Praising the bars

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 November, 2011, 12:00am


To the discerning drinker, sipping a classic cocktail in a classic cocktail bar is one of the great pleasures in life.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with a cocktail or a bar which is at present merely fashionable. It may well be a classic in the making.

Relatively new but widely acclaimed venues such as New York's Pegu Club and Employees Only, or the two Milk & Honey outlets in Manhattan and London, probably fall into this category.

Only time will tell, however. To achieve classic status, a bar must have been in business for a considerable number of years. Its decor and service will both have stood the test of time. And very often it will have built up a reputation as being the best place in a city to go for a particular drink.

Some bars transcend even that, and are widely considered the best in the world for their signature cocktail.

Coincidentally or otherwise, at least four such bars have a strong association with Ernest Hemingway.

In Havana, for serious cocktail lovers and Hemingway groupies alike, La Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita are places of pilgrimage.

Framed on a wall in La Bodeguita, in the great man's handwriting, is the legend 'My Mojito in La Bodeguita, My Daiquiri in El Floridita'.

His old apartment - now a museum dedicated to his Cuban heyday - is roughly equidistant between the two, and given the time he spent in one or the other, it's a miracle he was ever sober enough to write.

There are other venues in Havana that make those drinks, some perhaps equally well. But unless you try them in these two bars, the experience is somehow incomplete.

The daiquiri, as it is internationally known today, is generally agreed to have been perfected at El Floridita, and you can have a drink there with Papa Hemingway himself - sort of. He leans on the bar in the form of a life-size bronze statue.

In Paris, Hemingway was fond of Le Petit Bar at the Ritz, since renamed the Hemingway Bar, although it has contented itself with a relatively discreet bust of the author rather than a full-scale statue.

Its classic cocktail bar status, however, depends not so much on literary nostalgia as on the presence of a long-serving bar manager, the legendary Colin Field.

The bar does all the classic cocktails well, and there are those who swear Field makes the world's best martinis, but the best-seller there is one of his own creations.

The Serendipity is an 'all French' concoction made with fresh mint, champagne, calvados and apple juice. Field, incidentally, is British.

A successful idea has many fathers, and a failed one is an orphan, and so it is that many different bars have competing claims to be the birthplace of particular classic cocktails.

Among the contested recipes is that of the Bloody Mary, which has been claimed at various times by the King Cole Bar of the St Regis Hotel in New York, El Floridita, and Le Petit Bar at the Ritz, when it was still called that.

The likeliest birthplace, though, is another favourite Parisian haunt of Hemingway's, Harry's New York Bar at 5 Rue Daunou.

Harry's celebrates its centenary this year and claims, probably rightly, to be the oldest cocktail bar in continental Europe. It is certainly one of the best.

Unlike Europe's more formal hotel cocktail venues, Harry's still feels very much like a friendly New York saloon. Indeed, many of its fixtures and fittings, including the bar, were shipped to Paris from a bar called Clancy's back in 1911.

The brass foot rail that runs along that battered old wooden counter is not polished to a gleam, but buffed and scuffed by a century's worth of shoe leather. The place feels real.

Harry's maintains that barman Fernand 'Pete' Petiot mixed the first Bloody Mary in the bar in 1921, a decade or more earlier than the date for most other claims.

It remains one of the world's best interpretations of the drink, and one of the few which contain no celery salt, an elaboration on the original recipe of which Harry's has never approved.

A Paris classic in the making is to be found in Le Bar at the new Shangri-La Hotel, where Christophe Leger, who formerly worked with Field at the Ritz, presides.

Although the hotel itself is new, the style is classic, and the building, which dates to 1896, has some cocktail history.

The creator of the Pink Lady, Elsie de Wolfe, lived there in the 1930s, and today the bar serves four variations of that cocktail among other classics, as well as a range of more modern creations of Leger's featuring Asian ingredients such as Sichuan peppers, wasabi and kaffir lime.

