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Master of Malt Blog

Tag: bars

Classic bars – The Gibson

In the second part of our occasional series on classic bars, we head to a listed, Edwardian ex-pub in Old Street, that specialises in a certain pickle-adorned cocktail. Welcome to…

In the second part of our occasional series on classic bars, we head to a listed, Edwardian ex-pub in Old Street, that specialises in a certain pickle-adorned cocktail. Welcome to The Gibson.

Head to 44 Old Street and you’d be forgiven for thinking the petite Edwardian building is a natty little boozer, complete with a hanging pub sign and green-tiled exterior walls. Venture inside, however, and you’ll find one of London’s most lauded bars.

The Gibson was opened by bartender Marian Beke in 2016 and won sixth place in the World’s 50 Best Bars soon after. Since then this 1930s-style tribute to the glamour and ceremony of cocktail culture has drawn visitors on the search for Beke’s famous Gibson Martinis (incidentally, my favourite cocktail), cigar collection, stellar service, treasure-trove decor and nightly changing live music.

It’s an industry favourite too, attracting bartenders from around the world wanting to get behind its uplit, copper bar to take advantage of Beke’s many homemade ingredients, house pickles and one-of-a-kind glassware. So, where did it all begin?

The Gibson Bar London

It looks like an ordinary boozer in Old Street

Pickle me this

“I used to work at Nightjar which is a great place, and I think it was just the next step,” explains Beke of his decision to set up shop solo. “In our industry you work 18/19 hours a day and I was thinking, I’m 30/31 now, if I wait until I’m 36 or 37, it might just be too difficult.”

To find the perfect spot, Beke had to have three or four ideas for his bar in the bag to account for the unknowns of location, size and licensing laws of his new venture. And then he found an 1870s listed building off the crossroads of Old Street and Clerkenwell Road, and the rest fell into place.

“When you look at the outside, it looks like a pub, it’s very English and with gin being very British, we asked what drink was the king of gin – the Martini.” Back in 2016, although some bars were championing the famous cocktail, Beke found that there was a distinct lack of Gibson culture (a gin Martini with a pickled onion).

The original cocktail is thought to be named after Charles Dana Gibson, a turn-of-the-20th-century American illustrator. He created the Gibson Girl, a pictorial representation of an independent Euro-American woman which Beke adopted as his logo, hung her image outside his bar, and The Gibson bar was born.

Gibson Girl

It’s a Gibson Girl!

Drinking time

The 50-odd-strong cocktail menu starts, of course with three iterations of the famous Gibson Martini. Its signature, inspired by William Boothby’s 1908 book The World’s Drinks, combines Copperhead Gin, pickling spice, Martini Ambrato Riserva, house double-pickled onion and a twist of lemon. This is followed by the Redistilled Gibson which macerates its ingredients for 72 hours; while the Aged Gibson Martini is aged in ex-balsamic barrels for six months.

The rest of the menu doesn’t escape Charles Gibson’s influence either. “I was looking for something different,” says Beke of what he wanted to create back in 2016. He found inspiration in Gibson’s 1901 Life’s Gibson Calendar. “The calendar concept is interesting, because people do relate to different months,” says Beke. “January has its own flavours, slowly moving through to June, July and August relating to summer with more fruity flavours, and then to December with the likes of whisky cocktails.”

Described as a ‘time machine’ the menu includes cocktails with names such as Gnome Alone, Royal Warrant, Jaffa Cakes and Bread & Butter with each month having four cocktails, one for each week of the month, and drinks comprising up to as many as 10 ingredients. As with his homemade pickles, Beke has also introduced some standout additions into his drinks. The house Red Snapper includes lobster broth and horseradish squid ink; the Shanghai Sling uses a duck fat-washed rum; you’ll find cannabis syrup in your Lindo Gaucho; and if you’ve ever wanted to try preserved salty duck egg Advocaat, do yourself a favour and order The Frying Dutchman.

I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention the tiki-esque glassware. Think cocktails served in a golden foot, an open hippo mouth, as a lightbulb, swimming in a paper hat and hanging from a monkey’s tail. Of course, what’s inside the glass is most important for Beke, but he’s been clever to recognise the role that social media can play in a bar’s success. He also saw first-hand guests’ reactions when he took those visuals away: “For the first time after five years, we decided to do something simple, seasonal and served in the likes of Champagne flutes with 30% off. So many people were like ‘no, no where is the proper glass?’ – it was so funny to see what happens when you take the glass or garnish away.”

Inside the Gibson

Inside the Gibson

Gibson on wheels

Thankfully, Covid hasn’t stopped Beke turning out his creations and the Gibson Boutique is a one-stop shop for all of our home drinking needs. Cigars, cocktail art and even pieces from the back bar (Gibson Lager, Electric Bitters, The Gibson’s Del Professore Pickled Vermouth) can be purchased, as well as a selection of garnishes – beer lego jellies, porcupine quills *add to cart*.

Drinks include Gibson Martini sets, all three signature Gibsons, Buttered Old Fashioneds, a Pink Death in the Afternoon and the three-pepper Kiss of a Scorpion.

It goes without saying though that I and the bars many other fans can’t wait to get back inside (or outside) the building. Beke’s focus on service is one of The Gibson’s most defining features, with seated only service, side pickles to nibble on, live music, and digestif shots and chocolate arriving with the bill, the whole experience of drinking at 44 Old Street is a memorable and unexpected one. “I always prefer it when people don’t know us and are passing by and imagine they’re walking into a pub,” explains Beke of what he hopes guests feel when they visit, “I want them to think this is the best experience they’ve had in a long time.”

The Gibson bar

I just popped in for a pint, and now this…

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The Nightcap: 26 February

The Nightcap makes its final February appearance for 2021 with news on record-breaking whisky, a host of new releases and the life-affirming effects of gin-soaked raisins. Happy Friday, folks. If…

The Nightcap makes its final February appearance for 2021 with news on record-breaking whisky, a host of new releases and the life-affirming effects of gin-soaked raisins.

Happy Friday, folks. If you’re in England, you’re no doubt excited or anxious about the roadmap to end the country’s lockdown measures. It makes you think that at some point all this will just be a bizarre collective memory we share. But while we wait for normality to return, we still need to find ways to pass the time. And thankfully there’s always enough going on in the drinks industry to keep us entertained. Just look at this week’s Nightcap, for example. It’s bursting at the seams with boozy happenings.

As was the MoM blog this week, as Kristy revelled in her good fortune at tasting the remarkable Bowmore 27 Year Old – Timeless Series, Ian Buxton returned to unmask a mysterious billionaire Scooby-Doo-style while Lucy sat down with Adnams head distiller John McCarthy to hear his thoughts on all kinds of boozy business. Mille then made a cocktail that made us all realise how much we love Maryland turtles before Henry showcased ten of our favourite vermouths and put forward a contender for best image to ever feature on our blog after speaking to Kathy Caton, the founder of Brighton Gin. Elsewhere, Adam had a wonderfully whisky-soaked week, going around the globe in a tasting glass to find out why Peerless whiskey is making waves, how the Dartmoor whisky distillery has unlocked Devon’s potential as a home for great drams and what the confusing but charming new Starward bottling is all about.

Now, onto the Nightcap!

