How to expertly pick your signature cocktail

The pre-dinner cocktail has been firmly up there with fino sherry and Champagne as an international aperitif of choice for a good hundred years now, so the time has come to give it the applause it is due. 

Newcastle is blessed with a host of restaurants with savvy cocktail menus. All good dinners can start with a cocktail, and there’s one out there for everybody.

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Let us begin with the undisputed facts. 

If you have a selection of base spirits, you can make virtually anything. There are quite literally thousands of cocktails to choose from – there are no limits on the possibilities, bar your imagination. 

Most venues with a cocktail offering can also handle the classics or change the specs to suit your taste. The endless bound of liquid goodness means potential, but for some, it might be a little daunting.

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As with wine, beer, tea and biscuits, your cocktail preference is subjective.

The classic cocktail book by Charles H Baker Jr, Jigger, Beaker and Glass, elaborates that we “cannot please every reader… Anisette, kümmel, tequila, Hawaiian okolehao – all have their enemies and champions.” 

So, if you are new to cocktails or have found yourself disappointed in the past, read on for some tips to help you find something you will absolutely love.

Cocktails can be broken down into categories based on flavour profiles, which can be super handy to remember when you’re ordering at a bar or restaurant. There is a little infographic flavour wheel to help visualise this concept. 

This is by no means the definitive list of flavours, aromas, or ways to collate the thousands of mixed drinks out there in the world. I am no bartender, nor an expert on cocktails, but I am a proficient and dedicated consumer.

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Light Years Asian Diner on Darby Street is one of the many venues nominated for Restaurant Cocktail Menu of the Year at this year’s Bar Awards. They have a range of original cocktails on the menu, designed not just to satisfy the pre-dinner drinker, but paired perfectly with the cuisine on offer. 

The cocktail list is varied, containing options for all drinkers, including sweet, fruity, sour, herbaceous, and earthy, with the only missing category from their list being bitter. 

Bitter cocktails

Bitter cocktails often have flavours of amaro and dried orange peel. Think of the Negroni, which is considered by many to be the vanilla ice cream litmus test of any good bar. Containing only three ingredients (gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth), it’s an aromatic and strong drink that will put some pink in your cheeks and get your mouth watering. 

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If you love this flavour but not the amount of alcohol, try an Americano for a lower ABV (alcohol by volume) drink, or a Crodino for a non-alcoholic option. Bitter cocktails work incredibly as aperitifs or digestifs but rarely pair well with food as they tend to overpower delicate aromas and, as in the case of Light Years, spice and heat can accentuate the bitterness in the drink. 

However, if you are peckish at Light Years and can’t resist a snack while you enjoy your pre-dinner Negroni, go for the Vegetarian Spring Rolls.

Sweet cocktails

Sweet cocktails have waxed and waned in popularity over the years, with drinks like the Japanese Slipper and Grasshoppers gaining popularity in the 1970s, while modern classics like the Espresso Martini are a staple at most bars and pubs today. 

Some sweet cocktails can be rich, wintery drinks that really would feature best at the end of the night, but not the one tasted at Light Years. Its Turkish Delight is light, fragrant, and fresh, made with Brookie’s Turkish Delight Gin, pomegranate, cranberry, and lime. The sweetness isn’t cloying, and when served with a dish like the 5 Spice Duck Pancakes would be even less noticeable.

Fruity cocktails

Fruity cocktails encompass a huge spectrum of drinks where the key defining feature is the fruit, from Pornstar Martinis to Hurricanes. 

One of my favourites is the Bramble which I discovered as a young person working in Soho, London – little did I know that my bartender was the inventor of said cocktail. Light Years recommends the Treasure Trove Cove, a rum-based number with passionfruit and coconut served with crushed ice in a tiki mug. 

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This would please lovers of Pina Coladas and Zombies alike, and the tropical fruit flavours pair so well with the spice in dishes like the Firecracker Chicken. 

Earthy cocktails

Earthy cocktails have flavours like smoke, peat, ginger, and nuts, paired with spirits like whisky and mezcal. These flavours can be divisive, and are often described as an ‘acquired taste’ in a similar fashion to bitter cocktails. 

The Light Years bartender serves a new original, called a Pulp Fiction made with mezcal, passionfruit, and mandarin with a smoked sugar rim, and is a truly delicious tipple. I’d pair it with the Singapore Chilli Prawns and a Watermelon Salad. 

Herbaceous cocktails

Herbaceous cocktails are incredibly versatile with food pairings or as standalone drinks, from the breakfast Bloody Mary to the Newy favourite, a Spicy Marg. They are cocktails heavy on the herb or plant – like mint, olive, elderflower, or juniper. 

I tried the Jade Dragon at Light Years, served in coupe glass – it’s a splendid mix of gin, Izarra green liqueur, Orgeat, lime, and coriander. This could be paired with anything from the raw/cold menu. For a non-alcoholic option, try the Toothless Lola: a blend of watermelon, lime, and chilli. 

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Sour cocktails 

And lastly, the sour. Sours are typically drinks that have a citrus component (lemon or lime) tempered by the addition of sugar and alcohol. The acidity in the drinks gets you salivating, so naturally these drinks are perfect when you’re in a busy restaurant waiting for your dinner to arrive at the table. The Yuzu Passionfruit Sour is excellent and there are few things that would pair better with a half dozen oysters with Ponzu dressing.

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Whether you prefer Scotch, Midori or Lyre’s Non-Alc Bitter Orange, there is a cocktail out there for every human, meal, or occasion.