Guest Post: Alexander & James

When Shreena Soomarah of ‘Anastrophe and Cheese’ invited me to a cocktail evening hosted by Alexander & James Spirits introducing their ‘Mixologist at Home’ bartending service, needless to say, my ears perked. I’ve turned to A&J before for procuring last minute gifts and they’ve certainly always satisfied – and who was I to turn down drinks on a Monday night?

Events so had it that I found myself knocking at the door of a private home in the back-streets behind City Road. Being the early bird that I am, I spent initial time I had before mingling with the other guests to observe the impeccably crafted minimalist loft and sneak in a conversation with the man behind the bar. Now, I did feel a bit guilty for a moment as James Fowler (owner of The Library Bar and The Larder House of Bournemouth, and finalist of the World Class UK Bartender of the Year 2013) glanced up attempting conversation while frenetically setting up the beginnings to his first cocktail – but still managed to hold his cool while guests got up close snapping pictures of the make-shift bar because there is no such thing as too-early-a-tweet. My excuse was having a good look at the spirits. Fantastic quality all-around, Tanqueray No.10, Zacapa 23, Ketel One – I was pleased. And not a Passoa or Grenadine bottle in sight, thank the stars.

I was cautious mingling at first (most of the guests seemed so as well), but the hosts of the event were wonderfully courteous in helping the crowd interact. Initially I was met with the same questions: “Are you a blogger?”
To which I could only reply, awkwardly, “A PhD researcher. But if it’s any consolation, I can sniff out all the bars in a 3 mile radius.”

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Now, I had a quick look at the list of six cocktails (classics, can’t go wrong with them) that will were to be swilled that evening, but the contents of said list hadn’t quite sunk in until the first drink was being passed around to the guests.
A Vesper Martini.
Eyes widened around the room as it seems it wasn’t just myself who realised the strength of the six on the menu until just now – considering we had under two hours for the event. Or as the suavely sartorial gentleman beside me muttered, “This will not end well.”

Now, I do love my gin Martinis – preferably with Sacred or No.3 – but a Vesper holds a special place in my heart as the first of the Martini family I drank as a teenager, and a drink that ignited my passion for cocktails.  Cheeky, starting off with a Vesper, but smooth – almost too smooth. I queried James about it and he admitted that he had altered the concoction to make it easier to down, considering the rest of the menu. I am not entirely sure how I feel about that decision. Brilliant and thoughtful, certainly – but simultaneously not staying true to the drink. I also noticed that menu booklet stated making the drink with Kina Lillet. Which would make sense if it was 1985 – but Kina has since been reformulated and rebranded as the much loved Lillet Blanc for a ‘modern taste’. Now unless A&J went in doctoring their Lillet Blanc with quinine, it’s probably best to stick with the brand’s current name.

Nonetheless, this ‘novice’ Vesper danced its way too easily to the Gimlet. News spread around the room (not entirely how true this was, but was entirely believable) that the Gimlet recipe was altered as well, to Gin/Lime : 50/50 (instead of the gin being twice the amount of lime juice). Again, probably for the best considering the intensity of the night’s drinks. Smooth, sneaky, seductive – a spectacularly well made Gimlet.

Onto the third drink, the night noticably took a different air – the crowd blended in whirling circles, the talk was louder, the swearing increasingly vulgar – the Margarita certainly came in with a flourish as she should. Simple, and staying true to its roots. Nothing like a drink reclaiming its ground after being bastardised by amateur bartenders through the years.

Things begin to get blurry as an Old Fashioned is thrust into my hand. I hear a glass shatter on the other side of the room. I give the glass a quick look-over – I was waiting for this one. Bulleit Bourbon was the one spirit on today’s menu I hadn’t sampled before and I was excited to get to know it better. My taste for whiskey is young and developing, and this high rye content bourbon was hitting the spot. I was thoroughly impressed by James’ work with this Old Fashioned, but couldn’t envy the amount of work that went into preparing the immense number of them that would have to be made for an entire party in such a short amount of time. Here his skills really made themselves evident as a finalist for the WC-UK Bartender of the Year.

A voice calls out from the crowd announcing that in 15 minutes we will have to make our way. A horrifying realisation that we haven’t sampled the last two drinks leads a charge to the bar – James is running out of tumblers as he makes a makeshift Negroni in a cocktail glass. We grab a shaky hold of the glass as I query about the final drink.
“But I haven’t even opened the rum yet!”
“If I said you were really attractive, would you?”
“…”
“…”
“OKAY BUT THIS WILL BE HURRIED”

And that’s how a group of sartorialists, foodies, cocktail enthusiasts and PR consultants found themselves double-fisting a Negroni and Daiquiri in the space of 10 minutes.

