Sunday, 8 March 2015

Terminus: the absinthe to end all absinthes

Ted with his two new products, Terminus Oxygénée Absinthe and Coeur de Jade
Thursday was National Absinthe Day in the US, marking the day in 2007 when the ban on absinthe, introduced in 1912, was lifted. One of the men responsible for getting the law changed is Ted Breaux of Jade Liqueurs but he was actually in London at the time launching a couple of new products, and I met up with him in the Punch Room of the London Edition hotel

Ted conducts a webcast from the bar
Being out of the country on such an important day didn’t hold Ted back, as he was able to do a live webcast, answering questions that were texted to him. I admire his powers of concentration, being able to do that using a laptop in a noisy hotel bar, and I resisted the temptation to photobomb, perhaps drifting across the background swigging from a bottle of Ted’s finest…

Ted’s new absinthe, Jade Terminus Oxygénée Absinthe Supérieure, gets the name “Terminus” from the fact that he claims it is the last absinthe he will launch (or at least the last in his “portfolio of historically accurate absinthes”). “Oxygénée” represents the special historical process that Ted has recreated for this product.

Ted is a native New Orleanian with a background as an environmental scientist. He became curious about the famous Old Absinthe House bar that still stood in the city, a testament to the era when New Orleans, with its French connections, was the country’s absinthe capital. There has been a lot of voodoo talked about absinthe, what it had been, the psychotropic effects it had on the brain, etc.* Ted was in a position to use modern scientific techniques (mass spectrometry and gas chromatography, I believe, though don’t ask me how they work) to analyse exactly what was in extant samples of pre-ban absinthe and the bulk of his Jade range are recreations of specific products (though I believe that for legal reasons he won’t necessarily spell out which ones on the label).

Before the ban, the Cusenier distillery in France produced Cusenier Oxygénée Absinthe Hygenique, a product that they subjected to an oxygenation process that they claimed made it uniquely “hygienic” and safe, an attempt to stem the growing tide of opinion that absinthe was deleterious to the health. It sold at a considerable premium. Ted’s new product uses the same botanicals as the original (as well as a unusual species of Artemisia from the foothills of the Alps, rarely found in absinthe), and is also subjected to a “hot oxygenation” process that closely mirrors the original technique. Ted doesn’t give too much away but he observes impishly that it involves pure oxygen and hot distillate and, consequently, he makes sure there is no one else around when he does it. (If you hear reports that the Combier distillery has exploded you’ll know why…) Prior to bottling the spirit is rested for three years.

Terminus on the left and V.S. 1898 on the right, neat
I line up a sample of Terminus against Jade V.S. 1898 to try and get a handle on its character. Although it’s hard to see in the photos, the Terminus seems slightly more yellow to me. Neat, the V.S. seems to have high, sharp notes of caraway on the nose, while the Terminus is softer, broader and grassy. Add water and the general distinction continues, with the V.S. having high, lean, clean, aromatic notes, with a hint of violets, while the Terminus is softer, earthier, more buttery, a bit more pungent, with a dash of orange peel on the nose and more “dark” notes (e.g. woody cinnamon) than the V.S.

Terminus left, V.S. right, louched (1:2.5 absinthe:water)
The other product Ted had with him was his new Coeur de Jade. It’s not an absinthe at all but an eau de vie, the base spirit that he uses for the absinthes. “People would taste it and ask me why I didn’t bottle it,” he explains, “so I did.”

It is a colourless grape spirit (mostly Chenin Blanc), double pot-distilled as would have been done pre-ban. I’m intrigued by this because it is surprisingly smooth for an unaged spirit (it is 42% ABV), and I might have guessed that over 100 years ago they could not have produced something so clean, but Ted assures me it is authentic. In fact it is the use of the less “efficient” pot still, rather than a modern Coffey still, that enables the spirit to retain its flavours and be more than just “neutral” alcohol.

Technically it is a fine (made just from grape juice), as opposed to a marc, which uses the leftover lees, skins, stalks, etc, from the winemaking process, in the same way that grappa does. (I’ve had some delightful marcs, but they can be huge, filling the room with their aroma.) It is an intriguing product, because it is subtle but with a distinct character. It is reminiscent of grappa (and I gather that the Italians were the most vocal in wanting Ted to bottle it), but more delicate than most grappas I have tried. There is a floral, almost candied, fruit nose from the grapes, with elements of apricot, almond and strawberry. The mouthfeel is relatively rich, sweet and smooth for an unsweetened spirit, and I get a distinct impression of rosewater on the tongue.

Subtle as it is, I’m immediately struck by the mixing possibilities, perhaps blending with light vermouths to make a fragrant summer cooler. And indeed the obliging barman in the Punch Room makes a Sazerac with Terminus absinthe and the Coeur de Jade in place of whiskey or Cognac (depending on your personal feelings about how a Sazerac should be made), which works very well indeed, with the distinctive fresh fruit fragrance of the spirit coming across clearly and harmonising with the aromas of the absinthe.

Jade Terminus Absinthe Oxygénée can be had for £68.95 and Coeur de Jade for £29.95, both from the Whisky Exchange.

