The easiest way to make better cocktails & mixed drinks

This is important. What’s more, unlike most cocktail-improving tips, it’s incredibly bloody cheap (just like you). So there’s no excuse.

The one thing you can do, right now, for very little outlay, that will make the biggest difference to your cocktails and mixed drinks is this.

Buy a good ice tray.

If you are using whatever crappy plastic excuse for a tray came with your freezer, stop it. If you are using your freezer’s auto ice dispenser, stop it. If you are buying those bags of ice from the supermarket/off-license FOR THE LOVE OF GOD stop it.

You need good ice trays, friend. Trays where the icecubes are BIG. Not just in one dimension, but in all three.

Chunky ice cube alongside a tape measure. It's about 3cm cubed.

I’ve found these silicone trays are pretty good: they deliver chunky, cuboid ice at a good size for a G&T or Negroni. You can go bigger if you wish: I have this tray which makes tremendous cubes that form a delightful centrepiece to an Old Fashioned.

I am really not joking (would I?) about the quality of ice being the most transformative factor in cocktail making.

Why? Because ice melts. If ice melts too quickly, your drink is rapidly diluted and loses its punch. Four things you can do to control the speed with which this happens:

  1. Use big ice cubes. Because physics. A single big cube has less surface area than two smaller cubes of the same volume.
  2. Use solid, dense cubes with minimal frost. The clearer (more transparent) ice is, the denser and therefore slower-melting it will be. Notice how a snowflake melts instantly at a touch of your fingertip? That’s what the frost on an ice cube does in your drink. This is where those supermarket ice bags fall down: they are so flimsy and frosty (generally very rough in texture and hollow) that they melt appallingly quickly. Literally as soon as the liquid hits them, you can see them diminish. And the meltwater they make is quite nasty. You are adding that meltwater to your premium gin and wanky tonic.
  3. Make sure the liquid you pour onto your ice is already fridge cold (or colder. You keep your gin in the freezer, right?)
  4. Neck it so fast it doesn’t touch the sides.

I have drunk TOO MANY G&Ts in which all elements but ice quality were excellent: premium gins, Fever Tree Light Tonic, appropriate garnish, good gin:tonic ratio. But the ice cubes were too small, too flimsy, too frosty. Net result? Mediocre G&T.

If you make a G&T (or negroni, or cocktail of other kind) with crappy ice, I reckon you may as well just use cheap gin too. Embrace mediocrity.

But don’t do that. A couple of decent ice trays will cost you under a tenner. They will last you years. They will also look a lot better, rattle around more sonorously in your glass, and quite probably get you more friends.

You could do with a few of those, couldn’t you?

Summer’s Cocktail: The Clover Club

The Clover Club. A magical summer cocktail that tastes just as good as it looks (and it looks bloody great). Raspberries at the ready, please.

Ah, raspberries. Perhaps my favourite summer fruit. I’m not typically an enormous advocate of fruity cocktails (I prefer ‘em punchy and boozy) but the Clover Club is an exception. A sharp, gin-fuelled affair, it is fruity in the correct way: it is not sweet, it is not banal, and the fruit isn’t masking the complexities of the alcohol.

It’s essentially a raspberry martini. And you know how I feel about martinis.

The Clover Club is a cocktail to wheel out when you’re sitting in the garden on a sunny evening. It’s a bloody excellent crowd-pleaser, too — more accessible than a martini, and good looking to boot.

Clover Club cocktail shot from above. Raspberry red.

There are a bunch of different recipes, some of which involve stewing raspberries and such malarkey. Don’t bother. I think it works better (and it’s certainly a whole lot simpler) using good raspberry jam. Here’s how I do it, anyway.

Clover Club Recipe

Ingredients

  • 3 parts gin (a classic London gin is best: Tanqueray, Gordon’s, etc)
  • 1 part dry vermouth (Noilly Prat or Dolin are both good)
  • 1½ parts lemon juice (freshly squeezed, natch)
  • ½ part raspberry jam
  • Raspberry or lemon twist

Chuck the above ingredients except the last into a cocktail shaker, fill it with good chunky (solid) blocks of ice, then shake for 20 seconds or so.

Strain the resulting liquor (innit pretty?) into a cocktail glass you’ve whipped from your freezer (a Nick & Nora glass is lovely). For a nice, smooth result, you can double-strain it (ie. pour from the cocktail shaker strainer through a finer sieve into the glass). But it’s by no means disastrous if you can’t be bothered to do that.

