Stars from the bars: Imbibe Drinks List of the Year 2017 winners

Laura Foster

Laura Foster

16 October 2017

An astonishing array of shortlisted candidates was lined up for our stellar panel of judges to cast their critical eyes over. Ladies and gentlemen, we bring you the winners of Imbibe Drinks List of the Year 2017 in association with Maxxium UK 

What a difference a year makes. The competition may only be in its second year, but the increase in entries, and especially those from outside London, is marked.

Last year’s inaugural Drinks List of the Year awards in association with Maxxium disappointingly saw only one category won by a venue outside of London. But this year? In 2017, amazingly, half of the categories have been won by businesses that aren’t located in the capital.

With winners in Bournemouth, Exeter, Birmingham and Sheffield, we’re excited to see how Drinks List of the Year is shining a light on the excellent work being carried out by bars and restaurants in all corners of the country.

Before we go any further, it’s worth noting that a number of tweaks were made to the competition this year – the cognac list award was discarded (really want your bar to have a point of difference? This might just be the category to specialise in) and two new categories were introduced in the form of Hotel and Group Drinks List of the Year, in recognition of the large number of entries we receive from businesses that fall into both camps.

But enough of the admin! Read on to find out who triumphed in the second instalment of Imbibe’s Drinks List of the Year awards…

Gin List of the Year

Winner: 40 St Paul’s, Birmingham
Runner up: Mr Fogg’s Gin Parlour

The two books sent in by 40 St Paul’s weren’t just held up as the best entry for the gin list category, but as an excellent example of what bars should be doing when they specialise in any spirits category.

The gin menu features 140 products, which have been split into categories (juniper, citrus, floral, Old Tom…), and each category begins with a flavour wheel around which the gins are placed, giving a clear, simple indication of the flavour profile of each product.

A lot of time and effort has clearly been put into something that will make the customer’s decision a hell of a lot easier. The cocktail list, meanwhile, is gin heavy… and we’re dying to try out the Hand Pull Ramos Gin Fizz, which is pre-batched and served through an ale pump.

What the judges said…  

‘You can beat the competition over the head with the actual gin menu.’ Jared Brown 
‘It’s quite ballsy, we haven’t seen anything else like this today.’ Michelle Brachet
‘If I was to give people a WSET education on gin, that’s the book I’d use right there. It’s a nice education in a category that’s full of bad education.’ Anistatia Miller 
‘The layout comes across quite classic and serious, then they take the piss out of themselves with quotes from Henry Rollins and “Louise from Facebook”, which I really like. Having 140 gins on a separate menu really stands out.’ Lyndon Higginson 
‘This shows you what a modern spirits list should look like.’ Michael Butt 

40 St Paul’s, 40 Cox St, Birmingham B3 1RD;

Whisky List of the Year

Winner: Smokin’ Aces, Bournemouth
Runner up: Ballygrant Inn, Islay

One of the most common practices of bars specialising in a particular spirits category is to simply list all the products that they stock in their menu. While the sheer volume of choice can be impressive, it can also be overwhelming, so even a little curation can go a long way.

Here, the judges were quick to weed out the ‘just a list’ lists in favour of those that really tried to give something extra. ‘They should have a tasting note or some information about the distilleries at least,’ said Michael Butt.

Smokin’ Aces really stood out from the pack, with its comprehensive yet carefully edited menu of whisk(e)ys that’s organised geographically. Products each have a short description and are reasonably priced to boot. And don’t get us started on the pages dedicated to different Old Fashioneds, or the recommended Boilermaker pairings… all clever touches that help make an often intimidating category more accessible for the average consumer.

What the judges said…  

‘I don’t know how this could be any better.’ Michael Butt
‘It’s pushing forward the relevance to their market and that’s really good. What appeals to me is that it would get people into the category rather than just keep them there, and for whisky I think that’s really important.’ Joel Harrison
‘I like that the list is curated. They’ve taken the time to do a job so that it’s easier for the consumer.’ Monica Berg

Smokin’ Aces, 103 Commercial Road, Bournemouth, BH2 5RT;

Rum List of the Year

Winner: Trailer Happiness, London
Runner up: Auld Reekie Tiki, Edinburgh

Trailer’s having a good run of it at the moment, with its recent Spirited Award at Tales and now this. The menu’s attractive colourful Caribbean design caught the judges’ attention, and they also approved of the wide variety of original rum cocktails on the list… plus the page of sharing cocktails to get the party started – a vital part of Trailer’s modus operandi.

