It was, apparently, Gin Month while I was in England, and although you and I may think that every month in England is gin month, I suppose the marketing departments of liquor companies need to keep busy, and obviously they wanted June to be even more gin-sodden than the other months of the year. I did what I could.
Not so very long ago the only place I knew in London where you could be sure of getting a good dry martini was the American Bar at the Savoy. I’m not saying there weren’t other places, I just didn’t know them. But the game has changed completely. Bartenders all over the city now know what a dry martini is. The days when they served you a glass of warm vermouth are passed. And the Savoy endures. Like this:
They make their house martini with Bombay Sapphire which, given the availability of a thousand and one artisanal, handmade, special edition gins, seems a little pedestrian but I had no objections to the taste. However, should you have a 120 quid burning a hole in your waistcoat, you can turn to the “vintage cocktails” page of the drinks menu.
You’ll notice the presence of three cocktails using “vintage gin.” Now, I don’t mean to spoil the party, but I’m not sure there’s any such thing as a vintage gin and I’ll tell you for why.
A friend of mine had an aunt and uncle who were happy and unrepentant alcoholics, and gin was their favorite drink. As they approached retirement, and knowing they wouldn’t have much money to spend on booze once they’d stopped working, they filled the basement of their house with many, many crates of gin. And when they retired they started to drink the first gin they’d laid down, which was now a couple of decades old, and they discovered that unlike whisky or brandy, gin did not get better with age, in fact it went off. They ended up with a basement full of gin, most of which was undrinkable. That’s the story anyway and it may not be 100 per cent true but the moral is clear: drink your gin as soon as you get it.
Next stop was Dukes bar in the Dukes hotel in Mayfair. This is where Ian Fleming drank – he lived close by – and they serve a Vesper which is a version of the martini Bond orders in Casino Royale. He demanded Kina Lillet in his drink and Lillet can still be bought but they changed the recipe some years back. So Dukes adjust their recipe accordingly - No. 3 London Dry Gin, Lillet Blanc, Angostura bitters, and Potocki vodka.
And this is the beauty part: the Dukes Vesper is neither stirred nor shaken but rather constructed tableside from ingredients that have come straight from the deep freeze. If you like ritual you’re going to like this a lot.
And later a return to Mother’s Ruin in Walthamstow – a gin palace with, on the night I was there, the slowest bartender I’ve ever encountered. He was Dutch, I think, and he said he was tired and he had to keep checking the drink recipes. It made you want to give him a good shake, although when the martini came it was perfectly fine. Yep, that's a sage leaf.
And you know me, there are only two cocktails I really like: the martini and the gimlet and there it was on the Mother’s Run’s list – “Gimlet – Hendricks Gin, Ancho Reyes Verde chili liqueur, lime juice, gomme” - so I ordered one. A different, far zestier bartender had swept into action.
The gimlet looked like this (yeah, I spilled some):
I think Raymond Chandler (and indeed I) would have preferred something a bit more translucent – and without a slice of cucumber - but it tasted very good.
And finally, because I was coming to the end of my time in London, I had a cocktail in Fitz’s bar at the Principal Hotel - the bar is named after Charles Fitzroy Doll who was the architect of the hotel and, among other things, designer of the dining room of the Titanic.
Above is the Baby Babel made from “Tanqueray No. TEN Gin, Visciolata del Cardinale, LBV Port, Cream Sherry, Egg, Burr & Co. Coffee Ground Tincture.” And of course I had no idea what “Visciolata del Cardinale” was, but research shows it to be a cherry dessert wine. And frankly the whole thing tasted very much like dessert. But once in a while an alcoholic dessert in a glass goes down extremely well. The bartender was absolutely wonderful.