Words Henry Jeffreys Photographs Various
At the moment, the idea of going to a cocktail bar seems like a far-fetched fantasy, like winning the Grand National or going on holiday. But happily it’s not difficult to bring some of the magic of a good bar into your home. Just get in some quality bottles, follow the instructions (I’ve included some recipes and tips below) and cocktail nirvana is within your grasp.
My early experiences with cocktails, in contrast, were less than magical: 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.
Cocktails had something of an image problem when I was growing up. They were a bit Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses: sugary lurid concoctions laden with sparklers and umbrellas. On holiday, 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 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.
After university, I got a job in Oddbins and since then wine has been my main interest in life. For a time I was wine critic of The Lady, which made me sound like a character from a PG Wodehouse story. While learning about wine, I also began my reappraisal of cocktails. 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; a Martini drunk at the American Bar at the Savoy with a more sophisticated friend. 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. 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. It’s not rocket science but it does require following the rules.
You could do worse than read my new book The Cocktail Dictionary (available from all good bookshops including Top Hat and Tales). But if I can give only one tip, that would be to use fresh ice for each cocktail and make sure your ice is a) cold, not from a plastic bucket on the bar b) as large as possible or it will melt too quickly. So buy lots of trays, fill them with filtered water and get freezing. Oh, and don’t stint on the quality of the booze either. As the great American historian and booze enthusiast Benard deVoto wrote: “If you can’t serve good liquor to a lot of people, serve good liquor to a few people” – especially good advice as this year it looks like we’ll only be allowed to have a few people over.
Now, without further ado, here are my suggestions for happy Christmas drinking.
I like to think that I invented this cocktail though it has probably been done before. The addition of tawny port deepens and lengthens the flavour.
1 measure gin
1 measure Campari
½ measure sweet vermouth
½ measure tawny port
Fill a tumbler with large cubes of ice. Add all the ingredients, stir for a minute and garnish with a strip of orange peel.
Sherry Old Fashioned
Sherry makes a wonderfully sweetening agent in this classic cocktail. You could use Harvey’s Bristol Cream for that retro Christmas feel.
2 measures of bourbon or rye whiskey
1 tablespoon of sweet oloroso or cream sherry
2 dashes of Angostura bitters
Fill a tumbler with large cubes of ice. Add all the ingredients, stir for a minute and garnish with a maraschino cherry.
Very much like a Manhattan but made with rum. It’s worth using a high quality aged rum from Barbados, Cuba or Jamaica for this.
1 measure aged rum
1 measure sweet vermouth
Two dashes of Angostura bitters
Fill a shaker with ice and add the ingredients. Stir for one minute and strain into a chilled coupe glass (or you can serve it on the rocks). Garnish with a piece of orange peel.
This is just a fancy version of what my grandmother used to drink, a Whisky & Soda. It’s very refreshing and much less sweet than a G&T.
2 measures of blended Scotch whisky
2 dashes of orange bitters
Fill a tumbler or Highball glass with ice, add the whisky and stir, top up with soda, add a dash of bitters, and stir slowly again. Garnish with a strip of lemon peel.
Hot Spiced Cider
This is my wife’s recipe. I think it’s much nicer than any mulled wine. You can make a non-alcoholic version with cloudy apple juice or go the other way and add rum at the end.
3.5 litres of good quality cider (something from The Kent Cider Co perhaps)
Juice of 3 lemons
Juice of 3 oranges
1 tbsp orange zest
1/2 tbsp lemon zest
3 cinnamon sticks or bark
Put all the ingredients in a pan. Heat gently for 30 minutes. Do not boil. Add sugar to taste. If it’s going to be sitting around for a while, strain and remove spices to prevent it going bitter.
Henry Jeffreys is the author of three books, Empire of Booze, The Home Bar and The Cocktail Dictionary. He has written for the Guardian, Spectator and many others and currently works as features editor for Master of Malt in Tonbridge. He lives in Faversham with his wife and two daughters.