This Cocktail Tastes Like Hammersmith


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This Cocktail Tastes Like Hammersmith

One bartender is attempting to capture the flavors of London in a series of wild cocktails.

London town. The Big Smoke. The city divided North and South by the brine-y old Thames, with East End boys and West End girls, and a heaving population of varying cultures and nationalities. The whole world can be found here in microcosm, its citizens lured by the promise of work or money or art or fashion.

Or, if you're Matt Whiley, booze. Before he moved to London, he was a professional cricket player. Ten years on, and Whiley is one of the most successful bartenders in the capital, founder of award-winning bars like Worship Street Whistling Shop and Purl. Such is the power of London for reinvention.


"I got injured and I didn't know what to do," says Whiley of his former cricket-playing days. "One of my friends worked in bars and asked me to help him out at an event. I was useless but I enjoyed it. I got a different perspective on drinks. I'd always just drunk Jack Daniel's and Coke for something sweet."


All photos courtesy Peg + Patriot.

Moving to London and working in bars piqued this curiosity and together with some friends, Whiley set up a drinks consultancy business.

"We set it up and didn't do any work," he says. "Then we got a job in Azerbaijan which funded our first bar and we went from there."

Arguably, Whiley is part of that vanguard of bartenders who, through experimentation and playfulness, have helped progress the drinks scene in London—people like Tony Conigliaro, Ryan Chetiyawardana, and Tristan Stephenson. In a Portakabin behind Whiley's latest venture, Bethnal Green cocktail bar Peg + Patriot, lies his workshop.

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Inside the temporary structure, it's like Walter White's lab. There are flasks and tubes and plastic bags vacuum-packed with weird substances in pink and orange.

"That's salmon roe vodka," Whiley says about the bag of pink. It looks a little like vomit. "We infuse salmon roe, macerate it for a few days, and then clarify it so it comes out looking clear."


Bartender Matt Whiley's Westminster cocktail, made with bourbon and sour apple.

This kind of experimentation with flavor has created a new kind of drinking experience in the city, one that can see you drinking the distilled contents of a Michelin-starred meal in a martini glass. Whiley and his ilk aren't about throwing bottles or using dry ice—his focus is on what goes into the glass. But for all the science, Whiley doesn't take himself too seriously.


"I'm always stressing to my team that our job is simply to put booze in a glass," he says. "It's about having fun."

And so he decided to get inventive with his adopted city by setting his team a challenge: to encapsulate the flavors of London in a series of cocktails.

"Everyone's from different places," he explains. "Poland, Australia, Portugal. We're all as mixed as London is and we wanted to write a menu that showed both how great the city is and the diversity."

Whiley sent out his team to research where people live in London to see if they could come back and make a map of drinks.


The Knightsbridge with salmon roe distillate.

"They came back with loads, we narrowed it down to two drinks for each area, and then to one," he says. "Each was an interpretation of the flavours they think about in those places."

The Knightsbridge cocktail, for example, features the salmon roe distillate (because of all the Russians who live there), along with housemade pomegranate liquor, fizzy Riesling, and Koniks Tail vodka. Westminster takes its cue from the American presence in this part of the city, using salted caramel bourbon and sour apple, while Hammersmith is decidedly French—in reference to the number of French-born residents in the area. Hamish Hesketh, one of the bar team, came up with this one.

"He had two," Whiley explains. "One based around girolles and one based around cheese. We poured them together and it worked. It was really delicious."


I can attest to that. Girolle-infused Cognac, Gruyère, and brie vodka, with vermouth sugar, Cocchi Americano, and Angostura walnut bitters. It may sound like a flavor overload, but the drink is savory and round and flavorsome, and not overpoweringly cheesey or mushroomy, even with the lump of cheese on a stick used as a garnish.


Hammersmith, made with Girolle-infused Cognac and brie vodka.

But when you can distil anything into a spirit (Whiley once even distilled blood into vodka to reinvent the Bloody Mary), how do you choose what to put together?

"The way I do it," he explains, "I usually start with a flavor and then think about how I can best get that flavor into a spirit, and which spirits work best."

It's the result of hours of work. Or play, depending on how you look at it. There's no doubt, Whiley is a man who enjoys his job.

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"I want every drink to be awesome, so that if you only have one or two, those drinks are amazing and you're going to want to drink them," he says. "London is diverse, so we've made sure that there's something for everyone—they're not all sour, or short and boozy, or long and easy. We were conscious of not alienating people by saying that people have to drink a certain kind of drink. The prerequisite is just to make the drinks delicious."

But, for all the experimentation and curious flavors, Whiley's go-to drink is rather more straightforward.

"My first drink of the day is always either a martini or a Manhattan, because I love them, and I want to get a drink that I know I like and will enjoy," he says. "After that, I'm open to trying anything."

And perhaps the same can be said of London. You can always get what you know in this city, and yet its capacity to surprise is boundless.