Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Gin-in-a-tin gets exotic

Over the years I’ve come across various attempts at premixed cocktails. The sticking point is usually that some ingredients like lemon juice need to be preserved in some way—the Coppa ones clearly had some sort of preservative and some very synthetic-tasting ingredients, while the KÖLD range came in foil pouches that you partially freeze before opening, though I’m guessing the foil also meant you could pasteurise the pouch after sealing, meaning it should stay uncorrupted until the pouch is opened. I don’t know if they do do this, but you run the risk of altering flavours through this “cooking” process. (I think that the Funkin fruit juice pouches are preserved this way—their lime and lemon juice certainly tastes rather cooked.) Both these ranges were heavy on fruit, or at least on fruity flavours.

The only successful range I’ve encountered is Master of Malt’s Handmade Cocktail Company range, which are proper grown-up cocktails. They get round the preservation problem by only making classic recipes that consist mostly of spirits, bitters, etc. Moreover they maintain the high alcoholic strength so that less stable ingredients, like vermouth, are effectively preserved by the alcohol.

Now That Boutique-y Gin Company have launched their own range of “cocktails in a can”, using some of their exotic spirits. This should bode well, as their spirits are generally pretty poised and thoughtfully constructed, even when they contain some whacky flavourings.

The first thing to note about these cocktails is that they are not really cocktails—they are really spirits with mixers. The second thing to note about them is that, like the Coppa and KÖLD ranges, as well as the M&S samples I tried, they are remarkably low in alcohol. I’m assuming that this is to control duty and therefore price—probably because, as with Coppa, there was no getting away from the fact that the marketplace you’re in contains things like Bacardi Breezers and other alcopops. If, like me, you tend to mix two parts tonic to one part gin, you end up with a drink about 13.5% ABV (akin to a beefy wine). The Boutique-y range are around 5% (lager strength), meaning that the spirits must have been pretty heavily diluted.

Moonshot Gin with Citrus Tonic
The Big Idea with Moonshot Gin is that the botanicals (all of them, apparently) have been sent into near-space and back. This subjects them to very low temperature and pressure, though no one seems to be suggesting that this will have had a known effect on the flavour. Ironically they are then vacuum-distilled (so mimicking the low pressure they have just endured). Apparently they throw some moon rock into the vat, but effectively this is just gin.

And you can certainly tell that there is gin in this premix (the ABV is higher here than in the others, at 7.2%). But it’s dominated by a distinctly synthetic-tasting lime flavour, presumably coming from the tonic.

Yuzu Gin Collins with Jasmine Tonic
Given that this is all about the Japanese citrus fruit the yuzu, I was surprised that the citrus flavour here is less in-your-face and more natural-seeming than in the previous mix. But you don’t get much sense of gin—given the ABV of 5.2% it must have been diluted by a good 8:1. You really just get a sense that you are drinking lemonade.

Pineapple Gin Mule
This is the serve that we tried in June, when TBGC were pushing its spit-roasted pineapple gin in time for International Pineapple Day. However, this is not the same drink as the one I made at home. It’s not too bad, and you can certainly taste pineapple, but you can’t really taste the gin itself. It also doesn’t have much body; you mostly have a sense of drinking sweet, fizzy water. Even the gingeriness of the ginger beer seems lost (and you would expect that if they had skimped on the gin then this should be more prominent by comparison). I note that it is not actually the same recipe as the one we tried at home, as they seem to have included pineapple juice—presumably you wouldn’t otherwise get any pineapple at all, given the low gin content.*

Cherry Gin Cola
It’s recognisably cola, with a strong vanilla hit reaching you first, plus an obvious cherry flavour, though I’m not sure I would guess there was any gin in it. As with the pineapple, this has actual cherry juice in it, which may be a way of getting some cherry flavour to make up for the lack of gin in the blend (or it may be a way of describing the gin itself—gin and cherry juice), plus added cardamom and orange blossom. It has a slightly chocolately finish.

Strawberry and Balsamic Gin Fizz
We previously decided that the TBGC Strawberry and Balsamic Gin served with sparkling wine was a thing of great beauty, but sadly this is not that recipe, but a blend of the gin with cream soda, vanilla and orange blossom. There is proper strawberry on the nose, and on the tongue you get vanilla too, as well as orange, but it is still rather synthetic-seeming. Having said that, this is one of the nicer ones from the range and I did finish it (unlike one of the others which ended up going down the sink).

