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The Connaught’s two top-end cocktail bars are stars in their own right, but as different as Buck’s fizz and bloody Mary – with two fiercely individual bartenders to match. Richard Woodard meets the contenders and reports on their rivalry
You used to know where you were with hotel bars. Good service, a passable selection of drinks, but ever-so-slightly dull and jaded vibes. OK for a pre-dinner G&T or glass of fizz, but creativity and innovation? Better off in that cool new haunt down the street.
Not any more. Scan the names ofaward-winning bartenders and you’ll find an ever-increasing number mixing and shaking behind the bars of hotels such as The Lanesborough, The Langham, The Berkeley – and The Connaught.
This historic Mayfair monolith has transcended its previously slightly dusty reputation to foster arguably two of the finest bars in Europe, with only a few metres of perfectly tiled lobby separating them.
In the red corner, we have The Coburg, a soothing oasis of understated luxury and calm presided over by Mark Jenner, who combines an obsessive attention to detail with a Google-esque knowledge of all things booze-related. An established classic on the London bar scene – despite only opening three years ago.
And in the blue corner we have The Coburg’s slightly funkier younger brother, The Connaught Bar, where head mixologist Agostino (Ago) Perrone does all manner of satisfyingly iconoclastic things with homemade bitters and hand-cut ice.
Perrone’s growing reputation as a bartender of global stature has been recognised with a slew of awards, including top prize in the Bacardi Legacy Competition, and the title of International Bartender of the Year at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail event in New Orleans. The Big Easy was also the scene of The Connaught’s triumph as the World’s Best Hotel Bar.
Let’s visit The Coburg first. This was the original moniker for the hotel itself, and a sense of history is tangible in everything, from the interior design to the ‘drinks menu’ – although that phrase hardly does justice to a document that reads like a history of imbibing over the past 500 years (perfect bedtime reading, in fact).
The frequently updated menu is bursting with martinis and other classics, including the sazerac, the sidecar, the julep and the sour. But reverence for the past doesn’t preclude embracing the future. ‘We’re not stuck in the past’, says Jenner. ‘We use modern techniques and modern equipment. We love micro-distilled gins and vodkas, and try to bring the two schools of thought together.’
But The Coburg is about much more than reinterpreted cocktail classics: only one-third of its drinks are mixed and shaken, and that’s just the way Jenner likes it. ‘For me, it’s not just about cocktails; it has to be the study and preparation of drinks in general. I’d say that we have the best of everything.’
Value for money is also vital – even in Mayfair, says Jenner. ‘Don’t hold back on all the extras that people aren’t aware they’re paying for: well-sprung furniture; an endless supply of homemade crisps, snacks and olives; the presentation of the menu and the quality of the paper it’s printed on; linen napkins pressed every day.’
This focus on the detail is the essence of The Coburg’s success, but all that effortless, gliding grace can only be produced by huge amounts of effort behind the scenes.
In that respect, The Connaught Bar is different. The quality, attention to detail and luxury are all there, but expressed using a slightly different language. Here, 70% of sales are cocktail-driven, and the reinterpretation of classic recipes is freer, with a list split into sections with titles such as ‘Fusion’, ‘Seasonal’ and ‘Elegance’.
Perrone looks so at home in The Connaught, it’s hard to believe that the former bartender from Montgomery Place in Notting Hill practically had to be dragged here. ‘The hotel was not my business’, he admits. ‘I said, “guys, leave me alone, it’s not my style”. I had a beard. I had a piercing. But after a long, long think, the concept seemed very appealing.’
The fusion of creativity and elegance is encapsulated in the bar’s two signature cocktails – the martini and the bloody Mary. The former is made at your table, with the guest choosing their preferred vodka or gin, combined with a selection of The Connaught’s home-produced bitters.
Two bars with two highly distinctive approaches and two highly individual bartenders – but what do these cocktail prizefighters actually think of each other?
Perrone first. ‘I love The Coburg and I would love to work there if it was mine’, he admits. ‘I really adore the romantic black-and-white image of how things used to be – it’s so very glamorous. Mark is very good with Champagne, Cognac and Scotch whisky. My forte is more creativity and cocktails. It’s the right personality in the right place – you have to give the guests something different.’
Now Jenner. ‘Over there [in The Connaught] you’ve got a very modern, slightly minimalist view of cocktails that have been icons in the past. It captivates the fashionistas and the bling set –people who like to show off a bit more.’
So is there rivalry? ‘I am very conscious of what they’re doing’, admits Jenner. ‘I’ve never been competitive, but I’m very sure that the definition of the bar makes a very clear dividing line between the two… I think there’s definitely rivalry. It definitely drives me – I’d never worked in a venue before with two bars that are run separately.’
Perrone, as ever, is slightly more laid back. ‘Personally, I don’t feel the competition because they are such different bars,’ he says with a very Italian shrug. ‘If you had one and not the other, you would miss something.’
Both Jenner and Perrone are hell-bent on delivering the finest bar experience. If you’re choosing, it’s probably a question of mood than anything else. And if that mood changes and you crave something different, at least you don’t have very far to go.
Carlos Place, W1K 2AL;
020 7499 7070; www.the-connaught.co.uk