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Plastic Beach 👎



  • 1 part dark rum

  • 2 parts no added sugar pineapple cubes flavour sparkling drink

  • a dash of Angostura bitters

Pour the rum and no added sugar pineapple cubes flavour sparkling drink into a wine glass with lots of ice, then add the bitters, a cherry and a cocktail umbrella.

I invented this cocktail suddenly, with very little planning, and with poor results.

The dark rum is a strong flavour, which dominates the rather sickly and weak no added sugar pineapple cubes flavour sparkling drink, itself a disappointing purchase from the local Aldi. The bitters intensified the harsh alcoholic burn, and the cherry and umbrella did little to improve things, although they give it a reasonably pleasing look.

Do not attempt.

Hot Gin & Elderflower 👍



  • 1 part gin

  • 1 part elderflower cordial

  • 3 parts boiling water

Pour the gin and cordial into a mug. Add the hot water straight from the kettle.

Claire invented this at least 10 years ago, and we've been having it occasionally ever since. We're just getting over Covid, and after our first day out of the house in well over a week, this was just what we needed tonight.

Altogether it's what you'd expect: warming, sweet, and with a satisfying gentle burn as it goes down. Simple but glorious.

With summer ending, the nights drawing in and the weather turning colder, we'll be having more of these.

The bluebell spectrum

This is the first spring that I've been paying attention to wildflowers, and so for the first time I've discovered the delight of bluebells, the familiar spring bulbs that appear every April and May, laying an unmistakable purplish-blue carpet across Britain's woodlands and gardens. They're the last major spring flower to arrive each year, and therefore a nice herald of the pleasant summer we're sure to have very soon.


Some bluebells on Lade Braes, St Andrews.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been doing my best to identify any plants I see, so when bluebell season rolled around in St Andrews a few weeks ago, I went for a walk along Lade Braes with Collins British Common Wild Flower Guide, and stopped to take a proper look at the plants around me.

Interestingly, it turns out that some bluebells aren't blue: if you walk through an area with bluebells you'll see some plants that are pink or white, scattered among the blue ones. Other than the colour, they're identical to the plants around them, a bit like a shiny Pokémon.


Three different colours of bluebell together on Lade Braes, St Andrews.

I was already vaguely aware of the two main types of bluebell people talk about in the UK: the common bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and the Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) – or as my mum calls them, "nice English bluebells" and "nasty Spanish bluebells". Basically, H. non-scripta is native to Britain, while H. hispanica only appeared recently as a garden escapee, and has spread rapidly. There's some concern that the invasive H. hispanica could pose a threat to the population of native H. non-scripta, but from what I've read online, there's some doubt about this: the native species is still widespread, and I'm not sure experts are seriously concerned.

There are several key characteristics that separate H. non-scripta from H. hispanica.



Native bluebell H. non-scripta

Spanish bluebell H. hispanica

"Nodding" head, with all flowers on one side

"Erect" head, with flowers on all sides

Tubular flowers (long and narrow)

Campanular flowers (open bell shape)

Cream anthers

Blue anthers

(Anthers are the six pollen-bearing dots at the ends of the stamens, found easily by looking into the flower.)

So, I sat down on a bench and looked at some of the bluebells around me, expecting to quickly find out which of the two species they were. But I soon found out it's much, much more complicated than that.

The plants I found didn't fit the neat dichotomy of the key above. I found plants that mixed different features from each species – nodding but with campanular flowers, or erect but with cream anthers – and I couldn't find any consistent pattern that would let me sort them into species. This is mentioned in the book as an afterthought: the two species "hybridise freely", making the hybrid species Hyacinthoides × massartiana, which seemed to explain the variation I was seeing. Apparently this hybridisation occurs so easily that some botanists consider the two to be variants of the same species, which I can easily believe.

I wanted to know more, so I went home and checked the ultimate authority: Clive Stace's New Flora of the British Isles. And along with thorough descriptions of the different species, the entry for the hybrid H. × massartiana ended with a very telling sentence:

It is intermediate in all characters and fertile, forming a complete spectrum between the parents and often natd in absence of both.

—Clive Stace, New Flora of the British Isles

Yep, that's right: the hybrid bluebell can have literally any random features of either parent species, and they can all breed together without any restrictions. I'm not a botanist, but why these are considered separate species is beyond me. What a cop-out!

