“Never trust any complicated cocktail that remains perfectly clear until the last ingredient goes in, and then immediately clouds.” – Terry Pratchett
“Cocktails” – funny word for a drink genre, isn’t it? Although we think of them as a very 20th century concept, the word “cocktail” first appeared to refer to a drink in 1798’s London paper, The Morning Post and Gazeteer. Before then, the word had meant a horse with its tail cut short to indicate it was of mixed breed. Perhaps it was just a short (but strange) leap to use the same word to refer to mixed drinks as well as mixed breed horses? There are lots of other origin tales too, but in any event, by 1806 an American publication, The Balance and Columbian Repository, printed the first definition of a cocktail as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters…it is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, in as much as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time as it fuddles the head.” This last point could be worth noting if you’re having difficulty working out who to vote for during this UK election season.
Writing a couple of weeks ago about my visit to the House of Bols got me thinking about my relationship with cocktails. It’s a remarkably simple one: I bloody love them. I’m not entirely sure why, but I’ve always been fascinated by them. Maybe it’s their association with modern glamour and shady prohibition bars full of bright young things and mobsters, or it could just be the flavours and pretty colours. It’s probably a combination of these. I remember that my interest first came about well before I could legally drink, when I was about eleven: a school project on healthy eating included us making non-alcoholic cocktails, though I’m not sure how healthy they really were, given the amount of fruit juice, colouring and sugar syrups we put in them. I was particularly proud of “The Bloody Finger”, a creation that was mostly canned peach and pineapple juice with a drizzle of red food colouring on top to form a layer that seeped into the heavier juice liquid to look like a pool of blood sinking into the drink. I don’t remember how it tasted; to be honest, it was mainly for show. (Though I must credit my dad with the name – he’s a nurse and frequently comes across bloody fingers.)
At university, I was lucky enough to make good friends with a pair who appreciated the classiness of a good cocktail, and we were soon regularly appearing at Cambridge’s swanky bars. But only during the mid-week happy hours – our student loans didn’t stretch very far. Even cheaper were DIY cocktails, and we once decided to celebrate our end-of-year exams with an afternoon of experimental mixology. So we holed up in someone’s room with a variety of booze, fruit, mixers, a book of 1920s Savoy Hotel cocktails and appropriate period music. However, the only trouble, I find, with DIY cocktails is that you’ve rarely got all the things you need, especially if you’re on a budget. I’m not going to shell out for a bottle of something like crème de menthe unless I’m using it regularly, so substitutions need to be made for the more unusual ingredients. Consequently, on that afternoon, we ended up making four very similar drinks based on gin. The arrival of someone’s boyfriend with a half bottle of brandy was greeted with cheers.
Even without substitution, home mixing may not end as a success. I’d rather not remember the time I bought the wrong vermouth for making Vodka Martinis for a Bond film night. The resulting drink has gone down in my friendship group as completely disgusting, and it took me ages to find things where I could use up the vermouth.
Away from home improvisation, working at a pub allows me to indulge in my love of cocktail-making with the full amount of requisite ingredients. Some of them can be buggers to make, though, especially irritating when the bar’s five deep. Here’s a top tip: when a bar is busy, only order an Old Fashioned if you want your bartender, and other customers in the immediate vicinity, to hate you. Why? Because that one takes an awful lot of time-consuming stirring. (Though it is canny lush.)
Aside from the Jaffa Cake, here’s how to make a couple of my favourites:
- Grab a champagne flute.
- One shot of peach schnapps, or Archers.
- Fill up the glass with prosecco. Stick a garnish of peach on, if you’re so inclined.
- Bob’s your bartender.
Key West Cooler – looks impressive, but isn’t that hard. One for when you’re still relatively sober, because it requires a steady hand.
- Pop half shots of Midori, archers (or peach schnapps) and Malibu into a tall glass – I find wine glasses look prettiest.
- Fill with ice. And put straws in now – you’ll regret it if you forget.
- Drizzle orange juice over the ice to about two-thirds up the glass. Pour slowly and carefully (you can even pour the orange over an inverted teaspoon onto the ice for more control), to form an orange layer over the green of the spirits.
- Shake a half shot of vodka and as much cranberry juice as you like over ice. Harder shaking increases the bubbles in the mix, making it float more easily over the orange.
- Strain this over the orange to form a third pinky-red layer.
- Swear because you forgot to put in straws earlier and if you put them in now it mixes the whole thing together.
Outside of the bar, my liquor-improvisation continues. That’s the fun of mixology: trying new combinations and seeing what works well, all while getting intoxicated, drinking out of fancy glasses. My latest endeavour was an attempt to emulate the “Downtown Cocktail (Hen Night Special)” a mate of mine drank at Copenhagen youth hostel. According to him, it was a shot of almost everything off the bar, mixed with coke. Accordingly, I gathered all my liquors and created “The Antisocial”, so named by my mam because it made us giggly and push each other off the sofa. It possessed truly singular taste qualities: with each sip, a different liquor dominated, not always pleasantly. It reminded me of the transformative potion in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Anyway, as my dad says, you can drink anything with coke.
My adventures in cocktails will continue. I hear more are going to be added to the pub menu, and I’m planning a film night with friends next Friday to use up a bottle of vodka we won in a pub quiz. To help, I’ve bought Tequila Mockingbird, a brilliant book of literary-themed cocktails. The Pitcher of Dorian Grey Goose looks promising, but of course, substitutions in the recipe will need to be made. Starting with the brand of vodka we have…