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Let’s cast a Gimlet eye on cocktails and their over-reliance on sugar

A glass of sour simplicity tells me a great cocktail requires a great bartender – and a dash of serendipity.

By Nina Caplan

The three fairy-tale princes of Serendip were “always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of” – or so said Horace Walpole when explaining his invention of the lovely word serendipity. I like to think I am a modern Princess of Serendip, although there is generally more accident than wisdom in my discoveries, and certainly more percentage proof. Recently, in Australia, I ate at the newest restaurant by Melbourne master Andrew McConnell, and because it is called Gimlet, decided I’d better try one.

My relationship with cocktails is fraught. Most seem to be a combination of wilful delusion and sugar, downed by people who don’t like the taste of strong alcohol but have no objections to getting blind drunk. The delusion goes back to the 1920s and American Prohibition, when cocktails really could cause you to lose your eyesight, so dire was the illegal rotgut that went into them. Juices and spices were used to disguise the unpleasantness of the key ingredient and later, when the quality of the spirits improved, the habit of disguise somehow stuck. We still use “speakeasy” to mean a hidden den of iniquity – a glamorous place that a Prince of Serendip might hope to happen upon.

[See also: The Greeks were right about wine: it is the definition of civilisation]

Perhaps there was a residual frisson from the cocktail’s lawbreaking past; or maybe it was the joy of creativity that kept bartenders combining and inventing flavours. After all, gastronomy is the magic of merging: the art of creating a sum greater than its parts. This is why the sauce is the epitome of haute cuisine and why even those of us uninterested in sugar like cake. Good wine is better paired with the right dish. And a great cocktail is a blend that tastes better than its individual elements.

Knowledgeable experimentation – a good bartender with a lot of options – is the essence of serendipity. Nonetheless, until my Australian adventure I had only ever found three cocktails I truly loved: the Martini, the Negroni and the Sidecar. The magic of a Martini lies in the way just the right quantity of vermouth alters the flavour of the gin, just as the right person can irrevocably change your life. The vermouth should be negligible (“Just wave your glass of gin in the direction of Italy,” was Noël Coward’s advice) but that droplet is the difference between civilisation and barbarity.

A Negroni, that life-enhancing blend of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth, is more obviously balanced between bitterness and its opposite, both embraced by a base spirit with nothing base about it. If a good Martini is waved in the direction of Italy, a well-made Negroni is surely Italy waving back.

[See also: On a menu of natural wines, I find a wonderland full of surprises]

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The brandy-based Sidecar is the outlier, but given that its other ingredients are orange liqueur and lemon juice, it should by now be obvious that I like my drinks unashamedly strong and any sugar integrated.

Excessive sweetness makes any drink a syrup, and I find it odd to assume that I have ordered a grown-up beverage hoping it will resemble an infantile one. (The writer AJ Liebling suggested that people drink vodka because its lack of flavour allows them to hide from themselves how disappointed Mother would be if she knew what they were doing; sweet drinks go one better, since they are a version of something many mothers once actually provided.)

A Gimlet, to me, is just a potent lime cordial, and where is the magic in that? This cordial, however, was homemade, with six different kinds of citrus, including three types of lime. Feeding it to a child would have been cruelty: it was as sour as disappointment. Merged with Tanqueray gin and a judicious amount of Moscato, a honeyed Italian wine with a whiff of peach blossom, it softened – disappointment assuaged.

The Gimlet takes its name from the pointed tool used to tap casks; it became popular during Prohibition because it was easy to make and the lime cordial masked the scent – I hate to think of what. Now here is gin freed from confinement using no instrument sharper than a bartender’s inspiration, and a ghastly potion has become a discovery that was all the more glorious for being unexpected: the true flavour of serendipity.

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This article appears in the 08 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Marked Man