Thursday, 28 October 2010

A most unusual way to make gin

The exterior of the Horseless Carriage

The Hendrick's marketing machine is such a thing of Shock and Awe that few people (at least few in Our World) can be unaware of their calculated image of playful eccentricity and oddness. So I was almost surprised when, as part of London Cocktail Week, there was an opportunity to learn about how the actual product is made.

The Hendrick's roadshow had set up on the forecourt of a disused petrol station and there was eccentricity aplenty with a croquet lawn, threnody from a musical saw and one of the famous Hendrick's roll top baths, filled with rose petals. The actual seminar was inside the Hendrick's Horseless Carriage, what looks like a railway carriage adapted for road transport. The snug, dark wood interior is filled with bric-a-brac and strange specimens—but also, mercifully, with gin.

Brand ambassador Louis Xavier Lewis-Smith gave us a preliminary talk on the history of distilling and gin in particular, with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation which he himself had not previously seen— perhaps a test of prowess through which all ambassadors must go before they can get the really good postings. (It wouldn't surprise me to discover that Hendrick's has its own embassy in Moscow.) We were also confronted with an array of samples that turned out to be a rare opportunity to taste the liquid as it comes out of the still.

Around the bath it reads, "I can resist everything
except temptation." Wilde, I believe.
Hendrick's is made by William Grant, the whisky distillers. Their involvement with gin dates from when they bought a gin recipe and two stills at auction in 1966 from the London firm Taplow's. One was a Bennett pot still made in 1860 and the other a Carter-Head still fashioned in 1948; both have been restored and have been used since 1999 to make Hendrick's, which is itself a blend of the output from the two stills.

The Bennett still is basically a copper pot that is filled with neutral grain spirit and botanicals (Hendrick's aren't too specific about what these are—"flowers, roots, fruits and seeds" is all they will admit to, though juniper, coriander and orange and lemon peel are clearly involved), which are left to steep before the whole lot is heated and the resulting vapour condensed into a distillate that emerges at 80% ABV. One of our samples was precisely this—we were warned that we might not want to put it into our mouths undiluted, advice which we, of course, ignored.

The Bennett still has a reputation for producing a robust product and at 80% the predominant note for me was caramel or butterscotch, but when you add water to bring it down to roughly 40% there is a huge rush of citrus aromas, earthy roots, pungent, piney flavours and a hint of warm aniseed. Robust indeed. The long maceration prior to distillation has extracted profound flavours and plenty of oils from the botanicals, visible in the "legs" up the side of the glass when swirled—moreover, when you add water it "louches" like absinthe, going slightly milky. As with absinthe, this is the oils, dissolved at 80% ABV, emerging as an emulsion of fat droplets as the alcohol concentration drops.

Sitting down with Louis and an array of samples before us
The Carter-Head still, also very rare, is a more complex affair. Louis showed us a diagram which was frankly over my head, but in essence the rising vapour passes through a matrix of channels and baffles with the intention of controlling just what parts of the molecular soup are allowed through and which fall back down into the bubbling liquid. The botanicals are not steeped, in fact not even allowed into contact with the neutral spirit: they are packed into a "flavour box" through which the vapour passes on its way to be condensed back into liquid.

Our next sample was the 80% ABV distillate from the Carter-Head. It was fascinating how it clearly had the same general flavour profile as the previous one (having been made with the same botanicals)—there was citrus and earthy spices—yet its aroma was finer, lighter, more delicate and dry, and it was sweeter and peppery on the palate. There was no clouding when water was added, suggesting the heavy essential oils had been left behind.

The finished product is a blend of the two distillates. For professional reasons Louis was not able to reveal in what proportions they were mixed, though I pointed out that the high-strength sample of the blend louched almost as much as the pure Bennet sample, something Louis had not thought of before and which he admitted was a bit of a giveaway. (Not that I have enough of a science brain to know how to interpret this.)

Brand ambassador His Excellency Louis Xavier Lewis-Smith
But there is more to the Hendrick's formula than this: it famously includes rose petals and cucumber in the mix, yet these are not flavours that can be acquired by adding rose and cucumber to the botanicals, so they are added as essences to the final blend before dilution to bottling strength. Some bartenders turn their nose up at Hendrick's for this reason. (Interestingly, Martin Miller's gin also contains cucumber essence—though it's not something they dine out on as Hendrick's does. There is a rumour that someone from Miller's actually defected, taking the idea with them.) We were given samples of these essences—the rose from Bulgaria, the cucumber from the Netherlands—and again warned against tasting it, which we again ignored. The rose essence was a bit too concentrated to get the full bloom of aroma but the cucumber was rather delicious, I thought.

More forecourt shenanigans. The ornament on the bonnet of the car is,
unsurprisingly, a winged cucumber
We have talked before about how it was only 18 months ago that the EU defined gin at all. Louis mentioned with some pride that Hendrick's was, in a way, responsible for this, what with their audacity in adding flavouring essences after distillation. As such, Hendrick's cannot be classified as a London gin, but is technically a distilled gin, and Louis is happy with that. In the exploding gin market* there is clearly room for all sorts and Hendrick's extraordinary marketing efforts clearly have more effect on the typical consumer than any EU definition.

