The Popup Martini Bar


Several months ago, my auntie suggested that we hold a popup martini bar in our family restaurant. The venue is the Gallery, on the Main Street of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull (a beautiful and friendly Hebridean Island in Argyll, western Scotland).


We thought about the idea for a while but it remained firmly in the land of fantasy for quite some time. Then, last month, my Mum decided that we should just go ahead and do it. If it doesn’t work, we will learn some lessons, and if it does work, well, it will be a fantasy fulfilled – for me at least, and we might be able to organise some more.


Given that martinis aren’t exactly common tipples at the drinking establishments on the island, we thought it would be fun to do something new and different, particularly for the locals, although it was peak tourist season so we thought there would be several visitors around as well. Ultimately though, I think I just wanted to try my hand at finally being a martini barman.


So, we bought plenty of martini glasses, a shed load of gin, commandeered a freezer to get it all in, planned the processes and the structure of the evening, and put out some adverts and social media posts about it. With some extremely useful guidance from the restaurant staff and the creative talents of my mother, we came up with a plan, who would serve what, which food items we would include on the menu, the types of martini we would serve and even a playlist.


The Gallery is very conducive to a martini atmosphere. The building is a beautiful old church, the tallest structure on the island, lovingly restored (a work still in progress) by members of the family (such as my gravity-defying brother in the above image) and some skilled friends on the island.


It has great acoustics and a good sound system. In addition, because it is already a restaurant we have an alcohol license in place, tables, chairs, equipment and staff members, which made it a lot easier for us to prepare.


On the day of the event, we were exceptionally lucky with the weather. The sun was out and it was positively hot.


Given that our restaurant has an outdoor courtyard, sociably adjacent to Tobermory Main Street (it’s good for people watching and catching up with passers-by) it’s the perfect setting for sitting out and enjoying a coffee or drink whilst overlooking the harbour.


Word of advice: if you’re going to do this sort of thing, try to practise the entire process in advance. That includes testing all your equipment! I stupidly didn’t check our sound system entirely and at the last minute discovered that my phone (with my pre-made playlist) wasn’t compatible with the sound system. Thank god for local saint Wiksey who turned up and fixed it all in the space of about 5 minutes. Thank you, you technical genius!


Otherwise the freezers were good and the gin and glasses were suitably chilled. I also took my own special martini knife, peeler and chopping board. I’m really fussy about my martini kit which can come across as *slightly* obsessive but if something is out of place it will annoy me no-end and distract me from my goal of getting everyone tipsy.

We were almost ready.


On the day of the event I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. What if we ran out of glasses? What if it didn’t work? What if there was an alcohol related crime? What if we ran out of gin (itself an alcohol related crime…)?

It didn’t help that while I was walking along the Main Street in the afternoon, nearly everyone I spoke to mentioned the event. I was starting to worry that we would be overwhelmed.

I put together a menu, outlining the martinis we would offer:

  • The simple classic martini (please specify if you would like it sweet, dry or made with vodka) with a twist of lemon (or olive if preferred)
  • A dirty martini (with an olive and 3-6 tsp brine according to preference)
  • A hot martini (with 2-5 drops of Tabasco sauce according to preference)
  • A hot ‘n’ dirty martini (combining the above two)
  • A Gibson martini (with a pickled onion)
  • A Paisley martini (with 2 tsp whisky)

We also served a selection of additional drinks like beer, wine, pimms and prosecco.


Mum and I went over the best layout for the drinks. We would serve the martinis at the bar on a plate with a small dish of olives and some miniature pretzels on the side. Additional food was also available on the menu. 


The lovely Turnbull family supplied us with some fat, juicy oysters (my favourite food and an amazing martini accompaniment) while the beautiful Sally Swinbanks of the Tobermory Fish Company supplied us with additional seafood bites which again go fantastically with a martini.


Minutes to go, the music was playing and we stood in expectation. I was very tempted to pour then down a martini to relax but I resisted and my colleague Catriona kindly made me an espresso instead which worked. Then, the doors opened at 5 o’clock and we were ready to go.


My first order came in almost immediately for four martinis and I got to work, assembling them as fast as I could. No sooner had I served them had two more orders come in. I continued at the same pace. I didn’t stop or slow down again until 8 o’clock when we closed. At one or two points a queue had formed. What a rush. I was worried that we might end up making over 100 martinis, and would then run out of things. In the end we only ran out of the miniature pretzels and I served 250 martinis. A personal record! I was over the moon. I was also absolutely thrilled with my colleagues who seemed to effortlessly keep a lid on the proceedings, serving, cleaning and arranging everything with good humour.


