World's most expensive cocktail at London's savoy hotel: A taste of the city

Sitting on a bar stool in The Savoy Hotel's swanky art deco American Bar, I notice it costs £120 (A$243) for some Hanky Panky. And a cheeky £5000 a pop for the Sazerac, a wallet-wincing drink made from a mix of 1858 Sazerac de Forage cognac, 1950s Pernod absinthe and 1900 Peychaud's bitters.

The Sazerac and the Hanky Panky are on Greenwich, the bar's vintage cocktails list – a list which also includes a daiquiri for £600, a white lady for £120 and a thing called a Moonwalk (1974 Grand Marnier, Dom Perignon, grapefruit bitters, orange flower water) for £100.

It's the Sazerac, though, that commands attention. Said to be the oldest American cocktail (if not the first ever), with origins in pre-Civil War New Orleans, it supposedly came about when a bar owner called Aaron Bird mixed a Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils cognac with bitters he bought from Antoine Amedie Peychaud, a local chemist.

The Savoy's version, according to the head bartender, is the closest anyone can get to the original, thanks to the age of its ingredients. One of the oldest cognacs in the world, a bottle of 1858 Sazerac de Forage costs about £5500 while the rare 1950s Pernod absinthe (a produce of Spain, not France) retails for about £1200 a bottle – a frighteningly expensive liquid history lesson. 

The Greenwich list is just one section of the bar's cocktail list, which also includes six other London boroughs in the shape of a new London Menu. The brainchild of head bartender Erik Lorincz and bar manager Declan McGurk, the London Menu was launched on January 18 and takes guests on an exotic (and alcoholic) journey around the six boroughs – Westminster, the City of London, Camden, Hackney, Islington and Tower Hamlets – that surround the Savoy in the Strand.

There's the Abbey Road, a cocktail created in honour of the studios where the Beatles recorded.

I'm particularly intrigued to taste Tower Hamlets, the London borough where I was born. The ultra-posh Savoy and Tower Hamlets – one of the more deprived, working-class areas of London – are not two places typically found in the same sentence, let alone on the same page.

The new champagne-cum-sepia coloured menu itself is a work of art, with each borough's four tales about iconic landmarks or hidden nooks and crannies beautifully realised in hand-drawn illustrations by artist Joe Wilson (who was also behind the pop-up menu at The Savoy's Beaufort Bar).

These stories have, in turn, been turned into 24 new cocktails by Lorincz and the other bartenders.

There's the Abbey Road, for example, a gin-based cocktail created in honour of the Camden studios where the Beatles recorded in the 1960s, and also the Punk Rock, a rebellious, f***-you mix of rum, Ancho Reyes, grapefruit juice, sugar syrup, Peychaud's bitters and hickory named for the music famously played in the Hope and Anchor pub in Islington in the 1970s and created by bartender Martin Hodak.

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One of the new menu's signature cocktails is Pickering Place, a £50 double-whammy with a sense of humour. Pickering Place, in Westminster, is renowned for being London's smallest square, but also for being the scene of many a duel.

Today's Pickering Place cocktail features two drinks, one gin-based, the other Jack Daniel's-based, served on a wooden box which parts in two to reveal a video made especially for the new menu and featuring the bar staff hamming it up in a silent movie spoof.

Walking in to the famous American Bar is like stepping back to the 1920s: art deco abounds, photographs of famous guests dot the cream walls while well presented patrons (the dress code is smart casual, thank you very much) lounge in blue armchairs and are served by elegant waiters to a background of live piano jazz.

Standing behind the bar, immaculate in his white-and-black tuxedo and razor-parted hair, Lorincz – only the 11th head bartender in the hotel's 126-year history – explains that the cocktails were created after many months of research.

"The idea first started last July when we thought about creating a map of the boroughs … and then I passed by the policeman's hook in Great Newport Street and discovered that it was put there in the 1930s for traffic police to hang their jackets on. That then became the inspiration for the whole menu.

"So, we took two or three months to collect the stories and create the map – it was certainly very different to what I normally do. After that we brainstormed what spirits would best reflect each borough, before inviting all the bartenders to create the individual drinks. It was a huge operation."

As he talks Lorincz, who hails originally from Slovakia, moves skilfully around behind the bar in a well choreographed ballet of bottles, shakers, strainers, ice and cocktail jiggers. He is making the £25 whisky and sherry-based Policeman's Hook, which comes in a beautiful blue-and-gold glass settled on a small circle of grass, and tastes both sweet and bitter, with a faint umami tang from a sprinkling of roasted fortified kombu (a savoury seaweed).

Next up is the Daily Tot (£18), the first cocktail on the Tower Hamlets list. Inspired by the East London docks and the sugar processing industry on the Isle of Dogs, the Daily Tot is a rum blend (Bacardi Superior, Smith and Cross, 15-year-old El Dorado) with a pimento dram, rosemary honey water, pink grapefruit juice, lemon juice and soda. It is served in a tall glass, garnished with a sprig of rosemary.

"What do you think?" asks Lorincz.

I take a sip. It's delightful; a strong concoction, slightly bitter, slightly spicy, a little citrusy, and happy memories flood back of a childhood spent running through the council estates and World War II bomb sites of Tower Hamlets. Ha, ha, ha! Just kidding. 

Slurping another mouthful, I say: "I thought it'd be grittier."

TRIP NOTES

AMERICAN BAR

The Savoy Hotel

Strand, London WC2R 0EU

TEL + 44 (0)20 7836 4343

Mon-Sat 11.30am-midnight; Sun noon-midnight.

See fairmont.com/savoy-london/dining/americanbar

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