It is a Saturday night, and Nightjar, a bar on London’s City Road, is in full swing. The dance floor is raucous with people bopping to a kazoo-playing bandleader from the delightfully named The Original Rabbit Foot Spasm Band.
Yet an entertainment of a different kind is taking place at the bar. Marian Beke, the bar manager, puts down an owl-shaped watering can and adds a concoction to it, followed by a few pellets of dry ice. Plumes of steam erupt from the beak and head of the owl, as the smoke drifts eerily along the counter. Next to this Beke places a metal cup, in which there is a dried-out coconut half floating on top. He lights some rum and pours it into the coconut, flames licking. A delicious toasted aroma fills the air.
They are just two of the more theatrical tipples that the speakeasy-style venue serves to its guests. The first is a Yorkshire Punch (£8.50 per serving), a heady mix of Gin Mare, Kamm & Sons, rhubarb, apple, St Germain, berry liqueurs, lemon, herbs, spices, honey and ginger; the second, Barrel-Aged Painkiller (£10), is made with three different rums, Solerno liqueur, pineapple and sparkling coconut water.
Nightjar is one of a number of bars taking the cocktail one step further, looking to introduce a sense of drama and fun. Out are cocktail parasols and sparklers; in is drinking through mirrors, off rare vinyl and from miniature wheelie bins.
For Nightjar owner Edmund Weil, it is about giving the senses something else to play with. “Nobody takes their drinks more seriously than the barmen,” he says, “but their aim is to give their guests an experience they won’t have elsewhere. I don’t want anything extraneous – something interesting conceptually but that doesn’t enhance the drink in any way. It has to be something that matches and heightens the customer’s experience. A lot of it is about bringing more of the senses into enjoying the cocktail – and offering a visual treat.”
Other theatrical offerings include the Toronto (£10), which comes with a piece of chocolate-drizzled smoked candyfloss, so the drinker can add as little or much as they like. “It gives the customer a chance to play around with the taste themselves – some prefer it drier, some sweeter,” explains Weil.
Over in The London Cocktail Club on Goodge Street, the pyrotechnics are in full flow. At one end of the counter, a Brixton Riot (£8.50) is being prepared. Based on a rum punch, it is a deliciously smooth drop made with Martini Rosata and peach purée. In a final flourish, Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum is set alight and poured from a great height onto a hollowed-out passion fruit in the glass, giving a sweet smokiness in aroma and taste. At the other end, drinkers sip from a child’s plastic galleon. This is the Black Pearl (£30), a take on ship’s grog that was historically distributed to sailors. It serves six and consists of Plantation 3 Stars, Plantation 5 Year Old, Monin Orgeat, Monin Grenadine, pineapple, lime, Angostura bitters and ginger beer.
“It is a geeky bartender play on history,” says owner JJ Goodman. “We tried doing it out of Lego, but that didn’t work, so we got a toy ship, and now we serve it alongside the little plastic figures. I think people see it as fun. We all love playing with food, yet nobody knows how to play with their drinks, so we do it on their behalf.”
Yet besides visual delights and added entertainment, some barmen are creating titillating drinks to reference their historical links with drinkers themselves. In the decadently attired Beaufort Bar at The Savoy, for example, four celebrated and distinguished former guests form the inspiration for its eminently quaffable Character Cocktails (all £25). The spectacle starts with a specially designed trolley, which is wheeled alongside one’s table. It is here that the barmen create the cocktails in vintage glasses, all specific to the era of each figure. From a 1930s coupette, Hemingway fans can sip The Never Ending Story, a tropically influenced mix of Bacardi 1909, dark crème de cacao, lime juice and absinthe, which comes with a hand-wrapped cinnamon “cigar” on top of a copy of The Old Man and the Sea, a nod to the writer’s love of Cuba – and daiquiris.
Referencing Coco Chanel, a champagne lover who believed that red wine and caviar would keep her young, the Coco is a fragrant blend of Grey Goose vodka infused with rose and jasmine, Lillet Blanc, red wine, blackberry reduction and Moët & Chandon 2004. As a finishing touch, it is garnished with jasmine and rose-tea spray and black-sugar pearls presented in a caviar tin. As well as The Gold Rush, in homage to Charlie Chaplin, tribute is also paid to Frank Sinatra with Ol’ Blue Eyes, which is inspired by his declaration that “orange is the happiest colour” and by his love of Jack Daniel’s. This suitably punchy concoction – made with Jack Daniel’s Savoy Silver Select, Curaçao, vintage Benedictine and Cocchi Americano – is served in a 1950s whisky tumbler, decorated with a burnt orange, and comes on a rare Frank Sinatra 7in vinyl. These are grown-up drinks with a playful twist. (Incidentally, Jack Daniel’s is celebrating the singer with its special-edition Sinatra Select, £150, available at The Whisky Exchange, The Whisky Shop and Selfridges.)
Over at The Langham hotel, barman Roman Foltan is creating theatre of a different kind. Here the somewhat bonkers but tasty offerings (£16.50 each) reference the origin of the ingredients. One of the most intriguing is the Above and Beyond, which is a twist on a rum Old Fashioned, with Zacapa 23-year-old rum from Guatemala, Pedro Ximénez 30-year-old sherry, Fernet Branca, banana liqueur and mandarin bitters. When presented, it comes with a see-through “balloon”, which, when burst, lets out a wonderfully fragrant aroma.
“The story behind the balloon is very simple,” says Foltan. “Zacapa rum is made and aged 2,300m above sea level, above the clouds, so that’s how we came up with the name. Because of this, we have a small aromatic cloud. The balloon is filled with fresh forest scents, so when we make a small hole, the fragrance is released into the face of the guest.” And in a further flourish, inside the balloon is a little parcel of Guatemalan worry dolls, which guests can take home. “Every night when they go to sleep, they can put a worry doll underneath their pillow and, hopefully, they will have sweet dreams,” he adds.
Other cocktails include Super Panda, which is what the barmen imagined would happen “if a Kung Fu Panda came into the hotel and ordered a drink”, according to Foltan. It is delivered in the paper head of a panda, which is filled with a tangerine aroma that envelops the drinker. The Forever Young references the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray – which Oscar Wilde wrote at The Langham – and is served behind a mirror; this has a hole through which the straw pokes, so the drinker sees themself but not the cocktail. Alongside the Forever Young – a combination of Grey Goose vodka with Martini extra dry, maraschino liqueur, lemon and eucalyptus syrup – is incense with an opium-flower bouquet, which is an allusion to the character’s fascination with the drug.
Equally zany is Matt Whiley’s creation at his Talented Mr Fox, which originally started out as a pop-up bar at One Leicester Street hotel in London and is now a permanent fixture there. Here, the Urban Fox cocktail (£14) is presented in a mini plastic wheelie bin. Consisting of cider, apple juice and dark rum, it comes with a sachet placed on top of the ice with “Bin Juice” written on it. This contains Pedro Ximénez sherry, which the guest pours into the drink. “You always get foxes in bins,” says Whiley, “so I wanted to reference that.” Thankfully, the contents are a great deal more palatable than the real thing.
Jauntiness aside, doesn’t all this fire and dry ice make for singed eyebrows and frozen lips?
“With dry ice you have got to be careful about the amount,” explains Nightjar’s Weil, “as any solid bit still left in the cocktail could be hazardous. You have to make sure you wait until it has finished smoking completely before you pour it into your glass. As for the fire, we always tell our guests to show caution. However theatrical they are, it is important that drinks that are potentially dangerous come with a gentle health warning.”