Vodka Tasting at Bob Bob Ricard

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.

BBR Vodka 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.

BBR Vodka TastingAfter 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.

BBR Vodka Tasting 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

Beluga Vodka
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.

Siany’s Qype blog post is up and there are a bunch of reviews appearing on BBR’s page

The Macallan Ice Ball Serve

I am a big fan of gimmicks, even if I try not to give them too much credence, but when I heard about Macallan’s latest it gave me a kick to go and find somewhere that could demonstrate it – The Ice Ball Serve… Basically, serve Macallan 10 yr old over ice, but instead of using cubes use a giant sphere of ice created with much theatre in a machine constructed from two large heavy copper lumps with a ball mould carved into them. I’m generally not a fan of ice in scotch whisky, although it has its place, but I decided to abandon my principles and wandered down to Hawksmoor to give it a try.

The machine is excellent – two large copper blocks, each with a hemisphere carved into the centre of one side, between which you place a large block of ice and then let the combined forces of gravity and ambient temperature take their toll. The heavy copper presses on the ice and being at ambient temperature it melts it a bit. Slowly but surely the weight of the upper copper block squishes the ice into the mould, while strategically placed holes in the blocks let water escape, until it’s a fairly decent sphere. There’s a turny thing on the bottom block to lever the ball out, leaving the barman to pick it up with some tongs and plink it into the specially shaped glass before sploshing on some Macallan 10. It is a perfect piece of point of sale bar theatrics – little can go wrong (other than not having enough pieces of big ice), it’s not messy, and is quite easy to explain. Hawksmoor don’t have much in the way of branded furniture on their bar, but I can see why they said yes to this one.

They are, however, quite scarily expensive (a few kilos of decent copper isn’t cheap) and Macallan have distributed them to about 20 places around the country (a list can be found over on Whisky Intelligence). They are originally from Japan, home of the excellent bar related gadget, and it seems that Macallan have a license to distribute them in the UK. While I won’t be seeking one out for my kitchen, I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out to see how far they spread amongst the posh bars of London – it’s nice to have an excuse to go to posh bars…

It’s definitely worth a try, although while I felt the cooled Macallan was quite nice, it was nothing special – certainly not as nice as if drunk at room temperature. The big ball of ice may not melt as fast as a bunch of smaller cubes, but getting it out of the glass when you’ve got to the concentration of whisky/water that you want is difficult, as the glass has been designed to have an opening about the same size as the ball – it does make you drink your whisky a little faster, I suppose, which is something that Macallan won’t mind. So, one for the gadget lovers and those who like ice in their scotch. I fall into one half of that camp and while I may not be having another ice ball of my own I will certainly sit around and watch other people smile as the machine does its work.

Macallan 10 year old
Sherry cask aged single malt scotch whisky
40%. Widely available for about £30 per bottle. I had mine at Hawksmoor. As you may have noticed. They’ve also got the 21 year old and many other tasty whiskies (that may appear in the next Quick Tastings post, if I can decipher my drunken notes) on the shelf. I like Hawksmoor.

Slim Jim’s Liquor Store

Slim Jim's

While wandering in the wilds of Islington the other week, trying to find things to fill the time between work and a gig (by the mighty A, supported by some people I don’t remember and the rather good Stars of the Search Party) I did a quick search on the Randomness Guide to London and decided to try out Slim Jim’s Liquor Store.

One of the things I really like about the US is the overwhelming feeling that bartender is a respected profession. Over here, for the most part, working in a bar is merely a stop gap or work considered to be almost unskilled, but on the other side of the pond they consider the job almost a calling and often work to make themselves great bartenders. We get professional barmen over here (my brother is one, even if he is currently splitting his time between standing behind a bar with the standing on the other side that we call ‘being a student’), but it’s a lot less common and this makes me a sad panda.

Anyways, this being an american styled dive bar I thought I might be in with a chance, and I was pleasantly surprised. The barman was obviously in for the long haul and the light smattering of customers at 7pm leant it a vibe that I’ve felt in some of my favourite dingy drinking dens in the US – a businessman with a Martini, a couple of beardy guys with a brace of beers each and a couple of people chatting conspiratorially in a booth: it was what I was looking for. I propped myself up at the bar and had a riffle through the drinks menu – other than the beer taps, bottles of spirits on the back bar and a seemingly random array of empty beer and soda bottles on a high shelf (which I’m sure they can’t have had all of, but they may have) there are no drinks on display as they have rather brutal looking metal fronted fridges. With a quick run down the cocktail menu I settled for my cocktail of choice at home – the Manhattan, at about £6.50. It was at this point that the cracks started to show. I will admit that it was not a bad Manhattan, for one where the bartender forgets to add bitters, one of the only three ingredients and slightly disappointing after the menu specifically mentions Peychaud’s being used rather than the usual Angostura. It was quite pleasant but missed that very slight spiciness that the bitters bring to the mix.

I decided to move on to whiskey, as they had a fairly good selection. I’ve recently discovered that I quite like the different taste of rye whiskey, so after having some of the standard Rittenhouse Rye in my Manhattan I decided to go for the Rittenhouse 100. It was nice – quite smooth and quite definitely a rye. It came in at £3.60 a shot as well, so not too bad.

While I sipped I had a look over the rest of the menu and started to become dismayed. Their scotch selection was quite good, although their spelling of the whisky names wasn’t, with 5 of the 17 choices in the ‘Single Malt and Scotch’ section spelled incorrectly. I can understand “Bow More”, but “Ruichladdich” and “Johnnie Walker Balck”? It got even worse with the american whisky section – titled ‘Bourbons’. I know I’m slightly pedantic on such things, but for a whisky bar to lump Rye, Tenessee and Bourbon whisky all under the heading of Bourbons seems more than slightly careless and doesn’t inspire confidence in the knowledge of the bar staff or owners. The cocktail section does seem to be fairly traditional though, with simple old versions of most of the recipes, rather than reworkings claiming to be ‘the original’ as I’ve found in a bunch of places.

As I sat there shaking my head in slightly pretentious shame the next bout of customers walked in and I understood why the barman, and his newly arrived buddy, looked so down. 3 or 4 couples walked in over the next 15 minutes and all asked the same question – “What wine do you have?”. Each time the barman explained that as a whisky and cocktail bar they didn’t have much of a selection, but that didn’t stop each new punter asking if he had specific wine that he obviously didn’t. Each time someone harrumphed and ‘made do’ with whatever wine he actually had I could see him die a little inside. I settled up and while I finished up my drink both barmen disappeared downstairs into what I assume is the kitchen and didn’t come out until I was leaving. Poor boys.

In visual atmosphere it was just right, with a stack of bottles behind the bar, low lights (with a candle moved closer to me by the barman so that I could read my book), a few neon signs, some AC/DC banners, stools at the bar and booths around the edges. On a decent busy night I suspect it’ll be quite a nice place, especially later in the evening, but on a quiet evening with Islington drinkers not entirely getting the place slowly destroying the barman’s will to live it’s not so good. And they need someone who can splel.