Luxe drinking lounge The Blue Bar at The Berkeley recently launched Out of the Blue, a drinking experience that sees four guests cosseted away in a small room in the hotel for an immersive half-hour bibulous journey.
Guests imbibe four mystery drinks while bathed in a specially created video and soundscape, with aromas discreetly hissing into the room, and have to guess what on earth is in their glasses. It’s almost the bar equivalent of willingly suspending your disbelief at the theatre.
Sixteen months in the making, this project pushes the boundaries of sensory perception, with the team at the bar trying to strip away any cues that might lead the guest to form any preconceptions.
Imbibe caught up with Rashid Ghuloom, bar manager at The Berkeley, to find out more about the project, and the extraordinary process that went into bringing it to life… all while keeping those drinks and their accompanying videos secret squirrel, of course.
Where did the idea for Out of the Blue (OOTB) come from?
'We came up with the idea 16 months ago, when Daniel Baernreuther [director of food and beverage] and I had a conversation about drinks experiences. We were discussing how some drinks are of a time and place – the Daiquiri in Cuba, or a San Miguel on the beach in Spain. You can enjoy them elsewhere, but they’re not quite the same. So we wondered if we could create a space in the hotel that would allow us to offer a new context for drinks. We wanted to create a fully immersive experience where the traditional cues of each drink are stripped back, and the senses are stimulated by visuals and scents to enhance the flavours.'
How did this idea become a reality?
'We worked with a creative agency called Armoury that fabricated the visuals for us. We didn’t want a traditional drinks experience. Everything from the way a menu is worded, to the type of glass used – be it a clear drink in a crystal Martini glass or something in a flaming tiki mug – leads you to anticipate the way a drink will taste. We’ve stripped back all of these traditional cues, leaving you with three factors that determine the taste of each drink. Firstly, your own palate. Second is the context we provide – a mixture of visuals, sounds and smells. Lastly, the other people in the room with you – a factor we have no control over, but one that has a huge influence on your overall experience and how you perceive each drink.'
What can the customer expect?
'We start with a non-alcoholic palate cleanser to put everyone on the same page. There’s no menu, you get four drinks and they’re served in identical opaque serving vessels, so you can’t see the colour of the drink – this is the first cue we strip away, the sight of the drink and knowledge of its colour, so no prejudices can arise there.
'Each drink has its own experience that explores the drink in a different way. At the end of each experience, there's a reveal where we let guests know what they have consumed through visuals showcasing the exact ingredients and how the drink would be served should they order it in the Blue Bar.
'What I’ve learned so far is that your perception of taste does indeed transform. The key thing about this is that it’s a shared experience – ultimately it’s more fun to drink with friends!'
Can you tell us about the development of the drinks?
'The four experiences were each inspired by a section of our True Colours menu, so we knew the style of drink we wanted to make. The brief for the creative team at Armoury consisted of the style and focus of each colour, plus a list of six ingredients that epitomised the section and that were to be used in the drinks we were creating. Everything comes back to the ingredients.
'Our head bartender, Andrea Melis, was given the same brief and created some different options for each section. We did a lot of research into things like temperature – for example the double-walled ceramic cups that we sourced (buying up all available stock from Canada, Malaysia and Australia!) kept the drink 10°C colder than a glass of the same size after 25 minutes. All the research we did really built up our toolkit, so that when it was time to finalise the drinks we had a lot of substance and options to work with – there is a lot of science involved here!'
What were your key findings?
'One of the most interesting things is how we had to adapt our initial recipes based on the structure of the experience. We found that the sensitivity of your palate is heightened in the room, especially when you're not able to see the liquid. So we had to rework the recipes to make all the flavours more subtle as everything was too intense.
'We also had to look at the sequencing – how one drink leads to another. Normally we have a few minutes between drinks, but the pacing of the films doesn’t allow that. By the fourth experience, it could be nearly 30 minutes since the drink was put out, so we had to be very confident that the drink would taste exactly as we wanted.
'Once we had the first rough edits of the films and the scent machine, we also had to tweak the drinks. One ingredient came up much stronger in combination with a particular scent, so we ended up toning that down in the drink, but it became far more apparent as the visuals and aroma kicked in. We plot a timeline of intensity for each aroma over time. The first time we saw the film, the drinks and the aroma were amazing – so much more than sum of their parts. That was the moment when we really felt confident about going live.'
What has the customer reaction been so far?
People come out of the room after 30 minutes with a wonderful energy, and they’re all talking about flavours and ingredients. It seems to be a great icebreaker and creates an immediate intimacy. From a drink perspective, it's interesting to see how guests reassess their own preconceptions of what flavours and ingredients they think they like.
Will it change your approach to creating drinks for a normal bar experience in the future?
'We’ve learnt so much from the work that went into creating OOTB that it will certainly have an impact. By removing so many elements of the bar experience, it really gave us a heightened awareness of how powerful seemingly small touches can be.'
Do you see this inclusive drinking experience being picked up and developed by others in the trade?
'With OOTB, we’ve created a tool. It would be amazing to see what other people could do with that tool and how it could be developed. I hope others appreciate our relentless focus on ensuring that this is a shared experience – there is such a wonderful surprise factor from putting four people in a room with drinks and having them experience something together for the first time.'