Unfortunately because I was so busy I had barely lifted my gaze up from the bar for the whole time so I hadn’t had a chance to see how everything was progressing, but I was told that people were having a good time. Some of the guests kindly shared their photographs with me and allowed me to use them on the blog.


As it went so well I look forward to doing it again in the future. I would also be interested to see how it works out if the weather isn’t as good. If everyone is inside the view wouldn’t be as romantic but the atmosphere could be brilliant.


At some point in the future I would like to co-operate with my talented cousin Cat Loud and do a joint martini-cabaret evening. You can see her perform this month at the Edinburgh Fringe.

I also want to hold a martini night on a Friday so that more people are able to join us (our first one was on a Tuesday). I’d also like to do it in the winter when locals have more time on their hands for a good party.

Watch this space and thank you everyone who helped and those who came on the night!

A Martini with Hayman’s Gin

I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while.

  
A very good friend and reader of this blog presented me with a bottle of this gin from Haymans. I instantly loved the branding and packaging. The colours, dark blue and gold, were positively regal.

So I put the bottle in the freezer and awaiting a visit from my friend so we could have a martini (or three… oops).

  

This is the Family Reserve edition, where the gin has been stored in Scotch whisky barrels for three weeks prior to bottling. This mellows the drink and apparently conforms to a traditional method popular in the nineteenth century. Bottles from this limited batch are individually numbered, adding to the exclusive feel of the brand.

  
I loved the detail on the neck of the bottle in particular; a little flourish of olde worlde meets sharp brand new, reminiscent of the barrel and bottling process perhaps.

  
The gin has a distinctive taste of liquorice. Not usually my favourite botanical (I’m a citrus and juniper traditionalist), it was very smooth and rich and I definitely enjoyed it. 

I made the martinis using my usual method – keep the gin in the freezer and mix with vermouth to taste as follows:

  • between 2tsp to 30ml vermouth
  • around 80-130ml gin

  

I served the martini with lemon peel garnish rather than olives as I wasn’t sure the latter pairing would work, although olives were served on the side and went very well. Black olives in particular could compliment the liquorice flavour of the gin.

  
Other nibble dishes that could go well with this martini include asparagus, cheeses of all shapes and sizes, seafood (including the classic martini accompaniment oysters) and strongly seasoned meat, cured, fried or grilled, particularly if it incorporates liquorice or anise-type botanicals.

Because of its distinctive flavour a martini made wth this gin works well as an aperitif to build ones appetite (especially if you are a liquorice fan) but could also break martini tradition and be served as a digestif as well.

Just don’t overdo it! The rule exists for a reason, it doesn’t matter how nice the gin is.

And nice it is. You can see the full range from the traditional family distillers here.

A Sho-Chu Martini

  
We had a family get-together but we ran out of gin mid-way through the night. I know. 

  
Luckily I found a bottle of Japanese sho-chu which I thought I could use as an experimental substitute in a martini.

Sho-chu is a spirit distilled from things like barley, rice, sweet potato or one or two other ingredients. It’s normally between 25-35% strength so is a lot stronger than wine but not usually as strong as gin or vodka. This makes it quite a versatile cocktail ingredient. 

I made my sho-chu martini using the following recipe:

  • 25ml (or to taste) sweet vermouth
  • 40ml chilled vodka
  • 60ml sho-chu

  
Garnish with a twist of lemon and serve.

It has a warming, smooth taste and worked better than I expected. It also wasn’t as strong as a full-blown martini but the family hangover the next day was nonetheless still substantial. Kanpai!

The Espresso Martini

Make me something that wakes me up and then f#*€s me up.”  

 I’ve wanted to make this one for a long time but given its chemical stimulant potency I found myself putting it off until a suitable situation arose.

The origin of most cocktails is blurry (a testament to their effectiveness) but it is believed that the espresso martini was created in a bar in London when a model entered the premises and asked the bartender to make her a drink in the manner quoted at the top of this post. Class in a glass? Perhaps not. But the drink has quickly earned its place in the cocktail hall of fame, which is quite a feat considering how relatively young the drink is in comparison to some of its competitors.

