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Interview With Cocktail Guru Richard Godwin
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Interview With Cocktail Guru Richard Godwin

Picture of Emma Cooke
Updated: 14 November 2016
Drinks writer, and cocktail purveyor extraordinaire, Richard Godwin can tell you a thing or two about the art of cocktailing. And he’s doing just that in his book on everything shaken and stirred, The Spirits: A Guide to Modern Cocktailing. We spoke to him about his favourite spirits, the cocktail revival, and the inspiration behind the book.

TCT: How did you get into cocktails?

One of my first jobs was at a really terrible Thai-themed pub in Enfield, where I grew up. I was given this laminated sheet of instructions on how to make Mai Tais. Just really terrible, sugary ’90s cocktails. They were probably the worst cocktails anyone had ever drunk, as I had no idea what I was doing. But I think there was something that was sparked then. Then, during the recession, I was going out less, but when I did go out I’d want a bit of a treat, and I think an £8 cocktail instantly makes you feel different. It has glamour, but it’s an affordable kind of luxury, as opposed to a fancy dinner. At that time, during the late noughties, a lot of people were rediscovering classic cocktails.

TCT: Where did the idea for The Spirits come from?

As I got into the subject, I tried to find the book that would tell you the basics of what you need to know, and I just couldn’t find that book. There are lots of books written by bartenders for other bartenders, and you’d open them up and think, I don’t have aged Pisco, and I don’t have passionfruit liqueur, so what use is this to me? Then, you’d open up something like the Savoy cocktail book, and though I love reading those old cocktail books, they’re about 80 years old now and times have moved on. And then when you look on the internet, there are so many contradictory bits of information, and people get very opinionated about it, so you imagine that if you’re using the wrong kind of rum or something you’re not making a proper daiquiri. I wrote the book I wish existed when I first got into this stuff, which simply tells you what you need in order to teach yourself the basics, on an ordinary person’s budget.

TCT: What is it about cocktails that most interests you?

Richard Godwin | © Penguin Random House
Richard Godwin | © Penguin Random House

There’s something in every kid that just loves mixing stuff. I think it goes back to George’s Marvellous Medicine, this idea that you’ve got all these potions and it feels a little bit like you’re an alchemist or a magician. I still find that really fun, now that I’ve come on a few stages in my journey of discovery and have a kitchen full of spirits. I still find myself, usually just before bed, going, ‘Ooh, I wonder if Aquavit will go well with peach liqueur,’ and fiddling with it all. It’s got that level of fun to it. I also think it’s the stories that are attached to the cocktails as well. They take you to a different place and a different time. The classic daiquiri is 1930’s Cuba. The Sidecar is 1920’s Paris. I said in the introduction to the book, I’m a bit of a frustrated musician and I think they’re a bit like songs in that respect, where they have that evocative, wistful effect where they can take you somewhere else without you having to physically leave your location.

TCT: Do you have a favourite cocktail from the book?

People always ask me this! It’s so dependent on time and mood and place. The cocktail I probably make most though is some variant on the Gin & It. Essentially it’s a sweet martini but I just like the term Gin & It. In general, what I tend to bung together the most is gin, a splash of sweet vermouth, and a dash of some kind of liqueur or bitters, just in an unfussy way.

TCT: Do you have a favourite spirit?

I just always come back to gin. I’m getting into Aquavit at the minute, partly because it’s a bit like gin in its formulation: grain spirit with botanicals. I like them all though. Pisco is the other one I’m always playing with.

TCT: What cocktail ingredients are essential to have?

It’s all laid out in some detail in my book, but gin is the most useful spirit to have. Then American whiskey for the darker drinks, and vermouth and bitters. Things like Cointreau and maraschino are quite useful but you can essentially perform their functions, which is to make things sweeter, with sugar or syrup. The other thing I’d say is Campari, but mainly because I just really like Negronis. And rum; I felt a bit bad for excluding that. I neglected light rum for a long time because Bacardi is so dominant and you assume light rum is terrible, but once you taste any other kind of light rum you realise it’s actually really nice.

TCT: Aside from making them yourself, what are your favourite cocktail bars to drink in?

Again, I think all these things depend on mood, but I love the Connaught Bar. It’s the most elegant bar in London. I really like Duck & Waffle, too; the vibe and the location have an interesting energy. Normal, low-key places are great, too; for instance I love spritzes at Russell Norman’s restaurants. I quite like places that manage to incorporate Negronis as if they were a normal thing to do, rather than being a treat the whole time.

TCT: Where do you find cocktail recipe inspiration?

Bars. With my cocktail geek hat on, I like going to bars and getting stuff I wouldn’t have thought of. White Lyan’s Ryan Chetiyawardana is one of the most interesting bartenders for that. His book is really good. Day-to-day though, I live in Green Lanes in Haringey, which is a very Turkish neighbourhood, and there’s fantastic fresh produce throughout the area that changes with the seasons in a proper way. I like noticing that there are passion fruits in the greengrocers, or that it’s clearly pomegranate season in Turkey so they’ve all got them in.

TCT: Are there any new or emerging spirits or trends we should take note of?

One of my favourite ingredients to play with is sherry. I’ve always really liked it, and it’s the best value wine you can buy. You can pick up a really good bottle of 25-year-old sherry for less than a tenner, and if you get for example, a Fino, it’s dry enough to work as the base of a cocktail, as well as performing the vermouth role of lengthening them. It has a lower alcohol content, too, so you can have three or four sherry cocktails without getting completely smashed. There’s one cocktail in the book that I invented at the last minute and put in, called the Consolation. I think that should be the generic name for sherry cocktails. They should all be known as Consolations.

The Spirits by Richard Godwin is available to buy here.