Sunday, 6 May 2018

Pale fire: the perfect aperitif for a summer's day

During my investigations into Luxardo’s famous maraschino I came across Luxardo Bitter—I’d not heard of it before but it is an amaro made from an infusion of various herbs, spices and fruits. The basic bitter is bright red, so clearly in the same ballpark as Campari. (The colour of Campari is a gimmick, originally made with cochineal, i.e. crushed beetles, but nowadays synthetic, so I would assume the only reason Luxardo’s product would be the same colour is to try and encroach on the same market—but there are actually quite a few red amari out there so perhaps it is traditional.)

But they also make a Bianco version, which Luxardo describe only as an “infusion of bitter herbs, aromatic plants and citrus fruits in water and alcohol”. It is sweet and plump in the mouth, with a delicate complexity, floral notes and a pronounced rooty bitterness. I have some Campari to hand, and by comparison it is less sweet with stronger fruit notes, a distinct note of orange peel and a black pepper finish. I have read that Luxardo Bitter Bianco has some wormwood infused towards the end of the process to give it a lingering bitterness.

What really caught my eye was a reference to the Bitter Bianco in the context of a “White Negroni”. I’m a big fan of the Negroni cocktail, a drink with a colourful history, allegedly created when one Count Negroni asked for the soda in his Americano be replaced with gin (though there is bitter rivalry between different origin stories). It’s a powerful beverage—all the ingredients are alcoholic—that enjoyed a revival a few years ago. A mix of equal parts gin, Campari and red vermouth, it has a bitter-sweet flavour bursting with all the herbs and roots that have gone into the component infusions, with juniper rising over the top and strong orange notes (it is usually garnished with orange). And of course it is a deep red colour from the vermouth and Campari.

If you actively search for White Negoni cocktails the recipe that comes up most often actually has Lillet Blanc standing in for the vermouth and Suze standing in for the Campari. But there is a version that uses Luxardo Bitter in place of the Campari and bianco vermouth in place of the red vermouth. It is a fairly new drink, as Bitter Bianco was only released in 2016.

I guess the main schtick with this cocktail is its colourlessness compared to a regular Negroni, but it certainly works on its own terms, with a good sweet-bitter balance and a pronounced vanilla flavour from the vermouth (I used Cinzano Bianco). It’s less aggressive that a normal Negroni, subtle and thought-provoking. I can imagine pondering its delicate intricacies on a gentle summer’s afternoon. I get the impression that most people garnish a White Negroni with orange as normal, but I felt it was more chromatically harmonious to use lemon.

For more Negroni variants see this post from 2015.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Maraschino: is wood good?

Luxardo's maraschino and Sangue Morlacco cherry brandy. The blossom is
from Greenwich park here in London and I doubt it is marasca cherry
Maraschino is an ancient cocktail ingredient, a liqueur made from marasca cherries. I used to wonder if it was often used mainly to add sweetness, as the flavour is quite delicate, but I recently had a revelation that changed my thinking.

Maraschino has been made in Dalmatia for hundreds of years but in this country the brand with the highest profile has to be Luxardo. Having said that, it’s not a hugely high-profile product at all—I recently ran out and discovered that no supermarket seems to sell maraschino. They have crème de cassis, crème de pêche, sambuca, etc, but not maraschino. In fact I’m sure the only other brand I’ve ever seen is Briottet, though a Google search shows that there are others available in this country, including examples by the other general liqueur manufacturers such as Giffard and Boudier.

Up to now I’ve mostly used Briottet, because it is cheaper than Luxardo (I think the whole Briottet range are extremely good value). It has a light fruit flavour plus a bitter-almond element that comes from the cherry stones that are included in the fermented pulp. But I recently acquired a bottle of the Luxardo version and I was struck by the difference in flavour. Moreover, as Luxardo had early worldwide success, it made me wonder whether this was the flavour that was intended in all those classic cocktail recipes.

The Luxardo brand goes back almost 200 years, when Girolamo Luxardo was sent as a diplomat from the Kingdom of Sardinia to Zara in Dalmatia, which was then part of the Austrian empire. There was a local tradition of making “rosolio maraschino” from the native marasca cherries, which Girolamo’s wife Maria took an interest in. The couple began to experiment with distilling their own from the cherries in their orchard, apparently after spending some years tinkering with the recipe. They founded a distillery in 1821 and things took off for them when the Austrian emperor gave their brand his stamp of approval and it was soon being exported all over the world. (The distinctive wicker wrapping on the bottle was originally to protect it during sea crossings.)