  
Very simple, an espresso martini combines coffee liqueur, vodka and fresh espresso, all chilled and served in an appropriate glass.

  

As a liqueur I used Kahlúa. Created in the mountains of Veracruz, on the Caribbean coast of Mexico, the drink combines arabica beans with sugar cane to create a rich, sweet liqueur. There are several other coffee liqueurs out there but this I would say is the standard. The etymology of the word Kahlúa comes from the indigenous Nahuatl language, meaning ‘the house of the Acolhua people’. The Hispanisisation of the word can be found in the name San Juan de Ulùa, known in my family as being the location of a very difficult naval conflict between the Spanish navy and a fleet commanded by one of my ancestors. Symbolic indeed. The magnitude of the maritime battle was matched only by the hangover I experienced upon drinking too many of these drinks. Let that be a lesson to you all.

Kahlúa also contains rum. You might like to add a dash of dark rum to an espresso martini to give it even more of a kick and flavour. I would recommend a darker rum for this.

  
The family favourite is Wood’s Rum – not least because of its naval associations.

For me, the basic trick of the espresso martini is to balance the sweetness of the liqueur with the savoury coffee and neutral-but-strong vodka. Too much liqueur and you overpower the coffee and find yourself with a sickly-sweet drink. Not enough liqueur and the drink becomes overpowering to the palate.

I normally like my martinis stirred and not shaken but with this drink you need to shake it like a Polaroid picture – well enough to produce a healthy froth. I also recommend that you keep the vodka and the martini glass in the freezer so that it’s all nice and cold.

  

There – a nice and frosty martini glass. I’ve seen these served in coupe glasses as well which works nicely too. 

When to drink them

The alcohol-caffeine combination of an espresso martini would not make a good aperitif and certainly wouldn’t be suitable as a night cap. I would therefore recommend it after a meal, but ahead of a late night.

  

The opportunity for me to drink one recently presented itself whilst I took part in our local Highland Games. The day sees traditional pipe band music, dancing and fitness competitions, such as tossing the caber, throwing the hammer, kilt races and other fun pursuits, not to mention a healthy amount of alcohol consumption. What else would you expect when a horde of Hebrideans get together – some travelling from other islands, the mainland and even abroad to catch up with family and friends for the annual event.

Anyway I volunteered to help behind the bar (it’s obviously my spiritual home) during the daytime. After a day of serving booze but not drinking any, followed by a quick meal at home, it was time for me to prepare for the night of festivities ahead. There is usually much drinking and merriment in local pubs, followed by a traditional ceilidh dance in the town hall so I was going to need some stamina, or at the very least, stamina’s distant relatives: booze and caffeine.

  

Using my Mum’s trusty coffee machine I made myself an espresso.

  

Taking a vintage silver-plated cocktail shaker, I added about 4 ice cubes and poured over the coffee. If you don’t have a cocktail shaker you can do this with a large jar. It works almost as well.

  • Add 20ml coffee liqueur (or to taste – more for a sweeter drink, less for a stronger, more bitter punch-in-the-face type imbibement.
  • Add 120ml chilled vodka.

Shake it all up very vigorously. The harder you shake, the thicker the foam (la crema) you will get on top of the drink. A nice, firm foam is more attractive to look at, adds a textural smoothness to the drink and is perfect for a nice garnish or coffee beans.

Pour the drink into the glass. If you used a jar to shake it up, try to hold back the ice cubes.

  
If you don’t have a good foam it will look a bit like this. The texture isn’t so nice and it doesn’t look anywhere near as attractive.

  
It should look thick, rich and creamy on top, with a dark dangerous looking underside. Garnish with some coffee beans.

  

I took them out from the top of mum’s machine. I like to use three pointing out from the middle of the glass, with the seam of the bean facing upwards.
  

And serve!

But be warned, normally there is a two martini rule. For this drink, however, I would recommend that you only have one on a night out. Anymore and you will be drunk and wide awake until dawn. Although perhaps that’s your goal. In which case go right ahead, but you have been warned!

  

South African biltong

I love most foods that are raw, pickled or cured (with the exception of tinned tuna). A lot of them lend themselves very well to being a good martini accompaniment.

 
Enter the biltong. Usually (but not exclusively) made from beef, seasoned and dried in blocks, this South African delicacy was born out of hardy necessity to preserve meat, often ahead of long journeys into the interior of the country during early colonial days. The meat is normally cured with vinegar, herbs and spices before being dried to preserve it. It is similar to beef jerky but thicker and with a slightly more complex flavour.

