London Cocktail Society – 69 Colebrooke Row

A few months back I saw on Twitter that a few of the cocktail lovers who I follow were talking about having meetups for London based cocktail fans and, as I do way to often, I asked if I could join in. The first official meetup of the now named London Cocktail Society (I think there was a premeeting last month) was set for September 8th at 69 Colebrooke Row.

69 Colebrooke Row (the bar’s address, not its name – it deliberately doesn’t have a name) is a small room next to The Living Room, just off Essex Road in Islington. It’s the new home of cocktail barman Tony Conigliaro, famed for various drink inventions and his more ‘molecular gastronomy’ style approach to cocktail making. From reading about Tony it seems that having worked in restaurant bars he started being interested in the modern cooking methods that he saw in the kitchens and started applying some of them to cocktail making.

To this end they make a lot of their own base ingredients at 69 Colebrooke Row, with the upstairs of the bar hiding a low ceilinged lab, full of bench gear for both production and experimentation. Part of the LCS visit was that Tony offered to take us all upstairs, in small groups as it isn’t all that spacious, and show us what he does up there. Due to the distilling laws allowing limited redistillation of already distilled alcohol (which I need to investigate more before buying things to blow up my kitchen – I was offered the chance to add a small still onto someone else’s order the other day and I was very tempted. I said no) Tony has two vacuum stills and one whose name I forgot but looked a bit like a column still. He uses these to produce various flavoured liquids, both alcoholic and water based. The low temperature that the lowering of atmospheric pressure enabled by the vacuum stills allows leads to the various ingredients in the distilling liquid being handled delicately and not cooked as much as they would be at a higher temperature. This leads to much more delicate products and different flavours being pulled out into the various liquids.

For example, their vodka, which they now sell over the bar for £12 a bottle, is made by grating horseradish into the base spirit (which I assume is vodka) before redistilling, which produces a great horseradish spirit that puts my experiments to shame (as I would hope, as I am not a cocktail expert with a lab above my own bar). On the nose it has crisp horseradish, as if you’re sniffing the surface revealed by snapping a root in half. To taste it has a butteriness mixed in with a light heat and vegetable bitterness, that lingers with the heat long after you swallow your drink.

Along with the horseradish vodka they also had a rose hydrosol (a water based extraction), which perfectly captured the smell of roses as well as the taste of flowers, some rhubarb vodka (for which they cook the rhubarb sous-vide to break it down before mixing with base spirit and redistilling) and vacuum bags packed with various things ready for experimentation, including wood chips. Outside of drinks there were also jars of green beans, pickling away in a variety of vinegars ready to become the final piece of their upcoming bloody mary (along with horseradish vodka, carefully constructed tomato juice and a black pepper tincture). I want a lab to construct drinks in…

After our lab tour I grabbed a couple of drinks, as it seems rude not to when visiting a bar. Drinks are £8 each for house cocktails, although the menu does also offer classics on request, and presentation and creation are predictably excellent. Behind the bar on the night we visited were Matteo and Ryan (who I’d heard tales of from SMWS staff as he worked in Bramble in Edinburgh before coming down to London after being crowned UK Best Bartender last year) and they calmly coped with random requests (with LCS co-founder Mark asking for ‘whatever you think would be nice’ from both of them over the evening).

I started with a Liquorice Whisky Sour, made from Cutty Sark whisky, Lemon juice and liquorice syrup. It was a beautiful drink, with a thick off-white creamy head covering the orangey liquid. It smelled of liquorice and smoky lemons and was an excellent balance of the whisky, citrus and sweet liquorice. Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of malt whisky in cocktails, with most of the delicate flavours being overwhelmed leaving just the general whisky-ness. In this case the wood and smoke were nice additions, but it didn’t quite work for me.

