It’s been a hell of year in the world of bitters&twisted, and now seems like as good a time as any to have a look back at what’s happened in 2012, one drink (or article) at a time. It’s kind of strange reviewing the year, and seeing which moments were absolute highlights, what brands and drinks made a lasting impression, which characters we shared good times with. It actually creates a pretty interesting picture of what’s happened in the cocktail scene in the last 12 months.
From shaking drinks with Jim Meehan and Colin Appiah in New Orleans, to creating drinks to serve to some of the best bartenders in the world, I've been busy. There have been new friends to meet, new products to drink, new distilleries to visit and new cocktails to drink. Yes sir, 2012 has been a hell of a year!
I’ve been thinking recently that we live in an interesting moment in time, in terms of the history of drinking cocktails. There’s definitely a huge resurgence in the popularity of mixed drinks, with cocktails making it more and more into people’s everyday lives. So here’s a little snap shot of what happened, from my point of view. I hope it makes interesting reading for you too.
In January, I started a conversation on twitter about corpse revivers, which led to a lot of people chiming in with half remembered recipes, and missing drinks. The next thing you know I was researching this ‘family’ of drinks, and with much help from Adam Elmegirab came up with a timeline stretching back 150 years. Admittedly the most you could say this ‘family’ of drinks have in common with each other is that they are all called corpse revivers, but it certainly made for interesting research.
Towards the end of January, I was invited to share in a very special celebration or the lifetime of achievement of the former Head Bartender of the Savoy, Joe Gilmore. A select few were invited to the American bar to see Joe receive the award from BCB that he was unable to collect in person. This was a highlight of the year for sure. Not only did Joe jump behind the bar and shake up his famous Moonwalk cocktail, but also we were treated to all 5 of the living ex and present Head Bartenders making us drinks. Yep, that’s a moment I won’t soon forget. Between that and finding a copy of the Savoy Cocktail Book on eBay, signed by Harry Craddock, for just £50 (because acording to my friends who were watching it too, they didn't bother to bid because they thought the price would go too high), the Savoy has definitely brought a smile to my face this year! So it only seemed right that I take a look at the 11 amazing Head Bartenders who have run the historic bar over the past 130 odd years.
In February, a good friend of ours was interviewed by the chaps at BarLifeUK, and in it she cheekily said ‘Tiki is dead’… well what choice did I have but to respond with an article contradicting that statement? A quick look at the history of Tiki, a few rum based cocktails and a lot of words later, I came to the conclusion that Tiki is very much still alive and isn’t going anywhere soon. Thanks miss Mitchell for giving me another excuse to dig into the rum collection in the b&t drinking room!
I was also lucky enough to be the first person, other than the brand owner, to get a chance to try Hammer & Son’s Old English Gin. In my opinion this is one of the best new products to have launched in 2012, and the news that it will very soon be hitting the shores of America should brighten the lives of many gin enthusiasts on the other side of the pond too! This is a gin based on the flavours discovered in an old recipe dating back to 1783, and in my opinion it is a welcome addition to the gin category. With so many gimmicky gins launching over the last few years, it’s great to see one that is well made, historically interesting and different to any other on the market. If b&t gave awards this would be one of the nominees for best new product.
It’s fair to say that March was a hell of a month for b&t, with two of our most popular articles of all time going live. First up was an article about the history of the Martinez cocktail, which even from the research phase started great debate. Once again this was an article spawned from a casual comment left on social media, and when it quickly became apparent that bartenders have a lot of opinions about this drink and how it should be made, I couldn’t resist looking into it’s history. After much research with the help of Adam Elmegirab and Craig Harper, I was able to find only 10 references to the Martinez in cocktail books between 1884 and 1947. The most striking thing though was that the recipes varied a lot in terms of ingredients, and that most called for dry vermouth instead of sweet… interesting when you consider that most bartenders consider Jerry Thomas’ 1887 recipe to be the standard, and he called for sweet vermouth!
The Martinez blog was one of a few articles this year, where the string of comments was almost as long as the article itself! You bartenders certainly seem to have some thoughts about this particular cocktail!
Next up I have to confess I wrote what I thought would just be an interesting ‘filler’ update, titled ‘9 things you should know about rum’. It seems that I underestimated how very much my readers like their rum! Within two days of posting it, the b&t website crashed (very briefly) from the sheer volume of traffic to this article. Once again the comments were almost as long as the article itself. It’s reactions like this that make me want to keep writing my blog!
