2 Nov 2022

That's the spirit... how to stock your drinks cabinet

Those of us who have risen to the Sober October challenge, and have eschewed alcohol for a month in order to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support, may well be breathing a sigh of relief as November dawns… Christmas is now looming, and the period of winter sociability is beckoning. With Christmas entertaining and celebrations in mind, we’ve been taking a look at the contents of our drinks cabinets.

Spirits and cocktails are increasingly fashionable and if you aspire to a respectable drinks cabinet, you should certainly equip yourself with a range of spirits, and the means to offer both aperitifs and digestifs to your guests. You might feel that you should dispense with the more extreme versions of cocktail-making (replete with umbrellas, sparklers and fruit salads), and leave the theatrical concoctions and dramatic cocktail-shaking to the professionals. But you should certainly be able to offer your guests a timeless classic, such as gin and tonic.

Many spirits come laden with the dogma of expertise; pour a blended whisky on the rocks for an aficionado and await their withering censure. True whisky connoisseurs are safest spending more than less – being forced to settle for no-frill cheap brands is considered as distasteful as swigging out of a bottle.

To some extent, the traditional rules around serving spirits have been diluted by fashion, so take them or leave them. But remind yourself that, traditionally, whisky should be served in a heavy-bottomed tumbler with an accompanying small jug of still, room temperature water. It should be sipped languorously. Water allows the nuances of the flavours to open up, so chilling it with ice prevents the aromas from unfolding. Honour the quality of the bottle; save the very best for those who will appreciate the rare offering.

Ouzo, absinthe and pastis should also be served with water (and ice to taste). Keep vodka in the freezer. Cognoscenti believe that ice should be made with distilled water, as there will be no impurities causing cloudiness. However, it will make no difference to the taste.

Beyond mere drunkenness, some spirits have secondary effects – good and bad. Tequila is an upper, absinthe a mind-opener, not least because it’s high in proof; to some it’s the green fairy, to others green poison), and gin a depressant (take heed if you are prone to getting maudlin when you drink).

Aperitifs, or before-dinner drinks, should both stimulate the appetite and awaken the palate, as well as, critically, aid sociability. You should not, therefore, serve overly sweet, fruity or complex aperitifs before dinner. A White Russian, for example, (vodka, coffee liqueur and cream) will summon disapproving sighs; an aperitif should not be permitted to suppress hunger or numb taste buds. If in doubt, you can always opt for a non-spirits-based aperitif such as sherry or vermouth.

The rule for serving aperitifs is generally to opt for clear spirits over dark ones. You will never go wrong with a stylish dry martini (gin and vermouth garnished with an olive or lemon peel), though beware, it contains no mixers, and is therefore very potent. If you’re stuck in a mind-blank panic, stick to a classic such as gin and tonic. Gin has become a connoisseur’s drink in recent years, and hundreds of local distillers are turning out exotic blends, which use fragrant spices and fresh citrus fruits as well as the traditional juniper. Follow manufacturer’s recommendations and choose a tonic water that complements the specific blend.

Digestifs (after-dinner drinks) may not do much to aid digestion, but they are undoubtedly effective nightcaps. They are usually more alcoholic than an aperitif (and usually served neat): safe options include darker spirits such as brandy, cognac, Armagnac and whisky. Brandy is a distilled spirit made from fermented fruit juice; it can be made using grapes or fruit (Calvados, for example, is made from fermented apples). Cognac, on the other hand, is made from white grapes from a specific wine-producing region in southwestern France. Cognac is distilled twice, whereas Armagnac – which comes from the Gascony region of southwestern France – is distilled once. Whatever its provenance, serve brandy or cognac in bulbous brand balloons that can be cradled in the palms to warm the spirit, intensifying the dark bouquet and enhancing the flavour.

A household drinks cabinet should include a selection of glasses (Martini, highballs, tumblers, balloons) and basic cocktail making equipment (muddler, shaker, strainer). Stockpile all-purpose spirits (vodka, gin, Cointreau, bourbon, rum, whisky). Ensure that you have plentiful supplies of lemons and limes. You will also need Angostura Bitters (an aromatic blend of herbs and spices from the Caribbean that is an essential ingredient in pink gin and greatly enhances a classic Mojito) and Crème de Cassis, a blackcurrant liqueur that is essential for making Kir Royale, a champagne cocktail. Include a standard array of mixers (ginger ale, cranberry juice, orange juice, tonic water, soda water) and you’re ready to start serving.

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