Possibly the Best Cocktail Bar in the World

Ladies and Gentlemen, we may have found it. Having spent an enjoyable few years conducting what I like (somewhat euphemistically) to call “research” I think we have found a contender for the world’s best bar right now. And I don’t mean the world’s coolest bar – to be frank I would never find out about that, and even if I did they would never let me in. And if they did, that would be the end of their period of cool – seriously, whenever a suited type like me turns up in a bar it is a sure sign the management have decided to cash in their cool chips for high volumes of paying customers instead. (or, as Harpo Marx memorably quipped about joining members clubs – arp arp arp ARP! honk).

Anyway, I digress.

A cocktail-loving friend of mine (hi Cabe!) has a section on his and his now wife’s blog (hi Caroline!) describing (in loving fashion) Old Fashioneds he has met. Now, there are many varieties of Old Fashioneds, most of them sticking to a core of bourbon or rye whisky, orange peel, sugar and bitters, but many also playing around with dark rum, grapefruit peel, cliché cherries, tobacco infusions and the like. I have tried many of them, but I had not to date experienced the following: the waiter plonks a standard, old fashioned Old Fashioned in front of you – perfectly balanced, soft yet punchy with the required overtones of fruit and manliness – and then, with no fanfare, also plonks down a conical flask like your chemistry teacher used to drink out of, corked and full of some kind of heavy smoke. The smoke, you see, is for pouring over the cocktail. And it smells of … golly … marshmallows and fire and autumn, and rich sweetness and sweet richness. And it is heavier than air and it pours, coiling hypnotically out of the flask over your glass and infusing the whole affair with intense flavor and with magic. And it’s incredible.

And they come with more. Centrifuged Bloody Maries (clear – but of course!) and lemongrass-infused vacuum-redistilled gin and tonics, and foamy concoctions bobbing with spherulized Earl Grey tea globules. The bar is covered in chemistry equipment that you are not allowed under New York licensing laws: the partial-vacuum still is a definite invitation to the police where I come from. They are the Heston Blumenthals of cocktailry and they confect, carbonate, combust and combine with the best of them. If you are a fan of cocktails, you HAVE to go.

And I can’t remember the bloody name of the place. You see, we were in Hong Kong with our good friends Kean and Nyree. They extremely generously put us up in their rather swish apartment in Repulse Bay and had put together a cunningly planned itinerary taking in the very best of Hong Kong. We had been 104 floors up in an elegant hotel for hot chocolate, we had seen wet markets and white witches and both sides of that famous skyline from the Star Ferry. And that evening, we had started with hot damn chili crab, chicken feet and two excellent bottles of wine and finished with huge cigars in a hidden speakeasy washed down with “corpse reviver” cocktails (I have no idea). And we were hammered. We blame the months of no drinking, and the jetlag, and the amazing hospitality, and stuff. We got truly and thoroughly Keaned (or, as it is nowadays, Kean & Nyreed). And it was bloody marvellous.

No, I have no photographs of the occasion, or the cocktails. Yes, I could look the bar up in a minute on google, remind myself of the name and tell you all. But that would spoil a good story, wouldn’t it?

Elaborate Fantasies – The Perfect Cucumber Martini

Long train journeys, long boat trips, long car rides. The mesmerizing drone of the engine, beautiful but unchanging scenery, the steady sense of progress. The mind wanders – back to places you have been, forward to plans you want to fulfill, round and around fixating on the most unlikely objects and people.

The road – scene of this reverie

The road – scene of this reverie

For some reason, the road over the Tian Shan mountains had me dreaming about a cucumber martini. And not just any cucumber martini, but the one that the barman at 83 Mercer Street used to serve. If anyone is so minded, it would make me extraordinarily happy if someone were to make one of these and then drink it while thinking of those less fortunate than themselves (i.e. those who are currently oh-so-many weeks away from a cocktail shaker).

James’s Cucumber Martini – the recipe

It’s a hybrid this one – a mix of a number of ideas picked up in various places: at Kittichai (where they make it with sake); Pegu Club (where they taught me the whole taste vs. aromatics trick); Drakes in London (where the martini barman is happy to lecture on gin types); and Little Branch (where they specialize in ice, and I experienced my first perfectly cubic ice cube so big you could see straight through to the bottom of the glass). It’s rather elaborate – as I say, I had a very long, very straight road to dream about this one. By the way, HEAVY GEEK ALERT for those of you who need them (hi Dad!). I mean, serious geek alert: this post is just over 2,500 words long, and it’s about how to mix a drink.

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Tasting Notes – Chal

Well, how do we follow our last post? And how do we respond properly to so many wonderful messages of congratulations from friends old and new, some of whom we had no idea were even reading (Hello Kim and Arfa!).

