Winter of discontent

Drink - Victoria Moore seeks seasonal cocktails, but does not find

My friend Nina and I are pretty excited to be invited to Dick's Bar at the Atlantic Bar & Grill to taste their new winter cocktails. Coming inside from the neons of Piccadilly on the first sharp evening of autumn, I long for warmth and spice. Something that will banish the tickling cold from my nostrils and send a thawing heat spreading across my cheeks. As soon as the temperature falls outside, I always want to braise myself in excess warmth indoors.

Alas, heading towards the assembled ranks of barmen in Dick's, winter cocktail list in hand, I am already disappointed. No matter that the bartenders gleam and smile almost as much as the glasses they are polishing. For here are painstakingly concocted drinks made with pineapple juice and Poire William; peach Schnapps and coconut cream; apple juice and Midori (a melon liqueur); Cachaca (a sugar cane spirit from Brazil) and a whole, crushed lime; passion fruit puree and peach liqueur. Tropical flavours that might be more at home in Hawaii or on Copacabana beach. In London in October they are as out of place as a colourful coral reef in the grey English Channel.

When Terry Venables owned Scribes West in Kensington, west London, I used to go down there at the first tingle of a cold and sit at the bar, nourishing myself with hot toddies. It is a huge mistake to relegate such a fine drink to the kitchen or the bedroom. Properly made, with honey, lemon, Angostura and cloves as well as the obligatory Scotch, it is virtually unbeatable as both cure and comfort. Still, even the toddy has associations with warmer climes than ours. While some insist that its name derives from Tod's Well, a source of Edinburgh water, others maintain that it is a corruption of "tarrie", the name of a drink made from palm tree sap in the East Indies in the 17th century.

How enticing winter cocktails could be, I dream, if only they were made with seasonal ingredients. I want drinks that remind me of shiny conkers in their spiky green shells, wood smoke and pungent pine needles, and putting on a greatcoat and gloves to go for a frosty walk.

Nina, however, has other concerns. "Excuse me," she yells, prodding a momentarily alarmed canapes waiter in the back. "We seem to be off the food trail." Almost instantly waiter after waiter diverts past us with trays of glistening delights. We eat tiny tartlets with pinkest lobster, juicy duck spring rolls dabbed in chilli sauce, thinnest slivers of aubergine, courgette and mozzarella pizza and fat, tasty slices of raw fish. Soon we begin to feel like the hapless sorcerer's apprentice as more and more delicacies are whisked in front of us.

Yet still we mourn the omissions of the mixologists. How much better if they had made drinks that sang with the sharp tang of clementines, or smelt of pomander spices - cloves and cinnamon. Where are the steaming glasses of buttered rum, garnishes of newly cracked walnuts and ginger wine, which manages to be one of the most warming things I know without actually being warm? And why has no one thought to use hazelnut liqueur, which is delicious both in coffee or, for anyone with a soft spot for the nutty Torinese filling gianduja, mixed with cream and chocolate liqueurs as you might a Brandy Alexander?

Nina hankers after a whisky warmer, her favourite cocktail. But she does not know how to make one and her description of it could certainly be more detailed. "Well," she states decisively and after much thought, "it is warming, I think, and it has certainly got whisky in it." Her inarticulacy may well be explained by the fact that she has already tried and despatched several cocktails. Hypocrites that we both are, we may not be impressed with the Atlantic's new recipes but we are not afraid to drink them.

Several days later, Nina still cannot satisfactorily account for her sudden desire for a mysterious whisky warmer. She thinks she might have meant a Whisky Mac, which is made by pouring three measures of Scotch and two of ginger wine into an old-fashioned glass and tastes none the worse for such simplicity.

This article first appeared in the 18 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Will Peter secure peace in Ireland?