Saturday, 25 June 2011

Pash-ion for Vodka #6 - Putinka Kedrovaya

For the sixth installment of Pash-ion for Vodka we shall be, once again, looking at a product provided by our Man in Moscow, Mr. Pasha.

Putinka is distilled with juniper and cedar tree nuts and is produced by the state-owned Moscow Distillery Crystal company that was founded in 1901. During the Second World War the distillery made Molotov's Cocktails that were packaged in Vodka and Wine bottles for the war effort.

Since the reign of Vladmir Putin began the Crystal company have made the most of the similarity between the name of the vodka and that of the premier.* Putinka was named "Superbrand of 2004" and "National Product of the Year in 2006".

The Taste

A slight graininess, less smooth than many vodka although there is a certain cleanliness in the warmth it has. It is only 40% but tastes stronger. It has quite a lot of flavour but is not for the faint-hearted. I get a little nuttiness and a touch of bitterness (could be from the Juniper?).

Mellows slight but still quite fierce, still clean with a hint of grain and incredibly warming.

Very clean at the beginning with a distinctive hint of bitterness near the end followed by the vermouth. Still pleasantly clean but with a light sweet nuttiness on the finish. Pretty good and a little unusual.

* I'm not sure how well Brown's Brandy, Obama Ouzo or Cameron's Cream Liqueur would go down.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Savier: like a gin, but more so

At a Juniper Society moot DBS met a South African chap called Byron from the Gabriel Collective who was looking to distribute beer from his home country in the UK, but he also had a couple of gins in his portfolio. It wasn’t really his main focus but when we met up he had a couple of bottles for us to try. In fact they were the only bottles in the country—just check out the batch numbers in the photo below.

The Savier Spirit Co. offers a couple of gins, a vodka and a cocoa vodka, made in North Carolina and bottled in South Africa. Whether it would ever be economically viable then to ship the bottles to the UK I don’t know, so you may never encounter them commercially, but they make interesting sipping. Both gins are organic, certified for the USDA National Organic Program by the CCOF.

The back label of the Artisan Gin refers to “copper botanical trays”, suggesting a Carter Head type still where the alcohol vapour passes through the botanicals on its way to being recondensed, but in fact both gins are a mixture of this process and the traditional process where botanicals are macerated in the liquid base spirit before distillation. The Artisan Gin immediately strikes you as a ginny gin—you probably hear that a lot now, but it really is quite single-minded in its juniper character and consequent emphasis on the high notes (plus a bit of something like ginger, some cucumber and something a shade pungent like fennel). Whereas a lot of modern gins focus on softening, sweetening mid-range spice elements, as if to make them palatable on their own, this product seems to be saying, “Drink a gin neat? Are you a barbarian?”

Duly chastened I try it with water and with tonic, and a distinct character emerges of not just juniper but also that cucumber again. I confess my immediate reaction was that it seemed rather refreshing to encounter a gin that stuck to its guns and delivered a flavour that played its role in a mix, rather than pandering to an approachable neat serve that might appeal to vodka drinkers or those who find gin too dry and scary. If they could import it at a relatively affordable price I think they could have a winner—not least among the organic crowd. Rui Esteves from the Gabriel Collective tells me that in fact there is no cucumber in either gin. (Although of course Hendrick’s and Martin Miller’s have already established a bridgehead for cucumber flavour in gin.)

But the other gin in the portfolio is altogether more intriguing: they call it a “Juniper Gin”. “What gin isn’t?” you may ask. Well, what marks this out from the pack is that rather than just macerating juniper berries in the starter spirit then distilling this, Savier then re-macerate some of the gin in fresh juniper berries, and blend this back into the mix before bottling. Moreover, the Juniper Gin apparently has a different botanical line-up—though of course Rui won’t say what it is—and even uses a different type of still. All Rui can tell me is that the still design enables them to “collect heavier oils during the actual distillation”, adding, “We’re actually thinking of patenting the design, since we do think its unique.”

