How I'd have liked to be leaning on the counter of the El Dorado bar in the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco, on the evening at the height of the 1850s Gold Rush when a dispirited gold miner came in from the wintry air and asked the barman, Jerry Thomas, if he had something special to cheer him up. Thomas rose to the occasion. He heated up two metal beakers, poured a giant slug of Scotch, with an equal amount of hot water, into one beaker, set it alight and poured it into the other beaker – then proceeded to pour the liquid from beaker to beaker in a flaming waterfall, moving his hands apart like a man playing an incendiary squeeze-box. Finally, he poured the mixture into a toddy glass, added sugar and a twist of lemon peel, and served it to the miner, as the crowd cheered – and the Blue Blazer was born.
Ah, the drama, the colour, the intensity of cocktails! How we love them – but usually only in short bursts. We love them guiltily and temporarily, before concluding they're too silly, too indulgent, too frivolous and too ditzy – primary-colour treats for young people and amateur drinkers. But I always come back to cocktails, sooner or later. There are times when ordering yet another glass of sauvignon blanc is too vieux chapeau. You feel you need a signature drink of more character and depth. You watch The Dude in The Big Lebowski drinking White Russians (vodka, coffee liqueur and double cream with ice, supposedly a digestif) morning, noon and night. You notice the number of times Don Draper, in Mad Men, orders an Old Fashioned (rye whiskey, sugar, Angostura bitters, orange peel, maraschino cherry on ice) and how well it suits his cut-the-crap, alpha-male gruffness. And you think, OK, tomorrow, I'll go to Claridges or the Oxo Bar, or the re-made American Bar at the Savoy, or the Ritz, and ask for one of those.
Delving into cocktail history is fun, but frustrating. For every definite fact you unearth about the genesis of a drink, there'll be three alternative versions. There's even doubt about the word itself. Is it really attributable to Antoine Amédée Peychaud, a Creole apothecary who worked in the French Quarter of New Orleans in the early 19th century? He used to serve aromatic bitters in an egg-cup called a coquetier; the drinks themselves were coquetels... Or was it a Mexican term deriving from a chap who mixed mysterious potions, who had this daughter called Coctel?
Family pride prompts me to believe the assertion, on Wikipedia, that the first-ever cocktail party was thrown by a Mrs Julius S Walsh in May 1917 – an hour-long knees-up for 50 people, from noon until 1pm, when lunch was served. I'm convinced there must have been cocktail parties before 1917, if the drinks had been around for a whole century.
A similar implausibility hangs over the story that the Manhattan (rye whiskey, red vermouth, Angostura bitters, maraschino cherry) was invented in, er, New York on 18 November 1874, at a dinner hosted by Jenny Churchill to celebrate the election of Samuel Tilden as Governor of New York. I'd like to believe it. But since Jenny Churchill was nine months pregnant at the time, and gave birth to a son, Winston, just 12 days later, it's hard to credit.
Cocktails are an urban phenomenon. You need access to lots of fancy liqueurs and you need lots of ice from an ice-making machine. The mixing of expensive drinks was a sophistication mostly found in New York, New Orleans and San Francisco, where the first bar-keep superstars, Jerry Thomas, William "Cocktail Bill" Boothby and Harry Johnson published cocktail guidebooks after 1860. Boothby invented the word "mixologist" in the late 1890s. The dry martini evolved through the 1890s, from gin with sweet vermouth, orange bitters and a cherry to the super-dry olive-enhanced perfection that was first drunk in 1904. Cocktails spread across the world in the 1900s through the Universal Exhibitions that travelled across the Atlantic, bringing the new drinks with them.
Back home, Prohibition had a galvanic effect on cocktails. Underground distilleries proliferated and, because the alcohol they produced was so adulterated, barmen in speakeasies offered drinks carefully disguised by bitters, mixers and secondary liqueurs. Also, the drinking classes discovered Cuba. The prohibition laws didn't apply there, so tourists flocked to Havana ("The Paris of the Caribbean") and necked with delight the new-found rum-based nectars: Daiquiris, Mojitos, Zombies, Juleps.
In the 1930s, as Prohibition continued until 1933, American barmen exiled themselves and set up in hotel bars abroad: Harry Craddock at the London Savoy, Frank Meier at the Paris Ritz, Harry McElhone at Harry's Bar. Right up to the war the craze continued, fuelled by the footage of cocktail-swilling sophisticates in Hollywood movies like The Thin Man and its sequels.
