Mark Ludmon steps into the theatrical world of cocktail bar Incognito in Winchester in Hampshire
From a Peach Julep and smoky Manhattan to original signature cocktails, the drinks at Incognito in Winchester are served with a theatrical flourish that guarantees the wow factor. “We describe them as Willy Wonka meets Heston Blumenthal,” says Nick Robinson who has created the bar with his wife, Hayley. “Nowadays, everything has to be Instagrammable as well as tasting and smelling great.”
The interior of the bar is just as stunning, developed by the couple who have a background in running hotels, bars and restaurants. It is on the ground floor of St John’s House, a Grade I-listed building dating back to the 10th century, when it was a hospital – patients’ cubby holes set into the old stone walls now serve as shelves. Nick and Hayley have sourced eclectic and eccentric furnishings, mainly from auction houses, and are constantly adding to them, especially as they already have plans to open more sites in the future.
From Tiffany lamps and leather Chesterfields to classic prints including Hogarth’s Gin Lane and Beer Street, the interior is a mix of periods with a leaning towards Victoriana. The décor and drinks are built around the concept of an owner called Chadwick Smithfield who has travelled the world, from the Americas to Africa and Europe, bringing back mementoes and ingredients. He is no ordinary gentleman – like a number of unique portraits hanging in the bar, he has the head of a cat. Nick says this fits the fun, quirky atmosphere of the bar where guests are encouraged to wear one of the many hats scattered around.
The story is told through the menus, designed by Daniel James, which list a good selection of beers, wines, champagnes and spirits, with a separate Encyclopedia Gin and Tonica menu for the 54 gins and 10 tonics including Schweppes’ 1783 range. The bar offers a Gin Safari tasting that takes guests through five gins from around the world, pairing them with mixers and food.
Signature cocktails include the Holy Grail (pictured above) which combines Pampero Especial and Mount Gay Black Barrel rums with apricot brandy, lime juice, pineapple, passion fruit, falernum, Green Chartreuse and orgeat over ice, served in an “ancient chalice” topped with a hollowed-out passion fruit half containing absinthe and a berry that is set alight at the table. The Bees Knees, made with Winchester Distillery’s Twisted Nose Gin, lemon juice and honey plus pineapple juice, is also given a theatrical flourish, arriving at the table under a glass dome filled with honey-infused smoke alongside a pot of honeycomb on the side.
Nick and the bar team, led by Chris Palmer and Damaine Hinds, put as much care into reinventing the classics such as the Lychee & Rose Candy Floss Mojito (pictured below) and the Smoking Manhattan, delivered in a cork-stopped glass skull filled with cherry wood smoke for pouring into a tumbler over ice, and the Peach Julep with Bulleit Bourbon, served in a brass tankard with a colourful floral display.
Aside from bar snacks, food is available at weekends from midday to 4pm at the popular Bottomless Brunch where, for £29.99 per person, guests can enjoy cheeses, pates, breads and other dishes alongside prosecco. Incognito is also a destination for live jazz at weekends and some week nights.
With table service only, the 80-cover bar has already gained accolades including best Hampshire bar from the Muddy Stilettos guide. It is also one of the first bars to be chosen to stock Hendrick’s new Orbium gin infused with quinine, wormwood and blue lotus blossom, serving it as The Orbium mixed with Dolin Blanc vermouth, Campari and Lanique rose liqueur in a transparent globe suspended from a stand with a floral garnish. “We are constantly looking to come up with innovative new drinks and innovative ways to serve them,” Nick adds.
Incognito, St John’s House, The Broadway, Winchester, Hampshire SO23 9BE
Tel: 01962 807277
Originally published in a shorter version in the August 2018 print edition of Bar magazine.