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Every now and again I get a call from the BBC asking me to go and mix cocktails on Radio 4 – an experience that is always slightly surreal given that the audience can’t see or taste anything. The key, I’ve discovered, is to do the whole thing very noisily – with lots of popping of corks, cracking ice, clinking glasses and vigorous stirring and shaking. Because those sonic cues, that music, is part of what makes a drink delicious. Simply cracking open a can of Schweppes can be enough to make your mouth water.

Boadas Cocktails: “shaking – and, famously throwing – cocktails since the 1930s”
Boadas Cocktails: “shaking – and, famously throwing – cocktails since the 1930s”

One writer who knew that very well was Philip Larkin – his description of a G&T in “Sympathy in White Major” (1974) is so euphonious it deserves a trigger warning:   

When I drop four cubes of ice
Chimingly in a glass, and add
Three goes of gin, a lemon slice,
And let a ten-ounce tonic void
In foaming gulps until it smothers
Everything else up to the edge… 

The chime of ice is integral to bar soundscapes today – but it would have been a novelty for bar-goers (particularly in England) in the early- to mid-19th century, when the commercial ice trade was still very much in its infancy. 

A martini at Bemelmans in New York
A martini at Bemelmans in New York © Andrew Moore

Three of the best bars

Rules, London

The oldest restaurant in the city keeps it real in its little first-floor cocktail bar – if gravel-voiced Bostonian Brian Silva’s behind the stick on your visit then you’re in for a treat. Bag a bar stool for the full experience. rules.co.uk

Boadas Cocktails, Barcelona

This Barcelona institution has been shaking – and, famously throwing – cocktails since the 1930s, but the arrival of Simone Caporale (who also co-owns Barcelona bar Sips, recently voted World’s Best Bar) has given it a new lease of life. boadascocktails.com

Bemelmans Bar, New York

The Carlyle’s chintzy cocktail lounge has lately had an unlikely renaissance with the cool crowd – sip classic drinks and feast on truffle fries among Brooklyn hipsters and monied blue rinses. rosewoodhotels.com

Charles Dickens – who was a discerning drinker – was enchanted by the ice culture he encountered in the States, as he recalls in this sonorous account of a bar visit from his travelogue American Notes (1842): “Hark! To the clinking sound of hammers breaking lumps of ice, and to the cool gurgling of the pounded bits, as, in the process of mixing, they are poured from glass to glass.”

Cocktails in his day were generally “poured” or “thrown” rather than shaken hard and fast. But by the time the Jazz Age rolled round, bars were jumping to a more lively metronome.

The energetic rattle of the shaker heralded a new age of glamour and speed – an era of adventure, sexual liberation, hard drinking and even harder partying. “A Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time,” declares detective Nick Charles in the 1934 flick The Thin Man, “a Bronx to two-step time, a dry Martini you always shake to waltz time.”

Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle, New York
Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle, New York © Don Riddle Images

I put Charles’s edict to the test once, in front of a live audience, with the help of James Pearson, the pianist at Ronnie Scott’s – a musical savant with a mischievous air reminiscent of Dudley Moore. I’m not sure our efforts did much for the drinks, but it was roundly agreed to be a five-star performance.

And yet the cheerful rattle of the shaker is a sound that’s now heard less and less, thanks to a trend in bar circles for cocktail pre-batching, or what restaurants call mise en place. There are many benefits to prepping cocktails in advance – it makes service quicker, more consistent and allows a bartender to employ all kinds of rarefied techniques. But it strips the bar of one important ingredient: its sweet cacophony. 


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