Monday, 25 January 2016

Elephant Gin: a cure for the Heart of Darkness

I first encountered Elephant Gin at a pop-up German-themed bar in the basement
of Herman Ze German restaurant in Charlotte Street during London Cocktail
Week last October. You can see that this is bottle 564 from a batch named after an
elephant called Igor. The glass shows that this is a gin to be sipped and
savoured; the lid is there to keep in the precious aromas, I was told
In a crowded marketplace gins increasingly seem to be using a quirky back-story, unusual botanicals or some other gimmick to grab our attention. Elephant Gin is the second German gin I’ve tried in recent months and, like Monkey 47, it has an animal theme. But where Monkey 47 uses botanicals from the Black Forest region where it is made, Elephant is actually all about Africa. And where the monkey in question was an individual called Max from a zoo, Elephant Gin is named after the whole species—in fact 15% of the profits are donated to two charities that work to protect African elephants from ivory poaching. Having said that, each batch of 800 bottles is named after a particular elephant that one of the charities has helped, so every label has the name and number handwritten on it.

This is how the gin is presented, hankering after the Golden Age of exploration
The makers were apparently inspired by their own travels in the continent, and the imagery is designed to evoke the Victorian heyday of exploration, with a front label reminiscent an old postage stamp (featuring an elephant clutching a bottle of gin in its trunk) and a vintage map on the back label. The bottle is specially made, stoppered with natural cork and decorated with twine and an embossed seal, and does feel like something taken on safari. Of course Europeans in the Victorian era did not exactly treat the Dark Continent with reverence, and would have been more likely to bag elephants as trophies than protect them, but perhaps the gin is an attempt to make amends for the colonial past…

Unsurprisingly, the 14 botanicals include a number from Africa: citric baobab from Malawi (boasting more vitamin C than oranges, it says here, though how much of that survives into the gin I don’t know), bitter floral African Wormwood, devil’s claw, said to have healing properties, blackcurrant-like buchu and herbaceous lion’s tail, all from South Africa. In this respect the product has more in common with Whitley Neill, another African-inspired gin that also uses baobab (and also gives some of its profits to African charities). Elephant also uses fresh apples from an orchard near the distillery outside Hamburg, which slightly confuses the image, plus elderflower, ginger, pimento, lavender and pine needles from the Salzburger Mountains, as well as the more conventional cassia and sweet orange peel, plus juniper, of course.

It’s clear that this gin is not just about gimmickry—it would have been easy to use a tried-and-tested set of botanicals then add one or two token African elements. But the fact that there are so many unusual ingredients, plus an absence of many typical gin botanicals, such as coriander, orris or angelica, shows that the whole thing has been put together from the ground up and the botanical selection is all about the flavour.

Even the 10cl sample bottle mimics the style and
quality of the full-size vessel
The botanicals are handpicked and macerated for 24 hours. It’s a one-shot distillation (as opposed to multi-shot, where a botanically intense “concentrate” is produced which is then diluted down with alcohol)* with a relatively small “heart” of the distillate selected for use (i.e. the best bit—the first liquid out of a pot still is discarded, as is the last, and how much of the central cut you use is a balance of quality against cost). The gin is diluted with local spring water down to 45% ABV. The end result is not cheap, at around £30 for just 50cl. (My sample is only 10cl, so I wasn’t able to try it in many different serves.)

The first thing I get on sniffing the bottle is a floral, marshmallow sweetness combined with a juiciness. (How a smell can be juicy is hard to say—I expect it reminds me of fruit that I know to be juicy.) There is warm ginger, zingy, sherbet citrus, blackcurrant, earthy spice. It’s an elegant, perfumed, structured aroma, but quite subtle. It is sweetish on the tongue, and smooth for a 45% gin, with fruit interplaying with herbaceous notes, the impression of sweetness fencing with dry spice and a tweak of bitterness on the tip of your tongue. It doesn’t strike me as particularly juniper-driven.

Some of the seals say "Made in Germany" while others
show a Zulu shield and spears, and the date 1802, an
emblem that is also moulded into the bottle. This
commemorates the year that botanist Heinrich Stark
mounted an important expedition. I can't find out much
about him, though
As it happens I have some Whitley Neill to hand so I try it for comparison. It is much more juniper-dominated on the nose; on the palate it is also sweet and fruity, but more stern and muscular. Elephant is considerably softer and more delicate.

