Thursday 1 February 2024

Ancient Egyptian Cocktails at the Bloomsbury Club

Let the mystical pyramid choose your cocktail

To Bloomsbury, for the launch of a new cocktail menu at the Bloomsbury Club, in the bowels of the Bloomsbury Hotel—thanks to Megan and Katie from Cru for the invite. We struggled to find the place at first, not realising that the hotel had two cocktail bars, the other being the scintillating Coral Room, to which we’d been before. Such extravagance.

I’ve come across some pretty elaborate cocktails before—such as ones that are served under a glass dome filled with smoke, or one that came in a flask inside a hollowed-out Bible—but this whole menu is pretty high-concept even by these standards. It’s based around Ancient Egypt, on the grounds of the connection between the Bloomsbury Group of artists and the 1922 discovery by Howard Carter of Tutankhamun’s tomb. If you look it up, the connection is actually pretty tenuous, but it was all going on at around the same time. 

What greets you under the pyramid's lid
Each cocktail is named after an Egyptian hieroglyph. Which sounds like a good idea, until you trying asking for them by name in a noisy bar environment. Bellow at the waiter that you’d like a Hu, an Ib and a Ka, and you can’t help feeling that you sound like you’ve already had too many. According to the menu (a detailed booklet that is apparently available for sale, and which naturally I stole), each cocktail actually tries to embody the essence of the hieroglyph in its flavours. I told you it was high-concept.

It gets better. The menu insists that, inspired by the symbols inscribed on sarcophagi, the Bloomsbury Group adopted Ancient Egyptian mystical philosophies, in an attempt to glean universal human truths and come to know The Self. One part of this is the act of divination: although the menu doesn’t go so far as to say the Bloomsbury Group partook of this, the bar does give you, the customer, a chance to have a go. At the beginning of your evening you are presented with a pyramid (mixed media, mostly printed cardboard). Lift the lid and you find a central chamber containing a pendulum. You then allow the pendulum to swing over the top and slowly lower it until it touches one of the “tombs” surrounding the chamber. Lift the lid of this sarcophagus and your family will be cursed for a thousand generations. Only joking. What you actually find under the lid is the name of the cocktail you should order.

In the menu, there is a paragraph under each cocktail telling you what your cocktail choice reveals. Given that your “choice” has been made for you, at random, I guess it’s not revealing what it means that you chose it, but what it means that the gods chose it for you. For example, if you end up with the cocktail named after the god Nefertum, it means the god is calling you to “cast off your neuroses and find wonder in innocent things” (which enough of pretty much any kind of alcohol will do, I guess). If it is divined that you should chug a Meri, it means that “you have been too wrapped up in yourself lately. Meri is here to drag you outside and connect you with the wider world.” (So it’s Meri dragging you outside, not the bouncer—remember that.) “Plant flowers, savour the seasons, get muddy. Breathe energy into your relationships, particularly family. Discover unity everywhere.” (Slurring, “You’re my best mate, you are,” is a start, I presume.) So for an average price of £17, you’re getting therapy as well as a glass of booze, which is pretty good value for London.

I’ll be honest that after the first drink we fell to making our own choices, based on the ingredients listed in the menu. But here we realised that the process was not much different from allowing a pendulum to choose your drink for you, as the description is not much of a guide to what you get. For example, the Scotch-based Kheper includes double cream, yet it is completely clear. We mentioned to the waitress that it looked as if they’d forgotten to include the cream, but she explained it was “clarified cream”. (Can you clarify double cream?) Likewise the Meri contains “honey lassi”—yoghurt, right?—yet is not only clear but colourless too, which is weird as it has Eagle Rare 10-year-old bourbon in it. The Ib contains “saffron custard”, which makes you think it’s going to be like a Snowball, yet it too is clear.  (We struggled to detect either custard or saffron.) Meanwhile, the Champagne-based Manu really does taste like a classy Snowball, dominated by vanilla. (The ingredient is “vanilla salep”—I looked it up and a salep is an Ottoman drink made with flour from the orchid bulb.)

A Manu in the tall glass and a Se Shen with the rose petal
So the cocktail descriptions keep you guessing. But are they nice? Our group of four managed to taste all 12 cocktails on the menu, and in the first instance I would say that it helps if you have a sweet tooth. The Pyramid of Mars declared that Mrs H. should have the Kheper, but even for her it was too sickly to finish, dominated by golden syrup, though not without interest from the Drambuie, carraway, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg also included (the carraway being the most noticeable for me). The gods assigned me the Nefertum, which was sweet too, presumably from the orgeat almond syrup, but balanced by acidity from persimmon, physalis and grapefruit. The base was 11-year-old Santiago de Cuba rum, which came through nicely.

The Meri, with its bourbon joined by cacao, crème de menthe, Branca Menta and honey lassi, sounds like it’s going to be a chocolately Old Fashioned, but, in addition to being colourless, it’s dominated by the mint (crème de menthe mint, not fresh mint), and the bourbon is reduced to a subtle woody ambience. Meanwhile the Ib, made with Chardonnay grape skin vodka, crème de peche, Galliano, saffron custard and peach and jasmine soda—which the menu itself describes as rich and creamy—turns out to be long, floral and refreshing, and was a firm favourite in our group. The Champagne in the Manu (which is slightly more expensive at £25) is clearly present, being the first thing that hits your nose, and its dryness offsets the sweeter elements. But, as I say, it’s vanilla that dominates, and one struggles to detect the tantalising “fig Sauternes” listed in the menu.

But the drinks are by no means all cloying. The Ir Ma’at, made from vodka, Italicus Rosalino di Bergamotto, dry vermouth and yuzu sake, is sharply bitter and aromatic. My two favourites were both pretty punchy: the Ka contains mezcal, green coffee beans, pineapple, lime and “coconut and rosemary agave”, and I would not have guessed that coffee and rosemary would go together so well. And the text for the Wadget warns that “A powerful force is about to surge up in you,” and they are not wrong about this spicy combination of tequila, rosé vermouth, strawberry, cacao, thyme and chilli salt.

Overall, a hell of lot of effort and thought has gone into this menu. Perhaps they’ve overthought it with the mystical pyramids, but they certainly don’t do any harm—and, as I say, the randomness of the drink selection isn’t much different from the surprise you might get if you try and choose a drink based on the way it reads on the page. If your ideal cocktail is a Dry Martini, then you may find some of these too sugary by three-quarters, but overall the menu has bitter and aromatic concoctions too. It’s just a question of guessing which ones they might be.