Wednesday, 26 August 2015

More on Moussec (and a Prohibition secret?)

It’s been almost five years since I posted about Moussec, yet it still seems to be attracting interest. I only dimly remember the product when it was available, but some older readers have fond memories of drinking it or of working at the factory in Rickmansworth.

Mr Philip Scammell, a former Moussec employee, dropped me a line yesterday tipping me off to a strange incident in 2012 when workmen renovating a property on rue St Claude in Les Riceys, in the Aube region of France, suddenly found gold coins raining down on their heads. Hidden in the space between the ceiling and the floor above were bags containing 497* US $20 coins, weighing 17kg in total. The building was owned by Champagne Alexandre Bonnet and was being adapted as accommodation for grape pickers. But a local historian revealed that up until 1960 it had belonged to Moussec.

Maison Moussec: 2 rue St Claude still bears the Moussec name
The historian, François Gilles, explained how the firm was founded by M. Rivollier, a biologist by training, who pioneered the production of sparkling wine in the Riceys area. However, between 1921 and 1923 he was engaged in a legal tussle with the Marnais over the right to use the term Champagne, as the Aube had been excluded from the 1908 law defining the Champagne region. The suit seems to have proved financially ruinous for Rivollier,** who then turned to a new ruse. He bought up unsold grape juice from the region and concentrated it through vacuum-evaporation to the consistency of fruit pulp. He then shipped this to Britain where it was diluted again and fermented into sparkling wine. My original suspicions are confirmed that the purpose of this was to avoid duty on imported alcohol. The report from L’Est Eclair writes, “The solidified juices could be shipped to England without difficulties, whereas wine was hit by heavy taxes and sometimes denied entry altogether.”

The ceiling space that had hidden
the coins for nearly 100 years
But the report also talks about Rivollier “taking advantage of certain consequences of Prohibition in Anglo-Saxon countries” (or possibly “English-speaking countries”). Obviously we never had Prohibition in Britain: it is possible the writer was simply referring to import duties (would these have risen during Prohibition in the US? I can’t think why), but it is also possible that the writer is referring to both the UK and the US.

The gold coins, which were sold at Bonhams in Los Angeles in 2013 for $945,000, dated from 1851 to 1928, according to Bonnet CEO Philippe Baijot. The fact that it was US gold, deliberately hidden in the late 1920s or early 1930s, does rather beg the question of whether Rivollier was doing more than simply dodging British import taxes. Was he also trying to bootleg Moussec into the US? Judging by the size of the hoard, he seems to have been doing rather well at it.***

Was this M. Rivollier's bootlegging loot?
I’d be curious to know if there are any records of Moussec in the US. It’s possible that Rivollier was exporting some other booze, or simply exporting the juice concentrate, which would have been legal—but I doubt it would have been worth it, given the quantity of US-grown grape juice available. In fact Californian vineyards that had previously produced wine, simply switched to selling grape juice during Prohibition, vast quantities of which were shipped east where it fuelled sly domestic wine-making operations, particularly among communities from parts of Europe with strong wine-drinking traditions.

In any case, Moussec certainly seems to have thrived in Britain. In Approved Cocktails, published by the United Kingdom Bartenders Guild in 1937, there are four references to Moussec as a cocktail ingredient.

A 1938 aerial photo of Rickmansworth with the site of the Maltings marked
Mr Scammel also gave me a bit of information about his own time in the business in the 1960s. He writes:

The Moussec winery was situated in what was once known as The Maltings in Cloister Road, Rickmansworth. I started as a Technical Assistant on October 1st 1962. The Works Manager was Mr Ian Marshall, the Chief Chemist was Mr George Young and the production chemist Colin (?).

My responsibility was the fermentation of the grape juice imported in the form of concentrate from the company’s plant in Les Riceys in Aube, France. The concentrate was stored in concrete vats situated underground at the front of the winery in Rickmansworth. It was re-diluted using spring water from under the factory (?) and then fermented using yeast which had been extracted from a successful spontaneous fermentation in the Paris laboratory of M. Rivollier and then stored on agar plates in the laboratory. 

Following a short break as a Research Assistant at Schweppes Research Laboratory in Hendon, London, from 15th October 1965 until 30th April 1966, I returned to Moussec where I was engaged in research work on wine pigments until 15th September1966.

This wartime advert is from December 1939 and focuses on the irritation of trying to have
a Christmas party during black-out (a ban on lights at night, to make it harder for enemy
bombers to find their target). Makes me wonder where they are getting their grape juice
from—perhaps they had built up stocks before the war began
According to a document Mr Scammell sent me, his last project was on a rosé wine: red wine concentrate was re-diluted and fermented, before being fined in a way that reduced the pigmentation to that of a rosé wine. This was then blended with Moussec to produce a pétillant wine. It’s not clear if this wheeze made it to production.

