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One of London’s best martinis at the Langham Artesian [Official Photo]

Where to Drink Martinis in London

Dry or dirty; straight up or with a twist; always very very cold — here’s where to find the most classic of cocktails

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Porn star martinis are firmly out of fashion and someone still might propose espresso martinis for all at 1 a.m. on a Thursday — they’d be correct — but London’s bartenders and bar drinkers have moved towards simplicity in their cocktail tastes. Menus denote refined elegance citywide, and so the renewed rise of classics like martinis can be explained.

The origin of the martini is disputed. Two stories link San Francisco, Martinez, California, and the Gold Rush of the 1800s — one with the mixologist du jour Jerry Thomas, the other with an unnamed bartender — claiming the ‘Martinez’ cocktail as the origin. Italian bartender Martini di Mama di Taggia of NYC’s Knickerbocker Hotel claimed creation at the turn of the 20th century; some link it to a British Army rifle (Martini & Henry); and then there’s the theory of the marketing whiles of Martini & Rossi vermouth. Literature’s Bad Boys have also played their part in the martini’s mystique – Hemingway endorsed it; Bond drank it.

But the joy of the martini is that it’s the amuse bouche of the amuse bouche, it is there to whet the appetite. It is the eater’s drink. The correct time for a bone dry martini with a twist is before lunch, and a dirty martini or a Gibson is needed before dinner. So, here are the best martini spots in town — and, dear purists, the concept of the martini is one that has evolved, so be daring with the drinks you sip.

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The Connaught Bar

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This hotel bar is of course beautiful, and its martini is all theatre and drama. It is classy, sophisticated, elegant; it is an absolute treat. If it were a novel it would be classed as a modern classic, with the traditional martini (Tanqueray 10 gin or Ketel One vodka, with a twist and/or olive) and then three drops of the bar’s own bitters, from which the martini drinker can choose tonka; cardamom; lavender; ginseng and bergamot; or coriander.

Café Bar at Omnibus Theatre

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Theatre bars are not often given their due respect, seen as mere mad rush moments where staff serve gin and tonics and bubbles with thoughtless speed, making them inhospitable places to hang out in. Not so at the Omnibus, off Clapham Common. A bastion of community arts, this cafe-bar is a cozy spot that serves a generous and delicious espresso martini, the perfect post-show dessert! It’s also open late on the weekends, and worthy of popping down to hang out when there’s nothing on the stage upstairs.

Dukes Bar

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London’s history of the martini is inextricably linked to Dukes Bar — this where Ian Fleming came to drink martinis. Legendary bartender Alessandro Palazzi believes that the character of James Bond was about breaking rules — shaken not stirred, being a prime example — during a time when there were strict rules, including that martinis could only be an aperitif, and he encourages drinkers to follow suit. Therefore, as well as the experience of an excellent classic martini served table side, Palazzi also plays around with his drinks, serving a clever take on a Gibson made with caviar-infused vodka and sake.

The Lower Third

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On the famed music row of Denmark Street, the Lower Third is an unassuming spot, but don’t be fooled: the bar is a very fun “shop front” for a multi-level music venue. It’s wild. It has taken over the old 12 Bar Club, and is aiming to maintain its musical traditions. The ground floor bar feels very much like a neighbourhood bar, and with globally renowned martini fiend Shannon Tebay at the helm, it’s very much a five-star dive bar. There are three takes on a martini: the Quadrophenia adds a splash of green tea, to pandan, Cocchi Americano and white cacao, while the Technical Ecstasy is a vesper martini with fino sherry, tomato, and shiso. The “house classic” martini is also a treat, adding a touch of fino and orange bitters to a London dry gin.

The new bar by cocktail legend Salvatore Calabrese is pure luxury. Sink into the velvet sofas and listen to live music, whilst sipping on a martini … It could not be a more perfect cocktail spot. It helps that an entire portion of the menu is devoted to martinis, described as the bar’s “interpretation of the ‘King of the Cocktails’”. The classic is made using a method Calabrese “developed in the 80s,” sans explanation, just adding to the mystique of the place. It cannot be expressed enough just how beautiful this bar is — if the Corinthia Hotel wanted to conjure up a 1920s bar of dreams, this is what it would look like. A job well done.

