Cocktails At Christmas

This week, we're raising our glasses in celebration of the Christmas spirit, and who best to do it with than the cocktail king himself.

Hosted ByPeter & Felice
Christmas Cocktail

Chris Madigan, left

Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.

Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.

Peter This week, we’re raising our glasses in celebration of the Christmas spirit and who best to do it with than the cocktail king himself. Chris Madigan is a specialist food, drink and travel writer and at the moment, in the final run up to the holiday period, his particular emphasis is on festive drink. Now, no one knows more about cocktails stirred or shaken and how to make them than Chris.

Chris, welcome to the show; really nice to have you with us today. Now Christmas is coming – tell us about what we should drink on Christmas Day?

Christmas Cocktails

French 75. Photo: © C.Madigan

Chris Well, first of all, thanks very much for having me and merry Christmas to both of you. And I’m going to say, let’s raise a French 75 cocktail to Christmas. It may be a bit controversial given the to and fro between our country and France right now, but I love all things French and this is a kind of classic, fizzy celebratory cocktail.

I always think that the trouble at Christmas is that people think about the drinks they’re going to have and they tend to be so rich and the food that it’s accompanying is so rich that the whole effect is rather sluggening, basically.

And what you actually need is a little pick-me-up. So I actually tend to favour at Christmas cocktails that are more bright and acidic, or even bitter. So this is a lemon and gin base with a little bit of sweetness as well, and then topped up with Champagne or the sparkling wine of your choice.

Peter So give us a quick recipe for this drink?

Chris It’s made in two parts, so the first part is shaken and then it’s topped up with the Champagne because obviously you don’t want to be shaking a fizzy wine all over the place unless you want to paint your walls. So you start with the ratio: three to one of gin and lemon juice – freshly squeezed lemon juice – and a third part is sugar syrup.

You can buy sugar syrups in bottles, you can have a straight sugar syrup, or you can have it slightly infused with a vanilla flavour or you can use Gomme syrup, which is great because it gives it a little more textured feel, a bit more of a luscious feel to the drink. So that’s really nice. Or you can simply make your own: you get some sugar – twice as much water, you heat it up, the sugar melts into the water, you let it cool down again and you’ve got your own house-made syrup. Again, you could flavour that if you like.

Felice If you wanted to, could you swap the sugar for something healthier like maple syrup or honey?

Chris Well, you could certainly, yes you certainly could. Again, that’s another option of making it, you know, a richer taste, but you’d still have the lemon. Then you shake those three ingredients: the gin, the lemon, the syrup with plenty of ice in a shaker. And then you pour that into flutes and then you top it up with fizz. I mean, it’s five parts compared to the one part of lemon, but really you’re going to do it visually.

Peter And what’s the French connection here?

Chris So it’s called a French 75, which was actually named after a gun in the First World War I think it was – a French 75 calibre artillery weapon. It’s actually American, you know; most of the classic cocktails are from America.

Felice It sounds so much more creative than when I was a child at Christmas – the cocktail was eggnog or crème de menthe. That was it.

Christmas Cocktails

Chris pouring Champagne into a stack of coupes at Christmas

Chris Oh you see, those are the things I’m talking about too. They’re too rich for Christmas, I think. At least somebody else is going to be serving a really heavy red wine. This is going to be unusual I think at Christmas, even though it’s a classic cocktail.

Peter So this is something we could have before we open the presents or while we’re opening the presents, right?

Chris Absolutely. Yes, I mean, you could call it a breakfast cocktail. I don’t know when you open your presents. In our house, we always had this sort of delayed gratification; we couldn’t open our presents until after the Christmas lunch, which then got served very late anyway.

Peter Well, what do we do here? I think we have our presents before lunch.

Felice Our children open them as soon as they get up.

Chris I think it’s a good brunch cocktail.

Peter Then when we then move on to the food and you recommend a turkey, would you?

Chris That’s the last thing I want. The only reason for having a turkey is you’ve got 20 people in the house. I mean, come on – there is absolutely no reason to have a turkey at Christmas unless you have to bulk-feed people. Goose is a nightmare to cook – fat dripping everywhere. I like a game bird myself, whether it’s a pheasant or a partridge.

Last year we only had a small bubble, so I did a Beef Wellington. I live in a house with a vegetarian, and I very rarely get to eat or cook meat. But I did a Beef Wellington and a Beetroot Wellington.

Felice Wow, Beetroot Wellington sounds unusual.