Other documents show that Moussec was sold in 1969 to Reckitt & Colman, and the Rickmansworth plant was subsequently closed to amalgamate all of R&C’s production. In 1982 the brand was extended to two still wines, made from French and Italian grape concentrates and labelled simply as “Mellow Red” and “Medium Dry White”, with packaging described by the product manager, in an article in Harper’s from 1984, as “modern and informal without being pretentious”. This shows how even by the Eighties there was still a perception that wine was complicated and elitist and producers were struggling to find ways to make the man in the street feel it was for him. In any case this shows that the original sparkling Moussec was still being produced in 1984.

* Seriously, 497? Surely 500 would have been a nice round number? I wonder if the last three were “accidentally” lost. As it happens, under French law the hoard is split between the landowner and the finder, one of the workmen.

** Annoyingly for him, a few years later in 1927 the legal definition was changed to include the Aube.

*** Cutty Sark whisky was allegedly created for the US market in 1923—in the middle of Prohibition. Which is to say that it was created to be bootlegged into the country. However, filmmaker Bailey Pryor, who has made an Emmy-award-winning documentary about the famous rum runner Bill McCoy, the man said to have smuggled Cutty Sark, tells me that this is baloney. A source high up at Berry Bros. & Rudd, who invented the blend, told him that the bootlegging story was made up years after the event. And it’s true that no photos seem to exist of McCoy with any Cutty Sark, although there are photos clearly showing crates of Gordon’s Gin, for example. Moreover, McCoy’s bootlegging career actually ended when he was captured in November 1923. Although imprisoned for only nine months, he did not return to rum-running again.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Belsazar: vermouth with a Teutonic twist?

After my pronouncement last year that new vermouths were as rare as hen’s teeth, they seem to be coming thick and fast. Vermouths are primordial cocktail ingredients so, with the Second Golden Age of Cocktails in full flow, I suppose it should not be surprising to see this development. It may also be tied in with the trend for bars to make their own infusions, as well as the alleged interest in lower-alcohol cocktails (vermouth can be the base of a drink—you don’t have to add it to spirits).

Belsazar has been around since last year, and we were given some samples to play with at the Candlelight Club in the spring, but I only recently got to complete the set by tasting the red version. Vermouth is wine that has been aromatised (infused with herbs, spices, barks, fruit, etc) and fortified. The list of botanicals must include wormwood to qualify for the name vermouth, and most of them tend to offer a balance of bitter, sweet, aromatic, herbal and floral flavours. As with many boozes the original idea was to make a tonic wine, a delivery system for the perceived health benefits of the botanicals in the mix.

Traditionally vermouths come from Italy or France, and older cocktail books will usually refer to “French” vermouth (dry white) or “Italian” vermouth (sweet red). The Belsazar range has the distinction of being made on the edge of the Black Forest by the old family-run distiller Schladerer, blended from six German wines and fortified with the firm’s traditional fruit brandies.* They claim that most of the botanicals are home-grown and sweetening comes from locally-sourced grape must.

There are four expressions, following the usual pattern of Dry [white], [sweet] White, Rosé and Red. They come in dark brown bottles with an Art Deco-influenced, diamond-shaped label, the background colour of which varies for each version. For years we’ve been used to the very limited range of vermouths in the UK being moderately priced,** but Belsazar follows the pattern set by Antica Formula of being considerably more expensive. And where Antica was £25 for a litre (now about £32), Belsazar Red is around £28 for 70cl and the others between £26 and £29. (By comparison, Martini Rosso can frequently be found in supermarkets for £10 a litre.)

The Dry (19% alcohol by volume) opens on the nose with hints of orange, a zesty freshness and dainty floral top notes like elderflower, sweet elements of honeysuckle and sherbet, a hefty combination of simmering tartness and a candied quality that one fears could become cloying. The palate has orange and lemon notes to the fore, but is unexpectedly and uncompromisingly dry, with powdery wood flavours of cinnamon and sandalwood, a bitter finish and even savoury notes of rosemary and thyme suggesting themselves. Noilly Prat is, by comparison, paler in colour, sweeter on the nose and more honeyed on the palate. Belsazar has darker, bolder flavours and a more bitter aftertaste (the botanicals apparently include not only wormwood but gentian and cinchona as well).

The strongly coloured Belsazar range
And yet in a Dry Martini, even a relatively wet one of 3 parts gin to 1 part vermouth, Belsazar Dry makes a balanced and approachable cocktail, with the vermouth in no way overpowering. Indeed one recommended serve is the Reverse Martini, with more vermouth than gin (60ml Belsazar Dry to 30ml gin, plus two dashes of orange bitters), just as Regal Rogue’s house Martini has: the result here is not a classic Dry Martini, as it is more about the vermouth, but it does showcase the way the vermouth’s various herbal, fruit and savoury contours interlock with the juniper and coriander gears of the gin. Again, compared to Noilly, Belsazar makes a woodier, more wormwoody, slightly saltier Martini, while Noilly makes a cleaner, more citric cocktail.