The result is a rather cloudy liquid but one with an extraordinary fresh juniper nose—if you’ve ever crushed juniper with a pestle and mortar when cooking you’ll know what I mean. Compared to the base Artisan Gin, it is much more accessible neat, and indeed the label suggests this is a good way to serve it, or perhaps in simple cocktails that won’t smother the character of the gin.

In a G&T I’m struck by how the juniper of the Juniper Gin is fresher, in an almost apple-juicy way, whereas the Artisan G&T has more of a dry pencil-lead juniper character. It’s a deceptively soft drink, compared to the muscular botanical character of the Artisan, and has a fresh, rustic, homemade quality. It’s an accessible, seductive G&T, though side by side I probably prefer the assertive presence of the Artisan.

One final blasphemy: although after a few tastings I think that the Artisan gin has quite a few flavours in there, the first time I made a G&T with it I was stuck by its spiky high-note character. Compared to it, SW4, say, has a warmer, spicier profile altogether. As an experiment, I tried blending the two and considered the resulting balance rather pleasing.

I’m sure the makers of both gins will be horrified. So I might as well confess right now that, my analysing done for the day, I am enjoying a G&T made with 6 O’Clock, Savier Juniper and SW4 all mixed together. Sue me.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Tonic Water Review: 1870 mixers

I've been waiting to try Silver Spring 1870 tonic for a little while now, but it has been difficult to come by. So, as you can imagine, I was quite pleased when I saw today that my local Waitrose had started to stock both the Regular and Light (diet) varieties. At £0.69 a bottle (1ltr), I thought it was worth a try.

1870 Tonic is produced by Silver Spring of Kent, a company that was founded in 1888 as a mineral water company. They produce the rather tasty Perfectly Clear (a range of flavoured water) and make a variety of own-brand soft drinks for British supermarkets (Morrisons, Asda & Tesco).

According to their website, the 1870s mixer range started to be developed during the 19th century (hence 1870?). The tonic waters are the result of Brazilian Essential Oils being expertly blended with pure sparkling spring water.

The Rather Pleasantly Packaged 1870 Tonic Waters

The Taste

This had a medium fizz, but was rather artificial in its sweetness and cloying. There was also a harsh, soil-like bitterness. Of the 30+ tonic waters I have tried, this is below average. It improved when gin was added, but still had a cloying aftertaste and lacked any depth of flavour.

There was obvious artificial sweetness form the outset; the kind that sticks to your teeth. This tonic water left a really nasty taste in my mouth. Once again, the taste slightly improved when gin was added (frankly what doesn't?), but this didn't hide the fact that the drink was off-balance and unpleasant. If it hadn't been for the use of Plymouth Gin (a waste on reflection), this would have been one of the worst Gin & Tonics I have ever had.

Upon looking at the ingredients list, it appears that both the Regular and the Light versions of the tonic water contain the artifical sweetener Aspartame. Whilst I can accept its use in a low calorie version, its inclusion in the regular version seems hard to defend. Even if costs were an issue, it should be noted that Waitrose's Regular own-brand tonic water contains no artificial sweeteners and is actually sold for only £0.47 per litre.

In Conclusion
It is unusual that I am overtly negative about a product, but in this case I'd avoid these two products and if you are in Waitrose, buy their brand instead.

Waitrose Tonic is available at around £0.47 for 1 litre (diet and twist of lime and twist of lemon varieties are also available).

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

La Fée: A flight of the Green Fairy

Our last mass blind tasting of absinthe consisted simply of what we had to hand, and inevitably missed out some likely contenders from the current marketplace. We’re in the process of acquiring samples of drinks that really should be considered—then we’ll probably add the top three from last time and stage another blind tasting.

In the meantime, George Rowley, the man behind La Fée has sent us a flight of his whole range to taste: the original La Fée, now called Parisienne; the Bohemian Czech-style; the two X•S “ultra-premium” absinthes, both Française and Suisse versions; and NV, a relatively new, lower-strength product.

