Every Valentine's Day those lucky in love strive to come up with a new way to impress the object of their affections. It will undoubtedly be the biggest date night of the year, with bars and restaurants busily pouring champagne and whipping up romance-themed cocktails.
But I would suggest – if you really want to impress – to steer away from any advertised specials and put some thought into what might be the most romantic potion for your amour.
There are literally thousands of kitschy Valentine's Day-themed cocktails out there and divining the inspired from the insipid can take some time. Whilst I'll leave you a couple of suggestions at the end of this post, I thought that the best idea might be to arm you with the skills to whip up a bespoke cocktail for your partner or date. What could be more romantic than something you created yourself?
Preference, balance and taste
As a bartender I'm constantly encountering new drinkers I've never served before. Part of the skill of the bartender is to quickly divine what sort of drinks this new guest might enjoy. There's nothing arcane about how this is done – a series of quick questions and observations about what they've previously enjoyed will lead you into the right choice.
To create a cocktail for your date you'll need to know whether they like light or dark spirits, something short and punchy or something long and refreshing. Some knowledge of what sort of fruits or herbs they enjoy can't hurt either.
Once you've got an idea about what sort of ingredients you'll need, you'll then need to know how to assemble them to create a balanced drink. Fortunately, to create most cocktails you can use a basic formula; strong + sour + sweet + weak = balance. 'Strong' is your base spirit, 'sour' is typically citrus juice, 'sweet' is sugar or a liqueur, and 'weak' is the ice used to chill and dilute the drink, fruit juice or mixers. I like to use these ingredients in a ratio of 2 parts strong, 1 part sour to ¾ parts sweet – keeping in mind that you can always make a drink that's too sour more sweet, but not the other way around.
Once you're confident with the formula and ratio above you can experiment with adding fresh fruits and modifiers (like good old Angostura bitters) to create thousands of different possibilities. Take this tipple below as an example:
My Cherry Amour
50ml gold rum
20ml fresh lime juice
15ml sugar syrup (mix 1 part sugar to 1 part hot water)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
A few fresh cherries (pitted)
Method: Add the cherries and sugar syrup to the bottom of a shaker and 'muddle' using a muddling stick or flat-ended bar spoon (a rolling pin or wooden spoon will do in a pinch). Add your other ingredients, fill with ice and shake as if you've just been stung by Cupid. Strain through a tea strainer into a pre-chilled cocktail glass – garnish with a red rose petal (you did remember the roses, right?).
Add a little bit of flair
The best cocktail bars know that theatre is the key to making great drinks even better. By theatre I mean the setting that a bar provides – great lighting and ambience, classy fittings and glassware, smooth service and skill at producing drinks almost effortlessly. It's why we pay more for drinks when we go out, as opposed to picking something up from the bottle shop.
To make your cocktail creation the most romantic in existence you'll have to think like a bar manager or restaurateur – create an amazing environment, practice your technique and over-deliver an exceptional product. I can't guarantee that your date will like your creation, but if you put in enough thought and deliver it confidently it really won't matter – the battle is already won.
When going on a date, it always makes a difference if you've been to the venue in question before. It's very hard to know what to suggest to your date to try if you've got no idea what's on the cocktail list or wine menu. Do you even know if they have French champagne by the glass? And does the bartender know a cobbler from julep?
Pick your venue wisely and make sure you order appropriately depending on what the venue specialises in. If you see every other patron drinking cocktails when you walk in, it's a fair bet that these guys know what they're doing. Even if this is the case they might not have every ingredient under the sun. Look for inspiration from the cocktail list or order one of these two champagne-charged classics:
30ml gold rum
15ml lime juice
15ml honey syrup (2 parts honey: 1 part hot water)
30ml brut NV sparkling wine or champagne
Method: Add all ingredients into a shaker, shake briskly and strain into a champagne flute. Charge with a little sparkling wine.
30ml sweet vermouth
60ml prosecco or dry sparkling wine
Method: Pour Campari and sweet vermouth into a tumbler. Fill with ice and top with prosseco. Stir briefly and garnish with a slice of orange.