When the white gloves come off: Behind the scenes at one of London’s most historic and upscale hotel bars

February 12, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC
The Connaught Bar, located in the Connaught Hotel in London's Mayfair district, is widely known for its sharply-suited barkeeps who tend both bar and roaming martini cart, serving customers with delicate, white-gloved care.
Courtesy of the Connaught Bar

At London’s Connaught Bar, located in the Connaught hotel, each beverage tells a story. The sharp-suited barkeeps are the storytellers, transporting guests to cocktail Narnia. The nightly white-glove ceremony that plays out is a clever balance between extravagance and the comforts of home.

Ever since the bar’s opening in 2008, its director of mixology Agostino Perrone, a native of Lake Como, Italy, has curated menus (dubbed in-house  as “collections”) that are witty, complex, and playful—traits that head mixologist Giorgio Bargiani describes as the spirit of Connaught Bar. “We have always worked to create innovation and to surprise our guests,” says Bargiani. “This has meant experimenting with and developing new techniques and ingredients, while serving a changing clientele.”

Today, that means a more discerning guest, whose curiosity pushes the bar team to meticulously engineer each collection. The result is a compendium of drinkable anecdotes, providing a sense of place inspired by the building’s architecture and history as well as the bar’s regulars. In the past, you may have sipped the Sweet & Z, a tribute to a pair of guests who were utterly different, yet the very best of friends. Drawing from their favorite drinks, it married the bitterness of a negroni with the sweetness of a Golden Cadillac.

Today’s “Of the Moment” collection draws upon specific vignettes occurring lately within the bar. “We increasingly draw inspiration from our bar and its features,” Perrone says. “We find that building on the essence of our bar makes the story of each cocktail creation more tangible for our guests who can recognize, appreciate, and feel part of our narrative.”

The glamorous bar is adorned with cubist-inspired wood paneling and long mirrors, transporting guests to a different time and era.
Courtesy of the Connaught Bar

Much is the same in their process. When the white gloves come off, the bartenders roll up their sleeves to embark on an exploration that considers five major factors: ice, glassware, garnish, flair, and story. Some experiments take weeks to perfect. (Although, according to Perrone, you cannot put a limit on perfection.) Others materialize effortlessly—their wildest ideas fast becoming reality.

“One day we decided to put marble in a cocktail,” Bargiani says of Set in Stone, a cocktail inspired by the marble enveloping the Connaught Bar. “After a few days, we realized that probably we would never be able to put marble in a cocktail. However, when we launched the menu we did have a cocktail with marble, and it was one of the most successful ones.”

To realize the impossible, they cooked an entire drink sous vide—a method in which ingredients are placed in a vacuum-sealed container then immersed in a hot water bath—a blend of gin, Genever, sherry, Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto, elicriso oil, and Vesper bitters. They then rested the concoction in a marble cask to accentuate the flavors before serving it with a stone-paper garnish that guests may inscribe with a personal message.

The process

The first element to consider is the ice: Its shape and size must cohere with the drink’s type of dilution, temperature, and texture—while also serving an aesthetic purpose. The size of the glassware very much depends on the style of drink: the lighter and easier the cocktail, the longer its vessel—the highball being a prime example.

As part of Connaught’s “Masterpieces” series, the Faraway Collins travels the world through its various flavors: Star of Bombay gin, sarsaparilla soda water, fresh yuzu juice, and eucalyptus-infused sugar syrup.
Danielle Bernabe

Texture (viscous, silky, effervescent) is also a fundamental aspect of drink development, contributing to the final flavor balance. The garnish must reflect and accentuate the elixir within the glass.

Take the Gate No. 1. First, Perrone and Bargiani looked to the hand-hammered iron gate opposite the main bar, which carries bottles of gin, Genever, red wine, vermouth, and port. They knew the notes and body of the wines combined with the maltiness of the Genever would be an ideal base.

A long glass—in this case, a Kyoto—reflected the height of the gate. For a finishing touch, they designed a chocolate sweet (a natural pairing with port) to sit delicately atop the rim and emulate the iron rods.

The Gate No. 1 is a nod to Connaught Bar’s iron gates, combining Old Duff Genever, Fords gin, Lagavulin 16 whisky, Belsazar Red vermouth, Château La Coste wine, port, milk jam, and Fix 8 Strawberry Tulsi Kombucha, and garnished with a chocolate depiction of the gate’s pattern.
Courtesy of the Connaught Bar

The final element tells the story and provides the flair, offering guests a takeaway—a memory, an anecdote, a feeling, the desire to visit again. With the Number 11, the bar’s legendary martini pour (a dramatically soaring movement that helps the mixture breathe) ascended to new heights.

Served tableside, it is dispensed from a machine that forcefully aerates the spirits with the power equivalent to a cascade 11 stories high. This technique opens up the flavors, enabling the cocktail to dance on the palate. A hand-cut diamond ice rock cools it in a coupe hand-painted by the bar team.

The Number 11 features the bar’s exclusive gin, vodka, Amalfi lemon oil, wine distillate, and five bitters (cardamom, tonka, ginseng and bergamot, lavender, and coriander).
Courtesy of the Connaught Bar

With each step, Perrone and Bargiani brainstorm playful and endearing notes to enrich the experience. Placing each imaginative cocktail on the table, they speak with great adoration as if reminiscing about a famed descendent: telling a story and conjuring a buzzy feeling beyond the drink itself.

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