This post has been written by one of our members – James Mitchell who has recently begun a blog called Straight-Up Lifestyle. You can also find him on Twitter, his username is @JG_Mitchell. His thoughts are below…
L.T.D turns cocktail snobbery on its head, flips it over and then takes it one step further. After years of cocktail imbibitions, you may well be able to navigate your way around a choice of 30 gins or more. At L.T.D, however, you can leave that sort of knowledge at the door. That’s because you’ll be drinking what the barman gives you and that’s a choice of precisely one base spirit per category. Yes, that’s right – just one vodka, one gin, one whiskey (and its not a bourbon or even rye), one tequila, one Cognac and one rum. And that’s it! But L.T.D’s Spartan approach to bartending doesn’t stop there. If you’re expecting Riedel glassware, think again. You’ll see the barman shaking your drink in a jam jar, taking the lid off and sticking a couple of straws in there for you. And that’s your drink, served up just like that. Welcome to L.T.D!
The London Cocktail Society (LCS) kindly organised an outing for its members to L.T.D on Halloween. The visit involved a little bit of fancy dress, a few tastings and a talk from cocktail master Dré Masso, the brains behind the bar concept/experiment. L.T.D in its current incarnation is a one off – what you might call a pop-up, but they prefer the term ‘bar experiment’ It’s based in the upstairs bar at The Social, 5 Little Portland Street and is being headed up by Dré Masso for just three months, running from 1st October 2011 until New Year’s eve, so there is still plenty of time to check it out and form your own opinions on the place.
For me the limited selection of spirits is intriguing. With such a selection you might expect to find a choice of the most revered luxury brands in the trade but no, the selection at L.T.D includes Stolichnaya Vodka, Beefeater Gin, Havana Club 7 Year Old Rum, Ocho Blanco Vintage Tequila, Courvoisier VS Cognac and (surprise of all surprises), Jameson Irish Whiskey! There are of course an abundance of bitters, fruit juices mixers and many other ingredients involved, however these have been decanted into green bottles so as not to detract focus from the 6 main spirits. This does mean that you can be safe in the knowledge that the menu contains a lot of classics and loads of the most popular cocktails at the moment. Whether they taste how you expect may be another matter though…
Before getting into the cocktails and how they taste, however, it seems only fair to explore the curious concept behind L.T.D. The story goes something like this: After 12 successful years the people behind The Social decided it was time for a bit of a change so they decided to let Dré Masso take over their upstairs bar and to give it a bit of a rethink. Dré is almost certainly what you’d call a safe pair of hands within the world of the cocktail. He’s been mixing drinks since he was a teenager and today he trades as a brand and bar consultant. He counts numerous very well recognised spirits brands and bars as his clients and has been awarded UK Bartender of the Year no less then three times! I get the feeling that after 15 years in the trade, when Dré was given the opportunity to shape L.T.D, he must have decided to use what must have been a metaphorical ‘blank sheet of paper’ to create something radical.
Dré decided to form L.T.D around a ‘…unique concept – just sell the best of the best.’ He wanted to focus on simplicity and quality – not boasting a vast selection of exotic spirits but rather focusing on just the very best in spirits. This approach was very much based on his belief that only a very limited selection of spirits is required to produce absolutely top-notch cocktails. To select the appropriate spirits he formed an independent tasting committee who were tasked (if that’s the right word) with blind tasting and debating a vast array of spirits both neat and mixed appropriately in cocktails. The only real limitation on the spirits sampled was that they had to be available for £20 or less per bottle at trade price. This actually still leaves a good degree of scope for choice and means that the spirits behind the bar are those that the average punter can enjoy without having to miss a mortgage payment – a sound principle in my mind. The result of this tasting process was the aforementioned selection of six, very much household brand, spirits that are served behind the bar today.
So, how did the cocktails actually taste?
While Dré welcomed us to his bar and explained the concept behind it, he treated us to a number of cocktails (not ones I’d have naturally chosen on my own volition) to allow us to experience the stocked spirits in action. Dré kindly allowed me to take one of his cocktail menus and supplied the photography so I can share some of the cocktails on offer with you:
One and a half shots of tequila
Half a shot of liqueur (strawberry, raspberry or apricot)
One shot of lemon juice
One teaspoon of agave syrup
One and a half shots of brandy
Half a shot of apricot liqueur
Tablespoon of apricot jam
One shot of lemon juice
Two shots of gin
One shot of lemon juice
One teaspoon of honey water
I think the first thing that has to be said about these drinks is that they were all absolutely delicious, impeccably made and, as you can see from the images, presented as they might be if you found yourself serving up cocktails equipped only with what you could find in self-catered holiday accommodation. Of particular interest to me was the delightful effect of using sweetening agents including apricot jam and honey. Both flavours came through but were nowhere near as pronounced as one might expect – they worked exceptionally well in harmony with the cocktails’ overall flavour. The feedback from those I had the pleasure of sharing a table with was also positive. Someone, probably quite rightly, suggested that perhaps, with the distraction of spirits and trendy glassware choices taken away, it would be necessary for the barman to really focus attentions on getting all other ingredients and the ultimate flavour just right. I’m inclined to agree. If you can enjoy a cocktail from a jam jar, you can be sure it’s the flavours and nothing else that have impressed you.
In order to really give the choice of base spirits a test (the Jameson’s in particular), I decided to try out two firm favourites of mine, both of which are based on whiskey (normally bourbon). First up I tried a Manhattan. This, as stated on the menu, came sweet and was served, as one would expect, in a cocktail glass. I have to admit as far as sweet Manhattans go it was one of the best I’ve ever tried. I understand the brand of vermouth used was none other than Martini, so nothing extraordinary there. I followed this with a Julep, which again was excellent, something that I put down in part to the fine quality of fresh mint used. I did try several other cocktails, including a notably excellent Sazerac, but by this stage I was confident that what ever I ordered would be enjoyable and enjoyment, rather than critical analysis, was my only motivation for drinking the remainder of my cocktails. Having chatted to a number of the LCS members, I think my experience of L.T.D’s cocktails was more or less shared across the board.
As I said in opening, L.T.D really does turn cocktail snobbery on its head. Aside from a very pleasurable evening, one of the things I gained from my experience there was a real appreciation for the fact that great cocktails don’t have to be expensive or complicated. A modest home cocktail bar with a few good quality spirits can be used efficiently to turn out great drinks. In addition, most homes have what is required in terms of equipment, glassware, flavour modifiers and sweetening agents to serve up great tasting cocktails. For anyone who has spoken to Dré for any period of time this isn’t surprising at all, he’s an advocate of home cocktail making. This is why, along with accessible ingredients and glassware, the quantities on the menu are expressed as handfuls and teaspoons – making the cocktails as easy to make at home as an amateur as possible.
However, as accessible as the cocktails are, I do believe that the real determining factor in the quality of cocktails is the skill of the person making them, and professional bartenders obviously have a lot more skill and practice than general punters. This is why we continue to visit cocktail bars and I think that L.T.D does a fine job of demonstrating this point.
That just leaves me to offer a very big thanks to LCS for allowing me to join them and to Dré Masso for an enlightening and thoroughly enjoyable evening.
Visit www.dremasso.com for more information on L.T.D and Dré Masso.