* Even Phil Baker’s excellent The Dedalus Book of Absinthe from 2001, one of the first volumes I read on the subject, asserts that pre-ban absinthe contained perhaps 25 times as much thujone as modern examples, and it was this that gave it its mind-bending potency. In fact subsequent analysis shows that absinthe from this period contained no more thujone than modern versions, and it is unlikely that this chemical is responsible for any special effects absinthe is perceived to have. Ted himself does believe that absinthe has a particular physical effect on the drinker, the famous “lucid intoxication”, and believes it can probably be attributed to the combination of stimulant and sedative plants in the botanical mix.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Armagnac, Gascony's sleeping beauty

I was intrigued to be sent a pack of samples from an outfit called Rueverte, an online spirits retailer based in Germany but clearly aiming for a worldwide reach. As the name suggests, they began as an outlet for absinthe, and in fact the co-founder is the great absinthe guru David Nathan-Maister, but have now branched out, with sub-sites at absinthes.com, digestif.com and bitters.com. The impression is that they prefer to handpick lesser-known gems rather than attempting to cover all the obvious bases—their Cognac section only has one brand, Tesseron, and none of the well-known names in this high-profile category.

My sample pack is one of their “Explore Sets”, containing three 50ml phials, in this case of three different blends from Armagnac house Goudoulin, enabling you to do your own comparative tasting. (Master of Malt do something similar here in the UK.) The bottles are square in shape and fit snugly in the dense foam insert of the presentation packaging, protecting them in transit.

The Armagnac section of Digestif.com is better represented than Cognac, with six brands to choose from, though only one (Darroze) of which I had previously been aware. Despite being less well known than Cognac, Armagnac is apparently the oldest type of brandy in France (700 years old in 2010). Its chief defining characteristic is that it is made in certain regions in Gascony, specifically Bas-Armagnac, Haut-Armagnac and Armagnac Tenareze, each with its own soil type that influences the white grapes that go into the spirit. Cognac is mostly Ugni Blanc grapes, plus Folle Blanche and Colombard while Armagnac typically adds Bacco too (and in fact the official Armagnac authorisation body allows some ten different varieties). Whereas Cognac is distilled twice in batches in a pot still, the traditional Armagnac still is a column design enabling continuous distillation.

I was under the impression that the invention of column distillation (where the vapour rises up a column containing metal plates that encourage the undesirable heavier components to condense out and fall back down) allowed for a purer spirit. But it seems the 19th-century Verdier design traditional in Armagnac is much less efficient that the Coffey still, producing a “rustic” distillate at the relatively low strength of 52%, compared to the Coffey’s 96%, meaning that Armagnac retains more, and more varied, flavours. Years in the barrel naturally erode this down to bottling strength, meaning that it is seldom diluted, again helping to retain a breadth of flavour. (Cognac, by contrast, emerges from its second distillation at 70%.)

The Armagnac column still (from the Goudoulin website)
In each case the spirits are then aged in oak barrels—in Cognac it is Limousin or Tronçais oak which softens the spirit, while in Armagnac it has to be black Monlezun oak which imparts more colour and vanilla/toffee notes. Both types of spirit are often blended. In a three-star or VS blend, the youngest spirit must be at least two years old; in a réserve three years old, in a VSOP four years old, a Napoléon or XO six years old and an Hors D’Age (optimistically “beyond age”) ten years old. Armagnacs are more likely to have specific vintages or age statements.

The house of J. Goudoulin was named after Madame Jeanne Ménal Goudoulin, who married into the business in 1908, but lost her husband in 1925 to injuries sustained during the First World War. She learned to manage the growing collection of spirits laid down by the house and from 1935 formed J. Goudoulin, running it for the next 30 years. Her nephew Christian Faure took over, selling it in 2009 to Michel Miclo of the family firm G. Miclo (who make some fine eaux de vie).

The emphasis here does seem to be on building up a stock of old spirits to sell and to blend. Goudoulin has an impressive portfolio of single vintages (Rueverte offer a 1938 and I’ve seen a 1914 for sale elsewhere) as well as blends where the youngest spirit is as old as 60 years. My sample set offers the eight-year-old blend, the Hors D’Age and the 20-year-old blend.

(Left to right) 8-year-old, Hors D'Age and 20-year-old


The eight-year-old immediately strikes you with notes of pear and marzipan on the nose, perhaps with a slight bitterness at the end. This is followed by plain chocolate, coffee and toffee. The palate is dry and spicy, but with a pronounced and wholly unexpected floral element, like rose and violet chocolate creams, or perhaps Turkish delight. There is pear tart too. I really am struck by the complexity here, combined with an absence of the fiery fumes that Cognac often seems to lead with. It evolves in the glass but even after half an hour or more it still has a striking combination of fruit, flowers and dry chocolate on the tongue. I realise it reminds me of the flavour of a cigar too, with something of tannic but aromatic cedar wood about it.

