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The holidays are the time of year when alcohol flows freely, from holiday parties to gatherings at home. For some, regular beer and wine will do. But for those who love a good cocktail, there are plenty to be had. For fans of TV, some of the best cocktails come from Downton Abbey, as the upper classes drank before dinner. I tried making Downton Abbey cocktails using the recipe book written by the real owner of Downton's Highclere Castle, the Countess of Carnarvon, At Home at Highclere: Entertaining at the Real Downton Abbey and they were so classy, I feel like I joined Downton myself.
The cocktail is thought of as an American creation, but it was actually born of the British taste for spiked punches in the 18th Century. The word "cocktail" was first used in March 1798. But "punch houses" and cocktails were considered a lower class thing for over a century until the 1920s brought prohibition. With the need to disguise the smell and taste of liquor, these mixed drinks became all the rage in New York City and then traveled across the pond to British upper-class circles.
A Champagne Cocktail
I started with the Champagne Cocktail, one of the oldest recipes in the book. The Champagne Cocktail was invented in 1869, and it is typical of the cocktails of the period: Take alcohol already on hand, add fruit, sugar, and bitters, and call it a drink. Scroll through the Instagram photos above and you'll see how simple it is. Take a sugar cube and put a drop of bitters on it. Add a half shot of brandy, fill the rest of the glass up with champagne, and add a cherry or a slice of orange for garnish. The result is light and sweet and bubbly. The only change I made was the champagne brand. At Home at Highclere suggests using their homegrown and pressed champagne, but as it was not available, I had to use Korbel.
Make Mine A Manhattan
The Manhattan was created a few years after the Champagne Cocktail. Legend has it the drink was invented during a party thrown by Lady Randolph Churchill (Winston's mother) in 1874 in the UK, but most don't believe it. After all, a drink called a Manhattan can only come from New York City. Like the Champagne cocktail, this is a simple drink. But where the first is sweet and bubbly, a Manhattan is smooth and dark tasting. Vermouth and bitters are mixed with whiskey over ice and then poured into a traditional glass. After filling the shaker with ice, pour over two ounces (one double shot) of whiskey, 3/4 of an ounce (not quite a single shot) of vermouth, and then a few drops of bitters. Shake to mix and then pour out the chilled alcohol mix into a martini glass. Garnish with a cherry or two on a toothpick.
Pitcher of Pimm's
The Pimm's Cup is the most recent of the cocktails included in the recipe book. Every European country has a specific alcohol associated with it — France has wine, Germany has beer, Ireland has whiskey, and the English have gin. Pimm's is a gin-based herbal aperitif liqueur, and it's a UK staple, especially in the summer. Though the alcohol itself has been around since the 1870s, the idea of the Pimm's Cup, a fruity punch mixed with lemonade, didn't come along until the 1930s. As such, it is the most complex of all the drinks I made, with layers of fruit flavor disguising the gin until you realize too late you've had a little too much.
As this is the most complex drink, it's the one with the most steps. Most of it is cutting up the fruit for the punch. The traditional additives are an apple, an orange, a half a cucumber, strawberries, plus mint, but feel free to get creative! The ratio of lemonade to Pimm's is 3:1, so I bought a bottle of Simply Lemonade three times the size of the Pimm's bottle.
Please note: If it's a hot day out, make sure to add ice in the pitcher! (This being November, I didn't bother.)
I found the easiest of all of these to make was the Champagne cocktail. It really was just a glass of champagne mixed with brandy and a sugar cube. The Manhattan was the most daunting going in, since I had no experience with using barware, but pouring out of the shaker was easier than expected. Of the three, my favorite was the Pimm's Cup, for the sheer complexity of flavor. It was the most labor-intensive, but it was worth the effort.
For those looking to make all these at home, the trick is to make sure you're buying high-quality ingredients, especially for the fruit!
All three of these drinks would make a high-class party out of any holiday and each hits a different preference for party goers, whether they love a fruity, bubbly sip or a cheery punch. I highly recommend trying them all!
At Home at Highclere: Entertaining at the Real Downton Abbey is available to buy on Amazon.