What’s it like to drink a virtual cocktail?

CNN  — 

VR headset strapped in place, I scan the terrain like a cocktail-seeking Terminator.

Heather rolls towards me under heavy Scottish skies. As music swells, I leave the Highlands and sweep south through Britain, towards the bustling crowds of London’s Covent Garden theater district.

Meanwhile, in the bricks-and-mortar world of London’s One Aldwych hotel, Portuguese bar manager Pedro Paulo – named Best International Bartender at the Lisbon Bar Show 2016 – is busy mixing Dalmore12-year-old whisky, Merlet cherry liqueur, cherry puree, grapefruit juice, chocolate bitters and Lallier Champagne.

When the two-minute video comes to a close and I peel off the goggles and headphones, The Origin is waiting – the world’s first Virtual Reality cocktail.

Virtual what?

Let’s get a few things straight.

The Origin cocktail? It’s 100% real. A whisky base improbably and deliciously stretched into a long drink by the genius addition of Champagne, making it a delightful 130ml of sweet, smoky, cherry and chocolate flavors.

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“We wanted the drink to be quite honestly a crowd-pleaser,” says Paulo, who at 30 years old already has 12 years of high-level bartending experience, including at London’s award-winning Connaught Bar.

“The way I look at mixology these days is more trying to understand what it is that people like and try to deliver those flavors in the best possible way.”

And if you think a $23 Virtual Reality cocktail sounds like smoke and mirrors, you’re right.

Sherry wood chip smoke, to be precise, sealed in a glass hip flask with the remainder of the cocktail so you can top up at your leisure with another hit of deep, woodsy flavor.

“It’s my perception of how a Scotch should be enjoyed, in a little hip flask, with a nice whisky tumbler and a nice piece of ice,” says Paulo.

It's Showtime: Theatrics, botanics and cocktail hour high jinks.


Why supplement a perfectly decent cocktail with a jazz hands showstopper like a VR tour of the Scottish Highlands?

First, it’s but one of a bevy of new all-singing, all-dancing drinks on One Aldwych’s new Showtime menu, divided by flavors into light Comedies, bubbly Musicals, sharp Satires, punchy Dramas.

This is the theater district, after all, and London’s food scene is always hungry for sensation.

The other trend The Origin taps into is – as its name would suggest – the importance of provenance.

The Origin is in the Backstage section of the Showtime menu, because it’s a look behind the scenes at how a cocktail comes into being.

The two-minute tour of the Highlands was made in collaboration with Dalmore whisky and is an insightful introduction to the Scottish whisky-making process.

“When someone tells us that they left with some knowledge, some new facts, then that’s a win there for us,” says Paulo.

However, there’s no origin story for the cherries, chocolate, grapefruit and Champagne that also make up the drink.

The other disappointment is that the video is static, so it’s not the full immersive experience you might expect – and calling it Virtual Reality is a bit of a stretch.

High five to the five senses

Of course, multisensory dining is nothing new.

Heston Blumenthal, the Willy Wonka of neurogastronomy, introduced his Sound of the Sea dish at The Fat Duck back in 2007: a sculptural plate of seafood, seaweed and panko “sand” that came with an iPod tucked into a conch shell.

And later this summer restaurateur Jason Atherton is launching what promises to be the world’s first Augmented Reality cocktail menu at his Michelin-starred London eatery City Social.

As London-based entrepreneur Seb Lyall told CNN back in April – he of headline-grabbing ventures such as a “Breaking Bad” theme bar and a naked restaurant – “The definition of luxury is changing for younger people.

“It’s not about the best cocktail or dish, it’s about experience.”

Tableside service

But the most important trend Paulo is tapping into at One Aldwych is personalization.

When you order the One Fashioned from the Showtime menu, the bartender ceremoniously wheels the custom-made Old-Fashioned cocktail trolley to your table and prepares the drink in front of you, according to your taste.

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Sweet, dry, balanced? Bourbon, tequila or rum? The choice is yours.

The Origin’s VR headset is a clunky and underwhelming gimmick, but the attentiveness with which the Showtime menu of drinks and food pairings has been researched and prepared is not.

Instead of that dead time standing awkwardly at the bar waiting for your drink to be ready, you can be seated comfortably enjoying a cute novelty while the serious business of cocktail-making gets underway.

An “Alice in Wonderland” adventure into an alternate reality, this is not.

But a front-row seat and post-show drink in Theaterland for just $23? It’s worth staying for the encore of a few more cocktails.

Showtime Cocktails, One Aldwych, 1 Aldwych, London WC2B 4BZ; 020 7300 1000