You get top marks if you have a fresh raspberry or two with which to garnish this, but in the absence thereof, a twist of lemon peel will do just fine.

One of summer’s best cocktails.

Some English Hanky Panky

I mean, when a cocktail is already called a Hanky Panky, what else is there to say? This was my first go at incorporating Asterley Bros Britannica Fernet into a drink that doesn’t make my friends hate me. I think it worked.

Oh relax. It’s just a bloody cocktail, you prude.

A bottle of Asterley Bros Britannica Fernet (£32.95 from The Whisky Exchange) showed up in my latest booze delivery. As you may have gathered, I’m intrigued by the alcoholic antics of the Asterleys. I’m also a Fernet novice. That’s one reason why I’m not going to attempt a ‘review’ of this critter: for once, I’m sufficiently conscious of my own ignorance to be deterred.

I did, though, have the pleasure of passing a glass of the stuff round at a gathering of chums, the other night — and hearing one after the other give some variation of the theme of, ‘Whhheeeuooargh!’ as the tastebrains of each scrambled to process their first mouthful.

I enjoy a little light libationary sadism.

Which is by way of saying: Britannica Fernet (in common with Fernet in general, I believe) is not the easiest of beverages.

I’m pretty sure that neat, over ice, it’ll be a grower. But I’m going to have to work at it.

Meanwhile, though, I have a more accessible means by which to unlock its charms:

Closeup of the surface of an English Hanky Panky cocktail

English Hanky Panky Recipe

A fantastic cocktail with a stupid name but which is really, I suppose, simply a negroni variation: Fernet hoofs Campari out of its usual place in the mix. I’m calling this one the English Hanky Panky because, well, all the ingredients (except the orange twist, I guess) are from this screwed up, snarling little brat of a country. Here’s how to make one.

  • 1 part London Gin (something like Tanqueray, Sipsmith or Gordon’s)
  • 1 part red vermouth (I’m using Asterley Bros Estate Vermouth, £23.25 from The Whisky Exchange)
  • ½ part Fernet (I’m using Asterley Bros Britannica Fernet)

Add gin, vermouth and fernet to a mixing glass/shaker filled with ice. Stir (gently yet firmly, y’know) for a good 20-30 seconds, so that everything gets good and chilly. Then strain into a cocktail glass (ideally one that’s been lingering deep in the recesses of your freezer for just such a purpose). Twist a length of orange peel over the surface of the drink so that the oils squeeze out, then drop the twist into the drink.

You can vary the amount of Fernet according to the amount of bitterness that lingers within your soul. I find the above ratio is bracing without allowing the Fernet to overpower the rest.

It’s a bloody delicious alternative to the Negroni and I love the fact that the Britannica Fernet’s bitterness, whilst brutal, isn’t confected or sugary.

Hanky Panky cocktail in a martini glass with twist of orange. Made from gin, vermouth and fernet.

Any more Fernet cocktail recipes? Let me know…

The Perfect Gin Martini Recipe

Right, listen. This is important. You either make a perfect martini or you don’t make one at all. Read on for Old Parn’s rhapsody on the innumerable savage charms of this noble drink — and, natch, the recipe for the aforementioned perfect martini…

Your first gobful of martini should brace you even as it slams you. You should gasp. Your mouth should thrill, your blood should pump, your heart should sing.

Not an ounce of this liquid should be in any goddamn way a compromise. It must be utterly intense. It should not quench your thirst; it should quench your desire.

The disinterested, thuggish punch of the gin. Wrapped in the shimmering gossamer of the botanicals, mitigated (but so slightly, so slightly) by the sweet yield of the vermouth. The lingering scent on the boxer’s glove.

And — just when you think you’ve got your tastebrain around it all — the savage perfume of the lemon or the oily, dirty smear of the olive.

That. That, my friends, is a martini.

Let it never be less.

Essential rules for making the Perfect Gin Martini

Right. In many respects, I am open-minded. But open-mindedness stops here. Because there are three rules — no, scratch that, there are three commandments. Disobey them and you will not have a perfect martini; you’ll have a shit drink unworthy of the name. With them, you’re well on your way to the promised land.

