Food & Drink

The Best Cocktail Bars in London

Published On 12/04/2013 Published On 12/04/2013
Ladies & Gentlemen
Courtesy of Ladies & Gentlemen

Londoners don’t even know how spoiled for choice we are when it comes to great drinks. The rest of the world looks at our sea of delicious watering holes with envy. Fact. Of course, this also means we are faced with one of the world’s most wonderful problems: given our cornucopia of options, it’s hard to know where to start, so we’ve helped narrow it down for you. While our hotel bars kill it, and our pubs & locals can probably one-up each other for days, these are the absolute best London cocktail bars you should be drinking in.

Satan’s Whiskers

Bethnal Green

Coming from the same cats who brought you The Hemingway and Hunter S, this place just oozes cool. Dark slatted shutters betray little of the outside, but once you’re in, you’ll find candlelit tables, strange taxidermy, old-school hip-hop, tasty snacks, and mind-blowing drinks. These guys were at Milk & Honey in its heyday and really know their stuff, treating you to a classic-heavy, daily-changing menu filled with drinks you know and drinks you’ll never forget.

Courtesy of the Blind Pig

The Blind Pig

Soho

Housed upstairs inside Jason Atherton’s Michelin-starred Social Eating House, this cocktail bar is way more than just a waiting pen. Filled with dark wood, leather booths, and paneled ceilings, this place offers up creative cocktails, frequently with puntastic names and atypical inspirations. We recommend ordering The Silver Screen, which is comprised of popcorn-infused Buffalo Trace bourbon, a "bespoke-a-cola" reduction, "3D" bitters, and lemon oils, served with a tiny striped bucket of popcorn pinned to the glass.

The Gibson | Tom Elms

The Gibson

Clerkenwell

On a particularly bleak stretch of road between Farringdon and Old St, this tiny, converted pub shines like a beacon of drinks against the dark night. Featuring frosted windows, Art Deco-influenced decor, and a drink list that would take you a month to drink through, these guys really mean business. It’s no surprise that the folks at the helm are formerly of The Nightjar and The Connaught; everything is presented with elegance and an abundance of picture-worthy garnishes. The best part: the drinks taste as good as they look.

Courtesy of The Cocktail Trading Co

The Cocktail Trading Co.

Brick Lane

From a merry band of award-winning bartenders, this is a place where the craft is taken seriously, but without pretension. Drinks are served in Chinese take-away boxes, wellies, and mouse traps, with tongue-in-cheek jokes, mood-changing lights, and general feelings of good cheer. While the menu itself changes fairly often, it’s always filled with surprises, like the Apairoteef, a cocktail armed with pisco, a lemon and cardamom infusion, lemon, white balsamic, sparkling wine... and a pair of teeth.

The Shrub & Shutter

The Shrub & Shutter

Brixton

With a bar that looks more like a kitchen laboratory than a spot for churning out ingredient-centric libations, this tiny space is all about loud tunes; fresh, unusual flavours; perfectly formed bites; and a big sign that Brixton is changing. There’s lots of fancy infusions, washes, and esoteric spirits lurking on the menu, notably in drinks like the Brixton Buyers Club, with Gin Mare, pineapple, sage, cardamom bitters, pineapple shrub, lime, sugar, seltzer, dehydrated ham, and pineapple chunks.

Hawksmoor Spitalfields Bar

Spitalfields Bar at Hawksmoor

Brick Lane

While you have probably earned meat sweats at one of the Hawksmoor temples of steak, you need to check out its basement vault of all things boozy: it’s a showstopper in its own right. While the whole group does great drinks, this den gets some special attention, with a regularly changing extra menu that sits perfectly next to the Hawksmoor classics. Pro tip: the food served down here is also incredible, so order up.

