RICHARD EHRLICH'S beverage REPORT: ABSOLUT BEGINNERS

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When you ride on a packed train from Euston to Manchester with 12,493 football fans headed for the West Ham-Manchester United match, you assume that they're going to out-drink you on arrival (not on the train, which seemed to be an alcohol- free zone.) That assumption derails, however, if you're on your way to a cocktail-making contest. And especially if you happen to be one of the judges.

Which is what happened to me recently, courtesy of the Absolut Bartenders Club. Every so often Absolut invites professional bartenders to invent a new potion using a certain brand of vodka, and then to make it for a judging panel before an audience of their peers. This was the first time it had held the contest outside London, and it got a big response from the people behind the burgeoning Northern cocktail scene. Twenty entrants were chosen to take part, while many more came along to watch, drink and eat brunch at Manchester's Mash and Air.

My fellow judges included a pair of specialists and a fellow hack, Colette Walsh, from the Manchester Evening News. The specialists were Spike Marchant, of the newly opened Alphabet Bar in London, and my old bartending mentor Dick Bradsell, late of Detroit, also in London, who is now a freelance consultant.

Before the judging began, I asked Dick - a veteran of occasions like this - how many good cocktails he would expect to get out of a field of 20. "One," he replied. "Or maybe none." The answer did not greatly surprise me: it is easy to invent a new cocktail, but jolly hard to invent a really good one.

When things got underway, I became aware of how intimidating it is to perform the cocktail routine in front of an audience. Several contestants were shaking visibly as they poured and stirred, yet they carried on regardless. Brave souls.

In the event, Dick's prediction was proved wrong: the quality was much higher than we expected. Of the 20 cocktails we tasted, there were four that I'd be happy to drink again. Another half-dozen were admirable if not deeply appetising.

The commonest fault was an excess of ambition. Young chefs often make the mistake of overloading their creations with artifice, and so did some of the young bartenders competing at Mash and Air. In the end, it was one of the simplest recipes that carried the day.

Ann Malone of Mash and Air had the incredibly obvious idea of uniting the unique citrus taste of kumquats with vodka. I have never greatly liked kumquats as a fruit, but as the basis for a cocktail they are astounding. She was the unanimous choice for winner, and here's her recipe. The courage of her cocktail convictions and the excellence of her taste suggest that she will go far.

ABSOLUT FRESCA

The best way to crush ice at home is to place it in a clean tea towel, fold the towel, and whack the package with a rolling pin or kitchen mallet. The drink is also good made with unflavoured vodka, as long as it's a premium brand.

3 white sugar cubes, soaked (optional) in orange bitters

crushed ice

3 kumquats, quartered

50ml/2fl oz Absolut Citron or unflavoured premium vodka

orange zest

Put the sugar cubes soaked in orange bitters in a tumbler with a small handful of ice. Using the end of a rolling pin or some other blunt, heavy object, crush well, then mash the kumquat thoroughly. The aim is to extract as much as possible not only of its juice but of the aromatic oils in the skin.

Now add another handful of ice and pour in the vodka. Stir well and serve. Easy, innit?

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