Friday, 14 September 2018

Uncle Nearest: something new from Tennessee



Think of “Tennessee whiskey” (if you think of it at all) and you’ll probably think of Jack Daniels, the mighty presence that, certainly here in the UK, tirelessly advertises on the London underground with vast posters emphasising the old-school homeliness of its global brand. I must have ticked a box once and ever since I receive weird branded merchandise on my birthday, so eager is the JD machine to make me feel part of some community of honest, whiskey-swilling folk, modest, plain-speaking, thrifty and hard-working.

In fact you’d be hard put to find another Tennessee whiskey here. Specialist shops offer some George Dickel products (see below) and Master of Malt have a few historical bottlings too, but that’s about it. So I was intrigued to be approached by a new brand, Uncle Nearest.

Nathan “Nearest” Green was an ex-slave turned whiskey maker, the first African American master distiller on record and the man who taught Jack Daniels how to distil—but a figure who then got lost in history. In fact the desire to bring Uncle Nearest’s story to the world seems to be the main motivation behind the new brand, and they have even set up the Nearest Green Foundation so some of the whiskey’s profits can fund a museum and book dedicated to Green’s life and scholarships for some of his descendants.

As a slave, Nathan ran the still at the farm owned by Reverend Call. Jack Daniels was eight years old when Call introduced him to Green, asking Green to teach the boy how to make whiskey. When the good Reverend’s parishioners objected to his involvement in the ungodly business of making liquor, Call agreed to sell the distilling operation over to Daniel. By now the Civil War was over and, when Daniel founded his own distillery in 1866, he hired Nathan, now a free man, as his master distiller. He went on to employ three of Nathan’s sons as well and, later, four of his grandchildren. Direct descendants of Nearest were still working at Jack Daniel’s into the 21st century. Yet for years it was widely accepted that Reverend Call himself was Daniel’s mentor; it wasn’t till 2016 that the New York Times ran a story revealing that it was the slave Nearest Green who really taught Daniel.* Only last year did Jack Daniel’s officially recognise Green as their first “head stiller”. (Certainly now the JD website has more information on Nearest than the Uncle Nearest website does.)

In this early-1900s group shot Jack Daniel is centre in the white hat; to his right is Nearest's son George


So much for the backstory—what of the whiskey? It’s a little hard to tell. The Uncle Nearest brand has come up with a recipe that they only say “is based on a Tennessee recipe that hasn’t been used since 1912”; the mash bill is 90% corn and rye (they don’t say in what proportion) and some of the remaining 10% is malted corn, which is apparently unique. All the grain is locally sourced and the spirit is distilled twice. One of the defining characteristics of Tennessee Whiskey is the “Lincoln County Process” (which Nearest himself helped to develop), where new-make whiskey is filtered through a stack of sugar maple charcoal. UN have come up with a proprietary version of this, “an intricate 11-step, 25-day process utilizing a one-of-a-kind triple charcoal mellowing system”.**

The company are in the process of building their own distillery, but for now the whiskey is made for them by a distillery in Nashville. They are selling an unaged “Tennessee Silver” whiskey, while the rest of the spirit goes into new, charred American oak barrels for ageing.

What is confusing is that they already have a “Premium Aged” whiskey—which is what I was sent—and are about to release a 12-year-old single barrel edition. This whiskey has been sourced from the stocks of two other distilleries, though there is a suggestion that UN have developed their own post-ageing filtration process to which they subject the bought-in barrels to create their own character.***

You can see, as with so much these days, there is a great emphasis on heritage and locality. The company already own Dan Call Farm, the Reverend’s place where the whole story started, and when talking of their new distillery—complete, of course, with visitor’s centre and even a music venue—they emphasise the economic benefits to the community, the use of local crops, their plan to have their own 100 acres of corn, in-house malting, etc. So what exactly is “Tennessee whiskey”?

At a federal level Tennessee whiskey is legally defined is a “straight bourbon whiskey” made in Tennessee. A “straight” whisky is defined as fermented grain distilled to no higher than 80% ABV then aged for at least two years at no higher than 62.5% ABV in new, charred American oak barrels; prior to bottling it may only be filtered and diluted with water. The term “bourbon” carries most of the requirements of straight whiskey, but without minimum age—although “straight bourbon” must indeed have been aged for at least two years. Moreover “bourbon” must be made in the United States from at least 51% corn. However, few makers of Tennessee whiskey use this term. State legislation goes further, adding that “Tennessee whiskey” must use the Lincoln County Process—but the law (dating from 2013) makes specific exception for Benjamin’s Pritchard’s whiskey, which has never used the process and has no desire to, and some smaller distillers have grumbled that the legislation means that all Tennessee whiskies effectively have to be made like Jack Daniel’s.

