It’s World Gin Day, and while I haven’t made it to any events, or even far from my house, I have been drinking gin – there are some standards that need to be maintained. As in more recent years, I’ve not been necking G&Ts, but instead been trying my hand at a cocktail. This time, a drink which I have deep fondness for – The Bramble.
The London Cocktail Society continues to roll on and the second meeting was part of a happy coincidence – it helped start off London Cocktail Week. Running through the week of October 11th it was a celebration of all things boozey, with tastings of almost everything imaginable as well as masterclasses in the creation of cocktails and drinks from bartenders, distillers, writers, importers and anyone else who had something interesting to say. Quite by chance the one month anniversary of the first LCS trip (to 69 Colebrooke Road) fell on the Monday of Cocktail Week and Callooh Callay offered to host us for some cocktail drinking.
Callooh Callay is a newish entry into the London Cocktail scene and one that I have been much remiss in not visiting more often – it’s about 5 minutes walk from my office and I’d been walking past it for months before I realised what it was. Tucked down Rivington Street in Shoreditch they’re a bar with a loose theme – Alice in Wonderland. This is now mainly expressed through their naming, although there is a general element of quirkiness to the place that fits in with the books surreality. It looks ‘just like a bar’ when you wander in, but the toilet walls are lined with audio cassettes (featuring numerous musical crimes) and the locked cupboard at one end can be opened by those with keys to reveal their members bar, The Jub Jub, complete with rotating guest bartenders and menus. They run regular drinks tastings, with brand ambassadors appearing on a monthly basis to talk people through their wares and the cocktails that the bar staff have put together using them.
The bar staff are led by bar manager Sean Ware, former advertising photographer turned award winning barmen, who worked with owner Richard Wynne to put together and open the bar. Sean was our host for the night and had put together a special menu of London cocktails, which he talked us through, with a hint of history as well as the contemporary twists you’d expect.
The menu started with a Hot Gin Punch. Callooh Callay are fans of punches, having just commissioned their own punch bowls after using the upturned horns of gramaphones to hold a four person portion of cocktail until recently, and it’s an idea with a long history, having become especially popular in Edwardian times. In traditional fashion one of the reasons why punches came to the fore was due to the lack of safe drinking water and groups sharing specially made cocktails was slightly more elegant than the small beer often imbibed. This punch was put together using Hendricks gin, Madeira, ‘winter spices’, pineapple, citrus, honey and, I assume, some hot water to make it all piping hot. You don’t get many warm alcoholic drinks these days, with a cup of mulled wine being most people’s exposure to the concept, but it’s something that I reckon needs more exploring. And not only because my previous experiments with hot buttered rum left me a drooling wreck.
Next on the menu was The Avenue. According to Sean this may well have been the first cocktail that was more than just spirit, ice and some form of sweet/sour citrus mix. Invented at the Café Royal and published in their 1937 cocktail book it was popular around the turn of the century. This version was made with Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon (a whiskey I first tried at a tasting session at Callooh Callay), Laird’s Apple Jack, passionfruit nectar, orange flower water and syrup. Sean made it with all the ingredients from scratch but did confide in us that it works better with flat Rubicon passionfruit soda… My only tasting note on it was that it smells and tastes ‘like red boiled sweets’. It was quite nice.
Next up was a John Collins, the 1986 ‘update’ of the classic Tom Collins, named for one of the potential inventors of the drink, first sighted back in the 1870s. In its day this was as popular and ubiquitous as the mojito is today and it still remains a constant of many cocktail menus. It’s a very simple drink, with this recipe calling for Bols Genever (dutch gin, as would probably have been used in the late 1800s), lemon juice and caster sugar. That lines up with the original recipe and the update invokes adding a lemon wedge and maraschino cherry, the latter of which Callooh Callay makes some very tasty examples of.
Next on the menu was a London Classic, Dick Bradsell‘s Bramble. A mainstay on any self respecting cocktail bar’s menu since its inception in the mid ’80s it’s one of Bradsell’s most famous creations. As usual with these things it’s quite simple but effective – gin (in this case Beefeater), lemon juice and sugar in a glass full of crushed ice, topped with a float of creme de mûre (a blackberry liqueur) and traditionally garnished with a lemon slice and two raspberries. Somehow I’ve only tried one of these once before and they are exactly as they seem – a gin and lemonade with a fruity float. That doesn’t stop it working very well though.
My first drink of the night was the next on the list – Clayton’s Special Cocktail, invented at the Savoy during the tenure of Ada Coleman at the turn of the 20th century. This was referred to as being like ‘a posh Bacardi and coke’ around our table and a circulated glass of the secret ingredient helped us understand why – Clayton’s Kola Tonic. This cordial was first made in Battersea and very popular, in a similar fashion to Coca-Cola’s origins in soda fountains in the USA, but is now made in Barbados and not widely known. It is a sticky orangey red syrup which tastes a bit like Coke syrup but without the caramel sweetness, with citrus and herbs coming through with a little bit of sweetness. Mixed with some some white rum, citrus syrup (a difficult to make combination of orange, lemon, grapefruit, sugar and distilled water) and a splash of fizzy water it makes a very interesting alternative to a Coke based rum drink. I did a bit of searching in the next week and turned up a bottle of Clayton’s at The Whisky Exchange – they thanked me for taking it off their hands because they don’t sell much of it. Since then I’ve done a bit of experimenting and while it isn’t concentrated enough to hold up as a regular ‘mix with water and drink’ cordial it is good at spicing up drinks that want a orangey kick.
Last on the list was The Ale of Two Cities. Put together by the 2008 Cocktail World Cup winning Team London for that competition, it’s a collision of England and New Zealand in ingredients, made from 42 Below Feijoa vodka, Punt e Mes vermouth, nettle cordial, malt syrup, granny smith apple juice and bitters. Feijoa is a fruit I’ve not seen before, but is eaten in a manner similar to kiwi fruit and is meant to be delicious, although easily perishable. The malt syrup is about half as sweet as sugar but gives a creamy head when shaken with the rest of the ingredients, allowing the drink to still have that head at the same time as not becoming overly sweet. Sean served it in a half pint beer jug, adding to the aley effect – a rather good looking and, according to the others, tasty cocktail.
We then repaired to the Jub Jub bar to bathe in neon (I was tucked in under a very pink 42 Below sign) and a run through the regular menu, watching as a group of London Roller Girls tucked into a gigantic bowl of punch through foot long straws. It’s a very nice bar, hitting the middle of the London cocktail bar range (drinks about £8) and adding enough quirkiness to push them out from the rest without becoming too annoying. The bar staff know what they’re doing and even though their drinks are much longer than the usual classic cocktails I go for there’s enough to tempt me towards the dark side – fruity cocktails.
Callooy Callay, 65 Rivington Street, London EC2A 3AY
Cocktails £8-10 (special offer of £6 for the cocktails on our menu when we visited), punch bowls £50 (and enough for at least 4 people).
Open Sunday-Friday 5.30pm-11pm, Friday 5.30pm-1am, Saturday 6pm-1am.
Sushi and Japanese starters served while the bar is open
Clayton’s Kola Tonic
Kola nut, herb and spice cordial. £6.95 from The Whisky Exchange