London can easily be considered one of the world’s epicurean epicenters, particularly where drinks are concerned. Back in the 1600s, it was the sailors of the British East India Company that concocted what is regarded as the world’s first mixed drink, punch, in the bellies of their ships, and the rest was history. Nowadays, it’s history itself that has begun to take the spotlight.
Just this year, London’s former Park Lane hotel was unveiled as theSheraton Grand Park Lane hotel after a multimillion-dollar renovation designed to preserve all the beloved elements of the hotel’s history while breathing new life into its structure and personality. Among the hotel’s modern bells and whistles is an in-house drinks historian, journalist and authorRebecca Seal.
The Palm Court
Seal’s sole responsibility is to pay homage to the Sheraton Grand Park Lane’s 20th-century roots through the classic cocktails and drinking etiquette from the 1920s and onward—no small feat considering the sheer size of the hotel and the connecting of dots that’s required in pursuit of the true history of classic cocktails. You’ll find her shaking something up at the iconic lobby bar, The Palm Court, or the 1920s-inspired cocktail bar, Smith & Whistle.
Seal’s storytelling transcends the bar menu, taking guests on a journey fueled by cocktails of a bygone era via loose etiquette guidelines based on suggested hours of consumption and surrounding tradition. At midday, patrons are encouraged to channel their inner “elevener” (or “slinger” if their drink clocks in before 11 a.m.), citing 1800s author John Davis as a proponent of the bourbon and crushed ice concoction being “taken by Virginians of a morning.” At 2 p.m., one is urged to move onto Champagne to accompany afternoon tea, thus a classic Champagne cocktail (or a plain old glass of bubbly) does the trick.
The Palm Court’s Mint Julep, left, and Colonial Cooler
To ease into the evening around 5p.m., Seal suggests a rum-based Carolina Plantation Bracer, discovered by Jigger, Beaker and Glass: Drinking Around the World(Derrydale Press, $24.95) author Charles H. Baker in Charleston in 1927, followed by a Colonial Cooler, which Baker sipped before dinner in Borneo. Later on, 7:30 p.m. calls for Americanos, according to Seal, and at dinner hour, 9 p.m., she suggests a single Martini as a reliable accompaniment to any dish. Finally, if the drinker is still atop the bar stool, a Sazerac is the perfect way to finish off Seal’s tour de cocktail—a true test of character (and tolerance) for those of us who wish to gauge our limits through an immersive history lesson.
So what led Seal to become a drinks historian? “Well, these guys invited me to do this role, and I’ve always said that if anyone’s going to offer me a position, I’d like for it to be as a professor of alcohol. [Laughs] But on a more serious note, I’m very interested in the way that food and drink binds us together, really. The threads that run through communities and culture and tie those groups together in ways that we might not necessarily realize—looking back at history is one of the easiest ways of analyzing that. We really need to know how we’re connected and how those threads run backwards as well as between us.”
She tells one of her favorite classic cocktail tales: “The Blue Blazer is a whiskey-based cocktail with two cups of burned liquid—you pour it at height so you have a stream of flame from each one,” she says. “Jerry Thomas, the bartender and drinks writer from the 1860s or so, used to make them with a white rat on each shoulder. He was very, very eccentric.”
As for drinks whose history is cloudy at best, Seal says, “Even where history is really mythology, that’s OK, because it creates a refuge and a diversion from ordinary life, and that’s what bars and drinking are for.”