I’m not particularly good at travelling. The world outside of the M25, despite my having lived there for half of my life (although I’m only two years off a half and half London/Notlondon split), is a vast scary place, without tube trains or the correct levels of pollution required to sustain my trainee-Londoner lungs. However, the occasional event rouses me out of my fears of the wide open spaces of shires and gets me on a train – this time a surprise birthday party for Eddie Ludlow, founder of The Whisky Lounge and resident of York, in the far reaches of The North. Well, two hours away from London on the fast train…
One of the continuing themes of this blog is a sentence at the start vaguely conforming to a pattern of ‘One of the boozes I don’t know well is X and it was lovely when Y asked me along to try some for REASON Z’. So, assume that I’ve done that again with X=light rum, Y=The London Cocktail Society and REASON Z is basement bar Bourne & Hollingsworth choosing their house pouring rum, and we can then move on from this opening paragraph.
Despite having heard a bit about it over the last year or so I’d still not made it over to Bourne & Hollingsworth and wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. The reviews seem rather polarised, with complaints about it getting packed leading to long waits at the bar (justified – it’s a small room with a small bar, with most of the space taken up by an open area for people to mill around in front of the bar) and that they charge too much for drinks which generally are distinguished by being served in teacups (unjustified – if you are going to a decent cocktail bar in London and are complaining about paying £7.50 for a cocktail no matter what type of receptacle it’s served in then you are probably in the wrong kind of bar. Bourne & Hollingsworth’s drinks quality certainly push it into the £7 a go bracket of London cocktail bars). It’s small and a great place, I suspect, on weekdays, but based on a Saturday night I can see it quickly turning into my idea of packed bar hell. But then again, I do hate people…
A bit quiet on the blogging front this last week as I’ve been doing my first week at The Whisky Exchange. So as not to leave the blog fallow here’s a quick post pointing you at another post – my first post on the TWE Blog, talking about whisky cocktails. Feel free to go and add a comment (that’s the last time I ask for comments in a blog post, I knew what was going to happen…). I’ll probably be putting something up over there most weeks, but hopefully usual service will be continuing here soon.
To add the actual content that the title promises, here’s something for London people. I’ve heard tales over the last few months of something interesting coming out of the pleasantly mad end of the William Grants PR dept and now it’s distilled into something real – The Balvenie Whisky Den. Hiding in a shop front on Tavistock Street near Covent Garden it’s, simply put, a pop-up bar. However, to build on the idea of craftsmanship that Balvenie are pushing as part of their brand on day one (Monday 9th May, about a week ago) there was nothing there apart from some building supplies and whisky. Since then, with updates through the @BalvenieUK twitter account, the team has been building out two levels of the shop to be a bar and tasting room for the Balvenie range.
I popped by at the end of week one and was confronted with a fairly spartan upstairs and a closed downstairs area. There was a bar, some stave based lampshades, a pair of barrel racks (complete with barrels) and a halved sherry butt being used as a table for tastings. They’re open from 1pm-8pm (although that may change) and offer visitors a free taste of Balvenie Double Wood and, for Warehouse 24 members (the Balvenie club, sign-up forms available on-site) a deconstructed tasting of Balvenie Signature – a try of each of the three types of whisky that go into Balvenie’s master distiller David Stewart’s signature malt.
The downstairs was closed when I went, due to to it still being a proper building site, but by Sunday 15th the upstairs was clad in staves and, all going to plan, downstairs should have had some interesting adornments and ‘activity areas’ added. The press launch is on Wednesday, which I’ll hopefully make it down for, and the London Cocktail Society, including myself again, are visiting on Friday, so there will be a more complete blog post sometime soon. However, in the meantime if you are around the Covent Garden area and feel like a dram – The Whisky Den, 34 Tavistock Street. They made a sign last Wednesday, so it should be easy to find…
The piccies are lifted from the @BalvenieUK yfrog account, where there are a bunch more in progress shots.
Despite only being a few months old, the London Cocktail Society is already doing rather well. With visits to 69 Colebrooke Row, Callooh Callay and the Sipsmith Distillery under their belts Mark, Emma and Kate decided to go for a big Christmas do, and they did really rather well. The nice folk at Callooh Callay offered to host and the guestlist filled up quickly, making sure that the bar was rather full from shortly after opening time last Monday.
Along with some mulled wine bubbling away on the bar and this month’s cocktail list there was also Andrea Montague mixing custom cocktails from questionnaires on drinkers’ tastes upstairs, a drink swap shop, a raffle and a cocktail making competition. The raffle is yet to be drawn, but it was for one of the Sacred Gin blending kits, with 6 bottles of spirits made with individual botanicals allowing you to build your own gin, in return for listing you 3 favourite gins, ready for an upcoming LCS event. At £85 the sets are a bit pricey but rather tempting and I still have my fingers crossed for my name to come out of the hat.
