Drake's and St. JOHN: The Legend of the Fergroni
I have little time for frippery in drinks. The shelves behind my favourite barman have, in recent years, become a kind of infantile collage of bright packaging and fresh minted brand stories. I look at it and my eyes glaze over. It is truly depressing to the Modern Barfly that drinks companies believe a product can be imbued with centuries of soul by a series of creative brainstorms and a label design.
I need a drink to have a story, a personality and, above all, a purpose. When I order something as simple as a Martini, I don’t want something with a ‘flavour profile’ curated by a couple of blokes who once did something promising in the City, I want Tanqueray Export and Nouilly Prat because that’s what Hemingway, Parker and the rest of the Algonquin crowd drank to get seriously fucked up.
While a drink might develop a certain reputation through longevity, to really seize the imagination, it requires a standard bearer, a champion. A drink, to last on the great glass shelves of posterity’s bar, needs a story and a hero. Fergus Henderson of St John Restaurant, is one such man, and the Fergroni is his drink.
Fergus has form for contributing drinks to the canon. It’s known by many that he has a slice of seed cake in one of his restaurants at around eleven every morning, accompanied by a glass of Madeira. Research is admittedly scant, but it’s estimated that the last person who did this was an elderly widow, retired to Cheltenham in 1890. Fergus somehow rendered this dusty combination groundbreaking again. He also championed the rediscovery of Fernet Branca, a strange and dark medicinal drink, devised in Milan in 1845 as a prophylactic against cholera, dysmenorrhea and intestinal worms.
If I’d ever had a son, I’d be able to pass him some modest debt and a genetic predisposition to short temper. Fergus is said to have been handed the recipe for The Dr Henderson by his own father. It’s a 2-1 mix of Fernet and Crème de Menthe served with an ice cube and precisely the sort of legacy we should all aspire to leave.
What’s important here is that Henderson creates and then lives with drinks he loves, drinks with the character and soul to abide - plus, a certain degree of brutal muscularity - which perhaps explains why he now offers us the Fergroni, a surprisingly refined Negroni of his own invention. It has all the best parts of the popular cocktail, but the quantities of gin are subtly increased, and the vermouth is a Punt e Mes, specifically.
"When I was younger, I lived in Florence, says Henderson, in a vain attempt to learn Italian. After appalling results, I was called home. On my final evening it seemed right to head to my favourite bar (sadly no longer there), and that night the barman seemed to understand and capture my mood in his execution of the Negroni. Something mystical happened, a magic of sorts, and that evening I learnt a little more about what a Negroni should be."
How can you not love this? The wistful hint of personal failure, eased by beautiful booze. It’s a simple image that unpacks into… I don’t know. A pitch for a Patricia Highsmith short story?
The recipe, should you require it, runs thus…
50% gin, 30% Punt e Mes and 20% Campari.
Combine all the spirits in a glass with ice and stir thoroughly.
Garnish with strips of lemon - strictly no orange.
Alternatively, you can go to any of the St. John restaurants where you won’t find it on the bar menu – it’s strictly for those in the know.
Today, I’m mature. I no longer aim to drink like Hemingway or Parker, I drink because of them. Thank God I have no need to block out the yawning existential void or to obliterate pain. I don’t drink in pursuit of oblivion… but if I’m inspired by a person; I aspire to what they choose, or chose to consume.
A man has to be worth something to put his own name on a drink.
Mine, then, is a Fergroni.