In the interests of science, Mr Bridgman-Smith did the Institute proud and attempted to create his own Hendricks by blending the two distillate samples, adding rose and cucumber essences and bringing it down to bottle strength**—though, under the imperious eye of a stuffed stoat, he admitted he had done this "without much success". Thus proving that a premium gin is not something that any old muppet can knock up with a few flavourings.***

*There may actually be a market for exploding gin which no one has tapped yet. I did come across a rum the other day that is made by a Kiwi bloke who blends various spirits then adds chilli, pipe tobacco and gunpowder. Perhaps mercifully you can't readily buy this stuff but allegedly have to barter for it with him online.
**Like many gins Hendricks is bottled at two strengths, 41.4% for the UK market and 44% for the US. This whole concept of "export strength" is something we will look into in greater depth in the future, but DBS was rather fascinated by the fact that the two Henrick's ABVs were so close, and so precise. Louis explained that at different concentrations different flavour elements manifest themselves, and rigorous experimentation had found that these two ABVs were both "sweet spots" at which the drink tasted particularly good.
***Interestingly, Sacred, an incredibly artisanal gin, is made by an ex-headhunter in the City who distils all the botanicals separately then blends them. You can even buy a kit of the separate botanical distillates, so you can create your own version.

Campari Safari!

In my unabashed Campari apology a few posts ago I mentioned that they had stopped using cochineal to colour it. What I hadn't realised was that—as with so many things in modern life—they had also altered the recipe in other ways over the years.

I was very lucky that, while at 69 Colebrooke Row on Monday (surely the bar with the highest ratio of kudos to floorspace in western history) mixology meister Tony Conigliaro gave us a taste of a bottle of the stuff that dates from the 1950s.

The intervening 50 or 60 years has, astonishingly, not harmed it in any way. Tony's first point was you could see the colour was different, but it went far beyond that: much as I like Campari I found that the contemporary stuff (tasted neat) seemed almost crude and ham-fisted compared to the smooth subtlety of the the vintage batch, which had the mellow strength of a vintage port. I could have slid into it like a warm, comforting, luxurious bath, but I was called away to taste other things. So I leave you with this photograph of what is left of its label and the heart-warming period graphics offering an idiot's guide to making a Campari and soda.

Archivists among you might also like to see this snap of a bottle of rum from 1947, also from the back bar of 69 Colebrooke Row.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Earthquake cocktail

Diminuative painter and absinthe fiend
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
A cocktail is always more appealing if there is a story behind it, perhaps because as you slump over your glass you can feel that you are following in the footsteps of the great, partaking of an ancient and noble tradition.

The Earthquake cocktail was allegedly invented by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and, as you might expect, involves absinthe—and thus immediately borrows from that drink's treasurehouse of romance and dangerous allure. The recipe I first encountered was:

3 parts absinthe
3 parts cognac

Simply combine the two ingredients in a wine goblet. (Other recipes suggest a brandy balloon, though why you’d want to go out of your way to concentrate the eye-watering fumes from this drink, I do not know.) Given that the proportions are simply half and half, I particularly like the fact that this recipe specifies fully three parts of each, thus adding to the whole mood of doomed indulgence.

Needless to say, anything involving this much unwatered absinthe is hard to drink. Some sources do suggest adding water or ice. Note that recommends using a lower-alcohol absinthe such as Swiss La Bleue or Pernod White Fairy, and I imagine that Clandestine (53% ABV and more readily available in the UK) would fit the bill.

However, any research quickly throws up an alternative recipe, espcially from more general cocktail sources (as opposed to those specifically focusing on absinthe chic).

1 part gin
1 part whiskey
¾ or 1 part absinthe
Shake the ingredients with ice and strain into a Collins glass.

Some recipes specify Bourbon whiskey; whether the others mean to imply it, or whether they mean Scotch, is not clear. I have tried it with both and it is quite pleasant either way, though the woody sweetness of the Bourbon offsets the bitterness of the absinthe more.

I initially assumed that this version was a later invention to appeal more to international tastes. But in fact The Savoy Cocktail Book (first published in 1930) gives this recipe. So perhaps the absinthe/brandy version is a spurious later invention, based on the sort of thing fans would assume that Toulouse-Lautrec would drink.

Which brings us to the name. There are various explanations around: one is that it’s called an Earthquake because this is the effect it has on you. The Savoy Cocktail Book, which is normally pretty terse in its recipes, does add, “This is a cocktail whose potency is not to be taken too lightly or, for that matter, too frequently!” It also gives a different explanation for the name—that if there should happen to be an earthquake while you are drinking it, it won’t matter. (A slight variation on this version is that if there is an earthquake while you’re drinking it, you won’t even notice.)

So who knows if Toulouse-Lautrec ever had anything to do with this cocktail? For completeness’ sake I leave you with one more recipe I have found:

1 part absinthe
1 part brandy
splash of red wine

Serve in a martini glass,“ice and sugar lump optional”. I’ve not tried it but it sounds like what an absinthist drinks on holiday, a hardcore sangria. Or just something you'd create by accident while clearing up after a party.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Vermouth Challenge

What to do about Vermouth?

The oxidisation of Vermouth is a problem which has plagued Martini drinkers (at least Clayton and me) for years. Clayton has written an excellent piece on how beat the signs of an ageing fortified wine. But what of a more simple option, drinking it up?

I have decide to take up the gauntlet and try to feasibly use up a full bottle before it goes bad. From today (Trafalgar Day) I shall attempt to complete this task before 1st December 2010 (The day of the December meeting of the New Sheridan Club).

Noilly Prat suggests that, when refrigerated, their Vermouth will keep up to three months. I am using Cinzano and, conservatively, my time frame is shorter than this.