I brought a few things along for the swap shop, clearing out most of my experiment shelf in a dual ‘making space’ and ‘trying to get advice’ exercise. I took along some fairly unsuccessful horseradish vodka (that had gone turnipy over time) and liquorice vodka (that had lost most of its sweetness) as well as my grenadine from the other week and some very nice strawberry ratafia (that I will one day get around to writing up), the latter of which went down well with David Smith of Summer Fruit Cup. Of the other things on the table I was impressed by David’s Christmas Liqueur (which has led to me having a jar of mincemeat vodka maturing in the kitchen) and a few of the stranger infusions – an over the top tobacco bourbon and some bacon vodka being the ones that I can still remember. There were also a pair of bottles of damson gin from The Charles Lamb and 69 Colebrooke Row, showing a rather big difference in flavour (as you’d expect from one made traditionally and one in a lab) with the former being big and thick and the latter more refined and astringent. I rather liked the Charles Lamb’s…
The cocktail competition filled out the middle of the evening, with 6 teams competing in Ready, Steady, Shake – a Ready, Steady, Cook-alike where each team was given a box of ingredients and was asked to put together a cocktail in a few minutes. I teamed up with David and Clayton Hartley of the Institute of Alcoholic Experimentation, and we were promptly presented with a box containing a variety of things including an egg and some rocket pesto. We avoided the egg but made a fruity summer bloody mary, with lemon, lime, grapefruit and tomato juice, chilli pepper and a spoon of the pesto muddled and served over ice in a tall glass with a sage rubbed-rim, garnished with strawberries and sage. It was a bit too savoury in the end, with Clayton suggesting that muddling a few strawberries in the mix might have helped, but we still came a respectable third overall. We may have got extra points for using pretty much everything from our box (apart from the egg) but we were lucky not to be the team that got a tin of cat food (which was left, predictably, unused). The winning cocktail, The Narnia (with long and flowery description by Ryan Alexander), worked rather a lot better – 1 part lime and 2 parts gin muddled with mint, stirred with 1/2 a part nettle cordial, 1/2 a part maraschino, served in a tall glass over ice, topped with soda and agave syrup to taste and garnished with thyme.
All in all a rather good night and hopefully a taste of things to come. There seem to be plans for the next few months fomenting already and I’ll certainly be dragging myself along whenever I can.
Sacred Gin Blending Kits
Gin elements, 6 x 20cl at 40%. ~£85 from Sacred Gin.
Many thanks to the lovely organisers of the LCS, Callooh Callay, and Alex Kammerling, Giles Looker and Rebekah Dooley for both judging the competition and being so nice to our cocktail. Also, thanks to the various sponsors of bits and pieces in the goodie bag – I will hopefully have something appearing soon about the wonders of Fever Tree Mediterannean tonic water (made to go with vodka? Heresy!) and also have some Hayman’s Gin and Chase Vodka to tuck into, along with money off vouchers from Gerry’s of Soho and The Loft in Clapham. Keep an eye on the LCS website for an announcement of next month’s adventures…
The London Cocktail Society continues to roll on and the second meeting was part of a happy coincidence – it helped start off London Cocktail Week. Running through the week of October 11th it was a celebration of all things boozey, with tastings of almost everything imaginable as well as masterclasses in the creation of cocktails and drinks from bartenders, distillers, writers, importers and anyone else who had something interesting to say. Quite by chance the one month anniversary of the first LCS trip (to 69 Colebrooke Road) fell on the Monday of Cocktail Week and Callooh Callay offered to host us for some cocktail drinking.
Callooh Callay is a newish entry into the London Cocktail scene and one that I have been much remiss in not visiting more often – it’s about 5 minutes walk from my office and I’d been walking past it for months before I realised what it was. Tucked down Rivington Street in Shoreditch they’re a bar with a loose theme – Alice in Wonderland. This is now mainly expressed through their naming, although there is a general element of quirkiness to the place that fits in with the books surreality. It looks ‘just like a bar’ when you wander in, but the toilet walls are lined with audio cassettes (featuring numerous musical crimes) and the locked cupboard at one end can be opened by those with keys to reveal their members bar, The Jub Jub, complete with rotating guest bartenders and menus. They run regular drinks tastings, with brand ambassadors appearing on a monthly basis to talk people through their wares and the cocktails that the bar staff have put together using them.
The bar staff are led by bar manager Sean Ware, former advertising photographer turned award winning barmen, who worked with owner Richard Wynne to put together and open the bar. Sean was our host for the night and had put together a special menu of London cocktails, which he talked us through, with a hint of history as well as the contemporary twists you’d expect.
