First Floor of The Portobello Star, 171 Portobello Road, London, W11 2DY, United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 20 722 98016
Website: View bar's website
Door: Go early
Style: Cocktail bar
Recommended for: Spirits
Price guide: Middling
Food: No food
Owned by: Jake Burger and Ged Feltham
The Portobello Star's upstairs lounge is gone, replaced by a specialist gin bar and museum, and a small still room occupying the floor above. The venue offers gin masterclasses and the chance to blend your own Mother's Ruin.
First, the bar and museum, or 'Ginstitute' - accessed from a rather forlorn back-of-house staircase and reached through an underwhelming fire door, this tiny, candlelit bar with no natural light comes as something of a surprise, like a tiny priest hole. A small, three-stool mahogany bar presides over the space, where anything more than 12 is a squeeze. Wood panelling, stained glass and glass cases containing centuries-old gin and one of Jerry Thomas's business cards adorn the walls, with bare boards underfoot, and esoteric Victorian gin paraphernalia about the place. It's only open Friday and Saturday nights: there's no menu, no reservations either, so it's first-come, first-served. The choice is focused on classic gin cocktails, with a select choice of modern London gins - the house pour is, of course, Portobello Road Gin, but the Star's competitor craft spirits Sipsmith and Sacred are also represented, and there are other spirits too, so it's as much a place to contain any overspill from busy nights downstairs as it is a gin connoisseurs' hideaway.
Early week nights are taken up with private instruction in all things gin by Mr. Jake Burger, newly styled Gin Instructor, who for £100 will take you through 1,000 years of gin history in 45 minutes, followed by a gin blending tutorial. Thankfully, this isn't a regurgitated history as told via Wikipedia, but contains the product of Jake's own investigations - a mixture of pure gin geekery balanced by his dry, northern delivery. He traces gin's journey up the social ladder, from scourge of the working classes to the most fashionable drink category, its fall from grace and rebirth at the hands of craft distillers, with many a witty anecdote along the way.
Then it's upstairs to the still room - think reclaimed school lab benches (complete with schoolboy graffiti gouged out with compass needles), white coats for everyone and a tiny copper still over to one side. On the floor and on shelves that rise the the ceiling are numerous macerations and distillates, and it's our job to sample the botanicals on display and work out a formula for our own gin blend. There are all the usual ones, plus some novel options, such as RAF tea, allspice pimento, English hops, even some tropical fruits. Everyone gets a designated number and your personal formula registered in Jake's notebook, should you want to re-order the same again (£35).
Under Jake's instruction (basically so novice blenders don't leave with something unpalatable) each apprentice works out their unique formula, then Jake does the measuring out. All good fun, and everyone leaves with a fully labelled bottle of their own Portobello Road Gin, and one of the proper stuff too. All that's left is to head back down to the Ginstitute for a Martini and a bite of pie. Close to three hours whizz past.