It’s no secret that Londoners enjoy a regular tipple, and there’s no shortage of amazing bars to discover throughout the city. In addition to a wealth of history-laden pubs, London is also home to some of the world’s best cocktail bars. We consulted Simon Ford, co-founder of spirits company The 86 Co. and creator of Fords Gin, on his favorite spots to swill.
“In my opinion, I know bars better than most people in the world,” says the British-born Ford. “And I love different kinds of bars; I don’t have one style fits all.”
Ford has seen just about every aspect of the business, from working in wine retail and owning his own bar to serving as a brand ambassador for both Pernod Ricard and Plymouth Gin. He maintains a rigorous travel schedule, educating and speaking around the globe while simultaneously ensuring that Fords Gin stays stocked by the world’s top cocktail hot spots. His eponymous spirit is now found in 15 countries.
While Ford calls Nashville home, this gin guru shared his choice drinking destinations back in his native land.
“They modernized the London Five-Star cocktail experience,” Ford says. “The bloody mary shows how revolutionary and forward thinking they are.” The full-flavored tomato-based drink arrives in elegant stemware, topped with a cloud of celery foam.
But this is also Ford’s favorite place to start the night off with a martini made by one of the lounge’s skilled mixologists. The signature sip is concocted at a trolley bar and stirred — never shaken — with house bitters of your choosing in flavors like grapefruit, coriander, lavender and cardamom, which is his favorite for a Fords Gin martini.
Duck and Waffle
Typically, venues with panoramic city vistas don’t attract many guests for their food and drink, but that is certainly not the case here. Located on the 40th floor of the Heron Building, this is not only London’s highest restaurant, but also a spectacular option for 24-hour dining.
“Duck and Waffle is famous for having the best view, but the food there is also incredible and Rich Woods is one of the most talented bartenders in the city,” Ford says.
The cocktail menu is dedicated to vegetables, with creations like a refreshing red pepper spritz (vodka, dry vermouth, red pepper cordial and prosecco) and a caramelized red onion Manhattan.
When British bartender Harry Craddock wrote The Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930, he not only changed bar history, he put the iconic hotel on the cocktail map. Echoing storied Five-Star The Savoy itself, the 128-year-old bar is the epitome of luxury and has been hailed as one of the best in the world.
“It makes you feel wonderfully set back in time, and both the drinks and service are just amazing,” Ford says. And though the expert bartenders, trimmed in white suit jackets and black ties, will happily shake up something from the timeless bar book, don’t overlook their own next-level creations — the latest menu is inspired by the black-and-white photography of British artist Terry O’Neil.
The name of the game is sleek simplicity at eco-friendly Scout, from the streamlined Scandinavian interior to the seemingly minimalist cocktails made in the kitchen lab using locally foraged ingredients.
“They embrace simplicity through the idea of creating no waste, which means they’re going for unique flavors you’ve never had before, and I love that,” Ford says. “The drinks look simple, but behind them are things like sea kelp and ingredients that are highly sustainable that we don’t think of eating or drinking on an everyday basis.”
At Sea Containers London, an emerald-hued marble bar furnished with mauve and brown midcentury-modern seats give the space a retro flair, while the mixologists create unexpected drinks using elements like hops, koji and nixtamalized (dried and rehydrated in a warm alkaline solution) blue corn.
“They use a lot of modern botany — herbs and spices,” he says. “How those flavors play with each other [is interesting]. Their approach is great, and I love that they bring that kind of style to a big, sexy hotel bar.”
Ford says he loves a place that can bring two worlds together so successfully, and that is just what Happiness Forgets accomplishes by serving high-end cocktails in a low-rent basement — the dive bar’s motto — in Hoxton Square.
“It takes a speakeasy and makes it into a pub vibe, bringing the two worlds together,” Ford says. “It reminds me a lot of Attaboy [in New York]. Like, they’re going to make you amazing drinks but don’t concern yourself about that — concern yourself about having a good time!”
Sager & Wilde
Ford counts this candlelit and wood-trimmed Paradise Row restaurant and bar as another one of his favorites. “The nuances and flavors that Marcis [Dzelzainis] brings to the bar — we all seem to have a love affair with the drinks he produces,” he says. “If you went behind the scenes, what’s gone into [the libations] is incredible.”
The subtle incorporation of herbs and botanicals in drinks like an Elderpine Fizz and a Beetroot Negroni make these cocktails a great accompaniment to the Italian-inspired food that’s served.
The Luggage Room
This appropriately named jewel box bar — located in the former luggage room of London Marriott Hotel Grosvenor Square — harkens back to the jazz clubs of the Roaring Twenties with dark wood trim, marble accents and an impeccable bar team that carves ice to order and specializes in cobbler-style (fruity sherry-based) cocktails.
“When I go in there, I feel like I walked into a Louis Vuitton vintage case that opened up as a cocktail bar,” he says. “I feel like I have my own little cubbyhole of luxury, and there’s a couple passionate bartenders making really great drinks there.”
This posh lounge within the newly renovated Principal London hotel just opened this summer, and it’s already making waves in the cocktail community. Plumes, chaise lounges and a glittering disco ball lend Studio 54 vibes to the venue, contrasted by the dark wood walls of an upscale pub lined with shelves of illuminated curiosities.
Armed with an expert bar team that came from groundbreaking spots like Milk & Honey and Callooh Callay, this swanky speakeasy has unique offerings such as the Vesca Negroni (Fords Gin, Luxardo Bitter Bianco and vermouth floating a massive strawberry, rosehip, aloe and coconut-infused ice cube), a concoction that Ford declares “is the best drink I’ve had all year.”
Milk & Honey
Don’t overlook the U.K. version of the late cocktail savant Sasha Petraske’s groundbreaking New York lounge, Milk & Honey. Like its predecessor, this Soho institution is a member’s-only bar, with limited access to non-members by reservation.
And there’s a reason this stylish space has won so many awards. “The English Milk & Honey is an amazing bar — four floors with different vibes on every floor,” Ford says. “The drinks there are just flawless, and it’s just like being in a living room.”