Shh, it’s a secret | B.Y.O.C, 9-11, Basement, Camden High Street, Camden, London
It was a cold Tuesday evening and Hurricane Gonzalo was causing havoc in old London town, so a visit to Camden didn’t seem like a particularly good idea. But work had been stupidly busy and the pictures of B.Y.O.C. Camden, looked cosy and just what we needed. Luckily it’s only a minute or so walk from Mornington Crescent tube, but make sure you remember the street number (number 9-11) because this is the only clue that you’ll be given about B.Y.O.C. Camden‘s location.
For the venue is ‘secretly’, located behind a very unassuming black door – no flashing lights, no neon signs. Nothing! As you creep down a narrow staircase each step transports you back in time to a bygone era where alcohol was forbidden and all drinking had to be done under the cover of darkness. Even the smoky aroma, the gentle music and the bursts of laughter added to that vintage feel.
Once in the basement you are confronted with retro roulette and blackjack tables with an array of bottles, jars, fruit, herbs and garnishes stacked up on them. This 1920s style casino isn’t what it seems, because behind these gaming tables are the master mixologists in their starched shirts and braces waiting to make you a unique cocktail. Decor is dark (black walls, black and gold rose patterned wallpaper) and lighting is low (flickering candles and table top lamps) mimicking a prohibition style speakeasy. The occasional sound of a police siren outside was the only reminder that we were actually in Camden.
Before I get into too much detail let me explain the concept of B.Y.O.C, you bring a bottle of your favourite tipple and the talented mixologists will mix the cocktails – no menu, no limits, just drinking. You pay a set entrance fee of £25 (for a two-hour slot), sit back and get entranced by the whole experience. And it is an experience, watching the mixologists is so damn relaxing, no wonder it’s described as a ‘retreat from the stresses of the modern world’ – and they’re not wrong! By the way, there are also branches in Brighton and London’s West End).
The space is intimate, seating a maximum of 50 (although it’s huge compared to the Covent Garden B.Y.O.C which only seats 18) plus there’s a little private room coming soon as is a short menu of artisan cheese and charcuterie boards from London’s finest suppliers. What makes B.Y.O.C. Camden so good is its versatility, it’s equally as good for a pre-club drink with a group of mates, a catch up chat with a friend or an end-of-the-night safe haven for the discreet. It’s also a perfect venue for a first date, it’s different, relaxed and a brilliant talking point. Plus if the evening is a bit of a ‘no likey, no lighty‘ then you can be safe in the knowledge that you only have to stick it out for a maximum of two hours!
Back to the main reason we visited – the cocktails. As there isn’t a menu so all the drinks are bespoke and will vary depending on what bottle(s) of spirit you bring. They use a vast array of flavoured bitters, in-house made cordials and syrups (the American chocolate and vanilla with maple syrups that we tasted were great). Just watching the way that the cocktails are dressed and garnished is fascinating – nice use of silver balls and smoking rosemary guys…
They say that during your session you’ll be served up to six cocktails, so we let our mixologist pick our first drink. He used this open brief to showcase some of the before mentioned cordials, it was light and refreshing but a little too fruity for our tastes. So for cocktail number two we told him that we liked sours. What we got was more of a flip, even though this was more like it – strong bold, flavours with a hint of Christmas.
For drink number three Saff asked for something smokey and masculine. This was when our mixologist pulled out all the stops and a big ceramic ‘cauldron’ which he filled with all sorts of magical ingredients including a burning incense stick, a nod to Camden Market perhaps. The finished drink was served to us in little frosted tea cups and can only be described as a smoke infused liquid chocolate orange – delicious! By this time we were sharing and chatting with the other couples on our table. As a newly formed six-some we ordered ‘something spicy’, ‘something with lavender’ even an Old Fashioned – although we didn’t have any rye or bourbon. Our barman kept up with us and delivered the goods every time!
The session passed and it was time to reluctantly leave, we could have just sat there watching the cocktails being created for the rest of the evening – it puts you into a trance (as does the alcohol). We left with a merry glow, the people at B.Y.O.C told us that the idea was ‘not to get smashed’ but ‘to leave happy’ – mission accomplished! Our mixologist also said that we wouldn’t have a hangover the following morning, he was right about that too! Apparently it’s due to the fact they only use natural, organic ingredients in their cordials and juices.
We wandered back up the stairs leaving the past behind and with each ascending step we were nearer to the modern world. As we stepped through the secret black door back onto Camden High Street it was back to real life, back to reality. Thank you B.Y.O.C. Camden for helping us to escape all the hustle and bustle, even if it was only for a couple of hours.