Style and substance (The Rockwell)

Bourbon is the focus for London's hottest new style bar, The Rockwell in the Trafalgar Hotel. John Roberts brings you the lowdown on the English capital's hippest new hangout
By John Roberts
London’s never-ending hustle is a million miles away from the image of rural Kentucky, the laid-back home of bourbon, but southern sippin’ whiskey is making a big noise in the city’s fashionable centre.In the beating heart of Trafalgar Square, the Trafalgar is very much a ‘theme’ hotel – the theme, unusually enough, is simply comfort. The hotel’s basement is an 80-seat organic restaurant, while the ground floor is the beautifully designed and supremely well-stocked Rockwell Bar, which offers an unparalleled range of bourbon in elegant surroundings.The Rockwell aims to bring the sophistication to bourbon that has been afforded single malts over the last two decades; it’s a complex drink with a massive range of flavours and styles, with something for most people to enjoy. The bar currently stocks somewhere between 80 and 100 classic bourbons, but consultant Jason Fendick adds: “We hope to eventually stock around 110.” The drinks don’t come cheap, but what would you expect in a London ‘style’ bar? The prices are in keeping with the chic bar and the clientele it attracts. In many top London guides, it has been touted as ‘the new Met Bar’, so it shouldn’t come as a great shock to see a 50ml measure cost £6.50, rising to £48 for a slug of Evan Williams 23-year-old. As Jason points out though, it’s priced in line with its
competitors. “We don’t think we’re overpriced against other style bars in London. And don’t forget, drinking these bourbons is a sophisticated experience. We’re not looking for a mass market; it’s aimed at a more discerning drinker.”The timing of The Rockwell’s opening, it seems, couldn’t be better. London was crying out for something slightly different, and bourbon has filled the gap superbly. Celebrities like Julia Roberts and Zoë Ball are said to like a good bourbon, and Madonna – surely the ultimate style icon – is also a fan. With role models like these espousing bourbon’s virtues, the time is surely right for the drink to achieve the recognition it deserves. A bar like The Rockwell is the first stepping stone to acceptance of
bourbon as a cool lifestyle drink, in much the same way as vodka and, to a much lesser extent, tequila did not so long ago.The bar interior is spacious, airy and minimalist, with low-slung seating and tables to match. It makes for an informal venue with an unforced sophistication. It’s a place designed to set both sexes at ease, relax them and open people’s minds and palates to new and exciting possibilities. There’s even a bar guide to gently introduce bourbon virgins!“We’re not saying switch from Scotch to bourbon” says Jason, “just to try it. We’ve created the vehicle so it’s an education too. That’s why we have special tasting trays which can be tried between friends and are more affordable.” These trays range from a £35 selection of five preferred house brands to £75 for five vintage whiskies, which include Pappy Van Winkle Limited Family Reserve (23 years old), Elijah Craig (18 years old) and WL Weller (19 years). Not a bad selection by any standards.Also on the menu are bourbon-based cocktails designed to suit a softer palate, including the classic mint julep. Jason reveals: “We make our own simple syrup in-house for that. Although the cocktails are bourbon-led, the whiskey is subtly diluted to help suit the female palate.”Surprisingly, The Rockwell’s consultant and leading whiskey authority has never visited Kentucky. Perhaps it’s a testament to the quality of whiskey writing or Jason Fendick’s own hunger to learn, but he boned up on bourbon from books and by e-mailing US specialist bourbon bars and the Pappy Van Winkle Distillery. There are certainly worse ways to educate yourself, and Jason is steadily passing his new-found knowledge on to his staff, and from them to his customers. “We take them (the staff) through different (whiskeys) each night. It’s the only way we can do it. After all, everybody’s on a learning curve. Nobody in this country really knows anything much about bourbon and there’s never been a place like this bar before.”“We’ve not opened this bar to say Scotch is crap and bourbon is great. It’s meant to be fun too, you know!” Hear hear!