The founders of London Cocktail Week, Hannah Sharman-Cox and Siobhan Payne, are counting their lucky stars that the capital has not – yet – gone into a second lockdown. I mean that literally: each of them has a little desk calendar to which they have applied a gold star sticker every day that this year's festival has gone ahead. Not that it has turned out quite as they’d planned.
Now in its 11th year, the festival, which celebrates the capital’s top bars and cocktail-making whizzes with events, special menus and tours, has had to seriously adapt thanks to the Covid restrictions that have driven the hospitality industry almost to the point of collapse.
Bar owners “were telling us how terrible it was for them,” says Sharman-Cox. “So we asked, if we ran the festival this year, would it be helpful?" The response was unanimously in favour. She and Payne then asked, "if we ran it for a full month, would it be even more helpful? And they told us 'yes please!'”
London Cocktail Week 2020, therefore, is now a month-long affair running until the end of October. A £15 wristband entitles customers to £6 cocktails at participating bars (from Lyaness, which is offering Angel's Envy bourbon masterclasses, to Santa Teresa rum cocktails at Burlock) – fewer than usual, since Sharman-Cox and Payne have reduced the number of bars taking part from around 350 to just 250 in order to drive more footfall to participants offering the deals.
The pair have also encouraged activities at clusters of bars around the major transport hubs so that out-of-town visitors can avoid the tube if they prefer.
One casualty of the imposed restrictions is the ‘Cocktail Village’. Formerly the centre of the festival, full of pop-up bars and experiences hosted by drinks brands, social distancing makes it impossible to host this year. But there are some upsides: for a virtual way to experience the festival, 30 of the festival’s signature serves have been bottled by Drinks Drop for home delivery nationwide, with bars getting a portion of proceeds.
As for the bars themselves, they are relieved to be operating at all. Without London Cocktail Week, says Phil Renna, Goods Way, a new late-night venue in King's Cross, would not have reopened. “We’re not out of the woods," says the bar's chief operating officer. "At best, trading has been 70 per cent down on last year. But the festival is a sign of independent businesses coming together to find a way to come back together. We couldn’t do it alone.”
The Whisky House at Goods Way, run by Diageo for the festival, is hosting live tastings and talks. “It’s encouraging to see there’s still an appetite to put on and support these events for customers to try out new experiences,” says Renna.
At Cocktail Trading Company in Shoreditch, where festival offerings include drinks based around the four horsemen of the apocalypse in reference to the industry's woes, co-owner Elliott Ball says that the footfall so far has been encouraging. “It hasn’t been the same intense hit just yet, but we’ve had more people by,” he says, among them customers keen to try specific cocktails and to seek out new bars. "Without a doubt [the festival is] having a really positive impact," he says, hoping custom will continue after the festival has ended.
As for the current 10pm curfew which was introduced by the government last month (“a debacle, utterly dreadful, and based on very little,” seethes Payne. “Do they realise that for most bars, at minimum 70 per cent of the daily spend is after 9pm?!”), the bars have proved resilient so far. Many have started opening earlier, serving lunch, or even operative as co-working spaces so customers can go straight from work to festival drinks.
As one of the capital's most-attended annual events, London Cocktail Week has started this year slowly, but surely. "As soon as the first day came, ticket sales started coming in. It makes sense; seeing so much get cancelled over the past few months, people are nervous about booking in advance.”
But with weeks, instead of the usual days, for the festivities to continue, there is plenty of time yet for cocktail lovers to get into the spirit.