The Nightcap: 26 February

This one bottle alone fetched £1m

Whisky collection sells for almost £6.7m at auction

The record books are going to need some significant revising following a recent auction. You might recall the ‘The Perfect Collection’ was tipped to make headlines and now the nearly 3,900 bottle-strong hoard of whisky has lived up to the hype. The group took a hammer price of £6,675,000, attracting 1,557 distinct bidders from 54 countries. While a bottle of Macallan 1926 Fine and Rare 60-year-old, sold for £1 million, making it the first single bottle of whisky to be sold at an online-only auction for one million pounds (looks at the camera with Dr Evil face). The collection, which was built up by the late American private collector Richard Gooding, has become the highest-value hoard ever to sell on the secondary market at an auction dedicated to one single collector’s whisky. “This auction was solely dedicated to one collector’s magnificent library of whisky – a man who was dedicated to building the perfect collection. As enthusiasts of whisky ourselves, we knew that this collection deserved its own spotlight to allow us to truly convey the rarity and sheer scale of something so historic,” Iain McClune, founder of Whisky Auctioneer, said​. “With so many incredible bottles attracting the attention of high-value investors and passionate collectors across the world, the sale is one for the record books.” The whole affair is an absolute gem for those who love eye-watering sums being traded for incredible booze that will almost certainly never be drunk. Which is a shame.

The Nightcap: 26 February

Campbeltown Harbour, back in the good ol’ days

Old Campbeltown photos sought by Glen Scotia distillery

Campbeltown was once the whisky capital of the world, containing over 30 distilleries in the 19th century. There are only three left today. Now that rich history is being celebrated by one of the three, Glen Scotia, in a new initiative to find old photos of the town’s whisky heyday. So if you have any tucked away in your loft, you can email them in to [email protected] or do it the old fashioned way and send them by post to the distillery. More information on the website. The deadline is 31 March this year. Chosen images will be used as part of Glen Scotia Whisky Festival. Iain McAlister, master distiller at Glen Scotia, said: “Whisky was a way of life in our coastal town for over 100 years and over time, all that experience, craft and passion has been poured into Glen Scotia. Now we are looking for photography that will help us uncover what makes Campbeltown the ‘whiskiest place in the world’.” To whet your appetite, Glen Scotia has published some evocative old photographs like the one above. Ah, it really takes you back.

The Nightcap: 26 February

The smoky-sweet high strength dream of a dram will be here soon

Benriach releases Smoke Season

There’s a new small-batch smoky Benriach on the horizon and we’ve just had a little taste. It’s the aptly-named Smoke Season and pays tribute to the old days of Speyside when the region’s whiskies would have been peated. The peat used is from the mainland which comes from trees and heather and has a quite different character to the seaweed-scented Islay variety. According to the press bumf it’s “the most intensely smoked whisky to be released by the distillery” and yet because of its cask maturation, the smoke is beautifully balanced by layers of chocolatey sweet spicy oak. Master blender Dr Rachel Barrie explained: “With intensely peated spirit batch distilled every year, at Benriach we never stop exploring how the fruit and smoke aromatics intertwine and mature in a range of eclectic oak casks, either amplifying or transforming the perception of peat.” The barrels include “a high proportion of charred and toasted American Virgin oak casks.” Despite being bottled at a punchy 52.8% ABV, we reckon it’s best without any dilution, all the better to enjoy the rich sweet salted caramel, tobacco and cinnamon notes. RRP is a very reasonable £53, roughly a £1 per percentage of alcohol, and we should be getting some in soon. 

The Nightcap: 26 February

If you’re a fan of white rum this is definitely one to check out

Equiano Rum reveals new white rum 

In a category as diverse and brilliant as rum, it can be difficult to stand out. However, when Equiano, the world’s first African & Caribbean rum, was launched by global rum ambassador Ian Burrell and Foursquare master distiller Richard Seale back in October 2019, it received plenty of headlines. Probably because of the world first thing. And the fact that Burrell and Seale were involved. Also, it’s a blend of molasses rums from Foursquare and Mauritius-based Gray’s Distillery. It really had a lot going for it. As does Equiano Light, the brand’s first line extension. Made from a blend of liquids from the same distilleries, namely lightly aged molasses Foursquare rum and fresh sugar cane juice rum from Gray’s, the spirit is said to have “subtle notes of ripe sugarcane and hints of natural vanilla and citrus” meaning it should be perfect for classic rum cocktails such as The Daiquiri. The brand has also said that Equiano Light was created to offer a “contemporary alternative to traditional pouring rums” and to “enrich the taste profile of an often-underrated spirit” while “silencing any notion that white rums lack the sophistication of their darker counterparts”. Equiano Rum, named after African-born writer, entrepreneur, abolitionist and freedom fighter Olaudah Equiano, will also continue to grant 5% of global company profits and £/$2 from every bottle sold through equianorum.com to ground level freedom and equality projects annually. The brand has also recently teamed up with Anti-Slavery International, the oldest international human rights organisation in the world, to fund their vital work to eliminate all forms of modern slavery across the globe.

The Nightcap: 26 February

Missing the hubbub of nightlife, this Mexican bar has the solution

‘I miss my bar’ recreates those nightlife noises we miss so much

Do you miss your bar? We certainly miss ours which is why we loved an initiative from Monterrey bar, Maverick (sent to me by wife’s father who lives in LA. Shout out to you Mr Lemkin! We have a very informal relationship). That’s Monterrey Mexico, not Monterrey California. It’s a website called ‘I miss my bar’ that lets you recreate the noises of your favourite bar with sliders controlling elements such as rain noise, music, background chatter, traffic and drinks being made. Every week there’s a new playlist put together by staff. All you need to provide are the drinks. Wouldn’t it be great if you could really just turn down that loud group in the corner, though? What are we saying? We are that loud group in the corner. As well as being great fun, it serves a serious purpose, to encourage people to buy vouchers to be redeemed when the bar opens. If you don’t live near Monterrey, then think about helping out your local bar, pub or restaurant, or it might not be there when the lockdown lifts.

The Nightcap: 26 February

This would make one hell of a birthday present, as Jay-Z knows all too well

Sotheby’s to sell Jay-Z’s 1969 D’Ussé Cognac 

We don’t know if any of our dear readers got something special for their 50th birthday, but we would wager that few got a one-of-a-kind bottle of Cognac. But that’s exactly what Shawn Carter, or Jay-Z as you probably know him best, got when he celebrated the big 5-0 in December 2019. D’USSÉ surprised him with the first-ever bottle of its 1969 Anniversaire Limited Edition Grande Champagne Cognac. The bottling was taken from a single barrel-aged in a two-hundred-year-old cellar at Château de Cognac. It’s also housed in a diamond-shaped cut crystal bottle and is adorned with 24 karat gold leaf wrapping on the neck, so it’s suitably swanky. A limited run of the Cognac will be made available for consumer purchase in the spring. Before that, however, a bottle carrying Mr Carter’s engraved signature will be presented for sale at Sotheby’s and is estimated to fetch between $25,000-75,000. That money won’t be lining the legendary hip-hop star’s pocket, however, as the proceeds will go to the Shawn Carter Foundation, which aims to help individuals facing socio-economic hardships further their education at institutions of higher learning. There is no reserve for bids in this auction lot, so Bottle No. 1 will open at just $1 at 2pm GMT on 1 March and the winning bid will be announced at 2pm GMT on 13 March 2021. Fancy your chances?

Jung & Wulff Barbados rum No.3

It’s just like being in Barbados

Sazerac releases Jung & Wulff Caribbean rum range

More exciting rum news! Sazerac, the New Orleans-based drinks company, has just launched a new range of rums and we have to say they look brilliant. Consisting of spirits from Trinidad, Barbados and Guyana, we are particularly taken with the snazzy retro travel posters on the labels. At a time when we can’t travel, they are just the tonic we need. The Trinidad Rum No.1 features steel drum players in front of an ocean liner, Guyana Rum No.2 a tropical jungle scene and the Barbados Rum No. 3 label, a cricket match set against palm trees. The contents are pretty tasty too. All are limited edition blends of pot and column still rums from undisclosed distilleries – though you’ll probably be able to guess the origins of the Trinidad and Guyana bottlings. As with all Sazerac brands, there’s a good bit of history here too as Liam Sparks from importer Hi-Spirits explained: “Jung & Wulff were early importers of rum, distributing to cafés and bars across New Orleans and beyond. Strictly limited, our Jung & Wulff rums celebrate three influential places: Trinidad, Guyana and Barbados. I believe these rums are a true interpretation of each island’s style and brilliantly showcases the different terroirs that are available throughout the Caribbean.” And they’ve just arrived at Master of Malt.

