The London Bar at Gatwick Airport

I had to fly last minute from London to Glasgow.

I was in Gatwick South terminal on a Saturday night. I had come through security but I hadn’t had dinner or a much needed martini. So off I went in search of something to quench my thirst.

The expensive caviar bar downstairs in the south terminal sadly doesn’t do martinis, although it has some exquisite vodkas and accompanying nibbles. 

Instead, I wandered upstairs and came across what looked to be my oasis in the desert: The London Bar.


Martinis were on the menu for £10, with the seeming ability to choose which gin or vodka you would like it made from.

I was quickly served by a friendly member of staff who asked if I wanted gin or vodka, but this seemed to be the extent of my choice. I was served Bombay Saphire without being asked if I would prefer an alternative. I was disappointed, given that they had an impressive selection including Martin Miller’s, the Botanist and Jensens gin, although Bombay is a suitable choice. 

Nonetheless, my server earned back points by using Noilly Prat as the vermouth and the drink was stirred, not shaken, which is to my preference, although a choice should be offered to the customer.

They offered me an olive in the martini as a garnish or lemon peel if I preferred which was another point earner. I chose lemon as per usual. Anyone can drop an olive in a glass but in handling a lemon a server reveals their skill and consideration. 

My server also peeled an exceptionally generous ribbon of lemon peel and wrapped it around a straw over the glass to impart a significant amount of lemon oil into the drink.


Again, this is to my preference as I like my lemon oil, although it is customary to use a smaller length of peel. Some drinkers prefer only a finger-nail-sized piece to flavour the drink. 

Furthermore, the garnish was so large that towards the end of the drink it kept falling from the glass onto my face like an unwarranted kiss from an unwanted lover.


Personally, even though I am a lemon fan, I would usually cut and shape the garnish after squeezing its oil into the glass.

This means that it looks nicer and you don’t have to wrestle the garnish with your face every time you drink. 

The size of the glass is also worth pointing out.

It is the correct size for a larger cocktail with several ingredients, but for a dry martini it was very disproportionate.


The setting was relatively cool, but as an airport lounge it’s always going to have a natural air of excitement. I liked the lighting around the bottles. It was what caught my eye in the first place. I found the seats slightly uncomfortable after 20 minutes, but luckily “the martini had landed” by this point. Otherwise, some of the seats had plug sockets to charge your devices, which was handy.

The only other thing I would recommend for a good martini would be to at least have the house gin and glasses kept in the freezer. Of course, space is at a premium in a small bar but I would pay premium for a good martini. Otherwise, at £10 per drink I would say that it’s not the best martini you’re ever going to have, but it’s good value for your money in an airport lounge.

If you go, specify which gin or vodka you would like in advance. And don’t miss your flight. 

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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier… Drunk

Who would serve a jug or pitcher of martini at a party?

Oh wait, only Kim Philby, one of Britain’s most notorious traitors.

  
I’ve just read a book entitled “a spy among friends” by Ben MacIntyre. It was the first book I’ve read in a long time that I struggled to put down. It documents the story of Harold ‘Kim’ Philby as he worked his way into the inner sanctums of British intelligence.

He was considered trustworthy for decades because he was seen as a part of the British ‘establishment’ (he came from a reputable family, went to public school, and attended Cambridge University). 

In stark contrast, however, he was a member of the infamous Cambridge Spy Network who wreaked untold damage on Western Cold War activities.

  

Philby was recruited by Soviet agents shortly after he graduated and provided Moscow with extensive British and American secrets for many years. By the time he defected to the USSR in the 1960s it is estimated that hundreds, if not thousands of people had died because of his actions.

The pressures of intelligence work evidently led to heavy drinking amongst most agents (this might continue today – I am not fully aware, although I’ve been told that consumption is a lot lower than it used to be).

The pressures of being a mole in this already stressful environment evidently took a particularly high toll on Philby – as well as his long-suffering family: his mother and second wife both died alcoholics while he himself was regularly seen in an unconscious state of inebriation. 

Despite his own alcohol intake, however, he managed to survive to the age of 76. In the end, he died in Moscow in 1988, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, ending the ideological regime he had believed in so steadfastly; the way of governance he betrayed so much for.

While reading about his eventful life I noticed the reappearance of martinis on several occasions and made a note of each one. Sir Ian Fleming pops up in the stories here and there, of course famous for his creation of martini fan James Bond.

  
A personal favourite was the story involving the cocktail bar in World War Two Istanbul. The lady who ran the bar mixed up “volcanic martinis” for her British officer clientele, then sat back and listened while they drunkenly spilled our state secrets for her to pass on to the Nazis. In vino veritas indeed, or should that be in martinis veritas?

The noteworthy ‘pitchers’ of martini were recorded at cocktail and dinner parties held at the Philby household in Washington DC. Intense drunkenness ensued with sometimes shocking social results.

