The Popup Martini Bar


Several months ago, my auntie suggested that we hold a popup martini bar in our family restaurant. The venue is the Gallery, on the Main Street of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull (a beautiful and friendly Hebridean Island in Argyll, western Scotland).


We thought about the idea for a while but it remained firmly in the land of fantasy for quite some time. Then, last month, my Mum decided that we should just go ahead and do it. If it doesn’t work, we will learn some lessons, and if it does work, well, it will be a fantasy fulfilled – for me at least, and we might be able to organise some more.


Given that martinis aren’t exactly common tipples at the drinking establishments on the island, we thought it would be fun to do something new and different, particularly for the locals, although it was peak tourist season so we thought there would be several visitors around as well. Ultimately though, I think I just wanted to try my hand at finally being a martini barman.


So, we bought plenty of martini glasses, a shed load of gin, commandeered a freezer to get it all in, planned the processes and the structure of the evening, and put out some adverts and social media posts about it. With some extremely useful guidance from the restaurant staff and the creative talents of my mother, we came up with a plan, who would serve what, which food items we would include on the menu, the types of martini we would serve and even a playlist.


The Gallery is very conducive to a martini atmosphere. The building is a beautiful old church, the tallest structure on the island, lovingly restored (a work still in progress) by members of the family (such as my gravity-defying brother in the above image) and some skilled friends on the island.


It has great acoustics and a good sound system. In addition, because it is already a restaurant we have an alcohol license in place, tables, chairs, equipment and staff members, which made it a lot easier for us to prepare.


On the day of the event, we were exceptionally lucky with the weather. The sun was out and it was positively hot.


Given that our restaurant has an outdoor courtyard, sociably adjacent to Tobermory Main Street (it’s good for people watching and catching up with passers-by) it’s the perfect setting for sitting out and enjoying a coffee or drink whilst overlooking the harbour.


Word of advice: if you’re going to do this sort of thing, try to practise the entire process in advance. That includes testing all your equipment! I stupidly didn’t check our sound system entirely and at the last minute discovered that my phone (with my pre-made playlist) wasn’t compatible with the sound system. Thank god for local saint Wiksey who turned up and fixed it all in the space of about 5 minutes. Thank you, you technical genius!


Otherwise the freezers were good and the gin and glasses were suitably chilled. I also took my own special martini knife, peeler and chopping board. I’m really fussy about my martini kit which can come across as *slightly* obsessive but if something is out of place it will annoy me no-end and distract me from my goal of getting everyone tipsy.

We were almost ready.


On the day of the event I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. What if we ran out of glasses? What if it didn’t work? What if there was an alcohol related crime? What if we ran out of gin (itself an alcohol related crime…)?

It didn’t help that while I was walking along the Main Street in the afternoon, nearly everyone I spoke to mentioned the event. I was starting to worry that we would be overwhelmed.

I put together a menu, outlining the martinis we would offer:

  • The simple classic martini (please specify if you would like it sweet, dry or made with vodka) with a twist of lemon (or olive if preferred)
  • A dirty martini (with an olive and 3-6 tsp brine according to preference)
  • A hot martini (with 2-5 drops of Tabasco sauce according to preference)
  • A hot ‘n’ dirty martini (combining the above two)
  • A Gibson martini (with a pickled onion)
  • A Paisley martini (with 2 tsp whisky)

We also served a selection of additional drinks like beer, wine, pimms and prosecco.


Mum and I went over the best layout for the drinks. We would serve the martinis at the bar on a plate with a small dish of olives and some miniature pretzels on the side. Additional food was also available on the menu. 


The lovely Turnbull family supplied us with some fat, juicy oysters (my favourite food and an amazing martini accompaniment) while the beautiful Sally Swinbanks of the Tobermory Fish Company supplied us with additional seafood bites which again go fantastically with a martini.


Minutes to go, the music was playing and we stood in expectation. I was very tempted to pour then down a martini to relax but I resisted and my colleague Catriona kindly made me an espresso instead which worked. Then, the doors opened at 5 o’clock and we were ready to go.