Liquorice whisky sourHowever, I did use the idea to make my own version last night: 50ml Woodford Reserve bourbon, 50ml home-made sour mix, 15ml liquorice vodka. It needs some work as the sours and vodka made things a bit sweet, as I use sweet soft liquorice to make my liquorice vodka. Luckily for me Tony gave me one of the liquorice pastilles that he grinds to garnish the Liquorice Whisky Sour to try, after I mentioned that I also wanted a centrifuge (his current Most Wanted piece of lab kit) as I’d been running my latest vodka experiment through coffee filters for a couple of days, and I see potential in making a sour liquorice spirit using them. For now I’ll make do with garnishing my drinks with crushed liquorice pastilles, as obtained from the Algerian Coffee House in Soho, as they do at 69 Colebrooke Row.

Aged ManhattanI followed this up with a Manhattan. However, Manhattan’s at 69 Colebrooke Row aren’t as simple as they sound. Tony is one of the increasing numbers of barmen who have been experimenting with barrel aging cocktails and the Aged Manhattan is one of the bar’s signature drinks. I foolishly didn’t ask how long it’d been aged for, but it’s probably somewhere between 6 months and a year. The creation is quite simple if time consuming (assuming Tony does this the same way as other bars) – the ingredients of the Manhattan (whiskey, bitters and vermouth [dry, sweet or a mixture depending on whether you are making a dry, sweet or perfect Manhattan]) are mixed without ice and then poured into a wooden barrel to mature. When they have reached the required age they are bottled and the drink is made by stirring the premixed cocktail with ice before serving. Having not tried a regular Manhattan at the bar I can’t say too much about the differences in the aged drink, but suffice to say it was the finest Manhattan I’ve ever tried – starting with a sweet kick before fading through spicy whiskey to a rounded dry vermouth finish, it was very good. I don’t think it’s picked up much from the barrel but it was very mellow, with the flavours of the ingredients well matched, quite distinct and very well balanced. They’ve just finished a 6 year old version, but as there was only one bottle and it was on the bar on Thursday I suspect it may already be gone…

It’s a strange place and not at all what I expected. The room is quite small, making me wonder how exactly they’d fit in the 40 people that is listed as the capacity, and the bar itself is also small, with barely enough room for the two barmen to move around and make drinks. Along with that it can get quite loud, with background music and a big crowd making it difficult to have conversations. However, at the same time it’s significantly quieter than most other cocktail bars and the close quarters adds to the atmosphere. The service is as impeccable and friendly, and the drinks are really very impressive, showing the bar team’s skill and love of experimentation. It’s not somewhere that I’ll be visiting every night, but there are some menu changes appearing in the near future and I’ll definitely be wandering down to see what craziness has appeared.

69 Colebrooke Row
House cocktails £8. Nibbles available.
They have a blog with announcements and other randomness.

Many thanks to Mark, Emma and Kate of The London Cocktail Society for organising the visit. If you want to come and play you can sign up on the site.

Sour Mix and The Whiskey Sour

For many people drinks have a bit more associated with them than just their ingredients – there’s a slab of experience surrounding the drinking, ordering or making of said drink, all unique and tied up to memory. One of those with the most baggage for me is the Whiskey Sour.

I’d known of the existence, although not the composition, of the drink for many years, having heard it mentioned in a film sometime. It was embedded in my brain as a drink to be ordered in a hotel in the USA, basking in hot weather, perched at a bar, wearing a shirt unbuttoned a little bit too far down, messily eating shrimp cocktails and hearing the life story of man who travelled the 48 contiguous states selling brushes to gullible housewives. I wasn’t sure what a whiskey sour was, or even really what a shrimp cocktail was other than it involved something that looked like prawns and McDonald’s special sauce, but it stuck in my head as a romanticised drink attached to my obvious future as an internationally jetsetting business man.

