‘If you ever want to get drunk really quick, boys,’ said Ian “Froggy” Hunter to us, ‘you should try a gin and sherry. Half gin, half sherry. Never fails.’
Ian Hunter was, as “Froggy” suggests, our French teacher. I can’t quite remember now why he was giving us sixteen-year-olds advice on alcohol, but I remembered his advice years later at a time when I had no desire to get drunk but when I did have a bottle of gin and a bottle of sherry standing together on the shelf and his words suddenly came floating back to me. I tried it. He was right. It was very alcoholic. It also tasted terrible. There are certain combinations of spirits which never turn up in the same cocktail recipe, and with good reason.
Yet you cannot stop cocktail mixers from experimenting. After all, when a new cocktail book comes out, it must include a few new recipes, if only to look slightly different from all other cocktail recipe books. I remember once being stranded in a house in the West Indies at the age of eighteen when my hosts had gone out to dinner and had told me to take any food or drink in the house I fancied. As soon as they had gone, I hauled down an old cocktail book and tried to find a recipe whose ingredients corresponded to the rather meagre contents of the drink cupboard. The only one I could find was an Earthquake, which as I recall consisted of one third gin, one third whisky and one third absinthe. Using Pernod instead of absinthe I created an Earthquake, and drank it very slowly for the rest of the evening. It was as horrible as a gin and sherry but curiously addictive and did get me pleasantly merry.
From small, scattered beginnings like this came an interest in cocktails which to this day is still small and scattered. From time to time I buy a second hand cocktail recipe book and experiment wildly for a few days, then lose interest for a long while, which is why every time I pick up a book from my cocktail collection I find in my own shaky handwriting notes such as ”Far too sweet” or “Try again with more lemon juice” written against certain recipes which I cannot remember ever having tried.
The odd thing is that after so many years of trying my hand at odd and out-of-the-way cocktails, most of the potions I have experimented with have failed to delight me and there are only two that I ever liked enough to repeat and enjoy on a regular basis. One is a Petite Fleur and the other is a Boardsailer. The Petite Fleur has the almost simple-minded three-part harmony which so many cocktails share ( something alcoholic, something sweet, something sour ), consisting as it does of one third white rum, one third Cointreau and one third grapefruit. Shake with ice and pour.
That recipe came from a thick book which purports to be the International Barman’s Handbook, containing not only all the familiar one like Sidecar and Manhattan, but rare cocktails which won second price in cocktail competitions in Denmark in 1936 ...
The Boardsailer, on the other hand, came from an advertisement in a glossy magazine some years ago for Johnny Walker whisky, and was presumably dreamt up specially for the ad, along with the disgusting name - I have certainly never met it in any book. It involves among other things whisky, orange juice, passion fruit juice and Blue Orange Curacao. Sounds revolting, doesn’t it? Well, it’s wonderful. The combination of the blue liqueur and orange juice turns the drink the most wonderful turquoise colour, while the combination of whisky and passion fruit juice, unlikely as it sounds, is delicious.
( The French have discovered this. I was once given a present from France of a bottle labelled Whisky Passion, which combined whisky and passion fruit juice and which disappeared very quickly. I never recreated the effect until I went on a visit to Madeira, where passion fruit juice is as common as orange or apple juice is here. I used to order passion fruit juice at the bar, and a whisky to go with it, then in front of the horrified eyes of the barman combine the two...)
What slightly depresses me, looking back at my dabbling in cocktails, is the realisation that it is very like my dabbling in cooking in that I try lots of recipes but never invent anything. My theory is that while there are still classic mixtures to be browsed among and discovered, it is a waste of time making up anything. It wasn’t very long ago that I rediscovered (from a first edition of the very wonderful Savoy Cocktail Book ) the recipe for champagne cocktail which involves pouring champagne ( or New World bubbly ) over a sugar cube soaked in Angostura bitters and is delectable.
My wife, on the other hand, only uses recipes in cooking as a starting point and it is the same with her drink-making. At the very same session where I was last fooling around with the Boardsailer (which everyone hears as The Bored Sailor, a much better name), she created a new drink called African Queen which involved brandy ( one part ), mango juice ( three ) and champagne ( four ). It was sumptuous, and the woman is not even interested in cocktails. Damned demoralising. Give me a gin and sherry, someone.
The Oldie Jan 6 2000