Hamish Smith stops by London's biggest launch this winter.
I once went to a cool talk. That is to say, a talk about the subject of cool. According to the lecturer, cool is a relatively new idea, invented by the Baby Boomers. Their parents had no notion of it – but yours (likely) did, and now they’re (probably) not. Cool captures the zeitgeist of its time – and OMG it moves quickly. So, when I asked around what Dram was like and the reply – almost universally – came back as “cool”, I could picture it instantly: serious whisky, unserious attitude. Crafted cocktails, loads of concrete. It’s just where cool is right now.
Brought to Denmark Street in Soho by Martyn ‘Simo’ Simpson, Jack Wallis and Chris Tanner, whose previous venues include Milroy’s and Silverleaf, Dram takes the established idea of a whisky bar and puts a match to it. You smell the fumes the moment you enter.
The whiskies here line the walls, locked up behind bars as if in an open-air prison. And they’re practically begging to be let out. But it’s barely 5pm and, well, whisky before dinner makes fools of wise men. Besides, on the menu of this ground floor shop-bar – which is shared between all five areas of this multiplex venue - are three cocktails on tap. And curiously for a whisky bar, they don’t have whisky in them. One is vodka, lacto-fermented passion fruit cordial and passion fruit wine (all tap cocktails £12), a sort of Porn Star made respectable, but still a naughty little number. The other with mezcal and coconut water – the venom and the antidote in one glass – was another glugger with real clarity of flavour. I can’t remember better cocktails that came out of a tap.
Next comes one with mastiha distillate and aloe vera and I’m not very keen, but I’m quickly corrected: “If you’re not a fan of mastiha or aloe vera, don’t order a fucking drink called Mastiha & Aloe.” Those are the words of my review spouse Brenda, who, ever impatient, is holding a Guinness and on the half-turn, eyeing the courtyard terrace and pool room. Free pool in a bar you actually want to be in! It’s so nearly the best thing ever, if the walls were a little further apart and the cocktail vending machine had cans in it. Regardless: rack, break, pot, rerack, break, pot, done. Next up, actually down, is the cocktail bar.
In the basement is what feels like a nuclear bunker designed by a Scandinavian hipster. There’s a spartan back bar, framed by sharp angles and hard lines. Not least for the two decaying plants in an alcove next to us, which look like (a vegan’s) canaries down the mine after a radioactive breach. But everyone is alive and indeed kicking elsewhere in this buzzy, if austere, bunker bar, the shrieks of laughter pinballing off the bare concrete walls.
I lean into conversation with Brenda, who doesn’t seem as bothered by the acoustics. She’s digging it all – the juxtaposition of the Brutalist design and these natural, ingredient-led cocktails, the smiling, engaged service style, the atmosphere with that optimistic, early evening chatter. And if I could hear her better, I’d agree with it all. I’m not saying carpet the walls, but a little subtly-secreted sound absorption would help to soften the clatter.
As I survey the space, I can see that not everyone is as aurally delicate. The bar has a real vibe for this hour of the evening and as I watch the bartenders and floor staff , they seem perfectly adapted to their environment. If service is on a spectrum from shitty to obsequious, they have found just the right level in between. Happy you’re here but they’re not trying to shag you.
What lands are small plates (get the anchovies – that’s an order) and three cocktails from a reassuringly short, five-drink list. The Plum & Whey (pictured / all cocktails £13) with Kentish plums, High Weald whey, El Dorado 3 and aquavit is fruity in a good way and sates my appetite for something rich and rounded. The Koji & Birch (shio koji, coconut, bitters, birch caramel, Brugal 1888) bangs, tasting a little of a Manhattan, without sharing its elements. Last up is the Beetroot & Raspberry Wine with Michter’s Rye, cacao butter distillate, almond – great touch for a big glass of flavours. They all hit the target – every ball’s a coconut down here.
It’s only when we leave, pass the twinkling scotch bottles – with a serving suggestion of Dave Boom stood at the bar – we realise we’ve not had a dram at Dram. And also, that we didn’t necessarily need one – and that is probably the point. A whisky bar needn’t be a whisky theme park. The experience is pretty cool as it is.
ON THE SCORE BOARD
» 7 Denmark St, London WC2H 8LZ