George Rowley occupies a unique position in the modern history of absinthe. He was the first to bring an absinthe back to the UK, in the form of Hill’s, a bitter Czech concoction. I was one of many who spotted a bottle of Hill’s (in my case in Prague) and thought, “Wow, real absinthe”—then, after tasting it, thought,  “Is that what all the fuss was about?” Today George freely admits that he was effectively duped by creator Radomil Hill into believing it was a traditional Bohemian drink, whereas in fact it had just been made up.

But it caught on, and suddenly there was rush of imitators. George’s response was to give up on Hill’s and try to find a way to recreate real absinthe, as would have been drunk in the heyday of the Belle Epoque. He enlisted the help of Marie-Claude Delahaye, proprietor of the Musée de l'Absinthe in Auvers-sur-Oise, and the result was La Fée, the product that is now La Fée Parisienne.

George admits that for a long time his company has been deliberately cagey about what they do and how their products are made—in response to experiences of having his ideas stolen. The absinthe world is indeed extraordinarily political, filled with bitching, mud-slinging and some dogmatic beliefs in what absinthe is and should be. In the few years that I have been interested in this beverage I have heard rumours from more than one source that La Fée is concocted from neutral alcohol, flavouring essences (like aromatherapy oils) and green dye, and is not really distilled at all (even though the label and website state that it is). If you look at a forum like that run by the US Wormwood Society, you could believe that George is the Devil incarnate, a betrayer of the true spirit of absinthe by tricking consumers into believing that a mass-produced cipher is the real thing (in the same way that I myself was initially turned off absinthe by my experience with Hill’s and similar Czech “fauxsinthes”).

To George these attacks are deliberate campaigns of misinformation by his competitors. Who knows? Perhaps they are. But I also suspect that his policy of tight-lippedness has created an information vacuum that is easily filled with rumour.* At this point I have to admit that what you are reading is a revised version of the original post: I emailed George some questions at the time about his range and, when I received no reply, wasn’t entirely surprised—given the reputation for secrecy. But I should really have tried harder to get in touch because, after I posted, George was quick to respond. (It turns out my original email was diverted into a spam folder and never read.) And in fact he was keen to set up a meeting to tell his side of the story.

So two weeks ago DBS and I sat down with him and his Business Development Manager Oscar Dodd. He’s still pretty defensive and controlling, and wouldn’t let me record the interview. (“I don’t like microphones,” he said, eyeing mine suspiciously.) But we were given some interesting details about his products that I’ve never heard or read before.

The technique of making an “absinthe” from a cold mix of alcohol and essential oils is pretty common at the lower end of the market, but George insists La Fée is not and has never been made that way. La Fée Parisienne is fully distilled; a herb bill that includes Grand Wormwood is macerated in sugar beet alcohol, then comes off the still at 78% ABV, before being diluted down to 68% with demineralised water. It used to be made at Suprex near Paris but is now made by Cherry Rocher near Lyons, where they have been distilling since 1705, mostly making fruit liqueurs. The use of beet alcohol is apparently historically authentic—after the devastation of Europes vines by the phylloxera insect, grape alcohol was too hard to come by. Oscar also says that they like the mouthfeel.

A bottle of Parisienne with an
absinthe spoon. If it were viable
George Rowley would like every
bottle to come with one, to
encourage absinthe to be drunk
diluted rather than neat
The La Fée website describes the development of Parisienne as a move to “revive the concept of ‘real absinthe’ of impeccable provenance, faithful to the original recipes and method of distillation”. But of course there is one major sticking point here: the colour. The reason verte absinthe is traditionally green is that some of the botanicals don’t distil well, so they are macerated after distillation, leaving a green colour from the chlorophyll. (Colour doesn’t pass through distillation, so any spirit that is coloured has had something done to it after the distillation process.) La Fée Parisienne, on the other hand, is coloured artificially: they are open about this, but then going into the American market they are obliged to declare artificial colours on the label anyway. There are plenty of other modern absinthes that are coloured this way, including Pernod and Absente, two of La Fée's main rivals. But there are very many modern absinthes, admittedly many of which are perhaps aimed at a more rarefied market, that are coloured in the traditional way.