Chris Yes, well, a Beetroot Wellington you literally just take some cooked beetroot and jam them together to form a roll, a bit like a fillet of beef in a Beef Wellington. And then you do the duxelle of mushrooms around it – not Parma ham obviously, but yes, the mushrooms and onion around it. And then you treat it just like it’s a slab of beef and you get a satisfying bit of red seeping out of it, which is similar to the beef.

Felice So can you tell us how did you get into food and drink writing in the first place?

Chris Well, actually it came from travel, because for me the food and the drink of a destination is a really good expression of…well in drink you call it terroir. But the character of of a place is ingrained in the culture of anywhere you visit. There’s a reason that, say, vodka is the drink of Poland and Russia and Ukraine, that rum is the drink of the Caribbean. It’s because of the crops that you grow there, and the reason for the crops you grow there is because of the nature of your land, the climate and your history as well.

For example, in Poland they made their vodka from grains for hundreds of years because that’s what they had. They didn’t have potatoes until we had potatoes and then it was discovered that potatoes grew really well in that climate, so potatoes became a popular crop. And when you’ve got a lot of something you make booze out of it, let’s be fair.

I’m always one of those people who when I travel to a place, I want to find out what the local speciality foods are, but also what the local speciality drinks are. It grew from that really, and there are just some fantastic stories around the history of drink.

Peter So when were cocktails first invented? Who made the first one?

Chris Well, funnily enough, talking of that link between travel and drinks, reputedly the person who made the first cocktail was Sir Francis Drake. Other stories say it was his cousin, Richard Drake, but they were both privateers or pirates – legalised pirates –around the Caribbean. So a lot of the history of drink is about medicine, really, and then medicine becomes a good excuse for a booze-up. You know, all those Italian amaros, for example, where it’s lots of herbs and barks infused into alcohol – those were originally meant to be tinctures to help certain health aspects.

Christmas Cocktails

Cocktail at Tayēr + Elementary, 2nd in the 50 Best Bars in the World

Chris So this cocktail was supposed to be medicine, and then everyone just liked it. What happened was whichever of the Drakes it was, the crew went down with dysentery and of course they were suffering from scurvy generally anyway; their health was absolutely appalling. So he came up with this drink, which was to take the local Aguardiente firewater, which was a little like rum – or maybe more like a Cachaça from Brazil rather than rum, because it was made from the raw cane juice.

So what they did was they got there was a local tree whose bark had medicinal qualities to ease the stomach. They had something like a mint leaf, an aromatic leaf, which was also supposed to be good for the stomach, and the lime for the scurvy, put that in and just basically shook that up in the firewater. But it sounds pretty familiar as a cocktail because it’s pretty much a Mojito.

Peter Yes, the first Mojito. I suppose an extremely useful drink when you’re playing bowls or something like that,

Chris I can imagine that having used it as so-called medicine, it was then it was then: ‘Oh, I think I need a little bit of the medicine before the next frame of bowls. Oh, don’t worry about the Armada, I’ll be fine. after a couple more of these.’ So it came to be known as El Draque, which was what the Spanish called Francis Drake.

Felice Going back to food: have you always been passionate about food, you know, even as a child?

Chris Very much so. I was very lucky that my grandparents had a house in Italy, just in the Ligurian hills above Finale Ligure in Genoa. We went there every summer, we would go there for quite a few weeks and so we would go shopping in local Italian shops. We used to find all sorts of delicious stuff.

I basically started learning Italian from menus. But also on the on the way down there because we were going to the same place every summer, and sometimes we kids not realising how lucky and privileged we were with moan about going to the same place every time when we knew people who were going off to Florida or wherever. But we used to to mix it up a bit used to take different routes down through Europe, either through France or through Germany, but through France was particularly great for my mum was – and is – a great cook and a real foodie, which is where I get it from.

I just remember her sitting in the front seat – obviously before the internet – just surrounded by guidebooks, Michelin guides, Arthur Eperon, all these things. And my dad, he liked going through Germany because he likes going fast. But we wanted to go through France to go to these incredible little out-of-the-way places. And so I had snails when I was eight, frog legs, that sort of thing, I was always adventurous with food.

Peter Yes, going back to cocktails, some of the most famous cocktails have been made by chance, haven’t they, where people just mix ingredients together? I’d like to think that I had a little bit of influence here on one particular cocktail. It’s a long tale, but I found myself in a prison camp of Idi Amin in Uganda in the 1970s, and I’d been accused of spying and was sentenced to death.