Belsazar White (18% ABV) has an aroma of honey, orange and crystallised fruit. The palate is pretty sweet but with a herbal dryness to balance it out a bit. I confess that bianco vermouth is not something I personally have much call for; for me the sweetness is off-putting. Likewise, the Rosé (17.5% ABV) is not something I would seek out. It has a nose of strawberry, rhubarb, redcurrant and candyfloss, and its palate offers the same combination of sweetness, a little tartness and herbal, wormwood dryness, plus elements of strawberry and orange. But add tonic water and flavours of peach and raspberry emerge, still with that bitter root finish, and I have to say that if you use Belsazar Rosé to replace half the gin in a gin and tonic you do get a very pleasant drink, the sweetness dialled down and herbal and fruit notes allowed to rise up.

The Bovril-like consistency of Belsazar Red
Which brings us to Belsazar Red (18% ABV). This was the last one I got to try but it is definitely my favourite. The nose is of cinnamon, ginger and a dry rootiness. The palate offers balsam, cassia and sandalwood, with a juicy bitter finish like rhubarb, something floral plus berries and black cherries. The colour is unashamedly murky, pretty much opaque, in fact.

If you like a Manhattan (about 2½ parts US whiskey to 1 part vermouth plus a dash of bitters) you will want to try Belsazar Red: with rye-heavy Bulleit bourbon the notes of cinnamon, burnt orange and chocolate latch on to your tastebuds, finishing with rhubarb and prunes. The woodiness of the vermouth marries effortlessly with the wood character of the bourbon and, even with a dash of maraschino, it comes across as a serious, quite dry cocktail. I try a Manhattan with Rittenhouse 100 (50% ABV), and it makes a turbid, uncompromising drink, the wood notes of the vermouth again mingling with the rye wood and dry aromatic contributions of the bitters; but it is vivid and complex too, with new flavours of tart fruit, chocolate and cooked vegetables constantly popping up.

A Belsazar Manhattan: a cocktail you can get your teeth into
Belsazar Red makes a punchy Negroni (equal parts, red vermouth, gin and Campari), with the cinnamon, burnt orange and rhubarb character making itself clearly felt. Get the balance right and the vermouth does not dominate, however, with the Campari’s bitter fruit element slicing through and the gin’s juniper finding its place in the mix. It is powerfully flavoured but velvety on the tongue. You instantly feel that it might be too easy to drink too many of these.

So is there anything intrinsically German about the Belsazar range? Not that I can see. They don’t taste of smoked cheese, sausage or sauerkraut and I don’t think I would even have guessed they were made from German wine. But if you can afford them, they are definitely worth a look. The Dry is an intriguing Martini ingredient, beefy yet limber, but my favourite is definitely the red, making  a powerful but profound statement in the classic red vermouth cocktails.

* Which shouldn’t seem so unusual, given that the word vermouth comes from Wermut, German for “wormwood”.

** As a student I remember regarding vermouth as a good session drink because of the alcohol:price ratio. Not that I would recommend getting hammered on Martini Extra Dry.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

A garden of bourbon delights

Mrs H. pointed out that we had mint growing in the garden, something that I admit hadn’t really sunk in before (I am not the green-fingered type). In fact more than once I have gone to buy some herb or other only for her to show me later that it was actually growing ten feet from the kitchen door.

So I did what any gentleman would do, and made a mint julep. I mention this only really to share with you my intense satisfaction with it: every now and then you make a cocktail where everything falls into place, as if for the first time you truly see what it is all about.

Juleps in waiting: some of the leaves that got away… this time
I took five leaves of mint and put them in a tumbler with about a teaspoon of sugar syrup,* maybe a teaspoon and a half, and muddled it. Then I filled the glass with ice** and added an undisclosed quantity of Four Roses (I used the Single Barrel, which was perhaps extravagant, though it worked well), then stirred.

You get a fresh, pungent aroma from the mint that you simply don’t get from things that are “mint-flavoured”, and this mint had been only a couple of minutes off the plant. The drink was sweetened, but not sweet, and the character of the whisky shone through. The Single Barrel is bottled at 50% so it can take a bit of dilution from the ice without seeming at all watery (and this ice adds no flavour of its own), though I tried the same recipe the next night with the Four Roses Small Batch and it worked well too.

