I had expected to find Shannon Tebay at the Savoy’s American Bar. In August, she became the first American head bartender at this London institution, hired to add a fresh, New York touch to the bar’s historical luster. Given that the American Bar has been serving up cocktails since 1893, that seemed significant. A bold new era, even.
But here we are, drinking coffee at Grind, a cafe-cum-cocktail bar on the south end of London Bridge, on a chilly morning in February. She has left the American Bar in search of a better fit for her approach to mixology. “It was a cultural mismatch” is all Tebay, whose previous role was head bartender at Death & Co., a cocktail lounge in New York’s East Village, will say on the matter.
Luckily for the city’s cocktail drinkers, the 36-year-old is aiming to stay in London. Her short stint at the American Bar means she’s already stitched into the liquid story of this city, one of the world’s best for cocktails, but in that respect, she’s not unusual. London’s cocktail story is infused with transatlantic influence, from the American Bar to the modern age.
No one knows more about this than Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown, the Anglo American authors and editors (and much else besides) behind excellent books about mixed drinks, such as the two-volume “Spirituous Journey: A History of Drink” and 2020’s “The Distiller of London.” When I speak to them via Zoom — they live in England’s West Country — they emphasize that it’s a story of cultural exchange as much as American influence: English roots, American assimilation, German bartenders and much more.
Nonetheless, London owes a debt to American drinking culture. “The passion for cocktails is truly American,” Miller says. “They love cocktails. We resisted cocktails [in Britain] until the 1930s …” Brown picks up the thread. “Even then, there was this whole understanding, especially in the ’30s, that Brits would come in [to a London hotel bar] and order a whiskey soda, or perhaps a gin and tonic. Virtually all cocktail consumption was American visitors. It was Americans who made [cocktail-drinking] part of drink history in Britain.”
And not just history, but everyday life. Cocktails are everywhere now. The day after chatting with Miller and Brown, I went for a walk through central London. I’m more of a pubgoer than cocktail drinker, to put it mildly, so I want to get a sense of cocktail culture at street level. (When I’ve visited cocktail bars, such as Tayer and Elementary, run by the hyper-creative Norwegian-Czech partnership of Monica Berg and Alex Kratena, or Lyaness, flagship of Britain’s homegrown cocktail king Ryan Chetiyawardana, I’ve enjoyed it — but it’s not my world.)
The exhortations to try this or that drink are endless. Shoreditch’s tangled weave of streets is full of enticing spots, including Callooh Callay (opened in 2008, it was the first of the new breed of New York-inspired London speakeasies, according to Brown) and the many pubs with fruit-based concoctions on offer. Even amid the somnolent gray stone of the City, there are opportunities for a drink: In a modern walkway off Ropemaker Street, for example, there’s the Refinery, which offers dozens of mixed drinks (including, appropriately enough, “Plenty of Fish in the Sea,” made with gin, manzana verde, blue curacao and tonic water), and Notes, where more traditional options, including Aperol spritzes and old-fashioneds, dominate.
In Mayfair, the invitations are less obvious — but if you know, you know. London’s cocktail world can be divided in a number of ways: Mayfair vs. Shoreditch, hotel bar vs. speakeasy-style bars, ancient vs. modern. The Savoy may be down on the Strand, but many of its old-money rivals — Dukes, Brown’s, the Langham and the Connaught, winner of the “World’s 50 Best Bars” list for the past two editions — are in and around Mayfair.
Not all hotel bars hew so closely to the traditional model, though. Back in Shoreditch, Chetiyawardana is getting ready to open his latest bar, Seed Library, in the basement of a new hotel, One Hundred Shoreditch. “It’s quite an industrial site but also really warm, which reflects the area,” he tells me as we sit down in the hotel’s soon-to-be lobby.
“When we first opened a hotel bar, Dandelyan in Sea Containers [in 2014], we wanted to disrupt the idea of what that would be. I love the magic of the American Bar or the Connaught, but I have friends who’d say, ‘Oh, I’m going to a hotel bar, I have to dress up.’ It can be stiff and formal. We wanted to challenge that.”
