There is a small door hidden away on Davies Street in London’s Mayfair, just at the junction with Brook Street. Behind it is my Narnia; a place to escape the rigours of real life; another world. Push aside the thick velvet curtain and you’ll find the main bar of Claridge’s Hotel, the last place I was lucky enough to enjoy a drink before a winter round of lockdown ensued, when hospitality venues in the UK were once again forced to close their doors.
This latest period of lockdown, preceded by a tumultuous 2020, has amounted to a year spent at home. With bars shuttered, and the responsibility for our drinking experiences falling at our own door, at least we all had more than enough time to perfect the cocktail classics. Or so we thought.
For many, learning to make these mixed drinks, normally ordered at a bar, has been a real education. There are simple-to-mix drinks such as the Negroni (don’t tell Stanley Tucci), or the Martini, wittily yet rather depressingly renamed the “Quarantini” during the pandemic. It’s the same as a Martini, but one that you drink at home on your own.
Other more complex concoctions need specialist syrups, bitters or exotic spirits that require some optimistic digging around towards the back of the drink cabinet. Even I’ve been at it, with a criminally underused bottle of absinthe finally getting a look-in when whipping up a Sazerac one evening.
This can-do attitude to cocktail making at home has been interesting for drink producers. Naturally, during 2020, sales of spirits waned on a global scale – dragged down by the loss of spend in the all-important travel sector (think duty-free retail at airports) – but were kept afloat by the rocketing popularity of folk shaking up drinks at home. By way of example, in the US, sales of spirits lost in the on-trade (bars, restaurants etc) were made up for in the off-trade (for at-home consumption).
Just because there’s been a revolution in our drinking habits at home, doesn’t mean we are making great, or even good mixed drinks
The pandemic has caused a huge leap forward for home mixology. But just because there has been a revolution happening in our drinking habits at home, it doesn’t mean we are making great, or even good mixed drinks (again, Stanley Tucci…?). Despite years as a drinks writer, even having some of my own creations make their way into print, I’m not a professional bartender; my accolades are for wordsmithery, not for mixology. So I crave to be back in a bar, with a properly made drink in hand.
For me, this wonderful occasion is now visible on the horizon, as bars in England can open their doors once again this coming Monday 17 May. Oh, happy day! While last summer’s reopening of venues coincided with July 4 and became known in certain circles as England’s very own “Independence Day”, I’m dubbing this coming Monday “Libation Day”.
However, we have had glimmers of an oasis in the desert, with outside seating being sanctioned for hospitality venues since April – and boy, has this been welcomed. These tempting outdoor opportunities have been a wonderful glimpse of what we had, and what we will get back to. Fittingly, my first date back at a professional drinking establishment this year was at Claridge’s Hotel, where its terrace fitted with heaters – to ensure the duration of my stay was as warm as their welcome – was very much open for business. Oh, how great it was not to just be served a drink, but a very well-made drink, at that.
Seeing London embracing a more European-style café culture with tables spilling out onto the streets has been a surreal joy; the Glastonbury levels of ticket frenzy for a seat in the first week, not so much fun. Nor the Great British weather, in fact. While in 2020, confined to our own gardens, we were mocked by super-hot spring days, here in 2021, all we needed was the warm embrace of the sunshine – what we got was a persistent frost. The vineyards are struggling, and the wine bars too, united in their cursing of Mother Nature.
Huge kudos to those venues who have persevered, though, finding creative ways to use their outdoor spaces. The Savoy took to converting its “Savoy Court” – the space in front of the hotel usually reserved for taxis and luxury drop-offs – into an exclusive short-season pop-up serving oysters and Bowmore whisky cocktails. London’s legendary party district Soho has become, in the afternoons, a pedestrianised space where world-class bars, such as Swift on Old Compton Street, are able to serve customers top-quality cocktails once again.
However, walking through the streets of London this week, there are still many venues shuttered. Small bars or dark, historic taverns that, despite their lack of outdoor seating, are integral to the city’s hospitality scene.
Come Monday, the sun will rise once again and the thaw will start. Hospitality will wake from a winter hibernation and we can banish the Quarantini to the history books – where it belongs. I can’t wait to once again enjoy a proper Martini; a simple cocktail where the inimitable garnish is great company, in the presence of a great bartender, in a great bar.
Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and spirits consultant for Club Oenologique