A man walks into a bar…. and when that man is author and drinks specialist Henry Jeffreys you know that a good time is guaranteed – the booze will be plentiful, of fine pedigree and the repartee, second to none. His just-published second book, The Home Bar, explores the history of bars, how they were shaped by various socio-politico and economic events and how we all started to love drinking at home. A lot. In conversation with Peter Dean, Jeffreys covers a lot of ground from the Gin craze, pre-mixed cocktails, Christmas TV-advertised fruit liqueurs and his favourite ‘Man walks into a bar’ joke.
The home bar is a broad church that can include almost anything and everything. But they have to include booze.
Why did you want to write about the Home Bar?
Well because someone paid me to do it, but I suppose that doesn’t really sell the book does it? The idea for the book was Alexandre Ricard’s of Pernod-Ricard fame. He has a magnificent bar in his Paris flat which features heavily in the book. He approached a publisher and they approached me. It wasn’t a topic I’d ever really thought about but I do love bars, drink and history so I suppose I was a good choice.
It’s mainly down to fashion. For a long time home bars were thought of as a bit Only Fools and Horses. Now a new generation are discovering drinks who have no preconceived ideas as to what is cool or not. I suppose it’s a bit like Abba. When I was growing up, they were about the most embarrassing thing you could listen to but then people without musical prejudices discovered their music, and just thought Voulez-Vous is really really funky, how could anyone not like this?” Same with home bars. Why wouldn’t you want a bar in your living room or a cocktail trolley in the shape of a globe?
Isn’t going out to drink in bars the thing now? Or is the Home Bar also having a revival?
Yes going out to bars is very much a thing now. You have all these wonderful new bars doing weird and wonderful cocktails from the likes of Tony Conigliaro etc but there’s also been a renaissance in the classic hotel bar like the Savoy or Claridge’s. People are rediscovering the drinks from the golden age of cocktails like the Negroni, the Manhattan and the Old-Fashioned; but they are also realising how easy these are to make at home so long as you invest in some decent kit… and while you’re there you might as well have a bar, cocktail cabinet, drinks trolley to keep it all in.
Who’s the book aimed at?
Anyone who appreciates a properly made drink, mainly, but there’s lots about architecture, design and culture, so you could enjoy it even if your tastes run more to shandy than champagne.
In the book you classify different styles of bar: Grand Hotels, Classic, Speakeasy, Tropical, Retro, Poolside etc – what style are you most comfortable in and why?
I love Grand Hotel bars. The Art Deco period was the heyday of cocktails and really there’s nothing better for your mental wellbeing than paying through the nose for a Martini in luxurious surroundings. But at home I’d go for the classic gentleman’s club look, old carpets, maps on the walls, a fully laden wooden trolley like the one at Duke’s Hotel in London, and maybe some discreet taxidermy.
In fact, minus the taxidermy, that’s pretty much my living room.
You’re known for being a drinks specialist and yet The Home Bar takes on many other disciplines – design, architecture – how challenging was this?
Actually not too difficult. I treated it like a journalistic assignment so spoke to a few experts, read a few books, marshalled the facts, and then got writing. It’s amazing what you can do when you have a very tight deadline.
There’s certainly a lot that is aspirational in it, I mean who is really going to turn their living room into a Grand Hotel bar? But the home bar is a very broad church it includes drinks trolleys, cabinets, cupboards, even just a silver tray with a decanter, an ice bucket, a gin and a vermouth bottle can be your home bar if you’re pushed for space.
What kind of bar do you have at home?
I am still looking for the perfect cocktail cabinet or drinks trolley for our tiny ex-council flat. At the moment our ‘home bar’ is an old sideboard in which we keep the bottles with a silver tray, shaker, and decanter on top.
In the trade, people refer to spirits or liquid but you steadfastly use the word booze – how come?
I love the word booze though some people, Americans mainly and Jancis Robinson, really hate it. They think it sounds downmarket. I think it’s classless. It’s a great all-rounder as it refers to all alcoholic drinks, not just spirits. More booze!
Bartender or mixologist?
Mixologist is an old Victorian word that has been revived in recent years. It’s not one I use very often because it sounds a bit daft, at least to me, but I can understand why people do use it. The word bartender doesn’t really do justice to the men and women out there doing stuff with rotary evaporators and other outlandish equipment. So perhaps we need a new word but, for the time being, I’ll stick with bartender. It’s a noble profession.
So why is it that cocktails have made such a revival in recent years?
I think it’s mainly down to fashion. Wine was in the ‘in thing’ in the 80s and 90s, now people are drinking more spirits. But also people are discovering just how interesting cocktails can be. When I was growing up they were just cheap lurid things that got you drunk, whereas nowadays people are realising that they can be every bit as interesting as a good bottle of claret.
Are there too many gins on offer these days? And how long will the craze last do you think?
I thought there was a gin glut back in 2015 and that we were heading for a crash. Now think about how ballistic the gin market has gone since then. Somebody told me that over 130 new gins were launched last year! So I can’t predict when it will stall but it has to happen at some point. I think it’ll happen slowly at first, people and pubs will stop ordering quite so many gins, and then many hobby level distillers will stop. There might even be some high profile collapses but I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the days of Gordon’s or Beefeater.
What’s your favourite cocktail, why and which ingredients?
At the moment my favourite cocktail is an Old-Fashioned. As the name suggests, it’s one of the simplest cocktails but it’s also one of the most adaptable, all you need is a brown spirit, sugar, ice and bitters. Just make sure you use good quality bourbon, whisky etc. and then let the other ingredients bring out different elements in the spirit. I made one over the weekend with Santa Teresa 1798 rum from Venezuela (which has a flavour profile somewhere between cognac and bourbon), brown sugar, orange and Angostura bitters, a twist of orange and a maraschino cherry.
Is there such a thing as a good pre-mixed cocktail?
Yes! Drinks like the Negroni and the Old-Fashioned lend themselves really well to being pre-mixed. Starward Australian whisky makes a really great pre-mixed Old Fashioned, and Sacred a bottled Negroni. The Negroni, in particular, is good because it can be wood-aged so it takes on some tawny port flavours.
You name-check Blue Stratos in the book – 10 out of 10 on the kitsch scale – what Christmas-advertised flavoured liqueurs still make you shudder?
It has to be Archers peach schnapps, a great favourite when I was a teenager in the early 90s and often led to unpleasantness. I’ve never quite seen the point of Advocaat either, but I’m wary of dismissing kitsch drinks out of hand because much of what we drink now will seem ridiculous in 20 years, and I’m old enough to remember when Campari was seen as a bit tacky.
A lion walks into a bar and asks for a “gin . . .. . . . .. . . . . . .. . . . . and tonic.”
The barman says “why the big pause?”
The Home Bar: The Guide to Designing, Equipping and Stocking your Own Bar by Henry Jeffreys is published by Jacqui Small £25 You can buy a copy by clicking here