London’s Cocktail History

Jun 21,2013

Most of us suspect the 'cocktail' comes from the decadent and lavish pastimes of the fabulous, who as they sat back in baths of milk and rose oil tripped out on concoctions of absinth and vermouth; chilling with a glass of champagne and pomegranate juice on silk cushions.

However, we may be surprised to learn that the origins of such a luxury are far more humble than we might have imagined and is firmly founded in British roots - and from the squalor of London's streets.

London was poor - dirt poor - and the environment was a savage and brutal one. Streets were filthy, water was dirty and the immune system was kaput. London in the 17th century became synonymous with hard liquor as a way of ridding the body of lethal disease and infection. Alcohol found its way into the pharmacies as a cure to some of the most common causes of death at the time. Many were water-borne pathogens: cholera, dysentery, E. coli and typhoid to name a few. The regular and consistent consumption of alcohol was more specifically a small beer, unfiltered, with about 2 per cent ABV. Stoughton's Elixir soon followed (alcohol-based bitters) and by the 1720s London was producing 20 million gallons of spirits and bootlegged alcohol.

In short: London was drunk; mixing up drinks and hard liquor to stay healthy. Oh, the irony.

Now, the 'cocktail', having passed though European hands over time and made far grander thanks to Italian and French influences, has become something of a social delicacy.

But how has London developed as a cocktail haven since the times of its gaudy gin-sucking heyday?

Soho seems to be Queen of the Cocktail. London's seedy-chic haven, it offers its customers a range of holes to drink in. At Milk and Honey, the influence of a gin-soaked London couldn't be clearer. Their London Calling cocktail contains gin, sherry, lemon, sugar and bitters.

West London's The Lonsdale is a sophisticated joint, full of innovative combinations. In terms of 'The London Effect' however, we spotted Smoky Lady, containing beefeater 24 gin, fresh orange & lemon juice, lapsang souchong tea syrup - another nod to the Lady that is London and her gin-infused history.

We can't talk about London without turning to its East End to see how the cocktail has emerged in such a prominent part of London's poor. We looked to Zetter Townhouse and found The Flintlock, named after a 17th Century firearm, which contains, you guessed it, beefeater 24 gin, gunpowder tea (obviously), tincture sugar, dandelion and burdock bitters ad fernet branca. We love how good old gin has been given an English twist with plants,flowers and tea!

As a tribute to the Queen of Victorian London why not head to the more lavish corners of Kensington and The Royal Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial - both are near some prime cocktail bars. Eclipse shows what Kensington has to show on the gin-front, with their Knickerbocker Martini mixing dry vermouth and orange bitters.

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