- Food & Drink
"Gin is very much a breakfast drink"
I’m upside-down. Next to me ShedLikesFood is also upside-down. She doesn’t seem surprised. Maybe she remembers getting on the roller coaster. The last thing I remember is being waist-high in seawater. We were on our arses and laughing because we couldn’t get up.
I was spun back upright and had a glimpse of the English Channel. My skirt stuck wetly to my thighs. As the ride flipped me back over I reflected that the cocktail making masterclass had obviously gone well.
We’d set off for Brighton that morning with two tubs of exotic fruit, a bag of almonds and an iced coffee each.
I’d been invited to spend the day at the Hotel du Vin in Brighton learning how to make cocktails with their bar manager Ben Manchester. “Bring a friend!” they said. So I brought Shed, who’d spent the night before drinking everything Hawksmoor’s barmen could shake up in the name of research.
This was a trial run of the class, “to see how things worked out”. Alongside us, four barristers’ clerks had come down for the day to test run Ben’s lessons and impress us with their drinking trousers.
Breakfast – did I mention lessons started at 9.30am? – was coils of thick bacon tucked into sweet brioche rolls and a mixture of vodka, gin and tequila. We were doing breakfast cocktails, the drink of choice for urbane alcoholics whose thirst must be slaked, but slaked elegantly.
One of the clerks leapt up to mix the first drink – a Bloody Mary that was low on ice and yelpingly high in Tabasco. We slurped it up, passing the glass round, and agreeing that drinking it was an adventure in chemical warfare.
Ben’s version used a lot of ice, an incredible amount of Worcester sauce and not nearly as much tomato juice as you’d expect. It almost convinced me to like Bloody Marys, except that the Bloody Maria Shed made was better, and the Red Snapper I made (under Ben’s instruction) was a certifiable leap forward for drinkable boozy ketchup.
Because vodka brings nothing to the morning after drinks party. It just gives the tomato juice a hard, unforgiving edge. Tequila and gin, however, unfurl in the glass, ripening the fruit with herbs and aromatics. They give the drink flavour. You feel like you’re drinking it because you like the taste and not because you need an acceptable way to get a double shot of Poland’s finest down your throat before 11am.
We moved on to marmalade martinis (like a coupe of boozy Orangina) and corpse revivers. Ben rinsed the glasses with absinthe and reached for the bottle of London Dry No 3 Gin, musing: “Gin is such a breakfast drink.” Shed and I concurred, helping the clerks finish off the three lethal little glasses of gin.
After a brief break, we returned to learn about the sacred art of the Martini. Wet, dry, olive, twist, dirty, shaken, stirred, vodka, gin – how do you know which martini is the right one for you? How about making them all in one go, trying them all and then leaving yourself a cryptic note tapped into your phone to be deciphered the next day.
I already knew what I liked in a martini, but it’s good to rigorously test your assumptions now and again. Turns out I do still prefer a wet martini with an olive that’s a little dirty. We didn’t try different gins, but if you make it with Sipsmith or Tanqueray no TEN, I’ll be happy.
What I won’t be happy with is a vodka martini. Vesper Martinis, shaken just they way they do in fictional bars in the south of France tasted exactly like the kind of thing you’d drink because you need a wallop of alcohol to get you through a card game with a psychopath.
Ben tried making us vodka martinis with absinthe as the rinse instead of vermouth. No better. So I asked him to make a gin martini with an absinthe rinse. Better, but not as good as the standard gin martini. Decided to drink it anyway, as well as the other gin martinis and the Martinez because the clerks didn’t like them.
Ben began to look slightly concerned at the number of empty glasses, so we went for lunch and drank a bottle of wine each. In hindsight, that was a mistake.
After lunch we did classics, beginning with Manhattans. My newfound mania for comparing slightly similar drinks meant Ben was forced into marking a Dry Manhattan (rubbish), a Sweet Manhattan (pretty nice) and a Perfect Manhattan (lovely). Then I jumped up to help Ben make a Tom Collins.
Given that it’s basically gin. lemon juice, sugar and soda water, it was surprisingly tricky to make. Somehow things – inert things like spoons and glasses – were getting away from me and not doing what they were supposed to. I managed to corall them to the right bit of the table and, with just a little bit of splashing, made the drink. Which was lovely. Just like Hooch. In fact, I seem to remember using Hooch as a mixer for gin when I was a teenager, so my interest in making cocktails was clearly evident from a young age.
Shed showed Ben how to make a Red Hook, which I think was nice. It had a cherry and they’re definitely good. The clerks made different types of Old Fashioneds, which invoked a lot of stirring. And it’s not easy to stir liquids with big spoons.
My entry into the cocktail competition, garnished with a cherry and some of the hedge from the hotel's terrace
It was time for us to show Ben what we’d learned, flex our drink-making muscles and create our own cocktail. Ben took down lists of what ingredients we wanted. This was havoc. All of us were suffused with creativity and the list of required spirits was long and mainly made up of things that would never go together in a million years of cocktail experimentation.
I asked for gin, lemon juice, sugar syrup, elderflower cordial, strawberries and cherries. My cocktail was named the Tuppeny Butter Quim by Shed. I’m not sure why. It tasted like snorting sherbet.
One of the clerks won the competition with a concoction that Ben judged to be drinkable. They retreated to the terrace to savour their victory. Shed and I ran away to the beach. She’d never been to Brighton before so it was important that we paddled. We fell over and sat in the sea, holding onto each other and laughing.
And then I was 40 foot in the air tied to a spinning plastic chair. “I had a handbag somewhere,” I thought. “I wonder if it has enough money in it for chips?” It did.
I was invited to The Cocktail Making Masterclass at the Brighton Hotel du Vin. They run regular events, including cocktail classes, which you can enjoy much more responsibly than me. Ben is fabulous teacher and host, and I’d like to thank him and the staff at the hotel for a brilliant day (even if he did fail to recognise the genius of my cocktail inventing).