Reopened, the Upstairs at the enormously popular Ten Bells in Spitalfields has been revamped to a sort of Prohibition meets Renaissance-Cathedral chic. Amid winged armchairs and chandeliers, a Tracy Emin neon sign, religious paraphernalia and under the watchful eyes of the subverted Gabrielle d’Estrées et un de ses soeur, or in this case, Gabriel d’Estrées et une de ses frères – imbibers are treated to a British take on New York’s current cocktail trend: the Shorties.
Reminiscent of Tony Conigliaro’s Negronis at the Bar Termini (Click HERE for Review!), Shorties attempt to maximise flavour and intensity, while minimising volume – essentially, it’s more than a shot, but less than a full-blown cocktail, something that you drink quickly before moving on to the next order of business.
The Hoodooist, for whom cocktails always – always – mean lying back and throwing two fingers up to the universe and its machinations in all their metaphysical yet infinitely irritating glory – this posed a challenge. After all, one might argue that their cheaper prices (6 to 7 pounds) is relative to their volume, but if you’re going to spend the evening here, you might end up spending more dosh than usual. It’s a complicated game, the gambling sort might enjoy this.
That’s the fun bit. The only part of this menu that one found slightly annoying was the fact that the cocktails lacked names. “I’ll have the one with the tequila – no, not the tequila and peach – the tequila and brachetto, yeah, the one from the ‘Fresh’ section, not ‘Crushed’,” I imagine to be needlessly complicated. Numbering them would be fine.
The cocktails are divided into separate categories from ‘Fresh’, to ‘Strong’, and ‘Late’.
From the ‘Strong’ group, the stand out drink would definitely be the superior Black Bottle Scotch, Apricot Liqueur, Cinnamon, Black Cardamom, Jaggery and on the side, a Camden Pale Ale. This instantly reminded me of the IPA Paanch at Dishoom, King’s Cross (Click HERE for Review!). The Black Bottle blended malt is slightly smokey, silky with elements of chocolate, ginger, honey and oak – the golden sweetness of the finish teased out further by the jaggery, the apricot and spices add a wonderful extra kick to a twist on an Old Fashioned. The side of ale is meant to be a way to lengthen the drink by sipping it between draws, a kind of cleanser.
It isn’t necessary, but they pair rather well, the brightness of the ale helping lift the heavy flavours, making each sip of the cocktail feel like the first.
The other three cocktails on the ‘Strong’ list struggle.
There is a distinct originality to the Rum, Fresh Pandan, Ginger, Palm Sugar, Mandarin Bitters, but it is definitely a distinctly acquired or unique taste. The sweet rum kicks you in the face as quickly as the pandan and palm sugar – lending to the cocktail a thick, green, rice-liquor flavour. Somewhat piney, and rather musty. This is a cocktail that can only be served as a shorty – because even for those who took to it (like the Hoodooist), there is only so much of it you can drink. The other three on the table failed to appreciate this.
The Gin, Creme de Peche, Jasmine, Peychauds Bitters, Grapefruit Twist, lacked character, and came off a bit too sour, too floral. Similarly, the Crushed Botija Olives, Noilly Prat Rouge, Gin or Vodka, was less of a Shorty twist on a Dirty Martini, but was filthy with a drop of Martini. What graced the table was olive brine and vinegar. Mixing the three cocktails together made them more palatable.
Making a strong cocktail that short might be problematic.
However, the ‘Fresh’ category held more promise.
The Bee Pollen Gin, Blossom Honey, Cocchi Americano, Lemon, Soda – this is what summer needs. The bright gin and the sweet, floral honey is balanced well by the dark, savoury bee pollen and the spiced quinine noted of the Cocchi Americano – lengthened by the lemon and soda. It’s one surprise after another when you go from savoury to sweet, to spicy to bitter to citrus and fizz. A fun little thing.
The Birbet Brachetto, Tequila, Maraschino, Burlesque Bitters, Lemon Twist and Soda, is a deep, sweet, and lightly floral cocktail that goes from the Brachetto grape’s intense spumante-esque sweetness to the floral sweetness of the Burlesque Bitters (like hibiscus?), to the Maraschino, finally ending with the tequila – bit sweet for the Hoodooist, but I can see that there is a market for this one. Expect sweet, a bit much, though.
The Red Date Shrub, Pommeu de Normandie, Vodka, Prosecco, Berries, was a hit or miss depending on the Prosecco used. Apparently a change in Prosecco halfway through the evening took a semi-sweet, berried, bright cocktail and turned it into gran’s basement. It’s up to you if it’s worth the risk.
Now, the beautiful ‘Late’ Shorties – they won the evening.
Tequila, Amaro, Condensed Horchata, Cold Brew Coffee: The Tequila and Amaro are mixed into the coffee, then the Horchata (a Latin and Spanish drink, this one maybe more similar to the Mexican variation: rice, condensed milk, vanilla, cinnamon? Something the Hoodooist had been craving for the past week) was frozen and dropped in like an ice cube.
Being impatient, the Hoodooist chipped away at his to melt, resulting in a milky caffeine-fueled digestif. Intensely bittersweet, the tequila lifts the Amaro’s bitterness out of the depth of the coffee/horchata combo.
The incredible nostalgia suddenly took the Hoodooist back to sneaking Kopiko Coffee Candy out in the middle of the evening as a 6 year old – anyone who tasted these Thai candies that randomly appeared in the house in the Middle East would recognise the flavour.
Finally, the Birch Wood Aged Vieux Carre – Rye, Cognac, Benedictine, Vermouth, Bitters, all aged in Birch – result in one of the most beautiful takes on a Vieux Carre. Incredible depth, lingering, powerful eau de vie finishes, the bitterness balanced with the woody sweetness of the birch wood and the vermouth. Wonderful.
Co-founder Bradley Lomas is a delight, as well as his carpaccio, and head-bartender Jerome Slesinski knocks out the Shorties with polite conversation and confidence. Server Andrea is wonderful to work with, and a spectacular host to chat about Sardegnian cheeses with. Their passion for their new venue and take on cocktails is admirable, and so is their risk-taking.
When a Shorty goes right, it goes very right. It’s a difficult one to gauge, when the results of reliable/good : risk/all over the place are 5:4. Did we have fun? Majorly. A great space to experiment with little shorts if you’re in the mood for it. A beautiful space to boot, with wonderful service.
The Ten Bells
84 Commercial Street, Spitalfields,
London E1 6LY.