Regardless of the state we were finding ourselves in, two of us did stop to wonder what had happened with the Negroni. No doubt it was still a fine drink, but was a tad too sweet for a Negroni.  We hadn’t much time to contemplate the tipple as the Daiquiri took centre stage. There wasn’t time to set up a sugar syrup and rim station, so the Daiquiri had to go without – not that we were complaining. It did its job as a delightfully tart cocktail whose bitters balanced the sweetness of the sugar and Zacapa 23 rum perfectly – again, James’ ability to work under pressure was commendable and really showcased his skill.

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On being ushered out, we were handed goodie bags containing a wonderfully crafted cocktail glass, twisted mixing spoon, measure and miniature packed in Alexander & James’ signature cases; and the hosts were gracious enough to grant a second case of goods for my friend who could not make the night.

All in all, the night was outstanding, except for a couple of gripes.

For one, I thought it was odd that we’d be given a small batch of canapés that would be eliminated whilst on the first drink – considering that we would meet a barrage of aperitifs after. No doubt, the menu was crafted to display the bartender’s skill in the immortal classics – but the food and cocktail pairing with their timing was not spectacular. This would be less of a problem if there was a dinner after, but City Road doesn’t offer much at that time of night.

The second is less of a complaint, and more of a peeve –the branding “Mixologist at Home”. Mixology is a term that has existed in the world of bartending since the 40s, but has gained immense popularity recently. Except rather than suggesting innovation, is being thrown around left and right and now is slowly being equated with “person who makes Minestrones in a cocktail shaker”. Coupled with the fact that we drank purely classics, the term seemed a bit out of place – but like I said it’s a peeve, and I would not be surprised if you chose to disagree with me.

Stumbling our way to nearest station, one of the guests I got to know moans “I can’t believe I have to be awake at 8AM after this.”
Which is why I decided to cancel everything for tomorrow.
“Why, what did you have to do?”
I’m a PhD researcher. I’d probably have a hangover anyway.

Shehzad Raj is Martini-swigging, chocolate-devouring, espresso-downing, jewellery-crazy, make-up-obsessive, porn-loving, Jungian Post-Structural antihumanist and overall Bacchanologist who spends too much time being a complete irreverent sassbasket all over London.

You can follow his exploits @Liber_Azhdeha

Learn more about Alexander & James’ Mixologist-at-Home service

3 Comments

Filed under comment, culture, drink, food, London

3 responses to “Guest Post: Alexander & James

  1. NotAMixologist

    Would you mind me saying…

    One second you are highlighting the fact that the “classic” Vesper was altered, the next you are saying that James should not be considered a “mixologist” because he only served the classics… I am a little confused. Surely, the job of a “mixologist”, rather than a standard recipe-following barman is to make small but, ultimately significant tweaks to classic cocktails in order for them to fit the occasion and/or palate of guests.

    The term “mixologist” is a controversial one and one which I usually think is too specific, since “mixology” is only one area in which a good bartender needs to excel but, in this case, it seems to be perfectly acceptable. I’ll explain why…

    It seems to me that James has assessed the situation and considered the time constraints, before making a decision to make a slight variant of a Vesper in order to fit the event.

    People have this weird image of a “mixologist” being someone in a white lab coat, infusing every single spirit with botanicals, making spirit caviars and using smoke, flame throwers and foamers (just to make their modern art, deconstructed masterpiece Cuba Libre) but that is not necessarily the case…

    If you want a Vesper, you can find any number of bartenders around the country who can follow a (very simple) recipe and churn them out. What you cannot always find is someone who is able to make subtle alterations to them in order to make them compliment the remainder of a menu… THAT is the difference between your bog-standard bartender and a “mixologist”.

    • Shehzad Raj

      Ah, yes, I don’t disagree with you. If you see in the article, I describe his move with the Vesper as being ‘Brilliant and thoughtful’ as well. I think what I felt conflicted about was that the event also came with guides to making the drinks, you see.

      And at no point did I suggest Mr. Fowler should not go by that title. I agree with you on most counts, and certainly on that a ‘mixologist’ is a controversial term. Although I do side with some of the most experienced and spectacularly skilled bartenders – the ones who work where the Vesper was constructed in person, in fact – I know who reject the term as well. I did also make a distinction in what a ‘mixologist’ should be and what it is slowly coming to mean (minestrones in a shaker).
      But like I said above, I’m more than happy for you to disagree with me when it comes to the semantics of the term. I will never hold it against a bar for using the term as long as they have skill.

  2. Johnf820

    Wonderful blog! I found it while surfing around on Yahoo News. Do you have any tips on how to get listed in Yahoo News? I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Appreciate it egdadkacegcd

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