RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT: Great shakes

Inventing new cocktails may be an amusing challenge, but can the classics really be bettered?

A COUPLE of months ago, while judging the London heat of "The Art of the MARTini" cocktail competition at the Atlantic Bar and Grill in London, I realised yet again that it's harder to invent a good cocktail than a good dish. The best cocktails have two things in common: balance and simplicity. The mouth-feel of the base spirit is rounded out by tempering ingredients (fruit juice, for example) or simply by intense cold, as in the case of the Martini; sweetness, if present, is balanced out by acidity, and so on.

This effect is best attained with a small list of ingredients, usually no more than five in number. A quick flip through David A Embury's classic The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1953) didn't uncover any with more than six, and many of the best - Planter's Punch, most sours, the classic daiquiri - have just three or four.

With food, by contrast, the number of ingredients can be endless, even if the ultimate effect is one of classic simplicity. Take, for example, a proper soupe de poissons or coq au vin. Even with such solidly bourgeois dishes you can - no, you must - spread on layer after layer of complex flavour through the use of a dozen or more components. And by changing the composition with skill, you can vary the basic idea to create, in effect, a new dish.

Most of the MARTini competitors went for knockout dazzle; they did not, it seemed to me, think enough about making cocktails that people would actually want to drink. Their creations often looked wonderful - beautiful colours, ingenious garnishes, artful preparations - or demonstrated clever use of ingredients: the Thai Martini, made by the Cobden Club's Kymmon Hill, mixed vodka with coriander and ginger.

But however impressive in the technical sense, these were not drinks to be sipped till the glass was empty. They were showcases for innovation. I often gave high marks for colour and presentation, but in the "Taste" category my marks out of 10 sometimes got down to zero. Five was not uncommon. The full 10 - never.

I must add immediately that some of the judges, who included people of good sense and immense experience, disagreed with me. But mostly they did not. One of them, Ian Wisniewski, author of Classic Vodkas (Prion, pounds 9.99), remarked at one point: "These people need help." They had all the technical know- how, but in making up something new, they strove too hard for style and forgot about substance.

I put in a brief appearance, a few weeks ago, at the finals of The Art of the MARTini. I was unable to stay for the whole event - probably just as well, given my incomplete mastery of The Art of WALKing by the time I left - but the overall winner was the Atlantic's own Adam Misiura. Here are two recipes to help him along. The daiquiri appeared in this column early last year, and I apologise if you're tired of it. But I'll bet you're not; and if you haven't made it, you're in for a treat. It is the creation of Brian Duell, who worked at Detroit when I served a pitiful imitation of an apprenticeship there.

Second is a mint julep, one of the few Bourbon cocktails I am happy to drink, as I usually like this lovely stuff with nothing more than ice and a little H2O. The mint julep is perfect for summer and easy (if time-consuming) to make. The recipe here is a bastardised version of David Embury's. It is not a bold new invention. It is merely a supreme joy to drink.

BRIAN DUELL'S LIME DAIQUIRI

Use top-quality rum, preferably a five-year- old anejo. Sugar syrup is made by dissolving the white stuff in an equal volume of hot water and leaving it to cool.

50ml/112fl oz rum

12.5ml/14fl oz fresh-squeezed lime juice

10ml/15fl oz sugar syrup

Put a stemmed cocktail glass in the freezer. When you're ready, put the rum in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Add the juice and syrup, then put the top on and shake until the shaker is arctically cold (around one minute). Open the shaker, take the glass from the freezer and strain the drink into it. Drink quickly, but savour each sip.

DAVID EMBURY'S MINT JULEP, BASTARDISED

This is a heavily simplified rendering; the original recipe takes about 20 minutes to make. To do it properly, use crushed ice rather than cracked; stir for two to three minutes at each stage of churning; and handle the chilled glasses only with covered hands. Even in this form the julep is a lot of work. These quantities make two drinks; no one will need more than one.

2 tall glasses, of around 500ml/16fl oz capacity

1 small glass measuring jug

2-3 full trays of fresh ice cubes

a couple of dozen small mint leaves, stems discarded, plus 2 extra for garnish

30ml/2 tablespoons sugar syrup

4-5 dashes Angostura bitters (optional but delicious)

about 150ml/512fl oz good Bourbon (I use Maker's Mark)

Freeze the glasses and jug for at least an hour. Wrap the cubes in a clean towel and pound them into very small pieces, then transfer to the freezer while you continue with preparing the drinks. Put the mint, sugar syrup and bitters in the jug, and use a long spoon (if you don't have a barman's muddler) to bruise the leaves gently; do not crush hard or there may be bitterness in the drink. Now add 100ml (4fl oz) of the Bourbon and stir just to mix well.

Take the glasses and ice out of the freezer and fill each of the glasses with ice almost to the top. Strain in the mixture from the jug, and "churn" the ice (up and down motion, not stirring) for 30 seconds or so, until the ice has partially melted and settled considerably. Add yet more ice and churn again briefly, then pour in the remaining Bourbon. Give it a final quick churn, garnish with the mint, and relax with your drink.

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