February is the time to loosen your resolutions and open the drinks cabinet – as that’s going to be far cheaper than the £15 per glass you’ll pay in swanky bars and clubs. Why so much?
Part of this is conspiracy. Alcohol conglomerates and mixologists have a vested interest in getting you to pay that kind of money to maintain the mystique of mixing the perfect cocktail, but once you learn a few basic principles, stirring a Martini isn’t much harder than making a cup of tea. And if you are strategic about it, there’s no need to blow £25 on obscure liqueurs. Most cocktail ingredients aren’t expensive and the crucial one, ice, is free.
The key advice is to buy alcohol that tastes of itself. Why buy £15 crème de menthe when fresh mint is £1? A recent survey found that the five most popular liqueurs included coffee, Amaretto and peach schnapps, which is fine if you have the palate of a hyperactive eight-year-old. But not if you want to drink well.
Provided your tastes run to the classics – Martinis and Negronis rather than Sex on the Beach or Strawberry Woo Woos – you don’t need many bottles. Research suggests that five-and-a-half bottles, for an initial outlay of around £80, will be enough to open up the world of classic cocktails and also juleps, sours, spritzes and dozens of others. You won’t get bored.
Cocktails are essentially an American invention and American whiskey (bourbon or straight rye) is at the heart of all the classic cocktails. It’s a dark spirit, to contrast with your light gin, and its maple-nut sweetness is as at home in a Whiskey Sour or an Old Fashioned (take a squat tumbler, saturate a spoonful of Angostura bitters, add a glug of bourbon and stir until fully dissolved. Add copious ice and another glug of bourbon and stir patiently. Garnish with an orange zest twist and/or a cherry). It’s hard to get decent American whiskey for less than £20, but supermarkets are beginning to stock more than Jack Daniels (not technically bourbon). Old favourites are Wild Turkey 101, Buffalo Trace and Tincup. One great cocktail to try here is the Boulevardier. It’s an Italian-American upgrade on the Negroni and uses bourbon in place of gin. Take 25ml bourbon, 25ml Campari, 25ml Italian vermouth (eg Martini Rosso). Stir all the ingredients over plenty of ice in a tumbler and serve with a slice of blood orange as a garnish. It’s much better if you use a single large lump of ice than lots of piddly little cubes. Simply freeze a container full of water and hack up the resulting iceberg with a short sturdy knife.
Vermouth is fortified wine that has been aromatised with various herbs, spices and roots. Its arrival in American bars in the late 19th century ushered in the golden age of the cocktail, as it replaced sugar as a sweetening agent. The French sort is the dry, pale stuff, and it’s the difference between a cold glass of gin and a proper Martini. We’d recommend Noilly Prat or Dolin Dry for £10 or so. (Stir two shots of gin and a dash of French vermouth over lots of ice for a minute. Strain into a freezer-cold glass and garnish with a lemon zest twist or plump green olive. Drink at once.) The Italian stuff is sweeter and redder, and it’s what you’ll use in the Manhattan. Martini Rosso is versatile and widely available for about £8. Both varieties make excellent wine substitutes in cooking.
Angostura is, to all intents and purposes, the brand of bitters – the concentrated infusions of bark, roots and spices that were touted as panaceas by 19th-century quacks. Add a dash of Angostura to spirit, sugar and water and you have the very first “cocktail” (the forerunner of the Old Fashioned). A cocktail cabinet without Angostura is like a kitchen without salt and pepper. It’s only about £10 and the bottle will last ages.
The plasma-red “amaro” (a bitter style of Italian liqueur) is used in just a handful of cocktails, but they are some cocktails. It stars in the Negroni which, for something so complex, is easy to make: one shot gin, one shot Italian vermouth, one shot Campari, ice, stir, lemon slice if you fancy. It’s also delicious in the classic Venetian Spritz – forget Aperol – and provides cover when guests bring average white wine. (“Oh great, I’ll make spritzes!”) It should be about £15.
Mother’s ruin is England’s gift to the world and the most versatile spirit there is. The botanicals in each gin form little chords of flavour that make it sing in tropical slings, herbal apéritifs, fruity fizzes, creamy indulgences and so on. It’s also one of the most economical spirits to buy: £15 or so will get you a perfectly respectable brand such as Beefeater (superior to Gordon’s), while £25 will take you into the realm of Sipsmith, Plymouth and Sacred. Supermarket own brands also perform well in blind tastings. A good cocktail to make is the Clover Club. It’s an extremely elegant twist on the gin sour and is also good with a little egg-white froth if you fancy. Take 50ml gin, 15ml lemon juice, 10ml sugar syrup (2:1), 15ml French vermouth (eg Noilly Prat) and 3 raspberries. To make the sugar syrup, combine two parts golden caster sugar with one part boiling water, stir until completely dissolved and allow to cool. Shake everything with copious ice and strain through a fine-strainer into a cold cocktail glass.