Long train journeys, long boat trips, long car rides. The mesmerizing drone of the engine, beautiful but unchanging scenery, the steady sense of progress. The mind wanders – back to places you have been, forward to plans you want to fulfill, round and around fixating on the most unlikely objects and people.
For some reason, the road over the Tian Shan mountains had me dreaming about a cucumber martini. And not just any cucumber martini, but the one that the barman at 83 Mercer Street used to serve. If anyone is so minded, it would make me extraordinarily happy if someone were to make one of these and then drink it while thinking of those less fortunate than themselves (i.e. those who are currently oh-so-many weeks away from a cocktail shaker).
James’s Cucumber Martini – the recipe
It’s a hybrid this one – a mix of a number of ideas picked up in various places: at Kittichai (where they make it with sake); Pegu Club (where they taught me the whole taste vs. aromatics trick); Drakes in London (where the martini barman is happy to lecture on gin types); and Little Branch (where they specialize in ice, and I experienced my first perfectly cubic ice cube so big you could see straight through to the bottom of the glass). It’s rather elaborate – as I say, I had a very long, very straight road to dream about this one. By the way, HEAVY GEEK ALERT for those of you who need them (hi Dad!). I mean, serious geek alert: this post is just over 2,500 words long, and it’s about how to mix a drink.
So, in no particular order (did I say in no particular order? You should technically start with the least expensive ingredients in case you screw up the mix, leading to the first koan: how expensive is simple syrup (essentially sugar water) made by an investment banker?).
½ oz of simple syrup. Simple syrup is essential to a good cocktail, but something that few home barmen keep around as it’s a pain in the arse to make. Actually, no it isn’t – it’s dead easy to make, but impossible to make on the spot. You have to take two volume measures of plain sugar, add one volume measure of water and bring it to the boil. It’s an incredibly pleasing process: when you add the small amount of water to the huge mound of sugar it looks like it isn’t ever going to dissolve. Then, when it reaches boiling point the whole mixture goes magically clear and you know it has worked. It takes an age to cool down because of all the sugar, and it’s important not to do the whole impatient-child-hot-jam-doughnut thing by burning your tongue before it’s ready. It keeps for ages in the fridge – buy yourself a little retro 1950s American diner glass & chrome syrup dispenser and make yourself happy every time you use it (and grumpy every time you have to wash it up).
½ oz of lime juice. Freshly squeezed, obviously. Now, I used to think that limes were fungible, i.e. that one lime is as good as any other. This is unfortunately not true, and the same goes for lime juice. Limes are a fruit (duh), and despite the best efforts of supermarket chains, limes go in and out of season. Given that limes are now flown in from all over the world, the driver for the ripeness of limes is sadly not as simple as a particular time of the year. Let’s just say that some are meaningfully sweeter than others and that some are meaningfully juicier than others. Also (again, duh) a fresh, rich green lime just in from the shop will give a very different juice to a hard, dark green number that has been sat in your fruit bowl for a couple of weeks. It is theoretically possible partially to compensate for the freshness or otherwise of your limes by adding more or less simple syrup – I have always wanted to be able to taste neat lime juice and tell how good the limes are, but so far this is a skill that remains sadly undeveloped. If your lime juice makes you wince, however, have a heavy hand with the sweetness. If you are thinking of using juice from a bottle, stop reading here, go away and drink a beer (which segues into James’s first rule of cocktail ordering – if the waitress doesn’t know how to spell “caipirinha”, do yourself a favour and order a beer. No joke – it is actually a surprisingly accurate differentiator with which you will save yourself many expensive disappointments. I’ll tell you my three-tier sashimi differentiator another time).
1½ oz of gin. Hendricks. People can get very passionate about gin choices, but for most people a strong preference is down to brand tribalism (so, like politics then?). It is worth the time and expense of choosing a really good gin if you are drinking a martini. If you are drinking gin and tonics, it’s worth choosing a reasonably good gin so long as you recognize that most of the taste of a gin and tonic is, in fact, down to the tonic. If you can’t taste the difference between regular and slimline tonic then feel free to use the cooking gin. In order of preference: Fever Tree tonic, Schweppes full fat tonic, any other full fat tonic, beer (as above). Anyway, the reason I feel so confident prescribing the Hendricks is that it tastes of cucumbers, and a cucumber martini needs all the flavor assistance it can get (see the passionate screed below on aromatics). You should keep a backup bottle of Hendricks lying around, for the sole reason that the bottles are made out of heavy glass and are black, making it virtually impossible to tell how much you have left – it is actually surprisingly easy to run out without noticing and to look like a pillock when you have just offered a group of people one of your much-overhyped cucumber martinis.
Cucumber. Hothoused cucumber (English people won’t really know what I am talking about here, as all our cucumbers are of the type that Americans call hothoused). About a centimeter’s worth, sliced thin. Like reeaally thin. We have a ceramic bladed knife at home that makes the engineer in me extremely happy, no doubt because when I was studying engineering at university ceramic knifes were something that were theoretically elegant but failed the Real World Test as knife manufacturers hadn’t yet worked out how to make them sufficiently tough for home use (using “tough” in its correct technical sense meaning crack resistant or, more broadly, “shatterproof”). So, when ceramic knifes appeared in the shops at reasonable prices I snapped one up. They are lethally sharp but look dangerously like kiddies’ toys, and if you buy one you are almost guaranteed to cut yourself at least once testing the razor edge of what looks so utterly innocuous. The sharpness allows you to cut very, very thin slices of cucumber using sufficiently little force so as not to squash the tiny slivers so created. They need to be thin so as to allow the slices to be smashed up in the cocktail shaker and release the flavor (some bars create muddled cucumber mash in advance, but you need to make a lot of martinis to make this worthwhile at home). Alternatively you can muddle the cucumber yourself, but I find muddlers a pain to wash up, hence the slicing. Leave the skin on the cucumber – again, it helps the flavour.
