There was a time when I thought coming up with a cocktail was simply about combining a few spirits that worked together, maybe a liqueur, whacking in a bit of juice and sugar and shaking the heck out of it. Those are, I suppose the basics of it, but over the last few years there has been a tremendously encouraging trend of bars and bartenders creating their own ingredients for cocktails.
To be a cut above, these days, you need to start thinking well outside the box; while sometimes simplicity shines, intelligent thought and a bit of effort can make the difference between a groundbreaking bar and competition winner, or someone who’s come up with’ just’ a good drink. I’m not trying to suggest that everything you do these days should have something homemade that entails hours of effort in order for it to be great, but it’s fantastic to see more and more people catching on to the idea and experimenting.
As it happens, Edinburgh is a hotbed for that at present. Now I hate to compare cities, but when at the recent Diageo World Class competition, entrants were tasked with recreating a modern Bloody Mary. The lone competitor from Glasgow made his own tomato juice and created a very nicely balanced Bloody Mary. A very red one, very tasty; it was a Good Drink.
Everyone, without fail, from Edinburgh went way outside the box, seeking to challenge perception and our conceptions of what the drink was. We saw clear tomato consommes, a tomato vermouth, even a two-part hot-stew-like variation with a fat-washed vodka. They were all really Great Drinks. More than anything I think that’s owing to the massive amount of talent working in the Edinburgh scene and the opportunities we bartenders get over here – a lot of training sessions, a plethora of brains to pick for ideas and bounce off, and a ready willingness for our colleagues to help and encourage us – it’s a great environment to brainstorm.
Of course, there’s being clever and making clear tomato juice, and then there’s creating specific ingredients to give a flavour you couldn’t otherwise have achieved. That’s at one extreme – this is where we get into fat-washing a spirit, which is essentially mixing it with melted fats you wish to infuse it with, then freezing it so the fat separates and you’re left with the flavoured spirit and none of the fat (think bacon infused whisky or buttered rum), or even creating your own bitters using specific botanicals to your own secret recipe. Creating your own vermouths – fortified wines – can be done using some of these techniques as well. This technique was employed by Marco Noe to create a tomato vermouth at the Diageo World Class competition in Edinburgh; with it he created what was essentially a Bloody Mary Martini.
One really easy way to bring some flavours in to play is to create your own sugar syrups. Many cocktails need sweetening to help balance the flavours out, but you can go one step further and introduce specific taste elements of the drink in your gomme. These can also help cut down on the time it takes to bash out your drinks on a busy night – so for a bartender this can be a really smart move when designing cocktails for a list – as well as allowing you to bring in a flavour that might otherwise have required you to steep the cocktail for hours first.
If you start thinking about how flavours interact with each other you can really start getting clever here – looking to add some smokiness to your cocktail? Why not make a Lapsang Souchong infused syrup? There’s a drink on the 2009/2010 list at The Voodoo Rooms which uses a Laphroig and Chamomile syrup, which is a great example of thinking about how infused flavours compliment each other or affect your experience as you taste the drink. You don’t taste the Chamomile at all, it’s masked by the whisky and sugar, but what it does do is lengthen the phenolic element of the Laphroig so rather than getting an immediate smoky flavour that fades to sweetness, the smoke carries out through the finish.
The drink I refer to there is called the Dark & Smoky, a play on the Dark & Stormy insofar as it uses Gosling’s Black Seal rum as its base. There’s a lot of thought that went into the creation of that drink in terms of flavour, what comes first on the palate, what emerges, and what remains in the finish. It’s a prime example of how a garnish (in this case a zested orange peel and a pineapple leaf) can bring far more than a simple aesthetic to a drink. The role of bitters, of flavoured syrups and garnish all play a part in determining what order flavours hit your palate, tricking the brain into expecting one thing so it emphasises that before it detects other flavours amongst other things. I learned a lot from hearing its creator, Adam Trussell, explain the thoughts that went into developing the drink when I sat in on one of his Masterclass sessions at Voodoo.
Anyway, 2010 has already seen a wealth of new ideas and experiments emerge in the competitions so far, and I’ll be very interested to see what else is in store for us in the future. I have a few ideas myself, but more on them later…