I shall keep the lab updated on my progress...

On the use of Champagne in cocktails

A French '75. (The sugar cube quickly loses
its cubeness and becomes more of a heap)
I've largely given up ordering Champagne cocktails in bars, having come to the conclusion that the classic versions offered in many have far too much brandy (and often too much Angostura). I'm guessing this is because these components are a lot cheaper than the Champagne itself, though it may just be a sort of gleeful "more is more" ineptitude. (At 43 South Moulton I watched as the barman—who was full of cocky confidence in his mixological wisdom—placed a sugar cube on the bar top and literally saturated it with bitters, before slopping it into a glass which he filled a good third full with brandy.)

I feel that if you’re going to make a mixed drink with Champagne you should be able to taste that Champagne and the recipes should be subtle. For the record, I would take a sugar cube, splash three or four drops of bitters on to it then place it in a champagne flute. Over this I pour enough cognac just to cover it, then top up with Champagne. (This is based on glasses a good five inches tall.)

When I became interested in the French ’75, a mixture of champagne, gin, lemon juice and sugar, I tried applying the same principle. The drink takes its name from a French 75mm cannon from the First World War—and the naming is ascribed variously to the experience of drinking it being like the impact of a 75mm shell, or to the combination of typically British and French ingredients representing some sort of entente cordiale. Its invention is often attributed to Harry McElhone (of Harry’s American Bar in Paris), although Harry himself apparently attributed the drink to MacGarry of Buck's Club in London (home of the Buck's Fizz; it's also no accident that the barman at Woodhouse's Drones Club is also named McGarry*). Many are actually under the impression that the drink originated during Prohibition in the US (where it became popular at the Stork Club), though Simon Difford feels that it is unlikely the Americans would name a drink after a (metric unit) French WWI gun, especially given that the war would have been long over by the time Prohibition came along.**

The 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book has the ingredients as described above (apparently the first recipe to appear in print), though it's worth noting that David Embury in his classic The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks from 1948 seems to think the standard version uses cognac and that gin is a variation. More strangely, Larrousse Cocktails (UK edition 2005) by Fernando Castellon states that the original French '75 used calvados instead of the Champagne, and that it was McElhone who made the switch. I can't help thinking that if this were true it is scarcely the same drink, though if there was originally a drink called a French '75 containing gin, calvados, lemon juice and sugar, then you can't argue with that. (I must try it.) Castellon does not give his sources, however. In Robert Vermeire's Cocktails: How to Mix Them (1922, though I admit my copy is the twelfth edition) his recipe for a Champagne cocktail*** has you "squeeze the essence of two or three pieces of lemon peel into the glass" and add another piece to the drink, suggesting a pretty close relationship between the two cocktails. It's easier to see the French '75 as evolving from the Champagne cocktail than from the drink Castellon describes.

Most people seem to use 1½ or 2 measures of gin, about ½–1 measure of lemon juice and about a teaspoon of sugar syrup or fine sugar. These are stirred or shaken and added to a glass to which the Champagne is then added. Some recipes add triple sec, calvados or grenadine. Some serve the drink on the rocks and some with a maraschino cherry.

This version came as the result of my tinkering along the lines of the classic Champagne cocktail described above.

1 sugar lump
3–4 drops of orange bitters
Juice of ¼ of a lemon
About a measure of gin

Splash the bitters on to the sugar cube and place this at the bottom of a flute. Add enough gin just to cover the cube. Add the lemon juice then top up with champagne, stirring gently if necessary, but not with the intention of dissolving the sugar cube—it should sit there at the bottom, bubbling away and gradually breaking down. Although the classic version is supposed to derive its firepower from the quantity of gin, making it this way means you can still taste the Champagne’s character as well as the gin coming through, plus hints of rind oil from the bitters, all freshened by the lemon. Of course it becomes sweeter as the sugar dissolves and as you get closer to its source at the bottom, but, hey, life is about change.

*Oddly, no one seems to agree on MacGarry's Christian name—I've heard Pat, or Malachy—or even whether it was McGarry, MacGarry or Macgarry
**Of course the basic principle of adultering Champagne was much older—the Champagne cocktail is mentioned by Jerry Thomas in 1862. The Seelbach, a combination of bourbon, triple sec, Angostura bitters and Peychaud's bitters with Champagne, was invented in 1917 at the Seelbach hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, though apparently lost until rediscovered by the hotel in 1995. I've not tried it but it sounds interesting.
***In fairness Vermeire does also have you "soak" the sugar cube in bitters, but I still think this is OTT.

Friday, 15 October 2010

London Cocktail Week snapshot: a tale of two toilets

OK, it's only the first London Cocktail Week and there are bound to be some teething troubles, but I was somewhat taken aback when I encountered this sight in the gentleman's con-venience at the Future Gallery where the Courvoisier punch seminar was taking place.

One after another, chaps would come in, take a look at it, and clearly weigh up the possibility and effects of just using the lavatory anyway. (And I am slightly curious as to what would happen if you flushed it.)

I assume that the organisers found themselves with too much ice and tried to think of what to do with it, though it is equally possible that the bowl was generously stacked as a deliberate joke. It may even have  been a dig at the quality of what was being concocted.