The Nightcap: 26 February

Nine gin-soaked-raisins a day keeps the doctor away… supposedly. (It won’t. But they sure are tasty)

And finally…  105-year-old woman claims gin-soaked raisins helped her overcome Covid

Forget cross country running, meditation and salad, if you want to lead a long life one American lady has the answer, gin-soaked raisins. 105-year-old Lucia DeClerk from New Jersey contracted Covid in her nursing home despite being vaccinated but managed to fight off the virus. The New York Times reported that she had very few symptoms and was back to her best after two weeks. She attributed her robust old age to eating nine gin-soaked raisins a day: “Fill a jar, nine raisins a day after it sits for nine days,” she said. She didn’t specify which brand of gin but it seems that this special diet gave her a raisin to live. 

Sorry.

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Cocktail of the Week: The Diamondback

This week’s cocktail is a post-Prohibition heavyweight, that plays with rye whiskey, Chartreuse and apple-based spirits. We owe it all to an unassuming, Maryland turtle… it’s the Diamondback. I have…

This week’s cocktail is a post-Prohibition heavyweight, that plays with rye whiskey, Chartreuse and apple-based spirits. We owe it all to an unassuming, Maryland turtle… it’s the Diamondback.

I have quite a few things in common with terrapins: we like to feed on shrimps, crabs, clams and mussels; we are known to hibernate in the winter; and we like to catch raindrops in our mouths. We also share the Diamondback cocktail – for the terrapins, it’s their namesake and for me, well, I just like to drink them.

The diamondback terrapin (so called because of the pattern on its shell) was the inspiration for the Diamondback Lounge at the Lord Baltimore Hotel where the cocktail was invented. This aquatic turtle which thrives in the mangroves and marshes of North America, is Maryland’s official state reptile, and University football fans will recognise the Maryland Terrapins’ jaunty, beshelled mascot with an ‘M’ emblazoned on its proud chest.

Dianondback

This is a Diamondback

The Lord Baltimore Hotel (which still stands today) was one of the tallest structures in Baltimore when it was built in 1928. The Diamondback Lounge no longer exists at the hotel, and the bartender responsible for the eponymous cocktail remains a mystery, but the most well-documented record of the recipe can be found in Ted Saucier’s Bottoms Up, published in 1951.

It calls for 1.5oz (40ml) rye whiskey, 0.75oz (20ml) applejack, and 0.75oz (20ml) yellow Chartreuse, shaken with ice, strained over ice in a rocks glass and garnished with mint. History buffs among you will note the post-Prohibition date on Saucier’s tome – and considering the 100 proof strength of each ingredient, the Diamondback would have been a pretty powerful reintroduction to drinking for the native Baltimorian.

But the contemporary Diamondback comes in a slightly different guise. How has the cocktail changed its geometry for the modern-day drinker?

The great Chartreuse debate

Saucier’s recipe calls for the use of yellow Chartreause, but in 2005, Seattle bartender Murray Stenson put his version of a Diamondback on the Zig Zag Café’s menu, swapping yellow Chartreuse for green. A bold move – with the green variant coming in at an even higher ABV than the original yellow, making this cocktail even more potent. But with the rye whiskey threatening to dominate the flavour profile, the more herbal and pronounced green Chartreuse was perhaps chosen by Stenson to stand up for itself. Fast-forward to 2011 and Jim Meehan adopts the green method too in his landmark PDT Cocktail Book.

Stenson is also responsible for a change in method and serve style. His recipe calls for the three ingredients to be stirred over ice, rather than shaken, strained into a chilled cocktail class and garnished with a cherry. Meehan eschews the cherry but it isn’t rare to see a Diamondback garnished with a lemon peel.

Bottoms Up

Bottoms Up!

Which rye when?

The choice of whiskey is also left up to interpretation. While Saucier’s recipe (and most since) simply call for ‘rye whiskey’, Stenson’s choice of Rittenhouse Straight Rye 100 proof (50% ABV) has been adopted by Diamondback fans as their favourite pour. Its notes of dried fruit, spices and caramel are the perfect companion for the herbal green Chartreuse and complements the applejack component (more on that soon).

Interestingly, Meehan reverts to Saucier’s loose prescription of rye whiskey, but raises its measure from 1.5 oz (40ml) to 2 oz (50ml). With that in mind, we can confirm that slightly lighter Woodford Reserve Kentucky Rye or Wild Turkey Straight Rye sit beautifully in a Diamondback. As does Finalnd’s Kyro Distillery’s Malt Rye for something slightly less conventional, but no less delicious.

What on earth is applejack?

Saucier’s recipe calls for the addition of applejack. UK drinkers probably won’t be familiar with this apple brandy spirit. So-called for its production method of ‘jacking’ (freezing fermented cider and then removing the ice) it originated in New Jersey in 1698 and is attributed to the Laird family. During the 19th and 20th centuries, it declined in popularity, but post-Prohibition, The Laird family were granted permission to make it again for ‘medicinal purposes’ and its popularity rose again.

Stenson honoured the Laird family in his reinvention of the Diamondback, citing the use of Laird’s Straight Applejack (Laird’s standard applejack bottling contains neutral alcohol along with apple brandy), while Meehan simply states the use of apple brandy in his recipe. It isn’t uncommon to see the use of Calvados in the place of applejack – spirits in kind, but using different apples. 

Diamondback Cocktail

Diamondback Cocktail, courtesy of the Bar with No Name

And the riffs keep coming. New east London bar from Remy Savage, A Bar With Shapes For A Name, has bottled its version of a Diamondback for delivery. It combines Knobb Creek (at 50% ABV, a nod to the original recipe), cider eau-de-vie (a tribute to applejack), Chartreuse MOF (neither green nor yellow, a diplomatic choice), raspberry eau-de-vie and manuka honey. “This drink from the 1950´s is « big » both aromatically and in terms of ABV,” the team writes on its Instagram post. “We made a few changes to try and soften it up and give it a crisp yet delicate fruity finish.”

My favourite version, below, uses Saucier’s ratios and ingredients but stirred and with an added cherry as per Stenson’s recipe. It’s enough to get me, and the terrapins, out of hibernation.

How to make a Diamondback:

30ml Rittenhouse Straight Rye whiskey
15ml Laird’s Straight Applejack
15ml Yellow Chartreuse

 Stir over ice and strain into a chilled Nick & Nora glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.

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The new faces of absinthe

As London gets its first absinthe distillery, Millie Milliken arms herself with an absinthe spoon and discovers the elixirs that are giving the spirit a new lease of life, and…

As London gets its first absinthe distillery, Millie Milliken arms herself with an absinthe spoon and discovers the elixirs that are giving the spirit a new lease of life, and why the category might just surprise you.

Among my taxidermy collection are a mouse with a Jacobean collar (Blackadder), a Victorian menagerie of hummingbirds (The Jackson Five) and a sleeping mouse (Cheese). None of them, however, come close to the specimens that inhabit absinthe parlour, The Last Tuesday Society, in Hackney. One of my last visits to the curio-stuffed absinthe bar saw me take a perch next to a stuffed lion called Leonora (see header) sitting upright and wearing a red top hat. Directors Allison Crawbuck and Rhys Everett sure know how to do whimsy.