George is frustrated by all the attacks on La Fées use of artificial colour. Parisienne is a mass-market product: he set out to make a solidrobust absinthe (as opposed to a refined one), of a kind that might have been drunk by the mass market 100 years ago. The problem is that not only is there more regulation today but he feels customers have changed too. The average consumer does expect a product to be consistent. Chlorophyll-based colouring is both light-prone and heat-prone—no matter how dark the bottle it will still be heat-prone. Our product is shipped to 38 countries worldwide, in a variety of climatic conditions: this is the only way we can maintain consistency of colour from batch to batch. We do regularly review our processes to see if there is a way to get the colour qualities we want naturally—most recently six months ago—but so far it has not been possible.” George acknowledges that some consumers actually like the batch-to-batch variations that you get with hand-crafted absinthes, but Parisienne is aimed at a broader market that requires stable colour—and is probably not that keen on the look of naturally coloured absinthe anyway. 

“In best conscience,” he says, “it’s the best quality we can do. We’re passionate about it and we try really hard to define a quality portfolio that meets today’s market requirements.

That market is a complex one, with a broad range of styles, qualities and production processes all setting up shop under the banner of “absinthe”. Some producers and consumers are concerned with nothing but historical authenticity at any cost, others with absolute quality, while some makers want something aimed at modern tastebuds, with no qualms about tradition, but that borrows from absinthe’s mystique. Personally I don’t have a problem with any of these approaches, as long as there is honesty about what is on offer: it’s a shame if a new customer tastes a mediocre or completely inauthentic “absinthe” and comes away believing that that is as good as absinthe gets.

But absinthe is one of those areas, like hi-fi, where those who are most vocal tend to be the hardcore enthusiasts. While it may be commercially meaningless to compare a £20,000 audiophile hi-fi—using vintage valves, rare hardwoods chosen for their harmonic character, handwoven asymmetrically braided silver-plated cables and the whole thing floating on a cushion of air—with a sub-£100 boom box, hi-fi nerds do like to bond in their derision of mass-market products. So it can be with absinthe. 

George Rowley believes that mass-market absinthe products not only service the mass market but also sustain the rarefied markets too. “The industry isn’t going to be here unless you have products aimed at the bar environment,” he says. “Boutique products may accept colour variations as natural but without the mainstream market you will not have a boutique market. The only reason you have all these forums is because of the work Marie-Claude Delahaye** and I did to bring the product back.” Doubtless forums like the Wormwood Society would take issue with this statement, and in any case absinthe never truly went away but continued to be produced and drunk in Spain all through the Dark Ages between the ban and the revival. George does seem pretty miffed for not getting more credit for his undoubted role in modern absinthe history, but a consumer will always choose from what is available now, and you can’t expect to rest on your laurels. Meanwhile, Lucid absinthe, made in France, manages to command some 60% of the US market—without the use of artificial colour. In fairness, Lucid is about £55 a bottle in the UK while La Fée Parisienne can be had for about £37. As George himself says at one point, “you can tell by the price point how something is made”, and ultimately you pays your money and takes your choice.

So what does it actually taste like?

La Fée Parisienne is a vivid green and louches (goes cloudy and paler) when you add water. Neat it has strong anise and fennel aromas, plus the earthy, rooty smell of wormwood. There’s a hint of some dry spice, almost like cumin, too. Add water and the wormwood element almost overpowers the anise. It’s like horseradish without the heat. On the palate it is basically wormwood plus a strong liquorice element. It’s a pleasant enough drink, though rather one-dimensional and a bit rough.

Last February I was asked to be a judge in the Absinthe Masters awards, organised by The Spirits Business magazine. Overall the La Fée portfolio did quite well—on the companys website you can see a curious photo of me looming blurrily through a tasting glass—but while Parisienne received a silver medal for its packaging, in the actual blind tasting it actually scored the lowest marks of all the absinthes present. This is not to say it is terrible, but it was in the company of some very strong contenders. We instantly recognised it, not least from its garish colour (all the others were, I would say, coloured naturally rather than dyed, having muted olivey hues), and its simplistic taste also stood out in a far more sophisticated field.

