Six experiential cocktail bars to try in London
For some punters, a bar that merely serves well-made drinks just isn’t enough – fortunately for them, there’s a growing number of experiential venues offering a lot more, from arcade games to clay pigeon shooting, or the chance to pretend they’re in prison, or a character in Breaking Bad. For some of these, the drinks offering remains a priority, often involving guests in their creation. Below is a selection of some of the UK’s experiential bars with a focus on cocktails.
Clays: Clay pigeon shooting bar
Virtual clay shooting bar Clays has two London locations, in Canary Wharf and The City, offering guests the chance to teach some virtual clay pigeons a lesson while enjoying sharing plates and a selection of drinks. Groups of between 6 and 22 get 90 minutes to blast away in a virtual shooting range, complete with massive 4K screens.
All of this gun-toting clay decimation hasn’t distracted Clay’s owners from retaining a focus not only on its food and drink offering, but on its staff too. The bar recently launched a training programme that’s open to its entire workforce, aimed not only at developing expertise, but also training leaders. The programme includes WSET and personal licence qualifications, among others, which can lead to a LASER hospitality diploma.
There’s also a quarterly, internal cocktail comp, each one partnered with a different drinks brand. Winning cocktails are featured on the bar’s menu, and there are incentives such as trips too. The most recent winner, Fran Popov, took top prize with Lilo, a cocktail made with Hendrick’s gin, rose liqueur, lemon juice and clarified carrot and parsnip syrup.
It joins Clays’ extensive cocktail list which includes drinks such as the Ruby, a combination of vodka, raspberry purée, rose liqueur, vanilla syrup, plum bitters and Fever Tree orange blossom and raspberry soda, and there are a few classics on offer too.
NQ64: Arcade games and classic consoles
London, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle
For a game-fuelled night in an intense, neon-lit setting, there’s arguably no better option than NQ64, now with nine locations across the UK. Each of these sites offers a vast variety of games to choose from, including retro arcade machines and classic consoles.
Drinks, fortunately, aren’t forgotten, and the team hasn’t missed the opportunity for some game-related puns – think Sweet Fighter or Final Fantarita, the latter made with El Jimador Tequila, sour cherry and Fanta. There’s a decent range of craft beer, and the team will create classics on request too.
As NQ64’s website puts it: “We take as much pride in our drinks selection as we do in our games. Enjoy the perfect combo of sipping on game-themed cocktails or craft beers, whilst button bashing to victory against your mates.”
Image source: @NQ64mcr
Alcotraz: Speakeasy prison experience
London, Brighton, Liverpool, Manchester
More than just a pun bar name, Alcotraz puts punters into orange jumpsuits and behind bars, offering a theatrical experience complete with prison guards. The 1 hour 45 minute experience provides enough time for four rounds of drinks, and there’s the option to hire out the entire prison for up to 40 people.
When it comes to the drinks, the twist is that inmates need to bring their own bottles of spirits, which they’re instructed by a bootlegging gang to smuggle into their cells. There, staff use these spirits to create bespoke drinks. If the entire prison is hired, the team can arrange to stash some booze in the cells in advance. Alcotraz cocktails are also available to purchase online for recreating the experience at home. This collection mainly centres on classics like Negronis, Old Fashioneds and Cosmopolitans.
The team behind Alcotraz also offers Wild West-themed Moonshine Saloon, offering you another setting in which to become an outlaw, and Avora, a theatrical sci-fi experience.
Image source: @AlcotrazShoreditch
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ABQ: Immersive molecular cocktails
They might not use the words “Breaking Bad” in their promotional material, but there’s little doubt about the inspiration for this “immersive molecular cocktail bar”. It’s set in an RV, and the outfits are reminiscent of the show too, but this time you’re making drinks, not meth. During the experience, guests create three drinks for themselves, including the Pinkman and The Heisenberg, complete with dry ice and other “molecular” stuff.
ABQ is now located within Hackney Funhouse, which also contains Saint Pizzeria and Espresso Martini bar Dear Sunny. The latest from the team behind ABQ is The Bletchley, a secret WWII bunker at Chelsea Funhouse. Here guests can enjoy that time-old pairing of cocktails and code breaking, with WW2 Enigma Machines playing a part in the creation of drinks recipes. Or there’s a regular cocktail list too.
Image source: @abqlondon
Archers: Music and theatre experience
Among the more upmarket of experiential venues is Archers, with three London sites, in Soho, Notting Hill and SW11. On the surface, these are little more than classy drinking establishments, offering a few distinct spaces, bottomless brunches… the usual. They’re what the website describes as having “an overall feel of a member’s bar without the membership”.
But at any point, staff members may burst into song – fortunately, they’re all trained professional performers, some fresh from West End shows.
There are a number of cocktail bars and themed bars across the three venues, including one at the SW11 site that is a Piste Bar in the winter, and a Beach Club in the summer. Archer Street Soho is the first exclusive Billecart-Salmon Champagne bar in London. The cocktail list features a dedicated Spritz section, and music-themed signature cocktails such as the Jean Valjean, with Grey Goose Vodka, St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, cognac and grapefruit.
Image source: @ArcherStreetSoho
Ballie Ballerson: Nostalgic ball pit experience
Admittedly, most attendees to Ballie Ballerson probably aren’t there for the drinks so much as the giant ball pits and bottomless nostalgia. But the cocktails are, at least, in keeping with the theme. There’s one served in the style of Capri-Sun, another with a pack of Dip Dab pegged to it, and there’s a Flavour Blaster involved in at least one of the drinks. For the indecisive, there are flights, or Cocktail Trips, to choose from.
The experiential venue started out as a pop-up in 2016 and has since expanded into two permanent venues.
Image source: @BallieBallersonShoreditch
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