Whisky Squad #38 – To make whisky you start with beer…

I am much behind on Whisky Squad write-ups, which is especially bad as I’ve recently started helping out organise The Squad properly, rather than just shouting drunkenly during the sessions and claiming that it’s ‘help’. Anyways, Whisky Squad #37 has fallen by the wayside, as I was helping present it and didn’t make enough notes. But never mind – here is number #38!

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Tamborine Mountain Distillery – Some Presents from Down-under

Welcome to “I’m Crap Week” part two. In particularly appropriate fashion it is now over a month since “I’m Crap Week” part one. Continuing the theme of things that friends have given me to write about which I haven’t written about, I turn to a triumvirate of bottles from the Tamborine Mountain Distillery.

The distillery is in the south east corner of Queensland, about 50 km from the border with new South Wales. The area it’s named for is a plateau that itself is named for the lime trees in the area rather than the instrument. They have been going since the early 90s, when the Ward family moved to the area and found they had a bit too much fruit to eat on their own. Now Michael and Alla, along with their children Sonya and Alex, run the distillery and make an impressively large range of spirits. You can find the complete list on their website, but they’ve picked up over 200 awards for their spirits over the last decade, including silvers and bronzes at the IWSC and a more recent 3 gold medals at the World Spirits Awards.

Michael also has one of the most impressive beards I’ve seen in a while and has a similar approach to photos as me – open your mouth and look as mad as possible. It’s a good strategy. One day I hope to have as good a beard as him.

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Sipsmith’s Damson Vodka and Sloe Gin

I’ve been much remiss when it comes to writing about Sipsmith, in as much as I haven’t really done so yet. I first realised that they existed when they supplied a stack of gin and vodka to the Blaggers’ Banquet, back in November 2009, the event that inspired me to start writing this blog. Since then I’ve visited the distillery a couple of times (first in May 2010, according to the email I just searched for) and have bumped into the folks from the distillery on numerous occasions. However, for one reason or another I’ve never actually done more that gushing about how lovely they are at people I meet in the street. So, to finally do that which I should have done before here’s some witterings about Sipsmith.

The distillery was started in 2009 by Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall, formerly Fuller’s and Diageo reps in the USA, with writer and drinks historian Jared Brown coming in as master distiller and recipe guy. They bought a garage in Hammersmith (formerly owned, it turned out, by legendary beer writer Michael Jackson before he died), obtained (through a scary amount of effort) the first new distilling license for a copper pot still in London for 189 years, filled the garage with a beautiful 300l still made by Christian Carl that they named Prudence (after one of Gordon Brown’s favourite traits, so the story goes) and started making gin and vodka. They don’t do it alone, though – they also have a nice chap called Chris who does the day to day distilling. So, between the three of them, Jared being an occasional visitor, they produce a large amount of booze, the increasing quantity of which Sam seems genuinely shocked about.

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Zorokovich 1917 – How to Re-establish a Vodka Empire

I don’t get many emails from PR people for my blog, which I rather like as I’m not really a ‘write-up a press release’ kind of blogger. However, when I got one through a few weeks back from a guy telling me about a film chronicling the adventures of Dan Edelstyn in Ukraine it rang a bell somewhere. I did a bit of research and found that I met the chap in question (I think), complete with Russian hat, while helping to organise Sci-Fi-London 8. I dug a bit deeper and found that I’d been invited to the production’s Facebook group when it started, although I’d ignored it as I do most things on Facebook, and that a friend of mine is one of their Vodka Club members (as I am now as well).

The project seems to have started with Dan deciding to do a documentary about his grandmother, who left Ukraine after the Russian revolution. However, after finally finding the family’s home he also found a spirit factory, still churning out vodka, and thus was a new documentary born. It’s currently appearing episodically on Babelgum, but it should be appearing on More4 next year after it’s been edited into a feature. There’s 6 episodes up out of the 24 of as my writing and there’s been a lot of wandering in the snow and looking a bit down so far, but I suspect that things are about to hot up…

Here’s the first episode (a bit of a longer, overview style one), here’s a link to the rest and there’s a new one appearing up on Babelgum every few days:

A few days back a clinky envelope flopped onto my desk at work, containing a couple of sample bottles of Dan’s Zorokovich 1917 for me to try, complete with bow and a label marked ‘Drink Me’. Named after his family and the year of the revolution its appearance and my mentioning it here does spoiler the end of the documentary a bit, but this post would feel a bit empty without some booze to drink.

Vodka Empire

I chilled one bottle down in the freezer and left the other at room temperature, as seems to be my vodka tasting regime, and I started with the warmer. On the nose it was sweet (and alcoholic) with a hint of mulchy cereal. In the mouth it was quite thick and oily, with quite a clean taste – a touch of mintiness, a hint of sweetness (maybe red berries?) and a slightly bitter finish. It did burn a bit on the way down, but it didn’t linger. The cold one got down to -16 before I got bored of waiting and had lost almost everything on the nose. To taste it was very clean, with little burn in the chest, with the sweetness and menthol/mint notes coming through if you sip and consider, but otherwise just a light honeyed sensation on the back of the tongue when it slips down.