Chetiyawardana runs Super Lyan in Amsterdam and Silver Lyan in D.C., along with his bars in London. It gives him a unique perspective on the American influence in London. “There’s been a pendulum between New York and London, and it’s swung either way at different times,” the 37-year-old says. “What’s changed now is it’s no longer just New York — there’s other great cocktail cities in the U.S. This is part of the reason I was so excited to open in D.C.”
And London? “I’m biased, but I think London is the most incredible food and drink city on the planet. What’s special about London is its diversity. You get lots of other very multicultural cities, but nowhere blends [that] so harmoniously as London.”
That is evident even at the fanciest end of the market, such as the Connaught, where three Italians (Director of Mixology Agostino Perrone, Head Mixologist Giorgio Bargiani and Bar Manager Maura Milia) run the show. After chatting with Chetiyawardana, I wander across town and grab the last empty table in a packed bar, at 4:30 p.m. Like pretty much everyone else in the room, I order a martini, priced at 25 pounds (about $33). That is a lot, but it includes some marvelous theater, from the excellent staff and my fellow drinkers.
A trolley, maneuvered by Bargiani, arrives at my table. I’m given a pad infused with five flavored bitters: Dr. Ago (a house mixture of bergamot and ginseng), lavender, coriander, tonka and cardamom. Which would I like? Lavender. Gin or Vodka? Gin. Lemon zest or olives? Lemon zest. The martini is stirred and flamboyantly poured from an arm’s length into a hand-etched crystal glass. It’s a bravura performance.
There’s another one going on alongside me, where three men — two British, one American — are demonstrating how the other half live. The Connaught is an intimate space, and I keep catching chunks of their conversation: “He’s seriously rich, like proper billions.” “Weirdly, they do need to work. They’ve got no family money.” “I’m sure he’s one of the Vanderbilts.” “Better not have another one, I might chunder on the train.” That’s Mayfair. On my way home, I watch a yellow Lamborghini, chugging like an asthmatic bulldog, slowly negotiating the corner of New Bond Street, by the sculpture of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. That’s also Mayfair.
Hotel bars such as the Connaught represent a big difference between London and New York, according to Tebay; another is the significance of conceptual venues, such as Tayer and Elementary or Lyaness, as opposed to the neighborhood places that characterize New York. Does Tebay have a favorite spot of that kind in London? Happiness Forgets, a basement bar in Shoreditch.
On a Monday evening, I enlist the company of a friend, Martin, and head up there. I can see what Tebay likes: It’s a marvelous, unpretentious place. As we arrive, I’m greeted by a smiling barman as I peer through the window: “You seem very keen to come in!” I am. We sit at the bar, with a view across the moodily lit, burgundy-painted room, close to full at 7:30 p.m. All cocktails are 10 pounds (about $13). My “Tokyo Collins” is a delightfully fresh blend of gin, yuzu, sake, lemon, grapefruit and soda, like a grown-up version of France’s greatest soft drink, Orangina.
Having sunk two in fairly short order, we head for Callooh Callay, but I’ve blundered. After two years of the coronavirus pandemic, I’m out of the habit of booking, and I’ve forgotten it’s Valentine’s Day. The place is packed, as is Nightjar, where a queue snakes out of the door and onto Old Street. We retreat to a local pub, the Old Fountain, to recuperate over a few pints of beer.
It’s not a permanent retreat, though. Now that I’ve had a proper taste of London’s cocktail world, I’m keen for more. Tebay, happily, appears to feel the same way. She’s not sure what her next move will be. Perhaps a New York-style neighborhood bar? “It’s certainly something I’ve considered, and would love to do down the line. I think it would bring something to the table that exists here, definitely, but in a different way. It would kind of represent New York.” The American Bar’s culture may not have suited her, but she could yet add another chapter to the venerable London tradition it’s part of: a passion for punchy mixed drinks, served American-style.