Last week was St Andrews’ cocktail week, and I’ve got cocktails on my mind. I often do. I love cocktails. I drink fewer than most of my friends and yet I have twice as many bottles on my shelf. So, I sat down with Finn Smith, president of Bartenders Against Temperance, the university’s cocktail society, to talk about cocktails in St Andrews and the future of bartending in an increasingly tee-total society.
Finn explained that he and his friends first experimented with cocktails while working in a pub. “When I came to university […] I noticed the cocktail society, and I thought ooh that sounds just right up my alley”. After a year Finn was roped into being social media representative, and now he is president, proudly representing St Andrews’ cocktail scene on the global stage.
Like any good president, Finn struggled to give a straight answer as to what his favourite cocktail was: “I often get asked what my favourite cocktail is and I struggle to answer that often. There’s certainly a lot to choose from. The first thing that springs to mind is a cocktail from Draffens speakeasy in Dundee”. This is not only a very good answer but also a useful one given how accessible Draffens is to students at St Andrews. The drink in question is the Djuna Barnes, named for the 1930s novelist. Consisting of elderflower gin, yellow chartreuse, strawberry lillet, and olive brine, the Barnes certainly seems evocative of Paris’s deviant underworld.
But those ingredients are a far cry away from what is in most St Andrews drinks cupboards. I asked Finn why he thinks so many cocktails go undiscovered by St Andrians. He believes that students tend to hide away from “spirit forward” cocktails; “I suppose that might be because people are used to the typical pre’s Glens Vodka where you’re trying to mask the flavour of the vodka”. Instead, Finn recommends splashing out on quality spirits so you can (and want to) “taste everything that you’re putting into your drink”.
Cocktails are having something of a resurgence across the globe. The number of cocktail bars in the US went up by 70% from 2009 to 2019, and cocktails have now surpassed beer and wine to become the most popular drink in the home. Finn links this to young people drinking less overall. “Look at bars like The Alchemist, for example,” Finn explains. People are looking to “make an occasion out of it” when they do go out. “It’s not an obvious jump at first,” but compared to pounding down pints or cheap tequila shots, cocktails fit perfectly with the commitment to more responsible drinking. For cocktail enthusiasts, the goal is not to get drunk but to enjoy what you drink.
Popular cocktail bars like The Alchemist can be very expensive though, so I asked if high pricing creates an accessibility problem for mixology. “If you’re at a bar and you’re looking at the cocktails and they tend to be the most expensive thing on the menu, it can definitely be an exclusionary thing. That really changes when you look at making cocktails at home”. Most core ingredients can be bought at Tesco, and you can always drop the expensive or difficult components of recipes, Finn explained. “In terms of equipment, so long as you have ice and something that you can seal to shake in” you’re all set. “You can use Tupperware if you really need to!” he remarked to my horror. He recommends the simpler, classic recipes, that way “if you don’t like your drink then you can always just have the spirit!”
So, what is the best way of getting into cocktails for a mixing virgin? “If you’re a student and you haven’t really got a clue where to start, then the best way to get into cocktails is definitely to come to one of Bartenders Against Temperance’s Cocktail Masterclasses. You’ll be taught how to make four different drinks. So, you can get an idea of what you might like. And the price is much better than you’ll be getting in any bars!”
Finally, what’s the best place to get a cocktail in St Andrews? “One of BAT’s events! But if you’re looking for something a bit more formal, I’d suggest heading over to the Rav or Lupo’s”— both of which I have written about in the past. At the Rav, get the “Northern Lights'' says Finn. And to celebrate finishing this article, I think I might do just that.
Illustration: Shalina Prakash