They also know how to make absinthe, having just opened London’s first absinthe distillery. It’s where they make Devil’s Botany from a small base in Leyton, using British wheat base spirit and 14 botanicals, including grand wormwood, green anise, devil’s claw root, meadowsweet and elderflower.

It’s part of a new wave of absinthes that includes Hendrick’s version, launched in 2019, which join more established brands such as St George and, of course, La Fée in changing people’s perceptions of this misunderstood, historically demonised and enigmatic spirit.

Yet, there’s still plenty of work to do. Those stories of hallucinations, green fairies and setting sugar cubes on fire still abound, and it’s ban for nearly a century, in the US in 1912, France in 1915 and the rest of Europe, hasn’t done its reputation many favours. But a world-wide repeal throughout the early noughties led to its re-emergence.

With so much history, ritual and romance, not to mention famous drinkers including Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway, it’s a category that home drinkers are starting to rediscover. So fix yourself a Death in the Afternoon, pop some Piaf on the record player and settle in.

Alison Crawbuck & Rhys Everett Devil's Botany Absinthe

Rhys Everett & Alison Crawbuck enjoying a glass of absinthe

A new horizon

“It’s always been the dream,” explains Crawbuck when I ask her why she and Everett decided to make their own absinthe. “We opened the bar in 2016, importing our absinthes from other artisanal distillers in Switzerland and France, sharing their stories, learning from their history, and seeing where we could make our own mark.”

It was important for them to highlight the complexity of absinthe, converting the naysayers who voice their dislike of aniseed and showing that there is so much more beyond it. “Our research found lots of 18th century recipes for herbal elixirs, so it was a mixture of finding out what went into the absinthe and making sure that we’re using botanicals used pre-ban and creating our own twist on it,” says Everett. “We chose herbs that grow around Hackney Marshes, but also those that make a difference to the absinthe to give it a more unique flavour. That’s how we landed on elderflower and meadowsweet.”

They also wanted to highlight the ‘bleue’ (clear) style of absinthe, as opposed to the more famous ‘verte’, which originated in Switzerland and was perfected during absinthe’s ban to cleverly trick officials looking for the giveaway green liquid. The absinthe also ‘louches’, turning a beautifully milky white on impact with water, a mark of a high-quality absinthe.

Someone else who has a keen eye on absinthe is Lesley Gracie. She may be better known for being the master distiller for Hendrick’s Gin, but 2019 saw the bar world in a frenzy when she presented them with the brand’s very first absinthe. 

From her lab up in Girvan, she set herself the challenge of creating one that showed the best of star anise, but also made it approachable – not to mention giving people a lower ABV.

“The way that we produce gin is very similar to how you make absinthe,” she explained. After all, absinthe is also a botanical spirit. “I really like absinthe, but some of them that are out there are so strong: if you have something at 70% ABV, you drink it and your ears melt and fall off. We pulled the strength down to 48% abv which means that when somebody makes a cocktail with it, they can pour a proper measure and really allow that flavour to shine through.”

The La Fee absinthe green room

The La Fee green room

The great re-awakening

None of this would have been possible without the help of a chap called George Rowley. The brand owner of La Fée, which was launched in 2000, also helped kickstart the repeal of absinthe’s ban in Europe. I (virtually) meet him in The Green Room, the very square footage where it all happened.

In the late 1990s, he set about making his own absinthe. He travelled to France to meet Marie-Claude Delahaye, owner of Musée de l’Absinthe to discuss how to go about it. It didn’t go well. “A week later I decided to write her a letter that said, ‘I understand where you’re coming from and we know absinthe is legally banned in France, but if we could find a distillery that used to make absinthe would you be the source of the recipe from the museum so we could guarantee that what we were selling was real absinthe?’ She agreed.”

And so La Fée was born. It was launched at The Groucho Club, helmed by none other than legendary bartender Dick Bradsell who chose Bohemian Sours to showcase it. Fast-forward 21 years and Rowley has just added a new 20cl version of his Parisienne bottling to the collection. It comes complete with an autopourer (for a fuss-free serve) and a menu including cocktails such as the French Mojito, Spider Highball and the La Fee Sour. Drinks that bring absinthe into the 21st century.

The French Mojito made with La Fee absinthe

The French Mojito made with La Fee

Expect the unexpected

Crawbuck too suggests simpler drier serves a world away from the traditional ritual of resting a slotted spoon with a sugar cube on top of an absinthe-filled glass and slow-pouring water over the top. “For the home bartender, absinthe as a Spritz is a great afternoon pick me up,” suggests Crawbuck. “It’s a time and setting most people don’t think to have absinthe, sitting in the sun, but it works, especially with our recipe being floral and herbaceous.”

Jenny Griffiths, previously manager at absinthe-bar Croque Monsieur, champions Spritzes too, switching vermouth or amaro with absinthe and adding a dry wine and some fruit. She also found a myriad of other ways to transform classic recipes into something a bit different with the help of absinthe. The Absinthe Grasshopper was popular “despite how boozy that drink should have been”, while a twist on the traditional fountain brought with it some refreshment: “We filled the water part with cucumber and the smallest bit of sugar and rose liqueur. That always went down really well,” she said.

Strawberry and vanilla are flavours that Kelley Hill of The Distillery London picks out as unlikely bedfellows of absinthe. She’s created the Lady Claire, 40ml Chase Rhubarb, 10ml absinthe, 10ml Byrrh, 10ml crème de cassis, 1 bar spoon strawberry jam, shaken and double-strained into a coupe as well as the Pulp Fiction, a mix of Portobello 171, absinthe, cloudy apple, lemon juice, black grapes and mint, designed to share Pimm’s-style in a jug.

Bar manager at FAM, Tatjana Sendzimir

Bar manager at FAM, Tatjana Sendzimir

For bar manager of FAM, Tatjana Sendzimir, creating a frozen absinthe cocktail is an intriguing idea. That or a Daisy: “something quite light that if you found the right gin, you could play around with something bright and zingy. Like grapefruit, which would work with the floral notes in absinthe in quite a pronounced way,” she said.

If there’s a cardinal rule for Rowley though, absinthe should be drunk with ice, and lots of it.

“The activator within any drink with absinthe is the ice, the water acts as a catalyst for all the flavours.” He should know; he’s drunk absinthe every week for the last 21 years. I doff my drinking partner’s red top hat to him.

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Why bartenders love vodka with flavour

For the first time in years, there’s real excitement about the vodka category among bartenders. From bottles made with Chardonnay grapes to gin producers getting in on the act, Millie…

For the first time in years, there’s real excitement about the vodka category among bartenders. From bottles made with Chardonnay grapes to gin producers getting in on the act, Millie Milliken looks at the brands putting the flavour into vodka.

The words ‘exciting’ and ‘vodka’ probably weren’t natural bedfellows 10 years ago. The gin boom put paid to vodka’s reign as the clear spirit of choice, saturating the market with juniper, coriander seeds, orris root and any other botanical you can shake a balloon glass at. But behold – the thirst for standout, complex and interesting vodkas is returning.

Vodka with character

As well as the likes of milk-based Black Cow, Iceland’s eco-friendly Reyka and even a Chardonnay-based liquid from winemaker Chapel Down, there are more and more brands that bartenders can’t get enough of. Even gin makers are getting in on the act, we’re looking at you Mermaid Salt Vodka.

For Anna Sebastian, bar manager of the Artesian bar in London, vodka is back: “I have always loved the vodka category. Everybody still loves gin, but people’s love of vodka has definitely grown in the last year and a half. A lot of people thought vodka was really boring but some of the products on the market now have really changed things.”