By strange coincidence—before entering the Future Gallery we found ourselves with some time to kill (the event started a leisurely one hour late—we were clearly operating on Woodstock time) and sat in the bar Verve next door. At one point I went up to the gents, where I noticed that, for all the trendy, post-modern chic of the venue (once a Victorian gin palace, now doing that thing of trying to combine cool, sleek, modern minimalism with carefully controlled outbursts of vintage roccoco plaster curls, cast iron scrollwork and art nouveau-ish fronds) a certain amount of it was just plain broken. The tap I used wobbled like a Weeble at its base, and one of the urinals was clearly leaking—a metal pail had been placed underneath to catch whatever escaped.

I did chortle when I saw what was written on the bucket. A cynic might suggest that this explains a lot about their product…

By the way, bravo to the organisers of the week, for cramming so much into such a short time. It has been a bit like the Edinburgh Festival, running from one event to another, but it has been a lot of fun and very informative—prize must go to Phil Duff's impressively academic round-up of the history of gin at Vanilla, courtesy of the intriguing G'Vine gin, made in France by sophisticated French people using grape spirit rather than grain and infused with vine flowers from the ugni blanc vines from which they get the spirit; I couldn't take notes fast enough, but fortunately the presentation is available online. Also hats off to Louis's presentation for Hendricks gin, where we got to smell and taste the various (80% ABV) distillates and rose and cucumber essences that are blended to make this gin.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The trouble with vermouth

Sipsmith co-founder Sam Galsworthy shows off
Prudence, their magnificent still

On Monday night I attended a "Martini Masterclass" with Jared Brown at the Sipsmith distillery in west London. It's a glorious place, basically a garage in a well-heeled suburban street which happens to have a gleaming copper still at one end—the first new one in London for 200 years. It took them some two years to get their distiller's licence, which they have framed. I asked why it was so difficult to get licenced—were there tough requirements, does the government investigate every aspect of your history and character? No, apparently it's just because it had been so long since they issued a new licence that nobody in power knew how to do it. (The Sipsmith chaps sought help in Scotland, where they are much more on the ball about such things.)

Anyway, unlike many Martini aficionados who devote time and ingenuity to crafting techniques and even specialised equipment for delivering the most homoeopathically small doses of vermouth into their gin, Jared prefers the more classic proportions of 2:1 or even 1:1. (We began with an early recipe that was a 1:1 mix of gin and sweet red vermouth, in this case Carpano Antica Formula, allegedly a recreation of the original vermouth from 1786; the result was delicious, pleasantly vanilla inflected, and not as sweet as I feared—I think the same thing made with Martini Rosso would make my teeth curl.)

Jared Brown, our guide in the masterclass
But all of this raises a question that has vexed me for years—how do you stop your vermouth from going off?

Vermouth is a wine and, at about 14% or 15% ABV, not really any stronger than conventional wine and certainly not strong enough to preserve itself. With any other wine if you opened it, poured out a small measure then put the bottle back on a shelf for weeks or months, you would expect it to be oxidised beyond palatability next time you opened it. Yet people tend to assume that vermouth, because it is a cocktail ingredient, will last indefinitely. Jared tells all kinds of horror stories of being served Martinis in bars where the ancient vermouth has ruined the drink—his strategy, apparently, is gamely to drink the drink, then to ask the barman if he can open a fresh bottle for vermouth for the next one. If the barman is offended, Jared challenges him to compare the two.

At home the problem is more pronounced, as you probably aren't processing the volume of Martinis that a busy cocktail bar does. To my tastebuds every drink after the first one with a new bottle has that sour whiff of oxidation; if you're lucky it seems to dissipate a little after the drink is initially mixed (or maybe that's just the booze kicking in and numbing my senses), but it still spoils the first savouring of one's cocktail. I made a Manhattan the other day from a bottle of red vermouth that had been opened once and immediately resealed and stored in the fridge, and even then the oxidation was clearly there. All the connoisseurship surrounding precisely which spirits to use, in what proportions and whether to shake or stir seem irrelevant to me if there is that rank overtone of oxidation squatting in my glass.

One technique I tried was storing vermouth in small doses
I did some experimentation into this a year or two ago. One technique was to open a new bottle and immediately decant it into test tubes (each representing about the right amount for one drink) which I sealed, initially with corks, until I discovered that the cheap test tubes I had bought had a tendency to crack, so I used cling film instead. It didn't really work: perhaps I needed to fill the tube to the very brim, or perhaps I should have chilled them as well (thought there isn't really space in my fridge for a test tube rack).

I also tried pouring the newly opened vermouth into ice cube trays and freezing it. Because of the alcohol content it forms quite soft ice but interestingly you can use one of these both to add the vermouth element and to chill the drink without dilution (although Jared feels that some dilution is actually important to releasing the flavours of the ingredients). Again, it didn't work as well as I'd hoped, as the frozen vermouth still seems to oxidise eventually—and in an open tray it also tends to take on the flavours of other things in the freezer, such as coffee beans… I may try zipping the ice cube tray up in one of those self-sealing plastic freezer bags.

Frozen cubes of dry vermouth. Yes, I know they look like raw scallops.
One technique I have heard about, but not yet tried, is to use a layer of inert gas to shield your vermouth from the air. I have been advised that Halford sells canisters of argon and argon/nitrogen mix for welding purposes, but I suspect this is a bit hardcore and God knows what equipment you need to release it. There is in fact a product called Private Preserve aimed at wine preservation, which is an aerosol that sprays an argon/nitrogen/CO2 mix into your opened bottle. I have heard good things about it, so I may well investigate.

