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
I never really knew what a cocktail was until I lived in the US. Before then, to me, cocktails were absurd concoctions that looked like something from a child’s birthday party, topped with paper parasols and in lurid colours of pink and blue and orange. Except – on Irish bar menus anyway – they often had names that were definitely not the stuff of children’s parties: Sex on the Beach, Screwdriver, Between the Sheets, Long Slow Screw, Slippery Nipple, Zombie, Screaming Orgasm.
Five years ago, I spent a year at Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a journalism fellowship. I learned many things that year, but perhaps the most unexpected was an introduction to cocktails.
My American fellows downed them seemingly as lightly as glasses as water. The first time I met one of my fellows, Chris Vognar, the film critic for the Dallas Morning News, he was holding a martini glass. The number of Irishmen I’ve seen insouciantly holding a martini glass in a bar remains zero. Chris is a tall guy, and in his hand the martini glass looked as delicate and improbable as a flower.
I did not see any cocktails in the US with suggestive names, and the majority of drinks that arrived to our tables as ordered by my friends were colourless. That’s because they usually contained variations on gin and vodka martinis, that came with nothing more added than the aroma of Vermouth and oil from either “a twist” or a lit lemon or orange peel. In the beginning, I preferred my cocktails muddled – that is, gin or vodka based with crushed, fresh blackberries or raspberries – or sparkling wine-based and flavoured with lavender, bergamot, elderflower or cucumber.
When we were at the bar, my American friends tossed names around like words from another language. Sidecar. Old-Fashioned. Planters Punch. Tom Collins. Dirty Martini. Periodista. Aviation. Corpse Reviver. Gimlet. Manhattan. My friends hardly ever looked at a menu, whereas before I ordered, I studied the descriptions and ingredients of each cocktail on the menu as if I was about to conduct a science experiment.
For a long time that year, my favourite cocktail was a Black Dahlia, something I liked so much I persuaded the barman to give me the recipe. As the year progressed, however, I became less interested in cocktails with muddled fruit, fresh and novel as they originally were to me. We had a few regular haunts in Cambridge, around Harvard Square: Noir at the Charles Hotel, Casablanca, West Side, the Faculty Club, and, in downtown Boston, at the Parker Hotel, where Frank Weber has been serving up cocktails for more than 40 years.
At West Side one evening, I ordered a chilli martini. The vodka had been infused with chillies, and there was another vital ingredient that I have sadly forgotten. It was the subversion of all that was elegant and fruity. It blew my head off. Every time I returned, I ordered another, with extra chilli.
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.
The obvious solution might be to drink cocktails at home. I have a marvellous art-deco cocktail cabinet bought in the Blackrock market for just €100, its mirrored interior full of vintage glasses and two shakers. But it is not the same thing. I rarely make cocktails at home. I may have the glasses, the ingredients and a small bit of knowledge, but what I lack are the dear friends I learned to drink cocktails with in Cambridge, who are now scattered across the world on five continents.
SHAKE IT UP: HOW TO MAKE A CLASSIC DIRTY MARTINI
Alan Moore is a barman at the Dylan Hotel in Dublin, recently of the G Hotel in Galway, who specialises in making cocktails. He taught me two
essentials: how to release citrus oil into a glass for flavour, and how to mix vermouth.
Peel off a thumb-sized piece of orange, lemon or lime rind (Moore recommends orange). Hold it over a glass between thumb and middle finger, rind side out, with forefinger behind. With your other hand, use a lighter to light the rind, at the same time squeezing it between thumb and forefinger. You’ll know the oil has been released when the rind momentarily flashes. Run the piece of peel around the rim of the glass for additional aroma.
If you’re planning on shaking the cocktail, add a tiny splash of vermouth to the shaker before you add ice and the rest of the ingredients.
The ice will dilute the vermouth. If stirring with a bar spoon rather than shaking, add the splash, then ice, stir slowly and then drain and discard the vermouth. The flavour remains in an infusion.
Classic Dirty Martini (shaken)
l 70ml premium vodka or gin (my current favourite is Geranium Gin)
l Splash of vermouth
l Brine from good-quality olives
Chill the martini glass in freezer for a couple of minutes. Pour spirits, a splash of vermouth and brine to taste into a shaker. Add ice. Shake until the outside is frosted. Strain. Add good olives on a cocktail stick. If you can find big enough ones, stuff them with blue cheese. Raise to absent friends.
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