With London Cocktail Week starting on 8 October, Stylist finds a new, sophisticated breed of drinks lined up on the bar.
Words: Lucy Hancock
It’s the aftertaste. The sugary fuzz left on your teeth. The way it shines neon when held up to the light. Yes, there’s no mistaking a cheap cocktail. But, if you can cast off the memories of Ibiza 1996 and those pitchers of Love On The Rocks, you’ll find cocktails in the 21st century have taken on an altogether more elegant hue.
The British food revolution has been gathering pace ever since Elizabeth David brought olive oil to the masses, and consequently bar-goers have also started demanding more from their post-work wind-down. Just as we now expect free-range meat and organic vegetables, so too do we demand expertly distilled spirits and freshly picked fruit for our drinks. Gone are the gloopy cocktails full of concentrated juices and paper umbrellas, as is the ludicrous bartender showmanship that died a death in 1988, along with Tom Cruise’s common sense.
Today, cocktails are considered an art form curated by mixologists who constantly tweak and test their formulas, use curious and rare ingredients, and fiercely guard their creations. Plus, cocktail bars are no longer naff joints with sticky carpets – they’re a Friday night destination for the epicurean drinker. And as appreciators of a fine drink, we think it’s only right we furnish ourselves with the knowledge to understand this complex craft.
So, welcome to Stylist’s guide to spirits, mixers and why olives don’t always belong on a pizza. And, there’s not a measure of Blue Curacao in sight.
The Expert’s Spirits
With cocktails, the quality of the drink relies primarily on the quality of the spirit. Expert mixologist Hannah Sharman-Cox of cocktail bible The Difford’s Guide explains what’s worth drinking:
Tequila has a reputation for giving you pounding headaches, but that’s often due to unnecessary ingredients in the bottle. “Tequila only has to contain 51% agave to qualify as tequila, so many brands are mixed with rubbish and can give you a nasty hangover,” explains Sharman- Cox. “A really good-quality tequila will always contain 100% agave, making it all natural.” Try El Tesoro or Tapatio white tequilas mixed with grapefruit and soda water to make a Paloma.
Yes, rum is found in Piña Coladas, but it’s not just a holiday staple. “For a more complex cocktail, I would always go with dark rum. It adds a real depth to a drink,” says Sharman-Cox. “The general rule is that the older it is, the more intense the flavour.” Zacapa is a dark, oaky rum, while Appleton Estate Extra from Jamaica works well in a long drink, such as a Daiquiri.
There are hundreds of types vodka, but Sharman-Cox recommends keeping it simple. “There are so many different ways to make and distil vodka, it can get confusing. Keep it easy with good, clean, honest vodka that’s free of gimmicks.” Ketel One is distilled from wheat grain using traditional techniques. Absolut Elyx is another exciting vodka. Mix with elderflower liqueur and champagne to make a Twinkle.
Gin shouldn’t be messed with, so seek out traditionally flavoured ones, says Sharman-Cox.“For a gin that tastes how you’d expect it to, you’re always safe with a quality London dry, which will have a high juniper content.” Portobello Road Gin mixed with lime cordial makes a lovely Gimlet. Or, try Beefeater 24, with its refreshing notes of Chinese green tea.
Try this... Tommy’s Margarita
Tommy’s Margarita depends on good-quality tequila. A twist on the traditional recipe, it’s less sweet because it is made with agave nectar instead of Cointreau.
2 shots 100% agave tequila (use one labelled ‘reposado’)
1 shot freshly squeezed lime juice
1⁄2 shot agave nectar
Shake all the ingredients with ice and fine strain into a Margarita glass. Garnish with salt and a lime wedge.
The Best Mixers
You wouldn’t eat lobster with baked beans. Well, maybe you would – but you shouldn’t. Pairing an expensive spirit with ho-hum ingredients is sabotaging the delicate flavours that have been so painstakingly developed. Tony Conigliaro is the brains behind award-winning London bars 69 Colebrooke Row and Zetter Townhouse, and is considered to be the ‘Heston’ of drinks. “Mixer ingredients are crucial to bring out the best in spirits. Cucumber works well with Hendrick’s gin because it contains cucumber notes; Gin Mare has rosemary and thyme so works well with herby ingredients; and lemon is great with London Dry gin because it contains fresh citrus.”
