How to make great cocktails at home
There are about as many theories about the origins of the word 'cocktail' as there are takes on the martini - from it relating to the 18th-century practice in the southern states of America of feeding alcoholic mixtures to fighting roosters, to its similarity to the French invention 'coquetel' - a mixture of champagne and brandy. But the general consensus seems to be that cocktails originated across the pond. According to the Ritz London Book Of Drinks & Cocktails, "the earliest written reference appeared in an American periodical entitled The Balance, published on 13 May, 1806, which stated that a "cocktail is a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters"."
It was during the prohibition era of the 20s and 30s in the US that cocktails became commonplace, as mixing together the bootleg alcohol was the only way of making it drinkable. Of course, these days, we're spoiled for choice when it comes to carefully crafted cocktails. Gone are the fruity/creamy/sickly Slippery Nipple and Sex on the Beach days of the 80s and 90s - instead we've seen a return to classics such as the martini, vintage cocktails, new incarnations of old favourites and the soaring popularity of Italian aperitifs such as the negroni and Aperol spritz.
Dark days for cocktails
"I remember the first cocktail I made," says award-winning mixologist Jake Burger, who owns the Portobello Star in Notting Hill and has just launched his own boutique spirit, Portobello Road Gin. "It was during what I call the 'dark ages of the cocktail', in the early 90s, before this wonderful cocktail renaissance which has swept over us like a tidal wave in the last few years. It was called 'a transplant' and it disgusting. It was gin, Bacardi white rum, crème de menthe, orange juice and pineapple juice served in a highball glass with a plastic mermaid. If you've ever brushed your teeth after orange juice you'll know why that was a bad idea. I'm not proud of it - but you've got to start somewhere."
Finding a recipe
Indeed you do. But to save you the pain of such alcoholic atrocities, we've enlisted the help of Burger, and some of his highly regarded colleagues in the cocktail world for their top tips on creating your own concoctions at home. "Investing in a decent book would be a good starting point," says Burger. "The Savoy Cocktail Book is a good resource - it was first published in 1930 and has all the classics, which are just as relevant today as they were then, or try Cool Cocktails or The Bartender's Guide by Ben Reed." Those looking for a free online resource should check out Difford's Guide - one of the world's most comprehensive and visited online cocktail encyclopaedias where you can search for over 3,500 cocktails by name, ingredient, style or glassware.
And with so many different recipes, where to start? "It depends on your own personal taste," says Burger. "Learn six of the classics - the drinks that represent the six main cocktails groups and from there it's about changing small elements. So learn how to make a good martini - which just needs a small tweak to be a Manhattan; a sour drink like a Margarita; a long like a Tom Collins, an old fashioned and a fruity or rum punch-style drink. Then when you get more adventurous you can start using egg white, which can really improve your drinks." Burger also advises investing in a bottle of bitters. "Bitters are tinctures of aromatic flavours - spices, herbs and flowers. You just need two or three drops to flavour a drink, one bottle will last you months on end and cost £7-8 and it is to the bartender what salt and pepper is to the chef."
Develop your confidence
"Don't be frightened to try and have a go!" says world-famous Italian cocktail maestro Salvatore Calabrese, who creates cocktails at London's Playboy Club in Mayfair. "Your first cocktail may not be perfect but you should keep on trying! Whatever you're making, if you follow the recipe closely, then you always have a great tasting drink." According to Calabrese, "a cocktail doesn't need to be complicated; it only needs two or three ingredients and the combination of sweet, sour and bitter." He also advises against shaking cocktails too hard. "The movement alone should be enough to mix the ingredients but not to rock the drink to death."
Jamie MacDonald, who is the current World Class UK's Best Bartender, suggests a simple way of giving your cocktails an edge. "Pop your glasses in the fridge and have them pre-chilled," he says. "Choose drinks that are simple to make and popular, and if you want to go the extra mile it makes a real difference to make your own ice. Boil a kettle and pour the water into some big, smooth plastic cups. Once they've cooled put them in the freezer for 72 hours and you'll get nice big blocks that you can crack and use at home. It looks better, the ice stays colder for longer, and you've demineralised the water, so you get clear ice."
And when should you drink them? For Calabrese, "a great cocktail is like fine food - it's always a good way to start an event and the best way to finish your evening!" I'll drink to that.
15 bits of essential kit for beginners
- Two-part shaker or a Boston shaker
- Long-handled or bar spoon for stirring drinks
- Citrus juicer - Burger recommends the 'Mexican elbow style' for speed and efficiency
- Mixing jug - "because the best drinks are stirred, not shaken," according to Burger
- Spirits measure - from 2.5ml up to 50ml - "Cooks measures are good for this because of the range," says MacDonald
- American whiskey
- Rum - white and aged
- Sweet and dry vermouth
- Cane sugar/homemade sugar syrup
- Lemon and lime/fresh citrus juice