Add a bit of tonic water (but not too much) and the character remains broadly the same, though for the first time I get a taste of apple, joining the sweet citrus and dry, perfumed spice. But Elephant Gin won’t take too much tonic water before its subtleties are swamped. (By comparison Whitley Neill is well adapted to a G&T with its strong juniper element making its presence easily felt.) The prescribed garnish is a slice of apple and it does go well, slotting in easily with the gin’s own flavours.** Finally, I try one of the recommended cocktails, the White Tusk (a version of the White Lady): 50ml Elephant Gin, 15ml lemon juice, 10ml Cointreau, 10ml sugar syrup and 10ml egg white. It is dominated by sweetness and the orange flavour of the Cointreau, but the gin’s own characteristics do seep through; I’m tempted to describe them as appley but it may just be the apple garnish from the last drink making me think that way.

* Proponents of single-shot distillation evidently feel that multi-shot is a compromise that sacrifices quality. However, m’colleague DBS conducted a test recently, with the help of Anne Brock from Jensen, where they made various gin batches using single- and multi-shot techniques and blind tasted them. Broadly speaking the result was that the single-shot samples were not preferred to the rest. See the report at http://distilling.uberflip.com/i/622468-distiller-winter-16/91.

** All new gins seem to have to come with a prescribed garnish—and this is never something normal like a slice of lemon. (Nor is it ever recommended that no garnish is necessary.) It seems that this is viewed as an essential part of establishing the product’s character and place in the market. I have a bit of a suspicion of garnishes in general—I feel that if the product doesn’t taste at its best without the added flavour of the garnish, then why not make it with that flavour in it to start off with? (OK, I accept that, for example, the taste of a slice of fresh apple probably can’t be replicated by macerating apple in the spirit then distilling it, even with cold, vacuum distillation.) Generally speaking the prescribed garnish is usually one of the gin’s botanicals anyway. Likewise, my suspicions—and my hackles—are raised in a bar when I am presented with a cocktail that has a small tree sprouting from the top, frequently rendering it almost impossible to drink without poking your eye out. If the vessel is also something opaque, like a bamboo log or hollowed-out monkey skull, then between that and the plug of garnish you find that you can’t actually see the liquid you are drinking, which I find disconcerting. Recently I was served a cocktail with a smouldering cinnamon stick balanced horizontally across the top. WTF? Even the barman seemed a bit sheepish about this, since you couldn’t pick the glass up without the stick rolling off, and if it didn’t then it would probably burn you (or set fire to your moustache if you had one). In case you’re wondering, burning cinnamon smoke does smell lightly of cinnamon (I’ve just set fire to a cinnamon stick to check), so I’m sure this aroma was supposed to be part of the experience, but I don’t remember being able to pick up on this at the time.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Introducing the Bognor Gothic cocktail

Bognor Gothic the font
A friend recently asked me to come up with a cocktail to go with a new font he had created.

You read that right. I don’t suppose many fonts come with a recommended cocktail, but you know what these creative types* are like. I suppose that, while many classic typefaces were developed to solve practical typesetting problems, others were intended to evoke emotions or associations in the viewer, so perhaps a prescribed drink might help achieve this effect.

To give you an idea of the mood, here is a room in my friend's
house done up in a Victorian Gothic/Arts & Crafts style
My friend lives in Bognor Regis, a town on the south coast of England. It became a fashionable resort in Victorian times and was later favoured by King George V for its healthy sea air, hence the “Regis” suffix. The font is called Bognor Gothic and seems to be a modern nod to the Victorian reinvention of the Gothic. This is what he has to say on the subject:

As Montmartre is to Paris and Soho is to London, so North Bersted is to Bognor Regis. Therefore it is no wonder that Bognor Gothic springs from this quaint “artists quarter” of the sprawling metropolis. It is deeply rooted in the Arts and Crafts movement, being a fine hand-crafted font brought about through a combination of both the belief in the integrity of the artisan and the eschewing of modern technology—albeit through the mechanism of not being arsed to Google other Gothic fonts. Bognor Gothic is a product of its environment, the desolate and blasted landscape of the Victorian seaside town, like the bleak moors but with more arcades and chip shops. Less “Wuthering Heights” and more “Withering Lows.”**

So something self-consciously rustic, artisanal and Victorian. “Our money is on something involving dark rum and absinthe,” he adds.

