Apologies for lack of top quality content recently. We have just welcomed a new member of the Jeffreys family into the fold, a process that wasn’t particularly easy. You can read an essay I wrote on the subject here. And I’ve got a book out! It’s called The Cocktail Dictionary: An A–Z of cocktail recipes, from Daiquiri and Negroni to Martini and Spritz . The team at Mitchell Beazley (same publisher as Hugh and Jancis, dontcha know) has done a splendid job with witty illustrations by George Wyesol. Here’s a little extract:
Picture the scene: the frozen glass, the thick cold gin lightly seasoned with vermouth poured by a waiter in a pressed white jacket, solicitous but not obsequious; in the background a pianist knocks out a quietly swinging version of “Stars Fell on Alabama.” That moment of anticipation, and then the magic first sip. This was nothing like my early experience of cocktails. At university we had a ‘cocktail society’ known as ‘coc soc’. Events would take place once a month at the worst nightclub in town and consist of black bins filled with cheap wine, vodka and fruit juice and sold for 25p a cup. Revellers would be dragged out unconscious.
I don’t think my experiences were unusual. Cocktails had an image problem when I was growing up. They were sugary lurid concoctions laden with sparklers and umbrellas drunk my girls on holiday while real men drank beer. Daiquiris and Margaritas came out of machines full of churning ice, vivid with artificial colour. The situation wasn’t so different in specialist cocktail bars with bartenders more interested in pretending to be Tom Cruise in Cocktail rather than learning the basics of how to mix a good drink. Always be wary of a bar where the staff are having more fun than the customers.
There wasn’t one revelatory moment when I realised what I had been missing out on. It was a gradual process: a Negroni prepared by my uncle here; a Martini drunk at the American Bar at the Savoy with a more sophisticated friend there. By increments, I came round to the contemplative splendour of a perfectly-made drink, and the sheer escapism and magic of a good bar. It helps that the standard of mixed drinks has improved drastically in the last ten years. If you live in a city you’re probably not more than a mile or two away from a decent Old Fashioned. And thankfully the great British Gin & Tonic (weak, tepid with one lone ice cube floating in it) is becoming a thing of the past.
But while I was enjoying cocktails out, I still didn’t have much luck making them at home. It took me a long time to realise that cocktail making is as much a science as an art. You can’t throw it together and think you’re being creative. It bears more of a resemblance to baking than ordinary cooking relying on precise measurements, ratios and temperatures. The great bartenders who invented and codified the classic cocktail repertoire like Jerry Thomas in the 19th century, Harry MacElhone in the 1920s or Dick Bradsell (his classic Bramble illustrated above) in the 1980s, were empiricists. Their recipes were based on hours of experimentation. It’s not rocket science but it does require practise, lots and lots of practise.
Cocktails are much more than just delicious drinks, they can be a history lesson in a glass. Listen carefully and your drink might tell you a story about Prohibition, the first world war, the Royal Navy or the Rolling Stones. A Daiquiri can transport you to 1950s Havana, a Negroni to Milan, and a Vesper can make you feel like James Bond, if only for 10 minutes.
You will, however, only get the magic if you make them properly. This book is a good place to start but once you get the cocktail bug, your shelves will quickly fill up with books (I’ve provided a further reading list at the back), many of them offering contradictory advice. Reading can only take you so far, you will have to find out for what
works for you, which means, I’m afraid, making lots and lots of cocktails. It might get expensive but think how popular you will become.
Once you have mastered the basics, that’s when you can start playing around. I’m particularly proud of my Christmas Negroni which substitutes vermouth for tawny Port. Well, I like to think it’s mine. One of the things I learned from writing this book is that someone else probably got there first. So, here’s to a perfectly-made drinks, and let’s not worry too much about who invented what.