Archive for the 'Thoughts' Category

The end of the beginning

August 12, 2009

I’ve been blogging here at ednbrg since the dark, distant days of May 2008 and it’s proven to be my most successful attempt in nearly seven years of trying. There could be any number of reasons, but the two biggest ones are easily the support of the community of cocktail bloggers around the world and the fact that I’ve finally found a subject that I genuinely enjoy focusing on.

With that in mind, I think it’s time to step things up. I’m going to keep posting recipes and reviews and anything vaguely mixological that catches my eye , but I’m moving the operation over to its own shiny new domain:The Old Town Alchemy Co.Everything that was – and will remain – here is there. Please update your bookmarks and RSS feeds. Feedback is welcome via email and comments.

Thanks for reading, see you at the new place!

Jon

http://oldtownalchemy.co.uk/ [RSS]

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Adventures in space, time and vodka

June 25, 2009

Here’s a thought.

Cocktails destroy good spirits.

It’s not my thought. It belongs to a man named Börje Karlsson, one of the master blenders involved with a new Swedish vodka called Karlsson’s Gold (rated B+ by Drinkhacker!), in an article in the Washington Post. It’s an interesting thought, not least because it comes from a vodka producer and vodka, well vodka is a bit troublesome.

NO COCKTAILS?… by Metro Centric, licenced under Creative Commons.

Imagine we’ve got a time machine, and rather than using it to buy last week’s winning lottery numbers, we travel back to somewhere near the sixteenth century, somewhere in Eastern Europe, where the bouncing baby vodka tradition has just started walking and saying its first unintelligble words. Assuming that no-one burns us as witches on account of our strange fashions and bizarre future talk, we’ll find a spirit that has mostly slipped past its origin as a medicinal elixir and is gaining popularity among the masses, flavored with herbs, honey and berries, and among the aristocracy who compete to create the purest liquid from their state-of-the-art pot stills. Skip forward a few hundred years and we’ll find this spirit embedded in the culture, adding punctuation to any event, from weddings to birthdays to funerals and everything in between. Vodka becomes the lifeblood of the community, used and abused by the powers that be as something approaching a rum ration for an entire empire through the middle part of the twentieth century.

Read the rest of this entry »

One Perfect Moment: Vodka

June 16, 2009

Tucked away in a little corner of the Internet, away from the hustle and bustle, you’ll find Scans Daily – or its most recent incarnation, after the original fell victim to alleged grumpiness – where comic fans trade in snippets from their collections. Sometimes pages are posted because they’re flat out awesome. Sometimes they’re posted because they’re really, really bad, or obscure, or intriguing, or weird. Sometimes, they fit to the week’s theme. Last week, the community started posting scans of their favourite characters’ One Perfect Moment – the essence of the character expressed as eloquently as possible in a couple of pages or panels. It’s an absolute treasure chest of potential reading material.

So far, so geek, but we’re not really into drink territory. So here’s the thing: working in a bar, you’ll come across those same elegant moments that express an idea perfectly. For example, Scottish vodka drinkers…

Customer: What vodka do you sell?
Bartender: We’ve got [house pour], [insert super premium brands here], and maybe a bit of [random, appallingly expensive boutique brand] somewhere.
Customer: You’ve got Grey Goose? That’s a great vodka, it’s my favourite.
Bartender: No worries, one Grey Goose. On the rocks?
Customer: Yeah. With Red Bull.

Monday Night Open Mic: Plan B

March 2, 2009

Imagine if careers advisors suggested ‘bartender’ as the ideal profession for your child.

“Well, Mr. Smith, young Jimmy is basically a nerd, but with a bit of coaxing, I reckon he could develop a drink habit and an astonishing ability to withstand hangovers while essentially whoring himself for change from people who inevitably think they’re better than he is.
“I imagine his projected earnings would be somewhere in the ballpark of minimum wage, but he’d have tips on top of that.
“Excuse me? Sorry if I wasn’t clear. Tips would be related to the whoring, yes.”

I’ve been working full-time in a bar/brasserie/hotel/nightclub complex for about three years now. Before that, I spent somewhere north of two years working for a nationwide chain of food-serving pubs while at university. I’m still young – relatively speaking; among the staff at work I’m technically in the Ancient category (thankfully not in the Old/Creepy subset, so I’m told) – so there’s a chance that I could try a new profession in the future, but the hospitality industry looks like it’s become a career. Which was totally not the plan.

Read the rest of this entry »

“Everything ends badly. Otherwise it would never end.”

