This year, like most years, I saw in 1 January at my late grandmother’s house in the Lake District. She was a model of wartime resourcefulness who never threw anything away, and even now there are recesses of the house full of her bits and bobs. During a bout of New Year decluttering, we turned out a little cabinet of curiosities: a bottle of homemade sloe gin bottled circa 1980; a browning ration book complete with stamps for eggs, cheese and bacon; and a herd of liqueur miniatures from Italy and the Pyrenees. Stockpiling, we laughed, as we laid the items out and took photos. So very second world war!
We had no idea, of course, that we’d soon become a lot better acquainted with the idea of making do. Not to the same degree as her generation, perhaps. But enough to inspire a fresh appreciation of things previously taken for granted. As the world went into a nosedive over the weeks that followed, I found myself – surreally – fielding requests for cocktail recipes to use up those bottles at the back of the drinks cupboard: limoncello, pastis and aniseedy holiday ouzo. I spent late spring mixing Silver Bullets laced with kummel, and Negronis spiked with Fernet-Branca. I tried just about everything with tonic water (aquavit and tonic is much underrated), and mixed countless corrupted Sazeracs – the Monte Carlo, a mix of 50ml bourbon, 10ml Bénédictine DOM liqueur, two dashes Angostura bitters and a twist, remains my favourite.
I had expected interest in cocktails to fall off a cliff – but if anything, the public appetite just grew. As the weeks went on, the cocktail hour emerged as a comforting ritual in the chaos – a moment for people to relax, restore and regroup. Even if it was via Zoom.
2020 spawned a new generation of home mixologists. But it was also the year that cocktails-to-go really took off. Honourable mention must go to Hepple’s Supersonic Negroni, Kwant’s “Michael & Peter” (a pecan Old Fashioned), Tayer + Elementary’s Sherry Gimlet, Hawksmoor’s Ginza Highball and Alessandro Palazzi’s No 3 Martini. Nothing, though, made me smile quite like the silver pouch of watermelon-pink Frosé delivered by Joe Stokoe of Heads, Hearts & Tails one boiling-hot afternoon. Simply tasting something I hadn’t made myself felt like a novelty. But in those dog days of lockdown, such flying visits also provided precious moments of social contact. I spent a lot of time sitting on my stoop this summer, talking to bartenders-turned-cocktail couriers.
When I wasn’t weeping with envy at friends’ lockdown posts from idylls in Kent and Somerset, I raided our tiny London garden for ingredients to cool our jangling nerves: we drank Mint Juleps, Fig-Leaf Daiquiris, Basil Smashes, Geranium-Leaf Gimlets, and Lemon Verbena Margaritas.
Other times, I went trashy. I tried chucking every cocktail, regardless of pedigree, in the blender with ice, and found that The Last Word (25ml gin, 25ml lime, 25ml maraschino liqueur and 25ml Green Chartreuse) makes a wondrous slushy. I shook my first White Cargo, a frothy mix of gin and vanilla ice cream from The Savoy Cocktail Book, and garnished a G&T with homemade ice cubes in every colour.
When lockdown was finally lifted, I celebrated with a Champagne Shuffle at The Clove Club – a sublime riff on ingredients connected to champagne: Grande Champagne cognac, pineau des charentes, champagne cordial and a splash of Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée Sainte Anne.
That was a happy evening. But no amount of froth can hide the fact it’s been a devastating year for the bar industry. On 26 September I joined a band of mourners for one last drink at Milk & Honey, the Soho speakeasy where I took my husband on our first date, 14 years ago. For almost two decades that genteel, naughty, dark-as-hell cocktail den bestrode the bar world. It weathered a recession, spiralling rates, the gentrification of Soho and inspired imitators on almost every continent. But Covid did for it. MLKHNY RIP.
As bars closed down, Instagram Live filled up with bartenders shaking and stirring in gardens, kitchens and basements. I even mixed a few cocktails in my kitchen for the digital FTWeekend Festival. And celebrities everywhere invited us into their homes to witness their bibulous rituals. Is there a person alive who did not swoon over Stanley Tucci mixing Negronis for his wife? I was also touched to see that Joe “The Body Coach” Wicks is partial to a G&T (if you want my opinion, though, he could do with adding more ice).
I always knew that FT readers liked a cocktail. But I didn’t realise quite how much until I wrote an article about the Old Fashioned for this paper. In the days that followed, I received emails, Insta posts and Tweets from readers in Italy, China, France, the UK and US, keen to share their own takes on this recipe. People sent me pictures of themselves enjoying Old Fashioneds against scenic backdrops, and shared tips for bars that did the drink particularly well (my uncle in Houston was duly dispatched to investigate one recommendation that came in from a reader in Texas).
To feel that connection through one simple drink gave me more pleasure than I could possibly have imagined.
Oh – and if you’re wondering what I did with those spirits miniatures I found in the cabinet, I put them back. You never know: they might still come in handy.
Cometh the hour… cometh the kit to shake and stir
Yamachu ice pick, €68, starshaker.com
Georg Jensen Manhattan cocktail shaker, £115, harrods.com
Modernist chrome cocktail and hors d’oeuvres picks, £193.48, 1stdibs.com
BULU gold-plated pineapple bar spoon, £34.25, cocktailkingdom.com
Kimura Mikumi cocktail glass, €100, starshaker.com
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