Sweetcorn, avocado and jelly: call me conventional but these are not ingredients that belong in a martini glass. Tom Cruise did not spin those liquor bottles, toss those silver shakers and strut his stuff behind the bar in Cocktail only to pause and add a final flourish of cumin to his alcoholic creation.
It is not long into my mixology masterclass before I realise that the flash antics that enthralled a generation of girls have been firmly banished to the 1980s. These days, cocktail maestros prefer to dazzle you with their skills in marrying unusual ingredients and layering taste sensations on your tongue.
My teacher for the day is Ryan Chetiyawardana, who has just been crowned the UK's best bartender. There is not a bottle of Blue Curaçao or a paper umbrella in sight as he lays out the kit for our lesson; instead I am confronted with an array of fresh herbs and spices, boxes of organic free-range eggs and a mini blowtorch. He clearly considers himself more a bar-chef.
We start with the Three Storm Flip, the cocktail that won him the title last week. The alcoholic base is Venezuelan rum (tropically aged for four years), a splash of Velvet Falernum (a lime-laced sugary liqueur) and a dash of Lagavulin Scotch. The other components are orange bitters, nutmeg, salt and pepper (seasoning that will apparently "lift the individual notes of the drink") and one raw egg.
"People always look a bit wary when you mention eggs in cocktails," Ryan remarks, clearly registering my raised eyebrows. "But they would not flinch at eating fresh mayonnaise and besides, not much survives in 40 per cent proof alcohol."
Using a Boston shaker – one half glass, the other metal – we shake the ingredients twice (the first time without ice, the second time with) and strain the cocktail into a pre-chilled glass. It is an oddly shaped crystal number, the sort of thing in which your granny might serve up an advocaat, but it has, like all his glasses, been quite deliberately chosen. Not only does it echo the retro appearance of Ryan's drink, but its shallowness and wide brim work to concentrate the flavours into the drinker's nose.
The myriad tastes vie for attention. First your palate picks up the nutmeg; next comes the rum with a trace of pepper and the smoky hint of the whisky; there's a brief flash of orange, then the salt and the sweet creaminess of the egg battle it out and then it's back to the nutmeg, only this time fainter. Put simply, the cocktail is delicious.
Ryan initially trained as a chef, but after six months he realised he wanted to be out front interacting with customers, not tucked away in the kitchen. So as soon as he was legally allowed to work in a bar, he swapped food for drink, and has not looked back. Winning the UK bartending title also won him praise from the judge, and culinary hero, Marco Pierre White, who said Ryan's flavourful glasses proved he was "as creative and skilful as a leading chef".
The Three Storm Flip was the final instalment of Ryan's award-winning cocktail menu. He started with a classic martini aperitif, adding a basil, cumin and orange twist. Then came the main dish, which mixed tequila, rosemary, red Merlot jelly, Tabasco and English Breakfast tea – a hearty combo served on the rocks. The liquid meal was rounded off by the rum, egg and nutmeg dessert. "We're lucky in the UK. People here are very open to food, to the exotic and experimental, and we've seen that filter from the kitchen into the bar," the barman explained.
With his geeky glasses and his patter about the freezing qualities of different types of ice, the 25-year-old could be mistaken for the Heston Blumenthal of the cocktailing world. He certainly wants people to push themselves: "When you have people over for dinner, you give it some forethought, you go out and buy those more unusual ingredients the recipe calls for. So why not do exactly the same with drinks?"
But he is also conscious of deterring the more amateur cooks by insisting on overcomplicated concoctions. So for our next cocktail, we adopt a Ready, Steady, Cook approach, taking simple ingredients you might have in the fridge and improvising a thirst-quenching treat for a hot day.
My mixology vocabulary gets more sophisticated with every drink. Slices of lemon and orange are muddled (lightly crushed at the bottom of the shaker with a cocktail pestle), the basil is spanked (hit against the back of your hand so that the aroma and the oils are released but without the bitterness that comes with tearing the leaves). In goes the gin, raspberry liqueur and sugared water, then we shake and strain. When it comes to decorating the glass, Ryan passes on a top tip: position any garnish – in this case extra citrus slices and basil – by the straw so you inhale as you imbibe.
The end result, which we christen Claire's Citrus Cooler, is soon slurped up. Will it be part of Ryan's repertoire next week when he flies the UK flag in the battle to be the world's best bartender? He is too polite to give a definitive no.
Starting on Tuesday and for the next three days, the man who usually plies his trade in the Edinburgh bar Bramble (home of the avocado and rum creation, incidentally) is pitting himself against the very best bartenders from as far afield as Australia, China and Brazil.
The 25 competitors will race to make popular cocktails against the clock and be challenged to invent a new tipple based on the day's offerings at a local market. They will have to pair drinks with canapés from a top chef, as well as answer a quick-fire knowledge round which might include the dates classic cocktails came into being, the laws governing tequila production or the secret of clear ice. (Double-freezing is the answer. Freeze the water, defrost the ice cubes and then freeze them again.)
Organised by drinks giant Diageo, the World Class competition is aimed at helping bartenders slough off their somewhat sleazy reputation, and get recognition as professionals. For while most people in Britain would be able to rattle off the names of any number of celebrity chefs, how many have heard of top mixologist Dale DeGroff?
Our last cocktail beckons – an exciting tequila-based creation that calls for hand-made foam and (finally) the use of the blowtorch. After drizzling lemon wedges with syrup, we use the torch to scorch the fruit, charring some on the peel, and others on the flesh side. When it comes to the muddling, I absent-mindedly pick up the bar spoon instead of the cocktail pestle, prompting a sharp intake of breath from Ryan. At first I think it's an overreaction to a simple breach of bar etiquette, but it transpires that a friend skewered his hand attempting just such a manoeuvre.
Danger averted, we move on to making the sugary foam that will float on top of the sour body of the cocktail. This requires several egg whites, a healthy dose of almond-flavoured syrup, and a small spring thrown into the shaker to produce the requisite froth. The final component is some vigorous arm action. And here I come unstuck – or rather my shaker does.
The two halves separate and sticky white goo splashes across the bar, slopping into the ice bucket and seeping between the bottles. There is barely enough foam left to finish off a single serving of the cocktail, which is quickly rechristened Calamity Sunset.
Savouring this final tipple as the sun disappears in this corner of Shoreditch, I breathe a sigh of relief that that the era of mixing cocktails under pink neon in perfectly choreographed routines to "Hippy Hippy Shake" is over. Co-ordination may be Tom Cruise's forte, mine it is clearly not.
Claire's Citrus Cooler
4 juicy slices lemon
3 juicy slices orange
3 basil leaves
15ml Chambord or a handful of fresh raspberries
15ml sugar solution
Muddle lemons and oranges. Spank basil leaves and add along with other ingredients. Shake, double strain and serve with extra basil and fruit.
For the foam
4 egg whites
15ml agave syrup
Put foam ingredients in glass with coil from Hawthorn strainer and shake vigorously until stiff. Cut lemon into wedges. Lay out on flameproof surface, some peel up, others flesh up. Chargrill using a blowtorch until lightly singed. Add tequila and syrup. Shake, double strain and fill glass, leaving room for layer of foam. Sprinkle with nutmeg and serve.
Three Storm Flip
50ml Venezuelan rum
25ml Velvet Falernum
2 dashes orange bitters
5ml Lagavulin 16
1 whole egg
Salt and pepper
Crack egg into glass, then add other ingredients and shake vigorously. Add cubed ice and shake again. Double strain and pour into chilled glass. Sprinkle on nutmeg to garnish.Reuse content