The Connaught Bar is famed around the world for its award-winning cocktails and sleek, stylish setting. Now three of the bar’s key figures have written a book that captures the spirit of this special spot

Words: Jonathan Whiley

One of the world’s best chefs walks into one of the world’s best bars. What sounds like the set-up for a joke was, in fact, the reality when Massimo Bottura – the famed Italian chef of three Michelin star Osteria Francescana – “heard rumours about a bar run by Italian bartenders in the centre of Mayfair.”

It’s 2010 and The Connaught Bar’s star is rising. The same year it will be named ‘World’s Best Hotel Bar’ and the awards and accolades will soon rack up. A decade on, in 2020, its crowning glory arrives when it’s named ‘World’s Best Bar’ – an impressive feat it will repeat the following year.

Four years on and the iconic watering hole, located within The Connaught hotel, has just published its first ever book. The foreword’s author? Massimo Bottura. “It felt hidden, almost like a speakeasy,” he recalls of that first visit. “When I entered it did not look like a bar at all, but a sleek silver-toned lounge with cosy chairs and tables and a spectacular dark green bar. No one sat at the bar. It wasn’t made for sitting. It was a theatre.”

Published by Phaidon, The Connaught Bar: Recipes & Iconic Creations, is a book of beauty and warmth that offers a glimpse behind a rather storied curtain. Its authors; director of mixology Agostino ‘Ago’ Perrone, assistant director of mixology Giorgio Bargiani and former bar manager Maura Milia, invite you to step inside and recreate a selection of their award-winning cocktails.

“We always wanted to do a book with the right values,” Ago says, as we sit amid the timeless surroundings of the David Collins Studio-designed bar with textured walls in platinum silver leaf. “Something very elegant that tells you about the Connaught Bar experience; feeling yourself immersed through the photography, engaged through the storytelling and gives you the opportunity to roll your sleeves up and bring out the shaker. It’s made in a way that is approachable for beginners and we talk about vision and technique for young bartenders. It’s a book that speaks many languages.”

Passionate about photography and aware of Phaidon’s stellar reputation working with the likes of Steve McCurry, the book has been a dream come true for Ago. After the first Zoom meeting during lockdown, he was so excited he “closed the laptop and jumped over the table!”

Extensive work began in selecting 100 cocktails – both contemporary and timeless classics – that would make the cut. “We had to go into the archive to find the recipes, recreate the cocktail as close as possible – find the ingredients, the garnish, the supplier. Then we have to try them and check whether they need a tweak to be relevant.”

With such an extensive repertoire, Ago says they were keen to “give a good variety”. “From a Negroni-style to a martini-style. If you have ingredients at home and you put them in a shaker and shake, that’s difficulty number one to something that involves infusions or some cooking, that’s difficulty number two. Then the one you need to prepare 24 hours in advance; that is difficulty number three.”

It was, Ago says, an emotional process at times. “It was flashback after flashback. Remembering when we made a cocktail, which menu it was, who was working with us at the time. Many times with Giorgio we invented cocktails on a plane or a train just before we arrived at an event. Last-minute, but it worked.”

It also evoked childhood memories for Ago; of spending time in Puglia in southern Italy where his uncle maintained farmland and grew produce. “I still remember the smell of the fig trees…I hadn’t realised until recently that my senses are still saturated with those memories… it’s my childhood experiences and my Italian background that have set the foundation for my standards of flavour – the ones I apply to making cocktails.”

These standards extend to cocktail preparation; an eight-hour daily process. “Like a three Michelin restaurant. That’s everything; infusions, cutting the lime wedges for the water, squeezing juices. As much as now, for example, you find very high grade pressed lemon and lime juice, they are not the same as if you squeeze yourself in the morning. We don’t compromise; we still do like mamma used to make it and it takes time. Then there are the processes; cooking, blending, filtering. It’s done so the execution in the bar can be simpler for more time to interact with the guest and we can produce more cocktails as well, because the bar is very busy.”

To give you an idea of how busy, it serves 16,000 of its signature martinis a year. A special black lacquer martini trolley is part of the experience, which the bar team joke is “Ago’s Ferrari”. Since Ago opened the Connaught Bar as we now know it in 2008, it has been the cocktail to order. Ago even created the bar’s own house-distilled artisan gin.

Did he expect it to become their hit single? “I didn’t expect it to be so big. It’s very humbling.”

When Massimo Bottura first came to the bar in 2010, his order was a gin and tonic. 

“Really?’ Ago said, before suggesting a martini and wheeling over the trolley. “Little did I know,” Massimo writes in the book. “That another chapter had just begun.”

The Connaught Bar: Recipes and Iconic Creations, is out now.

Stirred, never shaken
The Connaught Bar’s signature martini

“It represents the bar; tradition meets innovation, personalisation and it’s romantic, because it’s delivered with a trolley,” says Ago of the martini. Each begins with a hand-etched crystal glass, chilled to perfection. Then the trolley arrives  with a selection of five handmade bitters; from tonka to coriander seeds and ‘Dr Ago’, a combination of bergamot and ginseng. Guests choose their favourite flavour and after a stir – it’s never shaken – gin or vodka is poured from a height before a lemon twist (or olive – pricked twice to release the flavour) is added. Other local martini hotspots include DUKES Bar in St James’s, where martinis are served in frozen glasses by legendary bartender Alessandro Palazzi (so strong that guests are only allowed two in one sitting) and Donovan Bar at Brown’s hotel, where Salvatore Calabrese invented the breakfast martini, made with a spoonful of orange marmalade.