I must admit that I always thought maraschino was an Italian liqueur and, depending on how you look at it, you could say that it is. Prior to 1797 Dalamatia had been part of the Republic of Venice, and after the First World War part of it (including Zara) joined the Kingdom of Italy. The Second World War led to a change of fortunes for the Luxardo company, which by then was being run by the fourth generation of the family. Heavy bombing destroyed the factory and the orchard was burned. In 1947 the area became part of Yugoslavia and many Italian citizens fled; they were persecuted by Tito’s partisans and many were killed, including Piero and Nicolò Luxardo, and Nicolò’s wife Bianca, who were forcibly drowned.

But Giorgio Luxardo founded a new distillery in Torreglia, in the Veneto region of Italy, and started to rebuild the business. Apparently just one cherry sapling had been saved from the orchard in Zara (now Zadar in modern Croatia), and all the trees in today’s Luxardo orchard are descended from that one. The firm is still being run by the same family, now into its sixth generation.

An Aviation made with Luxardo maraschino.
Apologies for the lack of fine-straining
I’m not sure how other maraschinos are made (there is only talk of “maceration” of cherries) but Luxardo make theirs in a singular way. Cherries are crushed along with their stones (and, I gather, leaves and stalks too) and fermented. The resulting alcoholic soup is distilled to produce an eau de vie that is blended with sugar and water to make a liqueur. But the liqueur is aged for two years in Finnish ashwood vats. (The pulp left over from distillation is infused into alcohol and sugar to make their excellent “Sangue Morlacco” cherry brandy.)

The first thing that hits you on the nose with Luxardo maraschino is actually earthy, dry aromatic wood notes, with a hint of Angostura Bitters. The light cherry fruit comes after that. It is not cloying at all, and has a sweet/dry balance (presumably from wood tannins) and a spiritous heat.

I have a habit of adding a splash of maraschino to Manhattan cocktails, but the specific character of the Luxardo product is lost against the woody power of the whiskey. However, in an Aviation cocktail (roughly two measures of gin, half of maraschino, half of lemon juice and a teaspoon or so of crème de violette) that dry wood flavour is quite noticeable.

I can’t find a reference to any other commercial maraschino wood-ageing its product in the Luxardo way, including the Maraska brand made in Croatia, which claims its recipe dates back to the 16th century. Before Luxardo the Drioli brand was a major player (and a previous holder of the Austrian emperor’s warrant)—it was laid to rest in 1980 but I don’t know how widespread it still was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the cocktail tradition was being developed.*

So it is hard to say if, for example, Hugo Ennslin was using a barrel-aged maraschino when he developed the Aviation (first published in 1918). But it is something to be aware of: if you find many classic cocktails too sweet you should try using Luxardo. And if you have been using it and find your drinks too dry and woody, consider using a different brand.**

* Mind you I did discover this website which says the Drioli brand was obtained by Luxardo and it seems to be in production again, though I don't know how widely distributed it is.

** Apologies for reusing a headline from 2014 but the matter here is essentially the same question: with certain spirits, is wood-ageing actually a Good Thing?

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

From grain to glass in the city of dreaming spires

Tom with the TOAD, Physic and Ashmolean gins
I was lucky enough to be given a tour of The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD) last Sunday by none other than Tom Nicolson, founder, chairman and CEO. After a successful career in the music business managing artists and running a recording studio, Tom was looking for a new challenge and cast back to his ancestors, who were involved in the wine and whisky business in Scotland, for inspiration. His former career must have left him with the experience, and presumably capital, to do things properly from the beginning, and everything about the project oozes careful consideration and long-term planning, from the ingredients he uses to the intricate symbology of the logo.

The distillery is located in a former council depot by Oxford’s South Park, part of which is Grade II listed. The Oxford Preservation Trust holds a legal covenant of the site which actually prohibited the sale and production of alcohol—something that Tom managed to persuade them to change. Distillery tours were clearly part of the business plan from the beginning (for which they charge £20 or £50 a head) and he has now been given permission to add a restaurant and gin garden. I get the impression that Tom is a shrewd operator and it seems that his application was oiled by the fact that the garden and toilet facilities will be made available to all park users, whether they buy anything or not.

Above and below: some of the botanicals in the gin-recipe lab

In keeping with a lot of “artisan” food and drink, there is a strong emphasis on locality: their Physic Gin takes its cue of Oxford’s Botanic Garden, founded in 1621, and the gin’s 25 botanicals are all taken from the stock list made in 1648 by the keeper Jacob Bobart, some of them actually foraged from the garden itself. The 17 botanicals in their Ashmolean Gin are inspired by the exotic contents of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, including jara lemon, rose, jasmine and spices from the Middle East and Asia. Like many small-batch gins they have started by getting into local bars and restaurants (though the scope of their plans is global). Oxford is a shrewd place to try this: it’s a well-heeled area (and TOAD products are not cheap) which is also flooded with tourists sucking up the local character and looking for touristy activities, such as a visit to a local distillery. TOAD even have a couple of distinctive minibuses for fetching and returning visitors from the city centre.