Alex Mills from Lab 22 in Cardiff pouring vodka

Alex Mills from Lab 22 in Cardiff

The leaning of today’s customer towards more premium spirits, classic and nostalgic cocktails, and a strong, ethical brand identity puts vodkas in good stead for the future. Though vodka makes up a hearty percentage of bar sales in terms of volume, a focus on terroir, brand identity and sustainability shows how vodka can carve out a premium nice.

Vodka with flavour

“We’re massive fans of Chase Vodka, mainly because my colleague Max loves crisps,” explains Alex Mills of Cardiff’s Lab 22. Indeed, the distiller which started as the maker of Tyrells Crisps has added what Mills calls a ‘bucolic vibe’ to its potato vodka, just as it did to elevate Britain’s favourite crunchy snack.

About 250 potatoes go into each bottle, while the peelings are fed to the cattle on the Chase family farm in Herefordshire. They also get some of the spent mash post-distillation – and what they don’t get goes into fertilising their fields. Chase’s still and rectification column are called Fat Betty and Maximus respectively. The water they use is drawn from the Malvern Hills. We feel wholesome just writing about it.

The liquid tells its own story too, with Mills and co liking to take advantage of its creamy and vanilla notes, and buttery texture in a Russian Martini alongside gin and crème de cacao: “If you use Chase as the largest measure in that you’ve basically got this milkshakey base.”

Sapling sustainable vodka

A bottle of Sapling vodka spotted in its natural habitat

Vodka with ethics

The setting of where Sapling vodka is made in London’s Clapham may not be as bucolic as the rolling Herefordshire hills, but the sustainability focus of co-founders Ed Faulkner and Ivo Devereux makes it an ethical choice for the modern consumer. While turning a tree planting party (yes, you read that right) into a music festival, they found the hardest element was stocking the bar with sustainable products. Now, with their own eco-friendly brand, for every (100% recyclable) bottle of their 100% British wheat vodka bought a tree is planted and customers can even track their tree via its own unique code.

Their story certainly caught the ear of south London bar Funkidory owner Sergio Leanza who uses Sapling as his house vodka: “We chose it as our house vodka as it’s made in south London, very close to our venue, and the product which we get in 5L pouches is really good.”

In the bar, Vodka Martinis (using another premium vodka) have been a surprise off-menu order, while Sapling is the vodka of choice when it comes to other big sellers, Cosmopolitans and Espresso Martinis.

These more classic, nostalgic cocktails are indeed a great showcase of vodka, and Sebastian noticed a  surge in these styles of drinks last year at the bar. “Looking at classic cocktails, the Vodka Martini is probably one of our highest sellers, even more than Gin Martinis,” she says while also nodding to the vodka-friendly cocktails on the Artesian’s Disco-themed menu which launched last year.

Pleurat Shabani founder of Konik's Tail

Pleurat Shabani founder of Konik’s Tail

Vodka with elegance

Another vodka that sets bartenders’ tongues wagging is Konik’s Tail. Part of the reason is its founder, the dedicated and charismatic Pleurat Shabani who literally slept in a field in Poland to understand the three grains used in his vodka. “The first base is nutty, earthy spelt, which I call the smiling grain; then you have wheat, the happy grain, which gives butterscotch and vanilla; and final the dancing grain, or golden rye, bringing oiliness and white pepper spice,” he told me.

Daniel Alonso, bartender at Manchester’s Bunny Jackson’s, was charmed by both Shabani and his vodka when he was first introduced to Konik’s Tail. “I ended up going out in Manchester with him and he just had this rolodex of serves and drinks in his head, including using Konik’s Tail with whisky and Giffard Banane Liqueur.” For Shabani though, Konik’s Tail served simply chilled with a slice of lemon peel is the best way to drink his vodka.

There is still a lot of work to do to grow the vodka category back to its previous heights. Something that Shabani is well aware of. “I was a lonely voice on the vodka side when I launched Konik’s Tail. I’ve been praising and preaching for the last two years, but the quality has to be there from producers small and big, working with consumers, who are wanting to have more elegance in their drinks.”

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New Arrival of the Week: Vermouth del Professore Chinato

Today we’re tasting a special Italian vermouth, called Vermouth del Professore Chinato. It’s made in Turin and named after the father of mixology, the professor himself, Mr Jerry Thomas! Jerry…

Today we’re tasting a special Italian vermouth, called Vermouth del Professore Chinato. It’s made in Turin and named after the father of mixology, the professor himself, Mr Jerry Thomas!

Jerry Thomas was a bartender, showman and the author of the pioneering Bartender’s Guide (1863) aka How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion. This book was the first time many classic cocktails were written down and as such he is known as the ‘father of mixology’, a word that sounds like it was made up in the 1990s but was actually first used in Victorian America. Thomas was also known as ‘the professor’ and our New Arrival of the Week was created in tribute to him by chef Federico Ricatto, Carlos Quaglia from the Antica Distilleria Quaglia and the team at the Jerry Thomas Speakeasy in Rome. The idea is to produce an old timey vermouth like Thomas would have used in his heyday.

Carlos Quaglia writes: “We wanted to create an ‘authentic’ vermouth made in the traditional manner, representing the style that was popular in the late 18th-early 19th centuries with superb quality raw materials. We met some of the best craftsmen, still capable of making these unique spirits that seemed to have disappeared, putting plenty of passion into the process”.

The Antica Distilleria Quaglia was founded in the late 19th century and is still in family hands. It’s based in Turin, the birthplace of vermouth back in the days when the city was part of the Kingdom of Sardinia which included Piedmont and Savoy. The latter is now in France and is the home of Vermouth de Chambery. Piedmont is famed for its wines like Barolo and Barbaresco, and the aim with the Professore range is to make products where you can really taste the wine. Most vermouth nowadays use neutral wine bases but traditionally vermouth would really have tasted of the wines they were made from. To this end, Professore uses classic Piedmontese grape varieties like Moscato, Freisa and Nebbiolo from vineyards in Langhe and Monferrato.

The range (above) consists of a rosso, a bianco, and our New Arrival, a chinato. Chinatos are a sort of halfway house between a vermouth and a red wine. They are traditionally made in tiny quantities by wine producers in Barolo and other parts of Piedmont, mainly for home use. These farmhouse concoctions are a world away from the big brand vermouths that most of us use.

The quality of the botanicals is important too. Much of it is local: the wormwood and juniper from the Alps, and mint, rhubarb and other plants from the plains of northern Italy. Meanwhile the citrus fruit comes from further south, Calabria, but other spices like vanilla, cinnamon, cinchona and cloves come from further afield. Carlos Quaglia writes: “Biodiversity, Piedmontese history and an agricultural culture make for an incredible array of fine raw materials, which express the land from which they hail. Altitude, dry soils, hot days and cold nights: all these have an influence on the local herbs, fruit and flowers, creating highly concentrated aromas. Our distillery, with its own Piedmontese roots, produces and selects some of the spices itself. Others are sourced from small producers whose products express the specific organoleptic characteristics and quality excellence of their places of origin.” Only whole botanicals are used, not essences, and the vermouth is made in batches so will change slightly from year to year. 

The flavour is bitter and powerful with lead flavours of orange, wormwood, vanilla, chichona and coriander. It’s not your average vermouth. So how best to drink it? It’s great half and half with gin over ice in a Gin & It. You’ll be pleased to know that the team at Professore has just the right gin, inspired by the great man himself. Or you could drink it neat on the rocks with a twist of orange, just like what Andie MacDowell drinks in Groundhog Day, and raise a glass to world peace!