February 13, 2009

Just over twenty years ago, a little film called Cocktail opened in Britain. Two decades later, people still ask if we do any of “that fancy Tom Cruise stuff” behind the bar.

I usually tell them I’m taller than Tom Cruise.

Meme: thinking to get drunk

February 6, 2009

There is a thing going round Facebook. It’s a lot like ebola, I think, because it seems that when you contract it, it kinda percolates for a little while before forcing things out that probably should have stay inside. That’s right, it’s the 25 things meme, as seen in proper magazines and forums, not to mention Facebook.

I am, of course, going to play. But I’m setting some rules. My list is going to be mainly about drinking. It just seems more appropriate.

  1. I don’t like whisky as much as I feel I should.
  2. A classic strawberry daiquiri – shaken with fresh fruit, served straight up – is an utter pain to make.
  3. A frozen strawberry daiquiri is at least a thousand times easier to make.
  4. I have refused to serve a drink to a customer because it was too tasty.
  5. I have shown someone how to make a Cheeky Vimto* at a “Cocktail Masterclass”.
  6. I have only truly regretted making out with one person when completely wasted.**
  7. I don’t know why, but I do actually like vodka.
  8. Whenever I try to brainstorm new drink ideas, I’ll come up with at least three drinks that are basically Cosmopolitans.
  9. You shouldn’t refer to yourself as a mixologist. If that’s what people want to call you, fair enough – but don’t put it on your business cards.
  10. You should be able to barback before you bartend.
  11. Getting 33 Seabreezes out of one 70cl bottle of vodka shouldn’t be encouraged, but I’m still proud of it.
  12. Twelve mojitos in six minutes, but I probably couldn’t do it again.
  13. I have more fun at work than it looks like.
  14. Good music makes a bar. Bad music, or bad DJs, bring everyone down.
  15. By good, I don’t mean scoring well on Pitchfork or in the NME. It means whatever plays well, whatever lifts the crowd.
  16. I thought Bombay Sapphire was blue for a good three or four years.
  17. Blue Curacao on ice cream is just flat out awesome.
  18. Bartenders are not as important as doctors, teachers, emergency services, soldiers.
  19. But we come damn close at Christmas.
  20. The customer is not always right.
  21. But they’re allowed to be wrong.
  22. I don’t like being drunk.
  23. Apparently, I get more sarcastic the drunker I get, which makes 22 seem weird.
  24. I’ll cut you off before you start falling over. It’s not personal.
  25. A good drink can totally make someone’s night. If I can make it, it’s an honour.

* Don’t ask. If you don’t know what it is, you’re probably better off.
** To date.

Hmm, oddly cathartic as an experience. Right, who’s next?

Excess

January 27, 2009

Britain is known for many things – our royal family, our long and storied history of making war with the nearest major landmass and, more recently, binge-drinking. This latest scourge of our civilisation has now spread to the middle class, according to new statistics from the, uh, Office for National Statistics (PDF link). Cue up the highlights reel:

  • 37% of adults exceed the Government’s recommended guidelines for alcohol intake.
  • 43% of adults in professional and managerial households overindulge, which colours professional managers screwed.
  • 22% of adults in professional and managerial households drink on at least five days in the week.
  • When surveyed, 16,000 adults felt that public health advertising had succeeded in raising awareness of the dangers of excessive drinking.

All of which makes for pretty grim reading, really. But it’s unlikely that entire swathes of British society are not going to disappear into a booze-fueled haze. Amid the headline statistics, the ONS also notes that alcohol consumption has not significantly changed over the past decade, excepting 2006 when a new method of calculating the unit strength of alcohol lead to a “statistical glitch”. Read the rest of this entry »

Brave new world

December 18, 2008

There’s been a discussion over on Barbore about a new range of pre-prepared foam sauces called Airspuma, and what this means for cocktails.

I made the point that it’s the kind of product that could lead to a national chain (let’s say All Bar One, for example) including a cocktail with a foam component on its menu, which would open that particular strand of mixology up to a new audience. But, thinking about it, we’re not going to see foam cocktails in the mainstream anytime soon.

The drinks that you see presented at competitions, the cutting edge, experimental concoctions you see in the very best bars, these all represent a small section of the market. They’re the drinks that will be included in programs 5, 10 years down the line, but they’re not necessarily right for widespread adoption yet.

For things like foams, gels and airs, semi-liquid pearls and all the tricks in the molecular mixology toolkit, you can add another decade before they even enter the conversation, let alone become a part of a standard service. At the moment, it’s hard to convince regular drinkers (the ones who stick to what they know, and it ain’t cocktails) that making a mixed drink requires more thought than “lob it in a glass and give it a stir.” A drink with a foam component is going to be so far
outside of their frame of reference that
you may as well be talking about particle physics.

