Review: Experimental Cocktail Club, Gerrard St, W1

We visited a new speakeasy last Saturday night – and we got farther than the front door, in contrast to the night before.  Admittedly, it was a stretch to think we could have walked in at 10pm on a Friday, but at the time, we thought it might have just been that we were both in work clothes.   Anyway, having gotten in last night, we can report there is no hipster dress code, and that they are friendlier than any speakeasy I’ve been to before.  It’s possible they have not have gotten the full memo on how to do this sort of thing.

This was the Experimental Cocktail Club, 13 Gerrard Street.  On one of the main streets of Chinatown, tucked between loud red-painted restaurants, you’re nodded past a battered metal door by an unobtrusive doorman, nip up a narrow flight of stairs, and find yourself amidst two floors of old school cocktail elegance.  (If you’ve spent time in NYC, think Double Happiness meets Milk and Honey.)   Low light, candles, jazz on the hi-fi – check.  Dozens of bottles of brown liquors, crystal glasses, tin ceiling – check.  Skinny bartenders with wispy beards in vests – check.  The standard mixologist “I’m a professional, and this is serious business” attitude?  Not to be seen; our bartender was a sunny Australian who kept checking with us to make sure everything was all right.

The cocktails really are experimental, and just a bit challenging – Caroline had something built around absinthe and plum wine, and I had something with sazerac and bitters served neat. (I thought it tasted like licorice with an aftertaste of tomato juice; C thought the aftertaste was of tobacco, and then she impressed me by telling me that made sense, because tobacco and tomatoes were both from the same plant family.)  Another drink had rum, cream, egg whites, something else, and then was topped with ground nutmeg.  All of the drinks were OK, none of them were great, but that’s fine.  They really couldn’t be any clearer what they are going for, given the name of the place.  And while it may be the case that most of the best combinations of spirits and mixers are already spoken for – given the dedicated efforts of hundreds of years of barmen around the world – I admire their spirit and will be glad to support their continuing research.

Although they were really pushing the nonstandard drinks, they didn’t seem to mind when I asked if they’d be willing to make me something more traditional.  Their Old Fashioned, in keeping with the rest of it, was not bad, but not great.  Continuing the bizarre customer-friendliness, our Antipodean friend asked if I wanted it made any particular way, but I asked him to make it however he saw fit.  The bourbon was well-sweetened by the sugar, and I believe there were some bitters, and the orange peel was very fresh.  But there was no muddled cherry at the bottom, and the whole drink was just a bit sweet and could have had a bit more zing (either through soda water or bitters).  Also, the ice was merely cubed, rather than being from a block frozen from spring water using eco-friendly techniques and then chipped off with an authentic 1920s railroad spike.  I’d give it three stars.

We were there early on a Saturday night and the crowd was a bit mixed . . .more than one couple clearly on awkward dates, others looking around expectedly like they wanted something more to be happening.  (Admittedly those couples may now be writing a blog somewhere using the same words to describe us.)  But fine, that’s who’s in a dark cocktail bar at 7:30pm on Saturday, and we were glad to get a seat.  The jazz that was on when we got there was well-curated, and the DJ – who was sitting at a table with a friend and clearly having a great time, not standing apart or in a booth squinting with an earphone clamped to one ear, trying to make it look like beat-matching is brain surgery – segued smoothly to harder-hitting stuff as the crowd gradually shifted from tourists to hipsters.  We left at 9pm to go to Polpetto; next time I imagine we’ll go later (reserving a table in advance) and make sure we’re dressed for the doorman, just in case.

Bottom line, good enough cocktails in an especially nice place.   Also, a good option for a nonstandard early evening drink in the Piccadilly Circus area; they are open 6 p.m. -3 a.m. all days except Sunday.   On their website (experimentalcocktailclublondon.com) they list the phone number for reserving a table and also say that they reserve 50% of their capacity for walkins.

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