The lure and lore of Rules’ cocktail bar is intimately connected to bartender Brian Silva, who established its credos, moved on for a few years, and then returned in 2018 to continue mixing bone dry, elegant, unfussily brilliant martinis for those who knew of his craft. It remains one of the most sophisticated in town.

Common Decency

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This bar at the NoMad hotel has recently been re-focused into a high-end cocktail bar. It feels lush and decadent, adorned with velvet, art deco shapes, and gold; sit at the bar and be charmed by the bar team or nestle into a seat in the adjoining lounge. But most of all, order the Szechuan Gibson; an absolutely inspired idea to incorporate the savoury flavours of a pickled onion with a touch of heat. Also recommended is having an outrageous amount of oysters to accompany said martini.

The Drapers Arms

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A martini is a classic, and so is the British pub; therefore this should be a perfect combination, but is very rarely done. Owner Nick Gibson is a purist, so expect ice-cold glasses, excellent gin or vodka and a choice of dirty or a twist. This is a pub with food at its focus, hospitality as its core and a favourite amongst the restaurant industry. Drinking a martini before a roast lunch is pretty much the perfect Sunday.

Top Cuvée

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There is something rebellious about having a hard liquor in a restaurant famed — nay, named — for wine. But truly, how is a diner supposed to whet one’s appetite and peruse a menu without a martini? Go classic: It’s served in a stubby, iced, wine glass — efficient, cute — and snack on green olives while pretending to decide what part of the menu to skip (before eating it all.) This restaurant in Highbury has big windows that always get steamed up, with a bustling, warm atmosphere that’s perfect for a cold, cold, stiff drink.

Swift Borough

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This new outpost of the Swift family is a cosier version of Soho, but still with all the elegance. Upstairs is the aperitivo bar, with seasonal drinks — the Pirouette on the main list has martini vibes. But the downstairs bar is the real treat, small and intimate with the best seat in the house at bar, where one should order a Golden Hide. This is actually a fairly low in alcohol, with tequila, brown butter and mead — so martini purists will have strong feelings — but it hits all the right notes: clear presentation of the spirit, a soft mouthfeel (that vermouth gives) and a crisp, although slightly sweet finish. Swift’s Soho outpost does an excellent take on another martini in the Perfect Manhattan (don’t @ me, it’s a martini!), and all its bars make exceptional dry gin martinis with a twist.

Tayēr + Elementary

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If there was ever a martini made for eating, for tantalising your taste buds to prep you for food, it’s Tayer and Elementary’s “one sip” martini. It is a little cup — controversial serving — of joy for those that usually go for a dirty martini, made with house vodka, martini ambrato vermouth, Una Palma fino sherry, and blue cheese with an olive, which brings a nice rounded lactic finish.

Seed Library

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Is Seed Library a hotel bar? It skirts this definition by having a separate entrance, although it is part of One Hundred Shoreditch hotel. But for the purpose of martini drinking, it hits all the right notes — a beautiful bar to sit at, hospitable bartenders to chat to, and a great selection of gins and vodkas to order from. Hotel bars are where martinis should be drunk. This is a Ryan Chetiyawardana bar, so all the drinks are creative, but there is classic simplicity to this menu too. (For a truly wild martini, pop across the river to his Lyaness bar to try the Elephant martini, which has hyraceum in it.) At Seed Library, the sansho leaf martini is a vodka martini with a savoury, peppery, citrus twist; for gin lovers there’s the Ki No Bi Kyoto dry gin on the menu, that works perfectly for twist and dirty martinis.