What got a massive thumbs up from the panel was the back page listing a selection of some of the rums that are available to order, which is a simple yet ingenious solution for any venue that stocks so many spirits on a rotating back bar that it’s impossible to keep a full list up to date.

Make ours a Vote for Pedro, a rummy twist on a Manhattan.

What the judges said…  

‘I like that they have their signature drinks, there’s no classic tiki drinks on there.’ Lyndon Higginson
‘It definitely leans very heavily on Cuban 1950s design. The back page is a great representation of the rums they stock. You can’t list every single thing in somewhere like Trailer! And if you consider how low the lighting is like in there, you’d still be able to read it!’ Anistatia Miller

Trailer Happiness, 177 Portobello Rd, London W11 2DY;

Themed List of the Year

Winner: Doctor Ink’s Curiosities, Exeter
Runner up: Pennyroyal, Cardiff

Full marks for imagination to the team at Doctor Ink’s Curiosities: the bar and its menus are set around the fictitious character of Daedalus Ramesses Ink and his travels in the 19th century. The secret love child of Queen Victoria and a young Cecil Rhodes, he’s shipped off abroad, where he gains inspiration for his ‘curious drinks from all corners of the Empire’.

Written as a journal, with each drink and the story behind it forming the basis of a diary entry, it’s a fun and engaging read.

‘We are lost and cold in the mountains of Mongolia, but luckily we happen upon a tribe of Kazakh hunters… they use golden eagle companions to hunt wolves’ begins one such entry for a drink that mixes Eagle Rare 10yo, plum liqueur, wolf-berry syrup and plum bitters. Very clever indeed.

What the judges said…  

‘They went for it! Just dived in headfirst – and they couldn’t have done it better.’ Monica Berg
‘It’s brilliant. One of the rare times when you do more than you really need to. With descriptors, lists and narrative, it fulfils the “I’m 10 minutes early”, the “I don’t know what to drink” and the “I want a conversation” situations perfectly. It was fun to read – inviting – and the concept wasn’t too forced. It made me want to go to Exeter to visit.’ Neil Ridley

Doctor Ink’s Curiosities, Customs House, 43 The Quay, Exeter EX2 4AN;

Avant-Garde Drinks List of the Year

Winner: Picture House Social, Sheffield
Runner up: Merchant House, London

A hardback picture book with beautiful photography and stories around every drink, this menu has stood out from the crowd ever since we received it in the Imbibe offices.

The cocktail bar/mini cinema/table tennis venue teams up with photographer India Hobson for each menu it creates. This particular edition featured drinks that used ingredients found on the doorstep of Sheffield, and the photographs were shot in the Peak District, resulting in moody pictures that set the atmosphere for this stunning menu.

Each drink is given a luxurious spread of two pages, with a picture on the right-hand side, and a list of ingredients, short description of the drink, and an explanation of the area that the drink had been photographed in on the left, transporting the reader to the hills and rivers of the national park.

What the judges said…  

‘They have really thought about this – the way they link the drinks to the region. And it’s absolutely beautifully shot.’ Michael Butt
‘It’s beautiful. It really is a menu that represents the time and the place. It just makes absolute sense for this place to have this menu, and it’s nicely done. The paper is good, the photos are lovely, and it really tells a story. It’s a very intelligent menu.’ Monica Berg
‘Inspirational and aspirational. Bravo!’ Joel Harrison

Picture House Social, 383 Abbeydale Rd, Nether Edge, Sheffield S7 1FS;

Classic Drinks List of the Year

Winner: Cocktail Embassy, London
Runner up: Hidden Rooms, Cambridge

This ‘instruction book’ that’s dressed up as an official embassy file swept the floor with all the other shortlisted entries in the Classic category.

Designed as if all the drinks have been recorded on graph paper, with technical sketches and information on how each is made, accompanied by a three- or four-word flavour description, this is a masterclass in providing all the information that a reader might need or want about a particular cocktail within a 10-second scan.

A really smart touch is the ‘try next’ suggestion beside every cocktail, helping to guide the reader towards their next choice of drink.

