Sunday, 5 March 2017

Experimenting with monkey glands

Early in one’s drinking career one will encounter spirits lengthened with mixers—gin and tonic, rum and coke, perhaps whisky and ginger ale (or whisky and soda water, if you are of a different generation). It was when I was a student that I first encountered gin and orange juice. I was sceptical, as I was inclined to think of OJ as a wholesome breakfast beverage, not a louche partner-in-crime to the Demon Drink, the innocent-faced, outwardly respectable enabler that distracts you from the hard spirits you are guzzling. It didn’t not work, but it was clearly intended as a way to mask the flavour of the spirit.

It was later, when I had found a copy of Cocktails and How to Mix Them (1922) “by ‘Robert’ [Vermeire] of the American Bar, Casino Municipale, Nice, and late of the Embassy Club, London”, that I first encountered the Monkey Gland cocktail. The name comes from experiments conducted at the time by surgeon Serge Voronoff, who believed he could boost longevity/virility by surgically implanting monkey testicle tissue into men. The cocktail was created by Harry MacElhone, who opened Harry’s Bar in Paris (though Vermeire identifies him by his tenure at Ciro’s in London) and I assume the name was chosen to suggest that the effect it had on the drinker was invigorating, even rejuvenating—and not that it left you feeling like you’d just woken up from surgery (or, even worse, feeling the way the monkey did when, and if, he woke up).

It’s a mix of gin and orange juice, with grenadine and absinthe. Recipes vary, but it is roughly equal parts gin and OJ, with small quantities of the other two ingredients. I tried it at the time, using Pernod (this was the 1990s and absinthe hadn’t made its triumphant return by then) and commercial grenadine, and I don’t think I was terribly impressed.

I was reminded of this drink again when Mrs H. recently gave me a copy of An Anthology of Cocktails, put out by Booth’s gin in 1935.* It features a whole list of celebs of the time with a recommended cocktail for each one and a cheesy testimony from them on the glories of Booth’s. For example, man of the turf Lord Westmorland declares, so we are led to believe, “A cocktail without Booth’s is a cocktail under a handicap,” while actress Sybil Thorndike asserts that, “A cocktail in which Booth’s plays a leading part receives an enthusiastic reception from the most captious critics,” while racing driver Brian Lewis blurts, “A party without Booth’s is like a car without wheels.” Quite how the Great and the Good were persuaded to lend their names (and indeed their signatures, printed alongside) to these abortions of the copywriter’s art boggles the mind.

The volume also includes a list of London clubs and theatres that serve Booth’s and a list of top barmen from the city with their favourite Booth’s recipes. You can see a page-turning PDF of the whole book at https://euvs-vintage-cocktail-books.cld.bz/1955-An-Anthology-of-Cocktails.

The Monkey Gland as such does not appear—the cocktails recommended by Booth’s for the celebs do tend to have a name that is relevant (Brian Lewis gets the Self Starter, winter sportsman the Earl of Northesk gets the Snowball, Ivor Novello gets the Star, etc), so I doubt that any of them would have appreciated being paired with the Monkey Gland—but it does feature a number of cocktails that similarly feature fruit juice not as a mixer to lengthen but as an ingredient, in amounts less than that of the base spirit. The Star, for example, is half-and-half gin and Calvados, plus a dash each of French and Italian vermouth, and only a teaspoon of grapefruit juice. The Smiler cocktail, recommended by horse breeder Tom Walls (“Would that the pedigree of a horse were as reliable a guide as the name of Booth’s on a bottle of gin,” he creaks) is essentially a Martini made with a blend of French and Italian vermouth, Angostura bitters and just a dash of Orange juice.

As it happens I had an orange looking for a purpose in life, and I was inspired to give the Monkey Gland another go. The upshot was most uplifting but I had to do a lot of experimenting to get there.

In the first instance I would say that the proportions are probably the most important part. Get the gin/OJ balance wrong and things go awry. Exactly how much grenadine you use may depend on how sweet your tooth is; but it is very easy to throw the whole thing out by using too much absinthe—in one attempt I escalated the absinthe to a whole ½ tsp and it ruined the drink. It should be a playful suggestion of pungent herbal flavours lurking in the background. The simplest way to keep that under control is to start by rolling some absinthe around your mixing vessel, then pouring it all out back into the bottle. What is left clinging to the sides of the shaker is all you need.

