BY GREG HUBBS
For me, it’s a given that a part of any travel experience has to be an attempt to find a good cocktail.
While on a recent trip to London for New Year’s Eve, I discovered the OXO Tower Bar. What I found was not only one of the most fantastic views of London, but some of the most inventive cocktails I’ve ever encountered.
If you’re going for a proper evening out, then it’s probably a good idea to make a reservation. The lure of the view alone seems to get plenty of folks in every night. However, we managed to show up just before prime happy hour without a reservation and were given seats at the bar. Even though our backs were to the amazing wall of glass looking out onto the Thames, if you’re at all interested in watching the crafting of your cocktail, I can’t stress enough how much you should sit at the bar. Each drink took several minutes to get proportions right and flavors balanced and it ends up being quite the unintentional show.
From our seats at the bar, not only did we befriend a delightful girl from North Carolina, but we also struck up a chat with the bartender. What ensued was a little slice of heaven. I began my night by ordering a “Gothic Manhattan.” The menu described the drink as “Woodford Reserve bourbon, stirred with Antica formula vermouth, Jerry Thomas bitters. Black licorice rinse. House-brandied cherry.”
I’ll give you a moment to go re-read that. Amazing, right?
Our friend the bartender set to work making the drink right in front of me. I was immediately horrified, because he started making the drink with a different bourbon than the Woodford listed on the menu. Now, let it be known that I’m a fan of just about any bourbon, except one. My distaste for this particular bourbon is so high, that any time I order a drink, I eye the bartender just to be sure it isn’t used. To my taste, it’s awful. I’ll be diplomatic and not name names, but it’s a fairly common brand. Unfortunately, this was the bourbon he used to make the drink. (To his credit, he said the drink menu had just been revised and he was still getting accustomed to it). However, my look of horror was apparently obvious enough for him to ask why I was looking so scared.
This opened the door to a chat about my being from Kentucky, knowing my bourbon and about my love for crafting cocktails. After explaining my disdain for the bourbon he used by mistake (and him kindly offering to make a new one), I agreed to give the original drink he made a go. What I discovered is the first drink I’ve ever had with the Bourbon-That-Shan’t-Be-Named that was not only palatable, but was fantastic. It no doubt tasted of the usual sour mash, caramel and citrus flavors that I love in bourbon, but it also had a depth and not-too-sweet sweetness that I’ve never found in any other drink. The sambuca (black licorice) rinse was there in the background, but not just hanging out. It balanced what could have been a case of too many things going on at once. I’ll definitely be recreating this one at home.
After much more chatting with my new friend the bartender (and sadly, we never caught his name), he was gracious enough to let me try several of the other drinks he was making for various patrons. He’d leave a little in the bottom of the shaker or glass he was using to mix drinks in, and then he’d give me a taste of what he’d concocted. As you can imagine, these were the best leftovers of my life.
The two most notable were “At the Drive In” and “Due South.” (Click for the menu and official drink descriptions). “At the Drive In” featured a butter-infused Four Roses Bourbon to create a drink that managed to taste like liquified popcorn with a kick, while “Due South” was refreshingly light, yet with complex flavors that came to surface with each sip.
The next time I’m in London, I’ll certainly go back to the OXO Tower Bar. While the drinks aren’t cheap (even by London standards), I’m not sure there’s any other place in the City that could measure up to the caliber of cocktails or the experience and view. And look for some upcoming posts where I do my own take on some of the drinks featured on their menu.
Welcome to my little corner of booze.