We love cocktails (the clue’s in our name). And the more we learn the more we want to know. Whether you’re completely new to this wonderful world or a little way down the never-ending road to full cocktail enlightenment we want to share a few of the things we’ve picked up on our spirited journey. There aren’t any rules but some of the following tips might enhance your drinking pleasure…
Bar or table?
When we’re trying out a new bar we like to get close to the action. Perched on a bar stool or just standing close by you can drink in the whole experience even before you even take a sip. From this vantage point you can watch the crew doing their stuff, engage them in conversation, check out the brands and other ingredients, as well as getting the feel of the venue. Meanwhile, at a table you get a different view. Different but not necessarily wrong. Seated comfortably you get more of a feel for the service and, of course, it might suit a more relaxed mood for your evening.
Ordering a cocktail is like ordering from a menu or wine list. It should be highly enjoyable but it can be annoyingly intimidating. It shouldn’t be. And like a menu or wine list, cocktail menus can be really helpful, totally pretentious, entertaining, mouth-watering, dull, too long, too sparse, things of beauty, a useless afterthought or, when done well, all of the previous good things and none of the bad. What is a Sidecar? Does the drink come straight up or on the rocks? Do they use fresh fruit or concentrate? Ask questions. Good bartenders and waiting staff will be happy to help you.
Chat to your bartender
Bartenders are the cocktail chefs. And like their culinary cousins they come in all shapes and sizes. Good, bad, exquisite, indifferent, traditional, inspirational: we could write pages on the guys and girls mixing your drinks. After checking out the menu and maybe asking a few questions, try asking for a recommendation. A good bartender will ask you your likes and dislikes and take it from there. Watch what they do. Space permitting we like to see the drink mixed in front of us (as taught by the great Harry MacElhone in Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails back in 1919). There are all sorts of things you might notice that indicate how well your bartender knows his job and how much they care. Are the martinis served in really cold glasses? Do they taste the drinks (with a straw) before presenting to you to see if the balance is right or are they just doing it for show? Do they stir thoroughly? How do they shake…?
Shake some action
How a cocktail is shaken is one of our biggest clues to the bartender’s approach to their craft. In fact, we get more than a little annoyed when the cocktail shaker is given a cursory, limp-wristed, half-hearted jiggle. What’s that supposed to do? ‘You’re waking it up, not rocking it to sleep’ said Harry Craddock in the barman’s bible The Savoy Cocktail Book. A good, vigorous shake, amongst other things, thoroughly combines the ingredients, gives a little dilution from the ice and, not least of all, shows some passion for the job.
Call your brand
House, call or top? Bars all have their house spirits. Usually one, sometimes more. Unlike house wines these are rarely a cop-out on quality and should be up to the job as a working ingredient. Having said that there is an ever-increasing array of spirits out there. Gins from San Francisco, vodkas from New Zealand and rum from Venezuela. Modern drinks in retro bottles and classics in modern bottles. Names you know, names that ring a bell and names you can’t believe are real. Fermentation, infusions and organic ingredients. Confused? Here’s the trick: try several and see which ones you like. Clever huh? Really, if you like a Mojito and you find yourself drawn to drinking more than one (really, it can happen!) try a few different rums. In no time you’ll find yourself ‘calling’ your brand. It’s your drink, have it your way. One final word: ‘Top.’ There are more and more premium, top shelf spirits available. Some are truly things of beauty like Tanqueray No. Ten, No. 3 and Sipsmith. Others are more about fancy bottles and hype. But if it’s a special occasion or pay day, do indulge now and again, you won’t regret it.
Savour the moment
When your drink arrives just take a moment. Like any drink or meal really enjoy the experience. How does it look? Inhale long and deep. Then take a swig. Like a good wine you might get an initial taste or reaction followed by other tastes and other reactions. We’re not saying get all precious about it. Definitely not. But like all the best things in life you really will appreciate more by slowing things down ever-so slightly. If you and your companion(s) have selected different cocktails then try a little of each other’s. And if you really love it, tell the bartender who mixed it. We all like a little praise now and then.
The customer really is always right
Cocktails are wonderful at any time of day. Breakfast Martini anyone? A Mimosa to kick off brunch? An afternoon of Mojitos or Margaritas? But the cocktail really comes into its own in the evening. One or two carefully chosen concoctions get the palate sitting up and taking notice nicely. (You might never go back to a small dry sherry ever again.) There’s also something particularly good about a cocktail evening, too. For maximum enjoyment there are a few things worth remembering. Pace yourself: you’re drinking spirits here, so sip and savour. Slip in the odd glass of water to aid the pacing and to stop you drinking to quench your thirst. And look out for good bar snacks – you can only eat so many nuts, no matter how good they are. As for the drinks themselves, think of them like the courses in a meal. Start with something light and refreshing, working through to something else that may be a little more complex and ending up with something sweeter. And if you’re feeling particularly energetic, try switching venues. You get a different atmosphere, different takes on the same cocktail and it prolongs the evening nicely.
The No.1 rule to enjoying cocktails:
They’re all about you.