Christmas cocktails – just add spirit
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