It’s always been a dream of mine to own one of those fancy bar carts that permanently stocked with actually good quality spirits. And then when my friends come to visit me in my grown up apartment for one of those civilised dinner parties that I casually throw on the regs, we’ll start the evening with a nice little cocktail that I whip up from the beautifully bottled beverages I just so happen to have lying around.
But there are two issues with making this fantasy a reality. The first is, well, good booze don’t come cheap. And second, I’m never sure which cocktails are calling out for posh (expensive) spirits. So, I had a quick chat with Emanuele Mancini, Director of the bartending school Sprit Lab London, to try and get my head around it all and work out if it actually makes a difference.
Emanuele explains that the focus needs to be on the base spirit (the most prominent spirit in your cocktail) which makes sense because that probably accounts for most of what you’re tasting. ‘If you’re talking about a vodka that costs £10 a bottle, rather than, for example, Ketel One, obviously, there is a massive difference. So the base product of the cocktail needs to be good.’, Emanuele says. But of course, how much you notice the difference between spirits depends on just how sophisticated your palette is. So, there is some wiggle room there, don't worry.
He also says that when deciding on a cocktail you should always start with a spirit you like because at the end of the day, ‘I could make the best cocktail in the world and you might not like it if you don’t like the base spirit’. Anyone else had a someone go through the trouble of making you a really intricate cocktail that you can't actually drink because you forgot to mention that whisky makes you gag? Yeah.
But if you’re more concerned with which cocktails you should have in your repertoire for when your friends turn up for a swanky evening of good beverages, the classics are a good place to start. Emanuele recommends the Old Fashioned, Martini, Daiquiri, Margarita and his personal favourite, the Negroni. Up to it? Great.
First, the basics. You need ice. So much ice. ‘If you have really bad crushed ice that’s kind of semi-melted, your cocktails are going to be pretty rubbish’, says Jack, cocktail wizard and bartender at the Captains Club Hotel. And you don’t want a wishy-washy cocktail now, do you? Also, don’t go crazy down the spirit aisle and pick up every brightly coloured liquor in sight. Jack says you’re better off picking a cocktail and choosing the extra bits from there. And finally, glasses. Like, actual ones. They don’t have to be spenny or anything, we just think that our cocktail out of your housemate’s sports direct mug days are behind us.
Now that we’ve got the basics down, here’s a guide to what to bother splashing out on when making some of the most popular cocktails out there. Go forth and create.
1. Old Fashioned
Yep, the rediscovered popularity of the Old Fashioned isn’t going anywhere anytime soon so you may as well get to grips with how to make it when your mates come around. The base spirit here is a bourbon. ‘So, please don’t use Jack Daniels’, says Jack. ‘You’ll want to spend a bit of extra money on your whisky because you’ll really taste it if you don’t. I like a Woodford bourbon [which you can get for about £30], but the Angostura bitters you can get quite cheap’. There’s a recipe on the Woodfood website if you want to give it a go.
Ah, the martini. Nothing says grown up like a martini. The key to this one isn’t so much how expensive your spirit is, but rather choosing one that you already like. ‘A classic martini literally just has two ingredients’, says Jack, ‘so your best bet is to pick a gin or vodka that you already enjoy drinking because that’s what you’re going to taste, whether it’s a cheap or pricey one’.
But if you start looking at flavoured versions, like an espresso martini, the base spirit isn’t quite as crucial. Jack says: ‘Coffee is such a strong flavour, so that will really be the focus of an espresso martini. With those, it’s also more about the technique of making it, and a bit less about the booze you use. It’s all in the shaking’. Noted. So if your cocktail craftsmanship isn’t quite up to par, maybe save the espresso martinis for the bar and stick to the classics at home. I’m a big Hendricks gin fan, and they’ve got a super simple recipe on their website here.
If I’m honest, daiquiris make me think about being on a cheap and cheerful family holiday at an all-inclusive resort in Mallorca. That’s as opposed to a civilised gathering among pals. Nevertheless, they’re a crowd pleaser and probably the closest you can get to a boozy slush puppy without actually having to say the words ‘boozy’ and ‘slush puppy’. So we’ll stick with it.
‘Daiquiris use white rum, and Bacardi is generally the standard that people go for and is pretty reasonably priced’, explains Jack. The bit you want to pay attention to is the different flavours you want to play with. ‘Don’t use juice, always use fresh fruit’, he says. But if you can’t deal with the manual mushing of strawberries, the classic daiquiri recipe on the Bacardi website is a good shout.
The negroni is a bit more complex. Like many other classics, it has very few ingredients but does involve three different spirits (gin, Campari and vermouth), each with a very distinct flavour, Jack explains. So, the good news is that you don’t need to worry too much about splurging on three very expensive spirits because once they’ll all combined it kind of alters the taste. ‘If you happen to have a gin that you really like, then, by all means, spend a little more on that one, but there are so many variations of the negroni that it doesn’t really matter too much’. Some people say it should be equal parts of each spirit, others like this Sipsmiths gin recipe, call for a little extra of one and less of the others. So basically your mates will be none the wiser when you whip one up and call it the ‘insert name here special’.
Nothing says party like margarita. And nothing says part-ay like tequila, my friends. To my fellow tequila snobs out there, the idea of using the Jose Cuervo that haunts your university memories is nothing short of tragic, but Jack says that if you’re trying to save money, it’s really not worth splurging on Avion silver for a big batch of margz. ‘If you’re putting salt around the rim of your glass, that will take a lot of the taste from your drink’, says Jack. As will the lime, which explains why tequila shots are served that way.
The thing that Jack does warn against though, is those pre-prepared margarita packets. Stay away. They’re far too sugary and if you want something a little sweeter, use the extra dollar you saved from the cheap tequila to buy some Agave syrup and add that to this Cuervo recipe like the cocktail master you are.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.