Spies have been at work in St Ermin’s Hotel in London for almost a century. During the 1930s, it was used by officers of the Secret Intelligent Service (SIS) – better known as MI6 – and, in the run-up to World War Two, it became the headquarters of SIS’s Section D and then the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The hotel’s Caxton Bar was used regularly by agents of SIS, MI5 and Naval Intelligence for meetings, including spy Guy Burgess for handing over top-secret files to his Soviet counterparts. The current operators have resisted the urge to create spy-themed cocktails – there’s no James Bond Martini or Mata Hari Mule – but a range of new and classic drinks that focus on interesting flavours and ingredients.
The Caxton Bar was refurbished last October as part of a longer-term multimillion-pound redevelopment of the hotel that is due for completion this month. The new look is the work of Dayna Lee of Los Angeles-based Powerstrip Studio who worked on the whole hotel for owners Amerimar Enterprises. The bar retains a classic look, partly because of the Grade II listing that prevented structural changes, with furnishings in reds and browns and textured Vivienne Westwood wallpaper. There are leather chairs and open fires, creating a relaxed and intimate setting for today’s travellers, drinkers and double agents.
The bar – lined with stools and with a zinc and marble counter – is kept by a team of friendly bartenders including Mark Standfield, previously of TGI Friday’s, and Patrick Vismak. With prices from £9 to £12, the cocktail menu is constantly changing but, during my visit, I enjoyed the SW1 – named after the hotel’s postal code – which is made with Peruvian pisco Payet, Joseph Cartron crème de cacao, lime and black pepper, combining a touch of sweetness with a hint of spice.
Seasonality means new cocktails are being added all the time, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients. For winter, the Caxton Bar served up the sparkling Fuyu, meaning “winter” in Japanese, made with sake, Flor de Caña seven-year-old rum, lychee, pomegranate and wild flowers, topped up with prosecco. Another seasonal favourite was the Redemption, made with a Sardinian limoncello, Mexican vanilla liqueur Xanath, South Asian black pepper and British apple juice, garnished with two apple slices.
Signature cocktails include the St Ermin’s, described as combining classic and modern in a recipe with feminine notes, mixing Playmouth Sloe Gin, Absolut Citron vodka, Joseph Cartron parfait amour and cranberry juice. A bestseller is the Bowler Hat – part of the British section of a list inspired by different regions of the world from the Americas to Asia and Africa. Inspired by classic recipes, The Bowler Hat mixes Sipsmith Gin with fresh lemon juice and honey sourced from the hotel’s rooftop. About 75,000 Buckfast bees live on the roof, foraging across central London’s parks and gardens, making honey that is also due to be made into the hotel’s own honey chocolates.
The range of beers has a local flavour, including Greenwich brewery Meantime’s London Pale Ale and London Lager on draught alongside its limited-edition bottles such as the raspberry wheat beer and chocolate porter. The bar menu includes tapas-style small dishes and sharing platters, benefiting from being cooked up in the kitchen that also serves the next-door Caxton Grill.
The extensive range of spirits is particularly strong on whiskies, with the option of six different whisky flights. An example is the “Shortbread” flight, a collection of buttery, smooth, sweeter whiskies: Oban 14-year-old single malt from the Highlands, Glenkinchie 12-year-old from the Lowlands and Highland Park 18-year-old from the islands – all costing £14. As well as an international whiskey flight, there is a Japanese selection made up of Suntory whiskies: Yamazaki 12-year-old, Hibiki 17-year-old and Yamazaki 18-year-old, priced at £26.
The hotel is mainly attracting guests and their friends, but it is aiming to become more of a destination bar after the refurbishment. It is close enough to Westminster to attract politicians, with a division bell to hurry MPs back to vote in Parliament. However, the owners have not confirmed if there is the rumoured secret tunnel underneath the grand staircase in the lobby running all the way to the House of Commons. And, among the tourists and other drinkers, maybe the spies of today are continuing to plot over Martinis and Manhattans.
Caxton Bar, St Ermin’s Hotel, 2 Caxton Street, London SW1H 0QW. Tel: 0800 652 1498 www.caxtongrill.co.uk