Well it’s that time of year again, when the bars start getting crowded and the smell of mulled wine fills the air, which of course means that Christmas is fast approaching. I’ve held off on posting a Christmas list blog post for as long as I can, as frankly I hate seeing this season exploited in November, but as we get closer to the big day I thought I should share a few of those ‘must have’ present ideas for the cocktail enthusiast, bartender or hardened drinker in your life. So below you’ll find some of the things I would be happy to find waiting for me under the tree, as well as a few of the things that I’ve been especially pleased with owning this year.
If, like me, you fell that one of the few saving graces of the festive period is the excuse to have a few ‘festive’ drinks to drown out the hectic month of December, I hope you’ll find this list helpful. Maybe it’ll give you a few things to put on your own Christmas list, or inspire you to buy something booze related for a loved one. If all else fails nothing says ‘I love you’ like a bottle of good Whiskey and some tumblers to drink it from, and the best part is getting to share the gift you’ve just given!
There are invitations, and then there are invitations! When Jim Meehan of New York’s famous PDT bar, asked me if I might consider being involved in an event at Tales of the Cocktail this year, of course it got my attention. When he explained the event and listed the people involved in the project, it became the sort of invitation you simply can’t say no to. A group of bar luminaries coming together to honour the work of a bartending legend, in a unique and compelling way is hard to resist. Make the setting for this event in New Orleans on the Mississippi river, and get four fantastic brands involved and there was no way I could say no!
Colin Asare-Appiah, decided that it was about time someone paid homage to Tom Bullock, the first African American to release a cocktail book, back in 1917. If you don’t recognise the name, there’s more information below about why he remains an important historical figure in the world of bartending. Anyway, while he seldom gets the spotlight, making way instead for the likes of Jerry Thomas, Harry Craddock and Harry Johnson, his book, The Ideal Bartender, has done more to record the history of pre-prohibition cocktails than any other I can think of. So the idea of building an event around this character from our cocktail past was instantly appealing, but the method for doing so needed to be something special.
But first more about the man himself, Mr Tom Bullock…
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to cocktails and spirits, so it’ll come as no surprise to you that I spend a good amount of time sat in bars staring at the back bar or the cocktail list. I’m always fascinated by the choices made by bars as to which products they buy into and choose to use. Obviously you have your house pouring spirits, which are often selected based on finding a balance between quality, price and support offered by the brand, but then you have a whole back bar of products that tell you something about the venue you’re in.
It’s interesting when visiting other countries that you find certain products that consistently appear on the back bars of the best cocktail bars. Many times they are the same from country to country, but sometimes you notice something different. Not necessarily a product that is local to that market, but maybe a brand that has caught on in one place but not in another for reasons unknown. So the last time I was in New York I found it strange to see Banks 5 Island Rum almost everywhere I went, when it’s so seldom found in UK bars. It made me think that I should probably take another look at this product.
I love cocktail books; in fact over the past few years I’ve assembled a nice little collection of antique books that take pride of place in the b&t drinking room. One of the things I like about them is that they paint a picture of drinking trends in different eras. Looking at a book from the 1930s, like the Savoy or the Café Royale Cocktail Book, you see absinthe added to every other drink and passion fruit is one of the most popular ingredients listed. You can almost sense the excitement of the bartenders from that era as they discovered what were at that time, new and interesting ingredients to play with.
It’s fair to say that generally speaking I prefer the old cocktail books to the new, but never the less there are some modern books that have been added to my library too. The thing about many of the modern books is that while they have beautiful glossy pictures and several hundred recipes to tempt the reader, they don’t really engage you in the same way that the old books do. Reading books from the late 1800s you experience bartenders explaining the art of serving customers, setting up your bar for service and dealing with drunken guests. Many have sections dedicated to toasts, or even how to use different spirits to cure your ailments. They really bring the world of drinking to life and help you imagine how it might have been to drink in that era.