Good morrow all ye gentle souls of Nottingham University and beyond. I am the Impact Magazine resident bartender, and with each new blog of mine, you will be able to develop a plethora of knowledge of spirits, and a compendium of mind-altering and fabulous drinks to sample at your leisure. You may find me to be discerning in my tastes, but never will I be so in the sharing of my knowledge, as we journey together through the looking glass of mixology, taking in the sights of vodka, whisk(e)y, gin, rum, absinthe, tequila, brandy, and all manner of cocktails. Fasten your seatbelts, because while we will plumb the depths of cocktail history in blogs to come, here and now we will look at the basics.
The first thing to understand in bartending, or drink making, is the composite requirements for a cocktail. There are many, many definitions living in books far older and dustier than I, but for now, it is sufficient to say that there are 3 main ingredients that must be present for a beverage to be called a cocktail:
- A base spirit
- Bitters or fruit juice
- Ice (or water if you are from the Deep South in the early 1900s)
These are essential, and this fundamental rule makes it much easier to remember drinks when it comes to making them for a living. It is much easier to think “the spirit is here, the ice is ready to go, where’s the juice/bitters” than try and just remember a list of names. Trust an experienced hand when they say that any way to make remembering things easier is invaluable when you have to learn 400 drinks, and have an essay due the next day. ROFLOLZ, right?
I digress, which is perfectly acceptable since this is a blog. That in itself was a digression, so let’s avoid a vicious circle of digression, which can only seemingly lead to depression. To drag us out of this trough of despair and elevate us to a peak of optimism, lets dip our toes into just what these bullet points tell us.
The base spirit is usually one that is over 80 proof. That doesn’t mean it is a star witness in a courtroom drama, but that it is has an ABV (alcohol by volume) of 40%. The reasons for this are very interesting indeed, but require a journey of epic proportions all the way back to the British Navy of centuries past.
On Navy ships that travelled the world, particularly in the Carribbean, few things were as precious as the store of rum. In order to take the men’s minds off the sorry state of affairs they were in, which oftentimes included a lack of food, drinkable water, constant death, unbearable heat and rampant disease, the solution was to get them as shit-faced as possible. To ensure a sense of order on the ship, all rum was made to be 100 proof. This would equate to about 50% in new money. That’s strong enough to put hairs on the hairs on your chest!
The reason why it was called 100 proof? If a cook was suspected of watering down the rum, a lit fuse was placed in the rum in order to prove (geddit) the strength of the grog. If it was over 50% alcohol, the fuse wouldn’t go out. However, if it was just a tiny bit diluted, the fuse would be extinguished and so would the light of the cook’s life. Bad times, but a fun story.
There is no reason to get bitter about bitters, or even to think that there is anything particularly juicy about juice. The story behind this essential ingredient lies in Prohibition-era America. Unlike what you might think from Nucky Thompson’s shipments of whisk(e)y and rum, much of the alcohol during this period was being made by locals in tiny stills. Unsurprisingly, the fruits of this labour were pretty rancid. Unable to drink it neat, bartenders were practically forced into creating drinks that blended these rough spirits with bitters or for more exotic fare, fruit juice.
The water was simply a way to take the classic “burn” most spirits inflict on the back of the throat away, with ice just being a nice way to bring the temperature down and improve flavour. A good bartender knows the number of shakes to give a drink, not because it cools the drink down, but because every drink should have the equivalent of one shot (25ml) of water in it. The fact that it is ice cold water just makes it taste a lot better. The necessary addition of bitters and water to spirits is the primordial soup from which the embryonic cocktail crawled all those years ago, and where we still get the recipes for many classics.
Taking a sleeve from the Navy Captain’s log, this is a fun way to spruce up a popular shot, allowing you to look suave, hardcore and positively sexy all in one. The Bomb’s A-Wray!
Take some glasses of equal height, line them up, and slosh in a horny-branded energy drink. Place an upturned glass of the same height before the first glass. Then, fill some shot glasses with a herb liqueur that sounds an awful lot like Shaygermeiester. Place the first shot glass on the gap between the upturned glass and the first, and so on until all are balancing on the precipice of the golden depths below. Before getting super awesome, grab a spoon, and drizzle some overproof (over 50%, remember) rum onto the surface of the shots. From your utility belt, whip out your blow-torch (bog standard lighter with dextrous fingers suffices) and light those bad boys on fire! When all are aflame, get an attractive member of the opposite sex to knock the first one, creating a inferno-domino-powercool effect.
Drink the drink, get the number, high five someone and continue with your discussion on what’s better, reposado or anejo? And a small note for the newly initiated, the rum burns away with the flame, so you don’t get any more buzzed than a regular bomb. But, if you hold on to that little nugget, you can watch your mates fall over themselves at how “strong” that shot was. It just makes you look more like a gladiator, and less like a contestant.
For the final little introductory drink, let’s look at a full on party favourite, using rum. My fingers are itching to blend something delicious, and the more time spent writing this is time not spent making the greatest non-alcoholic cocktail known to man (for another later blog), so we’ll wrap it up with this. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, cats and dogs, He-Shes and She-Hes, young and old, big and small, promiscuous and prim, I give you the mojito!
25ml Fresh Lime Juice
2 Teaspoons Caster Sugar
50ml White Rum
8 Fresh Mint Leaves
A beautiful sprig of mint
Pop the sugar lovingly into the bottom of a glass, then wash over the lime juice. Following an initiative of waste-not, want-not, use the teaspoon to stir the two until the sugar is dissolved. Here, place in your mint leaves. Do not slap, clap or break the mint leaves. Add the rum. Fill the glass ¾ full of crushed ice and stir 25-28 times. Taste. Tastes Good. Tasty. Lightly slap the mint sprig and garnish the glass with it. This means none of the bitter chlorophyll from the leaves escapes in the drink, and a gorgeous aroma fills the nostrils when you take a drink from the sprig. Boom.
That was a pretty productive first blog methinks. Agree? Disagree? If you have any suggestions for drinks to talk about, spirits to uncover, or stories to tell, just ask away, I can be reached on occasion at [email protected]. Happy mixing, have fun fixing, and always, keep on truckin’!