  1. Everything must be as cold as you can humanly get it. I mean everything. Possibly including your soul.
  2. Your gin and your vermouth should be of good quality — because they are literally all you are tasting, here.
  3. You do not make the perfect martini in a hurry.

So, first up, let’s talk temperature. You’re making martinis? You’d better have lots of ice. Big solid chunks of ice, please; none of your crushed rubbish. And every single ingredient of the drink should, at bare minimum, be fresh from the fridge. I keep my gin in the freezer. I also keep my martini glasses in there, so long as Amy hasn’t filled it up with goddamn peas (three bags, people, three bags.). Were it not for discomfort and physical impossibility, I’d keep the hands that are ultimately going to hold the martini in there. You understand?

Now, ingredients. Our perfect martini is not the place for your bargain basement, paint-stripper gin. Because gin is the sodding main ingredient, here. It is front and centre. If you only have mediocre gin, wise up and make a different drink. And much the same goes for vermouth. It’s relatively inexpensive, in the scheme of things, and you can keep a bottle of it in the fridge for a few weeks (usefully, it doubles up as an excellent cooking wine).

I’m not going to tell you which gins and vermouths to use. There are bloody hundreds of ’em out there, and trying new combinations is pretty interesting. But if you’re looking for a starting point, I suggest you could do a lot worse than a classic unpretentious and juniper-led gin like Plymouth (which is the house choice at the marvellous Dukes Hotel bar) or Tanqueray. For vermouth I typically use Noilly Prat (£12, Ocado), which is splendid stuff, but the Wine Society’s Chambery (£8.95, The Wine Society) is a fine alternative.

And, finally, speed. This is where I used to go wrong, making martinis. I went at it like a madman. But, no. Making a perfect martini requires patience. You actually want (you see) a very little of that ice to melt — a little water to bind together your gin and vermouth. Just enough to smoodge them together a bit. And you get this by taking your time.

How to Make the Perfect Martini

Gin Martini shot from below. Frosted from the cold, with a lemon twist

Get your cocktail mixer (or a jug/large mixing glass, if you don’t have one) and fill it full of ice. A lot of ice, in big cubes.

Pour your vermouth over the ice and stir gently. I’d suggest a ratio of 1 part vermouth to 4-5 parts gin — which is dry but not show-offy (my own view is that the vermouth is there for a reason, and once you get to 1:15 ratios and the like, you’re really not getting the benefit of it). However, this is for you to toy around with.

Take your gin from the freezer (don’t hurry, don’t hurry) and pour that in, too. Stir once again, gently but firmly — you want to move the ice and liquid around thoroughly, but you don’t want to smash up the ice cubes and add shards of ice to the liquid. When you’ve given it a decent long stir, leave it to settle.

Put away your gin. Put away your vermouth. Refill the ice tray(s) you emptied and put them in the freezer for tomorrow evening. Take out your (refrigerated) olives, and thread a couple of them onto a cocktail stick. Or (if you’re of a citric persuasion) take a slice of rind from your lemon, trying — if you can manage it with your hands shaking like that, old boy — not to cut off too much pith. And this all should be conducted at the leisurely pace befitting a suave martini-drinker such as yourself.

Thirsty yet? Too bad. Stir again. Go for a little walk to the sitting room and back, why don’t you? Entertain your guests with an offhand fragment of your debonair wit (or just mutter to yourself, you massive, booze-dependent loner). Then come back.

Take your martini glasses out of the freezer. If you’ve taken the lemon route, you should give the rind a good squeeze-twist, holding it over the glass for which it is destined, before you add it to the glass. The objective is to release those delicious citric oils. Or if you’re having olives instead of lemon, chuck ’em in.

Stir the gin & vermouth one last time, then strain the precious liquid into the glass. You are now in possession of the perfect martini.

Serve. Immediately. This is the only time at which you actually should hurry.

Bask in the admiration of your peers. Get working on the second one.

The Negroni Manzanilla with Sacred Rosehip Cup – Recipe

As if a normal negroni weren’t good enough… Thanks to Poco Tapas, Old Parn discovers the majesty of the Negroni Manzanilla and Sacred’s Rosehip Cup.

I love a negroni. And before I went to Poco Tapas Bar during a visit to Bristol last summer, I believed I made a pretty damn good one.

Poco Tapas Bar’s Negroni Manzanilla took that belief of mine to one side and gave it a bloody good shoeing.

