Some years ago I travelled to the Phrygian capital of Gordion to attend a recreation of King Midas’s funereal feast where the recipes were recreated through infrared spectroscopic analysis of the residue of the dirty dishes the mourners left behind. What I remember with most clarity was the Iron (Age)-Bru we were asked to quaff. It was made from mead, beer and wine and flavoured with raw onion and grated yoghurt cheese. And it tasted awful.
I write this as a prelude to a confession. I don’t understand cocktails. Or at least what I understand is that the real reason to mix drinks is 1) to conceal the poor quality of the alcohol you are working with 2) to conceal the bite of alcohol so that you can drink more and faster. Goodness knows what Phrygian beer tasted like to begin with that it was improved by being blended with the eighth-century-BC equivalent of cheese and onion crisps.
My second confession is that I recognise that this is an untutored view. After all, conventional and therefore probably mistaken wisdom is that the French invented Béarnaise or Sauce Chasseur to conceal the putrefied flavour of gristly meat. Now that the chops are flavourful and surgically removed from cattle reared on aromatherapy and deep tissue massage, chefs still use sauces. They simply have to raise their game.
You might need to drink tequila with salt, lime or sugary orange if it tastes like paint stripper before you begin. But why would you mix a high quality tequila made from organic agave and distilled by Nobel prize-winning chemists when you could drink it neat?
So maybe I was not the best person to travel to London, guest of the luxury drinks firm, Diageo Reserve World Class, to attend the international Bartender of the Year competition. It was an event organised on a massive scale, from the top floor of the Shard to the bars of the Dorchester and Savoy. On the other hand, a converted sceptic can often prove the most appreciative guest.
I was there, in part, to follow the fortunes of Onurcan Gencer – the young barman at Istanbul’s Flamingo restaurant. And I watched as he mixed a Robbie Burns in the bar of the Connaught Hotel, using an atomiser to spray the glass with Benedictine or ‘salted’ the margarita glass with an array of spices. Of course, the competition was stiff and as I looked around it was clear gimmickry was not in short supply. Contestants waiting to go on were polishing their conch shells testing the batteries on their flashing ice cubes, filling eye droppers with cinnamon essence or simply firing up their blow torches.
Being the spectator was not the most satisfying of experiences since we didn’t get to imbibe. Indeed, even the judges only took the merest sip before heading for the nearest spittoon. Not that were encouraged to stay sober – there were espresso martinis at dinner and concoctions with apple and cucumber. And after dark we were shipped off to trendy bars in Shoreditch where, to be honest, the drinks were icky sweet and made you want to brush your teeth.
Of course cocktails are about theatre, although there was little of the throwing three shakers in the air and catching them with your feet á la Tom Cruise. Contestants counted themselves lucky to get the drink into the glass without a spill (‘There were two centimetres of water in the shaker. Did you mean not to strain the ice?’ asked one judge to the Tommy Steele lookalike English contestant and the blood drained from his face).
What I did learn was that some spirits are a great deal better than others. I spoke with Tom Nichol, the master distiller of Tanqueray gin and that there is a sort of Zen like skill to getting the taste and texture right (‘With whisky you can balance your mistakes over ten years. Gin is far more technical – it’s ready immediately’). A really good tequila is best drunk neat and like sauterne goes well with foie gras. Some vodkas are smoother than other – which is fine if you drink it from the bottle but irrelevant if you are diluting it with cranberry juice. I also discovered that I like rum. Diageo produce a particularly tasty one called Zacapa. However, it is also possible to make too good a rum – the top of the range Zacapa XO is blended from 6- to 25-year-old rums and is aged in oak barrels used to mature cognac – and the result is it tastes like cognac.
I still don’t understand cocktails but I am beginning to understand people that do. And I also understand triumph and defeat. Poor Onurcan didn’t make into the finals but he will live to mix and shake another day.