So, are these premixed cocktails? No, despite the “craft cocktails” blazon on the can. Are they good mixed drinks? Hard to say, as I don’t have much of a sweet tooth and almost never drink cola, lemonade, cream soda, etc. You don’t really taste much gin in any of them, but given that they are beer-strength they may make sensible session drinks for a hot summer’s day—my cans even came with a branded cool bag just the right size and shape for half a dozen of them—assuming the cloying sweetness doesn’t send you into a diabetic coma before sundown…

*Here I’m assuming that they literally make these premixes from their gins, though I suppose it’s possible they somehow use some of the individual components in different proportions. It’s also possible that when they list the ingredients as including London Dry Gin and “fresh pineapple juice”, this is actually just a legal way of describing the process by which they make the gin itself—judging by the colour, the pineapple gin has clearly been infused with pineapple post-distillation, so there must be actual pineapple juice in the bottle. The same goes for the cherry gin.

Friday, 26 July 2019

Haku vodka

Given my enthusiasm for Roku gin, you won’t be surprised to hear that when I saw this in the supermarket I was keen to give it a try. Likewise made by Suntory, it is a self-consciously Japanese vodka (I’d be curious to know if both products are purely for the export market). Where Roku expressed its Japaneseness through its botanicals (two types of tea, leaves and flowers of the sakura cherry tree, yuzu peel and sansho peppers) you can’t really do this with vodka. So they made it out of rice (check) and filtered it through bamboo charcoal (check).

Does bamboo charcoal impart any particular flavour or is it just a gimmick? Who can say? The website suggests that this is the source of a soft sweetness in the product. And in fairness to Suntory, creating a vodka can’t really be considered bandwagon-jumping—the first Suntory vodka was Hermes, created back in 1956.

So what does it taste like?

The nose is immediately fruity, suggesting watermelon but also something a bit like varnished wood. It does remind me of sake, that slightly sour note, and also lime and orange, then a hint of blackcurrant and maybe violets. Then sometimes flour.

That nose is quite something to live up to and perhaps the palate can’t manage to be quite so effusive, but many of the elements carry over. It is definitely more polished and less medicinal than many vodkas, and sweet on the tongue. I tried it from the freezer and this is a mistake—you simply lose many of the subtleties, leaving a sour harshness on the tongue. That flat/sour character again reminds me of sake and I guess is because this vodka was made from rice, but at room temperature there is no harshness at all. Dig deeper and again you get fruit—orange, watermelon and starfruit. (Yes, whatever anyone says, starfruit does have a flavour. When I was a student you could buy star fruit in the supermarket and they were popular sliced into fruit salads because the slices were star-shaped, and more than once I have heard the opinion that this was their sole appeal. But I have always maintained that they do have a distinct flavour, somewhat waxy and sour. Anyway, I haven’t seen them for sale in years.) The finish is smooth with a hint of that cellulose character that vodka often has for me.

I like Haku but, as with Roku, I feel its qualities are best appreciate neat, either at room temperature (which many might feel odd about with a white spirit) or perhaps with some pure ice. Chill it heavily and you lose it subtle complexities. Blended with mixers or in a cocktail it’s generally a similar story. But I can’t help trying the one cocktail I can think of that contains both vodka and gin—the Vesper Martini. From Chapter Seven of the James Bond novel Casino Royale, the cocktail, when ordered by Bond, is described as: "Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?" (At the time it doesn’t have a name, but Bond later decides to call it the Vesper after another character in the book.)

Suntory Vesper
3 parts Roku gin
1 part Haku vodka
½ part Cocchi Americano (standing in for Kina Lillet)
Lemon peel garnish

For scientific purposes I first try the blend unchilled and without the garnish. I have to say that I went into this cocktail from a gimmicky perspective, just to try making it with the two Suntory products; I’ve always thought the Vesper was an odd cocktail—what are you going to taste from the vodka when it is outnumbered three-to-one by the gin? And these are subtle products that seem to give their best when uncontaminated by other ingredients. And yet to my surprise this cocktail really works. You can still taste the gin, but there is smoothness and sweetness added which makes it now all too easy to drink. I also thought the lemon peel might steamroller over the nuances but it sits happily alongside the prominent citrus notes of the gin. How much of the smooth, plump mouthfeel can be attributed to the vodka, rather than just the Cocchi, which is sweet in itself? Hard to say, but I experiment with a 50:50 blend of Haku and Roku, with nothing else, and I would say it is more drinkable neat than Roku on its own, with the vodka smoothing and fattening the texture. I even try two parts vodka to one part gin and that is a worthwhile drink too, with the clear feel and flavour of the vodka now joined by the bright gin botanicals.

