While I singularly failed to make it to Graphic‘s Juniper Society for almost all of last year I’ve decided (not made a resolution, that way lies madness and becoming teetotal for January, a most unnatural state to start the year in) to try and make it to as many as possible this year. First up of the new season was a tasting of ginger ale, as led by Summer Fruit Cup‘s David Smith.
Ginger ale is the baby brother of ginger beer, stacked with less ginger as well as less sugar, not as needed due to the reduction in fieriness. As such the effect is quite different to ginger beer, with the more citrus notes of the root coming through and not masking the flavours of drinks it’s mixed with, as it’s sibling surely would. It’s not really one to generally drink on its own, but is perfect for adding a slice of fizzy citrusy warmth to a glass of spirit.
The plan for the evening was simple – we would blind taste 11 different ales, mark them out of ten and then work out which ones the group considered best. We were asked to consider not only the taste of the ginger ale, as that would be altered by any additions, but also the effervescence and general mouthfeel. Ginger ale isn’t the most complex of beverages and my tasting notes were short, so in the interest of brevity (something that I am well known for…) here are my notes and what the drinks were revealed to be:
Fevertree – Noticeable ginger smell. Limes on the taste but only a short burst of flavour. Good fizziness. 6/10
Tesco ‘Full Fat’ – A nose of cheap lemonade mixed with lemon floor cleaner artificialness. Flat and fake lemony to taste with a thick slab of sugar syrup. 3/10
Canada Dry Diet – Fizzy white lemonade with a hint of spice on the nose and Diet R Whites lemonade to taste. 1/10
Sainsbury’s – Gingery, dry and spicy nose. Not to sweet to taste and lightly effervescent. 7/10
Tesco Diet – Chalk yellow Refreshers on the nose with a little bit of powdered ginger spice and gaining sweetness as it sat. Foul to taste – heavy with sweetener, sickly and undrinkable. I poured my tiny measure in the bucket rather than finish it. 0/10
Britvic – Similar to Almdudler, an Austrian spice lemonade that I drank a lot of as a kid – lightly spicy lemonade without too much sweetness. To taste there was a lingering ginger flavour but not much else apart from an initial sticky artificial sweetness. 5/10
Carters Royal – Very lemony smell with a hint of washing up liquid. To taste there was a burst of citrus at the front and a throat warming bit of ginger at the end, but nothing in the middle at all. 6/10
Waitrose – Thin fake lime smell with artificial sweetness behind it, really quite nasty. Not a lot to the taste but a touch of syrup. It’s inoffensive, but that’s about it. 5/10
Canada Dry – Big gingery burst on the nose, earthy and dry. Spicy and earthy to taste with a sweet syrupy end. 8/10
Ginseng & Ginger Ale – Nose: Calpol, foam strawberry sweets, castor sugar and a hint of spice. Taste: Sticky with a ginger heat at the back of the throat. Maybe a ringer? [It was ginger ale, but with added ginseng]. 8/10
David Smith’s homemade ginger ale cordial – Soapy and lemony on the nose with sweaty coriander [that’s a good thing. I think]. Sweet and sour to taste with a good chunk of spice and Rowntree’s Fruit Gums. 9/10
My top three (from top to bottom) came out as David’s homemade one, Waitrose’s and the Ginseng one. I wasn’t surprised to hear that David’s came top in the scores from around the room or that Sainsbury’s, which I scored fourth, came second, but it shocked me that Waitrose’s (that I described as inoffensive at best) came 3rd.
To save this post from being completely booze free there was an ulterior motive to tasting all these ginger ales – the fashioning of a good Gin Buck. This is a simple drink of gin and ginger ale which seems to have very much fallen into the shadow of the various other simple mixed drinks that hover in orbit around gin. I singularly failed to try one at Graphic on the night but happened across a bottle of Sainsbury’s Ginger Ale and some Bombay Sapphire while visiting my family and decided to have a try. I garnished it with a slice of lemon and did about 1 part gin to 3 parts of ginger ale. The result was a drink that was all gin up front, with ginger and sweetness sneaking in behind. A good drink to show off a gin, rather than the more combinatorial effect of mixing with tonic.
