to put the neighborhood on the cocktail map in 2008 with its Lewis Carroll-inspired interiors and thematic menus, including one that was a twist on the Underground Tube map and another that remade Pantone color cards as cocktails. It brought a sense of playfulness to London’s then-limited cocktail scene. From there, came Happiness Forgets, Worship Street Whistling Shop and Nightjar, cementing East London’s status as a hub of experimental drinking. These bars were pushing the boundaries of what we defined as a cocktail.
While the once-edgy Shoreditch High Street has since become a strip of mass-market venues catering to the bar crawling, Jäger-chugging weekender crowds, there are spots amidst the mêlée where you can sequester yourself for an exceptional drink. The Cocktail Trading Company is staying true to the playfulness of its antecedents by combining wittiness with high technical ability; the menu includes cocktails such as the Urn-Aged Corpse Reviver No. 2, a re-imagination of the classic that features “Egyptian embalming” gin that’s aged in a clay urn and infused with cedar oil, juniper and cassia bark (all herbs used in the mummification process) alongside fortified honey wine, mandarin liqueur, lemon and a splash of absinthe, shaken “like a backing dancer in ‘Thriller.'” The glass sits in a zombie graveyard with two green hands emerging from the earth.
Just north, Ryan Chetiyawardana’s equally experimental Hoxton bar, White Lyan, re-launched as minimalist dining spot Cub. But downstairs, the crew’s laid-back basement bar Super Lyan is still serving up madcap drinks, such as their famous Nitro Martini, a twist on a Jack and Coke dispensed through a nitrous keg system. Nearby Scout—the latest venture from the influential Matt Whiley—has taken the closed-loop cocktail philosophy and run with it, sourcing ingredients entirely from the British Isles, with many of them—cherries, elderflowers and stinging nettles—foraged in London itself. They’ve done away with the bar completely, and encourage drinkers to explore what they’re up to in the kitchen.
Up along Kingsland Road, Dalston remains East London’s hipster haven. It’s better known for after-hours parties and kebab joints, but the craft cocktail scene has inched its way in here, too. Tony Conigliaro’s Untitled is his most conceptual bar to date. It sports design that takes its cues from Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory, with foiled walls and studio-style photography, and, like Scout, there’s no bar to speak of, just a single station at the head of the one-and-a-half-ton concrete banquet table. The menu lists drinks with one-word names: Clay, Mineral, Snow.
The contemporary landscape of East London is vastly altered from what I once knew. Rising rents brought in people with deeper pockets—and a thirst for experiential drinking that goes beyond the classic cocktail experience. While there is still a place for the theatrics of the original band of bars, the newcomers have channeled that technical prowess into a different story that takes place largely behind the scenes.
A Tour of East London
The Cocktail Trading Co. | 68 Bethnal Green Road
Go for: The serious business of having fun: brilliantly inventive drinks that come with a sense of story and often absurd adornments, like an unopened letter, a tin of party poppers and kids’ jokes. They also have great tunes from old-school hip-hop to ’90s R&B.
Scout | 93 Great Eastern Street
Go for: Experiencing how the supply of ingredients available across the British Isles can be repurposed into unique and challenging cocktails (think oyster shell distillate and bitter hop tincture). In keeping with the closed-loop philosophy, snacks are created from the drinks’ leftover ingredients.
Nightjar | 129 City Road
Go for: Live jazz and classic cocktails reimagined and delivered in extraordinary bespoke receptacles with a real sense of theater and narrative.
Super Lyan | 155 Hoxton Street
Go for: Drinks that changed the global cocktail scene in a pretension-free setting replete with disco ball and stripper pole. This grungy subterranean bar is the test space for many of the Mr. Lyan team’s creations.
Bar Three | Basement, 5a Brushfield Street
Go for: Space to spread out with friends and still drink well. This is the second venue from brothers Max and Noel Venning that offers “light” and “free” cocktails in keeping with the drink-less, drink-better times we’re in.
Untitled | 538 Kingsland Road
Go for: Cocktails that define the term inventive, alongside Japanese tapas from a former El Bulli chef. The backyard, referred to as the “moon garden,” has a pleasing ’70s-meets-’90s minimalist design.
Mint Gun Club | 4a Brooke Road
Go for: A bright and accommodating neighborhood bar worth traveling for. The daily-changing cocktail menu takes it inspiration from owner Richard Hunt’s expansive travels, with a nod to two most-British obsessions: tea and Gimlets.