A Long Drink in Lockdown
Posted: 1st July 2020
July begins, and apart from my immediate family I have seen virtually no one since March; and no, I don’t mean I have seen them ‘virtually’: Skype and Zoom drinks and parties are not my thing. I do see the local traders on a fairly regular basis, and late last night I made an unscheduled visit to the outpatients’ department at the Royal Free, but humanity rarely looks its best in the wee hours, and if what I saw there was real life, well, you can keep it.
I try where possible to make family life as convivial as I can. With my son about to go up to university, we are now four drinkers. He doesn’t consume much still wine (he has no apparent objection to champagne) but even a bottle divided between three is not a lot, so I have tried to stock up the drinks cabinet a bit so that there is a little more choice.
It is summer now and of course spirits are not ideal when it’s hot and you’re thirsty. Most of the time a beer would be better but beer is not good before wine, so my mind turns to long drinks: whisky and ginger or maybe a whisky sour if you have a bit more time?
“A gin and tonic can be the perfect summer drink and a Tom Collins is also delicious once in a blue moon. I often have a gin and French, a walk down memory lane that evokes flashes of better times. I never know what to do with vodka, but there is a full bottle of Russian Standard in the fridge. Ideally you’d toss a glass back straight after a spoonful of caviar, otherwise, vodka is just a way of turning fruit juice into alcohol. I prefer rum, which has more flavour: a petit punch is a lovely drink on a warm evening, and not too fussy; but you need good white cane rum, and preferably from the French islands. Rum from the old British islands is made from molasses and has a coarse character like some rough old tar sounding off in the pub.”
“The important point is that you don’t want to be fiddling around with jiggers and strainers and other paraphernalia if you are wrestling with dinner with the other hand, but you do need the basic materials: lemons, limes, soda water, non-dietary tonic water (Schweppes, Fever-Tree or Fentimans) and ginger ale. You also need Campari and Martini Rosso for those days when you can be fagged to knock up a Negroni. Sugar syrup is essential. I keep a bottle of it in the fridge and make a new batch when it’s empty by filling it a third full with granulated sugar and carefully pouring on boiling water to dissolve it; carefully, I might stress: if you do it too quickly you crack the bottle.”
I use sugar syrup in my ‘tit punch. As a West Indian barman once told me: ‘two fingers of your favourite white rum, two fingers of sugar syrup and two fingers of freshly squeezed lime juice’. A couple of ice cubes don’t go amiss either. The principle of a Tom Collins is much the same, but uses gin and fresh lemon juice.
I am near the end of a bottle of Villa Ascheri gin, and then I have some Portobello Road Navy Strength gin kindly sent to me by friends. For most gin drinks, however, a bottle of Plymouth or Beefeater is fine, and costs about £16. Probably my favourite is Tanqueray 10, but is hugely pricy and I have not drunk it in a while. As a friend’s father who had been in the Sudanese Political Service taught me long ago, for a gin and tonic you need to have everything sitting prettily in the fridge, including the lemon. Only then is it a really refreshing drink. In the Subcontinent I have drunk gin with freshly squeezed limes, simply because the tonic was disgusting and limes are more reliable. A gin and French is a good measure of gin, a squeeze of lemon and a larger measure of dry vermouth. Noilly Prat is best, or Dolin from Chambéry. The Dolin will cost almost £15 from the Whisky Exchange, while the Co-op has its own brand at £6.35 a litre and it’s not even that bad.
I try to buy the Réunion white rum from Lidl. It has a proper rum taste and at under a tenner it is cheap. The last time I braved the Lidl in Camden Town they didn’t have any and I had to buy a bottle of Bacardi white rum from the local Co-op instead. This comes from Puerto Rico and costs nearly twice as much. It also has no rum taste. It might just as well be vodka.
The Co-op is the source of many of my bottles, not least because it is the local corner shop. For £22 I can have a litre of Famous Grouse, which is quite good enough for a whisky and ginger or a whisky sour; although I have to say that the whisky sour I had fashioned from peaty new-make Annandale malt was possibly the best ever. The Co-op has quite a range of cheap malts too, which are not great summer drinks but surely worth having in the drinks cupboard: Jura Journey (£22), Glenlivet (£25), Glenmorangie Ten (£26), Laphroaig Select (£28) and Tamnavulin (£22), most of these are new style marketing ‘concepts’ and probably assembled from very young malts. The exception is the Glenmorangie which has an old-fashioned age statement.
I have missed out brandy and cognac as cognac seems to me to be a winter drink to be savoured all on its own but our imperialists liked their brandy with ginger or soda, and the French (also James Bond) used to drink a ‘fine à l’eau’.
“Summer is also the time for Pimms. There are the scant remains of a bottle of Pimms Vodka Cup in the cupboard but not enough to go round. You also need lemonade, cucumber, strawberries, fresh mint and borage. The current owners suggest you simplify the formula, but without the salad it is not only not Pimms, it ain’t summer either.”