Cocktails perfectly tailored for the cultured crowd

Potent cocktails and neglected classics are the stars of the drinks list at the ICA’s new bar

Image: Chris Burke

I’ve always had a soft spot for the ICA, because it’s where I got engaged. The proposal took place during a gig by Orphans & Vandals, an exceedingly louche art band who have long since gone their separate ways. The ring was sparkly and plastic, and we toasted our engagement with whisky in a paper cup. Not very How To Spend It, perhaps, but 10 years on, it’s still the best investment I ever made. 

I can’t guarantee you’ll find love at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, but I’m glad to say it is possible to enjoy rather better drinks there these days thanks to Rochelle Canteen, which now runs the ICA’s bar and restaurant. Founded by Margot Henderson and Melanie Arnold (who ran The French House with their husbands, chef Fergus Henderson and Jon Spiteri – now Melanie’s ex – before the men paired up to launch the famousnose‑to-tail restaurant St John), the original Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch has been catering for east London’s creative types since 2004, so they know what artists like. 

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When it comes to drinks, that means potent, unfussy classics that do the job: martinis, negronis and margaritas. General manager Fin Spiteri (formerly of Quo Vadis, and son of Melanie) has also made a point of including a couple of neglected classics, too, such as the Army & Navy (gin, lemon, orgeat) and the Hanky Panky, a punishingly bitter-sweet cocktail of gin, rosso vermouth and Fernet Branca that was invented in the early 1900s by Ada Coleman, the first woman ever to run the bar at The Savoy. It may have a frivolous name, this drink, but its flavour is strictly for sophisticates. 

The bit that gives the Hanky Panky its edge is the Fernet Branca. Pitch-black and brisk as an after-dinner mint, this Italian amaro isn’t something you often see on drinks lists in this country – it’s rather an acquired taste. But a judicious drop here or there can give a drink real definition – it’s the liquid equivalent of a full-stop. 

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I once had the pleasure of making a rather eccentric pilgrimage to the home of Fernet Branca in Milan with Fergus Henderson and his father, Henderson Snr. Both swore by the restorative powers of a daily tot of Fernet, a theory that was borne out by the very lively behaviour on that particular trip. Henderson Snr is no longer with us, alas, but he lives on in his eponymous hangover cure, the Dr Henderson, a mix of equal parts Fernet Branca and crème de menthe, which rounds off the cocktail list at the ICA. Not everyone will consider this a masterpiece, I’m sure. But under the circumstances, I think it’s the perfect match.

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