It didn’t take long for cocktail hour to establish itself alongside the Clap For Carers as an essential part of lockdown. A ‘quarantini’ creates a useful divide between the part of the day where you try to work and the bit where you fail to relax. Thankfully, cocktails have a happy effort-to-satisfaction ratio – it needs a bit of effort to make a martini, but not nearly as much as, say, baking bread. And, happily, gin is much easier to track down than yeast. You don’t need fancy booze or equipment either. Any bottle of strong liquor will do as long as you have a freezer, a few basic kitchen supplies and a willingness to experiment.
Aperol Smash (left) and Fino + Tonic (right)
Here are my pointers to help you on your merry way…
Make far more ice than you think you’ll need
The most important cocktail ingredient is not alcohol, it’s ice. It’s surprising how many households – and even pubs – are in denial of this fact. Two ice cubes in a glass of room-temperature liquid will melt within a minute or so, resulting in a warm, watery, wimpy G&T. But a G&T made in a glass full to the brim of ice will cool immediately and stay cool. This is an easy win, since ice is basically free. You don’t even need ice trays: just fill up as many plastic containers as you can spare with fresh water and freeze it in large blocks. Once it has frozen, a quick run under the tap will crack the ice so you can easily hack it into manageable pieces with a short sharp knife and store in the freezer for later. The larger the lump, the slower it will melt and the prettier it will look.
Aperol: beyond the Spritz
No cocktail has taken off quite as much as the Aperol spritz. But that bottle of Aperol has other uses too. You can add a dash of it to any sour, for example. It gets along extremely well with grapefruit juice. You can make a version of Pimm’s cup with it, too: fill a jug with ice, fresh cucumber, lemon, mint and peach, add Aperol, tonic water and bitters. Or shake it up with strawberries and mint for a luscious fruity apéritif. The rose-water is optional but does lend a touch of Middle Eastern intrigue.
If there is one single alcoholic ingredient I would recommend to a would-be cocktail maker, it is Angostura bitters. It is widely available in supermarkets for around £10, and one of those small bottles will last ages as you only need a dash at a time. Think of it as the salt and pepper of the cocktail cabinet. It adds a dash of deliciousness to pretty much anything.
A gin sour with bitters is called a fitzgerald – and it’s heavenly in a G&T, too. It also allows you to make an old fashioned.
Master the Old Fashioned
I mentioned that about half of all cocktails are variations on sours. Most of the others are variations on the favourite of Mad Men’s Don Draper – the old fashioned. It’s a combination of alcohol, sweetness, dilution and bitters.
Traditionally, it’s based around rye whiskey but you can make it with any base spirit. Rum is wonderful. Scotch is good, too. Gin works fine and you can add extra depth by infusing it with tea if you fancy.
Add some intrigue
The gin sour is an excellent drink in its own right. But there is no need to leave it there. You can use lime instead of lemon (for a gimlet), you could use honey instead of sugar syrup (for a bee’s knees), you could lob in a few mint leaves (for a southside), or you could even top up with champagne (for a French 75). You can substitute the gin for any other spirit, too. A margarita, for example, is a sour with tequila in place of the gin, lime instead of the lemon and orange liqueur in place of the sugar.
One of my favourite twists is the green park, created by Erik Lorincz at the Savoy’s American Bar in London, which builds on the divine combination of lemon and basil.
Prepare some sugar syrup
Almost all cocktails have an element of sweetness (even the drier ones) and sugar is the most common way to add this. It’s easier to use in drinks if it’s already diluted, so make a syrup. Pour one cup of water into a saucepan, then add two cups of sugar to that – I prefer golden caster sugar. Heat and stir until all the sugar is dissolved. Let it cool. Decant the syrup into a jar or bottle and it will keep in the fridge for at least a month.
Don’t worry about equipment!
A cocktail shaker is useful – but shaking your cocktail in a large jar and straining it with a sieve or tea strainer will do the job. It’s good to use a tea strainer in any case as it catches the fine shards of ice that break off when shaken.
Sherry is a good substitute for gin
For a delicious low-alcohol version of gin and tonic, use dry fino sherry. I bet you have a bottle knocking around the back of your cupboard.
Now for the martini
The classic dry martini is really an ultra-refined version of the gin old fashioned, served up in a cocktail glass, with dry vermouth in place of the sugar and bitters. In summer, I like using coconut water in place of the vermouth for a more refreshing tropical twist. This version is named in honour of the singer Rihanna, as she is often seen sipping coconut water. It’s also nice with light rum.
Richard Godwin’s book The Spirits: A Guide to Modern Cocktailing is published by Square Peg, price £16.99