Well, the answer has to be yet more multi-cultural stunt drinking. And after kava in Vanuatu and banana homebrew in PNG what better than Chal, that lovely Silk Road drink made out of semi-fermented camels milk? Mmmmm…

We were still in Turkmenistan, and had been dotting about seeing the sights – beautiful, psychotic Turkmen horses, ancient ruins, semi-mythical (and only semi-Islamic) shrines and home stays in the mountains. We had eaten fresh grapes in the shade of the vine and I had come within a hair’s breadth of milking my first cow. But – and it is a reasonably large but – we had drunk no vodka. We had been expecting to encounter a wave of post Soviet nostalgia and to be welcomed with multiple vodka toasts to comradeship and to blinding headaches. As it was, we were welcomed extremely warmly, but with Islamic grace being said at every meal we were not expecting any serious booze at any time soon. As it happened, we were not to have vodka until I got hoiked out of a hotel swimming pool by the Kazakh 2007 All-Asia powerlifting champion (180kg bench press, apparently, as mimed on the fingers) and made to down shots to the glory of world peace, but that is another story.

Turkmen horses. Bred for crazy. Lucy actually rode one of these later...

Turkmen horses. Bred for crazy. Lucy actually rode one of these later…

The story goes that when Ghengis Khan destroyed this town he spared the minaret because it was so high his hat fell off when he looked up at it. Yes, THAT Ghengis Khan.

The story goes that when Ghengis Khan destroyed this town he spared the minaret because it was so high his hat fell off when he looked up at it. Yes, THAT Ghengis Khan.

We were having lunch after a short swim. In a cave. 60 metres underground. In a seemingly bottomless pool of lava-heated water (15 feet deep near the shore, and sloping down into the blackness as far as the imagination can see). I made a jokey reference to wanting a beer with lunch, and instead was offered Chal. Why not?

The view from the pool (the bats are rather shy, and hid in this photograph)

The view from the pool (the bats are rather shy, and hid in this photograph)

Here’s why not:

  • Serving: life lessons, number 368 – never, ever trust a drink that comes in an old plastic soda bottle with the label peeled off. Particularly if someone tells you that it has come out of a camel
  • Appearance: imagine crumbling fine, soft cottage cheese into turpentine that your Polish decorator has been using to clean off-white paint brushes for a few days. Put in above-mentioned bottle. There you go
  • Technique: I don’t really know. I do know, however, that my instinct to shake the bottle to mix up the cheesy-looking bits into the liquid failed for two reasons. One: the cheesy bits steadfastly refused to emulsify (they don’t like collaborators in this part of the world). Two: the stuff is fizzy, and warm, and explodes absolutely everywhere when shaken and then opened
  • Aroma: exactly as you would expect semi-fermented camel’s milk to smell. Kinda milky, kinda camelly, kinda semi-fermented (As an aside, what does semi-fermented actually mean? What does it MEEEEAN?)
  • Taste: would you believe it, actually rather nice. A little yoghurty, yet surprisingly refreshing. It tastes a little cooler than it actually is, which boggles the mind slightly – in a good way
  • After effects: I have no idea whether semi-fermented actually means alcoholic (see above plaintive question to the universe regarding meaning). There was no booze buzz, no hangovery effects, no poisoning of any kind – just a swagger in the step that yes, you have drunk slightly off camel’s milk and yes, you get to brag about it

Tasting Notes – Kava

Boy was I glad to see the meat grinder.

Traditionally, an intrinsic part of making kava is the chewing – the root of the kava plant is passed out in chunks to a small group of friends and honoured guests, masticated thoroughly, spat out into a bowl, mixed with water, filtered through a cleanish sarong and drunk. I had been invited to watch the kava being made, and the presence of the new-fangled, hand-powered meat grinder meant that I wasn’t about to have to drink too much of other people’s spit.

We are on the north tip of the volcanic island of Ambrym in Vanuatu, in Chief Sekor’s village on top of the cliffs looking out over the reef towards Pentecost Island, famed home of the Pentecost land divers. It is a very special place. We are a three hour boat trip around the coast from the nearest rough airstrip, and I am about to have my first bowl of kava:

  • Appearance: cognac comes in a balloon snifter; Bordeaux comes in a finely-crafted Riedel glass; kava comes in a bucket
  • Ritual: down in one, but slowly. It’s not so much about proving your drinking prowess as a necessity, there being half a dozen people and only one cup
  • Colour: what comes out of the meat grinding, mixing, rough filtration process looks like incredibly muddy pond water. A muddy clay pond, to be precise
  • Taste: an unmistakeable flavor of mud, a hint of vegetal cucumber, and an aftertaste of deepest Numb Mouth (which may be the sixth and most recently discovered axis of taste, with umami being the fifth)
  • Impact: there seem to be as many different types of effect as there are kinds of kava root. Ours was a relatively old root, but not really old and therefore not too powerful. For some it can be pleasantly stupefying. For others, there seems to be no effect for a couple of hours, at which point you get a terrible puking hangover and an angry girlfriend without the fun happy drunk bits beforehand. For me, the numb mouth spread a little to my brain, but nothing too worrying. Nothing, that is, until I went to bed and lay awake for FIVE HOURS listening to the waves break on the shore below without being able to get to sleep
  • Next morning: utterly exhausted, but otherwise right as rain. Just in time for the mind-bendingly extraordinary festival dances and pig killing ceremonies next day, of which more elsewhere

They are very proud of their kava on Ambrym. For some reason, the delicacy hasn’t travelled.

