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Custom-Built Cocktail

by | 5 December, 2014

Sourcing ingredients from the best bespoke producers going, Hot Rum Cow dreams up the ultimate in custom quaffing.

illustration of the cocktail's ingredients

Artwork by Mike Hall.

Four key components must come together to make the perfect cocktail – vessel, liquid, ice and garnish. Increasingly, drink creators and consumers are shunning off-the-shelf ingredients for something a little more unique. Put simply, folks want bespoke. So, in this spirit, we tracked down some of the most forward-thinking players in the world of made-to-measure measures to learn how they are doing things differently, to hear about the finest tailored ingredients known to humanity and to imagine how we could use them to create the ultimate custom-made cocktail.

Spirit

When injury ended the sporting career of first-class cricketer Matt Whiley, he turned his competitive spirit towards the drinks industry, creating his own modern twists on historic favourites and distilling adventurous new alcoholic infusions.

At the second of his current tally of three bars (plus one pop-up), Whiley produced a small-batch cream gin. “We found a lot of references to cream in gin in Victorian times,” he says of his time at East London’s Whistling Shop, which takes its decor and ambience cues from the same period. “We wanted to create something Victoriana, but for the modern palate.”

Inspired by those historical references, he created an alternative take on the traditional London dry gin, using fresh cream as a ‘botanical’. For his second gin, made under the moniker of Moonshine Kid and hand-produced out of his newest bar, Peg and Patriot (again in East London), he’s taken influence from London’s 18th century waterway workers, while tipping his hat to the current craft beer craze.

“In the late 1700s trawler men would put gin in their beer,” Whiley explains. Acknowledging that “the craft beer thing is so huge in the UK”, he said he wanted to create a product that would be as much at home behind a pint-pulling bar as a cocktail-serving one. So, along with his partner James, Moonshine Kid made a gin with hops instead of using citrus. Dogs Nose Gin – named after the historic working class dram of porter and gin, dubbed so for being dark and wet – is made with vacuum-distilled American IPA hops along with London dry gin botanicals.

Whiley’s infused spirits on the regularly-changing menu at Peg and Patriot get more creative still. Burnt pineapple rum, salt beef beigal distillate, roasted rice ice cream liqueur, not to mention previous concoctions such as Marmite vodka and a Bloody Mary mix that included pigs blood and black pudding. Current customer favourite is a cocktail called Pho Money Pho Problems. “It has all of the aromatics of an Asian pho soup: onion, coriander, fennel, oyster sauce, infused into a spirit for 24 hours, distilled, then we add in kaffir leaf, lime and pack choi. It’s like a daiquiri,” he says.

Whiley’s unusual creations are at the forefront of the craft spirit movement, which he says is really big now. “It’s brilliant that people are working to move the industry forward. I think it’s been around for a while but the consumers are becoming much more aware of all kinds of things, food and drink, not just in London, but throughout the UK. Our industry’s booming,” he says.

Infusion

“I’ve always had a bit of an obsession with flavour,” says Max Chater. Via a restaurant and cocktail bar in Leeds and various craft beer pubs and speakeasies around the country, he’s found a way to put that obsession into practice in a new “dive bar and distillery”, Bump Caves.

A ‘bump’ is a concept Max devised while working at The Draft House, a small indie pub chain: “A bump is the idea of combining or pairing flavours that you wouldn’t usually have,” he explains. “For example, we take a Danish wheat beer, ToØl, and we distil coriander, dill and carrot gin to have alongside it.”

The popularity of his ‘beer and a bump’ initiative convinced Draft House’s owner that it was worth a dedicated space in its Tower Bridge bar basement, and so Bump Caves was born over the summer of 2014.

“My focus is using the flavour of one thing to activate the flavour of another thing. For example, if something has a predominant lemon note I know that it would be helped by thyme,” Chater says.

Utilising equipment that would be more at home in a chemistry lab (a rotary evaporator) or a kitchen (a sous vide), Chater creates unique spirits, syrups, liqueurs and infusions. His philosophy is partly inspired by the mission of the Merry Pranksters in Tom Wolfe’s ‘Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ to look for something better, to push things “further”. It’s also, he admits, “about fucking with people’s heads a bit”.

Case in point: the Schiz-a-Colada, Chater’s take on the piña colada. It’s rum distilled with pineapple puree, mixed with crème anglaise and served with a coconut-flavoured electronic cigarette. One of his signature concoctions is the Chater Amaro, a digestif with strong orange and gentian elements, plus around 10 other botanicals.

“Amaros are going to be the next big thing,” Chater predicts. “Actually, the next big thing will be vermouth. And then it will be amaros. And then it will probably be vodka again.”

He says that nowadays people are looking to spirits – like they have to the food, coffee and beer industries in the recent past – for innovation and hand-crafted quality.

