My Egyptian friend Suzee was in town from Cairo.
‘Hi London!’, she posted on Facebook under a picture of hanging flower baskets outside a pub.
‘Wonderful Can I buy you a drink?’
‘Gin in Bermondsey?’
In Bermondsey it was raining cats and dogs on a Friday afternoon as they were taking down the antiques market; an old man was putting away trays of silver spoons and a taxidermy ferret. A vestige of old London surrounded by shiny glass blocks and achingly hip gentrification. We met at 214 Bermondsey, the bar at the eponymous address on Bermondsey Street, underneath the restaurant Antico. Basement cubby den, library lights, cozy and cool, a long bar stocked. I was early, it was just opening, at 5pm. Is it ever too early for gin? Not in London, no, not when its rainy. We should not laugh at hipsters really, but thank them for bringing gin out of Hogarth’s shadows.
A couple sat at the bar next to me. The bartender asked them: ‘Do you want something traditional citrussy, or something with more of a floral note?’ The woman perused the cocktail menu, ‘I think I’ll have a jungle bun.’ ‘Ah you’re a rum person!’ ‘Yes I like dark rum especially.’
‘You have the St George’s gin I see,’ said the man. ‘You know I’ve been to the distillery — the botanicals are pretty cool, it tastes of the forest, it’s pretty intense.’
Suzee arrived, bronzed skin, long curly tawny hair, effortlessly and abundantly sexy. On the wall was the quote: ‘Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world she walks into mine.’ I used to live in Cairo; I had not seen her since Sisi took power. She had been in London a week and was refreshed and relaxed.
‘Do you like my nose ring?’ she asked. I nodded. ‘I got it done half an hour ago. Thirty seven years old and I get my first piercing! Well, I was in Camden.’
The bartender was young with a blonde moustache and a knowledgeable mixologist.
‘What would you like?’ he asked politely.
‘We would like gin and tonics,’ I said in wry understatement. More than 80 bottles of different gin were lined up on shelves behind the bar, backlit and gently glowing.
I said I had grown up with the usual Gordon’s and Schweppes and a slice of lime. I liked the juniper taste of gin. A famous mixologist in New York once told me that his favourite gin was Tanqueray, so I told the bartender that I liked Tanqueray but that I had never managed to get the point of Hendricks.
‘Ah good,’ the bartender said, shaking his head in sympathy. ‘Hendricks is not a well made gin, In blind taste tests it always comes in the bottom.’
He lined up a selection of bottles for us to smell.
‘I’m all for a snifter,’ said Suzee, ‘but I’ve only got one working nostril.’
‘This is Portobello Gin,’ the bartender introduced us. ‘Juniper up front, coriander in the middle, black pepper and liquorice on the back end.’ Gin sniffing in Bermondsey is as serious and earnest a business as wine tasting in Burgundy. But he was right. I did detect three layers of spicy nose twitch just as he decribed. ‘And this one is Opihr. It’s more spicy, cinnamon and cardammon black pepper, lemon grass. Softer juniper and a less ginny kick.’
He continued down the line of bottles and picked another one out for us to try.
‘Tarquin’s is more floral, it has a lovely top note of violet and lavender,’ he said. I didn’t like this one, it smelled like a clean bathroom. ‘Blow into the glass,’ the barkeep advised, ‘because the ethanol vapour sits just inside the lip and this way you are blowing it away.’ Ah yes, I was understanding better now. Next up, the Larios was fleshy and smelled of citrus, ‘not oily zest but very satsuma tangerine.’ It was good, but not as good as the first two we had tried.
After much happy discursive deliberation we ordered one G and T with Portobello, the other with Opihr. They came in highball glasses, only ice and no slice. ‘We don’t usually garnish a gin and tonic,’ explained our guide, ‘otherwise you can’t really taste the gin.’
Suzee and I talked about Egypt and friends and the miserableness of repressions. We finished the gin and tonics and turned our attention to the classic gin cocktails. I ordered a gimlet because that was my favourite drink in New York when I lived there in the 90s. A gimlet, the bartender explained, was properly made with Navy gin, which is 57% proof or more. ‘It’s the only gin they will allow on a British Navy vessel because you can spill it on gunpowder and the gunpowder will still ignite.’
He made my gimlet with Haymans, explaining, ‘it has a grapefruitiness, but it’s very ginny. And its definitely navy strength.’
Suzee batted her long eyelashes. ‘Have you got anything with rosemary?’ she asked out of the blue.
‘Rosemary? I don’t — let me check.’ There’s nothing a bartender loves more than a wide-eyed challenge from a beautiful woman. He went off to look in the kitchen and came back with a sprig of rosemary.
‘What are you going to do?’ Suzee asked watching him pull the needles into the shaker. ‘Dont worry. I have a plan,’ he replied enigmatically.
My gimlet was perhaps a little too smooth and mysterious, like a female spy sitting at a bar in Paris during the occupation. The bartender made Suzee’s drink with Kümmel, a Dutch liquor flavoured with carraway, cumin and fennel. The rosemary amped up the herby resinous earthiness… a fairytale path lost in the autumn wood. We wound our imaginations down a number of different flavour trails. Adventure, whimsy and botanical riffs. Even the dank fug of the Northern Line could not dispell my happy mood.