The Victorian angle put me in mind of some sort of punch or purl, a kind of ale infused with wormwood—particularly the variety that grows in coastal salt marshes—which used to be popular in Victorian times. The wormwood seems to have played the same role as a bittering agent as hops do today. Later the term purl was used for a mulled blend of ale, gin, sugar and spices. Simon Difford lists purl in his cocktail guide as simply gin and ale.

Monin's gingerbread syrup:
doesn't work here
Cocktails with beer are pretty trendy these days,*** presumably going hand in hand with the explosion of “craft” ales. So I start off with gin and beer, using Fuller’s London Pride simply because I have some in the house. Then I add some absinthe (La Fée Parisienne, the new formulation) in accordance with my friend’s suggestion, and as a nod to the original wormwood flavour in purl.

As for the spices, the simplest way to get them in is a spiced syrup. I happen to have some of Monin’s gingerbread syrup, so I experiment with that, but I have to abandon it in the end as it has too dominating a flavour. I don’t know how they make it, but it doesn’t just taste of gingerbread spices—ginger and cinnamon—but somehow of gingerbread. So instead I make an experimental quantity of simple syrup (100ml sugar and 50ml water heated in a pan till it dissolves) with about a teaspoon of Schwartz mixed spice (ground cinnamon, coriander seed, caraway seed, nutmeg, ginger and cloves) plus a few extra whole cloves.

I found that if you start with a double measure (50ml) of gin then you probably don’t want much more than 300ml beer before you start to lose the flavour of the gin. Absinthe always makes its presence felt, and I found that half a teaspoon was ample. A couple of teaspoons of the syrup got those mulling spices involved, and I chose to add a teaspoon of lemon juice for a tartness to balance the sweetness of the sugar. I tried it at room temperature though you could mull it—preferably by plunging a red-hot poker into it in the traditional way.

The Bognor Gothic No.1
The Bognor Gothic No.1
6 shots ale
2 shots gin
2 tsp mixed spice syrup
1 tsp lemon juice
½ tsp absinthe
Combine ingredients in a glass and stir gently.

It’s an interesting drink, with all the flavours discernible at the same time. Whether or not you’ll actually like it depends in the first instance on whether you like absinthe, which is a pretty divisive taste. Or beer, for that matter: between the beer and the absinthe there is a noticeable bitterness to this cocktail, as well as the sweet and sour “cocktaily” elements too.

London Pride has quite a caramel character to it, which made me wonder if the same cocktail might indeed work with dark rum instead of gin. I tried it with some Bacardi Carta Negra, but for some reason I didn’t think it worked so well. It may be that beer and rum aren’t comfortable bedfellows after all, so I decided to backtrack and start again with rum and absinthe as my friend had originally suggested. I didn’t find anything intrinsically quarrelsome here, so I then tried to bring in some spice again, this time using The King’s Ginger liqueur, then lime juice to balance its sweetness (and for a nautical nod).

The Bognor Gothic No.2
The Bognor Gothic No.2
2½ shots dark rum
¾ shot The King’s Ginger
½ shot lime juice
½ tsp absinthe
Shake with ice and serve in some sort of chalice, pewter tankard or hand-turned wooden bowl. Or a cocktail glass.

You may have to play around with the proportions depending on what rum you use. There is actually an existing cocktail called a Green Swizzle (mentioned in the P.G. Woodhouse story The Rummy Affair of Old Biffy) which is probably similar—I say “probably” as there doesn’t seem to be much agreement and Woodhouse doesn't name the ingredients—but with almond-flavoured falernum instead of the ginger liqueur (some modern versions use crème de menthe to get the colour and no absinthe) and presumably with white rum to allow it to be green. And you are also not far from the classic Dark ‘n’ Stormy, mixing dark rum, lime juice and ginger beer.

Once again the absinthe will divide people: Mrs H. hates the stuff, so I tried making one without it but for some reason it didn’t really add up to much, even after I added a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters (which went nicely with the ginger). I suspected it exposed the relatively mild flavour of Bacardi Carta Negra as a “dark” rum, and that one with more of a raspy pot-still character might work better. So I try the experiment again using Myer’s dark Jamaican rum and, although it is different, I again think that the absinthe-free version doesn’t quite come together but the full-on version does.

