Situated below London’s oldest whisky shop, The Vault is a proper, Hollywood-like secret bar. Walk in with confidence and make your way to the back of the shop to push with all your strength against the bookcase; and down you go to a small cellar bar where we guarantee a boozy night. A little rough around the edges, this feels like the old school Soho so many are saying is going and gone – a must-visit, then.
Keen on a little education? Take a seat at the bar and let the bartending team guide you through the menu. This is a bar where you sort of have to go big from the start – so try The Buckley, with punchy agricole rum infused with fruit and balanced with egg white. Later at night, you can’t go wrong with The Simo, named after the bar’s owner and main bartender, a twist on a Manhattan made with rye whiskey, dry vermouth and delicately bitter Byrrh.
If you fancy extending your stay, the leather sofas are welcoming, the salted almonds a dream, and some days of the week, Simo’s dog Chester hangs around – let’s make it a rule that all bars must have a dog now, shall we?
Best Bars tip: There’s a barrel-shaped room at the back that’s available to book if you’ve got something to celebrate…
*This bar is now closed, but keep an eye out … they may be cropping up at another locale soon.*
Come hell or High Water, Dalston has a new chilled out cocktail haven. This treasure of a bar is the product of one seriously talented team: Bobby Hiddleston of New York’s Dead Rabbit, Durham Atkinson of Hops & Glory, Mia Johansson of Milk & Honey and Barbarossa Inan of Hawksmoor. Are these capable hands? Why yes they are.
Whatever your tipple of choice, it will be perfectly executed and utterly delicious. Classics are bang on, and so are all their twists. For a fresh and zesty choice, order the Rolling Tackle made with rosemary tequila, Aperol, carrot and mandarin sherbet. Or for a sweeter, fuller drink then try the Foo Foo Band Night with peanut butter rum, lime and banana. Yummers. For the beer drinkers, there are enough hand-picked choices to keep you happy. And for a bit of both, get a “mini” cocktail chased by a bottle of beer (for less than a tenner). One of our favourites is The Admiral, a crazy twist on the Julep, with rye, cacao, falernum, absinthe and mint.
The exposed brick walls and wood beams instantly create a cosy inviting atmosphere — the kind of place you’d be happy to prop up at the bar any time of the week. Hospitality is king here and the staff are immensely friendly and welcoming, so we reckon your best bet is to grab a couple of stools at the bar and get chatting away to these lovely folks. Or if you want a place to catch up with mates, then this is a perfect choice.
Best Bars tip: We have a sneaky suspicion that this will quickly rise to the top of your favourite bars list. Get in.
“Another day, another American joint”, you sigh. Well, you’re wrong. This Mississippi-sprung restaurant is the real deal. Combining the heart of the deep south with the refinement of the Marylebone drinking and dining scene, US chef Brad Macdonald, and his charming team, work hard to showcase the best of stateside hospitality at The Lockhart.
Spread over two floors, the upstairs restaurant follows the format of bare brick walls, hanging lightbulbs and antique furniture. Downstairs, copper stools line the bourbon and Mescal-heavy bar. The wine list is a rundown of some of America’s best, not only in taste but in name too (wandering bear, velvet devil and boom boom!, to name a few). It’s the cocktails here that really fly the flag, though. Our favourites? The Louisiana Jam with bourbon, apricot jam and lemon is seriously good, and it would be rude not to order a Manhattan, considering the bourbon on show. And all averaging at around £9.50 — yep, probably a good idea to make use of those stools.
Now, don’t get us wrong: the drinks alone merit a trip to The Lockhart. But it would be a crime not to try the food here. The southern USA classics such as fried chicken, Jacob’s ladder short ribs and shrimps and grits are incredible. Not to mention the cornbread which is cooked to order and, we reckon, the best in town.
What makes The Lockhart stand apart from most of the other American joints that London has to offer is its authenticity. There aren’t any gimmicks but it isn’t pretentious either. It’s just honest, seriously good fare from our friends across the pond.
Best Bars tip: Set yourself up for a good week by going for its Sunday Night Game Time, where from 6pm until 10pm, you can enjoy drinks with a choice of food from both the lunch and dinner menu. Our pick? The indulgent muffaletta sandwich. Go on, treat yourself.
Birmingham is harbouring a deliciously stylish password-only pop-up, The Site Office, in which exposed brickwork, candlelit cubby holes and Chesterfields are de rigueur.
With a spirit offering befitting of its industry-insider crowd, if you can get it, try the Black Cow — that’s vodka made from Cornish cows’ milk to you and me. Another Site Office must-try is sherry cask-aged dark rum in the form of the inimitable Dos Maderas, hidden in the defilade of a woodwork project, posing as a bar.
With guest DJs that will keep you vertical until past bedtime, make your arrival no earlier than 10pm and enthusiastically wave goodbye to that last train home.
Best Bars tip: Follow, like and generally stalk The Site Office on Facebook to find out about future events. Or if you are impatient like us, hire the whole thing and throw yourself a humdinger of a private party.
If you want to know a little thing about us, it’s that we absolutely LOVE picklebacks. We can’t resist a shot of smooth bourbon chased with some sharp and delicious pickle juice. So when we heard there was a pop-up called the Pickle Jar opening, well … you could say we were pretty excited.
To drink, isn’t it obvious? Picklebacks. You should have a few. But since you can’t spend the whole night throwing back shots (that’s just irresponsible), order yourself some shrub cocktails. They’re vinegar based, but have a rich moreishness that you can’t resist. If you need to satisfy that sweet tooth, try the Corn Star Martini (a bourbon twist on a 90s classic).
Tucked underground, this cosy cocktail den is all about the bourbon — it is a Buffalo Trace pop-up. They’ve amped up the atmosphere with a wood-heavy room and authentic whisky barrels galore.