The spurious, and rather pointless, Czech fire ritual
If entering La Fée Parisienne in that competition seemed an odd decision, inventing La Fée Bohemian at all seems even odder to me. Today George distances himself from the Hill’s days, admits that the “Bohemian” absinth style was a 1980s confection and that  the “Czech fire ritual”—where you soak a sugar cube in absinthe and set fire to it before stirring it into your drink—was just made up as a marketing gimmick. Yet La Fée Bohemian is an attempt to get to the heart of this style, which he defines as having little or none of the aniseed that is conventionally used in verte styles to balance the bitterness of the wormwood, and favouring mint instead. George admits that this is a product born not of passion but a desire to service a market he had more or less inadvertently created with Hill’s. “It’s a nod to the style that made it happen,” he says. “It broadens the market.” Apparently it’s very popular in Australia.

La Fée Bohemian is a synthetic blue-green, reminding me of some window cleaning fluid that I’ve got in the cupboard. Neat it has a sweetish, medicinal smell with a whiff of citrus and a bit of fennel; overall much less of a smell than the Parisienne. Add water and I am reminded of the smell of Humbrol enamel paints from my youth painting Airfix models. It is a resinous, turpentine smell. On the palate it tastes of… well, not much at all, to be honest. Slightly astringent, elements of orange and cinnamon. Crude, bitter aftertaste that lingers unwelcomely.

If this all seems rather damning, hold your horses. We haven’t got to the good stuff yet. At the Absinthe Masters blind tasting there were a couple of categories—“Coloured Amer” and “Non-Coloured Amer”—which confused us. We cautiously guessed that “amer” might be a polite name for some of the foully bitter East European offerings, but it turned out to be a (frankly little-used) EU category that allows a higher thujone*** level than “absinthe”. In each case there was just one entry, and we were heartily impressed. In fact we all agreed the entry for the Coloured Amer was the best product of the whole competition. This turned out to be La Fée X•S Française, George’s “Ultra Premium” verte product. The Non-Coloured Amer was his La Fée X•S Suisse bleu. These are lovingly batch-distilled from grape alcohol. Officially it’s a secret who makes these products—and George himself is unable to comment for contractual reasons—but it’s a pretty open secret that the Française is made for him by François Guy in Pontarlier and the Suisse by Claude-Alain Bugnon in Couvet.

In appearance these two absinthes are pretty similar—both a pale, jade green, but the Suisse is whiter, a rather beautiful colour; to call it opaline is hardly original but it does remind me almost of a fire opal, as if there are flashes of coloured fire within its milkiness. The nose is sweet, almost candied, until you encounter a sour-rubber bloom, but also fresh in a sappy, menthol sort of way. It’s worth lingering over the nose, as new things keep emerging. I remember thinking at the Absinthe Masters that some of the bouquets were like a walk in the woods, with new smells cropping up all along, ferns and bracken here, flinty soil there, alpine wildflowers there. Even an empty glass that has held the neat absinthe has a smell that continues to evolve.

The palate again strikes you as quite sweet initially, perhaps from the anise which is pronounced. I certainly feel there is no need to sugar this drink. A slightly powdery feeling in the mouth, the warmth of the alcohol balancing with the herbal freshness and the sweet-dry mouthfeel, makes for a surprising complex sensation, with that characteristic nose, that I can only describe as over-ripe buttercups or marigolds, that bleu styles seem to me to have.

The Française has a vinous whiff neat, and seems initially similar to the Suisse but sharper, more peppery on the nose and a greener colour—but a soft, stoney, muted, greyish green, as opposed to the electric washing-up-liquid green of the standard La Fée Parisienne. The palate is sterner, more astringent, seemingly more alcoholic than the Suisse (indeed it is, 68% as compared to the Suisse’s 53%). Then there is that earthy wormwood note. The Suisse is definitely softer, sweeter and more approachable, but both have impressive poise, balance and sophistication. Especially compared to many other “absinthes”, they are both smooth and complex.

