“It’s performance art meets bottle,” says one patron sitting at Gillray’s Bar, at the London Marriott County Hall on London’s South Bank.
Forget the image of the run-of-the-mill hotel bar, with bland staff dispensing pallid lager and overpriced vodka tonics. At Gillray’s Bar, drinks are served with inspiring flavours, elan and a little bit of theatre. New ideas spill from the menu, created by the head bartender Sam Luis Mitchell, who has a passion for inventiveness. Cocktails here are half libation, half experience.
You can order Pandora Opening Her Box, Rooibos tea-infused Professor Cornelius Ampleforth Bathtub Gin, maraschino, white peach, king’s ginger and orgeat (an almond liqueur) served out of an actual Chinese box, or a Jubilee, which comes in a metal martini glass and is possibly the only time you’ll drink Bombay Sapphire mixed with rhubarb and ginger jam (along with mint and lemon juice).
Let yourself browse the playful list and discover Light Expelling Darkness, in which homemade Bacardi Carta Blanca spiced rum, Chambord, pineapple, orgeat syrup, lime and cointreau are heated in a metal cup, then sprinkled with cinnamon that ignites, dancing above the container like sparks from a bonfire.
Another dramatic drink is Regardez-Moi, which has “the DNA of a sweet Manhattan with herbal notes relating back to the chamomile smoke” — the chamomile smoke which is blown into a small carafe and held in with a sphere of ice. Rich scented smoke wafts up when you tip the concoction into the accompanying cut crystal glass, the ball of ice hitting with a satisfying plunk, the amber liquid spilling over it. Select this one and, like us, you’ll start something of a trend, as other drinkers see it and signal the bartender for a little alchemy of their own.
(Kevin, the charming French bartender who made mine, will happily oblige.)
In addition to the mixology, the bar also makes its own spiced rum and sloe gin and has what amounts to a library of gins. Sloe gin and gin are specialties — try the honey & clove sloe gin sour, while it’s available; the sloe gin takes six months to make and once this batch is gone, it’s gone. Sam, in addition to head bartender duties, is a brand ambassador for Cotswolds Gin, the small artisanal distillery based in Stourton. Expect to be converted to this London dry style gin if you get a chance to chat — his enthusiasm for his favourite spirits is infectious.
Sipping cocktails here is made all the better by the surroundings: striking yellow sofas that riff on the Chesterfield theme, artwork by the 18th-century British political satirist James Gillray, wood panelling that lends a clubby, gracious air.
Surely the view can’t hurt: a picture window frames Westminster Bridge, Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. On the clear day when I visited, I sat with a group while end-of-day light streamed in, bathing the bar in gold. Once the sun went down, Parliament and the city lights reflecting off the Thames made the room even more glamorous and romantic.
Nearby you have the London Eye, the London Aquarium, the South Bank with its restaurants, bars, and performance spaces.
Stay at the hotel with your children and you’ll also find a respectable list of mocktails (my daughter would work her way through all of them); or leave the kids at home and enjoy a grown-up evening out or overnight stay.
At the end of the night, you might find the luxury of the newly refurbished bedrooms irresistibly beckoning…and you’ll have something of a dilemma. Should you hurry up to sink into the heavenly bed upstairs or sample one more drink from the list?
Consider the Very Slippy Weather, made with Grey Goose, limoncello, and amaretto, topped with meringue that’s blowtorched at the table. Think pudding in a martini glass. It might just waylay you.
Westminster Bridge Road
London SE1 7PB
+44 (0) 207 928 5200
Specialty cocktails start at £13, glasses of wine start at £7.50, a 50ml measure of gin from £8.50