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Best London cocktail bars
KOL Mezcalería – for agave cocktails
Tucked away on the lower ground floor of Santiago Lastra’s refined hymn to Mexican cuisine is this slinky, subterranean bar. Inspired by the mezcalerias of Mexico, it’s decked out in soothing earthy tones and natural textures, with dark wooden furniture, rattan lamps and traditional Mexican artifacts on the walls.
The cocktails are masterminded by bar manager Maxim Schulte (former head bartender at the American Bar at The Savoy), and echo the restaurant’s emphasis on British seasonal ingredients, with lots of homemade infusions. The drinks list changes regularly, but expect the likes of the Tatanka – crab apple-infused El Destilado rum, Somerset 10-year-old cider brandy and rhubarb for a tangy long drink, and a negroni made with sloe gin-infused Corte Vetusto mezcal. Star of the evening was a complex take on a martini, featuring Volcan Blanco tequila, pine distillate, cucumber and – quirkily – a touch of crème de cacao blanc, which softly rounded the vibrant flavours of the other ingredients. It had all the boozy kick of a classic martini, but with an added herbaceous character. Alongside this, Santiago has created a list of street-food style snacks, or ‘antojitos’, including truffle quesadillas with Kentish Oaxacan cheese. As well as the cocktails, don’t leave without sampling some of the bar’s 80-strong list of mezcal, tequila and other agave spirits.
Swift, Soho – for pre-dinner drinks
This award-winning Soho bar comes from husband-and-wife team Bobby Hiddleston (Dead Rabbit, Callooh Callay) and Mia Johansson (Milk & Honey), and the team behind Nightjar and Oriole. It’s a two-part affair, with a buzzy, casual space on the ground floor – best for walk-ins – and darker, intimate underground lounge with sleek crescent booths, inky black tables and moody lighting.
The upstairs serves lighter aperitif cocktails (try the signature sgroppino, with lemon sorbet, prosecco and Italicus), while down below focuses on more sultry cocktails, as well as whisky, of which they have a 300-strong collection.
Do check out their latest outpost in Shoreditch, where sleek black and white art deco-style interiors make a classy setting for drinking characteristically creative cocktails – try the Carmen with Olmeca Altos plata tequila, toasted blue corn and lime sherbet for a zingy twist on a margarita.
Three Sheets, Dalston – for pared-back cocktails
A stripped-back cocktail bar with a succinct list of drinks, Three Sheets has raked in the plaudits over the years but still retains a buzzy neighbourhood hang-out vibe.
It was the first venture from the Venning brothers, originally from Manchester, who have worked in leading cocktail bars for years, most notably Max’s experience with Tony Conigliaro’s Drinks Factory and 69 Colebrooke Row and Noel’s time in Manchester at tequila bar Crazy Pedro’s. More recently, they’ve also helped found Crouch End’s Little Mercies (see below) and Highbury wine bar Top Cuvée – as well as its roaringly successful shop, Shop Cuvée.
Max and Noel aren’t big on the showy side of cocktail making – behind the bar is a simple shelf of bottles containing only what the mixologists need for the short cocktail list. This no-frills approach allows the brothers’ northern charm to shine through; they chat away and recommend local haunts while shaking up drinks as though hosting you in their own home.
The pithy drinks list changes seasonally, but usually features their famous fizzy pre-bottled French 75, made with gin, verjus, clarified lemon juice, moscato and orange flower. Poured straight into your glass like champagne, it’s dangerously easy to drink (you can buy it buy the glass, or, even better, by the bottle).
Little Mercies, Crouch End – for neighbourhood drinks
Modern, easy-drinking cocktails are the focus at Alan Sherwood’s (Peg + Patriot, Scout) laidback establishment.
Inside, it’s calm and composed – expect a minimalist interior of exposed brick, a concrete bar, pendant lamps and inky blue walls. The cocktails here are elegant, with plenty of homemade ingredients – most recently, a negroni made with the bar’s own passionfruit vermouth. There’s also a fun yet innovative approach to classic drinks, think bellinis made with lacto-fermented peach, kiwi gimlets and ‘Snickers’ old fashioneds.
Lyaness, South Bank – for innovative cocktails
When drinks maestro Ryan Chetiyawardana’s lavishly garlanded Dandelyan (including World’s Best Bar in 2018) closed earlier this year at Sea Containers London it was swiftly replaced by his next incarnation – Lyaness.
