t h e s p e c t a t o r
C o c k t a i l s f o r C h r i s t m a s t h e m i x o l o g o g i s t ’ s t i m e t o s h i n e
P e t e r G r o g a n T
here is a cocktail called a Sloe Comfortable Screw Up Against the Wall. It is a mixture of sloe gin, Southern Comfort, Galliano (as in the Harvey Wallbanger) and orange juice (as in the Screwdriver). I’m sure it is every bit as delicious as its name is witty, but I’ve never had one and I’m not feeling the poorer for it. Nor have I ever had a cocktail with — as I saw recently — spears of melon and pineapple thrusting out of it, fighting for space with some flowers, a large blue paper parasol, and a sparkler torched by the waiter as he arrived at the table.
glass of gin, unencumbered (unencucumbered, even) by anything so vulgar as a ‘garnish’ or as prissy as ice — might seem rather on the ascetic side to the consumer of what is cringemakingly known these days as mixology. Nonetheless, it’s a certain type of Englishman’s version of the martini, and a fine thing if the gin’s up to scratch. Its only adornment is the thrill of knowing that around campfires from Khartoum to Calcutta and on to Canberra, it was good enough to fuel the building of an empire.
Don’t get me wrong, I have with pleasure forked out knocking on 25 bucks for a dry martini in the cocktail capital of the world (and if you’re in the Oak Room at the Plaza or the Blue Bar at the Algonquin, it’s best not to count the quarters) but the thing is with a lot of modern cocktails is that it does all seem rather, well… effortful, doesn’t it?
t the other end of the scale, your Pink Gin — made by shaking two or three dashes of bitters into a serious here are times for innovation and irrational exuberance and there are other times for consolidation, for falling back on what we know to be true and good and constant. I can’t say ‘going back to basics’ without the notion of something nasty in the House of Commons woodshed involving John Major and Edwina Currie insinuating itself into my imagination, so I won’t. But straightened times do not necessarily mean lowered standards, and with the extraordinary flowering of the gin industry in the UK in the past few years the spirit
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that makes the heart of a good cocktail tick is in the rudest good health.
he roll of honour is too long to mention them all, but Berry Bros & Rudd No. 3, Sipsmith, the venerable Greenall’s and the eponymously-flavoured Geranium all do sterling service for their country (and Aldi’s Oliver Cromwell 1599 is a far from Puritan cheapie). But as far as I know, Sacred is the only gin hand-distilled by a polymath inventor and ex-City headhunter.At home. In his back room. In Highgate. And — uniquely — incorporating frankincense. But then again, I have a strong suspicion that Ian Hart is merely the current incarnation of an entity that has built empires for aeons.
The pink gin is a version of the martini, and a fine thing if the gin’s up to scratch ad he found himself in a malarial zone on the pink part of the map in the early 19th century I dare say Ian would have been aware of his good luck in being a guinea pig for the new-fangled quinine vehicle, tonic water. As the 1980s adman said: ‘There are at times, in foreign climes, some moments quite appalling. But none too fraught to set at nought by a stiff drink mixed with Rawlings.’ The sun appears to have set on Mr Rawlings’ empire but — if neat gin is a little hard to take in quantity — the tonic torch is carried brilliantly these days by the likes of Fever Tree and Fentimans (and, while I’m at it, Tesco’s Finest ain’t half bad either).
Being a ‘mixed drink’, a gin and tonic is not strictly speaking a cocktail, of course, but the festive season is not a time for Scroogean strictness. As it approaches, even the most potless of hedgies need not fear that simple needs to mean plain or boring. With piles of collateralised debt obligations and credit default swaps roaring in the grate, could there be anything more quintessentially Christmassy than sitting and watching them, warmed further by a glinting glass of the King’s Ginger liqueur?
evised at the behest of the King-Emperor himself by Messrs Berry and Rudd, I’m told that it is now available for a Cratchett-friendly price from Messrs Waitrose. Edward VI demanded something to warm his heroically over-used cockles while out huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ so it’s unlikely that he would have had the pleasure of mixing it with Fever Tree’s Lemon Tonic, ice and a slice. He might well, however, have approved of mixing it half-and-half with his good (but not perhaps his best) malt to make a super-charged Whisky Mac if he was having trouble paying the ’leccy bill. I wonder if, like me, he would have made the delightful Chase marmalade vodka part of a balanced and nutritious breakfast?
f a Christmas pud is beyond the bounds of budgetary prudence, the essence of yuletide spice can also be taken in handy, liquid form these days. Like the gin trade (and it is to be hoped that the current spate of micro-distillery start-ups is not going to go all Hogarthshaped on us) the bitters business is also booming. The apothecaries behind American outfits Fee Brothers and Bob’s Bitters (and German tyros The Bitter Truth) share the spirit of inquiry at work in Highgate and have breathed life into a tradition that goes back to dark age monasteries. They don’t, as far as I know, make Christmas Bitters. This the brainchild of whisky retailer Master of Malt and while I’m sure proprietor Ben Ellefsen doesn’t distil it from plum pud but that’s what it tastes like, and it puts some tinsel and baubles into even the reddest-faced pink gin.
’m not sure what the mixologists will make of it but it should be noted that not all their new cocktails are tricksy rubbish. Every now and then a new star ascends to the firmament. Whoever first shook equal parts of cold espresso coffee, Kahlua, white crème de cacao and vodka with some ice and strained them into the cocktail glass of posterity to make the first espresso martini (and I wouldn’t be surprised if Ian Hart was involved in it somehow) should be crowned the King-Emperor of cocktails.
Peter Grogan is the author of Grogan’s Companion to Drink and, having mis-spent some of his youth in Amsterdam, is partial to neat gin.