[A truly artistique iPhone shot … of a pair of buckets]

Tasting Notes – Banana Home Brew

So we are sat by the bank of the Sepik river at dusk, gazing out at the sunset and looking down at the deeply suspicious mineral water bottle beside us. Home brew is considered a scourge of Papua New Guinea, contributing to drunkenness, alcoholism, laziness and some pretty spectacular bouts of violence that occasionally flare up into tribal warfare. At election time the whole country goes “dry” with the only source of a drink being either overpriced tourist hotels or illicit hidden stills. It’s meant to be pretty vicious stuff. We HAD to try some.

Buying home brew on the Sepik is like being a teenager all over again. With the help of your guide you have to find a dealer who sells “the stuff”, get scoped out to make sure you aren’t “the Feds”, slip “Timothy” a ten kina note, hide the bottle in your pocket in case your guest house manager disapproves, find some coca cola to mix it with (of course avoiding questions as to why you suddenly need coca cola out in the bush), find a quiet place to drink it, get rid of the empties etc etc. Deeply sad I know, but it’s all actually really rather exciting.

So, the tasting:

  • Initial appearance: mildly disconcerting, as it comes in an old 500ml mineral water bottle with a broken seal. Enough for four grown men, apparently
  • Colour: clear, with perhaps a slight hint of oily murkiness. Although that could have been the old plastic bottle
  • Aroma: surprisingly banana-y and aromatic, but with a hint of petrol. Which isn’t that surprising, given it comes from mashed up bananas left in a petrol can, then distilled using a rubber hose. A human taster takes the role of the perhaps-more-usual thermometer to make sure that it isn’t poisonous, but that it still has that home brew kick
  • Taste: actually not that bad. There is clearly scads of alcohol there, but it doesn’t completely overpower the taste of bananas. It is most similar to rum, albeit with an unusual and testy zing which we attributed to the meths left over from the dodgy distilling process. Coca cola hides the taste of the meths pretty well, leaving a banana Bacardi & Coke taste. Mmmm.
  • After effects: no doubt horrific, both in the hangover and going-blind stakes, but as professional taste testers without a spittoon handy we only had a small amount before handing the rest to our guide to dispose of as he saw fit

The view from our home brew spot (the local equivalent of behind the bike sheds, I guess)

Sydney and the Great(ish) Barrier Reef

Waving a fond and rather sad farewell to South America, James and I set off for the next stage of our adventure. This next stage really will be pretty adventurous, we’re off to Papua New Guinea, a country where a good proportion of the population was only discovered in the 1930s, and cannibalism was still occasionally practiced up until about 50 years ago.

Which is great and all, but after all of our intrepidness in South America, we were feeling a little adventured out and in need of some good old fashioned civilization. Coffee. Cocktails. Those little luxuries that make the world go round (well, our world anyway). Fortunately, it’s pretty much impossible to connect from Easter Island through to Papua New Guinea without routing via Australia, so civilization was to be had a-plenty. Maybe even enough to last us through our next big adventuring phase. Maybe….

First stop, Sydney. We’ve both visited the city before and love it, especially the main harbour area. However, this time round, Sydney served a far more important function for us. Yep, time to re-stock on toiletries and the all important suntan lotion! Also a chance to FINALLY get my hands on a shiny new Kindle after James accidentally broke my last one in Uyuni (since when, I’ve been relying on his iTouch to read with – which is fine other than the fact the battery lasts less time than my reading activity does!). Also a chance for us to indulge in some good food (sushi!! I’d almost forgotten about sushi!!) and try not to weep at the insanely high prices (Aussie dollar at an all time high) then work it all off again in a properly equipped gym. We even managed to pack in a couple of fantastic cocktails, including this cheeky little number served with its own side dish of saffron infused apricots. NYC bartenders, watch your back!

In short, indulgence of the highest degree.

Next stop, Cairns. This is where most of the flights to PNG leave from and so we figured we’d spend a day or two here and wrap in a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. Rude not to, really.