The Juniper Club meet every couple of weeks at Graphic and details pop up on their Facebook page. I’ve just missed the most recent one (an evening with Citadelle Gin) but I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next…
Ever since a post-Bob Bob Ricard need for booze struck after a pre-Christmas dinner last year led to me wandering into Graphic on Golden Square I’ve been meaning to go back. However, despite hearing about their bi-weekly Juniper Society gatherings earlier this year I’ve singularly failed to until this month, almost a year to the day since my previous visit. The Juniper Society is a regular night when the gin obsessed Graphic get in someone from the world of gin related produce to come and show-off their wares to an increasingly knowledgeable and growing group of attendees. It’s run through Facebook and has featured tonic water tastings, gin taste-offs and masterclasses from the likes of Brockmans, Bloom, Hendricks and, this time, Plymouth Gin. This was the biggest Juniper Society turnout yet, filling the bar with 50some random drinkers, and they divided the evening into two halves – a session on martini making and a masterclass on gin production.
I started out with the martini session, led by mixologist/Plymouth brand ambassador Max Warner and Seb Hamilton-Mudge, owner and bartender at Eight Bar in Falmouth. While waiting for things to start the Graphic barstaff were knocking out a couple of fruity martinis (pineapple and watermelon), which Max started off explaining – not everyone likes the boozy hit of a martini and the fruity drink (much as they’re not normally on my list of things) is a nice way of dulling that punch with some fruitiness. His standard recipe was 2 tablespoons of fruit muddled with 2 teaspoons of sugar and then shaken with 2 measures of gin over ice. Strained into a glass and served with a slice of fruit it’s pretty and a nicer intro to the world of cocktails (especially gin cocktails) than the old-fashioned strength of the martini. We then moved on to the more traditional style of martini, using no fruit, which Max assured us we were making with Plymouth gin not only because he works for them but also as it was chosen by Harry Johnson in his much updated and reprinted Bartenders Manual (available in scanned form from scribd), although on page 165 of the 1882 version that I just had a look at it asks for an old tom gin rather than a Plymouth style one…
Making a martini is mostly down to personal taste, something which is difficult to develop in the standard british bar culture of ordering drinks by category – a gin and tonic changes in flavour based on which gin and which tonic you use, but most people just order “a gin and tonic” and base their like or dislike on which ever combination they get. Gins all taste different, as do vermouths and garnishes, and the combination of ingredients and construction can vastly change the taste of the drink. The main factors that Max picked out were the balance of strong to weak (gin to vermouth and dilution from the ice), stirring and ice (to affect the rate of dilution and cooling – more ice cools faster, more stirring dilutes more), straining (changing the mouthfeel of the drink by limiting the size of ice particle that might make it into the glass – double straining removing everything, single straining with a julep spoon maybe allowing through a few crunchy fragments), garnishes (whether to change the flavour of the drink or to provide an accompaniment) and the overall ratio (balancing the construction, process and ingredients to produce the drink you want). Dilution and temperature are the two main factors, as their combination will govern how much of the flavour of the gin comes out – too cold or too dilute and you’ll taste nothing, too warm or too strong and the alcohol flavours will swamp the botanicals within the gin. It’s all a balancing act.
We went straight into a practical demonstration from this, with Seb showing us how to make his default martini, the drink he produces when asked for an unqualified martini to allow the drinker to specify how they would like it changed for the next one, while Max mixed up a batch to pass around the table. Firstly, he decided to use Lillet rather than a vermouth. Lillet is often thought of as a vermouth, and has in recent times regained popularity due to its use by Ian Fleming in James Bond’s martini in Casino Royale, but isn’t quite. Vermouth is white wine, infused with herbs and allowed to oxidise, that is then fortified with a neutral spirit. Lillet is a mixture of white wines, infused with herbs and then fortified with citrus liqueurs, bringing in a citrusy flavour to the mix – I still haven’t tasted it neat, but it’s on my ‘learn more about vermouths’ list, despite not quite falling into the category. The level of dryness in a martini refers to the amount of vermouth/Lillet added to the cocktail, ranging from none (the Winston Churchill ‘acknowledging the existence of France’ or waving a bottle over the top of the mixing glass approach) to quite a lot (generally not more than a ratio of 1:3 vermouth to spirit). For Seb’s cocktail he went for a medium approach, pouring a measure into a mixing glass of ice before swirling it round to coat both ice and glass, and then pouring out most of it. He then added 2 measures of Plymouth gin and slowly stirred about 20 times (he lost count, but reckoned he’d normally do 19 turns for 50ml and 22 for 2oz, a level of accuracy that is beyond me), stopping when the drink smelled right – the aroma can give all the information you need on dilution and temperature if you know what you are smelling for. He strained it into a chilled glass and garnished it with a lemon twist – squeezing a piece of lemon peel bursts the oil containing pores on the skin and if you aim it at your drink it will give a lightly citrusy tang which can take the edge off the alcohol as well as taste generally nice.