Ladies & Gentlemen

Ladies & Gentlemen

Kentish Town

Opened in a former Victorian public loo, this quirky neighborhood bar has few remnants of its former occupants. Instead, find a microdistillery making Highwayman gin (only 16 bottles a day), disco balls in toilets, and crazy-tasty drinks made with a side of fun. The menu changes a bit every day, using ingredients from local allotments, but it’s hard to go wrong here, thanks to cheekily named drinks put together with flair, like That Fire Drink (which, obviously, catches fire), Manga-hattan (with a seaweed infusion), or the Leprechaun Goes To Chinatown (with Irish spirit Bán Poitin and Asian spices).

7 Tales

Clerkenwell

Combine neon lights, hip-hop beats, and vending machines with super-slick service and inspired drinks, and suddenly you’ll be transported to a Tokyo nightlife-inspired world. Headed up by bar manager Geoff Robinson, who previously worked at Library members' club, Happiness Forgets, and Experimental Cocktail Club, this den hangs on the edge of sophistication and debauchery... which kind of makes sense, given that it’s under Jason Atherton’s seventh London venue, Sosharu. Grab hold of the Cold Tea with Nikka blended whisky, house "tea," and toasted coconut, or the Vancouver-influenced Gastown, with mezcal, Fernet Branca, Cynar, maple syrup, and bitters.

69 Colebrook Row

69 Colebrooke Row

Islington

Officially called "the bar with no name,” this small-but-perfectly-formed space is helmed by Tony Conigliaro, godfather of the London cocktail scene, who’s decked it out with a classic ‘50s-Italian-Riviera feel. The drinks themselves all feel timeless, yet there’s plenty of science going into their creation, with ingredients and methods developed in a lab by Broadway Market, including the Manhattan Steel Corp., a Manhattan twist with "Dry Essence."

Callooh Callay

Shoreditch

This staple of the East London cocktail scene is actually three bars in one. Up front, you’ve got a bustling fun party where PYTs down gorgeous drinks that come out at surprising speed. Next up, head through the wardrobe at the back (yes, really), and find a ‘70s-styled lounge perfect for gathering a crew to sit and Instagram drinks like the Tall & Oats, served with El Jimador blanco tequila, Pedro Ximénez, Angostura bitters, oat horchata, and a caramel waffle. As if that’s not enough, hidden in the back of the lounge, you’ll find a velvet-lined staircase that leads to the Jub Jub, which you'll enter via secret (and daily-changing) door code. The bartender changes every six weeks, giving this place free reign to design a specialty menu and theme all their own.

Bar Nightjar | Addie Chinn/Courtesy of Bar Nightjar

The Nightjar

Shoreditch

This extremely well-hidden, but not-quite-secret, speakeasy takes its pre-Prohibition-era theme quite seriously, with red walls, brass fittings, an Art Deco ceiling, mirrored friezes, and a wooden dance floor that roars with the sounds of vinyl and live ragtime piano. The bartenders, meanwhile, have gone to "extreme lengths" to procure obscure original sources/ingredients for their frankly amazing drinks, which include numbers like Beyond the Sea, which brings you Gin Mare, oyster leaf infusion, fino sherry, pink grapefruit, plankton air (whatever that is), and ume & yuzu salt, all served in a massive sea conch. Naturally.

Happiness Forgets

Hoxton

This low-key basement number set the bar for what a bartender owner/operator should strive for when opening a spot. Opened by Alastair Burgess, who worked over in New York at constant hotspot Pegu Club for a while, this is a true neighborhood cocktail bar where the drinks are inventive yet simple, lovingly made by passionate bartenders, and consumed by regulars, cocktail aficionados, and off-duty bartenders alike. This is also -- perhaps dangerously -- the kind of spot where you’ll stop by for a Perfect Storm (a twist on a Dark & Stormy) and find yourself several bespoke drinks in a few hours later.

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Haley Forest is a food & drinks writer whose mother is concerned about her liver. She assures her that she didn’t go to all these bars in one night, and drinks plenty of water. Follow her on all things social at @HCForest.

