Bowled over

Whisky Magazine's barfly slips into her bowling shoes and hits the lanes.
By Rob Allanson
There’s nothing like a good drink to pick you up when you’ve been languishing in the gutter – the gutter either side of a 10 pin bowling lane, that is.While good bowlers smoothly send the ball speeding down the lane to smash the pins for a strike, my own involuntary technique is a unique and jerky manoeuvre best described as the ‘one-legged hop and wobble.’This inevitably sends the ball careering straight into those gutters and my game quickly goes down the drain. Still, I regularly subject myself to a painful ‘trip’down the bowling alley, in the knowledge I can console myself with a drink afterwards. And when the drinks list is as good as it is at All Star Lanes, I can justify hopping along to the bar and skipping the bowling bit altogether.For those unfamiliar with All Star Lanes, it has brought the concept of ‘boutique bowling’ to London using lashings of retro style from 1950s America. The first venue in central Holborn launched in 2006 and was such a success that a Bayswater branch to the west of the city soon followed. Now the group has looked to the East End with its most recently opened location, at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, in the hip neighbourhood of Shoreditch.Although currently a London phenomenon,there are plans afoot for expanding All Star Lanes into other European cities, with Dublin, Paris and Berlin being the capitals considered for the future.So what’s the big deal that has made the concept so popular so far? Well, alongside the bowling lanes, each venue offers a dinerstyle eaterie furnished with leather booths and banquettes, serving classics such as mac ‘n’cheese, lobster sandwich and smoked bourbon ribs, with great music adding to the vibrant atmosphere.However, it’s the quality of the drinking experience that makes a visit truly worth while. Each venue has a stylish drinking den specialising in classic American cocktails,beers and ales, but most crucially, one of the largest selections of American bourbons this side of the Atlantic.Having opened its doors just a few months ago, Brick Lane is the first of the three London locations where the bar and lanes share the same space, creating an even buzzier atmosphere. The 20-foot- long, copper-topped bar counter runs the entire length of the lanes, giving views through to the psychedelically lit bowling area beyond. I pulled up a pew to taste through the drinks menu plus speak to the group bar manager and bourbon lover, Joe Stokoe.When we meet, Joe is about to head out to Kentucky with six fellow bartenders as part of Maker’s Mark Embassy programme – an initiative that encourages bartenders to impart their knowledge and passion for bourbon to customers having visited the Maker’s Maker distillery first hand. However, two previous trips originally fuelled his love of American whiskey, attending the Kentucky Derby with Buffalo Trace in 2007 and competing in the Woodford Reserve bartender challenge in 2006.So what‘s his bourbon of choice? “I’m a huge fan of Old Charter Proprietor Reserve 13 year old and AH Hirsch 16 year old, which are both becoming pretty rare now, as well as George T Stagg for its sheer power,” reveals Joe.These rarer bottles, along with household names and other favourites help formthe extensive collection of bourbons lined up along the back bar and listed in a separate Whiskey menu.“Despite the amount of bars in London, there aren’t many that specialise in bourbon so we have customers coming in specifically for the bourbon and we also hold tastings and events with different brands to get people enjoying the whiskey,” Joe explains.The range of bourbon cocktails on the main drinks list should also be explored.“We have refreshing fruity cocktails to encourage drinkers less familiar with bourbon to try it, as well as classic Manhattans, Sazeracs and Old Fashioneds for the die hard bourbon fans.” There’s also an inventive range of lager cocktails, such as ‘Night Sky Fizz’combining Maker’s Mark, honey and citrus with Blue Moon wheat beer.So what flavours work best when mixing cocktails with bourbon? “Mint always brings out the more herbaceous notes of the spirit and I believe a nicely made mint julep, taken a bit of time over, is one of the wonders of the world.” Joe also feels that orange, apricot and peach are very complementary although he stays away from vanilla as bourbon contains so many vanilla notes already.“Right now, I’d recommend trying the 8 Ball cocktail, inspired by the whiskey sour,sweetened with pomegranate syrup and fresh orange juice.” If that wasn’t enough choice, Joe has most recently introduced a range of fun sharing cocktails served up in customised bowling inspired drinking vessels.These vessels were created by bar designers Cheeky Tiki,who took an actual bowling ball and pin to make a cast. The Ball is a cocktail made with Buffalo Trace, Grand Marnier, ginger, pineapple, citrus and passion fruit, while The Pin combines Maker’s Mark with crème de mure, Benedictine, blackberries and sparkling wine.The idea is pure genius. The very nature of the venue means that All Star Lanes is often frequented by groups wanting to celebrate so sharing a drink between friends is naturally a fun thing to do and adds to the buzz.“As soon as one table orders one, everyone wants to get in on the action,”admits Joe.Of course, introducing such quirky and coveted drinking vessels does have its drawbacks.“We’ve had to come up with ways to ensure they don’t get stolen as the first batch went pretty quickly!” However, it’s worth the effort.“It’s so fun to see people drinking from balls and pins, mixed with a touch of jealousy, which gets the next table ordering them pretty quickly!”