I try the Hors D’Age next, as I am assured it (or rather the youngest spirit in the blend) is ten years old. The pear, marzipan and chocolate elements are still clearly there, but now there is a strong aroma of apricots too. The palate is less obviously different, perhaps with those floral notes less pronounced and a bit more chocolate; maybe a bit less dry, though still not sweet. Toffee and caramel emerge and an underlying aromatic wood character.

Finally we come to the 20-year old. I notice less of a clear change from the Hors D’Age, though I think there is less of the apricot and a bit of cooked apple. The palate seems softer and maybe with a bit less fruit and a bit more of the chocolate.

I dig around for some Cognac to try it against and unearth a bottle of Courvoisier VSOP Exclusif, a blend intended for mixing. It immediately strikes me as having more tight, dry, high notes, with an emphasis on orange and orange blossom. The palate is immediately fiercer; it subsides quickly to a softer, chocolate balance but it is undoubtedly less complex. I also have a bottle of regular Courvoisier VSOP: here I get pears as well as chocolate, plus an element of tea, perhaps from wood tannins. But it is frankly rougher than any of the Goudoulin Armagnacs.

In fairness a VSOP need only be four years old, half the age of the youngest of the Goudoulin samples. But the best price for Courvoisier VSOP I can find is £32.50, while the 8-year-old Goudoulin is not much more at £38 (though with Rueverte you’ll have to spend £150 to get their free delivery, otherwise it is a hefty £9 for that one bottle).

I was highly impressed by these samples. I had previously dipped a toe into Armagnac waters on more than one occasion but hadn’t really thought about it much in recent years. That may well change now, not least because, for the age and complexity of the spirits involved, they do represent pretty good value.

The Goudoulin Explore Set is £20.50 plus delivery.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Don't be afraid of Fernet-Branca

Fernet-Branca is one of those cocktail ingredients from the dawn of time, when there wasn’t too much to choose from. Many younger people may never have heard of it, and those who have often roll their eyes and dismiss it as rocket fuel, but to the best of my knowledge it was never out of production and does seem to be experiencing a cautious revival. It was specified in one of the cocktail recipes prepared for us by Brian Silva at the Excelsior Club events that we did last year, which is what got me thinking about it.

Fernet is a style of bitter infusion that was peddled as a tonic and cure-all in early advertisements; the name comes from Dr Fernet, an imaginary Swedish Man of Science originally billed as co-creator, who was claimed to have lived to more than 100 thanks to the restorative powers of his tincture. Fernet is traditionally drunk as a digestif. Apparently they are keen on it in Argentina (where they drink it with cola), and in the US it’s particularly popular in San Francisco, which accounts for 25% of the country’s consumption.* Fernet-Branca (which I have to admit is the only Fernet I have encountered, though there are other brands) was created in 1845 in Milan by Bernardino Branca and went on to be produced by Fratelli Branca at their distillery. I had idly assumed that it was an aromatised wine, so I was surprised to see that it is actually 39% ABV and thus has more in common with something like Gammel Dansk that vermouth. In fact some see it as an alternative to Angostura Bitters, and indeed the label proudly calls it “The international bitters”.

Of course the recipe, as is traditional with these things, is a secret, known only by the firm’s president, Niccolò Branca, who personally measures out the ingredients. But the back label calls it “an infusion from a unique blend of selected blossoms and rare aromatic herbs, carefully aged in the historic Branca cellars”. (Specifically, aged for 12 months in wood, according to the Fernet-Branca website.) The site lists myrrh, linden, galangal, chamomile, cinnamon, saffron, iris, gentian, aloe, zedoary, colombo and bitter orange, but it is said that there are fully 27 (or alternatively 40) ingredients, among which rhubarb and red cinchona bark might also number. Rumour has it that production of Fernet-Branca accounts for 75% of the world’s saffron consumption.

A Hanky Panky cocktail
Fernet-Branca is a brown colour (from caramel colouring, I believe) and has a strongly aromatic nose with woody spice underneath. There is mint and also coffee, chocolate, balsam, menthol, sandalwood, sesame seeds… This is carried over on to the tongue but if you expect sweetness (perhaps from the aroma’s similarity to cough medicine) then you are in for a shock as it is quite dry and bitter.

I gather that Fernet-Branca has been gaining popularity as a cocktail ingredient again, as punters become more interested in classic cocktails, drier and more bitter than the long, sweet, fruity cocktails of the 1980s. In a way it doesn’t surprise me that they like it in Argentina, as my taste of classic Argentine cocktails made it clear that the national palate likes a bitter element. Perhaps the best known cocktail containing it in this country is the Hanky Panky, probably the most famous creation of Ada Coleman (see my last post) during her long tenure at the Savoy’s American Bar. The story goes that she created it for Noel Coward’s mentor Sir Charles Hawtrey when he came in one day announcing he was tired and needed something with a bit of pep. He took one sip and announced, “By Jove! That is the real hanky-panky” (an expression which apparently meant sorcery, rather than sexual naughtiness as it did in the US).

