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Vittles 5.6 - Cocktails at Home
Base Ingredients, by Felix Cohen
I’ve had this theory about McDonald’s for a while — or more specifically about McDonald’s abroad — that if you want to get straight to the heart of a cuisine, of a culture, then check out what that country’s unique McDonald’s specials are. I cannot justify this given everything I know about McDonald’s cartoon evilness as a corporation (and don’t worry, this will be covered in Vittles soon), but every time I go to another country I make sure to save one meal (it’s usually the first or the last) for a McDonald’s. The key is to look for the anomalies. These give you an insight into what that country really values, their gustatory and textural cravings, and also the tastes that a corporation is happy to take risks on in one country but not in another. While the core of the McDonald’s menu is designed to be enjoyed by as many cultures as possible, a menu designed by international committee, the specials, which allow for peculiarities of local taste, inevitably tend to be the most interesting items.
Beyond the Double Filet o Fishes and offering mayonnaise as a condiment, you have things like the McKroket — a burger only available in The Netherlands and Belgium which consists of a deep fried croquette of beef ragout in a sharp wholegrain mustard sauce, encapsulating perhaps the only good thing about the cuisine of the Low Countries. Spain have McCroquetas better than what you can get in many London restaurants — I vaguely recall a transcendent moment I had with them in Barcelona at 3am. India and Japan, of course, with their Paneer and Ebi burgers are prime examples of this, but perhaps my favourite experience was in Thailand, where I had fried chicken, nam phrik, congee and a corn pie, and left feeling like I had had a vaguely nutritious meal. It also left me wondering what our abject lack of specials says about Britain as a food culture.
I knew that Felix Cohen was on the same page by the second paragraph of today’s newsletter, and he makes the very salient point that you can make similar conclusions based on our trashiest drinks (in the UK’s case this would be Ribena, Irn Bru, and pre-sugar tax Rubicon). They also happen to be our more interesting drinks. London is also the home of many shops selling the equivalent bottled and canned drinks manufactured in other countries, the ones which are most in demand from diasporas who are also looking for home comforts. If cocktails are ways of capturing time and place via alcohol, why not use them more? I would argue that they are truer expressions of what London actually drinks than cocktails invented at the turn of the century or fake tropical drinks based on colonial tropes. So if you are making cocktails at home during lockdown, trying to recreate your favourite bars, don’t just ape them or make bad Negronis (sorry Stanley Tucci). A good cocktail should evoke something ephemeral — in years to come perhaps we will make or buy these drinks, with stupid names like Barnard Castle Eye Test, to remember the feeling of going to TFC during the sweltering heat of the summer lockdown of 2020.
Base Ingredients, by Felix Cohen
As a bartender, one of the things that I’ve heard so often is that cocktails are too expensive to make at home; that you need to invest at least £50 towards the ingredients to make just one, let alone a whole list. But this shouldn’t be the case. The cocktail became popular in the 19th century because it was a way to mask poor quality spirits and have a good time with fruit — especially citrus, that was recently cheap, fresh and plentiful enough to mix into drinks. The modern cocktail movement of mixing exquisite craft spirits and ingredients sometimes does a disservice to that history. It has forgotten that many of the tastiest cocktails actually work best with cheap ingredients. They were made for times like these, when fresh ingredients are a treat, sorrows need drowning and we can only travel in our imaginations.
In 2013 The Awl (RIP) published the spectacularly titled ‘We Must Build An Enormous McWorld In Times Square, A Xanadu Representing A McDonald’s From Every Nation’. I immediately fell in love with the idea of presenting every cuisine's basest expression in one place, because those are the flavours and textures that actually define a food culture. Not the rarefied fine dining experiences, or the combinatorially explosive street food options, but what people reach for when they want comfort; the nostalgia of food eaten to celebrate small victories. They are neither indulgences nor penuries, but simply salty, greasy delights. These are evocative flavours, not as Heston peddles with the novelty knob turned to 11, but endlessly honed by food scientists to light up your brain like a Christmas tree with ersatz nostalgia for a cuisine you may have no memories of.
