Cocktail concepts in the capital

At the forefront of innovation, London is now the most exciting city for cocktails in the world, with mixologists drawing on art, science and technology to entice their savvy customers. Lucy Shaw raises a glass.

A Van Gogh-inspired sip from City Social’s augmented reality cocktail menu, Mirage

While New York used to reign supreme as the undisputed cocktail capital of the world, over the past five years London has quietly but confidently stolen its crown. New York brought us Prohibition-era speakeasies, which were faithfully replicated in key cocktail cities all over the world, with their hard-to-find locations and secret passwords. But the cocktail conversation has since moved on, and nowhere is the spirit of innovation felt more deeply than in London.

The exciting thing about the capital’s cocktail climate at the moment is that is doesn’t fit neatly into a box. It can’t be categorised because the rate of change is so fast and the ideas being put forward so many. Maverick bartenders are taking inspiration from everything from art and film to chefs and virtual reality, and are weaving these disparate elements into creative concepts that challenge our preconceptions and urge us to think differently about drinks.

Tony Conigliaro’s ‘Violin’ cocktail at Untitled in Dalston

Hoping to take cocktails to another dimension is Jamie Jones, group bars executive of Jason Atherton’s restaurant group, The Social Company, who recently launched London’s first augmented reality (AR) cocktail list.

Inspired by iconic artists and artworks through the ages, from Vincent van Gogh’s wheat fields to Tamara de Lempicka’s Art Deco portraits, it took Jones 18 months to develop his Mirage menu into (augmented) reality. Formed of a dozen cocktails, the collection recently debuted at Atherton’s Michelin-starred restaurant, City Social in London’s financial heart, which features original artworks by Andy Warhol and Joan Miró on its walls.

Taking guests on an artistic journey that begins with ancient Mayan carvings and ends with Bristol-born graffiti artist Banksy, via Michelangelo and Lichtenstein, to experience the cocktails in their full glory, guests are asked to download an app either when they make their booking or on arrival.

While the cocktails are simplistic in presentation, when you point your phone at the coaster they’re resting on, they come to life via a short animation that plays on a loop. Photos and videos of the animations can then be shared with friends on social media, heightening the interactive element of the menu.

“It’s great to see people’s reactions to the cocktails – everyone gets a bid giddy the first time they use the app,” says Jones. With Mirage, Jones hopes to have found the middle ground between the theatrical,multi-sensory serves at the Artesian and the stripped-back elegance of bottled-cocktail specialist White Lyan.

Mind you, with so much of our time now spent glued to our phones, cocktail bars provide a rare respite from technology and a chance to catch up with friends in real time rather than virtually. Bringing technology into this now sacred space seems almost sacrilegious. Jones doesn’t seem to think so.

“The restaurant boasts amazing views and people tend to have their phones out anyway, so I figured why not embrace that and turn it into a social experience?” he says. “You have to put your phone down to drink the cocktails and all you’re left with is the ingredients, so the cocktails have to stand up on their own when the AR element is taken away.”

Tony Conigliaro

Pop artist Andy Warhol and his Factory in New York also inspired Tony Conigliaro’s new London bar concept. The restless innovator, who brought us clay cocktails at 69 Colebrooke Row in Islington and authentic Italian apéritivo drinks at Bar Termini in Soho, recently opened a stripped-back bar in Dalston with a suitably hipster name – Untitled.

The stark grey concrete space is purposefully sparse to keep the focus on the cocktails and customers rather than the interiors.

Having studied at art school, Conigliaro was keen to recreate the collaborative vibe of Warhol’s studio, and made a communal table the focal point of Untitled, where he hopes creative chance encounters will take place. Like City Social, Untitled offers just 12 cocktails, each of which have one-word names that sound like artworks, from ‘snow’ and ‘green’ to ‘amber’.

Named after what they taste like, their descriptions are short and enigmatic. Conigliaro believes listing the spirits in a cocktail limits a customer’s decision-making process. Instead, he’s keen to open their minds and expand their drinking horizons by getting people to order based on their flavour preferences.

Perhaps the most pretentious cocktail on the list is the ‘violin’, which aims to recreate both the sound of the instrument and the process behind making it. A blend of vodka, dark oak, pine, beeswax, benzoin and black pepper, everything from the colour to the shape of the glass has been considered, so that it faithfully emulates its subject.

Conigliaro reveals that the cocktail struck a nostalgic note with his operations director, whose mother restores violins for a living.

Keen to play on people’s sentimental relationships to scent and flavour, Conigliaro’s ‘snow’ cocktail, which marries vodka, white clay, chalk and enoki mushrooms, aims to evoke the moment as a child when you catch a snowflake on your tongue. “It’s great to see people’s faces light up after their first sip,” he says.

Like many of today’s top cocktail wizards, Conigliaro uses an elaborate collection of gadgets to create his concoctions that wouldn’t look out of place in a Michelin-starred kitchen, from vacuum packs and blowtorches to a centrifuge. “I’ve always had a keen interest in food and how flavours are presented in a dish. I want the transition between food and drinks to be seamless at the bar, which requires a delicate touch,” he reveals.

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