Hanky Panky
1½ shots gin
1½ shots red vermouth
2 dashes Fernet-Branca
Shake with ice, strain and garnish with a twist of orange peel

The vermouth and the Fernet merge in an aromatic continuum, with the gin joining in too, depending on how powerful the high juniper presence is in the gin you choose, and it is worth playing around with the quantity of the Fernet to suit your palate. It’s a bracing drink, a perfect pick-me-up or aperitif to stimulate the tastebuds. But the high proportion of vermouth does mean that your bottle needs to be in good condition, not old, oxidised and turning brown.

As it happens, the Savoy Cocktail Book (1930) contains both the Hanky Panky and also the “Fernet Branca Cocktail”, which has exactly the same ingredients but in fiercer proportions: 2 parts gin to 1 part red vermouth to 1 part Fernet-Branca. The book adds, “One of the best ‘morning after’ cocktails ever invented. Fernet-Branca, an Italian vegetable extract, is a marvellous headache cure. (No advt.)” This is a recurring theme—Fernet-Branca’s puissance as a cure of hangover, nausea, cramps, poor digestion, etc, etc.

Meanwhile, Cocktails: How to Mix Them (1922) by Robert Vermeire has a “Fernet Cocktail” that is equal parts Fernet-Branca and either Cognac or rye whiskey, plus a dash of Angostura and two dashes of sugar syrup. I was convinced that I had encountered something similar as a “Corpse Reviver No.1”, but when I looked, most recipes I found under this name were a combination of equal parts Cognac, Calvados and red vermouth. However, eventually in Larousse Cocktails (2005)—which is admittedly often out there on its own—I find a “Corpse Reviver” consisting of 3 parts cognac to 1 part each Fernet-Branca and white crème de menthe. This sounds like it is going to be rather sickly, but in fact it is well balanced, with the liqueur’s sweetness balanced out by the bitter Fernet, creating something like a brandy Old Fashioned with a refreshing minty aromatic pep.

Under Vermeire’s Fernet Cocktail recipe he notes, “This cocktail is much appreciated by the Canadians of Toronto.” There must be something in this as there is also a well-known Fernet cocktail called a Toronto.

A Toronto Cocktail, served on the rocks, though it is sometimes
shaken and strained into a cocktail glass
Toronto Cocktail
2 shots Canadian whiskey
¼ shot Fernet-Branca
¼ shot sugar syrup
(Some recipes add a couple of dashes of Angostura)
Stir with ice, strain and garnish with a strip of orange peel

Although I can find no mention of the origins of this drink, it is pretty primordial in what it is doing—it is a cocktail in the original sense of a spirit augmented by sugar, bitters and/or water—and is essentially the same as Vermeire’s Fernet Cocktail, just with different proportions. It is also similar to the Boulevardier, which uses Campari instead of Fernet for bitterness and red vermouth for sweetness. You also find the Toronto made with American rye whiskey, and sometimes with more Fernet-Branca in the mix (though I’ve not seen it with as much Fernet as Vermeire’s version). To drink, it is much like an Old Fashioned, with the combination of Fernet and whiskey (I used Canadian Club) evoking a chocolate/caramel flavour. I think it highlights the appeal of Fernet-Branca in a cocktail, creating a drink that is both comforting and invigorating at the same time.

Amusingly, on the blog of James Boudreau, a bartender from Montreal, he says that he had to leave Canada before he encountered the Toronto cocktail, as Fernet-Branca was not available in his home country. So it may be that the drink was not created in Toronto, but was so named simply because it used Canadian whiskey. But does this mean that Vermeire was misled when he said that the drink was popular in Toronto, or perhaps that Fernet-Branca used to be available there in the 1920s but had fallen out of fashion by Boudreau’s time?

Meanwhile Brian Silva’s recipe for us was a twist on the (currently hugely fashionable) Negroni:

Negroni Aprés
2 shots gin
1 shot Aperol
½ shot Fernet-Branca
½ shot Amer Picon
Soda (optional)
Add all the ingredients to an iced cocktail shaker. Stir for one minute.
Strain into an iced rocks glass

The name is a reference to Brian’s view of this an a digestif version of a cocktail that is normally an aperitif. I’m not so sure about that myself—the bright, aromatic, bitter-sweet flavours from three different amaros (plus an emphasis on bitter orange flavours) still seem to me to be classic get-the-juices-flowing territory.

Another more modern cocktail that we served recently is one I found on Simon Difford’s website. It goes by the name of Staffordshire Delight which is a pretty awful name, but it is a great drink:

A Staffordshire Delight cocktail
Staffordshire Delight
2 shots golden rum
1½ shots pineapple juice
½ shot Fernet-Branca
½ shot lime juice
½ shot orgeat (almond syrup)
Dash of Angostura Bitters
Shake everything together and strain into an ice-filled glass

This is a complex drink. It can be hard to get the balance right, but it is worth persevering. You clearly get the minty aromatic freshness of the Fernet, its bitterness balanced by the orgeat, the almond notes of which slip into the middle ground, with the rum giving power and the pineapple a silky texture.

