I’m moving house at the moment – or trying to, at least – which means I’ve had to give my sprawling spirits collection a bit of a cull. Aside from a few treasured bottles of high-end whisk(e)y that I’ve wrapped in cotton wool, I’m struck by how most of the bottles that I want to keep are, on the face of it, rather ordinary: Beefeater, Tanqueray, Martini Rosso, Buffalo Trace, Ketel One, Havana Club 3-year-old… These brands are, in reality, the ones I use to mix cocktails. Why? Partly because they taste like they should. But also because they’re good team players: They’re not trying to be the star of the show.
The idea that the ‘world’s best cocktail’ is made with the world’s most expensive ingredients is one invented by marketing departments. By comparison, bartenders are inclined, in my experience, to have surprisingly frugal tastes.
Just the other night, I had a Manhattan at Dukes Bar in St James’s – a joint that has its pick of the fancy brands. Yet bartender Alessandro Palazzi chose to mix my Eagle Rare bourbon with plain old Martini Rosso vermouth. Some might consider it a touch cheeky to use a £9 bottle of vermouth in a £20 cocktail. But for me it served as a confidence-inspiring sign of a bartender who knew his own mind.
‘Martini Rosso is lighter, fresher and more balanced than many more fashionable vermouths, so it allows you to show off the other ingredients,’ says Palazzi. ‘It may be commercial, but it’s well made – not like those brands that spend more on the packaging than the liquid inside.’
Like many bartenders I know, Palazzi is also a fan of Beefeater gin, a brand that suffers from a rather down-market image in the wider world. ‘After almost 200 years of distilling, they know what they’re doing,’ he says. ‘Desmond Payne [the Beefeater master distiller] is a genius.’
Multi-award-winning bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana – aka Mr Lyan – is at the vanguard of mixology, but even he is partial to a mass-market brand from time to time. He confesses to a liking for Beefeater, Tanqueray, traditional Polish vodkas and, especially, bog-standard blended Scotch. ‘My favourite cocktail is a Scotch and soda – and a grain-forward everyday blend such as The Famous Grouse, Bell’s or Teacher’s can really make the drink sing,’ he says. ‘Often the punchier flavours and richer tannins [of more premium or mature whiskies] can dominate a lighter aperitif, so [for cocktails like this] I tend to recommend steering towards the bottles that are more mainstream.’
Alex Kratena of east London’s Tayēr + Elementary – currently no.2 in the World’s 50 Best Bars – is jaded by what he sees as ‘premiumisation in spirits without any substance. The majority of self-proclaimed innovations are just crap.’ But while he is excited by some of the newcomers in vermouth – ‘For quality versus value for money, you can’t beat Noilly Prat’ – the red vermouth he employs for the Tayēr + Elementary Negroni is our old friend Martini Rosso. His go-to rum for Daiquiris is Havana Club 3-year-old.
The bar team behind east London’s ultra-cool A Bar with Shapes for a Name were so determined not to be swayed by packaging or puff when it came to choosing their 20 house spirits that they (and a panel of 20 others) blind-tasted their way to every bottle. The resulting speed rail sees everyday pours like Tapatio Tequila and Punt e Mes rub shoulders with rare editions of Chartreuse and £120 Capreolus eaux-de-vies. ‘People tend to think that if it’s a big brand it’s bad,’ says owner Remy Savage. ‘Our aim was to break those habits and open the door to flavour.’
I remember the late Dick Bradsell – often dubbed the godfather of the UK’s cocktail renaissance – being decidedly anti-snob when it came to cocktail ingredients. His original Espresso Martini was made with Tia Maria. He insisted on making his Treacle with apple juice concentrate. Perhaps Bradsell would have chosen differently were he to be faced with the plethora of brands bartenders enjoy today. But I suspect not. Because that lack of pretension was key to what made him a good bartender – not just as a mixer of drinks, but also as a host.