I think I should try using more things from the garden in drinks—though I fear that it may be some years before the fruit of the lemon tree I gave Mrs H. last month will be sliced in our gin and tonics…***

* This was actually commercial syrup from Monin but you can make it yourself easily enough. Ed McAvoy (then Jameson brand ambassador) showed me the simplest way to do it: using a funnel fill a bottle, such as an empty wine or spirit bottle, two-thirds full with dry granulated sugar, then boil a kettle and carefully top the bottle up, before corking it and shaking it vigorously till the sugar dissolves.

** I used ice made in an ice tray with Isbre spring water.

*** And not everything from the garden is good to put in your drink. A few winters ago, inspired by DBS’s post about using snow in drinks, I padded out into the frosty garden and scooped some fresh snow off a plant to make a julep or an absinthe frappé or some such. I forget the actual cocktail, but I vividly remember how astonishingly repulsive it was, full of strong, weird, off flavours, sour and flat, dirty and choking. To this day I cannot understand how water than has fallen frozen from the sky and landed on a leaf can have acquired such a taste, unless the air in London is seriously polluted.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

The purple reign of Parfait Amour

By chance I found myself with three different brands of Parfait Amour in the house recently—Bols, Boudier and Cartron. This liqueur is possibly most used in cocktails for its purple colour, but despite its similarity in this respect to crème de violette it is not primarily flavoured with flowers. Recipes vary and Bols, who claim to have invented it, do use rose and violet petals to make it, but the flavour that seems to link the different interpretations is actually citrus.

The Cartron website doesn’t give away the recipe but implies that this liqueur is all about the citron. The nose is strongly of orange and lemon, as is the palate, which is sweet, with a liquorice note and only the subtlest florality. It does make you wonder why someone would come up with a citron liqueur then decide to make it purple—and this sample is the most intensely coloured of the three—but the site has a quote from 1769 about the use of citron in Parfait Amour so it has clearly been made this way for a long time.

(Left to right) Boudier, Bols and Cartron
Boudier’s version also hits you with oranges on the nose and something sweet like crystallised angelica or parma violets. On the palate it is drier and seems more spirituous than its 30% ABV. There is orange here again and perhaps something nutty. The website has nothing to say about this liqueur, but I gather that curaçao oranges, rose petals, vanilla and almonds go into it.

Bols’s ingredients are much the same as Boudier’s—orange peel, vanilla, almonds and “flower petals (principally roses and violets)”—but their version is quite different. They speak of how many a lover’s quarrel has dissolved under the influence of this drink, and it does have the reputation of being a dainty tipple for ladies. (It’s interesting, then, that Cartron talk of how it is “ideal in light and fresh cocktails” and don’t actually suggest you drink it neat.) The Bols example has a more confectionary nose and is sweetest on the tongue. More than anything it reminds me of that nougat that has bits of candied fruit in it, a character that must come from the almond and vanilla as well as the citrus. I would say that the Bols version is the most distinctive—the others seem a bit vague by comparison—and is the only one I can imagine dainty ladies choosing to sip. The Boudier seems a bit too austere and the Cartron has that liquorice edge that might prove divisive.

Although I don’t have any to hand, De Kuyper also make a Parfait Amour that they describe as a marriage of citrus (lemon and bitter, fragrant curaçao orange) and vanilla. Marie Brizzard make one with sweet oranges, orange blossom and vanilla. Giffard make theirs with orange, vanilla, violets and geranium and Lejay use bitter orange peel and violet buds.

A Jupiter, made to Ted Haigh's proportions
There actually aren’t many classic cocktails involving Parfait Amour. The Savoy Cocktail Book from 1930 has just two (there are significantly more with crème de violette and, I suspect, more with Crème Yvette as well), the Jupiter and the Trilby No.2. No one seems to know anything about their origins, but I’m assuming the Trilby was titled after the play of the same name,* as was the wont with smash-hit plays in those days.

2 shots gin
1 shot dry white vermouth
1 tsp Parfait Amour
1 tsp orange juice

Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. The first time I put a row of these together, using the different brands, I’m not sure what to make of it: it seems very much of the time when the Martini was the bedrock and many “new” cocktails were just slightly contaminated versions of it. The tiny quantity of orange juice doesn’t seem to add much apart from a cloudiness: it’s possible that this opacity in conjunction with the Parfait Amour is intended to create a pale sky colour (Jupiter is Roman god of the sky), though in the case of the dark Cartron you get something that looks like a severely polluted sky just before an ugly storm, while the others veer more towards orangey-pink.

A Trilby cocktail
The Boudier’s citrus character blends easily enough with the gin and does poke its head up now and then with notes of sweetness and stemminess too. The Cartron has a similar effect, though it gets a bit lost. The Bols version is certainly more distinctive: while the juniper/Parfait interface is not horrible, it will come as a bit of a shock to Martini drinkers. Overall it is more cloying and doesn’t seem to sit comfortably with the seriousness of the Dry Martini ingredients. Might go better with Babycham.