The sun was shining in April, so it seemed like the right thing to follow up my first rum blog with a second titled ‘9 rums you should be drinking’, and once again the response was astounding. To be perfectly honest this was my perfect excuse to come up with some new rum cocktails and sit in the sunshine enjoying them, but again it seems that many readers had some pretty strong opinions. Lot’s of people suggested rums they would have like to have seen included, some seemed to like the drinks, one even told me that I was missing the ‘bigger picture’… although I’m still waiting to find out what it is I’m missing.
In April I sat in on a session about how we describe spirits, and it made me think a lot about the language we use when we smell and taste spirits. There was nothing I could do other than to write about it, and try to put the experience of sniffing and sipping into some kind of context. Having looked into the science of how smell and taste work, I then looked at the language we use to communicate it. Lastly I chose a couple of products to use as an example and ran through the experience I have when I smell and taste them. All in all it was an interesting experiment.
As the month went on I found I was still getting lots of questions about my research into the Martinez cocktail, despite a number of weeks having passed since I wrote it. After being asked for the 100th time what ‘the best’ Martinez recipe was, I decided it was time to find out once and for all. I arranged for a blind tasting to be held one evening at Callooh Callay, with a group of tasters made up of consumers, bartenders, journalists and bloggers just to make sure we had a wide range of opinions. Want to know what the decision was?… you’ll just have to check out the blog!
My first update in May was a piece about homemade ingredients, which was inspired by a conversation I had with Tony Conigliaro some time before. The use of homemade ingredients is something that divides my opinion, on one hand I applaud the creativity, on the other I always question the wisdom of drinking something with unknown ingredients prepared who knows where. I tried to be objective about this and simply highlight some of the potential dangers and pit falls associated with making your own ingredients, as well as suggesting ways to ensure you’re doing so safely. Once again this update drew an awful lot of comments, and in fact some of the information shared by readers was very good advice for anyone considering making their own bitters, infusions and tinctures.
Having read an article from the LA Times about how ‘light spirits are better for refreshing drinks’ I did what I usually do and wrote about precisely the opposite! In my update ‘Dark Spirits are for life, not just for Christmas’ I looked at some of those classic summertime cocktails that feature dark spirits, as well as at different ways of working with different spirits. It seemed only fitting to end the article with a few new cocktails that are perfect for when the sun is shining, of course using bourbon, cognac and golden rum.
Of course, having just written about drinks to enjoy in the sunshine, the UK immediately started in on the wettest summer on record! The only solution was to drown my sorrows with a few friends, and over several cocktails one evening we started talking about how difficult it can be for small brands or new to market products to compete in a UK drinks market dominated by a handful of large brand companies. The article that followed was not intended as a moan about big brands, it was instead a suggestion about how we should work to encourage and help smaller brands to find their space on the shelves and on drinks lists.
Next up was an article about one of the most important characters in the history of cocktails, yet one who is relatively unknown. In advance of an event I was invited to co-host at Tales of the Cocktail, I wrote about Tom Bullock, the first African-American to write a cocktail book. His reputation was legendary in his time, and his book captures the drinks being served just before prohibition came into effect. His story is a fascinating read, and his book is well worth owning.
The summer was a busy time for me, but I was lucky enough to get a couple of days to visit the amazing Monkey 47 distillery, in the Black Forrest. I know it’s not a new product, having launched in Germany a couple of years ago, but it only launched in the UK this year, and Monkey 47 really is an exceptional gin. Just the production process and the care and attention that goes into making it alone should be enough to make it well worth trying. It was fascinating to spend time with the master distiller and even to try my hand at distilling a batch of the gin myself, and my appreciation of the brand grew even deeper having spent time around the passionate people behind the brand. I’ve said before that there are a lot of gimmicky new gins launching every year, trying to jump on the bandwagon, but this is not one of them. Monkey 47 is the real deal, so read about it, buy a bottle and enjoy!
Despite having to dash off to New Orleans to attend Tales of the Cocktail, I managed to squeeze in another blog update at the end of the month. With drinking trends shifting towards people buying slightly more premium spirits and drinking at home more often than in the past, I thought I’d write about how one goes about stocking the home drinks cabinet. I looked at two methods that I think work particularly well; the ‘one drink at a time’ approach, and the ‘supporting ingredients’ method. Both of which work well, without you having to break the bank, and in fact when I was first stocking the home bar at b&t HQ I used both methods to a certain extent.
