Solo Drinker: The Glass is Half Full

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A cocktail bar is a weird place to be alone in. I’m no stranger to solitude but the thought of spending an evening alone in one was daunting. A cosy, local pub provides a degree of anonymity where a young lady can relax, peaceful and undisturbed. This is not so with bars. My impressions are patched together entirely from movies and tv shows from the 1980s where glamorous women dripping with jewels are hit on by men in over-sized suits and oil-slicked hair. Pure sexual tension. So how did this translate to modern, real life examples?

I turned off a grimy Camden street into a gorgeous, old man den. Think vintage indie chic: bare brick walls, a high, dark wood bar running alongside a red, leather couch, painstakingly mismatched lights give a warm, soft glow and whirring belts turn ineffectual ceiling fans for a languid, summery atmosphere. The line of small tables was snug enough that folks arrived in pairs but sat and merged into a single party. I chose a table at the end to avoid getting hemmed in.

Within seconds a waiter filled my teeny table with ice water, a bowl of popcorn (which, if I liked, I’d say was well salted) and a selection of cocktail menus. I quickly chose a Bramble. It came in a stubby tumbler loaded with crushed ice and garnished with a raspberry wrapped in lemon peel. It tasted of purple: juicy and heady like a grown-up ice lolly.

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Customers content and mellow, the barman produced a ladder from thin air and climbed a grand cabinet behind the bar where, one by one, he dusted and repositioned each bottle on the shelves. I tried counting but only got as far as the row of 38 cocktail shakers.

To my delight, he then swung the chalkboard open to reveal a concealed recess. From my seat I couldn’t see what mysteries it held.  Unable to control my curiosity, I left my bag, purse and other belongings unattended to inquire. It was a computer cubby hole for logging reservations. I abandoned my valuables a second time when I ventured to the ladies, only to find that there was none and only communal bathrooms.

During my liquor journey the atmosphere changed. Surly men emerged from downstairs to drink lager at the bar and watch YouTube videos with the staff, two separate homeless men wandered in from the street, used the facilities and very politely escorted out, and a group of girls joined a crowded table and animated chatter ensued. It didn’t feel like a secret, time warp any more.

The music was stream of unrecognisable indie tunes with the odd cover thrown in. With no sports or junk tv, no pool tables or jukebox, it felt like a place of conversation.

Without my noticing the barman had disappeared and a new chap came to offer me a drink. He was keen to help me choose and excitedly said the words: “let’s go off list” and offered to make me something unusual. He fired a stream of one-word questions such as long? short? sweet? sour? fruit? floral? and came to the conclusion that I suited a traditional Aviation.

I was informed that cherry complements gin perfectly and Crème de Violette brings a subtle, translucent hue to the mixture. Violette has a delicate flavour but some find the floral unpleasant and, as it is also quite difficult to get hold of, it is often left out. It sounded wonderfully sophisticated.

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Soon after I received what looked like a melted silicone implant with a fiery glacé cherry nipple lurking at the bottom. If you’ve tried a vodka martini or cosmopolitan, ie. a cocktail without a mixer, you’ll recognise that first punch to the palette from the spirits. I let out: “holy shit!”  then hastily apologised. The gin was potent, I was disappointed not to taste any cherry and the flavour at the forefront was the lavender. The strength meant that I didn’t become accustomed to the alcohol, but took small, measured sips and balanced out the sourness with water.

I insisted I enjoyed it but the barman read my watery eyes and assured me that after the two extremes he would nail the third attempt and create the perfect cocktail just for me. Feeling light-headed already, I said I’d hold him to that. My continued research concluded that the drinks were crisp, fresh and highly varied.

I was glad I came here alone. I was sure that this chapter would be my downfall and I’d stick out like a pitiful wallflower, desperate for attention, but the modern cocktail bar appeared to be more of a cultured hang out rather than a pick up point. The staff was well-informed and friendly, the clientèle casual and the bar itself tapped into everything I enjoy about style and atmosphere.  If the prices allowed for it I would make the place my regular haunt.

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