Christ­mas cock­tails – just add spirit

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

It’s never a good look for a girl, loi­ter­ing in the door­ways of Soho on a Tues­day af­ter­noon, and the chance of a pass­ing pa­parazzo was a clear and present dan­ger. But I was there in search of the promised land – or rather Milk & Honey, a renowned cock­tail bar that is no­to­ri­ously hard to find – and was relieved when at last I spot­ted the con­cealed door and was quickly buzzed in.

Manuel Alvarez, Milk & Honey’s Mex­i­can gen­eral man­ager who had agreed to tu­tor me in the art of Christ­mas party cock­tails, led me down­stairs to a shad­owy base­ment bar where I could just make out the black leather booths and low ta­bles in se­cluded al­coves evoca­tive of a 1920s speakeasy.

It is 80 years this week since the end of Pro­hi­bi­tion, the pe­riod from 1920 to 1933 when sell­ing, pro­duc­ing and, in some states, con­sum­ing al­co­hol be­came il­le­gal across Amer­ica. The ban forced drink­ing un­der­ground into “speakeasy” bars, ap­par­ently so-called be­cause cus­tomers had to speak qui­etly to avoid at­tract­ing po­lice at­ten­tion.

The first Milk & Honey, which aimed to repli­cate the clan­des­tine, re­bel­lious at­mos­phere of the Pro­hi­bi­tion pe­riod, opened in Man­hat­tan’s Lower East Side in 2000. Two years later, a Soho branch es­tab­lished the speakeasy bar vibe in the cap­i­tal, to be fol­lowed by oth­ers such as The Night­jar in Hox­ton and The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town in Spi­tal­fields.

Ex­clu­siv­ity is, of course, the key, and Milk & Honey is a mem­bers-only bar; but non-mem­bers can have lim­ited ac­cess to the build­ing’s three floors from 6-11pm if they book 24 hours ahead.

“We draw in cre­ative types, peo­ple who re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate cus­tom-made, ex­pertly con­cocted drinks,” Manuel told me. In his stylish red braces and fash­ion spec­ta­cles with thick black frames he looked the part, while my sparkly cashmere dress lacked a cer­tain cre­ative edgi­ness – def­i­nitely more Chelsea than Soho.

Milk & Honey’s menu – the bar of­fers 40 con­coc­tions – is the work of the renowned mixol­o­gist Dale De­Groff, who founded the Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can Cock­tail in New Or­leans. On the back are printed the House Rules, just as they might have ap­peared in the Twen­ties and Thir­ties. “No hoot­ing, hol­ler­ing, shout­ing or other loud be­hav­iour,” in­structs one. “If a man you don’t know speaks to you, please lift your chin slightly and ig­nore him,’’ runs another. I made a men­tal note.

Manuel told me his favourite drink was a shot of tequila with a lager on the side – yeuck! - but as we dis­cussed the ar­ray of en­tic­ing liq­uids dis­played be­hind the bar there was no doubt­ing his taste and knowl­edge.

The first known use of the word “cock­tail’’ was in a March 1798 edi­tion of The Morn­ing Post and Gazetteer in Lon­don, in a satir­i­cal ar­ti­cle that listed how much var­i­ous politi­cians owed for drinks at the Axe & Gate Tav­ern, lo­cated at the cor­ner of Down­ing St and White­hall. Wil­liam Pitt the Younger’s tab in­cluded a “‘cock-tail’ (vul­garly called gin­ger)”. How­ever, it was Jerry Thomas from Con­necti­cut who kick-started the trend when he penned the ear­li­est known ver­sion of a cock­tail recipe book in 1862.

A good cock­tail has to be “multi-sen­sory”, Manuel said. It has to stim­u­late the eyes, the nose, taste and touch. I told him my favourite is a whisky sour, ap­par­ently a clas­sic “sense-tickler”.

“The smell is sour and smoky, the taste is sharp cit­rus with sweet vanilla and the frothy egg white gives a creamy sen­sa­tion to your lips,” he be­gan in his won­der­ful ac­cented English and my cheeks started to burn. “Cock­tails have to be ro­man­tic, 1. Hang­over cure: The new Bloody Mary is yel­low. The Tomato Stall sells golden juice from yel­low toma­toes grown on the Isle of Wight, which are less acidic than their scar­let cousins. thetomatostall.co.uk 2. Tipple: King’s Gin­ger is heavenly, but for stronger stuff try mez­cal. It’s made from the maguey plant, a type of agave. thek­ings­gin­ger.com, mez­cal.com 3. Top read: The Savoy Cock­tail Book by Harry Crad­dock (Pavil­ion). The ul­ti­mate cock­tail man­ual, con­tain­ing 750 recipes and great cock­tail quotes. 4. Shop: Check out Fire­box.com for “the coolest things you can buy”, es­pe­cially their food and drink gift sec­tion. I love the gin and tonic pop­corn. 5. Play: Wi­neopoly. A silly but hi­lar­i­ous fam­ily board game, sim­i­lar to the clas­sic prop­erty ver­sion but with wine. ama­zon.com Pippa, with a life­span of just 15-20 min­utes.”

