Key London hotel bars are run by specialists who do more than dabble in the alchemy of spirits, writes David Whitley.
It's all about getting the flavour from the mint, so Andrew Eaton gives the leaves a good slap before putting them in a glass with cucumber. It's showmanship with a purpose. He wants the simplest of cocktails to be perfect.
Eaton is in charge of what he calls "bespoke G and Ts" at the Berry Bar in the Green Park Hilton. It's one of a small band of luxury hotels in London that try to distinguish themselves by having bars specialising in a particular drink.
"Different gins have different qualities and flavours, and constructing them is almost like perfume-making," Eaton says. "Asking for a G and T is like asking for a glass of red wine."
The make-up of the gin dictates what he serves it with. The Spanish Gin Mare, apparently, goes particularly well with olives. Williams Chase is apple-infused, so Eaton serves it with a slice of apple rather than lemon or lime. For Bloom gin, it's "the meatiness of thyme and the sweetness of sliced strawberries".
Eaton admits that this specialist gin bar seeks to offer something unique to potential guests. "We're trying to wow them with what we know," he says. The same applies down the road at the Athenaeum, where the whisky sommelier, Angelo Gobbi, hosts private sampling sessions.
While preparing a cheeseboard, he discusses the history of whisky - its supposed origin in Mesopotamia; Prohibition-era smuggling from Scotland to the US via the Bahamas; how his native Italy became per head the biggest whisky consumer in the 1970s. If cheese and wine can go together, the theory goes, so can cheese and whisky.
There's a process, too. "Try and stick your nose in the glass," Gobbi says. "It bites your nose, doesn't it? You need to say 'hi' and 'how are you?' to the whisky until it starts to talk to you."
He kicks off with a 12-year-old Balvenie DoubleWood single malt. There are hints of orange marmalade, raisin and cinnamon, and a certain sweetness, albeit with a harsh end-kick.
However, when tried with a creamy blue cheese, there's a marriage of flavours and the aftertaste is smoothed. The other matching pairs bring out new combinations: a blended Dewar's breaks down a stodgy, mouth-filling goat's cheese, for example. To finish off, the stallion kick of a 12-year-old Aberfeldy single malt embarks on a battle with the unashamedly strong parmesan block against which it is set loose.
"It's Ali versus Frazier," Gobbi says. "The rumble in the jungle."
Not all bottles in the cabinet at the back of the bar will be used for cheese-matching, however. He points to a 50-year-old Mortlach Scotch that is sold at £179 ($272) a measure. "It's one of a kind; nobody else has the bottle."
Rarities are also available at the Artesian Bar in the Langham Hotel, where rum specialist, Alex Kratena, talks about his recently found treasures with scarcely concealed glee. "I brought one bottle back from Puerto Rico," he says. "Bacardi asked three former master blenders to blend a special rum. Only 150 bottles were ever made, and I could charge thousands ... for a sip."
Kratena tells of the Black Tot rum rationed by the Royal Navy until the 1970s. "People were drinking rum on-board nuclear submarines," he says. "It sells at £800 a bottle even though it doesn't really taste that good. But you're drinking history." (The tradition officially ended on July 31, 1970 at "six bells in the forenoon watch" - 11am.)
Kratena's forays to the Caribbean and Central America pay off in repeat business. "We're constantly bringing new stuff in, and it keeps people coming back to see what we've got. Around 50 per cent of customers aren't hotel residents," he says.
The cocktails help, too. "Rum is the most versatile spirit in the world," he says. "For example, the Barbancourt from Haiti is aged in cognac barrels, so it's brilliant for putting in cocktails where you'd usually have cognac. But rums from Spanish-speaking islands tend to be lighter with a clean taste, and those from English-speaking islands are fuller-bodied with a greater amount of underlying molasses flavour."
The Artesian Punch - "the signature punch of the poshest rum shack in the world" - is a flamboyant masterpiece of premium rums from Venezuela and Jamaica, calvados, and Poire Williams pear liqueur. A float of dark, overproof rums is then laid over the top and set on fire.
The presentation and showmanship is as important as the drink's range and knowledge. But the other crucial ingredient at London's specialist hotel bars is the personality of the enthusiasts running them. At the Egerton House Hotel both the bar and its master, Antonio Pizzuto, are small yet formidable and defiantly old-fashioned in the most charming of ways.
Pizzuto regularly holds fort until 3am and sees his job as much more than pouring drinks. "You've got to be a priest," he says. "You've got to be a good listener and you have to know when to zip it ... if you don't talk to people, what's the point?"
Pizzuto arrived in Britain from Sicily in 1971, got a job sweeping floors at the Savoy and worked his way through several of London's top restaurants and hotel bars before bringing his martini-making magic to Egerton House. He refuses to serve them shaken or stirred. "Are you James Bond?" he says. "Shaking and stirring gets water in there - and it is not the same. Let me make you a proper martini."
Plumping for vodka rather than gin, Pizzuto reaches for a frozen glass before adding a drop of vermouth. He then pulls a bottle of Belvedere out of a small portable freezer - he always makes the martini in front of the customer - and fills the glass to the brim. It's a monster serving that the little scrape of lemon rind makes no less daunting and a powerful beast from the first sip - but with electric purity and flavour. No wonder people come here just for this drink.
The writer was a guest at Egerton House Hotel.
Qantas has a fare to London from Melbourne and Sydney for about $1825 low-season return, including taxes. See qantas.com.au.
Whisky and cheese-sampling sessions at the Athenaeum's Whisky Bar cost £50 ($76). Bookings essential; see athenaeumhotel.com.
- Egerton House, 17-19 Egerton Terrace, Knightsbridge, has rooms from £312 a night. See redcarnationhotels.com.
- The Langham, 1c Portland Place, Regent Street, has rooms from £302 a night. See langhamhotels.com.
- The Athenaeum, 116 Piccadilly, Mayfair, has rooms from £275. See athenaeumhotel.com.
- The Green Park Hilton, Half Moon Street, Mayfair, has rooms from £155. See hilton.co.uk.