All the bar's a stage: An exploration of theatrical serves

15 February 2018

Some cocktails are art, while others are nothing less than theatre, with a growing number of UK bars treating their customers to some serious showmanship. Clinton Cawood packs his opera glasses

Few bartenders would deny the parallels between the bar and the stage, whether it’s donning a white suit and providing impeccable service, or merely the promise of entertainment via some dodgy chat.

Increasingly, this sense of theatre is making itself felt in the drinks themselves, in everything from unusual glassware to extravagant serves, with brands often ready to provide a helping financial hand for the most creative among them.

The drinks are elevated, the customer gets an experience they’re never going to forget and of course, the reaction from other punters is inevitably going to be: ‘What’s that? I want one…’
So here are some of our favourites…

Cassia Blanca, Panda & Sons
A number of brands have lent their support to bars looking to create potentially expensive theatrical serves, but Bombay Sapphire recently took this campaign spanning 10 bars across Europe. A Gin of Ten Journeys saw each bar assigned one of the gin’s 10 botanicals, and tasked with creating a cocktail inspired by it, as well as an ‘immersive drinking experience’.

Five UK bars participated, with Edinburgh’s Panda & Sons among them. With cassia bark as its botanical, the team dedicated an entire room at the bar to its new Cassia Blanca serve. The Vietnamese Jungle room was filled with bamboo, trees and plants to transport drinkers to the place where this botanical is found.

The drink itself is a fresh combination of Bombay Sapphire, bianco vermouth, coconut rum, cassia sugar and tonic water. It pours from a custom fountain-style dispenser in the shape of a tree, over a large ice sphere in a Vietnamese pho bowl, and is garnished with a buzz button that numbs certain taste buds, heightening others.

‘The team at Panda & Sons really went above and beyond in terms of their creativity, from re-imagining a vessel to creating a brand-new environment to make the drink come to life,’ comments Bombay Sapphire UK brand ambassador Renaud de Bosredon.

‘Many of the drinks at Panda & Sons are theatrical because so many of our customers sit at tables away from bar, so it’s great to be able to bring the theatre to the table,’ says Sian Buchan, who worked on the serve. ‘It was great doing the collaboration with Bombay Sapphire, as it made us look at aspects of drinks, the brand, and customer interaction in a way that we may not have done before. Also, having a budget to work with meant that we could really push ourselves to do something exciting,’ she adds.

For de Bosredon, there’s an added benefit to working on projects like these with bars. ‘We develop longer and deeper relationships with bars, as the project has been mutually beneficial,’ he says.

Mirage, City Social, London
City of London’s City Social went high-tech to bring some theatre to its drinks list earlier this year, with Mirage, the world’s first Augmented Reality cocktail menu. No regular garnishes for visitors to Jason Atherton’s 24th-floor Michelin-starred venue at the top of Tower 42... Instead, each drink comes with its own art-inspired animated scene viewed through a customer’s phone via an app.

Designs on coasters tell the app which scene to display, such as an Art Nouveau animation for the Perrier-Jouët Belle Époque champagne cocktail, Sashay. Other scenes are inspired by Andy Warhol, Banksy, Van Gogh and more.

The inevitable urge for customers to post on social media about the serves is streamlined, with the app providing functionality to create slick Atherton-watermarked pics and videos.

Jamie Jones and Tim Laferla were the brains behind this technological cocktail wizardry, but they brought it to life with the help of a number of brands, primarily from Diageo, Pernod Ricard, William Grant and G’Vine. ‘There’s heavy investment to bring something like that to the table,’ confirms Jones.
It was important that the drinks weren’t overshadowed by the technology.

‘Mirage was designed to offer a menu for both cocktail purists who prefer simplicity and elegance, and those looking for theatre and innovation,’ explains Jones. ‘The main focus was the quality of the drinks, then building up from there ensuring that whether you used the tech or not, it was still a really delicious cocktail menu that stood on
its own merits.’

Mousetrap, Dandelyan, London
For a touch of nostalgia, combined with a contraption that actually has a direct impact on the finished drink’s flavour, it’s hard to beat the Mousetrap at Mr Lyan’s award-winning Dandelyan.

Collaborating with Haig Club, Ryan Chetiyawardana has recreated the classic kids’ board game for the bar at the Mondrian Hotel in London, producing a visually arresting and very functional piece of bar equipment.

Instead of a marble, this version uses an ice ball, which can travel one of three ways through the device. On each route the ice ball picks up different flavour elements, finally ending up in a tumbler, where Haig Club is poured over the top.

The result is three different serves, all highlighting Haig Club whisky in different ways, while emphasising the accessibility of the whisky category that the brand champions.

Zuma Zacapa Live Solera, Global
Barrel-ageing cocktails in-house might once have been impressive, but that was before Zuma elevated the whole thing with a cocktail solera ageing system in collaboration with Zacapa Rum.

Inspired by the solera system used to age Zacapa, the set-up consists of four miniature barrels, with the top three containing different flavours. These infuse the cocktail as it passes, over the course of a few weeks, from one barrel to the next, before it finally ends in a glass with a Zacapa-branded piece of ice.

