Fortnum & Mason's 3'6 has relaunched, promising guests they can create their own cocktails. Hamish Smith takes the golden lifts to the department store's third floor to check it out.
I arrived at Fortnum & Mason early to get into character. Nosing around the teas, marmalades and shortbreads as if it were my usual Thursday afternoon, came the realisation that I am not a method actor, nor did I entirely know what I was doing.
I aborted: time to squeeze into the tiny golden lifts and ascend to the third floor. Let’s see what the all-new bar 3’6 has to offer.
It feels like luxury department store bars are having a bit of a moment, dusting off old spaces with great stories (3 and 6 refers to shillings and pence – the price of an at-home Fortnum cocktail party) and giving them a new, still bougie, direction. For sure, these are daytime attractions. And 3’6 owns it, closing at 8pm, 7pm on Mondays and Tuesdays. Gotta keep it classy at Fortnum I suppose. No one wants the 1am crowd staggering through the white light of the perfume floor.
But with luxury retail bars being something of an emerging (also, pre-existing) trend, one wonders where it’s all headed. Can department stores be drinking destinations in the way we think of five-star hotels? Fortnum certainly gives people as many reasons as possible to visit. It’s a workspace, an all-day bar with cutting-edge cocktails and it’s also an exhibition of rotating artists. 3’6 conceptually multi-tasks.
The scene is a pleasant one, with soft seating and primary colours, dark blue walls supporting Alan Schaller black and white photographs, and a flourish of gold design that connects the 3’6 bar to ceiling. The decor says cheery.
On the menu, lurking between the dozen signatures and classics, is something neither I nor my long-time review partner Brenda, have set eyes on before. Made to Measure invites customers to “create their own cocktail”. Oh my. Haunting memories of the Mongolian Barbecue flash through my mind.
But no, not quite. You choose a spirit (vodka, gin, rum, tequila), a style of drink (Negroni, Martinez, Daisy or Collins), then pick two flavours from eight bottled essences and they make the cocktail. If my maths is right, there are 256 combinations and it’s not a stretch to say that some of them may not be good. In a sense, if they were – if drinksmaking does have as much skill to it as a tombola – we have a bigger problem.
It is a lot of fun though. On Brenda’s card, she ticks gin, orange extract, sweet woodruff and daisy. What emerged was a gin sour, slightly predictably. Very nice, balanced, but not exactly a tester. I went for rum, rhubarb and charred hickory, in the style of a Martinez. I got a white rum Martini. I think the bartenders may have staged an intervention.
Brenda threw another coconunt – this time tequila, with strawberry and rose pouchong tea, in the style of a Collins. A lemony long drink with a salt rim landed – Paloma vibes, balanced, refreshing. Aware that the law of averages dictates our luck will run out, I landed a signature, the Meadow Lady (pictured / Somerset Apple Eau de Vie, meadowsweet liqueur, lemon, foamer). It arrived as an elegant little number in a Nick & Nora, with one of those silly cocktail toppers, which look all pretty until you’re fishing it out of your mouth. It was a dainty little drink, with a donkey kick of apple brandy – just my thing. The drinks here, against the (self-imposed) odds, have all passed muster.
But what’s the vibe? The atmosphere at 3’6 is provided by small groups of day-tripping greytops and a smattering of suits having lunchtime sniffers. It’s lively enough for luncthime, in that it’s not dead, but you can be sure there’s little chance of escalation. The service zigzags from very good to not (15 minutes for the first drink, water glasses mainly empty), and all this added up makes me wonder if this is a destination or more of a watering hole after a hard day’s spending.
When there are world-famous bars within walking distance, 3’6 doesn’t make a compelling case. But, if I were in the building, picking through the pricey biscuits, the lifts may well come a calling.
ON THE SCORE BOARD
» Address 181 Piccadilly, St. James's, London W1A 1ER