The menu started with a Hot Gin Punch. Callooh Callay are fans of punches, having just commissioned their own punch bowls after using the upturned horns of gramaphones to hold a four person portion of cocktail until recently, and it’s an idea with a long history, having become especially popular in Edwardian times. In traditional fashion one of the reasons why punches came to the fore was due to the lack of safe drinking water and groups sharing specially made cocktails was slightly more elegant than the small beer often imbibed. This punch was put together using Hendricks gin, Madeira, ‘winter spices’, pineapple, citrus, honey and, I assume, some hot water to make it all piping hot. You don’t get many warm alcoholic drinks these days, with a cup of mulled wine being most people’s exposure to the concept, but it’s something that I reckon needs more exploring. And not only because my previous experiments with hot buttered rum left me a drooling wreck.
Next on the menu was The Avenue. According to Sean this may well have been the first cocktail that was more than just spirit, ice and some form of sweet/sour citrus mix. Invented at the Café Royal and published in their 1937 cocktail book it was popular around the turn of the century. This version was made with Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon (a whiskey I first tried at a tasting session at Callooh Callay), Laird’s Apple Jack, passionfruit nectar, orange flower water and syrup. Sean made it with all the ingredients from scratch but did confide in us that it works better with flat Rubicon passionfruit soda… My only tasting note on it was that it smells and tastes ‘like red boiled sweets’. It was quite nice.
Next up was a John Collins, the 1986 ‘update’ of the classic Tom Collins, named for one of the potential inventors of the drink, first sighted back in the 1870s. In its day this was as popular and ubiquitous as the mojito is today and it still remains a constant of many cocktail menus. It’s a very simple drink, with this recipe calling for Bols Genever (dutch gin, as would probably have been used in the late 1800s), lemon juice and caster sugar. That lines up with the original recipe and the update invokes adding a lemon wedge and maraschino cherry, the latter of which Callooh Callay makes some very tasty examples of.
Next on the menu was a London Classic, Dick Bradsell‘s Bramble. A mainstay on any self respecting cocktail bar’s menu since its inception in the mid ’80s it’s one of Bradsell’s most famous creations. As usual with these things it’s quite simple but effective – gin (in this case Beefeater), lemon juice and sugar in a glass full of crushed ice, topped with a float of creme de mûre (a blackberry liqueur) and traditionally garnished with a lemon slice and two raspberries. Somehow I’ve only tried one of these once before and they are exactly as they seem – a gin and lemonade with a fruity float. That doesn’t stop it working very well though.
My first drink of the night was the next on the list – Clayton’s Special Cocktail, invented at the Savoy during the tenure of Ada Coleman at the turn of the 20th century. This was referred to as being like ‘a posh Bacardi and coke’ around our table and a circulated glass of the secret ingredient helped us understand why – Clayton’s Kola Tonic. This cordial was first made in Battersea and very popular, in a similar fashion to Coca-Cola’s origins in soda fountains in the USA, but is now made in Barbados and not widely known. It is a sticky orangey red syrup which tastes a bit like Coke syrup but without the caramel sweetness, with citrus and herbs coming through with a little bit of sweetness. Mixed with some some white rum, citrus syrup (a difficult to make combination of orange, lemon, grapefruit, sugar and distilled water) and a splash of fizzy water it makes a very interesting alternative to a Coke based rum drink. I did a bit of searching in the next week and turned up a bottle of Clayton’s at The Whisky Exchange – they thanked me for taking it off their hands because they don’t sell much of it. Since then I’ve done a bit of experimenting and while it isn’t concentrated enough to hold up as a regular ‘mix with water and drink’ cordial it is good at spicing up drinks that want a orangey kick.
Last on the list was The Ale of Two Cities. Put together by the 2008 Cocktail World Cup winning Team London for that competition, it’s a collision of England and New Zealand in ingredients, made from 42 Below Feijoa vodka, Punt e Mes vermouth, nettle cordial, malt syrup, granny smith apple juice and bitters. Feijoa is a fruit I’ve not seen before, but is eaten in a manner similar to kiwi fruit and is meant to be delicious, although easily perishable. The malt syrup is about half as sweet as sugar but gives a creamy head when shaken with the rest of the ingredients, allowing the drink to still have that head at the same time as not becoming overly sweet. Sean served it in a half pint beer jug, adding to the aley effect – a rather good looking and, according to the others, tasty cocktail.
We then repaired to the Jub Jub bar to bathe in neon (I was tucked in under a very pink 42 Below sign) and a run through the regular menu, watching as a group of London Roller Girls tucked into a gigantic bowl of punch through foot long straws. It’s a very nice bar, hitting the middle of the London cocktail bar range (drinks about £8) and adding enough quirkiness to push them out from the rest without becoming too annoying. The bar staff know what they’re doing and even though their drinks are much longer than the usual classic cocktails I go for there’s enough to tempt me towards the dark side – fruity cocktails.
