Booze

Meet the London Bartender Serving Virtual Reality Cocktails

“Some people seem to think it’s fast-paced and you’ll get motion sickness but don’t worry, it’s really quite more of a swooping, gentle experience.”

by Daisy Meager
26 May 2017, 3:14pm

Main photo courtesy One Aldwych.

"The best part is when people aren't expecting what will happen. When it arrives, people are either in tears or they don't know what's happening. But it's very positive because people are excited."

I'm sitting in The Lobby Bar at London's swanky One Aldwych hotel and chatting with head bartender, Pedro Paulo. Sunlight floods into the bar, which is located in the heart of the West End, and bounces off the polished marble floor. Around me, people are perched on plush sofas knocking back Champagne and eating afternoon tea. Everyone appears to be enjoying a nice normal afternoon.

But I'm not here for tea. Paulo is showing me one of the bar's more abnormal drink offerings.

Pedro Paulo, head bartender at The Lobby Bar in London hotel, One Aldwych. All photos by the author.

"Last year, the bar turned 18-years-old and I wanted us to come up with a cocktail menu that caused a bit of a stir but would also showcase our identity," he explains. "And the theatres of the West End are right outside so we decided on the 'showtime' theme."

Paulo came up with a theatre-inspired menu, including a punch dedicated to the sob-fest Les Misérables and a rum-infused Circle of Life cocktail. But neither of these drinks have reduced people to tears. That accolade belongs to one of the only cocktails on the list not inspired by a play.

The Origin is instead listed as a "Backstage" beverage and promises to take the drinker on "a trip to the Highlands to discover the tastes behind the cocktail."

Ingredients for The Origin cocktail.

"It's a virtual reality cocktail experience," Paulo says. "We take our guests behind the scenes to show them how the drink is made. Two minutes before the drink is ready, we say, 'We'd like to take you to the origin of the drink.' Then, we give them VR goggles and headphones to take them on the journey from the distillery where the Dalmore 12-year-old whisky in the cocktail is made and end up here, in the bar."

Right.

Paulo clocks my raised eyebrows and quickly assures me: "It's not a gimmick. It's about showing guests what's gone into their drink and giving them an experience. Unless people have heard about it beforehand, guests won't know about the VR element. We don't tell them. If someone asks for a fruity cocktail or something fresh and aromatic, we'll recommend it. And that's when the surprise comes."

And apparently, the tears. Putting any preconceptions aside, I agree to give the virtual reality cocktail a go.

Cherry liqueur is added to a cocktail shaker.

"Some people seem to think it's fast-paced and you'll get motion sickness but don't worry, it's really quite more of a swooping, gentle experience. I promise ..."

As a travel sickness sufferer, I start to feel worried.

Bracing myself, I put the goggles and headphones on. Just as Paulo promised, I take a two-minute virtual trip around a whisky distillery, float above vineyards, make my way through Covent Garden, and am welcomed by a hotel concierge to take a seat in the lobby bar.

Well, kind of. It actually feels more like watching a close-range video than being part of a fully immersive, 360-degree film. When I remove the headset, I find a bright red cocktail has been placed in front of me in a smoking, glass hip flask. Paulo is beaming.

The cherry-flavoured cocktail is tasty, but sitting on my own, I find it hard to enjoy. After my VR trip, I'm getting funny looks from other people in the bar. Eager to escape the inquisitive glances, I ask Paulo what goes into the cocktail and we move over to the bar area.

Paulo adds chocolate bitters.

"We start with the Dalmore 12 year-old whisky. It was actually a trip to the distillery in 2015 that made me want to do a virtual reality cocktail one day," Paulo says. "It's such an amazing place and I wanted to find a way to share that with our guests."

He continues: "The main tasting notes of the whisky are cherry, chocolate, and citrus. So, we add cherry liqueur and fresh cherry purée. Then we use chocolate bitters and balance it out with grapefruit juice. It's finished off with Champagne to cut through all the sweetness."

A rolling technique is used to mix the drink.

After adding all the ingredients, bar the Champagne, into the cocktail shaker, Paulo tells me that it must be mixed by rolling the liquid between the two parts of the shaker. It can't be shaken or stirred because of the viscous cherry purée.

Next comes the smoke, which is pumped into the drink and infused with wood chips from the barrel in which the whisky was aged.

The Origin cocktail.

Taking in the finished drink, Paulo tells me: "I want to raise awareness about where our drinks have come from as well as serve our guests great cocktails and give them a wow-factor experience."

It's clear that for Paulo, the virtual reality cocktail really is no gimmick and I have no doubt that the experience will appeal to some. But I managed to learn more about the drink's origins by talking to the bartender, IRL. Next time, I think I'll skip the goggles.