Tucked away in one of the capital’s hotspots in a five-star hotel, St. James Bar has been home to some of the most eclectic and inviting cocktail menus around the last few years. Which makes it worth a visit in our eyes.
Enter the Grade II-listed Sofitel Hotel in St James and you’ll be greeted by the kind of glitz and glamour you’d expect from a luxury hotel in London’s West End. Marble floors. Grand floral displays. Opulent sports cars parked outside. The historic French influences and aristocratic associations are apparent everywhere you look and the hotel is all chic and sophistication, full of desperately fancy Dans here to patronise the exclusive shops of Jermyn Street and the West End theatres nearby.
But it’s worth popping into even if you don’t have a hotel reservation, because adjacent to Anthony Demetre’s popular restaurant Wild Honey is St. James Bar. It’s a cosy space decked out with decadent rich mohair velvet banquettes and reflective antique mirror tables absorbing the warm mood lighting and brass accents. Respected bar and restaurant architect Jim Hamilton did his thing here, elegantly combining French and English themes to match the hotel’s aesthetic and adding subtle nods to the building’s history as a military bank. At first, this might not seem like a drink lover’s paradise. But you’d be wrong.
Head to the centrepiece, a marble-topped and backlit bar, and you’ll find 100 whiskies, 60 gins, and 35 (!) Tequilas, as well as all kinds of liqueurs and other spirits. Your eyes are especially drawn to the colourful rows of perfume-style bottles featuring handmade liqueurs, bitters, and tinctures. Running the bar is a dedicated, knowledgeable staff who are open to answering any and all of your boozy questions, all while crafting exceptional drinks from some truly imaginative menus (you’ll get that joke after roughly 30 seconds more reading). It’s the standard of cocktails, in particular, that draws drinks enthusiasts to St. James Bar.
How the magic happens
The ambition is to create abstract, intriguing cocktails that are typically minimalist when it comes to the ingredient list, with the creativity and flair reserved for the construction and concept. The previous menu, Passport, for example, was designed to take you on a journey, and the menu looked like an actual British passport boasting 12 cocktails from 12 different countries. It was a smash hit and was awarded by Imbibe Magazine the ‘Most Innovative Drink List of the Year 2020’ award.
The creation of the menu begins with an idea which is then pitched to the bartenders, who all contribute their own takes on the concept. “The brief we give them is that you should aim to change people’s perception of what you’d expect a cocktail to be, like creating a serve you eat or making something that evokes a childhood memory,” says Kostas Bardas, bar manager at St. James. “We should appeal to every sense, not just taste but touch and everything in between”. Once a bartender pitches an idea of how the cocktail should look and taste, the other staff input their ideas to elevate the serve and ensure it meets standards.
This year’s menu is Imagination, a creation featuring molecular techniques and sustainable processes with inspiration coming from as diverse sources as Iron Man, impressionism, dragons, and Elton John lyrics. The bartenders use words like spherification, carbonation and foaming while presenting cocktails with liquid shapes you can hold in your hand and edible photos.
Come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of pure imagination…
The menu itself is something to behold. It’s presented on a 3D ‘molecule’ model of the chemical serotonin (the hormone that provides feelings of well-being and happiness), with 22 cocktails (including a couple of virgin offerings) split across on both sides, one containing dark and intense serves, the other light and delicate.
I tried three cocktails, beginning with The Dreaming Mexico, a showstopper with a unique sharp, complex, and beautifully fruity profile thanks to a combination of Casamigos Caso Tequila, agave and aloe, pear, Martino Ambreto, yuzu cordial, and Peychaud’s bitters. The story is that this drink has its roots in dreams and the theatre of its construction happens before you, as the bartender combines each ingredient in a decanter shaped like a globe of the world, which is billowing with smoke and then turned to Mexico before served.
This very much set the tone for the next two cocktails. The elegant and refreshing Déjà vu tames Laphroaig 10 with pear carbonation and umami flavours, while E=m(t+6.71²) does away with the assumptions of what going for a drink means with pearls of edible cocktails, reminiscent of the controversial Glenlivet examples, made with cocoa butter casing garnished them with a zest of lime. Bite and swallow swiftly if you a) don’t want to make a mess, and b) want the full-bodied flavour experience unleashed at once.
A classic bar: St. James Bar, Sofitel Hotel
The Imagination cocktail menu demonstrates what this bar does best, comfortably catering to all tastes while constructing drinks that are an experience. Every serve is dripping with showmanship and the fact they’re all delicious is a given. And there are only a handful of London bars that can boast that.
Just bear in mind that this isn’t just London. This is Pall Mall London. The cocktails here are typically priced between £15-£25 and the clientele appears to be desperately fashionable folks with money or people with so much wealth they don’t have to care how they look.
If you’re not someone who can imbibe without checking your bank balance, then think of St James as a boozy treat. Pop in to sample purely for the theatre, story, and quality. And if you can’t decide between the 22 impressive choices, just ask a bartender for a recommendation and watch them use their imagination.