Thursday 9 July 2015

Your smooth-talking bar steward…*

A friend of mine, who is an actor specialising in historical roles, rang me up in March and asked if I could help him out. He’d taken a small job for English Heritage but had now been given an audition for Mr Selfridge on the same day. Would I mind taking over from him in the English Heritage job?

The entrance hall at Eltham Palace where we shot the video
I’ve never done any acting but the job in question was simply to pretend to be a 1930s cocktail waiter in a video to promote the wonderful Eltham Palace. It’s a place well worth visiting, with some parts of it dating from the time of Henry VIII, and other parts added by Stephen and Virginia Courtauld in the 1930s, including the magnificent Art Deco entrance lobby with wood-inlay murals and a revolutionary concrete dome roof with glass-block skylight. Once you’ve see this room you’ll subsequently notice it cropping up in period movies all the time. Apparently Stephen himself used to make cocktails in that room every day at 6pm.

Stephen and Virginia aboard the Virginia
The team had chosen three cocktails (evidently from the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book, judging by the recipes they gave me), the Aviation, the Mah-Jongg and the Commodore. I admit I had not actually heard of the latter two, but I’m a big fan of the Aviation. My friend the actor had already sourced the ingredients so I just scooped up some ice, brought a carload of vintage glassware and cocktail accessories as set dressing and a couple of dinner suits.

I was surprised to discover that there was no script: I was simply asked to talk as I made the drinks. Fortunately it’s a subject I’m quite interested in so I didn’t run out of things to say (in fact they have wisely edited out a lot of my rambling).

Mah-Jongg the lemur
The cocktails were evidently chosen for the relevance of their names. The Courtaulds had a pet lemur named Mah-Jongg. They also had their own yacht, the Virginia, and even a separate map room at Eltham Palace where they planned their voyages. In fact it was pointed out to me that the entrance hall was designed to resemble the prow of a ship from a certain angle. (Stephen himself was never a Commodore, though—he did serve during World War I but in the army, not the navy.) I think the Aviation was chosen to reflect the popularity of aviation as a sport in the 1930s; after Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1927 the world went Lindy crazy for some time.

The recipe that appears in the Savoy Cocktail Book is:

⅔ dry gin
⅓ lemon juice
2 dashes maraschino
However, this cocktail originally contained crème de violette too (it is present in the earliest printed recipe, in Hugo Ensslin’s 1917 Recipes for Mixed Drinks). I’ll never understand why it fell out of favour—I can only assume it became hard to get hold of—as it is its presence that gives the cocktail its distinctive sky-blue colour, as well as a touch of floral violet. The recipe I use is:

2 shots gin
½ shot lemon juice
½ shot maraschino
1 tsp crème de violette
Don’t be tempted to overdo the violette as you’ll lose the subtlety and your drink will go purple.

The Savoy recipe is:

1 glass of Canadian Club whiskey
1 tsp syrup
2 dashes orange bitters
Juice of ½ a lime or ¼ a lemon
I find it works best if the quantity of lemon/lime juice is roughly equal to that of the sweetener, so my proportions were:

2 shots whiskey
½ shot syrup
½ shot lemon juice
2 dashes orange bitters
Not bad, though not hugely fascinating either.


2 shots gin
½ shot Bacardi white rum
½ shot Cointreau
On paper a rather odd mix, with the gin base augmented by a surprisingly small amount of white rum, but it is actually rather nice. You would not expect to be able to taste the rum, but you can subtly, and I wonder if it is there to smooth off the finish of the gin? As I point out in the video, all the ingredients here are spirit-strength, so it is a potent cocktail.

* For those too young to remember, a reference to the 1990s TV adverts with Stephen Fry

Afraid that I would spill booze over the famous Art Deco carpet, they carefully rolled it back, and I was
interested to see a wooden floor beneath. Staff said they believed it was a dance floor for the Courtaulds' parties

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