While we had a sip on the martinis Max had made we were divided into teams to make our own. One of Max’s instructions to us all was not to be concerned if we didn’t have all the ‘correct’ equipment, as you can make martinis with almost anything. My team was presented with a spaghetti jar, pasta spoon, knitting needle and espresso cup to make our drink. This time a bottle of Martini Dry vermouth was passed around and with espresso cup as our measure and some team work in coordinating the pouring and pasta spoon straining we put together a rather good (and rather large – filling most of a very big red wine glass) medium dry martini, which kept three of us going for the rest of the session.
We then moved down to the front of the bar where Sean Harrison, Plymouth master distiller, was waiting to tell us about the distillery and how he makes gin. Plymouth gin has been around for quite a while, opening in 1793 and still operating out of the original buildings. It was built by Thomas Coates, who saw the potential for the Napoleonic wars increasing demand for gin amongst the navy, and as such built his distillery near the docks in Plymouth. At the time this was a great idea, but as the town has grown over the years it’s increasingly become difficult to get delivery trucks into the old part of Plymouth. However, distilling still happens in the same buildings as it did in 1793, some of which are over 500 years old, making it the oldest distillery in the country. They have also been granted a geographical designation, meaning that drinks marked as Plymouth gin can only be made in Plymouth, but as Plymouth Gin (the company) are the only people who make Plymouth gin (the style of gin) this has yet to be more than a nice bit of marketing.
Location-wise Plymouth isn’t a bad choice – to the north is Dartmoor which is made up of peaty ground on top of granite, in a similar way to large amounts of Scotland, providing soft water filtered through the peat, meaning that less purification needs to be done before it is used in the distilling process – limestone is not something you particularly want in your water supply when heating up water, as anyone in a hard water area who has a kettle can attest. The use of the word ‘distilling’ to describe Plymouth’s production is slightly inaccurate: Simply put, gin is vodka that has various ‘botanicals’ introduced to it and then is redistilled. Plymouth, as with many gin producers, doesn’t make its own base alcohol (the vodka part) and thus doesn’t legally do any distilling – the redistilling of a high alcohol product is merely ‘rectification’, which sits in a different band of licensing. Plymouth’s base alcohol is made from wheat, as it has been since the distillery started. The reason behind this is one of pure accessibility – wheat is the most commonly grown grain in the area around Plymouth and was thus the simplest base grain to get hold of. The different base alcohols produced can be divided into 4 categories of ‘flavour’ (although they are chemically pretty much identical): neutral, bready, buttery and grainy. Sean buys batches of buttery alcohol from wherever he can find it to make Plymouth – his most recent batches came from France.
Plymouth is quite a traditional gin when it comes to flavouring, using just 7 botanicals:
Juniper – the berry of the juniper tree/bush, as made famous by The Life of Brian, is a legal requirement for inclusion if you are to call your spirit gin: it must be the main flavouring component. However, juniper isn’t necessarily the main manifested flavour of gin – the other botanicals are the bits that vary between gins and make the distinctive flavours.
Coriander seed – Plymouth use the smaller Russian coriander seeds rather than the larger Moroccan ones generally used for cooking, going for the former’s citrusy taste rather than the spicier flavour of the latter.
Orange peel – to add sweet citrus.
Lime peel – to add spicy citrus.
Cardamon – the third most expensive spice in the world (at about £40/kg this year) and also one of the more concentrated flavours – coriander seeds contain about 2% essential oil, cardamon 7%. Due to the concentration (and maybe the cost) this is the smallest proportion in the botanicals mix but it still makes its presence known.
Angelica root – from the low countries of Europe, this is quite a tannic root and adds that element to the mix.
Oris root – the ground up root of the iris plant, currently quite expensive due to Chanel buying up most of it to make Chanel #5. It adds a base earthiness with some floral notes (hence its inclusion as a base scent in perfumes).
They buy up a year’s supply of botanicals at a time, matching the flavours with the previous years by distilling small batches of individual botanical spirits and comparing them to historical samples. The distinct difference between Plymouth style gin and others (such as London Dry or Old Tom) is its use of a higher proportion of root ingredients, making a more earthy and dry spirit.
