We looked no further than former Drinks International editor and all-round gin authority, Patience Gould, to offer her views on the subject.
For all the talk about gin and its timely renaissance, the three prime gin hubs in the world are still the US, Spain and the UK – and the gin capitals, to be more precise, are New York, Barcelona and London. So it’s fitting that in the main we’ve chosen bars from these cities and, while gin is the common theme, the background and settings could not be more different from city to city – though the speakeasy style, particularly in New York, is increasingly apparent.
Bars where gin takes centre stage usually showcase the spirit’s most classic cocktails, notably the Martini and the Negroni, which certainly are the stars of the show in Barcelona’s Dry Martini and Boadas outlets. However there are some bespoke gin cocktails, such as NYC’s Bathtub’s Sloe Gin Ginger Sling, and Edinburgh’s Bramble, which pays homage to the eponymous cocktail and the much more contemporary Clover Leaf.
But when it comes to class and tradition served with pure style, nothing compares to the Martini that is served in Duke’s Bar in London’s St James’s – this experience is neither for the fainthearted in terms of the drinks, nor for those sporting leisurewear.
Of course, when it comes to cocktails per se, gin has so much going for it. As the allrecipes.com website puts it: “If the Martini is the king of cocktails then gin is the crown it wears upon its head.” That may sound a tad dramatic, but nonetheless it’s true.
Bathtub Gin, 132 9th Ave (between 18th St & 19th St) New York, NY 10011, US
As the name suggests, this is a speakeasy-styled outlet as ‘bathtub’ gin was the chief spirit around in the US during the days of Prohibition. It was the result of the poor quality alcohol that was available at the time – gin producers were forced to use denatured alcohol, as the sale or production of distilled alcohol was banned under the 18th amendment.
However, it was a dangerous business as the process of converting denatured alcohol (or wood alcohol) into consumable form was decidedly hit and miss. But producers would mix up their brews in ‘bathtubs’, mixing berries such as juniper as well as other flavourings, and allowing the mixture to steep in a tub for hours or days at a time.
It cannot be stressed too strongly that no ‘bathtub’ gin is served in this unpretentious speakeasy, which is located in the hip New York Meatpacking District of Fatal Attraction fame. It is entered via an organic coffee shop, which fronts the operation. This is a fun place where ‘strong’ drinks are the order of the day and, though some folk may think US$15 for a Sloe Gin Ginger Sling – a combination of Beefeater gin, Plymouth sloe gin, Cherry Heering, Orchard apricot liqueur, fresh lime juice, ginger extract, cane syrup and chilled Perrier – is on the steep side, it is more than worth the outlay. Also for the same price is the bewitching Fizz de Violette, which comprises Hayman’s Old Tom gin, Crème de Violette, fresh lemon juice, cane syrup, raw egg white & chilled Perrier.
The Pegu Club, 77 West Houston Street, New York, NY 10012, US
This über-stylish outlet in New York’s Soho area takes its name from the famed British colonial officers’ club of the same name, which was stationed near the Gulf of Martaban in Burma, in the province annexed by the British in 1852. It was mentioned in Kipling’s Sea to Sea in which he noted that this funny little club was always filled with “people on their way up or on their way down”. It was noted for its house cocktail (the Pegu Club Cocktail) which features in Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book of 1930 as a cocktail that “travels and is asked for around the world”. No surprises there as it’s a stimulating mix of London Dry Gin, bitters, lime juice and orange curaçao.
The Pegu Club of New York is the brainchild of Audrey Saunders, a disciple of US cocktail evangelist Dale Degroff. While the Pegu team pride themselves on being the “gatekeepers of classic cocktail culture”, much time is spent on developing new ideas and flavour combinations.
Dry Martini, Aribau, 166, 08036 Barcelona, Spain
This is a speakeasy with a large dollop of Spanish style and, as its name suggests, it pays homage to the Martini – and the gin Martini in the main. Indeed, one can enjoy the cocktail and, of course, others besides in any form from liquid to frozen to jelly. I confess there is something rather delicious about spooning up a jellied Negroni, though it’s not the same as the liquid form.
This outlet is large and traditional with green leather seating and mahogany panelled walls, and it’s buzzing with a team of exceptionally professional waiters wearing white tuxedos. Every available space – besides the bar of course – appears crammed with cocktail memorabilia and antique gin bottles.
