Adrian Mourby

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Cocktail bars, as opposed to pubs and private drinking clubs, used to be very much a big-city phenomenon in Britain, but the modern hotel has brought what was once a very exclusive drinking experience within reach of most of us.

It was London's Savoy that first made the hotel bar respectable. At the beginning of the twentieth century the new fashion for American bars made it worthwhile providing a location specifically for serving pre-prandial drinks. After a while the provision of a pianist and a few sandwiches turned the hotel bar into somewhere to spend an entire evening.

The modern hotel bar takes its inspiration from those American bars with narrow counters, mirrors, and bar stools where, if you're anything like me, you can spend an entire evening being entertained by the bravura techniques of the hotel mixologists.

Not all hotel bars have white-jacketed staff today and most also sell wine by the glass and beer from a pump, but they all have in common an intimacy, none of the wide open spaces or tribal seating areas of the British pub, and a sense of welcome - with just an echo of Cole Porter at the piano if you're lucky.

Here are some of my personal favourites from London to Cornwall, Somerset to Edinburgh. Perfect places to linger before dinner. Cheers.
The Egerton House Hotel

It shouldn't come as a surprise to find a dog or two in the bar of London's Egerton House Hotel. The hotel prides itself on being not just dog-friendly but welcoming to cats and rabbits as well, and even birds, as long as they're well-behaved. A canine afternoon tea is provided in the bar. It is a sight to behold with tiered doggy bowls replacing the usual cake stands of scones and sandwiches. For £18 there is chicken and beef meatloaf, homemade dog biscuits and a “doggylicious” ice cream.

But the hotel's small discreet bar is also home to some of the best cocktails in London thanks to head barman, Esley Gunaratne who learned a thing or two about martinis from the great Antonio Pizzuto, late of Dukes. Like his mentor, Esley keeps a select number of gins in the freezer so that they emerged perfectly chilled and ready for thrill. After the smallest splash of vermouth, Esley fills your glass slightly above the rim. Picking up one of these beauties takes a very steady hand so as not to break the surface tension before it reaches your lips.

Graceful and smiling, Esley experiments with drinks behind his small counter. One of his latest innovations is to offer a Sri Lankan gin called Colombo, which makes a martini with notes of cinnamon that might be perfect around Christmas time.

Tourists love staying at Egerton House. Situated within strolling distance of the V&A, it's a perfect hotel for London shopping or visiting museums. Like so many South Ken hotels, it was forged by putting together two red-brick town houses and it has a small, intimate quality that makes it a home from home in this vast, busy city. You just mustn't mind the odd lhasa apso wagging its tail as Esley mixes your drink.

The Feathers Hotel

The Gin Bar at the Feathers in rural Woodstock is one of the most remarkable hotel bars you'll come across in England. Behind a small counter, just long enough for four or five barflies to ensconce themselves, are stacked some of the 447 gins that the hotel offers. And in case you wonder if any hotel offers more, Dominique the manager has posted a certificate from the Guinness Book of Records to confirm that, yes this is gin nirvana.

The bar is manned by Octavian from Romania who knows his spirits (although he does complain that every time he goes away for a few days Dominique finds more gins for him to master). Octavian also has a wide range of tonics at his disposal and a tray of garnishes. Each G&T is constructed out of these three elements and served in a round bowl glass with lots of ice.

If you're not sure which gin you want to take to your comfy corner of this three-room bar, Octavian offers a gin-tasting experience for £35 pp where he will tempt you with sniffs from various bottles until he works out which gins you will like. Each is then prepared the way he thinks works best. This is a master craftsman at work. Octavian also sends handcrafted G&Ts up to bedrooms as room service, and if you wish he will pair each course of your dinner that night with a gin of his own choosing.

Upstairs the Feathers is a warren of corridors as a result of it being a composite of several ancient Cotswold stone buildings. Bedrooms are cozy with low beams, splashes of colour in amidst the calm neutral interiors, bright white bathrooms, shaggy throws and old furniture: ideal places to fall asleep after Octavian's G&T extravaganzas below.

Stanbrook Abbey Hotel

Even if it didn't have a great bar, even if it weren't a remarkable hotel, Stanbrook Abbey would be worth visiting. The order that built this abbey began in France. In 1793, during the revolution, all 22 nuns were ejected from their original house and imprisoned for 18 months. On release they fled to England and eventually, in 1838 took over Stanbrook Hall near Malvern. Their original abbey buildings were designed by a local Worcestershire architect, but the current church, the Holy Thorn Chapel, and the abbey cloisters were new-builds by the sons of Augustus Welby Pugin, that great pioneer of Gothic Revival architecture in Britain.

Suffice it to say that since the nuns of Stanbrook moved to North Yorkshire in 2009, their old abbey has become one of the most dramatic hotels in the West Midlands. It opened in 2015 with some interesting re-use of space. The old St Anne's Hall, once a library containing over half a million ecclesiastical texts, is now a function room and off it lies the Library Bar. Presided over by manager Shane McKenzie, the Library retains its old reading gallery with wooden steps running between the two levels. A sign reading “Nuns Only” encourages Shane's clients to stay below to enjoy the old leather sofas, ancient wooden floors and equally old piano. This is definitely a place for imbibing something sinful.

The Mount Somerset Hotel & Spa

This 19-room hotel is a real find for anyone driving on the M5 to or from Devon and Cornwall. Hidden so close to the M5 that its existence comes as a complete surprise, the Mount was built near the village of Ruishton as Henlade House between 1805-1815. The owners were Robert Proctor Anderdon and his nephew and heir John Proctor Anderdon. They employed an Italian architect (name unknown) to build them a new gentleman's residence with large bright windows and a remarkable octagonal lobby. At the time of its completion John Proctor Anderdon was commanding the City of London Militia at the battle of Waterloo. What a lovely house to come home to!