Best Bars tip: Looking for a private party space that’s slightly off piste? Look no further, get all your mates and/or colleagues into the pickling fun.
Wed-Thurs: 5pm-12am; Fri-Sat: 5pm-1am. The Well, 180 St John Street, EC1V 4JY.
Inhabitable whisky clouds, drinking water with 10,000-year-old glacial ice, an organ that travels the globe and doubles up as a whisky bar … no, this isn’t some crazy dream we had. This is the world of Bompas & Parr, the adventurous and innovative duo who have created some of today’s most incredible installations and events. For what would usually be reserved for the likes of Willy Wonka, they actually conceive and create.
Sitting down with one half of the pair, Sam Bompas, you might expect a purple-haired magician to appear on a flying carpet – but instead you get one fast talking and incredibly enthusiastic dreamer … who takes the impossible and makes it a reality.
One of the duo’s most recent endeavours was the wholly immersive and interactive event, Johnnie Walker’s Symphony in Blue. The idea was born two years ago in partnership with Done + Dusted (the team behind London’s 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony), among a slew of others, and whose subsequent journey has brought forth some truly out-of-the-box creations.
For two days at Merchant Taylors Hall, the multi-sensory spectacle was far more than an ode to the brand. It was a living, breathing, all-encompassing world of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Bompas said: “Everyone has this amazing palate. It’s not like sending people to art galleries, as that can be quite obscure. Everyone practices, day after day, what they like in terms of food and flavour. So the interesting thing for us, was how do you take all of the things that are going on in the glass — and with something like Blue Label, that’s a lot — and then explode it out. Not only with foods, but on a much grander and even architectural scale.”
It’s a challenge they took on with gusto: bringing to life the elements of the whisky throughout each room of the hall which then culminated in one huge ceremonial dinner and live theatrical performance — a.k.a. The Flavour Symphony.
One of the most memorable interpretations was the world’s first whisky weather system, fully equipped with thundering storms and flashes of light. Bompas explained the inspiration: “If you get a Speyside or an Islay whisky, you can really taste the salt in it. And that comes from the weather. Obviously Johnnie Walker is a blend, so the whisky cloud was representing Scottish weather. We were particularly focussing on the peaty, smoky flavours — creating a breathable cloud with all the implications,” said Bompas.
“Having all that whisky in the air creates a sense of anonymity. You can reach out and touch someone who is a stranger, and it doesn’t feel invasive. And you can ask, ‘What notes did you get? How about you?’ It has important flavour ramifications as well, because in high humidity — you get more flavour out of it. And with the cloud, we made whisky the humidity itself.” And to bring this to fruition, Bompas explained that explosives experts were called in to ensure the room’s safety, and guests could only stay in the cloud for about a minute.
Master blender Jim Beveridge was on hand, giving guests intimate sessions in the Blending Parlour and helping them to discover the six signature flavours of Blue Label: fresh, fruity, malt, wood, spicy and peat.
The evenings were star-studded (hello Jude Law!), but the hero piece was without doubt the Flavour Conductor — a custom-designed organ hand built using 400-year-old techniques hybridised with cutting edge science. The organ is setting off to travel the world and needed to be able to execute the same quality of sound no matter the number of people in the audience or the extreme climate of its location; both of which can have a severely negative impact on the performance.
“The organ builders are insane, their normal client is a church congregation. By comparison — we’re total Apaches. Not only did they have to build the organ but it had to fit this scientific brief and all the materials had to relate to the brand. All the angles of the organ had to be the same angles as the Johnnie Walker labels. And not only did we want the organ, it needed to handle projections on it,” Bompas quickly rattled off. “But they’ve been brilliant — it’s one of those projects everyone really loved. The organists even put in a whole extra set of pipes for us for nothing, just to make the organ complete.”
When asked if there was ever a project too difficult to bring to fruition, his response: “We try not to think that way. We just keep going.”
And because this is Best Bars, we had to know — what are Sam Bompas’ three favourite bars?
Experimental Cocktail Club: “I like ECC and go there quite a lot. Plus I know the guys, and I have an old friend who works there.”
The Lord Clyde: “My local pub and it’s a beautiful, beautiful pub. Now it’s a bit embarrassing because I know everyone there.”
Dandelyan: “I’m really excited about Ryan Cheti’s new place. There are so many good people involved.”
If you’ve been to Discount Suit Company, then you may understand why we’re so excited about their sister bar, The Sun Tavern. Taking a casual approach in setting, this unassuming pub on Bethnal Green Road is pure magic inside. The dim, narrow, candelit space is equal parts cool and sexy with an L-shaped bar that’s lit up with some of the snazziest lanterns we’ve seen around. This is another page ripped straight off the New York City playbook, striking that perfect balance of Irish dive bar-meets-cocktail den.
Speaking of cocktails, they’re hella good. The emphasis here is on Irish whiskey with poitín cropping up across the menu. If you don’t know what that is, it’s essentially Irish moonshine that’s seen a revival as of late (and is tastier than the versions of yore). The must-have drink here is The Bogcutter with poitín, apricot brandy, amontillado sherry, lemon, honey water and ginger that is served in a big frosty tankard. It’s superbly fresh, and the dryness of the sherry cuts through the drink’s sweet elements perfectly. If you’ve got a big group, ask the bartender what the sharing punch special is for that week. £25 and you’ll all be in it together. Food is simple and tasty: meaty subs, cheese boards, pork pies and the like.
Expect the young and beautiful Bethnal Green locals in for a swilling session. But that doesn’t mean you need to get all razzle-dazzled up to join in. This place is laid back, so throw on your casual digs and maybe a beanie for good measure — then head on down.
Best Bars tip: This is not the kind of bar you’ll go just for one in … park up, kick back, and enjoy the night.