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1. Satan's Whiskers 343 Cambridge Heath Rd, London, E2 9RA

From the team behind The Hemingway and Hunter S, this occcult-tinged neighborhood watering hole is a trendy and delicious place to lounge with a drink. Dark slatted shutters betray little of the outside, but once you’re in, you’ll find candlelit tables, strange taxidermy, old-school hip-hop, tasty snacks, and mind-blowing drinks. These guys were at Milk & Honey in its heyday and really know their stuff, treating you to a classic-heavy, daily-changing menu filled with drinks you know and drinks you’ll never forget. It's not a huge space, and it's definitely popular, so make sure to get there early for a seat at the bar.

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2. The Blind Pig 58 Poland St, Soho, W1F 7NR (Soho)

Housed upstairs inside Jason Atherton’s Michelin-starred Social Eating House, this SoHo cocktail bar is way more than just a way station. Filled with dark wood, leather booths, and paneled ceilings, this place offers up creative cocktails, frequently with puntastic names and atypical inspirations. The entrance is a little hard to find—you'll need to locate the blindfolded pig doorknocker—but that only adds to the '20s speakeasy vibe of this little club. Signature drinks include the over-the-top Silver Screen, which is comprised of popcorn-infused Buffalo Trace bourbon, a "bespoke-a-cola" reduction, "3D" bitters, and lemon oils, served with a tiny striped bucket of popcorn pinned to the glass.

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3. The Gibson 44 Old Street, London, EC1V 9AQ (Clerkenwell)

Featuring frosted windows, Art Deco-influenced decor, and a drink list that would take you a month to drink through, The Gibson is a friendly neighborhood watering hole with grandeur. It’s no surprise that the folks at the helm are formerly of The Nightjar and The Connaught; everything is presented with elegance and an abundance of picture-worthy garnishes. The best part: the drinks taste as good as they look. It's a popular spot, but there's plenty of seating inside so there's never a line.

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4. The Cocktail Trading Co. 68 Bethnal Green Road, London, E1 6GQ (Shoreditch)

Owned and operated by three veterans of London’s bar scene, the Cocktail Trading Co. offers highly imaginative bespoke cocktails. From the first pour to the final serve, these libations excite and surprise – take, for example, the cleverly named Rum Forest Rum, which features aged Colombian rum, Chinotto wine, and tobacco and rose essence. Heck, you might even encounter drinks served in Chinese takeout boxes or rain boots, potentially garnished with sunglasses and toasted marshmallows. Between its numerous accolades, its “speakeasy-meets-Tiki bar” aesthetic, and the friendly staff, the CTC is a neighborhood destination for both industry folk and locals alike.

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5. The Shrub & Shutter 336 Coldharbour Ln, London, SW9 8QH (Brixton)

The Shrub & Shutter is a mixology wonderland in which imaginative cocktails reign supreme. Consider, for example, the barbecue coconut old fashioned: a whimsical combination of Ron Millianaro 15-year, coconut water reduction, angostura, and barbecue fat smoke, artfully presented in a blowtorched coconut husk. The kitchen offers fresh interpretations on classic British fare and adamantly uses locally sourced, organic ingredients. The place has a laboratory vibe to it -- a mélange of white-tiled walls, recipes scribbled on chalkboards, and shelves laden with beakers, bottles, and curious fauna -- quite fitting, considering the experimental nature of the drink list.

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6. Hawksmoor Spitalfields Bar 157B Commercial St, London, E1 6BJ (Shoreditch)

Nestled in the basement of the Hawksmoor restaurant in Shoreditch, Spitalfields Bar serves up award-winning cocktails and bar fare. From old staples like Shaky Pete’s Ginger Brew (gin, ginger, lemon, and London Pride) to more recent highlights like the Sunset Sazerac (strawberry cognac, coconut bourbon, pineapple bitters and absinthe), these impeccably mixed drinks don’t disappoint. Sip while you savor delicious snacks (short rib nuggets, anyone?), and enjoy the sultry coziness evoked by glazed brick walls, intimate alcove booths, and Art Deco-inspired copper countertops.

