Monday, 12 January 2015

The Claridge Cocktail

My version of the Claridge Cocktail
I was talking to a relative before Christmas and she mentioned how her mother-in-law (my wife’s aunt) regularly enjoyed a Claridge cocktail. Naturally my ears pricked up, partly because not many people these days have a home cocktail habit, but also because I was not familiar with the drink in question.

I was duly sent the recipe:

2 shots gin
2 shots dry vermouth
1 shot apricot brandy
1 shot Cointreau

“Shake with ice and serve, nowhere near a naked flame. Ma-in-law used to enjoy two cocktail cherries with this, which I think served as one of her ‘five a day’.”*

Now, obviously this is quite a lot of alcohol, but I’ll assume that this recipe was for two drinks! In any case these proportions are the classic recipe. I found it in the Savoy Cocktail Book (1930), the 1930 reprint of Cocktails by “Jimmy” Late of Ciro’s and the Café Royal Cocktail Book (1937). I didn’t find it in either version of Jerry Thomas’s work, nor in O.H. Byron’s Modern Bartender’s Guide (1884), suggesting it was a production of the Golden Age of cocktails.

So many modern cocktail recipes involve peculiar infusions, homemade tinctures or pre-smoked garnishes, and I have a fondness for recipes like this one that just make use of the commercial booze products that were available at the time. (And of course there would have been far less to choose from then—so many supposedly distinct cocktails from the era seem to be subtle variations on each other, with the same ingredients but slightly different proportions.**)

Ada Coleman of the American Bar at the Savoy:
had nothing to do with the Claridge Cocktail
To look at, this is essentially a wet Dry Martini with added triple sec and apricot brandy. But if you’re expecting anything like a Dry Martini you are in for a shock, as this much liqueur does make it quite a sweet drink. I immediately find myself tinkering with the proportions to suit my palate, and I end up with this:

2 shots gin (I tried both Plymouth and Tarquin’s Cornish Gin)
1 shot dry vermouth (I used Noilly Prat)
¼ shot (about 6–7ml) apricot brandy (I used Briottet)
¼ shot (about 6–7ml) Cointreau

Garnishwise, I’m not a huge fan of the maraschino cherry, and I found that a lemon peel garnish works well with the fruit flavours.

Even with these reduced proportions the liqueurs make themselves felt, both in terms of the aroma and flavour of the fruit and in the sweetness, but for me this has a better and more sophisticated balance between the dryness of the gin and vermouth and the sweetness of the liqueurs. It’s an interesting interplay, with different ingredients seeming to work on different parts of the tongue at the same time, and the savoury elements of the vermouth having an almost salty quality. If you are a fan of really dry cocktails then you are never going to get this to work for you, as the orange and apricot flavours would disappear altogether if you reduce the levels of liqueur much below this.

Barflies and Cocktails (1927) has the clue
Interestingly, I later consulted Larousse Cocktails (2005) by Fernando Castellon and found that not only did he list this drink but his proportions are almost identical to mine, so clearly I am not mad (although in fact he specifies just 1 tsp, 5ml, each for triple sec and apricot brandy).

However, none of the books in which I find the recipe gives any indication as to its provenance. The name suggests a connection with the prestigious London hotel Claridge’s, which was at the height of its fame in the Roaring Twenties and is famous for its Art Deco interiors. Indeed there is a theory that Ada Coleman, who famously went on to become head bartender at the Savoy from 1903 to 1926 (an unusual achievement for a woman at the time) created the drink while she was previously at Claridge’s. It is not on the hotel’s menu today but I contact them to find out if they have any archive details about it.

“The information that we have is that it is accredited to ‘Leon’, bartender at the Claridge Hotel, Champs Elyseé, Paris, in Barflies and Cocktails, 1927,” says Andreas Cortes, Assistant Manager at Claridge’s Bar today. “This disproves the theory that Ada Coleman created it whilst at Claridge’s, London, or the Savoy.”*** Barflies and Cocktails, by Harry MacElhone (of Harry’s Bar in Paris) is a volume I do not have, but I swiftly acquire a copy of the version reissued by Cocktail Kingdom, and it is as Andreas says: no connection with London’s Art Deco palace.

By strange coincidence, at the weekend I visit the relevant relatives and stay over with the parents-in-law in question. As we arrive on their doorstep in the early evening on Saturday night they say, “Oh, you caught us just having a cocktail.” It is indeed a brace of Claridges. “I’ll make you one if you like.”

The Claridges prepared for us by my wifes uncle
I watch my wife’s uncle produce a pair of sizeable beverages: the pair of them are in their late eighties, and they consume their own drinks in oversized cocktail glasses printed with images of lipsticks and other glamorous things, which look as if they have been in service since the 1980s, in a room where even the cushions are embroidered with flappers sipping Martinis. Huge respect for the lifestyle. He doesn’t use a measure but I notice that his recipe is different again—pretty much equal parts of all four ingredients. It’s sweeter than I would like, but it still works in that you can taste all the ingredients.

This is the joy of mixology in the home: there is so much to discover in the pursuit of your own personal tastes—and the chance of creating something new!

* An explanation for non-UK readers: the British government has recommended that we all consume five “portions” of fruit or vegetables a day, for health reasons. There are tables available defining what counts as a “portion”. I’ve also heard that the Science really suggested that we should have nine portions, but the Powers That Be decided that this was a hopeless cause in the British Isles and five was a more realistic target.

** Although it can be disappointing to read the recipe for a “new” cocktail and find that has the same ingredients as one you already know, just slightly different proportions, I guess it helps customers to get the drink they want without having to give (or know) technical specifications. Perhaps these things arose because one bartender made the drink in particular way that people got to like so they gave it its own name. In any case, it is interesting to think that the three different versions of the Claridge described in this article would probably have had three different names back in the 1920s!

*** I’m not clear on the chronology here: I’m not aware that anyone knows when Leon was at the Claridge (I contacted the hotel and they replied that Leon used to work there in the 1930s, but it must have been earlier than this given the date of the book), but Ada was at Claridge’s from 1899 till she moved to the Savoy.

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