Private Preserve in operation
Mr Bridgman-Smith is less exercised about all this. He simply shrugs and says, "Use miniatures." Have you ever tried to find miniatures of Noilly Prat? They do exist, but I am not aware of a reliable source. Martini Extra Dry miniatures can be found, if that is the vermouth you wish to use, but it all adds up to a lot more money for the volume than you pay for a 750cl bottle. I'd be sorely tempted to get myself a bottle of Carpano Antica Formula (see above) if it weren't for the fact that it comes in one-litre bottles at £26 a pop—it would take me a fair while to get through a litre, and after the first few uses it will have started rotting already.

No, I'm convinced there must be a way to preserve the stuff.

If anyone wants me I'll be in the Martini Lab.

Campari—an apology

The Negroni cocktail

You may have noticed that Mr Bridgman-Smith does not like Campari. He seldom misses an opportunity (nor invents one completely unwarranted) to remind us of this fact.

So I thought I'd take the opportunity to point out to you, if you didn't already know, what a great liquid Campari is.

I developed a taste for it while honey-mooning in Venice. A huge Campari sign loomed over the Lido (now gone, I hear) and the locals’ aperitif of choice was the “spritz”, a mixture of Campari*, white wine (sometimes sparkling) and fizzy water.The Austrians who ruled the place in the early 19th century started all this, to thin the strong local wine.

Campari, a bright red, bitter drink that's bottled at 25% ABV, was invented in Turin by Gaspare Campari in the early 1800s and his son was responsible for the advertising images (see example below) that helped promote it. The recipe is allegedly a closely guarded secret but is said to involve some 60 ingredients. In flavour it comes across as herbal and citric. Its colour traditionally comes from cochineal, a cactus-boring insect from South America, though I gather that in 2007 they replaced this with an artificial colouring.

The Negroni owes its existence to another cocktail, the Americano. By 1862 Gaspare had his own bar, Caffè Campari, in Milan, where he devised a blend of Campari, sweet red vermouth and soda water, calling it a Milano-Torino, after its origins. It later became known as an Americano because of its popularity with tourists. Legend has it that, in 1919, one Count Camillo Negroni went into the Caffè Casoni in Florence and asked the barman, Fosco Scarselli, to beef up his Americano with gin. (Whether at this stage the gin actually replaced the soda, I’m not clear.) This became Negroni’s favourite drink and it took his name.

1 part gin
1 part Campari
1 part red vermouth (Martini Rosso, Cinzano Rosso, Noilly Prat red or something rare groove like Antica Formula)

Stir the ingredients together over ice.This is conventionally served with a wedge of orange, sometimes joined by a wedge of lemon, or alternatively with a strip of orange or lemon zest. One elaborate variant has you squeeze orange zest over a lit match above the glass: the rind oils flare up and fill the place with a burnt orange aroma.

I’ve found variants where the vermouth is reduced to a ¾ part or the gin to a ⅓ part. Some people add Fée Orange Bitters. It is also sometimes served strained into a Martini glass rather than on the rocks, or you can tone it down with soda water. A popular drink in Italy is the Negroni Sbagliato (a “wrong Negroni”) where sparkling white wine is used instead of the gin (which sounds a lot like the Venetian spritz) or the Negroski, where the gin is replaced by vodka. A Cardinal is a Negroni with the red vermouth replaced by dry white vermouth—a pretty dry drink.

Replacing the gin with bourbon makes a Boulvardier. Using rye whisky gives you an Old Pal, a recipe that appeared in Harry MacElhone's famous ABC of Cocktails in 1922—just three years after the origin story of the Negroni.

Finally, one pleasant way I’ve discovered to enjoy Campari is to add a splash to one’s gin and tonic.

*Actually a Spritz can be made with Aperol, Select Pilla or Cynar, an artichoke-flavoured substance, but I gather that the Campari version is considered the “man’s spritz”. I tried Aperol once and thought it pretty foul, but I haven’t sampled the others.

London Cocktail Update

Clayton had a busy day yesterday working hard, conducting research at London Cocktail Week yesterday. We were lucky enough to see:

Gaz Regan at Courvoisier's Spirit of Punch seminar
Philip Duff at G-Vine's Pre-history & Evolution of Gin
The Hayman Family at Meet the Distillers
at a Havana Club Cocktail Seminar (where the lovely Mrs. B joined us)
and what better way to finish off than a Molecular Mixology class with the chap at Purl.

Drinking highlights for me would have to be the Courvoisier Sidecar and trying a Gin made to the world's oldest Gin recipe from 1495 called Aqua Ardens. Naturally the drinks at Purl were tasty as always, and I especially enjoyed their Moscow Mule.

No doubt you'll hear more about our adventures
in the world of London Bar in the next few posts.

In addition to all this excitement when we finally arrived home at 02:00 (I had suggested to Mrs. B that we would probably be home around 21:00!) I found a box had arrived containing Gum Arabic.

Since speaking to Ted Breaux at the Lucid Tasting I have been keen to try some proper Gum/Gomme Syrup (Sugar Syrup containing Gum Arabic which makes it silkier) so I have decided to make my own. Incidentally I discovered that Giffard Gomme Syrup does contain Gum Arabic so if you want an off-the-shelf version may I suggest that.

I will keep you posted on developments.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The glory that was Moussec

Some pre-1980 Chateau Moussec

I had the clan round to Schloss Hartley last Christmas and my father-in-law arrived with a few festive bottles that had been cluttering his shelves (he is not a great wine drinker). One was this curio here.