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7. Ladies and Gentlemen 2 Highgate Rd, London, NW5 1NR (Kentish Town)

Owned and operated by William Borrell, the producer of craft spirit Vestal Vodka, Ladies and Gentlemen is Kentish Town’s answer to artisanal cocktails. There’s a big focus on neighborhood pride here: everything is locally sourced, from the honey and fruit respectively used for syrups and garnishes to the Highwayman Gin that they make daily in an on-site, 16-litre copper vat. If the elegant presentation of each drink isn’t already enough for you, consider this: this sleek, bright space used to be a public bathroom in the Victorian era.

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8. 7 Tales 64 Turnmill Street, London, EC1M 5RR (Clerkenwell)

Descend into the basement of Izakaya spot Sosharu and you’ll find 7 Tales, the seventh brainchild of London restaurateur Jason Atherton. It’s the perfect marriage of elegant presentation and playfulness: consider the Champagne Papi, made with Perrier-Jouet NV, plum liquor, banana, and lactic sugar, garnished with a coin that you insert into the vending machine (yes, you heard us right: a vending machine), which then dispenses an absinthe-soaked sugar cube and a proverb; drop it in and watch it fizz while you contemplate your fortune. Bar bites take modern riffs on classic Japanese fare, while the winning combination of hip-hop and neon lights evokes the sultry, seedy ambience of Tokyo at night.

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9. 69 Colebrooke Row 69 Colebrooke Row, London, N1 8AA (Islington)

Officially called "the bar with no name,” this small-but-perfectly-formed space is helmed by Tony Conigliaro, godfather of the London cocktail scene, who’s decked it out with a classic ‘50s-Italian-Riviera feel. The drinks themselves all feel timeless, yet there’s plenty of science going into their creation, with ingredients and methods developed in a lab by Broadway Market, including the Manhattan Steel Corp., a Manhattan twist with "Dry Essence."

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10. Callooh Callay 65 Rivington St, London, EC2A 3AY (Shoreditch)

Craft cocktails and whimsy reign supreme at this award-winning Shoreditch spot. It’s like stepping into the Narnia of nightlife -- guests literally enter through an old Victorian wardrobe -- into a world of mixology-driven drinks like the Pyropia, which features Nori-infused El Jimador tequila, green apple sherbet, lime, and agave. Between the cassette tapes decked along the walls (get it?) to the slick, black leather furniture, the vibe is decidedly trendy. While the mid-century lounge in the back may be secret, the bar itself isn’t: plenty of Londoners come here to party on the weekends, so consider making a reservation.

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11. The Nightjar 129 City Rd, London, EC1V 1JB (Shoreditch)

Let the blues and booze flow. The Nightjar is a craft cocktail and jazz bar in a basement evocative of a Prohibition-era speakeasy (think Art Deco ceilings, brass fixtures, and red velvet furnishings), with specialty drinks corresponding to historic periods. Take, for example, the pre-Prohibition themed Toronto, made with Woodford Reserve, Fernet Branca, coffee and pecan maple syrup, orange blossom smoke, and candy floss. Yes, you should make reservations, and feel free to fire up your Instagram account: no one will judge you for taking photographs of these liquid pieces of art.

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12. Happiness Forgets 8-9 Hoxton Square, , London, N1 6NU (Shoreditch)

Happiness Forgets is subterranean speakeasy that’s also one of the sexiest spots in Shoreditch. Nestled in a discreet basement off Hoxton Square, there's a distinct lack of pretension in this cozy, dimly lit joint: you’ll find friendly banter, expertly mixed cocktails, and a convivial atmosphere evoked by books, liquor bottles, and candles along the shelves. Owned and operated by Alastair Burgess, whose hardcore training at Milk & Honey in London and famed Pegu Club in NYC is a testament to his mixology prowess, the watering hole is frequented by industry folk and locals alike.

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