Finally, there is another combination that I have encountered more than once, a blend of equal parts Fernet-Branca, lime juice and ginger syrup or liqueur; one recipe added an equal part gin to this (a Fernet Reviver) and another instead an equal part red vermouth (an Eva Peron). On paper you can see how this works, an equal balance of strong sweet, sour and bitter elements—and ginger is a traditional cure for nausea, so we are back in touch with Fernet’s curative background. In practice, however, the Fernet does dominate, although you can taste the other ingredients. It’s certainly warming, with the ginger adding its fire to the Fernet, and the gin version is inevitably drier than the vermouth one. But I have to say that I certainly don’t get the feeling that this drink is doing me any good…

* I gather it is the tipple of choice for bartenders, as an eye-opener when starting a shift—on the grounds that no one will miss the purloined liquor, owing to the dark bottle and the general unpopularity of the contents…

Monday, 12 January 2015

The Claridge Cocktail

My version of the Claridge Cocktail
I was talking to a relative before Christmas and she mentioned how her mother-in-law (my wife’s aunt) regularly enjoyed a Claridge cocktail. Naturally my ears pricked up, partly because not many people these days have a home cocktail habit, but also because I was not familiar with the drink in question.

I was duly sent the recipe:

2 shots gin
2 shots dry vermouth
1 shot apricot brandy
1 shot Cointreau

“Shake with ice and serve, nowhere near a naked flame. Ma-in-law used to enjoy two cocktail cherries with this, which I think served as one of her ‘five a day’.”*

Now, obviously this is quite a lot of alcohol, but I’ll assume that this recipe was for two drinks! In any case these proportions are the classic recipe. I found it in the Savoy Cocktail Book (1930), the 1930 reprint of Cocktails by “Jimmy” Late of Ciro’s and the Café Royal Cocktail Book (1937). I didn’t find it in either version of Jerry Thomas’s work, nor in O.H. Byron’s Modern Bartender’s Guide (1884), suggesting it was a production of the Golden Age of cocktails.

So many modern cocktail recipes involve peculiar infusions, homemade tinctures or pre-smoked garnishes, and I have a fondness for recipes like this one that just make use of the commercial booze products that were available at the time. (And of course there would have been far less to choose from then—so many supposedly distinct cocktails from the era seem to be subtle variations on each other, with the same ingredients but slightly different proportions.**)

Ada Coleman of the American Bar at the Savoy:
had nothing to do with the Claridge Cocktail
To look at, this is essentially a wet Dry Martini with added triple sec and apricot brandy. But if you’re expecting anything like a Dry Martini you are in for a shock, as this much liqueur does make it quite a sweet drink. I immediately find myself tinkering with the proportions to suit my palate, and I end up with this:

2 shots gin (I tried both Plymouth and Tarquin’s Cornish Gin)
1 shot dry vermouth (I used Noilly Prat)
¼ shot (about 6–7ml) apricot brandy (I used Briottet)
¼ shot (about 6–7ml) Cointreau

Garnishwise, I’m not a huge fan of the maraschino cherry, and I found that a lemon peel garnish works well with the fruit flavours.

Even with these reduced proportions the liqueurs make themselves felt, both in terms of the aroma and flavour of the fruit and in the sweetness, but for me this has a better and more sophisticated balance between the dryness of the gin and vermouth and the sweetness of the liqueurs. It’s an interesting interplay, with different ingredients seeming to work on different parts of the tongue at the same time, and the savoury elements of the vermouth having an almost salty quality. If you are a fan of really dry cocktails then you are never going to get this to work for you, as the orange and apricot flavours would disappear altogether if you reduce the levels of liqueur much below this.

Barflies and Cocktails (1927) has the clue
Interestingly, I later consulted Larousse Cocktails (2005) by Fernando Castellon and found that not only did he list this drink but his proportions are almost identical to mine, so clearly I am not mad (although in fact he specifies just 1 tsp, 5ml, each for triple sec and apricot brandy).

However, none of the books in which I find the recipe gives any indication as to its provenance. The name suggests a connection with the prestigious London hotel Claridge’s, which was at the height of its fame in the Roaring Twenties and is famous for its Art Deco interiors. Indeed there is a theory that Ada Coleman, who famously went on to become head bartender at the Savoy from 1903 to 1926 (an unusual achievement for a woman at the time) created the drink while she was previously at Claridge’s. It is not on the hotel’s menu today but I contact them to find out if they have any archive details about it.

“The information that we have is that it is accredited to ‘Leon’, bartender at the Claridge Hotel, Champs Elyseé, Paris, in Barflies and Cocktails, 1927,” says Andreas Cortes, Assistant Manager at Claridge’s Bar today. “This disproves the theory that Ada Coleman created it whilst at Claridge’s, London, or the Savoy.”*** Barflies and Cocktails, by Harry MacElhone (of Harry’s Bar in Paris) is a volume I do not have, but I swiftly acquire a copy of the version reissued by Cocktail Kingdom, and it is as Andreas says: no connection with London’s Art Deco palace.

By strange coincidence, at the weekend I visit the relevant relatives and stay over with the parents-in-law in question. As we arrive on their doorstep in the early evening on Saturday night they say, “Oh, you caught us just having a cocktail.” It is indeed a brace of Claridges. “I’ll make you one if you like.”