I de­cided to fo­cus on the prac­ti­cal­i­ties. A mixol­o­gist needs to know how a drink will taste af­ter two min­utes, 10 min­utes and 20 min­utes so that he or she can de­ter­mine whether to use crushed or cubed ice. The speed at which it melts mas­sively changes a drink’s taste, Manuel said, be­fore tak­ing me through some more cock­tail-mak­ing ba­sics.

Good fruit juices are as cru­cial to cock­tails as salt and pep­per are to cook­ing, and Milk & Honey gets fresh de­liv­er­ies ev­ery day. Sim­ple syrup is another es­sen­tial, made by com­bin­ing caster su­gar and wa­ter in equal parts. “It’s the su­gar that brings out the flavours and mel­lows the cock­tail,” Manuel told me.

Be­yond that, the key to a per­fect cock­tail is find­ing the right bal­ance be­tween the sweet and sour in­gre­di­ents. Pref­er­ences vary, so Manuel did some ba­sic tests to as­sess my palate us­ing al­ter­nat­ing quan­ti­ties of lime juice and sim­ple syrup. I pre­ferred the sours, re­as­sur­ing Manuel that this had noth­ing to do with my per­son­al­ity.

To a back­ground of melodic jazz, we pro­gressed to mix­ing drinks. First up was a clas­sic Cuban cock­tail, the Daiquiri, which was in­vented in the early 1900s and named af­ter a beach near the city of San­ti­ago de Cuba. Manuel’s ver­sion is a sim­ple mix­ture of lime, su­gar and Plan­ta­tion 3 Stars white rum (one of the best, I’m told). He chilled and di­luted the in­gre­di­ents on ice in a shaker, then shook it to aer­ate and up the bub­ble count. I did what he did but my shaker ended up leak­ing. What was wrong with my tech­nique? “The in­gre­di­ents should al­ways go into the smaller cup of the shaker, then se­cure the large one on top to shake,” Manuel told me. He quoted Harry Crad­dock, the fa­mous Savoy bar­tender who ap­par­ently served the last le­gal cock­tail in Amer­ica be­fore Pro­hi­bi­tion, on the im­por­tance of “giv­ing it some welly”: “Shake the shaker as hard as you can. Don’t just rock it: you are try­ing to wake it up, not send it to sleep!”

We served up the Daiquiri with a slice of le­mon, and Manuel told me to drink it “while it’s laugh­ing at you” (Crad­dock again) – or be­fore the bub­bles dis­ap­pear. I didn’t need telling twice – it tasted dan­ger­ously good.

Next up was in­struc­tion for the per­fect whisky sour. Choos­ing the right spirit is es­sen­tial for any cock­tail (Manuel rec­om­mends Fin­lan­dia vodka and Beefeater gin as two of the best gen­eral ba­sics), and to prove his point we made two ver­sions of the sour to com­pare. The first used Ken­tucky bour­bon, made from a grain mix­ture of at least 51 per cent corn and aged in charred white oak bar­rels, which adds a rich, caramel taste. For the sec­ond, we used a blended malt whisky that had a more del­i­cate, flo­ral flavour. We then added honey, gin­ger and egg white to both, and I learnt that slic­ing the egg white a few times with a sharp knife stops it “gloop­ing” to­gether, so it’s eas­ier to pour a given mea­sure. I pre­ferred the Scotch ver­sion as it was lighter, cleaner and had a stronger taste of whisky, while the bour­bon was a bit too sickly.

The best thing about learn­ing to mix cock­tails is that you get to drink what you make, good or bad, and I ad­mit to feel­ing, well, rather heady as we fin­ished our ses­sion with a Manuel spe­cial, the glo­ri­ous Rum Blazer, which you set alight to mag­i­cal ef­fect be­fore drink­ing. I learnt how to heat the rum so it catches alight more eas­ily, then to squeeze orange zest (no flesh) through a flame held over the rum to cre­ate a fiery flare. Sud­denly I had a vi­sion of my­self at Christ­mas, im­press­ing friends and fam­ily as I whipped up flam­ing cock­tails with a pro­fes­sional flour­ish. If only I could re­mem­ber the quan­ti­ties in­volved ...

Stir­ring stuff: Pippa tries a Rum Blazer

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