I celebrated my 34th birthday last weekend and I got so spoilt that I wondered whether people had assumed from looking at me that it was my 40th. Usually on a â€˜normalâ€™ birthday I try to keep things low-key – for me, the pressure of organising a birthday shindig thatâ€™s cool enough to pique guestsâ€™ interest but cheap enough for them not to hate me is too much. Instead, I tend to drag Juan out for a meal. However, this year I decided that what I really donâ€™t have enough of in my life is properly made cocktails – so I announced to Juan that we would be going to The Connaught Bar. I didnâ€™t invite anyone else – although the cocktails are worth every penny, they cost almost Â£20 a pop. Plus, itâ€™s not a girlie-group-birthday kind of place…
So much care and expertise go into great cocktails that, for me, recreating them at home is almost sacrilegious. In the same way that Iâ€™m hardly ever inclined to make beef Wellington, bÃ©chamel sauce or macarons at home, equally, I donâ€™t have the time or expertise to rustle up tinctures and distillations, or the money to buy recherchÃ© liqueurs when only 20ml goes into the recipe Iâ€™m following. Far better to don my best clothes, enjoy the click of my heels on the hotelâ€™s marble floors, sink into a leather banquette in the spectacularly art-deco bar, watch the years drop away thanks to the movie-star lighting – and witness the ceremony of shaking and stirring from my table.
Itâ€™s no secret that The Connaught Barâ€™s cocktail list is perfect. The context and origins of each drink are explained in a blurb thatâ€™s lively and short enough to hold your attention; there arenâ€™t too many choices to overwhelm; and youâ€™re more or less guaranteed to love whatever you order. The most memorable cocktail of the four we tried was the Vieux Connaught, a mixture of rum, rye whiskey, vermouth, Benedictine, bitters and saffron smoke which comes on a mirrored tray in a stoppered bottle, so that the smokeâ€™s aroma fills the air around you as you pour it into your glass. It has a deeply savoury, herbal, smoky flavour that lingers deliciously. There was another, called Mulata Daisy, that came in the most beautiful art-deco crystal Champagne coupe, with a rim of cocoa powder. I also loved a bracingly tart, smooth cocktail that included yuzu juice and egg white (I LOVE sour cocktails). When the cocktails are this good, who cares that we ate cheese on toast on the sofa when we got home? However, if you really want to push the boat out, I can recommend the bar snacks – especially the wagyu beef sliders. For these, there are no words.
One thing I learnt from this experience is that high-end cocktail bars are great for a date night – Iâ€™m thinking specifically about people like me who donâ€™t get out as much as theyâ€™d like and consequently donâ€™t feel too guilty splurging when they leave the house. And those people, also like me, who donâ€™t get to spend as much quality time with their other halves as they might wish to. Here, instead of the formality of a table between us, Juan and I got to sit next to each other, chat casually about real things outside of the day-to-day, and laugh. We werenâ€™t the youngest people there, and we werenâ€™t the oldest; we werenâ€™t the fanciest dressed, but we didnâ€™t feel underdressed either. The service was perfect – sharp but sweet. After two drinks each, we had achieved the perfect level of tipsiness – relaxed and giggly but without the threat of a hangover. It was bliss.
From now on, however, itâ€™s a healthy lifestyle for me – thatâ€™s if my present haul, which included a NutriBullet, a pilates DVD and a Brompton bike for commuting, is anything to go by. I asked for all of these lovely presents, but without realising that they had this running theme. If I can stick to this new regime, I might actually look younger by the time my next birthday comes aroundâ€¦ Iâ€™ll drink to that.
By the way, if youâ€™re interested, and in the spirit of our Sunday link lists, hereâ€™s a list of my most memorable cocktails to dateâ€¦ but my experience is by no means comprehensive.
- Vieux Connaught (the flavours linger in the mouth and the memory)
- Marmalade cocktail at Hawksmoor Seven Dials (the perfect balance of sour and sweet)
- White Cosmopolitan at Bar Boulud (it has this amazing ice sphere floating in it)
- Pisco sour at Ceviche (not as classy as the above but soooo dangerously moreish)
- Nettle gimlet at ZTH (a long time ago; strong and masterful)
- Last Tango in Paris (served in a juice carton; 0 of your 5-a-day)
And finally, a shout out to inventiveness and good timesâ€¦
- Heisenberg at London Cocktail Club (a Margarita served in a chemistry beaker, complete with its own little bag of blue salt masquerading as crystal meth, a la Breaking Bad. Genius.)
Bar image source; thanks to The Connaught for cocktail image.