Plymouth’s gin production process is quite simple and uses a pot still that’ll be familiar to anyone who knows about whisky distillation:
Add base alcohol, at about 96%, to the still
Dilute with water down to about 65%
Add the botanicals (whole, apart from the ground up oris root)
Water down the distillate to bottling strength
It takes about 1hr to come to the boil, they collect distillate for about 5 hours and then leave it for a further hour to run through the remaining ‘feints’, giving about a 90% middle cut that they keep. The exact proportions of ingredients used are kept secret, but the various batches of gin are blended together to give consistency, in case individual batches had more active botanicals than others. Plymouth’s approach to getting the flavourings into the gin is quite common – they add the botanicals just before they start cooking – but other distillers used different methods: Tanqueray and Gordons use a similar approach to Plymouth, Beefeater and Sipsmith steep their botanicals overnight before redistilling, and Bombay Sapphire hang the botanicals in a bag in the still to allow the vapours to be infused during distillation, rather than the alcohol in liquid form.
Before we moved on to tasting Plymouth’s gins, Sean tried a couple of experiments with us about taste. Firstly he handed out strips of paper for us to place on our tongues – if you’re a supertaster then the paper tastes bitter immediately, if not then it either tastes of nothing or gradually comes on with some bitterness. I’ve tried the test before and it seems that I’m not a supertaster, getting a little bit of a bitter flavour after looking at the people around me who are clawing at their tongues. Not being a supertaster doesn’t mean you can’t taste just that your intensity of flavour perception is much greater. This is both a good and bad thing, allowing you taste things that others may not but also allowing your palate to be more easily swamped. We were then handed out nose clips and a small vial of powder. With the nose clips on, blocking off our sense of smell, the powder just tasted sweet, but as soon as the clip was removed my tongue was flooded with spicy cinnamon – a demonstration of quite how much flavour is actually detected as smell.
The first gin we tasted was the regular Plymouth English Gin, bottled at 41.2%. On the nose it was well amalgamated, with citrus on top, juniper and coriander underneath and an earthiness staying with the alcohol behind all of that. That said, I’m not sure I would have been able to pick out the flavours without having been told what was in it – my gin nosing skills are far from honed. To taste there was the general taste of juniper, sweetened with some spiciness that lingered around the sides of the tongue, and ended with a more bitter juniper berry. I then watered it to about half of bottle strength (as recommended by Sean) and found some mintiness as well as some sour lime.
Next we tried Plymouth’s other regular gin – Plymouth Navy Strength, bottled at 57%. This is the same distillate as the regular gin, just bottled at a higher ABV. On the nose it was spikier due to the higher alcohol and the citrus was more noticeable. In the mouth there was more vaporisation of the alcohol, helping the citrus flavours get around more as well as adding a bit more spice. Watering it down made it the same as the regular gin, as expected.
Lastly we tried Plymouth Sloe Gin, initially thought to be a difficult product to sell due to the proliferation of homemade versions (Sean met The Queen at an event recently and she commented that Philip makes theirs…), but it seems to have gone rather well, needing 50 tonnes of sloes per year to keep up with demand – they bought their sloes from Poland this year as UK production isn’t enough to meet their needs. Rather than use the traditional method of pricking the sloes before putting them in the gin to start the infusion they instead freeze them, which breaks the skins and allows the process to happen – with approximately 50 million sloes used to make their stock, attacking each with a pin isn’t really an option. The sloes are added whole (including stone) to gin straight from the still (at about 82% alcohol) and left to steep for 2 months before sugar is added and they are left for a further 2 months. On the nose there are sticky cherries with a background of biscuits and it’s big and fruity to taste, with cherries and redcurrants balancing sweetness with an underlying tartness. It is very sweet but is also worryingly drinkable – very nice and maybe the best commercial sloe gin I’ve tried.
A great night at Graphic and a rather special introduction to the Juniper Society. Their next event is a ginger ale tasting on January 17th – keep an eye on the Facebook page for further details – I’ll definitely be there.
Many thanks to Sarah Mitchell at Graphic for organising the Juniper Society; Max, Sean and Seb for running the evening; and to David Smith at Summer Fruit Cup for telling me about it and making sure I realised that it would be foolish not to attend. The Juniper Society events are free to attend and this time Plymouth gave everyone a rather nice goody bag (along with some cocktail making gear I also now have a small book about martinis that has recipes for bitters and vermouth in that I think I may have to try).
One of the things that seems to be happening a lot recently in the world of drinks is the revitalisation of things often considered to be passé or bad. For me there’s been reexamination of blended whisky (some of it’s nice, some of it isn’t), american beer (see previous parentheses), vodka (etc) and various other revisitings of brands that has confirmed and confounded my expectations. However, one drink that I’ve never really had a lot time for is grenadine – a pomegranate cordial named for the french word for its fruity base, grenade.
