Nestled between the fine tailors of Mayfair and the, sadly waning, iniquity of Soho, Piccadilly’s Hotel Café Royal is a marvel of London’s opulent past. Pick your way between the marauding tourists of Shaftesbury Ave and you’ll come upon the Green Bar, an homage to that most villainous of spirits: absinthe.
Inspired by the Café Royal Cocktail Book compiled in 1937, the Green Bar revels in its association with la fée verte – the mischievous green fairy, conjured by absinthe’s enigmatic ways – and the decadence of the belle époque.
Once playground to Oscar Wilde, Elizabeth Taylor and David Bowie, the suitably shadowy Green Bar is an intimate lair of neon green glow and gunmetal; it’s fittingly home to bespoke absinthe fountains – a sight to set our eyes alight with impish glee.
Absinthe is regaining its rightful place on the global cocktail scene, with classics such as the Sazerac and Corpse Reviver #2 reigniting our love of the green goddess; I challenge each of you to swallow any trepidation and to immerse yourself in the true ‘Absinthe Journey’. The ritual and romance of the traditional absinthe fountain will have you in thrall, choose from the definitive French La Fée XS Française or the excellent US upstart Jade Nouvelle-Orléans.
Keep your spectacles primed for Issue Two of The Holborn, you’ll find nestled within it a spry Illustrated Guide to Absinthe, which we hope will persuade a few converts to the (wrongly) maligned drink – all, dear reader, will be revealed.
Of course, The Green Bar does not only serve iced water, rocket fuel and sugar cubes; you can expect timeless classics like the Hemingway Daiquiri and the Vesper Martini but also some originals, including the New Fashioned – a new-fangled blend of Porcini infused Dictador 12 year old, Angostura bitters, sugar syrup and Laphroaig 10 year old.
We sat down with the Green Bar’s compelling Bar Manager Antonio Catapano to learn more about the gentleman bringing this legendary venue, and spirit, back into the limelight:
Where did your love of cocktails come from?
My love for cocktails come from my passion for food and drink, I grow up in south Italy and since I was little I was surrounded by great ingredients; to me, at that age, it was incredibly fascinating how by mixing some ingredients together you can create something unique and incredible. Originally I wanted to be a pastry chef, however growing up I discovered cocktails; at the age of 14 I was working in Florence during the summer season, one night we went to this little bar with some friends, the bartender had just moved back from London and he wanted to showcase his skills – that night changed my life. I watched him very carefully, he was very professional, knowledgeable and knew how to sell his ideas, after that night it was very clear to me that that was my future, I loved the idea of creating my own drinks and also to be able to directly talk to the customer to explain the concept behind them.
What were you doing before you joined Green Bar?
Before joining the Café Royal I was working as Bar Manager in George Club from the Birley Group, the George Club was very important for my career, I had the pleasure of meeting some of the most influential people in London.
Why London? What was the scene like back home?
Simple, London is the cocktail capital of Europe.
What do you make of the cocktail scene in London?
London’s cocktail scene is greater than ever in my opinion, there are always new products on the market for bartender to experiment with, also many new techniques to use and, especially lately, there are plenty of new concepts to work with, a good example is the Givenchy collaboration in the Green Bar, matching fragrances with cocktails.
With it’s rich history, what does absinthe mean to you?
To me Absinthe means tradition, culture and of course it represents a very particular and fascinating drinking era, back in the past the absinthe became very popular among artists, musicians and some of the most respected figures of the late 19th century.
Do you find the history of the Hotel Café Royal inspiring?
Yes of course, that’s one of the reasons why I decided to join the Hotel Café Royal, the history behind the hotel has definitely helped us to get when we are now, considering that we are relatively new compared to some of our competitors like the Ritz or the Savoy, those establishments have been around for many years and just like us they have a very strong history, we are working very hard to bring the Café Royal at the same level or higher.
You stock several absinthes, do you have a personal favourite?
Is there a marked difference between the absinthe made in France and those newer brands coming from the UK and America?
I believe there is, French Absinthe producers market their product as a traditional drink using the traditional serve ritual, many other new brands still use the traditional serve ritual but they market their Absinthe to attract a younger crowd, in many bars the Absinthe is becoming not only a great drink to have on his own but also a great ingredient to be mixed with cocktails.
As far as methods go, Jade fascinates me, in that they make reverse engineered from antique bottles – what do you make of this particular absinthe? Does it rival its traditional counterparts?
The Jade selection is great, I had the pleasure of meeting Ted Breaux last year, he was in London and he came to the bar to train most of our staff on the Jade selection. Of course one of my first question to him was about the reverse engineered process, he told me about the very first bottle of ancient absinthe he was able to get, the absinthe was so old that the green colour had changed to brown and the nose was completely different from what you would expect, however from then he was able to analyse the liquid on a molecular level and find with incredible precision every ingredient in the liquid. In my opinion Jade is one the best Absinthe producers on the market, Ted is incredibly passionate about absinthe and I believe his work is helping people realise that Absinthe isn’t a drink from the past but a drink for the present.
Do you think part of the charm of absinthe is the ritual involved?
Yes, I believe so, the Absinthe ritual is a very particular experience and the setting is luxurious and is designed to resemble the ancient ways.
Do you feel like absinthe has moved on past its stigma? Do you feel like it has an increasing place in London’s bar scene?
I definitely think the Absinthe is growing on London’s market in the last years and in my opinion it’s a must have on every cocktails menu in London.
There you have it readers, if that doesn’t have your interest in absinthe piqued, pick up Issue Two of The Holborn for the definitive guide, where we’ll speak further to Antonio and to Oscar Dodd of La Fée Absinthe.
To make a reservation at the Green Bar call +44 (0)20 7406 3307 or email firstname.lastname@example.org