A top-class bartender will always create tailored extras for each spirit to ensure the flavours work well together. But a real impresario will constantly tweak formulas. “At Zetter Townhouse we created our own gunpowder tea bitters to enhance the tea flavours of the Beefeater 24 in our Flintlock cocktail,” Conigliaro explains. “We also recently created a fig- leaf tincture to complement the cachaça in our new cocktail at 69 Colebrooke Row, The Explorer.”
Even if you’re using traditional mixers, be discerning. British company Fever Tree makes products served in the top 10 restaurants in the world. “They use the best quality, freshest ingredients and work with special things such as Italian honeysuckle,” says Sharman-Cox. There is also a current trend for using coconut water. “Coconut water is not too sweet and amazingly good for you. It has low carbs, high potassium, zero calories and zero fat.” So, what about the rest? “A good bar will always juice, chop and muddle everything in front of you,” says Sharman-Cox. “There’s no excuse for not doing it all there and then.” Produce should be “100% fresh, organic and free range”. And, if you ever see a barman produce a carton of liquid egg whites, leave. Immediately.
Try this... The Clover Club
The fresher the egg, the more spectacular the cocktail looks.
1 shot Bombay original london dry gin u 1 shot martini extra dry vermouth
1 shot freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 shot raspberry syrup
1⁄2 fresh egg white
Shake all the ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled martini glass.
The Magic of Mixology
Putting the perfect drink together takes expertise, and where there is a process there are rules. First up, if your barman is doing keepy-ups with a cocktail shaker while juggling five limes, you’re probably in the wrong place. Secondly, watch how they mix your drinks – the rules are pretty straightforward. “If the drink comprises just alcoholic ingredients, it should be stirred and served in a short glass. The ingredients lack viscosity so they mix easily together,” says Jake Burger, owner of the Portobello Star. “There should be just enough ice to slightly dilute the spirits, which helps to take away the alcoholic burn you’d feel if you drank them neat.” Any drink with fruit juices and dairy products, including eggs, will need a shake. “Shaking chills drinks faster and introduces air bubbles, so when it’s poured it looks cloudy until they’ve all escaped,” he explains. “If your drink comes out with a foamy head, is uniform throughout and chilled to perfection, then you’re all good.” Cocktail bars can be intimidating but take your time. “A big menu doesn’t always mean drinks will be top quality,” warns Burger. “A test of a good bartender is to order a Negroni. If he knows what you’re talking about, you can happily stay all night.”
Try this... Sweet Manhattan
If made perfectly, this cocktail is dynamite. If not, you’ll be able to tell.
21⁄2 shots maker’s mark bourbon
1⁄2 shot martini rosso sweet vermouth
1⁄2 shot of martini extra dry vermouth
3 dashes of angostura aromatic bitters
Stir all the ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled martini glass. Add a twist of orange zest and garnish with a maraschino cherry.
It’s all in the finish
Have you ever wondered what business an olive has floating in a Martini? You’re not alone. But, Burger insists these flourishes should never be overlooked. Take bitters, for example. Angostura bitters is the stalwart of cocktail bars the world over, but it’s worth trying lesser-known brands. “Bitters are as much a secret weapon to bartenders as salt and pepper are for a chef,” Burger explains. “A few drops brings balance and often adds extra complexity to your glass.” The same goes for garnishes. Believe it or not, for many a considered cocktail drinker, an olive in a Martini is vital. They should be pitted, preserved in brine and always green. Similarly, cherries are essential for a Manhattan but don’t settle for a glacé. “Look for the French griottines in syrup and kirsch. Luxardo Original Maraschino Cherries are also excellent,” says Burger. Finally, there’s the orange twist. “This is always added last, and should be quickly snapped together so the oils aerosol out of the peel and sit on the surface of the drink,” says Burger. And don’t be afraid to experiment with your twists: “A grapefruit twist in a Martini or gin and tonic is sublime.”
Try this... Red Snapper
This is a gin version of a Bloody Mary.
2 shots Bombay original london dry gin
4 shots tomato juice
1⁄2 shot freshly squeezed lemon juice
7 drops tabasco
4 dashes worcestershire sauce
2 pinches celery salt
2 grinds black pepper
Shake all the ingredients with ice, strain into an ice-filled Collins glass and garnish with a salt and pepper rim.
Photos: Getty Images, Rex Features