Tasting Note by The Chaps at Master of Malt

Earthy, oaky bitterness, balanced by soft vanilla, red fruit and a zesty hint of orange oil.

Vermouth del Professore Chinato is available from Master of Malt.

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Home bar basics: The muddler

One of the first tools created for the purpose of cocktail-making, the muddler has drawn flavour from fruit, herbs and peels since the 18th century. We take a look at…

One of the first tools created for the purpose of cocktail-making, the muddler has drawn flavour from fruit, herbs and peels since the 18th century. We take a look at the history of this unassuming piece of kit – the design of which has remained largely unchanged since its inception – divulge muddler technique tips, and share recipes to try at home…

Rounded at one end and flat at the other, the primitive-looking muddler predates cocktail shakers, bar spoons, and even legendary bartender Jerry Thomas. Initially called a ‘toddy stick’, the device was an essential tool in the 18th century backbar, where it was used to prepare the sugar and spices that went into its namesake drink (the Toddy, of course), among other things. “The toddy stick was used for pretty much everything – from breaking sugar away from the sugarloaf to stirring drinks to grinding spices,” says Rewfus Brode, co-founder of The Cocktail Delivery Company and The 43 Club. “It was originally a bit of a jack of all trades, but when ice began to become more widely available, the style of cocktails changed.”

Soon after the advent of commercial ice, bartenders found that ice-cold tipples worked better with simple syrup – rather than sugar cubes – and also required slimmer bar tools for stirring, says Brode. Rather than find itself banished from the bartender toolkit, the toddy stick came to fulfil a niche but essential function: muddling fruits, herbs and peels to extract their oils and juice.

Renamed the muddler, its simple design remains as relevant today. It’s the key to a fruity Raspberry Bellini and a fresh, bright Mojito. “When used correctly, a muddler gives you the ability to access flavours and aromas that wouldn’t be achievable without it,” says Brode. “It could be the subtlest of flavours but it allows you to take a cocktail on a journey – a sign of a great drink to me.” 

There’s more to the practice than first meets the eye. Muddle too vigorously, and you’ll wreck your cocktail before you’ve even added any liquid ingredients. “It can leave your drink with an overly bitter taste,” says Yoann Tarditi head bartender at The Lobby Bar, London Edition. “For the best technique, push down firmly and twist the muddler – never bash! And use a sturdy glass for muddling ingredients, nothing too delicate that could risk cracking.”

Muddling

Gently does it

Aside from a robust cocktail glass, you need the right style of muddler. Today, there are different shapes and materials available – flat, toothed, wood, plastic, stainless steel – and each has its unique benefits and drawbacks. Wood is traditional and looks classy, but this material needs TLC while cleaning. “It doesn’t really like getting cleaned in the dishwasher,” Brode says. “Hand-wash and dry it as quick as you can to stop the rot.”

Plastic and stainless steel are more modern, but they’re also heavier and have a different feel to them. “Personally, I’m a fan of a large, chunky, plastic muddler the size of a police truncheon,” says Brode. “I used metal for a few years but when you pull that thing straight out of the dishwasher, you need to call A&E. I got bored of scalding my hands so I went with plastic.”

There’s also the shape to consider. Toothed is best for fruit and spices, while flat is ideal for herbs, he says. “If you can only get one muddler then always go for flat, as it’s much more versatile,” Brode suggests. “Trying to use a toothed one with sugar is a painful experience. The length of the muddler is also important – so often I have seen bartenders using a muddler that isn’t long enough, and they end up with their knuckles in the glass.”

Speaking of technique – it’ll vary depending on the ingredient you’re muddling. “For herbs like basil, tear them before dropping into your glass. If you don’t, you could end up over-muddling,” says Brode. “For sugar, a flat-bottomed muddler is best for this, with a wee touch of liquid. When muddling fruit you can enjoy yourself a little more. You still want to be careful not to overdo it, but they usually need a little longer.”

Still unsure? Trust your senses. “Using a muddler like cooking,” Brode continues. “As soon as you smell the aroma of garlic, it’s saying ‘I’m ready’. It’s the same when using the muddler. As soon as the aroma hits your nose, it’s time to stop.” And make sure you use the right end – the rounded part is for the palm of your hands, he adds.

Whatever you do, be gentle – that counts for your non-muddling hand, too. Watch where and how you grip the glass. “Don’t hold the glass by its lip or anywhere near the top,” says Will Rogers, head of bars for Kricket in London. “Firstly, no one wants your hands and fingers where they are about to drink from, but also if you slip you could break the glass and cause yourself some damage.”

Taking good care of your muddler is also crucial to the flavour of your drink – and the one after it, too. “Clean your muddler after each time you use it,” Rogers adds. “You don’t want to be muddling chilli for one drink then using the same unwashed muddler for something completely different. Because you are muddling fresh produce the residue will be all over your muddler. Running under a tap will suffice.” 

Ready to flex your new skills? You’ll find two classic muddled cocktail recipes by Brode, below. 

Old Fashioned

Old Fashioned

60ml Woodford Reserve bourbon
Angostura Bitters
1 cube demerara sugar
2 orange twists to garnish

Place a napkin over top of glass with a demerara sugar cube on top. Coat the cube with bitters, drop it into the glass and introduce a dash of bourbon. Using the muddler, break up the sugar cube and add an orange twist, skin side up. Gently muddle the twist and sugar with no more than three twists. Remove the twist and continue to muddle the sugar until it’s dissolved. Then add ice to the glass along with 15ml of bourbon. Stir with a bar spoon, and after around 15 to 20 stirs, add another 15ml bourbon. Repeat the process until 60ml bourbon has been added in total. Garnish with another orange twist.

Mint Julep

 Mint Julep

50ml Woodford Reserve bourbon
8 mint leaves
10ml sugar syrup
Mint sprig to garnish

Add the mint leaves and sugar syrup to the glass. If you’re using a flat-bottomed muddler, turn the mint no more than twice. Add 50ml bourbon, top the drink with crushed ice, and churn the mix with a bar spoon. Cap with more crushed ice and garnish with a mint sprig.

A selection of bar equipment including muddlers from Urban Bar is available from Master of Malt

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Launching a cocktail company during COVID

Today, we delighted to have top bartender Nate Brown on the blog. Since his last post, he’s been trying to open a bar, struggling with COVID and HMRC, and has…

Today, we delighted to have top bartender Nate Brown on the blog. Since his last post, he’s been trying to open a bar, struggling with COVID and HMRC, and has just launched his own drinks delivery service called Easy Social Cocktail Co. Here’s the full story:

Launching a brand at any time is a little crazy. We talk about round pegs in round holes. However, the essence of a new business is to find a new shape of peg that fits perfectly into a new shape of hole that no-one realised was there before. 

In a perfect world, it would involve tonnes of analysis, and market research, insights and consultants, coupled with scrupulous product development and feedback. Only then, could the creator or founder announce with certainty ‘I have created this thing that no one in the history of the world has done before me and it is good and you shall all want it desperately even though you had no need of it before!’ 

Or, more likely, a few ideas are strewn together with a bit of boredom, a pint or three, coupled with a ‘close-enough’ acceptance, (not forgetting a wing and a prayer) and hey presto, something almost similar to the original idea comes to market. The spawn of the ‘Well, if you don’t try you won’t succeed’ platitude. 

And then, perhaps, you’ll be up and running, right? Wrong. 

Only when your company/ product comes to life, does the real sleeping giant raise its ugly troll-head from under the bridge. Like it or lump it, the beast that is HMRC will be your bedfellow in any adventure you take. More open to interpretation than ending of Inception, its rules must be obeyed, and its randomly generated deadlines must be met. You need to be Doc Brown and Marty McFly to keep on the right side of this grumpy, leviathan riddler. Don’t read Kafka, kids, just file a tax return.

