3 of the Classiest Literally Underground Establishments of London
London is thoroughly known for being classy and proper to the point of absurdity, and while I certainly wouldn’t want to tarnish their hard-earned reputation, I have to point out that the basements are where a lot of the fun can be had without flagrantly violating The Queen’s virtues. I mean it could be argued that someone must have turned the place over at some point and that’s how some of the class ended up in the basements.
Here I have compiled a shortlist of 3 of the premier basement establishments in London proper which we have visited on our Runewood adventures from Denmark, and a short tale involving each one. Purl of Marylebone: Everyone knows London invented gin, and they did, but the fact is they kind of didn’t. It was in some way introduced to them by the Dutch as Genever during the 30 years war in the early 1600s with Spain where the British allied with and fought alongside Holland. Then the Brits through some twisted metamorphosis managed to end out with gin after another half-century or something. Gin wasn’t the choice of the aristocrats in the early days, it was simply a cheap drink that didn’t taste too terrible for the working man, and his wife (hence the name “Mother’s Ruin). However, in time as with many habits and creations of the poor, it was the pride of the land. Anyway on account of that, when one goes to England, I’m not sure how one would make it out without having a gin and tonic. I was born in Camden, NJ in the U.S., and for some reason, I was enamored to learn that Camden Lock of London was basically the gin capital of the world for something in the range of 100 years starting in the latter part of the 1800s. Learning of this, I ventured straight in there on my first trip to London to sniff out some gin from this holy soil. Well let’s just say things have died down a bit through the years in terms of gin making in the area, but it’s nonetheless a neighborhood with quite a share of personality, good food, and public houses to match. Half-Hitch is no palace there in The Lock, but they make excellent gin, and I still visit the little distillery and buy 2 bottles every time I make the trip to London. While there for the first encounter, I was tipped off to the significance of this guy Tristan Stephenson by a fellow named Chris at the little Camden Lock distillery. We were just telling afternoon stories as thousands have before at the market there, and I left with a gem of information that led to some pristine experiences. After looking into this guy Stephenson a bit, I visited a nice subtle speakeasy in the Marylebone neighborhood known as Purl London which he founded. It was a Thursday in the spring, or Little Friday as we call it in Denmark, and I found the unassuming entrance, a stairway leading under the street. The place is a monument to all things revered in such an establishment, the highest attainable quality combined with creativity and utmost class, but in the basement under the streets of Marylebone with jazz to whisk you back to another romantic era. The menu is written like a novel, the décor has depth like the Boreal Forest, and the drinks will leave you with memories for a lifetime. On top of that, the bartenders are among the best in the city, so they love the job and the company of the guests alike. I guess we’ve been there ten times at this point, so that pretty much tells you how I feel about the place.
Bar Black Rock:
Shortly after visiting Purl, I noticed Tristan had started a quite talked about whiskey establishment called Bar Black Rock near Liverpool Street. This such place became one of our top destination priorities on a future London round. One simply needs to experience the attention to detail of such a talented and respected man. Upon arrival at Black Rock, we were put on the waiting list. Now I know that sounds bad, but it’s actually great. It just means you only have access to the street level bar until someone leaves the basement, the street-level bar with great beer, whiskey, tequila, and ambiance. I can’t neglect to mention the whiskey vending machine next to the bathroom, just in case the line at the bar is too long, you need more whiskey while waiting for the John, you need whiskey for the road, or you just need to experience buying whiskey from a vending machine.
The Glenrothes had just reached out to us at little Runewood in Denmark, and us being thrilled about the prospect, were itching to sample some of their fine work. I stated to my comrade Nicholas that there’s only one way to go in terms of drink selection: The Glenrothes would have to be the dram of the evening. They happened to have a nice bottle called the Whisky Maker’s Cut, and we were off. I have nothing but great things to say about the bar, the staff, and especially The Glenrothes Whisky Maker’s Cut. This whisky is really our style – bringing lovely orange peel, vanilla, and nutmeg with a lightly toasted wood and slightly chocolate finish. The guys working the bar were completely knowledgeable without taking themselves too seriously at all, the giant tree table laying through the middle of the place with the brass spouts and the continuous whisky blend stream was beautiful to say the least. The whole experience was captivating, and completely hyggeligt. Sláinte to Stephenson and the whole Bar Black Rock with their unpretentious whisky vending machine, and their great humor about them in the finest of environments again – in the basement.
Mr. Fogg’s Society of Exploration: I guess anyone would take a shine to the bar which introduced them to their favorite cocktail, and that is exactly what happened at the Fogg establishment in a basement of Covent Garden. I am now a Negroni ambassador through and through, like someone who matures into dark chocolate, I fell more in love with the drink the more I tried them. It’s is simply more refined and the subtleties are exquisite in comparison to some of the more modern concoctions I’ve previously abused as a working class man trying to survive the seven day cycle. Going back to the subject of Mr. Fogg’s, we were again put on a waiting list to get into the basement before being let inside. This time there was no street level bar to serve as a waiting room, so we had to actually come up with our own idea of how to pass the time. The choice was actually pretty easy since there is a fabulous Mexican restaurant about 10 minutes walk from the Explorer Society. When we came back, the woman checked the door list for our name, dropped a wooden ball into a brass track and told us to follow it down the stairs. After the ring of an old fashioned bell in the distance into which the ball must have collided, we continued through the impressive door. With a proper greeting downstairs, and after being seated at the bar directly in front of the magnificent negroni machine, we were in full swing. Being an engineer, I was basically ecstatic over how cool the place and the antique mixology machine were. Looking around one can’t miss a shaker being tossed around, or some liquid being poured from a ridiculous height as the bar tenders perform their magic. The vibe is basically electric, and the drinks are fabulous. It’s essentially very hard not to visit this place for a couple of hours during every visit to London because there’s simply not much in comparison. The place is completely brimming with character as can be seen from the pictures.
Notable mentions of other places to stop if one falls off the intended path.
The Savoy (The American Bar and Thames Foyer): Well what does one do after spending the afternoon tasting whiskey at Old Billings Gate of London? The best idea we could drum up was to head over to the Savoy and sip a few cocktails. These guys at the American Bar and at Thames Foyer show class beyond imagination. Cocktails and piano to perfection provide an experience of a lifetime. Just keep in mind, your wallet may leave in poor health.
The Princess Louise:
An awe-inspiring old fashioned English pub from nearly 150 years ago, with fantastic beer (Samuel Smith Stout recommended). Needless to say, London never disappoints.