Callooy Callay, 65 Rivington Street, London EC2A 3AY
Cocktails £8-10 (special offer of £6 for the cocktails on our menu when we visited), punch bowls £50 (and enough for at least 4 people).
Open Sunday-Friday 5.30pm-11pm, Friday 5.30pm-1am, Saturday 6pm-1am.
Sushi and Japanese starters served while the bar is open
Clayton’s Kola Tonic
Kola nut, herb and spice cordial. £6.95 from The Whisky Exchange
High on my list of boozes to learn about at the moment is the oft-maligned ‘granny’ drink that is sherry. I’m a bit of a fan, knocking back at least one bottle of amontillado at Christmas and having grown up in a household where abstinence was enforced before 6pm with the understanding that sherry didn’t count as drinking. I heard rumours earlier this year of a sherry bar near Kings Cross and eventually discovered the location of Pepito and Camino, the restaurant that it’s attached to. I’ve still not made it over to visit and was rather pleased to be contacted by their PR people and offered a chance to be taught about sherry with an intake of new staff. Unfortunately this didn’t line-up with the world of the corporate wage slave (my world) and I resigned myself to not seeing behind the scenes. However, the staff training wasn’t just for a regular intake but for a new restaurant and shortly after opening I was invited along with the regular crew of London food and drink bloggers to have a wander round the new location – Puerto del Canario…or Canary Wharf as you may know it.
Situated right by Westferry pier on the former site of a Jamie’s bar it’s a restaurant of two halves – eating and drinking. Half of the restaurant is set up for sit down dining, the other with tall tables for more casual drinking with food. I think the same menu is served in both halves of the restaurant and it’s all spanish food, with a variety of sizes from small tapas dishes to main meals. I got to try some at the end of the evening and was very impressed – I’ll be coming back for certain, especially as it gives me an excuse to get the boat from London Bridge. I like boats. However, I was there to find out about the drinks.
While they aren’t Pepito, they do still have range of sherries with at least one entry in each of the major categories. We started the evening with some Tio Pepe Fino Palomino. Camino work closely with Gonzalez Byass and this is one of their key sherry brands. Served chilled it was light on the nose, but there was a hint of grass with some honey hiding behind it. To taste it was much dryer than the nose suggested, with green grass, yeast and dry grapes. Those flavours ended suddenly with a hint of sweetness and the whole lot was capped with a woody finish. I’m not a fan of dryer sherries, but this was quite nice, if not really my kind of thing.
To stick with the sherries for now, at the end of our meal we were presented with a choice of digestif. After a small amount of sweet talking I got to try both. I started with a Solera 1847 Oloroso Dulce. On the nose it had the pressed raisin sweetness of a darker sweet sherry as well a whiff of vanilla sponge cake. To taste it had cinnamon in with the raisins and a hint of apple, all sitting on top of a light yeastiness. I quite like sweeter sherry and this has definitely added oloroso to my ‘investigate’ list. The other dessert choice was a Moscatel (that I know nothing more about other than that). It was floral on the nose with light honey and a cloying perfumed floor cleaner astrigency. To taste the honey was dominant with the floral note hanging around and making the whole lot a bit intense and cloying. Not really one for me – a bit too much and more overpowering than the moscatel I have tried in the past.
The bar does of course have much more than just sherry. Along with the food we were served a selection of spanish wine, starting with a 2007 Val de Sil Godello – a wine made in Galicia in north-western spain. My notes are annoyingly light now that I’ve looked into the grape a bit more (as I’d not heard of or tried it before) and read simply ‘Sweet sugariness. Hint of lemon’. I’ve only more recently started getting into white wine and this is on the list of things to try again. From there we quickly moved on to reds, with a Viñas del Vero Pinot Noir 2008 as the first. On the nose it had a underlying bloody meatiness with a hint of salt and sour cherry. To taste it was piney to start with strawberries in the middle and a lightly sour finish with sweetness down the side of the tongue. We then moved on to a Cillar de Silos Torre Isilo, made with Ribera del Duero grapes. It had pine, almonds, redcurrants, dry card and sour cherry on the nose. To taste it had both sweet and sour cherries, a clove spiciness, some vanilla and a tannic woody finish. Rather pleasant.
Before I got to the eating stage of the evening I had a chat with a lady at the bar. She poured me a glass of 2009 Verd Albera (a rather nice peachy and lemony white wine) and after I did my normal waxing lyrical about spirits and cocktails she revealed that she was in charge of training the bar staff in the restaurant group and helped design the bars. The main design work is done by Interbar and currently (as of October 2010) the Camino Puerto del Canario bar is their flagship production – lots of fridges keeping wine at the right temperature (16°C for red, 6-7°C for white according to our tour), ice wells for chilling bottles and putting in drinks, and a general air of sensible lay out. After some further chatting about the wonders of whisky and cocktails (not what I expected in a Spanish bar and restaurant) I was presented with a whiskey sour. It was made with Four Roses small batch bourbon (which is a nice bourbon that I still need to grab a bottle of) and had a splash of Angostura bitters added for some spiciness, a twist I may have to try in the ones I make at home from now on.
