There are hundreds, if not thousands, of cocktails in the world, with all sorts of flavours and names. But most of them are really, in essence, just twists on a handful of classic drinks. A Mint Julep is an Old Fashioned served over crushed ice and mint; a Boulevardier is a Negroni fortified with bourbon instead of gin; a French 75 is just a simple Gin Sour with a decadent slosh of Champagne.
It was this realisation that really unlocked cocktails for me. It got my nose out of the recipe book – and away from Google – and allowed me to mix more intuitively. And the whole point of making cocktails, after all, is to bring something of yourself to the drink – otherwise you might as well just open a bottle of wine or buy in ready-to-drink cocktails.
My new book, The Cocktail Edit, is built around the 12 classics I make most often; the Martini, the Negroni, the Manhattan and so on – drinks you’ll almost certainly know. Each chapter in the book focuses on one of these, as well as six variations on the theme; some of them are related classics, some are contemporary twists and some are my own recipes.
Below, you’ll find three examples – my riffs on a Negroni, a Whiskey Sour and a Gin Sour – but first, here are my 10 cocktail commandments…
- A good glass is a cold glass: always freeze or chill your glassware.
- Measure ingredients accurately (at least until you’ve familiarised yourself with the recipe).
- Ensure lemon and lime juice is always freshly squeezed.
- Keep mixers and sparkling wines fizzy and well chilled.
- If in doubt, use more ice – allow at least five cubes per drink.
- Shake really hard; stir steadily and slowly.
- Taste and adjust, if necessary – and always have a little extra of your ingredients on hand in case you need to tweak.
- Presentation is important – don’t skip the garnish.
- It’s better to do a simple recipe brilliantly than a complicated one poorly.
- Never put the ice tray back in the freezer without refilling it first.
Three winter cocktail recipes
If you commit just one cocktail recipe to memory, make it the 4:2:1 sour, because ‘four parts strong, two parts sour, one part sweet’ occurs time and again in the cocktail canon.
It’s the formula for the Daiquiri, the Whiskey Sour and the Bramble, and the backbone of the Mojito, Collins and French 75. With a bit of a tweak to allow for less-sweet liqueurs, it also informs the Aviation and the Margarita. Pick apart many punches, and you’ll find a 4:2:1 sour at their core. Once you know it, you’ll spot it everywhere, in a multitude of forms.
You can make a 4:2:1 sour out of any white spirit, but it’s the Gin Sour that I find the most useful. It’s key to so many classics and can be adapted in many ways.
The Bramble is a 1980s classic that is a brilliant example of how easily the 4:2:1 sour can be tweaked to create a whole new drink. If you don’t have crème de mûre, it also works with cassis or Campari. This one is based on a recipe by Dick Bradsell, one of the godfathers of modern bartending.
- 50ml gin
- 25ml lemon juice
- 10ml sugar syrup
- 10ml blackberry liqueur (crème de mûre)
- Glass: rocks
- Garnish: lemon slice
Method: Shake the first three ingredients with ice, and strain into a glass filled with crushed ice. Drizzle the blackberry liqueur over the top so it bleeds into the drink.
The Negroni is part of the aperitivo family – a class of bittersweet, botanical drinks designed to prime the digestion for food. The word aperitivo derives from the Latin aperire, ‘to open’. It’s a drink of anticipation, not just gastronomically, but socially too – if you’re heading out for an evening of bar-hopping in Milan, there’s nothing like a Negroni to put you in the mood.
The ruby-red Negroni is a beautiful drink – and a wonderfully robust one, too. Gin, red vermouth and Campari, you can throw one together at high speed, stir it with a finger and it will still taste pretty good. Bitter as medicine, and as syrupy-sweet too – it’s a taste both kind and cruel.
I love a recipe that’s equal parts everything. And especially one where you can substitute. While I’ll often experiment with different gins and vermouths, I rarely negotiate on the Campari – but there’s always an exception, and the White Negroni is it.
If you like the taste of Campari, the French gentian liqueur Suze will almost certainly be up your street. It has less intense smoky-sweet/rhubarb notes and more parched herbs and citrus peel, but its texture and bittersweetness are of the same intensity. It makes a fun substitute for Campari – not just for the taste, but for the golden colour, too.
- 25ml gin
- 25ml Suze
- 25ml Cocchi Americano
- Glass: rocks
- Garnish: grapefruit twist
Method: Stir on ice. (If you don’t want a Negroni that knocks you sideways, be sure to stir with lots of ice.)
New York Sour
Whiskey. Lemon juice. Syrup. Bitters. Raw egg white. It’s an ugly old recipe on paper. But something magical happens to these ingredients when you give them a really hard shake. All the pointy elbows and shrill top notes, the hot alcohols and jangly proteins soften and lengthen and harmonise, and they create something utterly new: a pillowy, aromatic, sunshine-yellow sour that hits you pleasantly in the solar plexus.
The Whiskey Sour is a drink that can take a lot of sweetness – I like it best with an easy-sipping bourbon. If you find it lacks definition, you can always add more bitters. I always feel slightly horrified adding the egg white – but when I taste the end result, I’m glad I did. It binds the drink and lifts it; gives it more generosity in the mouth.
A good Whiskey Sour is shout-outloud amazing – but a bad one is a real car crash. So this is one recipe where I would recommend sticking rigidly to the rules. Use eggs and lemons that are as fresh as possible. Shake with lots of ice and shake extra hard, so it really fluffs up. And serve over one slow-melting ice block, so it doesn’t dilute too fast.
The New York Sour is a real showstopper of a drink, the beautiful red wine bleeding into the sunshine yellow sour below. Flavour-wise, it works best with a red wine that’s on the fruity side – a cheap and cheerful Merlot or a Beaujolais would be great.
- 50ml bourbon/rye whiskey
- 25ml lemon juice
- 12.5ml sugar syrup
- 1 dash Angostura Bitters
- 15ml egg white
- For the float: 30ml red wine
- Glass: rocks
- Garnish: lemon twist
Method: Shake the first five ingredients with ice and strain over ice. Carefully pour the red wine over the top to create a crimson float.