Tuesday 5 March 2013

The looking-glass half full…

David with a row of Pop Goes the Walrus cocktails
As I have commented before, I don’t normally do bar reviews, but I was invited along a couple of weeks ago to the launch of a new watering hole managed by a chum, David Hamilton-Boyd. I actually know David more for food than drink, as he has in the past run the food operation at Candlelight Club events—a fact that seemed to become more significant as the evening went on.

The place is called the Looking Glass Cocktail Club and, as the name suggests, there is an Alice in Wonderland theme going on. The Hackney Road venue has a small front bar decorated in standard Hoxton style with patches of exposed brickwork and pendant clusters of those exposed-filament lightbulbs you see everywhere. At the back, to the right of the bar is a huge gilt-framed mirror—which one would probably assume was just that, were it not for the fact that, at least on the launch night, there was a girl opening and closing it. Yes, it is a door into the much larger back bar. Through the looking glass indeed.

The styling of the back bar was similar, with a sparse collection of low furniture in clumps around the sides. I gather that some artwork will be going up on the walls. I spoke to the owner, who, interestingly, wanted his bar to become a venue for leftfield performance art—and indeed we were treated to some surreal keening from a young lady in skeletal corsetry. Oddly, though, there is no stage and the owner has no intention to install one.

But what of the drinks? As David zipped energetically about behind the bar clad in a purple Mad Hatter-esque topper and tie, I sampled four of the libations on offer. Some of them have Lewis Carroll names like Check Mate, Pop Goes the Walrus and the Looking Glass Fizz, while three of them have tea-related names and are indeed served in teacups—here evoking the Mad Hatter’s tea party, rather than the more common Prohibition speakeasy connotations. First up was the Shades of Green, blending the highly characterful, single-distilled Vestal vodka with a homemade dill syrup and absinthe mist, served with a cornichon pickle. The vegetal notes dominate, aromatic dill blending with the absinthe botanicals and the tart sappiness of the pickle, plus some saltiness from somewhere. David won a Vestal competition with this one.

Next I try the Pop Goes the Walrus, a psychedelic tour de force based around “buttered popcorn bourbon”. I’d previously heard that David made this, and I had tried to imagine what popcorn really tastes of other than the things one tends to put on it, like butter, caramel, salt, etc. Here the flavoured bourbon is blended with caramel syrup and milk, and served with a few bits of popcorn floating in it. Straightaway you get a bitter, toasted waft on the nose that does indeed remind you of popcorn, along with a butteriness too. On the palate there is a strange green, savoury note. Overall the cocktail is a like a buttery Baileys but with a drying cereal element—it does remind you of what popcorn tastes like. (It’s also unsurprisingly rich, so I doubt you would assay more than one in an evening.)

Then David hands me a Modern Gentleman. He is unable to explain why he gave it that name, but at £12 it’s the priciest drink on the menu—being based around El Dorado 21-year-old rum. It’s essentially a sort of rum Old Fashioned, sweetened with salted caramel and served with both an orange wedge and a spray of Mozart chocolate bitters over the top. This construction intrigued me, as the aroma of the bitters lingered for the whole life of the drink, blending with the sweet orange scent, always present on the nose but not really on the tongue. I guess the idea was to highlight the chocolate, orange and caramel notes in the rum, and I picked up elements of vanilla and banana too. And then there’s the salt again, here suggesting maritime brine, which seemed apt for a drink like rum, with its seafaring connotations.

Could this be the dill or tarragon syrup?

But this is what struck me most about the cocktails I tasted: their savouriness, whether it is the salt, the herby vegetable flavours or the dry cereal angle. I don’t have an especially sweet tooth, so I’m always being reminded to make sure the Candlelight Club cocktails are not too dry. But classic cocktail construction tends to revolve around a balance between the poles of spirit, sweet, sour, and maybe bitter herbal notes from vermouth, Campari, absinthe or aromatic bitters. The savoury elements in David’s cocktails reminded me more of food than anything. It could be a reflection of his other life as a chef, but to be honest it is a trend that has been going on for a while.

Perhaps the desire to break away from traditional cocktail flavours to explore new ones has been inspired by the way that deconstructionist “molecular gastronomy” has inspired “molecular mixology”, as evinced by places like Purl and its sister the Worship Street Whistling Shop, or the pop-up Burlington Social Club last year, where guests could enjoy cocktails made with “protein” served from eggshells. I applaud all such experimentation, though I find that in some cases it can be all mouth and no trousers—if you hadn’t read the elaborate description of what went into the drink and the exotic techniques involved, you would probably dismiss the result as something that just doesn’t taste of very much. And in some cases I also find the “theatre” just a bit too annoying, like the time I was served a cocktail that came entombed in a Bible and which somehow had to be consumed while inhaling from a vessel of frankincense smoke. Sometimes you just want a drink.

Mercifully David’s drinks don’t stray into that territory. But looking down the list I was struck by how foodie they seemed. The Looking Glass fizz consists of “stewed brambly apples” with blackberries and gingerbread and, almost as an afterthought, some Prosecco. The Check Mate contains star anise, vanilla and cinnamon tequila with pineapple juice and lemon curd (!). The High Tea goes even further and contains “oat-steeped vodka”, strawberry jam, milk and a rum & raisin cream.

A previously enjoyed Pop Goes the Walrus (in
the foreground), Modern Gentleman (left) and
Shades of Green (right)
My last cocktail at the Looking Glass Cocktail Club was the Storm in a Tea Cup, a mixture of bergamot liqueur, smoked vanilla vodka, lavender-infused Earl Grey tea and lemon juice. It had a satisfying balance of citrus, sweetness and tannin. (Tea may be fashionable in cocktails at the moment, but its used in mixed drinks goes right back to the first punches, which often contained it.) I found this actually the most moreish of the drinks I tried, and also liked the fact that it is served (in a teacup, naturally) with a sugar cube on the side in a spoon, a sugar cube impregnated with grapefruit bitters. The cube is not that eager to dissolve, so you can dunk it into your cocktail for as long as you wish, to achieve the sweetness that suits your palate. I liked this simple element of customization, but overall I just thought it combined intriguing complexity with a user-friendly approachability.

And if you just want a pleasant night out, it makes a more agreeable tipple than, say, wasp-infused tequila with a sump-oil foam and a methane mist, all served at one’s table in the cupped hands of a South American street urchin…

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