Updated: Apr 15
Speakeasy spots in London, where to go and how to find them...
The London cocktail and speakeasy scene has exploded over the last five years. From secret bars in public toilets, bars hidden behind bookshelves and mirrors, bars inside other bars and down suspect looking staircases, these little spots provide tipples to tingle your tastebuds and elate your senses. You might need a secret password, key codes, know the knock or no just know where to go.. so here is my guide to my favourite sipping spots in London.
“A speakeasy, also called a blind pig or blind tiger, is an illicit establishment that sells alcoholic beverages. Usually hard to find small intimate venues, who push the boundaries of mixology.”
Speakeasy's are about cocktails, mixology and immersive experiences - with London having some of the best spots on the global scene its hard to know where to go and sometime even harder to know where to find them.
Anyone who knows me knows I am obsessed with this secret scene. Every city I travel to be it for work or pleasure, I will actively try and hunt down the towns most illusive watering holes. I've decided to start Places to Play on this subject as it is fundamentally where it all began.
I also like to test the strength of the bar staff when I go to a cocktail bar, ultimately I don't want someone who can just make a drink off the menu I want someone who can simply make a good drink. I am not being a difficult customer, and it comes from some experience and reasoning. I would suggest reading my post on Paris to know more about this and why I always like to sit at the bar. If I have an opportunity to order a drink from the bar staff my request is always short, sweet and stirred down and these three never disappoint.
So lets start where I started, Purl. Purl was really my first exposure to the secret speakeasy scene that has been revived and re-cultivated from the Prohibition era. No longer a law breaking establishment serving bathtub brews of alcohol but a refined repositioning of the art of mixology, which incorporates art, magic, flare that encompass all the senses. Purl has truly embodied this concept and I describe it as the Heston Blumenthal of cocktail making.
From dishes in pirate bottles served with edible sand, to exploding balloons filled with essence and drinks served in glass laboratory equipment and bubbling cauldrons filled with dry ice. The only limit on the drinks they serve is the endless imagination of their bartenders.
While I have had many drinks here that I have simply loved, the one that sticks in my mind the most came served with a miniature coffee ice cream, a glass spritzer bottle filled with cherry brandy and my drink served in a crystal cut tumbler - I just wish I could remember the name of the drink, as well as what was actually in it.. I also wish I had a photo!
The staff are friendly and helpful and always take extra care in not only helping you with your menu but also explaining the drink itself and imperatively, how to drink it. The advice that came on how best to consumer this particular drink was to eat the ice cream first, spray the cherry brandy onto my tongue then sip my drink, respritzing from time to time with the brandy as I drank.
With lots of well thought out small touches that make you feel welcome while you are there, this is the perfect place to go if you want to be indulge yourself a little. A good friend of mine once said "You know you are special when she takes you to Purl" While they also offer a fantastic cheese and charcuterie board, I would strongly suggest you eat something more substantial before you go. Marylebone high street is just around the corner, with lots of great spots to grab a bite before you go.
This sensational spot can be found just down from Baker Street Station down some old service stair under a sandwich shop. It used to be a real trouble to find and my guests would always get lost, but they have since put a small sign by the entrance making it easier to find, although not as fun. Be aware though they are always busy, so I don't suggest you just turn up, book in advance. Details can be found here.
Nearest Tube Station: Baker Street
The Vault is its official name, however I always refer to it as Milroys. Mainly because this is the shop it resides in. The actual Milroys is a whisky shop in Soho, and if you are a fan of the amber liquid and enjoy it in its most purest of forms, this is a shop I would certainly recommend visiting anyway. It has a bar in it, where you can taste and try some of the whiskies they stock. They also do some regular whisky tasting evenings that I would strongly recommend, but I digress.
The cocktailing side of Milroys is why I really go, it is also so much fun to take people there, if they haven't been before. I've had comments from friends such as "where are you going", "are you for real" and my all time favourite, "OMG Harry Potter is real".
The reason for these remarks is simply explained, even if you haven't been there. Once in the store, walk all the way to the back of the shop, here you will find an area with all three walls covered in bookshelves. From here push the bookshelf on your right (push the corner side near the back wall) its heavy but it will open. From there, follow the neon sign, go down the stairs you will find yourself in The Vault.
I cannot quite remember how I first found out about Milroys, but the first time I went was with an American colleague who drinks whisky like water. He was ex-millitary so he had some pretty serious drinking game. Milroys seemed like the perfect place, he could try some decent whisky and I could test out their cocktails. Needless to say, considering that they are on the spreadsheet and I've written about them here, their cocktails hit the mark.
Two of my favourite drinks here is their Coconut Old Fashion, which is simply divine, and their peach wine which I can literally only describe as summer in a glass. I like my drinks on the sweeter side, so the Peach Wine suits my pallet perfectly, but I can also appreciate a good cocktail that is not so sweet and their twist on an old fashion is one not to miss out on - even if you usually are not a big fan of coconut. Their menu is always changing, which keeps it fresh (especially when you go there a lot) but they will make a drink to order (if they can) if there is something you really want and can't see.
The best thing about Milroys other than the fabulous drinks is their staff and if you are in London and find yourself on your own, I would definitely recommend you go here and pull up a pew at the bar. Let the guys there know you are by yourself and they will be sure to introduce you to others sat at the bar and make sure you feel included. You will leave well looked after, most probably drunk and certainly addicted to this secret little speakeasy and you will be back.. trust me.
Address: 3 Greek St, Soho, London W1D 4NX
Nearest Tube Station: Tottenham Court Road
I always intended for this article to be about three speakeasies in London and admittedly debated with myself on if I should include Murder Inc or Keystone. I love both and Keystone certainly does fall into that true speakeasy category, with a plain door and a key code to enter, but firstly you have to be a member and secondly, in reality it was really Andre's drinks that made Keystone so special for me. Murder however was my new favourite spot a few month back and very quickly became a staple for me and a place I now often frequent.
Hidden down an unsuspecting looking street off of Oxford Circus, while there is a slim chance you might stumble across this little spot, in reality you are likely to miss is unless you know it is there. With a back bar to die for and a plate of Nachos I would actually consider killing for it was really the only choice for my last spot when it comes to my choice of speakeasy spots.
The vibe is chilled but fun, the tunes are banging, the bar staff are an absolute delight, the happy hour is great and the drinks are even better and if you need any more convincing they even do a loyalty card where, on your six visits you get 25% off you bill.
I always get a warm welcome and a hug when I come in (it pays to remember your barman's name), a seat at the bar and a drink made to perfection. My favourite on the menu is one I initially turned my nose up at, I read the ingredients and just thought.. 'nope.. pass' but a more adventurous friend ordered it and I couldn't resist a sip and now here I am writing about it. The drink is called Frozen Banana Ramos and is made of Jagermeister, banana milk, coconut cream, citrus, egg white and stout all blended up to make a delightful alcoholic smoothie. Another favourite, although the name escapes me is one they make from scratch but is on tap, its made using Absinth and comes complete with a burning blue sugar cube!
Another thing I love about this bar is the story about the person who owns it. He was a neurosurgeon originally, then became a rather well established drummer and has now turned his hand to cocktails (he has a few bars, although this is the only one I have been to so far) and if your looking at somewhere to drink you night, coming here is a no-brainer.
Nearest Tube Station: Tottenham Court Road