Category: Drinking culture
Measure for measure
Consistency is key in making good cocktails; after all, once you find the perfect way to make your Martini, you will want to be able to recreate that perfection each time, won’t you? And one of the most important ways to ensure this is accurate and consistent measurement of your ingredients. That’s not to say it’s impossible to do this by eye, or by counting your pour time, but that is very difficult to do without years of practice (one of the very best Manhattans I ever had was mixed for me at Tokyo’s Bar Oak by their stellar barman, Hisashi Sugimoto, who did everything by eye; no measuring at all. The drink was sublime) and unlikely to be achieved by amateurs like me.
But one of the key issues in cocktails is that there is no universal standard of measure: you will come across recipes that use ounces, jiggers, ponies, measures, millilitres and sometimes even spoons. And just like home baking, if you start with one set of measurements, you need to keep using the same scale throughout the recipe, as an ounce-to-millilitre conversion may not be accurate.
So, we need measures, and we need good ones, and most helpfully, two sizes: larger and smaller, where the latter is typically half the quantity of the former. Cocktail recipes work on the principles of proportion (e.g. a Negroni is equal measures of gin, Campari and vermouth, whereas a Manhattan requires two measures of whiskey to one of vermouth), so that actual quantity of your measures is often not so important as the ratio between the large and the small being accurate. And you’ll also soon spot that these proportions (1:1:1 for the Negroni, 2:1/5:2 for the Manhattan) give you the standard 3oz cocktail, so suggesting a typical size for the standard measure – 1 ounce (or around 30ml in our European measures). But where does that leave jiggers and ponies? Confusingly, you’ll see a typical Japanese double-ended measure (the nice conical type that look elegant when poured held between the first and second fingers) are called ‘jiggers’. But the ‘jigger’ measure in American terms is an exact 1 1/2 ounces, and the equivalent ‘pony’ is 1 ounce. But ask for a ‘shot’, and you will get anything from a 1oz pony or 1 1/4 oz or even a 1 1/2 oz generous shot glass. In the UK, we switched to exact millilitre measures in 1985, defining a ‘single’ measure as 25ml or 35ml, and a double measure to be 50ml or 70ml, at the owner’s preference – the confusing difference being that in Scotland and Northern Ireland, bar measures tend to be on the more generous size, so the larger measure can be used (at one time, asking for a whisky in Scotland would get you a single by default, but adding the prefix ‘a glass of…’ in front of the brand would automatically get you a double).
My collection of home measures, shown above, ranges from government-stamped standard measure of 50ml and 25ml, which I use for most of my home mixing. to the conical Japanese-style jiggers. All of these vary slightly: the brushed-finish ‘typical’ Japanese one in the centre of the image measures the larger size at 40ml (just under the correct 1 1/2 oz), the black version (from a Spanish cocktail set) measures its jigger at 50ml, and the oddly marked middle one, which came with an unbranded shaker set, measure its jigger at around 42ml – or exactly 1 1/2oz. Their smaller ends are then equally confusing: the stamped one has a smaller measure of about 3/4oz – half the jigger end, but not a pony; my regular Japanese measure has a smaller capacity of exactly the same amount (3/4oz), but this is more than half the larger measure & the black measure again has a smaller end that is over half the larger capacity: three measures, with no real consistency of proportion or absolute measure between them.
And then finally I have the odd multi-tool device that Liz gave me one Christmas as a sort of barman’s Swiss Army knife: the measures there are 35 & 20ml respectively; a Manhattan made with those proportions would be pretty small & pretty sweet indeed.
So why does this matter? Because proportions in cocktails matter a good deal -Manhattans and Martinis made with too much vermouth can be pretty duff (unless you wanted a gin-and-French, of course), so you need your measures to be accurate & consistent. My advice is not to rely on the typical ‘gift set’ measures too much – either buy some decent measures from a catering or bar supply company (my marked measures came from Nisbets in London, and were a couple of pounds each) – or use a kitchen fluid measure cup (I have one from Oxo that measures ozs, ml, tablespoons and teaspoons in one small jug), which is really good for the ultra-precise recipes (usually the ones that include strong flavourings like absinthe) or use a chemistry measuring flask, marked in ml, which if nothing else, will impress your friends by your mixological exactitude.