There is plenty of whiskey made in Tennessee that can’t be called Tennessee whiskey, either because it is not aged long enough or uses a more rye-heavy mash bill. George Dickel, founder of what is now the second biggest brand after Jack Daniels, thought his liquor the equal to any Scotch and to this day the brand calls its product by the Scottish name “whisky” instead of “whiskey”. As for the Lincoln County Process, ironically in 1871 the rearrangement of boundaries meant that the Jack Daniel’s distillery, where the process was developed, was no longer in Lincoln Country—the one distillery still in Lincoln County is Pritchard’s which, as noted above, is the one Tennessee whiskey that does not use the process.

Oddly, Tennessee is a state where Prohibition never really went away: until 2009 there were only three counties, out of its 95, where distilling was even legal. By default it is still illegal to sell alcohol or alcoholic beverages, and it is down to individual counties to decide otherwise. There are still 13 dry counties, and 69 of the remainder only allow it within certain jurisdictions (my favourite is Decatur County, where liquor may only be sold by the drink, in restaurants with a capacity of at least 75, within three miles of the Tennessee River).

To get a sense of what Uncle Nearest are up to, I line up a bottle of their Premium Aged alongside a bottle of regular Jack Daniel’s Old No.7. The JD starts off with a whiff of varnish, a hint of smoke and some peardrop fruitiness. The palate is pretty thin-feeling, with that varnish element, bananas and a bit of charcoal with a bitter finish. By comparison Uncle Nearest has a nose that is straightaway more inviting, with a pronounced caramel note, plus marzipan and fruitcake and a bit of sesame. On the tongue it is strikingly smoother and sweeter than JD, even though it is 50% ABV.

Moving then to Bulleit Bourbon—the only other American whiskey I have in the house at the time—this has a mellower nose and a palate that is fundamentally different from the Tennessee whiskies, with a fruity quality that is somehow reminiscent of shampoo, but not in a bad way. But I would still say that Uncle Nearest has more structure and poise to it.

Bulleit itself has a fairly high rye content (28%, with 68% corn and 4% malted barley), but I was surprised that the Uncle Nearest struck me as having a rye-like spiciness too. Yet the word on the street seems to be that the bulk of it is most likely sourced from George Dickel, and their mash bill is just 8% rye.

George Dickel was briefly advertised here with the slogan, "If you
only know Jack, you don't know Dick". It doesn't seem to have
done them any favours
Later, I manage to get hold of a bottle of George Dickel Old No.12. It has a softer nose than Uncle Nearest, fragrant and perfumed by comparison, with a orange-fruit palate and more pronounced caramel. I’d say it was smoother on the tongue (but then it is 45% ABV, to UN’s 50%)—and smoother too then Jack Daniel’s. Again JD strikes me as having a flabby, wet-cardboard character compared to the fruity poise of the Dickel. And I would say that, neat, the Dickel is more drinkable that Uncle Nearest, though that may just be because of the alcohol. All three Tennessee whiskies here have a bitterness on the finish, perhaps the result of all that exposure to charcoal.

As an experiment, I add water to a sample of Uncle Nearest to dilute it by a quarter to get its ABV down to 40%, so I can compare it to JB on an even footing. At this dilution it still comes across as noticeably smoother and with an elegance and depth, notes of old wood and marmalade. JD is thin and can only muster those pear-drops and a bit of wet plaster. UN is drinkable at 50% but I experimented with drinking it over ice, and even when I absent-mindedly allowed all the ice to melt I found the resulting heavily-diluted whiskey was an interesting and flavoursome beverage.

I don’t know if there are any classic Tennessee whiskey cocktails, but I try Uncle Nearest in some obvious Bourbon or rye concoctions. It has the backbone to sit easily in an Old Fashioned or Sazerac—it doesn’t need the added sugar to make it smooth, but at the same time it has the strength and presence to cut through and make for a proper drink, not liquid confectionary. It also makes a cracking Manhattan, with plenty of heft to create a focused drink but enough refinement to sit well with high-quality ingredients (I was using Antica Formula vermouth). Mind you, if you follow Difford’s proportions of 2½ shots of whiskey to one of vermouth (and I tend to add a splash of maraschino too) you do end up with a modestly-proportioned drink that packs about four units of alcohol… I likewise tried it in a Boulevardier and even that combination of vermouth and Campari could not swamp the whiskey’s presence.

Uncle Nearest Premium Aged will retail in the UK at about £50.

* In fact Nearest was first mentioned in a 1967 book on Jack Daniel, according the the Foundation, and again in a 1972 issue of the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, but it was only recently that his contribution became widely know.

** Interestingly, Jack Daniel’s “Gentleman Jack” product differs from regular JD whiskey in that it gets a second charcoal filtration, something that Daniel himself allegedly experimented with.

*** Uncle Nearest refer to “special carbon and DE filtration”, which turns out to stand for “diatomaceous earth”—filtering through the fossilised remains of micro-organisms. These fossils can be found in great numbers where they sank to the bottom of prehistoric lake beds and are now mined in certain parts of the world. DE filtration has been used to produce safe drinking water since the 1940s and is common in the beer and wine industries to achieve a clear final product. I don't know if there is really anything special about UN's process, as I imagine anything that's been passed through a stack of charcoal is going to want quite a bit of filtering.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Locksley gin: the taste of Lincoln Green?