There will always be bars and bartenders working at the bleeding edge of innovation, and they do important work. Give it time, let the ideas filter out from those in the know to everybody else. Then we can talk about whether a premix aerosol foam garnish will damage the authenticity of a drink.

On classic cocktails

November 27, 2008

Next Friday marks the 75th anniversary of the repeal of US Prohibition, a day that will be celebrated with the downing of a significant number of old-school cocktails. It’s just got to be done. After all, FDR headed straight to the liquor cabinet on signing off on the 21st Amendment.

I’d guess that the cocktailblog community is going to have some cool things lined up to commemorate the anniversary. These things don’t happen every day, and I’m no exception. I’ve been spending some time looking at some of the great cocktails created outside of the USA during the dry years, but that’s a tale for another day.

Next Friday’s looking good, I reckon.

Anyway, the thing is this: what are the great modern cocktails?

There’s a fairly nebulous group of mixed drinks that are referred to as “classics”. Some are more or less undisputed – martini, Manhattan, Old-Fashioned, Daiquiri, for example, and some are kinda borderline – the Aviation? (Yes, if you’re from the States, maybe not if you’re British.) Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any bona fide, nailed-on classics that date from after World War 2.

Taking 1948 (the first publication of Embury’s Fine Art of Mixing Drinks) as the cut-off, what are the great modern cocktails?

I see two major problems. The first is the idea that Embury came up with, that all cocktails come back to six essential drinks. Well, five, and the Jack Rose. If that’s true, then barring minor variations, everything’s already been done. The second is the 1980s, which was as good a decade for mixology as 1666 was for London.

OK, just to be contrary – to counter the first problem, a truly great drink should transcend its formula. There is only one point of difference between a martini and a Manhattan, yet they’re both considered classics in their own right. To counter the second, I just need to find a genuinely excellent cocktail that was invented about the time disco was considered acceptable to play out loud in public.

Here’s a clue: it’s not Sex On The Beach.

So, the question remains. Oh God, I feel a Workshop series coming on…

On the Martini

November 2, 2008

I’ve spent a decent amount of time thinking about gin recently. There are worse things to think about and I’ve sat in on two training sessions on it over the past fortnight.

One thing that always comes up in any gin training is the Martini. It’s one of the most iconic cocktails – everybody knows of the Martini, even if not everybody knows what it exactly is. It strikes me that the modern Martini drinker falls into one of two schools:

a) an experienced, hardcore drinker who knows exactly how they want their drink, or
b) someone who’s just seen a Bond movie and really doesn’t know what they’re getting into. I have fond memories of the aftermath of Casino Royale’s release – making Vespers and, five minutes later, being asked to top them up with lemonade.

All of it boils down to this: the Martini – or, rather, the modern dry Martini – is an incredibly inaccessible drink. If you don’t like the taste of straight spirits, there’s no point of entry unless you turn to neo-martinis which are an entirely different beast.

It’s a shame, really. I used to make a Cosmopolitan-flavoured martini-style cocktail as a party trick. At work, we’ve prototyped something that looks like a proper, old-school martini, and tastes like Neopolitan ice-cream. In both cases, I’ve found that people are really surprised in the sheer amount of flavour that you can get from a clear, colourless drink. Taking that idea further, I tried to come up with a more accessible Martini.

The other thing that sticks out at me is how unfashionable vermouth is in the mass-market these days, despite George Clooney’s best efforts. If you want to blame someone, Winston Churchill’s probably your best bet. Depending on who you ask, he took his Martinis with either a glance at the bottle while stirring or a pass of the bottle over the chilled glass. The drying of the Martini probably reached its logical conclusion with Salvatore Calabrese’s Naked Martini, where the vermouth is sprayed into a chilled glass before adding gins straight from the freezer, creating possibly the most hardcore cocktail the world has ever known.

So, yeah. Let’s make a more accessible Martini, but without using vermouth.

I do try to make things easy for myself.

The Duke of Marlborough
50ml Tanqueray Gin
25ml Sauvignon Blanc (I used Anapai River 2007 from Marlborough, New Zealand)
1 barspoon Acacia Honey
1 dash Fee Brothers Peach Bitters
Dissolve honey into white wine in a mixing glass. Add the gin and bitters, and stir with ice. Fine-strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a mint leaf wrapped in a lemon zest twist.

(Picture credits: Martini Time, from wickenden’s Photostream on Flickr; news.bbc.co.uk)