London’s best exotic cocktailsBy Lucy Shaw
London’s cocktail scene is a rare bird indeed. In the last few years we’ve seen it morph in wonderful ways. First bartenders began serving their unique twists on classic cocktails with the dawn of the speakeasy era. Then came the emergence of savoury cocktails that gave everything from bacon and horseradish to peas a starring role in drinks only the most daring of imbibers would order.
As the lines between the kitchen and bar continue to blur, it seems no ingredient is too odd to weave into a cocktail. From Stilton to black truffle, mixologists are approaching drinks from a culinary perspective, and have recently been raiding the spice cupboard.
The trend dovetails with the rise of Levantine cuisine in the capital, with venues like The Palomar in Soho and newcomer Berber & Q in Haggerston shining a light on spice in their cocktails. Other exotic ingredients like rose water, sumac, saffron and cardamom are popping up on lists around town, as bartenders go to greater lengths to push the experimental envelope to stand out from the crowd.
Exoticism is also weaving its way into drinks at Asian restaurants via oriental ingredients, with some going as far as to add fiery chili and lip-numbing Szechuan peppercorns to their concoctions.
Highlighting the trend for spiced cocktails, next month Pritesh Mody, founder of bottled cocktail company World of Zing, will open a pop-up bar on the Southbank showing off his blackberry and tamarind spiced rum punch and bottled margarita made with Persian limes and nori seaweed. Visitors to the bar will have the chance to get involved in the UK’s first “immersive spiced-based art exhibition” featuring multi-sensory prints made using some of the world’s most exotic spices.
Keen to spice up your night out? Read on for our round up of the best exotic cocktails in the capital. If we’ve missed any, let us know in the comment box below.
Sumac Martini at Ottolenghi Spitalfields
At Israeli-born chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s new restaurant in Spitalfields, the majority of the exotic syrups used in the cocktails are made on site. The seasonally-focused list features the Saffron Chase, made with Chase gin, elderflower, lemon, saffron syrup and Champagne, while the baby pink Sumac Martini blends Kettel One vodka, sumac, falernum, lime and pomegranate juice.
Offering liquid versions of his complex dishes, Ottolenghi has designed the drinks to whet the appetite and cleanse the palate before dinner. Those keen for a kick of heat at the end of the night should order the Chili Old Fashioned, where fresh chilis are tempered by fino Sherry and hazelnut liqueur.
Mantras at Gong at the Shangri-La London
The new cocktail list at Gong, the glitzy cocktail bar on the vertigo-inducing 52nd floor of The Shard, takes inspiration from travels across the Orient. Aiming to take visitors on a liquid journey through the East, among the most exotic drops is the Mantras, which blends David Beckham’s Haig Club whisky with coconut cream, cardamom, turmeric and homemade saffron syrup.
Also on pour is the Silk Road, named after the network of trade routes that connected the West to the East, which saw Chinese silk carried across its length from the Han dynasty. Designed to be enjoyed with dim sum, the cocktail blends Asian barely spirit, plum wine, lemon juice, cucumber and egg white.
Rock the Casbah at Black Dice
Having already hit the headlines for its signature sip, the liquorice-black Inked Daiquiri made with Demerara charcoal among other ingredients, Black Dice isn’t shy of sugar, spice and all things nice. Accessed via a maze of secret passages that leads to a red door guarded by a man in a fez, among the more exotic cocktails on offer at the live music venue is the Rock the Casbah, which blends Beefeater gin with apricot, orgeat, lemon, cardamom bitters and sumac.
Also headlining is the Dice Sling, a quirky blend of green tea infused Haig Club whisky, Cocchi Americano, pineapple, bergamot and lemon; and the Smoking Paloma, which will blow away the cobwebs with its punchy fusion of Tequila, pink grapefruit soda, agave nectar, Mezcal, lime and Himalayan pink salt.
Zarif Zehir at Arabica Bar & Kitchen
Arabica Bar & Kitchen near Borough Market pays homage to Beirut’s golden age in the 1960s, when it was considered the Paris of the Middle East and a honey pot for affluent bohemians, with a wine list featuring a Chardonnay from Galilee, a Syrah from Syria, a Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah blend from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and a Merlot blend from Izmir in Turkey.
Its cocktail offering is no less exotic, with drops including the Zarif Zehir, twisting on a traditional sour via vodka, sumac, sloe berries, lemon, sugar and egg white. Rania’s Spritz meanwhile, blends Aperol and Prosecco with ginger, rose water, sea salt and chili for an aerating assault on the senses.
Sweet toothed cocktail lovers might prefer the Rayyan Gin Fizz, which weaves Arak Brun with citrus, cream, orange blossom water, orange & cardamom marmalade and egg white; or the Arabica Coffee, featuring Cognac, tahini orgeat, coffee, cardamom, egg white and dusted spice.
Diki Diki at The Nightjar
The Nightjar in Old Street has always stayed ahead of the curve with its exquisite cocktails crafted with a kaleidoscope of ingredients that are intricately weaved into liquid works of art served in quirky receptacles. The cocktails even come on playing cards – can you tell I’m a fan? It’s no surprise then that the bar’s team of talented mixologists are all over the exotic cocktail trend. So much so, that they’ve just released new menu of drinks made with unusual ingredients from far-flung lands.