I also found that squeezing the orange juice freshly makes a big difference. It doesn’t exactly fail with commercial OJ from a carton, but this will make a more watery drink. Juice squeezed from an orange is sweeter and more intensely flavoured, with sharp aromatic notes from the rind oils. I imagine that when all these early cocktails with small amounts of fruit juice were developed, cartons of ready-squeezed juice may not have been available, so if a recipe specified the juice of a citrus fruit it was assumed that you would produce this by squeezing an actual fruit.

Monkey Gland
50ml gin (Adnams Copper House)
37.5ml freshly squeezed OJ
Absinthe rinse (La Fée new formula)
½ tsp grenadine
Coat the shaker with a rinse of absinthe and drain. Add the other ingredients and shake with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass and squeeze a strip of orange peel over the top.

As mentioned, the gin/orange balance is important, so neither swamps the other, a balance of sweetness, fruitiness and spirit warmth. When it’s right, interesting chocolate flavours emerge. Maybe it’s the use of freshly squeezed OJ, but the spirit and juice seem to integrate in a way that suggests the rich orange character of curaçao. I also tried varying the gin brand, using Anno instead, and it still works, though I found that the approachable, fruity, floral character of Adnams Copper House sat more comfortably. I didn’t try varying the absinthe brand, but as long as it is real absinthe (avoid anything that is a bluish green, which is artificial; naturally coloured absinthe tends to be an olive green) I would imagine it’ll be OK in these proportions.**

Grenadine is traditionally a pomegranate syrup, and I have previously railed against modern commercial grenadines, which are actually based on “red berries”, and probably don’t even feature any real ones of those anyway. But it is easy to make a good one, not too sweet, with some of the tannic dryness of the fruit, by mixing equal parts by volume of 100% pomegranate juice (POM Wonderful is the grand I have used in the past) and granulated sugar, heated in a pan to dissolve, then cooled. I keep some in the fridge and it never seems to go off.

*Most of the recipes specify “Booth’s gin”, and more than once the text refers to the “mellow” or “matured” character—DBS tells me that Booth’s was actually rested in wood barrels (casks previously used for sherry or Burgundy, depending on the era) for 6–12 weeks to soften its rough edges. Some of the recipes, on the other hand, specify “Booth’s dry gin”; certainly by the mid-20th century Booth’s were selling their High and Dry Gin, claiming to be “the driest gin in the world”, though I’m not sure if, at the time this booklet was published, they were selling both versions. Sadly there is nothing actually about the product within its pages. Aged gin has become fashionable again (and in fairness Seagram’s have always rested their gin in wood for 3–4 weeks). In recent years a Booth’s Cask Mellowed Gin has been produced again.

** I see that the International Bartenders Association gives their prescribed recipe as even leaner: 50ml gin, 30ml OJ and just two drops each of grenadine and absinthe.

Friday, 24 February 2017

The definitive "correct" Martini recipe?

A friend has drawn my attention to a curious volume, the American National Standard Safety Code and Requirements for Dry Martinis, which you can view online here.

Evidently it was produced as a tongue-in-cheek publicity stunt to raise awareness of the American National Standard Institute and its work, but there are some interesting observations to make nevertheless.

Whoever wrote the pamphlet (or whatever committee) nails their colours to the mast—they like their Martini dry, with just 5% vermouth for lower-strength gins, and it must be served with an olive, pitted but not stuffed, or alternatively no garnish at all. Lemon peel and the Gibson’s cocktail onion are verboten.

There is a curious emphasis on colour, which must be as pale as possible. It’s true that Dry Martinis do tend to be pretty pale because they are mostly gin, but I’m guessing there is an unconscious sense that paler = purity and strength, especially in the macho world where you are supposed to strive for the driest Martinis possible. There is even a suggestion that vermouth manufacturers had responded by making their products paler, which is something I hadn’t thought about (but then I wasn’t drinking a lot of Martinis back when this pamphlet was released, so I don’t know if vermouths used to be more coloured). Certainly they do vary—Belsazar Dry, one of my favourites, is actually pretty dark (and probably gets darker if you allow it to oxidise after opening). Oddly, the text states that, “The colour shall be either water-white of faintly blue”. Blue? I’m assuming this is poetic license, derived from the idea that something can be so white that it is bluish, but I must say that if my Martini were blue I would send it back. (There are some gimmicky gins that are coloured blue but we don’t talk about them.)

