Updated: Jul 8, 2020
As bars and restaurants begin to open up again in the UK, I'm reminded of the luxury that is sipping a cocktail with more than two ingredients (that I didn't make myself), in a place that isn't my living room, wearing clothes that aren't sweatpants. Oriole, a speakeasy-style gem tucked under London’s Smithfield Market, was the last cocktail bar I had the pleasure of visiting before the UK went into lockdown at the end of March. From the tropical wallpaper to the eclectic art-deco-meets-mid-century-modern-meets-tribal decor, the almost surrealist backdrop sets the scene for a magical (and aromatic) cocktail journey.
The cocktails, broken down into Old World, New World and The Orient, tell tales of the places that inspired them. With exotic ingredients sourced from all over the world, many of the tinctures, liqueurs, syrups, bitters, and infusions straddle the line between flavour and fragrance. Think osmanthus syrup, fir tree liqueur, reindeer moss, poppy flower kefir, and pine bud & birch vermouth.
When I saw cedar listed as an ingredient in Bon Echo, I knew I had to try it. A rye and cognac cocktail with white cedar, juneberry vermouth and Ontario leaf, it’s warm and bittersweet, like a woody twist on an old fashioned. I could swear I also detected a note of pine, even though no pine was listed on the menu...or was that just my mind, based on my own preconceptions about a drink based on the Great White North.
The cocktail, which is just as visually striking as it is tasty, is served in a glass containing a snow globe with a little brown and orange birdy inside. Pre-pour, the glass is shaken to launch the snow and a UV torch (or flashlight as us Americans call it) is used to ignite the blue/green glow in the bottom of the glass, a nod to the awe-inspiring northern lights. As a final step, the cocktail is poured from a chilled flask, which doubles as a coaster and keeps the remainder of the cocktail cold so you can savour each sip.
My friend, Claire, ordered Chihuahua, a smoky and strong but not aggressively so, gourmand cocktail with a hint of chocolate, reminiscent of mole. Coca leaf tincture adds an herbal note that evolves into a subtle bittersweet spiciness on the dry down. Claire and I are both big fans of tequila and mezcal and this drink contains both so it was an obvious choice. (I may have snuck more than one sip.)
My next tipple was again chosen for its fragrant ingredients. Lucknow is another whiskey-based cocktail made with rose kombucha, vetiver & bergamot, fresh lemon and topped off with nothing less than Veuve Clicquot. Served in metal champagne flute rimmed with decadent rose sugar, the floral note of rose mixes beautifully with the citrusy bergamot and the dry, woody vetiver to make a concoction that is sweet and aromatic yet bright and fizzy - the perfect companion for a summer’s eve.
Claire’s second drink was chosen for its glass. Well, sort of. Each cocktail is served in its own unique glass, and as soon as we sat down at the bar, we had our eye on one glass in particular - the one with the butterfly. So we asked what cocktail was served in that and were told it was something called Sandhammaren. While it sounded like a delicious drink, unfortunately it has gluten in it (sourdough) and Claire is allergic, so the bartender kindly offered to make her a different drink in the same glass.
He recommended the Cape Verde, which turned out to be another deliciously aromatic drink - citrusy and smoky with a gin base, white port, grapefruit liqueur, sherry tonic, and buchu infusion (which I learned has a spicy odour in fragrance and a mint-like taste when used in flavour). The cocktail is garnished with mint and burnt grapefruit - the making of which was very fun to watch!
To cap off the night, we shared the Finca Filadelfia, a coffee and rum drink made with rice and coconut cream and a lovely floral note of camomile. The cocktail, which comes in a ceramic mug, is placed atop a heated sachet of coffee beans to enhance the intoxicating coffee aroma. It was the perfect end to a delightful evening of fragrance/flavour exploration.
Each and every detail of the bar and the cocktails (not to mention, the absurdly delicious food!) is so meticulously considered and designed, making for a truly wonderful experience. While Oriole isn’t reopening quite yet, it’s sister bar Nightjar on Old St. will be opening its doors this weekend with proper social distancing and health & safety measures in place. But if you’d prefer to stay home, both Oriole and Nightjar offer bottled cocktail delivery across the mainland UK!