🔶🟥🔵 A Bar with Shapes for a Name

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All the drinks at this newish Dalston bar are exceptional, so it’s understandable that it makes a damn good martini. But the reason A Bar with Shapes for a Name gets a particular mention is because it has a dedicated single spot at the bar, with a seat ready to be swung out for the solo martini drinker. If carrying a book, someone will bring over a little light. There is no better way to drink a martini than at a bar, with a good book; this is what a martini was invented for. A perfect 6:30 p.m. Friday pause, before dinner.

Three Sheets

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This small, atmospheric neighbourhood bar clocked in at #29 on the 2019 50 Best Bars’ list. This is also the best place in London to get a dry gin martini, with a twist. It is pure, glorious nectar — tip: don’t go with a friend who is prone to being late, as it’s too easy to down two, fast, and be pissed before they arrive. On their official list is an excellent earth martini, earthy flavours of beetroot, but a clean finish; the French martini is joyful, served pre-made from a wine bottle!

The Connaught Bar

This hotel bar is of course beautiful, and its martini is all theatre and drama. It is classy, sophisticated, elegant; it is an absolute treat. If it were a novel it would be classed as a modern classic, with the traditional martini (Tanqueray 10 gin or Ketel One vodka, with a twist and/or olive) and then three drops of the bar’s own bitters, from which the martini drinker can choose tonka; cardamom; lavender; ginseng and bergamot; or coriander.

Café Bar at Omnibus Theatre

Theatre bars are not often given their due respect, seen as mere mad rush moments where staff serve gin and tonics and bubbles with thoughtless speed, making them inhospitable places to hang out in. Not so at the Omnibus, off Clapham Common. A bastion of community arts, this cafe-bar is a cozy spot that serves a generous and delicious espresso martini, the perfect post-show dessert! It’s also open late on the weekends, and worthy of popping down to hang out when there’s nothing on the stage upstairs.

Dukes Bar

London’s history of the martini is inextricably linked to Dukes Bar — this where Ian Fleming came to drink martinis. Legendary bartender Alessandro Palazzi believes that the character of James Bond was about breaking rules — shaken not stirred, being a prime example — during a time when there were strict rules, including that martinis could only be an aperitif, and he encourages drinkers to follow suit. Therefore, as well as the experience of an excellent classic martini served table side, Palazzi also plays around with his drinks, serving a clever take on a Gibson made with caviar-infused vodka and sake.

The Lower Third

On the famed music row of Denmark Street, the Lower Third is an unassuming spot, but don’t be fooled: the bar is a very fun “shop front” for a multi-level music venue. It’s wild. It has taken over the old 12 Bar Club, and is aiming to maintain its musical traditions. The ground floor bar feels very much like a neighbourhood bar, and with globally renowned martini fiend Shannon Tebay at the helm, it’s very much a five-star dive bar. There are three takes on a martini: the Quadrophenia adds a splash of green tea, to pandan, Cocchi Americano and white cacao, while the Technical Ecstasy is a vesper martini with fino sherry, tomato, and shiso. The “house classic” martini is also a treat, adding a touch of fino and orange bitters to a London dry gin.

Velvet

The new bar by cocktail legend Salvatore Calabrese is pure luxury. Sink into the velvet sofas and listen to live music, whilst sipping on a martini … It could not be a more perfect cocktail spot. It helps that an entire portion of the menu is devoted to martinis, described as the bar’s “interpretation of the ‘King of the Cocktails’”. The classic is made using a method Calabrese “developed in the 80s,” sans explanation, just adding to the mystique of the place. It cannot be expressed enough just how beautiful this bar is — if the Corinthia Hotel wanted to conjure up a 1920s bar of dreams, this is what it would look like. A job well done.

Rules

The lure and lore of Rules’ cocktail bar is intimately connected to bartender Brian Silva, who established its credos, moved on for a few years, and then returned in 2018 to continue mixing bone dry, elegant, unfussily brilliant martinis for those who knew of his craft. It remains one of the most sophisticated in town.

