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A drink with… Edmund Weil, Oriole

When popular London cocktail bar Oriole closed back in 2022, it wasn’t a farewell but a temporary goodbye – now with a reopening on the horizon for summer, co-founder Edmund Weil tells us what to expect.

Edmund Weil and Roisin Stimpson, co-founders of Speakeasy Entertainment, the company behind Oriole

So, the big question then, when is the new Oriole opening?

The aim is July. The build is scheduled to finish basically on the fourth of July. We’re probably still just about on track, but I’ve never seen a project coming on time in my whole career of running and opening bars. When it’s ready we’ll give ourselves quite a lengthy pre-opening, set-up period.

Has it taken longer than you expected to reopen?

We had Oriole in Smithfield for seven years – it became a sort of much-loved kind of destination where people could come to listen to music, eat food and drink great cocktails.

We moved because of the relocation of the Museum of London, which basically was coming in right on top of our heads. And so, the landlords bought us out of our lease. It was our intention to try and have a fairly short hiatus, but finding the right property and the right part of London is very tricky. We wanted to make sure it was really the right place, and we were not just rushing in to try and get everything reopened.

We actually found the permanent space over a year ago, but there were a lot of hurdles to clear with the landlord, like planning and licensing, and sweetening Westminster to give you a 1am licence, as a new licence in a special policy area is not an easy task. We did achieve it, though.

What’s the deal with your three-month pop-up, Prelude?

One of the reasons we were so keen to do Prelude was because although at Swift [part of Weil’s Speakeasy Entertainment bar group] we have a lot of ground-floor trade, our speakeasy-style concepts have never had that element that incorporates outdoors.

For the new site, there’ll be small plates, Highballs… the idea is somewhere for people to pop in before they come down to listen to the music, and also after work to have a couple of cocktails and sit outside in the courtyard. We have that in Prelude, which makes it a bit of a dress rehearsal.

It’s new territory for us, to bring a new twist of Oriole into existence. We have put a lot of effort into giving a preview of what the space will be like. It’s not a mini version, it’s a fore-taste. A chance to remember Oriole and get an idea of what we’re developing on the new site. The permanent venue will be a whole new world.

The interior at Prelude

What can we expect from the permanent site?

One part of it is much like the Oriole of old in terms of layout, in terms of the decor – we wanted this to be a really recognisable interior. We’ve kept a lot of the kind of interior fixtures and fittings from the original bar, as well as a lot of objects. We want the people who love Oriole to come down and really say, ‘okay, this is the place that we know and love’. It’s a little bit smaller in the basement space than in the original, but the really exciting thing is that there’s also a ground-floor element with outdoor seating. We’re in the heart of Covent Garden and having a ground-floor bar with outdoor seating is a fantastic opportunity.

Downstairs, the key thing that Oriole evolved into, in its latter years, particularly after the pandemic, is that it became much more of a place that people would actually go for a full dinner. It was ingenuity born by necessity. People could come and get the best seats in the house with a three-course meal alongside their drink, and then be able to watch the live music. That’s completely the core of what we do.

How about the music programme?

The ground floor won’t have live music, but the basement will have music seven nights a week. We’re looking to extend our programming a little bit and potentially have a pre-theatre piano set. Maybe doing a pre-theatre food menu and really putting on as much music as possible, because that’s something we find really enhances people’s experience, and what makes us a destination.

Prelude has a big focus on food, will this carry on at the new site?

We’re probably looking at about 50% of the covers being dining covers. That’s kind of part of the evolution of what we’re doing. The truth is, the on-trade is going through a bit of a difficult moment. In general, in the UK, people need to make decisions about how they’re gonna spend their evenings. A lot of our target market has less disposable income than they did five years ago. What the market research that we have access to says, is that people still splash out every so often, to go out and have a great time, but they often will be focusing on the main event. Cocktails tend to be something you bolt on either side of your evening, whether it’s before or after dinner.

Obviously, you know, when people have cocktails and have some food alongside it, you can double your spend per head, which is absolutely crucial in these sorts of conditions.

How will the cocktail menu look?

The theme of Oriole has always been one of exploration and travel, taking inspiration and ingredients from different parts of the world. That’s something that we’re definitely going to stick with. There will be two separate cocktail menus at the new site; one for the ground floor and one downstairs. Ground floor will be easy drinking, clarified, and smashable drinks if you like. Downstairs will have a little more elaboration to it.

The Mizuwari

The Mizuwari (made with Highland Park 12 Year Old, chocolate miso, asparagus eau-de-vie, sake and cold brew) has had the best feedback at Prelude. Old favourites will return as well – the Acadia (imagine a peanut butter and jelly Sour), and Bergerac, which is Cognac-based. We’ve had those for 10-plus years, just because people keep going back for them. Continuity is really important.

What cocktail trends have you noticed in the years since you closed, that you are adapting to now?

As a general rule, the trend has gone towards simpler, more easy-drinking cocktails. We see a lot of clarification, which is something that Oriole was at the cutting edge of back in 2017. We didn’t have a centrifuge back then, but we’ll have one for the new site. People are still looking for beautiful presentation, but that’s achieved more with, say, a special glass, rather than garnish after garnish. That coincides with a real focus on flavour as well.

There’s a whole sector of cocktails that I call ‘melted ice lollies’. There are some great melted ice lollies, some are really good, but it still tastes like an ice lolly. There’s tension in that and then trying to do something innovative and interesting.

How do you feel about all the innovation?

We’re trying to do stuff that also showcases spirits inside the drinks. I think sometimes (emphasis on sometimes) if you go down that route of homogenisation, like clarification and carbonation as you do in-house, it does kind of rub some of the rough edges off the flavours in the drink.

Sometimes that is perfect, but when you’re working with Edrington (like us) which has fantastic whiskies – The Macallan 12 and Highland Park 12, for example – you almost owe it to the spirit to not interrupt it. My core cocktail tends to be a Martini, a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned where I can really appreciate the spirits inside. That’s something we want to retain when we open the new place.

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