“We’re good at gin. Gin here is massive. But I’d love to see Brits getting out of their comfort zones. It’d be good to see a British-made vermouth or aromatised wine,” he says. “People are becoming more discerning, which is good for me, it’s good for all of us.”

Ice

Chris Little, of Wintersmiths, first got turned on to artisanal ice on a business trip to Tokyo. While visiting some “great watering holes” he came to appreciate the bartenders’ strict adherence to perfect cocktail ingredients, particularly ice.

“On one occasion I was served bourbon on the rocks with a single crystal clear ball of ice from an ice press and was amazed by how well it kept my drink cold without over-diluting it, and, frankly, how beautiful it looked.”

When he returned to America, Little attempted to replicate the ice spheres at home but was disappointed by the cost and effort involved in doing so. With a career background in marketing and business development, he decided to create his own product, which was funded via Kickstarter in July 2013. The Ice Baller, as it came to be known, utilises a concept called directional freezing to push air bubbles and impurities out of the water, leaving a crystal clear ball.

“Our ice balls melt more slowly than a cube of ice of the same mass due to a lower surface area to volume ratio. Also, the fact that our ice is clear is not only aesthetically pleasing, but without air bubbles and impurities, you eliminate the risk of the ball breaking apart in your glass, which increases the surface area of the ice that is in contact with the liquid and speeds melting and dilution of your drink,” Little says. “There is a new-found respect for the role of ice in cocktails. It is a marriage of art and science that bartenders are embracing and incorporating into their unique libations. The rate of dilution can have a major impact on the chemistry of a drink and it must be factored in to achieve perfection. (It’s all part of) the cocktail revolution, which has a lot of momentum, and you can see bars all over the world expanding their ‘ice programs’ to include unique shapes and sizes and to improve on the overall clarity and quality of the ice they are pairing with each drink.”

The same is true for the home mixologist, Little says, which is where he has seen the majority of usage of the Ice Baller, and support for the 4-ball Ice Chest, which was successfully crowd-funded in September 2014.

Vessel

Bar manager and consultant Wes Pickering moved from Edinburgh to London in the early noughties and was immediately impressed with the creativity of the bartenders and the knowledge of the consumers. What he wasn’t so keen on, though, was the fact that beautiful drinks were being served in bog-standard glassware. So in 2006 he started Inkorporate and set about forging a market in the development of bespoke “serves” for the premium drinks sector.

“We like to think that we’re at the forefront, trying to drive this (bespoke) trend,” he says. “It’s a very exciting time in the drinks industry right now. The distilling and making of cocktails is becoming very refined. Bar tenders and craft distillers are putting a lot more emphasis on hand-picked, quality ingredients.”

Inkorporate’s mission is to match those progressive elements with drinkware as innovative as the wildest imagination of any bartender. The company recently won industry awards and accolades for an “infusion vessel” created in collaboration with Alex Kratena at Langham Hotel’s Artesian Bar for the Digidiva cocktail. The concept, Pickering says, was about “playing with the senses rather than just having liquor in a glass”. The result was a long, rectangular glass serve that acts as both a vessel for the liquid (Absolut Elyx, Fino sherry, Aqua di Cedro, soda, citric solution) and a vase for the changing array of foraged botanicals (think passion flowers and pine needles) that imbue different flavours – both in taste and aroma.

While Pickering admits that “a lot of the things we’re doing are fuelled by bars with bigger budgets or brand support”, he is confident the innovation can and will trickle down, something that is already happening with bespoke distillation and liquor infusions. And for those without the finances to instruct their own bespoke drinkware manufacturer, Pickering explains the philosophy behind Inkorporate’s creations: “It’s crucial to work out what you’re trying to achieve, rather than just doing it for the sake of doing it. Think about how you’d like guests to experience the drink and let that drive you to make a change. Just like you consider why you put certain flavours together, why you do things in a certain order, think why you use that glass, in that way. It is possible to play around with these things without the big budget.”

Custom-Built Cocktail: The Amber Gin Singular

An illustration of the cocktail being served

Illustration by Steinar Lund.

To create our bespoke cocktail we would take Matt Whiley’s Dogs Nose Gin, which is distilled with American IPA hops, Columbus and Chinook, to use as our base. Inspired by Max Chater’s work at Bump Caves, we would fire up the sous vide (a device used to cook food in vacuum-sealed pouches immersed in a water bath) and create an intense pineapple syrup infused with ginger and coriander. Then we’d combine them with Square Root London’s small batch handmade ginger beer and serve from a glass bottle onto a Wintersmiths ice sphere in a luxury glass tumbler conceived by Inkorporate’s head of design, Amelie David. We would add a squeeze of lime, run the wedge around the rim of the glass, and garnish with a few sprigs of coriander.