And these drinks are big. I doubt that any official publication today would breezily announce that a “regular” Dry Martini should contain 3½ ounces of gin—over here in Europe that is 103.5 ml, which is over four units of alcohol. (For a long time the UK government’s maximum recommended intake for a man was 3–4 units a day, though the spoilsports later reduced this to 2–3, and I have a feeling they may recently have reduced it further.) If you fancy saving time and having a double you’ll be swallowing 2–2½ days’ worth of alcohol allowance in one drink. Drink responsibly, kids.

On the subject of olives, it is curious that the guide seems to suggest that maximum olive size for a large Martini is larger than for a regular, but for a double it goes back down to the same size as a regular. Perhaps the message here is that choosing a large Martini is an aesthetic decision, whereas choosing a double is simply a matter of alcoholic need. Or it may just be a typo.

It terms of mixing, no mention is made of shaking. A Martini must be stirred (and there are many who agree here) or blended from pre-chilled ingredients (what my colleague Mr Bridgman-Smith calls the “Diamond Method”). Interestingly they also mention the “radiation” method. This is presumably a reference to the old joke, attributed to Winston Churchill, about making a Dry Martini by simply allowing a shaft of sunlight to pass through a bottle of vermouth on to the gin. Curiously the sunbeam here is replaced by a 60-watt bulb. Either this is a self-consciously urban adjustment, or it is purely logical, based on the idea that if it is Martini time then it might well be the evening, so there is no sunlight. Or it could simply be a pseudo-scientific trope—by specifying the wattage of the bulb and the distance between all the objects you can control the precise amount of light.

The whole tone of the pamphlet reminds one of Jazz-Age wags like Robert Benchley, so it is surprising that this was actually published in 1974—surely well into the cocktail Dark Age, between the Golden Age and the New Golden Age, where we apparently are now. I’m sure that some Dry Martinis were still being consumed in the 1970s but they could hardly have felt like part of the zeitgeist. You can’t help wondering if what this shows us is simply how glacially the mechanisms of official bureaucracies actually work. Some bright spark at the Institute probably had the idea for this gag in 1928 but by the time it had passed through countless committees and sub-committees somehow 26 years had passed…

Of course right-thinking drinkers would probably bristle at the very idea that cocktail recipes should be standardised by any central agency—what scope does that leave for bar-room arguments, varying ingredients or indeed for personal taste? But in fact in 1937 the UK Bartenders Guild produced a volume for professionals entitled Approved Cocktails (later incorporated into the Café Royal Cocktail Book for consumers), which attempted to do precisely that. You can see it online here.

Friday, 18 November 2016

The Paloma Royale

The Fumoir bar at London's Claridge's hotel

Last month I gave myself a birthday treat and sloped by the Fumoir Bar in Claridge’s hotel. Claridge’s itself is an Art Deco feast, but the Fumoir is a little-known treasure within a treasure. There is another main bar, but the Fumoir, which used to be a smoking room back in the days when you could smoke indoors, is off the main drag through an inconspicuous door. Within its compact dimensions (it can only seat 36 and you can’t book) are a wealth of decorative period details along with vintage photos of famous people smoking. There are no windows, so it has an intimate late night feel, even during the day.

Your correspondent, roughing it in the Fumoir
As I was chatting to the barman he mentioned one of their Champagne cocktails, which contained tequila and grapefruit juice. He suggested that it referenced the Papa Doble, or Hemingway Daiquiri (a Daiquiri with added grapefruit juice and maraschino) but it occurred to me that this was effectively a high-class Paloma (see my earlier posts on vintage tequila cocktails and cocktails with Ocho).

I am reliably told that the Paloma, a mixture of tequila and grapefruit soda, is the most common way that tequila is drunk in Mexico. The preferred brands are Squirt, Jarritos or Fresca, none of which is available here in the UK, that I have seen; I’ve tried making the drink using Ting but I was underwhelmed. So recipes often involve some actual grapefruit juice, sometimes dispensing with the grapefruit soda altogether; often they will specify a salt rim to the glass and some lime juice (in turn balanced with sugar or agave syrup) or a lime garnish.

