We checked out the BlackTail Residency at the Bloomsbury Club Bar (BCB, 16-22 Great Russell Street, London) today and were very impressed. New York’s BlackTail has been created by the team behind the Dead Rabbit, which regularly gets ranked as the best or one of the best cocktail bars in the world. BlackTail itself is generally considered to have been the most anticipated and successful bar opening in the U.S. during the past year (it opened a few months ago). It emulates the American bars that sprang up in Havana during the 1920s Prohibition (not sure why some reviewers call the bar a speakeasy, which would be the improvised U.S. underground bootlegging version of the time, and quite the opposite in some ways, ultimate luxury versus greasy, badly-lit basements).
The Irish duo behind the BlackTail, Dead Rabit’s co-founders Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, were inspired by the distinctive black tail fins of the “luxurious Aeromarine flying boats that delivered the thirsty into the embrace of tropical sunshine, of decadent cocktails – of Cuba”, a time of “the devil-may-care early days of aviation” (BlackTail’s slogans).
Behind the bar tonight were BlackTail’s bar manager Jesse Vida, previously of The Dead Rabbit, Booker & Dax and Dutch Kills, and Harrison Ginsberg, who currently works across both The Dead Rabbit and BlackTail, both sporting cool Havana hats.
As is the case in New York’s venue, the drinks list was divided into five categories – Highball, Punch, Sour, Old-Fashioned and Cocktail – and consisted of classic cocktails “interpreted for today’s tastes and amplified with the latest techniques”. BCB offered four of BlackTail’s most popular libations alongside four BlackTail plays on BCB’s own concoctions, especially created for this residency. (In their New York bar eight drinks per category are being offered, hence the decision, we presume, to stick with the number eight.) Being Cuban-themed, rum naturally features rather prominently, but there is a good variety to choose from.
The 44-page, beautifully designed menu starts out with “Welcome to a true transatlantic meeting of minds – and spirits” and takes you on a stylishly illustrated journey through the times that inspired BlackTail, the history, ambition, and background of the New York bar, and, as a drinks menu should: the drinks.
We follow the narrator on a trip to meet Donovan, a man who, when Prohibition struck, packed all his belongings and took a boat straight to Havana, where he opened Donovan’s Pub, now “well-established in Havana’s Old Town, at the back of the Hotel Telegrafo” (and basically eloquently celebrates alcoholism in the tropics – “morning Mojitos, Daiquiri-punctuated afternoons, Malecon evenings spent passing jugs of rum with the senoritas” – and the drinking history of Cuba).
Just after we were seated, the knowledgeable and very pleasant, impeccably dressed, and engaging waiter came over with two welcome drinks on the house. Cuba’s famous sour, the Daiquiri, luckily enough only a relatively small taster version.
We chose one traditional BlackTail top-seller, the tall, green-yellow coloured, creamy-looking Nacional (£14, much more than the $12 in NY, but very good value by London standards; pronounced like the English ‘national’ by all the bar staff, fair enough, maybe should have told me before I lisped myself half-silly; a punch consisting of Cuban rum, French bitter, apricot, banana, pineapple, lime, yuzu, the latter being a citrus fruit looking somewhat like a small grapefruit), and one new creation, the Dreadnought, named after the game-changing new heavy battleship of the time, and oh this thing had firepower! The dark red, transparent, short ‘Old Fashioned’ drink consists of an explosive, heavy, tongue-tickling, but somehow still “smooth” (not “un-smooth” or rough as one might expect) and strangely elegant (in an Oscar Wilde at the end of a two day bender kind of way) mix of Irish whiskey, cognac, Italian vermouth, Caribbean Amaro, Campari, green Chartreuse, and – of course! – more than a hint of Absinthe.
My wife liked her Nacional, because it was light and sweet and easy to drink, I thought it was comparatively unexciting and a bit too watery for my taste. I loved my drink, but my wife wasn’t able to have more than a tiny sip because it tasted too strong for her. It was amazing how you could still clearly distinguish every single ingredient with complete ease (and I only drink cocktails rarely, unless you count Sunday brunch Bloody Marys or – lately – a number of low-alcohol Pisco Sours while we were exploring a few Peruvian bars in London), but at the same time the mostly vastly different tastes collided and ‘battled’ with each other in the glass, fighting to win and not taking any prisoners. A truly thrilling and fascinating sensation I have not had like this with a cocktail in years. Masterpiece. As far as I’m concerned, this one should become a regular on their NY menu. (To me it also had a special note, because I associate green Chartreuse with an awesome skiing trip to the French Alps in the late 90s and absinthe with a fabulous weekend in St. Petersburg, Russia, a few years ago.)
Their rum and cola, with champagne instead of soda, cola syrup and Orinoco Bitters seemed to be the most popular drink, but all cocktails looked awe-inspiring.
We didn’t try any of the Cuban-inspired foods or snacks, but apparently their signature dish was delicious: Rabbit Cuban Sandwich (£18), with confit rabbit leg, rosemary ham, pork shoulder, Swiss Tomme, dill pickles and mustard sauce.
It added to the atmosphere, that both BlackTail and BCB are closely associated with famous literary rebels’s antics: in BlackTail’s case Hemingway’s in Cuba and on Key West, in BCB’s case of the Bloomsbury Set.
It is a pity that tonight was the last of only three nights of this residency. The event was part of the BCB’s Club Residencies Project; they are hosting some of the world’s best cocktail bars for a few days at a time as part of the series that kicked off in November last year when they hosted Athen’s The Clumsies bar, one of the top ten bars of planet Earth. In May they are expecting the mixologists from The Baxter Inn, Sydney, over here, which we’ve just been to during our two-week stay in Sydney in early January. Perfect.