Month: September 2016

Meet the Gin Expert: Carl Hawkins, the Gintleman

Since I’m back in my hometown of Birmingham for about six weeks before I move back to the US, I thought I’d better make the most of being here by exploring the local drinks scene, and finding out what it has to offer. Despite being the UK’s second city, Birmingham has an unfortunate reputation for being a bit underwhelming in the cultural department, and has trailed behind other cities like Manchester, Edinburgh, and Bristol in the variety of entertainment and nightlife it can offer. Whenever I mention to another English person that I come from Birmingham, I’m inevitably met with a raised eyebrow and a slight, but unmistakeable air of discomfort. But the city has been hauling itself up over the last decade or so, and for a cocktail enthusiast like me, there’s a lot going on around here – local distilleries, a profusion of new cocktail bars, and some excellent specialist shops. In an effort to better acquaint myself with the local scene and the drinks industry in general, I lined up a few drinks …

Cocktail of the week no.21: the Pink Lady

Ah, look at this cocktail – how pink, how frothy, how girly! You might think that if this were a person it would be Cinderella, radiating sweetness and light and charm, coming down the staircase in a flowing dress, about to step into her carriage with a bright optimism about the delights of the evening to come. Like so: You would of course be wrong. This drink does not pull any punches; it’s not sweet, it’s not  that creamy, it’s definitely not delicate. It’s incredibly dry and tart, and in fact it feels a bit like you’re being slapped in the face by Cinderella, not that she would ever do such a thing. A bit more like this on the pink lady spectrum: Ah, that’s better. So the Pink Lady is another old and venerable cocktail, with gin and grenadine (hence the pinkness) at its heart. It was a common drink during prohibition, when the grenadine would have come in handy to mask the unpleasant harshness of bootleg gin. Ultimately its pink frothiness would come to …

More Seasonal Cocktails: Fig Smashes

I think the first time I encountered a wild fig, I was about 22 and in Greece having a mooch around some ruins. As I come from a family that’s not particularly adventurous with its food, and has strong leanings towards the boiled meat and potatoes side of English cuisine, I’m pretty sure I’d never eaten a fig in any form before then. I certainly wasn’t familiar with this bulging little purple fruit, and had to be shown how to tackle it by an Italian acquaintance. I found this all rather embarrassing, but on the bright side, the fig was delicious, and I now know how to eat them. You live and learn. Most of my subsequent fig encounters, though, have been in the context of cheese. This is, of course, a brilliant pairing, but then I’m always favourably inclined towards anything that comes with cheese – if I wasn’t writing a blog about cocktails I’d probably write one about cheese. But as with any other seasonal fruit, my first instinct now is to shove it into …

Cocktail of the week no.20: the Jack Rose

One of the things I always loved most (and hopefully will be able to appreciate again soon) about living in America is the enthusiastic celebration of all things autumn-related (sorry, fall-related). England does not do this with quite the same level of abandon, as we live in a state of near-perpetual autumn, and I miss not being able to move without tripping over some golden-hued display of leaves, pumpkins, chrysanthemums, and above all, apples. As a side note, if there was some way to get fresh apple cider donuts shipped over to the  UK, I would do it in a heartbeat (please tell me if there is), for they are the pinnacle of human culinary achievement.   This week’s classic cocktail, then – the Jack Rose – is a celebration of apples, not using fresh apples (I’m getting to that), but apple brandy instead. Its origins are, like those of many classic cocktails, buried in history, with various stories competing for legitimacy. Perhaps the most exotic stories concern the involvement of Bald Jack Rose, a notorious gambler and …

Seasonal Cocktails: Blackberry Smashes

I’ve had several episodes over the past month of being reasonably sure the English summer is over, and, in the grand tradition of English weather, it keeps subverting my expectations. A miniature mid-September heatwave has hit us (which will doubtless be over by the time I publish this, or even by the time I finish typing this), and it’s making me want to go back to Lillet and elderflower and sparkling wine. It seems appropriate then to make some seasonal cocktails with another fruit which sits on the border of summer and autumn, the blackberry. Around here, blackberry season stretches from June until November, and I remember always being able to pick the berries growing wild in the hedgerows around this time of year. As they’re a particularly soft and squishy fruit, it’s easy to muddle them and extract tons of flavour from them in cocktails. I’ve stuck to muddling here to make the best use of the fresh fruit, but there are plenty of cocktails out there which use crème de mure, or blackberry …

