Can a ready-made cocktail ever eclipse the real deal?
A raft of new products claims to take the shakes and pains out of making cocktails. John Walsh puts the potent pretenders through their paces.
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Friday 03 February 2012
The connoisseur of expensively blended drinks knows there are several ways to serve cocktails (frozen, frappé, floating, straight up, on the rocks), several kinds of glass to serve them in (shot, rocks, highball, toddy, martini) and three vital components in each of them (base, modifier and flavouring agent – say, tequila, orange juice and grenadine.) This is the classic batterie de cuisine of the tuxedoed mixologist ever since Jeremiah "Jerry" P Thomas published How to Mix Drinks or the Bon Vivant's Companion: The Bartender's Guide in 1862.
But is everything about to change in the cocktail universe? A new generation of shop-bought drinks has appeared. The ready-made cocktail, the just-add-vodka mixer and the "powdered cocktail pre-mix" are in supermarkets. They promise one to remove all the fiddle from cocktail-making, all the shaking and straining and messy paraphernalia. The new, fast cocktails will remove the dicking about from the frozen daiquiri.
To the true cocktail fan, this is sacrilege. No pre-made cocktail could hold a candle to the real thing, freshly knocked up by a master such as oneself. Could it?
I mustered a platoon of helpers: Jamie, Simon, Rebecca, Will and Luke from The Independent's features department, Teri, our charming photographer, my daughter Sophie, my fiancée Angie, and two girls who fortuitously dropped by for a drink. My notes on the evening are sketchy (and increasingly blurred) but they went like this.
First up was Tails, a range of ready-made classic drinks ("Why are they called Tails?" asked a guest. "It's preferable to calling them Cocks," replied Sophie.) They're the brainchild of Nick Wall, whose intention in 2008 was to "deliver an authentic cocktail experience for drinking at home – or anywhere, anytime". The choice is limited to cosmopolitan, mai tai and espresso martini, attractively packaged in plastic cocktail shakers. You unscrew the top half, throw five ice cubes into the liquid, replace the top, shake vigorously and serve.
I made my own cosmopolitan, using the Larousse Cocktails bible: vodka, curacao triple sec, cranberry juice, fresh lime juice. Fling together, shake and serve. How did the two versions compare? Mine was, said the panel, appreciably brighter and more vividly cerise in colour, "clean tasting," "sharp," but "not enough vodka" (that was Jamie, an apprentice lush.) The Tails cosmopolitan was variously described as "a bit chemical," "reminds me of Capri-Sun," and "viscous, as if it's made from concentrate." I thought its viscosity made for a better drink and found it gratifyingly strong (18 per cent alcohol-by-volume), though I was sorry to note that the vodka they use is "premium French" as opposed to, say, Russian. Result: a draw.
Next was a mai tai, the classic tropical drink which requires both white "agricultural" rum and the more familiar amber kind, plus orange curacao, orgeat syrup, fresh lime and a garnish of fresh mint. I couldn't locate orgeat syrup anywhere in London, so I did without. This was a mistake. Orgeat is made of almonds, sugar and rose water; a few drops transform a cocktail. You could taste it in the Tails version – perhaps rather too much of it. "This is plastic and really sweet," said one guest. "I can't taste rum, or mint or lime," said another. "Gloopy and unpleasant," said a third, "It tastes weirdly of toffee apples." My home-made mai tai was an off-putting sludge-brown colour, but was held to have a superior texture, the curacao balancing the bite of citrus, the double rum ration well to the fore. Score: 1-0 to tradition.