Common Decency

This bar at the NoMad hotel has recently been re-focused into a high-end cocktail bar. It feels lush and decadent, adorned with velvet, art deco shapes, and gold; sit at the bar and be charmed by the bar team or nestle into a seat in the adjoining lounge. But most of all, order the Szechuan Gibson; an absolutely inspired idea to incorporate the savoury flavours of a pickled onion with a touch of heat. Also recommended is having an outrageous amount of oysters to accompany said martini.

The Drapers Arms

A martini is a classic, and so is the British pub; therefore this should be a perfect combination, but is very rarely done. Owner Nick Gibson is a purist, so expect ice-cold glasses, excellent gin or vodka and a choice of dirty or a twist. This is a pub with food at its focus, hospitality as its core and a favourite amongst the restaurant industry. Drinking a martini before a roast lunch is pretty much the perfect Sunday.

Top Cuvée

There is something rebellious about having a hard liquor in a restaurant famed — nay, named — for wine. But truly, how is a diner supposed to whet one’s appetite and peruse a menu without a martini? Go classic: It’s served in a stubby, iced, wine glass — efficient, cute — and snack on green olives while pretending to decide what part of the menu to skip (before eating it all.) This restaurant in Highbury has big windows that always get steamed up, with a bustling, warm atmosphere that’s perfect for a cold, cold, stiff drink.

Swift Borough

This new outpost of the Swift family is a cosier version of Soho, but still with all the elegance. Upstairs is the aperitivo bar, with seasonal drinks — the Pirouette on the main list has martini vibes. But the downstairs bar is the real treat, small and intimate with the best seat in the house at bar, where one should order a Golden Hide. This is actually a fairly low in alcohol, with tequila, brown butter and mead — so martini purists will have strong feelings — but it hits all the right notes: clear presentation of the spirit, a soft mouthfeel (that vermouth gives) and a crisp, although slightly sweet finish. Swift’s Soho outpost does an excellent take on another martini in the Perfect Manhattan (don’t @ me, it’s a martini!), and all its bars make exceptional dry gin martinis with a twist.

Tayēr + Elementary

If there was ever a martini made for eating, for tantalising your taste buds to prep you for food, it’s Tayer and Elementary’s “one sip” martini. It is a little cup — controversial serving — of joy for those that usually go for a dirty martini, made with house vodka, martini ambrato vermouth, Una Palma fino sherry, and blue cheese with an olive, which brings a nice rounded lactic finish.

Seed Library

Is Seed Library a hotel bar? It skirts this definition by having a separate entrance, although it is part of One Hundred Shoreditch hotel. But for the purpose of martini drinking, it hits all the right notes — a beautiful bar to sit at, hospitable bartenders to chat to, and a great selection of gins and vodkas to order from. Hotel bars are where martinis should be drunk. This is a Ryan Chetiyawardana bar, so all the drinks are creative, but there is classic simplicity to this menu too. (For a truly wild martini, pop across the river to his Lyaness bar to try the Elephant martini, which has hyraceum in it.) At Seed Library, the sansho leaf martini is a vodka martini with a savoury, peppery, citrus twist; for gin lovers there’s the Ki No Bi Kyoto dry gin on the menu, that works perfectly for twist and dirty martinis.

🔶🟥🔵 A Bar with Shapes for a Name

All the drinks at this newish Dalston bar are exceptional, so it’s understandable that it makes a damn good martini. But the reason A Bar with Shapes for a Name gets a particular mention is because it has a dedicated single spot at the bar, with a seat ready to be swung out for the solo martini drinker. If carrying a book, someone will bring over a little light. There is no better way to drink a martini than at a bar, with a good book; this is what a martini was invented for. A perfect 6:30 p.m. Friday pause, before dinner.

Three Sheets

This small, atmospheric neighbourhood bar clocked in at #29 on the 2019 50 Best Bars’ list. This is also the best place in London to get a dry gin martini, with a twist. It is pure, glorious nectar — tip: don’t go with a friend who is prone to being late, as it’s too easy to down two, fast, and be pissed before they arrive. On their official list is an excellent earth martini, earthy flavours of beetroot, but a clean finish; the French martini is joyful, served pre-made from a wine bottle!

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