Shining a light on spring ingredients and edible flowers, Marian Beke’s new sips include the Diki Diki, served in an ornate blue and white china cup prettified with cornflower petals. Named after a dwarfish king from a far-off land, the cocktail, which was first served at the Embassy Club in 1922, blends spiced Ophir gin, an apple infusion, Swedish punch, Far Eastern Tea, cubeb pepper and cornflowers.
Served in a shiny copper cup, the Horse’s Neck meanwhile, riffs on the Mule cocktail via Woodford Reserve Bourbon, Remy Martin VSOP, wasabi, ginger beer, bergamot, rose oil, Irish moss and horseradish shavings in a concoction so complex it would perplex Heston.
Hibiki Cherry Blossom at Chotto Matte
Taking spring blossom as its cue, Chotto Matte on Frith Street in Soho, which means “just a moment” in Japanese, has released a limited edition cocktail blending Hibiki whisky and cherry bitters.
Specialising in Nikkei cuisine, which marries the best of Japanese and Peruvian ingredients, the restaurant launched the cocktail in celebration of the Japanese festival of Sakura honouring the cherry tree, where the petals are taken to symbolise hope and new life. Served short with a carved ice ball and pansy petals, the drink blends Hibiki 12 year old, Prucia plum liqueur, sweet vermouth and cherry bitters.
Comfortably Numb at Hutong at the Shard
Named after the Pink Floyd song, the Comfortably Numb cocktail at Chinese restaurant Hutong inside the Shard, is not for the faint hearted. Flinging together Stolichnaya vanilla vodka, fresh chilli, Szechuan pepper honey, lychee liquor and fresh lime juice, the rim of the glass is dusted in Szechuan pepper powder, which, when nibbled, has a wonderful numbing effect on the tongue that helps assuage the march of the chili across your taste buds.
The medicine bar has many more madcap creations to boot, like The Dragon Tail, which features Belvedere vodka, lemongrass, ginger, honey, asparagus and oyster sauce; the Under the Sea, blending Prosecco, lychee liqueur, caramel and squid ink; and the Chinese 75 that twists on classic cocktail the French 75 via sweet wine, Cointreau, Champagne and a hibiscus flower infusion.
Scammed in Marrakech at Berber & Q
East London newcomer Berber & Q is chef Josh Katz’s North African-themed grill restaurant housed under the railway arches in Haggerston. Taking inspiration from a plethora of cities, including Marrakesh, Istanbul, Tel Aviv and New York, the Ottolenghi alumnus serves dishes like quail with rose and plum yoghurt, and beef kefta with walnut and apricot from a smoker and charcoal grill.
Cocktails are equally exotic, and include the Scammed in Marrakech, made with gin, sweet vermouth, clement shrubb and orange blossom mist. Also making a cameos are the Guy Berber, which blends vodka, orange liqueur, pomegranate, lime and raki mist; the Lebaneeza, featuring saffron-infused rum, grapefruit and mint; and the Café Ankara, which combines raki, Turkish coffee, single cream, Demerara sugar and star anise.
Smoky Sour at The Palomar
Inspired by the boisterous, free-spirited Machneyuda in Jerusalem, Israeli sharing plates restaurant The Palomar in Soho was quick to win a legion of fans when it opened on Rupert Street last May offering one of the most exciting and intoxicating dining experiences in the capital via the likes of pot baked bread with gooey tahini, Moroccan-style oysters with coriander, lemon zest and harissa oil; and hand-chopped beef fillet with bulgar, tahini, herbs and pine nuts.
Cocktails are colourful in character and nod to the restaurant’s Middle Eastern roots, with the Lion’s Milk blending Arak, almond milk, mint and orange bitters. For those who like their drinks dressed in a smoking jacket, the Smoky Sour mixes Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon, lemon juice, egg white, Lapsang Suchong & cinnamon syrup and a dash of Laphroaig Quarter Cask.
Assam at Bam-Bou
Boasting one of Europe’s largest Japanese whisky collections at its Red Bar, Pan-Asian restaurant Bam-Bou in Fitzrovia serves cocktails with an Oriental twist. Among the highlights are the pretty pink Assam, which blends tea-infused Beefeater gin with lemon curd and Campari and is served with an edible flower floating on top; and the Pan-Asian, made with kaffir lime leaf-infused umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur), orange bitters and Champagne.
Cardamom & Pineapple Margarita at The Trading House
So ahead of the curve it hasn’t even opened yet, new cocktail bar The Trading House in Clerkenwell will hold a flame up to spice-laced cocktails inspired by the East India Company, which at one point accounted for half the world’s trade of items like cotton, silk, dies, salt, tea and even opium.
While you won’t find the narcotic in any of the cocktails, they do include exotic ingredients like star anise, orange blossom and cinnamon, though the star of the spice show is cardamom, which pops up in a twist on an Old Fasgioned, the Pear and Cardamom Crush and the refreshing sounding Cardamom & Pineapple Margarita (pictured).