The last beverage type to taste was their beer. They have the regular range of cold fizzy yellow Spanish beer (as well as, according to the menu, at least one Spanish dark beer), but one in particular caught my eye – Inedit, a beer designed in collaboration between Estrella and Feran Adrià. Adrià is the owner and genius/madman behind El Bulli, a 3 star Michelin restaurant that often tops World’s Best Restaurant lists (and that I very much want to go to, but with only 8000 diners per year and over 2 million booking requests [places issued via a lottery] I doubt I will any time soon, especially as next year looks to be the last season that it will be around) and along with St Heston of Bray one of my food heroes. Estrella approached him asking for helping in designing a beer to go with food and Inedit is the result of their work. On the nose it has wheaty coriander and a light sweetness. To taste it has a burst of malty sweetness, with flowers and a hint of citrus that stops dead and is followed by dryness. It’s quite strange how quickly the flavour stops, but it seems almost perfect for food and claims to be ‘the first beer to be designed to accompany food’ (a lofty claim that I can’t deny with evidence but am sure others can) – a burst of beer flavour followed by a hole that is almost marked ‘insert food here’. Tastewise it’s quite similar to Hoegaarden, but slightly lighter and much clearer in appearance. It’s not that available in the UK, appearing in Utobeer and other specialist beer shops but Camino is the only restaurant I know serving it.
Camino is most definitely on my list of places to visit again. I’m not a big fan of the layout bar side, with no general seating and the potential to become a noisy echo chamber as soon as it starts to fill, but their drinks menu is good and while similar it’s nicer than the other Canary Wharf drinking dens I’ve visited – it’ll be full of suits in no time… The restaurant was really good, an excellent addition to the crowded Canary Wharf scene and the easy access from the river (along with the accompanying view) is rather nice. To complete my need for sherry knowledge I still need to visit Pepito (and Camino: Cruz del Rey – they love the spanish names), but Camino: Puerto del Canario has filled the gap for now.
Tio Pepe Fino Palomino
Fino sherry. £3.50 for 100ml from Camino. £9.99 per bottle from Majestic.
Solera 1847 Oloroso Dulce
Oloroso sherry. £10.99 per bottle from Ocado.
Val de Sil 2007
Godello white wine. £32 per bottle from Camino
Viñas del Vero Pinot Noir 2008
Pinot noirred wine. £24.50 per bottle from Camino.
Cillar de Silo Torre Isilo 2006
Ribera del Duero red wine. £59 per bottle from Camino.
Celler Marti Fabra Verd Albera 2009
Mocatel, Garnacha, Empordà white wine. £20 per bottle from Camino
Spanish lager by Estrella and Feran Adrià. 4.8%.
Many thanks to Krista Booker from Neon for finally finding an event I could come along to (and trying to push as many new boozes my way as she could through the evening), Andrew Sinclair from Gonzalez Byass for listening to me witter about how little I knew about sherry and cava, Richard Bigg, former wandering barman, now Camino boss and all round nice chap, and to the staff at Camino, who were smiley and helpful all night despite being confronted by 30+ freeloading bloggers.
I was wined and dined for the evening at Camino’s expense and they gave us all a rather nice goody bag (I ate the cheese from it on the way home). They even put me on a boat for a bit, which was nice. I will be happily paying my own money to go again though and I wouldn’t do that if they weren’t actually good.
A few months back I saw on Twitter that a few of the cocktail lovers who I follow were talking about having meetups for London based cocktail fans and, as I do way to often, I asked if I could join in. The first official meetup of the now named London Cocktail Society (I think there was a premeeting last month) was set for September 8th at 69 Colebrooke Row.
69 Colebrooke Row (the bar’s address, not its name – it deliberately doesn’t have a name) is a small room next to The Living Room, just off Essex Road in Islington. It’s the new home of cocktail barman Tony Conigliaro, famed for various drink inventions and his more ‘molecular gastronomy’ style approach to cocktail making. From reading about Tony it seems that having worked in restaurant bars he started being interested in the modern cooking methods that he saw in the kitchens and started applying some of them to cocktail making.
To this end they make a lot of their own base ingredients at 69 Colebrooke Row, with the upstairs of the bar hiding a low ceilinged lab, full of bench gear for both production and experimentation. Part of the LCS visit was that Tony offered to take us all upstairs, in small groups as it isn’t all that spacious, and show us what he does up there. Due to the distilling laws allowing limited redistillation of already distilled alcohol (which I need to investigate more before buying things to blow up my kitchen – I was offered the chance to add a small still onto someone else’s order the other day and I was very tempted. I said no) Tony has two vacuum stills and one whose name I forgot but looked a bit like a column still. He uses these to produce various flavoured liquids, both alcoholic and water based. The low temperature that the lowering of atmospheric pressure enabled by the vacuum stills allows leads to the various ingredients in the distilling liquid being handled delicately and not cooked as much as they would be at a higher temperature. This leads to much more delicate products and different flavours being pulled out into the various liquids.
