As somebody who simultaneously loves cocktails and struggles to remember that I don’t have the disposable income of a London banker, I find the allure of a snazzy cocktail bar very, very difficult to resist. Although my bank account doesn’t thank me for this, there’s just something about cocktails. Maybe it’s the complexity of their flavours, which can somehow evoke such different seasons and sentiments with us, depending on the way they’re balanced. Maybe it’s the Great Gatsby-esque feeling of sheer, self-indulgent luxury you get when a drink is served in a champagne saucer - a drink which quite likely cost the same as your dinner for the last two nights. Or maybe it’s the ritual and ceremony behind the whole process of cocktail drinking: dressing up a bit to meet a few of your closest friends, and heading out to a dimly lit, atmospheric, bar to while away the evening over some extravagant, expertly mixed drinks. Whatever it is, it’s got me hooked.
And so, needless to say, when Her Majesty’s Secret Service invited Wriggle down to sample and review their new menu, I jumped at the opportunity. My cocktail drinking partner in crime and I braced ourselves for the long walk over to the intriguingly named bar, hidden away just off Whiteladies Road. Twee sucker that I am, I was instantly delighted that entering the speakeasy style HMSS involved nipping through a discrete black door, and then through a phonebox. A phonebox. Yep.
And then the fun began. For our first round of drinks, we abandoned ourselves to the barman’s clearly extensive wisdom, while we sat back and set about the unlimited monkey nuts provided on the house. The drinks arrived quickly, and alongside them, an explanation of the premise behind the new drinks menu: a celebration of the very best of the British Isles. The idea is simple enough: the HMSS team put their heads together and thought of the twelve places in Great Britain which mean the most to them. The execution, however, is anything but simple. It’s clever, it’s exciting, and it’s really, really inventive. The menu itself is presented as a beautiful little illustrated book, entitled ‘Winston the Bulldog’s Guide to the British Isles’. The listing for each drink is accompanied by a stunning, hand-drawn illustration of the inspiration behind it, from the towers of Big Ben to the Angel of the North.
For our first two drinks, we tried Tosser and Greenhouse Project. The delightfully named Tosser (described as ‘tropical, nutty and mischievous’) plays homage to the beautiful beaches of Brighton, whilst also issuing an almost David Attenborough-esque warning about the importance of preserving these beaches. It came served in a recycled crumpled tin can with a metal straw (no plastic straws are used at HMSS), and putting their money where their mouth is, HMSS donate 50p from each Tosser sold to the Plastic Oceans Foundation. Flavour-wise, it reminded me of an oh-so-sophisticated revamp of a pina colada, all creamy pistachio gelato and coconutty rum goodness.
The Greenhouse Project is said to play tribute to Cornwall’s own Eden Project, and as soon as the drink arrived, we understood what that meant. The glass itself was nestled within a beautiful glass and copper terrarium, bursting with greenery, shoots, and colourful sweet pea flowers - it looked beautiful. The theme successfully translates to the drink itself - it was fresh, herbaceous, and the hint of asparagus provided a surprisingly pleasant twist.
The Greenhouse Project, £9
Next up were the Angel of Mercy and Major Oak. We had asked for a change in tone, and boy, did HMSS deliver. Described as ‘bold, industrial, and energising’, Angel of Mercy is inspired by, you guessed it, the Angel of the North. It’s a hearty, hefty, hug of a drink, where walnutty whisky and a dark, heavy stout reduction is countered by sweet vermouth. My craft ale addict of a drinking partner went mad for it, and she is not easily pleased.
Angel of Mercy, £8.50
Then there’s Major Oak. Oh man. I’ve been thinking about Major Oak a lot since we left HMSS. It purportedly celebrates the forests where Robin Hood hung out, but to be frank with you, dear Wrigglers, once I’d had a taste of this drink, it could have been inspired by the juice from the bottom of my wheelie bin, it tasted that damn good. Apple brandy, Courvoisier VSOP, hazelnut liqueur and acorn vermouth combined in a small but perfectly formed drink that tasted so perfect, I sort of stammered when I took my first sip. Major Oak evoked instantly Christmassy feelings among our cold, wintry hearts, without falling back on the synthetic, sickly, artificial flavourings which blight so many supposedly festive-inspired drinks. It somehow tasted exactly like the smell that rises from a Christmas pudding after you set it on fire, and we bloody loved it.
Major Oak, £8.50
By this point, we’d forgotten that it was a Tuesday night, and eagerly took the lovely barman up on his offer to go ‘off piste’. He whipped up a modern take on an Old Fashioned (sorry, couldn’t resist) using rose, and a deliciously smoky, earthy number using Mezcal - the drink produced when agave is cooked over a wood fire. Both were heavenly.
If you love a theme as much as I do, then Her Majesty's Secret Service will be right up your street. However, even if you aren’t a naff soul like me, the cocktails are inventive, incredibly tasty, and well-balanced, with their flavours speaking for themselves. The staff are friendly, welcoming and knowledgeable, without any of the intimidating, know-it-all bluster that can be so off-putting in a barman. So, what’s Wriggle’s new favourite place to sneak off for a cocktail or two after a hard day’s eating? Well, if we told you, we’d have to kill you...