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I’ll admit it: I find cocktail culture a little bit strange. Forced ‘cheeky’ names which make you sound like a quivering adolescent when you’re ordering (“Can I have a Sex on the Beach please?”), tiny ice-filled measures which you slurp in seconds, and increasingly bizarre decorative appendages blocking the booze.
It feels as though cocktails are all about the glitz rather than about the drink – the experience of ordering a cocktail is meant to make you feel like James Bond or Marilyn Monroe, but instead of suave sophistication, I usually find myself sucking sickly-sweet fruit juice through a straw until I’m sticky and dizzy. In other words, they make me feel like a three-year-old again, except without the mental cushion of socially acceptable incontinence. You wet yourself in a cocktail bar, and you are so over.
Despite my trepidation, I was recently invited to try a cocktail so elaborate and showy as to make your average Banana Daquiri look like a builder’s tea. At the W Lounge, located within the frankly pretty swanky W London Hotel in Leicester Square, over Oscar week, one can find a special award season cocktail boldly entitled the Gold Narcissus. Blended with champagne, a beverage synonymous with celebration, the Gold Narcissus is as opulent as the name suggests. As the cocktail is presented to me I can’t help but gawk – it is strikingly shiny, a golden chalice sparkling with glittering bubbles – and, as its creator Eric Le Pape explains how he’s blended this magical elixir, I wonder whether it can possibly taste as good as it looks. Eric’s description of the process, and the ingredients that he’s used, assure me that it will; we’re talking Pommery Champagne, Ketel One Citroen Vodka, Crème d’abricot, cherry bitters and Limoncello. That’s pretty much your five-a-day in the most indulgent way possible. To top it off – and when I notice this, I wonder whether it’s a step too far – flecks of gold dance with the champagne bubbles at the foot of the glass.
All of this would be meaningless if the Gold Narcissus tasted like Sunny D with a shot of supermarket-own vodka. But this emperor is fully clothed. It tastes just as good as those obscure and exotic brand names suggest: it’s fruity, sweet and light yet sophisticated and complex. As I smack my lips together after my maiden sip, I feel wave after wave of flavour wash over my taste buds. The intensity of the champagne matures as it intertwines first with the apricot and then with the Limoncello, with only the merest hint that there is any vodka lurking in there at all. Resisting the temptation to knock it back in one gulp, I enjoy the lilting tones of grape, cherry and lemon until I’ve drained the tastiest cocktail I’ve ever known.
And you couldn’t find a more suitable location to enjoy a cocktail as ostentatious as the Gold Narcissus as the swanky W Lounge. A single unbroken line of leather sofa hugs the wall like a shoreline, piled high with velvety cushions and dimly lit by romantic mood lights. Above, the ceiling is painted gold and is illuminated like the depth of a swimming pool. Jazz music pours out as chilled as the wine. This is the kind of place that R’n’B music videos are set in, perhaps during a steamy second verse. But above all that, it’s the staff that makes the W Lounge exceptional; engaged and switched-on, without ever verging on intrusive, our waiter and waitress serve us with warmth. And, when our meeting with the Gold Narcissus is interrupted by a fire alarm, we’re given complimentary drinks and an apology from the staff. A class act, through and through.
There is no doubt in my mind that this is a delightful cocktail. Its flavours are almost musical. And, award seasons or not, I’d love to sample this number again. But if it was on the menu, I can’t ever imagine actually ordering the Gold Narcissus. In which particular shade of delusion do you have to find yourself within to order, with a straight face, a drink which arrives with flecks of gold within? Emperor Nero himself would have baulked at less, and justly. It’s impossible to order this without making a statement to your neighbours, possibly something along the lines of: “I look down upon those who find it acceptable to imbibe liquids bereft of precious metals; even my gravy is laced with rocks of emerald.” Overshadowing the taste is a sense of wasteful play-acting. Drinking the Gold Narcissus is like breaking into your parent’s wardrobe and dressing up when you’re a kid, except rather than mimic your mother and father you’re pretending to be Justin Bieber. Incidentally, the W Hotel is his ‘pad’ when he’s touring London. Maybe he’s tried the Gold Narcissus. Maybe he carries around a salt-shaker filled with gold dust, just in case his beverage of choice comes without his favourite sprinkle. Who knows?
It seems strange that we need to feel a part of that celebrity never-never land of the beautiful and the famous, even if this desire for belonging takes the form of a cocktail sprinkled with bits of gold. Does this make us more a part of the Hollywood world? The implicit message is that it will take us closer to the stars, making us feel like celebrities in the process. The marketing of these showpiece luxuries tends to make us feel inadequate; having a pint at your local pub is precisely the opposite of sipping sophistication itself in Leicester Square, and the trendsetters here will be sipping cocktails closer to Roman gods than to Abbott Ale. As long as people want to feel closer, there will be a Gold Narcissus to transport them. At least I’ve put my estrangement from regular cocktails in perspective. After sampling the Gold Narcissus at W Lounge, ordering a Woo Woo suddenly seems a humble and earthy experience.
words Chris Zacharia