Intrigued, I later experimented at home. I essentially stuck to just three ingredients, tequila, grapefruit juice and Champagne, and I definitely think it works. (Even Mrs H. who is frankly not much bothered about cocktails in general, confessed it was pretty interesting and actually quite nice).

But a lot of it lies in the balance. I was using KAR tequila, which has more overt character than some mainstream brands, and a commercial fresh (not from concentrate) grapefruit juice, courtesy of Tropicana. I eventually decided these proportions worked best:

Paloma Royale
Paloma Royale
25ml tequila
40ml grapefruit juice
100ml Champagne
(Optional: 5ml lime juice and 5ml agave syrup)
Shake everything but the Champagne with ice, add to a Champagne flute or coupe and top with chilled Champagne, stirring gently to blend.
(Or you can save time by chilling all the ingredients and simply blending in a—preferably chilled—glass.)

The earthiness of the tequila comes through clearly; I started with equal amounts of spirit and juice, but I think this elevated level of grapefruit is necessary to get the balance and a bit of sweetness. As with all these things you could add lime juice and syrup for some conventional sweet/sour density (as I've indicated, a teaspoon of each is acceptable to me),* but I always think that if you’re going to use Champagne in a cocktail you should be able to taste it, so I preferred to leave it at this—not austere but delicate.

* And I have seen some recipes that add elderflower liqueur—which certainly has a natural affinity with tequila. I’ve also noticed in the past that tequila and ginger go well, so I must try adding something like the King’s Ginger liqueur to see how that works…

Thursday, 10 November 2016

KAR Tequila: drinking yourself to death

A friend gave me this as a birthday present last month, KAR tequila, which comes in an earthenware bottle shaped like a Day of the Dead style skull. This is the blanco but they also make a resposado (yellow skull with red devil motif) an añejo (black skull) and an extra añejo (black skull with sparkly bits). The Day of the Dead ritual, honouring the dead and celebrating the cycle of death and rebirth, apparently goes back 3,000 years. The name KAH means “life” in the ancient Mayan language.

Each bottle is hand-painted and no two are the same. As a result this is an expensive product: here in the UK you can expect to pay £46 for the blanco, £61 for the repo and at least £66 for the añejo. My friend gave it to me as much as anything because he’s convinced it’s the same size as my own skull—I have a notably small head and if I try on one of his hats I just disappear into it. It’s close but not quite (see illustration at the bottom). As he says, if nothing else it’ll make an unusual plant pot. But what about the contents? Are they worth the price tag?

Uncork it and there is a strong, pungent agave character. The palate is fruity and surprisingly smooth and sweet, with a herbal element carrying on from the nose and a petrolly aftertaste. There is a robust vegetable character that is muscular but not rough.

It makes a good margarita (tequila, lime juice and curaçao or syrup—agave nectar is fashionable) , bright, sharp and pungent, with that strong herbal note poking through to balance the drink.

To get a subtler idea of KAR’s character I line it up against some other tequilas: El Jimador, at the better end of the mass-market tequilas here and one that you’re likely to encounter in a supermarket, Olmeca Altos (see my post on it from 2013), Ocho (see here) and Tierra Noble.

KAR is again sweet and smooth on the tongue (and note that it is 40% ABV, as is Ocho, while El Jimador and Olmeca Altos are 38%), with caramel on the nose. El Jimador has a note of orange on the nose and it is thinner and leaner on the tongue, with a slightly soapy flavour compared to the others here. With Olmeca Altos you do feel you’ve stepped up a league: the nose is more expansive, fresh, herbal and fleshy, with a petrolly agave character that follows through on the palate, where it joins toffee notes. Ocho also has that extra dimension compared to the first two, but its juicy grapefruit nose is lighter and frothier than Olmeca Altos. There is a strong agave character but it is more delicate than the Olmeca, which has a more middly, meaty, savoury flavour. Finally Tierra Noble is a bit of a wildcard, because I was given my bottle several years ago at a trade show and to the best of my knowledge it is not available in the UK. It is the most smoky of the tequilas here with a hint of chocolate on the finish.

As a spirit to sip neat, I would definitely choose Olmeca Altos of Ocho over KAR. But how do they compare in mixed drinks?

