Cocktales: The Stories Behind London's Classic Cocktails

Ben O' Norum
By Ben O' Norum Last edited 119 months ago
Cocktales: The Stories Behind London's Classic Cocktails

by Simon Kimber from the Londonist Flickr Pool

When it comes to Cocktails, London is a hard city to beat, but how do they come about? What is the inspiration for them, and how do they get their names? The below are just a selection of all those that have been created in the capital over the years, selected mainly for the brilliant stories behind them: cocktales, if you will.

Black Velvet

The likelihood is you’ll know this mix of Guinness and Champagne from St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, but its origins are far more sombre. It is thought to have been created in early 1861 at Brooks’s Club in St. James’s Street, one of London’s oldest gentlemen’s clubs, and one that is still around today. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert had died only weeks earlier of Typhoid Fever, triggering a period of mourning throughout Britain; Victoria herself wore black for the rest of her life, and this black cocktail was the bar’s own way of showing their respect. It’s especially pertinent given the celebratory nature of Champagne, and the way this cocktail, also served in a flute, mimics that but with the addition of the colour black.

Make it: Simply half-fill a flute with Champagne or sparkling wine and slowly pour Guinness on top, it will float slightly showing off the colour differentiation. If you want to go hardcore, make it in a pint glass.
Drink it: An Irish pub. Try The Toucan in Soho, Auld Shillelagh in Stoke Newington or The Crown & Cushion in Lambeth.

The Breakfast Martini

Salvatore Calabrese is a massive name when it comes to cocktails. As well as having a strong presence across the Atlantic, he now oversees the offerings at London’s Playboy Club on Old Park Lane. It was as recently as the late 1990s that he created this now classic drink, while he was working at the Library Bar at the The Lanesborough hotel, near Hyde Park Corner. As the story goes, Calabrese usually only had an espresso for breakfast before leaving for work, but one morning, his wife made him toast and marmalade and insisted he ate before leaving. He ended up taking the jar to work with him, and this was the result. We always wondered why breakfast was the most important meal of the day…

Make it: Combine 50ml of gin, 12ml of triple sec and 12ml of fresh lemon juice, and shake over ice together with a spoonful of English marmalade. Strain and serve in a Martini glass.
Drink it: Call in to the decadent Library Bar where it was first made, or pop in to Salvatore’s new gaff at Playboy. Alternatively, London Cocktail Club will whip you up a good’un. Or head to Duck & Waffle where their 24 hour licence means you really could have it for breakfast.

The Collins

Though there are multiple theories as to the origin of this easy-drinking cocktail based on gin and lemon, the most likely leads back to the mid 19th century and a hotel in Mayfair. John Collins was a bartender working at a bar called The Coffee House, set within Limmer’s Hotel on Conduit Street – a hotel noted at the time for being ‘one of the dirtiest in London’. John Collins created the drink as a twist on a classic gin punch (one of the most popular drinks of the time) and became immortalised in a limerick in a 1892 book titled Drinks of the World, so leading to the cocktail's name:

My name is John Collins,
head waiter at Limmer's,
Corner of Conduit Street,
Hanover Square,
My chief occupation is filling
For all the young gentlemen
frequenters there.

An alternative and rather fun story places the origin of this cocktail in New York, and involves what is known as the Great Tom Collins Hoax of 1874. A bar-industry practical joke taken to extremes, the hoax involved a barman telling a customer that a man named Tom Collins had been in the bar spreading rumours about him or insulting him. Waiting until the customer got worked up, he would go on to say that the man could be found at another nearby bar. When the customer went to this bar and asked after Tom Collins, this cocktail was what he was given. Fun though it is, the Mayfair theory holds more ground, not least because of London's fascination with gin at the time.

Make it: Combine 50ml of gin, 25ml of fresh lemon juice, 10ml measure of sugar syrup and shake (or mix) together. Top-up with soda water.
Drink it: For historical affiliation, you could try the bar at The Westbury hotel, which sits almost exactly where Limmer’s Hotel used to be. Alternatively, as this is a drink all about the gin, one of our selection of London’s best gin bars won’t disappoint.

The Espresso Martini

Mixologist Dick Bradsell is a legend of the London cocktail scene. He was on fire during the eighties when he not only created many world-famous cocktails which we now consider to be classics, but he is also widely credited with starting a revolution that has led to the array of great bars we have now. Thanks Dick. He came up with this particular number in the late-1980s while working at the (now very different) Soho Brasserie on Greek Street. He’s explained that it took a well-known and worse-for-wear American model (who he hasn’t named) coming into the bar and demanding a drink that would ‘wake me up, then f**k me up’, to give him the idea for this punchy drink. The coffee machine was located nearby, and inspiration struck. Not long later, when he began working with The Pharmacy restaurant in Notting Hill, which was opened by Damien Hirst, the cocktail made it on to the menu under the name ‘Pharmaceutical Stimulant’. Other cocktails which Dick Bradsell created in London include The Bramble, Russian Spring Punch and The Treacle.

Make it: Combine 50ml of vodka, a single espresso, 10-15ml of sugar syrup and a dash each of kahlua and Tia Maria. Shake well over ice, strain and serve in a Martini glass. Garnish with a few (usually three) floating coffee beans.
Drink it: Dick Bradsell now presides over the bar beneath Mexican restaurant El Camion on Soho’s Brewer Street. It usually leans more towards tequila, but we’re sure you’ll be well seen to. Alternatively, try Caravan who make an excellent version using their own roast and ground coffee.

The Vesper Martini

This is probably London’s most famous cocktail, though few will have heard of barman Gilberto Preti who is thought to have created it. Preti was working in the bar of Duke’s hotel just off St James’s Street in the early 1950s when he created the drink for the first time, especially for one particular customer. As luck would have it, that customer was no other than Ian Fleming. So impressed was he with the cocktail, that he included it in a book he wrote shortly after: Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel. In the book, Bond explains to a barman how to make it, saying: “Three measures of Gordon's (gin), one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet (now called Lillet Blanc). Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?".  When presented with the finished product, he says: “This drink's my own invention. I'm going to patent it when I can think of a good name". Later in the book, he goes on to name the cocktail after secret agent Vesper Lynd, who he falls in love with.

This particular version differs from most martinis in a number of ways. Firstly, it uses a mix of gin and vodka, whereas usually one or the other will be chosen. Secondly, it’s shaken rather than stirred, which is something many bartenders would criticise as it leads to more dilution of the drink and can ‘bruise the gin’. Thirdly, the sweeter Lillet Blanc is an unusual choice, with a dry vermouth being much more commonly used.

Interestingly, in books later than Quantum of Solace, Bond can be found to order both gin and vodka martinis but never again this creation. Maybe Fleming went off it?

Make it: Combine 75ml of gin, 25ml of vodka and 12.5ml Lillet Blanc vermouth, shake well over ice and serve in a Martini glass with a twist of lemon.
Drink it: Well, it has to be Duke’s hotel, the original and still the best. Beware, they do it in one size only: large.

Last Updated 07 March 2014