However, noting that Ted Haigh, in Forgotten Spirits and Vintage Cocktails (2009), champions the Jupiter but is very particular about measures—in his recipe the gin is at 45ml and the vermouth at 20ml—I have another go the next night, using his exact quantities (and Bols liqueur) and the result is indeed more elegant. I must have overdone the Parfait Amour previously, as this version is actually quite dry. This probably does make the best of the liqueur; its nougat character takes on a hint of (white?) chocolate in this subtle incarnation.

1 shot Scotch whisky
1 shot red vermouth
1 shot Parfait Amour
2 dashes absinthe
2 dashes orange bitters

Again, the Carton and Boudier versions produced only a fairly subtle influence. The Bols Parfait Amour made its presence felt more, sitting in the mix with the malty rasp of the Scotch, the herbal sweetness of the vermouth and the pungence of the absinthe (I used just a rinse), though whether the end result is complex or conflicting is debatable.

A Blonde Bombshell
I have a feeling that Parfait Amour can be quite a busy blend of flavours in itself, and so might actually work better in simpler combinations. Experimenting, I found that just adding a dash or two to a glass of Champagne or sparkling wine was one of the most satisfying serves, enabling the flavours of the liqueur to open up but not overwhelm (and in fact Bols claim on their website that this combination is drunk at weddings all over the world). There are a number of cocktails that are basically this, plus another ingredient as well. The Blonde Bombshell, for example, recommended on Bols’s website, adds elderflower liqueur:

Blonde Bombshell
15ml Parfait Amour
15ml elderflower liqueur
Top with Champagne or sparkling wine

The two liqueurs do complement each other, with the prickly high notes of the elderflower slotting in with the Bols’s warm nutty and vanilla layers. But I find myself boosting the elderflower (I’m using St Germain) to get a good balance, and frankly the whole thing is a bit too sweet for me anyway. Adding more sparkling wine helps, as does squeezing a bit of lemon juice into the blend.

A Double Perfect
The Double Perfect does the same thing but uses triple sec instead of elderflower liqueur. Again they specify 15ml for each liqueur but, warned by the Blonde Bombshell, I start with just 10ml and frankly this is all you need (unless you’re using a very large glass).

Double Perfect
10ml Parfait Amour
10ml Cointreau
Top with Champagne or sparkling wine

The Cointreau cranks up the orange aspects already present in the Parfait Amour and controls the confectionary nougat elements, making for a relatively elegant, poised use of the liqueur, especially in these reduced quantities. (I’m using Bols, which has a broader flavour than the other two brands, which are more citrus to start off with, so I’m not sure how much point there would be to this blend using Cartron or Boudier.)

And as a final test, my eye was caught by this combo on, to which he gives a higher score than most other Parfait cocktails:

The Brazen Martini
Brazen Martini
2½ shots bisongrass vodka
¼ shot Parfait Amour

Once again it really only takes a teaspoon of the liqueur to do the job, though I’m not convinced that it is a job worth doing. The pungent herbal element of the vodka, with its bitter aftertaste, interfaces interestingly with the plump, sweet vanilla of the Parfait Amour in the same way as the absinthe does in the Trilby, but it is more thought-provoking than actually pleasant, and is really not a cocktail I would be keen to have again.

As you can probably tell, I can’t get terribly excited about Parfait Amour—and I’m in good company, as the great David Embury, author of The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948), ranked it with Forbidden Fruit as his two least favourite liqueurs. The best delivery methods for it are the Jupiter, the Double Perfect or just a small 5–10ml dose in sparkling wine—but as you can see, the key here is to use it sparingly.

* The play, an adaption of the Georges du Maurier novel, played first at the Boston Museum in 1895 before Herbert Beerbohm Tree brought it to the UK, where it ran with great success at the Haymarket Theatre in London. Trilby O’Ferrall is the female lead. The Trilby hat gets its name from the play as well.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

A naming of names

Thanks to my sister and brother-in-law for giving me a real brass IAE nameplate, modelled exactly on the graphic device at the top of this page. I finally got round to putting it up today. For some reason Mrs H. wouldn’t let me fix it to the front door* so it now graces the door to the den where this rubbish gets written, a small room in a Victorian terraced house, piled high with stacks of paper, old beige computer equipment, scribbled notes with important numbers on them, dusty gadgets and adaptors of one kind and another. (All surfaces seem to have acquired an alluvial sediment of bits of paper, obsolete technology or gewgaws and personal effects left behind by customers at Candlelight Club events.** There is really only one small area, the corner of a shelf, that offers enough horizontal space for a mug of tea.)

* A courier once came to deliver a sample, addressed to “The Institute for Alcoholic Experimentation”. I don’t know what he expected to find, but Mrs H. clearly heard him through the front door, on the phone to his boss, saying, “…But it’s just a house!”

