How Cape Town shakes up its sexiest cocktails

Can't taste the alcohol? Well, that's the idea behind a good cocktail, say Cape Town’s experts.

The cocktail is an alcoholic drink that contains spirits, mixers, fruit and herbs. The tipple was first referred to as 'excellent for the head' in the Farmers Cabinet (1803) and has since remained a superior beverage of choice, even during the United States Prohibition (1920-1933). Fast forward to the present and the cocktail is synonymous with sundowners at Camps Bay, but what makes it so special is its versatility. The cocktail can be enjoyed just about anywhere, from Plet to high-class cigar bars in Cape Town.

Its complex in flavour, often uses fresh ingredients, is visually stimulating and promises the drinker a taste adventure that exceeds curiosity. It's a drink for the outgoing, adventurous, elegant and sophisticated. The special glasses and trimmings also make it really sexy.

I spoke to the experts: Richard Reid, Food and Beverage Manager, Cape To Cuba; David Raad, Owner and Gary Van Breda, Bar Tender, Cafe Caprice; Mark Finnemore, Julep and Benson Ndlanga, Assistant Bar Manager, Planet Champagne Bar, to find out what makes a good cocktail.

Don't just look at it. Understand it.

You need to understand which flavours work well together and how such flavours can be enhanced. By using fresh produce including lemon, mint, strawberries and squeezed lime you will enhance the flavour remarkably. It's equally important to understand the difference between sweet and sour and to be careful not to over dilute. How adeptly cocktails are flared and shaken certainly adds to the magic of the taste.

It's also important that the right type of ice is used – blocks of ice for tall cocktails, crushed ice for mojitos and finely shaved ice for daiquiris.

Drinking with your eyes first

"How many guys do you know that drool when they see a gorgeous, tanned figure sashaying by in a skimpy white dress?" asks David, "We all do because we are sold at first sight. When it comes to cocktails, presentation is everything."

Visual presentation counts for a sizable chunk of cocktail attraction – simply put – if it looks good it tastes good. Benson recommends using a simple yet classic garnish, whilst Richard tells me that sweet cocktails deserve a cherry.

How do you like it?

"The mojito is the most popular cocktail in Cape Town," explains Benson, "It's trendy and can be a winter warmer or a refreshing cocktail on a hot day."

In fact, all experts have selected the classic mojito and the strawberry daiquiri amongst Cape Town's favourites. Despite this each bar has developed a classic with a twist, or thrown caution to the pineapple to develop a newbie.

Richard serves strawberry, coconut and blueberry versions of the mojito at Cape To Cuba; Mark serves a summer-y Watermelon Ling, with ginger, rum and beautiful botanical aromas at Julep and Benson serves Planet Passion – a champagne cocktail with fresh raspberries and vodka.

"Caprice serves a rock star mojito topped with bubbly and infused with vanilla syrup," explains Gary, "No other ingredients work so well together, so this cocktail is unique in taste."

Enticing customers away from tried and tested favourites to the unchartered territory of new cocktail creations depends on how passionate the barman is. It's also a good idea to offer a tasting, before the customer makes their final decision.

"It's hard to sell something when you don't know what the customer wants," explains Richard, "Why not ask them: do you like pineapple or orange juice? If their reply is orange juice, serve up a Cape to Cuba or a Cuban Sunrise."

Pleasing the taste buds

You can teach anyone to make a drink, but can that person make the same cocktail consistently, accurately and quickly for 100 guests?

It's apparent that passion and a fair amount of talent form a stellar mixologist. In an arena where personality goes a long way, the barman must have an eclectic character and must always be on the lookout for new creations that will push adventurous taste buds to their limits.

"The palette has to be refined and personal bias must be left at the bar door," says Mark, "A barmen must be able to tell the difference between sweet and sour and focus on the quality of the drink before theatrical techniques."

"It's important to keep tasting the cocktail and to take care and time over it," adds Gary, "You need to understand the history of the cocktail and how a wide spectrum of ingredients taste."

The cocktail remains as vibrant as it did over 200 years ago. It's abundant with flavours and fresh ingredients, it's a visual masterpiece and it suits every occasion. We can thank our mixologists for keeping the spirit of the cocktail alive – innovative, passionate and expert. I quite fancy a mojito now. Don't you?

By Lisa Nevitt

Read more about old friends and first times at Julep, or check out our Bar Section for Asian tapas or luxury beers.

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