The growing number of no-frills ‘meat and cocktails’ drinking dens are about as far from the slick science of molecular mixology as you can get. Big fat burgers and drinks in a jam jar? the punters are lovin’ it, says Alice Lascelles
Turn off your rotovaps. Set down your smoking guns. For, through the fog of a thousand apple-smoked Old Fashioneds, a new army of bibulous barbarians is advancing upon us. Not for them the molecular garnish, the complex food match or the ostentatious up-sell. These newcomers like their meat rare and their booze unembellished – and they’ll have it with their elbows on the table thank you very much.
Ok, they might not be quite that uncivilised, but a growing legion of establishments, led by the likes of Hawksmoor, Meatliquor and Pitt Cue Co, is championing a mode of cocktail drinking that’s decidedly red-blooded, favouring drinks that are strong, simple and often more than a bit irreverent. Drinks that, whether they come in a jam jar, as a shot or served with a v-sign, are nonetheless made with top-quality ingredients, just like the unadorned burgers and steaks that are served alongside them.
‘A lot of people might see the slushy machine which we use to make our Lageritas and say “oh my god!”’ says Meatliquor bar manager Divyesh Chauhan. ‘But in the same way that we use jam jars for drinks and serve burgers with kitchen roll, it’s about what’s in your glass, not what’s around it – we let the food and drink do the talking.’
And the punters, it seems, are all ears. When an early incarnation of Meatliquor opened as the #Meateasy pop-up in a disused pub in South London in early 2011, it caused an interweb frenzy, with foodies prepared to wait for up to three hours at a time to get their mitts on one of the joint’s legendary sloppy burgers. And while they waited, they drank cocktails – a lot of cocktails.
‘Strong, proper drinks like our New Cross Negroni with Aperol and Antica Formula,’ says Michael Butt, who together with Soulshakers’ colleague Giles Looker, threw the bar together in 10 days using little more than a few crates of old Southern Comfort jam jars and some leftover stock. ‘Cocktails were just scrawled on the wall with chalk and there was no proper service – only a raffle ticket, and kitchen roll all over the place. I thought cocktails would be 10% but it was more like 40%, at £6.50 each. There were seven cocktails on the menu and they just went off – I was amazed!’
The makeshift nature of the outfit also proved a blessing for the bartenders, adds Butt. ‘We had no ties with booze brands so the backbar kept revolving, which helped to keep the bar team inspired.’
Having originally opened for a month, #Meateasy eventually ran for four, and that’s in spite of having ‘the crappest site in all the universe’, according to Butt. Indeed, when it came to choosing the site for Meatliquor, which opened late last year, the team decided to make a point of looking at sites that would normally be dismissed as unworkable – so a former car park round the back of Debenhams on Oxford Street was deemed just perfect.
‘The drinks are not taking themselves too seriously,’ says Looker. But that doesn’t mean the drinks aren’t seriously good. Alongside the dangerously moreish Lagerita (see box, opposite), snigger-worthy Donkey Punch (vodka, lime, ginger beer and absinthe) and nuclear house grog, now there are also twists on classics such as the Full English Martini – Bombay Original and Lillet garnished with a pickled egg rolled in bacon dust – all for between £6.50 and £8 a throw.
Even if the Meatliquor guys do use a hammer and chisel to cut their ice, however, the title for most spartan dining and drinking experience must go to Pitt Cue Co, which operates out of a microscopic site in Soho, so small that those propping up the bar have to move if you want to open the door on busy nights – and every night is a busy night at Pitt Cue Co, thanks to a hugely over-subscribed restaurant that seats no more than 30.
Here, the entire daily-changing food and drink menu is contained on one photocopied piece of A5 paper. Top-quality ribs, chops and sausages come unadorned on tin plates while drinks are limited to half a dozen beers (including the Pitt Cue ‘Whatever’ draft), a good selection of American whiskey and a small clutch of lip-smacking sours including the excellent New York Sour (a whiskey sour laced with red wine), Hard Lemonade and Cider Sour (all £6) served in basic tumblers – perfect for cutting through all that pork fat.
And don’t forget the Pickleback (£4), the whiskey shot and pickle brine chaser combo which has been taking New York by storm – one of these followed by a hunk of red meat and your customers will be beating their chests in a warlike manner.
Slumming it over a few shots has also become fashionable thanks to an old-school serve popularised by the likes of Pitt Cue Co. and All Star Lanes: the Boilermaker. Otherwise known as a bottle of beer and a whisky chaser, it seems that the bartender’s out-of-hours drink of choice has now caught the imagination of the public at large, according to Tom Byng, founder of the Byron chain of burger restaurants, which recently introduced the Boilermaker as part of its new whiskey list.