However, this is not where my adventure ended, but where it began. Being unable to find anything on hybrid bluebells other than "they're somewhere in between", I decided to do some research for myself. The key above has three characteristics that can each go two different ways, suggesting 8 possible combinations of characteristics. Besides this, flowers can appear in blue, pink and white, making 24 possibilities in total! How many of these were possible, and how many appear in St Andrews? I got my boots on and went out to do some research.

Within one hour, I'd found and photographed 16 different varieties of bluebell, each with a different set of characteristics in the key above. I was delighted by how easy it was to find all these different combinations, and I think it's probably all the ones that exist. The reason I couldn't find all 24 is that it seems blue anthers are only present on blue flowers: the pink and white flowers I found all had cream anthers, and I'm guessing this is due to a lack of pigment preventing any blue anywhere on the plant.

So, ladies and gentlemen, here's my new mathematically rigorous naming scheme for Hyacinthoides in Britain!

Each bluebell is identified by a triple from the cartesian product

\begin{equation*} \{b, p, w, B\} \times \{n, e\} \times \{t, c\} \end{equation*}


  • \(\{b, p, w, B\}\) is the flower colour: \(b\) for blue, \(p\) for pink, \(w\) for white, and \(B\) for blue-with-blue-anthers (the first three have cream anthers);

  • \(\{n, e\}\) is the apex shape: \(n\) for nodding, and \(e\) for erect;

  • \(\{t, c\}\) is the flower shape: \(t\) for tubular, and \(c\) for campanular.

So, for example, a pink bluebell with cream anthers, a nodding head and campanular flowers would be denoted \((p, n, c)\). A blue bluebell with cream anthers, an erect apex and tubular flowers would be \((b, e, t)\). The classic H. non-scripta is \((b, n, t)\) while H. hispanica is \((B, e, c)\). And so on.

There are 16 possible combinations in this system, and I've got photos of all of them right here. These are all easily found along a short stretch of Lade Braes between viaduct walk and Canongate Primary School. Here are a few samples:


Hyacinthoides \((p, e, c)\)


Hyacinthoides \((b, e, t)\)


Hyacinthoides \((w, n, t)\)

The system isn't perfect – the two flower shapes are also a bit of a spectrum, with some flowers difficult to put into either \(t\) or \(c\), and some plants bearing flowers in both categories. Again, I'm not a botanist, so it's possible I've also made other mistakes. I'd also like to hear from anyone who's found pink or white flowers with blue (or pink or white) anthers, since I don't actually know this is impossible.

Anyway, I still think it's a good checklist for anyone who wants to go bluebell-spotting. If you try it, let me know which ones you can find!

If there's a bigger point to make here, maybe it's the joy of biodiversity. A couple of decades ago, St Andrews would only have had "pure" H. non-scripta, which would have dominated the landscape with no variation at all except perhaps the petal colour. Today we are treated to a beautiful diversity of flowers with a whole spectrum of shapes and features, and it's made for a really interesting project. I can only assume this diversity is as attractive to insects as it is to amateur botanists, though I'm willing to be corrected on this.

H. hispanica and H. × massartiana have been variously described as "invasive", "threatening" and even "dangerous" due to the perceived threat to the native H. non-scripta population; but with the diversity and beauty of the flowers on display in St Andrews, I can't bring myself to wish they had never arrived. "Native" status is arbitrary anyway, with Collins defining it as any flower that was here before the year 1500, and often needing to use guesswork to apply it. In a few years' time, no one will be left alive who remembers a time before the hybridisation of British bluebells, and is this such a sad thing?

I for one welcome our "nasty Spanish" visitors. I hope they continue to thrive in our woodlands, and I hope that anyone nostalgic for the good old-fashioned \((b, n, t)\) can comfort themselves in the knowledge that any hybrid they see with the slightest one-sided nod or the slightest elongated flowerhead is carrying within it the DNA of our traditional bluebells. In this sense, the "nice English Bluebell" will never be lost.

Triple Sour 👍



  • 10ml cranberry syrup

  • 30ml bourbon whiskey (or rye)

  • 10ml lemon juice

  • 10ml sugar syrup

  • 30ml red wine

Pour the cranberry syrup into a rocks glass, then fill up the glass with ice. Shake the whiskey, lemon juice and sugar syrup together with ice and strain gently into the glass, disturbing the cranberry syrup as little as possible. Pour the wine on top, again trying not to disturb the drink, perhaps by pouring over a teaspoon.

Since I first tried the New York sour I've been fascinated by layered drinks, and have been wanting to take the whole thing further by making a good-tasting drink with three distinct layers. I tried and failed to do this at New Year, using port as the bottom layer; it just all blurred in together and didn't look good at all. So I approached the problem scientifically.