Disrepute, visited January 2017
When a bar opens on the site of the old Pinstripe Club (think Profumo, Keeler, O’Toole & others of that era), it has to be worth a visit or two. Taken on by the owners of the Barrio & Sovereign Loss bars, the re-design of this underground venue has really pushed what can be achieved in a linear & low-ceilinged space, creating areas of joy and mystery in equal measure.
The central bar reminds me of the sadly long-closed Green Room club, once described as ‘designed for twenty, but hosting one hundred’, where I spent more than a few evenings pinned against the walls by my colleagues from many (some nights it seemed like *all*) of London’s theatres – although the bar in Disrepute is a lot more beautiful. And far less damp and dark.
The key feature of the bar is the cocktail narrative – drinks are ordered by choosing from a menu of stories, or from a separate menu of ingredients – each drink only known by their initials. I had a ‘T’ on my first order, and mysterious and lyrical it was in equal measures.
Disrepute (or DRP, if you will) will be a members’ bar in the late evening, but right now, a cheery demeanour & a pleasant smile should be enough to score you entry early in the evening; certainly, it got me seated with a friend at a fine table by the bar, and served by some of the most happy and cheerful staff I have ever met in London. Disrepute by name, but definitely not disreputable; fabulous, actually. It’s excellence has not been lost on others, either, Vogue magazine just named the newly-opened bar in its top 10 of London bars – quite an accolade for a place that has only been open since December last year.
Punch Room, visited 31st March
On Wednesday, I went to see the exhibition on John Dee, the Elizabethan scientist, sorceror & spy at the Royal College of Physicians, custodian of many of his books and artefacts.
I went, not only because of an interest in Dee, but because I accompanied my friend, Lloyd Shepherd, who has written a historical novel that includes Dee – or more particularly his library – as a key element in his C19th story. Lloyd had seen some other of Dee’s books up close as part of his research for the novel (being published later this month, and I recommend you read it), but here was a rare chance to see some of the rarer books in the Royal College’s collection.
The exhibition was great, but to end the afternoon properly, we needed something suitably traditional drink to toast the upcoming novel. A bowl of punch*, that most English of alcoholic mixtures, seemed most appropriate (Lloyd’s novel refers to the East India Company, where we get our love of punch from), so we visited the Punch Room at the London Edition hotel. This is a small bar, hidden at the rear of the hotel lobby, and in keeping with the current trend for speakeasies, completely anonymous from the outside. The hotel suggests a strict reservations-only policy, but when we were there it seemed to me that hotel residents are (quite fairly) treated more relaxedly. The benefit of the system means that one visits a busy, but not crammed bar. There are two rooms – one with a fabulous stand-alone serving bar where all the mixing takes place, the other an even quieter, smaller space with comfortable armchairs. The design is apparently to suggest a gentlemen’s wood-panelled club room, though here the materials used are quite light and modern and the chairs low, but this means the space is warm and inviting, not dark and oppressive.
We drank the Arrak punch (arrak, lemon juice, chai tea, honey essence), which packed a… kick (avoiding the obvious joke), after starting with a glass of their complementary house punch. Both were really lovely: warming, sharp & refreshing.
The good thing about a punch is the sharing nature of the drink – it’s fun to ladle out the mix into your glasses – and the higher juice content against a lower alcohol perecntage means these are longer drinks, to be sipped slowly while talking, making them ideal for a conversational sort of an evening.
- According to Wikipedia:
The drink was brought to England from India by sailors and employees of the British East India Company in the early seventeenth century. From there it was introduced into other European countries. When served communally, the drink is expected to be of a lower alcohol content than a typical cocktail
The Manhattan variations
It must be clear by now that my favourite drink is the Manhattan. Unlike a Martini, I have never been served a bad Manhattan – dull, perhaps, or not cold enough, but never bad.