Such parties involved an even greater level of risk when Philby allowed for the mixing of British agents, American agents and British spies working for the Soviets. I think it’s a wonder he got away with being a spy for so long without letting slip during one of his drunken binges. Evidently his lips were sealed even when he was at his most intoxicated. Stalin would have been impressed.

  
During later cocktail parties at his home in Beirut he taught his young son how to mix up a “fierce” martini for the guests. Start ’em young I say. I was taught how to pour G&Ts and whiskies with water for the family when I was well below drinking age so I don’t think it’s the worst thing to happen. Indeed I enjoyed being allowed to socialise with the adults at that age. It was a privilege for the well-behaved.

  
Ultimately though, Kim Philby’s life appears to have been one of loneliness and an ultimate lack of fulfilment. No-one ever truly knew him. While sexually intimate with several women, he was never psychologically intimate enough with anyone to truly bond or connect with them.

While I use martinis to bond with others, he used them to lull his potential foes and numb the pains of his own personal transgressions.

In the end he died with few, if any friends. He had betrayed most of them for an ideology soon to fall apart. What a terrible use of martinis.

I’ll tell you what isn’t a waste though: this book! 

The Tsukemono Gibson Martini

“Tsukemono Gibson sounds like some sort of Bond Girl.”

 
This is a very simple variation on the classic, elegant Gibson Martini. The only difference is that instead of a pickled onion garnish I’m using a gentler, more subtle addition: Japanese Tsukemono pickles.

  
I served a Gibson martini with Tsukemono as an accompaniment once which is what gave me the idea

These pickles are easy to make (recipe here). You can also buy them in Asian cooking shops and some Japanese takeaway restaurants. They’re often coloured red with shiso leaf so the visual effect will be different if you make them at home.

  

Select some pickles.

  
Thread them onto a bamboo skewer. If you’ve only got toothpicks to hand just use those, with only one of the pickles.

Pour the martini using the classic recipe but without lemon:

  • Take a chilled glass from the freezer.
  • Pour a measure (or to taste) of vermouth, usually between 2tsp and 30ml.
  • Top up with around 100-130ml gin or vodka from the freezer.
  • Use the garnish to stir the drink.
  • Chin chin.

The martini goes well with Japanese food, as well as frightfully English cucumber sandwiches.

It also goes well if you make it with some of the more subtly flavoured Polish vodkas (although note that  Żubrówka would be too powerful a flavour for the fragile Tsukemono). It will also work well if you make it with the cucumber-infused Hendricks gin.

I don’t really believe in sake-tinis (you might have noticed their glaring absence on this blog) but yes, if you insist, they might go well with one.

Kanpai!

Bar Arabica, Borough Market, 2/5

A relatively pleasant martini was let down by bad service and poor value for money.

 

It wouldn’t take much to perfect their martini but some of the fundamentally poor elements of the restaurant will be more difficult to rectify.

  
Nestled under a railway arch in Borough Market, I had high hopes for this Levantine restaurant. However, the service wasn’t particularly attentive, the portions were small and the martini didn’t do it for me.

  
I was looking forward to a tasty za’tar man’oushe, even though I have regularly been warned that you just can’t get good Lebanese food in London. Sadly it didn’t match my Beiruti experiences. It was a little dry and lacking in fresh ingredients.

  
Other portions were small and not cheap, although we did like boregi (essentially the same as börek – a spinach and feta pastry) which was crunchy and satisfying.

  
The atmosphere was pleasant, with the rumble of trains and nice lighting, but some of our dishes were forgotten. Indeed we felt somewhat forgotten on occasion.

When I asked about the gin used in their martini I was told it was a home-made compound gin, but the waiter couldn’t tell me anymore about it.

  
It arrived chilled but not especially cold, in a coupe glass, with a strip of lemon peel. As always, I feel the need to urge London restaurants serving martinis to keep their gin and glasses (martini glasses, not coupe glasses!) in the freezer.

However, this martini was redeemed by its particular lemon flavour – it was especially citrusy which I like. The gin did not seem especially dry, which was perhaps a blessing considering its temperature, but all in all it wasn’t unpleasant.

 
So what to do? Larger portions would be nice. If you’ve ever eaten in the Middle East you will realise that it’s rare to leave a meal without feeling utterly stuffed and potentially in pain from your host’s kind and generous hospitality. This was not the feeling I had at this Levantine restaurant.  More generous portions and attentive service would be in order. Then keep the homemade gin in the freezer and serve it in a proper martini glass.

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. 

Happiness Forgets in Hoxton 4/5

“Great cocktails, no wallies.”

A dreamy basement cocktail bar in central London with attentive, knowledgeable staff. 

  

The low level lighting is sublime but it means that my photos are a bit rubbish. Just trust me and pay them a visit if you’re anywhere near Hoxton square in London.

A classic martini wasn’t even on the menu – they have a wide range of other good quality cocktails that my friends sampled extensively and reviewed most positively.

However, when I asked if I could have a standard martini (I felt guilty and irritating whilst doing so) not only was my request graciously fulfilled, I was asked which gin I would prefer, whether I wanted it sweet or dry (I asked for medium) and whether or not I would like it with an olive or a twist of lemon.

