The country house cocktail

Some travels around English country houses are memorable not only for the experience of archi-tecture and setting, but for the provision of hospitality of different kinds. There are few things that give us that Proustian moment more readily than the memory of a really good cocktail drunk in beautiful surroundings.

How long have they been sipped in such settings? Some argue that the word ‘cocktail’ comes from France, a Champagne and brandy cup drunk in the Bordeaux region in the early 18th century, known as coquetel. However, the first known use of the word in English has been traced to the USA, when, in an 1806 journal, a cocktail is defined as ‘a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, waters and bitters-it is vulgarly called “bittered sling”‘. They were certainly a feature of 19th-century country-house life and reached their zenith in the 1920s and 1930s, before making something of a comeback in more recent years.

Among my favourite cocktail bibles is the one published by Harry, the barman of Ciro’s Club in 1923 (later of Harry’s Bar), for ‘stewards in clubs and butlers in private families’ with more than 300 recipes-time for a reprint, I think.

Chillingham Castle winner

One country-house cocktail recipe of the early 19th century comes from Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, home of Sir Humphry Wakefield, whose top cocktail recipe is based on one that was served by his predecessor there, the Earl of Tanker-ville to Louis Philippe of France on a state visit to Chillingham in 1832. Sir Humphrey has a favourite anecdote of how ‘Louis Philippe’s equerry, the Prince de Ligne, so fortified, rode his horse among the Chillingham herd and was gored by a wild bull’.

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The recipe is simple enough: take one silver mug, start with ice, add vodka, brandy and apricot brandy, add Cointreau and peach brandy and a slice of orange and fill with Champagne. ‘It’s a guaranteed winner,’ says Sir Humphry.

Another of his favourites is known as a Chillingham Special: ‘Take a bottle of the good Champagne (not the best and certainly not the worst). Add one egg-cupful of Chillingham Sloe Gin. Serve chilled with a twist of orange and a Jasmine flower.’

The Rosse shake

Another cocktail recipe I made a note of for the memoirs has been handed down by the present Earl of Rosse’s father, a highly cultured Irish landowner educated at Oxford in the 1920s who was married to Society beauty Anne Armstrong-Jones. Lord Rosse recalls his father’s top recipe: ‘50% Calvados, 35% grapefruit, 15% Dubonnet; this must be poured over freshly crushed ice, and then shaken in a container for a good three minutes.

My father took the shaking very seriously-it was quite hard work. He formed his taste for Calvados when serving as an intelligence officer in the Irish Guards during the Normandy campaign. Mind you, he used to say that he had lost more of his guardsmen to Calvados than to the Germans in Normandy.’

West Wycombe passion

Some favoured family cocktails have been partly inspired by lucky purchases. Sir Edward Dashwood of West Wycombe recalls his father’s passion for Buck’s Fizz, (50% Champagne, 50% orange juice, a recipe of the famous Captain Buckmaster, founder of Buck’s Club). ‘He bought several thousand bottles of really good Champagne for only a pound or two a bottle in 1969, which were stored underneath the portico here in an old wine cellar. They lasted admirably without a single off bottle until he passed away in 2000. As it’s very cold down there, we never needed to put them in a fridge, but could drink them suitably chilled straight from the cellar. Jolly handy.’

Ripley Castle sour

Lady Ingilby at Ripley Castle in Yorkshire, famous for its hospitality, is a fan of the whisky-based cocktail. ‘What sound is more sexy at the end of the day than a cocktail shaker on the go? Cocktails are definitely coming back and we’ll be serving them at all our Christmas party nights at the castle this year, just as we did last year. When we stalk on the Isle of Jura in cold weather, we love a Whisky Mac. It’s simple to make: 50% whisky-preferably Jura malt mixed with 50% Stones Original Green Ginger Wine.’

But the favourite Ingilby whisky cocktail is the whisky sour: ‘This is very useful when you’re given-clearly by mistake-a blended whisky rather than a single malt as a gift. Pour a double shot of scotch, add the juice of half a lemon and half a teaspoon of sugar and shake over crushed ice. At Christmas, it can be made sweeter and a cherry added.’

Castle Howard Reviver

The gilded and marble halls of early-18th-century houses cry out for good cocktails. Simon Howard at Castle Howard recalls how his father, Lord Howard of Henders-kelfe, enjoyed mixing cocktails for friends and one of Simon’s favourite recipes seems very appropriate for a house that has been so wonderfully revived after a devastating fire in 1940. ‘The Corpse Reviver needs 1½ measures of Italian vermouth, 1½ measures of Calvados and three measures of brandy.’

Three others from the Castle Howard stable, which have been collected over many years are: ‘Hell: three measures of brandy, three of crème-de-menthe, and a shake of red pepper. The Knockout is
one-third dry gin, one-third scotch, one-sixth French, one-sixth Italian and a dash of Angostura bitters. Or there’s the Little Devil: one measure of lemon juice, one of Cointreau, two of rum and two of gin.’

Houghton Hall Mediterranean

Few country houses so vividly conjur up Rome for me as Houghton Hall in Norfolk, and the Marquess of Cholmondley strikes a Mediterranean note with his favourite summertime cocktail: ‘Campari and freshly squeezed grapefruit juice (one part to two), either over ice or shaken. Both refreshing and quite lethal.’

Chatsworth Cider Cup

The last quasi-cocktail I’d like to include is the one that was served when I was lucky enough to interview the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire in Derbyshire, and, despite my having foresworn wine at lunch on account of a long drive home, her Grace and Henry her butler pressed on me a glass of Lady Astor’s Cider Cup, a delicious ginger beer and cider mix, which had apparently been invented by her steward, the famous Mr Lee, as Lady Astor was fiercely teetotal and no spirits or wine were served during her period as chatelaine at Cliveden.

In the Duchess of Devonshire’s The Chatsworth Cookery Book, she recalls: ‘[Lady Astor’s] religious views didn’t stop her from being the best company in the world, funny, quick as lightning, out-rageous, small, pretty with glittering blue eyes, generous, and alternately kind and unkind, shocking and shocked.

With her own extraordinary energy she did not need any extra stimulus and she did not allow that others might… It was always summer and hot at Cliveden, and this Cider Cup is a reminder of the happiest days there.’ The recipe is: ‘2x 330ml cans or 2 pints of ginger beer (these are not exact equivalent measures); 660ml or 2 pints of medium cider; 3 slices of orange; 3 slices of lemon; sprig of fresh mint. Makes 8 glasses.’

Try it at a summer picnic-it’s quite delicious and a little less likely to have an after-kick than some of those mentioned above.

More useful cocktail recipes can be found in another of my favourite handbooks, Jennie Reekie’s ‘The Ritz London Book of Drinks & Cocktails’, published by Ebury Press (1990)

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