Ice

Whole articles have been written about the use of ice in drinks, and with good reason (Esquire magazine ran a very good article on the subject, which is well worth reading).

If you think about the ingredients by volume, then in a mixed drink, the ice is going to be the single largest item by a long way. Which does mean that the quality of ice is going to have a significant influence on the quality of your drink. At the very least, this means choosing a source of ice rather than that single ice tray you have had at the back of the freezer, under the bag of peas, for the last year or so. Ice goes stale after prolonged storage, so fresh ice is an absolute must.

Secondly, tap water doesn’t make brilliant ice, it must be said, depending on where you live. Some people can detect a chlorine taint, or a distinct flavour, so the simplest solution here is to run your water through a Brita water filter first if you are planning to make your own – or, to get rid of the chlorine hint, let the water stand in a jug for a while before freezing.

The next thing to realise when you start mixing drinks is the sheer volume of ice you will need: a single shaken cocktail will need enough ice to fill the jar section of your Boston shaker, which is about the quantity a single freezer ice tray will produce at a time.

The simple solution to all of this is to plan ahead and buy your ice in bulk from a supermarket. Commercially-made ice is slow-frozen (so the cubes are attractively clear), and made from filtered or natural spring water – so has no discernible flavour. My local Tesco has filtered-water ice cubes in bags for around £2, and I find three bags are more than enough (usually) for a cocktail evening with friends.

The last solution is to buy a home ice-maker. I found a second-hand one on eBay for £20 which has proved to be very effective – from filling to first ice takes around 25 minutes, and I run it for a few hours, bag the ice & store it in my home freezer for use over the following few weeks. I also filter the water through a Brita jug first. The only downside is that the quick-freezing process used by the ice machine produces characteristically ‘cloudy’ cubes. I don’t find this a problem for my own drinks, but if I am friends over, I will buy the clear bagged ice, as above.

Old-fashioned: Bourbon

20z Old-fashioned with bourbon
20z Old-fashioned with bourbon

One of the most basic of all cocktails, the Old-fashioned is also one of the finest because of its simplicity: a mix of sugar, bitters and spirits, served over ice with a large slice of citrus zest. Here I have used my Bulleit bourbon & Peychaud’s for the bitters, as the orange flavour suits the zest garnish to my mind.

Proportions (using a jigger/pony measure):

1 jigger of bourbon

3 drops bitters.

Sugar cube

Glass: Small tumbler or old-fashioned glass.

Shake bitters onto a sugar cube & muddle in the glass until the sugar is crushed. Add a few drops of water if liked to dissolve the sugar. Add ice cubes, then pour bourbon over the ice, and stir, leaving the spoon in the glass. Garnish with a large slice of orange zest.

Historical note:
The Old-fashioned seems to be one of the oldest drinks recipes: around 1860, a simple recipe of bitters, sugar & spirits was being called ‘old-fashioned’ as it had been around thirty years by then. The bourbon version seems to have sprung from the Pendennis Club, who passed the recipe to New York, some time around the end of the C19th.

World alcohol map

The World liquor map from Quartz
The World liquor map from Quartz

Here’s an interesting item on the Quartz digital news page: a world map of booze, showing who drinks what where. It is no great surprise to me that the UK’s favourite spirit is vodka, as it is popular with young drinkers, although a separate map of Scotland would surely show whisky as being more popular north of the border. According to Quartz, however, ‘separate data were not available’ when they put their map together. Perhaps more surprising was that Euromonitor, source of the alcohol data, had enough responses from Saudi Arabia to give a preference. Vodka also reigns supreme in N. America – although I blame Cosmopolitans for that one.

Manhattan: Bourbon

3oz Bourbon Manhattan
3oz Bourbon Manhattan

It is not the ‘classic’ version of the drink, but many people drink the version of the Manhattan that uses bourbon (here, I’ve used Bulleit, 90˚ proof) as the base spirit. To my my mind, this suits the sweet Manhattan recipe better – using only red vermouth (Martini Rosso) – as the dryness of the white version jars with the flavours of the bourbon. I don’t think it makes the drink undrinkable, though, so it would be worth experimenting to see what suits your tastes better.

Proportions (using a jigger/pony measure):

1 jigger of bourbon

1 pony of sweet vermouth

4 drops bitters.

Glass: Small, or 3oz, Martini glass.

Shake until ice cold & strain into the glass. Garnish with a cocktail cherry.