Nate Brown running a bar back in simpler times

Considering all of which, it’s remarkable so many businesses actually exist, and even more so that so many businesses exist well enough to employ others. Having staff is a real sign of continued confidence in your business. A commitment to not only pay them regularly, through funds yet to be received but also to pay HMRC its share (again seemingly randomly generated). 

But now imagine launching a business in the time of COVID: a time where all semblance of confidence in the future dissolves before your eyes. At the time of writing, we don’t know if we can go for a pint for next week. As an operator, we don’t know if there will be an appetite for pints next week, regardless of their availability. When things return to such semblance of normality, will people rush out and pack the bars, or trickle out in small numbers? And this is just one microcosm of uncertainty in future behaviour. 

We had planned to open a cocktail bar, and to follow this with a bottled cocktail company under the same brand, and then look at something more mainstream. Instead, COVID dropped the grenade and our detailed, considered, meticulous timeline was obliterated. And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, running a business is simply accurate future planning, or an educated guess. Suddenly we found out that fifteen years of industry insight and experience was essentially worthless. Who knows what the next six months will look like in terms of appetite, tastes and behaviours? How do you plan?

Fancy a perfect cocktail delivered to your door? (Photo credit: Mill Fletcher)

However, where there is change there is opportunity. We had been working on that idea for a drink-at-home cocktail platform for 18 months. I’ve written before about changing tastes in the drinks market, the move away from elaborately prepared drinks and the appeal of simpler, low-fuss-pure-flavour serves, like the Highball. So perhaps we are well suited to the upcoming brave new world?

For context, I know I’m not alone in harbouring the frustrations of the label ‘bartender’. When I turn up to parties, I’m inevitably asked to make drinks. Like a comedian asked to ‘tell us joke’. If a chef turned up to your house you wouldn’t tell them to ‘get in the kitchen and whip us a meal’. 

Simply put, I don’t want to be in the kitchen, I want to be in the party. Being stuffed into the back room to serve drinks sucks, even if it’s just a round or two. And if that’s how I feel, how bloody difficult must that role be for someone who hasn’t made 40,000 Daiquiris in their life? Making rounds of drinks isn’t easy, and it isn’t social. Which is one reason why we would go out. Until we couldn’t.

Suddenly, even Stanley Tucci was online showing us how to make simple drinks. Fortunately, we had already started to (unfortunately, slowly) build a bottled cocktail company that was being tested, tasted, discussed, thought about, tasted some more… but the ideal time had jumped up and slapped us in the face. Without bags of money, as any business owner will tell you, getting off the ground is the balance between the ideal and the mechanics available to your means. 

No, we didn’t have the confidence in the future (or even the present) of the market.

No, we didn’t have months to trial various ideas.

No, we couldn’t afford consultants and prototypes.

No, we didn’t have the means to construct and execute feedback loops and A/B testing.

Hindsight is an overlooked superpower. 

Cocktail delivery! (Credit Milly Fletcher)

But what we did have was a clear opportunity. We had a cocktail-shaped hole and cocktail-shaped peg: our ideal demographic was drinking at home or in the park. Our skill set allows us to put together tasty cocktails. We had friends with great palates and awareness of the demographic. We knew exactly who we were making these for, and had years of making drinks for them. The context gave extra prominence to our tagline – ‘Life is better when we mix’.

And so, Easy Social Cocktail Co. was born.

We’ve sent drinks to our friends and family and gathered their thoughts. I’ve designed simple, minimalist packaging based on the proposition. Our cocktails don’t rely on the brand strength of an existing bar (and its subsequent narrow market), and so it may have trickier inception, but our brand has a larger ability to scale. We’ve navigated HMRC and obtained the necessary licensing and registrations. We’ve asked for help where we needed it and more than often got it.

Yet, in a COVID world, nothing seems to go exactly as you’d think. Everything is slower. Everything is more expensive and less expected. Assume nothing. We’ve tripped over a few hurdles and are scaling a hundred more. 

You’d think mixing some well-sourced ingredients in a bottle and posting it out would be a simple affair. You’d be very wrong. As with a bar, the idea is the drink, the insight is everything that facilitates that drink: the lighting, the music, the glass wash, the license, the lease, the contracts, the HR, the regulations, the mop and bucket. For a business like Easy Social, that’s the website, the labels, the shipping provider, the social media, the shipping container and the eco-friendly pouches and the canned seltzers. These are the brush-strokes that make the painting. 

For us, Easy Social is more than just a response to COVID, but an estimation of the future of drinking. Bars will remain and rebound, but not like before. The joy of sharing nice drinks with nice people has out-grown the four walls of the bar, flooded out of the basement dives, grown weary of the evil service charge. We can all drink nice drinks at home, it can be easy and it can be social, we just don’t want to have to make them ourselves. Maybe this is the new future. Who knows?

Find out more about the Easy Cocktail Co here

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The changing face of Christmas drinks

You can wave goodbye to mulled wine, carol singing and the Queen’s speech this year: Brits want cocktails, TikToks and WiFi for Christmas, according to new research from Bacardi. We…

You can wave goodbye to mulled wine, carol singing and the Queen’s speech this year: Brits want cocktails, TikToks and WiFi for Christmas, according to new research from Bacardi. We can’t help grandma find the unmute button on Zoom – sorry – but we can help you whip up cocktails at home. Read on for four tried-and-tested festive tipples…

We all knew Christmas would look a little different this year. Even before the latest lockdown was announced, almost two-thirds of us were planning to ditch in-person gatherings in favour of digital meet-ups this year, according to a survey of 1,000 Brits aged between 18 and 55. From hosting a virtual Christmas quiz (36%) to opening presents via video call on Christmas morning (32%), this year’s celebrations will be largely of the virtual variety.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. Nearly a third of those surveyed admitted being “secretly thrilled” they won’t have to visit extended family, while two in five are relieved they can skip the office party. Almost 40% said they were looking forward to embracing ‘more modern’ Christmas customs – which explains why almost three quarters of us plan on ditching sprouts, eggnog and bread sauce this year.

Their replacements? Vegan nut roast, family TikTok videos and after-lunch Espresso Martinis, the research found. Indeed, half of the people surveyed reckon they’ll be incorporating cocktails into their Christmas celebrations more than in previous years, with almost one in five saying cocktails are “a must”. To help you fine tune your recipes, we attended a cocktail masterclass hosted by Bacardi portfolio ambassadors Andrea Montague and Gianluca Pavanello Canella. Here’s our top tipples:

Bacardi Spiced and Sparkle

We’re allowed to be biased, so we’ll say it. This was our favourite serve. The Bacardi Spiced is packed with cloves and vanilla, and it pairs beautifully with the tart sweetness of the cranberry juice. The big, bold, juicy red wine float is the cherry on the cake. “A lot of the cocktails that we see trending at the moment are something that sparkles –  something that’s a little bit out of the norm,” says Montague. “This really sits very well with this time of year.”

35ml Bacardi Spiced
10ml lemon
15ml sugar syrup
35ml cranberry juice
35ml red wine

Method: Build all ingredients – except the red wine – in a glass over ice. Stir to combine, add more ice, then pour over the red wine float over the top. Garnish with a lemon twist. 

Top tips: To make a hot version, warm all the ingredients except the Bacardi Spiced in the microwave or over the hob, then add the Bacardi Spiced before serving. Delicious.

Martini Fiero Berries Royale

Super wintery, with berries, fizz, citrus, and a juniper from the gin – all rounded out with that lovely orange flavour from the Fiero. “When you hear the word Royale in any kind of drink or cocktail, usually it will involve some sort of sparkling wine,” says Pavanello Canella. “It can be Prosecco, it can be Cava, it can be Champagne.” You can get away with using any of those in this drink, we reckon.