The sweeping green marble bar and sleek mid-century aesthetic remains at Lyaness, but this time the colour palate is lighter (but still statement-making), with sky-hued walls, soft-grey sofas and electric-blue banquettes, plus lots of opulent gold accents.
While Dandelyan’s thematically complex menus covered topics such as botany, sustainability and agriculture, Lyaness is more pared back, with a cocktail menu built around seven key ingredients. If this sounds simple, then rest assured there’s plenty of Ryan’s characteristically intricate drinks wizardry going on behind the scenes, with each ‘ingredient’ the end result of various clever processes and techniques. The resulting cocktails are supremely drinkable.
Nightjar, Shoreditch – for speakeasy vibes
The busy City Road in Shoreditch seems an unlikely setting for a stylish, subterranean speakeasy bar but that’s exactly where you’ll find Nightjar. On the outside, a tall wooden door sandwiched between two cafés is the only evidence of its existence, but go inside and discover a plush space replete with candlelit tables, leather banquette seating and flatteringly dim lighting.
The bar’s characteristically detailed drinks menu riffs on old cocktail recipes (ranging from the pre-prohibition to post-war periods) but adds its own twist.
Try the Honeymoon – a short, fresh yet punchy blend of Glenfiddich 21-year-old whisky, Nightjar’s ‘forbidden fruit liqueur’ (a mix of citrussy pomelo, sherry and dry vermouth), Cynar, mead, lemon and geranium leaf. It’s a complex drink, dry and delicately smoky, with subtle honey and aniseed notes.
Drink nerds should investigate the bar’s vintage spirits menu, which is full of rare, aged spirits dating from the late 19th to early 20th centuries.
Oriole, Farringdon – for live music
A world away from the echoey warehouses of Smithfield Market above, this basement hideout oozes art deco glamour without being brash and shiny. Oriole is the name of a colourful exotic bird, and there are nods to this theme throughout, with jungle wallpaper, tropical illustrations and worldly trinkets. Lounge on a teal banquette or perch on one of the patterned pouffes that are scattered around the stage, where musicians unpack their double basses and jazz guitars to play gypsy swing, jazz and the blues.
Named “A world awaits”, this vast menu is split into Old World (Europe and Africa), New World (the Americas) and The Orient (Asia and Australasia), filtering in unusual ingredients from across the globe. Jules Verne’s Around The World in 80 Days springs to mind as the menu encourages guests to discover the globe through its many ingredients.
Go on a Wednesday to Saturday night to enjoy live global music – gypsy swing to traditional New Orlean’s jazz, West African blues to Trinidadian calypso.
Coupette, Bethnal Green – for date night
This is a super cool drinking den, where banter over the bar (made from French centimes) is encouraged. There’s a soundtrack of hip hop, that has taken over jazz as the cocktail bar genre of choice over the last few years, and punters let loose as the evening unfolds, moving from high tables to mingle in with other cocktail lovers and choose spirits from the brick wall behind the bar.
The showstopping champagne piña colada is a must-try – a mix of Bacardi Heritage, French-Caribbean agricole rum, pineapple and coconut sorbet, topped up with Moët & Chandon brut.
Ever After – for people watching
This elegant, low-key bar sits above sister outfit Happiness Forgets in Hoxton Square. Inside, there’s bistro-style seating, banquettes and exposed brick walls, with Crittall doors opening on to a covered terrace with choice views of the square. It’s got heaters and blankets, too, should you want to people watch in winter.
Cocktails are elegant and precise – sherry cobbler gets a modern makeover as a milk punch and is beautifully rounded, with dry salinity from the sherry alongside tropical fruit notes. The bar’s house martinis are prebatched and stashed in the freezer until needed – our Plymouth gin one was deliciously silky and icy. Do check out the list of zero-alcohol cocktails, too, include the warming, smoky Dry Penicillin and a convincingly punchy and herbaceous booze-free negroni.
Come for drinks but stay for dinner, with generous sharing plates including steak tartare with crispy croutons, and roast aubergine with pumpkin purée and salsa verde, as well as simple yet luscious chocolate mousse made in big batches and scooped into bowls at your table.