Manhattan: Rye

Simple 3oz Manhattan
Simple 3oz Manhattan

Purists will disagree, but I like my Manhattans perfect – not made to an exact recipe, or served without flaws, but made with a mix of sweet and dry vermouth. The dry vermouth – in this case, Noilly Prat – seems to complement the spicy hit of rye whiskey (Canadian Club), and the small amount of sweet vermouth (Martini Rosso) adds the roundness the cocktail is known for.  A few drops of Abbott’s bitters to add a pleasant spicy, vanilla-ish dimension, and that’s it. Just perfect, in every way. I add one maraschino cocktail cherry, and one that’s had some bitters added to the syrup in the jar to darken it a little more. Another option is a slice of orange peel, but the cherries seemed nicely retro this time.

Proportions (using a jigger/pony measure):

1 jigger of whiskey

1 pony of dry & sweet vermouth

4 drops bitters.

Glass: Small, or 3oz, Martini glass.

Shake until ice cold & strain into the glass. Garnish with a cocktail cherry.

Historical footnote: The Manhattan is named after the club where the drink was first mixed in 1874. The Manhattan Club’s bartender was asked to create a drink for a party. The party, in honour of a politician named Samuel Tilden, was hosted Jennie Jerome – who went on to become Lady Randolph Churchill, and mother of Winston Churchill.

Bitters (2) – Home made

The first batch of BTP House bitters is cooked up.
The first batch of BTP House bitters is cooked up.

I received a copy of Brad Thomas Parsons brilliant book, Bitters, for a recent birthday. Besides being a thorough history of this often-overlooked cocktail ingredient, Mr Parsons also includes several recipes to try at home. Naturally, I had to try one for myself, so settled on his signature recipe: BTP House bitters.

Over the last last week I have visited various herbalists in London to stock up on the ingredients, which has been fascinating in itself. The herbalist at Neal’s Yard was very interested in the items as I was buying – not least because the quassia chips (Quassia amara) are apparently an unusual purchase due to their incredible bitterness, so coupled with the gentian root (Gentiana lutea) also on the list – she was wondering what I could be making. When I told her the story of the Bitters book, she was delighted to share advice about extracting the properties from the herbs, and how they might treat common stomach ailments when the recipe was finished. She also directed me to London’s oldest herbalist, Baldwin’s to pick up the final few items – cassia bark (Cinnamomum aromaticum) and vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) as they were out of stock. Again, when the Baldwin’s herbalist discovered what I was making, he insisted in opening a new pack of vanilla to get the freshest pod available to infuse properly. So, even if my recipe isn’t a success, I have discovered a whole new subject in herbalism.

The biggest problem in making the bitters, here in the UK at least, is the strong alcohol required for the extraction to work. Most UK spirits are sold at 40% ABV (alcohol by volume), and stronger spirits are difficult to come by. I was directed to look for Polish Rectified Spirits among our Polish community in London, and the Neal’s Yard herbalist recommended I start making herbal tonics, as this would allow me to register for the purchase of the pure medicinal alcohol required for their extractions.

In the end, I discovered a closer solution to home – a quantity of strong Cretan tsikoudia (aka tsipouro, or just ‘raki’) I had brought back from holidays on the island. Well-made tsikoudia is very pleasant as a digestif, so I thought it would make a good base for my first bitters batch. It is also a pretty strong spirit – not in the realm of Everclear perhaps – but certainly strong enough for my needs. And the bottle I had at home had a pleasantly herby scent (the spirit changes depending on the distiller, and wide varieties of flavour exist across the island and even village-to-village).

Last night, I mixed up the ingredients in a preserving jar, and already the aroma they give off is incredibly tantalizing. The ingredients in this batch are: orange peel (dried and fresh), sour cherries, cassia, quassia, cloves, cinnamon, walnut leaf, cardamom, star anise, cinnamon & gentian – but if you want the proportions, you need to read Mr Parson’s book.

More information in around two weeks, when the alcohol will have extracted all of the good things from the herb, spice & fruit mix in the jar.

Bottles

Spirits are the basics of any cocktail bar, and the question is how many do you need? The answer depends on one’s tastes, and the drinks needed to be made.

A quick inventory of my cupboard shows the following stock:

Vodka
Finlandia
Smirnoff, Blue label
Gin
Gordon’s dry
Bombay Sapphire, 90 proof
Bourbon
Bulleit, 90 proof
Vermouth
Noilly Prat
Kina Lillet
Martini Rosso
Cachaça
Sagatiba
Velho Barreira
Pitù
White Rum
Rebellion
Dark rum
Lamb’s
Whisky
The Glenrothes, select reserve
Tullibardine, 10 year old
Balvenie Double Wood, 12 year old
Tallisker, 10 year old
Rye
Canadian Club, 6 year old                                                                                     Tequila                                                                                                                                           El Jimador

Plus various liqueurs (Kahlua, Triple Sec, Cointreau) and various others (home made lemon and cranberry vodkas, spiced rum and so on).