Enjoy Vintage cocktails at Devon's Burgh Island hotel
PUBLISHED: 13:41 19 August 2014 | UPDATED: 13:41 19 August 2014
The art deco hotel on Burgh Island is the perfect spot for classic cocktails, writes OWEN JONES
Is there a better setting in Devon to enjoy vintage cocktails than below the great glass-domed bar of the art deco Burgh Island hotel?
Sipping a dirty vodka martini as the sun slips into the sea at the end of a long summer day, it’s hard to imagine one.
This martini – stirred and definitely not shaken – is called ‘dirty’ because as well as vodka and a taste of vermouth it also contains a few drops of the brine which the olive at the bottom of the glass was kept in.
It’s been expertly mixed by the man who has been affectionately known for two decades by the hotel’s guests as “McBar”. And it tastes divine.
McBar’s real name is Gary Maguire and he has hundreds of cocktail recipes stored away in his head – as well as a well-thumbed box of card files recording his experiments to create more.
I’ve come to learn about the classics – the cocktails that were being enjoyed by guests in the pre-war jazz age. Crime writer Agatha Christie, playwright Noel Coward and aviator Amy Johnson were just some of the visitors to this extraordinary hotel that is cut off from the South Devon mainland twice a day by the rising tide.
As Gary mixes a selection for our photographs – a Daiquiri, a Grasshopper, a Woo Woo and the classic Champagne Cocktail – it’s impossible not to imagine those famous guests enjoying a similar performance.
McBar – an expansive Scot with a wealth of knowledge of the hotel, the island and its wildlife – likens a busy evening in the bar to a good murder mystery.
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“It’s like a classic Christie novel. The reason you read the novel is because you’ve got order at the beginning, then chaos in the middle and then back to order in the end. It’s like the bar in the evening here - you begin with order and then you’ve got chaos and then by the end of the night you are back to order. It’s your classic mystery novel - in a hotel.”
Gary’s love of cocktails began while working at hotels in Oxfordshire: “We began mixing Christmas cocktails one year in the mid ’80s. From there I started to do more cocktails, began accumulating books and then 21 years ago I suddenly found myself here - and this place is cocktails. I’d only dabbled previously. It became hardcore from 1993 onwards.”
During his time at the hotel, now owned by Deborah Clark and Tony Orchard, Gary has seen different cocktails come in and out of fashion – the French Martini is currently in vogue – but the classics have stood the test of time.
He gestures at the beautifully restored 1930s cocktail bar: “Fads come and go but yes, the vintage ones are still asked for – the Singapore Sling, the Martini, the Mai Tai. It’s the romance of this place.
“We don’t get many requests for Sex on the Beach or Slow Comfortable Screws. We can do them - but not many people ask for them here.”
But Gary’s not afraid to add his own a twist to a classic – whether it’s introducing a touch of maraschino cherry liqueur to a Daiquiri or substituting elderflower for cranberry in a Woo Woo – and renaming it a Woo Whoops!
It seems an enthusiasm for invention helps keep a good barman challenged. Gary describes one of his recent creations – christened Southern Shores - which as well as bourbon, Benedictine and crème de cacao also features one – just one - drop of Tabasco sauce.
“You wouldn’t think a single drop would do anything - but it’s like central heating. You have a sip and there’s nothing – then half a minute later the room is warming up!
“It’s all to do with taste and tasting, tongue and alcohol. It’s all about creating the right balance. Not too much of this and not too much of that. When you’re inventing cocktails you can only do a little bit at a time or it’s fatal. You get past testing out the second one and that’s it - lights out, good night. Unfortunately, that’s what happens.”
So of all the drinks the world can offer, what is Gary’s favourite tipple?
For a man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of cocktails and the ingredients to make any one them at his fingertips, the answer surprises: “A pint of Guinness. That miraculous combination of water, hops and malted barley - truly the invention of God.”
In our photo
Daiquiri: Invented by Jennings Cox in 1902. 20ml lime juice, 20ml sugar syrup, 50ml Havana Club white rum and a dash of maraschino liqueur. Shake and strain into a cocktail glass.
Woo Woo: Became big in New York in the 1930s. 50ml Russian Standard Vodka, 25ml Peach Liqueur (or Schnapps) and 50ml Cranberry juice.
Grasshopper: An entry to a 1928 cocktail competition in New York, before prohibition had ended. 50ml Crème De Menthe, 25ml Crème de Cacao and 50ml Half and Half (milk and double cream combined).
Classic Champagne cocktail: Invented by “Professor Jerry Thomas in 1862. Into a champagne flute, introduce a white sugar cube, saturated in Angostura Bitters. Add a splash of Remy Martin Cognac and top up the glass with Champagne. Garnish to taste. Voila!
Three more places to enjoy cocktails in Devon
Southernhay House Hotel, Exeter: the sister hotel to Burgh Island, it’s a sophisticated spot in the cosmopolitan heart of Exeter
The Refectory Bar, Plymouth: it’s at Blackfriars Distillery, home of Plymouth Gin - named in 1896 as a key ingredient for the Dry Martini
Saunton Sands Hotel, Saunton: a cocktail on the terrace overlooking the beach as the sun goes down is hard to beat