At a time when respectable producers are trying to play down the significance of thujone and emphasising that it is not some hallucinogen, why do the X•S products make such a big deal about being amers? “To go beyond premium, you have to do something different,” George explains. “We felt the only way to lift it was to switch into wine spirit and do it as an amer, a category that allows you to go much heavier on the central ingredients. But you have to be all the more creative in striking a balance. The Francaise is more complicated to make than the Suisse—the different ingredients are distilled individually then recombined—but until recently there were actually two types of Suisse, one being for the French market because the French regulate the amount of fenchone which is found in fennel.”

Interestingly La Fée NV comes in an identical 
bottle to SW4, The Gin of Champions
Of course there is a price for all this: the X•S products will cost you over £80 for 70cl****. Moreover, the higher thujone content is still illegal in some markets, such as the US and Canada. How does this compare with the competition? Our favourite in the “Coloured Spirit” category of the Absinthe Masters was Studer Original Swiss Absinth, which is a verte from Switzerland, though, I seem to recall, it’s not really very green at all. As far as I can tell, it isn’t commercially available in the UK right now. Gold gongs went to Enigma Verte (£40ish) and Libertine (about the same). In the Non-Coloured Spirit arena, the top dog was Blanche de Fougerolles (about 50 Euros—not sure if you can buy it in Blighty either) followed by Enigma Blanche (confusingly, now apparently the same product—at the time of the tasting they would not tell us what the samples were, so I’m going by the write-up in The Spirits Business).

But there is one more product in the La Fée portfolio, named NV (not “non vintage” but meant to stand for “envy”—the green-eyed monster, geddit?—and intended to be “textable”, which gives you an idea of whom it is aimed at). It is bottled at 38% and meant to be drunk simply on the rocks (and engineered to louche in the presence of ice). I imagine its lower intensity might also make it useful in cocktails. It’s a pleasant, approachable drink, but doesn’t have much in common with absinthe. I can’t detect any wormwood (though I gather it is in there): there’s plenty of anise and that warm, dark, sweetness from liquorice, plus something chocolatey. The empty glass smelled almost as if it had actually contained crème de cacao. Of all five products this was actually DBS’s favourite—though he did recently conclude that he probably prefers pastis to absinthe.

“While Parisienne is intended as an authentic recreation,” George explains, “with NV we are more doing our own thing. It has all the primary core ingredients but is an accessible absinthe aimed more at the modern palate.” The key idea was to create something with a lower ABV, partly to make it more affordable to 18–21 year olds and partly to produce something intended to be drunk neat, making it more appropriate for bar environments where there is little scope for education about how higher ABV products should be served. So, cheaper and more appealing to inexperienced palates—a sort of My First Absinthe? “The whole category will only grow if you have entry products like this,” George insists. “NV is the fastest growing product in the portfolio.

There actually used to be a 45% ABV version of Parisienne but it was unstable at that low alcohol level and there were problems with the anise crystallising out. Fearing it was damaging the brand image of the main product, La Fée pulled it. NV has taken four years to develop. It is made with an intense distillation of botanicals and this “concentrate” is then cut with water and grain alcohol to arrive at the bottling strength.

You get the impression that George Rowley is genuinely proud of the original La Fée product, now Parisienne, and smarts when absinthe mavens slag it off. It’s as if he made the X•S products just to show that he can forge a top-notch artisanal beverage if he wants to, but isn’t much enthused about trying to bring such high-maintenance items to the world. Instead, with Bohemian (a product that even the La Fée website seems to suggest is best just for setting fire to) and the youth-oriented NV his focus is on finding groups of people who basically aren’t drawn to absinthe, and creating an absinthe for them. Will this strategy later bring them to “real” absinthe? Watch this space.

As for the basic Parisienne, it’s a simple drink that’s not offensive but it falls way short of what absinthe can be—for a taste of that, try the X•S products. Although you’ll sadly need a second mortgage.