Cocktail of the week no.19: the Tuxedo

In 1885, in a rural patch of New York state called Tuxedo, just north of the border with New Jersey, a man named Pierre Lorillard decided to found a country club. He named it after the region, which had retained its Indian name; Etymonline and the Tuxedo Club’s own excellent history page agree that ‘Tuxedo’ probably derives from the Algonquian ‘p’tuck-sepo,’ or ‘crooked river.’ The club was a success, attracting the New York glitterati for its country pursuits and society dances, and in the year of its opening, 1886, the name went down in history for its association with a new, informal style of evening wear – the tail-less dinner jacket. Supposedly this rather avant-garde garment was brought back to New York by one James Brown Potter, who saw the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) wearing one on a visit to Sandringham; the ‘notoriously unchaste’ prince recommended his tailor to Potter while simultaneously trying to seduce his wife. The Wall Street Journal has the full story here, as well as one or two other versions. This …

Getting To Know Amari: Amaro Averna & the Black Manhattan

If you’ve looked at the menu in a cocktail bar in the last decade or so, or indeed looked at any cocktail posts on Instagram – something I spend far too much time doing – you will have noticed a profusion of impenetrable names on the ingredients list like ‘Cynar’, ‘Averna’, ‘Fernet Branca’, ‘Ramazzotti’, which have certainly caused me, in the past, to reach unobtrusively for my phone and Google what the hell they are. All these, along with many others, belong to the group of liqueurs known as ‘amari.’ Amaro in Italian just means ‘bitter’, and many, if not most of these liqueurs are indeed Italian, commonly drunk after dinner as a digestif. They are made by macerating herbs, spices, and roots in a neutral spirit or wine, and adding caramel or sugar syrup to sweeten it. Common flavourings include gentian, cinchona (the same tree used to make quinine), anise, cinnamon, along with many others. The most famous (and currently the most widely used), are the luridly coloured Campari, and its sweeter cousin Aperol. On an amari …

Cocktail of the week no.18: the Ward Eight

For my weekly cocktail today (and I use the word ‘weekly’ in its loosest sense, of course, since I haven’t done one of these in several weeks), I present to you the Ward Eight, a fitting drink for election season. The Ward Eight, essentially a variation on a whiskey sour, is said to have been invented in 1898 at the Locke-Ober restaurant in Boston, to honour an election victory by Martin Lomasney – the boss of the city’s Ward Eight. In all honesty, however, I wasn’t thinking about trivial things like elections when I decided to make this; I had considerably more important things on my mind, like the fact that I’d been meaning to make grenadine for ages and hadn’t yet got around to it. This bright red syrup is used to add a pinky-orange tint and a sweet-tart taste to cocktails like the Tequila Sunrise, Singapore Sling, and Planter’s Punch, as well as shorter drinks like the Pink Lady and this, the Ward Eight. In theory, the red colour in grenadine comes from pomegranates (grenade …

Put A Plum In It: Stone Fruit Cocktails for the End of Summer

England seems to have taken the beginning of September rather seriously, and it has been raining and grey since the 1st. It’s not fun to let the summer go, but in an effort to be thankful for small mercies, I am appreciating the little gift of being still in the season of peaches and nectarines, apricots and plums. I find I’m always taken by surprise by these fruits, as they come just when autumn is more on your mind, but they’re essentially blowsy, sunshiney fruits (except for plums – I definitely find plums autumnal). So I made time in my busy schedule of looking out of the window at the rain and frowning this weekend to come up with some drinks which capture a bit of stone-fruity sunshine. Some more successfully than others. I will say at the outset that it can be a bit tricky to get the flavours of fresh, non-citrus fruit into a drink. They tend to get overtaken by the spirits or the liqueurs, and then the sugar and any citrus you chuck in, so it’s …