But the concept behind TOAD is much more sophisticated than that. Tom wanted to emphasise not just locality but sustainability and traceability too. Most gin-makers in this country, whether large or small, simply buy in neutral grain spirit as the base for their product. This is usually made from intensively-farmed wheat grown in some other part of the world, such as Ukraine, and there is no way to know what has really gone into it. Tom is taking a long view here, as he believes that ten years from now traceability will have become mandatory and he thinks it’s good business to get ahead of the game.

Tom with some of the rye plants, showing how much taller they are than intensively-farmed wheat

TOAD have worked with archeo-botanist and local farmer John Letts, who has spent his career rediscovering ancient grain varieties and sustainable farming methods. Modern grain tends to be a monoculture, with every plant in the field a clone of the others, making them more susceptible to disease and pests than a genetically diverse field as it would have been farmed in medieval times. The modern solution is to nurture the monoculture with chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, which depletes biodiversity all the more. Tom showed us some of the heritage rye plants of the kind from which TOAD source their grain—they grow up to six feet tall, overshadowing competing weeds and creating a sheltered environment for animals, birds and insects. As many as a thousand different strains of grain go into the distillery’s spirits.

Tom with the big pot still, named Nautilus,
and the two column stills
Producing their own base spirit means that TOAD have not only a large pot still for gin-making but a pair of column stills for turning the fermented rye into 96.5% ABV spirit. Rather than buying an off-the-shelf still from Germany like most people, Tom wanted to try something a little different and keep this part of the process as local as possible too. He approached the South Devon Railway’s engineering team, originally in the hope that they could actually convert a steam engine into a still. Engineer Paul Pridham pointed out that this might not be a great idea, given the use of arsenic in the manufacturing process, but being industrial coppersmiths they did end up making bespoke stills for TOAD, including some design flourishes such as a porthole salvaged from a decommissioned ship.

So what does the end product taste like? I’m pleased to report that all the products I tried were very impressive. They make a vodka by filtering the rye spirit through coconut charcoal—OK, so the “local” emphasis goes a bit out of the window at that point, but there must be a reason why it has to be coconut. It’s a good vodka, smooth and unctuous with a pronounced flavour of cocoa nib and butterscotch.

They also make a whiskey, though they aren’t allowed to call it that yet as it isn’t old enough. It’s becoming increasingly common for English (and, in the case of Penderyn, Welsh) distillers to make Scotch-style whisky, but again Tom wanted to try something more off the beaten track, so the whiskey that Master Distiller Cory Mason produces is modelled more on an American rye whiskey (Cory himself is American). At the moment they are bottling a Pure Rye Spirit that has had just two months in a barrel and it too is remarkably smooth, with a pronounced new-wood flavour. I’d be interested in trying a Manhattan made from this.

The basic TOAD gin is Tom’s favourite for a G&T (served with Fever-Tree Light* and a wedge of lime that he squeezes into the drink, James Bond style).** It is juniper-forward with immediate citrus flavours followed by a rising floral note. The Physic Gin is the only one that I took away a bottle of, so I’ve been able to give it a bit more attention.*** And it merits that attention: it’s a complex spirit (Tom prefers to sip it neat as an after-dinner drink). Uncorking the bottle releases a waft of lemon and gingernut biscuit. In a glass I get aromas of butterscotch again, followed by a gentle floral note, sweet citrus and sappy, savoury herbal elements. It is quite light and savoury on the tongue with a peppery finish that hints at cumin. Adding water seems to bring out more pungent herbaceous notes on the nose and a suggestion of liquorice on the palate.

I make a Martini with the Physic Gin and Noilly Prat vermouth: it produces an initial stab of coriander seed, which almost immediately melts away to be replaced by violets and again an angle of liquorice. I still get rushes of butterscotch and also an abiding suggestion of absinthe—I gather there is wormwood among the botanicals, along with rue and sweet woodruff.****

Tom has no end of plans for TOAD. They are gathering barrels previously used for various wines for use in barrel ageing (I saw racks of Muscat and port barrels). They are planning to work with local orchards to make an apple brandy.