Throw all these in the cocktail shaker. I prefer a boston shaker, but I won’t bore you with the details. Let’s just say that you will need a good strainer to handle all the mashed cucumber, and shakers with integrated strainers are a bit of a pain here. Oh, by the way, for confused devotees of the metric system an “ounce” of anything broadly equates to a “shot”.
Add large, cold ice cubes. About five of them if you are making cocktails for two. Ah, ice. Let’s not get into the huge debate on ice. There are meant to be seven different kinds. Or nine. Or something. I always forget a couple, losing my way somewhere between pea ice, crushed ice and slush ice. None of us have specialist ice makers, so we are all going to use ice trays. Large ones are better for this cocktail, not because you can taste the difference between large and medium cube ice, but because I use the lumps of ice to smash up the cucumber in the shaker and it is better to have heavier, sharper blocks. Some perfectionists say you are meant to use mineral water in cocktail ice cubes – now this time you actually can taste the difference (particularly in New York in summer, when they chlorinate the tap water more than they do in winter) but it feels a little precious to use mineral water. You can also taste the difference between fresh ice cubes and those that have been sat in the fridge for a while as ice picks up flavor like nobody’s business – it’s why they don’t allow you to smoke in the Ice Hotel. Any ice cube that has been in the fridge long enough to partially sublime away (so the level of ice only comes half way up the icemaker tray) should be thrown away and started again. Seriously, taste one and see what you think.
Shake like hell. Shake until your cheeks wobble, then shake it again. You aren’t trying to froth this like a sour, but you are trying to mash up the cucumber, so really go for it. Strain into a tumbler with some ice in it (see below).
Did I say a tumbler? Use whatever you like. This is a drink that works equally well in a tumbler or a cocktail glass – even a pint glass if you are so minded, although this concoction is stronger than it tastes, so be aware. I wouldn’t put it in a highball, however, as this deadens the smell (see below).
Now, here’s the critical trick (and we are back onto ice again, believe it or not. And this really matters to the cocktail, so please pay attention). You need to have enough ice in the actual glass to place a slice of cucumber on top without getting the top surface of the cucumber wet. I’ll explain why in a second, but I used to use spherical ice cubes (misnomer alert?) to do this – you can use floating ice blocks and a steady hand, and drink the thing before it gets too diluted by all the melting ice. Now, when I said that none of us have specialist ice makers I lied a little: I used to have a cheap two part mould which made two spherical ice cubes about two inches in diameter. Whenever I knew people were coming round to drink lots of cocktails I used to start making these a few days in advance, breaking them out when frozen and stacking them in the freezer. This deeply sad process used to make the squirrel part of my personality (the part that has been frantically saving almost everything I earned for the last decade) extremely happy. With a little practice I used to be able to break out the spheres when just the outer skin was frozen, allowing faster creation of more spheres and creating something that looks pleasingly like an ice snow globe, which you then leave to freeze on the shelf (incidentally, Lucy and I used to differ on the preferred temperature of our freezer – I say as cold as possible to make better ice; she likes her ice cream soft. Compromise is a wonderful thing!). Further top tip, if you are trying to put a spherical ice cube into a tumbler, do it before you put in the liquid. Otherwise you are stone cold guaranteed to drop the large, heavy, slippery sphere into the liquid and it will go ABSOLUTELY EVERYWHERE.
Hang on – critical floating cucumber? What? Why? Who is this weirdo? Here it is: cucumber martinis don’t actually taste all that strongly of cucumber – they taste of gin, lime and sugar (try it, go on. Use a clean teaspoon if you can’t be bothered with the whole I’m-a-wannabe-barman-finger-over-the-end-of-a-fresh-dipped-straw thing). The reason: cucumbers don’t taste that strongly of cucumber. That wonderful English summer’s day taste of oh-so-cucumbery cucumber sandwiches? It was actually the (mild) taste of cucumber, combined with the salt from the butter and the pepper in the sandwich. And it was the smell of cucumber that you remember. The barman from Pegu Club used to make mojitos with a huge, ungainly sprig of mint stuck in the top – it sticks in your face and is a real pain in the, erm, face until you realize that this construction forces you to smell the mint when you drink, and it is the smell that makes his mojitos taste so damn minty. If you try to make a mojito taste really minty by adding more (or more mashed) mint you will end up with mint in your teeth and a vegetal taste. This smell / taste thing is the real reason for spirit floats on drinks, for heavy froths that allow you to drop spices on top without impacting the flavor of the liquid and for fruit stuck on the rim of the glass. This book will change your life. I mean, this trick will change your cocktail life, if you let it.
So, with that in mind, the trick to a persuasive cucumbery flavor is to cut a thick chunk of cucumber (another centimeter perhaps? Slightly less?), lightly salt and pepper it and place it carefully on top of the ice without getting the top wet (which kills the smell stone dead). This smell then permeates the glass whenever you drink the drink, making you think “how do they make it taste so much of cucumber”. The answer is: they don’t, and neither need you.
So that’s it. Unless you are the kind of guy who gets a kick out of the fact that in your average cocktail recipe book the above would be condensed as: Cucumber martini (as made famous by barman blah in New York City, 2012): 1½ oz gin, ½ oz simple syrup, ½ oz lime juice, sliced cucumber. Muddle ingredients, shake, strain into a tumbler, garnish, the end. And that is why 95% of cocktail books are absolutely rubbish.
Is anyone still reading? I didn’t think so. At this point the Kyrgyz driver of our Kyrgyz car stopped for a cigarette and my mind ran on to other things, like the location of the next toilet. Ahhh, the joy of travel…