Inside London’s Growing Crop of Experimental Cocktail Bars

From vaporized Gin & Tonics to a punch bowl big enough to raft across to drinks served in everything from take-out boxes to rain boots, London's bar scene has taken a turn for the experimental. Tyler Wetherall on what's fueling the boom.

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In a dark, subterranean room of a former gothic monastery, a crowd of people wearing plastic ponchos are stumbling around in thick fog to a soundtrack of clashing thunder and dance music. Some open their mouths wide, gaping like beached fish; others are inhaling deeply. This is Alcoholic Architecture, London’s latest outlandish pop-up, pumping vaporized Gin & Tonics into an enclosed space. “Breathe responsibly,” a sign teases, as punters drink Buckfast cocktails and Trappist beers from a menu inspired by the monks who once resided here.

This is exactly the type of experience that “architectural foodsmiths” Bompas & Parr have become known for. Engineers of sensory extravaganzas and tongue-in-cheek culinary creations, their repertoire includes multisensory fireworks, glow-in-the-dark jelly, a “flavor organ” designed to highlight specific notes in whiskey when played and a punch bowl big enough to raft across while drinking. In New York, they are best known for Funland at the Museum of Sex, an “erotic fairground” designed to stimulate all the senses through a carnival of pleasures, such as jumping on a giant breast bouncy castle.

There is something quintessentially British about the duo that goes beyond their bowties and accents. They exult in a studied silliness. This can be said about so much of London’s current bar scene, bringing together the city’s prominent craft cocktail culture with our wholehearted appreciation for the absurd and the whimsical. Take the Breaking Bad-themed bar where you can “cook up” your own blue cocktails or Wonderland in the Vaults, the end point of the show Alice Underground that is open to the public—complete with a hedge maze, a secret bar, flamingo croquet and cocktails from Bourne & Hollingsworth.

The more interesting manifestation of this, however, is in bona fide bars where this nuanced sense of playfulness can be carried beyond the gimmick, theme or aesthetic, into a genuinely impressive cocktail program.

Award-winning surreal cocktail den Callooh Callay, inspired by Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “The Jabberwocky,” has led the way here since 2008 with a reservation-only room hidden through the antique cupboard and menus that come as twists on Underground Tube maps or Pantone color cards. A major new contender on the scene is the Cocktail Trading Company, from a trio of veteran bartenders. They serve drinks in Chinese take-out boxes, Wellies, snow domes and trash cans garnished with Sesame Street’s Elmo. They’re set on putting the playfulness back into serious cocktails without sacrificing quality. Similarly, last year saw a glut of excellent cocktail bars open in former Victorian lavatories, evidence of the latrines intact for comedy’s sake.

What’s happening in bars is part of a larger experiential zeitgeist that includes everything from art shows to music festivals to immersive theatre groups like pioneering Punchdrunk—the British company behind cult New York show Sleep No More—or the brilliantly deranged You Me Bum Bum Train, which catapults an audience one by one through a high-paced nonsensical narrative. “London has this huge hunger for novelty,” explains Sam Bompas, half of Bompas & Parr. “There is an escalation war of how much experience you can give people.”

These bars can be seen as a manifestation of a very British sense of humor; we are the children of the Monty Python generation after all. But beyond that, they point to a different level of expectation in the British drinking public not just to be well-fed and -watered, but to be amused and stunned at the same time. This is being fueled in no small part by the exceptionally talented group of bartenders currently leading the way in London, such as Tony Conigliaro, Ryan Chetiyawardana and Gareth Evans, masters at combining a certain wittiness or playfulness with advanced technical knowledge.

“It isn’t necessarily about what the bartenders are doing,” says Conigliaro, who has been concocting boundary-pushing drinks in his Willy Wonka-style liquid laboratory the Drink Factory since 2005. “It’s who their customers are and what they can get away with. I’m sure there are bartenders in America being whimsical and playful, but it’s not as accepted. This variation in customer appreciation impacts upon what you can serve.”

So why are the English so partial to these flights of fancy? Looking backward, we have always played with our food; for the English aristocracy, feasting wasn’t just about filling your stomach—it was entertainment. Chef Heston Blumenthal often harks back to this rich history of decadent dinners in his work, such as his attempt to recreate a 16th-century Tudor pie out of which real blackbirds would fly. Its sole purpose was to shock and delight dinner guests. In American history, conversely, feasting was a celebration of bounty; the sheer volume of food was a mark of success, a connection that remains today.

That’s not to say that eccentricity doesn’t exist in the U.S. bar scene. The Houston brothers are masters of whimsy and narrative with their crop of hit Los Angeles bars such as ’70s-themed Good Times at Davey Wayne’s and the homage to an ’80s junk shop that is Break Room 86. The thriving world of tiki is another example where America embraces the absurd and maintains the highest level of craft. But on the whole there seems to be a different degree of seriousness with which drinking is undertaken in the States—at least when talking about bars.

Cocktail culture globally moved toward a highbrow sensibility in reaction to the garish silliness of ’90s nightlife, sowing the seeds of the early-aughts craft cocktail boom. The speakeasy aesthetic, with its formal menus, reservation-only seating, and suspendered staff was meant as a signpost marking an establishment as high-caliber. Eight years after his game-changing PDT first opened, proprietor and bartender Jim Meehan feels we’ve largely won that battle and there has been a corresponding shift in the aesthetic of bars opening today.

“Everything we do at PDT isn’t happening as much. Operators are more relaxed about the environment people are drinking in, loosening the formality,” he explains. “The manifestation of that shift here in the U.S. is environmental, rather than the different focus we’re seeing in London.”

Part of this difference could be pecuniary. In the U.S., liquor companies are banned from supporting bars at point of sale, whereas a top London bar could be bringing in significant revenue from brands for placing a drink on the menu. “The top people in London are working with budgets that far exceed the U.S. equivalent,” explains Meehan, “which makes it a lot easier to create these experiential cocktails—the menus, martini cards, maps, toys—than it is here. The seeds of this have been going on in the U.S. as well, it just doesn’t realize its potential like it does in the U.K. thanks partly to the partnership between brands and bartenders.”

In London, this is also part of a “natural progression,” explains Olly Draper, general manager at Cahoots, a 1940s-themed bar in a disused Underground train station that channels its history both as an air raid shelter and an after-hours drinking club. What’s happening in bars is part of a larger experiential zeitgeist that includes everything from art shows to music festivals to immersive theatre groups like pioneering Punchdrunk—the British company behind cult New York show Sleep No More—or the brilliantly deranged You Me Bum Bum Train, which catapults an audience one by one through a high-paced nonsensical narrative.

“London has this huge hunger for novelty,” explains Sam Bompas, one half of Bompas & Parr. “There is an escalation war of how much experience you can give people.”

While the London scene seems determined to explore the very outer limits of experience, Bompas insists that there is such a thing as pushing too far. “We’re going to create a meal that is fantastical, but we would like people to actually enjoy it without having to resort to prostitution, or lacing people’s food with mescaline,” he says, though he admits that they’ve skirted close to this in the past with psychoactive lotus flowers. “There are limits.”

MORE ON LONDON’S COCKTAIL SCENE: 

London’s New Bathroom Bars
Creating the Closed-Loop Cocktail
Peek Inside London’s Most Whimsical Drink Factory
The Mystery of the London-Style Old-Fashioned
London’s Most Radical New Cocktail Bar

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