The Claridges prepared for us by my wifes uncle
I watch my wife’s uncle produce a pair of sizeable beverages: the pair of them are in their late eighties, and they consume their own drinks in oversized cocktail glasses printed with images of lipsticks and other glamorous things, which look as if they have been in service since the 1980s, in a room where even the cushions are embroidered with flappers sipping Martinis. Huge respect for the lifestyle. He doesn’t use a measure but I notice that his recipe is different again—pretty much equal parts of all four ingredients. It’s sweeter than I would like, but it still works in that you can taste all the ingredients.

This is the joy of mixology in the home: there is so much to discover in the pursuit of your own personal tastes—and the chance of creating something new!

* An explanation for non-UK readers: the British government has recommended that we all consume five “portions” of fruit or vegetables a day, for health reasons. There are tables available defining what counts as a “portion”. I’ve also heard that the Science really suggested that we should have nine portions, but the Powers That Be decided that this was a hopeless cause in the British Isles and five was a more realistic target.

** Although it can be disappointing to read the recipe for a “new” cocktail and find that has the same ingredients as one you already know, just slightly different proportions, I guess it helps customers to get the drink they want without having to give (or know) technical specifications. Perhaps these things arose because one bartender made the drink in particular way that people got to like so they gave it its own name. In any case, it is interesting to think that the three different versions of the Claridge described in this article would probably have had three different names back in the 1920s!

*** I’m not clear on the chronology here: I’m not aware that anyone knows when Leon was at the Claridge (I contacted the hotel and they replied that Leon used to work there in the 1930s, but it must have been earlier than this given the date of the book), but Ada was at Claridge’s from 1899 till she moved to the Savoy.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Maplay - Distilled Maple Syrup Spirit

This is my first and last post of the year. 2014 seems to have slipped away at the IAE south coast branch; not quite as bad as "The Lost Weekend", though. Now, if I was going to write about anything, it would be Maplay.

This is from the US and is made by fermenting and distilling maple syrup, which is then aged. An interesting point for readers is that this is genuine moonshine, i.e. it is illicitly distilled (at least in its country of origin). As such, it has no official bottle, but a picture of spirit can be found below.

On its own (room temperature)
Nose: Bright, with some dry, woody notes to start, before moving onto rich and intense maple and nut flavours, as well as hints of vanilla, butterscotch, and cream brule.

Taste: There's a pleasant texture to the spirit, with the alcohol upfront and then a gently unfolding patchwork of sweet confectionery and spice notes, very similar to the nose with the addition of stone fruit and a touch of chocolate and plum jam. The finish is long and lingering, with lots of dry, nutty maple and pecan notes.

Frozen
Beautifully viscous, with an intriguing dry - almost grainy - woody start. This is followed by the flavour of very dark chocolate (think 95%), then sweeter notes of roasted cashews and pecans, as well as a subtle maple element that is rather delicious. There is also a slight herbal, fruity note throughout, somewhat reminiscent of vermouth.

Manhattan
This is an intriguing drink, which has elements of both a dry and a sweet Manhattan backed up by the complexity of the spirit, which is easily equal to most whiskey versions. Rich spice, vanilla, and cassia are accompanied by hints of cinder toffee, toasted nuts, and that dry, maple element. If you like Manhattans, this is one to try.

Negroni
A soft and smooth drink with the characteristic bitterness of the drink at the end. The Maplay gives some of the dryness and spice that you would expect from a gin, but also adds a complex sweetness and complements the sweet vermouth very nicely.

Old Fashioned
Simply superb. This is easily my favourite way to enjoy the spirit. I've been a fan of substituting sugar for maple syrup in whisky Old Fashioneds for a while, but this just takes it one step further. Simple, yet luxurious; the bitters, water, and sugar seem to tease out a whole array of flavours from the Maplay - all of the notes previously referred to come through in a chorus.


In Conclusion
As you can guess, I really like the Maplay and it is a shame that, for the moment, it remains unavailable. It is a fascinating spirit with a legion of potential fans out there ready to discover it. My favourite drink was the Old Fashioned.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Marks & Spencer cocktails-in-a-can

In October I reviewed the KÖLD line of premixed cocktails, the latest in the cavalcade of attempts to offer instant mixology for people who lack the equipment, ingredients or inclination to make their own cocktails at home.

The trick with such things is how to preserve the more perishable ingredients in the mix—the impressive Handmade Cocktail Company range from Master of Malt simply focuses on old fashioned cocktails (including the Old Fashioned) that lack fruit juices and are high enough in alcohol to be self-preserving. KÖLD sold their mixes in foil pouches, which made me suspect they had been heat-treated after sealing.

Queuing in the small Marks & Spencer branch on Charing Cross station the other day I was confronted by some tins containing the chain’s own attempt at premixes. I scooped up a couple for sampling, a Mojito and a Cosmopolitan.

