By Leo Owen.
Today is a wet day, my bag strap has broken, my date is running late due to the occasional unreliability of text messaging and the cocktail tasting event I'm heading to has been cancelled; only, I don't know that yet.
Arriving at the Royal Horseguards Hotel I'm embarrassed by my bedraggled appearance and the doubled-up plastic carriers I clutch, housing my failed shoulder bag. Tonight promises “masculine cocktails” and all the grandeur of an old-fashioned gentlemen's club, just without the smoking. Entering the reception a little shame-faced, I wonder if they're expecting a man and whether my far-from-chic-appearance will still gain me admittance.
I'm met with nothing but charm and hospitality, lead to cigar expert and Equus Bar Manager, Neil Millington, who's a little puzzled by my arrival. Having established I never received any cancellation messages and that a friend who's travelled across London is yet to arrive, I'm handed a cocktail menu and reassured I'll be looked after nonetheless.
Royal Horseguards Hotel has a tradition of pandering to much more refined tastes than mine. George Bernard Shaw lived next door, WW1 secret intelligence agent Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming used the entire eighth floor as his headquarters during the war, Lord Kitchener stayed here during WW1 and William Gladstone laid the building's foundation stone back in 1884. Not to mention the fact the hotel sits on the site of Whitehall, what was once the UK's largest palace where infamous lady's man and wife-abuser, Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn.
These days the hotel's a private haven and convenient retreat for MPs, even boasting a bell that rings fifteen minutes before politically-minded guests need to hot-foot back to parliament to vote. Many moons ago, our nation's leaders would have been able to make the most of an underground tunnel linking the hotel with the Houses of Parliament but today we have to make do with admiring the steps leading to the blocked-off tunnel and the rather unique private function area that surrounds. I only wish I'd had some kind of underground passageway linking the underground and hotel to avoid the drowned-Persian look.
Looking at the cocktail menu, there's no real surprises. Trying to predict decadent masculine ingredients for “modern gents”, I'm already expecting plenty of Whisky, Port, Cognac, Burgundy, Scotch, Bourbon, Bitters and drinks “on the rocks”; Equus, the bar at Royal Horseguards, certainly doesn't disappoint with its historically themed “Signature Cocktails” list paying homage to its famous visitors and whole page devoted to fourteen whiskies. I'm pleased to spot Dunkerton's Organic Cider on the menu and a few reassuringly familiar names (Singapore Sling, Bellini, Apricot Cocktail, Mai Tai..).
Waiting for my companion, I decide to start with a drink named after one of my favourite playwrights. A concoction of Gin, Campari and Cherry Heering Liqueur over ice, The George Bernard Shaw, tastes dangerously potent. As Neil leaves me to sample a spot of George, I soak in the grand décor that surrounds me - plush red and beige shimmer effect chairs, military paintings, white marble floors, a tasteful glass-fronted bar and grey/glass wall panels on wood walls tastefully combine the traditional with the best of modern design.
My drinking companion arrives and Neil is keen for us to sample his signature drink, The Winston Churchill, which includes cigar-infused whiskey. Heavy but easily drinkable, the Churchill reflects the legendary man's love of cigars. Apparently Churchill was never without one from the age of eight and we're given the rare opportunity of seeing a portrait of a young Winston without his trademark talisman (bizarrely resembling a chubbier Martin Clunes).
Finishing up with a much more light and summery refreshing Russian Spring Punch (vodka, raspberry, cassis, lemon and champagne), I take note of Neil's infallible hang-over cure (fresh lemon/lime, sugar syrup and water). Knowing I have to somehow remain functional enough to pack a bag on my return home, I'm grateful Neil has ensured a constant supply of dried vegetable chips and satay broad beans. Clutching a party-bag of homemade macaroons, I venture out into the cold but thankfully dry outdoors, warmed by some exceedingly strong cocktails.
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