* When I wondered out loud on the Wormwood Society forum why there were so many rumours that La Fée was an oil mix, the reply of Brian Robinson, one of the moderators, was "Because it tastes like it is?" You be the judge.
** Marie-Claude Delahaye is a genuine authority, and most absinthe manufacturers I speak to consider her such. However, La Fée's emphasis on her endorsement of their product should be tempered with the fact that she is also a co-owner of the brand,
*** Thujone comes from the wormwood. You will hear hushed discussions on the internet about how this chemical is the element in absinthe that gives you hallucinations and drives you mad; in truth in high doses it is harmful, but you would have to drink so much absinthe that the alcohol would get you first. I am one who was mug enough to buy a bottle of King of Spirits Gold, which boasts a thujone content of 100 parts per million (ten times the EU limit for regular absinthe), and I can vouch that it has no psychoactive properties.
**** This was a cause of some outrage among absinthe enthusiasts when these products were released, the suggestion being—why pay £80 for the Suisse when La Clandestine, made by the same man at the same distillery, can be found for around £40? Of course it's not the same product, and there are reasons why properly-made absinthe will always be pricey, partly because of the elaborate process and partly because the high ABV means higher duty. But there are plenty of absinthes out there that are basically made in a vat from industrial essences, bulk alcohol and some dye, but which slap on a high price tag because they are calling it absinthe. George Rowley himself has played an interesting role in this: because his products were the first on the market he pretty much set the benchmark. The historical section on the La Fée website notes that when setting the price of the first product they had to take into account that “absinthe would clearly command a premium, owing to the complexities of the many herbs and spices which are used in the distillation process”; but the primary concern seems to have been that “if [the price] was too low, the elements which make absinthe special would evaporate as it became the next source of cheap alcohol on the street”.

Hartley's Cornish Cocktail

Inspired by Mr. Hartley's return from his adventures in Cornwall* and a weekend discussion on Cream Teas, I decided to come up with a cocktail to try and emulate this afternoon delight of the west country.

Hartley's Cornish Cocktail**

Hartley's Cornish Cocktail

20ml Raisin Gin***
1tsp of Jam****
1tsp of the finest Clotted Cream

Shake, with ice, until ice cold and strain into a small cocktail glass.

I was surprised at how much this tastes like a scone with jam and cream; even though the scone element came from the raisin gin, I almost expected to taste a bit of the cake. As you can imagine, it was a rich and creamy concoction, sweet at the start, then the raisin gin comes through, followed by the cream again with the fruity jam coming at the end. In short, cream tea in a glass and rather delicious.

* I believe he was on the trail of the great sea globster of St. Ives (legend has it that it is the original inventor of the pasty).
** Named after that intrepid explorer of the West Country
*** This is created by soaking some raisins/sultanas in gin for 48 hours.
**** I used strawberry, but you can use what you like; seedless is best, unless you use a tea strainer to catch the seeds when you pour.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Pash-ion for Vodka #5 - Mayfair Vodka

On a recent trip to the Vanquish Office I got the chance to try some Mayfair Vodka and was lucky enough to be able to take some back to the Institute for a more vigorous testing. Mr Hartley and I find Mayfair's brand concept very interesting—rather than looking at one specific product their aim seems to be focusing on the Mayfair brand so that becomes trusted by their customers and becomes synonymous with a guaranteed level of quality.
They have a concise, yet informative, website, my favourite part being some helpful tips on how to be a gentleman. I'm particularly attracted to the idea that "Good flirting is a form of politeness".

In the current range are a vodka and a gin but a champagne is in the pipeline.

Mayfair vodka is bottled at 40% ABV, made from British grain and is distilled six times. A small portion of this distillate is then re-distilled in a pot still; according to Mayfair, this helps to soften the vodka.

But how does it taste?

Own (Room Temperature):
Minimal nose some alcohol, pleasant; tastes a little musky, a touch bready. Smooth but flavorful and a touch of floral/perfume at the end.

Own (Freezer)
Syrupy texture, the musky, bready elements are really accentuated and there is a little chalkiness too. Still quite smooth with warmth at the end.

Smooth and lightly perfumed. Again the slight breadiness comes out; slightly sweet but rather good.

Monday, 13 June 2011

The Bone-Dry Chocolatini

Well, you know how some bars serve up a weird, saccharine, fruity or cloudy concoction, pour it into a Martini glass and declare it to be some kind of Martini. I take a pretty dim view of this: if something is billed as a Martini variant it should be primarily gin (or perhaps vodka), adjusted by a relatively small quantity of something in the traditional role of the vermouth. You do see “Chocolatinis” on menus sometimes, often sweet, gooey masses, like alcoholic desserts in a glass.

