Friday, 13 July 2012

An "immersive" experience from Courvoisier

Top London bartenders Amanda Humphrey, Mickael Perron and Chris Lacey,
who helped put the experience together

I was invited to a preview last night of Courvoisier's "Institute of Grand Cocktails", a sort of interactive theatrical experience that is open to the public today and tomorrow. It is set in the Heritage Rooms within the enormous and labyrinthine Victoria House that squats between Bloomsbury Square and Southampton Row. If you like Art Deco architecture the place is mouthwatering, a series of period offices with wood panelling, marble fireplaces and, curiously, a safe built into the wall in each room. I'd be interested to know what these offices were originally built for.

One's experience involves moving through a sequence of rooms, in a group. Each room presents a sort of interactive tableau, and I gather the overall schtick is that this place is an ancient institute for cocktail making; apparently each scenario is meant to give you the sensation of "stepping inside a cocktail".

I think this sort of thing can work well, especially given that drink is an essentially sensory experience—you can only glean so much by reading or looking at websites. But to make the most of it, the event needs to capitalise on the punter's physical presence. And I confess I'm not really clear on what the Institute of Grand Cocktails is trying to achieve. Each room has bottles of Courvoisier everywhere and the brand name in gold transferred on to all the fireplaces (which does indeed look rather grand, as you can see in the picture above), so the brand presence is not subtle. But if you are hoping to learn anything concrete about the product, think again. In the first room they are dispensing a nice enough punch made with watermelon, citrus and, apparently, jasmine tea, served in jam jars for some reason (perhaps to suggest jam?). The room has boxes of oranges, lemons and limes against the walls and there is some geezer carrying on like a greengrocer. I waited to see if anyone would talk to us about the product, but we just milled around before being ushered into the next room. If standing in a room full of lemons is supposed to give me an insight into the divine marriage of Courvoisier and lemon juice, it wasn't working. I did get an orange to take home, though.

In the next room I immediately get a strong waft of incense. The floor is covered in pretty piles of brightly coloured spices and tagines full of sugar cubes. A bloke in a djellaba and turban is reclining on the floor, evidently smoking the incense stick. I'm hoping we'll find out something about Courvoisier and spice, perhaps taste some interesting combination, or at least consider how the aroma of the cognac mingles with the incense. But in fact we stand there while he gives us some strange stream-of-consciousness spiel about how we are each on our own journey, and how the poet says we must choose the wine that is right for us. One girl is invited to stick her finger into a bowl of what turns out to be (I gather from her blog) muscovado sugar and turmeric, while the rest of us get to watch. Then he gives us each a sugar cube and indicates that it is time to bugger off.

In the next chamber are a stack of Courvoisier barrels and two blokes, one self-consciously English and the other self-consciously French. They fill you in on some rudimentary stuff about what cognac is, how it is aged in barrels, and that VSOP stands for Very Superior Old Pale. One member of the group gets shown the correct way to smell the aroma of the brandy, which might have been quite interesting if the rest of us got to do this as well. But at this point the two men fall into an argument about Anglo-French supremacy and we are invited to leave again.

The next room, billed as a "grand but derelict Rococo ballroom", presents a Miss Haversham-esque dining table of sweetmeats covered in dust and cobwebs, while a bar gives us a chance to sample a classic Champagne cocktail. Some 19th-century aristocrats, made up to look like they have been dead for some time, toss us a few riddles to solve then invite us to waltz. Immediately a factotum warns me that Sir Arthur is prone to mood swings so we must watch out. Sure enough, when our time is up, his lordship slips into a funk and we are advised to make ourselves scarce. While this scenario does fit the best with the Deco-Classical decor, it does rather leave you with a sobering association between the product and ennui, alcoholism and black despair. Possibly not what they intended.

After this we find ourselves in the "New Orleans Apothecary", a bar dispensing Sazeracs. We get to tarry here a while and the preceding cocktails have kicked in so people are getting chatty. There is a jazz band playing (which one of the actors insists is a New Orleans jazz band no less, though in fact they had managed to hire a Django-style gypsy jazz combo—but I thought it churlish to point this out). The bar top has various bits of chemistry-set gear on it and the cocktails are served in small lab beakers with measurements up the side. I got ready for some "molecular" mixology, though in fact the only concession to this was to use an atomiser to spray the absinthe into the vessels.