I vaguely remember Moussec, though younger readers could be forgiven for never having heard of it. As the label says, it was British sparkling wine: the word “British” is important here, denoting that the wine was made in this country but from imported grapes (“English” wine, on the other hand, is all home grown). As in the horror that is British sherry.

If the styling of the label weren’t enough to date it, I was intrigued to see that the alcoholic strength is given in degrees proof. This practice was replaced by the Euro standard of percentage alcohol by volume (ABV) in 1980, which I assume makes this bottle at least 30 years old.

It is surprising how little one can glean about this brand from a cursory online search. In 1932 the company moved into premises in Rickmansworth, though my bottle seems to have been made in Norwich.The latest reference I can find is to a TV advert (a mock- French couple are drinking it, with the slogan “Great leetle wines”) in 1980. Most references are to bottles, glasses or beermats for sale on eBay as vintage curios.

One assumes the idea is that by making the drink on these shores you avoid import duty, enabling you to make something with the glamour of bubbly but not the price tag. Perhaps as winemaking became more sophisticated around the world, it got easier for good quality, low-price fizz to be made in the countries where the grapes were grown, rendering Moussec’s ruse economically less viable. But if anyone out there knows anything about the brand’s fate, I’d be curious to hear.

I did find this strange story online: “During the war my mother worked shifts at the Moussec Champagne and Wine Company at Rickmansworth, but she never wanted to tell me how she had got on at work. At the front of the factory there was a huge glass window and I used to watch them filling the bottles and putting in the corks. I always thought it was a strange thing.We were in the middle of a war—who could possibly want all this wine and champagne! A few years after the war I was talking to a man who used to work there and I put my puzzling questions to him. He gave me a knowing smile and told me the town's secret. There was never any wine there at all! It was a facade. The people I could see came in everyday and filled bottles with water. The night shift emptied them again ready for the day shift to start all over again. Behind this facade was a tank factory! Every day tanks were made there and shipped out in the dead of the night. My mother had never said a word.”

I think it safe to assume the man was pulling her leg. But perhaps the subtext is: why would anyone make British sparkling wine?*

(UPDATE: For more on the Moussec story see this post.)

*Of course nowadays you can get some excellent English sparkling wine, such as Nyetimber which has won awards and everything. Although it is made by an American.

One of Moussec's gimmicks was the single-serving bottle. Not sure what message they are trying to send.

Monday, 11 October 2010

My Gripe with Grenadine

My Gripe with Grenadine
(Trying to find that sweet, sweet pomegranate flavour)

I am a fan of classic cocktails and there are quite a few of these that call for the use of Grenadine. A well known example is The Clover Club, and a lesser known one is The New Sheridan Club. So it was with sadness that I recently finished up the first and only bottle of Grenadine that I have ever purchased (I have not yet finished a bottle of Angostura though).

After my immediate melancholy had passed, I regained my composure and went to the local hypermarket to pick up a replacement and, costing just three British Pounds, I thought it a steal. Getting back and fixing my good lady wife a Clover Club, I was taken aback when she thought it tasted like berries. A closer inspection of my new bottle revealed all.

Grenadine is a red, pomegranate-flavoured sugar syrup, but the impostor in my pantry contained "Red Berries", not the seeded apple of choice. At the very next opportunity, I hunted for a version with a pomegranate flavour, but everywhere I turned, I found the flavour of red berries; even the very respectable Monin has succumbed to this main-streaming.

Main-streaming is right; I think it's because the flavour of red berries is more palatable to the average consumer than pomegranate that these companies have steered away from tradition, but in doing so they are leaving a void on the back bar and a jammy Roy Rogers in the glass.

But my story has a happy ending, as I decided to make my own Grenadine and it turns out that the recipe is very simple:
Grenadine Recipe
One part sugar
One part pomegranate juice
Add together in a jar and shake vigorously until all of the sugar is dissolved
(keeping the juice at room temperature before doing this will help).
Add more sugar (about one fifth of the sugar you already added)
Shake again.

Your Grenadine is ready to use.
Keep it in the refrigerator and it should last for at least a month.

Friday, 8 October 2010

When is a gin not a gin?

Brockmans gin, with a cocktail containing it, crafted by John Clay

Gin is everywhere. The rate at which new gins are launched these days is extraordinary—particularly when so many of them claim their mission is to get away the traditions of this fusty, musty, old-man beverage.*

Mr Bridgman-Smith tells me that when Brockmans gin was first launched, about three years ago, he went to a tasting and their attitude was, "Hey, we're a gin. A little bit different, but essentially a gin." Last Monday, however, at a tasting at the Juniper Society in London, brand ambassador John Clay's attitude was far more defensive, more along the lines of, "Hey, what is a gin, anyway? All that matters is whether it's a nice drink or not."

The labelling on the bottle, and indeed the Brockmans website, emphasise only that Brockmans is a very smooth gin, which you can easily enjoy over ice. All night. Surrounded by predatory lesbians and men in boar-head masks. (That's the website, by the way. They don't actually say this on the label. Now that would be bold.) All of which comfortably ignores the elephant in the room, which is that Brockmans smells and tastes very strongly of Ribena. Among the usual gin botanicals, including juniper, citrus peel and coriander seed, are dried blackberries and blueberries**, macerated at the same time as the others prior to redistillation. And their influence is huge: we are not talking a subtle ghost of an echo of "Oh, and is there a hint of blackberries and blueberries on the finish?". No, it really is quite overpowering. Underneath this berry fruit are the other botanicals too, but you have to focus hard to perceive them.