I line up four Margaritas, made with the same proportions but different tequilas: El Jimador, KAR, Olmeca Altos and Ocho. Initially I use two parts tequila to one part lime juice and one part Cointreau. At this point the El Jimador makes an unsatisfactory drink, because the tequila doesn’t really make its presence felt. The KAR, on the other hand is strikingly more prominent on the nose and tongue. Likewise the Olmeca is again noticeable, with a similar caramel note to KAR but with a fresh aromatic element. Ocho is playful, more elusive and subtle, with a hint of minerality.

As an experiment I increase the tequila to three parts (to one part each of lime juice and Cointreau). Even at this ratio the El Jimador gets a bit lost, but with KAR it immediately strikes me as a pretty perfect balance between the three ingredients, the sort of combination that makes sense of a cocktail recipe. With Olmeca, by comparison, something seems out, not gelling. It’s not unpleasant, but just takes a bit of getting used to. Ocho likewise seems to leer out a bit, stamping its own character on the drink, whereas KAR feels more that it merges easily with the lime and curaçao.

There is no doubt that KAR makes a damn fine Margarita. But is it worth the money? Not unless you have a desire to fill your house with gaily-painted ceramic skulls. As a sipping tequila, KAR is smooth and approachable but Olmeca Altos (about £30 for 70cl) and Ocho (£21 for 50cl) offer more dimensions.

Having said that, when my bottle of KAR is finished, I will still have a highly unusual plant pot.



Sunday, 26 June 2016

The East India Cocktail

I have a few friends who belong to the East India Club, a private members’ club in London with a long history. Originally set up for employees of the East India Company and officers in the Army and Navy, who might need a base in London while away from their far-flung posts, in the 1930s it absorbed the Sports Club, and then in the 1970s (a tough time for many clubs, when membership of such establishments was at its least fashionable) the Public Schools Club and the Devonshire Club as well. Today there aren’t any real criteria for joining but I think the people I know who belong joined because their schools had been among those originally part of the Public Schools Club. There is no particular connection with East India, but I was interested to hear a couple of references to an “East India Club Cocktail” served at the bar.

In fact it turned out to be simply an “East India Cocktail”, and this is something with quite a history, though there are several approaches to it. It can be traced back to the second half of the 19th century when it seems to have been enjoyed by Englishmen out in the colonies. Though the East India Club would have been in existence by this time (founded in the mid-19th century), it is more likely that the cocktail was devised in one of the “American Bars” in fashionable Grand Hotels of the region.* Recipes vary but it always seems to be Cognac based.

The earliest reference is in Harry Johnson’s New and Improved Bartender’s Manual from 1882, where a double measure of Cognac is augmented by small amounts of curaçao, maraschino, bitters and pineapple syrup. You might think that the use of pineapple syrup rather than juice is simply a necessary expedient the further you get from the source of pineapples, but O.H. Byron’s The Modern Bartender’s Guide (1884) has a recipe that is essentially the same as Johnson’s except that it uses raspberry syrup instead of pineapple. This may well have evolved from Johnson’s version, but it does show that both pineapple and raspberry versions have been around for a long while.

The use of pineapple syrup certainly persisted into the Golden Age of Cocktails, as Robert Vermeire and Harry MacElhone, writing in the 1920s, specify it. But the Savoy Cocktail Book from 1930 gives the ingredients as brandy, curaçao, bitters and pineapple juice. as does Cocktails by Jimmy of Ciro’s (1930) and the Café Royal Cocktail Book (1937, an attempt to codify “correct” recipes by the United Kingdom Bartenders Guild). Perhaps the juice had just become more widely available by this stage, though a couple of sources from this time, and also David Embury writing in the 1940s, suggest that maraschino can be use instead of the pineapple juice, which would suggest it is just there to add a bit of fruity sweetness.

In fact the use of pineapple juice in cocktails does not just add the flavour of pineapples but, when vigorously shaken, adds a rich, silky, foamy texture. However, for me this cocktail is primarily about the combination of Cognac and pineapple flavours, which I think go very handsomely together indeed. Simon Difford’s version specifies Grand Marnier, a sophisticated curaçao made from a Cognac base, which seems a bit unnecessary to me, given that the cocktail is made out of Cognac anyway. And in fact I find that the orange flavour from the curaçao gets a bit lost too.** I would recommend just using Cointreau.

I rang the bar steward at the East India Club to ask how he made it. He does indeed specify Cognac, curaçao, bitters and pineapple juice, though he adds: “It’s very sweet. It’s good for the ladies.”