A Manhattan is basically a whisky Martini: the basic combination for the cocktail is a spirit, flavoured with a vermouth in a 2:1 ratio & then added some zip by the dashes of bitters. If that combination works for gin & whisky, then it must work for other spirits? And of course, it does.
Here in no order of preference, is a list of the cocktails that have used the same ingredient selection, except for the base spirit:
Palmetto – aged rum, vermouth & bitters (also called a ‘Cuban Manhattan’).
Harvard – cognac, Italian vermouth, Angosturas bitters
Chancellor – blended scotch, port, dry vermouth, bitters.
El Chanceler – blended scotch, or a ‘mild’ single malt, madeira, dry vermouth, bitters*
Affinity – blended scotch, sweet & dry vermouths, dashes of bitters
Rob Roy – Scotch whisky, vermouth & bitters.
Fourth regiment – whisky & vermouth in a 1:1 ratio, then dashes of three bitters: celery, orange & Peychaud’s.
Tijuana Manhattan – tequila, vermouth & bitters.
Perfect cocktail – gin, sweet & dry vermouths, bitters
Presidente – white rum, sweet & dry vermouths, dashes of grenadine
* My own recipe: a portuguese version of the Chancellor, using Madeira.
London Cocktail Week, October 2014
London Cocktail Week returns this year, from 6th-12th October. As a week-long celebration of the culture of cocktails and all things mixed-drink related, it is a great introduction to the range of bars and bar people currently in London. One of the key features of the festival is the chance to get discounted signature cocktails at each of the participating venues, though you will need to buy a wristband in order to take part, and these can be ordered here.
The website alone is a great resource – worth checking for the cocktail bar tour maps, based on the 2013 festival week. A very handy way of planning an evening out, even if you are not available to make the week itself.
Craft beer in London
Time Out magazine seems to be championing the craft brewers of London right now. A few weeks ago, they ran a double-page feature on bottled London ales. They have now followed this up with an online piece about the best place to buy craft brewery beers in London, which can be found here on their Now. Here. This. London blog. London’s off-licences can often reveal a healthy selection of bottled beers – in particular, the Time Out article completely missed the brilliant Oddbins near London Bridge station, where manager Simon is an enthusiastic buyer for all kinds of local beer.
The shops mentioned in Time Out’s article are bucking the tend for Doombar and their ilk, and showcasing the amazing range of beers to be found in and around London now. All are worth sampling; if you don’t like one, open the next bottle and discover another set of flavours.
World’s best single malt is Tasmanian
An industry that wasn’t even legal until twenty-two years ago has carried off the top prize for single malts at this year’s World Whisky Awards, where the French Oak Cask-matured Sullivans was described by one of the judges as a ‘match made in heaven, with a smooth buttery feel’. Sullivans Cove distillery is located on the Australian island of Tasmania, about as far away from the spiritual home of whisky as one can imagine.
The Guardian newspaper despatched Vicky Frost to visit a nearby distillery, William McHenry & Sons, described (until someone works out how to distill from Antarctic glacier water) as the ‘southernmost distillery in the world, in a fascinating article, that can be read on the Guardian website. The island is now home to no less than nine distilleries, all benefitting from a change in the law that had, until twenty years ago, made distilling on Tasmania illegal for over 150 years.
However, chances of finding a bottle from the winning barrel must rank as somewhat slim; comments on the Guardian article suggest that only 556 bottles of this batch (HS52) were produced, selling for around £77 ($115) each. The batch has already been shipped, so the only bottles now available will already been on the shelves of the few number of places that stock Sullivans Cove worldwide. Good hunting.
(Update: a quick check on the Whisky Exchange shows that Sullivan’s single malt is out of stock.)
Shaken or stirred?
Entering into the shaken versus stirred debate with a cocktail purist without some prior preparation is much like making a Martini without preparation; the results are going to be disappointing for everyone.
The debate seems to have been around for ever, and to summarise the positions: the general theory is that shaking a drink results in a wildly different experience to stirring the same mixture, and that there are inherent superiorities in either method, depending on one’s particular views.