For those who don’t know, M&S occupies a space in most British people’s hearts as a reliable place to buy underpants, work shirts and the like, but they also do food, pitched as fairly high end, and even have some branches selling nothing but food. The travel outlet at Charing Cross has quite a high bias towards booze, clearly catering for commuters who can’t get through the train ride back to suburbia without a single-serving mini-bottle of Pinot Grigio to dull the pain.*

The Mojito hits you with a mint flavour that has a mouthwash artificiality. It’s not too bad, with detectable lime notes, but a tad thin with a slightly bitter finish. A little like bitter lemon, in fact. But that chemical mint is what dominates. It also seems to coat your teeth. The KÖLD Mojito likewise struggled with the artificiality of its mint flavour: clearly it is not possible to get a fresh mint taste in a premix, but the nation must be crying out for tinned Mojitos as this particular cocktail keeps cropping up.

The Cosmo has a terrifying colour, followed by a bubblegum fruity smell that fills the room. But it’s not actually that bad, with a reasonable balance between sweet and sour and the triple sec (or rather “orange distillate”, as it says on the ingredients list) detectable. I’m not sure I’m really getting cranberry juice, though the label claims it is in there (from concentrate).

As usual with premixes, both these cocktails are unnaturally low in alcohol for what they claim to be (8% in each case, the same as the KÖLD range), but this is apparently because the target market would otherwise be drinking alcopops of the same ABV. I didn’t try spiking them with extra spirit this time, though I’m sure it would have been an improvement. The Mojito did go down the sink, but I did actually end up finishing the Cosmo, which must tell you something.

* I can’t see this range on the M&S website, although I have now discovered that they also sell a different range of classier premixes in 50cl bottles. I seem to recall that there was also a Bloody Mary and a Harvey Wallbanger in the range, along with a G&T about which I have read bad things.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Tequila cocktails with Ocho

Tequila is a bit of an enigma, but its star is certainly on the rise at the moment. It doesn’t seem to have been drunk much outside of Mexico until Americans discovered it in the 1920s during their runs across the border to avoid Prohibition. Then it surged again in the 1940s when US alcohol production was earmarked for industrial purposes for the war effort. According to Dale Degroff, it has only really been available in the UK for 40 years but he believes that the Margarita could well now be the most popular cocktail here—I have certainly heard that it has that status in the US.

When talking to tequila brand ambassadors you still hear that their biggest hurdle is getting punters to think of the spirit as something to savour rather than something to knock back. But I’m sure that is changing now, perhaps due in large part to the efforts of Patron to create the concept of the high-end tequila. Last year I sat in on a session with Matthias Lataille from Olmeca’s high-end, 100% blue agave brand Olmeca Altos, and it was clearly a welcome revelation to many there how much could be had from this spirit if one simply sipped it from a nosing glass rather than chugging it from a shot glass.

Then in the summer I was intrigued by the Pierde Almas range of single varietal mezcals, celebrating not just the effect of different agave species and different terroir, but also the batch-to-batch variations of artisanal products like this.

Tomas Estes
Most recently I chatted with Tomas Estes, the man behind Café Pacifico and La Perla restaurants here in London. The Mexican National Chamber of Tequila has crowned him Ambassador of Tequila to the European Union, and not only has he also now opened El Nivel, a dedicated agave spirits bar above La Perla, but he also has his own tequila brand, Ocho, which takes the celebration of variety one step further—not only do his bottles all state the precise field from which the family-grown agaves were harvested, but they declare the vintage as well.

The tequila is made for Estes by Carlos Camarena. The name Ocho, meaning “eight”, has a highly involved explanation: (i) the finished product is from the eighth test batch; (ii) it takes an average of eight years for the agaves used to ripen; (iii) it takes about eight kilos of agave to make one litre of Ocho; (iv) it takes eight days from when the agaves reach the distillery to when the blanco tequila is finished; (v) Camarena has eight brothers and sisters; (vi) the Camarenas are in their eight decade of tequila making. I was rather disappointed that the person behind all this only managed to find six reasons for the name Ocho, although in fact I later learn that the reposado version is rested in wood for eight weeks and eight days. Damn, just one more reason and we’d have eight…

Margarita with Ocho
My sample has a label across the cap identifying it as the 2014 vintage from Rancho La Magueyera, which you can find on a map on the Ocho website. I line it up against three other blanco tequilas I have to hand, Patron, Olmeca Altos and Tierra Noble. The Patron is fresh, fruity and soft, ultimately the least strongly flavoured of the lot.* The Olmeca Altos has a more pronounced agave flavour, a “blue”, petrolly note; the palate is drier and more flavourful than Patron, with a hint of blue cheese, but it is softer and smoother than the Tierra Noble, with an almost waxy character. Tierra Noble is more pungent, with a noticeably smoky element to the nose. (The agaves are cooked slowly prior to crushing, to release the sugars; more artisanal tequilas use agaves cooked in traditional brick or stone ovens and the degree to which they are exposed to smoke can be controlled.)

Paloma with Ocho
Coming after all that, Ocho is striking. Not only is it the most strongly agave-flavoured of the lot, perfumed and pungent, but it is dry and sharp on the tongue. In fact I could almost have believed that what I was drinking had lime juice mixed in already. This is no accident, as the literature does emphasise that Ocho is all about extracting and presenting as much actual agave flavour as possible. Nosing the aroma carefully, you’re struck first by dry herbal notes, then darker elements like coffee and chocolate, honey and cooked apple, and something a bit like wet plaster. It is initially sharp on the tongue, giving way to flavours of pears and a fading sweetness. (At El Nivel I had the opportunity to taste the 2013 batch, from Rancho Los Fresnos: it had a similar nose but a noticeably softer palate.)