And what about the symbology of the label? I learned that the sideways O in TOAD is meant to be the toad’s eye, as is the overall elliptical shape of the label as well. The symbols at the top of the T-shirt design are alchemical symbols for the Philosopher’s Stone and creation; in the middle is an inverted all-seeing eye or Eye of Providence. The Latin motto means “spirit of toad”. I’m sure there are more layers of meaning, but that knowledge is forbidden to novices…

Oxford Dry Gin (47% ABV) is £39.50 for 70cl; Oxford Rye Vodka (40% ABV) is £34.95 for 70cl; Oxford Pure Rye Spirit (40% ABV) is £39.95 for 70cl; Physic Gin (42.1% ABV) is £34.95 for 50cl; Ashmolean Gin (% ABV) is £39.50 for 70cl. All are available from the online shop.

* I, too, have discovered the joys of Fever-Tree Light. I would normally avoid diet tonics, which frequently use artificial sweeteners, but Fevertree Light just uses less sugar than the regular version. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so I find it has an appealing juiciness and makes a good palette to appreciate the gin.

** I did get to try the Ashmolean Gin too, but all I can remember was that it seemed botanically intense with warm, mid-range spice flavours. The online shop describes it as full-flavoured with notes of cardamom and myrrh, finishing with orris and lemongrass.

*** See

**** Intriguing, according to the TOAD website the distillery also makes an absinthe, though I didn’t see any evidence of one while I was there and it isn't for sale in their online shop.

The TOAD-mobiles, ready to whisk you to a distillery tour

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Palmetto: secrets of the old-school shiners

While writing the post about O’Donnell Moonshine I was reminded about an email I’d yet to respond to, from another “moonshine” manufacturer. This one is from the Palmetto Distillery in South Carolina, via their UK distributor. Unlike O’Donnell and Bootlegger, which are European products made from wheat and flavoured to taste a little like what they think consumers think moonshine might taste of, Palmetto is a genuine unaged corn whiskey.

We associate moonshine with the Prohibition era, but in fact the history of illicit distilling goes back further, to the 1700s, as small-scale distillers sought to avoid taxes. The Palmetto distillery is run by Trey and Bryan Boggs, using a recipe they trace back to their ancestor Dock Boggs, who began moonshining in the early 1900s to make a bit of extra money. They describe it as South Carolina’s first legal moonshine: I must admit I would have thought that moonshine was, by definition, illicit, but clearly it is being defined in some other way here, because they say that the production of it was only legalised in 2010. As far as I can tell, prior to this the making of unaged whiskey simply wasn’t legal. 

The Boggs brothers also make a barrel-aged whiskey with 21% rye, but the unaged moonshine is 100% corn. It’s made in a custom copper pot still with a secret weapon they call a “thumper”, through with the spirit passes after it leaves the still. This is a cylindrical object, and I wondered if it was a sort of column still. Mark from the UK operation says it is more like a secondary pot still, but a bit of research reveals that a thumper, or thump keg, is a fairly traditional bit of moonshine kit, and simply contains water, presumably kept at a specific temperature between 78 and 100 degrees C—which is to say below the temperature at which water condenses but higher than the temperature at which ethanol condenses. The vapour coming off the still is bubbled through the thumper to strip out some of the water in it before the vapour is condensed in the next vessel. The object of the exercise is to get a higher proof spirit.

The website also describes the spirit as “triple distilled”, so I assume it passes through both the still and the thumper three times. This whole contraption is, they say, exactly how the moonshine was produced back in the day.

American Moonshine
The plain moonshine is bottled at 52.5% ABV. I say “bottled” but as with most such products it comes in a screw-top mason jar. I open the jar and approach it cautiously, expecting fumes like those from Georgia Moon. But the nose is light, slightly fruity, and comes on a bit like fino sherry; as you take it away from your nose you are left with a lingering biscuity trail. On the palate it is strong, to be sure, but surprisingly smooth considering the ABV and the lack of age. Not what my experiences with Georgia Moon led me to expect. I’m pretty sure I’ve never tried unaged whiskey before, and it is hard to describe—it has something in common with grappa and vodka, and yet not. There is a slight mustiness (not at all unpleasant) and a fruitiness to the mid-palate. The finish is smooth with a slight hint of wood; overall it has a pretty unctuous mouthfeel. 

It’s worth noting that, after having tried the infused versions of Palmetto, when I return to the unflavoured spirit I am now struck by a more strongly recognisable whiskey character.

Peach Moonshine
In keeping with most foodstuffs designated as having the flavour of a particular other thing, I expected a blast of synthetic fruit, but this is pretty understated, with the spirit to the fore and a dusty veil through which it is hard to discern the peach. (I handed it to my wife without telling her what it was and she was unable to identify it as peach.) 

