‘A touch ludicrous, but childishly enjoyable’

Photograph: courtesy Looking Glass

As I balanced delicately on a window sofa, waiting for my “promptly” arriving friend, I pondered, as one does.

In a market so flooded with cocktails, how does a venue stand out from the crowd? Especially if they are Shoreditch-adjacent.

Of course, East London’s party capital has gone a bit downhill, purely from a quality standpoint, with some venues hawking watered-down pornstar martinis and bad caipirinhas to unsuspecting tourists and recent relocators.

But Hackney Road, nearby as it might be, has a fair share of high-quality watering holes, where the drinks are strong, curated, and, unsurprisingly, costly.

Equal Parts, which I reviewed recently, is an example of clever, understated drink-based elegance.

Now I am led back to my original question: how does the new menu from a vaguely Alice in Wonderland-themed bar stand out from others of its ilk?

The answer is gimmicks, and I mean that in the very best way. Experimental, overly themed, a touch ludicrous, and childishly enjoyable.

The space at newly opened Looking Glass Cocktail Club is a world of soft warm lights, comfortable chesterfields, and swanky, graffiti-style artwork. Through a mirrored door (I told you, gimmicks), a French rock and roll dance class is going on, sparsely populated and illusive. Are they doing the jitterbug while in a Breton stripe?

The reflective door open up to club nights, cabaret, and live music – basically everything you would want if you’ve sunk £50 worth of cocktails and are unwilling to book an Uber home.

Tin Man Tipple. Photograph: courtesy Looking Glass

Drinks industry legends Olesia Postnova and Lee Baker have crafted a molecular menu. At the risk of sounding facetious, I assume that this just means complex and scientific. As surely every cocktail is molecular? I mean, everything is, isn’t it? I don’t call myself a molecular writer, just a writer.

Let’s move on. The new menu is themed around fables and tales, and we are taken along a taste journey (don’t threaten me with a good time) by Postnova, who is passionate and immensely knowledgeable about drinks. A kindred spirit, you could say.

Starting low, the aperitivos step up to bat. By this point, my friend graces me with her presence and we vault into these soft Mediterranean drops. Crafty Kitty (Puss in Boots) is an Italian Amaro-based tall drink giving wafts, remarkably, of an English cottage garden. It’s heavy on the wild oregano, and medicinal, almost Pastis-like (with less anise). The sprig of rosemary cleaning your nostrils out is the only downside to this drink. My friend thinks it tastes like a boiled sweet, but as you will see, this crops up too many times to be credible feedback.

The Goes Around Comes Around (a take on the Chinese legend of the white snake) has jasmine and gin explosions with flashes of gunpowder (don’t ask me how). A lemonish buck, with light floral undercuts, this is a lovely lower booze stand-in for the Negroni. We are getting into the rhythm of this liquid pilgrimage.

Next, we verge into the land of theatre, and my little button eyes twinkle. The Tin Man Tipple (Wizard of Oz) comes in a metal beaker (obviously) but with a red bobbing helium balloon attached. Postnova burns some straw on the rim of the cup and our little corner is filled with the smells of a Kansas farm. I don’t think we’re in Be At One any more, Toto.

For those rolling their eyes, hold your gaze. It’s fun, it’s silly, and most importantly, it’s uplifting. Tequila, hay liquor (whatever that is), smoke itself, and mushroom? This ABV heavy-hitter will have you texting your ex at 4am, or crying when your balloon inevitably pops on someone’s cigarette. You have been warned.

Not all the cocktails soar to such heights though.

The mythical element of Trickery In Stripes (Peru’s pisco sour) is orange blossom, and barely noticeable. No legend can make that more exciting.

The Irish element in Woolly Peril is a heady mix of Jameson, rye bread syrup, Guinness foam, and ginger wine. It creates a Poitín-laced goblet that is an overly fussy honey, butter beer-like Irish coffee alternative. My drinking companion likened it to a rhubarb and custard, but we know how much she can be trusted.

The Russian-based Little Red Riding Hood beverage was probably the most perplexing thing I have ever put in my mouth, and I’ve put some weird things in there (easy now). The top is pink foam that tastes like a beetroot latte, and the bottom is a tart double vodka martini. Named Mr Wolf, this seems very fitting as the experience of drinking it is like falling face down into a clump of damp forest. Dill doesn’t help things, and the overall effect is rather sickening, a little scary, and well beyond even my brave palette.

The Australian Slither & Rock is all chocolate mint and gin, chartreuse with wattleseed pods that have a herbal and vaguely addictive quality. Inventive, but a rather plain short drink for such a romping creation myth of the rainbow serpent. I half expected a snake to be sat on the glass slowly forking its tongue at us after the Tin Man Tipple’s theatrics.

Looking Glass (clearly) isn’t scared to experiment. A cocktail based on Zimbabwe’s zero waste policy had to be scrapped as the recycling of leftover garnishes proved to be too syrupy.

Lions’ mane crops up (with all its mental agility properties), and cocktails like the Peach Boy represent both the martinis and manhattans of the world admirably.

This place is doing something fresh and fantastic – molecular even, as some would say – with drinks. Do you want to go to your local and suffer through a bad mojito that tastes of warm J2O and mint cordial? Or do you want to tumble down a rabbit hole on a taste adventure and end up wandering home with a floating red balloon like a drunken version of the clown from It?

After all, if drinking strange-looking, oddly-named potions was good enough for Alice, it’s certainly good enough for the rest of us.