But when I came out of jail and I ended up staying with Idi Amin, and the first thing I really wanted was a gin and tonic. But was there any tonic? No tonic in the country. I found a bottle of gin, but no tonic. So what I did was to find a soda siphon, which was in Amin’s palace, a SodaStream, that’s what I would call it. So I got that. I put some boiled water in because essentially you needed to try and get clean water; mixed in some quinine tablets that I had with me and mixed that together put a bit of in the SodaStream and bingo! You got tonic water to take the gin in and it was delicious. I’d say, well, it’s not delicious – but at the time, compared to what I’ve been having.

Chris Forgive me for not reacting with shock, as I hope some of the listeners are reacting to about the casual reference to your death sentence from Idi Amin; you have told me before about that. I think there’s nothing better is there than a drink that you’ve created out of the blue when you thought you were going to die a few hours earlier.

Peter I think that’s very true. Certainly, after my experience in jail there, I thought vowed I would drink wine with every meal, apart from breakfast, for the rest of my life. I haven’t actually religiously stuck to that, but I’ve got quite close.

Chris Well, like great mutual friend, travel writer Doug Sager – he and I got stuck on the side of a mountain and had several brushes with death, and at the time he wasn’t drinking. However, he made an exception that night and dug out some wine. And actually, that was quite good wine that we drank after our near-death experience, but the food we had was just a ready-meal lasagne but it was the best tasting thing I’ve ever had.

Chris In terms of you’re making your own cocktail that I gave you the measurements for that French 75, but don’t follow them. Make your own cocktail from that. Felice, you said, ‘How about maple syrup or honey?’ Absolutely. There are millions of cocktail recipes out there because bartenders always experiment. What it proves is – and there are delicious ones that come from just tweaking something slightly.

Take the Negroni, for example. It’s one part gin, one part Campari and one part red vermouth. Let’s say Martini – that’s the easy one, but it’s a moveable feast there. You could substitute different types of vermouth; you can have a white vermouth, a dry vermouth. If you want it slightly drier: instead of the sweet red vermouth you could replace Campari with an Italian Amaro, for example.

Find three things that are a little similar. They’re all aromatic, actually, so you can mess about with them all you like. You can replace the the gin with whiskey – that makes a Boulevardier, which is another classic, maybe a bit more Christmassy. Just try experimenting and the great thing about that is, of course, if you start experimenting with cocktails that you’re going to serve, you want to get the recipe right on the day that you’re serving it. But it means that two days before you get have a little session yourself, so it’s always fun.

Felice What was the most unusual drink and food that you’ve ever had?

Chris Most unusual food is probably…I say ‘unusual’ because the only food I’ve disliked was in Romania – Poiana Brasov. We went to this…Peter, were you there? We went to some sort of camp thing in the woods.

Peter Yes, I was there

Chris Round a fire and they served us bear.

Peter Yes, it was one of the more unpleasant things I’ve ever eaten. It sounds tough, doesn’t it? It was tough beyond your dreams.

Chris And when they said, ‘This is bear meat,’ I sort of had, you know, to my mind I sort of had this impression of a big, hairy, sweaty bear and what that would taste like. And funnily enough, it tasted like a big, hairy, sweaty bear.

Peter So the Best End of Paddington.

Chris But it’s a tie between that and whale meat, which I was served – I didn’t order it myself, it wouldn’t be something that I would volunteer to eat, but I was served it in Greenland where it is a staple rather than a luxury. A taste of that…I remember once in the fridge I had some beef but also some tuna in a bag on a shelf above it and it leaked. The sort of fishy taste of the tuna got into the beef, and it kind of tasted like that. It tasted either like beefy tuna or tuna-y beef, I’m not sure, but that’s not surf turf action I want to experience again.

Peter Well, some of the stranger cocktails I’ve had in life, I had had one in Kazakhstan made with half-fermented mare’s milk. It’s not something I rush to drink again.

Chris I’ve had unpleasant foods like bear or whale, but I’ve also had an unusual drink, which is animal related. Have you ever had Viporine? It’s around in…you find it in the Alps. Catch a Viper; I think they catch it in around the autumn time when when you have to be very careful…you’re searching for mushrooms and you have to be very careful of the vipers around. But they catch them and then they do kill it first, they then put it into the bottom of a bottle, which they then fill up with some God knows what…pure alcohol. I think it’s just the natural grain spirit, which is just alcohol. And then it kind of sits in there. You have this adder – sorry, a viper at the bottom of this bottle.

Felice You said, have we ever had it? And I haven’t, but I’ve seen it and said ‘no’ to it because the thought of having that in the bottle while you’re drinking it…

Chris Well, in case it came out?

Peter Reincarnation.

Chris Yes, don’t worry, it’s drunk. It’s definitely asleep, even if it’s alive.