The thing that keeps layers in drinks from mixing is density. The red wine floats on a New York sour because it's less dense than the whiskey sour underneath. This is largely because of sugar content: sugar is very dense in solution.

If you want to see this in action, try making some sugar syrup. Most of my recipes include "sugar syrup", by which I mean 1:1 simple syrup. You make this by mixing equal weights of sugar and water, and if you do this you'll notice how dense sugar is. If you mix 100g of water and 100g of sugar, you end up with 200g of syrup, but in the jug it only measures about 160ml, much denser than the 200ml you'd expect from fresh water. Whiskey sour is sweeter than red wine, largely due to the syrup in it, so it should be no surprise that it is denser. In fact, in an early experiment I tried a less sweet whiskey sour, with half as much sugar, and it mixed with the wine much more easily. Take this lesson: if you prefer a drier cocktail, you might end up with more blurring!

Now, what we want is a third layer at the bottom. We've already established that we need something more sugary than whiskey sour, and that's easy enough. The other criterion is a bright colour, which will stand out from the pale liquid above it. I took a look at my drinks cabinet, and I had several syrups that I thought could work: grenadine and strawberry both fit the bill, and I tried the grenadine in an early attempt; but cranberry was the winner, with its sharp tartness cutting through the sickly sugar beautifully, and even acting as a curious mirror to the dry fruit flavour of the red wine. Monin sell a standard cranberry syrup which you can get online or in bottle shops. Finally, we had a recipe!

If I say so myself, this is an excellent cocktail. Aside from the novelty and the look of the thing, the flavours work very well together, and the complexity of the changing flavours as you work your way down makes every sip interesting. I'm going to play with the proportions, but I think I've got something that really works here.

Next experiment: make the bottom layer green ("traffic light sour"?) possibly using sirop de menthe or waltmeister. Stay tuned.

Old Cuban 👍



  • 2 parts golden rum

  • 1 part lime juice

  • 1 part sugar syrup

  • A couple of dashes of angostura bitters

  • 6–8 mint leaves

  • 4 parts sparkling white wine

Shake the first five ingredients together with ice, strain into a cocktail glass, then add the sparkling wine. Add a new mint leaf on top.

I wrote all about this recipe the other day in my post about the Bangkok Cuban. In short, I was trying to make an Old Cuban but substituted lime leaves for the mint, which ended up very distinctive. Today I wanted to try the real thing, and got hold of some mint especially.

It's nice! The mint is refreshing, and lightens up the rich flavours of the other components.

I might criticise by saying the rum is drowned out a bit – I like to taste the spirit in my cocktails, and so I might try 3 parts rum next time instead of 2, more in line with my usual 3:1:1 sour cocktail recipe.

Bangkok Cuban 👍



  • 2 parts golden rum

  • 1 part lime juice

  • 1 part sugar syrup

  • A couple of dashes of angostura bitters

  • 2 lime leaves

  • 4 parts sparkling white wine

Shake the first five ingredients together with ice, strain into a cocktail glass, then add the sparkling wine. Add a lime leaf on top (you can fish one out of the shaker).

I was browsing Mastodon the other day, when I spotted an interesting post on the #cocktails tag. This post featured someone having a French 75 (which I've tried before) along with something called an Old Cuban, which I'd never heard of before! Of course, I had to try it.

The art of cocktail design is the art of swapping ingredients out for each other. There are really very few cocktail "structures", and the more recipes you see the more similarities you notice. French 75 and Old Cuban are the same style: a short sour cocktail topped up with champagne. French 75 uses gin and lemon, while Old Cuban uses rum and lime. Same principle, different base. See also the barracuda.

The other real difference is garnish. French 75 wants a twist of lemon zest, but Old Cuban calls for mint instead. And this is where I went off-piste a bit. Not having mint, I scoured the freezer for some other fresh-tasting herb, and found only lime leaves, that staple of Thai cooking that lends a bright zing to anything it turns up in. Without further ado, I threw them in the shaker and went for it.

The result is superb! A great combination of flavours, with strong, sweet, sour, fragrant and fizzy all balanced nicely. The lime leaves really came out, and I think justified a change of name: not an Old Cuban, but a Bangkok Cuban.

I may try the original sometime when I have mint in. I always have some over the summer during Pimm's season, so watch this space!

Frozen Amarocano 👍



  • 30ml Amaro Montenegro

  • 30ml red vermouth

  • 30ml soda water

Pour the amaro and vermouth into an old-fashioned glass and put it into the freezer for an hour, until just frozen. Add the soda water, stir, and add a thick half-slice of orange.

