Like many large cities, London is a collection of neighbourhoods each with its own character. This nation has always had the church and the pub as the cornerstone of local community. Over the years the church has fallen away as a centre of community (unless you are desperately trying to qualify for getting your child into a church affiliated free school). The local boozer remains, but its nature has changed. Tesco sells more alcohol than all our local pubs combined; casual, everyday drinking is done more in the home than at the local. As the fortunes of pubs declined the nineties saw the advent of the gastro-pub, muscling in on restaurant territory. If you like rib eye steak and rocket and parmesan salads they remain a good bet. The nineties also saw the advent of cocktail bars in London. It started with members only drinking dens like Milk & Honey in Soho and spread east to Shoreditch and west to Notting Hill. There may even be cocktail bars south of the river, but who cares.
The original Milk & Honey remains a favourite (it’s open to non members before 11pm most nights). It starts with the anonymous door on Poland Street which requires one to be buzzed in. Inside it’s dark, with tin ceilings and soft music – redolant of early 20th century bars in new York City. I am not old enough to remember, but this must be what a classy speakeasy felt like. The bartenders here are amongst the best in London; extremely knowledgeable and creative. The martinis are served in antique, shallow champagne glasses with just the right amount of oils from the lemon twist floating on the surface.
This place has rules, printed discreetly on the back of the menus. Men may not approach women. However, women may approach men or ask the bartender to introduce them. The rules also state “strictly no star fucking”. Opinion is divided as to whether this constitutes a ban on carnal activity with the famous or whether it is meant to discourage hipsters from dropping heroin (as in “I am so high I can fuck among the stars”). I never felt these rules pertained to me. Serious drinkers tend to be too drunk to recognise celebrities and having already chosen their drug, are immune to what hipsters smoke, snort or inject.
While the martini’s are sublime, M&H makes most cocktails with flair. I had a fabulous Sazerac here on my last visit. The drink calls for rye or brandy with Peychaud bitters and sugar. The piece de resistance is of course the absinthe rinsed glass. Rinsing in absinthe is a forgotten tradition, much in need of revival; it helps give the world an agreeable empathy with the Great Oz. Try rinsing your glass of morning orange juice with absinthe sometime to set your day up right.
At Milk & Honey they like to make their Sazerac with a twist – mixing rye with brandy instead of the usual either-or. The mixing of spirits proves interesting – the rye giving a sharp edge to the drink, the brandy taking the roughness off the rye and providing a smooth and gentle afterglow.
My companion that evening stayed with the absinthe theme. She had the classic Green Fairy treatment – using the Bohemian method of preparation. In the Bohemian method, the absinthe is poured over a sugar cube sitting in a slotted spoon over a tumbler. The absinthe soaked sugar cube is then set alight and dropped into the glass, flaming the alcohol. The flame is doused with iced water. A few of these and you may cut off your ear. Or go mad.