The literature does stress that the best way to enjoy Ocho is sipped from a brandy balloon or similar glass, noting how its character changes in the glass with exposure to air. (I find that the attack softens and a floral note like violets starts to appear.) But they also list some cocktails, a mixture of old and new.

El Diablo with Ocho
As it happens we are theming our Candlelight Club party this weekend around Prohibition-era Mexico and the burgeoning party culture to cater for American visitors looking to drink and gamble with impunity, so I try out some of the cocktails we are looking at.

Margarita Well, it would be rude not to. It’s a classic combination of tequila, triple sec and lime juice, with an optional ring of salt on the rim of the glass. The exact proportions vary, with Dale Degroff giving 1½ parts tequila to 1 part Cointreau and ¾ part lime juice, while Simon Difford matches 2 parts tequila to just ½ a part each of lime and triple sec. I tend to use 2:1:1, though it depends on how dry you like it. Certainly a dry, strongly flavoured tequila like Ocho easily makes its presence felt in these proportions, poking through as mineral and earthy against the fruity citrus.

Paloma This is apparently how tequila is mostly drunk in Mexico, with lime and grapefruit soda, such as Squirt or Fresca. The closest you can find in the UK is Ting, and the Ocho site’s recipe adds 20ml fresh grapefruit juice to 50ml tequila and the juice of a lime, topped up with grapefruit soda. I can see the appeal, though I don’t think that Ting is ever likely to be my favourite mixer (and it doesn’t taste a great deal like grapefruit to me). The extra fresh grapefruit juice makes all the difference, though you may want to add some agave syrup as it is all quite tart (I tried Martini Fiero—see below—with delightful results).

El Diablo A 1940s recipe from California, this is built in a highball on the rocks using 50ml tequila, 20ml crème de cassis and 25ml lime juice, stirred together and topped with ginger beer. (In the past it would have been ginger ale but ginger beer is more flavoursome.) It’s not subtle but it is not simplistic either: you can taste all the ingredients, and I do think that tequila and ginger go well together, with the blackcurrant flavour slotting neatly in there as well. Bold and moreish.

Mexican 88 with Ocho


Mexican 88 Basically a French 75 using tequila instead of gin. This recipe is from Ocho’s website and specifies 30ml tequila, 20ml lemon juice, 10ml agave syrup, all topped up with Champagne. I guess it depends on the size of your glass, but I found this too heavy on the lemon and syrup. Another 10ml tequila helped, along with a bit more fizz, and then it balances nicely, with the earthiness of the tequila sitting quite effectively underneath the fizzy tartness of the Champagne/sparkling wine.

Screaming Viking made with Ocho, Cederlunds Torr
and Martini Fiero
Screaming Viking This one was created by Brian Silva, in response to an episode of Cheers in which the plot revolves around a cocktail of this name, which turns out to be imaginary. Various people have produced their own real-world versions, and Brian’s playfully uses Swedish Punsch to explain the “Viking” element of the name. Swedish Punsch dates back to the days of the Swedish East India Company, and is a liqueur made from arrack, a smoky rum-like Javanese spirit distilled from sugar cane and rice. The recipe mixes 35ml tequila with 25ml Punsch and the juice of half a lime, shaken, poured over ice and “coloured” with Martini Fiero, a very orangey vermouth made from blood oranges. (I used Cederlunds Torr Caloric Punch; the recipe also specifies a dash of agave syrup, but I didn’t find that necessary.) Made with Ocho, the tequila is to the fore, but with a solid sweet–sour balance from the liqueur and the lime. But it’s not a bouncy, fruity number. The presence of the vermouth and the arrack give this drink dry and bitter subtleties that seem to be a Silva trademark. It’s a grown-up drink, and very much to my own taste.

An Ocho Old Fashioned with Angostura Bitters and
agave syrup
And finally the Tequila Old Fashioned. It seems to be inevitable that any spirit that wants to be taken seriously presents itself in this simple, and therefore exposed, format. Traditionally made just with bourbon or rye whiskey, sugar, bitters and a little water, served on the rocks with a lemon peel garnish, this can also be an agreeable vehicle for rums, such as the sublime Botran Solera 1893, and complex gins (especially aged ones such as Big Gin Bourbon Barreled). Even with the blanco, Ocho owns this cocktail, its pungency marrying with sharp-sweet aromatic Angostura bitters and the lemon peel like an extension of the tequila’s character. I use agave syrup instead of sugar and such is the dryness of the spirit that this drink can take quite a bit without seeming too sweet. All in all, a good way to contemplate the personality of this, or indeed any other, tequila.

* Which I suspect is a deliberate strategy, given the way it is marketed as a super-premium product in the same way that certain vodkas are. Here the emphasis is all on brand associations, and you don’t want to throw a spanner in the works by producing something with too strong a flavour!