In a cocktail frame of mind

34579
Coping with prohibition through methodological mixology, Shantanu Majumdar QC reprises his social media cocktail recipe hits for a home-based NYE

It has been something of a cliché of lockdown that the incarcerated have resorted, amongst other things, to the bottle. If this is true, then apart from the ever-dependable (but always transitory) solace of intoxication in the face of adversity, another factor might be the breakdown of routines, including the distinctions between the places and times when we work.

I do not think that I drank more during the Spring lockdown (although never underestimate the power of wishful thinking) but I did drink more methodically. This came about in a rather unexpected way. One Friday evening in early April I posted on LinkedIn a picture of two Negroni cocktails (and the bottles from which their ingredients came) with an ironic message about its being the end of another hard week’s work. (You may have been busy in early April but I was not.)

I knew of course that LinkedIn is a ‘professional networking’ site where people generally ‘share’ often tedious legal updates (I have certainly been guilty of this) as well as achievements and plaudits (I may also have done that) but on this occasion I thought ‘what the hell?’ I was rather taken aback by the response: thousands of views, lots of ‘reactions’ and comments. By the next weekend I had probably done some work but had certainly read a great deal more of Middlemarch and it was clearly time for another drink. This time it was the Pisco Sour.

This post was just as popular and elicited the suggestion from one of my connections that I should publish recipes and so I did. As time has passed, the posts have become more explanatory but also discursive and maybe just a little self-indulgent: using occasions and quotations as well as personal interests, cultural references and holidays: VE Day, Sherlock Holmes, Haydn, Dartmoor, Venice, Billy Joel, dogs, James Bond and so on…

One fellow member of chambers asked me whether I was concerned that people might think that I was an alcoholic – which perhaps revealed quite a lot about him – and another friend raised her eyebrows at what I had to say about Stockholm Syndrome.

I have said that my drinking has become more ‘methodical’ and that is surely a natural consequence of having to say something about the drinks which, in turn, means that I had to think about them; not just how they are made but my own taste and the variations and adaptations which can be made to the recipes. On one occasion, that experimental aspect led to a ‘laboratory’ session in my kitchen which has left me unable to think about aniseed without nausea (the cocktail involved Sambuca).

I have also learned a great deal. My earliest memories of cocktails were generally bad: sickly concoctions drunk to excess and often disliked even then. Over time, I cautiously reconsidered the cocktail, but generally confined myself to dry, strong drinks (some variant of the Martini) or fizz with some fruit element and usually deploying what was at hand rather than following a recipe. I have now widened my repertoire and, amongst other things, discovered Bourbon and Rye Whiskey and their cocktail possibilities. I still try to propose drinks for which people will either have or easily be able to obtain the ingredients, although Aquavit for the Stockholm Syndrome, Lillet Blanc for the Vesper and Suze for the White Negroni may have crossed that line.

I have long kept gin and vodka in the freezer in order to minimise the need for ice (and its unwelcome dilution) and enduring themes of these posts are, where possible:

  • to avoid ice;
  • if it is inescapable, to stir rather than shake; and
  • if a drink must be served ‘on the rocks’ then, unless smaller or crushed cubes are essential, to use a single ‘Cyclopean’ cube for both practical and aesthetic reasons. It melts (much) more slowly and, if you are as pretentious as me, will also remind you of Mycenae.

At the time of the publication of this article it will be Christmas and New Year, though at the time of writing (mid-November) it is hard to know what that will mean in this benighted year. But just as we will always have Paris, there will always be cocktails.

So what to drink? Something which nods to the season? Or something which transports us to brighter and warmer times?

The Martini – heresy or genius?

According to the FT, the late American writer James Salter (who died at the age of 90 in 2015) attributed his longevity to drinking a dry martini every night. (He estimated that he had drunk more than 8,700.) But these were not ordinary Martinis (whatever that means); his Martinis were made with a dash of Worcestershire sauce for a ‘faint, unidentifiable touch of greatness’.

I like my Martinis very dry, but do at least put some Vermouth in the glass (the true Spartan merely shows the glass the bottle):

  • rinse a frozen Martini glass with white vermouth (if you use a shaker, rinse the ice cubes with the vermouth);
  • pour vodka or gin (I have a marginal preference for gin in this drink) from the freezer into the glass;
  • add a dash of Worcestershire sauce and a twist (or olive);
  • stir and serve. 

The sauce works; it adds a faintly salty, Umami quality to the drink and somehow increases its amplitude.

The Manhattan – a New York state of mind

I begin with two confessions: (1) I have never been to New York; (2) I had never drunk a Manhattan before. One of these deficiencies was more easily remedied than the other.

I consulted James Villas’ magnificent essay ‘A Few Choice Words about the Manhattan’. For him it outclasses the Martini and is ‘the ultimate in sophisticated drinking and the very spirit of the great city that shares its name’. He believed that one should drink no more than two, just before dinner, ‘generally respecting it’ as ‘the genteel but powerful aristocrat that it is’. Add:

  • 60ml Rye Whiskey (or Bourbon);
  • 20ml Red Vermouth;
  • 1-2 dashes Angostura bitters;

to a cocktail shaker of ice. Stir (not shake) and drain into a chilled glass. Serve with a stemmed Maraschino cherry (if you can find one).

Villas was a purist – he carried his own cherries in a vial and described the Manhattan variant which includes dry vermouth as an ‘abomination’ – but he recognised that the ratio of whiskey to vermouth was adjustable to taste; his own had changed over the course of his drinking life. 3:1 is a good start but I have seen anything from 5:1 to 2:1.

The Negroni

My Friday night drink of first resort is usually the Negroni. Perhaps the perfect cocktail, it has power and the perfect equipoise of bitter and sweet. 

Ice brings dilution, but the Negroni can take (and perhaps needs) it, not just because of its strength, but also its sweetness. I have now invested in ice trays for the aforementioned ‘Cyclopean’ cubes, aesthetically more pleasing and, crucially, slower melting (less surface area).

Some use a cocktail shaker/mixing glass but the Negroni does not need it:

  • Place one Cyclopean ice cube in a tumbler (or a few smaller cubes);
  • Add 1 part (say 50ml) of gin, 1 part red vermouth and 1 part Campari and stir;
  • Serve with a slice of orange peel.

I recommend 1:1:1. The double gin version adds strength (obviously), but lacks balance.

Experiment, eg combining Punt e Mes with the Campari or using Martini Bitters instead of straight red vermouth. Orange bitters are also a good addition. 

*
Supporting your abstemious ambitions, virgin cocktails make for a recuperative holiday season and new habits:
Find help and support at:
www.drinkaware.co.uk
www.lawcare.co.uk
www.wellbeingatthebar.org.uk
Category: 
Issue: 
Author details: 
Shantanu Majumdar QC

Shantanu Majumdar QC is a barrister at Radcliffe Chambers.