You’ve written about a great many topics for the Evening Standard, such as food, culture and politics. You just interviewed the Dalai Lama. How did you find yourself writing ‘The Spirits’ column, on top of everything else?
“One of the privileges of my job is the license it gives to be curious about everything; and moving between different worlds means you often find the interesting ideas between them. My bent for cocktails began as a little sideline but I soon realised that they were a great vehicle of writing about London as a whole, its history, its characters, its economy, its language, its fashions and so on… Plus, people would send me gin.”
You quote Charles H. Baker and Beta Cocktails, include the Angostura Sour as one of your 25 classics, and name check some ingredients obscure to most bartenders (farigoule, génépi, Zirbenz). At which point did you realize you had turned into a cocktail geek?
“It does become a little obsessing, doesn’t it? I think the specific moment was when I found myself trailing around Chinatown in search of a high-proof hallucinogenic Chinese spirit called ng ka py, simply because I’d read that Leonard Cohen’s spiritual master was fond of it. But my aim is really to de-nerdify cocktails so that making a Martini becomes as everyday as making a cup of tea, while tossing in a few lagniappes for the cocktail cognoscenti.
…Yet you maintain mezcal is an “over-rated hipster spirit”?
“Tequila is better than mezcal. I know your hipster bartender maintains otherwise, but such are the distorting effects of fashion. Also: Stella Artois is better than craft IPA; Campari over Aperol; almost any other white rum over Bacardi.”
There’s no shortage of bartending books. What did you feel was missing from several cocktail manuals that compelled you to write your own?
“I wanted to write the sort of book I wished existed when I first got into this stuff myself. Most bar books are written by bartenders for other bartenders; or else they’re written by people who died long ago for people who died long ago. I wanted to write something aimed at the intelligent amateur that broke the whole thing down into simple principles while opening up the subject as widely as possible. Sort of a contemporary re-imagining of the Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, which I purposely avoided reading.”
Whether you’re in North America, or in the UK, there seems to be an appetite for drinking better. Why do you think that is?
“Well, people were drinking quite badly before – in fact, many still are. I think it runs parallel to the general yearning to eat better, to understand where what we’re consuming is coming from and to establish some kind of connection that is perceived to have been “lost”.”
“Also, I have a long cherished macroeconomic theory that inequality leads to increased cocktail consumption.”
What is your favourite drinking hole in London?
When I’m flush, I do love the Connaught Bar, though to call it a “hole” is a bit of a stretch. I think Hawksmoor Spitalfields, Happiness Forgets and the Blind Pig get it right. But truth be told, my local pub, the Salisbury.
Which direction do you feel craft bartending is heading for the next 5 years?
“I would like to see less of an emphasis on the drinks themselves – we get it, you can make nice cocktails, who can’t? And more of an emphasis on the social aspects of drinking, i.e. love, laughter, music.”
“I would rather listen to wonderful music and drink mediocre cocktails than listen to mediocre music and drink wonderful cocktails.”
You lamented the lack of American rye in England. Is there one label you wish you could get your hands on?
It’s more an affordability issue. Rittenhouse, for example, is about twice the price in the UK as it is in the States. But on balance I think we win, as we have a) more gin and b) closer proximity to all those interesting European ingredients. My favourite place for cocktail shopping is French supermarkets — you know you can get génépi in most of them for just a few Euros?
Be sure to find a copy of Richard Godwin’s excellent new book The Spirits: A Guide to Modern Cocktailing and get an extra one for your friend who makes lousy drinks at home. (Check out our review of the book HERE)