Amaro is a category of liqueurs, usually Italian, with a bitter or bittersweet taste, based on wine or spirits infused with botanicals. Famous amaros include Campari, Cynar and Jägermeister, all of which I've had at some point, and some of which have appeared on this blog. Now an excellent friend of mine has given me a bottle of Amaro Montenegro, and after a few tastes I was keen to try it in a cocktail.

I've previously enjoyed Campari in an americano) and loved it, so this seemed a good place to start. I followed the usual recipe for an americano, but using this new amaro instead of Campari. Montenegro is much sweeter than Campari, so I was looking forward to something easier to drink.

Here's where things got interesting, because I'd run out of ice. Necessity is the mother of invention, so I decided just to chill the glass and ingredients in the freezer for a while, minus the soda which would go flat. I went ahead and, predictably, forgot about it for an hour so came back to two red ice cubes.

I was contemplating thawing it in the microwave, but then remembered that, of course, many people like frozen cocktails. How bad could it be, I thought, as I added the soda water.

I was lucky! The mix of drinks hadn't frozen solid, but made a sort of snow that stirred easily into liquid, and produced a very nicely textured slush drink. I added the orange as planned, and sipped.

Superb! There are so many flavours in the amaro, with such complexity, yet enough bitterness to make a really well balanced cocktail. And the frozen texture was delightful, with a smooth chill, and none of the crunch of a slush puppy or frozen margarita. Probably getting it to only-just-freezing helps a lot. I'll be experimenting more with frozen drinks in future.

An abundance of squills

This spring, for the first time, I've taken an active interest in wildflowers in St Andrews, and although we're only in March, it's already brought me a lot of joy. In the past I've always enjoyed seeing flowers begin to come out: the transition from snowdrops to crocuses to daffodils to bluebells is a nice pattern to watch, and a happy sign that winter won't last forever. But this year I've paid more attention, and I've been delighted by how many interesting plants are right at my feet when I actually stop to look.

When I go out walking, I've been stopping when I see a flower I don't recognise, and doing my best to identify it. I've been taking Collins British Common Wild Flower Guide out with me, and I can usually get a positive identification, perhaps with some help from Google Lens. I've even kept a little diary of what I've seen on which dates, and seeing new plants spring up each time I go out has been very satisfying.

Lade Braes is a particularly beautiful area, where we are treated each year to carpets of wild spring bulbs, each in their season, all the way along the Kinnessburn from Cockshaugh park westwards. It's my favourite place in St Andrews to walk, and it's where today's story begins.

At the start of March, I noticed these pretty blue flowers appearing all along Lade Braes:


I'd seen them in previous years, and so I looked for them in the Wild Flower Guide, but there was nothing that seemed to match them. I tried Google Lens, and I couldn't settle on an exact species, but it seemed likely that these were squills: six-petalled perennials of the genus Scilla, which my guide didn't have much on. I decided to take a few photos and investigate further later on. There were plenty of these things all the way along the path, so I got plenty of photos.

When I got home and looked more closely at the photos, I was surprised to see that these plants were not actually all identical. The flowers' shapes and colours, the positions of the stamens and the way they were grouped on the stem, made it clear that I had found at least three different species, none of which were in my book, and none of which I could find much reliable information for online. I went back a few days later to get more photos, and I noticed even more variation than the first time.

Finally I snapped and went to Topping and Co., the booksellers on Greyfriars. I flicked through all the wild flower guides I could find and was still disappointed, until I discovered New Flora of the British Isles, by Clive Stace, a 1200-page tome filled with dense technical descriptions of just about every plant in these isles, including a good section on squills. I bought it (an investment) and took it home to study.

I'm delighted to say that, of the 12 species of Scilla described in Stace's book, we have at least 5 growing here in St Andrews. Hold on tight.

First, the easiest one to spot:


Glory-of-the-snow (Scilla forbesii), the most abundant squill on Lade Braes. Note the long "neck" of the flower, as well as the white-to-blue gradient on its petals, and its stamens gathered in the middle.

Glory-of-the-snow used to be considered a separate genus, Chionodoxa, but sometime in the 1970s its close relation to the squills was noted and it was reclassified as a subgenus of Scilla. Also in the Chionodoxa subgenus is the following:


Lesser glory-of-the-snow (Scilla sardensis), smaller than S. forbesii and only a single colour. I could only find a few of these on Lade Braes, but I've since found some in my garden!

