Words by: Jane Ryan
Photography by: Richard Bryant
London's bar scene is famed for its hotel drinking spots, promising a level of hospitality and service found only in a country that thrives on etiquette. No where makes a classic cocktail quite like a London hotel, and in no other city will you find 100 year old establishments splashing the cash on innovative cocktail programmes. Here our most recommend:
Savoy Hotel - The American Bar and The Beaufort Bar
Perhaps the most famous hotel in the world, The Savoy reopened in 2010 after a three-year, £100m+ refurbishment. While the rest of the hotel now sparkles with the polish of a Las Vegas casino, to the relief of bar aficionados The American Bar was merely given a lick of paint and a new carpet and looks practically unchanged from its last makeover.
It claims to be the oldest surviving cocktail bar in England, having opened in 1893 in the original riverside part of the hotel, moving to this location in 1904. The black and white photos on the walls and in glass cases attest to The American Bar's place in history - not only was this Frank Sinatra's home from home when he was in the country, this was the home of world-renowned bartenders, from Ada Coleman and Harry Craddock, author of The Savoy Cocktail Book, published in 1930, to Joe Gilmore, Peter Dorelli and Erik Lorincz. White-jacketed bartenders mixing 'tribute' cocktails to these bartending giants using gold three-piece shakers to the sound of a live pianist. Quite simply, part of bartending lore.
Meanwhile The Beaufort Bar is a new addition to the refurbished Savoy, and has been built on the hotel's former cabaret stage. The black and gold interior is perhaps redolent of a London hotel bar as imagined by a Dubai hotelier, than classic old school British hospitality: this is all about extremely polished finishes, plush upholstery, deep carpets and acres of gold leaf.
Dukes Hotel - Dukes Bar
Dukes was, for many years, the only place in town to get a decent Martini, and while the wider London cocktail scene has upped its game considerably, Dukes has retained its reputation in this particular area of mixology.
Alessandro Palazzi and his staff go table to table mixing Martinis to your specification from a trolley. Vermouths are dispensed from dasher bottles to ensure the driest of finishes, and vodkas and gins are fetched straight from the freezer. Here, there's no dilution, no stirring down - just the coldest, driest of drinks made simply with frozen spirit, vermouth and a garnish (hence the house maximum of three such drinks per customer).
The Connaught Hotel - Connaught Bar and Coburg Bar
Formerly known as the American Bar, the Connaught was named World's Best Hotel Bar at Tales of the Cocktail, New Orleans in 2010, and today it continues to impress as one of the capital's finest cocktail emporia.
Slick customer service is all the better by virtue the fact that it remains an accessible and none-too-snooty venue, frequented by regulars as well as those seeking cocktail enlightenment. Drinks are exemplary and worth the expense.
The Coburg, which lies at the front of the hotel, near the entrance is the more classic of the two bars, in both feel and the cocktails listed on its impressive menu.
The long panelled room with its ornate ceiling is balanced and so pleasing to the eye. It simply feels right. A grand fire place provides a focal point at either end of the room, each with an antiqued mirror above the flickering flames. Looking into either mirror gives an optical illusion that the room extends into infinity as the room and its cut chandeliers are repeated in the glass. The bar sits in the middle of the room with the original wingback chairs now reupholstered in richly coloured velvet dotted either side.
The Ritz - The Rivoli Bar
There has been a bar inside The Ritz since its opening in 1906 but under an overhaul in 2001 the new bar was created, including a stunning art deco interior.
There isn't an external entrance for the bar which means going through the main lobby, under its domed ceiling and past the suited attendants. A new menu was launched at the end of 2012, marking a return to the old world glamour that the hotel inspires.
The atmosphere is far more relaxed now, the dress code is gone and guests are required to wear only smart-casual. Soft jazz tempers the mood in the background and the staff are attentive and welcoming, to the point where they desire nothing more but to make your cocktail in front of you and explain all of the tastes and ingredients.
The London Edition - Punch Room
Secreted at the rear of the lobby of Ian Schrager's gorgeous London Edition Hotel, the Punch Room is a reservations-only lounge bar that specialises in, yes, punch but that also has a good range of carefully chosen liquors. The dark and moody modern gentleman's club-style space, complete with candlelight and an open fire, is dominated by a small bar in one corner but is otherwise an intimate and special space for small groups - take a date or go with a group of close friends, as punches are made for sharing and, as we all know, sharing's caring.
Langham Hotel - Artesian
Formally the Chukka Bar, the Artesian is named after the 360 foot artesian well beneath the foundations of the hotel. Thanks to some of London's best bartenders and interior design by David Collins, this is once again one of capital's leading hotel bars.
The lavish interior combines Chinoiserie and Victoriana with timber chandeliers, imitation rattlesnake-leather flooring and walls decorated with silver-leaf, bevelled mirrors while raised enamel butterfly motifs cover all surfaces. There is no doubting you are in a 5-star hotel but the service and quality of drinks manages to outshine even this interior.
Cocktails here are not only well-made, they are works of art and are always up to date with the latest innovations.
The 13-bedroom hotel and cocktail lounge is the result of two traditional Georgian townhouses knocked together and contrasts with the sleek modernity of the Zetter itself, with interiors by acclaimed designer Russell Sage, who has stuffed it full of curiosities, rich carpets, eclectic furniture - like the front room of a rich, well-travelled eccentric relative. Downstairs there's a games room with ping pong and a tiny smoking area.
There is plenty of bartending gastronomy at play, with reductions, homemade 'aromatics', cordials and tinctures in evidence. Best to book a table here as it's cosy and busy - there are but three seats at the bar.
The Berkeley Hotel - Blue Bar
Although it is tiny, with only 50 seats, no one could accuse this David Collins-designed bar of being understated.
Cherubs and floral woodcarvings drip from the ceiling and surround the fish-eye mirrors on the 'Lutyens' blue walls, while a white onyx bar and black crocodile print leather floor add a further touch of loucheness. All the action happens around the bar itself, so you might feel you've missed out on the theatre if you're in the entrance 'annex'.
The cocktails are fabulous, as are the plates of nibbles and the service. This five-star venue attracts five-star money, so expect young professionals and cosmetically challenged ladies of leisure perusing the impressive champagne list.
Bulgari Hotel - Il Bar
Think understated sophistication and restrained luxury, rather than out-and-out bling - after all, this is classic couture, not Juicy Couture.
A striking oval-shaped island bar that looks like it has been hewn from a single piece of beaten metal, with a thick, glass top, provides the focal point for the space. Well-spaced tables and chairs mean you are unlikely to feel overcrowded.
The emphasis is on light and refreshing, delicately flavoured drinks, though is well-balanced across spirit categories. Classics are also listed with interesting tweaks that make much use of herbs - marjoram in a Mary Pickford, smoked rosemary in the house Martini, and drinks inspired by Bulgari perfume range. In all, these are accomplished, well-thought out flavour combinations, benefiting from simple and classic presentation.
Sanderson Hotel - Long Bar
The more famous of the Sanderson Hotel's bars, the Long Bar is the place to see and be seen. Flowing off the iconic Philippe Starck designed Lobby, where pared down luxury meets surrealist dream, the bar is crisp, white, bright and clean.
As a hotel bar it is certainly more formal than not and can attract quite an army of glitterarti and fashionistas in the evenings. In contrast to the hotel's other bar, The Purple Bar, the atmosphere is upbeat as the night goes on although can be fairly chilled during the day.