Recently, I purchased Tony Conigliaro's book 69 Colebrooke Row. It celebrates the fifth anniversary of his unnamed London bar located at that address. Like Conigliaro's previous book, Drinks (titled The Cocktail Lab in the US), pleasure here is less likely to be derived from replicating the drinks (few home bars, or even professional ones, will have the equipment needed to make the various ingredients listed in the back) than from seeing what someone can do when their kitchen and lab acumen aligns with their interest in mixed drinks.
The book's introduction, by David Wondrich, evaluates the bar in the context of how the world's great cities are both physical places (the way things are) and heroic ones (the way we imagine things are). Our ideas of London make it "one of the great mental cities" and we romanticize a version full of interesting people, places...and bars. The thing is, Wondrich explains, 69 Colebrooke Row exists in both realms.
This book, at times, can read like a screenplay, a short story, a postcard, or notes taken from a botany class. The drinks are intense, thoughtful, calculated and ambitious and while there are numerous ones featured, care is also taken to illuminate the atmosphere of the bar itself.
Throughout the book there is a compelling notion at play - that a particular moment or experience has meaningful contextual elements. The development of ingredients in the bar's lab (not just a kitchen, a full-on lab) and the way they get assembled when creating a drink is often an effort to channel those elements. If an experience can be triggered viscerally by certain aromas and flavors then menu items at the bar frequently aim to incorporate those qualities and allow the contents of a glass to function as a similar catalyst. The book nods to these elements with references to film noir, mystery, music, memories, smells, sounds, sights, etc.
Recipes offer a brief explanation of the factors involved in each drink's creation - the inspiration, why it works, what it's seeking to achieve. These notes often accompany individual ingredients as well. Those bits of information, often explaining the groundwork of a drink, are fascinating. A drink's journey here involves more than carefully selecting bottles and attempting to arrange or supplement their contents in a way that teases out some curious or welcome or unanticipated harmony. At this bar, those cues embedded in the details of a moment often facilitate the creation of new ingredients. Those products then enable a drink to conjure things like the scent of a barbershop and the invigorating sensation of a fresh cut and shave, bees buzzing between flowers, the heady perfume worn by women of an earlier era, or the patrons of a warm Spanish bar entranced by the movements of a flamenco dancer.
Conigliaro says the drinks at 69 Colebrooke Row were designed to tell stories. The middle section of the book takes that concept a step further. The font, the pictures, even the paper's appearance all change. Here, drinks are introduced with a snapshot of typewritten text heavily inspired by pulp magazines ("She's smart. She's loaded with sin. She's got him all fired up.") The corresponding photos are staged to evoke qualities referenced in the text while the story itself ties into the flavors featured in the glass. It's an interesting approach to describing a drink and reading it is a blast. A glimpse into the thoughts of a man as he walks through the woods surrounded by trees, with moss and mushrooms underfoot is part of the story accompanying the Woodland Martini. Aspects of that environment get channeled into the drink (dried shitake, stripped pine bark, leaf smoke, etc) and manipulated in an effort to tap into the feeling of venturing deep into a forest.
There are several things I enjoy about this book. I like reading what the regulars, including some of the musicians that play there, have to say about the bar. The photographs are beautiful and so are the illustrations. There are plenty of recipes and even the ones for ingredients I may never make are fun to look through. I also find it appealing that those ingredients, as complicated as they are, aren't designed to focus a patron's attention on the lab work. While that is, to me, a captivating component, it's not something the customer needs to reconcile themselves with if all they want is to relax and unwind with a tasty cocktail in hand. It's seems unlikely that the lab even gets brought up unless the customer's interest in such matters becomes apparent. At that point, then, it's on, because the work done there, service prep basically, is shared by the bartenders. The lab itself might be separate from the bar but not the knowledge of what's going on there.
Ultimately, the book is a collection of drinks offered at the bar over the last five years. Through their description the process of how those drinks were developed also comes into focus. There is a certain element of theater engendered by the bar and the book reflects that as well. I haven't been there so I can't say for sure, but I feel like it also manages to illuminate the bar's vibe, the bartender/customer interactions, the music and the way those things shift throughout the night. I don't mind that I can't make most of the drinks. I'm glad someone is because they look awesome.
Bars are more than the drink someone puts in front of you. They're specific, insular environments. When they resonate with people they stand a better chance of succeeding and taking on a life of their own. Here, in addition to the drinks offered at his establishment, Conigliaro provides a lot of the intangible stuff swirling about his bar's interior. Apparently, 69 Colebrooke Row is tucked away on a side street and, in my own imagined world, it's one heck of a neighborhood bar.
Licorice Whiskey Sour - Tony Conigliaro, 69 Colebrooke Row, London
50 ml Whiskey
25 ml Lemon Juice
25 ml Egg White
15 ml Liquorice Syrup*
3 dashes Angostura
Garnish - Ground Licorice
Dry shake, then with ice. Strain, up.
40 g Licorice Powder
500 ml Cold Water
750 g Caster Sugar
Mix licorice powder and water in saucepan. Add sugar and apply heat gently until sugar dissolves (10 min). Bottle and store in a cool, dry place.
notes: The nose is full of licorice, lemon and whiskey (I used bourbon). A tasty version of a whisky sour with intriguing earthiness. The licorice becomes more prominent on the finish and lingers pleasantly on the tongue long after traces of the other ingredients have vanished.
Rose Negroni - Tony Conigliaro, 69 Colebrooke Row, London
60 ml Rose Negroni Blend*
Garnish - Rose Petal
Stir, strain, rocks.
*Rose Negroni Blend
230 ml Gin
230 ml Campari
230 ml Sweet Vermouth
23 g Pink Peppercorns
11.5 g Dried Rose Petals
2.5 g Rose Water
Vacuum seal all ingredients and cook sous vide at 52 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes. Remove, let cool, bottle and refrigerate.
notes: Bright and lightly floral. Applying the ingredients to heat softens the edges and allows things to thoroughly integrate. Pink peppercorns aren't something I've used before so I was unsure what to expect. Not at all biting or hot the spice they offer seemed vibrant and floral which tied in well with the vermouth and rose petals/water.
Army and Navy - classic
50 ml Gin
25 ml Lemon Juice
15 ml Orgeat*
Shake, strain, up.
1 kg Blanched Almonds
1.6 l Water
10 ml Orange Blossom Water
1.4 kg Caster Sugar
*Blend almonds to a fine powder using a Thermomix (I'll probably never own one but it sure looks incredible). Combine all but sugar and let stand for 2 hours. Fine strain. Put liquid in a saucepan over low heat, gradually add sugar stirring to dissolve. Bottle and refrigerate.
notes: A very nice gin sour with orgeat standing in for the sweetener and adding enough nuttiness to spin things in an interesting direction but not so much that it takes over. Citrusy, clean and bright with subtle floral notes from the orange blossom water. The orgeat I used is from this recipe. It's delicious and I had plenty on hand.
The 69 Colebrooke Row book is available here.