A Suntory Vesper

I once went to an open house at the Sipsmith distillery in which we did some tastings. I remember Jared Brown talking about the Vesper and saying that if gin is vodka with botanicals then the vodka in a Vesper is just a way to dial down the botanical intensity. That may be the case with a distillery which makes a vodka and a gin that is, indeed, the same vodka with gin botanicals. But in many cases it is not—for example the TOAD distillery makes both and treats their vodka to a filtration process that does not, as far as I am aware, come into the picture with gin. Likewise, the spirit in Haku is not the same as the base spirit in Roku (they don’t say it is, and it doesn’t feel or taste like it). Adding the Haku to Roku brings in the silky mouthfeel and slightly sour sake notes. Now, blending these spirits is not something that Suntory suggests, and indeed their recommended cocktails are pretty austere—Vodka Martini or Vodka and Tonic; and Martini, Negroni or Gimlet for the gin (the latter made with lime juice and syrup, in the style of Kazuo Uyeda’s signature drink, not in the classic way with lime cordial). So the Suntory blending masters would probably be horrified by this cocktail. But it is nevertheless Quite Interesting.

If you’re a vodka drinker, do try Haku. But not from the freezer.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Celebrate International Pineapple Day!

A Pineapple Mule, made using the items in my mystery package (plus mint from the garden)

It seems this is the third time I’ve said “I don’t usually do unboxings”, but once again That Boutiquey Gin Company have pulled the stops out and it would be churlish not to give them credit.

This package arrived unannounced on my doorstep: at first I thought it was a slipcase for a high-end book (not that there is any reason someone would send me one of those). In fact it is an elaborate promotional pack for TBGC’s spit-roast pineapple gin. As you can see, underneath some flyers is a tote bag, then the actual gin, plus some ginger beer, a metal straw, a burlap pouch containing a couple of limes and an enamel lapel pin.* I didn’t open the box immediately, making a mental note to do so when I had the opportunity to take photos, but it’s just as well I didn’t leave it too long—it didn’t occur to me there might be fresh fruit inside…**

TBGC have a track record of making oddly-flavoured gins that nevertheless show poise and skill in the balance of flavours, avoiding the trap of just making a gooey fruit liqueur that is a gin in name only. Here the first thing you’re probably asking yourself is, “OK, it’s a pineapple gin—but why specifically a spit-roasted pineapple gin?” My guess is that it was the flavour of caramelised pineapple that inspired whoever came up with this. We’ve probably all tried pineapple that has been grilled or sautéed, but I confess I have no experience of the precise qualities of pineapple that has been spit-roasted, as opposed to being cooked in any other way. But I’m willing to believe TBGC’s pineapples have been treated in this way. (I went to the Master of Malt offices once, which I assume is where TBGC is based, and it was a bit like wandering through Q-Division in a James Bond movie. In one room someone was experimenting with dipping bottle necks in wax, and I’m sure I saw a carboy where they were finding a way to pump smoke through some vodka.)

The tote bag
Apparently pineapple gin was, like orange gin, a Thing in the early 20th century. TBGC say their pineapples are roasted on a spit with Demerara sugar, so clearly the processing is all about getting that caramel flavour.

The gin does indeed have a caramel element to it. There is obviously pineapple there too, but once again I am struck by the fact that it is still definitely a gin. In fact I could believe that that juniper levels have been made especially pronounced to make sure they poke through. And there is no clash here: the tart, fruit flavours do harmonise with the dry steel of the juniper.

On the nose you are struck, first and foremost, by the juicy fruit of pineapple, its distinctive flat, waxy elements blending with juniper. Below is the dark caramel layer. Here and there other gin botanicals, floral or savoury, seem to pop up, but only fleetingly. On the palate is where the juniper really pushes through, making a rich and intense drink.

