One of the lasting legacies of lockdown was that time at home meant cocktails became an increasing source of investment – both financially and time-wise. The perfect mix of the learning of a new skill, exploring flavours, plus a prize – and what a prize! – at the end of it all provided a welcome evening escape route for many of those working at home.
Yet now, nearing the end of a year spent honing our cocktail-making skills, we have also come to understand the basic price of the actual ingredients that go into some of the classics. What happens then, when we finally find ourselves back in a bar, ordering our cocktail of choice, only to be faced with a hefty bill? How will we feel about being charged £15 for a daiquiri that we know merely involved a couple of measures of white rum, a lime and some sugar syrup?
I recall Jared Brown, co-founder and master distiller at Sipsmith gin, and noted author and drinks historian, once telling me: “Nobody goes to a bar for a drink. They go for the experience”. And there, ladies and gentlemen, is your answer. Cocktails are not just about the drink and the connoisseurship of the mixing and shaking, but the conviviality, the convenience and the ambience.
How, then, to recreate this ambience at home, even when the turkey is burning and the kids are screaming? Making and shaking cocktails while trying to juggle everything else going on at Christmas may, for many, be a bridge too far. For where the budding home sommelier just has to carry around a corkscrew, the mixologist employs far more potions, glassware and garnishes. Now, then, is the time to borrow a trick out of any hip, modern bar’s arsenal, and pre-batch, as they say. The bartender’s term for making in advance, this is easier than you think.
The first thing to do is to make an adroit choice of drink. The biggest consideration here is to understand your audience. You may love a sazerac with just a bit more absinthe than the norm, but your guests might find the green fairy a little too overpowering. Anything with a bit more of a fruity edge, on the other hand – and I’m not talking about Grandad’s jokes – might be a better way of keeping everyone happy.
The next consideration is ease of making. My go-to is a sloe gin negroni: it’s easy to pre-batch, being pretty much equal measures of sloe gin, Campari and sweet vermouth, and it can be served simply over ice in a tumbler for those who like something a little stronger, or lengthened with sparkling water in a wine glass, spritz-style, for those who prefer a longer, more refreshing drink. And the garnish for this? Rosemary. It adds a nice herbal note to the drink, and the likelihood is you’ll have plenty on hand for the turkey.
Next up is your all-important storage container. If you think you’re going to drink a lot of one type of cocktail, choose a large Kilner jar with a tap attached (brilliant for my sloe gin negroni). If, on the other hand, demand is likely to be a little more niche, then simply go for an empty spirits bottle, thoroughly washed through. I love an old fashioned, another cocktail that can easily be pre-batched, but not all my Christmas guests do. Ergo, I’ll batch up a bottle to be kept, most probably, for personal consumption over the long days ahead.
Once you’ve made up your selection, keep them in the fridge, or a cooler area of the house, and do your very best to drink them within a week or so. I know, what a challenge…
Pre-batched cocktails allow you to make up something tasty, without pressure, ahead of time, and ensure that the single most important parts of your drink offering – the service and the smile – are available in abundance. Because cocktails at Christmas aren’t for the grinch. Whatever you serve, make sure your house pours are conviviality and cordiality, and you won’t go far wrong.
Joel’s three easy-to-pre-batch Christmas Cocktails
1. The Sloe Gin Negroni
The Negroni, invented in 1919 by Count Negroni, is a simple drink of three parts alcohol. As a result, it is often called the drinks writers’ drink. The Sloe Gin version is fruitier and can be lengthened like a spritz for guests who prefer something a little longer and more refreshing.
1 bottle of Hayman’s Sloe Gin
1 bottle of Campari
1 bottle of Giulio Cocchi Spumanti
Storico Vermouth Di Torino
Pour all the ingredients into a Kilner jar, then serve a 150ml measure over ice in a tumbler for a classic Negroni, or lengthen with soda water for a spritz style drink. Garnish both with rosemary
2. The Old Fashioned
With the requisite diligent stirring down of a dash of water, sugar and bitters before adding whiskey, ice and more stirring, an old fashioned should take a while to make – so much so that the Merchant House bar in the City of London serves you a beer while you wait. This, then, is a perfect candidate to be made ahead of time.
For eight 100ml servings, take a bottle of Old Forester Rye Bourbon Whiskey, and pour into a kilner jar along with 50ml of water. To save time on stirring down sugar and bitters, add 25ml of sugar syrup at a time, stirring and tasting until you feel it is sweet enough. Then add some dashes of Angostura bitters, again tasting until it has some spice, and finally pour in some of the juice from a good jar of Maraschino cocktail cherries, which will add a hint of fruit. Serve over a single block of ice in a short old fashioned glass, and garnish with a cherry and a slice of orange.
3. King’s Penicillin
The Penicillin is a wonderful drink that balances whisky, ginger liqueur and honey for what is almost a cold take on a hot toddy.
300ml King’s Ginger
300ml Chivas Regal 12-Year-Old
250ml freshly squeezed Lemon juice
100ml Honey water (Equal parts honey to water)
Pour all the ingredients into a jug. Stir down and then rebottle into a 1 litre clean bottle with a firm lid. To serve, first agitate the bottle to wake the drink up, and then pour a 100ml serve over ice in a short tumbler. Garnish with a lemon wedge or a piece of crystallised ginger.