Tuesday 20 March 2018

Craft cocktails with a home-grown twist

Oisin Davis with 'The Handwarmer'
Oisin Davis with 'The Handwarmer'

Aoife Carrigy

It’s been a good year for frequenters of Dublin’s drinking holes in terms of increased choice, particularly if you happen to have a grá for craft cocktails.

 Which, it seems, we all do these days. That increased appreciation has led a bunch of Dublin-based bartenders to get together and set up their own cocktail awards to celebrate their craft.

“Irish bartenders like Karim Mehdi from Saba and Anna Walsh of MVP are starting to feature on a world stage,” says Kevin Hurley, one of the co-founders of the The Irish Craft Cocktail Awards (ICCA), which took place last Sunday night in The Odeon.

These awards signal an industry that is starting to take itself seriously.

“What makes these awards different is that they are for the cocktail industry and organised by the cocktail industry,” explains Kevin Hurley.

Rather than being run by one key brand, these independent awards are supported by various brands, including several new Irish craft spirit brands such as Kalak vodka, Ruby Blue potato vodka, Teeling whiskey and Glendalough poitin and gin.

One of the strongest categories this year was for Best New Cocktail Bar 2015, won by The Meeting House, Dublin who beat off competition from Bronze, Camden Exchange, Front Door, Porndog, Soder+Ko, Sophie’s and Xico. Presumably newcomers Bow Lane, Chelsea Drugstore and Angelina’s were simply too new to make the list.

“You just have to look at the rate of new places opening to get a sense of how big craft cocktails are,” says Kevin.

“I was away for a week recently and when I came home, four new cocktail bars had opened. Every new restaurant now wants to have some kind of craft cocktail element. Everyone is making their own syrups and infusions these days. The mediocre fruity cocktail of eight years ago is long gone.”

Kevin believes Ireland is catching up fast on cocktail scenes in London and New York. “We do hospitality better than anyone in the world. And at the end of the day, it’s the hospitality that really counts,” he says. “Once we catch up on the technical side of things, we’re set to have one of the most exciting cocktail scenes in the world.”

Another USP for Irish craft cocktails is the recent explosion in Irish whiskey production and the spin-off production of clear spirits such as gin, vodka and poitin by new distilleries keen to secure cash flow while the whiskey ages.

A glance through the menu of this year’s ICCA overall winner, Dublin’s Vintage Cocktail Club (who also won Best Cocktail Menu) shows a good 20pc of drinks featuring Irish spirits. And this year, the organisers of October’s Dublin Cocktail Fest made the decision to dedicate the festival exclusively to Irish spirits brands, in line with June’s Dublin Cocktail Fest and February’s Dublin Whiskey Fest.

The festival’s organiser, Oisin Davis of Great Irish Beverages, is a man on a mission. “I had seen so many people getting behind and supporting home-grown Irish food and I couldn’t understand why we weren’t thinking the same way about Irish drinks,” he explains.

“And I kept encountering bartenders who were really well versed on exotic ingredients, yet didn’t seem to know what they could use from their own doorsteps. So I decided to make that my focus.”

Besides encouraging participants in his festivals to use Irish-made spirits, Oisin himself is an enthusiastic champion of various producers of cocktail-friendly syrups, shrubs and bitters, especially those with a uniquely local flavour such the extensive range from Sharon Greene of Wild Irish Foragers.

Sharon saw a lot of repeat customers at last weekend’s National Craft Fair looking for their elderberry syrup to pop into prosecco for a bellini with an Irish twist (Oisin recommends adding some rosehip syrup too).

Meanwhile her sloe berry shrubs is mixed by one customer with sloe gin for a refreshing tipple. An old Irish drinking vinegar, shrubs are particularly refreshing when mixed with sparkling water, which non-drinker Sharon recommends. But many do use her range in cocktails — indeed she has several recipes from customers, including Oisin, in the notes section of their Facebook page.

Unfortunately the Wild Irish Foragers range is not yet available in Dublin, although they do offer postal delivery to dedicated fans.

More accessible are Fiona Falconer’s Wild About range, some of which are available on Supervalu’s Food Academy shelves (and with corresponding recipes at wildabout.ie). This Christmas, Fiona herself will be mixing the last of her nettle syrup into margaritas and flavouring Irish coffees with her seasonal cinnamon syrup.

But the big hit at her cocktail demo at the recent Bite Food Festival was her simple raspberry bellini, currently Aer Lingus’s signature cocktail.

“Our raspberry syrup is made with Wexford fruit,” Fiona says. “Kids love it mixed with water, so it’s a really versatile one for family get-togethers.”

Another favourite ingredient of Oisin’s is Highbank Orchard Apple Syrup (widely available in good delis), which features in The Meeting House’s Irish apple mojito in place of sugar syrup. Oisin recommends using it in a hot toddy in place of sugar, or to sweeten pressed apple juice that has been mulled with winter spice wrapped in muslin, before topping up with Irish whiskey.

If you want more inspiration for unleashing your own inner bartender this Christmas, check Oisin out on the Jameson Youtube Channel, demonstrating simple cocktails designed to be easily made in the home kitchen.

You might not pick up any awards for your creations, but you can certainly have a bit of fun trying.

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