Unsurprisingly, the spirit has been sweetened, which most fruit gins seem to be (I guess in the tradition of sloe gin, which in fact is a useful analogy to how the pineapple gin works—and in fact when we did our sloe gin taste-off I did find that my favourites where the ones that still had strong gin flavours in them, such as Hawker’s, which sadly no longer seems to be made). I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so it’s not a drink I would drink neat, but cocktails seem an obvious way to go, given that many of them feature a balance of sweet and sour ingredients.

The branded lapel badge. Not sure who would wear
it, but it has not one but two pin fastenings on the back
so clearly is intended for hurricane-prone climes
In fact logic would suggest that just adding citrus to this gin would create a sort of proto-cocktail of gin, sweetness, tartness and fruit, and indeed this does work remarkably well. I try it with lime juice and neat it is a bit intense, but if you lengthen it (I just used water), you suddenly get a balanced drink. I can imagine that the pineapple gin, lime juice and soda water, over ice, would be a delight to sip on a summer’s day.

I expected the TBGC website to feature a number of cocktails using this gin, but in fact I can’t find any. Instead they seem to be pinning their hopes to the Pineapple Mule, essentially a Moscow Mule made using spit-roast pineapple gin instead of vodka. The ingredients are the elements there were included in my surprise package.

Pineapple Mule
50ml spit-roast pineapple gin
100ml ginger beer
1 lime wedge squeezed
Build over ice and garnish with another lime wedge and a sprig of mint

It’s a deft concoction, essentially like the highball I describe above, but with the ginger flavours too—and even though ginger beer will have some sugar in it too, the overall drink does not come across as too sweet. (The ginger beer included is Fever Tree, which may be less sweet than some others.)

You can try making your own Pineapple Mule at home easily enough (the photo at the top is one I made last night, using mint from our garden). But if you’re feeling lazy and you’re London-based you can pop into TBGC’s pop-up pineapple gin parlour at 15 Bateman Street.

The tote bag, pre-surgery
Give the password “Mule” and you’ll get a complimentary cocktail.

The pop-up opened yesterday and will close tomorrow, so get down there ASAP. Since today is, apparently, International Pineapple Day, what could be more appropriate?

* I freely admit that was just an excuse to say “burlap pouch”, a phrase I have been joyously rolling around my mouth for days. I mean, we don’t even call it burlap here in the UK, but somehow “hessian pouch” isn’t quite the same.

** Mrs H. nodded approvingly at the reusable metal straw (I just hope its easy to clean), but curled her lip at the lapel badge (is it recyclable?). As for the tote bag, she has spent several evenings now trying to scrape away the printed logo with a scalpel. I suggested an electric sander but she favours a less invasive treatment. If she succeeds in producing a plain tote bag without any gin advertising on it, I think she will be placated.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

The Hard Word cocktail

For some reason I always associate The Last Word cocktail with The Great Gatsby. In fact it doesn’t appear in the novel, though the characters do drink green Chartreuse,* which is a defining ingredient in the cocktail. The first published reference to it is actually in 1951, in Ted Saucier’s Bottoms Up!, but he states that it was first served 30 years earlier, in the Detroit Athletic Club. Later research in the club’s archives found the cocktail on a menu from 1916.

Traditionally it is equal parts gin, green Charteuse, lime juice and maraschino. For me this is too sweet and indeed Simon Difford actually prescribes three parts gin, but, as I discovered when trying out cocktails with Big Gin, it all depends on the gin—some are better than others at standing up to the pungent flavours of the Chartreuse.

Chartreuse itself is a herbal liqueur produced by Carthusian monks since 1737, allegedly to a recipe described in a manuscript given to them in 1605 by François Annibal d’Estrées, a nobleman originally in holy orders but who switched careers to become soldier (no one seems to know how he got his hands on it). Named after the Carthusians’ Grande Charteuse monastery, the liqueur is still produced at their distillery in nearby Voiron. It is made by macerating 130 herbs and flowers in alcohol and, like most of these things, was originally intended as a health-giving tonic. There is also a yellow version, which is sweeter, milder and less alcoholic, plus various aged versions and special editions. To this day the recipes are secret, known only by two monks who prepare the herbal mixtures.