Coming after the plain spirit, this is sweetened and juicy; less like a liqueur than a long drink knocked up by mixing the spirit with a little (not too much) peach juice. It is low-key but grows on you. And it’s not too sweet, with nothing cloying about it. The lack of peach aroma is a little disappointing but in the mouth it is a well balanced drink.

Apple Pie Moonshine
I’m struck by the cloudy appearance of this one, though in fact the peach version has this too, as do the other infusions. The nose here is gentle but warming cinnamon; as with the peach, the actual fruit notes are subtle. There’s a slight woodiness. The palate shows a mild acidity from the fruit but the cinnamon still dominates. There are other flavours in there, which are hard to pin down (but perhaps something I recognise from apple juice rather than apples per se), but nothing that really strikes you as like biting into an apple.

This one is particularly disconcerting given that the small jars in which the samples are supplied are basically the same ones in which you find jam at hotel breakfast tables. The nose is recognisably jammy—not fresh strawberries but cooked. I swear I was convinced I could smell toast too, though I’m sure that was just an autosuggestion. On the palate it is indeed boozy jam. But again the emphasis is primarily on the booze.

As with all the flavoured drinks in the range, the fruit here is not sparkling, Technicolor and bubblegum-gum intense. It is quiet and almost ghostly, redolent of neglected sheds and mossy verandahs in late afternoon dappled sun. Like someone just brushed the dust off a long-forgotten mason jar, tasted its venerable and faded contents and thought, “This is quite nice, actually.”

Not black or dark red in colour, but muted and frankly brown. The sort of observation that makes you pretty confident no artificial colours or flavours were deployed. But this final sample bucks the trend by having quite a powerful aroma, an aroma a bit like cough syrup. On the tongue it has a stronger acidity than the others, doubtless from the berries, but it still reminds me primarily of medicine—not just generally, but of some very specific linctus from my childhood.*

United colours of Palmetto: (left to right) American Moonshine, Peach, Apple Pie, Strawberry, Blackberry

As with O’Donnell Moonshine, the plain version is the one I’m most interested in (and you can always add fresh fruit to your spirit if you want a mixed drink). But the fruit versions here clearly have been made with real fruit—they have the colour and smell of stewed fruit, rather than synthetic primary colours and chemicals tastes. And—the blackberry aside, for me—they make pleasant drinks, still spirit-driven, like ancestral recipes for taking the edge off your moonshine using the produce that was to hand.

But for me the real revelation from all of this is the unadulterated spirit itself. It is not just a creditable stab but a genuinely palatable drink with a character of its own. If what the producers say is true, then this is achieved without additives or modern-day techno-fudges aimed at finding a quick and easy way to produce something for vodka drinkers with a little of the faux-frisson of the Prohibition era’s glamour. If what the producers say is true, this is the real deal, made in exactly the way it was back then. There can no doubt that a lot of moonshine was much less pleasant than this, shored up with dubious contaminants in a cynical attempt to engineer something that wouldn’t make customers gag. But Palmetto Moonshine shows that you could produce an enjoyable corn whiskey without risky and expensive time in a barrel.

* You’re right, this was just an excuse to use the word “linctus”, something I find frustratingly lacking in everyday life.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Happiness is a torpedo on the sun deck

While looking for poster imagery that captured the tone of a Candlelight Club party last month to celebrate the golden age of luxury ocean liners, I came across the delightful image above. I found quite a high-res copy, enabling me to zoom in and look at the details. Details such as the drinks tray by the gentleman’s side.

What’s he drinking? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a crazy bottle like that before, with no bottom, but I quickly discovered that it is known as a “torpedo bottle”, or sometimes “Hamilton bottle” after William Hamilton, a purveyor of carbonated drinks who produced many such bottles with his name stamped on them. It was used in the 19th and early 20th centuries to hold soda water and the like, and what you usually read is that the idea was it couldn’t be stood up, forcing you to store it on its side. This keeps the wired cork in contact with the liquid inside, ensuring it does not dry out, shrink and allow the pressure to escape. But I did also wonder whether the domed shape makes for a stronger structure, better able to resist cracking under the pressure inside. After a bit of poking around I found out that in Hamilton’s patent specification of 1809 he does indeed state that this shape of vessel “can be much stronger than or jar of equal weight, made in the usual form”.

