COCKTAILS FROM THE VAULTS
Unfiltered delves into the archive to find out how leading mixologists were working with whisky cocktails almost 10 years ago in this feature by Warren Pole, from issue 16 in June 2012
PHOTOS: ROB LAWSON
Cocktails fall into two camps for most folks. There are either the bright neon numbers with more umbrellas than alcohol, or those equally sickly concoctions that come served by a bloke who’s better at juggling than making the drinks. Clearly neither of these has a place in the world of whisky, let alone the world of fine single cask, single malt whiskies.
Indeed, for many, the only additions to any whisky should be water or ice, with as little as possible used of both. And for some, any tinkering with that which has already taken so many years to reach perfection is nothing short of heresy.
But fresh cocktails have undergone something of a renaissance in recent years, with a new focus on high quality ingredients and more complex, subtle flavours.
So, is it possible to make fine malts and fine cocktails sing together in perfect harmony, or will cocktails forever be associated with the less sophisticated end of the whisky spectrum?
Nicolas Kroeger is a cocktail maker par excellence and can be found most nights working his magic behind the bar at The Ritz in London. A bright spark, at just 21 years old Kroeger already has a palate and a wealth of alcoholic experience that would humble many twice his age. For him, the pursuit of drinking perfection has already been a lifelong quest.
“I was a weird kid,” he admits when we meet at the Members’ Rooms at 19 Greville Street. While most teenagers’ sole alcoholic concern is getting as much down their necks as cheaply as possible, the 16-year-old Kroeger was earnestly writing whisky and cognac tasting notes. He then learned about wine working in restaurants and by 18 was knowledgeable enough to stand in for seasoned sommeliers.
“My idea with cocktails is to use a small number of ingredients to lift the natural flavours and when using something as beautiful as great whisky you must be sensitive with it.
“The traditional view of cocktails is you use the mixers to mask the alcohol. My aim is the opposite – to use the best ingredients to finesse and lift the whisky at the heart of the drink.”
He also believes cocktails can help introduce people to whisky. While those of us lucky enough to have discovered whisky’s wealth of diversity and delight need no encouraging to delve deep into a new dram, there are many more for whom whisky is a no-go zone. “Whisky’s such an intense flavour, it’s too much for some palates. A good cocktail opens the door,” says Kroeger as he snaps open his barman’s toolkit (literally a heavy silver case stashed with all manner of mixing gear) and settles in to mix up a storm.
Having had a week to play with his choice of Society bottlings (2.81: Black tea in a greenhouse, 105.18: A Dram for Santa, 29.109: Oak Smoke and Intensity, and 53.161: Manuka honey and Rooibos) Kroeger had created four bespoke cocktails.
First there was the Malt Deluxe, an easy drinker with plenty of fruit and only a gentle hint of whisky which would entice even the most committed whisky avoider.
ABOVE: Kroeger’s Blue Blazer
Next came the Sherry Invasion, a beguiling mix of sherried Speyside and Islay drams brought to feisty life with added Pedro Ximenez sherry and Campari.
A classic Blue Blazer with Society malt was, quite literally, a flaming fireball made for those already well into their whisky, while finally a Smoking Joe paved a wild way into the often-unfathomable world of high peat heaven.
But what struck me about all of Kroeger’s drinks was the way they accentuated the whiskies and retained their complexities, rolling and growing on the tongue. While other flavours came and went, each drink began and ended with the whisky.
On the other side of London, in the arcane Worship Street Whistling Shop bar tucked in a side street basement, barman Ryan Chetiyawardana, another mixing wizard and passionate malt man, had been working equally hard with his chosen Society samples.
Chetiyawardana had requested “extreme” bottlings he could use to create one-off drinks perfectly moulded around each. At 28, Chetiyawardana’s knowledge of great whisky is already as deep as it is passionate, and he admits the Society played a major part in his whisky apprenticeship as he worked through the samples while a student in Edinburgh.
“It wasn’t cheap,” he laughs, “especially as a student, but it was worth it.” As he mixed like an alchemist in the cool darkness of the basement, he explained his aims with the drinks he had devised.
“I did a tasting session with the whiskies to work out the cocktails, and in each one the whisky remains first, last and throughout rather than being drowned and disguised as it is with cocktails traditionally.”
Is there a future for drinks like these? Absolutely, he thinks. “People are more willing to experiment now and step outside their comfort zones with taste experiences, which can only be a good thing for whisky, and a good thing for cocktails.”
With a final flourish, two immaculate drinks now sat before me on the bar and, despite it still only being 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, tucking in seemed utterly appropriate in the timeless (and windowless) surroundings of Chetiyawardana’s bar. Number one was the Sherry Monster, made with the 29-year-old sherried 73.44: Old friends remembered, with Lillet Blanc, Sercial Madeira and bitters, served up in an absinth-rinsed glass which, “stops the drink being too sweet and lifts the herbal notes” according to Chetiyawardana.
Whatever it did, the combination was a winner, as the malt chimed in, warming and tingling before fizzing around the edges as the other ingredients cut through. On the aftertaste though, it was straight back into the whisky. Magical.
Finally came the Peat Monster, concocted using 29.113: A changeling, which is a big peat hitter. Egg white in the blend lets the tongue hold onto the shapeshifting flavours for longer, while citrus fruits and floral syrup build on the dram’s natural character.
The result? A drinkable sweetie that slid down indecently well given the early hour yet never once wavered from the whisky at its centre.
It was as tasty an argument as you’ll find for fine malt cocktails anywhere, but even with such wizardry at his fingertips, Chetiyawardana warned there were some customers who felt there was one last barrier even the best cocktail shouldn’t cross.
“I’ve known people who are very willing to drink single malt cocktails but who really shy away from single cask cocktails,” he said. Looking at the empty glass in front of me and pondering this last point, I suggested to Chetiyawardana that a top up may help me decide precisely where I stood. Purely in the interests of research you understand…
*Job titles were correct as of time of writing in 2012 but may have changed