The Second World War put a stop to all that. Coloured drinks crammed with fruit juice and bitters no longer seemed the shriekily amusing way to ingest alcohol while the world was falling apart. The cocktail shaker fell into disuse for 40 years until, in the late 1980s, partygoers began toying again with vodka-laced fruit juice, and neon-coloured extravagances like the Cosmopolitan and the Tequila Sunrise.
Today, the cocktail fan is spoilt for choice. But perhaps, like me, you're a little bored by the ordinary run of the things. One can never tire of some classics, as you'll see from my list of favourites. But leafing through Larousse Cocktails, one yawns about all those interchangeable mixes of bitters, juices, crème de this and tincture of that. With the irritation of a teenager who has tired of playing with kids' toys, I vowed never again to have a cocktail which had been drowned by ginger ale (no matter how popular a Horse's Neck may be), by a long glass of apple juice (if you want to kill the taste of Calvados, try serving a Normandy cooler with three measures of the stuff) and by Coca-Cola (what are you, 12?). You realise that the best cocktails don't need these childish libations; that the best cocktails are miraculous conjoinings of flavours to produce something new, rather than simply inserting alcohol into popular drinks; and that each spirit features at its best in two or three cocktails, hardly more.
If you're searching for more interesting cocktails, there are two ways to go – into the future or the past. The futurist cocktail maker operates at a level of scientific enquiry that's light-years above agitating a shaker. He's a chap like Tony Conigliaro, a black-bearded, intense, half-Italian bartender and co-owner of 69 Colebrooke Row, an award-winning cocktail boîte in Islington, north London. Downstairs, the bar is small, friendly and full of women drinkers flooring after-work Bloody Marys. If you inspect these drinks, however, you discover that they're made with special infusions of horseradish vodka, homemade pepper sauce and "pepper distillate", alongside the more familiar celery salt and lemon juice.
Conigliaro makes his distillates upstairs, in a tiny lab kitted out with enough retorts, Rotovaps and vacuum controllers to impress Dr Jekyll. Conigliaro was a bartender for 14 years, working with chefs like Bruno Loubet, long-time sidekick of Raymond Blanc, and incorporating their ideas. "I learn how to adapt recipes to drinks, making fresh juices, making my own syrups, having our own bespoke ingredients." He experimented with herbs and spices, putting infusions of sage into gin, mixing Angostura bitters with sugar, making sugar syrup. His dry martini, he explains, is "a distillation of polyphenols and tannins" added to minute amounts of vermouth.
A house favourite at Colebrooke Row is the Lipstick Rose, a very girlish concoction of raspberry and violet syrup served with rose vodka and topped with champagne – in a tulip glass with an unmistakable smear of lipstick on the side. Rather than wipe it off and complain to the manager, you're supposed to drink with your mouth clamped against it. "It's based on a perfume that tastes of lipstick. I've just translated the perfume back into the cocktail." And the smear? "It's a little joke, because barmen always have to make sure there's no lipstick traces on a glass. This is made of essential oils and wax, both edible." Conigliaro has no licence to distill his own spirits. His expertise is to re-distill vodka with new ingredients, from rose petals to grated horseradish. He is the very model of a modern mixologist. "But I feel a link to the past," he says, "because the old barmen made a lot of drinks themselves. Their own cordials and liqueurs. What I do is an extension of that, with more accurate equipment." He is refreshingly down-to-earth about his own choice of drinks, though. "What's my favourite drink? At the end of the day when I'm exhausted? I go across the road for a pint of Guinness."
The past offers you a variety of ancient brews that beguiled aristocratic drinkers like Lord Byron. Drinks like the John Collins, invented by a waiter of that name in 1800s London, some time before it appeared in America. Collins worked at the long-departed Limmer's Hotel, described by contemporaries as gloomy, comfortless and startlingly dirty. It was popular with sporty squires, however, who were drawn to "very good plain English dinners" and "some famous gin punch".
