Nick Strangeway is not only one of the most celebrated bartenders in the world, but also one of the most thoughtful and pragmatic. Halfway through our conversation, as he discusses the pre-made punches and batch cocktails he’s been testing for his latest collaboration with restaurateur Mark Hix, Strangeway says, “There’s nothing more frustrating than going into a bar and having to wait for a drink.” Amen, brother.
Strangeway is a cocktailing legend, known for his eclectic beard styles, deep, dark eyes and an uncanny ability to mix a drink that will, without question, knock your socks off. He set the current tone in London when developing the extensive cocktail menu for the East End steakhouse the Hawksmoor, and in recent years has teamed up with brands and most notably, with Hix; their Mark’s Bar underneath the Soho Hix restaurant is one of the sexiest spots in town, and the new Mark’s Bar inside the Belgraves Hotel has an outdoor space that will help make it a retreat for the globetrotting elite.
I tried to meet up with Strangeway in London, but he was on a plane to New York. When I returned to New York, he was back in London, headed to Copenhagen. He’s tough to pin down, but we got ’em on the phone, and he spilled on what’s right and wrong with today’s cocktailing scene.
What can you tell us about Mark’s Bar in Soho?
Bars are about much more than the drinks. The drinks have to be good, but the place feels very comfortable, and if you discover it you tell a couple of friends. But not too many friends, because it’s quite restricted.
You’re not involved with Hawksmoor anymore, but it’s also quite a scene.
Hawksmoor’s name came from me and the idea of doing steak came from me. Before I came in it was Route 61 and they were going to be burgers and beer. And I happened to go to the farm, the meat supplier was a friend of mine, and I said I’m gonna do cocktails, nice wine and very good steak.
We loved the new underground bar at the original Shoreditch location.
I haven’t made it there yet. They run very good bars. It’s a combination of things. They have good bars, good drinks and good staff working there. You get those three things working right and as long as the décor isn’t highly inappropriate, then you’re halfway to getting a good bar.
Through your career, you’ve been tied to molecular and traditional bartending—and everything in between. How do you describe your philosophy?
I think it’s changing all the time and I think that’s a good thing. I go through phases, like one particular style of things. I’ve got bartender fatigue. I’m actually fatigued by bartenders. Slightly. I think there’s a tendency now for bartenders to make drinks for bartenders. I’m hoping that’s a phase. It’s a sign of a growing confidence in bartenders, but not enough confidence to be simple again. And give customers what they want.
Here’s a tough one. Which is a better cocktail scene: London or New York?
I think there pockets of great cocktails in any city you go to now. London and New York are the trendsetters. They tend to be the leading cocktail cities in the world and they edge ahead of each other slightly. I think London’s very good at the moment but New York is phenomenal. There are some great bars in New York. And great bartenders. One of the things London has is, because we can have any European come and work here, you get a slightly more mixed culture behind the bar.
What’s the next great undiscovered spirit?
I think mezcal is a very interesting category of drink. There are so many styles to it. If you drink blanco mescal, or a very good blanco tequila, there is a taste of terroir there which because of the distillation methods, you get a slightly accurate reflection. They’re very interesting to mix because each one is very different. In New York there are mezcal bars and bartenders have become slightly obsessed by it.
How do you feel about vodka?
I don’t have a problem with vodka. I know for a long time I led that wave of not serving vodka, but that’s because it became so ubiquitous. There might be a bit of a bartender backlash but vodka’s quite good. Aside from spirits trends, I want bars to be fun again. I think a little bit of the fun is gone. I’d like to see less speakeasies, and I’d like to see less bartenders being too serious—and to have more conviviality about it.