Peter One other unusual drinks have you had?

Felice A grolla or whatever it’s called.

Peter I never liked that.

Felice In Italy where you pass around the thing, I’m sure that’s banned now because of COVID.

Chris Well exactly, yes, I actually had it in the same place as I had Viporine that was down in France, not Italy. It was in Champagny en Vanoise. But it tastes good and I was well ahead of the curve on the: ‘Oh, I don’t like the idea of this,’ because it’s a sort of bowl where you have to seal off a circle of mouth spout. You have to seal off two of them – otherwise it will pour out of that – and then drink out of one. Then you hand it round and the idea is that each person has their own mouth spout. But the flaw in it is that someone else has put their thumb on your mouth spout. So yes.

Peter Not very hygienic. Felice, what’s the worst thing you’ve ever eaten?

Felice Something horrible in Japan, but I never knew what it was to this day. Also something horrible in China, at The Dark restaurant where you can’t see anything and you had to just taste –  so you don’t know what it is you’re eating.

Peter Yes, it’s quite dangerous. If you’re doing it in Paris, it’s not so bad, but doing it in Beijing I can imagine you might be getting some bits of duck that you don’t really want to know about.

Felice Maybe. What about what about drink? Are there any cocktails that you hate?

Chris Well, I guess I’m not keen on sweet cocktails, as you might have gathered.

Felice So you wouldn’t choose a Piña Colada then?

Chris But then there’s a time and a place for it, isn’t there? I mean, if you’re on a beach, it’s a toss up between the Planter’s Punch and a Piña Colada as to what I order first. Again, you’re celebrating the place that you’re going to. There’s a time and place for a naff cocktail, definitely.

Felice These days, you write brochures or leaflets for barmen – is that right?

Chris I say more than that. So during lockdown, when obviously the travel side of things first was totally not in the air and now is up in the air, basically drink got me through lockdown…in the traditional way in the evening. But my day job actually was writing a curriculum for bartenders to get a professional qualification.

Over the last 10 years or so, being a bartender has had more of a raised status – we had the 50 Best Bars announced as big as the 50 Best Restaurants Award these days, with number one and two being London. The Connaught is Number 1 and a new bar, Tayēr + Elementary, got into the Number 2 position. It’s run by a couple, Alex Kratena and Monica Berg, who’s from Norway, who actually few years ago I had the privilege to travel to a remote part of Norway, the Lofoten Islands, where there was this event put on called Kitchen On the Edge of the World, organised by the chef, Valentine Warner.

Christmas Cocktails

Monika Berg from Tayēr + Elementary with the hot toddy she carried up a mountain in Norway

And so Monica was there as the bartender. We climbed up some mountains. I saw she had a rucksack on that I wasn’t sure what was in it, and it turned out she had lugged a huge samovar – sort of like a tea urn – all the way up this mountain. And she was hopping around like a goat, but whereas I was really lumbering up. And in it she had this incredible hot toddy type cocktail that she’d made earlier – absolutely delicious with lingonberries in it and local ingredients and that sort of thing, which goes back to what I was saying about that whole experiencing the place expressed in a cocktail.

Peter Now, the most famous cocktail in the world is almost certainly the Dry Martini. James Bond liked it shaken, not stirred. There’s so many combinations of different garnishes you can put on kt – all sorts of things, but how do you actually make the perfect Dry Martini?

Chris Well, again, you know you can do it, however, suits you. That’s always important. And if James Bond walks into a bar and asks for it shaken, not stirred, the bartender should not say, ‘Actually, that’s wrong.’ However, having said that, actually, that’s wrong. A Martini is one of those alcohol forward drinks; it’s all about subtlety of flavour so if you shake it, what you will lose is subtlety of flavour. Because the shaking does two things; adding ice to any cocktail does two things: it cools it and it dilutes it. Shaking it cools and dilutes it more quickly and more effectively than stirring. But not all cocktails. You don’t want as much dilution or as much coolness as others, and Martini is one that you want cool but not ice cold because you will lose a lot of the flavour. You know, it’s like getting cheese out of the fridge and eating it straight away, as opposed to leaving it at room temperature for a bit. So stir it, basically.

Now the other bit is the vermouth. How much vermouth? That again, is is up to you. It tends to be a bit of a kind of macho culture around to say, ‘Oh, just, you know, wave it around in the general vicinity of the glass.’ But you know, the vermouth actually does add a roundness, takes the harsh edge off neat gin. And I would say gin just because again, you’re getting more flavour out of gin, but good vodka – as long as it’s not overly, you know, if it says it’s been filtered 300 times, then you don’t want it because it’s now just pure alcohol almost. It’s got none of the flavour left.