** Of course I do message them all asking who is missing this bit of jewellery, or that hat, or this set of house keys, or that small black cardigan, but they very seldom claim these items. The larger things get taken to the charity shop while the rest sit in a number of shoeboxes. Some were probably only bought as costume or props for the occasion, but other items—such as a single high-heeled shoe—one might have expected the owner to want back. One day I shall make an artwork by laying them all out together in a room…

Friday, 24 July 2015

The purity test: is your water and ice letting your drinks down?

I received a press release recently for a bottled water called Isbre. It is sourced in Norway from an aquifer under a 5,000-year-old glacier at the end of the Hardanger Flord in Ulvik, where it is bottled on site. The Big Thing about Isbre is its purity, showing no more than four parts per million (ppm) of total dissolved solids, which is apparently the lowest figure ever for an unprocessed water.

Purity is an interesting concept in drinks. There is a natural tendency to associate it with safety and health, and producers of spirits, especially vodka (about which there is not much else to say) frequently use the p-word, either talking about the purity of the spring water they use to dilute their alcohol, or bragging about innovative filtration methods, often involving precious metals or stones. In fact if you look at the website of Technofilter, a leading manufacturer of filtration systems for the vodka industry, they make the point that, while filtration (traditionally through birch charcoal) was once necessary to remove impurities that imparted bad flavours or odours or even made the vodka unsafe, nowadays any producer can buy in incredibly pure alcohol and all distilleries will have the means to make distilled water on site. Modern vodka filtration is more about altering the flavour and perhaps fishing out unsightly particles that may have been introduced from machinery or from additives like sugar or honey that are sometimes introduced to create a perceived smoothness.

Naturally sparkling, Apollinaris pitched itself as having medicinal benefits, "the sworn enemy of gout,
rheumatism and indigestion", in this detail from an 1876 advert. Despite the high mineral content it also
speaks of "purity" and "softness". Note also that they recommend it as a mixer for brandy, gin and wine
(click to enlarge)

This 1903 ad is pushing Apollinaris (by now threatened
by mechanically aerated waters) as a mixer for Scotch
Once upon a time drinking water that came in bottles was generally referred to as “mineral water”—the point being that you drank it precisely because of the dissolved minerals in it, either for the taste or for imagined health benefits. (According to a table on the Isbre website Evian has 300 ppm total dissolved solids, Vittel 400, San Pellegrino 990 and Apollinaris, a German spring water with a long history, which I’ve not seen for sale in the UK, a whopping 1800.) Our modern interest in bottled water may have been prompted simply by fashion and marketing, so that we want to be seen clutching the hippest water brand, or perhaps by a rise in health-consciousness and a belief that tap water is not safe. (There have been scares in recent years about the levels of oestrogen in mains water, for example, or worries about fluoridation, although in fact UK tap water has to pass more stringent tests than bottled water does.)

I live in south-east London and my tap water is pretty tasty (not true of some parts of the UK I have visited). It is a hard water with, on average, 261 ppm of calcium carbonate, which comes from the chalky composition of local aquifers. (This can tend to leave lime scale deposits in your kettle or on the showerhead, but it makes the water quick to wash away soap and apparently forms a film on the inside of old lead pipes which prevents the metal from leaching into the water supply.) The UK Drinking Water Inspectorate regularly tests tap water and apparently London’s is the best in the country (mind you we are talking about a 99.98% pass rate compared to 99.94% in the worst-performing area, so there is not much in it). You can see a full chemical analysis here.) No fluoride is added but the total dissolved solids are about 350–400, compared to Isbre’s 4.

SW4 gin diluted half and half with tap water, Isbre and distilled water
All of which got me wondering about water in booze—not the water that is used to dilute spirits to bottling strength (over which I have no control), but water that we might add at the point of preparing a drink. Many people believe, for example, that adding a small amount of water to malt whisky helps unlock flavours and aromas. And even if you don’t add water, any drink that you serve on the rocks will be diluted as the ice melts.

I gather that in Japanese whisky bars it is de rigeur that if you add water to your whisky you use only water from the same spring where the whisky is made. Camper English of Alcademics has done some interesting experiments diluting different Scotch whiskies with spring water from different parts of Scotland. The general result was that water from a particular region brings out flavour characteristics associated with whisky made in that region.