When the barrel-aged serve was launched last year, it became a permanent addition to the drinks lists of all nine of the Zuma restaurants around the world, each ageing a different cocktail. In London, these barrels impart nettle tea, raspberry eau-de-vie and rhubarb bitters to a combination of Zacapa 23, Bulleit Bourbon, three vermouths and more, resulting in a Vieux Carré-inspired cocktail.

‘Every single cocktail created using this is different due to the solera system. The liquid inside the barrels is consistently alive,’ explains Zuma bar manager Pawel Roka. ‘This unique and intricate system allows us to create an individual drink, giving the guest a unique journey.’

More than a year before the serve was first unveiled, Zuma directors James Shearer and Jimmy Barrat had approached Diageo Reserve with the idea, who helped to develop it together with some technical know-how from Fluid Movement’s Thomas Aske.

‘Really special experiences are driving the hospitality industry. Despite going out less frequently, consumers are spending more on unique drinking occasions that they are going to remember,’ says Diageo Reserve regional sales manager, Vedran Milosevic. ‘It was very exciting to be a part of creating the Solera Serve, and the whole project. Not only is it a really striking and engaging installation, it also creates an amazing Zacapa serve that marries some fantastic ingredients together to perfectly highlight the flavours and aromas of the barrel-aged rum.’

Forged by Flames, Artesian Bar at The Langham, London
As any tiki adherent will tell you, you just can’t beat flames when it comes to getting a guest’s attention. No stranger to immersive, theatrical serves, the team at Artesian skip the Polynesian vibes but have nevertheless created a serve that’s (quite literally) on fire.

Forged by Flames was created after a team visit to the cooperage at Martell Distillerie in Cognac. ‘We wanted to use Martel as a base for this and connect the idea of toasting barrel staves back to the cognac they hold,’ explains The Langham hotel’s director of bars, Dino Koletsas.

The result is a miniature oak barrel that’s brought to the guest with a flaming stave inside, extinguished by pouring the cocktail itself – Martell Cordon Bleu, Quinquina, Chinato, verjus, grape blossom and bitters – over the flames.

‘We wanted an extra dimension through the use of verjus to create a cooling sensation, and balance the heavy oiliness that the fortified wines and cognac bring at room temperature,’ Koletsas adds. ‘As we see it, drinking in a bar like the Artesian is not just about drinking, but an entertainment experience. We are looking at how to apply the idea of theatre to drinks in new ways, where the storytelling element and the presentation by the server become even more critical.’

Lightbulb Moment, The Alchemist, UK-wide
Sometimes a unique piece of glassware can be the best inspiration for what ultimately turns into a fully theatrical and playful serve. This was the case with a lightbulb-shaped conical glass that inspired the creation of the Lightbulb Moment at The Alchemist.

‘It was the most unique and interesting vessel we had ever used, and we knew we had to create something special here,’ says Elliot Oxley, head of bar training and development for the group. ‘I wanted to create a twist on a Pimm’s Cup-style cocktail, and knew I had to add an extremely interesting and complex combination of flavours to match the theatre I had planned.’

That theatre consists of a rustic tripod stand and copper pan, in which the cocktail is heated to 80°C, while a chilled rocks glass is prepared with ice and mint. The cocktail is poured over dry ice in the lightbulb glass, which emits plumes of mint and ginger clouds as it’s handed to the guest for them to pour into their glass.

‘It has surpassed drinks as popular as The Pornstar Martini. Guests love the theatre, love to video and photograph it, love the smell and most importantly, love the taste,’ explains Oxley. ‘Our drinks are experiences, and we engineer this experience using multisensory techniques. The value of including the guests’ other senses, whilst filling them with a sense of “wow” and also “how?”, is
a huge motivation for us. It just doesn’t get old.’

Black Diamond, American Bar at the Savoy, London
The last American Bar menu, a journey across Britain entitled Coast to Coast, is on point when it comes to the visual component of its serves.

The drinks in each section of the new menu are presented similarly, with all of the bar’s Garden of England cocktails, for instance, served in bespoke glass terrariums.

Bar manager Declan McGurk’s Black Diamond cocktail in The Pennines section of the Coast to Coast menu provides an example of some appropriately subtle, multisensory theatre.

Visuals are taken care of in the form of a cog-design pedestal, but the theatrical flourish comes from the addition of a bespoke incense created in partnership with Haeckels skin care clinic and shop in Margate, Kent. ‘The idea came to create an incense that was reflective of the ingredients and tasting notes of the cocktail, hence the partnership with fragrance experts Haeckels,’ McGurk explains.

The Boulevardier-inspired drink combines Woodford Reserve Rye, Mr Black’s Cold Press Coffee Liqueur, Campari and salted Lapsang Souchong syrup. ‘When creating the Black Diamond cocktail I was very inspired by the communities that had been created by the coal industry,’ McGurk adds. ‘I wanted a drink to reflect that culture, which is very upfront in its nature.

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