The diminutive grand piano is being tinkled upon as groups of cheery travellers sit chatting and giggling on ornate blue sofas and stools, sipping champagne, cocktails, and even the occasional coffee. The room judders and sways to the steady rhythm and beat of the clickety clack of iron on iron as sun light streams in the large windows and the bright green of the Swiss countryside and distant mountains rolls past as the carriage runs towards Venice.
This is of course no ordinary bar or ordinary train carriage, it is a car on the most fabled, luxurious, romantic, and at times crime ridden train in history. It is the 3674 bar of the Orient Express.
I’m sitting here at the last remaining table and stools, squeezed between the bar and the piano, with my fiancé, sipping a gin and tonic before lunch. My fiancé, as is his want at times is having a pink gin and tonic using Plymouth Gin – the only gin to use if you’re going pink. While I have gone for a little known Italian gin, garnished with a sprig of rosemary that helps to bring out the more floral notes of the gin, against the FeverTree tonic. It a light, refreshing drink before lunch.
In our relaxed cheeriness we even toy with ordering a small plate of the bar’s caviar as a pre lunch snack – a variety of stupendously expensive caviars are available through the train but the bar has one just for them that is closer to what you might call affordable, and has, so Ignazio tells us, a slight nuttiness to it. We resist.
As we sip our drinks, the sun shines in and reflects off the mirrors, gold, brass and highly polished wood of the carriage, creating quite the contrasting atmosphere from the night before. Then it had been a dimly lit lounge with everyone in evening ware, reminiscent of a scene you’d have found in any English country house in the 1920s or 30s.
When we had arrived in the 3674 following our dinner of lobster, beef and a selection of fine cheeses, it was crowded to say the least. The only space we could find was to perch up against the end of the narrow bar in the space used by the barmen to move from one side of the bar to the other. Jostled now and then as other guests squeezed past moving between their cabins and the dining cars, we were forced to suck in our guts and make ourselves as thin as the plot of Belinda Blinked (google it, you won’t regret it). Perusing the bar list, we found a mix of classic cocktails and the bars own creations.
My fiancé who has a thing for Old Fashions after a good meal knew what he was having. I on the other hand only knew I was in the mood for something non whisky or gin based, a little longer, mellow and fuller. The answer was obvious as I scanned the list, a Pisco Sour – the ordering of which would later turn out to be fortuitous.
Ignazio, 3674’s head barman, set about making the cocktails in his small, yet perfectly organised space behind the bar, serving them up with little canneles (well we were still in France after all). The old fashioned is a cocktail that can only ever be served in one of two ways, appallingly or heavenly perfection, there is no middle ground. Needless to say that in (or I suppose ‘on’ in this case) a bar of this quality the Old Fashioned was made with care, it suffered none of the thin wateriness the drink can so often suffer from when rushed or made by unskilled hands. It was that perfect combination of sweetness and orange mingling with the slight smokiness and richness of the bourbon, that makes the Old Fashioned such a classic.
The Pisco Sour was, simply put, the best example of the Peruvian national drink I’ve had outside of Peru some years back. In fact it has reignited my love of the drink.
It has long been a maxim that you often get the best from a bar when you get to chatting with, or better yet to know, the head barman. It’s easier said than done, especially in a busy bar like Dukes in London or the 3674, when they really have no time to stop and chat. But sometimes fortune, or your tastebuds flights of whimsy intervene. By now the crowd in the carriage was thinning out and we were left as the only ones standing at the bar, so out came a couple of high bar stools for us to sit at, as we finished the last few sips of our drinks.
As we did so, Ignazio came over with an interesting prospect; ‘if you’re a fan of Pisco perhaps you’d like to try a new drink I’m developing for the new menu coming in this summer?’. What could we say other than an emphatic ‘yes’? The chance to try a new drink and one that Ignazio was keen for us to try. As two highballs appeared we got talking with Ignazio while he set about mixing the drink.
As Pisco, Martini Rosso, mint, sugar syrup, half a lime and it’s juice, soda, ice and bitters made there way into the glass, it turned out that Ignazio’s wife was Peruvian and they had worked and lived out there for years, hence the inclusion of Pisco based drinks on the menu. The finished drink (again accompanied by canneles) is The 3674. It’s a perfect long summer drink, like a cross between a mojito and Pimms, I could imagine myself sitting out in the sun watching the tennis sipping at my 3674 with no trouble.
Given the numbers the train holds you’d think it would be worth adding another bar car to the famous train. But Ignazio cheerily told us that it just wasn’t possible. The train it turns out is limited to the number of carriages it can run so to have another bar would mean loosing a sleeping car. Interestingly, and surprising given the cocktail culture of the early 20th century, the original train didn’t have a bar, so when James Sherwood bought up the old rolling stock of the Orient Express and refitted them, he turned one of them into the bar car which was again refitted and named the 3674 in 2016.
It’s certainly not a large bar. There’s a steady stream of people weaving through the tables and stools, allowing for the ever present possiblity of someone loosing their balance as the train jolts sending them soaring into your lap and your drinks flying. It’s also not a readily accessible bar and one that can’t be said to have a cheap entry fee (tickets for the train start from north of £2000 – thought they do offer deals throughout the year). But despite this it’s a bar of great quality that rivals many of the best hotel cocktail bars in the world. Indeed what they achieve, high quality, perfectly mixed cocktails, is no mean feat given the restricted space, the numbers the relatively small team serve, and that they’re doing this on a train that is constantly moving. If you’re lucky enough to have the chance to drink at the 3674 bar, you won’t be disappointed.