The Gentleman Drinker reviews Purl, a London-based wet dream for cocktail lovers, mixologists and mad scientists.
50 Blandford Street, London W1U 7HX
I had just had my Alpine horn polished on Chiltern Street (smirk all you like, reader; a man’s horn is as fresh as a spring morning after a good polish) when I first heard of Purl. A man of my renown often receives recommendations of places to visit, and I welcome them. So I was hardly surprised when the young miss at the woodwind instrument emporium beckoned me closer with her linseed-oil-soaked finger (circular strokes on the bowl and smooth strokes on the neck, by the way). ‘You’ll be in these parts for the place down the road, won’t you sir?’ she asked in an unnecessarily Dickensian squawk.
‘What place is that?’ I asked, in that way that I do when I ask where things are.
‘Purl, sir. The fancy-pants cocktail place on the corner, sir. Seems right up your alley, sir. Smelling of gin such as you do, sir.’
‘I’ll have you know this is for my lungs, you impertinent horn-polisher,’ says I.
‘Right you are, sir.’ She tittered – not sniggered, actually tittered – and went off to do whatever she does when she’s not polishing gentlemen’s Alpine horns. The waiting taxi driver conveyed my horn back to my rooms, while I went in search of this Purl. It sits quite underneath the corner of Blandford Street and Chiltern Street, a five or ten minute walk from Baker Street underground depending on your pace, at the bottom of steps guarded by imitation Victorian iron railings (all melted down during the war, of course). The modest signage on the railing (in the style of a discreet restaurant menu, not a shop fronting) promised innovative restorations of cocktails of bygone days, and stylish environs to enjoy them in.
After descending the stone steps and opening the door (basic stuff for entering bars these days), I found myself in a sort of speakeasy, with a charming ticket booth nicked from an old cinema at the entrance. ‘Reservation, sir?’ asked the lady in said booth, with all the authority of someone used to asking for one’s reservation status. Naturally, I had no such thing (rarely do – find it gets in the way of happy accidents), however one can’t allow such an inconvenience to get in the way of a good drink. One must gather one’s wits, steady one’s nerve, and delicately find a way of bypassing the question. ‘No,’ I replied firmly, striding immediately to the largest armchair in the place and seating myself as directly as possible. As I say, a light touch is required in these circumstances.
No sooner had I removed my accoutrements (just because you aren’t driving doesn’t mean you can’t wear driving gloves) than I was presented with a menu (see attached telefoto image), and, I cannot state this clearly enough, cucumber and mint sandwiches. Now, I have been thrown out of some of the finest clubs in Westminster, but never before have I cleansed my palate (for that was their purpose) with such perfect bites of the Earl’s very own finger snacks. It is little touches like this that make London-price-tag cocktails worth every penny. My seat gave me a good view of the bar, which was in the gin palace style, and was adorned with a hinged globe containing spirit bottles (another magnificent touch). A giant block of ice (no bags or troughs here) squats upon the back bar and surveys a cavernous place that weaves around corners, under arches and behind pianos.
There’s a lot more than just cosy chairs and free sandwiches at Purl, however. The impressive cocktail list offers all sorts of micro-gastronomic razzmatazz, from Mr Hyde’s No. 2 (a sweet and woody rum concoction served in a wax sealed bottle in a canister of dry ice) to the Cerez Joker (featuring an exploding balloon of lemon fragrance). If prefer your drink without theatre, there’s plenty of straightforward and downright delicious alternatives, like the deceptively named Femme Fatale, which confounded a table of ladies nearby. It’s the kind of name that would suggest a delicately flavoured drink (suggested by the use of lillet blanc and Kammerling’s, a sort of lemony-ginseng-gin). Anyone who knows their whisky, however, would immediately spot the mention of Lagavulin and be better prepared for the peaty, smoky taste. My advice to those who are curious but unsure what to choose is to ask the excellently informed and highly attentive staff, who will more than happily cater to your requirements. Regardless of your choice, there is no escaping the impressive skill at play here by the resident mixologists, who can be seen darting between the bar and ‘the laboratory’.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a price, but it is not at all unreasonable. Most cocktails are between £8.50 and £12, which is the going rate in the Smoke anyway. For the same money as what you would pay in a hotel bar or city centre pub, at Purl you will drink nought but the finest, and more importantly, the most interesting cocktails in London town. The actual spirits selection is naturally spectacular, and there are a few token wines and several well-chosen beers on the menu too (Anchor Steam, Doom Bar, Hoxton Stout…). One can even partake of a can of Red Stripe served in a paper bag. I took two for the journey home.
The next time you find yourself requiring a venue for a gathering of well-informed libation connoisseurs, or just a group of curious minds with good taste, you could do little better than this special corner of London.