Years ago—and I mean years ago—I for some reason bought a small bottle of their Élixir Végétal, a concentrated version of the same 130-plant extract. According to the Chartreuse website this concentrate is the original recipe, from which the various liqueurs were later derived once people started drinking the concoction for pleasure rather than as a medicine. It is sold at 69% ABV in 100ml bottles that come in an outer turned-wood case that reminds me of a Russian matryoshka doll. The elixir has a pronounced olive green colour.

Since I bought it the bottle has mostly sat at the back of a cupboard, but something recently got me thinking about it. Given its concentration, I wondered if one could use it in small quantities to add the distinctive herbal flavour but without the sweetness, and therefore the need to add lime or lemon juice for sourness to balance the sugar.

The purest form of this experiment seemed to be to make a Dry Martini and simply add a bit of the elixir. If a Last Word seems too complicated, too much of a punch-up between brassy sweet and sour flavours, may I present to you the Hard Word. The elixir does have sugar in it, but in these quantities it still leaves the cocktail a pretty dry beverage, yet with the distinctive pungent herbal flavour of Chartreuse.

Of course a purer form might be to dispense with the vermouth, or indeed to use vodka instead of gin, and I did try these: with just vodka and the elixir it’s easy to end up with something that’s like a not-very-sweet green Chartreuse liqueur, though if you get the balance right you can still taste some of the character of the vodka. With gin but no vermouth at least there is an interplay of the various botanicals, but I think the version below gives the greatest scope to combine flavours and adjust the strength and wetness of your drink by how much vermouth you use.

The Hard Word
2½ shots gin
½ shot dry vermouth
½ tsp Chartreuse Élixir Végétal
Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass

This might not sound like very much Chartreuse, but I measured out 2.5ml using a measuring spoon and I didn’t feel it needed any more. You’ll see I haven’t deployed a garnish: I did try serving one of these with a lemon twist—and it completely ruined the drink. Later I tried one with a green olive garnish and the briny, savoury flavour went a bit better, but I’m not sure it actually improved the cocktail. There may be an appropriate garnish out there (perhaps a herb of some sort) but I don’t know what it is yet.

* Chapter 5: “Finally we came to Gatsby’s own apartment, a bedroom and a bath, and an Adam study, where we sat down and drank a glass of some Chartreuse he took from a cupboard in the wall.” Now that I look, it doesn't actually specify green Chartreuse—and the yellow version had been around for almost 90 years by the time this scene takes place.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Nissos Gin

I generally don’t have much time for LinkedIn. I tend to say yes to any request to connect but I’ve only been approached twice about potentially viable work opportunities, and on both occasions the people in question turned out to be bonkers and their project clearly pie in the sky.

So it was a welcome change recently when I was approached by Alexandros Kouris. He has a beer brand in Greece, Nissos, and is in the process of launching a gin too. He found me because of some gin judging I did and he wanted me to sample his gin-in-progress.

I don’t normally do “unboxings” but the package sent to me was certainly eye-catching. Inside the wooden box was a flask, the cork secured with string and a traditional glass “mati” bead glued on top. The “eye” design of the bead is a recurring motif in that part of the world and is intended to ward off the Evil Eye. But Alexandros insisted it was not there for any magical purpose, simply because his wife thought it looked nice.

The effort with the packaging is particularly appreciated considering that this is not even anything like the planned production packaging (see the image below).

I uncork the flask and from the bottle neck I first get juniper and citrus, then something floral, sweet vanilla and an earthiness too, with hints of chocolate and something that reminds me of cake.

I pour some into a glass and the aroma becomes a bit more savoury, an interesting balance of sharpness, with floral and leafy layers, woody spice like cinnamon or cedar and earthy roots.

On the palate it is powerfully flavoured, with sweet/floral elements and an almost menthol punch, plus something that seems drily aromatic, like saffron, but more floral—it made me wonder if there was an emphasis on orris root, but Alexandros tells me there is none in there. The earthy/rooty angle also made me assume that there was mastiha in it (see the previous post)—which would be an obvious choice to make something self-consciously Greek, but again Alexandros tells me there is none.

