The Vintage Cocktail Edit With Alice Lascelles

Alice Lascelles talks cocktails and Isabel Graham-Yooll tests the recipes on vintage cocktail ingredients.

The Vintage Cocktail Edit With Alice Lascelles

Alice Lascelles wrote a book about cocktails. We found out more before trying out the recipes with vintage ingredients from our monthly auctions.

I like the ’12 bottle bar’. Can you explain it a bit? How did you come down to those 12 bottles?

In my old flat I had several hundred bottles of spirits stored on top of the cupboards all around the kitchen* – but it dawned on me that I only really used about 12 for making cocktails with any regularity. With just those dozen bottles you can make pretty much all the classics that matter plus lots of contemporary twists. And you also have lots of options for sipping or simple spirit and mixer drinks. With a bit of judicious shopping, you can get the lot for under £200. Which is not bad for a hum-dinging drinks cabinet, I think.

*I’ve since moved to a bigger house and keep most of my liquor in the cellar – but I still keep the essential 12 bottles in my kitchen!

What about your ‘6 bottle bar’?

With just six bottles – whisky, gin, dry vermouth, red vermouth, bitters, Campari – you can mix so many classics. The Negroni, the Old Fashioned, The Manhattan, the Martini etc. If I just had these six bottles I would die happy.

Of the 12 bottles two of them are specified brands, why is it important for those two and not the others?

Campari is oft-imitated, but in my view never bettered. I’ve tried lots of red bitters but it’s always the brand I come back to in the end.

Luxardo Maraschino is far and away the best maraschino I’ve ever tasted – I know lots of people who thought they hated the stuff until the tried this particular brand. It’s such a knife-edge flavour, maraschino – it can easily be really confected and sickly. But Luxardo has some kind of magic about it – it can totally transform a drink.

All the other spirits categories have many good alternatives.

A lot of the cocktails in the book are classics, but not all of them. By what process did you select which ones to use?

The big breakthrough for me was realising that most cocktails are really just twists on a few classic formulae. So I used a classic as the starting point for each chapter and then explore 6 variations on the theme.  I think most of us choose what we’re going to drink based on sort of platonic ideal: tonight I feel like a Martini-ish drink, or something a bit like a Negroni. I don’t think oh it’s six o’clock I’ll have a Corpse Reviver no.2 (or not often anyway). I noticed while posting recipes during lockdown that people really responded to the easy twists, the Fig Leaf Old Fashioned, the Watermelon Negroni that kind of thing. So mostly I tried to keep it simple, and tried to use things you might find in your garden, window box or kitchen. Things that are fun and relatively easy – that allow you to bring a little something of yourself to the drink.

Tradition vs innovation? (Bacon, blue cheese, anchovies…it was a big thing for a while I seem to remember)

In the 20 years I’ve been writing about drinks I’ve gone full circle. I started with classics, went full-on molecular weird and crazy for a while and tried every weird recipe out there. And these days I’m very much back in classic territory again. The greatest fun for me is just tweaking those tried-and-tested formulae – trying different whiskies in a Manhattan, or some new bitters, or pimping a Daiquiri with a little dash of Green Chartreuse or absinthe. That confidence to experiment is something that comes with experience, but it’s something I really want to promote with the book – I hope by making the recipes readers will come to realise how easy and fun it is to give recipes a tweak.

There are a lot of cocktail books out there, what’s different about this one?

It’s not aiming to be a cocktail history lesson or an exhaustive inventory of recipes – there are lots of cocktail books out there that do that brilliantly already. It’s basically the advice I’d give a friend if they were sitting at my kitchen table.

What’s your favourite cocktail?

I hate having to answer this question! Based purely on what I make the most at home it’s probably the Martini – which is lucky because that just so happens to be the topic for my next book…

Can having a cocktail at home ever match the indulgence of having it made for you in a bar?

oh YES. I really enjoying the ritual of making a cocktail, so it’s part of the pleasure for me. And my husband makes the best Martinis in town – eat your heart out Ago Perrone.

We talked about the aura of old ingredients. Can you explain what you mean?

I’ve tasted lots of old and vintage spirits – some age better than others. I’ve had some great vintage Campari and really old Scotch whiskies and I’m mad about old Chartreuse. But deliciousness is only part of the picture with old spirits – it’s also about that aura, that sense of connection with another time and place. You’re tasting something that cannot really be replicated. I once played on a tour with the White Stripes, and on the last night we went to the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz in Paris and Jack White bought us all one of the E800 Sidecars, made with pre-phylloxera cognac to share. It was passed round the room like a chalice, and for a moment the whole room fell silent – even the lairyest rockers on the tour, I think, felt its significance.

When is a cocktail not an alcopop?

When it’s not designed with the palate of a 8-year-old child in mind.

How much do you think Covid has influenced our cocktail habits?

Lockdown simply reinforced what I knew about the cocktail hour already: that it’s about way more than simply drinking. It’s about ritual and communion with other people. It can be really transformative.

What else do you wish I’d asked you?

Q: What’s your number one tip for better cocktails?

A: put your cocktail glass in the freezer for a couple of minutes first.

Alice Lascelles writes about drinks for the Financial Times and is the author of The Cocktail Edit: Everything you need to know about how to make all the drinks that matter (Quadrille 2022). Instagram @alicelascelles

How to make Alice Lascelles’ cocktails the Whisky.Auction way with vintage ingredients from our Whisky & Spirits Auction

Vintage Hanky Panky

For this one just mix equal measures of vintage gin (we love pre-1990s Gordon’s Gin) with vintage red vermouth (we love 1970s-1980s Cinzano Rosso Vermouth) and a couple of splashes of vintage Fernet Branca. Finally, strain into a cocktail glass and squeeze an orange peel on top.

Vintage Negroni

This is an absolutely sensational vintage cocktail. Use equal measures of vintage gin (we love pre-1990s Gordon’s Gin for this too, vintage red vermouth (we love 1970s vintage Martini Rosso) and the oldest Campari that your budget allows!

Vintage Sidecar

This is another classic that becomes exceptional when vintage ingredients are switched in. Mix one part vintage triple sec with one part lemon juice and two parts vintage brandy. At the time of writing, vintage Cointreau can still be picked up for an unreasonably low price (we love 1980s Cointreau). Here’s an example of how some vintage liqueurs sell for less than current releases. You can use vintage Cognac but I would opt for a characterful vintage Armagnac here.