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How to Build a Better Cocktail

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A cocktail is a whole world of endless possibility. Presented properly, a cocktail is like a party in a glass. And unlike a glass of wine, a cocktail can be absolutely anything you want it to be – sweet, salty, savoury, tart, fruity, short, tall, on the rocks or neat; and served muddled, shaken, or stirred. Yes James Bond, there are options.

Cocktails are unique and individual – never exactly the same twice. They can also be served anytime. Cocktails work fabulously at brunch; think mimosas, Bellinis, bloody Marys, bloody Caesars, and Spanish or Irish coffees. But cocktails are equally at home at a picnic lunch; alongside appetizers in the late afternoon; and definitely pre and post prandial.

Technically a cocktail is an alcoholic drink, containing spirits and other ingredients, typically served with a garnish. But the rules have changed and as it turns out alcohol-free cocktails are right at home beside their alcoholic counterparts and just as satisfying. With the right ingredients, you will not notice anything missing. If you’re in doubt, try the strawberry, blackberry, or raspberry Italian cream soda recipe below. Or mix up an elderflower cordial with lemonade or soda water and add frozen berries in place of ice cubes.

Cocktails can be garnished anyway you like depending on what you’re mixing together. There is nothing quite like a good old-fashioned martini and a skewer of big green Spanish olives, or a Manhattan with a couple of cheerful maraschino cherries. But it’s easy to move beyond all the standard garnishes such as celery sticks, lemon twists and lime wedges and get creative with garnishes. Try a wedge of pineapple, a slice of fresh fig, blood orange, or cucumber. Perhaps a paper umbrella, a sprig of spruce or fir, or flowers and blossoms including violets, pansies, rose petals, or a sprig of lavender from your garden. Get creative with your ice cubes too, adding edible flowers, mint leaves, thyme, blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, and small pieces of citrus, etc. Dressing up cocktails goes back a very long time. In her landmark 1860s cookbook, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Mrs. Beeton suggested using borage flowers to garnish her champagne cup recipe.

From the classics such as margaritas, mojitos, kir royales, daquiris, tequila sunrises, cosmopolitans, Tom Collins, pina coladas, Pimm’s cups, shandies, sangria, spritzers, and relative newcomer, the Aperol spritz – there are so many choices. And yet, while all of these are all absolutely wonderful, there is no need to be restricted to conventional choices. I’ve conducted many an experiment in my kitchen cocktail laboratory and never had a serious flop yet!

This summer, if COVID-19 keeps most of us close to home for a little bit longer, perhaps the best plan of all is a backyard picnic, with lots of finger food and a fun cocktail or two on offer. Let’s face it – we all need a little something to look forward to. You know what to do – follow the rules: don’t drink and drive; be civilized; enjoy responsibly. Cheers!

These are a few of my favourite inventions and adaptations:

Strawberry, Blackberry, or Raspberry Italian Cream Soda (alcohol-free)

Serves two:

½ cup frozen strawberries, blackberries, or raspberries (or a mix)
1 Tbsp sugar or honey
4 Tbsp full fat coconut milk (or whipping cream)
1 can sparkling water

Rinse the berries and whizz in a food processor with the sugar or honey. Divide the berry mixture between 2 large wine glasses. Add 2 Tbsp of coconut milk (or cream) to each glass. Top with sparkling water, garnish, and serve immediately.

The Great Canadian Quarantini

There are many versions of this to be had. This one is my own, loosely based on a Kir Royale (crème de cassis and Champagne, or Prosecco).

Serves two:

3 ounces Canadian Rye Whisky
2 Tbsp pure maple syrup
1 can of soda water, or to taste
Ice
4 maraschino cherries or 2 lemon twists to garnish

Pour the whisky, maple syrup, and soda water over ice in an old-fashioned glass. Give it a quick stir. Garnish as desired.

Updated Sidecar

Serves two:
1 ½ ounces Cognac
¾ ounce triple sec
¾ ounce of crème de cacao
¾ ounce lemon juice
Ice (about a cup)
Orange slices (particularly beautiful with blood orange slices)

Put all the ingredients including the ice into a cocktail shaker and shake well. Pour into whatever glasses you choose and garnish with a slice of orange.

Grow-Your-Own Mint Mojito

Everyone grows mint right? Put yours to good use in a mojito.

Serves two:

A handful of fresh mint leaves (about 20 leaves) washed (stems removed)
1 large lime cut in half lengthwise, cut one half into lime wedges, juice the other half
2-3 Tbsp sugar
2 cups of ice
3 ounces white rum
1 can club soda

Using a mortar and pestle, (or a very sturdy bowl and either a muddler or the handle end of either a wooden spoon or a rolling pin) mash the mint leaves together thoroughly with the sugar. Don’t skimp on this step – it will help release all the mint flavour needed for a good mojito.
Add the muddled mint leaves and sugar, lime juice, rum, and ice to a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously for at least 30 seconds. Add extra lime juice as needed. Pour into cocktail glasses. Top with club soda and garnish with lime wedges.

Sgroppino

Serves two:

2 small scoops of lemon sorbet
1 ounce of vodka
1-200ml piccolo of Prosecco or sparkling wine
Fresh mint leaves or lemon slices to garnish

Place a small scoop of lemon sorbet in the bottom of two champagne flutes. Add half an ounce of vodka and top each glass with half a piccolo (about ½ cup) of sparkling wine. Stir, whip, or layer the drink as you please and garnish as desired.

The Tipsy Parson

This drink is so-called because during the Prohibition era, ministers and priests were allowed to stock wines and fortified wines used in religious ceremonies. Sometimes, the fortified wines were used for more than just religious purposes. When I read this, I headed straight to my liquor cabinet and found both port and sherry and mixed them together. The Tipsy Parson is quite delicious. (It is also, as it turns out, also the name of a dessert quite similar to a trifle.)

Serves two – especially good for a nightcap:

2 ounces sherry (dry, medium or sweet according to your taste)
2 ounces port
4 cubes of ice
Lemon twists

Divide the ice between two glasses (or skip the ice if you prefer your drinks served neat). Pour in the sherry and port. Stir to mix. Garnish with lemon twists.

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