While it seems like everyone is drinking bourbon these days, gin has been, and continues to be, one of the world's most popular spirits. And nowhere is it more popular than in London, home to some of the best gin bars on the planet. Who better to take us on a tour of his favorite gin spots than Simon Ford, the owner of The 86 Co. and creator of Fords gin.
His experience with the juniper-based spirit spans more than 20 years, from owning his own bar in southern England to serving as brand ambassador for Plymouth gin to launching his own line of spirits inspired by bartenders. While his go-to cocktail is a classic Gin Martini with a 3:1 ratio of gin to dry vermouth, he loves visiting cocktail bars with creative drink programs to discover how bartenders in London, and around the world, are using a variety of ingredients to mix with gin. Without further ado, these are Simon Ford's favorite places to drink gin in London.
There's a level of unparalleled service you'd expect from one of London's poshest hotels, and that service translates to this wildly sophisticated bar, especially when its delivered through the green leather and black lacquered wood Martini trolley. The well-trained staff makes its signature Gin Martini, enhanced by a selection of bitters you get to choose. "Finesse is definitely the word I want to get across here—in service, presentation; everything is sort of dainty and delightful," says Ford. “They bring theater to making a Martini. It's this magic moment where you get to take your Martini one step further. Everything you know about Martinis changes after you step out of that place. I love it." Another drink to look for here? "If you’re still feeling the effects of the night before, order a Red Snapper, a gin version of the Bloody Mary," he says. "One of the best in town."
It's really no surprise that Dandelyan made Ford's list. Located inside the Mondrian hotel on the South Bank of the Thames, Ryan Chetiyawardana's bar is one of the best drinking establishments in the world. Whether going for a quick cocktail or making it a night out, this chic and modern cocktail den has been at the top of must-hit lists for a while. Why? "I hate to use the word, but it's a sexy vessel," says Ford. "To be able to bring that level of cocktail to a room that big and be that forward-thinking with those cocktails is why this place is next-level. It's expanding that idea of bringing a sustainable cocktail program and molecular approach to drink making. If you want an incredibly crafted, sustainable gin cocktail, this is the place to go with lovely views of the river." But hurry—it will close in January to create an entirely new concept.
If Belle Époque Paris mashed up with Studio 54, it would very well come out looking like Fitz's. This luxe lounge inside the new Kimpton Fitzroy hotel captivates at every turn: plush seating, lush fabrics, leather, woods, feathers, enticing ephemera and a glimmering disco ball all set the tone for the inventive cocktails, which include the not-to-miss Vesca Negroni. This drink, made with Fords gin, Luxardo bitter bianco liqueur and Dolin blanc vermouth, all nestled around a block of ice comprising woodland strawberry, coconut, aloe and rosehip, is a true showstopper. "They've created this perfect mix of classic and contemporary," says Ford. "It's like they wanted to build a classic hotel bar with classic drinks but didn't want to be classic and modernized in every way. They live that theme from the design to the way they serve, which isn't overly formal. They've struck a perfect balance."
While it's now a thriving steakhouse and bar chain, Hawksmoor started out as a forward-thinking cocktail bar at the iconic centuries-old East End Spitalfields Market. It's here, in the original spot, that bartenders at the legendary bar concocted gin cocktails for years and continue to celebrate the spirit. "They have the highest level of bar training and don't try to reinvent the wheel," says Ford. "They make classic London-style cocktails—longer and more refreshing drinks versus stirred and spirited drinks. They're fruit-driven cocktails and as good as if not better than anybody else’s in London."
Stepping through Opium's secret jade door in Chinatown is like stepping back into early 20th-century Shanghai or, as Ford puts it, “a little den of sin but one that's very polished." You can spend time in one of a few tucked-away bars over a series of floors, but it's at the bartenders’ table where you get more personalized service. "They make cocktails using all of those spices you get from that region of the world, and they do it so well," says Ford. "For Southeast Asian–inspired cocktails, Opium is the place to go."
Tucked away in the back corner off the lobby of the posh Edition hotel sits this nod to the English drinking clubs of yore. As its name would suggest, Punch Room specializes in large format cocktails, with 30 punches in total on the menu, including the signature gin-infused Edition house punch. "All of my favorite places are these darkly lit holes,” says Ford. “The genius of having punch bowls is that you can try so many different things. That in itself is a remarkable step forward for the industry and for a hotel."
In a neighborhood known for theater, bustling gay bars and beer pubs sits Swift, a cocktail-focused spot serving thoughtful drinks to a slightly more discerning crowd, minus the pretense. "They've taken classic cocktails and spruced them up a bit," says Ford. "They're making cocktails accessible to everyone, and they're in the right place to do that and doing it extremely well. It's the best Soho spot for a swift sharpener. Try a French 75."
This restaurant, set in the once-seedy Paradise Row in Bethnal Green, looks like an old warehouse space with curved aluminum ceilings, a wide brick front adorned with large arched windows, and a welcoming terrace. But it's the cocktail experimentation by top bartender Marcis Dzelzainis that wins Ford over every time he visits. "The art and nuance that goes into each drink happens behind the scenes, so there's this fine-dining approach delivered through cocktails," he says. "Marcis is one of the best bartenders in the world right now. It almost lures you into a false sense of security of normalcy, then they go above and beyond through the technique. The Martini has all these oils, hydrosols and nuanced touches that make the experience better."