Pursuit (Drinks): Top of the pops

London's champagne bars take you to dizzying heights.

Deep in the most important square mile in the financial world, home to the Bank of England, the London Stock Exchange and office towers packed to the brim with bankers with mammoth bonuses to burn, you’ll find Vertigo 42. It’s a champagne bar atop the tallest tower in the City, and one of the finest places to squander more than a few pounds.

Champagne bars are the most sought-after London drinking holes, and Vertigo 42 is among the most exclusive. It can take weeks to land a reservation, and just getting inside is an exercise in hopefulness. After stepping into the foyer of Tower 42 on Old Broad St., the glass skyscraper housing the bar, my boyfriend Matthew and I check in at a fluorescent-lit desk populated by two uniformed women with headsets — like a glamorous airport check-in counter — before we’re waved over to a security gate with a metal detector and X-ray machine. A dedicated elevator then rockets us to the 42nd floor so fast our ears pop.

When the elevator door opens, it’s hard not to feel unsteady. The bar is a long, dimly lit corridor, one side entirely windows, the other a wall completely covered in mirrors — both sides presenting a dizzying view of the city. There are no tables, just velvety purple-and-lime-coloured chairs pushed against black counters underneath the windows. The Thames, London Eye and a tiny Big Ben materialize in the distance as we head to our seats with a view of office towers and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Quiet couples dominate the bar tonight, but a gaggle of suits clutching champagne glasses fills the corridor to my right; the buzz of conversation drowns out the down-tempo soundtrack. Then-manager Virginie VanHoecke says Vertigo 42 is a popular after-work hangout for City folk, some of whom work in this very tower, as well as West End television and radio types. There’s the odd celebrity — Dennis Hopper and Kevin Spacey have visited — and “people who’ve got a little bit of money and live in Chelsea” turn up often. “You have millionaires who come over and have a glass of champagne with their friends,” Van Hoecke says. She won’t name the high-profile London CEOs who have stopped by, but says execs often arrive at lunchtime to entertain clients. One such visit resulted in a $3,000 champagne bill for five people.

There are even regulars who come in for two of the most expensive vintages on the list: $780 bottles of 1995 Krug, and $850 bottles of 1996 ‘S’ de Salon Le Mesnil — a delicate, lesser-known blanc de blancs that’s only been made 35 times since 1932. The most expensive bottle, though, is the $3,250 Nebuchadnezzar, which holds the equivalent of 20 bottles of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut Yellow Label, or Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial.

Sadly, we’re not in that league, so our server, Florian, takes us through the non-vintage champagnes. The Pol Roger Extra Cuvée de Réserve is unusually sweet, while the Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut is extra dry. The Veuve Clicquot and the Moët & Chandon are the most popular, trusted by those looking for familiar names. “But I think you should try something extraordinary,” Florian says. He points to the $140 Delamotte Brut Blanc de Blancs — it’s made with grapes left over from the ‘S’ de Salon Le Mesnil. That has me sold. Florian returns with a bottle and pours two glasses of the golden liquid. It’s delicious — creamy and refreshing, just the right mix of dry and fruity.

Couples and suits wander by and gawk out our window as we sip, and Matthew, a Londoner, points out the landmarks, including Hampstead Heath on the horizon. Hypnotized, we splurge on some $65 canapés — if we’re drinking champagne on top of London, we might as well do it right. We sit until the lights in the office towers below begin switching off. Heading for the elevator we soon begin our descent into the real world.