Tom Parker Bowles’ five favourite cocktails

As far as Tom Parker Bowles is concerned, there are only five true cocktails – and none of them come with umbrellas, sparklers or a sugar overdose. We apologise to the mojito lovers, this one may not be for you…

There are, as any fool knows, only five true cocktails. Five, I say – no more. The rest are also-rans and imposters, sticky mountebanks and frothy fools, little more than alcoholic window dressing, a sickly sweet salve for the easily impressed.

There’s nothing funny about a proper cocktail. If I want to laugh, I read Wodehouse, the Grossmith brothers or Chris Packham’s views on pretty much anything. When it comes to the barman’s art, things get serious. No comedy vessels or paper umbrellas, no puns, sparklers or pre-made mixes.

A cocktail should sharpen the senses, pique the soul and stimulate the mind. That first sip, in the words of Lawrence Durrell, should ‘fairly whistle through the rigging. As to the cocktail’s origins and etymology, the stories are as endless as they are legion. Everything starts, I suppose, with that early American definition, in the May 6, 1806 edition of The Balance and Columbian Repository, of ‘a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters’.

The Oxford English Dictionary – a source to be trusted in matters like this – lists its first recorded use three years earlier, however, appearing in The Farmers’ Cabinet: ‘Drank a glass of cocktail… excellent for the head.’

As for why it wears its name, there are as many tales as there are W. C. Fields witticisms on booze. Was it that mixed drinks were once garnished with a rooster’s tail feather? That the recipes were influenced by its bright colours? Or that they were stirred with a Mexican cola de gallo, a long root shaped like a cock’s tail?

One tale tells of the leftovers of an ale cask, called ‘cock tailings’, which were mixed with the dregs from other drinks and sold as a cheap kick. Mixed-breed horses were called cocktails and people who liked racing liked booze, so the term slipped over – or so they say.

Maybe it’s the fact that docking horses’ tails caused them to stick up, thus a strong drink made one ‘cock up one’s tail’ or… well, you get the general idea. But enough chat. You must be thirsty – time for a drink.

Martini

The alpha and omega of cocktails, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. I like mine dry as a desert wind, icy cold and downed in no more than three sips. Those vast American buckets are an aberration, as, by the time you reach the end, the drink is lukewarm. Oh, and only gin makes a martini. With vermouth. That’s it. Make it with vodka and it’s a ‘vodka martini’.

Now, there are as many tales about exactly how dry a martini should be as there are martini bores. Luis Buñuel suggested allowing a ray of sun to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat and onto a bottle of gin. That would suffice. Another wag suggests ringing a friend in Los Angeles and getting him to place the vermouth bottle by the phone, while you place your shaker or mixing glass at the other end.

Sir Winston Churchill thought this too much: all you need do is glance at the vermouth while stirring your drink. You get the point. You want it dry.

No shaking, either – it overdilutes the drink. Bond may well be adept at saving the world, but his martini habits leave much to be desired.

Keep your glasses and gin (Sipsmith or Tanqueray Export, for me) in the deep freeze. Fill a shaker or glass with ice and the frozen gin, stir 50 times and strain into the pre-frozen glass, which has either been delicately sprayed with vermouth or swilled, with the excess thrown away. Garnish with a twist of lemon, an olive or, for a Gibson, a couple of cocktail onions on a stick. Here endeth the lesson.

In London, Quo Vadis, Bellamy’s and Dukes make the best, but do beware. As James Thurber sagely points out: ‘One martini is alright, two are too many, three are not enough.’


Bloody Mary

Saviour of many a Saturday and Sunday morning, this is as much liquid meal as it is remedy. Its creation is as much an essential skill as building a fire, roasting a chicken or taming a recalcitrant lion.

Lemon, for me, is the key: at least a whole fruit per jug, none of those measly BA slices.

It adds backbone and acidity, pulling the whole thing together. A good dash of Tabasco, of course, for kick, and a hefty jigger of Worcestershire sauce for depth. Plus a good slug of fino sherry.

As for the juice, a mixture of Schweppes (or any other thickish juice) and Clamato, that wonderous Canadian blend of tomato, clam juice and MSG. Horseradish has no place near the Bloody Mary. Get thee away, Satan. The same goes for those pre-mixed juices you get on the plane – Mr T’s and all that. There’s simply too much going on.

Then ice – lots and lots of it – and stir or shake for about 30 seconds. This is a drink that should shock fuzzy heads back into a sensible state and quell any over-indulged stomachs, leading one gently away from the excess of last night and onto the pleasures of lunch. A Bloody Mary bridge, if you will, and a pre-prandial friend indeed.


Negroni

It was apparently created by a Florentine barman at the start of the 20th century, when asked by a certain Count Camillo Negroni to beef up his Americano. Fosco Scarselli replaced the soda water with gin and the slice of lemon with orange, to tell the drinks apart.

It’s a resolutely adult aperitif, with its triple punch of gin, Campari and sweet red vermouth. With its uncompromisingly bitter tang, the first sip is a shock, the next a jolt.

By about the fourth or fifth, however, the world becomes a warmer, softer place.

A Negroni is welcome at any time of day or night, for clearing the palate, as a mid-party sustainer or even a late-night last sip. I like using old-fashioned Martini, although there are plenty of grander versions about. Antica Formula Carpano is particularly good. And remember, lots of ice is key, too.


Margarita

Tequila. The good stuff, unaged or blanco if possible. Fresh lime juice (never, ever from a bottle). Orange liqueur. That’s it. Not frozen into a slush puppy (although they do have their place. Namely Vegas. Only Vegas) or mucked up with the contents of Carmen Miranda’s hat. Finally, salt on the rim – never, ever sugar.

It’s a Mexican classic, although ‘creation’ arguments still rage between Tijuana, Juárez and Acapulco as to who actually came up with the thing. Was it Carlos ‘Danny’ Herrera, Francisco ‘Pancho’ Morales or even Texas socialite Margarita Sames? The truth is lost in the dregs of some long night.

There are many versions, but the original is undoubtedly the best. Although a Tommy’s Margarita, in which the triple sec is replaced with agave syrup, is perfectly respectable, too.


Old fashioned

The granddaddy, the recipe that appeared alongside that original Balance and Columbian Repository’s definition of a cocktail. It dates back to the fag-end of the 19th century in Chicago, Louisville or New York (pick your origin story) and manages to be both sweetly sippable and unreconstructedly macho. It even has its own eponymous glass, the short, round tumbler.

As bold and forthright as a bewhiskered Confederate general, it’s the sort of cocktail drunk in dark corners of smoky New York clubs, places in which oil fortunes are made and automobile empires carved out. Its very simplicity is the key to its eternal allure.

You muddle (or softly pound) sugar with bitters (Angostura is the classic) and a splash of soda, then add your bourbon or whiskey, plus ice and a citrus twist. Sit back, sip and wallow in the old-fashioned glories of a true pioneer.


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