I couldn’t really say whether this cocktail will help you appreciate the font better, but it leaves me wondering what drinks should accompany other fonts. Times? Something establishment like a whisky and soda, I think. Courier, the classic monospaced typewriter font? Whatever a war correspondent drinks—a cup of cold coffee or anything from a hipflask with a dent from a bullet in it. Slab serif fonts remind me of politically correct textbooks from the late Seventies or early Eighties, so perhaps a Harvey Wallbanger (though the people who wrote those books probably drank chlorophyll smoothies or Fairtrade real ale with twigs floating in it). Gill Sans is one of my favourite fonts and it always reminds me of wartime information posters. What did they drink in the Blitz..?

Any other suggestions gratefully received!

Times
Courier
Slab serif font American Typewriter. Check out Rockwell too
Gill Sans

* Pardon the pun…

** On the subject of Victorian novels, Bognor—or rather the purpose-built resort of Hothampton developed there by speculator Sir Richard Hotham—is believed to be portrayed in Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon.

*** At a bar in St John's Square called The Bear (now closed down) I had an unlikely-sounding but very successful cocktail of gin, IPA beer and sauvignon blanc wine.


Monday, 11 January 2016

The world's first quinine gin?

Despite the plethora of gin-based cocktails out there, I’m sure that most of the world’s gin gets guzzled in combination with tonic water. This combination stems from the days of the Raj, when British Army officers and East India Company employees were issued with quinine to ward off malaria, and found its intense bitterness could be mollified by mixing it with gin, water, sugar and lime. They developed a taste for the drink, and modern tonic water contains the quinine, water, sugar and citrus elements.

Although various attempts have been made to produce quinine syrups or concentrates, it’s surprising that (given the bloom of exotic gins on the market) no has tried putting quinine in gin itself, until now: 1897 Quinine Gin from Maverick Drinks uses cinchona bark, the source of natural quinine, as a botanical.

The other botanicals are juniper, coriander, angelica, orange, lemon, nutmeg, cassia, cinnamon, orris and liquorice—which are macerated and traditionally distilled in a copper pot still—plus pink and white grapefruit peel and lemon peel which are cold-distilled separately with the cinchona. In this latter process, instead of using heat to boil off the alcohol, a vacuum pump is used to reduce the pressure inside the vessel to the point where the alcohol evaporates. Adherents feel that by not “cooking” your botanicals you extract a different, and more natural, flavour from them. Oxley gin uses vacuum distillation and has a similar emphasis on fresh citrus. When you reduce the pressure to the point of evaporation, the temperature naturally drops—in the case of Oxley it drops to -5 degrees Celsius. Sacred Gin also uses vacuum distillation, but distiller Ian Hart uses a warm water bath to keep it at room temperature. Whereas Oxley macerates all the botanicals together and distils in one shot, Sacred botanicals are all macerated and distilled separately then blended (Ian does this so that different botanicals can be macerated for different lengths of time). So 1897 Quinine Gin is a hybrid: clearly the producers felt that the benefits of cold distillation (in this case at room temperature) were felt with the citrus, but not with the other botanicals. (I gather that cold distilling juniper gives a much gentler, grassier flavour than the sharp pine resin character we are used to.) It is bottled at 45.8% ABV.

The number in the gin’s name is the year in which Sir Ronald Ross discovered the parasite in mosquitoes that causes malaria, paving the way to an effective treatment.* The day of his discovery, 20th August, is apparently World Mosquito Day. Of course the fever-fighting properties of quinine had been known for a long time before that,** but Ross’s discovery in theory meant that insecticides could be used to curb the spread of the disease. In fact mosquitoes have proved good an evolving resistance to these, and even today a child dies every minute from malaria. Consequently, half the profits from sales of this gin (at least £5 per bottle—enough to buy, deliver and install a mosquito net) are donated to the charity Malaria No More UK.