This is a complex gin tasted neat, bright and spicy with notes of ginger, but with a mellow, floral approachability. It is smooth and sweet on the tongue, combined with a spice that reminds me of gingerbread, and has a lingering aftertaste that also has the ginger/molasses character of gingerbread.

In dilution the warm, sweet spice notes become more dominant and the juniper less so, to the extent that if you’re looking for a classic G&T this might not be your best bet.

In an Aviation cocktail it sits very comfortably, blending so seamlessly with the fruit and violet flavours that it becomes hard to pick out the character of the gin itself. As you can see from the picture, I garnished this with lemon peel and the aroma of that meshed very neatly with the gin.

The production bottle design
After some goading Alexandros tells me there are ten botanicals: hops (well, he is a brewer), wild mint, thyme, cumin, cardamom, lemongrass, pepper and two kinds of local berry (which are used fresh rather than dried), in addition to juniper, of which there is not a lot. The spirit base is grape alcohol (“the same as used for Cognac”, he says)* and the gin is distilled in a copper pot still and bottled at 40% ABV.

I might guess that the citrus element I got initially must be from the lemongrass but Alexandros says that note comes mainly from the hops. I don’t really get cardamom specifically, but now that I know I can sense cumin, contributing to the dry spice angle that struck me. I think that the sweetness must be from the mint and the berries. I can also believe that the mint is responsible for the dominant spicy/pungent character, though Alexandros says, “The mint is not very prominent. Quite difficult to handle, this one, though it adds depth and of course makes it spicy.”

Nissos is a modern gin, and a poised, polished performer. Whether neat or in dilution, new flavours keep emerging. It manages to be both warmly pungent, evolving into dry, woody spice, but with a bright top note of citrus and juniper. I also keep thinking I get a whiff of honey. My experiments with cocktails suggest that while it’s unlikely to clash it may get a bit lost, so perhaps simple serves are the best way to appreciate its subtleties. Alexandos didn’t give an idea of when the gin might launch, but keep your eyes peeled.

* By which I assume he just means it’s a grape eau de vie, not that it comes from the Cognac region—which would be a bit mad when there must be plenty of grape alcohol nearer to hand.

An Aviation cocktail made with Nissos gin

Monday, 11 March 2019

Something to chew on from Greece

We were on holiday in Athens, prompted by the chance to visit a friend in the last weeks of his tenure as British ambassador to Greece (we even got to stay in the embassy for a few days—something that’s not likely to happen ever again), but he was a busy man and we were mostly left to our own devices. On the first night we were finishing dinner in a restaurant when the waitress glided by and placed two small liqueur glasses in front of us. “Μαστιχα,” she said, which I assumed meant something like, “On the house.” The liquid in the glasses was indeed a sort of liqueur, but earthy, and not like any I’d tried before.

Later we discovered that the waitress was actually identifying the liquid as mastiha, a liqueur made from a resin from a tree that grows on the island of Chios. In fact the gum is known in Greece as “tears of Chios” and it has been harvested there for over 2,500 years. Traditionally the mastiha gum is chewed to freshen the breath and because it was believed to aid digestion and dental health and prevent illness. Later, on a foodie walking tour, we got to try chewing some actual gum. In fact the name comes from the Greek word to chew, and is where we get “masticate” in English (and, presumably, “mastic”, the rubbery stuff builders use to seal joins). Making a liqueur out if it is a relatively recent refinement but still goes back a few hundred years.*

"Tears" of mastiha resin
We quickly discovered that the Greekness of mastiha was self-consciously used in other products: in a wine shop I was intrigued to discover Old Sport, a Greek gin that included mastiha as a botanical. And at the airport we even came across some halva (a crumbly sweet delicacy made from sesame with a fibrous texture) with mastiha in it.

Let’s start with the gin. Who knows what is going on with the label: the stylised beard may be designed to appeal to hipsters, though the sculptural treatment suggests the beards of Gods and heroes in Greek marbles. But then, where the beard’s owner’s face should be, there is a photo of a bloke with a moustache that looks like it’s come off a cigar box or banknote. That bloke pops up on the website next to the line “165 years of distilling”, so he may be the distillery’s founder. There’s no clue on the site as to why it’s called Old Sport—a Great Gatsby reference?

