Milk & Honey owner slams modern London cocktail scene

Milk & Honey owner and Street Feast founder Jonathan Downey said the past decade of London’s bar scene has been a “desert in terms of change” and that hotel bars should not be named Best Bar in the World.

Downey was joined on a panel, hosted by Ben Reed, with the founder of London Cocktail Week Hannah Sharman-Cox and industry all-rounder Tristan Stephenson at an event to celebrate the 20 most defining moments of the London cocktail industry over the past two decades.

The event, held at Gridiron in the Como Metropolitan Hotel in London, attracted industry legends such as former head bartender at The Savoy’s American Bar Erik Lorincz, The Connaught’s Agostino Perrone, Swift’s Bobby Hiddleston and Happiness Forgets owner Ali Burgess.

“What struck me about the list (of 20 most defining moments) was that a lot of very important things happened before 2005, and not a lot since,” said Downey. “I don’t think it’s possible for the best bar in the world to be in a hotel because you can’t define your crowd and you can’t create the right atmosphere.

“I love The Savoy and I love going there, but it’s not the best bar in the world, even when Erik (Lorincz) was there. I think we lack that independent, dynamic, fun element because since the Instagram age there’s too much focus on looking good and winning things. It’s all become about the bartender and it’s not about the customer anymore.”

In the 2018 edition of The World’s 50 Best Bars, the top five bars; Dandelyan, American Bar, Manhattan, The Nomad and Connaught Bar are all hotel bars.

Downey added: “I felt there was a little bit of an imbalance in the list of the 20 defining moments because the past 10 years has been a desert in terms of change. There’s been a lot of clever things happening but in terms of change and innovation and fun it’s been a bit of a boring era.

“One of the problem with a lot of modern bars is that they’re bartender-owned and they’re not working with someone like me - an owner. It’s like giving a chef control of a restaurant, a chef alone can’t create a great restaurant - there needs to be a front of house. I think we’ve got too many tiny bartender-owned bars that aren’t working with someone who can take an objective step back.

“There are some exceptions, Happiness Forgets is one my favourite bars.”

In response to Downey’s comments, Stephenson said: “First of all the state of the UK bar scene has not been set up to please just you (Downey). The natural evolution of bars is very much like natural selection, an idea is tested and if it works then that idea is progressed and if it doesn’t work then it’s ditched. People are still going to bars, people are still buying drinks and journalists are still writing about them.”

Among the list of 20 defining moments was the launch of The World’s 50 Best Bars in 2009, CLASS Magazine in 1997 and the launch of Milk & Honey in 2002.