At 5 p.m. recently, I was savouring views over the Scottish Highlands before a private visit to the Dalmore Distillery in Alness. It was something of a whirlwind tour: In barely any time at all, I'd landed in London, where I poked around the market at Covent Garden before reaching the One Aldwych hotel as its doors flung open. I turned left into the Lobby Bar and settled into a velvet tub chair at a lustrous walnut table, where a waiter plonked down a tumbler of 12-year-old Dalmore whisky blended with cherry liqueur, fresh grapefruit, chocolate bitters and Lallier champagne.
Then, I removed my virtual-reality headset for the big reveal: the genuine drink indeed on the table before me, chilled by a giant sphere of ice and garnished with a black cherry.
It's true: The Lobby Bar has gone there.
The world's first virtual-reality cocktail is called the Origin, costs £18 ($32) and comes with a decanter containing a healthy quantity of overflow, like a milkshake. The bar menu doesn't herald it in print as a VR "experience;" folks find out once they've already made the order, when a server approaches with a headset, asking if they'd like to journey to the "origin" of the drink and back again. According to Pedro Paulo, the award-winning bar manager who developed the new menu last month, "Nobody ever says no." More than 200 nobodies, it turns out, have taken the trip. And even though the headset pinches at the nose and the display is slightly two-dimensional, some come back for more.
A barman for 12 years, four of those spent at the Lobby Bar, Paulo is on the road a lot visiting distillers and vineyards. And when he's not observing the aging, blending and distilling process in person, he's watching video. The Origin idea came to him while strapped into a VR headset to learn about the manufacture of a certain drinking glass. Next year, he says, the bar's "program" could include a "visit" to the Douro Valley in his native Portugal, or to a tequila distillery in Mexico.
You can't blame the Lobby Bar for seeming to try too hard. In the microcosm of London that is Covent Garden, landlords have raised rents to Chanel-ify the streets and price out three-pints-an-hour clock-punchers in favour of more discerning trade and competition is intense. "Victorian speakeasies," accessed by pivoting bookcases and vaults like on The Price Is Right, are overshadowing traditional old boozers with mason-jar cocktails garnished with an entire meal on a toothpick. Order your bog-standard gin and tonic and the "mixologist" will exude disappointment and rage at once.
Indeed, at the Lobby Bar, there is no such thing as an Old Fashioned. Here it is called the One Fashioned and the ingredients are assembled tableside at a custom walnut bar cart designed by Paul Smith (the Britain-based furniture maker, not the fashion designer).
In formulating his first annual cocktail program, presented on the page like a West End theatre program, Paulo "didn't want to create a bunch of gimmicky drinks, but an experience." For gimmicky, you can cross the River Thames to Dandelyan at the Mondrian Hotel for an Heirloom cocktail, concocted from Auchentoshan Three Wood whisky, Kamm & Sons ginseng spirit, plant hemoglobin and exploded raspberry cordial. Or the tiki bar Dirty Dick in Paris's Pigalle district, where Mai Tais in bamboo vessels arrive engulfed in flames – what could possibly go wrong? Or even Dawson City, Yukon, where bartenders at the Sourdough Saloon customize cocktails on request with a preserved human toe. More than 100,000 customers have given it a thumbs-up (ba dum tss).
So "experiential" is the new byword for cocktail joints – at least the upscale ones. And the essential ingredient is a sense of location. Even if the Origin removes the customer from London and places him in the Scottish Highlands, ultimately the journey returns to One Aldwych in Covent Garden. For this, the staff has taken inspiration from world-famous venues such as Mia Bistro in Punta Del Este, Uruguay. Watching the sun set behind the dunes of Playa Brava, sipping from one of its prosecco cocktails in your upholstered lounger, you apparently couldn't be anywhere else.
But the idea of running an annual cocktail program is adapted from another of Paulo's heroes: the Dead Rabbit Irish pub, in a 200-year-old building in New York's Financial District. That bar opened in 2013 with a dedication to near-extinct cocktails from the days when Irish gangs such as the eponymous Dead Rabbits roamed downtown New York. Each cocktail has a back story, and this year's 30 represent a different chapter each in the life of John Morrissey, founder of the gang.
Back story in the form of VR entertainment, it turns out, is a great selling point in the "I'll have what she's having" vein. But then, a G&T sort of sells itself.