December 14 2014
One of the pleasures of drinking cocktails is the strangely nuanced relationship between customer and bartender. The most skilled mixologist can read your thoughts – and thirsts – perfectly. They know when to pour, and when to leave you be; when to enquire about your week and when to leave you to your newspaper, or date.
Knowing you are able to get your beautifully crafted martini mixed just so is one of the allures of entering a favourite bar. Yet this relationship doesn’t need to begin – and end – at the bar door. In the comfort of your own home, you can enjoy such creations from venues including the American Bar at the Savoy, the Mondrian hotel, the Experimental Cocktail Club or Hawksmoor. Which is why, as the party season approaches, savvy hosts looking to serve cocktails with a flourish will be calling in some of Europe’s top bartenders to design a bespoke cocktail based on their best-loved spirit, fruit or even scent. Some will even hold masterclasses in people’s homes.
The Experimental Cocktail Club group, with bars in London, New York and Paris (the Curio Parlor Cocktail Club, fifth picture), offers a home-mixology service; based on 50 guests, it would charge £75 per person, which includes cocktails and a simple bar. For the private party of the owner of a vegetarian restaurant in Paris, they mixed gin cocktails based around the Club’s home-made syrups, including agave, and blended with vegetables such as celery and rocket – savoury concoctions that were far less sugary than the usual suspects. For a private dinner to mark the launch of a new Gucci bamboo bag, the company created a concoction using bamboo syrup.
Urban Caprice (third picture), whose restaurants and bars include Scott’s and 34, recently created an art-deco ice bar for 200 guests at a Great Gatsby-styled event in a client’s home, complete with cocktails of the era, including a Southside and New Orleans Cobbler. Then there was an Alice in Wonderland-themed afternoon tea party at a house in Hampstead for 100 guests, which saw cocktails being served out of teapots into vintage teacups.
For a price (most are on request), the services of top bartenders from the Savoy, Connaught or Langham hotels can be acquired. Erik Lorincz (first picture), head bartender of the American Bar at the Savoy, has catered for a variety of events, from all-night parties in Bratislava to a society wedding in Italy, where a lift had to be specially built in a castle in order to transport everything.
“At a sit-down dinner for 60 at Elton John’s house in Windsor I made aperitifs and Tanqueray-based gin and tonics,” says Lorincz. “And for the lady hosting the party in Bratislava, for which the pianist from the Savoy was also hired, I served a gin and raspberry cocktail as she loved red berries. Once, in Jakarta, for the party of a financial mogul, the whole evening was 1920s-themed with fake guns, bodyguards and Prohibition-style cocktails. For these sort of celebrations I usually draw up a list of six to eight cocktails and give the guests a menu.”
For Alex Kratena of the Artesian bar at The Langham hotel, it might be a small party in Mayfair or a dinner on a yacht. “One client held a bash on his boat in St Tropez. He wanted vegetable-based drinks, so I made a Bellini cocktail with parsnip purée and honey. For a party in Mexico for 50 people, I created a gin and tonic using different cactus syrups. It is all about capturing the imagination – it should be visual and engaging and have the wow factor.”
Bompas & Parr has a similar philosophy. Most famous for its interesting jellies and grand theatrics, such as creating a tutti-frutti “lake”, the company provides cocktails alongside its food-catering service. At DJ Mark Ronson’s birthday party at Aynhoe Park, guests were kept refreshed with negroni jellies. Bompas & Parr is big on punches that defy expectation; and for something completely off-the-wall, it came up with a “whisky tornado” – a machine combined whisky, humidity and air pressure to generate a vaporous, spiralling tornado that people inhaled through a straw.
For a Halloween celebration in Hampstead, events company Soul Shakers made a Harvest Moon cocktail with bourbon, apple juice, cider, maple syrup, lemon juice, Angostura bitters and cinnamon – served inside a pumpkin. The company has a huge range of bartenders on its books from top London hotels and cult bars, such as Hawksmoor and Happiness Forgets in Hoxton, from £40 per head. “Many customers are now requesting specific looks. Some say no tattoos or beards, or they will ask us to supply female bartenders. We are even being asked to send photographs these days,” says director Michael Butt. It can also make economic sense in some cases – hiring one of London’s top hotel barmen for a group of 20 for the evening can cost up to 50 per cent less than drinking at the bar itself.
Hire the Barman is another company that is infinitely flexible, from drawing up a shopping list and providing a bartender (from £240 for four hours), to organising a whole evening. Past clients have included members of the royal family. “More people are socialising at home,” says director James Bishop. “It can be tough trying to meet up with all your friends, particularly in big cities, hence the many requests we get in London. Consumer knowledge is on the rise as people are also increasingly interested in learning how to make cocktails.”
Notting Hill-based professor Richard Jolly wanted exactly that when he was organising a party. He called in Ryan Chetiyawardana, aka Mr Lyan, of the White Lyan bar in Hoxton (Chetiyawardana will also be overseeing the bar at the new Mondrian hotel on the South Bank), to give his guests a masterclass. Each person received a cocktail kit, including a shaker, bar spoon and measure, and Chetiyawardana taught them how to make tasty tipples with a twist. “I wanted to do a fun boys’ night with some activity,” Jolly explains. “I learnt the basic skills and methods; once you know the building blocks you can experiment. There are key ratios, and you realise any great cocktail follows certain rules. I learnt to have more confidence – for example, instead of a whisky sour you can have a gin sour.” Chetiyawardana adds: “It’s all about teaching the basics – always have a drawer full of ice and little bottles of Fever-Tree tonic rather than a big one that will go flat; and use fresh herbs from the garden if possible. I also teach little flourishes, such as using accents of bitters or absinthe to lift a drink.”
However, what’s the use of having all this knowledge with a collection of ageing bottles gathering dust in the kitchen cupboard? Indeed, there is no excuse to have a poorly stocked bar at home, and many cocktail enthusiasts are turning to experts to curate their drinks cabinets. One company is the Bespoke Bar run by Matthew Bray Heather. He visits clients in their homes, finds out how and what they like to drink and then stocks their bar with the latest trends in spirits, such as craft gins, Irish whiskeys or mezcals, and replenishes it every few months (or as needed). “There is also a thirst for the rarest bottles, such as early 1700s cognacs,” says Bray Heather. “Making cocktails at home should be fun. If you enjoy alcohol, drinking can be just as important as eating, so why not do it well?” He can also supply bespoke cabinets as well as handmade glassware from Murano.
There are also a number of kits that can add a bit of creativity to home-cocktail cabinets, such as the Tumi Ketel One Vodka Mixology Set (£4,995, second picture), which has everything needed to make a good cocktail, including a shaker, coasters, cutting board, ice scoop, measuring cup, tongs, stirrers and twist peeler, as well as two bottles of Ketel One Vodka. The case is inspired by Tumi’s premium trunk and is custom-made in Italy from Earl Grey-coated canvas and trimmed with black leather. Tipplesworth Cocktail Cases provides the equipment and spirits to mix specific cocktails, all neatly packaged in a leather‑print suitcase. The Old Fashioned Cocktail Case contains Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Tipplesworth Pure Cane Sugar Syrup and Angostura Aromatic Bitters as well as a bar spoon, jigger, Y-shaped peeler, two old-fashioned tumblers and a recipe card (£185, fourth picture). For added wow factor, it’s worth investing in some knockout glassware. Waterford does a colourful crystal range called Mixology (Crystal Coupes, sixth picture, £225 for four). Chin chin.