As I write, London Cocktail Week is in full swing, back for its eighth year, and bigger and better than ever. Since the festival’s inception, bartenders have become ever more creative with what they are mixing, as the Londoners flocking to their bars have become more curious about what passes their lips. DrinkUp London, pioneers behind London Cocktail Week, as well as London Wine Week and London Beer Week, this year launched a series of masterclasses to help quench London’s thirst for knowledge.
In its series of ‘cocktail experiments’ the Drink Up team is breaking classic cocktails down to their component parts, letting guests experiment with different gins, whiskies and vermouths in a Martini, Negroni or an Old Fashioned . The idea is simple: learn about the different options, discover what you like and come away knowing how to craft your very own version of the classic. In the name of research, a few of the Phipps team went along, to see what we could discover about our tastes.
It would be no surprise to those who know me to learn that I opted for the Negroni class. A far cry from those ‘fruity and frivolous’ cocktails of the 90s, for me the Negroni is the epitome of a great cocktail; strong, sweet, bitter and sharp all in one. Despite being hailed by some ‘the very definition of balance and simplicity’, the Negroni has the added advantage of having a recipe I can follow with my eyes closed: equal parts Campari, gin, vermouth, no shaking, just a quick stir.
To guide us through the essential Negroni ingredients we had the spirits and cocktail guru Hannah Lanfear, owner of The Mixing Class. She briefly introduced us to the history of cocktails, whizzing through the boom in American cocktail culture and the introduction of ice in drinks, right up to the point in 1919, where Count Camilo Negroni decided he wanted something stronger than the fashionable Americano cocktail, and swapped his soda water for gin. Hannah then took us through six gins, some aromatic, with notes of cardamom and floral orris root, others more juniper-dominant, with hints of citrus and spicy coriander. Then six vermouths, again in a range of styles, from heavy, Christmas-scented to light, with exotic touches of strawberry gum and botanicals for all corners of the globe. We also had the one Negroni constant – the bright pinky-red, deliciously bitter Campari to tie the components together.
So, out of the 36 different mixing possibilities, what was my perfect Negroni? I went for Ford’s Gin, crafted by a bartender who set out to create ‘a gin to be used as a workhorse for the cocktailian bartender.’ He did so by creating a map of the classic gin cocktails, examining what botanicals were necessary to make the cocktails work, then popped all of these into a delicious gin. For vermouth I went straight for the Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, marrying Ford’s vibrant, floral and coriander notes to the richer tones of cacao, bitter orange and nutmeg. The end result was pleasingly bittersweet, with lots of spice and citrus notes dancing across the palate. Definitely a successful result for the Negroni experiment, now, what should I put in my Martini?