"'No Money for Butter.' It's a line from my grandma's favourite poem about women who get really old and wear purple dresses and red hats and spit on the pavement. They drink so much Champagne, there's no money for butter."
As with all of Myles Donneky's cocktails, every sip has a story. I'm 31 floors up and tucked away in a corner of the busy Aqua Shard bar, where the 23-year-old manager and mixologist laughs as he talks me through the concept of his favourite cocktail.
"Imagine these old ladies that really don't give a shit anymore. They just want to go out and party and spend their pension on Champagne," Donneky says as he pushes the cocktail, a dusty pink liquid, under my nose. "I wanted to refer to the purple with the lavender but you've got this little clothes peg, a nod to the fact they're still old ladies."
It's Jenny Joseph's 60s classic poem "Warning" in liquid form, and the verse that spawned the Red Hat Society—a group of women who essentially don't give a fuck and get smashed in garish red hats and gaudy purple dresses. When they heard Donneky had named a cocktail after their manifesto-poem, they turned up and got pissed. The verdict? They loved it.
And who wouldn't? It's a classic cocktail: the Pisco has a kick, the lavender syrup flirts with floral overtones, and the Champagne brings it all together. Among my graveyard of glasses, it's probably my favourite of the lot.
I'm actually here to sample Donneky's Christmas cocktail list and profile the rising star of London's bar scene. But I've gotten sidetracked. Donneky's drinks are like nothing I've ever tasted before.
"Each drink should have a concept, a story behind it, something that makes you feel something," he says, in his off-the-peg suit that he wears like it's bespoke. He points outside, over the London skyline, "I've got that to compete with, I'm fighting with this view. But I want everyone to leave saying 'Wow! Those cocktails!'"
Far from being the young pup I expected, Donneky is no kid. He's a man who can handle his booze better than most 23-year-olds. Not that he's drinking with me. of course. He doesn't need it. I get the feeling Donneky is intoxicated by the job.
He first entered the hospitality industry at age 15, working for a catering company at big-ass weddings. It was here, watching the "rock stars" turn up to work the bar whilst he was out the back cleaning plates, that he realised he wanted to mix drinks. A few years later, he was managing his first pub— barely legal, just 18.
He later moved to London and to SAF in Shoreditch, tipped to be the world's first vegan Michelin-starred restaurant. It quickly went bankrupt and Donneky moved on to the Shaker Bar School (where he went from being student to mentor) and then bar manager posts beckoned at Soho House, Shoreditch House, and finally, here, at the top of the London bar scene, Aqua Shard.
But it was at SAF that the young Donneky really cut his drink-mixing teeth.
"There's no meat or cheese in a vegan restaurant so it was all about spices, herbs and fruits. For learning how to pair natural flavour with alcoholic flavour, it was the best school I could've asked for," he says.
For Donneky, there are three components to making the perfect cocktail: dilution ("you have to use the right amount of ice; you don't want the cocktail to become watery; you want the flavour to open up gradually"); aeration ("how much air is injected into a drink"); and "chillation," a word he's coined himself and one that's pretty self-explanatory.
Throughout my mammoth tasting session, I see all three play out in taste. When he brings over The Snowbell, a vodka/Bailey's cocktail on the Christmas list, I observe the iceberg floating in the glass. By using one giant ball of ice, it melts slowly, diluting the flavour of the cocktail over time.
The "wacked out and weird" Down the Rabbit Hole (developed with one of his barmen) features homemade mushroom-infused bourbon. It's an acquired taste, no doubt, but the experimental drink—a play on savoury and sweet—wouldn't be possible without precise aeration and chillation. "The glass always comes back empty," Donneky assures me.
The Old Saint Nic, served in a purpose-made Christmas stocking, comes out from the bar steaming with dry ice. This Johnnie Walker Black Label and Bulleit mix is amped up with a drizzle of mince pie syrup—a syrup Donneky made himself in the kitchens behind us.
As I take a sip, he tells me how so many barman use cocktails to mask alcohol or mix up something super-boozy, but he says it's the balance between the two you want—the base spirit should be just as celebrated a flavour as all the other bits mixed in. It's something which can be said of all his cocktails from the Appleton VS rum in Plum Pie to the Pisco in No Money for Butter.
Another thing all these cocktails have in common is a visual talking point. The Snowball actually snows (my jeans are covered in icing sugar after one sip, leading Donneky to ask if I want them dry cleaned, without any irony in his voice); the bottled Nobel Dressing is served in bottle that looks like The Shard; and El Draque's Mojito is served with mint caviar, little baubles of peppermint you suck up through the straw.
As I finish off the final sips of my last cocktail, the sun starting to set on the city behind us, I ask Donneky if his ambition knows no bounds. "I'm a big fan of red cabbage," he says smiling. "And I'm really trying to make a drink with that but it's taking a while."
I think it's safe to say that, at just 23, he's in no rush.