London calling, to the faraway towns, now war is declared and battle come down' once sang a famous beat combo, who went by the name of The Clash. With such a rallying cry behind it, dear old London was always surely destined to succeed in being at the vanguard of music and culture. But what about our bar culture - especially when it comes to whisky?
Well the good news is that since our first drinkers' guide to London was published in 2012, the city has issued a real statement of intent: not only to the rest of the country, but also the world. Whisky has become a truly leading feature in some of London's greatest hotel bars and restaurants, with a few unearthing unbelievable treasures from the turn of the century, alongside 'time capsule' bottlings from before Prohibition hit the US. There is also a firm focus on a rapidly developing interest in both Japanese whisky culture as well as a welcome enthusiasm for unusual, hard-to-find whiskies from around the globe. And all this before we start to talk about the molecular cocktail movement...
1 Aqua Shard
Level 31, The Shard, 31 St Thomas Street,
Outside of the drinks, service and ambience, a bar will often live or die based on its location. So when it comes to the Aqua Shard, on the 31st floor of The Shard, Europe's tallest building, there is an enormous pair of platform shoes to fill before one has even taken a sip. Thankfully, the drinks and attention to detail from the bar team assembled by manager Manuel Soro completely measures up to the spectacular views across the city. The drinks list at Aqua Shard is predominantly based around both gin and tea but there is also an excellent selection of whiskies and several ambitious whisky-based cocktails. Persephone's Cup, comprising of Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Moscato, hibiscus tea syrup, bergamot and lavender bitters is aged in a small white oak barrel, giving both a delightfully silky mouth feel and wonderful floral aromas which intensify as you sip away. Truly a bar where the sky's the limit.
Tip: Try to arrive shortly before sunset and ask for a corner table.
2 Athenaeum Whisky Bar
The Athenaeum Hotel
116 Piccadilly, Mayfair, London W1J 7BJ
Still firmly at the front of London's hotel whisky bar scene, the Athenaeum has steadily developed its already burgeoning whisky list into an outstanding collection. From rare (and very expensive gems like a Mortlach 50 year old which will set you back £169 a 50ml measure,) to around 30 American whiskeys, the menu now stands at nearly 300 different expressions. The staff are also very adept at whisky and food pairings too: their suggested cheese and whisky menu is a real treat - from Blue Monday (a Scottish cheese from Tain) and The Balvenie 12 year old which provides a wonderfully spicy and creamy combination to the surprising suggestion of Suffolk Gold and Gentleman Jack, which brings a new hidden depth to the well known Tennessee whiskey.
Tip: It doesn't cost anything to gaze longingly at the shelf of real rarities, whilst sipping an excellent, reasonably priced, independently bottled Teaninich from 1973.
3 The Blues Kitchen
111 Camden High Street, London NW1 7JN
A new entry into the London list but a very worthy one indeed. Camden's Blues
Kitchen (which is joined by a sister outlet in Shoreditch) specialise in a no nonsense, back bar of mostly American whiskeys, (currently sitting at over 80) a fine line in Cajun comfort food, (ribs/wings and burgers) all back-dropped by a programme of excellent blues/soul bands and DJs every week. Fans of rye whiskey are most definitely in for a treat: with more than 20 different expressions on the menu, it is easy to take a flight through this less well known style of whiskey to appreciate the inner spicy complexities on offer. The whiskey cocktails are also exceptional. In keeping with the general irreverence you can also have your favourite bourbon made into a milkshake too, which is actually far tastier than it sounds.
Tip: Try to plan your trip ahead to accommodate one of the many touring US musicians who visit The Blues Kitchen regularly.
4 The Britannia
44 Kipling Street, London SE1 3RU
A perennial performer in numerous 'Best Whisky Bar' lists and it is easy to see why. The Britannia remains a real haven for the malt enthusiast, looking to find great value alongside variety- all in the confines of a classic London boozer. The selection sits at a healthy 140-odd Scotch malts, blends, Bourbons and Irish whiskeys all listed on blackboards, with a few unusual world whiskies thrown in for good measure. It is also a wonderfully uncomplicated and unpretentious layout to enjoy a dram too and lacks the potentially intimidating snobbish feel that other whisky bars can sometimes exhibit. Once you've planned your flight through a particularly solid choice of Speysiders, you can refuel with a plate of hearty pub food too… What's not to like?
Tip: Don't go mad and decide you want to order your Maker's Mark as a Manhattan. The Britannia is really all about simplicity and a contemplative dram.
49 Brook St, London W1K 4HR
Perhaps more well known as a location for a quintessentially English afternoon tea, or as the stomping ground for the irascible chef Gordon Ramsay, Claridges - and its main bar is, under the watchful eye of manager Denis Broci, a little like gazing through a window into the fineries of the past. Broci has assembled an assortment of spirits quite unlike anywhere else in the city. At the heart of this outstanding collection is his real passion: American whiskey. Here we find a Maryland rye in a demijohn dating back to the end of the 19th century, a bottle of Hermitage rye from the W.A. Gaines distillery (circa 1915) and a fantastic haul of Harry E. Wilken Bourbon, bottled back in 1932. Broci's other passions are Islay (and Jura) whiskies and you'll find an array of wonderful bottlings that you just don't see elsewhere.
