Mark Bibby Jackson tries out cocktails in London at the 40 Elephants, in the Great Scotland Yard Hotel Westminster, one of the best cocktail bars in London.

In my early twenties I decided that cocktails were not for me. Too many morning afters following some dodgy Spanish gin laced with extra sweet fruit juice – no doubt to disguise the Spanish gin – in some even more dodgy nightclub had taken its toll. I learned my lesson, eventually. It was only much later at the Hyatt Place London City East that I discovered the secrets for making a cocktail – quality ingredients and a mixologist who know what they are doing.

With this in mind, I took up my pew at the bar of the 40 Elephants in the Great Scotland Yard Hotel, Westminster, to try out their new cocktail list and discuss options with Riccardo behind the bar.

The bar at 40 Elephants
The bar at 40 Elephants

40 Elephants and Scotland Yard

First though a short history lesson. The 40 elephants in question are not the number of flying pachyderms you will see if you consume too many cocktails, but to an all-female gang which operated in London from the 1870s to 1950s. From their base in the Elephant and Castle (hence the name), they managed to elude the police by dressing up as maids, stealing jewellery from people’s houses. They also targeted luxury fashion and jewellery shops grabbing their finest diamonds and furs.

The gang’s heyday was the 1920s when they were led by Alice Diamond (born Alice Elizabeth Black). An imposing figure who stood at 5’ 8” when the average height of a man was two inches shorter, she knew how to pack a punch, and was known as the Queen of the 40 Elephants. Their exploits supported a lifestyle barred from most in South London, although they did have associations with some pretty serious gangsters.

Forty portraits surround the bar, including Nicola Green’s Bob Haired Bandit after Lilian Goldstein, a driver for the gang who was given that moniker by the police.

Nicola Green’s Bob Haired Bandit, 40 Elephants
Nicola Green’s Bob Haired Bandit, 40 Elephants

If you are wondering why the bar is here rather than on the other side of the river – where the gang hailed from – then the reason perhaps is Great Scotland Yard itself. This small street off Whitehall was the original home for the London Metropolitan Police Service. The yard was originally used by diplomats from the Kingdom of Scotland before the Union. The actual building in which Great Scotland Yard Hotel is located was not the original home of the police but it is a splendid Grade II listed building.

A Cocktail Menu To Steal For

I find Riccardo most willing to discuss the new cocktail menu with me. This features many a concoction with a 40 Elephants Gang theme, including the Keep em’ Running cocktail, Disguised as Maids and the Clever Club.

Explaining to Riccardo my preference for sour over sweet cocktails to match my personality, I opt for a Smash and Grab on his recommendation. ­My companion, with equally sour taste though not personality, opts for a Clever Club.

While we are waiting for Riccardo to shake his stuff, we scan the bar menu and settle on a couple of snacks – the hummus with flatbreads, and prawn and avocado tostados – to soak up the alcohol.

Excellent Cocktails in London

Cocktails in London
Riccardo and a Smash and Grab, Photo Mark Bibby Jackson

The bar is a very pleasant place to while away some time perhaps pre-theatre, to catch up with old friends or make new ones. We chat with Riccardo who talks of his native Sardinia before presenting our initial cocktails.

My Smash and Grab has a great taste of pisco mixed with Vetiver Gris, soda and citrus. However, I suffer from a touch of cocktail envy when my companion’s Clever Club arrives. Taking a sip, I discover this to be a lovely refreshing mix of Tanqueray gin with peach, rose water and raspberries, but with sufficient citrus to avoid it becoming too sweet.

For our second run, we decide to go off piste. So, as we tuck into our plates – the hummus was divine – Riccardo ad libs on the theme of The Brawler for me. This is a rum based cocktail, using a Zapaca 23 rum – no Bacardi here – which Riccardo cuts with some Campari to remove the sweetness of the main spirit. Perhaps something of an acquired taste, it works for me.

I leave one of the finest cocktail bars in London in high spirits, after a great evening. And frankly, given the excellence of the surroundings and the quality of the ingredients, at under £20 a pop, the cocktails at 40 Elephants were something of a steal.

40 Elephants

To discover more about the 40 Elephants bar, click here.

Unless stated photos supplied by 40 Elephants.