As integral as the cocktail is to contemporary culture, it’s surprising to learn that its exact origins are still subject to much debate. Many archivists point to an 1806 news column out of Hudson, N.Y., explicitly defining the term as a “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” But long before the wording was coined, the concept of a mixed drink was widely embraced in British punch houses throughout the 18th century.

Scholars may never form a consensus on where the cocktail was invented. There is little debate, however, as to where it was perfected. Those geographic boundaries lie squarely within London. Today the city honors this liquid legacy by proudly donning the crown of world’s best cocktail destination. The journey to the top has not been without its ups and downs.

A 160-Year Heritage

“Only after working in London was Jerry Thomas inspired to write ‘The Bartender’s Guide,’ the first book to contain cocktail recipes,” explains Jared Brown, cocktail historian and master distiller at Sipsmith Gin. “He included many recipes he discovered while here.”

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Even before Thomas’s tome hit shelves in 1862, the British capital was already an aspirational destination for bartenders, according to Brown. The skillset initially developed out of dire necessity. During the “Gin Craze” of the mid-1700s, some 15,000 sipping shops sprang up across the city. The great majority of them were serving spirits of questionable quality. It was up to merchants to subterfuge the swill with whatever additives they could get their hands on. The more elaborate the disguise, the more clientele they could attract.

And as the British Empire expanded, so too did international importation. Rums began arriving from the New World, joining French brandies, fortified wines of Spain and Portugal, and Irish whiskeys already lining London backbars. In other words, bartenders here had a wide array of ingredients with which to craft their creations. Customers, in turn, could now lay claim to worldliness, simply by spending more time with their local publican. The act of imbibing, then, assumed a more aristocratic veneer.

“The drinking class in the U.K. has always been held to a high level of decorum, and has brought civility and elegance to bars and even the drinks,” Brown says. “The Martini found its black tie image here versus, for example, its green apple identity in Los Angeles. When cocktails lost to wine and craft beers in the 1980s, London hotel and restaurant bars remained entrenched in tradition.”

The city served it in spades, leaning into the folklore of its most iconic venues, like the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel and Dukes in Mayfair. At the former, the memory of homegrown talent such as Harry Craddock and Ada Coleman was enshrined by a new generation of masters. At the latter, Salvatore Calabrese launched a drinks program devoted to recreating liquid history. Preservation of the past sustained the local scene even as cocktails faced an uncertain future on the global stage.


Of course, with the birth of the modern cocktail revival — beginning in the late ‘90s — those fortunes changed quite considerably. But the nascent movement favored innovation, more so than traditionalism. And it was taking off in places far beyond British borders. Namely: New York, San Francisco, Portland, and Paris. To keep up, even the most staunchly conservative drinking parlors had to pivot to incorporate playfulness. They found an audience that was instantly receptive.

“English people are especially inclined to be adventurous,” says Alessandro Palazzi, who has been playing to their preferences since 1975. “About 25 years ago I started making a white truffle Martini at Dukes. If I had done that in Italy, they would have thrown me in the sea, hoping that the sharks eat me!”

While the scene benefits from a perpetual openness on the consumer side of the stick, the biggest boon for experimentation comes from behind the bar.

“Although other cities have interesting cultural mixes, London layers together more variety in such a seamless way,” says Noel Venning of Three Sheets bar in Dalston. “This has led to a much richer food and drink scene, and one which owes so much to the people that have brought their brilliance to the mix. As a result, you have such a complexity that gives confidence to people investing and pushing things further.”

“London is a multicultural hub that welcomes creativity, connections, and innovation. It’s impossible not to be inspired by the diversity of influences and the endless opportunities that the city offers to those people who seek to express themselves.”

When it comes to beverage specifically, London has worked hard to leverage its international standing to attract top talent. In 2010, it became the first place on Earth to launch its own dedicated Cocktail Week. The 10-day-long confab, which now occurs annually in mid-October, cemented the city’s status at the vanguard of drinks culture. Two years later, it hosted the inaugural event for World’s 50 Best Bars. Since that time, the city has never failed to land at least one of its bars in the top three of the annual ranking (there have only been four instances when a London bar didn’t take home the top spot).

The age of innovation accelerated into high gear in 2014 with the debut of Dandelyan along the South Bank of the River Thames. There, head bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana helped normalize the concept of a cocktail lab. He incorporated clarified additives, nitrogenated produce, and other components that seemed more like leftovers from a science experiment than ingredients in a mixed drink. Today he continues to push the envelope at the reconceptualized Mr. Lyan, inside the same space.

His efforts are now echoed by Remy Savage and co. at A Bar With Shapes for A Name. The drinks are inspired as much by art as they are by flavor profile. But execution never takes a backseat to presentation. Monica Berg and Alex Kratena of Tayēr + Elementary encourage their guests to step outside the bounds of familiar without having to use fancy scientific tech. Everything is craft by hand, at the center of the bar. And at Kwānt — newly reopened in Mayfair — Eric Lorincz fuses classical with modern, delivering billowing clouds of smoked hickory atop carbonated sherry preparations.

“The inclusivity of our bar culture is like no other I have witnessed. We’re the best cocktail city in the world because it is a community, a family.”

“London is a multicultural hub that welcomes creativity, connections, and innovation,” says Ago Perrone, director of mixology at the award-winning Connaught Bar. “It’s impossible not to be inspired by the diversity of influences and the endless opportunities that the city offers to those people who seek to express themselves.”

A Rich Tapestry of Tastemakers

So many of the talented folks pushing things forward are bartenders who arrived from beyond the English Channel. But Perrone — who himself is an Italian immigrant — doesn’t seem too worried that the self-inflicted barrier of Brexit is affecting the city’s status as top tastemaker.

For now, that belief is backed up by a battery of exciting openings across the landscape. At Nipperkin in Mayfair, bartender Giuseppe Destefano is heading up one of the most exciting new drinks programs anywhere. A zero-waste ethos is implemented by working leftovers from the upstairs kitchen into a number of infusions and distillates, which work their way into drinks in the subterranean drinking parlor. Other notable additions include the whisky-centric Dram Bar in Soho, as well as Paloma, with its agave and rum-focused offerings.

“The diversity of bars within London is amazing, there is a place for everyone,” says Sophie Bratt, who manages the bar at the Nobu Hotel in Portman Square. “The inclusivity of our bar culture is like no other I have witnessed. We’re the best cocktail city in the world because it is a community, a family.”

It is everything, everywhere, all at once. You can imbibe centuries worth of history, unfettered. Or you can absorb the avant-garde, as you wish. A diverse array of talent from across the globe is here, drawing from a broad spectrum of styles, pouring it all in a multitude of environments. And it’s all accessible in equal measure. Just like the commendable combination of spirit, sugar, water and bitters you’ll find at any of these venues, the supremacy of London’s drink scene all boils down to balance.

But if you’re an avid drinker simply surfacing for a visit, be forewarned: You might never want to leave. “My fate was determined back in 1996, when Peter Dorelli at the Savoy made me the best Martini of my life,” recalls Brown. “I knew then I would one day live in the U.K. And while I travel the world enjoying great cocktails, I am always happy to return home once again.”