There are classic cocktail bars in many major cities, but in the English-speaking world, the highest concentration of them is to be found in London and New York.

Each city has too many good ones to list, although a cocktail lover visiting New York should certainly not miss the King Cole Bar, Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel or the Oak Bar at the Plaza Hotel.

Geordie Willis, Hong Kong-based business development manager of Berry Bros & Rudd, is a connoisseur of both cocktails and the bars that serve them.

Since Berry Bros decided to focus more on its spirit products, such as The King's Ginger liqueur and the premium-martini grade No3 London Dry Gin, Willis has taken a keen professional interest in classic bars that are innovative in their preparation of cocktails, particularly in London.

One of his favourites is Dukes Bar at Dukes Hotel, also well liked by Ian Fleming, who, in making James Bond a martini connoisseur, may have done more than anybody else to internationally promote the drink.

'All fans of the cocktail should experience a martini made by Alessandro Palazzi at Dukes at least once in their lives,' says Willis. 'There is a sense of theatre and one can't help but feel that you're in the presence of greatness.'

Another is the Coburg Bar at the Connaught Hotel, where cocktail history expert Mark Jenner draws on almost two centuries' worth of recipes and lore to create his own liquid masterpieces. He has hosted cocktail demonstrations at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong.

'Mark Jenner represents a new breed of bartender,' Willis says. 'The Coburg Bar is the very best that London currently offers. Old juxtaposes deliciously with new, both on the hugely extensive drinks list and also in the stylish interior .'

Duke's, the Coburg, the Library Bar at the Lanesborough Hotel and the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel - where Harry Craddock's original cocktail recipes as recorded in The Savoy Cocktail Book, republished earlier this year, still form the backbone of the list - are famous.

You have to know about the Fumoir, though. On the other side of an unmarked door in the lobby of Claridge's is a tiny gem of an art deco-themed room, lavishly adorned with polished mirrors and ornate Lalique glass. A rare Macallan single malt in a Lalique decanter has pride of place behind the horseshoe bar, surrounded by regulars.

The atmosphere is quite different to that of the better known Claridge's Bar, and to enter is like stepping back to the 1920s. Signature cocktails include the superb Smoky Malt Manhattan, which combines Laphroaig single-malt whisky with vermouth and orange bitters, and Harry Craddock's Millionaire Cocktail, aptly named, as you almost have to be one to stay at Claridge's.

Willis' Asian favourite is in Tokyo - Bar Radio, first established by bartender Koji Ozaki in 1972, and in its present premises since 1998. The art nouveau decor, however, suggests something much older.

Closer to home in Hong Kong, we have new bars in old buildings, such as in Hullett House; and classic styled bars with some history such as the Mandarin Oriental's the Chinnery, and the Bar at the Peninsula, but none has an especially strong association with a cocktail, unlike in Singapore.

The Long Bar of the Raffles hotel has famously been pouring the sweetish Singapore Sling for approaching 90 years in a bar supposedly reminiscent of a colonial Malayan plantation.

Willis does, however, think we have classics in the making in M Bar at the Mandarin Oriental and Cafe Gray Deluxe at the Upper House.

'The M Bar and Cafe Gray both take their leads from the glory days of classical cocktail making while constantly looking to push the boundaries of the art,' he says.

'Both bars are equally proficient in creating new drinks as well as mixing the classics. The libations can be wonderfully forward-looking but the levels of service and commitment to excellence are firmly rooted in the past.'

The best movers and shakers


Pegu Club

Employees Only

Milk & Honey New York

King Cole Bar

Bemelmans Bar

The Oak Bar (below)


The Hemingway Bar

Harry's Bar

Le Bar


Dukes Bar

Coburg Bar

Library Bar

The Fumoir


La Bodeguita del Medio

El Floridita de Cuba


Bar Radio


M bar

Cafe Gray Deluxe (below)