What did we make of the Reef? Well, mixed impressions really. You have to bear in mind that we are both incredibly spoilt when it comes to snorkeling, particularly after our recent trip to the Galapagos. Mere amazing reef and fish life no longer suffice to get the Lucy/James swimometer racing – to really get us excited we need a few rare sea mammals floating around the place also. The Great Barrier Reef is – well – a great reef, with coral quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. But the fish are less spectacular than those elsewhere, and the conditions were pretty awful – cold and windy enough to make the sea choppy and snorkeling a little saltwater-filled.

Definitely worth seeing and lots of fun, but not a trip highlight.

Which perhaps more than anything else in this trip spells out to me just how incredibly lucky we are to be doing this utterly amazing journey.

Handicap Cocktail Making

No, it’s not what you think. Although the mind does boggle slightly.

Among the things I miss most about our apartment in New York is my cocktail kit. Nothing fancy: a simple Boston-style shaker, a solid bar glass, a measure, a strainer and a freezer full of cold, hard ice next to a good-sized sink with running (and, er, drinkable) water. That, and a shelf of sporadically gathered bottles of booze and a bowl of fresh fruit. I’m very happy to improvise in less ideal circumstances, however, and our trip has already been livened up by the occasional scratch Pisco sour and one deeply confused Qantas air steward facing a request for ginger beer, a shot of dark rum, and a fistful of lime slices.

Airline lounges, however, present a specific problem. Good ones raise the spirits with an array of fine bottles of booze and lots of shiny glassware, but there are often strange holes where delicious drinks might otherwise be: only tiny slices of lemon (for example) or nothing to improvise a shaker out of, or if there is a shaker (hello LA!) no sink to rinse if out. We have often been reduced to drinking straight champagne which, as you can imagine, is a deep penance.

So, with no further ado, here is the list of cocktails that you normally can make in airline lounges (and thank you once again, dear employer, for granting me my BA gold card with all that transatlantic travel!)

  • Firstly, anything you can get served in your university bar: gin ‘n tonic, vodka ‘n tonic, rum ‘n coke, vodka n’coke, whisky n’water blah blah blah boring boring boring. (although for those who haven’t tried dark rum n’tonic it actually works surprisingly well)
  • First call, therefore, is an improvised classic champagne cocktail: sugar from the coffee counter sachets (in place of cube sugar) a half shot of good cognac and top it up with the ubiquitous champagne. See photo below, however…
  • Tequila sunrise. Old school! There often seems to be grenadine in these places for some 80′s reason. And always tequila, and always bottles of plastic orange juice. Result! (particularly if you happen to be in Miami and therefore able to get away with it, which we were)
  • The classic martini. There’s always gin / vodka; there’s always martini; there are usually olives. The only challenge is finding enough ice to make the damned things cold enough to drink without wincing
  • Prepared beers. OK, so these haven’t really caught on outside that weird restaurant on the Lower East Side. Beer (preferably Mexican), lots of tabasco, tequila, salt and pepper. Let’s just say it’s an acquired taste, but actually rather good with food

Beyond that you start to struggle. That said, I guess we do have a while yet to perfect this strangely specific life skill. Any further suggestions on a postcard please!

(on tasting) "Hang on, are there angostura bitters in this champagne cocktail?" What a great girl!

(on tasting) “Hang on, are there angostura bitters in this champagne cocktail?” What a great girl!


Goodbye to … everybody

Our last drinks party at 83 Mercer. We’re going to miss you guys.



Goodbye to NYC Cocktails

Tonight we decided to start our extended goodbye to New York by revisiting a couple of our favourite cocktail bars, one uptown and one downtown, with the obligatory white knuckle taxi ride between the two.

Salon de Ning

Perched on top of the Peninsula Hotel on 55th Street, the Salon de Ning comes complete with Shanghai madam portraits hung flat on the ceiling, a mid-level view through the forest of skyscrapers down to Central Park and a semi-serious cocktail list. There are occasional traces of cigar-chomping-mid-town-macho, however, so try to go off peak (and try not to order a single malt on the rocks with a cocktail straw). If you ever find yourself living as happy expats in New York and trying to impress out of towners, this is the place; we are thoroughly looking forward to bookending our trip as out of towners in Felix’s at the top of the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong (hi Kean!). The Passion Martini is short, sweet and deceptively fierce. They also do beautiful things with cucumbers and orchids, although fortunately not at the same time.

Soho Grand

We have history at the Soho Grand. Although I like to think that I eventually got the hang of business New York-style, my first serious attempt at hard-ball negotiation in the USA got Lucy and me thrown out of our first – admittedly temporary – apartment on Bleecker Street. We took our suitcases and the remnants of our dignity and checked into the Soho Grand. We had stayed here while we were apartment hunting, and with our second visit added to a growing number of difficult life decisions that were rendered surprisingly simple by the addition of a “Grand Margarita” (think a normal margarita but three times the size and with a healthy slug of Grand Marnier).

New York, we’re going to miss you.