Tip: The Jura 5 Years Old from 1999 is a peat bomb of mind blowing proportions.
6 Dukes Hotel Bar
35 St James's Place, London SW1A 1NY
Ian Fleming's James Bond was a character who one could well imagine inhabiting the exclusive restaurants, private members clubs and gaming tables concealed behind the many highly polished doors here in St James's. In fact, a visit to Dukes Hotel on a similarly nondescript St James Mews provided Fleming with the inspiration for Bond's classic 'shaken not stirred' Martini and today, taking a seat in the hallowed bar gives one the same sense of license to thrill. The bar is now run by the maestro Alessandro Palazzi who has pretty much come to 'own' the Martini serve: bringing a drinks trolley to the table, where one can decide which ice cold bottle of gin you prefer in your cocktail. They are of course hellishly strong (being poured straight, not mixed down with ice), yet so refined, topped off with the best olive you'll ever taste or a slice of Amalfi lemon peel. Simply sensational.
Tip: For a different experience, try a Martinez cocktail instead.
16 Old Compton Street London W1D 4TL
FINALLY! A Tokyo-inspired micro bar in the centre of London, serving one of the country's most inspired and enduring drinks, the Mizuwari. Drinks giant Suntory has really hit gold by partnering up with the Bincho Japanese restaurant, taking over the downstairs basement bar and effectively bringing a little glimpse of the Ginza District to Soho. Downstairs, you'll find a mix of Japanese whisky connoisseurs and quite possibly, a few genuinely confused Japanese tourists. In every respect, Mizuwari is the real deal. Right down to the back bar, which surprisingly doesn't just feature Suntory whiskies, although Hibiki, Hakushu and Yamazaki are the predominant serves here. The hand carved ice balls and locked cabinet filled with choice bottlings reserved for those truly in the know really helps to give Mizuwari a sense of authenticity.
Tip: The Hakushu Highball with its light smokiness pairs perfectly with grilled chicken Yakitori…
1st Floor, 68 Rivington Street, Shoreditch,
London EC2A 3AY
East London has, for the past decade, been at the vanguard of London's cocktail culture, which shows no signs of slowing down or moving to a different location any time soon. Along with White Lyan in neighbouring Hoxton, NOLA, which stands for New Orleans/Louisiana has been lauded very highly since it opened up just over a year ago and for all the right reasons. NOLA straddles the perfect line between timeless, relaxed sundown drinking with a Deep South twist and the right injection of liveliness just when it's needed. From the beaten up piano in the corner (which is well used) to the playful rum-based Hurricane-influenced drinks (Hurricane Sandy, with its cocktail umbrella cheekily pushed inside out) NOLA's owner Dan Priseman has bought a little slice of French Quarter party spirit to London.
Tip: Ask for a Ramos Gin Fizz and you'll be treated to one of the most refreshing drinks in London.
9 The Red Bar
Bam Bou, 1 Percy Street, London W1T 1DB
The capital's interest in Japanese whisky is really beginning to hot up and the arrival of two particular bars has opened the category for those curious about such a vibrant spirit. The Red Bar at Bam Bou, an eastern influenced fusion restaurant comprising of Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine has blown the category apart since it opened a little under a year ago and has over 75 different Japanese whiskies behind the back bar, easily making it the biggest selection in London. Bar manager Ladislav Piljar has clearly nailed his selection, which spans an impressive number of Suntory malts (Yamazaki and Hakushu) plus blends that are unobtainable in this country. With ice as glassy and pure as you would find in Ginza and a classic highball as refreshingly vibrant as an expedition up Mt. Fuji, The Red Bar delivers the flavour - Kampai!
Tip: Give the Ginza Julep a go - a heady mix of Yamazaki 12 year old, apricot liqueur, almond syrup and mint.
10 Salt Bar & Dining Room
82 Seymour Street, London W2 2JB
The Salt Bar is still very much at the forefront of delivering an excellent service for both the well seasoned whisky enthusiast and novice and its current menu spans some 180 different Single Malts, Blends, American, world and Irish whiskeys. Part of the bar's charm is its ability to deliver a dazzling display of knowledge to the drinker, without leaving them weary, or intimidated. Here, everyone is welcome - whatever level of appreciation they may have for the spirit. Standouts on the menu are a stupendously fruity 46yo Lochside single blend (a very unusual bottling from The Whisky Exchange) and the bar's own 1995 bottling of Highland Park, which is both extremely drinkable and good value for money. The food focuses on Indian cuisine. Main courses of Malabar prawn curry and adaraki ka gosh feature alongside a selection of thali's and many dishes from the tandoori grill.
Tip: Ask the mixologist team create to create whisky, gin, rum, mescal and champagne cocktails.