Today Henlade House is known as the Mount and it has been beautifully restored, if a bit overextended. The main building is Grade II listed but the dado frieze that loops up from the lobby over an elegant free-floating stone staircase is Grade I listed. Not many houses have a dado of such historic importance, but it seems this one was hand-stencilled in 1815 and has survived – remarkably – intact.

Leading off the octagonal lobby are various drawing rooms, including the hotel bar with its old fashioned corner unit between reception and the dining room. Here is a feeling of timeless comfort, especially on a winter's evening, with deep sofas and overmantel mirrors. The head barman is Peter Molnar who offers a wine list running to 200 vintages including wines from Lebanon, Argentina, Sicily, and from New Hall in Essex. Twelve bottles are offered by the glass including Nyetimber's vey superior sparkling wine. The bar also serves a Newton House gin, distilled in nearby Yeovil.

The Royal Hotel

On the Isle of Wight the Royal Hotel has been providing accommodation, afternoon teas and hearty dinners since the days when young Queen Victoria used to visit. Nowadays it also offers a discreet modern bar to the right of the main lobby (just behind the baby grand piano). Given the grandeur of the early Victorian dining room, it's a surprise to find this streamlined drinking lounge that seats just 30 people.

Dan Reynolds, the head barman has been at the Royal for five years and he has been responsible for introducing the espresso martini (vodka, Kahlua and freshly brewed espresso) and a negroni made with HMS Victory Gin. This unique distillation is a recent creation by the Isle of Wight Distillery who partnered with the National Maritime Museum to produce a unique Navy Strength Gin. A percentage of the profits from this thumpingly powerful spirit goes to support the ongoing restoration of Nelson's flagship.

The bar also serves wines from Adgestone, one of Britain's oldest working vineyards, which is located on the highest point of the Isle of Wight. Using grape varieties like Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir and Seyval Blanc, Adgestone recently took Silver at the Wessex Wine awards.

The Elms Hotel

Standing above Worcestershire's lovely Teme Valley, the Elms is Grade II listed building constructed in 1710 by a pupil of Sir Christopher Wren. The house was owned by a variety of wealthy English families over the centuries, the Burys, Pearsons, Moilliets (who co-founded Lloyds Bank) and by Admiral Thomas James Maling.

The actor and biographer Hesketh Pearson, whose great grandmother, Sarah Pearson owned The Elms in the nineteenth century wrote "The view from the terrace at the back was the loveliest in the world. Certainly there can be few lovelier, for the River Teme stretches away between trees, lush meadows and low hills to the distant heights above Ludlow."

The house's last owner before it became a hotel was Sir Richard Christopher Brooke, who bought the house in 1927 and added its two distinctive projecting wings at the front. When The Elms became a hotel in 1945 the wings became its dining room and drawing rooms.

The Elms was one of the pioneers of fine country house dining in the years after World War II with enthusiasts even driving from London to spend the night.

Today the bar is situated behind the drawing rooms. It's a wonderful, comfortable old oak-panelled space with a working fireplace and a few bookcases that give it the name the Library Bar. Until recently it has unfortunately doubled as a family room where children are fed snacks which meant that a smell of ketchup hung in the air, never a good thing when adults are sampling fine wines and whiskies. But if there is a bar to have high hopes of in 2018 this is the one to keep an eye on as The Elms, under its new owner sets about reviving that gourmet past.

Fistral Beach Hotel and Spa

This glass-fronted hotel overlooks one of the best bays in North Cornwall. It's belonged to the Nettleton family for decades now and is popular with young couples for its three storey spa and its sea view rooms. Guests also receive Fistral Beach sunglasses on arrival, an encouraging sign: the hotel assumes you'll need to protect your eyes from the sun during your stay in Newquay.

The Dune Restaurant with its expansive sea views (beyond the car park) is given over entirely to spa visitors at lunch time, with young women in towelling robes eating small healthy dishes prepared by chef Lee Highcock.

All that changes however in the evening with action shifting to the Beach Bar which offers retox to the spa's detox. This long bar, just off reception has driftwood tables and favella style wooden walls offsetting the comfortable grey and blue chairs. It's a perfect place to drink and watch the sunset.

The bar offers a wide collection of spirits, including Cornish rum and four new Cornish gins. Look out for Tarquin by South West Distillery which is sold in a blue “dripping candlewax” bottle. Produced in 2013, this was the first legally distilled gin in Cornwall for 100 years. Tarquin is also available as a Navy Strength Gin from which the hotel makes a fine G&T with cardamom or red peppers.

Fistral Beach Hotel also stocks four Cornish wines including a Camel Valley Brut Rosé made with pinot noir grapes and a Camel Valley Bacchus dry white wine.

The Dunstane Houses

One of the newest hotels in Edinburgh also has one of its most interesting bars. Dunstane Houses in Haymarket is a colourful, warm, design hotel run by Shirley and Derek Mowat from Orkney. They spent a million pounds converting this nineteenth-century West End townhouse into a 16-bedroom hotel with lots of Persian rugs, low atmospheric lighting, velvet sofas and original art from Edinburgh's Red Door Gallery.

The hotel's Ba' Bar takes its name from a kind of football game played on Orkney. It's an intriguingly dark room with a glowing glass whisky cabinet and bar seats for those who want to watch their drinks being prepared. Here lounge manager, Dan Welsh presides over numerous craft beers, 15 artisanal gins (all local except England's wonderful Sipsmith) and 60 rare and vintage whiskies. If you want more than just a single malt with the slightest dash of water, order a Whisky Spice which mixes chilli sauce, ginger ale and lime with the single malt of your choice.

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