The gin cocktail canon is packed with former favourites that are ripe for reinvention
We already know that classic gin cocktails rule. The Martini and Negroni exemplify what cocktails are all about, perfection impossible to improve upon. However, other gin classics from the Clover Club to the Corpse Reviver #2 have been revived globally the past couple of decades, and there are countless more underrated classics that deserve to be reborn – some requiring balance tweaks from their original recipes to hone them into greatest harmony. Here, three bars and bartenders we love around the globe illuminate three lesser-known gin classics and their variations.
Alex Smith, partner at Whitechapel
600 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94102 USA
The Brandy Alexander is widely revered in the cocktail renaissance of the past couple decades as an ideal dessert cocktail, a creamy after-dinner sipper with Cognac, cream and crème de cacao. While we love this classic, it is actually pre-dated by a gin version, simply called the Alexander. Like the Brandy Alexander, the exact origins of this cocktail are unconfirmed, even disputed, but you will find the Alexander in historic books such as Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em by Stanley Clisby Arthur (1937).
Leave it to Alex Smith, partner and co-owner of Whitechapel – a magical, 1800s London tube/subway station-inspired bar in San Francisco with one of the biggest gin selections in the US – to craft a winning variation. He uses high-quality Tempus Fugit Crème de Cacao, adding further depth and complexity with Zucca Amaro, a touch of Galliano Ristretto Coffee Liqueur and fresh-grated nutmeg on top.
“This is a rich and hearty winter cocktail,” explains Smith, “not your hot summer sipper. While the Brandy Alexander has managed to take all the spotlight, the Alexander is the original version which contained gin, and it is delicious. I’d say this is a cocktail more people should get into so it can get them ready to develop an appreciation for a truly obscure old gin cocktail: Gin and Milk!”
Smith has had a rich career in bartending. His roots are in Los Angeles and the craft beer movement, but he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and began crafting cocktails in 2008, winning numerous accolades (including the 2013 Campari ‘Best Aperitivo’ US Bartenders’ Guild cocktail competition). He ran bars including Novela and Gitane before opening Whitechapel in 2015, with business partners Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove and John Park of Novela.
Smith explains his ethos when it comes to playing with the classics: “Many older classic cocktails are quite simple (think Daiquiri, Old Fashioned, or Tom Collins). I like to see how I can add a bit more complexity to delight my guests. Sometimes that means adding layers of flavour with liqueurs or infusions or different sweeteners; usually a combination of all of that and more. Sometimes I like to combine two or more cocktails that come together in a creative, delicious way.”
Alexander the Great
- 1.5oz/45ml dry gin
- 1oz/30ml heavy cream
- .5oz/15ml Tempus Fugit Crème de Cacao
- .5oz/15ml Zucca Amaro
- .25oz/7.5ml Galliano Ristretto Coffee Liqueur
- Fresh nutmeg
Shake ingredients with ice, then strain into a footed rocks glass. Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg and a coffee bean.
- 1.5oz/45ml dry gin
- 75oz/22ml crème de cacao
- 1oz/30ml cream
Shake with ice, strain, serve in a coupe and top with shaved nutmeg.
Army and Navy
Mario Calderone, bar manager at Duddell’s
1 Duddell Street, Central Hong Kong
Yes, Duddell’s is a Michelin-starred, modern Cantonese restaurant with top-notch food. It’s also an expansive lounge and rooftop patio serving excellent cocktails, with Mario Calderone as bar manager.
First appearing in David A. Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948), the Army and Navy cocktail is one of the great gin classics that should be more common than it is (it’s also killer if you sub out the gin with aquavit). A classic sour with an orgeat twist, this drink inspires Calderone: “I quite like the use of orgeat in this sour cocktail. It adds a sort of tropical feel to the drink, combined with the Angostura Bitters and lemon. Having worked at a tiki bar for quite some time, it opens up fond memories of tiki drinks. As with many forgotten classics, this drink is quite easy to make and simply delicious. That’s why I think it deserves the spotlight.”
As Calderone explains, he gives the Army and Navy cocktail a decidedly Asian twist: “I wanted to use local ingredients and flavours in this particular drink… I substituted orgeat with osmanthus syrup, reduced the amount of lemon juice and added mandarin juice together with a local gin that uses mandarin as one of the botanicals. They complement each other. I also substitute Angostura Bitters with Peychaud’s bitters to give some extra spiciness without overpowering the rest of the ingredients.”