What the judges said…  

‘The menu blew me away – the layout, the feeling of the menu, the simplicity of it, it’s not trying to educate you, it’s not pretentious. It’s simple, but with each cocktail you want to read more.’ Alessandro Palazzi
‘I loved the fact that the information was delivered in soundbites for the short attention span.’ Jared Brown
‘There was a really strong cross-section of drinks, it had a little bit of everything and was really balanced with something from every family. That’s so rare to find.’ Anistatia Miller
‘It was classy, elegant and contemporary – I love the paper stock. It’s fun and easy to read, and eminently nickable.’ Michelle Brachet 

Cocktail Embassy, 76 Westow Hill, London SE19 1SE;

Hotel Drinks List of the Year

Winner: Punch Room at the Edition, London
Runner up: American Bar at the Savoy, London

With so many of the hotel bars creating competition-beating drinks lists, the judges felt it was only right to give them an awards category of their own, when reviewing the entries during the first round of judging.

In an incredibly closely fought category, the clear focus and drive of the Punch Room’s menu saw it coming out top. This is the embodiment of only doing one thing, and doing it well.

Serving only punch, the menu is split into five sections, with one section featuring spirit-forward punches, another of punches incorporating special teas, another for citrus, and so on.

Introductions are short and pithily written, including such excerpts as: ‘Spirits are very different now than they were in the 16th century, when… the risk of blindness was much more real. Drinking was a pretty extreme sport back then’.

It’s all we can do to not sit there and order one of everything from the menu…

What the judges said…  

‘It’s presented very well, with an excellent selection of cocktails, and tells a great story.’ Michelle Brachet
‘The level of education is pitched just right – there’s a little bit of history, some information on what the ingredients are doing, and it’s easy to navigate.’ Anistatia Miller
‘I only have one criticism of this menu – they missed using different types of sugar, especially loaf sugar, but nobody’s perfect! If that’s the only problem, they’re doing very well.’ Jared Brown

Punch Room, London Edition Hotel, 10 Berners Street, London, W1T 3NP;

Group List of the Year

Winner: Dishoom, UK
Runner up: New World Trading Co, UK

The Groups award is a new category for this year that was created in recognition of the fact that bar groups operate in a sphere of their own, often with a particular theme and clientele that they are catering towards. It was cemented by the fact that bars from the same group were entering the competition, meaning that the judges struggled to pick between entries.

In the inaugural year for this award Indian restaurant group Dishoom took the trophy. Hailing back to the Irani cafes that proliferated in Bombay in the 1960s, Dishoom’s restaurants have a very strong identity, and its drinks list reflects this theme perfectly, with references to Bombay and ingredients such as paan, chai and cardamom liberally sprinkled throughout the concise list.

What the judges said…  

‘This shows how a multi-operator should make a multi-venue list.’ Michael Butt.
‘It’s halfway between a train timetable and a 1970s football programme. And I mean that totally in a good way. There’s an authentic, homely feel to it.’ Joel Harrison
‘The menu is very in the style of the venues. It doesn’t feel like there’s a disconnect between the bar, the menu and the floor, which sometimes happens. I could take my mum here and she could order a drink by herself. They understand what they do and they stick to it. There’s a good selection of non-alcoholic drinks, too.’ Monica Berg
‘There’s a theme to it, but it doesn’t feel themed…’ Neil Ridley

Dishoom, various locations; 

Overall Drinks List of the Year 2017

Winner: Merchant House, London

Though pipped to the top spot in the Avant-Garde category, our judges were sufficiently impressed by the Merchant House list to put it in the running for the overall list of the year on the assumption that, while it was not as innovative or unusual as the Avant-Garde winner, Picture House Social, it was a hugely strong all-round list.

A smart hard-back book of 12 original cocktails that are inspired by the key trade cities of the European Empires, alongside a selection of ‘house favourite’ classic gin and rum cocktails, this list contains just the right amount of information, with a clear layout and beautiful hand-drawn illustrations.

When it came to a vote, the overall senior panel of judges agreed.

What the judges said…  

‘I’ve loved this since the start of the judging. It does everything I want a menu to do. It’s well written, well presented and has a high level of production. It’s innovative in presentation, but the drinks themselves are very simple – never more than five ingredients. I’d drink all of these.’ Michael Butt
‘It’s elegant, stylish and balanced. Concise, and never over the top. And even though it has a retro feel it’s not at all dated, rather it’s progressive.’ Peter Dorelli
‘If it was music, this list would be classical. It’s pretty, structured, and aesthetically lovely, but there are layers of content, too. Despite this, there’s no bullshit at all. It’s educational but not boring, and playful without being silly.’ Monica Berg

Merchant House, 13 Well Court, London EC4M 9DN;

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