December 07 2010
Whilst feeling some avian empathy with geese and turkeys, the Gannet is very partial to Christmas. Not so much for the food – chefs are rarely inspired to create seasonal masterpieces, relying instead on dishes easily reproduced for hordes of besuited revellers – but for the sauce. Cocktails may be regarded as self-indulgent at any other time of year, but around Christmas they seem almost de rigueur.
Where to go, then, for the optimum festive tipple? London’s bars are experiencing a renaissance at the moment. The days of the oxymoronic “fruit martini” are, thankfully, long gone, and a more classic approach to the mixed drink holds sway.
Not that there is any lack of invention; quite the reverse, as Islington’s small (but perfectly formed) 69 Colebrooke Row can confirm. It is the fiefdom of Tony Conigliaro, who decocts and distils alcoholic potions in his upstairs laboratory. He even makes his own grenadine, for goodness’ sake (goodness sake – now there’s an idea: Goji-berry-infused rice wine?).
New on the list for this season is his floral champagne cocktail: essences of rose, layered with fizz, and a sugar cube for extra bubbles. Sturdier palates should try Tony’s horseradish vodka. The masochistic purist will take it neat; the more circumspect in a Bloody Mary. Food is very basic – charcuterie, cheeses and divine fennel biscuits – but suitably absorbing.
The bar downstairs at Hix, on Brewer Street (pictured), has the atmosphere of a private members’ club, all conviviality and bashed-about leather. The insouciant, fiercely knowledgeable Nick Strangeway’s cocktail list is a delight. There is no cooler shaker in London. His winter drinks include a proper egg nog, made with Julian Temperley’s Somerset Cider Brandy, PX sherry and aged rum; a mulled sloe gin punch (which it certainly packs); and the Sea Buckthorn Blizzard, made with the terribly trendy and jolly-good-for-you juice of its eponymous fruit – the perfect drink with which to be snowed in.
You might also try the new Hawksmoor, in Seven Dials. It opened after the time of writing, but I like head barman Pete Jeary’s idea of “the bridging hour” – drinks to fill that tea-is-for-wimps gap between the end of lunch and the start of cocktail hour. His signature cocktail, The Dandy, is a blend of cognac, maraschino, sugar, Bénédictine and champagne – a great change from Earl Grey and a turkey sandwich.
If that hasn’t knocked the sage-and-onion out of you, hail a cab – at this time of year, the best solution to the drink-drive conundrum is to give up driving – and head to the resolutely old-fashioned Dukes Hotel in St James’s, where the martini trolley is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, and holds enough top-notch spirit to redden the noses of a herd of Rudolphs. Have yourselves a (very) merry little Christmas.