With summer looking decidedly grim, I thought it best to reminisce about the time I’d recently spent in New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail. There are a few ingredients that make this the most anticipated cocktail and spirit event of the year, not least the amazing city it’s hosted in. I hope that I captured even a fragment of the magic that this week long event brings to our industry, and perhaps inspired a few more people to save their pennies and make sure they visit in 2013.
Staying on the Tales of the Cocktail theme, I ended up hosting a party for the UK winners of ‘spirited awards’ from TotC. As team GB swept the international categories of the awards, I ended up tending bar and playing host to some of the great and the good from our industry. Having created a range of Banks Rum cocktails for the evening, it was my privilege, along with my co-host James Triffo, to present each of the winning bars with a bottle of the extremely limited edition, Banks Endeavour as a token of our appreciation for everything they do for our industry, and to keep London as the cocktail capital of the world… yes international readers I just claimed that!
With our rainy summer dragging on, I needed something to cheer me up, and nothing puts a smile on my face like bourbon does. So since it was ‘national bourbon appreciation month’ in the US I decided it was about time to look at ’11 things you should know about Bourbon’. Now I can tell you that before I wrote this article I considered myself pretty knowledgeable on the subject of my favourite American Whiskey, so I was confident that I could just bash this article out quickly.
Unfortunately I was wrong in my assumptions, and having written the article fully, I decided I had better just double check my facts. Of course while doing this I discovered several things that were pretty interesting, but meant that I would have to rewrite a large portion of the article. Not the least of my discoveries was learning that Tennessee Whiskey is not different to Bourbon as most people (including many Bourbon distillers and those fine chaps from JD) assume, according to US law. That’s mainly down to the absence of a proper definition of Tennessee Whiskey in US legislature as well as one poorly considered sentence of wording in their trade agreements… anyway I digress. If you’re a bit of Bourbon geek, or just like information about booze, then this ones well worth a read!
With all this researching and rewriting going on September only got one blog update, but at least it was a popular one!
Of course it was only fitting to follow up the Bourbon facts blog, with a few suggestions of Bourbons you should be drinking. Despite picking what I thought was a diverse and interesting selection of Bourbons, as per usual the b&t readers voiced their strong opinions (we love you for doing that!). 11 Bourbons and 11 cocktails were well received, even being picked up by a couple of US websites that was a nice surprise (thanks guyism.com). Everything was covered from wheated to high rye, young to old, inexpensive to super premium, and micro distilleries to the largest producers.
The popularity of this blog just kept growing and in fact after 2 weeks it was still pulling in new readers, so that coupled with a heavy travelling schedule made me decide to hold off on posting anything else in October. Taking my new found knowledge of the bourbon category and sharing it with bartenders (while doing my day job) was a hugely rewarding experience and reminded me that I write this blog as much to expand my knowledge as to share what I discover with others.
With Christmas fast approaching I decided to ignore the festive season entirely and focus on Mezcal instead! Having tried Ilegal a couple of years back in New York I have been waiting for the day it would be available in the UK. Having bumped into Steve Myers in both New Orleans and Paris this year, I had plenty of time to hassle him about that issue. So when it finally made it to our shores I thought I should share the amazing story behind this fantastic brand. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you should definitely take a few minutes to read this blog; it’s a great story and a range of products that you should try for yourselves.
As the month moved on I was left with no choice but to do my annual list of suggestions for Christmas presents for the boozehound in your life. This year I focussed less on bottles of spirits (although there were of course a few included) and more on the supporting tools, glassware and memorabilia. From the leather bound PDT cocktail book, to travel sets of our favourite bitters, bartender kit bags, to whisky (and gin) advent calendars, hopefully I found a little something for everyone. Well it’s that time of year, and anyway it gave me an excuse to drop hints about what I want this year!
So here we are in December, and it’s feeling positively arctic in the UK. There’s frost and fog, and the smell of mulled wine in every bar you walk into. It’s been a hell of a year and we already have a lot lined up for next year. I hope to bring you a lot more content next year, and as long as you guys keep reading, I’ll keep finding new things to write about!
I’d just like to thank you all for supporting b&t and checking out the site as often as you do, our readership has almost doubled this year, and it makes it feel like the hours spent in front of this computer are worth while. Have a fantastic silly season, drink well and smile often!