The competition is on for the best negroni as mixologists beat a path to the capital for Cocktail Week, says Samuel Fishwick
The bartenders’ eyes lock across Quo Vadis’s Marx Room in Soho, the air thick with the smell of campari and sweet vermouth. This is where the perfect Negroni is born: they are limbering up for the annual Soho Negroni Challenge, a gladiatorial cocktail-making championship on October 25.
“The Negroni is a king among drinks, and while I am eternally wary of tampering with a classic, we do also like to celebrate inventiveness and ingenuity,” says Quo Vadis’s owner Jeremy Lee, who hosts the event with Hackney restaurant Pidgin. Professional bartenders compete, and St John’s redoubtable supremo Fergus Henderson triumphed last year. There’s no limit to the ingredients, technique or garnishes, however, and the drink should resonate with the judges as being somewhere within the Negroni wheelhouse. “Last year’s Soho Negroni Challenge involved much hilarity and charm and we look forward to welcoming more valiant entrants to this curious competition this year.”
Still, that’s all in the future. October is bookended by big dates in the cocktail calendar, with the Negroni Challenge at the end of the month and London Cocktail Week upon us already. LCW is in its eighth year now — as the UK’s biggest drinks festival, it’s more about the mix than ever, with a number of collaborations between barmen around town teaming up to create something new. Collaborations mean it’s getting competitive, with mixologists going head to head to outdo each other.
“If you’ve got the right people around then it’s good to have complementing and contrasting opinions,” says Will Sleeman, head bartender of Super Lyan in Hoxton, who kicked off LCW on Monday with a takeover from award-winning Melbourne bar Black Pearl. The menu was built around Bacardi and everyone had a rum old time with drinks such as Sleeman’s signature Three Drop Swizzle, a punchy blend of Star of Bombay and pine syrup.
“Everyone draws on help and inspiration from the people around them, and being able to collaborate means you get different perspectives,” he adds. People have come from all over the world to be part of the London scene. On Friday, Moorgate’s hidden classics cocktail bar Devil’s Darling will be transporting guests to Paris when it hosts two of the French capital’s best bartenders, Aurélie Panhelleux, co-owner of Copperbay, and Hyacinthe Lescouët of Les Grands Verres.
“You can get a taste of Paris’s cocktail scene without having to leave London,” says Thomas Aske, co-founder of The Devil’s Darling. “Each of these individual bartenders are getting to present their own take, meaning there will be three very different bar experiences within one evening. In that respect, two pairs of hands are better than one.”
They’ll be playing with mixers such as Pernod Absinthe and Suze, a classic French spirit. Panhelleux’s Down the Boulevardier is a heady mix; one part Suze Saveurs D’autrefois, one part toasted orange wood bourbon, and one part salty cider vermouth.
At Behind the Wall, the tiny vinyl and cocktail bar in Hackney’s Mare Street, the global theme continues, with an immersive “travel” experience to celebrate a collaboration with drinks brands Belsazar (cool, classy Vermouth) and Starward (a New World malt whisky).
Each guest tries one cocktail from each side of the bar — a cocktail journey from Berlin (Belsazar) to Melbourne (Staward). They will be given a boarding pass and passport on their way in which will be stamped by their server to mark the journey they have taken. On the Belsazar side, there will be graffiti and Black Forest “foliage”, while on the Starward side there will be a wall of plants representing the four season cycles.
The Mountbatten is their “elegant twist on a Manhattan” made using both vermouth and whisky. “It still only uses three ingredients, but made with things like Rosé Vermouth, which make it totally delicious but completely unique” says owner Alex Harris. “This is my secret weapon for London Cocktail Week. I defy anyone not to love it.”
Not to be outdone, the East London Liquor Company is teaming up with Neo Bistro, Mark Jarvis and Alex Harper’s new style bistro on Woodstock Street, to create a one-off tasting menu with four specially created cocktails.
Magpie, meanwhile, is celebrating LCW in Mayfair with a secret whisky breakfast menu, teaming up with bartenders the Skye Scotch distiller. Ajax Kentish from Magpie and Ali Reynolds from Talisker have put their heads together to re-create their Bloody Mary and Morning Glory with a dram of whiskey, and also design a new Smokey Marmalade cocktail with the single malt, while rounding the collaboration off Ali will also be putting in a guest shift behind the Magpie bar this Friday. Then, finally, you can toast the season with a late October negroni. Bottoms up.