My first encounter with it was in France on a school trip where a barman with a small amount of English sold me and some friends a glass of grenadine and water, which he assured us was alcoholic, for a couple of francs. We assumed this was the bargain of a lifetime before we realised we had basically just bought some red flavoured cordial, with any booze watered down along with any flavour in the glass. It wasn’t until my days working in a student bar that I noticed it again, as one of my early duties was to run a satellite cocktail bar on busy Friday nights. We sold 4 or 5 cocktails including Sex on the Beach and The Slow Comfortable Screw, both chosen for their name and thus appeal to students as well as the simplicity of their construction and ingredients. However, we also did Tequila Sunrises, delighting drunken rugby teams as we rosied up jugs of tequila and orange with slugs of bright red grenadine.
Earlier this year an article popped up on American Drink, one of the finest drinks blogs on the web, talking about grenadine and including a variety of methods of making it. Being a fan of constructing drink ingredients in my kitchen I bookmarked it, bought some pomegranate juice and promptly forgot about it until this weekend. On the site they give three methods of making grenadine and due to forgetting to buy fresh pomegranates I decided to go for the ‘hot method’:
For 500ml of Grenadine:
500ml of pomegranate juice
Bring the juice to the boil, reduce the heat and reduce by half. Remove from the heat, add the sugar, stir until dissolved and leave to cool.
As you can see from the picture, the results are a lot darker than the bright red scary grenadine you’ll often see on the back bar. Flavour-wise it’s just about as sweet but also has a nice fruitiness behind the scenes that I don’t remember from bought grenadine, which I suspect is made of sugar syrup, red food colouring and the concept of pomegranate.
I used Pom (aka Pom Wonderful) whose producing company is currently ‘working with’ the US Food and Drug administration to work out which of the various health claims on their website and bottles are allowed to appear. Reductions in prostate cancer, LDL cholesterol and erectile dysfunction are on the debated list but whatever the claims towards the wonderful super-food properties of pomegranates, the fruits themselves taste quite nice (even if they are a git to peel). However, the juice is often quite tart and not particularly tasty – while mine was cooking down it smelled, as warned by the LCS‘s Mark Gill, rather like turnips, and not in a necessarily good way. My grenadine is non-alcoholic and I suspect that the main reason for making alcoholic versions, as it’s way too sweet to drink on its own or in quantities high enough to spike up a drink, is to add shelf-life – if I don’t get through mine soon enough it’ll probably start fermenting, which will most probably not lead to tasty results and will mainly make the cork pop out of the bottle as CO2 builds up…
Along with grenadine recipes I also looked up some cocktails that use it – without some way of mixing it I would have to drink it mixed down as cordial, an experience that I don’t particularly want to revisit. The first and most obvious drink is the one I mentioned earlier – The Tequila Sunrise. Probably the second-most popular tequila cocktail after the margarita, it’s one that seems to appear on the ‘lesser’ cocktail menus, pubs and student bars that are all about pumping out fruit juice laced with a bit of booze in a high volume/low cost kind of way, and it’s easy to see why – white tequila, orange juice and a splash of grenadine: three fairly cheap ingredients that you can charge a chunk for simply by adding a swizzle stick and calling it a cocktail. It seems to have appeared in the 30s or 40s, invented by Gene Sulit at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel and along with the recipe I used there seems to be another less well known one (which I suspect is the original) – tequila, creme de cassis, lime juice and soda, which I think would give a more extreme dark to light sunrise, as well as some more interesting flavours. I decided to use slightly better ingredients than the usual nasty mixto tequila and Mr Juicy OJ, using 1 measure of Tequileño Blanco, 3 measures of not-from-concentrate juice and a splash of my homemade grenadine. If you pour the gloopy, heavy grenadine directly into the middle of the drink it sinks to the bottom and gradually mixes upwards, creating the signature sunrise effect. A couple of ice cubes in the top and my drink was done.
With my darker grenadine the red-through-yellow effect wasn’t quite as strong (being more a brown-through-yellow) and I was at first rather dismissive of the drink. However, after a couple of sips I had a bit of a reassessment – the pepperiness of the tequila works quite well with the orange juice, and the sweet fruitiness of the grenadine obscures the citrus sourness of the orange juice, bringing the whole lot together. Not something that I’d generally drink, eschewing fruit juice based cocktails as I do, but something I might have to try again when I finish writing this.