But the test here today is about the benefits of purity in water. I decided to put Isbre* up alongside London tap water. And to push things to the other extreme, I also got hold of some commercially produced distilled water.**

The same test using Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt whisky
Tasted neat, the three waters seem remarkably similar to me, though the purity of Isbre does give it a softer feel and a perceived sweetness to the finish. The hard tap water, particularly after it has been in the glass for a while, has a flatness, a hint of something sour or metallic. (I expected the distilled water to taste much the same as the Isbre, but to me it actually tasted less pleasant, with a slight bitterness to the finish.)***

I try diluting some SW4 gin (the high-strength 47% version), half and half with water. I don’t normally drink gin this way, though my father-in-law likes his gin half and with water and a dash of bitters. It’s quite a revelation, actually, because the botanicals in the gin are loud and proud, with the high, resinous juniper joined by orange sweetness and floral, woody notes, and a bitterness towards the end. To my surprise there was quite a noticeable difference between tap water and Isbre, with the former seeming to have a heaviness or roughness. Gin and Isbre, on the other hand, felt lighter and more ethereal on the tongue and, moreover, you had a sense of perceiving the botanicals more clearly and vividly. The distilled water gave the same effect, and I honestly couldn’t detect a difference between that and Isbre.

Ice cubes made from (left to right) tap water, Isbre and distilled water. As you
see, the purity of the water does not have an effect on the clarity of the ice
I try the same thing with Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt Japanese whisky, again half water, half whisky, and get the same result. The tap water gives a hard, flat quality, compared to the sweet smoothness of Isbre. Distilled water is likewise smooth and light.

What about ice? If you pour yourself a whisky on the rocks and sip it slowly enough for the ice to melt, then you have diluted your drink quite a lot by the end. I always regret doing this, because ice made from my tap water leaves a gritty deposit in your drink when it melts. I make some ice from Isbre and try the same thing and, hey presto, no grit.

Nothing to see here: vodka with cubes of the three ices. They look identical until…
But if you think that ice made from pure water will be crystal clear, think again. The clarity of ice is affected far more by how fast it freezes and at what temperature (see this explanation). I make up trays of ice cubes using Isbre and distilled water and they look the same as ice cubes made from tap water.

I start off with vodka on the rocks, taking 25ml of Ketel One and adding two cubes each of the three types of ice. As you might expect the results are essentially the same as when we simply added water: at first the samples seem alike but as the ice melts the sample with tap water ice takes on a flatness, something a bit like soggy cardboard, with a slight sour note, compared to the other two, which seem to maintain the original flavour of the vodka better.

Once the ice has melted, the vodka with the tap water ice now has white mineral
deposits at the bottom of the glass. This was from just two cubes of ice. No such
deposits appeared with ice cubes from Isbre or distilled water
But in my household I suspect more ice gets used in the shaker (then discarded) than added directly to drinks. Would water purity still make a difference in this context? I rustle up three Martinis, using SW4 47% and Noilly Prat. I follow James Bond’s example and shake, rather than stir, on the grounds that this will presumably result in more dilution and an enhanced effect.

Three Martinis, shaken with ice made from (left to right) tap water, Isbre and distilled
I use a measure of gin and a teaspoon of vermouth for each sample, add six ice cubes and shake exactly 40 times. I eschew a garnish to help focus on the matter in hand. Not unexpectedly, the differences are less noticeable this time, though I still think that the Isbre has a softer, sweeter mouthfeel and a sense of greater depth and transparency in the flavours of the ingredients. The tap water ice seems to give a slight masking harshness and again even the distilled water seems less appealing, which I cannot explain. But these are subtle distinctions.

This whole process has been a revelation to me. There are many bottled waters out there, with their own flavour profiles that may or may not blend harmoniously with other ingredients, but as a simple starting point it is an eye-opener to use water that is much more neutral than what I am used to. While the contribution in ice used to shake cocktails is subtle to say the least, when it comes to ice over which drinks are served, and certainly where water is directly added, using purer water makes a noticeable difference. When Isbre comes to market in the UK (I can’t find it for sale anywhere yet) it will be about £1.50 a litre: for ice to serve in drinks (as opposed, perhaps, to shaking) I think this is certainly worth paying.

One thing I am keen to try now is absinthe—which is typically served with two to five times as much water as spirit…

* Of course Isbre isn’t the only bottled water one could try—in fact while searching my inbox I stumble across a press release sent to me a few years ago for a brand called Sno, made in Iceland from a glacier, this time 20,000 years old. They also bang on about purity, but Sno contains 68ppm of dissolved solids according to the press release (though on their current website this has dropped to 52), so for the purposes of our experiment Isbre is more useful.

** Curiously, almost all suppliers had a footnote that their product was not suitable for human consumption. Considering that the whole point of distilled water is that it contains nothing but water, this is odd. It could be that if you habitually drink nothing but distilled water you would miss out on vital minerals, but I suspect it is simply that any product that is intended for human consumption has to undergo various tests that the water distillers don’t want to pay for—their products are actually designed for laboratory use or cleaning delicate equipment.