While it was obviously possible to make a conventional bottle that could take pressure (such as a Champagne bottle) this required high-quality glass that wasn’t worth using for a soda bottle. (And note that Champagne bottles generally do have a domed bottom too, but the dome goes inwards, enabling you to stand the bottle up.) By the time of the First World War glass-making had improved to the point where this shape was no longer necessary which probably explains why torpedo bottles died out.

I’ve found a couple of references suggesting that these bottles had a particular use on shipboard: because you couldn’t stand them up they couldn’t fall over if the ship pitched. This is appealing, as our picture is indeed on a ship. But this doesn’t make much sense, as a bottle like this on its side would obviously roll straight off a table or shelf, so you’d need to keep them in racks. And if you’re using a rack then it doesn’t make much difference what shape your bottle is.*

The stand that we see the bottle in must have been an inevitable consequence of the bottle design. (Some say that part of the intention of the torpedo design, on the manufacturer’s part, was that once you’d opened it you couldn’t put it down until you’d finished it, but I can’t see that going down well in polite society, and this benefit is not mentioned in Hamilton’s patent notes.) Note that the 1895 patent shown here only claims to have made improvements to the design, so bottle stands had obviously been around for a while already.

Out gent’s torpedo bottle has colourless liquid, probably soda water, and there is a glass of it on the tray. But the other glass contains something orange (or possibly red, given that this image looks as if it may have the colour balance skewed too much towards yellow). It could be an Americano (Campari, red vermouth and soda), although DBS thinks it is probably just Campari and soda.

I have tried to identify the label on the side of the torpedo bottle—an orange disc with a white diagonal stripe—but without success. It may be a figment of the artist’s imagination, but if you come across this logo in real life let me know!

*  There is, of course, the ship’s decanter shape, which flairs to a very wide base, to make it bottom-heavy and stable on a moving ship. As far as I can tell this is the genuine purpose of the design—and it is worth noting that is effectively the opposite of the torpedo design.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Bone in the throat

A friend announced that his favourite cocktails were the White Russian (vodka, Kahlua and milk/cream) and The Bone.

The what? I googled it and discovered it was invented by David Wondrich, apparently for the Chickenbone Café in Brooklyn. It’s one of those recipes that, once you’ve read it, you simply have to try—reader, I even went out and bought some Tabasco specially.*

It’s not an attractive drink. Even fine-strained it has a murky quality to it. You’ll notice that Wondrich does not specify anything like a garnish, just has you pour it into a shot glass, though as you can see I used something more foppish.

As you might expect from the proportions, it is mostly about the whiskey. (Wondrich specifies Wild Turkey rye 101-proof (50% alcohol), but I used Bulleit, which is a high-rye bourbon. But even in small quantities the other ingredients make their presence felt. The lime is clear, but not mouth-puckeringly sour, just fruity, while the sweetness of the sugar balances it and smooths the whiskey like in an Old Fashioned. And the odd thing
is that there is a suggestion of salt, even though there isn’t any. (Perhaps some knee-jerk part of my brain is thinking of tequila…)

And then there is the Tabasco. Don’t try this drink if you really don’t like spicy food, as three dashes is enough to pack a punch. Each sip is a journey, with whiskey up front, then the sweet and sour notes sort of slide round the side of your tongue, with that inexplicable saltiness bringing up the rear. You think that is it, but then the pepper sauce jumps out from behind a tree and delivers a sucker-punch. For something relatively simple it holds your attention from mouthful to mouthful, stimulating every part of your palate that it can find.

50ml Wild Turkey rye (or other 100-proof rye or bourbon)**
1 tsp fresh-squeezed lime juice
1 tsp simple syrup (made with equal parts sugar and water)
3 dashes Tabasco sauce
Strain into chilled tall shot glass and serve.

*  I was quite surprised to discover I didn’t have any—I always thought of Tabasco as one of those things like Angostura bitters that you never actually run out of. You just buy a bottle once, in your youth, and carry on using minuscule amounts now and then for the rest of your life. Although now I think about it, I do vaguely remember looking at the half-empty bottle I had before, doubtless with a price label in pre-decimal currency, its contents now a sort of grey colour, and thinking that maybe it was time to lay it to rest in the drains.

** In fact it looks as if Wild Turkey Rye in the UK is now only available at the 81 proof strength.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

When is a gin Cornish?

I like Cornwall, England’s westernmost county, and regularly go on holiday there. It was on a previous jaunt, to the Roseland Peninsula, that I came across Tarquin’s Cornish Gin, which got me thinking about how one could meaningfully create a gin that seemed redolent of Cornwall itself. (Tarquin’s gin has mostly conventional botanicals from all over the world, with the only local one being violets from Tarquin’s garden.)

