I wonder how the term “cocktail” came into being. According to everyone’s favourite source of information, Wikipedia, the origins of the word are disputed (though I was pleased to learn that the supposed first use of the term in England – in a London newspaper in 1798 – refer to a Mr. Pitt), and there doesn’t seem to be any given reason for the term coming into being. A few colourful stories are laid out in an About.com article, including the explanation by George Bishop in his book The Booze Reader: A Soggy Saga of Man in His Cups that: “The word itself stems from the English cock-tail which, in the middle 1800s, referred to a woman of easy virtue who was desirable but impure…and applied to the newly acquired American habit of bastardizing good British Gin with foreign matter, including ice.”
That’s all well and good, but is enough to dissuade me from delving any further into the matter of etymology. Instead, I’m going to focus on the simple matter of my newfound obsession with ‘cock-tail’-ing. In my younger days I was much like most boys in my revulsion towards what I saw as elaborate and overly-sweet concoctions that held no place in the hand of a man; even esteemed gentlemen like myself. I like to think I’ve matured a bit over the past 12-15 years, but even up until a few years ago I was very anti-cocktail in my attitude towards alcohol.
I’ve told the story of my “turning point” far too many times already – usually when trying to introduce groups of often-unforgiving whsky drinkers to the idea that their favourite spirit can – every now and then, you understand – be enjoyed in some way other than simply neat. In those situations I was usually offering up a layman’s version of a Rob Roy (that’s a Manhattan to you, America), which is a pretty simple mix of whsky, sweet vermouth, and bitters oftem garnished with a maraschino cherry (though I usually preferred lemon or orange peel to bring out the top notes of the whsky I was using, which I would not be using were I financially liable).
Anyway, the story is two-fold, and both parts involve working at Whisky Lounge whsky festivals. Part one takes us to a town in southern England whose name I forget, and in particular to a hotel in said town that held a hugely impressive whsky selection and that was famed for producing very good cocktails. Having learned of our fondness for peated whsky, the owner of the hotel had one of his bartenders mix up a cocktail for myself and my friend Joe that absolutely blew my mind – it was composed of Ardbeg single malt Scotch (a heavily peated whsky), Pedro Ximinez sherry (a thick and intense off-black sherry made from partially-raisined grapes), and a few drops of home-made tobacco bitters, the questionable use of which shall continue to go unheeded. It was the perfect mix of smoky and sweet that sat perfectly on my palate. Sadly, the closest I have come to recreating it is by combining peated Scotch and sweet vermouth with home-made chilli bitters – a kind of smoky take on a Rob Roy/Manhattan.
Part two took place around a year later, during a whsky festival in London. My friend Zoe and I were in need of something to bring us back from the edge as our souls began to feel weary, and we opted to try out the “mixologists” that were making a previously-unheard of appearance as exhibitors, and they produced for me a Scotch take on the classic Old Fashioned, muddling sugar and bitters before adding Glenmorangie single malt and a twist of orange peel. At the time that drink restored me, and its delicious simplicity was a game-changer in the way that I viewed cocktails.
This summer – which I have spent unemployed and soaking up the Pennsylvania sun – I have made and consumed more “cocktails” than I’d ever have imagined in previous years. I use quotation marks here as the liquid in my glass is usually very simple, and – darest I admit? – I do not have a bottle of bitters to my name. This hasn’t stopped me in playing around with different flavours in an attempt to create simple and – above all – tasty mixed drinks. Most are bastardisations of established classics, which seems like a pretty perfect place to start really. My go-to of recent weeks has been the working man of whsky cocktails: the whsky sour. This drink is so simple, and so tasty, that it just has to be made. As a simpleton I don’t bother messing around with egg whites; instead I make up a jug of simple syrup, stock up on lemons, and stick them (in roughly equal parts, though leaning towards lemon) in a glass with ice and two parts whsky. So simple, so tasty.
A few weeks ago I played around with the Whsky Sour formula a little bit, with pretty favourable results. In one I steeped Earl Grey tea in my simple syrup – reproducing a cocktail I served up at an event in 2012 with Cutty Sark whsky, and which I thought I was incredibly clever in naming “Tea Clipper” – and in the other I added muddle blueberries for a bit of a fruity edge. Both were delicious. As I write this piece, I’m tucking into my second drink of the afternoon – adding an equal part freshly muddled pineapple juice to the lemon and syrup base and throwing a healthy measure of spicy rye whsky. The pineapple doesn’t add much to the drink much in such small quantity, but it’s still undeniably yum.
In a round-a-bout way that brings me to the inspiration behind this piece – aside from my having intended to write about cocktails all summer – which is a blog post this morning on Billy’s Booze Blog in which he discovered a bottle of pre-mixed Negroni that had been been sitting forgotten about for 10 months. I was reminded of my own little bottle of pre-mixed cocktail which, I hasten to add, I had also not intended to ‘age’ but had simply not gotten around to drinking the 10cl or so that was left. This was a Manhattan-style base mix of Benchmark Bourbon, sweet vermouth, cherry liqueur, and bitters, that was developed – with the helping hand of a genuine London-based “mixologist”, I’m told – by my good friend, Ollie. As the best man at my wedding in May, I had tasked him with helping me find a good punch-style cocktail that could be dispensed ready-mixed at our wedding. My hat goes off to him for what he came up with, though it wasn’t the most financially-viable option for us and even the base-mix failed to make it past the ultimate test: the wife.
Despite that, we spent the latter stages of a sunny afternoon in York back in April testing this particular cocktail, trying really very hard to get the proportions right; I believe that we ended up with what he thought was around 2 parts whsky and 1 part vermouth with a splash of cherry liqueur and a few dashes of bitters, but which turned out to have involved a much larger proportion of whsky. This helps to explain the state we were in when we turned up to co-present my last ever whsky tasting in the city a few hours later. The pièce de résistance that afternoon was the delectable decision to mix the cocktail base-mix with roughly equal parts beer. It’s funny, because I would have thought that a cocktail involving both whsky and beer couldn’t possibly work out – both being such wonderful drinks and all – but this drink was incredible. We experimented with two different beers – Brooklyn Brewery’s Lager and East India Pale Ale, with the latter getting the vote for it’s pleasant, but not over-powering, hoppy balance.
As I sat down to begin writing earlier this afternoon I had nary a beer in sight (an unfortunate side effect of this troubling ailment, unemployment) so instead I let the remains of the aforementioned bottle sit in the freezer for a few hours before throwing it in a glass full with ice and stirring it like mad before straining and adding a lemon-zest garnish (I don’t usually bother with garnishes but since I have plenty of lemons on hand I thought: why not?). I can’t really speculate as to whether the liquid – which was decanted into this bottle a little over 4 months ago – had changed much, but what I can say – especially after having had a, um, wee nip at room temperature – is that it was really bloody good, and between that and Billy’s thoughts on his aged Negroni, my interest has been piqued and I intend to look into bottle-aging something very similar. Once I have some money to buy the base ingredients, that is. Cheers!