Third is a more classic squill, although still not one that appears in common wildflower books:


Alpine squill (Scilla bifolia), spotted on the path around Cockshaugh park. No "neck", and with stamens that stick out in six different directions. Many flowers bunched up together on each plant.

The fourth and final species gets more abundant as you travel west along Lade Braes, forming nice "carpets" up the bank between the two paths above the burn:


Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), just west of Cockshaugh park. Flower hangs down, with distinctive petal shape and a yellow ovary tucked between the prominent stamens. Note that "Siberian" is a misnomer: it's native to southwestern Russia, the Caucasus, and Turkey.

I also found one more squill, which I had trouble identifying. The key in New Flora didn't quite work, with some features matching the alpine squill and others matching glory-of-the-snow. I was baffled, until I spotted a note in the book mentioning hybrids, and things started to make sense.

For anyone who doesn't know, in biology, a hybrid is an organism resulting from two different species cross-breeding, and will generally have some characteristics of each of the parent species. Some well-known plants and animals are hybrids – for example, a mule being a cross between a horse and a donkey – and some are even fertile enough to establish stable populations.

The book mentioned one notable hybrid squill: a cross between the alpine squill and glory-of-the-snow, the exact two I was torn between. I looked it up online and found this RHS entry, which confirmed it. I give you the hybrid squill!


Hybrid squill (Scilla × allenii), a cross between S. bifolia and S. forbesii, found occasionally on Lade Braes near both parent species. Note the prominent stamens like S. bifolia, but with petals longer and joining together in a "neck" like S. forbesii.

This hybrid is fertile and popular in gardens, so it may have escaped or been planted deliberately as-is. However, both parent species are present nearby, and according to Wikipedia this hybridisation has been seen to occur independently in multiple places. So I wonder if the plants have just hybridised naturally right here in St Andrews!

So there we are: at least 5 different squills growing happily together in our town. I have no idea whether these are truly wild or were planted by the council or volunteers; I do know that several of them are widespread in many nearby gardens, so they do at least seem to spread easily.

If anyone knows anything more about these plants, or can spot any mistakes I've made in my identification, I'd love to learn more. I'm not a botanist, and I had to learn a lot to manage the identifications above.

In the meantime, I believe these should be flowering until April, so you should still have time to go and see them if you're nearby. Treat yourself!

Hide and Fizz 👍



  • 2 parts lychee liqueur

  • 1 part dry vermouth

  • 1 part cranberry syrup

  • 4 parts sparkling white wine

Shake the first three ingredients with ice, then strain into a cocktail glass. Add the sparkling white wine and an apricot.

This drink came from The Good Mixer, a section of The Guardian's website. I've had trouble with that section before, because it tends to feature outrageously obscure cocktail ingredients like shiso leaves, tukmaria and vanilla bitters. This week I happened to get lucky: I've got just the end of a bottle of lychee liqueur that I got as a present a year or two ago (it's delicious). It's supposed to be pomegranate syrup instead of cranberry syrup, and the garnish should really be dried cranberries instead of an apricot, but I figured I was close enough.

The result was delightful, a nice approach to the Christmas period. The drink is sweet, but the cranberry adds some much-needed tartness and dryness, and makes it taste complex and grown-up.

Sorry for the blurry picture. Merry Christmas!

Army & Navy 👍



  • 6 parts gin

  • 2 parts lemon juice

  • 3 parts orgeat syrup

  • 1 part cold water

  • A couple of drops of angostura bitters

Shake the first four ingredients together with ice, strain into a cocktail glass, then add the bitters on top. Add a twist of orange zest.

I got a bottle of orgeat syrup a while ago for tiki cocktails (see the Mai Tai) and I was impressed with its complexity and aromas. It’s not just almond syrup, it has orange flowers and other stuff too! So I thought I’d see what else I can make.

This is perhaps the most obvious choice: a classic sour cocktail based on gin and lemon, but with orgeat instead of plain old sugar syrup. I might have come up with this myself, but apparently it already has a name: an Army & Navy. It's described in David A. Embury’s influential The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948) where he complains (as usual) about the ratios used, and demands something far sourer than I'd have liked. He also suggests the bitters and water, which are just what it needed. I've adjusted the ratios to my taste.

Overall, it's very nice! You really get the flavours of the orgeat, but it's not sickly. If I was going to adjust it, I'd raise the gin, since it's a little overpowered.

I can't figure out the origin of the name, but it might be that it originated in the "Army and Navy Club" in New York.