Note the intriguing embossed background pattern. No explanation is offered
The gin comes in a handsome rectangular bottle that combines weighty opulence with a rough-hewn, artisanal quality. The cap is dipped in black wax and the  labels are black and silver. The front label, which is elaborately embossed (including a background pattern that I at first took for the veins of a leaf but which turned out, on closer inspection, to be a geometric design that to me suggests African textiles or decorative woven baskets) features a stylised cinchona tree. The border features lines from Ross’s poem.*

So what does quinine in a gin taste like? Not so easy to say: we seldom encounter it on its own, and most of us just know it as being bitter. Yet, as Ian Hart once showed me, it is easy enough to distil out the bitter elements from a bitter ingredients (he gave me macerations of hops and gentian to taste—very bitter—and then distillations of the same macerations—not bitter at all). I’ve got a bottle of the Battersea Quinine Cordial, an experimental quinine syrup made by Hendrick’s a few years ago: it has a sort of heady, dusty, woody, aromatic smell to it, like some vermouths or cocktail bitters, and a rubbery floral element on the tongue—plus a pronounced bitter finish. (But I should point out that this product also contains orange flower, lavender and holy thistle as well as cinchona bark.) Maverick describe the bark as adding an “ethereal flavour and floral aroma” to their gin.

A GT Turbo made with 1897 Quinine Gin and Battersea Quinine Cordial
Sniffing the bottle of Quinine Gin I’m hit first by orange and grapefruit, then spices—cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg—and sandalwood, plus something floral and a hint of chocolate. In a glass you get a delicate and distinctly sweet balance of juniper with juicy orange, something leafy and a parma-violet floral weight. You expect it to be sweet and heavy on the tongue but it fact it is dry with a slightly bitter finish. It has poise in the way it subtly balances juicy, fruity citrus, woody spice with a dry chocolate finish, and heavy floral elements. The sinus-clearing resinous character of juniper is definitely there, but this is not a juniper-led gin. Citrus is what dominates.

I try it in a few obvious cocktails. It makes a lush, perfumed Martini, and this is a great way to appreciate the gin. It also works well in an Aviation, with its citrus and floral elements sitting perfectly happily with the violet and lemon ingredients. I expected that it would get rather lost in a Negroni, but in fact the fruity/floral character shines through, balancing nicely with the bitterness of the Campari to produce a mellow, thoughtful version of the drink.

Ironically, one drink that I did not think worked so well was a gin and tonic. It will vary depending on what tonic you use (perhaps the clean, blank canvas of 1724 might be more forgiving), but with Schweppes I found that the lack of juniper thrust made the gin get a bit lost. Better to appreciate this gin in a Martini, and it would probably make a good Gin Old Fashioned too.

On the subject of which, since I’ve got the Battersea Quinine Cordial out, I can’t resist trying a GT Turbo. I think this may have been invented at Purl, but it combines gin with tonic syrup and some lime juice to make a short drink that is meant to be a sort of compressed G&T. The end result will depend on the syrup you use (and there is no standard here), but with 50ml of Quinine Gin, 20ml Battersea Cordial and 20ml lime juice you get something that is indeed oddly like a condensed G&T, with a sharp, cleansing bitterness that fans of Campari will appreciate. The fruitiness of the gin is a good foil to the woody dryness of the tonic syrup. On paper we’re in the same ballpark as the Corpse Reviver No.2—short, sweet and sour, citrus and a bit herbal (particularly if you use a quinated amaro like Cocchi Americano or China Martini)—but this is altogether leaner and with a nettle-y asceticism, more about the bitter high notes.

1897 Quinine Gin is available online from Mast of Malt and Amazon at about £40 for 70cl.


*He was so chuffed that it prompted him to write a poem: 

This day relenting God
Hath placed within my hand
A wondrous thing; and God
Be praised. At His command,

Seeking his secret deeds
With tears and toiling breath,
I find thy cunning seeds,
O million-murdering Death.

I know this little thing
A myriad men will save.
O Death, where is thy sting?
Thy victory, O grave?

The last two lines are from Corinthians 15:55. I suspect few boffins write poetry when they have a major breakthrough these days; they probably tweet about it instead. Not sure which is better.

