by Stephen Doig, The Daily Telegraph, July 19, 2016
The concept of a “cocktail-making masterclass” all too often calls to mind garish-hued drinks with paper umbrellas and hen party hijinks. But in the hands of The Connaught hotel – that Edwardian grande dame that sits like a stately gatekeeper at the approach to Mount Street in Mayfair – it is, as one would expect, a rarefied experience.
|Photo by Freeimages.com/Stasys EIDIEJUS|
Enshrined in the twinkling crystal and pistachio-tones of the art deco-era Connaught Bar (designed by the late David Collins ), as trays of delectable goats cheese and beetroot on parmesan shortbread and iberico ham and rabbit roulade float past, it would be easy to kick back and sample the wares that the impeccably liveried wait staff have to offer. However, there’s work at hand. Director of mixology Agostino Perrone whisks a glossy chrome drinks trolley laden with herbs and an apothecary’s worth of glass bottles into view; the tools of the cocktail-making trade are presented at our disposal and it’s time to roll up our sleeves and drink in - quite literally - the finer points of cocktail craft.
If Willy Wonka had his chocolate factory and Prospero his books, then Perrone’s magic weapons are the spirits and spices we toy with to create a host of exceptional cocktails; his exacting precision in making drinks borders on the scientific. “We want to innovate while remaining classic,” says Perrone, who has previously worked at Montgomery Place in Notting Hill and has garnered a litany of awards to line his mantelpiece (or drinks cabinet). What follows isn’t just a guide as to how to perfect a cocktail, but a veritable history lesson in how drinking and dining evolved in the finer establishments of the capital during the Victorian era.
“It all starts with ice,” says Perrone. It seems a rather humble ingredient to credit against the towering bottles of Belvedere and syrupy Courvoiser Exclusif cognac, but as he explains, it’s ice that has formed the bedrock of how we drink in today’s society; it was the American Bar at the Criterion restaurant in London that introduced it in 1878 to sate the requirements of a new international clientele, and suddenly drinking culture was revolutionised.
As if to demonstrate just how integral this element is to the way the Connaught serves cocktails, Perrone whisks us “backstage”, away from the hubbub of the glossy bar and into the laboratories where the real work happens. Here a block of ice like a translucent, shimmering slab of marble takes pride of place. “You’ll notice there’s no white on it, it’s important to use good quality water to ensure it stays clear.” It does – there are no white, powdery shards, just a glass-still exterior. Deft as a ninja, Perrone wields an ice saw and hacks off vast chunks of it. The mixologist then takes a heavyweight spherical pressing device and, through a time-intensive process that slowly compresses the ice, creates a perfect, translucent ball. All of which gives a indication as to the kind of attention to detail involved in the most straightforward of processes at the Connaught; there’s no banging of the ice tray here.
Back at the drinks trolley (or, should guests wish, from behind the bar), for his masterclass Perrone focuses on two classics; the martini and the Bloody Mary. For the former, Perrone unplugs the stoppers on his selection of dainty glass vials and urges us to sample his handcrafted infusions; grapefruit, lavender, cardamom, liquorice, coriander seed, ginger or vanilla make up the options to blend into the mix for an updated version of the cocktail perennial. James Bond’s “shaken not stirred” specification is also explained; stirring leaves a smoother finish, shaking makes the cocktail taste sharper and fresher. The inclusion of coriander seed creates a herbal, faintly spicy taste, balanced beautifully with the vermouth and gin. The inclusion of lavender, on the other hand, creates a comforting, sweet aroma and soft, almost dessert-like taste.
As Perrone swoops amongst the various vials, explaining how the taste will be affected by the combinations in the martini glass, it’s hard not to think of him as a perfumier of sorts. Your cocktail education evolved, there’s always the option to head to the Connaught’s Espelette restaurant for fortifying Norfolk chicken pie or fragrant wild mushroom risotto, or (if those cocktails have tempted you to throw caution entirely to the wind) the call of the Connaught’s elegant roster of rooms designed by Guy Oliver. Recline in Frette sheets in the champagne-and-duck-egg tones of the rooms and toast your hard day’s schooling.
Cocktail-making masterclass is £250 per person
The Connaught Hotel, Carlos Place, W1K 2AL
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This article was written by Stephen Doig from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.