Luckily for the first few years of my career I did do quite a lot of travelling to the USA, although confined to Connecticut (with occasional jaunts to New York), and shortly after starting I was confronted with an opportunity to turn my American dream into reality. I was visiting to attend my company’s first worldwide engineering conference, dragging all of us computer pounding folk from all over the world together in a hotel and letting us talk crap together for a few days. These days that’s a logistical nightmare, with our last conference involving me coordinating 62 flights from the UK as part of our 550 strong worldwide party, but back then it was a much smaller affair and all 5 of us from UK turned up a few days early, staying in the Old Greenwich Hyatt Regency.

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The Gazebo Bar, from the Hyatt website

This was my first proper US hotel and being used to the more family run affairs found in the seaside resorts of the UK and the plasticky package holiday filled hell holes of the Mediterranean it was a bit of a shock – the hotel is an enclosed courtyard containing a small forest, complete with river. My room’s window opened onto the inner courtyard, a 100m long ‘room’, and looked down onto the leafy canopy. Downstairs, once you had walked over a bridge to it, there was the ‘Gazebo Bar’ which I found myself sitting at on my first night. To my right were a couple of guys, shirts unbuttoned just a bit too far, messily eating shrimp cocktails, drinking Martinis and laughing. This was the time for me to unfurl my dream – I ordered a whiskey sour. Rather than the look of respect I expected from the barmen, a young englishman asking for a drink with such history should inspire something, I got a cherry plonked in a glass with a handful of crushed ice, some whiskey and a cloudy green liquid that squirted out of a postmix tap.

It tasted marvellous.

I may have been assisted back to my room by my boss that night, his offer to buy me a drink leading to the largest ‘shot’ I have ever experienced being poured, but my love of the whiskey sour continued. However, after a while it waned as I spoke to barstaff and realised that I was just getting something about as sophisticated as a whiskey and coke, and that the green sour mix that they were pouring was just citrus flavoured sugar water. I then discovered that not all American beer was rubbish and the whiskey sour disappeared from my internal menu, replaced by the works of Magic Hat, Dogfish Head and the questionable output of the Southport Brewing Company. This weekend I suddenly remembered their existence and having a bottle of Jack Daniels and a couple of limes to hand I decided to have a go at constructing one.

The first step to making a whiskey sour is the creation of the sour mix. I did a bit of research to find out what was actually in this green nectar and found that in general it is just powdered citric acid, green food colouring and sugar (with foaming agents), rehydrated and then poured into an unsuspecting glass. However, ‘real’ sour mix is not hard to create – equal parts of citrus juice and sugar syrup. As ever, proportions are quibbled over and some like to add egg whites to make sure that you get a foamy drink when it’s shaken, but I decided to leave that out (especially as my simple syrup is quite sugary and foams nicely on its own with a bit of a hard shake). My first attempt used a couple of rather wrinkled limes and tasted a bit stale, but I went out with a mission to find good citrus fruit and obtained 3 limes and a couple of lemons to make attempt number 2.  Unfortunately my mission didn’t lead to my finding a juicing device (specifically something looking like this, but I couldn’t even find a standard fruit reamer) so I squished my fruit using a hand and a fork (which is a) painful on the squishing hand after a bit and b) really painful if you have a cut on your hand) producing about 200ml of juice. I then mixed this with 200ml of syrup and made it up to 500ml with more syrup and some water (previously poured on the skins of the squished fruit and shaken around a bit to get as much citrusyness as I could), tweaking the taste to be sweet and sour, but not too strong.

Whiskey Sour 3

To construct the whiskey sour I put 50ml of whiskey in a shaker with 100ml of sour mix and a good handful of ice. I shook until the ice had cracked into smaller pieces and it had all gone a bit foamy, serving it unstrained in a round bottomed tumbler (cos it looks pretty) and garnished with a cocktail cherry.

It tasted marvellous.

This post was written while sitting on my balcony, drinking the pictured whisky sour and listening to The Rolling Stones’s Exile on Main Street, which I think might actually be the best album ever created. It’s getting cold now though, so I’m going inside.