What do you see when you think about British bars? It would be understandable if you pictured a wood-paneled pub with a long line of ales on tap, but that’s far from the full picture. A cocktail boom has changed the face of the British bar scene over the last decade.
The shift to craft cocktails has driven innovation among the gin, Scotch whisky and English sparkling wine categories. They’ve given bartenders the tools to experiment with bold new recipes that still fit within the rich tradition of U.K. bars.
You don’t have to cross the Atlantic to find this balance of heritage and innovation. Some New York City bars have already brought the U.K.’s contemporary cocktail culture to the States. You can do the same by stocking your bar with the best British exports, and that includes a lot more than beer.
Go All in on British Gin
In 2009, Sipsmith set up London’s first traditional copper distillery since Beefeater got its start more than 200 years earlier. The success of handcrafted gin was the beginning of a golden age for the spirit, during which passionate people across the United Kingdom have been opening distilleries and creating their own styles of gin, from faithful recreations of London dry gin to boldly modern twists that stretch the very definition of gin.
This recent explosion of British gin is giving bartenders plenty to obsess over and experiment with, and it’s not slowing down anytime soon. Since 2013, more than 150 gin distilleries have opened across the U.K. Many of these are craft gins, which take special care in selecting a distinct and creative array of botanicals for a wholly unique taste.
Some British gins have launched a global search for the best botanicals. Bloom made the brilliant and unexpected decision to prominently feature pomelo, a citrus fruit from Southeast Asia, in its botanical formula. The choice helped give the London dry gin its signature fresh and floral flavor.
Meanwhile, the master distiller of Opihr carefully selected black pepper from India, coriander from Morocco and cubeb berries from Indonesia that combine for a rich and earthy profile. Hendrick’s sources many of its botanicals abroad but takes it one step further by infusing its gin with Bulgarian rosa damascena for an irresistibly smooth taste. These brands prove that British gin is a great vehicle for vibrant flavors from around the world.
Other British gins have taken a more local approach to botanicals, featuring flowers, roots, fruits and seeds native to the region where they’re made. This focus on local ingredients pairs nicely with the farm-to-table movement sweeping through restaurants and bars in the U.K. and beyond.
The Botanist uses 22 botanicals sourced from the Isle of Islay to create a gin that represents the isle as well as any scotch. Cotswolds makes excellent use of lavender grown, appropriately, in the Cotswolds. Durham uses classic northern ingredients like angelika, celery seed and elderflower to create a gin that could only come from Northern England.
This level of variety is what makes British gin such a thrilling category. Even with so many gin distilleries opening up shop in the U.K., no two feature the same combination of botanicals. Whether a brand has searched the globe for the right ingredients or simply looked in its own backyard, each British gin has a unique taste that’s worth trying.
Replace Champagne with English Sparkling Wine
English sparkling wine doesn’t have the quite the same name recognition as Champagne. But it does have the terroir—chalky soil and a slightly colder climate—perfectly suited for growing chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, the trio of grapes used for making Champagne.
That’s not to say that English sparkling wine is just a different version of Champagne. It might be something better, at least according to the judges at several blind tastings. The best English sparkling wines feature bright acidity and a fresh fruity taste that’s different from the dryer, sharper Champagnes.
The British vintners who make these wines are starting to get the accolades they deserve. Ridgeview was named Winemaker of the Year at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in 2018. Hattingley Valley was awarded the world champion trophy for its 2011 blanc de blancs in the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships in 2017. Bolney Eighteen Acre rosé earned a gold medal at the Global Rosé Masters in 2017.
It’s obvious that the international wine community has fallen for English sparkling wines. And some of the most famous Champagne houses want in on the action. Pommery, a storied Champagne house, has teamed up with Hattingley Valley to release Louis Pommery England in 2018. Taittinger has purchased 40 hectares of land in Kent and has already started growing chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier and, intriguingly, pinot gris.
British bars have been showcasing award-winning English sparkling wines for years. American bars haven’t had the opportunity, since they’ve been difficult to find in the States. But that’s changing because production of English sparkling wine has been ramping up in recent years. Since 2010, the vineyard space dedicated to chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes has more than tripled from 1,360 acres to 4,490. That number is going to continue to increase as more Champagne houses follow the lead of Pommery and Taittinger and put down roots in the U.K.
As a result, the finest English sparkling wines are now available in stores throughout the U.S. Stock up on these singular wines soon. You’ll want to be at the forefront of a trend that’s already taken over British bars.
Discover a Different Side of Scotch
Scotch whisky isn’t a relative newcomer like English sparkling wine. But no spirit is having a more exciting moment than scotch right now. Distillers throughout Scotland are exploring new ways to push the boundaries of the iconic spirit without straying too far from its legendary heritage.
Brands are making subtle tweaks to have a big impact on the flavor profile of certain bottles. For a limited-edition expression, Ardbeg used red wine casks and gave them a heavy char to form grooves in the barrels. The result featured the peatiness whisky lovers expect from Ardbeg but added a campfire element many found irresistible. Arbeg Grooves was such a hit that Ardbeg had to expand its release.
Glenfiddich did something similar for its Fire & Cane expression. Instead of the usual barrels, it used South American rum barrels to give the whisky a hint of sweetness. It was a perfect choice for Glenfiddich, which already has a lighter-than-average flavor profile.
Bartenders in the U.K. have used these irresistible new expressions, and so many others, to give new life to traditional scotch cocktails, which has paved the way for many cocktail enthusiasts to turn into whisky lovers.