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How Cocktails Escaped London's Basements

Our cocktail scene has always been based in the darkness of subterranean London. Until now…

London’s greatest cocktail culture has long been confined to windowless rooms and dark basements. From the iconic Milk & Honey’s barely-lit ground floor to the Savoy’s midnight black Beaufort Bar and the subterranean darkness of Nightjar, Happiness Forgets, Black Rock, Joyeux Bordel, The Luggage Room, Bourne & Hollingsworth, Super Lyan and Discount Suit Company – we’re used to drinking the world’s best cocktails in candlelit darkness.

In London, with its legendarily abysmal weather and abundance of basements, it’s the cheapest way to open a bar. In fact you’re looking at half the price per square footage, so it’s little wonder we’ve all been sipping drinks beneath the floorboards.

But styles are changing, and as a host of new venues launched in late 2016 to early 2017 London’s bars are very literally pulling up the blinds and throwing the windows open. And this is reflected in a shift to lighter, simpler drinks.

No one’s business quite charts the growth from night-time speakeasy vibes to an afternoon of watching the world go by, Sgroppino in hand, than Edmund Weil’s, co-owner of Nightjar, Oriole and Swift, alongisde Rosie Stimpson.

“It was the beginning of the era of the speakeasy,” says Edmund, speaking about the opening of their first bar, Nightjar, in 2010. “It was an idea we had had for a few years, and an era and design we both loved. When we found Nightjar’s space it was perfect, it just lent itself really well to that style of bar, the intimacy you expect from a speakeasy with nocks and crannies and was ultimately the right space for the idea we wanted to execute.”

Down in Nightjar’s basement the clock stops. Alongside other equally transformative bars (Happiness Forgets opened around the corner in 2011), it imbues that sense of timelessness, which is why they’ve always worked well as a space to drink, make merry and often forget to go home.

“That’s my philosophy of what a bar should be - transformative. It doesn’t have to be super-design led but simply that wonderful feeling of changing your experience from the moment you walk in and basements help with that,” says Edmund.

Looking for their second site, Oriole, which opened in 2015, Edmund and Rosie spent a long time hunting. While it too ended up down a flight of stairs, the space is a lot lighter and brighter with soaring ceilings and ample space for drinks prep.

But it was the company’s latest opening, in cahoots with Bobby Hiddleston and Mia Johansson that saw a more definitive move to add in a ground floor site above the basement, inspired by idea of people dropping by. With Swift’s large windows facing out onto the street, daylight streaming through them, that early 3pm opening makes a lot of sense. “The façade is important with a ground floor place and we initially wanted windows that opened out to connect us to the street but planning didn’t allow for this. We always wanted Swift to be more stripped back though,” says Edmund.

Another venture that’s moved from the basement has been Cocktail Trading Co who were initially operating from a Soho basement and now reside on Shoreditch’s Bethnal Green Road with bar stools outside in the summer months.

“One of the main influences in our design style is the quintessential British pub, which can work in a lot of different spaces. The main thing was to ensure that we could still do dark and moody and bright and breezy 100% each - nothing halfway in between,” says Elliot Ball, co-owner of CTC, speaking about the move to the ground floor premises. “We can maintain dark and moody with blinds pretty easily, so being able to throw open the windows and doors when the time is right gives us a completely different venue. In our basement and Bristol bars, summer hurts and we notice a substantial downturn. But this is the first summer at CTC we’ve been open and our trade levels are just fine. So yes, it’s an awesome ability to have.”

With bars opening earlier and earlier, and some even dipping a toe into daytime trading, assisted by coffee and wifi, the design has become increasingly bright, light and airy. And while you may lose some of that timelessness, this new style feels decidedly more modern and easy-going, whether you’re drinking somewhere that’s thrown money at design like Dandelyan or a first venture between brothers, such as Three Sheets in Dalston.

“Lightness, and airiness was key to everything,” says Max Venning, co-owner of Three Sheets in Dalston with his brother Noel. “We’re not trying to look like a cocktail bar – there’s no shakers out, everything is stored under the stations and we don’t have a high back bar. It’s all about drawing attention to the bar itself which is where the conversations happen.”

Max and Noel have been very careful not to brand Three Sheets with a concept. It’s just tasty drinks, as they like to make them. Having a venue that straddles the line effortlessly between day and night certainly helps with this endeavour, rather than being labelled speakeasy because it’s down a flight of stairs.

And then there’s the style of drink, often long and refreshing at Three Sheets, fresh and herbaceous at Dandelyan and with a paired back, simpler menu at Swift’s upstairs bar.

Basement bars won’t be packing up and closing shop anytime soon. And no doubt come winter we’ll all be grateful they exist, but getting away from that design and style every time a new venue opens is an important feat as a city moving forward with their drinks style. Bright and airy, with a focus on lighter, tasty drinks is very much in vogue for the better. After all why would we keep our cocktails secretively hidden below? It’s not as if anyone has been stupid enough impose a prohibition on the Brits.