When I was a young man living with my family just south of the Equator in East Africa, the cocktail ceremony was the same every evening. Just before the sun set at pretty well the same time every night of the year, about six o’clock, our house boy would wheel the drinks cart out onto the verandah of our “Out of Africa” home. (On an etymological note, as my wordsmith friend Bill Casselman would have it, “verandah” derives from a Hindi word for porch, and the whole ceremony reeks of the old Raj in India. Even calling the aged servant “boy” sounds strange in this post-Colonial era, but that’s what they were all called back then.) “Sundowners” were served to the family and guests as we watched the sun set over the Great Rift Valley from our hill-top aerie, and the vast soda Lake Nakuru, home to millions of flamingoes. As the setting sun turned the waters of the lake to burnished gold, and the roosting flamingoes tucked their heads under their wings, showing their pink feathers to the sky and making the enormous flocks seem to flick the colour switch from white to intense pink in an instant, the adults quaffed their cocktails.
My own introduction to cocktails was a weak “chota peg” — again a Hindi word, this one meaning a very small drink, usually of whisky and soda. Where the water was undrinkable in the colonies, the drop or two of whisky was supposed to kill off the bugs. On safari as a teen, like my dad, I grew accustomed to cleaning my teeth in whisky, rather than a mug of water teeming with who knows what. “Boy, lete whisky na barafu,” my boss, the editor of the local paper where I landed my first job, would shout at a servant waiting about three feet behind him, meaning “bring me another whisky with ice, and be bloody quick about it, before I die of thirst.” At the newspaper, the sundowner ceremony took place in the editor’s large office shortly after the paper had been put to bed for the night (that is, sent to the presses for printing). It seems it was mandatory for the editorial staff to attend. My taste for Scotch came early.
It would be years before I learned that there were other drinks than gin and tonic (G&T) and whisky and soda (Scotch was always whisky in the British Empire). Wine was intolerable in the heat, and beer was for the “other ranks” as the officer class called them. Mum was a renegade and drank weak brandy and ginger, which was thought to be a bit French and sissified by the Brits. Later she switched to Scotch, which at 96 she still enjoys.
My next two cocktails were vodka and orange juice (a Screwdriver in North America), which girls in 60s London seemed to like, and Campari and soda, which I learned to enjoy on a television junket to Milan. Then there was the Bloody Mary, which was all the rage for Sunday brunch when I arrived in Canada. At the long defunct Forum of the Twelve Caesars restaurant in New York, I was introduced at 24 or so to the vodka martini, very dry, straight up, shaken not stirred, with a twist. Waiting for a table for a late lunch with a much older BBC colleague, I had two, and promptly fell off my bar stool. I was hooked.
So that was my repertoire until much later in life when I had in mind the idea that I would sail around the Caribbean in my small yacht, supporting myself by picking up occasional work for cash as a bar tender. Someone had told me you could get work anywhere as an expert fixer of cocktails, and anyway I had seen Tom Cruise in Cocktail and figured I could do just as well at a beach bar. I took myself off to George Brown College’s bartender school and learned to mix cocktails. On exam day, each student was called out to make six random cocktails from a list of over 100 we had studied. My fellow students were all many years younger, and I must have gotten lucky with the selection I was handed, but I passed top of the class with a 100 per cent grade. I put my new skills to work as a volunteer Friday night bartender at The Celebrity Club, which used to be a CBC bar on Jarvis Street opposite the old corpse studios, and had been revived as the watering hole for residents of the Performing Arts Lodge. Then I met Diane, and love blossomed, so I didn’t go bartending in the Caribbean after all.
Cut to a few weeks ago where we are chatting to Andrew Carter, chef and owner of the excellent nine-month-old pub in Yorkville, The Oxley. We’ve had a splendid meal and after congratulating him on the food, I’m explaining the meaning of Gentleman’s Portion (a generous portion, usually of Scotch) and he thinks it would be an outstanding name for a cocktail. Josh the bartender thinks so too, but he’s engrossed in perfecting a drink for an upcoming cocktail competition. He’ll put his not insignificant mixology skills to work on my new cocktail after he’s won the prize at the Made With Love competition. Confident lad, he’s already come top of the list in the preliminary rounds.
We try his new invention and I must say he deserves to win. It is a secret mixture of Hendriks Gin, aloe juice, elder flower syrup, lime, a drop of pink pepper, topped with cilantro. Going into the contest at the Distillery District (where else would they hold it?), The Oxley’s representative is up against experts from Mistura, Soho House, the Miller Tavern, Toronto Temperance Society, Dolce, Origin, Nygood, The Spoke Club and more. Esteemed company.
I would be there to cheer him on, but my surgeon has picked the same date to fix my bum knee. Lying on a hospital gurney, I await Josh’s text message with the results.
PS: Please leave a comment if you found something useful or interesting in this story. Or please add your own experiences with cocktails.