When I was younger, I didn’t really drink much. A night of drinking might consist of maybe one or two Jack Daniels and cokes, or if I were feeling fancy, a WKD. I was young and the world seemed like a wonderful place full of possibility, so why would I need to drink something that would make me feel worse? No more drinks for me thankyou, I’ll just enjoy my single bottle of this drink which seems to be just ‘blue flavour’ and then have a mug of Horlicks before bedtime please.
Fast forward nearly twenty years, and that naïve young fool has been replaced by a cynic who is the living embodiment of a sigh. It’s not just that over the years I’ve learned to appreciate the taste of alcohol more, but it’s also become more prevalent as a means to dull a world that seems increasingly cruel and unfair. Where once I might have only found myself having a drink at the weekend, with every day bringing news to stoke the fires of the sadness express, I find myself wondering if a daiquiri might be just what this day needs to turn it around. It’s not healthy behaviour, but I justify by thinking that anything that provides a little spark of joy these days has to be worth clinging onto.
With this in mind, today I’ll be exploring some of London’s best bars. Whilst I can now make cocktails to a reasonable standard at home, it’s still not the same as going to a bar where a bartender can make concoctions with ingredients that even Ocado have never heard of, all while demonstrating flair beyond that of a home-office worker pouring some rum into an egg cup because they can’t be bothered to wash up their glasses.
My guest for today is somebody for whom drink was also something of a problem. A Greek philosopher from around 400 BC, Socrates was put on trial and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. I think that he could do with creating some positive associations around drink, which I hope to bring by showcasing some of the finest cocktails in the capital.
We meet at the first bar, Lyaness on the South Bank. “Socrates?” I say, noticing the bearded man dressed in white robes.
“Andy?” says Socrates, noticing the man dressed like the before model from a programme called ‘How not to look like you went into Zara once ten years ago, picked up a few plain t-shirts and a pair of jeans and have worn the same outfit ever since’.
“That’s me. Shall we go and get a-” Suddenly my phone vibrates. Great, it’s another BBC News notification with some more depressing news. “Let’s get ourselves a drink,” I sigh.
Lyaness is a bar that says it puts a focus on flavours and ingredients over specific cocktail types, the idea presumably being that they start with the ingredient and craft a drink based on flavours that will work with that. It’s an interesting concept, and the proprietor (often known as ‘Mr Lyan’), is certainly somebody whose cocktails I’m excited to try again, as he made perhaps the best Old Fashioned I’ve ever had.
When we visit, the five flavours that the cocktails are based around are Oyster Honey, Blood Curacao, Green Sauce Liqueur, Malt & Grass Amazake and Fruit Furikake. I have absolutely no idea what any of these ingredients are, so who knows what Socrates is thinking. “What do you think you’ll go for?” I ask him.
“Me? Oh, I’m fine, I’ve brought my own drink.”
“You’ve what? That’s not how a cocktail bar works.”
“I refuse your drink,” says Socrates, and then stands up. “And if it is what Athens desires I am going to drink this hemlock!” he says, holding his flask up.
“What? Nobody is asking you to drink hemlock! Have a cocktail!”
We stare at each other for a moment, and then Socrates takes a swig from his flask.
“What the hell are you doing?!”
“If I don’t do this, then who will?”
“Why does anybody need to do this?!”
It’s now that our waiter approaches and asks what we’d like to drink. “If Athens has decreed that my words are corrupting our youth, then it’s hemlock for me!” says Socrates, groaning as he lies down on one of the long sofas around the room, and takes another swig from his flask. “Farewell, friends! You have not heard the last of Socrates!” Then he slumps, lifeless. Myself and the waiter both stare at his corpse for a moment.
“I’ll get the Chestnut Rabble, please,” I say.
Shortly afterwards, I’m sipping on my Chestnut Rabble as Socrates is put into a bag and wheeled out of the bar. This is one of the cocktails featuring green sauce liqueur, which as I say isn’t an ingredient I’m familiar with, but is very tasty. It’s combined with gin, elderflower liqueur, beeswax, chestnut and pineapple leaf soda for a delicious, slightly herbal drink (presumably coming from the green sauce liqueur). Overall this is a very pleasant bar, the atmosphere of which could only be added to by there not being a dead philosopher being carted out in a body bag during your visit. It puts the review in somewhat of a difficult place, leaving me without a guest very early on. It also means I’m now drinking alone, so I turn to my usual companion, the one who never leaves my side or lets me down. My phone.
Scrolling through your phone offers all manner of opportunities for bringing unhappiness and frustration into your life, from the simple ‘just reading the news’ option, to seeing the opinions of those you disagree with on social media, or developing an inferiority complex from seeing the glamorous and successful lives of others. Today I opt for the connoisseur’s option by delving into the ‘Trending’ section of Twitter, finding a random trending topic and getting annoyed at all the people who seem to think war has been caused by the ‘woke brigade’. ‘What’s wrong with these people? What’s wrong with the world?’ I think to myself as I become increasingly annoyed and finish my drink. Now fuelled with anger and misery, it’s time to head on to the next bar.
