In my 20s I spent a couple of years backpacking around South America. About a year into my trip I experienced a terrible bout of food poisoning in Peru, which landed me in bed for a couple of weeks. To recuperate I headed over to the other side of that vast continent to the ritzy seaside town of Buzios, where some friends were living. Like Ibiza, Buzios was the kind of place that drew scores of well-heeled and deep-pocketed Argentinians and Europeans each summer, and even Brigitte Bardot had a mansion on the beach.
In exchange for free rent and use of the kitchens I managed a little hotel and its bar during the afternoons. (I started my first business here, making croissants, but that's another story.) The owner would head out sailing after lunch each day, and I would take over the reins of the hotel, looking after new customers and whipping up caipirinhas behind the bar.
It didn't take me long to work out that a good cocktail made everyone happy and, after about a week, I nailed that fabulous drink — muddling chunks of juicy limes and sugar, then adding the cashaca before pouring the lot over crushed ice in a tall glass. To this day a caiparinha is still one of my favourite cocktails, but I can turn any spirit into a great drink, thanks to knowing that particular formula.
In the lead-up to Christmas, I like to break the ice and get a party going with a cocktail or two. People always feel treated when you serve them cocktails. They're are such an expensive drink to buy at a bar, but are often a cheaper choice than wine to serve at home.
A great cocktail isn't about knocking people's socks off with alcohol. The balance of acidity and sweetness is key, and there needs to be just enough alcohol to deliver a pleasant but not too powerful hit. You don't want everyone passing out on the second drink. Have everything chilled and keep the spirits in the freezer. Don't forget the ice, as cocktails need to be crisp and cold — if they aren't, the flavours become muddied and dull.
If you're mixing for a crowd, make up your base in a big pot or jug, rather than pouring each drink individually. Have to hand any garnishes and a good supply of crushed ice in the freezer.
Be sure to offer lots of nibbles to soak up the alcohol and have some non-alcoholic drink options handy. Most cocktails will taste good without the alcohol, so if you make up the base flavours separately you can add the alcohol to order — that way you'll keep everyone happy.
Rhubarb and Mint Fizz
Ready in 30 mins + macerating
Makes enough syrup for 18 glasses
2 large stalks rhubarb, very finely sliced
½ cup sugar
12 mint leaves
2 Tbsp lemon juice
½ cup vodka
¼ cup cranberry juice
3 bottles chilled prosecco or other dry, sparkling white wine
To make the rhubarb syrup, place rhubarb, sugar, mint and lemon juice in a jar or bowl and leave for 30 minutes to macerate, stirring now and again until sugar has dissolved. Add vodka and cranberry juice. Chill if not using at once. This makes about 2½ cups and will keep for several days in the fridge. To serve, spoon about 2 Tbsp of syrup (including fruit) into each glass with a little ice and top with chilled prosecco or other dry, sparkling white wine.
Annabel says: A bottle of cheap prosecco or methode champenoise lends itself to all kinds of terrific cocktails. Add a splash of Midori for a melon spritzer with a gorgeous green hue, some peach schnapps for a Bellini #2 (for the #1 Bellini add a dash of peach puree) and use a drizzle of cassis for a kir. Rhubarb syrup is also a wonderful flavouring for a festive spritzer cocktail.
Ready in 5 mins
½ cup gin
½ cup campari
½ cup red vermouth
Mix gin, campari and vermouth in a jug. Half-fill 4 short glasses with ice, top with negroni mixture and serve with a slice of orange.
Annabel says: These are dangerously good. One or possibly two is all you need. The classic negroni is made with equal parts gin, campari and red vermouth. If that seems too potent, replace the gin with soda or add one part orange juice.
Ready in 10 mins
60g fresh ginger, peeled and very thinly sliced
½ cup caster sugar
4 whole, juicy limes, cut in eighths
1 cup chilled mescal or tequila
¼-½ tsp chipotle chilli powder, to taste
3 cups small ice cubes
Place ginger in a muddler or mortar with sugar and pound to a paste. Add limes and muddle until the limes are broken up and juices released. Tip into a jug and mix in mescal or tequila and chilli powder. Stir in ice cubes and serve.
Annabel says: Lots of ginger and a subtle kick of smoked chilli combine with lime and tequila or mescal to deliver a Mexican vibe to this cocktail. Chipotle powder is available from specialist Mexican suppliers, but if you don't have it try using chilli flakes instead.