We talk about mentors, how to make the perfect Daiquiri and the greatest skill that a bartender can have with a stalwart of the London bar scene, Simon Difford. Oh, and he also tells us about the new edition of the magisterial Simon Difford’s Guide to Cocktails.
Anyone who has ever Googled a cocktail recipe will know Simon Difford’s work. He’s the man behind that invaluable drinks resource Difford’s Guide. What makes Difford so trustworthy is you know that he has made and tinkered with every recipe many many times. As well as being good at making them, he’s also obsessive about uncovering the history of classics like the Negroni and the Martini. Not easy when there are so many layers of myth attached to them. When we’re researching drinks for our Cocktail of the Week slot, Difford’s Guide is often our first port of call.
Now, he’s just launched the 15th edition of Simon Difford’s Guide to Cocktails, which contains over 3,000 recipes with 600 of them new. Yes, he really is a cocktail perfectionist. But he’s also one of the most approachable, friendly people in the business; always keen to talk and offer a word of advice. So here he is, and he’s shared with us three of his favourite cocktails including the outlandishly-named Psychopathia Sexualis, with some top tips on how you too can be a cocktail perfectionist.
Master of Malt: How did you get into the drinks business?
Simon Difford: In 1989, I put an advert in the Grocer Magazine saying ‘young agent seeks agencies’ or something along those lines, and this guy called Stan Sklar telephoned me and told me he imported spirits and liqueurs. I said that I knew nothing about the products he sold and I only had contacts with food buyers. He wouldn’t take no for an answer and insisted I went and saw him. So late that Friday afternoon I left the meeting after he filled my car boot with weird and wonderful samples, from mezcal with a worm in the bottle, vampire wine packed in a coffin, and Black Death Vodka with a skeleton on the label. I went home and worked my way through these products with my friends. They were a lot more fun than jars of gherkins and tins of artichoke hearts so I started selling his products, including a lot of J. Wray & Nephew overproof rum.
Stan Sklar offered me a large parcel of miniatures he wanted to clear at a very attractive price. They were under bond in boxes of 12 dozen that couldn’t be split and were all esoteric so difficult to sell. However, the prices were great, so I bought the lot and set up a business called Little Tipple selling those and other miniature bottles by the dozen and half dozen to off-licences. Then I opened an off licence called Tipples [in Bromley] and also started wholesaling full-size bottles to bars and restaurants. Booze took over and food became something I only ate rather than sold.
MoM: How did you become a cocktail expert? Was it a deliberate decision or did you fall into it?
SD: Whether I’m a “cocktail expert” will be debatable by many, but I do believe I have made and drunk more different cocktails than anybody else alive or dead. How, did I get into cocktails? When I had my off-licence, there was a restaurant a few doors down called Dillinger’s. The owner, Malcolm, often came into my shop and he started asking for more and more unusual cocktail ingredients to make cocktails in his diner. So I started stocking more liqueurs, syrups and things like cream of coconut for Malcolm. I bought a cocktail book called The Bartender’s Cherry and I started working my way through the cocktails in the book at home. I still have the book which is full of my notes.
My wholesale business grew to specialise in selling these ingredients to bars and restaurants and so I became more and more interested in cocktails and cocktail culture. Then I dreamt up CLASS Magazine, (an acronym of Cocktails Liqueurs And Speciality Spirits) aimed at bartenders, but before I could do that, I thought I ought to experience bartending, so I started working shifts at Café Sol in Greenwich. I made loads of blended Daiquiris and Margaritas!
MoM: When did you set up the Difford’s Guide website?
SD: Around 2005.
MoM: Who in the industry, past or present, or both, has been an inspiration to you?
SD: David Embury – a long way in the past – I love the attitude he expresses in his The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks book. Many of my recipes from vintage cocktails are based on his. Dick Bradsell was also a very influential friend. He’d come round to my flat and we’d make drinks. He had the greatest influence on how I seek to balance in cocktails, including dilution.
MoM: What’s been the biggest change in the drinks industry since you started out?
SD: The incredibly wide availability of products and the number of products available. When I started, Chambord was rare and hard to get in the UK. And products like absinthe weren’t available at all. I think there are more brands of gin available now than the total number of brands of spirits available back then.
MoM: How can the industry adapt to Covid?
I think we have to hope that enough people will be vaccinated, and the vaccine will prove effective enough that the bars can go back to how they were. However, we can see from our website that home cocktail making has dramatically picked up in popularity and even when bars return to normal there will still be a lot of people making cocktails at home. Hopefully, the rise in home cocktail making will not be at the expense of bars but will become an occasional alternative to a glass of beer or wine in front of the television and will play a big part in dinner parties.
MoM: What skill above all others does a bartender need?
SD: To be a good host.
MoM: What’s the hardest drink to get right in your book?
SD: I’ve always tested other bartenders on how they make a Daiquiri, I believe I was the first to do this. It’s a cocktail that requires a good recipe and the accurate measurement of each ingredient. A Ramos Gin Fizz requires knowledge of how to make it, not just a good recipe. And it took me a long time to nail a Clarified Milk Punch.
MoM: What kit do you need to make basic cocktails?
If you have good ice, a shaker, an Easy Jigger [a special transparent jigger with graduations for exact measurement] and a bar spoon, you can pretty much make any cocktail.
SD: If you could give one tip to aspirant home bartenders what would it be?
Buy an easy jigger and follow my recipes! Measuring ingredients is key to achieving the right balance, hence I created the Easy Jigger.
MoM: How has Instagram changed cocktails?
SD: I’m not so sure Instagram has changed cocktails. It may have changed people’s perceptions of them and helped bring back the blue drink. However, I don’t much use Instaspam or social media.
MoM: Do you have a least favourite cocktail?
SD: Shots. Whether they’re layered or neat, or mixed cocktail shots, I’m not into shots.
MoM: Which bottle do you reach for more than any others?
SD: The most truthful answer is sugar syrup, as it’s used in so many cocktail recipes. I’m very promiscuous when it comes to alcohol.
MoM: What’s your favourite bar (or pick a few) and why?
SD: The bar I’ve had the most memorable times in is The Cabinet Room in London, now sadly up for sale.
MoM: What are your three favourite cocktails and why?
SD: My Daiquiri recipe, because it’s the cocktail I’ve spent more time trying to perfect than any other.
Psychopathia Sexualis, it’s the best-named cocktail, and the most fun to order in a bar.
Negroni, I’ve even managed to order a Negroni at our local, the Rose and Crown. They’ve all three ingredients and it’s just a shot of each in a glass over ice and then stirred by the drinker’s finger. The only issue is, the recipe is equal parts and their minimum serve for vermouth is 50ml, so it ends up being a huge Negroni.
Simon Difford’s Guide to Cocktails is available to buy direct from Difford’s Guide.