At the age of fourteen I made a new friend. She and her family spoke French and debated politics across the dinner table, over well-cleared plates of coq au vin, voices hoarse with cigarette smoke and laughter. My house was nothing like that (my mum used to shut us up if any sign of debate arose). To a girl yearning for more than our small market town provided it all felt impossibly glamorous. Above the door in my friend’s kitchen hung a notice which read “boire du vin, l’eau est polluée”. It’s an instruction I’ve tried to adhere to ever since.
We’ll be drinking plenty of wine this Christmas, but if there’s one cocktail that perfectly engenders the celebration and joy of this season for me, it is the negroni. First of all there’s the colour: a deep ruby red with a glowing curl of citrus zest and a large glittering, clinking ice cube or two (the size of the ice cubes is important – the smaller they are the more quickly they’ll dissolve and you don’t want water in these drinks). Then there is the glow bestowed by the cocktail itself, bearing a triple layer of punchy booze, this drink will add volume to a room and colour to faces faster than you can say Jack Frost.
Fergus Henderson is without doubt the master of negroni making. He advocates the use of bittersweet Punt e Mes vermouth, rather than the more usual Antica Formula, and lemon rather than orange. It is delicious and very alcoholic.
I have always been fascinated by the botanicals used to flavour gin and vermouth. When the Seville oranges arrive in the New Year you can play at being a sort of master distiller by creating your own subtle bitters to use as a basis for two equally delicious cocktails. The Seville adds the bitterness usually provided by the herb wormwood in commercially available bitters and the two cocktails are strong, straight-up versions that celebrate that bitterness. Lemon barley mac tastes a little like lemon barley sweets mixed with the tastes of a classic whisky mac. Sloe Winter Cup is dark, rich and fruity with spices. Both of these cocktail recipes make one large or two small glasses. Carry on the Christmas cheer through those dark January days and nights or, if you can’t wait until the Sevilles arrive, spiced orange bitters are easy to buy online.
Sloe whisky is both a subtle and lovely variation on the more usual sloe gin and a good excuse to get outside and scour the hedges for the last few sloes. Or try using other autumn fruit such as blackberries or damsons. The method is the same in each case. There’s still time to make a bottle.
Have a happy and convivial Christmas!
Fergus Henderson’s Negroni
50% Cold Tanqueray gin (from the freezer)
30% Punt e Mes vermouth
A large strip of lemon zest
Combine the liquid ingredients in a glass jug and stir thoroughly.
Pour into an iced glass full of ice cubes.
Twist the lemon zest so that the lemon oils from the skin spray into the glass. Place the zest in the glass.
Spiced orange bitters
1 Seville orange
scant ¼ teaspoon whole cloves
scant ¼ teaspoon coriander seeds
scant ½ teaspoon black peppercorns
½ a vanilla pod, cut into several pieces, but left unsplit
1 green cardamom pod, partially cracked open
1cm piece of cinnamon stick
1 small blade of mace
1 roasted coffee bean
Heat the oven to 100°C. Use a paring knife to score the rind of the orange into segments so it is easy to peel. Keep the flesh to squeeze into a salad dressing. Cut the peel into 2cm squares and spread evenly over a baking sheet. Bake in the oven for around 30 minutes until dry but not yet brittle. Cool.
Place the dried peel in a jam jar along with the vodka and all the other ingredients. Seal and leave to infuse for around three weeks, shaking the jar from time to time.
Strain the vodka through a sieve lined with a piece of damp muslin or other fine cloth. Gather up the muslin and squeeze out the last of the vodka. Decant to a small bottle and store somewhere dark. The bitters will last for years, especially as only a teaspoon is used each time.
Lemon Barley Mac
If you can’t lay your hands on gomme (also called gum) syrup, a sugar solution used for cocktails, make your own by dissolving equal volumes of sugar and water together. Cool before using. Ready-made gomme syrup will have a silkier mouth-feel, as it contains gum Arabic.
50ml malt whisky (nothing too peaty)
12.5ml good white vermouth
12.5ml Stone's ginger wine
12.5ml gomme syrup
scant teaspoon spiced orange bitters
lemon zest to garnish
Measure all the liquid ingredients into a jug filled with ice. Stir for several minutes then strain into two small martini glasses. Finish each glass with a small piece of lemon zest, twisted to spray lemon oil over the surface of the cocktail.
Sloe Winter Cup
What you put into this determines the final cocktail. For an extra Christmassy feel use Antica Formula rather than standard red vermouth.
50ml sloe whisky
25ml good bourbon
12.5ml good white vermouth
12.5ml good red vermouth
1 teaspoon spiced orange bitters
orange zest to garnish
Measure all the liquid ingredients into a large glass filled with ice. Stir for several minutes then strain into two small martini glasses. Finish each glass with a small piece of orange zest, twisted so as to spray orange oil over the surface of the cocktail.
Pick plump sloes dark in colour and very slightly soft to the squeeze. Avoid green or shrivelled ones and bushes next to busy roads or sprayed crops. It's bit of a myth that you need to wait until the first frost, much more important to find perfectly ripe sloes. It's also a myth that you need to prick each sloe. Pulling out their stems breaks the skin sufficiently to release their flavour. If you prick them you risk the whisky becoming cloudy. Choose a good quality blended whisky; there's no need for an expensive single malt.
sloes, stems removed and rinsed
sugar to taste
Fill a large clean jar just over half full with sloes. Pour over whisky to almost fill the jar and add a couple of spoonful’s of sugar. If you go easy on the sugar now it’s always possible to add more later if needed.
Close the jar and leave it somewhere dark for at least three months and preferably a year. The longer you leave the whisky on the sloes the better it will taste. The almond-y flavour of the stones only comes out after time.
Strain the whisky through a sieve lined with a piece of damp muslin set over a jug. Don't squish the fruit; let it drip. Taste the whisky and stir in more sugar if needed.
Leave the whisky to settle overnight, then decant into a clean bottle leaving the cloudy sediment behind. You can drink it straight away but it will last for years and improve with age.
Words by Jessica Seaton. Images by Lauren Miller.
Personally signed copies of Jessica Seaton’s new book, Gather Cook Feast recently shortlisted for the André Simon Food & Drink Book Awards are available to buy online and in stores.