Poverty fascinates the middle classes. Writers and artists seek to interpret and chronicle it. Liberals ritualise it to connect with their inner bleeding heartedness. Legions of cute young things would have nothing to do if NGOs didn’t exist to save the wretched from themselves (and their governments).
Poverty and the slums of Victorian England have a peculiar fascination, both as a sociological commentary on the industrial revolution and for their particularly rich literary chronicling by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle and others. In London where the winds blow predominantly from the west, the factories were located in the poor east end. Today, the eastern parts of London remain ghastly, although fashionable amongst the young who don’t know any better, and starving artists who can’t afford any better. It’s not a bad place to find a drink, because most people who live there need one.
I wandered through the streets of East London recently in the gathering gloom, searching for a bar named Callooh Callay. A couple of older queens leered at me, looking like a pair of pedarastic Anglican bishops who’d been locked up in a distillery all night. I was glad to locate my drinking companion the Zebra Striped Gourmand, a man who makes his own bitters and butchers his own meat. A handy friend to have if you ever need to dismember someone and dissolve them in alcohol…
Callooh Callay is an exclamation of joy from Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical rhyme Jabberwocky. Literature and intoxicants are well known bedfellows. Earnest Hemingway and Ian Fleming were mostly sozzled or pleasantly on their way there when they wrote their best works. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a delightfully lucid acid trip.
At Callooh Callay one steps into a dark room decorated with lunatic flair. There are gramophones in the window bays, wacky lampshades and a large antique wardrobe in the back of the room. The toilets are lined with cassette tapes. The crowd is uber-hip, full of the aforementioned artists and young people who inhabit the neighborhood. I ordered the Ale of Two Cities, a drink consisting of feijova vodka (feijova is also called pineapple guava and tastes like a combination of the two), Punt e Mes (a brownish Italian vermouth with a bitter flavor), fresh lime and apple juices, Angostura bitters and malt syrup (made from malted barley). That’s a lot going on in a glass. It is served in a beer mug and bizarrely tastes like ale with honey and lime tasting notes. It’s a pleasant drink – the ale illusion even leaves a bit of creamy head on your upper lip.
For our next drink we stepped through the wardrobe at the end of the room. Yes, this is the bar’s big party trick. On the other side was not the land of Narnia but another bar with even more bonkers décor. Two bathtubs converted into sofas face each other. A giant overstuffed candy striped armchair sits under a metal palm tree. One expects the Mad Hatter to be holding court. We ordered a round of Peresphone, a cocktail made of tequila, Punt e Mes and Mozart black chocolate liqueur. Named after the wife of Hades this is a drink that has sweet lavender and vanilla notes with a wicked chilli kick at the the end.
There is a third room, the member’s only Jub Jub bar which hosts a different bartender each week and seats just ten. The Zebra Striped Gourmand is naturally a member. Calooh Calay has a reputation for superb cocktails and a truly exemplary collection of alcohol. We tasted some superb rums including a Santa Teresa (Venezuelan, rich and complex) and a 12 year old Eldorado (Guyanian demerrera rum with rich molasses flavours). These are fine rums to be drunk neat or on the rocks. There is a food menu to soak up the alcohol. The fare is straightforward (burgers, fish cakes, hot dogs), but tasty.
If you fancy a walk on the wild side, visit Callooh Callay. The literary pretensions may put some people off, but the drinks will have you galumphing back, chortling in joy!
A place like Callooh Callay lends itself to blogging. The Cocktail Geek covers the Jub Jub bar in more detail. If you are moved to read Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky you’ll find it here. Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic 1967 anthem White Rabbit celebrates Lewis Carroll with the lyric “When the men on the chessboard get up / And tell you where to go / And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom / And your mind is moving low / Go ask Alice, I think she’ll know.” There’s a beautifully atmospheric video clip of them performing here featuring Grace Slick in her contralto prime.