Actually I don’t think it is that sweet, but I do personally feel that it needs some balancing tartness, and one or two teaspoons of lemon or lime juice seem to do the trick, though it will depend on how sweet or sour you like things.

East India Cocktail
1½ shots Cognac
1½ shots pineapple juice
¾ shot curaçao (orange liqueur)
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
1–2 tsp lemon or lime juice (optional)
Shake vigorously with ice and strain into a glass. Traditionally garnished with a cocktail cherry though Difford suggests a twist of orange peel

* Though Simon Difford says that the juice version is “thought to originate with Frank Meier at the Ritz Bar, Paris”, which would make it much later, as Frank served at the Ritz from 1921 to 1947. 

** Actually Difford gives this recipe as “East India No.2”. His “No.1”, which he says is based on Ted Haigh’s version, which in turn is based on Johnson’s, uses syrup instead of juice, but in fact Haigh goes down the raspberry syrup route, adding maraschino as well, and Difford goes one further in replacing the raspberry syrup with grenadine.

Monday, 15 February 2016

The Armin Strom Cognac Watch: wearing your wealth on your sleeve

The Armin Strom Cognac Watch: you can see the transparent capsule at the
5 o'clock position, containing a drop of 1762 Cognac
I’ve been contacted again by Wealth Solutions, those crazy Polish people behind the special 1953 Glenfarclas whisky bottling for the Queen’s Jubilee in 2012. This time they’ve bought themselves a bottle of 1762 Gautier Cognac, bottled in 1840 and believed to be the oldest bottle ever sold at public auction. Bonhams of New York presented the bottle with an estimate of $20,000–25,000, but in the end it went for a whopping $60,000.

When a wine or spirit is that old and that expensive, many purchasers will have no intention of drinking it, but will keep it intact as an investment. Wealth Solutions, however, opened the bottle at a special ceremony last November, and decanted it into flacons. I don’t know if any of this will get tasted, but their current project is much more bizarre. They have teamed up with high-end Swiss watch manufacturer Armin Strom to product a wristwatch that actually contains a drop of the 1762 Cognac.

The precious Gautier, the oldest authenticated bottle of Cognac
ever sold at auction
At this point I think we need to step back and think about what is going on here. I don’t know what these watches—due to be launched next month at watch show Baselworld 2016—will cost, as price is very much “on application” and ordinary Armin Strom timepieces seem to be in the $10,000+ arena. Yet the person who buys one will never know what this rare spirit tastes like. The drop is sealed in a sapphire crystal capsule*—which is just as well, of course, otherwise it would evaporate in a matter of hours. So you’ll never know its aroma either. (Although, again, having a watch that made you smell of brandy might raise a few eyebrows at that 9am board meeting.)

No, this is very much a matter of simply knowing the brandy is there. The whole high-end watch market has always been a bit mystifying to me. I like to wear vintage watches, simply because I like the idea that this thing was on someone’s wrist in the 1920s or 1930s and has been ticking away ever since. (I have a pocket watch that, from the engraved dedication inside, looks like it was presented as a gift to “R.B.S.” on 22nd July 1931, perhaps celebrating retirement: these are the sorts of human stories that you can muse upon.) They can be purchased on eBay for £40 and I’m not too bothered that they might not keep the best time and regularly break down altogether.

The underside of the watch, showing the
engraving of a bunch of grapes
On the other end of the scale are watches like Armin Strom’s. I’m sure they keep very good time, but then so does a cheap digital watch you can buy for a fiver from a petrol station. With these watches it is about the difficulty of making them mechanically, and Strom specialises in “skeleton” designs where everything is hollow and exposed so you can see the workings. To my eye this actually makes them rather hard to read, but that is not the point—the point is that it is difficult and expensive. In fact, with such watches I suspect that the asking price is far in excess of what is needed to reflect the cost of manufacture. Here we are in the realm of things that need to be expensive just so that rich people can conspicuously consume them. That is the Wealth Solution—as if wealth is a problem that needs to be solved. For some people nothing is intrinsically expensive enough: so they must agree that certain items will be designated as expensive so they can vie to own them. Walking around with a drop of the world’s oldest Cognac inside your watch feels a bit like adorning yourself with a crystal reliquary containing a relic of a saint—in the hope that you will be mystically healed by the patron saint of the Painfully Wealthy.