For the authentic John Collins (sometimes called Tom Collins) experience, use Bols Genever, the Dutch precursor of London dry gin, with caster sugar, lemon juice, crushed ice and soda water. A grander, more alcoholic retro-cocktail is Punch à la Regent, a drink much enjoyed, as the name implies, by the Prince Regent, who gave us Regent's Street, Regent's Park and became George IV. Try this: equal parts sherry, rum and brandy, with Curaçao, pineapple syrup and lemon sherbet, topped up with green tea (Champagne if you're a prince) and a twist of lemon.
The first American Bar in London was the Criterion, which opened in Piccadilly Circus in 1878. Its bartender, Leo Engel, swore by the delicious Criterion Milk Punch, a heady combination of sweetness and spice. Rum and brandy, infused with pineapple and lemon zest, are given a complicated hybrid of spices including arak, softened with milk and aged for months, then served over ice.
Two winter drinks from the Olden Days, one for the active man, one for the sedentary, complete the ancient repertoire. Robert Burns's Hunting Flask uses (weirdly, for such a high-profile Caledonian) Jameson Irish whiskey infused with Kent redcurrants, ginger and citrus, served on crushed ice or in a mug with boiling water. A blissful alternative at bedtime is The Bishop, one of several warming concoctions in Oxford Night-Caps, a guide published in 1827. It involves a port toddy infused with roasted orange and lemon, cloves and hot water.
All these Victorian (or pre-Victorian) libations are available at the downstairs bar at Hix's restaurant in Brewer Street, Soho, where the mixologists, Nick Strangeway and Jake Blanch, do their own infusions: quince gin, lemon verbena gin, wild strawberries gin. Nick will show off his own invention, Spitfires Over Kent, in which Beefeater sloe gin is shaken together with Maraschino liqueur, crème de violette and fresh squeezed lemon juice, to heavenly effect, and Jake will demonstrate the Blue Blazer in action – just as Jerry Thomas did, 160 years ago.
John Walsh's dream cocktail list
5-6 ice cubes
I measure Hennessy Cognac
measure fresh lemon juice
measure Curaçao triple sec
I strip unwaxed orange peel (zest)
Combine ice, Cognac, lemon juice and triple sec in shaker, agitate vigorously for 10 seconds, strain into martini glass, add twist of orange.
If you use measure Cognac with measure Puerto Rican rum, you have a Between the Sheets. Caramba!
5/6 ice cubes
¾ measure Hennessy Cognac
¼ measure brown crème de cacao
measure single cream
Place everything but nutmeg in shaker, agitate vigorously for 10 seconds, strain into martini glass. Grate sprinkle of nutmeg on top. Serve.
5/6 ice cubes
1 measures gin
measure dry vermouth
I green olive
Place ice and vermouth into cocktail shaker, shake, and discard vermouth. Place gin in flavoured ice and shake. Strain into martini glass. Add olive. Serve.
Bloody Mary (69 Colebrooke Row version)
5/6 ice cubes
I measure horseradish vodka
3 measures tomato juice
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
3 drops red Tabasco sauce
1 pinch celery salt
1 small stalk celery
3 cherry tomatoes
1 tbsp dry sherry
Place all ingredients except tomatoes, celery stalk and sherry into mixing glass. Stir vigorously for 20 seconds. Strain into highball glass. Add celery stalk. Impale tomatoes on cocktail stick. Balance across top of glass. Pour sherry over tomatoes. Serve. You'll need a straw.
5/6 ice cubes
¾ measure white Puerto Rican rum
¾ measure dark Jamaican rum
¾ measure aged Cuban rum
¾ measure aged Jamaican rum
measure Maraschino liqueur
measure fresh lime juice
¼ measure fresh grapefruit juice
1 tsp grenadine
1 tsp sugar cane syrup
¾ drops Angostura bitters
¾ drops Absinthe-flavoured spirit
Shake all ingredients together, strain into highball glass. Serve.
1¼ measures bourbon
6/8 fresh mint leaves
2 tsps caster sugar
3-4 ice cubes, crushed
Wash mint, dry on paper towel, crush lightly with pestle. Add sugar and crushed ice. Add bourbon, stir with mixing spoon for 20 seconds. Serve.
5/6 ice cubes
I measure tequila reposado 100% agave
measure green crème de menthe
¼ measure fresh lime juice
Shake all ingredients together for 10 seconds. Strain into martini glass. Serve. And note the amusing literary joke contained in the full name of this drink.