11 Slim Jim's Liquor Store
112 Upper St, Islington, London N1 1QN
In stark contrast to the more serene hotel bars that make our list, Slim Jim's is all about the rock 'n roll sensibilities that come hand in hand with whisky. Describing itself as 'The masterful purveyor of Good Times' Slim Jim's is a throw back to the legendary LA dive haunts of the late 60s and 70s. With a jukebox that was voted as one of the finest in London by Timeout magazine and a whisky list that focuses heavily on the classic American brands, this is probably not the sort of place for the avid connoisseur in search of a quiet introspective dram. But if the sound of multiple picklebacks (bourbon mixed with pickle juice - a taste sensation) and dancing on the tables till 2am is right up your street, then Slim Jim's is way out in front, strutting its stuff - and well and truly kicking out the jams.
Tip: Tuesday night is Pickleback Night - try a multitude of different flavour combinations for under a tenner.
19 Greville Street, London EC1N 8SQ
With a reach that spans tens of locations around the globe, it surely must be against the law for any self-respecting whisky aficionado to not have a membership to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, now less of a whisky club - more of a like-minded community of drinkers. The London branch is certainly up there with the very best of them, with its cosy first floor layout with a little hidden snug around the corner of the bar for more intimate moments with your favourite whisky. Manager Joe McGirr is a true ambassador for the society and his ability to find a perfect suggested expression for any palate (and budget) is really second to none. The selection of totally unique single cask bottlings, each with their sometimes frankly absurd names ('Pink Wafers in a Lady's Hat Shop' anyone?) evolves with availability.
Tip: The rapidly increasing number of Japanese whiskies on offer, especially from the now legendary Karuizawa distillery.
13 Soho Whisky Club
42 Old Compton Street, London W1D 4LR
Alongside the SMWS, the Soho Whisky Club is a members club (with an annual joining fee of £200 per year) dedicated to discovering all there is to know about whiskies from around the world. With a back bar that extends to around 400 different whiskies anyone with even a passing interest in whisky will be in very good company indeed. Set up by the owners of The Vintage House specialist off-license in the heart of Soho the modestly sized upstairs room the bar can accommodate 40 people. However the added benefit to becoming a member is the additional cigar terrace and the selection of cigars available from the shop downstairs is exceptional. Pleasingly, you'll still find a dram of Dalwhinnie 15yo sets you back around £3, with an excellent list of outstanding entry level malts too.
Tip: Membership also brings you access to an array of weekly tasting events hosted at the club by brand ambassadors.
14 The Toucan
19 Carlisle Street, Soho Square, London W1D 3BY
One for both fans of a drop of the Irish and a pint of the Black Stuff. The Toucan has undoubtedly sealed its reputation over the years as one of central London's most lively drinking dens, a fact that isn't lost on the numerous fans who now have to crowd round on the pavement outside the tiny Soho pub clutching their pints of Guinness like their lives depend on it. The lack of comfort is what makes the Toucan all the more charming. The pints of Guinness are supposedly the best tasting in London (they seem to have an extra level of Irish fairy dust sprinkled over them) and when it comes to Irish whiskey you'll find a dazzling array from the Emerald Isle, including rare releases from Jameson and Bushmills, alongside connoisseurs' favourite, Redbreast.
Tip: Being at the heart of Soho, the pub gets very busy after 5pm, so if you want to explore the whiskey selection with a little more attention to detail, try to get there a little earlier.
15 The Whistling Shop
63 Worship Street, London, EC2A 2DU
The Whistling Shop made our last London Drinkers Guide thanks to its ingenious mix of genuine science-meets-traditional-Dickensian-gin palace décor. Although Ryan Chetiyawardana is no longer at the helm (see no. 16, White Lyan), experimentalism still resonates strongly and the drinks are inspired by the trends and drinking cultures of days gone by, developed in the bar's in-house lab, which is on show to the assembled clientele. Rotary evaporators, vacuum technology and a large array of enzymes, acids, proteins and hydrocolloids (yes, they sound scary but they're all perfectly drinkable) are all employed to make some incredibly unique drinks.
Tip: The Four Roses Bourbon influenced Onesie cocktail, which also employs a hop distillate and pale ale syrup is extremely hard to put down.
16 White Lyan
153 Hoxton Street, London N1 6PJ
Just 30 seconds perusing the menu at White Lyan, arguably one of the world's most progressive drinking dens, will tell you all you need to know about its owner and creative driving force, Ryan Chetiyawardana, formally manager of The Whistling Shop. From a Sazerac (rye whiskey) cocktail featuring ambergris to chicken bone tinctures and Old Fashioned cocktails using beeswax. The drinks are exceptionally crafted, using house spirits often modified by Ryan and his team, who remarkably don't rely on any ice, citrus, sugar syrups or other perishables in the serves. But don't fall into the trap of merely thinking the wackiness is just a pretentious Heston Blumenthal-esque cover story: If you are looking for a serious awakening of the senses, Mr. Lyan's drinks are just the tonic.
Tip: The Moby Dick Sazerac will make you think differently about what to get up to on your next beach holiday.