Ditch the umbrella: how I fell in love with cocktail culture
I learned many things during my year studying in Harvard, but perhaps the most unexpected lesson was an introduction to the pleasure of real cocktails
By the time I left Cambridge, my cocktail of choice was a Dirty Harry; a twist on a Dirty Martini, served at Noir. A Dirty Martini is either gin-or vodka-based, with the brine from a container of olives added to the drink (the more brine you ask for, the “dirtier” the cocktail). There’s also an aroma of Vermouth. Each bar, I learned, has its own variations on classics, and Noir, a bar with a film theme, named all its cocktails after movies. Hence the Black Dahlia and the Dirty Harry.
Noir’s twist on the classic Dirty Martini was to add three glorious giant olives stuffed with blue cheese to the drink. These came skewered on a cocktail stick like gleaming pieces of carved jade. I grew to love that combination of good gin or vodka with brine and vermouth; the saltiness of the olives and cheese marinating slowly in the icy-cold glass until the liquid was drained and all that remained was to eat those fabulous olives.
The Irish cocktail experience
One night, soon after I had returned to Ireland, I temporarily forgot where I was, and ordered a Dirty Martini at the bar I was in. The barman gave me a look of panic. They didn’t have martini glasses anyway, let alone the chilled ones you need, and there were no olives. I didn’t get as far as explaining about the vermouth. “Is it just straight vodka with ice you want?” he asked in desperation. I ordered a gin and tonic instead.
Of course, there are bars in Ireland where you can get cocktails, and some of them are great, although they are almost always overpriced. But what I miss is the culture of the American cocktail bar. My friends knew enough about them to discuss with the bar staff what they felt like drinking on that particular night, or what mood they were in, and ingredients would be discussed and a custom-made cocktail would arrive shortly after.
When Tiger Woods’s many infidelities were reported, I was fascinated by the Irish media’s fascination with what a “cocktail waitress” was. There were slots on radio shows and newspaper articles defining the profession; it is, simply, someone who serves cocktails and knows a lot about them.
Last month, I passed a bar in Dublin city centre, which had these words chalked on a board outside: “The Perfect Martini. 1. Pour gin, vermouth and olives in the bin where they belong. 2. Drink beer!” I took a photo and sent it to some of my Cambridge friends. “Frank would have a coronary to see such a sign in Dublin,” one texted back, referring to the Parker House barman we had befriended. I laughed, but in truth I felt a little forlorn. You are unlikely to blend in any time soon in an Irish bar if you ask for a Dirty Martini.