Perfect the basics of cocktails

AS YOU settle into the post-Christmas haze, raise a glass to those wise ancients from China, Persia and Egypt who first figured out how to brew beer and wine.

And then be humbled by the fact that it took until the 12th century before we learned how to distil pure alcohol into something like the spirits we know today.

But still people get flummoxed by how to make the perfect cocktail.

"I've been doing this for 15 years now. I got interested in drinks when I started working with chefs who were all about the flavour," says Frankie Walker, Lion Nathan's luxury spirits ambassador.

"A cocktail is no more difficult than a G&T, just more thoughtful: spirit, mixer, garnish."

Walker says the key to creating great cocktails is to prep everything in advance.

You get the good taste of an interesting drink - and still have time to mingle with your mates, which is the point after all.

But it's not just about the booze.

Both Walker and fellow "mixologist" Chris Harrop, of Pernod Ricard, swear that the worst mistake we amateurs make is to get the ice factor wrong.

Perversely, the more ice you add to a glass or jug, the better: The mass of ice stays colder for longer, so is less likely to melt and dilute your drink into a watery mess.

When he is planning to make a punch, Walker freezes five-litre icecream tubs of water - the bulky block has less surface area to melt than the equivalent volume of ice-cubes. Keep white spirits in the freezer, mixers in the fridge and you're good to go when the cocktail urge takes you.

Apart from top quality spirits, the other essential is super-fresh ingredients.

If you're planning mixed drinks, squeeze your own lemon or orange juice (store-bought tastes nothing like the real thing), lay in a supply of quality lemons, oranges, limes and bunches of mint to cut fresh for garnishes.

Make sure you have a decent bar measure (30ml is common), but Walker helpfully notes that good drinks are about proportions rather than exact measure.

Make your own sugar syrup (500g caster sugar dissolved in 500ml hot water) for the fancier drinks.

Walker and Harrop are both fans of the locally made artisan mixers, too, mentioning the New Zealand Quina Fina tonic or Fresh As colas and lemony lemonade.

Long or short glasses? It's up to you as both hold around the same volume of 250-300ml.

Gin and Tonic
Walker believes that it is "every human being's right to be served a perfect G&T".

His tip for not spoiling this favourite is to fill the glass to the top with ice, so that when you've put in 30ml of good gin and topped with tonic the proportions are spot on.

Harrop adds a wedge of orange to complement the orange notes of his favourite Beefeater gin; Walker prefers "lots of lovingly squeezed" fresh lime.

Whisky and Dry
30ml of whisky in a short glass filled with ice, topped with ginger ale and a wedge of lime.

Harrop has a word to say about Mr James Bond "complicating matters with his catchy one-liners", but says personal preference is all that matters.

He opts for six parts gin to one part dry vermouth and a dash of Angostura bitters with plenty of ice.

For the record, he recommends 30-50 stirs so the martini gets really cold.

A twist of lemon peel (no pith) or three olives on a skewer.

The white rum and sour combination is an all-time great, named after a town in Cuba.

Best in its purist form, shake three tablespoons of white rum, juice of half a lime or lemon and one teaspoon of caster sugar with ice until the sugar has dissolved and strain into a cocktail glass.

No garnishes, no trimmings, no twists. Perfect.