In these *gestures* times, why should we reach for single estate coffee beans for a cocktail when instant Vietnamese coffee is right there? One of my favourite drinks at my bar Every Cloud was the ‘Goodbye Blue Monday’, combining a pretentious Vonnegut aping name with the conceit of making that entirely invented fruit, blue raspberry. The flavour that defined the drink, alongside artisanal vermouths and small batch whiskey was a cerulean squeezy bottle yoinked from a Mr Whippy. We should be looking to the liquids that instill a sense of place; if we can't holiday, we can still sit in a sunbeam and daydream of the trashiest beachside concoctions. The cocktail is a celebratory drink, and right now we should celebrate merely existing.
At Every Cloud, and at my pop-up Manhattans Project that preceded it, I’ve been blessed with East London's diaspora food shops and markets. Under the glare of the 72" CCTV screen in Starnight Supermarket I've grabbed boxes of 3-in-1 coffee, bottles of Korean Corn Tea and medicinal vials of pure, elementally flavoured vanillin. In the back of a Tropical Sun branded corner shop I've found dusty bottles of 'Mixed' flavouring (I still have no idea what the constituents of this are, save deliciousness), and I've discovered that every country has at the base heart of its food culture not just greasy meat in bread, but also freeze dried drinks, syrups, fizzy pop and cordial.
Here are a few of the drinks that have triggered the familiarity of eating another nation's McDonald’s dishes — flavour profiles that are completely different yet isomorphic to the barley squash, Panda Pops and Lipton Lemon powdered tea that I grew up craving.
In most Afro-Carribean shops you’ll find Mauby syrup, a drink made from the bark of the Mauby tree. You can sometimes buy the bark and make your own, but Sweet & Dandy's Mauby is the product you're most likely to find. The main flavour of this incredibly syrupy cordial is herbal bitterness, with bubble gum top notes and a never-ending base note of clove that's best offset with punchy, dry mixers. Lengthen this with ginger ale for an incredible non-alcoholic aperitif, or swap it for the Fernet Branca in a Hanky Panky.
Sold everywhere from the Big Tesco to TFC, Rooh Afza is Vimto through the lens of Disney’s Aladdin. Originally formulated in India, it's now produced across the Indian sub-continent, and is a very popular component of Iftar for Muslims in the region. Neon pink and prone to crystallise just hours after the bottle is opened, it is traditionally served with milk or as a sherbet with shaved ice or water and is refreshing in a way we just don't have an analogue for in Western palates. Try it drizzled over ice cream, mixed with oat milk for an alternate-history Nesquik or pop a teaspoon in a gin and tonic.
While we're talking about the drinks of Ramadan, the harder to find (last spotted in Penge Food Centre, and first bought in Dalston’s TFC) Saudi Vimto is the Mac to British Vimto's schlubby PC. Rather than a deliciously sickly melange of apple, pear and blackcurrant, this version has a full bore hit of sugar and date paste balanced by grape acidity. Drink it like you drink domestic Vimto, or splash it on top of a whiskey sour for a vastly improved New York Sour.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit Guadalajara several times, and the first time I was there I was taken to the three storey Mercado Libertad, Mexico’s largest indoor market. It’s easy to get lost there, surrounded by stacks of fruit twice your height, and when you do, it's tempting to gravitate back to the acre of taco stands on the first floor. But if, instead, you find yourself in one of the outdoor areas you’ll want to catch your breath with a horchata. Horchata looks like a dairy drink, but the milky colour comes from rice and almond suspended in the water. Mixed with a little cinnamon, it's somehow both refreshing and filling. Try to get hold of horchata concentrate to make this. You can do it yourself, soaking rice and almonds overnight, straining and blending with evaporated milk, demerara and cinnamon, but the concentrate is quicker, more consistent and has more sugar than you'd feel comfortable adding to your own. I like this with a shot of mezcal on the side, but it's a delicious drink just served long with plenty of ice. We might not be able to pop to a small city sized market to have this fresh, but SousChef and MexGrocer.co.uk stock the El Yucateca brand .