My first order came in almost immediately for four martinis and I got to work, assembling them as fast as I could. No sooner had I served them had two more orders come in. I continued at the same pace. I didn’t stop or slow down again until 8 o’clock when we closed. At one or two points a queue had formed. What a rush. I was worried that we might end up making over 100 martinis, and would then run out of things. In the end we only ran out of the miniature pretzels and I served 250 martinis. A personal record! I was over the moon. I was also absolutely thrilled with my colleagues who seemed to effortlessly keep a lid on the proceedings, serving, cleaning and arranging everything with good humour.


Unfortunately because I was so busy I had barely lifted my gaze up from the bar for the whole time so I hadn’t had a chance to see how everything was progressing, but I was told that people were having a good time. Some of the guests kindly shared their photographs with me and allowed me to use them on the blog.


As it went so well I look forward to doing it again in the future. I would also be interested to see how it works out if the weather isn’t as good. If everyone is inside the view wouldn’t be as romantic but the atmosphere could be brilliant.


At some point in the future I would like to co-operate with my talented cousin Cat Loud and do a joint martini-cabaret evening. You can see her perform this month at the Edinburgh Fringe.

I also want to hold a martini night on a Friday so that more people are able to join us (our first one was on a Tuesday). I’d also like to do it in the winter when locals have more time on their hands for a good party.

Watch this space and thank you everyone who helped and those who came on the night!

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The Henri Toulouse Lautrec in Kennington, 3/5

 
The Henri Toulouse Lautrec is no ordinary venue. People travel here from all over the world for its live music performances. It also serves fantastic food.

However – the martinis do not hit the mark just yet, but with a little re-adjustment this place could be a cocktail bar with real punch – a Moulin Rouge of south London.

  

I would struggle to describe the venue accurately: the friendly, strange, shabby-chic, bohemian, French, Anglo-French, theatrical, run-down yet sophisticated Kennington brasserie and jazz bar caters to many tastes.

It’s not gimmicky or faddy, it’s more established and reputable than that. It’s got the staff and the skilled chefs and musicians too. The food is excellent by the way – and they deliver, although you wouldn’t get to experience the atmosphere.

  

The bar doesn’t seem to fit in with its Elephant and Castle environs (this is a good thing). Indeed it seems to have survived much longer than any of the other buildings in this part of the city. 

  
Something about it gives me the impression that we might have to sign petitions in the coming years to save it from ‘gentrification’ and being turned into a soulless block of luxury apartments. Londoners – you know what I’m talking about!

For now though, it enjoys a crammed timetable featuring live acts every night. This three-floor venue can get very busy. However, during the ‘violet hour’ – that precious cocktail moment that lasts somewhere from 5pm until dinner time – the venue is often virtually empty. In-keeping with continental culture, the diners tend to arrive later in the evening to eat.

I feel that some sort of invigoration of the cocktail bar, maybe the creation of an ‘aperitif happy hour’ could boost this place no-end, increase profits earlier in the evening, while enhancing rather than compromising its French ambience. For instance, they could name their happy hour cinq á sept (which literally means ‘5-7’ and is usually used to refer to a post-work drinks event in Quebec) or l’heure du bonheur (literally ‘the hour of happiness’). I would definitely attend.

  

Of course, the aspect I would focus on most prominently would be the martini. This bar has great potential. The servers ask all the right questions: which gin would you like it made with? Shaken or stirred? Sweet, dry or dirty? Olive or lemon twist?

  

However, neither the glasses nor the gin are cold, while excessive stirring and shaking the drink with ice left it noticeably watered down. The bar was also left unattended for fairly long periods of time. I believe the staff were helping out elsewhere. Perhaps if they had a dedicated cocktail waiter here during the crucial martini o’clock period this place would have a much higher footfall at that time of the day and we wouldn’t be left waiting around for service.