When thinking of bars at The Savoy, you might think of The American Bar, which is the longest surviving cocktail bar in London. Today however, I’ll be visiting another of their bars, The Beaufort Bar. Created on the Savoy’s former cabaret stage, it has a menu designed around magic through the ages. I’m somebody who appreciates the theatre of a drink, and saw (enjoyed feels like too strong a verb) both Now You See Me films, so this sounds like just the delight I need in my life.
I stroll up to The Savoy excited to enjoy a Debbie McGee-themed drink when I’m interrupted by the sound of a siren behind me. An ambulance pulls up outside of the hotel, and the back doors fling open to reveal Socrates rising out of a body bag.
“The Athenians thought they could kill me, but my ideas will always live on!” he says, wagging a finger in the air.
“Yep, and you’re already dead so you can’t die again.”
“Forget it. Come on, let’s go and get a drink.”
We’re seated in a small, dark, art deco-style room. The prices, even by the standards of a fancy bar in London are high, starting at £22 for the cheapest cocktail and going all the way up to £45. ‘If it’s magic they’re after then they’re certainly going to make my money disappear!!!!!!’ I think to myself, wittily. “Wow, if it’s magic they’re after, they’re certainly going to make my money disappear!” I say to Socrates. Perhaps he doesn’t hear me. “Socrates, if it’s magic they’re after then-“
“I heard,” says Socrates. It seems like a return to stand-up comedy is certainly off the cards. Or should I say, off the playing cards!!!!!
“Well then I guess a return to stand-up comedy is off the-“
“Please don’t,” says Socrates. The waiter approaches, as I settle on a cocktail called ‘Time Flies’, a combination of Gin, St Germain elderflower liqueur, Tokaji (a sweet wine), apricot and lemon. They turn to Socrates, who’s thumbing through the bar menu. “Do you do the classics too?” he asks.
“Yes sir, of course, what would you like?”
“Can you make me a hemlock daiquiri?”
“Oh for god’s sake…” I sigh.
“I’m sorry sir, a what?”
“A hemlock daiquiri.”
“Hemlock. Like the dangerous plant.”
“I can ask the bartender?” they say, confusedly.
“Don’t ask the bartender. Get him a Merlin’s Madness,” I say. “You’ll like this, it’s got vodka and peach in it.”
“No! If Athens has decreed that I must die by ingesting hemlock then that is exactly what I shall be doing!”
“Nobody is decreeing that you do anything! You’re not in Athens, and they’re not going to make you a hemlock daiquiri!”
Socrates looks at the waiter. “Are you going to make me a hemlock daiquiri?” he asks.
“Is it poison?” asks the waiter.
“It is,” says Socrates.
“What if I had the hemlock on the side?”
“Fine, I’ll just have a Diet Coke.”
“Socrates, just try a cocktail will you?”
“No. If the people wish for me to suffer then let them see how little I care! A Diet Coke, please.”
We sit in silence for a short while. Sometimes it’s hard to make conversation with these historical figures, especially when there’s such a gulf in knowledge and intelligence between the two of us. After all, it’s hard not to feel intimidated by somebody who’s pushed the boundaries of human knowledge by getting a B in GCSE P.E. It must be tough for Socrates. “So, read any good books recently?” I ask.
“Do you know Edifying Discourses in Diverse Spirits?” says Socrates.
“Is it by Stanley Tucci?”
“It’s by Kierkegaard.”
We fade back into silence. Socrates takes out a stone slab and begins to browse it, and so I too get out my phone and go back down the rabbit hole of misery. “Oh my god, you won’t believe what the Conservatives are up to now…” I sigh.
“The Conservatives, they’re a political party. They’re the absolute worst.”
“Ok,” says Socrates, nodding politely. It’s then that our drinks arrive. My ‘Time Flies’ is bright yellow and served in a wide coupe glass. Taking a sip, I find it’s nice enough, but I would actually say it’s a little bit too sweet and syrupy for my liking.
“And a Diet Coke?” says the waiter.
“Yes, that’s mine, thankyou,” says Socrates. He places the Diet Coke in front of him, withdraws a hipflask from his robes, and tops up his glass from it. “To Athens!” he says, then downs his drink.
“That was hemlock wasn’t it?” I sigh. Socrates nods, and shortly afterwards collapses. “Excuse me, could we get another ambulance here please?”
I leave the Beaufort Bar with Socrates once again being zipped up in a body bag and loaded into an ambulance. I suspect that I shall see him again soon, once the hemlock has given up on trying to kill a man who’s already been dead since the 4th century BC. For now, I’m on my way to my final destination.
