Low Waste, High Taste
Combining a Somerset Maugham-era tea rooms and Elvis Presley Hawaii film décor, Nine Lives creates deceptively good drinks. Just don’t be tempted to nick their unofficial mascot, the panther’s down to eight lives already…
Review by Winston Chesterfield Photography by Addie Chinn
It is a great delight to me that the last decade has seen the revival of the cocktail bar. It makes me gladder still that the cocktail revolution has also meant a dusting off of traditional recipe books, as well as a focus on mixology and new ingredients and a complete ‘sayonara’ to the associations of the sickly sweet, deep-pile nylon sleaze of the 1970s, when a ‘cocktail’ was considered to be a Malibu and Coca-Cola.
One of the great advantages of band-wagons and trends is that more people are willing to take a risk to make a success, to rise above the competition. There will always be those who will stick close to the winning formula of recent times; Soho or Shoreditch location, Art Deco styling, classic cocktails on the menu, hipster waistcoats and copper everywhere, but it is reassuring when someone breaks free from this aesthetic straitjacket and experiments.
Nine Lives is not in a predictable location for cocktail bars. In the dark shadow of the suburban railway lines snaking out of London Bridge to the South East, an unspectacular entrance leads downstairs into a basement. So far, so ordinary.
The conspicuous mediocrity ends when the doors are opened into an inviting and rather curious lounge-style space, styled in a manner that manages to combine Somerset Maugham-era tea rooms and Elvis Presley Hawaii films.
Bamboo pillars create a courtyard-style space in the centre of the room, decorated with veranda bamboo furniture and a collection of tiki-chic ceiling lightshades; reclaimed and reproduction early and mid-20th century furniture is dotted around the room; rustic screens divide areas, creating private spaces in an open setting. Potted palms and hanging plants bring a welcome dose of nature into what used to be a dingy late-night live music venue. This upcycled look is effective. This is what Mahiki would have looked like if it was decorated by House of Hackney.
On a dark, late-autumn weeknight in a terminus neighbourhood of grey London, the warmer-climes theme is especially welcome. The midweek crowd seemed equally appreciative and though it was light on patrons, it felt cosy. Fridays attract a heavier after work crowd of local professionals and Saturday brings in the out of London revellers and rubberneckers.
On one occasion, one misbehaving patron and his group purloined the bar’s unofficial mascot – a porcelain panther – and managed to escape up the stairs. Ably chased by the bar’s protective employees, the unhappy cat was found abandoned a few streets down. After this unfortunate debacle, they concluded the feline icon was now down to eight lives.
This care and concern on the part of the proprietors is not solely reserved for ceramic animals. Avoiding waste is core to their ethos. Although this sounds like a trendy gimmick, it actually does make a difference. The greatest thing about cocktail bars – variety and flavours – is, sadly, closely linked to the most problematic: leftovers. Most bars hide the surplus in great big bin bags and throw them out of the back door for the local council to deal with. The mountains of squeezed and peeled fruit and discarded herbs get a second chance at Nine Lives, made into syrups, essential oils and bitters – many of which you end up drinking.
Clearly, there are limits. Fortunately, no one is scraping the tissue paper from the toilets. And ‘Zero Waste’ is misleading as the binman still makes a stop at 8 Holyrood Street. But to source more locally, give things a second squeeze, ingredients a second purpose is something to be applauded in a blasé world where tiny sweet things are flown in on giant jets from thousands of miles away and tossed on a heap after one pathetic dribble.
The cocktails here are designed by Tom Soden and the team at Sweet&Chilli, but there are plans to broaden the menu to include those designed by the talented bar staff. The house menu consists of twelve creations categorised into four sections: Shorts, Longs “Tarted” (which is the fancy drink section) and a low ABV section for those who find stiff drinks a little too stiff.
The drinks here are deceptively good. I say deceptively because you could easily go to another bar with the same tiki theme and be given sugary tropical dreck served in pottery pineapples.
My first cocktail was ‘Moby Dick’ made with Johnnie Walker Black, salted caramel syrup and coconut. Though this salty-sweet concoction could easily be a nod to the Pequod’s whale hunters, it was actually named after the impressive but rather arduous drum solo from Led Zeppelin. The manager told me it is representative of something that shouldn’t work, but does. However, I think the name is an unfair one; I’m not aching to hear the repetitive snares of John Bonham anytime soon, but I’d happily knock back a few more of these libations.
My second cocktail was a riff on a White Negroni called ‘Tonatiuh’ – the sun god in Aztec mythology. This reference is important as the spirit in this version is Mezcal, which is fast becoming one of my favourite bases in mixology. Teamed with bitters and white vermouth, it is almost perfect, except for the introduction of passion fruit; for me, this sweet finish isn’t necessary, but then not everyone possesses my appetite for the ever bitter, ever drier cocktails.
Nine Lives is a curious place for curious people – you have to be to find your way down here in a non-descript building on a forgotten alley of SE1. Just make your curiosity doesn’t compromise the feline figurine; the only things not given a second chance here are thieving patrons.
Enquiries: Nine Lives, 8 Holyrood Street, London SE1 2EL / 0207 4078226 / www.ninelivesbar.com/