David Whitley discovers that a special breed of bartender can be found in ’s luxury hotels.
It’s all about getting the flavour out of the mint. Andrew Eaton gives the leaves a good slap before putting it in the glass with the cucumber. It’s showmanship with a purpose. He wants the simplest of cocktails to be perfect.
Andrew is in charge of what he calls “bespoke G and Ts” at the Berry Bar in the Green Park Hilton. It’s one of a small band of luxury hotels in London that attempt to distinguish themselves by having bars specialising in one particular drink.
“Different gins have different qualities and flavours – and constructing them is almost like perfume-making,” argues Andrew with zeal. “Asking for a G and T is like asking for a glass of red wine.”
The make-up of the gin dictates what he serves it with. Spanish gin Mare, apparently, goes really well with olives. Williams Chase is apple-infused, so Andrew serves it with a slice of apple rather than lemon or lime. For Bloom gin, it’s “the meatiness of thyme and the sweetness of sliced strawberries.”
Andrew admits that the specialist gin bar is about offering something unique for potential guests. “We’re trying to wow them with what we know,” he says.
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The same applies a few blocks down the road at the Athenaeum, where whisky sommelier Angelo Gobbi hosts private scotch-sampling sessions.
He runs through the history of whisky – its supposed origin in Mesopotamia; prohibition-era smuggling fromto the US via the Bahamas; how his native became the biggest per-capita whisky consumer in the 1970s – whilst preparing a cheese board. If cheese and wine can go together, the theory goes, then so can cheese and whisky.
There’s a process, too. “Try and stick your nose in the glass,” he says. “It bites your nose, doesn’t it? You need to say ‘hi’ and ‘how are you?’ to the whisky until it starts to talk to you.”
He kicks off with a twelve-year-old Balvenie Doublewood single malt. There are hints of orange marmalade, raisin and cinnamon, and a certain sweetness comes through in the taste, albeit with a harsh kick at the end.
When tried on top of the creamy blue cheese Angelo suggests to try with it, however, there’s a marriage. The flavours combine and the aftertaste is smoothed over.
The other matching pairs work quite differently. A blended Dewar’s breaks down what is otherwise a very stodgy, mouth-filling goat’s cheese, for example. To finish off, the stallion kick of the twelve-year-old Aberfeldy single malt embarks on a battle royal with the unashamedly strong parmesan block it is set loose against.
“It’s Ali versus Frasier,” says Angelo. “The rumble in the jungle.”
Not all of the bottles in the cabinet at the back of the bar will be used for cheese-matching, however. He points to a 50-year-old Mortlach scotch that is sold at £179 a measure. “It’s one of a kind; nobody else has the bottle.”
Similar rarities are available at the Artesian Bar inside the Langham Hotel. Here, rum specialist Alex Kratena talks about his recently-found treasures with scarcely-concealed glee. “I brought one bottle back from Puerto Rico,” he says. “Bacardí asked three former master blenders to blend a special rum. Only 150 bottles were ever made, and I could charge thousands of pounds for a sip.”
He also tells of the Black Tot rum that was rationed up by the Royal Navy up until the 1970s. “People were drinking rum on board nuclear submarines,” he says. “It sells at £800 a bottle even though it doesn’t really taste that good. But you’re drinking history.”
The results of Alex’s regular forays out to theand Central America pay off in terms of repeat business, he explains. “We’re constantly bringing new stuff in, and it keeps people coming back to see what we’ve got. Around 50% of customers aren’t hotel residents.”
The cocktails help with that too. “Rum is the most versatile spirit in the world,” says Alex. “For example, the Barbancourt from Haiti is aged in cognac barrels, so it is brilliant for putting in cocktails where you’d usually have cognac.
“But rums from Spanish-speaking islands tend to be lighter with a clean taste, and those from English-speaking islands are fuller-bodied with a greater amount of underlying molasses flavour.”
The Artesian Punch – “the signature punch of the poshest rum shack in the world” – is a flamboyant masterpiece. It combines premium rums from Venezuela and Jamaica, mixing them with calvados and Poire William pear liqueur. A float of dark and overproof rums is then laid over the top and set on fire. The presentation and showmanship is as important as the drinks range and knowledge.
But the other crucial ingredient in all of these specialist hotel bars is the personality of the unabashed enthusiasts running them.
Nowhere is this more true than at the Egerton House Hotel. The bar is in the image of its master, Antonio Pizzuto: small-yet-formidable and defiantly old-fashioned in the most charming of ways. He’ll regularly hold fort until 3am in the morning., and sees his job as much more than pouring drinks. “Behind the bar, you’ve got to be a priest,” he says. “You’ve got to be a good listener and you have to know when to zip it. But if you don’t talk to people, what’s the point?”
Antonio makes martinis. And he’s rather particular about how he does it, having learnt on the job from a number of London bartending legends.
Originally from Sicily, he arrived in thein 1971 with barely a word of English and got a job sweeping floors at the Savoy. Since then, he’s worked his way through many of London’s top restaurants and hotel bars before landing his own fiefdom at the Egerton House.
He refuses to serve martinis shaken or stirred. “Are you James Bond?” he says. “Shaking and stirring gets water in there – and it is not the same. Let me make you a proper martini.”
Having plumped for vodka rather than gin, he reaches for a frozen glass before adding a small drop of vermouth from what looks like a vinegar bottle. He then pulls a bottle of Belvedere Vodka out of a small portable freezer – he always makes the martini in front of the customer – and fills the glass to the brim. It’s a monster of a serving that the little scrape of lemon rind makes no less daunting.
It’s a powerful beast from the first sip, but one with electric purity and flavour. It’s no wonder that most people come here solely for a martini.
“I rarely sell more than ten beers a month,” says Antonio with pride. “And if I do, that’s too many.”
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The private whisky and cheese sampling sessions at the Athenaeum’s Whisky Bar cost £50 ($80) and need to be booked in advance. At the Egerton House, Langham and Green Park Hilton, you just pay for your drinks.
The Egerton House (17-19 Egerton Terrace, Knightsbridge, +44 20 758 92412, www.redcarnationhotels.com) offers a fun, relaxed take on classic hospitality – half the fun comes in working out where in the world the furniture has been sourced from. Rooms cost from £312 ($499) a night.
Alternatively, a one night stay at the Langham (1c Portland Place, Regent Street, 020 7636 1000, www.langhamhotels.com) will cost from £302 ($483) a night. Rooms at the Athenaeum (116 Piccadilly, Mayfair, +44 20 7499 3464, www.athenaeumhotel.com) and Green Park Hilton (Half Moon Street, Mayfair, +44 207 629 7522, www.hilton.co.uk) cost from £275 ($440) and £155 ($248) respectively.
Disclosure: The writer stayed as a guest of the Egerton House hotel. This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.