That’s it, then. November is rapidly evaporating and Thanksgiving is upon us. Bake Off is a distant memory, Hallowe’en has passed, and with the Christmas adverts now underway, the starting gun to the festivities has well and truly commenced.
And what could be more festive than something conjuring up the traditions of a Dickensian drama. The jollity of one of Fezzywig’s balls, say. Or a kiss under the mistletoe at Dingley Dell. Maybe you want to conjur up a visit from the ghost of Christmas yet to come?
Whatever your muse, your destination might just be the Four Sisters Townhouse. They weren’t kidding when they said it was Dickensian. Turn into Groveland Court and you step back in time. It’s down a cobbled street so narrow it hasn’t seen daylight since the Great Fire. All that was missing as the buildings closed in were penny salesmen and a pea soup fog and I would have been cast right back to the 1850s.
The weighty, gothic Victoriana continued inside. Heavy velvet drapes, gilted belle epoque mirrors, filigree iron detailing, even gargoyle heads set into the ceiling set the mood in the dimly-lit interior. I moved to a light source; a candle on a high table, barside, where a smiling waiter poured me a short glass from an earthenware bottle before I’d even sat down. ‘Is that gin?’ I asked. ‘No, sir, mineral water.’ Oh, how times have changed.
Lydia arrived shortly after. We were here for cocktails. Dynamic, moving, mind-bending cocktails. In fact, the menu is so versatile, changing weekly, they don’t even laminate it. One side offers ‘Market to Glass’, a blank canvas for bartenders to go barmy, many featuring ingredients long since believed obsolete or so rare as to almost seem made up. The other side is a little more restrained, a catch-all of ‘New Wave, Classic and Forgotten’ we’re told. The names may ring a bell, or hark from the Savoy’s cocktail book, but they’ve then been unable to resist a twist.
To create this oeuvre, their arsenal resembles less a bar, more a Victorian apothecary. Shelves bow under the weight of ground glass jars of handmade bitters, tinctures, curds, cordials, foams, syrups and sodas. To say their concoctions are medicinal is an understatement. Some of these would have Wild West quacks themselves running for cover.
Agreeing that we didn’t like our cocktails sweet, we opened the batting with an Italians Do It Bitter; an experimental elixir featuring Amari blend, Cochi Torino vermouth, Tio Pepe sherry and orange bitters. I’m not kidding when I say they’re experimental. And, yes, it tastes how it reads. I haven’t had a drink like that since I was given a dare at college. Never mind Dickens, we could have been in a Montmartre café in the 1890s.
For our next, though we now craved sugar, we stuck to our guns. I spied a curious take on an Aviation in the Classics section. The last time I had one of those, it featured a delightful whisper of maraschino. This version, called a Flying Dutchman, certainly got me to take off. Genever, triple sec and yet more bitters. I think I must have misunderstood what some of the components were because by now I felt like I was on a course of chemotherapy. This was becoming less a night of gentle sipping, more a losing battle against sobriety.
To soak up this engine-revving libation, we put in for one of their sharing boards. Designed for ‘grazing’ for two, it could feed seven. Spilling over with charcuterie, half a side of salmon, a buttery potted shrimp, nuggets of chorizo and olives the size of apples, we migrated to a banquette to share it under the disapproving stare of a stuffed raven perched on a human skull. Wilkie Collins might well have sought inspiration here.
What isn’t Dickensian is the thumping Motown, getting progressively louder as the evening wore on. As the office p*ss-up on the adjacent table began to raise their volume over the music, I began to sympathise with Martha Reeves’ ‘Nowhere to Run’ that was currently challenging my eardrums. In the event, we did run, though barely three yards to the alleyway outside to enjoy an Old Pal, a spin on a Harry Craddock Savoy classic, in the company of what appeared to my now blurring eyes, seemed less like a group of boisterous office executives, more a gaggle of cackling crones, though the ladies in question won’t thank me for saying that. As the lamplighters tended their wicks, it was time to part company and Lydia and I slipped back out to Bow Lane and back into the 21st century.
When it comes to cocktails, there are few places in London that stray from the conventional. But if you crave the company of Barnaby Rudge, in an atmosphere by Edgar Allen Poe, and you like your drinks like Dylan Thomas, then Four Sisters Townhouse might just be your ticket to festive cheer.
For more information on Four Sisters Townhouse, and the Four Sisters Bar, visit www.thefoursistersbar.co.uk.