Third up was a pina colada, the Caribbean classic invented in 1954 by Ramon Perez, barman at the Caribe Hilton Hotel, San Juan, Puerto Rico. I extracted a lump of Sainsbury's coconut from a tin and stirred it into liquidity, added the rum and pineapple juice and strained it into long glasses. It was like drinking a half-pint of fabulously frothy cream with a tiny slug of alcohol. "The pineapple cuts through the coconut milk and you can taste the rum," said Luke. The others weren't keen, I could tell. Too much milk. We matched it with one of the Funkin Mixers range. They're "the first and only 100 per cent natural fresh fruit cocktail mixers" on sale anywhere, apparently, with no artificial colours, flavours, preservatives or additives, "a bartender in a pouch". The pouch contained pineapple, coconut and sugar. I added rum and served. To my annoyance, my guests were in raptures. "Very convincing," said Jamie. "I'd buy it for a party," said Rebecca. I pointed out the flat and uncreamy texture, the apparent lack of coconut milk. They continued to enthuse. Score: One-all.
We moved on to a mojito, which was created in Cuba during prohibition and popularised by Ernest Hemingway at the Bodeguita bar. The secret of the mojito is to crush mint leaves with caster sugar, add rum, lime juice and soda water. Lacking a crusher, I thumped them a few times with a wooden spoon in the shaker, added the ingredients and served. "Weak," said Jamie, sadly. "It's quite refreshing," said Luke, kindly. "It's like a detox drink," said Simon. "Just like lemonade," said Sophie. Then I handed round glasses of the Funkin Mixers version. "This is more like lemon barley," said Jamie. "The mint is like chewing-gum," said Luke. "It's a flavoured alcopop lolly," said Sophie. Simon regarded me with an expression of I'm-telling-you-this-for-your-own-good. "I'm afraid it's got more kick than yours. It's just more sophisticated." Drat, he was right. I'd drowned my mojito with soda water. Score: 2-1 to the shop versions.
And so to the margarita, invented in Acapulco by hostess Margarita Sames. Tequila blanco, curacao triple sec and fresh lime juice, served in martini glasses with salted rims. Unfortunately, I'd become so weary, I poured a slug of amber rum into the shaker, instead of tequila. Will and Luke tried it and swore terrible profanities. Not even their natural politeness could silence their protests: rum with salt? Are you mad? Profuse apologies later, I made the real thing, which met with murmured approval.
The opposition this time was from Ice Republic, New Zealand-based purveyors of powder cocktail pre-mixes. They do a pina colada, mojito, and several others in flamboyantly coloured packs of cocktail powder the size of hot water bottles; each can make 1.6 litres. The instructions are like something from Heston Blumenthal: add 35 fluid ounces of warm water, then 11oz of tequila, shake it and stick it in the freezer for eight hours "until slushy," before serving it in glasses or taking it to the beach. Such a lengthy fuss. We froze our pack for three hours and served. Rebecca took a sip and grimaced horribly. "Jesus," she said, "this is like a freshly-scrubbed urinal." Will wasn't keen, either. "It's a sugary version of dental mouthwash." Others found it both over-sharp and over-sweet, a clever trick to pull. To me it tasted of limoncello, the sweet Italian lemon liqueur, with something oddly chemical behind it. It was certainly a long, long way off being a margarita. Score: 2-all.
We ended with a strawberry daiquiri, a simple combination of Cuban rum, lime juice and sugar cane syrup – plus whatever strawberries you can find in January. The resulting drink looked faintly disgusting but was well received: "This is a little girl's drink," said Sophie. "but it's okay." "Syrupy but very nice," said Honor. "I'd buy that." Unwilling to experiment with another powdered mix from Ice Republic, we fell back on the generally well-received Funkin Mixer versions. Their strawberry daiquiri was an intense crimson colour, but was desperately sweet, as though they'd ladled on the cane syrup. "Ghastly," said Honor, "completely plastic with a plastic kick at the end." "It's very short on rum," said Jamie, "and tastes of strawberry ice lolly." 3-2 to the home team. Victory.
Quietly relieved that the mixing and shaking and carping and criticism were over, we opened a bottle of wine and agreed that, though we mightn't mind seeing Funkin Mixers lying on the bar at a cocktail party, the other shop-bought cocktails just can't compete – not yet, anyway – with the fervour, zing and the messy display of the real thing.
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