For example, their vodka, which they now sell over the bar for £12 a bottle, is made by grating horseradish into the base spirit (which I assume is vodka) before redistilling, which produces a great horseradish spirit that puts my experiments to shame (as I would hope, as I am not a cocktail expert with a lab above my own bar). On the nose it has crisp horseradish, as if you’re sniffing the surface revealed by snapping a root in half. To taste it has a butteriness mixed in with a light heat and vegetable bitterness, that lingers with the heat long after you swallow your drink.
Along with the horseradish vodka they also had a rose hydrosol (a water based extraction), which perfectly captured the smell of roses as well as the taste of flowers, some rhubarb vodka (for which they cook the rhubarb sous-vide to break it down before mixing with base spirit and redistilling) and vacuum bags packed with various things ready for experimentation, including wood chips. Outside of drinks there were also jars of green beans, pickling away in a variety of vinegars ready to become the final piece of their upcoming bloody mary (along with horseradish vodka, carefully constructed tomato juice and a black pepper tincture). I want a lab to construct drinks in…
After our lab tour I grabbed a couple of drinks, as it seems rude not to when visiting a bar. Drinks are £8 each for house cocktails, although the menu does also offer classics on request, and presentation and creation are predictably excellent. Behind the bar on the night we visited were Matteo and Ryan (who I’d heard tales of from SMWS staff as he worked in Bramble in Edinburgh before coming down to London after being crowned UK Best Bartender last year) and they calmly coped with random requests (with LCS co-founder Mark asking for ‘whatever you think would be nice’ from both of them over the evening).
I started with a Liquorice Whisky Sour, made from Cutty Sark whisky, Lemon juice and liquorice syrup. It was a beautiful drink, with a thick off-white creamy head covering the orangey liquid. It smelled of liquorice and smoky lemons and was an excellent balance of the whisky, citrus and sweet liquorice. Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of malt whisky in cocktails, with most of the delicate flavours being overwhelmed leaving just the general whisky-ness. In this case the wood and smoke were nice additions, but it didn’t quite work for me.
However, I did use the idea to make my own version last night: 50ml Woodford Reserve bourbon, 50ml home-made sour mix, 15ml liquorice vodka. It needs some work as the sours and vodka made things a bit sweet, as I use sweet soft liquorice to make my liquorice vodka. Luckily for me Tony gave me one of the liquorice pastilles that he grinds to garnish the Liquorice Whisky Sour to try, after I mentioned that I also wanted a centrifuge (his current Most Wanted piece of lab kit) as I’d been running my latest vodka experiment through coffee filters for a couple of days, and I see potential in making a sour liquorice spirit using them. For now I’ll make do with garnishing my drinks with crushed liquorice pastilles, as obtained from the Algerian Coffee House in Soho, as they do at 69 Colebrooke Row.
I followed this up with a Manhattan. However, Manhattan’s at 69 Colebrooke Row aren’t as simple as they sound. Tony is one of the increasing numbers of barmen who have been experimenting with barrel aging cocktails and the Aged Manhattan is one of the bar’s signature drinks. I foolishly didn’t ask how long it’d been aged for, but it’s probably somewhere between 6 months and a year. The creation is quite simple if time consuming (assuming Tony does this the same way as other bars) – the ingredients of the Manhattan (whiskey, bitters and vermouth [dry, sweet or a mixture depending on whether you are making a dry, sweet or perfect Manhattan]) are mixed without ice and then poured into a wooden barrel to mature. When they have reached the required age they are bottled and the drink is made by stirring the premixed cocktail with ice before serving. Having not tried a regular Manhattan at the bar I can’t say too much about the differences in the aged drink, but suffice to say it was the finest Manhattan I’ve ever tried – starting with a sweet kick before fading through spicy whiskey to a rounded dry vermouth finish, it was very good. I don’t think it’s picked up much from the barrel but it was very mellow, with the flavours of the ingredients well matched, quite distinct and very well balanced. They’ve just finished a 6 year old version, but as there was only one bottle and it was on the bar on Thursday I suspect it may already be gone…
It’s a strange place and not at all what I expected. The room is quite small, making me wonder how exactly they’d fit in the 40 people that is listed as the capacity, and the bar itself is also small, with barely enough room for the two barmen to move around and make drinks. Along with that it can get quite loud, with background music and a big crowd making it difficult to have conversations. However, at the same time it’s significantly quieter than most other cocktail bars and the close quarters adds to the atmosphere. The service is as impeccable and friendly, and the drinks are really very impressive, showing the bar team’s skill and love of experimentation. It’s not somewhere that I’ll be visiting every night, but there are some menu changes appearing in the near future and I’ll definitely be wandering down to see what craziness has appeared.