Calderone has worked for more than a decade in cocktail bars and restaurants around the world, from Zuma London to Bar Lafayette in Perth, Australia. He moved to Hong Kong in 2015, running the bar at Fishsteria Seafood Place and eventually Honi Honi Tiki Cocktail Lounge, Asia’s first tiki bar.
Elaborating on classic cocktail variations, Calderone says, “My process of creating variations on classics always starts with straight swaps: I take the original recipe and substitute one or more of the components, but keeping the proportions and structure of the original. It could be a syrup, a main spirit, or other components. After tasting it, I will move on to the second part, which is balancing the drink. It is sometimes required to change the proportions of the original, but keeping the same structure. I try not to stray too far from the original.”
- .7oz/20ml house-made osmanthus syrup*
- 1.7oz/50ml Porcelain Shanghai Dry Gin: Mandarin Edition
- .5oz/15ml fresh lemon juice
- 1oz/30ml fresh mandarin juice
- 2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a tall Collins glass. Garnish with a stripe of dried osmanthus flowers on the side of the glass and orange peel on top.
- 10.5oz/300g caster sugar
- 10oz/300ml water
- 1oz/30g dry osmanthus flowers
Bring water to the boil. Add dry osmanthus flowers and lower to 80ºC. Let it brew for two minutes. Add sugar and stir until dissolved. Simmer for two more minutes. Take the mixture off the heat and cover. Let rest until cooled. Fine strain out the solids, then bottle and date the liquid.
Original Army and Navy
- 2oz/60ml gin
- 1oz/30ml fresh lemon juice
- 1oz/30ml orgeat
- 1 dash Angostura Bitters
Shake all ingredients with ice, strain, and serve in a coupe or Nick and Nora glass.
Bobby Hiddleston, managing partner at Swift
12 Old Compton Street, London W1D 4TQ, UK
Introduced while bartending at Milk & Honey London in 2010, husband-and-wife team Bobby Hiddleston and Mia Johansson both have backgrounds at storied bars, including New York’s Dead Rabbit and London’s Callooh Callay for Bobby, and Mark’s Bar at Hix Soho for Mia.
Teaming up with the owners of London’s acclaimed Nightjar and Oriole, they opened the original Swift Soho in 2017, followed by Swift Shoreditch in 2020. Admirably, they have long invested in caring for their staff and unity as a team, including addiction support and regular evaluations – all important in any season, but even more so in pandemic times.
Both Swift bars are classy-yet-relaxed respites with a retro vibe, ideal for sipping classic cocktails. Bobby’s pick for a less common gin classic? The Alaska. First recorded in 1913 with Old Tom gin, the dry gin version from 1930’s Savoy Cocktail Book became the standard. “The Alaska is a great gin purist’s cocktail,” explains Hiddleston. “The gin should really be the star, with subtle accentuations on the botanicals.”
Ratios can be an issue with classic cocktails, which Hiddleston hones in his Alaska variation: “Our recipe lowers the Chartreuse and switches to green, to give all the Chartreuse flavour without the cloying sweetness the classic recipe struggles with. We also add some Lillet Blanc to harmonise the gin and liqueur, turning the drink into a wet Martini of sorts.”
When playing with the classics at Swift, Mia, Bobby and their teams believe in honouring the original intent of the recipe. “When we go about trying to get ‘our’ recipe for classics,” says Hiddleston, “we try the drink in its most original form. [We] then dissect what flavours we can find, what we like, what we don’t like, but most importantly, what somebody who orders the drink would want from it. There’s no point adding tertiary flavours to a classic simply because you like that version if it strays away from what the drink should be.”
- 1.7oz/50ml dry gin (Swift uses Beefeater Gin)
- .8oz/25 ml Lillet Blanc
- .3oz/10ml Green Chartreuse
- 3 dashes orange bitters
Stir with ice, strain, serve up and garnish with a lemon twist.
- 3oz/90ml Old Tom gin
- 1oz/30ml Yellow Chartreuse
- 1 dash orange bitters
Stir with ice, strain, serve in a coupe or a Nick and Nora glass, and garnish with lemon twist.