Christmas Food & Drink: The spirits of christmas

Those curiously coloured drinks with unpronounceable names hidden at the back of the cocktail cabinet are due for their annual airing. Terry Durack suggests some uses for them
IT SEEMS A rather bizarre admission to make, but I once bought an alcoholic beverage solely because of its colour. I also once bought a bottle of wine solely because of the amount of dust on its shoulders, but that's another confession altogether. The colourful liqueur in question was Blue Curacao, which bore a striking, electric shade that looked a little like a blue rinse gone wrong.

This total lapse in common sense occurred during my Sophisticated Swinging Cocktail Set period, when I was liberally experimenting with mind-altering substances. They came in an artist's palette of colours ranging from bright yellow (chartreuse) to emerald green (creme de menthe), including one particularly over-the-top number with gold flecks suspended in it, like a drinkable snow dome. (Hands up all those who have a bottle of Goldwasser in the back of the cupboard. Okay, hands down, somebody might see you.)

Buying Blue Curacao is one thing. Trying to find something sensible to do with it is quite another. I suppose it is just possible that the Luisita (Blue Curacao, barley water, lemon juice and soda, Italian National Cocktail of 1966) wasn't totally terrible. And the Blue Devil (gin, maraschino, lime and Blue Curacao) at least has the advantage of using up both the Blue Curacao and the maraschino. Most of my concoctions, however, tasted an awful lot like a blue rinse gone wrong.

I recall only one great success. It occurred after my wife responded to my inquiry as to her cocktail needs with the words: "Surprise me."

And so the Durack Death Wish was born. One part Blue Curacao, one part tequila, one part vodka, one part white rum and one part gin, garnished with half a green apple, slit and inserted on the rim of a brandy snifter, and served while wearing only a Groucho Marx mask. It tasted vile, but boy, was she surprised.

Several years after my Swinging Sophisticated Cocktail Set period, I flew into Bangkok, jet-lagged to (and from) the high heavens, and checked into the Oriental Bangkok hotel. Too tired to go to bed, I repaired to the cocktail lounge, where it just so happened to be Happy Hour, those 60 minutes in which the most miserable people in the world prolong their problems by drinking a lot more than they should.

The next thing I knew, it was three o'clock the following afternoon and I was in bed with my clothes on. Hmmm. I showered, dressed, and dropped into the bar for a pre-dinner drink.

"Ah, Mr Grasshopper," beamed the cheerful barman.

"I'm sorry?" I said. Obviously he'd mistaken me for someone else.

"You like another Grasshopper, Mr Grasshopper?"

"Look," I said firmly, "I don't even like creme de menthe."

Suddenly there was a wide-mouthed Martini glass of white and green creme de menthe and cream frothing by my hand.

"There," he announced triumphantly. "The usual."

The only thing I can say about the alleged Grasshopper incident is that I can't remember a single thing, which, as anyone who has ever tasted a Grasshopper will know, is not necessarily bad.

We have all had our Swinging Sophisticated Cocktail Set periods. They tend to pop up every decade, so no generation can escape them. The names might change, but the colours, ah, the colours ...

The blue of Curacao has been replaced by the blue of Bombay Sapphire gin, creme-de-menthe green is now Midori melon green, and chartreuse yellow has given way to southern Italian Limoncello. But for those rumbling through the cupboard in search of a little yule-tide cheer, only to unearth a vomitous rainbow of green, red, orange and purple stuff, there is salvation at hand.

You might just find that you have the makings of some of the finest Christmas cocktails ever invented, without even knowing it. Those bottles of apricot brandy, Dom Benedictine, Tia Maria and sake can be the spirits of Christmas present, not just past. And at least you got rid of the bottle of advocaat with your last divorce.

The sake, for example, is best employed in a rather gorgeous little concoction known in New York as the Saketini (three parts frozen sake, one part dry vermouth, twist of lime peel). As for that unfashionable half-bottle of brown rum, think of it as the first step to a good old festive eggnog, along with sugar, egg, whisky, lemon peel and nutmeg.

If there is any Pimm's No 1 Cup lying around (and of course there is) then congratulations - it's trendy again. Try it in a VIP (gin, Pimm's, passion fruit juice, dry vermouth and lemon juice) created for a Taylor and Burton film of the same name. Even creme de menthe takes on a little social credibility when transformed into a Caruso (one part dry gin, one part dry vermouth, one part creme de menthe, shake over crushed ice). Cointreau should be utilised immediately in the making one of the great classic cocktails of our time; the lemony, elegant White Lady (two parts dry gin, one part Cointreau, one part lemon juice). As for Blue Curacao, you're on your own.

If you still have a few bottles left and you're bored out of your brain, have no taste and even less shame, and don't mind indulging in a little cheap exhibitionism, then the obvious answer is the pousse-cafe. For those born after 1945, a pousse-cafe is an amusing construction, consisting of separate layers of differently coloured and weighted liqueurs. It's, um, not the sort of thing you'd serve Hugh Johnson.

Or you could give up and serve vodka. After all, it is the spirit of the 90s. It's colourless, odourless, and tasteless. But is it as much fun?