The lovely people of Qype, especially organisatrix extraordinaire SianySianySiany, have looked after me again, this time be helping with one of my missions for the year: learning more about vodka – somehow I managed to wangle may onto one of Bob Bob Ricard‘s rather exclusive vodka tastings. At first I felt this rather strange as I’d thought that BBR was a english restaurant with a continental twist, but after a few minutes talking to Richard Howarth, the Ricard of the name, I discovered the error of my ways – Bob, the other owner, is actually a chap by the name of Leonid whose Russian influence is the twist on the restaurant that I’d assumed to be from a bit further west. Part of Bob’s introduction of Russian culture into the fabric of the restaurant is his love of vodka, hence the freezer (chilling the vodkas to -18°C), selection of zakuski (Russian nibbly food) and, following on naturally, this tasting.
We started off with BBR’s signature cocktail – a Pink Rhubarb Gin and Tonic. It was both sweet and tart, with a slug of rhubarby goodness running through it, and topped with a fairly stiff head that we assumed to be under the influence of egg white. For a G&T it wasn’t at all fizzy, which is good as I suspect that making it gassy wouldn’t have worked. We asked a waitress about the preparation and after a quick disappearance to consult with the bar she came back with a rough recipe: add rhubarb and sugar to Bombay Sapphire and heat until things are about to start bubbling; turn off the heat and leave overnight; strain the liquor to give a rhubarb infused gin; mix with tonic and ice, shake and serve. The egg whitey head is actually brought about the high sugar content and our theories of rhubarb syrups were all shown to be rather pedestrian – a nice drink with an impressive effort behind it.
The plan for the tasting was to try five vodkas, each with a different piece of zakuski. At this point the difference to a whisky or wine tasting became apparent – the vodka wasn’t particularly meant to be tasted. Very specifically, the history of vodka production has involved continued refinement of the process to try and remove more and more of the bad products of distillation, giving as clean and light a taste as possible (as well as minimal headaches and a continued ability to see) – cheap vodkas may taste of petrol cut with meths, but expensive ones will barely taste at all. Luckily Leonid was away for the day and Richard was not quite as harsh a tasting master as his colleague rumoured to be, allowing me to have a bit of a sniff and sip as long as I knocked back a chunk of the booze, as is the Proper Way Of Doing Things.
First up we had a Kauffman Special Selected Vintage 2006 – Kauffman’s vodka is made using grains of a specific year, hence the use of a vintage in the description, and produced in very small batches. As with wine, certain years are said to have produced especially good vintages, with 2003 and 2006 being singled out recently. That said, they haven’t been producing the spirit for long, with their website only listing the 2002, 2003 and 2005 vintages. A quick knock back of the first half the glass showed a surprising smoothness, with a fairly even distribution of flavour, a good mouthfeel and a nice warmth (rather than burn) on the way down. A bit more of a sip and savour revealed a honeyed sweetness across the whole tongue and a long grainy finish.
Next we followed along the range with a taste of the Kauffman Private Collection Luxury Vintage 2003, a name with way too many qualifiers in it for my liking. This was one of 25,000 bottles to be produced from the harvest (the Special Selected Vintages run to about 45,000) and was the most expensive vodka of the afternoon, coming in at about £12 a shot on the BBR menu. The initial chuck down the throat gave a more aquavit-y sensation, with the centre of the tongue going almost untouched by taste, with a bit more of a sensation down the throat and a gentle warming feeling spreading out across the chest. With a bit more of a swill around the mouth the centre of the tongue stayed unworried, but a pleasant pepperiness crept across the sides of the tongue to go with a sweetness similar to the 2006. Very clean tasting, I can see why this is a favourite amongst ‘real’ vodka drinkers.
After these two we took a break for food, as previous tastings had seen a marked decline in tasters who drank through without a break. Accompanying the first two vodkas we’d had jellied ox tongue with quails eggs and horseradish (which I thought was excellent, despite the jelly fear in some of the other tasters – the horseradish was especially good and quite happily edible on its own with a long spoon), and salmon roe on hard-boiled quail’s eggs (which, due to a rather serious love of big roe, happily went down my neck). We were now confronted with some slightly larger dishes to share, with the week’s special of scallop, black pudding and cox’s apple with watercress and chives (not my fave – a bit too dry a black pudding for my liking, although Richard did say that they deliberately went for such a beast, and I don’t really see what the fuss about scallops is, even if these were rather nice), blaeberry wine cured Orkney beef with celeriac, blueberries and hazelnuts (this was rather excellent, although the bluberries were confused for olives and then grapes before a final realisation of their identity), goat’s cheese salad with pickled beetroot (which I avoided due to a dislike of goaty cheese), and potted shrimp with watercress, croutons and lemon (which I started craving while writing this after seeing the picture – butter with a few prawns in on crunchy toast…tasty). It was all rather tasty and definitely a good bit of fortification for the next few drinks.
