After a happy summer of house guests, tall tales and long evenings that have, on occasion, drifted through to first light, there are two alcoholic creations of mine that have never failed to sustain the laughter and merriment at any hour.
But before imparting the secrets of these treasured gifts, it’s essential to understand a little of their character and temperament; as one might take time to find out a little of a new friend before inviting them to one’s weekend house party.
It’s important that everyone gets on; or you’ll find need of the rarest of things in the country, a taxi on a Sunday afternoon, when someone gets over-tired and needs to go back to London early.
The first thing to remember when making any cocktail are the words given to me some years ago by the head barman at Claridges, after several gin and tonics infused a conspiratorial conversation on what makes a perfect drink:
“A good cocktail should be very alcoholic with something strong, something weak, something bitter and something sweet, combined so that you don’t taste the alcohol, thus ensuring drunkenness ensues quickly”.
This sage advice has stood me in good stead. It should you too. Memorise those words to heart and life will get a lot better from hereon in.
Indeed, I’ve found that understanding the soul of a cocktail and sharing its love, will open doors and take you places others might only dream of. Invitations to dine on yachts, recording hip-hop tracks in South Central LA at 2am or even being served home-made pistachio ice cream by a clown on a bike in the middle of the Nevada desert, all become very real possibilities.
To this end, on my travels I always, but always, pack a small travel cocktail set consisting of a shaker that once belonged to Evelyn Waugh and some small silver hunting cups that didn’t. They don’t take up too much space nor attract unwanted attention when one’s hand luggage is searched for nail scissors the umpteenth time at the airport.
These essentials can be matched with local liquor and ingredients any time needed; once shaken and presented I guarantee you will make new friends instantly and usually the right sort of friends.
One of the few advantages of the modern age is that ice can be purchased from many shops or, if you must, a supermarket. A cocktail and especially a martini MUST be served ice cold. This applies equally to the glasses. So keep them in the freezer if you can. One can always replace the frozen peas, but it’s hard to come back from the gathered frowns of serving warm cocktails.
The silver hunting cups are thus ideal as they seem to chill instantly with cold liquid without warming one’s elixir. A scientist can likely explain why. They also hold just the right amount for impromptu tastings in deserts or country lanes.
Now strictly speaking a martini is not a cocktail. A cocktail is shaken, whereas a true martini is stirred. Unless you are at a bar in an Ian Fleming novel, in which case the only acceptable drink is actually a Vesper (a martini with the addition of a squeeze of lemon juice and a dash of sugar syrup or gomme as the French call it).
However, I think it’s as much the style as the literal definition of a martini that counts.
So mine tend to be referred to as martinis, with plenty of additions to the base of gin or vodka and vermouth. Noel Coward would likely give me a very hard stare as his method for making a martini was to fill a glass with ice cold gin and wave it generally in the direction of Italy (where they make the best vermouth).
A note on the ingredients concerns the garnish: there seems to be an airborne virus, no doubt being spread by affordable air travel from the Americas, which makes people think accessorising a martini with olives is a good idea. It isn’t. Except perhaps if you are celebrating your arrival in to New York on the QEII and even then I am not so sure.
Stick to a twist of lemon peel (unwaxed) or something similar, ideally from one of the ingredients you’re using.
Before imbibing your first martini of the day, also take heed of the wise adage from Walter Mitty author, James Thurber:
“One martini is alright, two is too many and three is not enough.”
However, do not be alarmed or dissuaded by any of the above from diving in with heart and liver to making martinis or whatever you want to call them!
The only mishaps that are likely to ensue through enthusiastic experimentation is a hangover greeted by a kitchen of empty gin and vodka bottles and a lasting, if blurred, memory of happy shenanigans the night before.
I’ve learned that keeping a note on the back of an envelope, as one goes through the evening, making ever more daring advances in to the drinks larder, saves one the befuddled embarrassment of asking one’s guests “what exactly did we drink last night?”
By now you may be thirsty and dying to rush off and make a martini. I certainly am as I write this in the half-glow of a winter’s morn.
So here is your reward for making it this far, two tower stalwarts that have produced many a smile both at sunset and sunrise here at the castle:
This started off as a favourite when I lived in the city: basically a vesper matching the grass-infused vodka with lime juice and sugar syrup to balance the tartness (and soften the alcohol). It has since evolved in to something that, in truth, barely resembles a martini except in the manner in which it is served. And its effect.
Using mandarin juice, freshly squeezed ideally, should provide the sweetness to balance the limes. My measures are usually the equivalent to a pub-double but vary according to what measuring devices I have to hand at the time.
As you might by now have gathered, cocktail making is an art and not a science. So go with your heart, not your mind and experiment until happy…
6 mandarins, squeezed and filtered for pulp-free juice ( a tea strainer will do perfectly well)
2 limes, ditto.
8 measures of Zubrowka vodka, maybe a little more if feeling cheeky or you’ve lost count.
4 measures of Campari.
2 measures of Martini Rosso.
1-2 measures of Roses Lime Cordial (to taste).
I find mixing everything together and then adding ice is not traditional bar etiquette, but it allows one to get a feel of the taste before the flavours get too chilled . Also, the ice has less time to melt before serving.
Find a large cocktail shaker and pour everything in. Add ice. Shake until the shaker is too cold to hold.
Pour into ice cold cocktail glasses and garnish with circular slice of mandarin. You should get six to eight decent servings from the above measures.
We drink this on the castle battlements as the sun sets and the Brecon Beacons turn a soft pink, then to the exact colour of the red sandstone and the magical concoctions being drunk.
The Breakfast Martini:
The lesser-travelled brother of the Battlement Martini, this variation came from a Sunday morning when going to church was abandoned amidst hangovers and protests from city atheists.
In need of some other form of inspiration and lacking the ingredients to make a full battlement drink (and wanting to hide from my slight shame at missing church by staying indoors) this lighter, easier breakfast cocktail was created.
It somehow feeds the soul better than a Bloody Mary; and restores one’s guests to smiles more quickly. On sunny Saturday mornings it’s rather jolly to serve on the lawn in pyjamas. I find striped ones work best with this drink.
Try it between first and second breakfasts.
One small note on the Chase Marmalade Vodka: this is distilled locally by potato hero James Chase; so there always seems to be a bottle to hand at the castle. However any reasonable quality, clean tasting vodka will do. You can try adding a dash of Cointreau in this case, if you want a hint of something slightly sweeter and a touch more alcoholic.
4-6 oranges, squeezed and filtered for pulp-free juice.
2 limes, ditto.
4 measures of Chase Marmalade Vodka
2 measures of dry vermouth.
Sugar syrup/lime cordial to taste.
As above: mix, shake and pour in to ice cold glasses. If like me you’ve failed to wash them up and put them in the freezer from the night before, an easy way to chill the glasses is to put ice and water in them and leave them for a few minutes. Throw out the contents before pouring the drink into them.
The above seems to work well for four thirsty hungover souls. Again, remember to experiment with quantities and even ingredients (keeping in mind the words from Claridge’s barman to balance everything).
Now go, shake, drink and make the world a merrier place!