Unfortunately after the Tequila Sunrise I was fresh out of cocktail ideas for grenadine, but luckily the internet was there to aid me. A bit of searching through uninspiringly named, boring cocktails of the form ‘lots of juice, 2 shots of booze, splash of grenadine, enough garnish to impress a customer’ I came across one that intrigued me a little bit more – The Monkey Gland. Also known as the McCormick at the time, it was created in the 1920s by Harry MacElhone of Harry’s Bar in Paris and named for the experiments of Serge Voronoff, a man much interested in the use of monkey testicle transplantation to reinvigorate the sex drive and retard or reverse the aging process. The version I made was 2 measures gin (I used Sipsmith) to 1 measure orange juice and 1/4 measure grenadine, shaken hard with ice, strained into an absinthe washed glass and garnished with an orange twist. Or to be more exact a rubbishly cut strip of clementine skin. This is on the edge of what I consider to be too fruity a cocktail for me, with the original recipe calling for equal parts of orange and gin, but the single measure of juice creates a cloudy but translucent cocktail that allows the the flavours of the gin to come out. The orange and grenadine mix yet again work their magic leaving a sweet and sour base behind the gin that accentuates the botanicals, and the absinthe washing imparts a slug of anis to the nose and a little bit to the flavour. A nice one for the summer, but probably not one for an evening where I’m wearing two t-shirts and a jumper while sitting at my desk waiting for the first snow of the year. There are, as ever, many variations on the theme with a dash of absinthe being added to the drink (which was in the original recipe) as well as being substituted for Pernod or other anise, but my love of the absinthe washed glass forces me to champion the recipe I used.
I can see why grenadine isn’t all that popular these days – not many drinks use it and those that do aren’t generally considered ‘refined’ by the new wave of cocktails bars, featuring way too much fruit juice as they often do to fit in with the old fashioned ‘all must be booze’ approach that is becoming popular again these days (and has always been popular chez moi). Cocktail snob that I am it’s not something that I suspect I will be seeking out, but for those evenings when I think I haven’t quite got my five-a-day, adding a slug of home-made concentrated red goop into a glass of tequila and orange must make the drink count for at least two portions.
Yet again I have been struck by the urge to inflict my sarchastic voice and workings of my shaky hands upon you, the lovely people who are reading my excuses for drinking things. After my recent gin related experiments I ended up (due to a rubbish measuring jug) with about 3 measures of gin left over. Why Billy, I hear you exclaim, that seems like about the amount of gins that you need to make a martini! Yes, that is indeed correct, and make a martini I did.
Silver Bullet Martinis recipes do generally seem to come up on the internet as a martini simply with whisky switched in place of the vermouth (and garnished with some lemon that I didn’t have), but it also seems to be a term for a very dry martini (Churchill style – with a nod towards France to acknowledge that vermouth exists). Either way, I rather like them – the cold, almost neutral gin flavour slightly pepped up with a hint of whatever whisky characteristics you choose. My favourite whisky flavourings so far are the Benriach in the video, giving a light sweet smokiness, an SWMS Glencadam (which my production bottle, as expected, doesn’t quite live up to), which gave caramel, salt and rubber, and Laphroaig, for a nice bit of muddy peatiness.
Anyway, I’ll end this with my latest favourite quote about the martini, from James Thurber:
‘One is alright, two is too many, and three is not enough.’
Outside of drinking interesting booze I’m also rather interested in making it. However, lacking both license and equipment to distill and the patience to brew at home I’m currently sticking with the joys of flavouring spirits. I’ve done a few vodka based experiments (with the liquorice vodka being a repeated success which never lasts very long) but after discussing flavour extraction with the chaps at Hawksmoor (where the horseradish gin in the bloody marys is rather nice) and trying Bob Bob Ricard’s rhubarb G&T I decided to try making rhubarb gin.
However, my two sources had different ideas on how to make it – the guys at Hawksmoor suggested trying a cold infusion while they heat it at BBR. In the interests of SCIENCE! I decided to do half a batch of each and do a simple infusion, no added sugar or other seasonings.
The recipe is simple – 300g rhubarb, chopped into inch lengths, 300ml Beefeater gin. For the cold infusion I placed the rhubarb and gin into a bowl, covered it with clingfilm and left it on the side for 2 days. For the warm I placed rhubarb and gin in a saucepan, warmed until just before the alcohol started to vaporise, covered with a lid wrapped in silver foil, to ensure an airtight seal, and then left overnight.
