Calling the East London cocktail bar Three Sheets “unassuming” would be considered high praise by its co-owners, Max and Noel Venning. That’s because, since they opened in 2016, the brothers have put considerable thought into how to alchemize a microclimate of chill within their 23-seat venue. Their philosophy of what makes a good bar is built right into the fabric of the place.
It might go unacknowledged, for example, that the handsome stone bartop is clear of any bartending equipment; tins and tools all reside below the counter. House cocktails are largely pre-batched, so service is a subtler, more seamless affair. And, did you notice, not a single light is pointed at the row of bottles along the backbar? Instead, the glow goes on the guests.
The drinks list at Three Sheets is constructed with a similar kind of economy, aimed at putting patrons at ease. The short menu, just nine cocktails, is presented all on one page, intended to be scanned quickly. If a drink contains an esoteric ingredient, the team at Three Sheets (which has grown to five people since opening) makes sure to also include a familiar one in its written description. “We want people to not feel challenged,” Max Venning adds.
As for the drinks themselves, the same applies: “We want people to have stuff that’s drinkable and smashable,” he says.
Many of the drinks that have helped put the bar on the map (and have earned it mentions on world’s-best lists) have been riffs on celebrated classics like the French 75, as well as reimaginings of notable lowbrow stalwarts, including the Sex on the Beach and the “one-and-one” drink, the whiskey-ginger.
When you think of whiskey and ginger, a basic long drink probably comes to mind—a measure of brown booze, topped with ginger-flavored soda. Maybe you’ve concocted one when those ingredients are all you’ve had around. But the Vennings and their team saw greater potential in the humble highball.
The initial inspiration arose when they were eating and came across what Max Venning describes as “a really good pickled ginger.” The burst of flavor prompted an idea: “Adding a pickled element to a whiskey-ginger would be incredible,” he recalls thinking. The spice, acidity and sweetness could unlock a new depth for the one-note beverage.
The bar has a tendency to work in the highball format, which lends itself to the kind of lighter, easy-drinking cocktails that fit the Three Sheets mold. The team is always modifying base spirits as well. For example, bartenders often develop tinctures from a spirit—say, a tincture of vodka and Earl Grey tea—then add that back to the liquor bottle. “You’re almost adding it to the vodka like a bitters,” Max Venning says. And rather than use straight citrus in drinks, they often make sweet-sour cordials to layer in acidity.
To construct the whiskey-ginger, Three Sheets enlisted Suntory Toki, a light Japanese whisky that’s a natural choice for highballs. First, bartenders separate the pickled ginger’s solids and liquid. Then, a dip in the onsen: The ginger solids take a 30-minute sous-vide bath in the whisky to marry the signature sharpness of the root with the spirit’s vanilla-and-spice character. (At home, a similar flavor can be achieved by steeping ginger in the whisky overnight, according to Venning.)
Next, the liquid portion needs little doctoring: “The pickle juice is really fiery,” he explains. For balance, the complex vinegary base is lengthened with water, a small amount of sugar, and citric and lactic acids to make a pickled ginger cordial. Lastly, like many of Three Sheets’ drinks, all but the soda water topper is mixed together ahead of time for a pre-batched cocktail base.
The Whiskey Ginger is the latest and most developed in a succession of whiskey highballs that have appeared on Three Sheets’ menu over the years, where the touch of a cordial serves “to make the whiskey bigger, to make the drink a bit more balanced,” Venning says. “It’s really light, really refreshing.”
In the glass, the drink is elegantly clear, defying the visual expectation of a traditional brown-hued whiskey-ginger. Yet on the palate, it offers a layered, rounded expression of ginger. It’s a highly orchestrated endeavor, yet, again, unassuming.
“It feels like a whiskey-ginger, but there’s definitely something else going on,” says Venning. “It’s one of my favorite drinks we’ve done over the last few years.”