Diary of a bar-fly: London cocktail bars – value for money?

For a spirits fiend like me, one of the best things about London’s nightlife is the plethora of cocktail bars, serving up delicious drinks made my some of the best bartenders in the world. Of course, one of the worst things about life in the capital can be found in the same establishments; prices that make your credit card gasp.

So, how much is too much to spend on a drink? For me, the ongoing objective to paying inflated prices is knowing that in many cases I could do (almost) as good a job at home. Of course there’s a sense in which this is a silly argument, like saying a chef might as well stay in instead of go to dinner. But I’m a control freak, and I can’t help but wince when the barman doesn’t quite squeeze the lime hard enough, or when ‘flair’ bartending ends up meaning that a good proportion of drink sloshed all over the counter. Even when things are perfect, I feel like I’m giving my seal of approval rather than getting impressed. I’ll probably order off menu just to give them a challenge, and then pick flaws with what they produce. I don’t mean to be an awkward customer, it’s just that I often have difficulty easing into being any kind of customer. That said, once or twice I have learnt something new.

Mostly, a cocktail will seem to set you back £8/£9 if it isn’t happy hour, or maybe more like £10/£11 if you’re somewhere really special that counts cocktails as being their ‘thing’. It is once it tips the latter price point that I have real difficulty justifying the spend, and end up wishing I’d invited everyone for martinis at my place instead. Only once have I overstepped this drinks budget, and it was at Galvin Windows in the Hilton Park Lane, when to be fair, you’re paying for the view as much as the alcohol.

These days, when I treat myself to a pricey drink, I’m looking for killer atmosphere, or sheer innovation. Bars like Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town or Cellar Door are charmingly dimly lit with non-invasive service and decent drinks, making them ideal date venues, and even I’d have to admit that taking someone there is a better way to kick things off than mixing a cocktail from your own kitchen. Places like Nightjar do some crazy things with ingredients that very few of us would have in the cupboard, so paying a little more is certainly worth it for the value of the experience. Then there are places like Colebrook Row, who offer drink versions of an ‘amuse-bouche’, so it really feels like a tasting experience, rather than just a quick one after work.

One thing is for sure – I wouldn’t pay over £8 for a cocktail in a run-of-the-mill bar in many circumstances nowadays. It’s not that I’m tight. There are just too many better places to be. And just sometimes, drinking posh gin on my sofa is one of them.