But I would favour gin, and I would say the trend these days is to…because there’s such good vermouths around – Belsazar vermouth is an excellent vermouth, there’s others around as well – that you will find something that actually enhances the drink. You don’t have to show off how hard you are by not having vermouth in there.

Peter And with a twist or with an onion or an olive?

Chris I’m a fan of a Gibson, which is the onion – or two onions specifically. Because as the story goes, it was a portrait artist who had been painting nudes all day, and he wanted something to celebrate that. So two small onions represented something, I don’t know what. I don’t know who he was painting. I like that, but then I love pickled things, so that works for me. My second favourite is an olive – that will enhance the dryness, and then obviously a lemon peel will give you just a little citrus zing. Try it lots of different ways and then discover the one you like best.

Felice And what do you have in your drinks cupboard right now at home?

Chris Well, according to my partner, way too much. I’ve got quite a few Irish whiskeys at the moment, but that’s because, hopefully as long as I don’t catch COVID in the next few days, I am heading to Scotland for Christmas. And yes, I’m taking some Irish whiskey up to the Scottish in-laws for Christmas to represent my half-Irish side. I’m taking some Bushmills and I’ve got a very nice 18-year-old single malt from Bushmills and then some JJ Corrie, which is produced by somebody I know in County Clare. That’s what I’ll be drinking over Christmas, mainly, and probably putting some of it into a whiskey sour.

Felice Where do you see yourself in the next few years? Will you carry on writing about drink and food, and try to travel?

Chris I really hope we get to travelling again. I think what I’ll be writing about mostly is destination drink travel pieces, really. I think that’s the next growing area of travel, like I think food travel was 20 years ago. It exists in wine at the moment but I think there’s more to drink than wine. There are incredible places to visit – the Dingle Distillery in the west of Ireland, for example, is great, and Glenturret Distillery in Perthshire that’s just been taken over by Lalique, and they’ve now sort of turned it into a luxury destination with an incredible restaurant.

Christmas Cocktails

Flaming orange zest over a Manhattan. Photo: © C.Madigan

Peter Going back to Christmas, one final tip from you on what we should do on Boxing Day, when we may be in need of the hair of the dog or something, because I think we’ll be very much overindulging on Christmas Day. What’s your tip for survival on Boxing Day?

Chris I’m going to mention something that you will be familiar from your time with Idi Amin, I’m going to recommend that everyone gets a SodaStream because you’re going to be dehydrated from having the heating way too high and eating too much and drinking too much on Boxing Day, and frankly glugging down glasses of water can be a little bit boring. But if you have a SodaStream, it’s fun pressing the button and getting the bubbles coming out. But also you can add any flavour you like to it, and you can also still have a bit to drink on on Boxing Day. But you can make Highballs, so they’ll be a little bit more diluted, you know, whiskey Highball. You can find all sorts of flavours, you can make up your own syrups and what have you, and you’ve got your fizzy water almost on tap.

Felice How about a non-alcoholic cocktail? Are there any that taste good?

Chris Well, I always think the non-alcoholic cocktails…it’s a bit like with vegetarian food where trying to ape the meat doesn’t really work. You have to say, ‘Right, I’m cooking with vegetables here. How do I make this amazing?’ And I think that’s the same thing, not not trying to make a sort of non-alcoholic version of an alcoholic cocktail. I would go to finding a good syrup, whether you buy that syrup or you make it yourself, you find flavours that work well together and then top them up with fizzy water.

Felice So if people want to get in touch with you, find out more about your writing, where can they do that?

Chris Well, probably the best is to go to Instagram @ChrisMadiganWriter where I do put up various drinks recipes, food recipes, that sort of thing, and when I travel, it’s on there as well.

Peter Chris Madigan, thank you very much for appearing on our show today, and we wish you the very best of luck and Happy Christmas and a good time in 2022 mixing all those wonderful cocktails. One final thing I think I should say is that it’s sensible to drink responsibly, and I’m sure you’d agree with that.

Chris One hundred percent, I totally agree with that. Everything I’m talking about is about flavour; it’s not about necking lots and lots of alcohol and causing problems for yourself, your family and your health. Have a little drink to celebrate whatever there is to celebrate at this time of year. Thank you so much for having me on the podcast and wish you all the best for 2020 too. I hope I’ll see you out and about the rest of the world.

Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected]. Until next week, stay safe.


Also see – and listen to – Sudie The Foodie and Food and Travel With Sarah Barrell.


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