I’ve been lucky recently to have had some nights that were better than average. You know the sort of evening where everything comes together just right. A good bar, with a talented bartender making drinks, great company and good tunes, the sort of evening where you have a ‘drinking experience’. It got me thinking about the little things that elevate the experience of sipping a cocktail.
I’ve always been startled by people who say that cocktails are too expensive but who don’t mind paying over the odds for a bottle of beer or a glass of wine. I admit that it galls me to pay £7.50 for an overly sweetened daiquiri made using the cheapest ingredients by someone who would rather be anywhere other than behind the bar. But when you go to a good bar and your drinks are made by a bartender who does their job because they love it (well they don’t do it for the money that’s for sure!) and you sip a perfectly balanced drink, well that’s worth paying for!
There are plenty of times that I have had perfectly good drinks, in perfectly good bars but been left feeling a little flat. There are other days however that you don’t want the night to end because everything keeps getting better and better. Sometimes it simply comes down to the mood you are in and the people you are with but for me there are little touches that also make a big difference.
Obviously the setting can play a big part in the ‘drinking experience’ and I definitely have some favourite rooms to drink in. The mood you’re in and the people you are with will dictate what sort of bar you visit, but matching the right bar (or more often than not bars) to the vibe of the evening will get you off on the right foot. I think I should probably point out that in this blog I am talking about the quest for a great drinking experience, not simply going to a bar for a few beers and a good laugh, but the total experience…
For me, most of my memorable drinking experiences seem to come mid week, don’t get me wrong I love the buzz of a Friday or Saturday night, but most often these nights aren’t dedicated to slowly sipping cocktails, they are about letting off steam, beers and shots and great tunes. But on a weeknight I look for something different. It is the bar that offers an atmosphere that draws you in, sits you down and says, “stay a while, sit back and relax” that will hook me.
Take London Cocktail Club, Hawksmoor, Blanch House, Montgomery Place, QT or Callooh Callay for example, they are all small intimate venues, where a handful of people can give the room a relaxed but inviting vibe. Dim lights, relaxed tunes and the sound of people chatting and laughing, this is what I look for… that and a seat at the bar.
The difference in experience when you are sitting at the bar instead of at a table is monumental. The bar is where all the magic happens; it’s where the best chat is and where the theatre of the cocktail is played out. I’ll take a seat at the bar over the best table service in the world thank you very much! Maybe that’s why Casita always remains a firm favourite, it’s so small that every seat is by the bar!
Getting the music right and the lighting just so also makes a big difference to me. I like to hear tunes that make me smile and tap my feet, be able to see the people I’m talking to but maybe have the lights low enough that my few grey hairs and wrinkles are hidden in the shadows. A beautifully decorated bar that is inviting without being ostentatious also helps set the tone and make you feel welcome.
It’s the little things that elevate a bar to my mind. I like it when you can tell that the bar has been set up or is run by someone who takes service seriously. Go to Montgomery Place for example, and as soon as you sit down at the bar a glass of water is poured for you. It takes the pressure off the bartender because the customer is not left empty handed, and it takes the pressure off the customer because they aren’t sat there with a dry mouth desperate to get the bartenders’ attention.
Having cocktails at The Connaught is always one of my favourite experiences, not only because I’m friends with the bartenders, but also because they take customer service to another level. You are greeted with a smile as you come through the door, olives and spiced nuts arrive along with the days ‘welcome punch’ and the drinks list. Customers are never left with a bare table or empty glasses and this means you end up enjoying the company you’re with rather than craning your neck trying to get some ones attention just to get a refill on your water or a look at the drinks list. I know you pay a price for this service, but I think it is worth every penny.
For me this is a key ingredient to creating a drinking experience. looking after the small details allows the customer to focus his or her attention on the people they are with. It automatically relaxes the imbiber and makes them feel like they are being taken care of. From a bars point of view while this may sound like extra work, taking these few extra little steps to make a guest comfortable will make them stay longer, drink more and spend more money with you. Trust me, I always spend more at The Connaught than I intend to because I find it impossible to stay for just one drink!
Obviously the liquid in your glass plays a huge part in creating a memorable drinking experience. Having a mediocre drink in even the best setting is disappointing, and there’s nothing worse than feeling that you have to order beer or wine in order to have a good drink. I go out to cocktail bars to drink cocktails not beer!
Once again sitting at the bar is the best place to get this right. Sat at a table with a waitress taking your order after you have chosen from a limited drinks list is no guarantee of getting a drink that will set the tone for the evening. Sitting at the bar, chatting to the bartender on a weeknight will vastly improve your chances of getting a memorable drink.
I used to sit in LAB back in the days when Sean and Dave were behind the bar and point them in the right general direction but let them come up with my next drink. There were several nights where Dave quite rightly told me (after checking my drink for balance) to prepare for a ‘life changing drink’. This was simply because he had got to know my taste in drinks, he knew I liked the spirit to shine through and not be over diluted, I prefer sour to sweet, I like bitter and dry flavours, and this meant he could craft a drink to tickle my taste buds. Those experiences would never have happened if I’d always sat in the corner and chosen from the drinks list.
Talking to the bartender, letting him know what you like but giving him (or her) scope to introduce you to new flavours can create some memorable drinking moments. I’ll never forget my first perfectly made daiquiri (Havana silver dry, light on the gomme), my first sazerac (50/50 rye and cognac, Pernod absinthe), my first wet martini with a twist (Beefeater crown jewel) as each one was a sensational drinking experience that opened me up to new flavour sensations. The best way to get the right liquid in your glass, at least in my opinion, is to sit in front of the person making your drink and to have a conversation with them.
This is perhaps the most important element to the equation and too often the most overlooked by everyday imbibers. I’m always shocked by the number of people who don’t show the slightest bit of interest in the person making their drink for them. The spectacle of seeing a bartender greet the customer with a cheery ‘Hi, how are you’ only to get a ‘two beers and red wine please’ in return is one played out far to often.
Of course on the flip side of the coin it is the bartender’s role to set the tone for his or her guests and there’s nothing worse than sitting in a bar, waiting to be served by someone who clearly would rather be doing anything other than making your drink. A good bartender greets you with a smile, makes you feel welcome at their bar and can gauge how to interact with you in a way that will make you want to stay and drink all night long.
The bartender is undoubtedly the magician who can transform just an average night out into an experience you’ll never forget. Not only crafting the perfect drinks for you to sip, but also setting the mood in the bar. The bartender who knows when to strike up a conversation with you or when to leave you to the company of your friends is a gem.
Likewise the bartender who goes that extra step in the preparation of your drink, asking you your preference on rum or vermouth, elegantly decanting liquids into the mixing glass and stirring them lovingly to create the perfectly chilled and balanced cocktail is a performer to compete with any great actor or musician. There is beauty in the preparation of a cocktail when it is done by someone who loves his or her craft; it is a theatre that I always marvel at.
When all the elements above come together then going into a bar for a drink can be transformed into an unforgettable drinking experience. At moments like these, in the right bar, with good friends, great conversation and a liquid artist crafting the drinks, everything that I love about the drinks industry is right there for all to see. It is captivating to see a bartender moving with practiced ease and grace, balancing ingredients and smiling as they hand over a perfectly crafted cocktail sharing a conversation or cracking a joke. Yep, a cocktail can definitely be more than just a drink, it can be an experience.