The last time I was in the area I popped into the Polgoon winery near where I was staying. I’d been before, sampled their wines and frankly found them pretty unpalatable, but I like the idea so I went back to give them another try. Their product was still unexciting (though they also make cider, which is better), so I poked around in the shop and found a whole wall of Cornish gins. More or less at random I picked three to try, Curio, Wrecking Coast and Trevethan. Each of these takes a different approach to what might make a gin distinctly “Cornish”.

Curio gin is made by the Curio Spirits Company in Mullion, west Cornwall, which is husband and wife team William and Rubina Tyler-Street. The Big Idea is that Curio uses rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum) as a botanical, which grows on cliffs in the area. It is not to be confused with the more commonly-encountered marsh samphire (Salicornia europaea), which I first came across in a fishmongers some years ago, sold as an accompaniment. I was told it grew on the coast and was only in season for about three weeks a year; later I foraged my own one summer on a flat, marshy beach in Norfolk. It has a pleasant crunchy texture and a light salty flavour. It is sometimes called sea asparagus, but it is not nearly as strongly flavoured as asparagus. Nowadays it is sufficiently fashionable (at least in London) that I see it in supermarkets all year round, imported from the Middle East and elsewhere.

Rock samphire, on the other hand, is still pretty obscure, probably because it has a strong, alarming flavour. While rambling on the coast we crossed a beach where, according to the guidebook, rock samphire grew on the cliffs; I did nibble some stalks of what I concluded must be the right plant (though Mrs H. was sceptical) and it was pretty fiery and pungent. Curio has a dominating flavour of mint, both on the nose and the palate, a sort of soggy mint with an undertone of fennel. I’m guessing this is your rock samphire, as it is also known as sea fennel. The illustration on the label shows the samphire, and also juniper and star anise (and what looks like coriander leaf but presumably isn’t). The company say that there are 15 botanicals but won’t give them away apart from samphire, juniper, star anise, cinnamon and seaweed. Mind you, there is a photo on their website which seems to show them all. How good are you at identifying them? I can also spot lemon peel, nutmeg, coriander seed, fennel sea, and what looks like ground almond and orris root powder, plus some sort of dried flower?

The botanicals that go into Curio

It's one of those occasions when I can’t really pick up on many of those, so dominating is that sweet mint/fennel thing. There is a waft of fresh lemon on the nose, and a bit of pepper and caramel on the finish. It goes well enough with tonic, but that mint flavour persists and, for me, becomes more cloying as you go on. The recommended serve is on the rocks with a pinch of sea salt. The spirit is certainly smooth neat (they say their spirits are “quadruple distilled”) and the salt adds the briny promise that is there on the label but not in the spirit itself (despite the presence of seaweed in the mix), but I can’t really warm to this gin. I am just haunted by those nagging pungent, aromatic oils.

Wrecking Coast is made at Tintagel, on an area indeed known as the Wrecking Coast because of the violent winter weather. The microdistillery uses a selection of 12 botanicals (apparently juniper, coriander, chamomile, vanilla, angelica, liquorice, orris, grains of paradise, cassia bark, cinnamon quills, lemon peel and aniseed), steeped in neutral grain spirit for 14 days, then redistilled through a computer-controlled iStill designed in the Netherlands, before being rested for a further seven days. But the Big Idea with Wrecking Coast, in fact the starting point for the whole project and the thing that makes it self-consciously Cornish, is clotted cream. In case you don’t know, clotted cream is a local delicacy, made by gently heating cream to produce a very thick, slightly caramelised end result with a fat content of at least 55%. The distillers seem to blend clotted cream with more grain spirit (I assume the fat dissolves in the alcohol) then use a separate, hand-blown glass vacuum still to redistill that mixture.* I guess they must have found that traditional heat distillation did something horrid to the taste. The two distillates are blended then diluted down to 44% ABV.

Making alcohol from dairy is nothing new—some vodkas are milk based and it was a common base for illicit Irish poitín (in fact I believe Knockeen Hills is made from milk) but I have not heard of someone mixing cream with neutral grain spirit then redistilling that.** Wrecking Coast say that the resulting drink retains the flavour of the cream while also gaining a “rich, velvety feeling in the mouth”. Certainly some spirits do have a creamy, unctuous mouthfeel, such as Sipsmith and Chase vodkas, though neither of those has any dairy in them.

