Scarred by a misjudged attempt at home mixology, the Journal heads to Purl, one of Marylebone’s most acclaimed cocktail bars, to learn the art of creating the perfect drink

Words: Clare Finney
Images: Orlando Gili

I was 14 when I made my first cocktail. Left to our own devices one Christmas, my cousin and I uncovered a dusty selection of liqueur bottles at the back of our grandfather’s cellar, complete with a tarnished silver shaker, a rusting strainer and a long-handled spoon. We set to work enthusiastically, indiscriminately mixing some crusty old advocaat with Archers peach schnapps, brandy, Cointreau and tonic water that had lost its fizz circa 1956. Two hours later we emerged, giggling, with all the poise of newborn giraffes and all the makings of a crippling hangover. Two and a half hours later, we were violently sick.

I’ve not made a cocktail since. When I’m out, I’ll indulge in the odd negroni, but that Christmas still haunts me. So, it was with mixed feelings that I embarked on a cocktail masterclass at Marylebone’s speakeasy, Purl. I’d been here before, of course: their house negronis are second to none, blending three different vermouths with three different bitters, which are cooked together on a slow heat before being bottled. But my illicit teenage dabbling was still the closest I’d got to understanding the dark arts of mixology.

Like my grandfather’s cellar, Purl is underground—a drink-and-you’d-miss-it sort of place on Blandford Street, next to a sandwich shop—but otherwise, it’s another world. Once ensconced, we pull up a bar stool: me, Alice and Ricky, who has bought Alice the masterclass as part of her birthday present. “People come to the class for different reasons,” Francesco, our host, begins. “I think in the last four or five years people have become far more interested in this industry.” Some just come for a good time; others to learn more about a craft that 20 or 30 years ago was confined to gaudy hotels and exclusive bars, but has since become fundamental to London’s culture.


A serious bar
Purl is a serious cocktail bar. “The people who opened this place—Bryan Pietersen, Tristan Stephenson and Matt Whiley—are for me legends of the cocktail world,” says Francesco “They have a great reputation.” Though drinks are expertly made with the finest spirits you’ve never heard of, the spirit in which they are served is one of wry irreverence, with Big Ben moneyboxes, ceramic toadstools and jerry cans used as vessels in place of glasses for all but the most classic cocktails. “Everywhere is serving cocktails these days, so if you are going to be a proper bar it’s good to have an identity. Purl is inspired by 1920s speakeasies, and people would not have been drinking out of glasses during prohibition. Alcohol was illegal, so they would have disguised it.”

Francesco is here to teach us. “Teach is a big word,” he says, “because this is the sort of world in which you are always learning. The aim here is really to introduce to it different ingredients, and different techniques of building a drink.” But he is clearly determined to have fun along the way. “So! Here I am talking, and you guys are drinking nothing!” he exclaims. “We’ll have three drinks in total this afternoon: one I’ll make, one you’ll make, and one you can choose from the menu.”

To my relief, the starter is none other than my old familiar. “The negroni is an evolution,” says Francesco: a collision between Italy’s aperitivo tradition and the cocktail culture that sprang up in America in the late 19th century. “Vermouth is a very complex product: 75 per cent moscato wine, infused with some spice and some sugar. Technically, it’s already a cocktail, if you consider a cocktail as three or more ingredients. We were drinking it neat in Italy.” Indeed, one of the reasons cocktails took so long to catch on there was because vermouth is in itself a complex enough drink for an aperitif.

Still, what happens in America rarely stays in America, and it wasn’t long before Italians sought to “catch the American flavour,” smiles Francesco. Gaspare Campari, a pioneering bar owner in Milan, was purportedly the first person to mix his own eponymous bitters with vermouth di Torino, or sweet vermouth, to make negroni’s forerunner, the milano-torino. “Soda water was American. We didn’t have carbonisation in Italy—so when Gaspare came to add soda water to his recipe, he renamed it americano.” he continues. Sixty-odd years later, it was Count Camillo Negroni who legend has it asked his local bartender to replace the soda water with gin, creating the negroni.

The importance of ice
“This a strong drink,” says Francesco, swirling the jewel-coloured liquors around a jug with a long spoon and thereby demonstrating one of the simpler mixology techniques: stirring. It’s not just about the wrist action: with a drink this strong, the quality and shape of the ice assume far greater importance. “The dilution of water and the chilling of the drink is so important to its taste.” Really? we ask in unison. “Really. I’ll show you,” Francesco smiles, seizing a hammer, and spinning round to a large trough filled with what we now realise is a solid block of ice, crystal-clear and glinting in the candlelight. “If the ice is too small or has holes in, it will break up when we shake and make the drink watery.”