I instantly knew I was in safe hands.

  
 

I asked for a Tanqueray martini to start. It came in a coupe glass with a twist of lemon and that much-welcome citrus aroma indicating that the barman had attentively squeezed the peel into the glass before pouring. The gin and the glass hadn’t been kept in the freezer but the barman had clearly shaken the drink with ice to cool it down. It was pleasant and clearly made with care, respect and attention. 

 

For my next drink I asked for another of the same but made with a gin of the waitress’s choosing. She regularly checked our table to see if we needed anything. One of my friends, a former resident of Finland, remarked that her style was very Scandinavian. She was straight forward, knowledgable but not fawning, fake or overly smiley: a professional.

She recommended that I try a martini made with Ford’s gin for its clean, crisp taste. It came very cold. I think they used a glass kept in the freezer this time – you can tell because you will leave your finger prints on a frozen glass.

Instead of lemon, it came with a twist of grapefruit to compliment the botanicals of the gin (it’s strong on juniper – as I like it). What an unusual treat.

So, allow me to summarise my review in bullet points:


PROS

  • Very attentive and knowledgeable staff.
  • A classic martini wasn’t even on the menu but two were happily prepared for me.
  • I was asked if I wanted them sweet or dry.
  • I was offered a choice between a twist of lemon or an olive (so simple, so crucial).
  • The waitress took time to talk to us about different kinds of gin and introduced us to some new brands, of which she knew a lot.
  • We were checked upon to see if we needed anything in a way that was straight forward and professional, not fawning or intrusive.
  • The setting is lovely.
  • The music was good and conducive towards conversation.
  • The lighting. I’ve already mentioned it.
  • The toilets were very clean and smelt divine.
  • There was a wide range of gins.
  • The martini glasses are kept in the freezer.
  • The crowd was nice – mostly couples of dates, rather than grating hipsters or stray city-types.

CONS
There’s not a lot for me to say here and my points are purely related to my martini preferences. Bear in mind that martinis weren’t even on the menu so the fact that the staff went to the lengths that they did is hugely commendable.

  • I don’t like martinis being served in a coupe glass but it seems to be very common in London.
  • I like some nibble options to go with a martini, even if it was just a small dish of olives at extra cost. Probably not within the style or business model of this bar but there you go, those are my preferences.
  • I prefer the gin to be stored in the freezer. This might be difficult in the bar as they have such a wide range available but perhaps I would pick a favourite and keep that one in the freezer for martini requests (I would suggest Tanqueray or Beefeater for commercial purposes). Otherwise they chilled it with ice in a shaker and the glasses were clearly frozen so I cannot fault the staff in any way.
  • I found the seating slightly uncomfortable. But hey ho, if you have a few of their cocktails your nerve endings won’t be that receptive anyway…

And that’s it. Minor points of fault. Otherwise it far exceeds most bars in London for its drinks. I’ll be back.

Their website is here and you can follow them on Twitter here.

Satan’s Whiskers, Bethnal Green 4/5

  

This is possibly the best value for money martini in London, served in a trendy, speakeasy setting in Bethnal Green.

A consummate cocktail bar, the staff pay particular attention to the quality of their martini, keeping the gin and glasses in the freezer. This is much more than can be said of most cocktail establishments serving martinis in the city, which frequently seem to treat the drink as an afterthought that hopefully no-one will order.

On the Satan’s Whiskers menu (which is apparently changed on a daily basis) the martini option was at the very bottom so I expected that it had been added there as a pretentious requirement (a common occurrence I have found). But no, I was to be pleasantly surprised.

Their version uses dry vermouth but I asked for mine to be made with a sweet vermouth. They kindly obliged and served it with martini rosso, adding a red-golden tinge to the drink.

  
Served ice cold using Tanqueray gin with a twist of lemon peel it tasted delicious, clean and crisp. You can tell that the glass has been kept in the freezer because the stem and base are ice cold, not just the cup, but I asked to be sure.

 
The attentive staff also serve guests with complimentary water in Tanqueray bottles on arrival – a very nice touch, especially in the summer.

The exterior of the building was somewhat dark and off-putting (all part of the image of course) but once inside the shaded light from the wooden slatted windows illuminated vintage posters and an array of taxidermy. Guests are offered seats at the bar to watch the barmen or more intimate tables.

The crowd was interesting and a refreshing break from the pretentious twats so common in other ‘trendy’ cocktail bar settings around central London.

The only thing I would change about the martinis is that I would serve them in a martini glass rather than a champagne coupe. I would possibly trim the lemon peel a little more so it would fit comfortably in the glass. The music was also perhaps a little bit too loud to enjoy a relaxed martini conversation but let’s be honest, it’s east London. Quiet isn’t the point. 

Furthermore, at £8 for an excellent tasting martini I would say that it was the best value you could get in London without making your own at home.

  
Just remember to stick to the Two Martini Rule so as to avoid any chemical crises.