** It was in use to fight malaria in Rome in 1631. The South American nations where cinchona grew naturally tried to band the export of seeds but eventually they were smuggled out. By the time of Ross’s discovery quinine production was at its peak in the Dutch colony of Java, fuelling the colonialist tendencies of the West. The Second World War cut the British off from the supply, leading them to develop synthetic alternatives. Since 2006 quinine has no longer been recommended by the World Health Organisation as a first-line treatment for malaria.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Hansard, the ghost of a gin

I was on holiday in Venice last month, staying in a self-catering apartment. On the first night we sloped into a supermarket for supplies and I was intrigued to see that the only gin they sold apart from Gordon’s was this, something called Hansard.

Such is the perceived “Britishness” of gin in many parts of the world (probably more those that don’t have so much of an indigenous gin habit) that the name didn’t really surprise me. (For those who don’t know, Hansard is the journal of record in the UK parliament.) Let’s not forget the name and label of Castle Bridge gin from Ghana. It is clearly labelled as “London Dry Gin”, but the front label also adds: “Produced according with traditional recipe [sic], from neutral spirit with the addition of juniper distillate.”

This is at once disarmingly frank and intriguing. So it has just the one botanical? It would be perfectly legitimate to make a multi-shot distillation with just juniper, then add more neutral spirit to dilute the botanical intensity, plus water to get the ABV down, and still justifiably call it a London Dry Gin. And, let’s face it, this stuff is €4.99 for a 70cl bottle, so they are clearly sparing a lot of expense in the manufacture.

The Italians may not be great gin drinkers but this is, after all, the nation that created the Negroni, and local bars are full of the usual international brands, such as Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray, as well as more exotic marques that I recognise from home. So who is Hansard aimed at? It is made on an industrial estate in Finale Emilia, Modena, by Casoni Fabbricazione Liquori S.P.A., a family firm dating back to 1814, who produce a range of spirits, liqueurs and amari. Why is the front label in English?* It could be aimed at tourists, but I suspect it is simply to give it an impression of being an import from Britain (in a market where most products actually are).

I can’t find out anything online about the brand, and the ingredients are simply given as “water, alcohol and gin distillate”. I can certainly believe that it has just one botanical, as juniper notes rise up, along with a distinct note of caraway and anise sweetness (which I could believe is an element of the juniper character), and maybe a hint of sweet orange? It is smooth enough on the tongue but dry, with an element of sugar flavour, but not sweetness. Overall it does not seem terribly strongly flavoured at all.**

It makes an unexciting G&T, adding dryness and bitterness to the tonic but not much else apart from subdued caraway. In a Martini with Noilly Prat you mostly get the vermouth; as with the tonic, if you add more gin to get a balance, it just drags down the taste of the other ingredient.

Perhaps appropriately, the best use I’ve found is in a Negroni—up against the powerful flavours of the Campari and red vermouth it serves the useful role of adding strength (though note that it is only 38% ABV), damping the sweetness and injecting a bit of juniper/caraway steel. But of course there are plenty of gins that do a better job, and if you keep adding more gin to see what happens eventually it starts to fall flat again. I also start to notice that dry sugar taste coming through, perhaps from the base spirit.

I’m not much impressed by Hansard. Although it is not rough as such, I find it rather unbalanced and, despite possibly having just one botanical, not much like gin.


*And why does no one doing this ever get an English speaker to proofread the label?

** When I initially opened the bottle I got juniper and anise/caraway. I then poured a hefty slug into a glass and covered it with clingfilm before giving the bottle to DBS. These notes are mostly made later from the sample in the glass, so it is possible that the flavour has lessened. I certainly get more caraway now than juniper but it is not strongly flavoured of anything.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Monkey 47: the creature from the Black Forest

Wind-up monkey not included
I like a monkey as much as the next man (more than many, if I’m honest), so I was happy to try Monkey 47 gin, handled in the UK by Spirit Cartel, who also do Four Roses bourbon. The principle hype is its 47 botanicals—seizing the crown from The Botanist, with its mere 35—but it also has an unusual provenance and an exotic back story.

