Wednesday 10 August 2011

Ready-mixed cocktails redeemed?

You may have noticed that DBS has rather an obsession with pre-mixed cocktails. It’s not something I share, mainly because the premixes I have tasted tend not to be very good. (At Distil we came across a new range where the components of the cocktail are stored in separate compartments within a complex piece of plastic packaging: to serve you twist or pull it in a particular way, seals are pierced and the various pods disgorge their contents into a central chamber which then serves as a shaker. The fact that the ingredients were not actually mixed until the last minute was supposed to be a selling point, but the chap pointed out that, in the example of the Margarita we were trying, the lime juice had to have a certain amount of the tequila already in it, as a preservative, so it wasn’t really freshly mixed anyway. The end result wasn’t up to much.)

So I didn’t approach the new range of premixes from the Handmade Cocktail Company, a wing of Master of Malt, with any great expectations. But I was very pleasantly surprised.

They’ve chosen five* classic cocktails—Gin Martini, Manhattan, Rob Roy, Negroni and a fifth which is currently variously named the “          “ Cocktail, or The World's Best Cocktail. In fact it is a Sazerac (as the label on earlier bottlings attests), but apparently they have been leant on not to use the name, as it is owned, presumably by Sazerac rye. The mixes are handsomely presented in 70cl glass bottles that resemble those used by Sipsmith. I was sent a couple of sample packs of 30ml bottles, so I experimented with serving one dose of each cocktail stirred or shaken with ice, and the other straight from the freezer—something made possible by having a drink premixed like this.

I don’t know what proportions they use for their Martini but the vermouth certainly makes its presence felt. The ingredients are referred to only as “premium copper pot still gin” and “the very best dry vermouth” but I believe the gin is No.3 and the vermouth is Noilly Prat. Stirred with ice it immediately hits you with a fruity orange nose (No.3 does indeed have prominent sweet orange among its botanicals), followed by a smooth palate with a savoury, almost salty element (as if there were a dash of olive brine in the mix). There is a hint of vanilla ice cream in there too. Straight from the freezer the strong orange citrus note is there again but balanced by juniper. The palate is drier and again the juniper is more noticeable served this way. It’s punchy but complex too. Some experts feel that a Martini needs the dilution you get from shaking it with ice, but based on this experiment I would say that this premix certainly doesn’t and indeed more of the flavours seem to come across neat from the freezer.

The manufacturers point out that one advantage of premixing is that the more delicate ingredients, such as vermouth, are added when at their freshest and then preserved by the alcohol in the base spirit. I’m certainly dogged by oxidation in vermouth, which yields a sour whiff and happens within days of opening the bottle, even if you keep it in the fridge (it affects dry vermouth more than heavier, sweeter styles). They told me also that interesting things happen in the bottle after mixing and a six-month-old mix of theirs has beaten a freshly made Martini in a blind taste.

Another benefit of the premix is that you can get more complicated with your blend than a normal person would be able to if making the drink at home. The Rob Roy is made from a single malt whisky, matured in sherry casks, plus a blend of three vermouths and bitters. The Rob Roy isn’t my favourite cocktail (there is something about the initial smell of the combination of the vermouth and the Scotch that reminds me slightly of vomit—sorry to lower the tone, but there it is), but I have to say that this example makes a damned good a case for it. Stirred over ice it is smooth and soft on the tongue, slightly caramelly, and the subtle aromatic qualities of the bitters are clearly exposed. From the freezer the drink is noticeably cloudy and has swirls of matter in it. It is strikingly different in the mouth, stronger and seemingly sweeter too. The whisky seems more prominent and the bitters less so (but then aromatic elements do often come to the fore as you lower the ABV with water). But either way this is a very good cocktail, balancing the woody, peaty, smoky elements of the whisky with the bitter-sweetness and aromatic herbal notes of the vermouth and bitters.

The Negroni is one that you can’t drink from the freezer—because at 25.4% ABV it freezes (actually this probably depends on the temperature of your freezer, but the sample bottle froze solid in mine). I’m particularly partial to a Negroni, as I’m rather keen on Campari. This mix uses equal parts Campari and Aperol (a drink that until recently was impossible to find outside Italy but is now everywhere for some reason). I think the gin is No.3 again, and the website refers simply to “premium sweet vermouth”: there is no suggestion that this is a blend. I would guess Martini Rosso. They say that time in the bottle “smooths out the flavour” and it is certainly a very smooth drink. If anything I found myself wanting the gin to assert itself more: for comparison I knocked up a Negroni with equal parts Martini Rosso, Campari and Gordon’s Export (a pretty full-on juniper assault) and the juniper made its presence felt much more.

The Manhattan cocktail is again made with a blend of three vermouths, bitters and straight rye whisky. As soon as you start to stir it over ice it gives off a wonderful aroma, and on the palate the strong woody notes of the whisky are tempered by sweetness from the vermouths followed by a keen bitterness on the finish. It’s a good balance, but as Manhattans go it’s actually quite a dry version. From the freezer the cocktail is cloudy with swirls of sediment, and you don’t get that same bouquet. The taste is again stronger and sweeter—which is not necessarily a good thing. Again I feel that the dilution from the ice actually released more of the flavours. This probably isn’t the absolute best Manhattan I’ve tasted** but it is very good indeed.

The Sazerac/World’s Best Cocktail uses half and half rye whisky and VSOP cognac, plus bitters and a splash of unnamed absinthe. It’s one of those cocktails that I mostly can’t be bothered to make, as it seems awfully fiddly for something that ends up basically as a glass of whisky that’s been slightly interfered with (either that or I overdo the absinthe and spoil it). But this, again, is a blend that really makes the case for the cocktail itself. The mix is bang on, with all the elements coming through in just the right proportions—whiskey, absinthe and a sweetness hanging at the bottom. It’s a long, lingering flavour. Comparing the frozen version with one made with ice, I would say that, unlike some of the cocktails here, it works perfectly well either way. It’s obviously stronger from the freezer without ice, which gives a nice warm tickle, but the flavour balance is resilient.

This range of premixes certainly dispels my own prejudices against the idea. If I lived a life where I needed to serve large numbers of reliably good cocktails to guests at the drop of a hat I would definitely consider just keeping these in the cellar (although not, as I might have assumed, in the freezer).

Handmade Cocktail Company premixed cocktails are available online from Master of Malt, mostly at £30 a bottle (£27 for the Martini and £23 for the Negroni).

*Actually there was a sixth, the Old Fashioned, but at time of writing their website says it is sold out.
** To date that would probably be one I knocked up idly following Will Sprunt’s recipe for a Candlelight Club event in March, using Rittenhouse Rye, Antica Formula vermouth, maraschino and allowing some of the liquid from the cherry jar to follow the cherry in.


  1. Certainly agreed that the Sazerac (sorry "World's Best Cocktail" is the best of the range, it's shame they were forced to change the name, copyright and so worth.

  2. If going through the trouble of mixing them like this, why not barrel-age them? Or am I being silly

  3. I think quite a few people are indeed experimenting with barrel-ageing cocktails, particularly Manhattans. And Master of Malt also do a range of their own bitters, including some that are aged in whisky barrels. Review coming soon…