John tries to free our minds in his presentation by offering platters of tastebud teasers—a blackberry jelly with a blueberry secreted at its core, a dollop of lemon sorbet, a spoonful of what appears to be Spacedust and a shot of liquor with some sort of red berry frogspawn at the bottom—yes, he's getting seriously molecular on our asses. These are all flavours we should be detecting in the gin, I think. Then he shows us some gustatory parlour tricks to prove the crucial role played by aroma on taste and the importance of saliva in your mouth to taste something properly. (Informative, though I'm unlikely to go out to dinner and leave my saliva at home.) Finally, as we are invited to taste the product itself, he has us burst overhead balloons, showering us with atomised gin. This is all very jolly, and I learned a few things about the mechanism of taste, but you can't help suspecting he is trying to distract us from something.

Brockmans is not alone in adding rare-groove objects into the mix. Hendricks famously includes rose and cucumber, Aviation uses lavender, Old Raj is slightly yellow because of the saffron in it, and Tanqueray Rangpur tastes like a lime Opal Fruit. Interestingly all this comes when, only 18 months ago, the EU decided to lay down the law about what gin could actually be, and "London gin" in particular—the rules governing the latter are far stricter than "gin" in general and "distilled gin" as a rank in between the two. Yet the rules allow any kind of flavouring as long as it is "natural" and "approved". So while The London Gin No.1, despite its name (and the fact that it is made in London), cannot call itself a "London gin" because it is coloured blue by maceration with gardenia flowers—colouring is out, apparently—Brockmans on the other hand can give itself that honour despite being essentially a jam. (The rules do insist that not only must there be juniper in the mix but that the predominant flavour must be juniper. Somehow Brockmans have managed to persuade the elders of the Gin Council that this is the case.)

Ever the imp, DBS brought me a bottle of weird
absinthe, which doesn't taste of much but does
turn violet when diluted. He challenged John Clay
to make a cocktail containing this and Brockmans
and this is the result, a cross between a Clover
Club and a Pegu Club.
Mark has a point, of course. All this categorisation and definition is surely neither here not there: the ultimate question is whether you've made a yummy drink. And I do think that Brockmans is well made. Within the innovation-seeking world of mixology there is surely room for all flavours; John and the staff at Graphic did a good job of trying out different cocktails with the stuff in, and the Clover Club (gin, vermouth, lemon juice, egg white and raspberry syrup), for example, made perfect sense.

But while injecting playful hints of outré ingredients is all very well, you can't help wondering why Brockmans has to taste so strongly of berries. I think the answer lies in that "perfectly smooth" tagline. The creators wanted something that people (and by this I mean women—look at the Brockmans site and you'll see all the videos and still photos bar one feature only women drinking it) would drink plain over ice late into the evening. Like Baileys. And clearly they decided that a massive sweetish berry hit was the only way to make it approachable enough compared to the dry, spiky qualities of traditional gin that make it so appealing as a perky, eye-opening aperitif. Perhaps they hope that one day their gin will become generic—like Baileys—and women will slide up to the bar and purr, "Brockmans on the rocks, please."

But if someone goes into a bar and asks for a gin and tonic and is given something with Brockmans in it, there would be an unseemly riot. Which makes you wonder: instead of getting so defensive when traditionalists huff that Brockmans isn't really gin—and creating a philosophical smokescreen of "What is gin, anyway? And if a G&T spills in a forest and no one hears it, does it really make a sound? etc."—why call it a gin at all? If the market, style and serving suggestions are so different, why fight so hard to be accepted on to the juniper Mount Olympus? John Clay explains that it is to do with categories: gin is a recognised one that people know what to do with and how to sell, and, ironically, its history and traditions give it clout and recognition among consumers. Without that, Brockmans would be out there trying to create a whole new category on its own.

I guess if you want to be different, you need to have something to be different from.

Brockmans retails for about £27 for a 70cl bottle. See the Brockmans site for a list of stockists (though it looks as if you'll have to wear a mask and do some juggling before they'll let you have any).

* If it's so tragically five-minutes-ago, why not leave it alone and launch an alcopop instead?
**Yes, I know that Ribena is blackcurrant rather than blackberry, but I'm afraid Ribena is what it reminds me of.

Sherry with food?

The remains of my oysters, with a pale manzanilla

Every few years someone optimistically announces a sherry revival. It's true the drink does have a big and seemingly immutable image problem—but then they used to say that about gin, and look how trendy that appears to have become. I quite like sherry and of course I'm not bothered about the image (in fact it rather appeals) but the bods whose job it is to market the stuff are keen to wrest our national mental picture of it away from aged aunts gripping a glass of QC at Christmas, and also from the assumption that its rightful place is as an aperitif and nothing else. The holy grail with any drink seems to be to get us to the point where we see it as a universal fluid—as an aperitif, digestif, party fuel, status symbol, pick-me-up, nightcap, sharpener, loosener, foodstuff and industrial solvent.

