Happy Friday. We know you’re looking at the clock wondering where you might venture out this evening for a small libation. Lydia has whisky in mind, and has a few suggestions up her sleeve for anyone padding the pavements in the capital…
You’re never short of places in London to drink neat whisky in Don Draper-ish quantities, specialist bars scattered across the city in a smoky, peaty starburst: Milroy’s of Soho for Scotch on the rocks, Shoreditch’s Bull in a China Shop for Nikka from the barrel. Quilon in Westminster for old school single malts, The Lexington in King’s Cross for New World bourbons.
But what about when you want your whisky to come muddled or garnished, Boulevardier-ed or Sazerac-ed, lengthened with vermouth or laced with ginger? With great devotion to duty we’ve hunted down these – the best whisky cocktails and where to find them.
The Sun Tavern – Irish tankard cocktails in Bethnal Green
The bartenders at the Sun know everything about Irish whiskey, and poitín. And ‘everything’ covers not just the 250 kinds of the former they stock. Other things they know include: when you’ve come to explore their whisky cocktail list but can be nudged into an unscheduled Poitínback (the Sun’s take on the Pickleback: shot of Bán Poitín, and a chaser of picklejuice); they know exactly what cocktail you’re driving at when you say you want something kind of caramelised but kind of bitter. They can tell you the pedigree of every distillery, the history of Irish moonshine, and what sound like equally fact-based cautionary tales about the dangers of playing Poitín Roulette with the Knockeen Hills 90% proof.
The Sun changes the cocktail list regularly, the main constant being a tendency to the savagely strong. But for the bold at heart, just put yourself in the bartenders’ hands. On our visit the best are my Broadaxe & Drawknife, with Woodford Double Wood and an absinthe rinse, like a sazerac that’s had all the softer edges stripped away, or Rory’s One for the Road – a mix of Irish whiskeys, spiced vermouth and Amaro Montenegro, an Italian-Irish hybrid of sweet stickiness and peat.
Order: One for the Road. Or whatever the bartender tells you to have.
The Sun Tavern, 441, Bethnal Green Road, E2 0AN. Website.
Christopher’s Martini Bar – American Deco in Covent Garden
Celebrating their 25th birthday this year, Christopher’s Grill is the veteran of this list. And that quarter decade of propping up Theatreland has given their ground-floor bar a flair for the dramatic: it’s all Deco glamour, long pendant lighting casting flashes off enormous filigree mirrors and onyx fixtures.
The drinks list, though, is more decadent classics than high drama. Technically this is a Martini bar – and Neil gets lured off-whisky entirely, by the vodka, fig syrup and basil Free Beautiful Path – but skip ahead to the American Classics section of their cocktail menu and it’s bourbon-toting, Southern-accented poetry, the Mint Julep (Jim Beam Black) conjuring up images of summer heat and Louisiana porches. But personally, for the 11.5 months of the year it’s less than Deep Southern heat here I’d drift northwards to the Christopher’s Bar take on the Brooklyn: Wild Turkey, Noilly Prat, Amer Picon and Maraschino, less sweet than a Manhattan, blunter than a Julep. Like kissing Al Capone.
Order: the Brooklyn
Christopher’s, 18, Wellington Street, WC2E 7DD. Website.
Dishoom – Indian in King’s Cross
Caught in a love-hate relationship with Dishoom, I’m against queuing for food but desperately want their Bombay café carbs, always. Keeping the balance tipped to the love side of the scales is the Permit Room at their King’s Cross branch, the quite-kitsch downstairs bar with a still-more-kitsch cocktail list.
Because it’s rare to just fall into a table at any of their four branches, it’s important to know which cocktails are going to be your faithful companions while you play the waiting game. The Viceroy’s a great bet – a bourbon and bayleaf bottle-aged twist on the Old Fashioned. Or for my vote the Chai Paanch’s multiple spirits – Johnnie Walker Black Label, Gosling’s dark rum – and multiple liqueurs – ginger and cocoa – would take the edge off a fair amount of queuing, while the Ceylon arrack, house chai mix and lemon shrub keep it feeling like something to kick off a dinner rather than wrap up a night.
Both cocktails that make arriving at Dishoom to be met with an hour’s wait feel more like a reward than a punishment.
Order: the Chai Paanch
The Permit Room, Dishoom, 5, Stable Street, N1C 4AB. Website.
The Lexington – Deep Southern in Islington
It’s true that the real reason to visit to visit the Lexington – other than the brilliant programming at the tiny gig venue upstairs – is the bourbon list, incredibly long and fairly eclectic.
But the much shorter cocktail list has a strong contender for best Boulevardier in town: simple and classic with Buffalo Trace, Campari and sweet vermouth, for those – alright, quite rare occasions – when the gin in a Negroni feels too acerbic, and you want the toasted-caramel warmth of Kentucky straight bourbon to round off your night with.
Order: the Boulevardier
The Lexington, 98, Pentonville Road, N1 9JB. Website.
Mac and Wild – Scottish in Fitzrovia
Oh, Mac and Wild. First pioneering Scottish game in central London – reviewed here – and now bringing us socially acceptable breakfast whisky. The Whisky Mary’s a self-explanatory twist on her Bloodier sister, but so much more geared to your morning-after needs.
Everything that can be sharp or acrid in a vodka-tomato marriage, in the Whisky Mary becomes a warm, biscuity caress. The Bloody Mary’s kill-or-cure, the Whisky Mary’s just cure – and Mac and Wild’s Scotch list means they can make that as Highland or Island, as port-wood finished or sherry-cask aged, as your heart desires or your hangover demands.
Order: the Whisky Mary
Mac and Wild, 65, Great Titchfield Street, W1W 7PS. Website.
Discount Suit Company– Prohibition-style nightcaps in Petticoat Lane
Discount Suit Company’s basement just off Petticoat Lane Market is small and speakeasy-ish, hidden away behind a nondescript shop frontage left over from the building’s time as a City tailor’s. Sister bar to the Sun Tavern, DSC’s the older, mellower sibling. Where the Sun’s loud and exuberant, DSC’s all flickering candlelight and Northern soul making a soft burr of background music. It’s dimly lit, unrushed and romantic, a great place for first dates, second dates, or any date really – something I entirely waste by going with my flatmate. But what we lack in tender feelings towards each other we make up for in shared love of a whisky cocktail, and DSC has those in abundance.
So much so that it’s hard to whittle down a recommendation to just one, and Harry’s would be the Two Irishmen – a smoky, deceptively delicate-looking coupette of Tyrconnell Irish, Cocchi Americano, Benedictine and Peychaud’s Bitters. For my vote it’s the Old Bell: rye whisky, Dolin dry vermouth, Amaro Montenegro and absinthe. Warming, familiar and smooth without being saccharine. A bit like an evening at Discount Suit Company, in fact.
Order: the Old Bell
Discount Suit Company, 29a, Wentworth Street, E1 7TB. Website.