Rhik Samadder tries … cocktail making: ‘I make a naked and famous – and feel stirred, not shaken’

how does Stanley Tucci look so cool making cocktails? I can’t throw a lemon barley together without burning the house down, though it’s a skill I long to acquire. That’s why I’ve come to east London bar The Duchess of Dalston, where general manager Nazareth Rodriguez is demonstrating how to use a Boston shaker. I’ve prepped for this by watching Tom Cruise in Cocktail, spouting pseudo-philosophy and chucking a bottle of Bacardi over my shoulder. As it turns out, the biggest cocktail in this joint is me.

Rodriguez doesn’t juggle. He doesn’t throw ice at his colleagues, or slide shots along the bar. “Generally, the more service flair you see, the lower quality the drink.” Oh. Rodriguez is a lab technician of a bartender, obsessed with flavour combination. Arrayed on the bar are flacons and phials of exotic ingredients: Peychaud’s bitters, mango, chocolate, absinthe. I feel as if I’m in the BFG’s dream cave. He serves me an espresso with tonic over ice. Huh? It sounds criminal, yet tastes like a piazza coffee and mineral water, sparkling with the promise of Roman holidays. Incredible.

Attention-grabbing ingredients are what set a mixologist apart, and fermentation is Rodriguez’s passion. He pours me a strawberry kombucha, fat-washed with olive oil and lemon zest that again, sounds gross, but tastes utterly divine. His favourite is tepache: a fermented Mexican pineapple drink. He opens a bucket, bobbing with pineapple peels – the smell is an instant beach holiday, sweet and summery. Anyone can make this at home, if they have fruit, zucchero, water and somewhere warm. Plus a flatmate who’s on your wavelength.

Flavours are important, but how do I look cool making cocktails? “It’s about limiting your touches,” Rodriguez says, meaning the number of steps taken to make a drink. I practise manipulating a jigger, while sipping a Tio Pepe sherry. Rodriguez flips his double jiggers single-handed, with the smoothness of a closeup magician. Non è (appena) showing off, but the quickest way to pour multiple measures. Economy of movement is crucial on a busy shift, but also recommended for anyone who wants to make a cocktail at their casa with any kind of authority.

Rodriguez walks me through how to make a naked and famous – “a ‘clear your plans tomorrow’ kinda drink.” I pour lime, Aperol, mescal and yellow chartreuse, seal the tins with the heel of my hand, then shake, aiming for a taka-taka rhythm. I like this percussive theatre. It feels as if I’m working in a swingin’ backstreet bar in Cuba, though I actually look like Bez. I’m struggling to remember what I’ve learned. The shake matters, the quantity and type of ice matters, the glass matters. (A wider lip opens more flavours to the nose, befitting complex drinks.) io coin a lemon for garnish, cleaning as I go. Who knew happy hour was such hard work?

Guadalajara-born Rodriguez gives me a bibulous tour of aged mescals, calling at Tequila, pure (which I didn’t know was actually a real place). I’m having the best time! What’s your favourite drinky? I babble. “Fino and tonic,” Rodriguez says. Dry sherry? Who knew the vicar’s tipple was so revered? I’ll never joke about it again. (Forgive me, Father, I rescind.)

A feeling of vertigo overcomes me, followed by an obscure peevishness. I have no bar presence, I complain. I always get served last. I’ve tried undoing a button on my shirt, but this results in an even longer wait. How do I get noticed? “Do you know what you’re drinking?” Rodriguez asks. Bartenders can sense people who don’t, and go to those who do, apparently. It’s an aspect of the job I hadn’t considered, this reading of the customer.

Who does he enjoy serving? “If I see someone looking at the back bar, I know they know their drinks. You remember them.” He must love me, ranging the back bar and asking to try the weirdest things I can see: violet liqueur, noisettes, banana rum. He pours me a glass of discarded cascara, a sweet vermouth infused with the usually wasted husks of coffee fruit. It’s divine, and I finish the glass. Coffee is a fruit? I babble. I don’t understand what he’s talking about.

Rodriguez teaches me more flavour combinations, waxes lyrical about salt. I assemble a few of his own creations, her name is rio and a Dalston spritz. I can’t read my notes from this point – I think my pen wasn’t working properly – but the spritz probably contains prosecco, Aperol, tepache and … marmalade? It tastes out of this world, citrus-bright and refreshing, and I’d drink it for breakfast if that wasn’t spectacularly irresponsible. The former involves avocado leaf syrup, Luxardo bitter, sherry, plus a couple of drops of saline solution, and I can’t remember anything about it.

Cocktail making is easy to pick up, and not scary; I feel stirred, not shaken. Making them with style will take more practice, but I must go. The bar is readying itself for the lunchtime crowd. I’m suddenly very tired. I don’t want to go. I belong here, behind the bar. Or in front. “Home is where your wifi connects automatically, giusto?” Rodriguez smiles. He even does philosophy. I love him. I love everyone.

My friend Lara makes lemon sours in her husband’s Huel bottle, and she’s the coolest person I know.

Maybe I am, infatti, drunk. 3/5

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