The devil is in the detail


When I wrote recently about liqueurs and the different rules governing how they’re made, I had a lot of people telling me how useful it was to see those guidelines spelled out. There’s a lot of confusion surrounding spirits and their differing rules, so I thought I’d have a go at putting down on paper the regulations for most of the major spirit categories. When we talked about this over a rum or two at b&t HQ, it seemed like a great idea, but then I started the research…


The problem I ran into right away was that every country seems to have their own set of regulations defining each type of spirit, which means to arrive at one definitive list of rules is nearly impossible. However, after a little research I’ve managed to compile some guidelines for each spirit category, and have written more straightforward interpretations for some of the confusing legal definitions that make up the ‘rules’. So if you’ve ever wondered what makes some gins ‘London Dry’ or have queried the difference between bourbon and scotch, here’s my attempt at unraveling some of those mysteries that make up the defining rules of spirit production. You might want to fix yourself a cocktail as this is one of the longer blogs I've written… and this is just part one!


those old summertime favourites

If you’re in the UK you’ll have been enjoying the unusually early appearance of the sun in our April skies, which of course means that barbecues have been fired up in record numbers over the past week or so. It seems to me that my drinking habits change the moment the sun starts shining and, without even thinking about it, I turn to white spirits and crisp refreshing summer cocktails to keep me cool.
By nature, I admit, I am a dark spirit drinker. My love of bourbon and aged rums is well documented, and I’m occasionally partial to a drop of cognac, Scotch or even Irish whiskey too, but suddenly I seem to be ordering gin drinks! Suddenly my lime intake has increased and my tequila and white rums are disappearing at an alarming rate. It seems a few rays of sun are all it has taken to remind me of my summer cocktail favourites.

Alchemists, Princes and Master Blenders

The last few weeks have been pretty full on for b&t and there have been some chances for me to try new products such as the 2010 release of Bushmills 21 year old, as well as to reacquaint myself with some old favourites like Benedictine and Drambuie. So now seems like a good time to talk about what we’ve been drinking!
I have a feeling that we’ll have to do a similar thing with ‘where we’ve been drinking’ too, as there seem to be quite a few new bars popping up at the moment, but I’ll save that for another day. For now here are a few of our favourite spirits from the last month.

A Little Bit of Favouritism

Looking at my drinks cabinet I have just realised that there are certain bottles that get used a lot more than others. Havana Club 7 year old Rum, Geranium Gin, Siete Leguas Tequila, Sagatiba Velha Cachaca, Wild Turkey 101, these bottles seem to need replenishing rather often. But why is it that I have formed a bond with these brands? It’s not as though I don’t have other great rums or tequilas to choose from, but I seem to often find myself drawn to my old favourites.
The same is true when I’m sat at a bar, staring at the back bar and pondering what to drink first. I always smile when I see a few of my favourites on the shelf, knowing that I have some choices that are bound to hit the spot. 
Of course a lot of it has to do with finding products that taste good and I find myself going back to them simply because I enjoy the flavour, but sometimes there is a deeper pull towards one brand over another. I think there are a few reasons for this emotional attachment that go beyond simply liking the taste of the liquid in the bottle.

Keep it simple

We’ve been treated to an early burst of sunny weather over the last week or so and it has got me thinking about summer drinking. Obviously there are plenty of bars and pubs with terraces or beer gardens, but sometimes there is nothing better than inviting friends over, firing up the bbq and having a few drinks in the garden!
The problem I always have is that I tend to over complicate things when it comes to the drinks side of entertaining, but not this year! I have vowed to keep it simple this summer, so despite having an outside bar that I could stock up with every cocktail ingredient imaginable, I intend to limit myself to a few simple ingredients that I can make pitchers of drinks with.
I’ve always liked the idea of keeping it simple, even if I have usually failed to do so myself. So on my mission to simplify my entertaining I am going to keep a stock of a few mixers, use whatever fruit I find on offer at my local supermarket and maybe keep a couple of bottles of liqueurs on hand just for variety. Beyond that it comes down to choosing a couple of spirits that offer me the most versatility and sticking with them instead of raiding the bitters&twisted drinks cabinets!

Leave out the limes!

There’s only so much citric acid a man can take! Don’t get me wrong, I love a well-made daiquiri (with Havana Club 3yo please…) as much as the next guy, and on a sunny day it’s hard to beat a Tommy’s margarita. But after years of drinking caipirinhas, margaritas, daiquiris and aviations I have to say that my love affair with citrus fruit is over!
I am always a little disappointed when ordering my first cocktail in a bar when the conversation goes something like this:
Bartender: what do you fancy Dan?
Me: I’m not sure, but I’m in the mood for some rum or tequila
Bartender: how about a margarita?
Me: hmmmmm
Bartender: or maybe a daiquiri?
It sometimes seems like I am being presented with the most obvious choices not to mention drinks that are easy to make (3 ingredients, shaken and up…). I understand the reason for this, they are popular drinks and generally require little conversation and not a lot of time to make. That’s fine, but it also means that far too many drinkers are missing a chance to taste these fantastic spirits in ways that would perhaps hide their character less.

what would an old-time bartender have made if he had a bottle of...

Our very modern bar scene in 2009 seems to be spending a lot of time looking back. The classics are well and truly in fashion and there is a real movement towards reviving long lost ingredients, methods, recipes and styles. Well that suits me just fine as there are few things in this world that I like more than a well made Manhattan, Bronx, Ward 8 or Pegu Club. I say long let this trend continue... but let me just caveat that by saying let's not get stuck in the past.


The very best bartenders I know are all pretty well versed in classic cocktails; they have read Thomas, Craddock, Johnson and Duffy from cover to cover and can recite facts so obscure I wonder if they are made up half the time! But let's face it anyone can pick up a copy of an old cocktail book and with a bit of effort reproduce some damn fine drinks. One of the things that makes a good bartender great is their ability to draw inspiration from the past but to give drinks a distinctly modern twist.


Over the weekend I was flicking through Ted Haigh's excellent book 'Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails' and drooling over some drinks that I feel certain will become new favourites of mine. If you haven't done so yet, then I suggest that you go out and grab a copy as soon as you can, if ever there was a more timely release of a book to reflect a trend in the drinks industry I can't remember it! Mr Haigh has assembled a list of drinks that should never have fallen out of fashion and along with a lot of valuable info about their origins and some of the more obscure ingredients has bundled them into a neat package that is a real pleasure to peruse.