According to the ‘World’s Best Bars’ Awards, the Connaught Bar is currently the best bar in the world. It’s somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for a while, specifically for its martini trolley. I do love a drinks trolley, where somebody will come and mix your drink table-side as you sit there awkwardly smiling, saying things like ‘ooh’ and ‘how fancy’. At the Connaught though, there’s an added layer of interactivity as they’ll tailor your martini towards your specific tastes. All of these things combine to mean I’m expecting this to be the best martini I’ve ever had, so we press on to find out.
I arrive at the Connaught bar, and guess who’s sat there waiting for me? That’s right, it’s a body bag, which springs open as I enter to reveal Socrates.
“I’m surprised they let you in like that. I would have sworn a body bag was against the dress code,” I say.
“They took a lot of convincing,” says Socrates, handing the body bag to a confused member of staff. “Hey, get me a hemlock while you’re at the bar will you?” he adds.
“Ignore that,” I say to the waiter. “Why are you doing this?” I say to Socrates, pulling him to one side. “Nobody needs you to do this.”
“I might ask you the same question.”
“How? I don’t drink hemlock.”
“But you ingest poison on a daily basis, do you not?”
“If you’re talking about alcohol, then it’s not every day, and besides, that’s differ-“
“I’m talking about poison of the mind. You actively seek out the negative and let it make you miserable. Tell me, how is that different from drinking hemlock?”
“Well for a start, hemlock actually kills you.”
“Hemlock kills you quickly. What you’re doing still kills you, but slowly.”
Whilst Socrates has no formal philosophy qualifications, the insight he’s putting forward here is of the level I’d expect from an AS-Level philosophy student who’s just bought a Che Guevara t-shirt despite not really knowing anything at all about the man, and now considers themselves a deep thinker because they’ve watched The Matrix. That is to say, it’s speaking to me on my level. Not only do I willingly consume this poison on a daily basis by actively delving into the spaces that I know will rile me up, but I compound this by drinking alcohol, a depressant, to make myself feel better. It is a deadly cocktail in itself. My own hemlock daiquiri.
“Look at you, you’re ordering expensive cocktails in the best bar in the world and you’re still focused on the negatives. Do you not think you have reasons to be happy?”
“It just feels hard to be happy when there’s so much to be sad about.”
“And is it helping anybody for you to be sad? What are you actually doing to make things better?”
“Ok, I think I see what you’re getting at here, and let me just say, message received. As soon as I get home I’m going to add a filter to my Instagram profile picture-“
“Not that. It’s like the story of the starfish on the beach.”
“Ah yes. You can’t make a difference for all the starfish, but you can make a difference for some of them.”
“I’ve not heard that starfish story.”
“What starfish story did you hear?”
“The one about the starfish who wreaked their revenge on the beach that wronged their ancestors.”
“That does sound like a better starfish story.”
“So who are you going to be? The old starfish who lets the sea wash over them until they’re ground down into nothing over time, or the starfish who vanquishes the beach in a winner-takes-all fist fight in Las Vegas?”
“I would like to be the second starfish, please.”
“Then do something. Stop focusing on the weight of the sea and start focusing on the moves you can learn to defeat it.”
“And here I was thinking I was bad at metaphors.”
“You are. We both are,” says Socrates, as a trolley wheels up beside us.
“Oh my god, is this the martini trolley?”
“It is indeed,” says Socrates. “Two martinis, please.”
“Wait, two? Does that mean that…?”
“I’m having a cocktail. Let’s enjoy ourselves and try to be happy.”
The martini is an excellent experience. I get to choose the gin I want in it (I opt for Monkey 47), and the bitters that it’s mixed with. Here I plump for something called ‘Dr Ago’, which I later find out is a combination of ginseng and bergamot. The bartender then mixes it all up in front of us, including a bit of showmanship as they pour the drink from a height into the glass and spritz the air with lemon. It’s a far cry from me at home pouring half the drink onto the kitchen counter and spritzing antibacterial spray around me. Some might even say it’s better.
“To Athens,” says Socrates as we clink glasses.
“You see, this is nice isn’t it?”
“Oh, I should say one thing. I’m fatally allergic to gin,” says Socrates, as he downs his drink. “ARE YOU WATCHING, ATHENS?!”
“I should have guessed,” I sigh. “Do you want me to…?”
“Yes please,” says Socrates, as he gets back into the body bag and I zip it back up. All in all…
Lyaness – 9/10 – A lovely bar on the South Bank with delicious cocktails.
The Beaufort Bar – 6/10 – A very nice setting, but cocktails weren’t good enough for the price.
The Connaught Bar – 10/10 – Premium prices, but incredible cocktails in a very cosy bar.