In popular culture, the starting point for all of this seems to be the famous request by James Bond for his Vodka Martini to be, ‘Shaken, not stirred’ (a quote wonderfully undermined in the re-boot of Casino Royale when an unhappy Bond snaps at the bartender’s query as to which way he wants his drink made with an angry, ‘Do I look like a give a damn?’). Since then, the shaken Martini has appeared cooler than the pedestrian stirred variety.
But the arguments for both sides have a few more planks than this, to wit:
• Shaking a Dry Martini produces a drink that is technically no longer a Martini; it becomes a Bradford. In reality, no-one I know uses the Bradford name any more, except perhaps scoring points for obscure knowledge.
• Shaking is a more brutal environment for the ice. Tiny fragments shatter off the cubes, resulting in lots of little pieces of ice in the drink. To some purists, this pollutes the drink; to others this creates a more refreshing, colder drink, with less water in the mix (the action of melting the ice during the mix means that up to a quarter of a Martini can be water (source: Rob Cassels, The Cocktail Keys).
• Stirring a drink is a gentler process, resulting in a drink that retains its clarity, whilst not being cooled to such an extent. A graphic example of this can be seen in Manhattan: Rye recipe versus my Manhattan: Bourbon recipe; I stirred the Rye-based drink, but shook the Bourbon – one can see the difference in appearance immediately.
• Some arguments are that the shaking bruises the gin/vodka/vermouth or whatever. I doubt this really means anything, but what shaking will do is introduce lots of little air bubbles into the mix, and much like letting a bottle of wine ‘breathe’ after opening, the act of letting air into a mixture can dramatically change the flavour of a drink.
Simple taste tests suggest that there is a point; a shaken Martini does taste different to a stirred one. Back in 2006, the LeisureGuy blog followed up on research in the New Scientist, which carried out a taste test on two Vodka Martinis, one using a potato-based vodka, the other with a grain-based spirit, and found there was a discernible taste difference between the two spirits. And going further than this, the British Medical Journal has published a paper (BMJ 1999;319:1600) that studied the antioxidant effect of Martinis, as a result of their preparation method. Their conclusion? Shaking a Martini resulted in a lower proportion of Hydrogen Peroxide in the finished drink. Perhaps Bond was a health nut after all – he was famously sent to a health farm to recover & told Moneypenny that he was ‘On a mission to eliminate all free radicals’.
Fundamentally, the decision to reach for the shaker or the bar spoon will depend on one’s personal tastes. But a few points of my own:
• Stirring a Martini results in a clearer drink, but one that is not as cold as the shaken variety.
• A Vodka Martini tastes better to me when shaken, rather than stirred. The extra cooling action of the shaking seems to take the edge of the vodka. The notable exception to this rule is my experimentation with the Black Cow Vodka Martini recently; that tasted fine when stirred, but I had chilled the vodka in the ‘fridge before mixing.
• A Martini (i.e. made with gin) tastes discernibly better when stirred, not shaken. I do not like my gin cooled too much, and the mellower cooling of stirring seems to suit me better.
Leisure Guy’s selfless testing of potato versus grain vodkas, and their effect on Vodka Martinis…
The Martini is among the best of cocktails, if not the best. (Cocktails, unlike highballs, are undiluted with water, juice, soda, etc.)
The Martini was so popular and well-known that Ian Fleming, to characterize James Bond as a person who flouted convention, had him favor a vodka Martini (a true Martini uses gin) and had it “shaken, not stirred.” Unfortunately, the “shaken, not stirred” line lived on in the public mind as Martini knowledge waned, so that today some believe that the Martini is supposed to be shaken and not stirred, a major mistake: if you use the Martini ingredients and shake rather than stir, you get not a Martini, but a Bradford, a drink that resembles the Martini except that it’s polluted with tiny ice chips that melt rapidly and dilute the taste.
UPDATE: The above paragraph is wrong, alas. Here’s the true reason why Bond wanted a (vodka)…
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