I’m still very much learning about vodka and this one seems to do better chilled, with it being a bit oily for me when warm. Luckily my freezer is rather good and I rather liked it. I’m quite pleased that having joined the Vodka Club I now have a bottle of it somewhere in my future.

Update: I just got a mail from new father Dan (congratulations!) welcoming me to the Vodka Club, and it seems that the sample I got isn’t the final Zorokovich 1917, but the current top vodka the distillery produces. They’ve got the final version with a new recipe appearing in July, complete with supporting events that I will be keeping an eye out for…

Chase’s Single Estate English Potato Vodka

Since my first forays into more interesting drinks I’ve been keeping an eye out for potato vodka. Partly due to its increasingly rare nature, partly due to the mention of potato based spirits in Robert Rankin’s books and partly due to my being intrigued by the concept of potato based booze. It’s not a big leap of imagination, with grains, rice, fruit and lots of other starchy things being regularly turned into alcohol, but for some reason the potato has stuck in my mind. So when my regular examination of the shelves in my local Waitrose (Westfield – one of their flagship stores, full of the more interesting end of their already interesting booze selection) yielded a bottle of British potato vodka I became intrigued. Finally this week, after a couple of months of occasional research, I bit the bullet, handed over some cash and bought a bottle – Chase Single Estate English Potato Vodka.


Made by the people who used to be behind Tyrrell’s crisps, Chase (formerly Tyrrell’s) vodka is a small batch, British potato vodka made in Herefordshire with potatoes grown on the farm that is used to produce those for Tyrrell’s crisps. The internet seems to be slightly divided on the definitive timeline, but it seems that around the time that the original owner sold the Tyrrell’s brand he decided to branch out a bit and started making vodka. They also make another vodka from the farm’s apples (not an apple flavoured vodka, an apple based vodka – a clean spirit that just so happens to come from apples) which they also use as a basis for a recently released gin. It’s great what you can make with potatoes and apples.

Potato vodka is not so common these days, with my researches suggesting that the main issue is one of cost, with potato based spirit costing more than the regular grain based products that are the basis for most vodka. Chase is the only British potato vodka (although we do produce a bunch of other generally cheap and nasty white spirit that goes under the name of vodka from a variety of cereals and sugar products) and the comments out in the wild are not only about that uniqueness – they picked up the World’s Best Vodka award at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition back in March, beating 114 other vodkas submitted to the judges.

I decided to taste it both at room temperature, as advised by the makers, and, as is more traditional, cooled down in the freezer. At room temp it has the traditional vodka smell, but without much of the petrol notes you get off of cheaper vodkas. It’s sweet with an underlying bitterness and a hint of liquorice. It’s smooth drinking, with quite a thick and sweet taste, a creamy feel and lots of the liquorice from the nose fading to a bitter finish, with almost woody notes down the sides of the tongue.

-18Chilled down (to -18°C according to my slightly dodgy ‘probe’ – I tested it again this morning and it had hit -24°C. My freezer works much better than I thought – my first version of the picture to the left was at -4 and I almost stopped there) it still has a bit of nose, mainly just the hint of sweetness. In the mouth it’s much thicker, as you’d expect as it chills, and a lot of the taste has disappeared. The liquorice sweetness is still there and the finish is now clean, fading to general warmth quickly, with a buttery hint at the end. There’s still a creaminess, although more custardy now, and all in all it’s rather a nice package. It isn’t as flavourless as I’ve been told premium vodkas are meant to be, even when thrown down your throat in the ‘proper’ method of drinking, but it is creamy and sweet, has a short warm finish and overall actually tries to taste of something.

I’d love to say that I can taste the potatoes, and many of the tasting notes I’ve seen on the web claim their flavour is in there, but I reckon that was cleaned out somewhere earlier in the distillation process. It’s got a nice chunk of flavour and I’ll hopefully savour the bottle that’s sitting in my freezer, although it might come out soon to warm and be served with a bit of ice.

Chase Single Estate British Potato Vodka
40%. ~£30. Available in specialist shops and Waitrose.

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

Blaggers’ Banquet – The Drinks

Blaggers' Banquet

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…

Next up were our three cocktails:

Picture by Mark of FoodByMark

Cornish ‘Champagne’ Cocktail

1 cube sugar
1 teaspoon of quince liqueur
1 glass of Chapel Down sparkling british wine

Combine in the order above. Serve. Simple…

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.

Black Velvet

1/2 a glass of Chapel Down sparkling British wine
1/2 a glass of Curious Brew Admiral Porter

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.

Photo by Carmen Valino


2 shots Chegworth Valley Apple and Raspberry juice
2 shots vodka
1 shot Galliano Balsamico
Lemon wedge and basil to garnish

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.

The bar team were me, Mel Seasons, Dan, Ben Bush, Tim Hayward and Elly