As England’s on-trade starts to open up, we chat to cocktail historian Jake Burger about how bars have changed, drinks archives, and his new book, An Anthology of 12 Classic Cocktails.
Joy abounds! Today in England, drinks are back on the menu. Pubs, bars and restaurants are open again for outside service. Much rejoicing in the streets!
It’s a moment that coincides with the release of An Anthology of 12 Classic Cocktails, written by cocktail historian and Ginstitute co-founder Jake Burger, in collaboration with distributor Hi-Spirits. It’s a beautiful hardback tome filled to the brim with vibrant cocktail photography, the rich tales behind each of the drinks, and advice and anecdotes on how to best make them. It’s designed to be genuinely useful as well as a joy to read.
“I’ve been an amateur cocktail historian and writer for many years. In my spare time I’m more likely to have my head buried in an archive than to watch Love Island,” Burger says when we discuss the book over the phone. “I’ve got all this research I’m not quite sure what to do with. And when this opportunity came along I thought it would be perfect to get my own research out there.”
With traditional and modern versions of each serve (from the Old Fashioned and Negroni, right through to the Espresso Martini), An Anthology… has an obvious purpose as a guidebook. But it’s also Burger’s chance to “set the record straight” and bust some of those cocktail myths.
“The classic one that keeps popping up in loosely written histories of the drink is the one about the Manhattan being created by Churchill’s mother at a party in New York,” he laughs. “With the aid of modern research tools available these days, it was fairly easy to work out that when she was supposed to be in New York she was giving birth to Winston.”
Classic cocktails: ‘The right time’
There’s no doubt it’s been a tumultuous year for everyone, perhaps especially so for those working in hospitality. In the UK, like elsewhere, there have been long periods of closure. How does Burger think it’s changed the trade?
“I noticed after the first reopening that it seemed among the general public, a slight regression is probably the wrong word to use… in terms of their taste.” By this, he means people were getting less adventurous in what they were ordering. The upside? More classic cocktails.
“Perhaps they’d lost that spirit of adventure. Or were more modest in spending their money and didn’t want to take a risk on something they might not like. Classics offer reassurance on what you’re going to get, and if you’re going to like it or not.” As such, “I think the time probably is right for a revisiting of the classics.”
Another major change has been in the rise of cocktail delivery and at-home consumption during lockdown. “People have got used to the idea that they can have great drinks at home. But people never came out to the bar just for great drinks, right? It’s for the atmosphere, for the sociable nature of it. But people’s habits may change, but I think the death knell for the bar is premature.”
Classic cocktails competition
As well as the easing of England’s lockdown, the launch of An Anthology of 12 Classic Cocktails is also in tandem with Hi-Spirits announcing a new UK-wide cocktail competition. The Classic Cocktail Masters UK will see bartenders compete with two interpretations of classic serves, and will triumph based on the look and taste of their drinks, plus their classic cocktail knowledge. After eight regional finals, the final eight (if restrictions allow) will be jetted off to Italy to visit the Branca distillery in Milan and tour the Italian Lakes. If you’re a bartender reading this and you want in (quite frankly, why wouldn’t you?), chat to your Hi-Spirits contact for more.
“None of us have a crystal ball and we’re not quite sure what will happen,” Burger continues as conversation turns to 12 April. I can almost taste the Old Fashioned. Things have changed. For him, with the uncertainty, there’s been a lot of cutting back on perishables, reducing the number of open bottles on the back bar, and just being a little bit more sustainable. But there’s a lot of optimism. “We’re fairly certain people are itching to go out – that when we reopen [the outside area] on the 12th, people will quite quickly be back at it.” See you there!