Alexander House in Surrey dates back to Jacobean times with some harmonious Victorian additions, but its bar is decidedly modern with five padded lime green bar stools pulled up to a shiny wooden counter. Here I sat to talk to the barman, Milan Hegedus from Hungary.
Milan admits to not being a martini drinker himself but he made me a fine variation on the standard dry martini. It used Tanqueray 10 with, once again, a drop of Lillet plus a splash of smooth single malt Scotch whisky. Of course it was stirred not shaken, and poured straight into a chilled martini glass. Milan likes to garnish with either a lemon or orange twist. His one variant is to use Little Bird, a new gin produced in South London that features grapefruit, sweet orange peel and Ivory Coast ginger amongst its ten botanicals.
The addition of whisky was a pleasant surprise. It gave a warming quality to this martini, making it very welcome on a winter's evening.
At Kesgrave Hall in Suffolk Joshua Vartan, Assistant Restaurant Manager, considers Sipsmith, the renowned Chiswick gin, the best for his martinis. He also rates Sipsmith's vodka , if you prefer your martini made with East European petrol.
“Sipsmith gin has subtle flavours,” he announced one dark evening recently. “Gentle orange marmalade, lemon tart and even hints of liquorice. This leaves a refreshing but mouth-watering, more-ish sensation”.
Joshua always asks guests three simple martini questions: Gin or vodka? Shaken or stirred? Twist or olive?
I was surprised when he told me that most guests still go with the theatre of their martini being shaken rather than stirred. As far as I'm concerned this creates a gin slushy but the customer is always right. Seeing my surprise Joshua conceded, “But those who know their cocktails go for the stirred option to really appreciate the flavours”.
Joshua describes his bar (accurately) as “relaxed but buzzing”.He also likens it to “a saucepan and about to bubble over” which I'm not so sure about. I'm glad it was quieter than that the night that while I was there.
By the way, for those with a sweeter tooth I'd recommend Kesgrave's own invention, the Flirtini. It's a raspberry vodka cocktail with a sugar-rimmed glass, and Sipsmith vodka, of course
The bar at Hartwell House was originally a dining room in the Jacobean wing of this National Trust property, built in 1620. Its panelling and carved oak fireplace give a good idea of how warm and cozy the room must have felt in the seventeenth century. There are a series of paintings of Hartwell House circa 1720 on the walls. These are recent copies of Balthazar Nebo originals that were painted in Italy. Immediately beneath them a long bar displays the hotel's huge collection of spirits, including eight gins – Hendricks, Sipsmith, Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray, Plymouth, two Gordons and the Botanist, a Scots gin from Islay that infuses 22 botanicals.
The hotel's classic martini is usually made from Tanqueray and the drinks menu reminds us – quite rightly – that a dry martini should be stirred not shaken. Enough said.
If you're staying or dining at Hartwell House do check out the remarkable Jacobean staircase with its carved balusters. Many of the figures are historical or mythological, but in the twentieth century Winston Churchill and G.K. Chesterton were added. After a cocktail or two see how long it takes you to find them.
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