It had been a helluva great day in Seasalter and Whitstable. The nice thing about the train was that it was very convenient for a quick nap. That was necessary since we had a reservation for the evening at Nightjar, one of the London bars I had most wanted to visit, especially since it was conveniently located within an easy walk of our apartment. It took longer to return than we had anticipated, but we managed to make it to the nightclub in time to claim our reservation.
Nightjar is renowned for the complex presentation and complex deliciousness of its cocktails. I fully expected them to be as superb as they turned out to be, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the live jazz music. The evening featured The Vital Organ Trio accompanied by a wonderful jazz vocalist previously unknown to me, Vimala Rowe. They played standards with verve, style and class, making the already smooth cocktails go down all that much smoother. Amongst other great songs, she sang my requested favorite, “Summertime” in a way that truly melted my heart. I felt that I was back in the glory days of jazz and my youth listening to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn.
Ah, those cocktails! Cocktail menus have seemingly morphed into the worlds of art and literature of themselves. The menu here, like those of places like The Dead Rabbit in NYC, Trick Dog in San Francisco and Dandelyan in London, have become part of the allure and the experience. The themes, historical contexts and detailed descriptions excite and confuse. It is difficult to choose as all of the cocktail descriptions act like sirens drawing me to the rocks. Nevertheless, we all managed to choose and to choose well. I’m not sure that we could have done otherwise!
My first was the “Soul Kiss,” a doozy of a cocktail that dazzled with its delivery as well as its contents. Listed under the header of “Pre-Prohibition” cocktails, the “Soul Kiss” appears to be named after an early Twentieth Century Broadway musical of that name. The original appears to be a fairly simple cocktail consisting of Whiskey, dry Vermouth, Dubonnet Rouge and orange juice. The one at Nightjar? Not quite so simple as the ingredients list mentions nothing of orange juice, adds rum in the form of Ron Zacapa 23, throws a major league whiskey in in the form of Bowmore 15 Year and makes substitutions for the aperitifs – Barolo Chinato Cocchi for the dry Vermouth and Harvey’s Pedro Ximenez Sherry for the Dubonnet. The OJ appears to have been replaced by maple syrup! I’d never had a classic Soul Kiss, but this was delicious, and served in it’s special rustic earthenware container made in Italy expressly for Nightjar, quite fun.
All of the cocktails exuded fun. The “Toronto,” another from the Pre-Prohibition list came with cotton candy and chocolate adorning a liquid collection of Woodford Reserve Bourbon, Coffee & Roasted Pecan Maple Syrup (?!), Fernet Branca and orange blossom “smoke.” The original appears to stem from the 1840’s and pairs Canadian Rye Whiskey with Fernet Branca, Angostura bitters and simple syrup. Clearly, this variation was in the ballpark of the original, albeit with some major variant details.
The London Mule, from the “Post War” header, has become one of Nightjar’s most popular cocktails. One key difference with the Moscow Mule is its substitution of gin for vodka, akin to that by Audrey Saunders and her Gin-Gin Mule. Still, most “Mules” are simple cocktails, but no cocktail is ever simple at Nightjar. This is adorned with Kamm & Sons Ginseng Spirit, lime (of course), apple and rhubarb, Nightjar Galangal Beer, bee pollen syrup , Nightjar bitters, fresh mint, an olive, plenty of crushed ice and a British Union Jack sitting atop the wooden tankard!
A variety of drinks were ordered through table service, arriving back some time later. Once, because the bar thought it was taking too long to get us our cocktails they sent a free punch, that they were working on. I didn’t catch the details, but it, too was quite tasty, even though it didn’t come with the presentation pyrotechnics of the other cocktails. The cocktails that we ordered? They arrived almost immediately after.
These were all interesting and delicious, featuring different base spirits, juices, tinctures and gimmicks. Yes, the bar relied a lot on gimmickry, though never at the expense of making a delicious cocktail. The gimmicks were original and upped the fun quotient considerably. They would have been hollow had the drinks lacked substance or if the gimmicks didn’t work. Happily, they did and very well. Even the Moulin Rouge, from the Prohibition era, which came with a strong dose of Ylang Ylang perfume worked within the context of the drink, although I was glad that someone else ordered it and not myself.
The Artillery Punch slaked all our thirsts. Designed to share, it was a presentation tour de force. That could almost be taken literally as it was served in a cannon steaming with dry ice! It was built with Hendricks gin, gunpowder proof rum infused with korekima, Sultan tea, apricot brandy, Benedictine, grape juice, fresh lime, sugar and bee pollen.
We had sampled from all corners of the menu, including from that area titled “Nightjar Signature” that housed their own creations. An homage to Japanese brewing and distillation prowess, the Name of the Samurai has been on their menu since they opened. It lashed together Nikka Whiskey from the barrel, popcorn tea infusion, fresh squeezed lime, Akashi Tai Sake, ume plum and galangal liqueur, mirin and rice syrup and burnt bamboo shoots served atop a smoky wooden sake cup and covered by a flat woody slab supporting a dried stalk of rice. At first we were afraid that the waiter was going to set the bar on fire, but he quickly snuffed the threatening embers.
The cocktail known as “Beyond the Sea” was one that I just had to order once I saw someone drinking one at another table. Drunk directly from it’s container, a massive seashell, the drink was a fabulous ode to my beloved Spain. Channeling the Vanguardist tradition of Ferran Adria et al, it fused Gin Mare, oyster leaf infusion, fino sherry, fresh squeezed grapefruit, yuzu bitters and seaweed air into a mixological trompe l’oeil of the sea.
Each of the components of the experience, the setting, the cocktails and the music, would have been enough on their own to make a special experience. All of those things together, combined with great company, turned the evening into one of the finest and most enjoyable nightclub experiences that I have ever had. Along with a stellar day visiting The Sportsman in Seasalter, the entire day was one that was truly special.