After a quick table clearing we were presented with glasses of Beluga Vodka. There was some discussion as to the nature of its relationship to the Beluga sturgeon, spawner of tasty caviar, and eventually we came down on the side of associating itself with luxury. The vodka is made in the middle of nowhere, pulling its water from a local well with no industry within 300km of the distillery, a big flag displaying the spirits march towards purity. On the quick throw down the throat it came across as much more prickly, raising the hackles of my tongue, and causing more of a reaction as it wandered down to the stomach. Going slower, it had much more flavour, with grain coming through a lot more than the sweetness of the earlier vodkas. This may be a fault for the Russian connoisseurs, but it’s the sort of thing I like – being able to actually taste my drink – and I thought it to be rather good.
We quickly followed on to Russian Standard Imperia. This was the first producer of the day that I’d heard of already, as I use the basic Russian Standard as my regular vodka at home. I don’t drink a lot of it on its own, but mainly use it to extract flavours from things to make flavoured spirits. I suspect I will write up my experiments sometime in the future, but for now the regular vodka is quite rough, but good at having its flavour masked by other things. The Imperia is a different kettle of fish, based on a recipe by Dmitri Mendeleev, the inventor of the periodic table, it’s been around for a while and had its recipe declared to be ‘The Standard of Vodka’ in 1894. The production process strikes me as maybe going too far, with 8 distillations and two filterings through quartz (I don’t even know how that would work…). I chucked half of it down my throat, as was becoming usual by now, and got much more of a burn than previously, with a much bigger taste of grain. On the nose this was the first to be easily discernible, with hints of caraway in with the regular alcoholic whiff, and in the mouth it had a touch of vanilla and a long warm finish – nice, but not quite as smooth as the others.
Finally we got to the last vodka of the tasting – Stolichnaya Vodka Elite. Described as being much rougher than the rest despite being an expensive premium vodka, this one was included to show us how refined the top vodkas at BBR are. True to form I necked half of it and got a nice burn down the throat and a chunk of grain across the tongue, definitely a bit more to it than the earlier ones. It had a slightly sweet smell and lots of flavour – honey and grain rolling around the mouth. Again, this was up my street and I quite enjoyed it, but it’s definitely not as close to the Russian ideal of clean flavour that was displayed by the Kauffmans.
The last three vodkas were accompanied by some more zakuski and we were treated to Meat Pelmeni (meatballs wrapped in noodles – a russian ravioli – served with vinegar and sour cream. These were my favourite thing of the day, excellently moreish and enough to get me to return on their own), Malosol Cucumbers (baby cucumbers cured in brine until crispy, an easy win for someone who likes both salty food and crunchy cucumber like me. I may have to make some of these at home) and Salo on Rye Bread (wafer thin slices of cured pork fat on rye bread. The fat melted in the mouth into a smoky butter that then infused the highly flavoured bread – it was almost great, but there was a bit too much bread for the [still quite large] amount of salo, so it turned into a bit too much of a rye fest for my liking) which continued the filling process to the extent that we turned down en masse an offer of Sunday lunch. We were, however, offered another go at whichever vodka the group liked the best, and after some umming and ahhing the consensus appeared to be the first one that we tasted – the Kauffman Special Selected Vintage 2006. It balanced the lack of flavour that the producers were going for with some very pleasant flavours, making it a very worthy favourite. I may not be grabbing a bottle for my freezer (at about £70 a go) but I may have to have a try next time I see some.
My favourite of the tasting was the Beluga – prickly and full of flavour while still rather smooth and easy to throw down the throat if need be. I may seek out a bottle and then offend the Russians by drinking the occasional shot slowly over ice. I wonder how cold my freezer is…
Many thanks again to Richard for leading us through the vodka, telling tales of running a restaurant and filling us with food; Siany for organising the thing (and letting me go along) and Qype for keeping their website going so that I can go and do such things.
Vodka Kauffman Special Selected Vintage 2006
40%. Approx £70 per 70cl bottle
Vodka Kauffman Private Collection Luxury Vintage 2003
40%. Approx £140 per 70cl bottle
40%. Approx £40 per 70cl bottle
Imperia by Russian Standard
40%. Approx £30 per 70cl bottle
Vodka Elite by Stolichnaya
40%. Approx £40 per 70cl bottle
Bob Bob Ricard is at 1 Upper James Street, Soho, London W1F 9DF and they are lovely.