 
I have cousins from South Africa who recently held a birthday barbecue (a braai). Served up on a magnificent, specialised chopping device was a block of biltong. You chop off a slice, which in itself adds a little bit of grandiose ceremony to the process, unlike jerky which you would simply pull out of a packet.

 
Slowly chew the meat with an accompanying drink, savouring the flavour and texture. Remind yourself that you are living a far cry lifestyle away from the hardships endured by biltong’s initial creators as they helped found a new nation.

Martinis y tapas

  
Having spent an amazing weekend in Madrid I thought I would write about the drinking culture in the city and see what inspiration I could draw from a martini perspective.

  

Los Madrileños know how to have fun – without feeling guilty, without getting stressed and without getting post-apocalyptically drunk. If you feel like having a drink or having something to eat then do so. If you feel like having a nap then do so. The time of day is irrelevant. You shouldn’t feel bad for doing what your body is telling you to do. Eating, drinking and sleeping when you please might sound unhealthy but these people certainly don’t look unhealthy!

  
Another conclusion is that alcohol is much better when accompanied by food.

Tapas or pinchos/pintxos (pronounced peen-chose) are small bites of food that accompany your drink. The adage “eating’s cheating” has few followers in Madrid and I am a faithful convert to the city’s attitude towards eating with booze. I always serve nibbles with my martinis but maybe we should be serving food with all alcohol. It’s not the most radical concept – it’s common practise in many countries (Sri Lanka for example).

If you are unconvinced about eating with your drinks then perhaps I can persuade you with some examples of the sorts of things you could enjoy with your booze.

   

Here is a mind-blowingly tasty assortment of morcilla (a spanish variation of black pudding) with apple, balsamic vinegar glaze and fried potato straws, accompanied with octopus and whole grain mustard ice cream. Yes. Mustard ice cream. Yes.

  
However, if this is too fancy just order your drink (such as a caños of beer which isn’t as much as a full pint) with something as simple as a piece of bread with a topping. Drink, taste and relax. It’s not a race to finish your drink in order to buy the next round.

  

Fried calamari is common. Ham, cheese and olives also feature highly.

  

There are many expert voices on the subject of tapas so this amateur is not going to bluff you, but of the stories that surround its history I have a favourite. According to my friend, at a point in its history Spain was undergoing a drought and food production was low. The people resorted to drinking more alcohol to make up for their lost calories, but this led to widespread malaise and drunkenness. A troubled king, seeking a solution, ordered establishments to serve simple bread and toppings over the top of alcohol glasses (the word tapas comes from the Spanish verb tapar – to cover). When eaten this would soak up some of the alcohol, reduce drunkenness and help feed the population. A cultural trend was born. 

Like martinis, there are several competing stories surrounding the historical origins of tapas. Without a time machine to verify which version is accurate the only thing you can do is believe in your favourite.

 Whatever the true origins of tapas there have been an infinite multitude of variations since its creation. Tapas now even extends to airline food, as demonstrated above.

For me, the most important concept is that the sharing of tapas is very sociable.

  It can be fairly hands-on; you might be called upon to mash your own guacamole.

 
It can also be very simple. Above is a delicious dish of peppers fried with salt. 
So what can we take from this fine Spanish contribution to human culture to try and improve the martini experience?

Snacks, bites and nibbles are a very important part of a martini so tapas can provide a wealth of inspiration for anyone looking to serve theirs with some added Latin panache.

The main point, however, is about relaxing and sharing good flavours, drinks and conversation with friends, family, lovers etc.

  

If you can get that right then everything else should fall into place – ojala.

 
But as a word of warning, don’t drink so much you end up naked on the ground in Plaza de Colón in the middle of the day, although evidently if you do you won’t be the first…

A festive Advocaat and lemonade

At Christmas time, and Christmas time only, my family partake of a ‘snowball’ cocktail. It is a typical winter warmer made with the Dutch drink Advocaat. Advocaat is a blend of whisky, sugar and egg nog, all of which are good winter ingredients.

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Mix equal parts of Advocaat and lemonade in a glass (we usually use a Paris goblet), stir then serve.

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It’s simple and sweet and has a very distinctive flavour. The velvet texture of the Advocaat also contrasts nicely with the foamy lemonade layer on top. It’s perfect for when you’re opening presents, or after a large Christmas meal.