‘We wanted to do a bourbon list because bourbon is as much a part of American tradition as burgers and beers, but it’s still very misunderstood,’ he says. ‘To get people to drink bourbon you have to give them a hook. People think: what’s the story with the Boilermaker? It’s a US invention that’s very democratic, you have the steelworkers working their nuts off for a week and then wanting a way to kick back, and it’s with a shot and a beer. Burger joints are democratic; it’s about the mode of delivery, the fun and the theatre. A big proportion of our customers are 20-something men who are into burgers and craft beer, so it’s ideal for them.’
With 25ml shots going for between £3 and £4, on top of a craft beer between £3.95 and £4.75, the Boilermaker also offers a great trade up, he adds.
Byron’s Tom Byng gives his advice on making the perfect beer and whiskey match… ‘I’d pair a rye-heavy bourbon, such as Knob Creek, which has a spicy flavour, with a hoppy beer such as Kernel IPA, and a stronger-flavoured burger like the Byron Burger, which comes with bacon and mature cheddar. When it comes to matching a smoother, wheated bourbon like Old Fitzgerald, I’d put it with a Brooklyn lager and perhaps our Classic Hamburger.’
Burgers, booze and a snappy offer are also the order of the day at Burger and Lobster, a new bar and restaurant in Mayfair and another of Soulshakers’ recent projects. Here, there are just three dishes – burger, lobster and lobster roll – priced at a flat rate of £20, and an accompanying cocktail list of drinks marked either ‘B’ or ‘L’ depending on their best flavour match.
‘The B drinks are proper, strong, tasty drinks to go with the burgers, while the L drinks need to be a bit more quaffable to cut through the richness of the clarified butter,’ explains Butt. Wine crops up in several, including the Bull and Bear (B), featuring bourbon, berries, lemon and Zinfandel and the Summer of Love (L), featuring Finlandia Mango vodka, grapes and Sauvignon Blanc. While they may be a bit more fruity in places, ‘they’re not cocktails for showing off with – there are no fancy glasses,’ says Butt.
Booze for the Boys
Over at new upmarket steakhouse Gillray’s, they’ve also kept the cocktail frills to a minimum, says bar manager Karina Elias. ‘We have a very male customer base who don’t want colours and flowers, so we’ve put more of the focus of what’s on the inside of the drink, rather than the outside.’
The result is a list of boozy, quite classic drinks designed to match with bar snacks including beef and dills, sausage rolls and black pudding.
‘The one idea that does attract plenty of guys is smoke, and this is a flavour that’s perfect with steaks, so for that we’ve created drinks like the Gunpowder and Smoke cocktail, which is Hayman’s Gin mixed with gunpowder green tea tincture, shaken with Remy Martin VSOP, lime juice, sugar, egg white, and finished with a flame of Laphroaig Cask Strength.’
A little bit of playfulness is allowed with the Gillray’s Bloody Mary, however, which is served as a frozen ice ball of house Bloody Mary mix which is then dissolved with a shot of Plymouth Navy Strength served on the side.
And if you’re doing meat and cocktails, then you’ve gotta be doing Bloody Marys. At Hawksmoor Guildhall, the bartenders have been known to shift as many as 150 at one breakfast sitting, so they’ve put a lot of energy into devising the perfect match for steak – the result is the Bloody Mary No.7 made with homemade horseradish gin and a stout float. Or customers can mix up a Mary to their own personal taste at the Hawksmoor Bloody Mary ‘buffet’ using homemade smoked hot sauces and ketchups.
No faffing, please
‘I think we’re seeing a return to something that’s a lot more down-to-earth and less fussy,’ says Liam Davy, formerly bar manager at Guildhall and now assistant GM at Hawksmoor’s new basement bar in Spitalfields. ‘Possibly it’s even a reflection of how people eat during a recession. Certainly people who come here aren’t wanting their bartender to be fannying around with caviar and foams.’
And so it is with the new Hawksmoor bar, which strips it right back to just 10 drinks (£7.50–£11), five of which change monthly, selected by a different bartender each time. Overproof Daiquiris, Martinis laced with Chartreuse, Claret punch and Margaritas on the rocks; they’re simple – rarely more than four ingredients – elegant but robust partners for bar snacks such as burgers, lobster rolls and even a ‘Sausage and Egg HkMuffin’.
It’s a trend that will no doubt see quite a few more blokes reaching for the cocktail list, which can only be a good thing. But the revolution has also won a few more unlikely converts, according to Michael Butt: ‘Meatliquor’s down and dirty ethos is not just something that appeals to the blokes – everyone gets it. Even my mum.’
New Batch of Kings By Gillray’s
70ml Denbies red wine
Lagerita By MeaTliquor
40/50ml Pale Ale or Breton Cider
Bloody Mary No.7 By Hawksmoor
100ml tomato juice