An artist's impression of the New Orleans Apothecary. Pretty accurate,
except I don't remember any dry ice
Here we also got to meet "Doc", a mad scientist with a face blackened by some failed experiment (not "failed" he insists, but "differently successful"). After signing a rather amusingly-worded disclaimer form, we are blindfolded and subjected to an experiment in kinaesthesia, attempting to see whether sensations of taste are affected by other sensations (in this case touch) that are received at the same time. This is something that the Italian Futurists were very much into in the 1920s, and it's precisely the sort of thing I had been expecting all along from this "immersive" experience. I have to say that my own nervous system is clearly rather stubborn and I didn't really find that the taste of things dropped on to my tongue changed if I simultaneously stroked a piece of fur—it just felt like going into the drinks cabinet in the dead of night and finding a guinea pig under your palm while you were having a snifter. Sort of thing that happens all the time. But one girl there said that it reminded her of her cat, which gave her sensations of warmth and security. Another guest was transported back to her childhood when we, still blindfolded, were given what turned out to be popping candy to stick in our mouths while sampling the cognac. All very Heston.

One final treat was in store: we were tapped on the shoulders in small groups and invited into the office of Master Masters, who told us we had been hand-picked to join the Secret Order of Cocktail-Makers. At this point I hoped we might therefore get to make some cocktails, but in fact there just followed an overwrought swearing-in ceremony, with breathy group hugs, and we left with an envelope containing a Courvoisier brochure. A couple of us expressed an interest in the handsome bottle of L'Essence de Courvoisier sitting on the desk, but we were promptly told to put it down because it was worth £1,800.

As I said at the beginning, I'm not really sure who this experience is aimed at. The branding is heavy, but if they are trying to sell it to the press or industry then it would help if they actually told us something about the product or, better, gave us cocktail masterclasses—something to capitalise on our physical presence in the room. But they are selling tickets to the public at £10 each—and for that I would expect something more satisfying from a personal perspective rather than a lot of mute brand presence and standing around looking at your shoes while an actor freestyles. I'm guessing that this was inspired by things like You Me Bum Bum Train—I've never had the pleasure myself, but I'm told that customers are moved, individually, from one chamber to the next, where you might find yourself in a dentist's chair or faced with a US football team expecting you to give them a pre-game pep talk. If the public get to experience the Institute one at a time, then I can see it might be different, more hands on, but as it is, compared to the Bum Bum Train, only the kinaesthesia experiment really lives up. Perhaps they just blew most of their budget on the sumptuous venue.

The Courvoisier Institute of Grand Cocktails runs until tomorrow (Saturday 14th July) evening, with last admission at 9.30pm. Tickets from


  1. It sounds quite similar to something Lush (the cosmetics company) did a few years ago when they launched their perfumes. You went from room to room in a Shoreditch basement (very hipster), with each 'space' made to represent a different perfume. One of the rooms was for a perfume called The Hairdresser's Husband, named after the film in which the main characters drink eau de toilette because they have no alcohol left. As such, a mixologist had made drinkable versions of the perfume (as well as many of the other scents) which people drank as they were going around. I could really see the benefit of having the different sights, smells and tastes of the perfume, as well as hearing about the ingredients and design process. I suppose it is quite different for perfume than for a drink because of the primary way it is meant to be experienced - a room can be full of perfume in a way that wouldn't really work for a drink.

  2. True, though aroma is a pretty important part of savouring food and drink too. The most striking point in the Courvoisier experience was going into the second room and suddenly smelling the incense—so perhaps they could have made much more of fragrance and its ability to transport you.

  3. I enjoyed this article and laughed out loud (lol - I believe is the term the hipsters are using)on a number of occasions. It seems that a little tutored tasting at the end wouldn't have gone a miss. I went to a similar immersion event with Bowmore (advertising their Darkest Whisky) there I played dice with the devil and I'm pretty sure there was a guy who was Richard O'Brien's brother showing us round. But what was good it is that the international brand ambassador gave us a tasting of two of the whiskys at the end.