My visit to Hawksmoor began with a tinge of disappointment. As I approached the imposing façade of the former head offices for RBS on St Andrews Square I fully expected to be ushered in the main door, only to be detoured down a dimly-lit side street – severely narrowed by grubby building-site fencing – to the entrance for Hawksmoor itself.
Once inside, however, the soaring ceiling and panelled wood felt very much in keeping with the building’s 1930's heft.
The wood, leather and brass lend the restaurant a sympathetic sepia-toned elegance – as if plucked straight from a scene in The Godfather – and the only thing to betray this is the familiar sound of George Harrison singing about the coming of the sun.
This is the world-renowned steakhouse’s first foray north of the border (only its second venue outside London) and, while tempted to tuck in to their extensive range of food, I was here to sample their newly-launched cocktail menu. Ever since its first tentative steps as a stand-alone site in Spitalfields over a decade ago, cocktails have played a key role in the Hawksmoor experience.
Their latest list casts a doting eye back through the drinking cultures of yesteryear, beginning with a quote from an early 19th century doctor about the importance of early morning drinks, sometimes referred to as Eye-Openers.
And so it felt only fitting, at a much more acceptable four o’clock in the afternoon, to begin with these.
The first to be sampled was the mercifully long and fruity Camarillo, a tropically- tinged highball with a base of Rittenhouse Rye whisky, Suze bitter French aperitif, grapefruit sherbet and lemon all vigorously shaken and filled to the frothing brim with Hawksmoor’s own session IPA.
Pinpricks of zest tickle the nostrils as you sip from the tall glass, its contents sharing the same soft orange-pink glow of early morning clouds. The drink itself is pleasingly dry yet vibrant with herbal subtlety and a lip-smacking citrussiness that temporarily whisks you away to a sun-drenched sandy beach.
Next I am yanked back to autumn with the French House No. 2, a seasonal sour with two types of fruit-infused gin, fresh lime and lemon thyme.
The drink is deftly shaken and proffered in all its plum-hued glory in a dainty Nick & Nora glass (named after the cocktail-swilling heroes of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man).
One sip confirms my suspicions that it’s closely related to the Bramble, though without the syrupy hit of Crème de Mure. The thyme – such an
underrated and underused herb in cocktails – adds just enough novelty to raise your palate’s eyebrow.
Eyes suitably opened, I turn to the pre-prandials.
Classically the ‘cocktail’ in its original form was drunk before a meal (including breakfast), as the inclusion of bitters was thought to stimulate appetite.
The Clear Carré is a gin-based version of the New Orleans classic Vieux Carré – one of a raft of ‘equal parts’ cocktails which surfaced in the early 20 th century, the most famous being the Negroni. This particular iteration was an attempt to ‘de-colour’ the drink while still being deferential to the original.
So rye whisky becomes rye-based gin, cognac is swapped for pisco and sweet vermouth morphs into Cocchi Americano, with a spoon or two of yellow Chartreuse bringing body as well as flavour. A twist of grapefruit skin further lifts this out of the brooding swelter of its New Orleans counterpart.
The result is akin to a 50:50 Martini, with the Cocchi and the Chartreuse given a brief moment to share their sweetness before a wave of complex, herbal bitterness cascades onto your tongue.
After the Clear Carré comes, somewhat ironically, a subtle fuzziness of thought
that emboldens me to challenge myself. One of the few cocktails I find it
impossible to like is a Dirty Martini.
The flavour of olive brine is to my tastebuds like nails on a chalkboard and no amount of repeated exposure has driven this aversion from me.
Nevertheless I am persuaded to try the Rise & Brine – not least because its ingredients include the enigmatic ‘Magic Citrus’. This, it turns out, is a combination of citric and malic acids designed to give the drink a lemony sourness without compromising on clarity.
The spirits are two-fold and both hail from Hawksmoor’s home of London; a classic dry gin and an angry-red bitter aperitivo in the Campari mould.
The olive brine comes in the form of a syrup and, as a result, loses that insipid salty character I find so utterly shiver-inducing.
Happily the finished product is very far from undrinkable – a supremely-balanced cocktail with pleasing peaks of sweet, sour and savoury set in a familiar, Negroni-esque backdrop.
The final stop in Hawksmoor’s time tour (leapfrogging the lower strength, lighter-styled “Bridging Drinks”) date-checks the 1940s but the focus is very much on after-dinner drinking across the ages.
The Nuclear Banana Daiquiri doffs its helixed Beanie to the hipster silliness of Shoreditch and Spitalfields but my eye is drawn to the much more serious-sounding Full Fat Old Fashioned.
With just two ingredients it scarcely qualifies as a cocktail, though these ingredients come not without some effort; the Evan Williams bond-strength bourbon has been painstakingly infused with clarified butter via a water-bath system.
Simply stirred down with a dribble of sugar syrup and served over a
thumping great hunk of ice it shimmers on the tongue.
The bourbon’s kick hasn’t drowned completely and the butter leaves a delightful patina on the palate, like having just chomped on a cob of unctuous buttered sweetcorn.
Should it technically be called an ‘Old Fashioned’ when there are no bitters in there? Not really.
Should you care? Not in the slightest.