He attacks this in-house iceberg with gusto: hammering, chipping and carving until finally turning triumphantly back toward us, a large, smooth piece of icy shrapnel in his hand. This he stirs with the triumvirate of Campari, Plymouth gin and sweet vermouth, allowing the flavours to muddle and unfold.

A sliver of orange peel, stroked around the outside of the glass (“so when you have finished, you still have the scent on your hands—my special touch”) then plopped inside the drink finishes it off. Alice is delighted. “Oh, that is good. That is very, very good,” she whistles. We could sit here for the rest of the afternoon sipping negronis and listening to Francesco—but as every good teacher knows, the best way to learn is not just to drink, but to do.

He fetches aprons: hardwearing, pocketed and cool in a way only subterranean speakeasy bar aprons could be cool. Pulling mine on I feel strangely empowered, like a mad scientist in pursuit of the elixir of eternal youth. Mercifully, for Francesco and my fellow classmates, the only elixir I’ll be conjuring up today is a tequila sour cocktail: a potent mix, but not one that promises to prolong life to any great degree. Handing me the shaker—a two-piece Boston shaker, as opposed to the sealed three-piece shaker which “we can’t use because we need to introduce air to egg-based drinks”—Francesco runs us through the ingredients: lime juice, sugar syrup, tequila, falernum, cherry liqueur and Miraculous Foamer, an egg white substitute. “It’s vegan-friendly and less rich than egg white, but it still produces creamy foam.”


A reflection of personality
“Sour based cocktails are great drinks to play with,” he continues, as I measure 35ml of quality tequila into the shaker. “Seventy-five per cent of the drink is sorted—egg white, lemon or lime and sugar—so you just choose the spirit, and the liqueur.” The maraschino cherry liqueur takes me by surprise, being a) clear and b) genuinely palatable—a far cry from the glacé cherry puree I’d envisaged. I add some of that, followed by the mysterious falernum: Purl’s own infusion of rum, lime, sugar, peel, herbs and spices, which, Alice points out, you could “happily drink a whole glass of”. “Everyone’s falernum is slightly different, reflecting the personality of the bartender,” says Francesco. Anyone can follow a recipe, he continues, “but this kind of job is about more than how you make a drink”.

“I’ve kind of been in this industry since I was 11,” he explains—throwing a forgiving light on my own initiation in the cellar all those years ago. “I worked in my family’s bar, in the kitchen and stockroom.” Growing up in the Italian countryside led to endless experimenting with the fruits, roots and herbs that grew around his home. He made his own ice, suspecting even then that ice made with purified water would serve the drink better than cubes made from tap water. “It’s easy enough to make in a freezer box,” he says, bashing some more of the iceberg for me, “but it will take you a while to boil the water, cool it down, and freeze it all the way through.”

While this is a length to which I cannot possibly imagine myself going to at home, it offers a hint of the relentless perfectionism that underpins Purl. Francesco and the team are just coming to the end of compiling their new menu: a process that takes them two months, twice every year. They buy new vessels, stew new bitters and infusions, and dream up innovative approaches to serving drinks. While we’re here, someone is served a cocktail with a balloon above it. Dry ice, lightbulbs and candleholders also feature. Though the team here all love and admire the classics, they are driven by “a competition with yourself to keep on coming up with new ideas”.

The full OutKast treatment
Meanwhile, I’m sticking resolutely to the recipe. Adding the requisite lime juice, sugar syrup and egg white substitute to the liqueur and tequila, I stir the mix together and taste it “to quality check,” grins Francesco. “When making drinks, balance is so important between acidity, bitterness and sweet.” It tastes… strong, I cough, through a teaspoon of sour tequila. “Yes, don’t worry,” he assures me. “It will dilute a bit with the ice as we shake.” Closing the shaker, I go to give it the full OutKast Hey Ya! treatment—but he pulls me up short. “Two hands! You don’t want the top flying off.” This is a serious work out, I think, my arms aching and brow sweating after a meagre 10 seconds. Bartenders are usually on the slim side, and it’s easy to see why if they’re doing this for six hours every day.

At long last, we’re done. Straining the ice away, I give it one last ‘dry’ shake before pouring the foaming velvet into the glass. “Hold it high to keep the foam,” Francesco instructs. “Tap it to get the last of it out.” The creamy liquid crests the top of the glass but, remarkably, stops just short of spilling out. A swirl of lemon zest, wiped around the glass and squeezed once over the surface is then placed on top to complete the picture: it looks like a real, sour-based drink. No one taste is dominant—this must be the elusive balance Francesco spoke of—but melds together in one smooth, sour wave of tongue-tingling, hair-raising, cockle-warming nectar. I’m inspired. I’m pleasantly merry. And when, another Francesco-made cocktail later, I resurface, I feel I can finally put that teenage subterranean ‘mixology’ experience well and truly to bed. There is, I now understand, far more to mixing drinks than just mixing drinks.

Purl London