Nick Strangeway sips from a chilled glass, strokes his goatee beard and looks thoughtful.
“This is an afternoon-of-several-Martinis sort of Martini, not a one-Martini-only Martini,” he says, and sips again.
Strangeway, 42, won the Tales of the Cocktail award for World’s Best Bartender in New Orleans in 2008. He’s the man behind London bars such as Hix and Hawksmoor. He travels the world for Sixth Senses Resorts & Spas and his consulting company, Strangehill, works with Jameson, Beefeater and Wyborowa.
Who better to lead the hunt for London’s finest Martini? For practical reasons we confine ourselves to a short list of six venues and set out with a Bloomberg Television camera.
Pinchito (7 out of 10 points): Tobias Blazquez-Garcia, a native of Ibiza, employs the throwing technique: mixing the drink by pouring the liquid at arm’s length from one glass to another. Throwing -- which was developed in Cuba and reached the U.K. via Spain -- is somewhere between shaking and stirring. Apart from its visual appeal, throwing aerates the Martini, giving it a light texture.
“I love it,” Strangeway says. “It’s a Martini that’s a great aperitif. It’s an aperitif that you could have as an aperitif to an aperitif, so you could have a couple of them at least and it’s a great pre-dinner drink.”
Redhook (6.5/10): Tim Philips, an Australian mixologist, makes a vodka Martini in the early-20th-century style of the Delmonico Hotel, using orange bitters and Grey Goose. He says it’s important to allow the drink to rest, like a steak. His innovation is to serve it with a twist of cucumber. Strangeway’s main reservation is that he prefers gin Martinis.
“It’s got a lovely flavor. You wouldn’t expect a cucumber to add so much flavor. It’s a very nice afternoon drink. I could have more than a couple of those on an afternoon. I could have a couple of those right now so be careful. I might drink yours.”
69 Colebrooke Row (9.5/10): This is the bar of Tony Conigliaro, a friend of Strangeway who is famed among cocktail fans for his private laboratory and for concoctions that owe more to Heston Blumenthal than Johnnie Walker. Conigliaro adds an essence of grape seeds, which he says are high in tannins and polyphenols. These create a dryness on the tongue that tells the brain to produce saliva, improving the taste. His aim is to create a loop of flavor within the drink.
“That’s Martini nirvana isn’t it?” Strangeway says. “It’s interesting that someone has tried to make the perfect Martini from a scientific angle. It’s long and it’s full flavored. You get all the flavors of all the botanicals in the gin, you get the botanicals in the vermouth and yet it’s still dry. That’s how I like my Martini.”
Purl (8.5/10): If Conigliaro’s a drinks alchemist, Tristan Stephenson is more Harry Potter. Dry ice drifts across his new basement bar in Marylebone as he prepares a Martini using liquid nitrogen. There’s a touch of Michael Jackson, too, as he dons a single glove and stirs the Tanqueray Ten gin with a temperature probe. The aim of the freezing is to suppress the alcohol and to release the spicy botanicals. He uses an atomizer to spray the glasses with vermouth and garnishes with spheres of reconstituted olives. The Martini is as viscous as a BP slick.
“It’s very full-flavored and you get this huge richness coming through,” Strangeway says. “It’s very, very full bodied. This is another example where somebody has taken something from the kitchen and brought it into the bar. That’s the way things have to advance: taking advantage of everything that’s available to us. I love the use of the technology and I love the use of the innovation but I like more dilution.”
Connaught Bar (8.5/10): The Connaught is known for its Martini trolley, where drinkers are offered a choice of bitters. Strangeway went for lavender and I for cardamom as Agostino Perrone mixed our drinks. Strangeway is impressed.
“I love the style of the place,” he says. “I love the theater of the trolley coming toward us, the choice of the different bitters. It’s a lovely balanced drink as well. It’s not too heavy, very subtle. I’m very glad we made this on our Martini pilgrimage. It’s a different style of theater, more classical, but the drink is lovely by its dilution.”
Dukes Bar (9.5/10): Dukes Bar is reckoned to be the place where Ian Fleming created the classic James Bond line, “Shaken not stirred.” It’s a destination for lovers of the classic Martini and there’s no shortage of customers sitting at tables, whispering as they patiently wait for their favorite cocktail. It’s a world away from the Spartan chic of 69 Colebrooke Row or the subterranean intrigue of Purl. Strangeway loves it. As at the Connaught, there’s no question of filming indoors, so we head outside into the rain, tottering down the steps and growing increasingly emotional after an afternoon of Martinis.
“Dukes is the British ancestral home of the Martini,” Strangeway says. “This, for me, is Martini heaven. When you go into a great bar that has been here for a long time, you feel the atmosphere seep out of the woodwork and out of the paintwork and therefore the drinks are affected by the history,” Strangeway says. “If I could have one last drink on earth I’d come here and I’d have a lovely little Italian gentleman come and wheel that trolley out and I’d have him make me a Martini as he did for us. What a great way to go.
“What’s in this glass is not just the liquor, it is the history of a Martini, the history of the Martini in London and therefore based on that, and the quality of the drink, I would score this equal to Tony’s most wonderful Martini.”
Pinchito, 32 Featherstone Street, London, EC1Y 8QX. Redhook, 89-90 Turnmill Street, EC1M 5QU. 69 Colebrooke Row, N1 8AA. Purl, 50-54 Blandford Street, W1U 7HX. Connaught Bar, Carlos Place, W1K 2AL; Dukes Hotel, St James’ Place, SW1A 1NY.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)