The cocktail hour

One of my favourite books is the Savoy Cocktail Book, which sits not on my bookshelves with all my other books, but on my drinkshelf with various bottles of gin, rye and rum, not to mention maraschino, triple sec, bitters and much else besides.

With its irresistible subtitle – A Compendium of the Cocktails, Rickeys, Daisies, Slings, Shrubs, Smashes, Fizzes, Juleps, Cobblers, Fixes and Other Drinks” – this is a book that makes for dangerous reading at any time of day.

Its reckless celebration of all things alcoholic is enough to provoke thoughts of shaking up a pre-noon Adonis, or possibly a Corpse Reviver #2 to steady the ship. It details hundreds of cocktails you’ve probably never heard of, with fantastic names that gesture towards unknown but entertaining origins. How about the Bosom Caresser, the Choker (drink this and you can drink anything: new-laid eggs put into it immediately become hard-boiled”), or the Income Tax cocktail, presumably at its best on April 5?

The recipes are short and trigger-happy with quantities. It certainly sounds like they were made not only to make you drunk, but to be made while drunk. Most are three or four lines long with simple measures such as a glass of this, two parts of that or a dash of something else to finish it off. 

That they require as much skill as making a sandwich is one of the most gratifying parts. In many cocktail bars the ingredients of the drinks are designed to sound intimidatingly sophisticated – don’t try this at home” seems to be the subtext. In fact, most cocktails are simple – merely a question of proportion and personal taste, manageable by anyone who can understand ratios.

It is more effort than uncorking a bottle of wine or cracking open a beer, but it’s also considerably more creative on the part of the drinker, and the range of options and styles is part of the fun. Highball or straight-up? Sour or sweet? Long or short? If you’ve never mixed yourself an impromptu Daiquiri in the early afternoon of one of those sultry August days, then you really owe it to yourself to add it to the list for 2018.

Cocktails also open up an exciting horizon for the spirits cabinet. While the rise of gin over the past 15 years has been sensational, I’d be willing to bet my barspoon that 95% of the super-premium gin that’s bought gets turned into G&Ts. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great drink. But there are other drinks, and I don’t just mean the Martini. 

As you might expect from a book compiled during the Roaring Twenties, gin features heavily in the cocktails of the period, nearly always alongside French or Italian vermouth, sometimes alongside sherry (a surprisingly common ingredient) and, in a sign of the times, occasionally doubled up with Cognac or whiskey for weapons-grade lethality. If you agree that a Dry Martini is just a polite way of asking for three shots of gin in a glass, the Savoy Cocktail Book has cocktails that make it look sophomoric, such as the Bunny Hug, a three-car pile-up of gin, whisky and absinthe that even Savoy bartending legend Harry Craddock instructs should immediately be poured down the sink before it is too late”.

The vanished world of the Savoy Cocktail Book reminds us that there once were, and may be again, people who don’t think that getting a bit drunk is a moral failing. It is a testament to sybaritic, dissolute pleasure that is wickedly out of place at this moment for low and no-alcohol drinks. And I’ll happily drink to that.

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