So I was intrigued when I came across Mozart Dry chocolate liqueur*. The Mozart brands adorns a range of chocolate-flavoured beverages, in which the Mozart Distillerie has been specialising for 30 years (distributed here by Mangrove), but this one in interesting in that it is very chocolatey indeed, but completely unsweetened: raw cacao and vanilla are macerated in alcohol then distilled and bottled at 40% ABV. It immediately occurred to me that here was a chance to make a Chocolatini that was still essentially a Dry Martini.

A lot of gift pack for a small bottle of liqueur
Just get a load of the Mozart Dry gift set. That tiny bottle of the liqueur comes with a massive speed-pourer, presumably to give some sort of grab-handle for the busy barman (actually probably quite useful on the 70cl bottle, which is squat and round and not that easy to grasp quickly). Then there is the cocktail recipe book that folds over, utilises some cunning Velcro tabs and turns itself into a presentation stand/head-up display. For the busy barman. And finally there is a sampling glass created by boozeware wizards Reidel, who have made it their mission to create a glass for all known types of booze, scientifically tailored to that drink to present its aroma and taste in the most effective way. In this case it is more or less the classic tulip shape but with relatively straight sides. Naturally I scoffed. But having tried it I have to admit that neat Mozart Dry chocolate liqueur does taste better out of one of these than it does out of a shot glass or a wine glass.

Incidentally, the connection with Mozart is simply that the manufacturers are based in Salzburg, Wolfgang Amadeus’ home town.

Anyway, back to the cocktail.

Bone-Dry Chocolatini
4 (or, if you prefer, 5) parts gin
1 part Mozart Dry chocolate liqueur

Shake or stir with ice, strain into a Martini glass and garnish with a strip of lemon peel.

At first I thought that the traditional association of chocolate with orange might make a worthwhile avenue to go down, so I tried using a gin that made use of sweet orange peel in its botanical mix: so I tried No.3 Gin and Beefeater gin, and compared them directly alongside SW4 as a control. But to my surprise, they didn’t really work: I asked Mrs H. (a considerable fan of the cocoa bean’s work) what she thought and she wrinkled her nose at the No.3 variant, declaring it to have a strange and unpleasant herbal thing going on. Her clear favourite was the SW4.

I also experimented with using orange peel, rather than lemon, as a garnish, but I can report that it also doesn’t really work. Although orange is a traditional garnish in, say, a Negroni, I think the Dry Chocolatini doesn’t have the rich, sweet, spicy qualities to work with orange. It is still, at heart, a Dry Martini, and benefits more from the sharp, fresh zest of the noble lemon.

One final experiment was to try using DH Krahn gin. This Amerian boutique gin is distributed over here by Eaux De Vie, which was where I encountered it. To me it has a slightly chocolatey taste so I thought I’d give it a go. In fact the only botanicals are Italian juniper, Moroccan coriander, Florida orange peel, Californian lemon peel and grapefruit peel, and Thai ginger. But the company uses a secret maceration technique, a single distillation and a three-month resting period in steel barrels to get the most out of their carefully chosen plants. To me the gin is smooth and, as I say, for some reason has a hint of chocolate.

And I can report that it makes an excellent Dry Chocolatini. You can’t miss the chocolate—you smell it immediately—but the citrus and coriander also rise up in the bouquet. And the chocolate taste slots right in naturally with the gin botanicals as if it were just another part of the mix. Mind you, SW4 works pretty well too.

There you have it, a chocolate Martini that is dry and still essentially about the gin.

Of course there are plenty of other things you can do with Mozart Dry: it’s Mrs H.’s birthday today, so I think I may work through some of the recipes in the high-tech recipe book and I’ll let you know how we get on…

* Technically I guess it is not a liqueur precisely because it is unsweetened. So it is more accurately a chocolate spirit. I think they may also make a chocolate bitters.