While I think we're still a way off from talking about "a good session sherry", one plausible paradigm shift is to get us to think of sherry as something drunk with food, and in July I enjoyed a delightfully decadent Wednesday tasting the stuff in this context in the company of some members of the New Sheridan Club at Gordon’s Wine Bar by Charing Cross station in London. Hosted by Bodegas Barbadillo, the event kicked off at 10am and exposed us to seven sherries, each with an accompanying tapas course. I think the early start was because the management hoped we'd be gone (or at least passed out) by 1pm so as not to scare off his lunchtime trade, but we didn't finally stagger away till 4.30pm. (Well, I did—some of my fellow tasters felt the need to cleanse their palates with some refreshing beer, or simply slunk into the shadows with one of the unfinished bottles of Jerez's finest…)

We moved from the lightest styles to the heaviest, kicking off with a breezy manzanilla served with oysters and pickled anchovies. "Manzanilla" means "chamomile" in Spanish and the same term can refer to a chamomile tea, so be careful when ordering. It is so called because the wine is felt to be reminiscent of the tea. But I always feel that Manzanilla smells like the sea: it doesn't really and it can't actually be salty (in fact it's very acidic), but it is traditional to say that it gets this brininess from its manufacture in the port town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Natural yeasts are allowed to grow on these lighter sherry styles, forming a "flor", a cap of yeast on the surface of the wine in the barrel that seals it from the air, preventing the oxidation that characterises the flavour of darker sherry styles. This, and the practice of topping up the barrel with virgin wine as it evaporates, creates a pale, light, fresh end product. The cool temperatures and high humidity in Sanlúcar de Barrameda promote a thicker flor, keeping the wine better from the air and leading to its clean, delicate flavour. I've long been a fan of manzanilla but the combination with the food was an eye-opener for me, particularly with the oysters.

Next up was a Pale Dry Fino, similar in style but made further inland where the hotter climate means the flor dies back earlier allowing some oxidation to take place. To me it seemed fuller and fruitier than the Manzanilla and balanced well with an apple, celery and walnut salad. It stood up to salted almonds and to an extent with a platter of toothsome cured meats and salamis—though in fact I felt the next wine, an amontillado went better. This was darker, with a caramel nose, and a salty, oily palate that was easily equal to the smoked salmon and mackerel with which it was served, though there was also fresh fruit on our plates and I felt the sherry was missing the fresh high notes to make sense of that.

In time the protective flor naturally breaks down and with darker styles this is allowed to happen, the resulting oxidation yielding a flavour that is both aromatic and astringent, reminiscent of varnished wood (something you would recognise if you are a fan of sherry-cask-aged malt whisky). I'm sure a lot of this is actually coming from the oak of the barrels, plus the fact that these wines are not topped up as they evaporate, allowing them to concentrate into a brooding intensity. They are also fortified up to about 17.5 per cent alcohol to preserve them and control the rate of oxidation.

Palo cortado (fuller glasses) and dry oloroso
While an amontillado starts life in the same way as a fino, the Full Dry Oloroso we had next has had its flor killed off at an early stage and is raised from birth as a dark, smooth, nutty drink without the yeasty freshness of the lighter wines. The food that accompanied it was a medley of spicy sausages and black pudding, in tangy tomato-based sauces, pungent, sharp and fatty. The wine stood up, but you began to feel you were caught in the crossfire between two culinary heavyweights.

Our final savoury course was a rabbit casserole and a pork casserole, served with the Palo Cortado Obispo Gascon. Palo cortado is not so much made as humbly received from God. It starts life as a fino or amontillado but for some reason loses its flor and starts to oxidise as an oloroso, giving it characteristics of both styles. When this happens the barrel is marked (the name means "cut with a stick", indicating that the initial stroke to designate a fino or amontillado is now crossed with another stroke) and left for the magic to happen. Additional alcohol will be added to preserve the wine in this process. Only about 1-2 per cent of sherry ends up as palo cortado. It's an intriguing wine, but I did find it overpowered the casseroles with its rasping woodiness.

We were then revived with fresh fruit salad, served with the Oloroso Dulce San Rafael. This was indeed relatively fruity, juicy and fresh, but still sherried and I found that rather disconcerting with fruit. Our final treat was the terrifying Pedro Ximenez La Cilla. The lighter sherries are made entirely with Palomino grapes, but increasingly Pedro Ximenez is added to the weightier styles. The La Cilla is all Pedro, and it looks like tar. It is very sweet, and very raisiny. Some people love it—I know some for whom it is the only sherry they'll drink. I once had a bottle that thought so highly of itself that it came with a tiny padlock on the cap, presumably to stop the servants necking it. But I find it a bit too much on its own—as if its sweetness is so intense it is going to suck all the moisture out of your body by osmosis, and you can feel the headache coming on even before you've tasted it. It was served to us with manchego cheese and chocolate-dipped loops of deep-fried dough, which worked to an extent though even in the storm of sugar that woodiness came through and sat awkwardly with the dessert.

This feast was exquisite and very enlightening, though my head felt like it was full of antique wood for days afterwards. In truth the idea of sherry with food is not new—amontillado used to be a classic accompaniment to beef consommé. But I have to say that I feel most of the food at our tasting might have been better served by other wines. The only exception was the partnering of oysters with manzanilla, which was a revelation. I like an oyster. At the recent Thames Festival there was a stall where I allowed a gnarled artisan to shuck me an oyster by the riverside, and the taste of it stayed with me all day. It's an intense, marine flavour, a rush of ozone, and the fresh, acidic tang of the manzanilla, like a stiff sea breeze in your face, works perfectly. A more traditional accompaniment like Champagne, despite also being acidic, seems too effete and urbane by comparison. (Another tradition is Guinness, which I confess I have not tried.) No, from now on it is oysters and manzanilla for me. Barbadillo are Spain's biggest producer of manzanilla and are consequently now my best friends.