So there I was, sitting at the long, marble-topped bar in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in London’s Hyde Park, trying to decide between a Lawnmower and a Pink Folder. You know how it is.
I’d just had a shirt-popping dinner in Bar Boulud, gorging on home-cured charcuterie and foie gras’n’truffle-topped beefburgers, and I craved a little something to act as an alcoholic full stop to a fine evening.
Having already made a stout-hearted assault on the wine list I didn’t want any more vino or fizz. An ice-cold beer would have been too much of a comedown, neat spirits too much of a shock and port too much of the old school. It had to be a cocktail. Question was: which one?
Bored of waiting for me to make up my mind, bar manager Amir Tenezhdolli steered me gently but firmly towards the Lawnmower (Belvedere vodka, vanilla, lemon, pasteurised egg, mint, wheatgrass, shichimi pepper). He reckoned this would make a much finer digestif than the Pink Folder (Tanqueray gin, 2002 Moët & Chandon champagne, jasmine tea and fresh pomegranate seeds), which, he said, was better knocked back before grub.
Since I am both indecisive and stubborn, I had to have one of each. While both were delicious, Tenezhdolli was right. I should have had the Pink Folder earlier. It was crisp, zesty, refreshing and a real perker-upper in a way that the Lawnmower was rounded, creamy, satisfying and a calmer-downer. I’ll know for next time.
The thing is, cocktails are all the rage at the moment and perfect for summer. No bar worth its salt is without some sort of cocktail list these days and hardly a week goes by without a new gin, vodka or rum being launched complete with suggested cocktails and serves. Best of all, such drinks are a cinch to make at home.
I’ve always been a great believer in the simplicity of fruit punches and scored a great hit the other week with an impromptu communal version.
I invited all the neighbours over and, instead of wine, asked them to bring whatever half-open, half-forgotten spirits and liqueurs they could lay their hands on.
We ended up with all manner of stuff, including crusty bottles of Benedictine and Chartreuse, slightly oxidised Lillet and Dubonnet and the inevitable Campari, Pimm’s and unwanted whisky. We each sloshed in our wares (apart from the Baileys, which the kids nicked and promptly threw up on), topped it up with some fine Mount Gay rum, pineapple juice, fizzy water and cava, plus plenty of ice, and proceeded to get merrily and noisily sozzled.
In general, however, I reckon such thrown-together, haphazard drinks lose the essence of their crucial component parts and are best suited to the annual clear-out of the drinks cupboard or that unexpected sunny evening after the shops have shut.
Better, perhaps, to try and aim a bit higher. Even the most sophisticated cocktails are easy to put together.
If gin is your thing, let me suggest a Blush Apple martini, which makes a perfect appetiser. Shake 50ml (2fl oz) of Caorunn (the extremely toothsome new small-batch, Scottish-distilled gin), 50ml (2fl oz) fresh apple juice and 5ml (1 tsp) of sirop de gomme (sugar syrup) over ice and strain into a martini glass. If you can be bothered, garnish with a couple of fresh raspberries.
Or (and this is ideal for homesick Scots) how about the savagely alcoholic but gloriously tasty Heather martini? Shake 50ml (2fl oz) Caorunn gin, 20ml (1fl oz) Drambuie and 5ml 1 tsp) Talisker Single Malt over ice and strain.
If you prefer vodka, I’d propose a version of the classic White Lady with 50ml (2fl oz) whistle-clean Purity vodka, 30ml (1fl oz) Cointreau, 30ml (1fl oz) fresh lemon juice and one egg white. Shake and strain.
For a fine post-prandial summer cocktail, I’d go for a whisky-based one such as the Old-Fashioned. Just muddle two brown sugar cubes doused with a dash or so of Angostura bitters and of water; add 50ml (2fl oz) Cutty Sark whisky, top up with ice and serve with zest of orange.
Or the sublime Sakura martini I discovered last night at my new favourite pan-Asian spot, Yum Yum Ninja in Brighton’s Lanes. Shake 40ml (13⁄4fl oz) Suntory’s exquisite Yamazaki 12-year-old single malt, 20ml (1fl oz) Davna Cherry vodka, 7.5ml (1⁄2tsp) cinnamon syrup and a dash of Angostura bitters over ice, strain and serve. Yum, yum indeed!
Back at the Mandarin, my Lawnmower turned out to be not so much the full stop I had planned but more of a comma in the course of a long night’s exhaustive researches. Needless to say, I missed my train.
But what next? Here are six of the best wines to follow cocktails:
2011 Tagus Creek Cabernet Sauvignon and Aragones (£6.75, Waitrose) Rich, ripe, juicy, uncomplicated Portuguese red
2011 Chapel Down Bacchus (£10.50, The Wine Society) Deliciously delicate, elderflower-like English white
2011 Macon “Aux Bois D’Allier”, Domaine Cordier (£12, The Wine Society) Sensational, under-priced white burgundy.
2006 Schloss Reinhartshausen Hattenheimer Riesling (£13.65, fromvineyardsdirect) Stunning, mature, low-alcohol German riesling.
2011 Vidal Reserve Series Pinot Noir (£15, Cambridge Wine Merchants) Gorgeous, cherry-ripe Kiwi pinot.
Champagne Bruno Paillard PremiEre CuvEe Brut NV (£35, Slurp) A first-rate fizz from one of Champagne’s newer fine names.