"We’re going to the best bar in the world,” I tell my friend.
“Well, you might think it’s the best bar ... ”
“No, no,” I reply. “It just is.”
He smiles, as if to say, “I’ll be the judge of that.”
I smile, as if to say, “No need. The Academy has already been the judge of that.”
Let me explain. The Academy in question is the panel of experts behind The World’s 50 Best Bars. Now in its seventh outing, this poll by Drinks International is the Oscars of the cocktail world.And out of the 412 industry insiders from 53 countries that made up the Academy this year, about a quarter of them voted for this bar. It has topped this illustrious list four years in a row. It’s the Artesian at The Langham hotel in London.
Entering the Artesian
It’s a chilly Friday night when we step through the revolving glass doors of The Langham. Despite it being a week after the bar’s triumph at the awards ceremony, the queue outside Artesian is modest. That’s one of the great things about visiting the world’s best bars. As opposed to the restaurant equivalent, where the waiting list can be daunting, the bars feel inclusive, fun and – most important – welcoming.
It may seem obvious. After all, a convivial atmosphere is surely a prerequisite of any watering hole. “We don’t set out a voting criteria as we trust in our Academy’s expert opinion,” says Hamish Smith, editor of The World’s 50 Best Bars.
“Some of our Academy members might be sticklers for service and hospitality, for others it will be more about the concept and execution of the drinks and food, and there will be those who prioritise the atmosphere or décor of a bar. But whatever the voters’ personal standards and predilections, a Best Bar is likely to score highly in all areas.” As for inclusivity, he adds, “Many of the bars will be special-occasion venues, but there are those that are regular neighbourhood bars, affordable to most.”
Artesian certainly falls into the former category, but it’s one of only three luxury-hotel bars in this year’s top 10 (the others being American Bar at The Savoy and Connaught Bar at The Connaught, both also in London and ranked fifth and ninth respectively). Meanwhile The Dead Rabbit, at number two, is a cocktail-bar-Irish-pub hybrid in New York City’s financial district. It’s an unusual combination, but Belfast-born owners Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry make it work. This winter, adventurous guests should try the mulled egg-wine, which comes from the 19th century via the bar’s first book, The Dead Rabbit Drinks Manual.
From the UAE to the USA
Nowadays, inspiration for drinks traverses not only time but also distance. This year’s best bars list stretches from Tel Aviv to Mexico City; Sydney to Cyprus; Puerto Rico to Moscow. Each of these destinations brings a unique flavour to the bars, and it’s not always what one would expect. Looking for a Japanese Negroni in the United Arab Emirates? Those in the know head to Zuma Dubai. Similarly, one might expect a drink as English-sounding as the Earl Grey Caviar Martini to be found in London, but it’s Hong Kong’s Quinary that nails it.
All of which is to say: don’t judge a bar by its location. Just as there’ll be dull, overpriced bars in high-end hotels, there’ll be exceptional, exciting bars in budget hostels – like Broken Shaker in Miami, for example.
Or even Artesian. Situated as it is in the historic and luxurious lap of The Langham, it could have been nothing more than a place in which to be seen. Instead, it’s a lively and inviting oasis, beloved by trade and the public alike. What made this place stand out was the creativity of head bartender Alex Kratena and assistant head bartender Simone Caporale.
A few years ago, they served a drink named Above and Beyond, which came with a pillow of air from the Venezuelan rainforest. This season, Kratena and Caporale have concocted a Surrealism menu based on Salvador Dalí’s erotic cookbook, Les Diners de Gala.
From this menu, my friend chooses a drink called Your Room, or Mine? (Glenfiddich 15-Year-Old, Becherovka, Pineau des Charentes) under which is printed the somewhat redundant: #FEELINGNAUGHTY. I roll my eyes at him and opt for Death of the Hipster (Workshop Coffee, Jasmine, Tonic, Oak Smoke, Elderflower).
Now seems as good a time as any to discuss the demise of the hipster-bartender cliché. As Joe Alessandroni, creative director of 28 Hongkong Street in Singapore, puts it: “I think the prohibition-era affectations are a fad that’s dying out. The renewed interest in classic recipes and spirits, fresh ingredients and attention to the craft represents a permanent shift in bar culture.”
Mixologist vs Bartender
One of the most telling signs of this shift is the moniker the industry uses. “Mixologist” entered the popular lexicon at the start of the millennium, though as a term it dates back to the 19th century. The early 2000s saw the art of cocktail-making take on the language of science, with a whole load of nitrogen to boot.
“Having now gone through the ‘serious years’ of mixology, in which drinks were prioritised over hospitality and service, the ‘bartender’ has re-emerged,” notes Smith. “Very few at the top end of the bar business now refer to themselves as mixologists, as a forensic approach to cocktail creation has become a given. The bartender, with a holistic approach to serving customers, is well and truly back.”
With bartenders becoming “startenders” and attracting dozens of accolades, does this mean that bars will soon be as prestigious as restaurants? Sort of, according to Kratena, who along with Caporale, controversially handed in his month’s notice to the Artesian just hours before its crowning moment. They’ll be testing the theory from a new perch, a project called the Multidisciplinary Coll-ective, come 2017, where they’ll be mixing the“drinks of tomorrow”.
“I think the bar industry is becoming much more refined, but in a completely different way to the restaurant industry.” David Wondrich, author, cocktail historian, and drinks correspondent for Esquire magazine adds, “I think [the bar industry] still has some ways to go in terms of prestige, but none in terms of sophistication and refinement. In fact, many of the most celebrated and popular new restaurants, particularly in the United States, are following the bar industry in providing looser, more informal service and more historically-rooted experiences – something that was pioneered by cocktail bars.”
Speaking of the United States, it will come as little surprise to learn that North America and Europe feature heavily in the polls, with 66 percent of the votes between them. The revelation is that Asia now accounts for 15 percent of the vote. “That would have seemed fanciful seven years ago when we started,” says Smith, “But there are few cities now in Asia that don’t have a rapidly developing bar scene.”
Asia's Best Bar
This year’s Best Bar in Asia, at number seven on the Top 50 list, 28 Hongkong Street is one of the visionary venues propelling the region to international acclaim. “Southeast Asia is an exciting mash-up of global bartending styles and techniques,” says Alessandroni. “Foreign bartenders drawn to this unexplored market have access to an array of products that are rare in Europe and the States. Local bartenders are amazing students. They have a great aesthetic and attention to detail. Mixing all of these elements together, we see the emergence of a uniquely Southeast Asian style that can be really exciting. Cities like Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok are establishing themselves as cocktail meccas – in some cases on par with New York and London.”
Ah, London. Back at my vantage point in the corner table of Artesian, I watch as the team mix, shake and serve up drinks. Every vessel – from the Lego elephant that houses the Anti Hero to the golden bento box that contains Fast Money Comes at a Dangerous Price – has been custom made to imaginative specifications. A delicious smoky smell fills the room. I raise my conical flask in a toast to Artesian’s remarkable feat, before taking a sip of the best cocktail in the world. I can’t wait to see what it stirs up next.