*** Although Isbre’s website only talks about total dissolved solids, I did find another site which gave more of a breakdown. This suggests the only detectable minerals are nitrates (0.05 ppm) and silica (2 ppm) from the rocky aquifer. My distilled water, for the record, has <0.2 ppm nitrates, <0.1 ppm lead, <0.2 ppm ammonium and <10 parts per billion silicon and chloride. So the distilled water actually has more of all these contaminants than Isbre, with the exception of silicon—and I gather that 5–25 ppm silica is typical for natural water, so Isbre is still fairly low. This site also gives Isbre’s pH as 5.7, which is slightly acidic. I can only assume that the silica (silicon dioxide) is in solution in the form of silicic acid. Which, in case you were wondering, is considered to be good for you. However, I later got hold of the latest lab report from Isbre themselves: it doesn't give a figure for silica but I see that the pH is 6.6, which is pretty close to pH neutral. Nitrates in this sample are down to 0.015 ppm and there are around 0.5 ppm traces of calcium, sodium, sulphate and chloride and 0.1 ppm magnesium and potassium. Total dissolved solids are given as just 3.9 ppm.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Absinthe, tequila…and cucumber

The experimental Maid in Jalisco. Looking at it, I think I should come up with a cocktail for St Patrick's Day,
garnish it in the same way with thin slices of cucumber, and call it a Four-Leafed Clover…

Cucumber in booze is nothing new—both Hendrick’s and Martin Miller’s gins include cucumber among the flavourings.* But synchronicity dictated that I receive two emails today that embraced the noble plant and, since it is summer and I am in England, what could be more apt?

Emerald Street, a well-written daily offshoot from Stylist magazine, today featured a number of inspiring things you can do with your blender, including a frozen Margarita that includes puréed cucumber (two peeled ones, the juice of five or six limes, 100ml tequila and four cups of ice cubes, whizzed together, plus agave syrup to taste).**

Meanwhile, a post on the Real Absinthe Blog takes a scholarly look at Hemingway’s consumption of absinthe and concludes that, in his writing at least, he only ever drinks it in the traditional way with water, plus the Death in the Afternoon cocktail (absinthe and Champagne). Absinthe has such a powerful flavour that where it does appear in cocktails it is often present in homeopathic quantities (typically the serving glass is rinsed with absinthe that is then discarded before the cocktail is poured in). Last year Gaz Regan in his Regan Report noted the importance of absinthe as a cocktail ingredient but likewise warned against adding too much. Anyway, the post included a link to an earlier item describing the Maid in Cuba cocktail:

2 shots white rum
1 shot lime juice
½ shot sugar syrup
Small handful of mint leaves
3 slices of cucumber

Vigorously shake the first five ingredients with ice and strain into a glass that has been rinsed with the absinthe. It’s essentially a melding of Cuba’s two most famous cocktails, the Daiquiri and the Mojito, with added cucumber and absinthe.

Absinthe is pretty complex stuff in its own right, so you might argue that it is best drunk on its own. However, that would be a coward’s way out, so I found myself wondering what it might naturally synergise with. Gin, with its botanical arsenal, seems a likely contender, and classic absinthe cocktails like the Corpse Reviver No.2 and the Monkey Gland (gin, orange juice, absinthe and grenadine) do tend to be gin-based.*** I wouldn’t say that absinthe had a particular affinity for the white rum in the Maid in Cuba, as it is pretty much a blank canvas, but just thinking about it you can suspect that the herbaceous nature of tequila is going to marry well. And you’d be right. Just try rinsing a glass with absinthe then pouring in some tequila and you’ll see what I mean—the flavours of the two ingredients merge seamlessly.

So, by splicing Emerald Street’s cucumber Margarita with the Maid in Cuba you come up with something we might call the Maid in Jalisco:

2 shots tequila
1 shot lime juice
Agave syrup to taste (½ shot perhaps, although this was too sweet for me)
3 slices of cucumber
½ tsp absinthe

Shake with ice and strain. I started off just rinsing the serving glass with absinthe but I felt that it needed another ½ tsp at least (I was using Jade Terminus). I think the absinthe really works, though I must admit I’m less sure about the cucumber. I think that just by adding absinthe to a Margarita you have something very interesting indeed.

* Evidently cucumber doesn’t work if you infuse it with the other botanicals and distil, so it must be added post-distillation. (See my exploration of how Hendricks is made.) This means that these gins can’t call themselves “London Dry Gin” as this is an EU-defined category that does not allow any additives after distillation. Some people get quite exercised about this and query whether the definition or terminology should be changed, but I have always said that consumers almost certainly won’t consider the term “London Dry Gin” to be a stamp of quality. If anything they will probably assume that it means it was made in London, which it probably wasn’t, as the term does not encompass any geographical requirement.

** Classically the Margarita uses triple sec (such as Cointreau) but it is increasingly common to use agave syrup instead.

*** With the noble exception of the Sazerac, of course, a New Orleans classic that adds a smidgeon of absinthe to rye whisky, Cognac or a blend of the two, along with sugar and bitters.