25ml Martini Fiero
25ml Bombay Bramble Gin
10ml blackcurrant syrup
Martini Prosecco to top

Method: Combine Martini Fiero, Bombay Bramble and blackcurrant syrup in a shaker with plenty of ice. Shake for around eight seconds and double strain into a flute glass. Top with Martini Prosecco. Garnish with a lemon twist and a blackberry. 

Top tips: When you’re making any drink, always start with the cheapest ingredients, says Pavanello Canella. “That way, if you make a mistake, you can restart and your waste is going to be minimal,” he says. If you don’t have blackcurrant syrup, buy blackcurrants in a can, drain out the liquid, and it’s basically the same thing. Oh, and put your flute glass in the freezer 10 minutes before you make the drink. “That way, you’re going to have a nice frozen glass for a colder drink,” he adds.

St Germain Festive Spritz

This low-ABV drink strikes the ultimate balance between seasonal frivolity and unfettered indulgence. It’s also very tasty and incredibly straightforward to make. “This is a really easy celebratory drink, garnished in a very festive way,” says Montague. You can use sparkling water or soda, she adds, although the latter is more effervescent and has “a little bit more bite, a little bit more spritz to it.”

40ml St Germain
60ml Prosecco
60ml sparkling
Soda water

Method: Combine all the ingredients in a Collins glass. Stir, then gently add ice. Garnish with a lemon twist, dehydrated orange wheel, and star anise.

Top tips: Before you start making the drink, pre-freeze the glass as Pavanello Canella explained above, or simply swirl a few ice cubes around the bottom to chill it slightly. Make sure you remove them before adding the ingredients, though. “As soon as Prosecco hits ice, it’s going to fizz up and go everywhere,” says Montague. “Even if it doesn’t go everywhere, you’ve expelled some of the bubbles, so you’re going to end up with a flatter drink.” 

To make dehydrated orange wheels at home, start by heating your oven as hot as it can go. Then, slice an orange really finely and lay them out on baking paper. Turn the oven completely off, then add the slices to the oven and close the door. “In about an hour’s time you can take them out and you’ve got dehydrated orange slices,” says Montague. “They’re wonderfully fragrant and they last forever in a little air-proof container.”

Grey Goose Countdown

A real showstopper, this drink is a party in a glass. “It’s like a riff on a French 75, but using vodka instead of gin, and with a fruity, tropical but slightly citrusy and bitter note as well,” says Pavanello Canella. The grapefruit peel is more than a mere garnish – it brings a real zesty freshness. Express the oils over the top and around the stem before arranging it in the glass.

35ml Grey Goose
15ml light agave syrup
25ml yellow grapefruit juice,
25ml pineapple juice
Ginger ale to top

Method: Add all ingredients except ginger ale into a shaker filled with ice. Double strain into a flute glass and top with ice-cold ginger ale. Garnish with a grapefruit peel.

Top tips: When you’re measuring out your ingredients, start with the agave, says Pavanello Canella, because it’s thick and coats the jigger. “The rest of your ingredients will wash out the remaining liquid that is going to be coating your measuring tool,” he says. And when it’s time to shake, put some extra welly into it. “We have to shake harder and longer, because the drink has citrus juice in it,” says Pavanello Canella. “Shaking actives all those flavours and lifts them up – when you shake you’re adding oxygen and aerating the drink.”

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Cocktail of the Week: The White Negroni

The Negroni has long been Italy’s go-to aperitif, but there’s more than one way to pour it, as we discover in this week’s Cocktail of the Week. The delicate White…

The Negroni has long been Italy’s go-to aperitif, but there’s more than one way to pour it, as we discover in this week’s Cocktail of the Week. The delicate White Negroni may be lighter in colour and flavour, but it’s every bit as stimulating as its rich, ruby red alter ego. Here’s how to make it…

Also known as the Negroni Bianco, this modern classic first came to life at Vinexpo in Bordeaux, France back in 2001, where legendary British bartender Wayne Collins was preparing for Plymouth Gin’s cocktail competition. For his entry, Collins chose to give the traditional Italian cocktail a distinctly local twist, subbing Campari for Suze – an earthy, bitter French aperitif made with gentian root – and the sweet vermouth for Lillet Blanc, a wine-based aperitif from the south of France. It won.

The White Negroni made its way to New York with then-Plymouth Gin ambassador Simon Ford, who introduced the drink to Pegu Club owner Audrey Saunders. There, it became a staple on the menu and a smash hit – despite logistical hurdles. “The cocktail got its big break in the US, even though Suze was not available in that market at the time,” says Andrei Talapanescu, head bartender at Pulitzer’s Bar in Amsterdam. “The demand for Suze in the US grew so much that in 2012, Pernod Ricard began to import the liqueur.”

Collins’ recipe “is a very interesting twist,” says Talapanescu. “Every level of the drink is saturated with flavour. The gin you choose to use remains a key player in this equation and can take the final product in any direction, since Suze and Lillet Blanc are soft players compared to Campari and sweet vermouth.” When making the drink according to Collins’ recipe, Talapanescu departs from the equal part ratios of the original Negroni recipe in favour of 45ml gin, 25ml Suze, and 30ml Lillet Blanc.

Of course, you don’t have to enter a cocktail competition to have fun with the combination of gin, bitter aperitif and wine-based aperitif. Nor do you have to stick with French liqueurs. “You can play with all sorts of ingredients,” says Mike Enright, owner of The Barber Shop in Sydney, “but for a good twist on a Negroni you always need one part gin – more citrus and floral for a White Negroni – one part bitter or modifier like Suze, St. Germain, limoncello or dry sherry, and one part white vermouth; ideally a bianco style over an extra-dry vermouth.”

White Negroni

The White Negroni is just as stimulating as its red cousin (photo courtesy of Regal Rogue)

This week, we’ve gone for a super-fresh version of the White Negroni, made with a citrus-forward gin – think Oxley, Salcombe Start Point or TBGC Green Citrus Gin – plus Suze and Regal Rose Lively White. “With a citrus gin you get more of the fresh notes over the dry juniper of a London Dry Gin,” says Enright. “With the Suze you get the lovely balance of a white bitter with a hint of freshness. Regal Rogue Lively White is all about the citrus and floral notes. It’s a clean style of vermouth that lets the gin and Suze shine.”

As with the classic version, the White Negroni is incredibly adaptable. “You can swap the garnish from lemon to grapefruit or even frozen green grapes if you want something more neutral,”  according to Enright. Alternatively, try experimenting with the core ingredients. 

“It can easily be turned into a White Negroni Sbagliato,” says Talapanescu – just sub the gin for Prosecco. “Even just a base change from gin to mezcal will create a totally different drink,” he says. However you choose to change up the format, try batching the drink in advance to save time. “It’s so easy – just buy the three bottles, mix them together in advance with enough water to ensure proper dilution and place it in your fridge or freezer,” says Talapanescu. “It can even be enjoyed in a mini format at the beginning of your meal too.” 

Flavour-wise, a White Negroni has all the best parts of the classic version, “but with a fresher approach for a different time of the day,” says Enright. This version is great as the first Negroni of the day, he continues, “with a more citrus-styled gin to match that of Suze, and the citrus notes in Regal Rogue Lively White.” The White Negroni is proof that rules were made to be broken. À votre santé, as the French say

30ml TBGC Green Citrus Gin
30ml Suze
30ml Regal Rogue Lively White

Build all ingredients in a tumbler over ice and stir. Garnish with a lemon or orange twist.

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