Because Poco’s Negroni Manzanilla is a work of exquisite dipsomaniacal genius.

The classic Negroni (come on, you know this) consists of gin, Campari and red vermouth in a 1:1:1 ratio, stirred over plenty of (chunky) ice cubes and lifted by a twist or wedge of orange.

Poco’s version changes this in two main ways. The first you’ll have guessed (unless your deductive reasoning is extraordinarily weak): the addition of Manzanilla sherry. The second is subtler but equally revolutionary: Campari is replaced with a fabulous liquid called Rosehip Cup, made by Sacred, and I guess this is the one Poco uses. It’s a good deal more expensive than Campari and a bit of a pain to get hold of offline (I ordered mine from the Whisky Exchange for £27.95), but — trust me, dear reader — absolutely worth your while and your dosh.

Why is this take on the negroni is so bloody good? It addresses the most significant drawback (in my view) of the classic: the fact that Campari’s bitterness is (to my taste — and it’s perhaps worth mentioning I am somewhat intolerant of bitter flavours…) slightly harsh and one-dimensional. The Rosehip Cup is smoother, fruitier, gentler. The crucial bitterness remains, but rather than the melodramatic bitterness of a romantically spurned adolescent, it’s the nuanced bitterness of a twice-divorced deputy headteacher who needs to keep things civil for the kids’ sake.

You can quote that in your marketing if you like, Sacred.

Bottle of Sacred Rosehip Cup and a lily in a glass

The better balance of a negroni with Rosehip Cup transforms it from a drink of which one is generally enough (before moving onto other fare, natch) into one of which the prospect of a second is spectacularly enticing.

And the Manzanilla. Let’s talk about the Manzanilla.

Now, you could comfortably change up your negroni game simply by swapping out the Campari for Rosehip Cup and leaving it at that. Indeed, if you’re anything like me, once you’ve tasted the Rosehip version, you’ll struggle to return to Campari. The addition of a splash of bone-dry sherry, by contrast, remains an optional flourish (the Negroni equivalent of a Dirty priligy la Martini, perhaps). The Manzanilla variant has a fabulous aromatic openness. While a classic negroni is a tightly coiled fist of a drink, the addition of Manzanilla loosens it a little, relaxes that tight grip. It hardly makes it into a long drink, but it’s definitely less short. I don’t think it replaces the classic, but it’s a bloody lovely alternative. I now buy EVEN MORE sherry (buy more sherry!) so that I can make these critters whenever the fancy takes me. Which is frequently. Try it and you’ll thank me.

Except you won’t thank me, you rude bugger. You’ll be too busy drinking negronis.

Recipe for Manzanilla Negroni

  1. Fill a glass (I use these elegant blighters from Ferm Living because I believe drinks should look handsome) with chunky icecubes
  2. Pour over 1 part gin (Tanqueray is a classic choice but there are hundreds of other possibilities)
  3. Add 1 part Sacred Rosehip Cup
  4. Then add 1 part red vermouth (Martini Rosso is the widely available one, but try others as and when you find them: Cocchi is currently stocked in my local Waitrose and works superbly. The choice of vermouth makes a massive difference to the drink, y’know… But that’s a topic for another post, methinks)
  5. Finally, add 1 part Manzanilla sherry
  6. Finish with a twist of orange (use a paring knife or peeler to slice off a strip of orange peel, fashion it into a twist in your big clammy hands, making sure to give it a good squeeze to release the oils)
  7. Neck the bastard

And four more bonus tips…

  1. You can buy half-bottles of Manzanilla from The Wine Society for £5.95 a pop, so you don’t have to crack open a whole 75cl bottle for the sake of a single negroni (though far be it from me to dissuade you…)
  2. Because the Rosehip Cup is less bitter than Campari, you might want to experiment with a heftier vermouth. I recently tried Asterley Brothers’ fabulous English Estate Vermouth (£23.25), which deepened the drink (and also the colour) considerably. This offset the breeziness of the Manzanilla/Rosehip combo in a way that felt appropriate for winter.
  3. You might want to experiment with the ratios of ingredients. For instance, a half-measure of Manzanilla still imparts some aromatic openness, but preserves more of the negroni’s punch. Depends what you fancy.
  4. Poco Tapas Bar is well worth a visit for more than just its negronis.