Agua De Jamaica
Blood red, sweet and jammed full of mouth drying tannins for balance, Agua de Jamaica is the only drink on this list I'd suggest making yourself rather than buying. Pick up a bag of dried hibiscus (it's technically Jamaican Sorrel) from just about any store that is Caribbean adjacent, and boil 20g in a litre of water for just 2-3 minutes, strain and add plenty of sugar. That concentrate will go pretty far added to water or soda, and mixed equally with tequila and Aperol it makes a Negroni analogue that won't leave you wondering whether you actually enjoy the taste of pencil shavings.
The tamarind margaritas you'll find in most Mexican restaurants here are a pale shadow (Chiquito, who hurt you?) of what this ingredient is capable of. The Jarritos tamarind soda is perhaps the best expression, an earthy sweet and sour, petrichor smelling soda, perfect with bright, spicy food and tequilas. You’ll find it at everyone’s favourite taqueria, La Chingada in Surrey Quays, or online at MexGrocer. Alternatively, buy the paste for cooking, and blending into your own authentic margaritas.
An absolutely next level hangover cure, iced Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk is far too complex to make properly as you rue last night's on-nomi shots with the boys. Instead, grab a box of G7 3-in-1 for an immediate hit of caffeine (so. much. caffeine) and sugar. This was one of my first discoveries at Starnight Supermarket, and perennially BOGOF there. If there's enough of you in your lockdown household, it's absolutely worth picking up the Longevity branded condensed milk to spoon into this, as well (use it up in a tres leche). You’ll find both in the bigger stores in Chinatown, or most of the smaller East Asian markets around London. That absurdly rich coffee is going to work great with any of the dubious rums or brandies you've picked up from duty free, and if you're mixing 3-in-1 straight into milk, add a few drops of pandan essence for a bilious green but delicious drink.
G7 also make an instant Kopi Luwak, the infamous civet digested coffee. If anyone has tried that then @ me.
Grape soda is another hangover vanquisher or, when paired with Wray & Nephew Rum, a potential creator. Notionally based on the flavour of the Concord varietal, it tastes like the flavour of grape with every Instagram filter applied: dramatically over-saturated and vibrant. Old Jamaica is the brand to buy here (and while you’re at it, get some of their pineapple soda) either in your supermarkets ‘World Food’ section or in the part of the soda fridge in your local corner store that you may have ignored.
I'm old enough to remember when British McDonald's served root beer, so whenever I've been in the US I've hunted them down to drink with burgers, barbecue and fried pickles. It comes in as many varieties as dumplings, and with as many regional variations. You'll find sarsaparilla based soda and cordial most easily in the UK, while the more American root beers tend to have more wintergreen, cinnamon and anise flavours. Both work as great mixers with brown spirits, and pair great with fried food and barbecue. A&W are the brand you're most likely to find here: pick up the classic and sarsaparilla cans whenever you see them (Chinatown has always been the mother lode for me). Mix them with whiskey, or drink them over ice (a proviso — many root beers have foaming agents that mean it'll pour with a head like real beer). If you're feeling nostalgic for a slice of Americana, a shot of bourbon in your root beer and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top is perfect.
Dandelion & Burdock
Of course, Britain itself isn’t short of slept-on soft drinks, and since moving to Margate I’ve rediscovered my childhood love of Dandelion & Burdock. It’s root beer seen through the lens of an Enid Blyton novel, but we don’t want the Tory glass bottled versions. Instead, grab an ice cold can of Barr’s D&B alongside chip shop chips and a battered sausage. It’s crisp and astringent enough to cut through the beige stodge of the best of British foods, and great with gin.
Felix Cohen is an award winning bartender who founded The Manhattans Project pop-up and the bar Every Cloud in Hackney. You can find him on his newsletter Quarantinis, which documents affordable ways you can make cocktails at home, or on Twitter. Felix donated his article to Vittles.