New Year’s resolutions can be boring, and tough to stick to, I’ve failed on many a resolution, even 2014’s ‘drink more bourbon’. I decided that 2018 would be different.
I love cocktails, ever since my first job as a barback in a busy Auckland bar in 1992 I’ve always been in awe of them, I suspect that like all people my age working in hospitality it has something to do with that wonderful Tom Cruise film Cocktail.
I moved to London in 1997, and was lucky enough to work at Pharmacy in Notting Hill with Dick Bradsell, the person I would credit with re-inventing cocktails in London, if not the world in the late 90’s. On starting here everything was like nothing I’d seen before, beautiful glassware, brightly coloured drinks, exotic names, amazing bar staff, lots of fresh fruit and puree’s, it was like stepping into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
I remember at an early cocktail training session with Dick asking what would be a good cocktail book to buy, he suggested David Embury’s ‘the Fine Art of Mixing Drinks’, which had been out of print for decades. I picked up my copy after a hunt, and was loved how relevant, witty and opinionated it was.
I bounced around bars in London for a while, with a year’s hiatus travelling across the globe before coming back home to London, all the time with a desire to get back into mixed drinks. I revisited Embury, and then, when I could afford it, started to build a library of old cocktail books spanning back over the last 180 old years.
In 2013 we opened Goat with the Chelsea Prayer room tucked away upstairs, which gave my wife an opportunity to get my library out of the house and behind glass cabinets in this space.
We started running cocktail classes in the space and I soon remembered the words of David Embury on tequila halfway through a class, ‘at a pinch it might be used in a cocktail’ (despite the books inception in 1948 there was no mention of the Margarita) and ‘in general however, the only liquor I have ever tasted that I regard as worse than tequila is slivovitz’.
I started opening the books again.
What I quickly realised is that there were a lot of classics, and accompanying drinks in these books I had never tasted or had forgotten how, or never actually made. There was decades of knowledge of flavour combinations and techniques I was behind on.
And so came my idea of a new year’s resolution.
In 2018 I will try a different ‘classic’ cocktail from these old books, every day for a year.
I decided to start at the very beginning, I figured Julie Andrews was onto something, and started combing through my copy of the 1928 edition of Jerry Thomas. Doing this for a year is going to take a small amount of planning, I can fully stock my home, and I have a bar, but travelling could make things tricky, and I’m off to Moscow for 8 days at the beginning of the year.
I started combing through my favourite books, picking out recipes I want to re-try, or try, alongside my favourites.
The other thing I realised is that I will need to be ‘careful’ with my consumption, a second martini is a natural chaser for the first, but its companion 3rd, 4th and 5th could make the day after’s drink a little trickier to appreciate, unless its planned.
And by ‘planned’ we have the whole category of morning fixer uppers like the corpse revivor family, morning glory etc, or those a little easier to stomach like milk punch (I’m having one as I type this) or egg nogg.
So I’ll need a amount of flexibility, but also ‘go to’ drinks when my brain isn’t helping me remember good choices.
The Books I plan on using for 2018 are as Follows:
The Bon Vivants Companion or How to Mix Drinks – Jerry Thomas 1928 edition
Old Waldorf Bar Days – Albert Stevens Crockett 1931
The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks – David Embury 1953 British edition
Which is only vaguely helpful for Moscow. Sure Moscow has a lot of great bars and restaurants, and yes I could get my hands on most spirits and liqueurs once I get there, but this is January, it’s a touch cold outside, and my plan is to cocoon myself inside with family, avoiding bars and the big scary outside world after a frenetic December at Goat.
I know home will be stocked with vodka, and its Russia after all, I should be drinking vodka.
So, 8 days of vodka, or Russian themed cocktails it is. And here is where it starts to get tricky.
Vodka didn’t start to be consumed in the west until the 50’s in any kind of volume. The drink that kick started this spirit revolution, the Moscow Mule started life in 1941. Which means that 2 of the 3 books I’m planning on using are zero help.
And unfortunately Embury is pretty clear on where he sees vodka in his earlier edition. “It is hard to conceive of any worse cocktail monstrosity than the vodka martini, the vodka old-fashioned, or vodka on the rocks,” he wrote. “If you don’t like the taste of liquor,” he asked, “why drink it?”
Thankfully he warms to it a little by 1953, and he obviously hadn’t spent time with my extended family drinking shots of ice cold vodka while eating Sala and pickled vegetables, one of my favourite pastimes.
Embury in the 40’s and 50’s is in virgin vodka territory. The early 50’s are when consumption really started to boom, jumping from 40000 cases in 1950 to 4000000 cases by 1955, considering how frosty the US and Russia were at that time it’s a little strange that it caught on quite so well, and even stranger that such a potent icon of the iron curtain became the drink of choice for the west.
So on thinking about how to tackle travelling I’ve looted work for sample spirit miniature bottles, and filled them up with all the accompanying parts needed for the first few days. Problem solved.