“Water-parties and pic-nics at Nuneham, or under the shade of Cliveden or Quarry Woods, require at all times a good and sufficient lunch to make the day go off in a satisfactory manner, and the presence of somebody who knows how to combine ice, sugar, lemon, and ‘drinks’ artistically, is an additional advantage.”– Charles Dickens Jr., son of famed author, from A Dictionary of the Thames (1881)
Amen, Dickens Jr. Amen.
Clearly, there was a time when the words British and “cocktail” meant punches and Pimms, lots and lots of Pimms, all tending toward the achievement of stiff-lipped, rosy-cheeked inebriation (and, we assume, over-pronunciation of the word “raaaather”). But times have changed. We had our Revolution, and now the Brits are having theirs, alcoholically speaking. With figureheads like Tony Conigliaro rocketeering into cocktail futurism, and a rejuvenated interest in local spirits among Brit bartenders (did someone say English vodka?), London is paving the way for Britain’s next “next wave,” where the drinks are no longer an “additional advantage” to water-parties; they are the parties, and you’re—quite cordially—invited.
To be clear, the British cocktail revolution is a revolution in the fifth grade solar system sense—progress by a return to point of origin. Just like the American cocktail scene (which the Brits trail by several years, Conigliaro excepted), modern British cocktails are progressing by embracing their history, perhaps nowhere as proudly as The Gilbert Scott. Named after the famous British architect, The Gilbert Scott is a restaurant and bar that joins Victorian culture with modern culinary and cocktail styles. “We’re surrounded by lots of Victorian Gothic architecture, possibly the most stunning in the world,” says resident (and stunningly young) Bar Manager Oliver Blackburn. “The cocktails should fit in with our surroundings.”
Not that Blackburn confines himself to the bizarre strictures of Victorian drinking parties (Dickens Jr. goes on to explain that punches must be served in jugs—“a bowl is an abomination”—and that “yacht stewards are not to be trusted in such matters anymore than parlour maids”). “We realized the list would be quite one dimensional,” says Blackburn, in large part because “back then, making drinks or cocktails had more to do with masking poor alcohol.” Instead Blackburn turned his attention to fusing cocktail historicism with British seasonality (a natural rhythm the rest of the world is just beginning to vibe to).
The results are drinks like The Gilbert Scott’s signature 1873 cocktail, a drink that transforms “quintessentially British flavors”—gin, apple, cranberry, rhubarb—with the modern efficiency of carbonated, tableside service. Another (intangible) British-ism: the flavors in question are inspired by Blackburn’s bucolic English childhood. “I spent a lot of time as a child in my grandfather’s garden, with lots of trees and fruits—apples, plums, rhubarb, gooseberries. We used to make rhubarb-apple pie.”
For cocktail purposes, Blackburn’s prepubescent pie memories morphed into rhubarb bitters, English russet apple juice, and cranberry juice, which “added more length” to the finish. Those ingredients are combined with gin, which courses through English blood by national dictate; the mixture is then chilled, and poured into an iSi siphon. When ordering an 1873, “the guest gets an empty frozen glass,” says Blackburn. “The soda siphon goes to the table with the server,” who then charges and dispenses the cocktail. Not only is there “a theater to it,” says Blackburn, "there's no mixing or shaking involved,” meaning servers love it as much as the guests.
Although The Gilbert Scott—and London’s hotel bar scene, in general— thrives, the rest of the London scene is “a bit behind New York,” says Blackburn, citing his city’s only recent fascination with speakeasies. But even the belated arrival of speakeasies has its own distinctly British twist. “There are some bars that have taken the secretive side and turned it around, gone down the line of fantasy,” says Blackburn, who gives the example of Callooh Callay, a bar that’s not only inspired by Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” but contains another—secret—bar within, reached through a Narnia-esque wardrobe passageway. “It transports you to another space."
The Gilbert Scott might not dabble in secrecy or whimsy, but with its dedication to craft cocktails, historic slant, and pragmatically modern sensibilities, it’s likely to lead the way as the British cocktail revolution—inevitably—leads to British cocktail imperialism. (We’re more than willing to be conquered.)