The times used for each weren’t entirely random – I tasted the warm infusion gin after a night of soaking and it was suitably rhubarby, so decanted it. I left the cold infused one until it was about the same colour and rhubarbiness as the warm one. All brutally clinical and scientific…
As you can see from the picture, they don’t vary much in colour and if it wasn’t for the labelling of the bottles I suspect I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference from sight alone. However, the taste is markedly different.
The warm infused gin has a good rhubarb smell and taste, although it tends to the more familiar end of the rhubarb spectrum – stewed. The flavour is also quite distinct from the gin – at first you get a hit of rhubarb but it is followed by the botanicals of the gin. It’s quite heavy on the sweet and sourness and made me think of a crumble with the topping removed.
The cold infused gin is a bit lighter on the nose, with a slight greenness (as you might expect from raw rhubarb). To taste it has much more, with a combined fresh rhubarb and gin flavour that almost crunches as you drink. It captures the essence of raw rhubarb very well, with a delicate sweet and sourness.
To continue the SCIENCE! I made a couple of gin and tonics. The cold infused gin was crisp and sour but along with the tonic it was a bit bitter. The warm infused gin’s more stewed flavour worked well with the tonic, giving a more rounded and tasty drink, quite similar to the BBR cocktail.
To finish things off I made myself a slightly more BBR style G&T, although with some sugar syrup rather than adding sugar at the infusion stage and proportions made up by me – 1 part gin, 3 parts tonic, 1/2 part simple syrup. I didn’t get the foamy head of my first visit to BBR, but I did get a rather nice sweet and sour gin and tonic.
So, all in all two different and fairly tasty bevvies. The warm infused gin worked much better in a G&T, but the cold one was very good on its own (scarily sippable for gin, especially served with an ice cube). I suspect this will not be a one off experiment…
Well overdue with this, so here is a not so quick list of quickish descriptions:
The MacPhail Collection 1969 Glenrothes. I grabbed a tiny taste of this at Hawksmoor while I was visiting to try out the ice ball machine. 39 years old and a recent acquisition, it’s much loved by the bar staff and they wondered if I’d agree. I did. Vanilla and spicy wood on the nose with struck matches, salty caramel and pepper in the mouth. Water softened the wood into vanilla and brought a background of charcoal. Tasty.
Blanton’s Single Barrel – Barrel 153. A 65% cask strength bourbon. I was chatting with the Hawksmoor bar staff about whiskey, having had a shot of George T Stagg (one of my most favourite whiskies, which there will be a post about sometime soon), and they ‘forced’ a taster of this on me. A bourbon that I was not that much of a fan of when I got a bottle for my birthday a few years back, this reminded me of the good elements of that bottle – prickly and perfumed on the nose, it tasted spicy and woody with a weird astringency not unlike PVA glue. A drop of water added a stack of vanilla. A rather complex and interesting whiskey, more savoury than most bourbons I’ve tried.
Port Charlotte PC7. One on the ‘find and try’ list for a while, this is from Bruichladdich‘s ‘other’ distillery. On the nose it was salty with mulching seaweed, which developed in the mouth to a citrusy charcoal burst and a buttery mouth feel. A drop of water piled on more smoke and a strange salty sweatiness. Impressive.
Horseradish gin. Not one on the menu on its own, but this is the base for Hawksmoor’s new brunch menu‘s drinky centre piece – a bloody mary. They make theirs (the ‘original’ way) with gin, and infuse a large jar of Beefeater with thumb sized chunks of horseradish to make an interesting starting point for the drink. The horseradish smooths out the bumps in the normally fairly rough Beefeater and adds a beautiful spicy warmth to the flavour. I’m off to buy some bottles, gin and a chunk of horseradish later today so I can make my own – I assume it’ll be great in a bloody mary, but it also tastes nice on its own.
1800 Anejo Tequila. Cactus based booze is definitely on my list this year (especially after speaking to Johan Svensson about agarve tequila recently) and I grabbed a shot of the second cheapest anejo that The Texas Embassy sell while abusing their free chips and salsa policy the other week. It had the classic salt and pepper tequila smell but was a chunk more complex to taste. A woody centre with fruitiness turning bitter on the finish. It burnt on the way down and after it had gone left drying tannins that turned to vanilla. Interesting and a place for me to start from.
