Monday 28 September 2020

A cocktail in a can—without the cocktail

A Champagne Cocktail made with items from the kit

Despairing of face-to-face get-togethers for the time being, a friend held a virtual birthday party last night. While Zoom may be efficient for business meetings, it’s hard to use it for general socialising, and she enhanced the organisational side of things by laying on live entertainment. She also sent everyone packages of strange costume items plus some sparkling wine, accompanied by a “cocktail kit”.

Given that the kit itself didn’t actually include any booze, it was enterprising of the manufacturers (The Cocktail Box Company) to find anything to put in it at all, but their efforts were endearing. It was for a Champagne Cocktail, and the pleasantly Olde World tin contained three cocktail picks for “your desired garnish” (not included), some sort of coke spoon, some instructions, a smaller tin neatly holding six cane sugar cubes, and the star of the show—three bottles of bitters. There is even a burlap coaster.* The instructions tell you so soak the sugar cube with bitters in the glass and top up with Champagne: they don’t actually mention the Cognac that traditionally goes in before the Champagne, yet they earnest have you use the tiny spoon to stir five times clockwise then five times anticlockwise. Given that the sugar is left intact to dissolve gradually, I’m not sure what we’re actually stirring together here, but if you decide to add brandy as well then I guess the spoon will prove useful. The packaging advertises that it serves six, though of course there are only three picks, so I guess it’s designed for tag-team drinking (and you’ll all have to squabble over the coke spoon).

I’ve not tried Scrappy’s Bitters before, and in this cocktail the the Aromatic Bitters struck me as classic, Angostura-style, but warmer and more complex—vividly fruity and smoky, with notes of orange peel, cardamom and cinnamon to the fore, though the tiny 5ml bottle is too small to list any ingredients and Scrappy’s website doesn’t give anything away. This was complemented by two smaller 2ml bottles, one of lavender bitters and one of “black lemon” bitters. The lavender made rather an intriguing variation on the cocktail, with a strong lavender note that tricked me into thinking that there was honey in there too—and I guess you could make the cocktail with honey rather than sugar. The lemon bitters made less of an impression, though perhaps you need to be more generous with that one. The bottle smells of lemon, perhaps preserved lemon, if you’ve ever tried making that, though the website explains that a “black lemon” is actually a kind of dehydrated lime used in Middle Eastern cooking, which they describe as earthy and smoky. Confusingly, the bitters does not actually have any black lemon in it, just attempts to evoke those aromas and flavours.

The Cocktail Box Company range also includes an Old Fashioned—the delightful packaging of which looks just like a Penguin Classic paperback (see picture): the others in the range keep the styling but vary the main colour—containing sugar and three types of bitters; a Moscow Mule, with grapefruit and lemon bitters, plus sachets of ginger syrup and lime juice; a Margarita, with orange bitters plus sachets of “margarita syrup” (orange flavoured?) and lime juice; a Mai Tai, again with lime juice and orange bitters, along with “Mai Tai syrup”, which I assume is coconut-flavoured. Finally there is a Gin and Tonic kit. Some will argue that a G&T isn’t really a cocktail as such, but the big question is what such a kit could contain, given that it has neither gin nor tonic in it. The answer is orange and lavender bitters (not lemon, surprisingly) plus lime juice and tonic syrup.

So the idea is that you are using your kit somewhere where there is booze, plus access to soda water, but not to any other mixers—such as tonic water for the G&T or ginger beer for the Moscow Mule. I’d be curious to know if this came about from experience, and the feeling that this was a real need to be answered, or whether the idea of the kit came first, followed by some head-scratching about what could possibly be included. Tonic syrup is not a new thing, and a combination of soda and, say, the Battersea Quinine Cordial, produces a result not really like commercial tonic water. You can also use the syrup neat, without soda, plus gin and lime juice to create a short “GT Turbo” cocktail—I wonder if that is what the Cocktail Box people had in mind with this kit, as you wouldn’t normally put lime juice in a G&T (although you might well garnish it with a slice of lime). I haven’t had a chance to try any of the other kits, so I don’t know what these syrups are like, nor how the lime juice is preserved (and how that might affect its flavour).

The three bitters in the Champagne Cocktail set, plus the three cocktail picks

You get the idea that these kits are intended to appeal to business travellers who always want to have the wherewithal to make the perfect cocktail as they sit in their lonely hotel room with only a bottle of spirits for company—you can even buy replacement lime juice and syrup sachets. But I wonder whether the main market isn’t people looking to give cute gifts to other people who like cocktails.

Would I recommend the cocktail box? If you’re looking for a cute gift for a cocktail-lover then I think the attention to detail will please. At £18 the kit is not cheap, but you’d pay £20 to £25 for a full 150ml bottle of the bitters, so it’s a handy way to try out three from the range.

* The coaster sadly has a logo sewn on, made from some shiny, plasticky material that actually causes it to stick to the bottom of your glass when you lift it up, but once this label has been removed it is absorbent enough to work well.

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