The mastermind behind Dry Martini is Javier de las Muelas and the mission is simple: to be the quality benchmark for the cocktail culture – and it is.
Dukes Bar, St James’s Place, London SW1A 1NY, UK
Presided over by one Alessandro Palazzi, a Martini at Duke’s (below) is like no other. Once you have decided on your gin, a little wooden trolley full of cocktail promise is wheeled to your table and the theatre of concocting your Martini begins. Nothing slapdash here and the attention to detail is meticulous, from the frozen glass to the selected garnish.
You can just imagine Ian Fleming frequenting this particular watering hole, it’s just so stylishly charming – and certainly after two Martinis you are transported to a bygone age. No surprises then that this bar is thought to be the inspiration for the famous line “shaken not stirred” and no surprises that Palazzi, in partnership with London-based perfume house Floris, whose Eau de Cologne 89 was worn by Bond, has created Fleming 89, a Martini which draws on the essences and oils in Floris.
Boadas, Carrer dels Tallers, 1, 08002, Barcelona, Spain
Boadas is Barcelona’s oldest bar, opened back in 1933 by Miguel Boadas who started his working life at the famed El Floridita bar in Cuba. Based just off the busy, busy Las Ramblas area of Barcelona, it is tiny, triangular and bursting with atmosphere. Now run by Miguel’s daughter, Maria Dolores, little has changed over the years, from the memorabilia on the panelled walls to the famous ‘Cuban roll’ as practised by the happy team of bartenders who sport black jackets, white shirts and black bow ties.
The Cuban roll is peculiar to the Negroni and is a flamboyant way of mixing ingredients – gin, sweet vermouth and Campari – from one shaker to another. In short, it’s just great theatre. Dry Martinis, Gimlets and, of course, Mojitos are all top of the bill in this olde worlde outlet of charm.
Milano, 35 Ronda Universitat Barcelona, Spain
Situated relatively close to Barcelona University, Milano is a classy nighttime hot spot. This basement bar has an intimate atmosphere and is proud of its offering, which combines ‘superb cocktails’ with ‘superb jazz’. The cocktail list is a dizzying mix of classic and avant garde, with four gin stalwarts – the Negroni, a Martini made with genever, G&T (suggested gin Beefeater) and the not-so-well-known Sonar. This is a mix of gin, mandarin syrup, lemon juice and orange juice, served in a Martini glass with a slice of lemon and sprig of rosemary. Aside from its cocktails and live jazz, the Milano is also famed for its Steak Tartare Angel Martin
The Ginstitute, 171 Portobello Rd. Notting Hill, London, W11 2DY, UK
If you are passionate about gin, this is the destination for you. On London’s Portobello Road, the Ginstitute is found on the first floor above the Portobello Star cocktail bar. The aim here is to underline London’s long-time allegiance to dry gin and the mastermind behind this venture, Jake Burger, has created London’s second-smallest museum. Pre-Prohibition bottles and other priceless historic artefacts, including a gin stove, highlighting gin’s rich history surround you in this recreation of a Victorian gin palace. There’s also a rare edition of Harry Johnson’s Bartenders’ Manual, which is considered the drinks bible.
As you’d expect, only gin is served here. And Jake Burger has created his own libation, The Portobello Star, which is a gin boasting nine botanicals – this is a strong tasting gin that’s still there even in a Negroni.
Bramble Bar & Lounge, 16A Queen Street, Edinburgh, EH2 1JE, UK
Tucked away from the bustle of Edinburgh’s Princess Street, the Bramble (above right) is something of a haven – and, not surprisingly, one of the best- known bars in Scotland. With its name taken from arguably gin’s most famous contemporary cocktail, the bar’s founding duo, Mike and Jas, pay tribute to Dick Bradsell – the creator of The Bramble. Created in the mid-80s in Fred’s Club, Soho, central London this cocktail well deserves the title ‘modern classic’. The Bramble combines, gin – this bar uses Bombay Dry – fresh lemon juice, sugar syrup and crème de mures.
Bramble’s best-selling gins are Fifty Pounds, which is the house pour and is a very stylish gin produced by Thames Distillers, The Botanist and Hendrick’s, as well as Bombay Dry. Overall the cocktail list is a mix of forgotten classics and newly developed ones, such as the Clover Leaf, which combines Bombay Sapphire, freshly squeezed lemon juice, fresh raspberries and framboise syrup.