Spirits: Happy hours

The classic corpse reviver is gin fizz. Just think of it as a wicked Alka Seltzer Illustration by Spike Gerrell
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My first glimpse of sophistication was of a famous writer coolly drinking a pink liquid out of a balloon glass generously loaded with large cubes of ice and casually garnished with a slice of orange. I wanted to ask him what it was, but did not dare, so I enquired of my drinking partner instead. "I think it's Campari," she said.

She was partly right. The writer's glass contained one ounce of that Italian pink bitters, another of sweet red vermouth and maybe a couple of ounces of London dry gin. He was drinking a classic cocktail, the Negroni: easy to make (all you do is stir it), refreshing, full of flavours, appetising, and dangerously potent.This suave drink is said to have been created by, or perhaps for, an Italian Count Negroni, in the late Forties or Fifties.

What makes a cocktail into a classic? It must have stood the test of time, be simple (no blenders or silly little umbrellas) and do a job.

If a Negroni is followed by a dinner sufficiently hearty to be washed down with, say, a bottle of Barbaresco, and soothed with a digestif, the next day may require some form of corpse reviver. This is highly irresponsible, and the road to ruin, but just once won't hurt.

The classic in this instance is gin fizz. Again, use a couple of ounces of gin, this time with an ounce (or more) of fresh lemon juice and a further ounce (or less) of sugar. This needs to be shaken, over ice. Remember that cocktail shaker you bought in a car boot sale last summer? If you can't find it, fill a pint glass with ice and cup a tumbler into the top. Pour the shaken mixture into a tall, narrow tumbler, stir and add a swoosh of soda. The drink is called a fizz, and that's what it should do. Just think of it as a wicked Alka Seltzer.

If you are not in need of such excess, have a buck's fizz before brunch tomorrow. Pour about eight ounces of fresh orange juice into a large jug and add a bottle of chilled champagne or a decent sparkling wine. Or you could puree some peaches and make a Bellini, as famously served at Harry's Bar in Venice. The brunch? I suggest eggs Benedict, though you may like to replace the ham with smoked salmon to emphasise the hedonistic nature of the occasion. Cream cheese blinis for the truly hungry. Strawberry shortcake for dessert.

I will be on a plane tomorrow, and will be offered a drink at a disconcertingly early hour. On such occasions I order a Bloody Mary. It looks like tomato juice, but it also contains one or two ounces of vodka. Sometimes I whisper that I would like my Bloody Mary with gin, not to mention Tabasco or Worcester sauce, and an ounce of lemon juice. Garnish with a slice of lemon, but not a stick of celery. Healthy drinking can go too far.

Only if lunch is approaching can a martini be considered. I have written recently about this, but just a reminder: gin, not vodka (we want some flavour); a dash of vermouth; and consider yourself free to choose between a twist of lemon (not a slice) and a green olive.

As more chefs begin to use ingredients such as leaf coriander and lime, perhaps the time has come to confer classic status on young, pre-dinner cocktails such as the margarita. This is said to have been named after a lady who ran a hotel in Acapulco, Mexico. Her hotel was favoured by Hollywood types, and she made the drink for them. In her later years, Margarita has been hired to promote Jose Cuervo tequila.

She is a simple girl: one or two ounces of tequila, half an ounce of triple sec (some people insist on Cointreau, though it is a trifle sweet) and the juice of half a fresh lime. Shake very thoroughly with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. If you want to rim the glass with salt, the trick is first to run a wedge of lime around it, to make an adhesive base. I have mixed feelings about the salt. It is a ritual, and I quite like the taste, but it can blunt the peppery, artichoke-like flavours of the tequila.

Which tequila? There is also always the argument as to whether fine spirits are wasted in cocktails. Can you really appreciate the flavour of your favourite if it is blended with all sorts of other ingredients? I have come round to the view that an elegant flavour shines through. I would go for a tequila such as Patron Silver, though some aficionados find that just too sophisticated.

The same might be said for the brandy Alexander, a classic cocktail after dinner. Shake one or two ounces of Cognac or Armagnac over ice with an ounce of creme de cacao and an ounce of cream. Stir into a snifter and dust with nutmeg. I never have tracked down the original Alexander. If I did, I would tell him that the drink tastes twice as good if you make it with a rich, malty Scotch whisky. It seems close to sacrilege, but just try an Aberlour Alexander and you will see what I mean

`Michael Jackson's Bar and Cocktail Book' is published by Mitchell Beazley, price pounds 8.99