So what’s it like? Opening the bottle and I get fresh orange or tangerine. When I pour it into a glass it shifts to a weird sour smell, like the inside of a plastic bottle that previously held orange juice but is now empty and has been left in the sun. Then a dark note emerges, a dry, woody smell, and, oddly, a sweet sesame note—like halva.

In the mouth there is a suggestion of liquorice, cumin seed, maybe fennel seed or caraway, but not really any juniper. The base spirit itself if a bit rough and leaves the tongue feeling slightly seared. Again there is an earthy, dry root element, like horseradish but without the heat.

According the back label the botanicals are juniper, angelica, rosemary, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, orris, liquorice, coriander seed, lemon peel, bitter orange peel and mastiha. So, no cumin, but perhaps the nutmeg and cinnamon suggested it, in combination with the mastiha. Rosemary is an interesting one and I can get that.

While it is not offensive, it is hard to like Old Sport. On paper the botanicals sound as if they should make a complex and punchy libation, but instead of being vivid and intriguing it seems lifeless and stale. Some gins fascinate as the flavours evolve and interplay but Old Sport just sits there like an experimental infusion you made years ago and forgot about. It’s dominated by a sour, waxy, mid-range woody note, with none of the bright, refreshing elements one rather looks for in a gin. The website describes it as “mildly complex”, which sounds like damning with faint praise, though I suspect they mean it is both mild and complex. In fact it is neither of these things.

The Skinos mastiha liqueur was bought at the recommendation of a man in a booze shop (Mr Vertigo in Filikis Eterias Square). I would say it was sweeter than the digestif we were served on that first night, but it nevertheless intrigues. Open the bottle and you’re hit by a powerful earthy smell—exactly that “horseradish without the heat” that I detected in Old Sport but much stronger. There are also hints of cucumber and chocolate.

Allow it to expand in a glass and the aroma becomes creamier, but with a high grassy note—a bright, sharp layer that actually reminds me of juniper (an element that seemed sadly lacking in Old Sport gin)—but then one would expect mastiha to be resinous. On the palate Skinos is arresting, serving up white chocolate and the sweet earthiness of halva.

That intriguing high note makes me wonder how this would blend with a classic juniper-led gin. I have some Christopher Wren gin from City of London Distillery within arm’s reach so I give it a try, roughly half and half. The gin does not have the warm sweet bottom end that many modern gins attempt, but the Skinos smoothes its sharp edges. It’s a toppy, crisp gin with juicy, leafy undertones and a peppery, dry mouthfeel. The mastiha obviously makes it sweeter and the earthy root flavours sit below the gin’s high notes. Moreover, I definitely think the blend of Skinos and Christopher Wren gin makes a pleasanter, better balanced and more complex drink than Old Sport, though with the added sugar it could not count as a gin in itself.

The final mix: 2 shots gin, ½ shot Skinos, ½ shot lemon
juice. It's a polished, grown-up cocktail that clearly
showcases the resinous, earthy flavour of the mastiha
This got me wondering what would happen if you added lemon juice to balance the sweetness—it would be the classic combination of base spirit, sugar or liqueur and lemon or lime, that is the structure of so many well-known cocktails. Effectively it’s like making an Aviation but using mastiha instead of maraschino. I added lemon juice to the blend I’d already made and I can report that it works. Mrs H. found it a bit strong, but at this stage I hadn’t shaken it with ice which would have diluted it. (I added tonic and found that the flavours continued to present and balance in the same way.) Finesse the proportions and that’s a cocktail right there.

And what of the mastiha halva, I hear you ask? It tasted like halva.

* It seems the liqueur is properly known as Chios Mastiha. The term mastika is used in neighbouring regions to refer to an aniseed drink more akin to ouzo or raki.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Happy Birthday, Prohibition: a cocktail in your honour

One hundred years ago today Prohibition passed into US Federal law, when the 18th Amendment was ratified by the 36th state.*

It was intended to improve the health and morals of the nation, but it had some unintended consequences. Some sources say that it did reduce alcohol consumption, while others suggest consumption initially went down but after a few years rose to higher than pre-Prohibition levels. Certainly in cities the number of places you could get a drink sky-rocketed as drinking went underground. This playful map below from 1932 suggests there were 500 speakeasies in Harlem alone. There must have been a clientele for all these speaks: a lot of ordinary people weren’t keen to give up booze but now these previously law-abiding citizens were declared to be criminals, creating a new flexible morality. (In fact some pro-Prohibition activists later swapped sides and campaigned to have it abolished, on the grounds that it had created a generation with no respect for the law.) Drinking had previously been concentrated in saloons, places where respectable women did not venture; but Prohibition suddenly meant that everyone slipping into an illegal drinking den was on an even moral footing, and for the first time it became acceptable for women to drink in public. This was the age of the flapper.