For the record, the watch has 117 components, 20 jewels, a manual-winding mechanism that will run for five days, and a hand-engraved image of a bunch of grapes on the underside. It is available in stainless steel, titanium and rose gold finishes and comes with a blue alligator strap. (And you thought blue alligators were extinct.)

It seems a shame for this spirit to be sealed away untasted, but of course only 40 of these watches are going to be made, so that is only 40 drops of the stuff that has been earmarked. We’ll have to wait and see that happens to the rest of it (unless the wags at Wealth Solutions flamed it over their Christmas pudding two months ago for a bet). It makes you wonder how far you could take this idea—limited edition designer trainers where the uppers are stitched together from a newly discovered canvas by Rembrandt? Or a novelty gear stick ornament for your sports car with a crystal dome containing your initials spelled out in illuminated letters cut from the Book of Kells? Or an iPhone case containing a fine slice of Einstein’s brain tissue?

In the meantime, I notice from the lush photos of the Armin Strom timepiece that the tiny phial of 1792 Cognac seems to have an air bubble in it, so at least your wristwatch has the bonus that it can double as a spirit level.

* The capsule is placed at the five o’clock position on the dial. I’m curious as to whether this was deliberate—are they suggesting that 5pm is the hour when a gentleman puts down his tools, calls it a day and relaxes with a bracing droplet of 250-year-old brandy?
The Wealth Solutions crew opening their bottle in November. You don't want to make these people angry.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Elephant Gin: a cure for the Heart of Darkness

I first encountered Elephant Gin at a pop-up German-themed bar in the basement
of Herman Ze German restaurant in Charlotte Street during London Cocktail
Week last October. You can see that this is bottle 564 from a batch named after an
elephant called Igor. The glass shows that this is a gin to be sipped and
savoured; the lid is there to keep in the precious aromas, I was told
In a crowded marketplace gins increasingly seem to be using a quirky back-story, unusual botanicals or some other gimmick to grab our attention. Elephant Gin is the second German gin I’ve tried in recent months and, like Monkey 47, it has an animal theme. But where Monkey 47 uses botanicals from the Black Forest region where it is made, Elephant is actually all about Africa. And where the monkey in question was an individual called Max from a zoo, Elephant Gin is named after the whole species—in fact 15% of the profits are donated to two charities that work to protect African elephants from ivory poaching. Having said that, each batch of 800 bottles is named after a particular elephant that one of the charities has helped, so every label has the name and number handwritten on it.

This is how the gin is presented, hankering after the Golden Age of exploration
The makers were apparently inspired by their own travels in the continent, and the imagery is designed to evoke the Victorian heyday of exploration, with a front label reminiscent an old postage stamp (featuring an elephant clutching a bottle of gin in its trunk) and a vintage map on the back label. The bottle is specially made, stoppered with natural cork and decorated with twine and an embossed seal, and does feel like something taken on safari. Of course Europeans in the Victorian era did not exactly treat the Dark Continent with reverence, and would have been more likely to bag elephants as trophies than protect them, but perhaps the gin is an attempt to make amends for the colonial past…

Unsurprisingly, the 14 botanicals include a number from Africa: citric baobab from Malawi (boasting more vitamin C than oranges, it says here, though how much of that survives into the gin I don’t know), bitter floral African Wormwood, devil’s claw, said to have healing properties, blackcurrant-like buchu and herbaceous lion’s tail, all from South Africa. In this respect the product has more in common with Whitley Neill, another African-inspired gin that also uses baobab (and also gives some of its profits to African charities). Elephant also uses fresh apples from an orchard near the distillery outside Hamburg, which slightly confuses the image, plus elderflower, ginger, pimento, lavender and pine needles from the Salzburger Mountains, as well as the more conventional cassia and sweet orange peel, plus juniper, of course.

It’s clear that this gin is not just about gimmickry—it would have been easy to use a tried-and-tested set of botanicals then add one or two token African elements. But the fact that there are so many unusual ingredients, plus an absence of many typical gin botanicals, such as coriander, orris or angelica, shows that the whole thing has been put together from the ground up and the botanical selection is all about the flavour.

