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Mix & match: How the right mixer can bring out the best in your spirits

By Emma Eversham+ , 19-May-2015
Last updated on 17-Sep-2015 at 15:06 GMT2015-09-17T15:06:31Z

Mix & match: How the right mixer can bring out the best in your spirits

Sales of spirits, particularly in the luxury bracket, are increasing and bartenders are spending more time than ever sourcing innovative new products both from established producers and a new wave of craft distillers.

Yet, while the trade and consumers are equally as discerning about the quality of the spirits they serve up and drink, when it comes to making a longer drink or cocktail, could they say the same about the mixer or other ingredients accompanying them?

Lewis Coburn, bar manager at the recently opened The Richmond in Hackney, is one person who pays careful consideration to the ingredients used in cocktails to ensure they complement the original spirit.

Do your research

Coburn says careful research into the spirit’s original recipe will help guide its choice of mixer.

“There are no real rules about what should go with what,” he says, “When I’m trying to create a cocktail I wouldn’t give myself too many boundaries, but I do look carefully at what makes up a spirit and then think of a serve. I research everything I stock and know what will complement it. Whatever you use should bring out the spirit a bit more and give it a bit of life.”

When working with gin, for example, Coburn, who worked behind the bar at Dishoom and Hix before joining The Richmond, considers the brand and its botanicals used to flavour the spirit before deciding on what he’ll add to it.

“Traditionally you serve Hendricks with cucumber, but you can also have it with rosehips, because they are present in it too,” he suggests. “Grapefruit goes with Tanqueray No.TEN as it has that in its botanicals. In fact, Tanqueray No.TEN uses fresh fruit in its botanicals, whereas many use dried fruits, so it lends itself well to fresh fruits.”

One of Coburn’s recent discoveries as a partner with gin is black pepper.

“It’s really interesting, you’d be surprised by it,” he says. “Someone suggested it to me and I wasn’t sure, but I tried it and thought it tasted good. “

For a straight Gin & Tonic, he favours Fever Tree as the mixer.

“For me, when it comes to soda and tonic water I like to use Fever Tree. The balance comes out right.  It’s what I want. It’s a reliable brand for me to use,” he says.

The multiple flavours created by the differing botanicals used in gin production have actually inspired the creation of new tonic flavours by the company.  

"The ever-expanding botanical make up of gins on the market has allowed room for us to develop a range of tonic flavours to keep up with consumer demand, our most popular being our Elderflower Tonic," says Fever Tree's UK on-trade marketing manager Luke Benson. "We have also created a Mediterranean Tonic, originally crafted for vodka drinkers but its lighter aromatic taste means it can also be paired with a wide number of gins. 

"An old favourite cocktail, which is often forgotten about, is the Buck cocktail, consisting of gin and ginger ale. It’s a great alternative to a G&T and has become the signature serve of a number of new spiced gins." 

Balance it out

Mixing simple drinks is all about balance, so if you are keen to use a certain mixer or an ingredient, but after tasting find it doesn’t work, another could be added to balance it up, suggests Coburn.

“Sometimes mixers are too bitter – we use a Pedro Jimenez tonic water called Pedrino, but it can be quite bitter, so we add lime juice and sugar to the drink which brings in a bit of sweetness,” he says.

Flavour balance is also one aspect soft drinks manufacturer Britvic is keen to promote with the launch of its new on-trade glass bottle range, which is being led by sugar free cola Pepsi MAX.

To support the launch the company has come up with a range of signature serves, such as the Vermouth MAX – fractured ice, 25ml Vermouth, 200ml Pepsi MAX and orange peel (a sweet and slightly bitter mix) or the Tequila MAX - fractured ice, 25ml tequila, 200ml Pepsi MAX and lime wedges.

All have been carefully created together to balance the spirit’s flavour profile with that of the soft drink with the Tequila MAX blending 'tequila's complex pepper and floral notes' with the caramel taste of Pepsi MAX. Britvic says the lime wedges help cut through the alcohol and the sweetness of the Pepsi MAX. 

“The citrus and caramel ‘full mouth’ flavours of Pepsi MAX delivers maximum taste with no sugar making the liquid perfect for mixing with spirits,” adds Jonathan Gatward, GB Marketing Director for Britvic.

"With that in mind we’re confident that the UK on-trade will love our signature serves and we look forward to seeing and tasting any new unique drinks that the trade create with Pepsi MAX themselves.”

Think about seasonality

When it comes to sourcing the best produce for their menus, chefs will be guided by the seasons and there’s no reason why the same principle can’t be applied to the drinks menu.

“Drinks innovation is an important part of most of the top end bars and it is necessary to update your drink or cocktail menu on a regular basis,” says Boris Ivan, bar manager at Galvin at Windows.

“Nowadays people are more educated about food and drink, so when it comes to getting your guests to come back, you have to keep them interested with the 'wow’ factor. That's why it is essential to keep your menu in line with the season, using fresh and seasonal ingredients as well as trying to bring your experience from travelling and shape them into your cocktails, as we do here in Galvin.

“This way you can share and enjoy your passion with your guests and keep them coming back as they know you will always have something new for them.”

"Adding seasonal twists to classic cocktails is a really simple way to re-invigorate your drinks menu, in the same way that you would update your food menu," agrees Ashley Moore, category development manager at Diageo. 

Moore suggests incorporating, seasonal ingredients into the drink itself via home-made syrups or as a garnish. "In summer, rhubarb or summer berry fruits could work alongside, or replace your usual garnish," he says.

And home-made syrups are easy and relatively cheap to create, says to Coburn. 

"We make all our syrups from scratch. They are really simple recipes and you can be as adventurous as you like," he says. "I'm all for making my own stuff, it saves so much money too. I don't understand why people buy grenadine when all you need is pomegranate juice and sugar."

Two favourites at The Richmond are an orgeat syrup - a combination of brandy, almond flakes and sugar clarified for two days and a hibiscus petal syrup. 

"We don't always know what we're going to do with the syrups we make, but we make them, get them right, taste them and then think about what they'd go well with," says Coburn. 

Don't be afraid to keep it simple

Creating new, interesting cocktails and constantly pushing the boundaries in the world of drinks is part of the job spec for bartenders and mixologists, but even the most radical aren't afraid to keep it simple when needed. 

"In the late 19th or early 20th Century when cocktails were created, it was out of a need to mask the taste of the spirits as they were not of great quality,” says Ivan. 

“These days, in my opinion, spirits are usually of high quality and do not need to be mixed with anything. However, the right ingredient can bring benefits and give the drinker an opportunity to enjoy their favourite type of spirit or liqueur in a different way."

Ivan says the Gin & Tonic is a classic that will never go out of fashion and, like Coburn, favours Fever Tree tonic as a match to most gins (his favoured match is Tanqueray No.TEN). He also likes to serve Beefeater Gin Martinis with just a simple lemon twist. 

Tequila, traditionally served as a shot with salt and lime, can also be simply turned into a long drink with the addition of one mixer, suggests Fever Tree's Benson. 

"The resurgence of tequila as a long drink rather than a 'shot' has meant we are seeing our range used in 'Tequila and Tonic' serves," he says, "not only this, but Bitter Lemon and Ginger Ale seem to lengthen tequila particularly well." 

This BigHospitality feature was sponsored by Fever Tree

Fever-Tree produce a range of multi-award winning mixer drinks. Made using only the finest natural ingredients from around the world, Fever-Tree mixers are carefully crafted to enhance the taste of premium spirits rather than mask them. After all, if ¾ of your drink is the mixer, make sure you use the best.