Previously the government had derived significant revenue from taxing booze sales: now that revenue passed into the hands of organised criminals, some of them soldiers returning from WWI with gun skills but little prospect of work, who set up sophisticated smuggling operations to satisfy demand. The old saloons had been hotbeds of political intrigue and moralists hoped Prohibition would clean things up, but bootleggers like Al Capone made so much money they could buy whole cities: at his peak Capone had the Chicago mayor and most of the police on his payroll. In Chicago the fashionable middle classes bragged about the gangsters they knew.

Prohibition affected the wider world too, as out-of-work American bartenders went abroad to seek employment. Although cocktails had been around through the 19th century this migration did much to spread the fashion for mixed drinks—not least because fashionable and wealthy Americans could travel overseas to find a legal snifter (and even the not-so-wealthy could make it to Havana, where a host of new cocktails were developed to cater for them). In London hotels and clubs now began having an “American bar” serving cocktails. Every ocean liner had to have its own signature concoction.

One of these expats was Harry Craddock. In fact he’d been born in Britain, but went to train as a bartender in the US and became a citizen. He claimed to have shaken the last cocktail before Prohibition came into force, then promptly sailed back to Blighty where he set up at the Savoy Hotel in London. He is best known for penning The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930), which is still in print and a useful source.

Harry Craddock

One of his creations is the Prohibition Cocktail. There is no record of how it came to be created—and it may have been a spur-of-the-moment thing in response to a request, as it is almost identical to another of his cocktails, the Charlie Lindbergh—but he must have been cocking a snook at the Noble Experiment, and possibly at the “Prohibition cocktails” being touted on the other side of the ocean. Some of these were attempts to get drinkers enjoying fruit-juice based blends (what I guess we would call “mocktails” today), while others were synthesised to taste like the Martinis and Manhattans that drinkers used to enjoy—apparently with invariably foul results.**

Harry’s Prohibition Cocktail is a proper cocktail, and moreover a very tasty drink, so on this day it seems apt to revisit it. His recipe in The Savoy Cocktail Book is:

½ Plymouth Gin
½ Kina Lillet
2 Dashes Orange Juice
1 Dash Apricot Brandy
Shake well and strain into a cocktail glass. Squeeze lemon peel on top.

As we have observed before, Kina Lillet is no longer made. Lillet themselves would have you believe that modern Lillet Blanc is a suitable substitute but it is generally considered that Kina Lillet was more bitter (its name presumably derived from quinine-laden cinchona bark). I find that Cocchi Americano is a good substitute—in the sense that if you follow vintage recipes you end up with something that looks and tastes right. (For example, a Corpse Reviver No.2 made with Lillet Blanc is just too sweet and orange-flavoured, so you end up adding more gin and less Cointreau to try and get it balanced.) If you can’t find that you could try Lillet Blanc plus some bitters. China Martini is another good substitute but is harder to find that Cocchi Americano. See DBS’s post on his search for the Vesper Martini and various substitutes for Kina Lillet. Apricot brandy seems to be getting easier to acquire: most larger supermarkets near me stock it these days.

I find that this makes a good modern version, though you may need to play around with the proportions depending on what gin you use or whether your OJ is freshly squeezed or from a carton:

35 ml gin
35 ml Cocchi Americano
10 ml orange juice
5 ml apricot brandy

Get the balance right and it has sweetness and bitterness, juniper backbone from the gin and distinct notes or orange and apricot.

Happy birthday, Prohibition. Here’s mud in your eye!

* Nebraska, as it happens, though some states were already operating Prohibition at a state level. The amendment stipulated that the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol would be banned from one year later, 17th January 1920. The actual details of what counted as an alcoholic beverage and what exemptions there might be were sorted out in the Volstead Act later in 1919.

** For more on Prohibition Cocktails see Greg Moore’s scholarly post on his Cocktail101 blog.