The first thing that hits me on Wrecking Coast’s nose aside from mentholly jumiper, is citrus, plus lemony coriander and something herbaceous, like lemon balm. There is also a strong sweetly floral element, like violets. Particularly when sniffing the neck of the bottle I get toffee or caramel notes too. The palate is also citrus-forward plus juniper, coriander, perhaps berry fruit, and a perceived floral sweetness (orris?), which grows if you let ice melt in the gin. I also find a growing sense of that aniseed. I am much taken by this gin; I like its botanical intensity and the sweet/savoury balance. But I confess I don’t get cream. And a velvety feel in the mouth? Actually, out of the three gins on test here, this one actually has the fiercest mouthfeel, but then it is the strongest at 44% ABV.

Trevethan takes its Cornishness from its back story. In the 1920s local man Norman Trevethan was a chauffeur to Earl and Lady St Germans and would sometimes take them to events in Jazz Age London. Inspired by the cocktail culture he found there, he decided to join in by making his own gin. There was a long rural tradition of making alcohol from seasonal crops, though quite how easy it would have been for Norman to find conventional gin botanicals I do not know. Then in 2015 two industrial food and drink scientists got talking—one of them, Robert Cuffe, is Norman’s grandson and the other, chemist John Hall, heard about his friend’s grandfather and had a hankering to recreate the family recipe.

I’m not sure how much resemblance the modern version has to the original—the suggestion is that they merely “tweaked” it. I met John at the World Gin Awards judging and he told me that Rob’s mother can remember going out with Norman to gather botanicals for the gin, so I guess they must have some idea of the original recipe. The modern gin does contain elderflower and gorse flower foraged at Trewonnard Farm in Treneglos, and, like all the gins here, it is made with Cornish spring water.

Norman Trevethan
The distilling notes are enlightening. They know that Norman only made his gin in small batches, which is how they made their test recipes, but scaling that up to their 300-litre copper pot still (still “small batch” by commercial standards) meant making adjustments to keep the flavour the same. In tests they used the gorse to add a hint of sweetness but found they needed to add vanilla to maintain this at high volume, which also helps create a smooth, oily mouthfeel. They describe the profile as juniper-led, backed up by cassia and angelica, with citrus “hiding in there” and cardamom “lingering at the end of the mouthful”. Other botanicals mentioned are coriander, orange peel, lemon peel.

Compared to the other gins tasted here, Trevethan immediately emerges as more elegant and poised. I like Wrecking Coast but it is more boisterous and in-you-face, whereas Trevethan has a reserved complexity. At times I have decided it was all about coriander, then cardamom (and I think the cardamom does emerge more with dilution). Sniffing the bottle again now I get lemony citrus, balanced by warm, perfumed lower notes, definitely including cassia. Then you notice the resinous juniper. And now and then you’re hit by a sideways stab of very savoury curry notes. It is indeed smooth and oily on the tongue, though sipping it now I still feel that high, dry, aromatic coriander seed notes dominate, followed by fresh coriander or parsley leaves. On the finish I could certainly believe there is elderflower here.

Without doubt Trevethan is my favourite of these three. It’s a sort of “desert island gin” in the sense that it does the fundamental job required of a gin, without being gimmicky, but also has a complex balance that reveals different nuances at different times. Even after you’ve swallowed it the aftertastes continue to evolve. It rewards study if you want to ponder it, but it also delivers if you just want a drink without thinking about it.

Does any of these gins capture the essence of Cornwall? No, but then gin is not a quintessentially Cornish thing. Curio may well pack a big hit of rock samphire, but there is probably a reason why we don’t eat rock samphire very much. Wrecking Coast is a fun gin but does appear crude next to Trevethan, and I’m damned if I can detect clotted cream in it. Trevethan, on the other hand, make the point that theirs is traditional—because Norman was trying to create a normal gin, not trying to stand out in a crowded market by being Other.

In my rambles along Cornwall’s clifftop paths I have often reflected that, aside from brine, one powerful fragrance of the area is indeed gorse, which is everywhere and has a powerful smell, sweet and distinctly redolent of coconut. I’m not sure that, blind-tasting Trevethan, I would leap up and yell “Gorse!”, but it does have a sweet, warm, perfumed element to the nose in which I can definitely believe that gorse is playing a part.

* Conventional distilling raises the temperature of the liquid till the alcohol evaporates off and can be condensed in a second chamber. Vacuum distillation achieves evaporation by instead lowering the pressure inside the vessel. In fact lowering the pressure has the effect of causing the temperature inside the vessel to drop. Ian Hart from Sacred Gin does all his distilling this way and I believe that Oxley does as well. Clearly if you are not “cooking” the liquid the end flavours may well be different.

** Today I learned that in the early days of vodka-making it was common to distill the spirit a couple of times, then mix it with milk before distilling it again, which is much more like what Wrecking Coast are doing.