Even the 10cl sample bottle mimics the style and
quality of the full-size vessel
The botanicals are handpicked and macerated for 24 hours. It’s a one-shot distillation (as opposed to multi-shot, where a botanically intense “concentrate” is produced which is then diluted down with alcohol)* with a relatively small “heart” of the distillate selected for use (i.e. the best bit—the first liquid out of a pot still is discarded, as is the last, and how much of the central cut you use is a balance of quality against cost). The gin is diluted with local spring water down to 45% ABV. The end result is not cheap, at around £30 for just 50cl. (My sample is only 10cl, so I wasn’t able to try it in many different serves.)

The first thing I get on sniffing the bottle is a floral, marshmallow sweetness combined with a juiciness. (How a smell can be juicy is hard to say—I expect it reminds me of fruit that I know to be juicy.) There is warm ginger, zingy, sherbet citrus, blackcurrant, earthy spice. It’s an elegant, perfumed, structured aroma, but quite subtle. It is sweetish on the tongue, and smooth for a 45% gin, with fruit interplaying with herbaceous notes, the impression of sweetness fencing with dry spice and a tweak of bitterness on the tip of your tongue. It doesn’t strike me as particularly juniper-driven.

Some of the seals say "Made in Germany" while others
show a Zulu shield and spears, and the date 1802, an
emblem that is also moulded into the bottle. This
commemorates the year that botanist Heinrich Stark
mounted an important expedition. I can't find out much
about him, though
As it happens I have some Whitley Neill to hand so I try it for comparison. It is much more juniper-dominated on the nose; on the palate it is also sweet and fruity, but more stern and muscular. Elephant is considerably softer and more delicate.

Add a bit of tonic water (but not too much) and the character remains broadly the same, though for the first time I get a taste of apple, joining the sweet citrus and dry, perfumed spice. But Elephant Gin won’t take too much tonic water before its subtleties are swamped. (By comparison Whitley Neill is well adapted to a G&T with its strong juniper element making its presence easily felt.) The prescribed garnish is a slice of apple and it does go well, slotting in easily with the gin’s own flavours.** Finally, I try one of the recommended cocktails, the White Tusk (a version of the White Lady): 50ml Elephant Gin, 15ml lemon juice, 10ml Cointreau, 10ml sugar syrup and 10ml egg white. It is dominated by sweetness and the orange flavour of the Cointreau, but the gin’s own characteristics do seep through; I’m tempted to describe them as appley but it may just be the apple garnish from the last drink making me think that way.

* Proponents of single-shot distillation evidently feel that multi-shot is a compromise that sacrifices quality. However, m’colleague DBS conducted a test recently, with the help of Anne Brock from Jensen, where they made various gin batches using single- and multi-shot techniques and blind tasted them. Broadly speaking the result was that the single-shot samples were not preferred to the rest. See the report at http://distilling.uberflip.com/i/622468-distiller-winter-16/91.

** All new gins seem to have to come with a prescribed garnish—and this is never something normal like a slice of lemon. (Nor is it ever recommended that no garnish is necessary.) It seems that this is viewed as an essential part of establishing the product’s character and place in the market. I have a bit of a suspicion of garnishes in general—I feel that if the product doesn’t taste at its best without the added flavour of the garnish, then why not make it with that flavour in it to start off with? (OK, I accept that, for example, the taste of a slice of fresh apple probably can’t be replicated by macerating apple in the spirit then distilling it, even with cold, vacuum distillation.) Generally speaking the prescribed garnish is usually one of the gin’s botanicals anyway. Likewise, my suspicions—and my hackles—are raised in a bar when I am presented with a cocktail that has a small tree sprouting from the top, frequently rendering it almost impossible to drink without poking your eye out. If the vessel is also something opaque, like a bamboo log or hollowed-out monkey skull, then between that and the plug of garnish you find that you can’t actually see the liquid you are drinking, which I find disconcerting. Recently I was served a cocktail with a smouldering cinnamon stick balanced horizontally across the top. WTF? Even the barman seemed a bit sheepish about this, since you couldn’t pick the glass up without the stick rolling off, and if it didn’t then it would probably burn you (or set fire to your moustache if you had one). In case you’re wondering, burning cinnamon smoke does smell lightly of cinnamon (I’ve just set fire to a cinnamon stick to check), so I’m sure this aroma was supposed to be part of the experience, but I don’t remember being able to pick up on this at the time.