In 1731, when James Ashley opened the “London Coffee House and Punch House” on Ludgate Hill near St Paul’s Cathedral, his pioneering spirit and love for rum, brandy and arrack-based punches launched him as the world’s first celebrity bartender. In the subsequent three centuries, the popularity and accessibility of punch, and the other mixed drinks that followed, changed according to social norms and local laws, but the role of London’s bartenders as trendsetters and tastemakers remained constant.
In recent years, the contemporary inheritors of Ashley’s legacy have looked to the past for inspiration, plucking everything from 17th-century sailor’s recipes to disco drinks for their ever-evolving cocktail lists. And while many bar programs have invested untold sums researching and developing historic recipes, London is at the forefront of modern technique, with plenty of cocktail establishments forging paths not yet taken. Though not every London drinker is looking for a top-shelf experience (juvenile intoxication and revelry are apparent when walking through any neighborhood on any given evening), they’re more easily had than ever before, owing to not only cocktail bars, but the revitalized class of hotel bar.
This ingenuity applied to wine, has meant a slow but steady shedding of the pomp (and high prices) that have held London’s wine scene back over the last few decades. In its place is a growing number of casual wine destinations that are not only changing the way the city drinks, but what it drinks.
On the beer front, too, there are opposite ends of the spectrum. Corporate pub culture is seriously entrenched in this city, but a growing affection for craft beer—and an especially active campaign to promote real ales—provides an accessible alternative. Craft beer bars and gastro pubs promote a quality drinking and dining culture, many of which draw from local sources for the tap and the table. Urban breweries have cropped up under rail arches and inside repurposed warehouses. Together, pub owners and craft brewers evangelize for a higher standard of beer, just as cocktail bartenders have guided their culture from behind the bar for centuries. —Katie Parla