Over at Bread Street Kitchen, a Gordon Ramsey restaurant in one of the business districts of central London, they’ve taken an unusual, though not unheard of route with regards to their new cocktail list.
Apart from having a mixture of signature drinks and slightly-obscure but tasty classics from Bar Manager Paul Graham, they’ve included a page of ‘drinks borrowed from friends around the world’.
In short, they’ve included guest drinks, some of which were created by the most recognizable bartenders of the modern era (read Sam Ross and Tim D Phillips).
But why is it worth mentioning here? Is it because their bartenders are average and they need to include other drinks to compensate for their lack of creativity? Is it because they admit that those drinks are better than anything around at the moment and are using them as a beacon for others to hold a light too?
Depends on how you look at. Personally, I think the answer lies simply in the fact that the drinks that are included are recognized as contemporary classics (especially those submitted by the Australian contingency). The fact that they can be replicated in a modern day bar environment, without the effort of having to make homemade syrups or through the procurement of a weird, long-lost ingredients is the primary reason for their status. Coupled with the name and the way the drink appeals to a certain type of drinker, the subject of ‘contemporary classics’ is a key instrument of how far the cocktail scene has come in the last 30 years, how the public have reacted to such drinking trends and is probably one of the most underrated measures used when either topic is brought up or discussed.
On top of the fact that the drinks included are pretty tasty (yeah, I tried a few not long after the menu came out), they are also, to my knowledge, the first bar in London to pay homage to the popular contemporary drinks of the modern era with a dedicated page.
Thing is, the concept of putting other peoples drink on a menu is not unheard of. The last time anyone did something similar, it won an award.
The menu that Mal Spence produced during his time at the Blytheswood Hotel in Glasgow, which dedicated not one, but a full two pages that had come primarily from across the pond, as well as an inclusion from Sam Kershaw (who coincidently is one of the other ‘most promising three’ in this years Bacardi Legacy Campaign), ended up winning CLASS cocktail menu of the year.
With regards to the BSK menu for example, it’s easy to argue that not everyone has Japanese whisky at his or her disposal (or indeed, any of the other ingredients listed in the ‘Harakuju’, a Negroni-style drink based on whisky and one of the more modern drinks compiled from Sam Ross).
However, to procure a bottle of the stuff, as well as a rich, red apéritif wine from France and a Campari-style bitter liqueur from Switzerland – in short, ingredients that nowadays are within reach of the average venue operator or drink maker – highlights the resourcefulness of a crack modern day bartender.
But outside of these two examples, have we not been making other peoples drinks for over 150 years? One needn’t look further than the Bramble and the Espresso Martini, two key drinks that helped bring about the revival of the cocktail scene in the UK. Furthermore, the approachability of both of these drinks, as well as their simplistic nature, basic ingredients and relevant name are the primary reasons why the popularity of those drinks spread so rapidly and cemented themselves firmly into the status of ‘modern classics’.
Perhaps the best example is Jerry Thomas’ Bon Vivant’s Companion. Some of the drinks listed within the book included drinks from another source, primarily Alexis Benoit Soyer, a famous French chef that lived in Britain and was arguably the first ‘celebrity’ chef to come into existence. Soyer was also responsible for the opening of ‘The Washington Refreshment Room’ which opened in the early 1850s, and was one of the first documented bars in Europe that compounded mixed drinks and cocktails (he was also responsible for some blue drinks too…).
I had a chat with an American bartender who recently came into The American Bar at The Savoy. We talked booze, as you would expect, and touched upon the subject of contemporary classics. The Final Ward was a great example, I reasoned, of how to substitute popular ingredients in an already established drink. He argued that it wasn’t better than the original Last Word; I agreed, and stated that the drink was provided as an alternative instead of an attempt at improving an already great drink. The point I made, however, is that it was American; for all those that have waxed lyrical about London having the greatest drink scene in the world, what was the last drink that emanated from the UK that anyone saw on an American cocktail list? What was the last drink to make waves on the opposite side of the pond that will claim to be a true contemporary classic?
The creativity and complexity that is employed in drink making in the UK capital today is nothing short of brilliant. Bartenders are exercising chef-like scrutiny with regards to ingredients, as well as making the culinary crossover in other ways, mainly by the inclusion of herbs and spices. But as one wonders down the path of creativity, they lose site of the metaphorical horizon, that drink-making landscape of simplicity and timeless formulas that gave birth and have given us the drinks that we know and love today.
The biggest challenge the UK cocktail scene currently faces is not the widespread practice of the Bread Street Kitchen mode and include modern day classics that other countries have given us. Nor is it the admission of the fact that there are other drinks around the world that are ‘better’ than what we create in this country. It’s finding a community of bartenders within the UK who can create timeless drinks that will be deemed modern classics by his or her peers in this country, and thus becoming popular enough for other cocktail cultures to identify and recognize them.
What Bread Street Kitchen has done is truly a remarkable and courageous thing. Let’s hope that not only the trend of recognizing modern classics from other bartenders spreads to other cocktail lists in the UK, but that the modern classics that are recognized are from bartenders within this country.