Sitting on the 52nd floor of the Shard, Head bartender Christian Maspes and the team at GONG have got an easy advantage with a rather spectacular view, unobstructed thanks to the building’s relative skyscraper isolation, the entirety of London unfolding out below. Bizarrely, the effect is perhaps even more impressive at Aqua on the 31st floor, where the aesthetic is somehow more panoramic, but there’s an undeniable joy to be found in the knowledge that you couldn’t get a cocktail any higher in Western Europe without entering international air space to do it.
It’s to his credit, then, that Maspes clearly has ambitions beyond serving overpriced, straightforward tipples to customers eager to be separated from their money, and his new ‘Circle of Life’ cocktail menu at GONG is rarely ever safe. The 18-drink selection (including four mocktails) is divided into four sections to represent the varied stages of our communal trek towards the grave.
‘The Wonder Years’ offers childish joys like the ‘Kinder Candy’, pairing rum with chocolate and peanut butter, all served in a giant novelty egg; ‘First Kiss’ includes among its number ‘Under the Sea’, a medley of Ketel One vodka and Talisker whiskey with champagne and seaweed for a strangely salt, savoury finish. It’s presented in a champagne flute with half an oyster shell balanced precariously atop (sourced from nearby Borough Market, we’re assured), and my companion who was bold enough to order it is promptly handed a pair of shakers and ordered to rattle out the titular Little Mermaid song before she’s allowed to take a sip. You could never accused them of lacking a sense of theatre about it all.
The later years prove similarly complex. I order an ‘Asian Explorer’ because it pairs Tanqueray 10 with ‘mushroom-infused madeira’ and I’m thus duly expecting a trainwreck. It disappoints in that regard, proving surprisingly drinkable, but the distinctively fungal taste does begin to wear on me some time before the botom of the glass – wrapped in a banana leaf with a bamboo straw, naturally. By this point you likely won’t even be surprised that the ‘Ojisan’, a slightly too-sweet concoction of Woodford Reserve, Hedonist cognac, and Swedish punsch, arrives nestled in an old leather boot with a bullet hole. What, you mean that isn’t how you drink all your cocktails?
At £18 each, you’d certainly never accuse any of these of being a bargain, and not all of them are unabashed successes, but they’ll certainly give you something to talk about other than whether you can see your flat from here, and so in that respect they’ve likely done their job.
And if Maspes’ creations sound too unpredictable for your tastes, keep an eye out for GONG’s 2016 series of ‘star bartender’ events, with top drinksmiths from around the world visiting the Shard to ply their trade – most recently Jörg Meyer of Le Lion in Hamburg, who brought his signature Gin Basil Smash.
Words by Dominic Preston