What a mix-up!

Drink - Forget French purity, writes Victoria Moore, and catch the Christmas spirit with a cocktail

In the good old days, cocktails came roaring out of the Wild West (the Cooperstown Cocktail, a martini shaken up with two sprigs of mint, was "very popular among the cowboys in America", according to one source), blasting out of the iron mines of Cuba (the daiquiri) and sashaying out of the cafes of Buenos Aires (the Golden Slipper, which combines egg yolk, yellow chartreuse and eau de vie).

New recipes were mixed by the most brilliant of bartenders for millionaires and monarchs and named in their honour. Now they are invented to order, or at least given a comeback, and push, push, pushed by the marketing men and PR girls so that big drinks companies can revive the flagging sales of once-popular brands of spirits. So we have the Absolut Sea Breeze and the Stolipolitan. You may also have noticed that newspapers and glossy magazines have taken to reproducing cocktail recipes in which a particular brand of spirit is specified in the ingredients list.

This is, in part, a debt of gratitude on behalf of the journalist to the PR who has taken him out and spent a merry evening drip-feeding him delicious drinks. It is also a sort of honourable acknowledgment of his source. And, in fairness, most journalists would not be able to afford to (ahem) research, were it not for the cold-eyed beneficence of the drinks companies.

Last week, I spent one such evening with a representative from Martell and we drank the most delicious stuff, mostly remakes of old classics with a cognac base. These cocktails are perfect for gloomy December days. My favourite was a version of the champagne cocktail; I recommend it to anyone either as a precursor to Christmas shopping or in case you're looking for something strong to knock out the great-aunts as soon as they arrive on Christmas Day.

Martell call it the Martell Apricot (see what I mean?). It's perfectly simple to make, divinely bronzed and the apricot gives it a delicious, soft fruitiness. Just take one part of apricot liqueur, three of cognac and top up with champagne. It also makes a blessed change from the usual swill of vodka and gin.

In an attempt to ensnare the rich youth market, the cognac companies - in particular, Bisquit - have been promoting brandy mixers (such as Perrier and tonic), as well as cocktails, with great fervour in the last couple of years. Naturally, the French find this appalling. "I have never heard of/ seen (a) French (b) less civilised people mixing cognac with anything!" says my native source.

But it isn't as heretical as it might at first sound. We British are in awe of cognac, to the extent of being half in fear of the sharp-tongued Frenchmen's disdain, should we dare to pollute their perfectly distilled and matured spirit. Such reverence is uncalled for: it may be made in France, but brandy is almost as British as roast beef. Consider the classifications - "XO", meaning extra old, and "VSOP", or very special old pale. These initials are acronyms for nothing in French; they are designed to appeal to the English market. We can do with it what we like.

And, in any case, since it is the cognac companies themselves urging us to mix, mix, mix - and promoting their younger, less rich brandies for the purpose - how can the French carp? Indeed, the average Frenchman is slowly coming round to the idea: Martell recently persuaded the French ambassador to allow mixed cognac to be served at a soiree at his London residence.

It may seem a shame to lose all the old cocktail romance but, in a way, what does it matter so long as we drink well? There is much fun to be had. At Martell's instigation, I tried a Martell Ginger, a long drink - and precisely what you'd imagine it to be. Chillis aside, ginger is just about the most warming cold thing you can eat, and if you top up the brandy with dry ginger ale (rather than a ginger beer) it comes out very refreshing as well. Over to you.