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Cocktail culture

Published:  23 July, 2008

There's a lot more to cocktails than vodka, though you wouldn't know that from what most bars have been offering for the past five years. Robbie Bargh, who advises barmen on how to improve their drinks, via his company Gorgeous, speaks for quite a few in his belief that: There are so many terrible drinks out there that are overmixed beyond belief, some really awful concoctions. Instead of tricksy, clever things, it's so much better to keep things simple, like you can when making a plain, old classic'.

However the evidence of the past 18 months is that there's been a shift towards darker spirits. Coe Vintners marketing manager Andrew Weir insists that: many of our lines have sold out, not just vodka'. A major supplier to the London bar trade, Coe has just taken on Santa Teresa rum. Meanwhile Sussex-based Castle Brands bought Jefferson's Reserve bourbon in October, and while both companies possess vodkas brands, they feel the need to broaden their range. According to commercial director Iain Stewart: there is established long-term growth in both the rum and bourbon sectors'.

While the popularity of vodka may be good for brand owners, it isn't always great for those in the bar business. I could sell loads of vodka cocktails, but they wouldn't taste of much, and wouldn't help our long-term success. People would just move on to the newest place that offered vodka cocktails. I've also steered clear of the bottle on the table for a party of eight for 280 plus a bucket of ice,' says Strangeway. It's not my style and builds the wrong type of vibe.'

To encourage people to drink cocktails of a more unusual ilk, Strangeway has to lower prices slightly, but it works. I might only be selling cocktails for around 6,' he says, but people will have a cocktail before dinner, eat and take a bottle of wine, then have another cocktail afterwards. It soon mounts up compared to cocktails at 10, which people aren't drinking but instead taking the cheaper beer or vodka-plus-mixer option.'

And appealing to the past doesn't have to be for sad geeks only: We're not a temple to the cocktail in the way that Milk & Honey [the New York and Soho bar] is. The 19th-century-style Punches come in a jug for people to share and they're a lot of fun. If people want to read the list in the corner for hours they can, but our bartenders go out to the tables and enthuse people about the list. My customers are a 25-45 crowd, and they've got over that desperate urge to get annihilated.' Strangeway admits that if it wasn't for those fresh-fruit Martinis at the Met bar in the '90s I wouldn't be able to make a Bloodhound [gin with vermouth and raspberries] now. They got people back into drinking cocktails.' That may be true, but it's time to put the past ahead of us.