My husband and I just returned from a whirlwind trip to France and the United Kingdom, where we visited countless cocktail bars and two distilleries. Here are some highlights:
We made a reservation for 10:00 p.m., but got there a little early and our table wasn’t ready. The space is quite small, so the hostess asked us to wait on the stairs that lead to the bathroom, and a server took our first drink order. When the drinks came, we sipped them while standing awkwardly on the steps. Fortunately, we were seated a couple minutes later.
My husband chose the Bloody Mary — which we noticed is common on London cocktail menus — and my friend Danielle selected the Serafin, mixing Calle 23 Tequila, pear liqueur, lime juice and Fever Tree ginger beer. I got the Vintage El Presidente, a blend of Havana Barrel Proof rum, Martini Rosso vermouth, Merlet triple sec and homemade grenadine that’s aged for six months.
For the next round, I ordered the Sirocco, made with flint-and-pink peppercorn vodka, sugar and grapefruit oils, and I really enjoyed the taste of clay complemented by sweetness, citrus and spice, with a dry finish. I finished off the night with an off-menu offering: the Orange Grove Fizz, blending gin, vanilla-orange blossom syrup, egg white and soda. My husband also tried the Prairie Oyster, a shooter comprising horseradish vodka, Oloroso Sherry, shallots, pepper sauce, celery salt and micro herbs, with a tomato “yolk.”
We stopped by Mark’s Bar, located below Hix restaurant, for a few drinks before catching comedian Stewart Lee at nearby Soho Theatre. The extensive menu features sections like Brit Pop (“Most modern cocktail bars want to replicate [the speakeasies of Prohibition]. We’d prefer to focus on the success of British cocktail culture in the 20th century…”) and Pomp & Circumstance (“The pomp and ceremony of time-old concoctions is tempered by the circumstance of modern values”). From the former category, I selected the Celebration, a blend of Havana Club Añejo 3-year-old rum, Beefeater London Dry gin, housemade redcurrant syrup and grapefruit juice, and the Hanky Panky, mixing Beefeater London Dry gin, Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, Fernet Branca amaro and orange zest. The second drink was served in a small cocktail glass, with a sidecar containing containing the remainder.
My husband ordered the Hix Oyster Ale, brewed by Palmers in Southwest England, and the Stiff Upper Lip (from the Pomp & Circumstance section), comprising green pea-infused Beefeater London Dry gin, Kamm & Sons ginseng spirit, Somerset cider vinegar, housemade quinine cordial and mint. A dispenser containing the infusion of gin and “Yorkshire caviar” stood on the back bar in all its glory.
After the show, we headed to this Chinatown speakeasy, which is hidden behind a door with neither street number nor handle. Luckily, two nice gentlemen stood outside the entrance smoking cigarettes and showed us how to get inside. My husband again got a Bloody Mary, and I ordered the That’s What She Said, mixing lavender-infused Beefeater gin, lemon juice, jasmine syrup, Peychaud’s bitters, egg white and Perrier, but they were no longer serving it. So I instead selected the Loose Lips Sink Ships, made with pineapple-and-chipotle-infused Plantation 3 Star rum, Wray & Nephew rum, lime juice, cane syrup and saline solution.
On our last night in London, we got a nightcap at this upscale hotel bar, which offered a menu of inventive cocktails in the form of a painter’s palette. I chose the “Adventurous” Above & Beyond, comprising Zacapa 23-year-old rum, 30-year-old Pedro Ximénez Sherry, fernet, banana and coffee. To my surprise, it came with a eucalyptus vapor-filled plastic pillow, which the server broke open and held to my face to inhale.
The pillow also contained Guatemalan worry dolls, which should be placed beneath your pillow at night to take away your worries while you sleep. I’ve yet to try it, but will post an update if they work!
We also took a tour of the brand new Beefeater Distillery visitors center in London’s Kennington district, where the gin has been produced since 1958. We spent the first 30 minutes perusing an exhibit that highlights the history of gin and the Beefeater brand. Comprising informative videos, photographs, displays and reproductions of historical items, such as the the 18th century Old Tom gin dispenser. There were also areas showcasing different types of cocktail glasses and the evolution of Beefeater’s bottles since 1947.
The second 30 minutes is a guided tour that includes a hands-on exploration of the botanicals used in the gin and an explanation of the production process. The actual distillery isn’t open to the public, but you can see the stills through windows built into the visitors center.
After the tour, we enjoyed a complimentary gin and tonic (with lemon — the way I like it!) at the bar, followed by the opportunity to pick up some souvenirs in the gift shop. I took home a Beefeater tote bag and a bottle of Beefeater Summer gin, which is only available at the distillery.
Before our dinner reservation at Cafe St. Honore — the best meal we had during the entire trip — we had a quick drink at this New Town dive, which features a whisky of the day and fun cocktails like the I Like Sherry Butts and I Cannot Lie. I ordered the Rum & Raisin Old Fashioned, comprising Pampero Aniversario rum and Pedro Ximénez Sherry, with a shot glass containing chocolate-covered raisins.
We managed to catch last call at this Old Town bar, which serves more than 500 whiskies and has a retail component. I told the Canadian ex-pat bartender that I like Sherried whiskies, and he recommended that I try the Glendronach 18-year-old and the Aberlour 16-year-old. Both drams were delicious.
Located in Blackford, about an hour drive from Edinburgh, the Tullibardine Distillery has been around in some form since 1488, when it was a brewery. The building was converted into a distillery in 1947 and is now owned by French wine and spirits group Picard Vins & Spiritueux, which also markets the Highland Queen brand. We chose the Connoisseur Tour, which features an in-depth guided tour of the distillery and warehouse, as well as tastings of four whiskies, paired with chocolate.
Our gracious guide Gavin explained every part of the distilling process, from the milling of the barley to the mashing and fermentation to the distilling, barreling and aging. We got to see each stage for ourselves, nose whisky straight from the barrels and taste the Sovereign, the 225 (finished in Sauternes casks), the 228 (finished in Burgundy casks) and the 25-year-old expressions. The experience was well worth the one-hour train ride to Bridge of Allan, followed by a 20-minute bus ride to Blackford.
We only spent one night in Paris and ended up at this American-run cocktail bar in the the 11th Arrondissement on the Right Bank. It was surprisingly low-key for a Friday, but the drinks were top-notch. First I ordered the Red House Old Fashioned, mixing rye whiskey, pimento dram, Drambuie and cardamom.
Then I capped off the night with the Sherry Cherie, comprising Amontillado Sherry, eau de tamarind, Prosecco and dry curaçao.
Both drinks were amazing and made me feel right at home in a foreign country.