Marble Chocolate Marble. A present left for me by Alan after my whisky tasting the other week, this is the produce of the Marble Arch brewpub in Manchester. I was meant to be up there this weekend and had already planned a 20 minute dash into the pub to buy some more of their beer, but unfortunately had to cancel my trip. The Chocolate Marble is excellently chocolatey, despite not containing any chocolate as far as I can tell. Stout-ish, as it says on the bottle, bitter-sweet and mouth filling, it may well be my favourite bottled beer I’ve had in a while.
Hop Back Taiphoon. The first of my birthday present beers (thanks Dad!) to disappear down my throat. It’s a weird one this, with a lemongrassy tinge that makes it taste more like a shandy than a regular beer, but with a dry malty aftertaste rather than the sweetness you’d expect. I’m still not sure about it and suspect I need to try another…
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
I’ve already written about the inaugural Blaggers’ Banquet over on my other blog, but as I was a barman I thought I’d post something here about the cocktails we banged out during the evening.
Firstly, due to the donation of a case of Sipsmith Vodka and Gin, we acquired a bottle of vermouth (later complimented by the bottle on the bar at Hawksmoor when we ran out), some lemons and olives, and made Martinis. All the bar staff had, as is tradition, a different idea of what made a good Martini, and after some customer interaction most people seemed to slide under the table, pleased.
Gin/Vodka and tonic doesn’t really count as cocktails in my head (along with ‘Screwdrivers’ – just because you give it a fancy name doesn’t jazz up the fact that it’s vodka and orange) but as we were using Fever Tree tonic they were slightly different to normal. I’m a big fan of tonic water – I’ve got 3 litres of it in the fridge at the moment, the only carbonated drink therein, and I drink it on its own, untouched by alcoholic beverage. When I’m not drinking booze when out, tonic or orange and tonic is my drink of choice, and for years the only one I’ve been able to drink is Schweppes. I think it must be baked bean syndrome – if it’s not Heinz then they don’t taste right – as while I rather liked Fever Tree it wasn’t Right. Schweppes made be full of aspartame (a substance that makes me feel ill in any other drink than tonic or, randomly, Lilt Zero) but it has a certain bite to it that was softened out in the Fever Tree tonic, relegating it to a worthy second place in my heathen brain. It did make an excellent gin and tonic though, especially when combined with my OCD wiping of lime on the glass and other ritualistic G&T construction. A special thanks goes to @degs123, who later in the evening announced to all and sundry that I made the best gin and tonic in the world. Even when we ran out of gin and switched over to vodka…
I didn’t get a chance to try one of these, but having tasted the ingredients separately (including popping a sugar cube) I’m suspecting they combined together to form a very sweet Kir Royale. I don’t really drink fizzy wine (formerly due to it giving me headaches, these days due to me being an unappreciative heathen who it’s wasted on) but the few people who braved the cornishness seemed pleased.
How: Combine, trying not to make it explode everywhere. Wine then porter should help, if the porter’s cold, but it generally exploded everywhere.
A take on the Guinness and champagne black velvet and another I didn’t get a chance to try. I did manage to blag a few bottles of the porter on the way out and it was a rather nice dark malty porter that I think would have gone well with the wine. However, it was very lively and if it’s not very chilled then there is distinct potential for porter detonation, as happened to me as I cracked a bottle on the way home after the banquet.
What: 2 shots Chegworth Valley Apple and Raspberry juice
2 shots vodka
1 shot Galliano Balsamico
Lemon wedge and basil to garnish
How: Put ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake. Strain into a champagne coupe (or whatever vaguely fancy glass you can find in the fridge of the nice bar who are hosting you), garnish with basil and a lemon slice.
Invented just before the doors opened by Mel Seasons, this was the success of the night, polishing off the whole bottle of Galliano Balsamico (which was weird but nice and blagged by Huw Gott, Hawksmoor bossman. There may be some more up for grabs in the auctions soon…) and most of the vodka. It took several iterations to iron out the alcoholic punch to the face (ably assisted by official drink guinea pig and 1/2 of the music for the night, Julian of Georgia Wonder) and in the end it was an interestingly sweet and savoury drink, nicely complimented by the flavours of the garnish.
Anyways, the Blaggers’ Banquet fund raising machine continues, adding to the nice pot already netted for Action Against Hunger, with a set of eBay auctions for some more blagged stuff. There may be some booze appearing on there, depending on eBay rules and whether we had anything auctionable left, but as of now there’s tea at the Ritz, a visit from a chocolate van and a REALLY BIG PIE amongst other things. Bid on the shiny, you know you want to.