Home Mixology - the DIY Gin Palace

Sam Nelson mixing cocktails

Belfast Gin Map caught up with home mixologist Sam Nelson to talk cocktail making and how to build the ultimate home bar. We asked him to share a few of his insider tips…

Sam, where did you grow up?

Belfast, but a very different Belfast than today. In food and drink terms I cut my teeth in Glasgow. I see a lot of similarities between Belfast and Glasgow. They’re both towns with a reputation for being rough and ready but packed full of great bars.

How did you get into home mixology?

I’ve always loved building a decent drinks collection at home. It started with whiskey and then gin when I was a student, but I would drink it as quick as I could buy it so I never had more than a few decent bottles. As I got older something weird started happening and I realised I could afford to buy more than I could drink. I started adding different bottles that could be used for mixing, like aromatized wines, amaros, liqueurs or the odd bottle of bitters. Basic ingredients so I could begin to make some of the staple classic cocktails like a Sazerac or a Martini. I fell in love with the process of it all, from acquiring new bottles to experimenting with sugar syrups. I almost like making a cocktail as much as drinking it.

What is your reference/ bible for cocktails?

A book by Brad Thomas Parsons called ‘Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All’. It’s not that unusual for people to have a bottle of Angostura Bitters in their home collection but that moment when I wanted to make my own Sazeracs and added a bottle of Peychauds Bitters to my collection was a bit of a game changer in how I approached my drinks cabinet at home. It gave me a soft spot for Bitters and the effect they can have on a drink and nothing celebrates that more than Brad Thomas Parsons book. There are more influential cocktail books out there – and Parsons will point you towards them - but Bitters reminds me of that moment when I had my first Sazerac at home so I have a soft spot for it.

What is your favourite gin cocktail? Why?

I can never do just one drink, so I would need to pick two.

My favourite cocktail of all is the Last Word. Equal parts gin, green chartreuse, lime juice and maraschino liqueur, shaken over ice, double strained and served straight up with a maraschino cherry. There are just too many reasons to love this drink. It’s easy, for a start. No need for sugar syrups, fat washing or smoking. Just four simple ingredients, shaken and poured. It’s also a prohibition era drink which always gets kudos. But the thing I love most about it is how balanced it is. It’s not easy to balance green chartreuse given it’s flavoured with well over 100 herbs, plants and flowers, but the Last Word manages it perfectly and adds complexity to the gin without overpowering it. And if you need any more convincing, green chartreuse appeared on the first-class menu on the Titanic so I’ll claim it has a Belfast connection too.

My second would be the French 75, a gin 1920s champagne cocktail named after a lethal world war one artillery gun. What’s not to like? Two ounces of gin, half an ounce of lemon juice and a quarter ounce of simple syrup, shaken over ice, strained and topped with dry champagne. You can play about with the quantities to suit your taste and it’s a good one to experiment with different gins (or brandy). It’s fancy and who doesn’t like fancy.

What are the absolute essentials to have in your cocktail store?

The things you like to drink. There’s absolutely no point in buying a bottle of Green Chartreuse for £40 if you don’t like intense herbal liqueurs. It’s best to start with base grain spirits like gin and whisky and add from there. At its most simple a cocktail is alcohol, sugar, water and bitters so those ingredients would be a good place to start. And you’ll need ice and a shaker or mixing glass. Not ice that’s been lying in your freezer for months, fresh ice.

In terms of gin, it’s good to have a few different types if you can. One of the wonderful things about gin is the variety of different botanicals and how that impacts the flavour profile. You’d probably want one that’s juniper forward, one that’s citrus forward and then one that brings in a wider variety of botanicals and floral notes. That should cover you for all your needs. And choose local - we’ve got loads of great gins now.

Vermouth is probably your next step, dry for Martini’s and sweet for Negronis (or you could try an old school Martinez). Just be aware that aromatized wine doesn’t last forever once open so make good use of it relatively quickly. At least that’s the excuse I use. You’ll also need a bottle of Campari or similar aperitif for those Negronis.

Don’t cut back on the garnish, either. The garnish adds important citrus to liven a drink, especially those without fresh citrus already. Cocktails are usually four or five ingredients and so the balance is important with each element. Have your fresh citrus at hand. And remember, you can turn pretty much any spirit into a sour by shaking spirit, citrus and simple syrup over ice, so those lemons and limes can always be put to good use beyond a garnish.

I also like to have three types of whisky, a smoky Scottish whisky, a rye and a bourbon.

And Pisco. Pisco is always good too (see above for sours).

If you had any advice for someone thinking about trying some home mixology what would it be?

Start with the basics and learn to do them really well first. There’s no point in making extravagant reductions, syrups or fat washed spirits if you don’t know the basics of why, when and how long you shake or stir a drink. Or what brings balance to a well-made drink.

Taste your ingredients on their own too. If it’s too strong or bitter, then add a little water or fizzy water. Don’t just do things because that’s what your book says. You’re more likely to understand why your book tells you to make your drink that way if you know the properties of your ingredients. In that way, if you don’t think the drink is working out then you can usually understand what you’re doing wrong or what element your drink is missing. If you don’t like it enough to have a sip then you probably shouldn’t be putting it in your drink at all.

And if you’re going to attempt that Ramos Gin Fizz, make sure you have a friend or two on stand-by to tag in.

What is your favourite location on the gin map and why?

The Vineyard. There are lots of great places on the map but I find myself in the Vineyard most. Maybe that’s just a sign of how often a new dad gets out to a bar, though.

The Vineyard is head and shoulders above any other off-license in Belfast and the selection and knowledge is great. Go and ask someone about Bitters and you’ll not be disappointed with their selection.

Do you have a favourite gin or gin serve?

I like the variety. When I first got into gin there wasn’t a great deal of choice. I used to go to gin tastings and the most extravagant it got was Martin Miller’s or Hendricks. Then the explosion happened. So rather than stick to a favourite, get out there and explore the choices because it’s never been so good.

Now, if only there was a map to guide us through it…

What is next for you?

Making my own coffee and pecan bitters, hopefully in time for Autumn nights in the house with the fire lit.

My second child is also on the way at the end of October so I’ll be heading down that roller coaster again. Sleepless nights, nappies and cleaning up the spew all over again. All the more reason for that stiff drink in front of the fire.

A good bar in the Cavehill area wouldn’t go amiss either!

Anya O Connor