Who remembers their first sip of neat gin? Or vodka, beer or wine? We’re willing to bet that somewhere along the road, at least one of your favourite drinks today tasted… well, unpleasant, to put it nicely.
This is the point that Alex Peffly, co-owner of newcomer Tea Room makes as he explains the bar’s mission: to serve up London’s first truly Chinese cocktails and bring Chinese spirits – particularly baijiu, the staple grain spirit made typically from sorghum – into the limelight.
‘People’s first try of Baijiu is normally the same… and it’s not always positive,’ he laughs. ‘But almost every spirit I’ve tried has been terrible the first time.’
For various reasons, the task that American-born Peffly and his wife and business partner, Cantonese Z He, have set themselves is no mean feat.
To stock the Soho-based speakeasy, found downstairs from sister operation, Bun House, some ingredients can be sourced from neighbouring Chinatown – but the bulk of the liquor is imported from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Then, there is the fact that the concept of a Chinese cocktail in itself is a bit of an idiosyncrasy.
‘Traditionally, there is no such thing as a Chinese cocktail as spirits are normally drunk neat. We wanted to create a fully Chinese cocktail, not a twist or an “Asian-inspired” cocktail,’ Peffly says, adding that mandarin and lychee were banned from the off as clichéd flavours.
Because of that lack of cocktail culture, and therefore ingredients, the Tea Room team had to start from scratch with liqueurs and bitters, creating them in-house using a baijiu base, as well as brewing their own white and red rice wines.
The results are cocktails created from 99% Chinese ingredients with a few others – a couple of English gins, a French tobacco liqueur, for example – thrown in for good measure, or used for now while the in-house alternative is developed.
The cocktails themselves present an encyclopaedic range of flavour combinations, some familiar, some less so, ordered from light to dark on the ‘newspaper’ menu (tres cool). The result of three months of development and tasting between the owners and head bartender Franky Rodrigues (previously of 101 lounge, Dubai), Peffly says that despite his own foodie background, the 21 cocktails are his proudest part of the project.
From the full-on green freshness of Coriander and Cucumber, with its young Fen jiu backbone and sour kick from haw (a crab apple-like fruit which grows in abundance in south China) instead of citrus; to the rich complexity of Peanut and Goji, made with peanut-infused Moutai baijiu and home-made cherry liqueur, every little detail is given the full Chinese treatment – right down to the smoked candy ‘cigarette’ you’re offered from a handmade leather case on the arrival of the smoky Cigarette and Palm cocktail.
As well as a wide range of baijius, 20 home-made liqueurs, home brewed rice wines and a range of bitters, expect to find Taiwanese single malt whiskies and a UK-exclusive range of Hong Kong beers and rare floral and leather wines.
And the surrounds are a perfect match. Cantonese neon sings, a beautiful tea station and collection of records sourced from down town Hong Kong featuring Chinese pop music (including the odd Beatles cover) add the finishing touches to the relaxed 1960s décor. There’s a whole range of snacks and larger dishes to try, and on the way out (or in) make sure you grab yourself some bao from Bun House, made fresh every day.
‘The goal of this was to normalise baijiu – a lot of the time, especially with brands like Moutai, it’s seen as something for affluent businessmen, and it doesn’t have to be that way,’ says Peffly.
‘If we get people drinking it, enjoying it and talking about it, we’ll have done what we wanted.’
Fun, fresh and original; we have a feeling Tea Room will easily surpass these expectations.
Bun House & Tea Room; 23-24 Greek Street, Soho; 5pm – 12:30am Sunday to Wednesday, 5pm – late Thursday to Saturday; 0208 0179 888
While you’re here…