  
 
I liked the lemon garnish – an appealing shape to watch spiralling and contracting as you swirl the drink. I don’t think it was properly squeezed into the glass before pouring but it was long enough for the oil and citrus flavour to permeate the drink quite nicely.

I must also point out that their Negronis are excellent. Bravo.

  

The nibbles we ordered were also delectable. The Henri Toulouse Lautrec really excels at its food. I would otherwise prefer blinis that you can eat with one hand while you hold your glass with the other, but I will forgive this inconvenience purely because of the taste of this smoked salmon dish. It was delicious.

So, in summary:

Pros

  • It’s a great venue with charm and character
  • The food is excellent
  • It has huge cocktail potential

Cons

  • The gin wasn’t cold enough
  • The martini was too watered down
  • The bar was unattended for long periods
  • The place was empty during cocktail hour – perhaps the latter could be fixed by addressing the former three issues.

The Henri Toulouse Lautrec is worth many visits and I am very fond of this venue, so I hope that my criticism is seen as a demonstration of its huge potential from a martini perspective rather than a damnation. I will definitely be calling back for an encore or three.

  

MEATMission in Hoxton

  
A trendy-gritty burger bar with a creative menu and sinful atmosphere. A sister of Meat Liquor, MEATMission excels at ‘the dirty burger’ concept.

Expect greasy, gluttonous, satisfying burgers in good quality buns (or wrapped in lettuce if requested) to the backdrop of dark decor and an imposing musical selection (you might find it too noisy but I enjoyed it).

  

Their drink selection is also impressive. I obviously had to try their “Full English Martini”, a classic (Tanqueray and Lillet Blanc) served with egg and bacon.

  

Some of the non-burger items are also highly recommended. The fried pickles are to die for and given the calorie content it might be a price you have to pay. But still definitely worth it.
  

Make sure you’re hungry before ordering.
And be prepared for it to get messy.  

  

My friends and I ordered a selection of burgers and wings.

  

The diversity of the menu means it’s worth coming with a small group so you can try different dishes, but if you go with too many people you won’t be able to hear one another over the music. 

When my drink arrived the gin was cold (but not frozen) and it was served in a coupe glass rather than a standard martini glass (London needs to address this issue).   

Nonetheless, the martini was clean and crisp. I was also dying to taste the accompanying egg and bacon. It was a quails egg served in a shot glass with crunchy bacon bits and salt. Obviously it was a lot smaller than a full English breakfast but I was not disappointed. The salty/savoury flavour and contrasting textures were a perfect amuse-bouche, a delectable martini accompaniment and really whet my appetite before the food arrived.

The food arrived on retro trays with much needed paper and superb (and undoubtedly unhealthy) sauces.  It was all very tasty and satisfying. The wings were also exquisite. I particularly liked the sambal ones. Om nom nom.

You might need a wash after eating. I would describe the food as satisfying and dirty while the atmosphere was definitely a bit of fun for grown-ups.

 

And if you do like their “raucous, relentless and rowdy” music you can listen online to their radio station MEATtransMISSION.

  
In short, I would recommend visiting this place if you are hungry and in the company of people whom you don’t mind seeing your face covered in grease as you gobble down a giant meat sandwich. 

However, for the martini itself I can only award a 3.5/5. I loved the creativity of the garnish and title while the high quality ingredients (Tanqueray and Lillet Blanc) cannot be faulted. However, I would prefer if MEATMission kept its gin and glasses (martini glasses, not coupe glasses) in the freezer. And that’s it! That’s all that would transform MEATMission into martini greatness.

Oh and if you go, you’ve got to try the fried pickles with blue cheese sauce. The end. 

A martini for weekend introverts

Have you had a long week at work?

Instead of hitting the pub or attending ‘junipaluza’ in London, do you feel more inclined to stay indoors and unwind in solitude?

E.B White described martinis as “the elixir of quietude” so they are absolutely perfect for relaxing at home in peace rather than going crazy on the town.

  

So, as a suggestion, pour yourself a classic martini.

