The Spirits, A Guide to Modern Cocktailing

The Spirits, A Guide to Modern Cocktailing
Richard Godwin is a busy man. When the British journalist doesn’t have his hands full with the joys and perils of parenthood, you’ll find him either writing for the London Evening Standard about politics, sports, the economy, music, movies, restaurants and sriracha or interviewing the Dalai Lama. And if his schedule wasn’t quite packed enough, he managed to write a cocktail book, The Spirits, A Guide to Modern Cocktailing, and now he’s running around promoting it ahead of its release, this week.
Writing about Londoners gave Godwin the chance to witness first-hand the changing of London’s cocktail scene, which he covered for the Evening Standard in his ‘Spirits‘ column. The last 5 years have been an exciting few for London bartenders and cocktail drinkers alike: indie distilleries were launched in the Square Mile, and major distillers have been coping by introducing new niche spirits faster than Dick Bradsell can fix a Bramble. Shiny new cocktail bars have opened at a pace not seen since the Roaring Twenties, and more than ever before London has been a magnet for talented bartenders from every corner of Europe, bringing with them an interest for those local craft spirits and liqueurs that would have been impossibly hard to find in England only a few years back.
Richard Godwin Spirits

Richard Godwin wants you to drink better at home.

To call this a ‘cocktail Renaissance’, would be to sell London a bit short: the British capital always has been a bastion for cocktail culture. Its storied cocktail bars never fluttered to serve quality drinks, and when Dale DeGroff was teaching New Yorkers how to make Manhattans in the 1980’s, crowds were running five deep in front of Peter Dorelli and Salvatore Calabrese‘s London bars. Yet, the general interest had started to wane, until the hard work of guys like Tony Conigliaro and Erik Lorincz brought back mixed drinks in the public consciousness as something more than just a vehicle to get pissed in some rowdy nightclub. More so, they inspired a new wave of booze geeks that helped London reclaim its crown as the cocktail mecca of the world — a title it temporarily lost to New York City in the late-nineties.

“Compared to improving your score on World of Warcraft, or perfecting your fish-gutting technique, or working up to bench-pressing 60 kilograms, upping your cocktail-production is a surer way to increase the sum of human happiness. It’s almost selfless.”

Godwin covered this new wave extensively in the Evening Standard, but his new book is even more ambitious. With The Spirits, his goal is to “demystify cocktail-making for the interested amateur,” to dumb things down, basically, and to do away the pretence that mixing booze requires more than just common sense and a couple of guidelines (okay, and a shaker too). A great many industry-centric bartending books have come out lately, but these volumes can be overly complicated and intimidating for the uninitiated. As an amateur cocktailian-turned-cocktail-writer, Godwin reaches out to the growing number of recreational cocktail-makers who, like him, want to make better drinks at home without fussing over the kind of juicer they need to buy to get started. Doing so, he joins a pretty select group of of authors who wrote about booze without being involved in the beverage industry, such as Charles H. Baker, David Embury and Robert Hess. The fact that Godwin doesn’t have a dog in the race can be seen as an advantage: as a journalist,  if he recommends specific products, which he rarely does, it’s not because he’s getting kickbacks for his restaurant/bar, but strictly because he genuinely likes them.

“Serving 500 drinks to exacting patrons in a bar with very low profit margins, that’s hard. Serving four Negroni’s to guests before dinner: that’s easier than making toast.”

Spirits by Richard Godwin

“Water? Never touch the stuff. Fish fuck in it” W.C. Fields

The Spirits‘ chief concern is cocktailing, not bartending, and Godwin drives the point home in the first part of his book: he shares 25 cocktail recipes, along with the stories that inevitably come with them, that can be made using a 6-bottle bar (gin, bourbon, sweet & dry vermouth, Campari and bubbles) and a handful of fresh produce. His picks are as eclectic as they are surprising, and definitely more exciting to make than the old tired classics found in most other bar books. You will encounter the Angostura Sour, Clover Club, Army & Navy, Erik Lorincz’s Green Park, a Bourbon-only version of the Avenue from the legendary Café Royal Cocktail Book, even a drink lifted from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, among others, each showcasing different techniques, and punctuated with detailed how-to’s. You see, as much as Godwin wants to keep things simple, he’s not the kind of guy to encourage his readers to cut corners. Simple syrup is more flavorful when made with raw caster sugar, he argues, commercial grenadine is plain vile, and both are pretty easy to put together in your home kitchen. If the road to tastier cocktails goes through DIY, so be it: the point here is better drinking, not expediency. By the end of the first section, readers will know how to make their own orgeat, how to prepare a bowl of punch like Jerry Thomas would, and what’s in Tom Waits’ glass (“probably scotch and razor-blades”).


That is not to say that the book isn’t a great read for well-tempered bartenders, too. Not only The Spirits is fun, but it is rewarding, packed with over 280 recipes borrowed from London’s top bars or culled from modern and classic bar books. Many modern cocktail bar favourites are in there, such as the Pan-American Clipper, the Fernando, the Airmail and the Naked and Famous. The ingredient list gets more complex as one digs deeper into the book: products like stone pine liqueur, thyme liqueur, kummel and Kamm & Sons get called for in drinks like the Kingston, the Sylvanian Martini and the Grosvenor. On top of drink recipes, Godwin shares his best hangover management techniques, his recipes for his own Drambuie and Pimm’s substitutes, a table of flavor pairings to help create your own drinks, as as well as “a brief history of cocktailing.”

The Spirits

The Spirits, by Richard Godwin, Square Peg, 2015. 

The Spirits is an approachable and engaging book for anyone who’s dying to learn about mixing drinks, but doesn’t know where to start. Precisely the kind of book bartenders need to buy for their 9-5’er friends, to make sure they don’t have to suffer more bad drinks the next time they’re invited over for dinner (“Look! I made you a cocktail!” “Errrr….”). And now that The Spirits is giving readers the keys to become discerning drinkers and cocktail-makers, and is showing them that making great drinks with fresh ingredients isn’t hard at all, bartenders will have to step up their bar game. They’ll have Richard Godwin to thank for that!

Ampersand Cocktail, from Spirits by Richard Godwin

Ampersand Cocktail variation, by Richard Godwin

The Ampersand Cocktail

adapted by Richard Godwin from The Old Waldorf Astoria Bar Book, 1935

“I’d like to think the name comes from an indecisive patron (‘Gin or brandy? Whaddya say to gin and brandy?’) but no one really knows.” Richard Godwin

1 oz Old Tom Gin
1 oz Pisco
1 oz sweet vermouth
⅓ oz Grand Marnier (or other curaçao)
1 dash orange bitters
Stir all the ingredients with ice, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a swath of lemon peel
Definitely a fun drink to play with; I heeded Godwin’s advice and substituted the brandy with pisco, but went for a more austere cocktail with Mistral barrel-aged pisco, Ransom Old Tom gin, Bigallet China-China and Cocchi Vermouth Amaro. It will be fruitier with a combination of lighter Old Tom and a perfumed Peruvian pisco like Campo de Encanto.
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