Britain has a funny way of thanking it’s heroes. Churchill wins the war and is immediately shot out of office. Margaret Thatcher, possibly the greatest post war leader in the West, saves the country from bankruptcy, busts the unions and superbly executes a vision of a prosperous post war Britain – and is hounded out of office by her own party. The country is now deep in the throes of vilifying and possibly destroying its financial services industry, the best in the world and the greatest single source of jobs and wealth in the economy. A few bankers motivated by simple greed and the animal spirit of capitalism created more jobs and wealth than all of the hemp and lentil brigade combined. It now appears that the country wishes to deport anyone who wishes to generate wealth to Zug. Zug is in Switzerland. It has nothing going for it except its tax regime. I have been to Zug. It’s full of bored rich people who’d like to immigrate to Britain if the tax authorities promise not to mug them at Heathrow.
The first time I lived in Britain it was shaking off the privations of WW2, some forty years on. People wore ugly clothes and holidayed in Blackpool. Supermarkets ran out of food on Fridays and closed on Sundays. People seemed actually grateful to buy stuff without ration cards. Cars didn’t have air conditioning. Restaurants served over cooked overpriced food. If you complained about anything you were accused of being an American. Cool Britannia hadn’t happened. The country had yet to find its mojo.
I was reminded of those dark times as I wondered down Worship Street looking for a drink. Worship street is one of those streets that prosperity bypassed. This is low rent back office territory sitting surprisingly close to the very heart of the city. Round the corner at Finsbury Square there is an Occupy camp. I was a bit surprised to see them – I thought the movement had collapsed when their non hierarchical culture couldn’t figure out how to organise a Starbuck’s run. I hope they get turfed out by the time it is warm enough to play croquet and drink cold champagne on this bucolic square.
Down Worship street is the Whistling Shop, one of a new breed of cocktail bars opening across London. The “molecular mixologists” at these bars bring a touch of Heston Blumenthal to the world of cocktails; science and mixology combine to make intriguing cocktails. The Whistling Shop has taken the science of cocktail making to an art form. It is frequently written up, including by the Gin Monkey and at Real Ale Reviews. The Whistling Shop is the brainchild of Ryan Chetiyawardana who apart from having many syllables in his last name (I am allowed to say stuff like that when I spot a Sri Lankan name), has also won many awards acknowledging him as one of the leading bartenders in the UK.
I went to the Whistling Shop with a group of friends including the naturist swimmer. She only goes au-naturale at expensive private pools in Monaco so I wasn’t too worried that she’d take up with the Occupy lot on the way to a drink. The Whistling Shop is in a basement. Initially, one is uncertain about what kind of a place it is. The bartenders wear curious belted contraptions that could easily pass for S&M wear. However they are a friendly lot. JP, the Brazilian bartender in attendance took us on a tour of their lab which has two distillation machines – cold, low pressure distillation stills they use to brew some pretty exotic concoctions. The lab was filled with salts, solvents and spices. There is actually a “kitchen” where the drinks are prepared for the evening. Up front there is a huge, clear block of ice which is chipped into the drinks. JP was clearly proud and passionate about what they have achieved at the Whistling Shop.
So what have they achieved? You will not find these drinks anywhere else:
The Cappuccino Baby tasted somewhere between a White and a Black Russian. On a base of Ketel One vodka, home made cola and coffee, they use baby milk formula to give the drink body. The drink grew on us after we got over the fact that we were drinking baby formula! The phantasmagoric concoctions continued.
The Panacea tasted like whiskey sour with honey notes. On a base of Compass Box whisky this drink has a mix of lavender and vinegar reduced for three hours. Honey is added for sweetness . Some raw egg white is added for body and foam. I explained to an American friend that the alcohol would kill any salmonella in the raw egg white. I don’t know if its true, but it seems plausible and he believed it.
Belvedere Vodka, Gancia Bianco (a sweet vermouth), coriander and black pepper are exploded in a high pressure hydrosol to make an Exploded Vodka Martini. It is surprisingly delicate and light on the palate with lingering spice notes. Perhaps my favourite.
The Punch and Judy involves 23 year old Zacapa rum from Guatemala with Walnut Ketchup. I know the ingredients sound weird but these are seriously tasty drinks. This one was a wonderfully warming winter drink. I tasted some Walnut Ketchup by itself; a concoction of port with pickled walnut, chocolate, saffron and some 20 other spices cooked in a bain-marie (a water bath). It was a spicy port that weirdly did taste like ketchup. It was delicious.
The Gold Dust is made with a home made beetroot liqueur with added bitters, topped up with British Nyetimber cuvee. It was light, yet earthy. A bit like wine with a beer flavour…
We worked our way through a goodly chunk of the menu before our livers broke. We will go back to taste the rest. Cynics will question whether all of the science and the exotic ingredients really make the drinks taste any better. I used to question that of Heston Blumenthal’s cooking as well. Until I tasted his triple cooked french fries…