The tale starts at the end of World War II when Wing Commander Montgomery Collins is posted to help run the British Sector of Berlin. A man of varied and fickle interests, he is saddened by the destruction around him and helps the effort to rebuild Berlin Zoo by sponsoring a monkey called Max. He leaves the Air Force in 1951 and, sparked by an urge to learn the art of watchmaking he moves to the Northern Black Forest region. Unfortunately he proves to have little talent for it, despite his love of watches, so he decides to open a guesthouse which he names Zum wilden Affen (The Wild Monkey—not really something that promises opulent comfort and a restful night’s sleep, but there you go). He is also depicted as having an Englishman’s love of gin and, as juniper is an abundant local ingredient in the renowned Black Forest ham, he starts tinkering with his own recipe, combining spices redolent of his upbringing as the son of a diplomat in India with local forest plants.

The story jumps forward to the early 2000s when renovation of the guesthouse turns up a wooden box containing a bottle of Monty’s gin, labelled “Max the Monkey—Schwarzwald Dry Gin”, with a letter explaining its recipe. Businessman Alexander Stein, after a career in telecommunications with postings around the world, including north and south America, returns to his home in Baden-Würtemberg. He hears the story of Monty and his gin and decides to recreate it.

Of course one takes all this with a pinch of salt, but the modern gin is made by distiller Christoph Keller at the Stählemühle distillery in Oberen Hegau. They admit that they made many changes to Monty’s recipe, which they variously describe as “rudimentary” and “eccentric”, but it does include many ingredients from the forest region, such as spruce, blackthorn, elderflower and bramble leaves, and they place a particular emphasis on the very soft local spring water and the “secret weapon” of fresh cranberries.* (Apparently Alex and Christoph distilled 120 botanicals individually and tasted them in isolation.) Distillation is in very small batches and the process uses both maceration and steam extraction, where alcohol vapour passes through baskets of botanicals, and the finished distillate is aged for three months in earthenware containers before being diluted to 47% ABV with that local spring water.

An Aviation made with Monkey 47
The packaging plays up the heritage aspect: the label is designed like a Victorian postage stamp, with serrated edges, plain paper and just two spot-printed colours. The squat, brown glass bottle is apparently based on an old pharmacy bottle that Stein found while out walking. The stopper is cork, at first glance just a plain one jammed in the top, but in fact it has a metal band halfway down that provides a finite travel into the bottle.

So what does it taste like? Can you pick up all 47 botanicals? No, of course not, but it is certainly complex. For me, juniper is not the first thing that leaps out, but limes, or rather a blend of limes and spices that really reminds me of lime pickle, then juniper and marmalade. There’s a heavy florality that is almost cloying, with coriander seed, lemon sherbet, juicy leafiness or stemminess like geranium, and something woody like cassia.

On the tongue the gin is relatively sweet and smooth for its 47%, with citrus to the fore, plus chocolate, something leafy like watercress, parma violets, orange peel, maybe a hint of cherry. And that lime pickle thing again.

In a Martini with Noilly Prat it is a natural companion to what is quite a citric vermouth; that floral element comes out along with strong coriander notes. But it is also very good with Belsazar Dry (and surely not because they are both German), making a juicy, fresh and balanced cocktail. A Negroni with Monkey 47, Campari and Martini Rosso is fruity and perfumed, perhaps a little cloying but with a strongly bitter aftertaste. In a G&T citrus and coriander spice are to the fore, with a wood-dry finish. As I suspected, the gin makes a good Aviation (gin, lemon juice, maraschino and crème de violette), with that citrus fruit sitting comfortably with the lemon and the gin’s florality at ease with the violette and cherry fruit. It also makes a predictably easy Gimlet (gin and lime cordial), with all those lime flavours sitting comfortably with each other.

It’s an intriguing gin with a strong impact from an unusual flavour profile. Despite the heritage tale, it went through 100 test formulas, accompanied by evaluative tastings with “renowned barkeepers”, so it is clearly engineered for a particular purpose, rather than just being a faithful presentation of a curio from the past. To me it falls into the category of gins that use sweet or floral flavours to make the spirit more approachable neat and perhaps woo consumers who are not naturally drawn to gin. It’s not going to become an everyday gin for me, partly because I personally prefer something more juniper-driven, and partly because it is £37 for just 50cl. But it is causing a lot of ripples, and it does have a picture of a monkey holding a sprig of jasmine on it, which counts for a lot.

* Judging by the “Encyclopedia Botanica” on the website the botanical bill also includes coriander, angelica, nutmeg, grains of paradise, common vervain, jasmine, camomile, marsh mallow and musk mallow.

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.