Then soothe yourself with the sublime vocals of Erykah Badu and the song “On and On”.

The song and the video seem to strike a ‘martini chord’ after a busy day, week or lifetime.

Martini Music

Setting and atmosphere are very important when it comes to serving a martini. Lighting and company play a part, but so too does the accompanying soundtrack. It could be rain on the window or the roaring of a fire, it could be a live singer or even an orchestra. Ideally it should be quiet enough for you to hold a conversation with your partner or drinking buddies. It is also preferably soft and in the background. It should ideally be worthy of the quality of the drink, and not so fast-paced it might encourage you to gulp rather than sip.

Below you will find one or two suggestions covering some different styles. The aim is to be soft and sophisticated, to cushion your ears while your anaesthetise your brain. Please feel free to comment below if you have any suggestions yourself:

Some post-war exotica from Les Baxter.

Some South Asian chillout music from Christophe Goze.

From Matthew Dear, it’s not the most conventional martini music, but I like it’s slow, intense electronic buildup.

Some Nordic chillout music from Röyksopp.

A nice, warm relaxing number from Roxy Music.

Classical music can make a very good accompaniment to a martini. For this blog piece I’ve chosen Ravel’s Boléro because it builds slowly and softly into intensity. On the one hand it brings the warmth of the Iberian peninsula (it was an orchestral transcription of Albénitz’s piano suite Iberia) while on the other hand it is forever associated in my mind with the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics where British pair Torvill and Dean wowed the judges with their ice dancing performance: cold and smooth like a perfect martini.

However, when it comes to classic music bear in mind that much of it was written to be listened to intently, not simply played in the background. You might end up with the intensity of both the drink and the music competing with one another – see below for an example!

I am increasingly a fan of the opera and if you look above at the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Onegin performed at the Bolshoi theatre in Moscow, you will see how magnificent it can be. But I think it’s too intense to accompany a martini. You might want one after all the spectacular drama though. Ah those Russians…

And last but certainly not least, here we go with one of the definitive musical icons associated with the martini. Smooth, sexy, sophisticated and with just a little hint of danger, here is Dean Martin singing Quien Sera (Sway). There is so much of his music that could be used for martini o’clock.

The Japanese Pickled Ginger Martini

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Get ready for winter with this ice-cold Japanese-Russian-British infusion. If Moscow cuts off Europe’s gas supplies this is how to stay warm!

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I love gari (Japanese pickled ginger) and wanted to incorporate it into a drink for ages. Similar to making Limoncello the aim is to infuse clear spirit and add it to a classic martini.

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Take 1 small pile of gari slices (as in the picture above – the same amount you would be served with a dish in a Japanese restaurant) per 100ml clear spirit. Fill a container with the required ginger and clear spirit.

Add 1 tablespoon of sugar per 100ml, shake/stir until it has dissolved and leave for at least a week to infuse. For this recipe I used 340ml and the equivalent of 3-4 small piles of gari to infuse the spirit. I used Russian vodka but Polish or any other varieties are all fine (depending on your taste and/or national affiliations). Actually it doesn’t harm to use poorer quality vodkas for this recipe. Save good quality vodka for tasting in its own right.

When the time comes to pour, take a chilled martini glass and mix with the following measures:

Add 1 measure of sweet vermouth (or to taste)
Add 2 measures of the infused ginger vodka
Add 3-4 measures of chilled gin

Garnish with a slice of pickled ginger. If you have pink slices these are more visually attractive (I didn’t have any to hand for my latest attempts). When you finish the drink and eat the garnish it sends a bitter-warming-spicy chill down your spine.

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The ginger adds a nice warming quality to the drink. This makes it perfect for a cold evening, be it a clear day when you can wrap up warm and watch the early sunset outside, or for sipping indoors in front of a fire.

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You can also serve the ginger vodka straight up in a frozen shot glass if you want. Again, garnish with a slice of pickled ginger.

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Winter is the perfect time for this!