Summer cocktails for the easily befuddled

Call me a terrible lightweight but I’m a little wary of drinking cocktails when the sun is out. A good summer drink should be like a relaxing soak in the pool but the sort of cocktails I love, Martinis, Manhattans etc, are all about a sharp injection of alcohol into the system, a sharp injection which can quickly turn to drowsiness or even irritability on a hot day. The fact that most cocktails need to be drunk quickly so that they don’t warm up or become dilute compounds the problem. Therefore what is needed during the summer is a drink that can take a little dilution from the ice melting and won’t get you drunk too quickly.

Take the Negroni, for example. I was introduced to this drink by my late Uncle Peter. One summer he invited me for lunch at his club, Boodles. I said I’d take an hour off for lunch and he replied, nonsense boy we won’t even have started eating by then. We began in the bar with a couple of Negronis each  – Campari, gin, red vermouth in equal measure with ice and a slice of orange. Then we had a bottle of Sancerre with our smoked eel followed by claret. I forget what we ate with the claret. Afterwards I think there may have been Green Chatreuse followed by a sleep. The Negroni has since become a firm favourite of mine but I find it much too strong for outdoor drinking.

Thankfully there exists something called a Negroni Sbagliato – literally wrong Negroni – where you substitute the gin for Prosecco. Instantly the alcohol level is halved and you have a drink that you can have a bucketful of when the sun comes out. My wife works a similar kind of magic with that old Southern States classic, the Mint Julep – she’s from California but her heart is in pre-Civil War South Carolina. Her Julep contains two shots of bourbon, one and a half of lemon juice (heretical apparently) and one of sugar syrup. You muddle them all in a highball glass with lots of ice and mint and then, here’s the clever bit, top up with sparkling water. This means that you’ll have a cool head in case the Yankees try anything sneaky.

There is one summer cocktail, however, that you must take the opposite approach with, Pimm’s. Is it my imagination or does Pimm’s get weaker every year? Certainly the way it’s served in British pubs with all that fruit and lemonade means that it’s only a notch above a shandy. I’d be happy serving it to children. In order to turn it into a drink for adults it needs a little stiffening up. For each serving of Pimm’s add a shot of strong gin such an Tanqueray Ten, you really want to taste the juniper and feel the alcohol, then top it up with not lemonade but ginger ale. Serve in pewter tankards with ice, mint and orange. That’s how my Uncle Peter used to order it in Boodles.

This originally appeared in the Spectator magazine. 

Beer Wine articles

Enough of these undrinkable craft beers

I have a friend who has been a real ale bore since his teens. During student pub crawls in Oxford he used to quiz unwary landlords on cellar temperatures and other arcane CAMRA matters. When he first visited New York some time in the 00s he was surprised by the craft beer scene. Surprised but not impressed. His comments were along the lines of: ‘typical Americans, they drink nothing but watery lager for years and then we they finally start drinking proper beer they take it too far with the hops, alcohol etc.’ My thought at the time was, when it comes to beer, too much is better than too little. Rather a Big Grizzly Bear IPA than Coors Light. Now that craft beer has hit these shores, we have the strange situation where British brewers are making versions of American versions of British beers.

The other night I reflected on my friend’s words whilst at the Cask in Pimlico. Actually it was almost impossible to reflect on anything so loud was it in this place. The next day my ears felt like they’d been at the Orbit in Leeds and my voice was hoarse from shouting. Never mind the Campaign for Real Ale, what British pubs really need is a Campaign for Soft Furnishings. I was looking forward to a nice chat with falafel magnate Patrick Matthews but I couldn’t hear much of what he said. The other problem was that most of the beers we tried were undrinkable (and the chicken and leek pie was horrid too.) They were nice at first but then my taste buds would be hit with a wave of hops and alcohol and I didn’t want another sip. We were drinking halves and it was very difficult to finish them. The nadir was a coffee stout that tasted like Guinness Foreign Extra laced with Tia Maria.

Patrick commented that the craft beer scene reminded him a little of wine 10-15 years ago. The emphasis then was on more: more extract, more ripeness, more oak, more alcohol. More, more, more! The model was big glossy Californian Cabernets. Wine has moved on. Everyone now talks about balance, acidity and drinkability. The model is Burgundy or even Beaujolais. Fashionable wines are ones that you could easily drink a bottle of by yourself. Or at least I could. Many new brewers, in contrast, are stuck in a 90s time warp. Rather than looking over their shoulders at the US, they should try some old favourites. The classic English beers such Landlord, Black Sheep and Young’s Special, are amazing and unique things. The disparate elements, alcohol, bitterness, fruit, maltiness are all in harmony with nothing shouting too loud. They’re complex enough to make you keep coming back but not so intense that you don’t want to take a really big swig. You can mull over them but they’re really for drinking in large quantities.

We shouldn’t be too hard on these ambitious new brewers though. To create something perfectly balanced is much harder than creating something immediately impressive. Making a good beer takes expertise and years of experience. I think in future all trendy beer pubs should have one classic British beer on tap just to show the young pretenders how it should be done. I bet it’ll be the first to run out.

Beer Spirits Wine articles

I’m bored with wine

Of course I’m not! I love wine. I’m just bored of ordinary wine. As a wine columnist for the Lady I get sent lots of samples. It sounds very exciting but the truth is that most of them aren’t very good. The whites in particular are desperately dull. My wife doesn’t even try them anymore. During this bout of sunny weather it has dawned on me that I would rather drink a gin & tonic, an Aspalls cider or even a bottle of Heineken than almost any sub £7 wine. There was an article in the Spectator  that got a lot of flack called Why Does Anyone Drink Wine by top advertising guru Rory Sutherland:

“But wine drunk on its own is often a terrible drink, usually consumed for appearances’ sake, or because the drinker lacks the confidence to complain, or for want of any alternative source of alcohol.”

You can read the whole thing here. I don’t agree with everything he says; he makes the mistake of conflating two types of wines, ordinary stuff, which is drunk by the undiscerning drinker or drunk by the discerning drinker when he’s not being discerning, and the more interesting stuff. But broadly, it’s hard to disagree with him. If you want something delicious, you’re almost always better off having a non-wine drink.  

The problem with cheap wine is that producers are trying to make a consistent product out of a an inconsistent annual crop. Wine doesn’t take well to industrial production. Grapes lose flavour when over-cropped. Rivals to wine: beer, cider, gin etc. don’t have these problems. They’re not aiming to be vintage. The big brands are industrial products and they’re not ashamed of it. Yes there’s an awful lot of bad beer and cider around, but most pubs, supermarkets and corner shops offer a few interesting beers, a decent cider and a superb selection of spirits for the same price as the not-so-good stuff.

This summer we’re drinking cocktails and my wife is happier than ever. The only problem is what to do with all those leftover samples. I could give them to my neighbours but the best thing to do with a cheap white is to add Aperol or Campari, fizzy water and ice to make a Bicyclette. Or you could party like its 1979 by adding Creme de Cassis to make a Kir.