(CNN) — As the countdown of the World’s 50 Best Bars 2017 climaxed, the 700-strong throng of bar industry luminaries assembled in London for the award’s ceremony let out a collective gasp.
The last two names in the hat did not feature last year’s winner — New York City’s Dead Rabbit bar.
Instead they were two London hotel bars, one very old and one very new.
The 127-year old American Bar at the Savoy is a venue of considerable historical importance, but rumors suggested that Dandelyan, the modern botany-themed bar at the Mondrian, would come out on top. It didn’t.
Instead the American Bar took the title of World’s Best Bar for the first time in its history.
This was unexpected as it defies received wisdom that classical bars should stay classical, the fond memories of yesteryear anchoring them in a place in time and guaranteeing a loyal clientele.
But against a worldwide cocktail movement that now evolves at rapier speed, classicism can appear complacent.
“Our bar wasn’t engaging”
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From Operation Dagger
For bar manager Declan McGurk and head bartender Erik Lorincz, the American Bar becoming a cocktail museum is their favorite worst nightmare.
“Four years ago when we came 20th in the World’s 50 Best Bars, we took it as feedback — it suggested to us that our bar wasn’t as engaging as it could be, particularly when you have a big head start with the name Savoy,” explains McGurk, sitting alongside Lorincz, in the famous window booth of the art-deco-inspired American Bar.
“The next day we had a meeting and we decided quite quickly that the history of the American Bar is important but we’re talking about it too much.
“We needed to start innovating and thinking beyond the story of the famous former head bartenders.
“Our history is like no other but the key to honoring this is to not just recycle stories, but write some ourselves,” says McGurk.
“The Savoy Cocktail Book,” first published in 1930, is considered a bartender’s bible.
To appreciate this departure, you must take into account the bar’s history.
The American Bar sprung up among many of its type across Europe at the introduction of transatlantic travel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
At the heart of one of London’s best hotels on the Strand, it became a bastion for global tourists, the moneyed and the famous.
Guests had exacting standards, and as a result, the bartenders that satisfied their liquid needs grew in reputation too.
Ada Coleman, who joined the bar in 1903, was an icon of her time, famously creating classic gin cocktail the Hanky Panky.
When she hung up her white coat, Harry Craddock was her successor. He too was the cocktail man of his generation — his signature drink being The White Lady.
Craddock created more than 250 drinks in his time, and importantly, he wrote them down.
“The Savoy Cocktail Book” — a compendium of classics from either side of the Atlantic — is one of the most important works in the drinks industry and its home is the American Bar.
It became the handbook for every head bartender that proceeded Cradock, until Lorincz arrived in late 2010, ushering in a new era.
The Slovakian, young and driven, had come straight from the relaunch of The Connaught Bar — another top-rated London venue — and brought with him the knowledge of how modern hotel bars can work.
Though Lorincz is a skilled bartender, a world-class bar isn’t just about drinks — it’s about finely tuned hospitality. Enter host-extraordinaire Declan McGurk.
Amercian Bar’s new cocktail menu “Coast to Coast” explores Britain through drinks.
Courtesy Rob Lawson
In the modern cocktail world, the menu is the flag bearer of a bar’s ambition.
“To be a classic hotel bar doesn’t mean that you just have to remake old cocktail recipes but instead look forward,” says McGurk.
“The menu launch of 2014 marked the 125th anniversary of the hotel. It also marked the move away from the listing of American Bar classic cocktails in the menu.
“The Savoy Cocktail Book is still very much alive and we love to make these drinks, but from a menu point of view we had to write something truly appealing and engaging to the guests.”
The new drinks called on unusual ingredients, modern techniques but still managed to tell the stories of the hotel through its 125 years.
McGurk and Lorincz were just warming up — their menus became more and more ambitious.
“In 2016 we launched the London menu, which took the weird and wonderful of London and brought those stories to life by cocktails.
“The highlight of this was the making of our silent movie, ‘Pickering Place,’ which is a short film creatively telling the story of the cocktail.”
Starring McGurk and Lorincz, the black and white film told the story of two bartenders competing for the affection of a young lady and was presented to guests via an iPad.
The pair’s performance was good and has apparently won praise from Hollywood actors who’ve watched the film at the American Bar.
Manager Declan McGurk says the best way to honor the bar’s history is to create some new stories.
The London menu was followed up by “Coast to Coast” this year — an exploration of the country through drinks.
The pair traveled the length and breadth of the UK, finding inspiration from locations that would form chapters in the menu — the Garden of England (Kent), Art Deco London, Sherwood Forest, the Pennines and Edinburgh.
The drinks spoke of their inspirations, but also combined exotic ingredients and Lorincz’s forward thinking techniques.
Mezcal, birch liqueur pink peppercorn honey, egg white, fresh lime, eucalyptus, acorn — this is not the kind of description you expect to see in the menu of a classic hotel bar, but things have changed.
“We’re writing the next chapter of the American Bar’s history,” says Lorincz.
Hamish Smith is an award-winning international drinks journalist, working across bartender title Class Magazine and Drinks International. He’s also the European Chair of Academy for the World’s 50 Best Bars.
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