On the way back from Scotland we broke our journey for Mrs H. to attend a get-together of seashell collectors at the Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire. I found myself with a bit of time to kill and wandered over to the Big House. And by big I mean BIG. The home of the Dukes of Devonshire for 16 generations, the estate’s 20th-century history has been characterised by each generation’s struggle to pay inheritance taxes (up to 80% of the value of all property), and like many such country houses it is today a well-oiled tourism machine.

In addition to several eateries on site, I found a gin bar in the courtyard, featuring a number of local gins, including Sheffield Gin from the True North Brew Co. and Shining Cliff Gin from the White Peak Distillery (which I keep calling Shining Path Gin, probably not the image they were trying to present). But the one I chose to try was Sir Robin of Locksley, from the Locksley Distilling Company, named after the region’s famous son who would go on to great things as Robin Hood.

Chatsworth House, a modest country get-away


They describe the gin as featuring traditional botanicals (juniper, coriander, cassia, angelica, liquorice) plus elderflower, dandelion and grapefruit—the elderflower gathered Lincolnshire and the dandelion from Yorkshire. Their intention was to create a “sipping gin” that fell somewhere between a London Dry and an Old Tom. The finished recipe was apparently their 61st attempt. They refer to it as “one of the very few (if not only) true English sipping gins”—which I think other producers would dispute. The term “sipping gin” may be a neologism, but it already seems pretty widely embraced (Tom, from TOAD, for example, told me he feels their Physic Garden gin is best drunk neat).

The bottle features a rather overworked letter R, filled with images of oak leaves and acorns, dandelions and other plants, a feather, a bow and arrow, a stag, a bit of a castle and other medieval-looking for-de-rols—like the daydream doodle resulting from a long and unengaging teleconference. The inside of the back label is green, suffusing the contents with a verdant glow—I briefly wondered if the liquid itself was coloured but it is not. An online search for bottle images mostly shows a plain glass vessel, but my one features a nest of embossed heraldry at the bottom, including a crown, bees, suns/stars and leaves, perhaps dandelions plants. To emphasise the handmade, “artisanal” credentials, each bottle is signed and hand-numbered by distiller John Cherry.

Uncorking the bottle I’m relieved to be hit initially by juniper, followed by a powerful orange and lime citrus notes, sweet like Opal Fruits/Starburst (not overtly grapefruit per se, but this may be where it is coming from). But then there is something strongly herbal too. This note is hard to pin down (and may ultimately come from the dandelion, though I don’t really know what dandelion tastes like) but it is a defining quality in this gin, however you serve it—perhaps I should dub this flavour “Lincoln green”. Given the nose, tasted neat it is surprisingly savoury, with something like cucumber peel or plant stems going on. But then a perceived sweetness does appear, and it is certainly smooth and mellow on the tongue. Whether you find this quality makes for easy drinking or gets a bit cloying will be a matter of taste, but it did start to suggest crystallised fruit and flowers.



It makes a smooth Martini, with a suggestion of fresh mint and the sweet/savoury herbal element again. It’s not a hugely powerful gin, in terms either of alcohol (40.5% ABV) or flavour, something which became clear when I tried making cocktails with it. With an Aviation or a Corpse Reviver No.2 I had the opposite experience from when I recently used the two Cornish Navy strength gins—Sir Robin gin is easily masked by other ingredients, and in both cocktails I found you had to at least double the specified quantity of gin before you could really tell it was there. With the Corpse Reviver you can get to a reasonable balance but with the Aviation I’m not sure it ever really made its presence felt.

But then they do say it’s intended as a sipping gin. Is it a good sipping gin? I confess it will never be my favourite, but there is something intriguing here and I’ve not had anything that tastes quite the same. For me it is probably a bit too cloying neat, though—I think I prefer it in a G&T, where its savoury, herbal stripe seems to add a refreshing quality.

I see that Locksley also make another hybrid, a Navy Strength Old Tom—see the last post for my thoughts on Navy strength gin—which, like the Navy strengths from Trevethan and Tarquin’s, might fare better in cocktails. They even do a version of the Navy Strength Old Tom that has been aged in a Sauternes barrel.

Sir Robin of Locksley Distilled Artisan Gin can be bought for about £38.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Cornish gin update

I was back in Cornwall on holiday last month and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the range of locally produced gins had expanded.

In a seafront bar in St Ives I tasted a sample of the murky St Ives gin, cold compounded using locally-foraged botanicals, such as seaweed, gorse and basil. The literature states, “a special blend of 13 botanicals gathered from the Cornish coastline, cottage garden and cliff tops come together to create this distinctively different gin experience,” but I’m assuming not all the botanicals are local, and indeed the website actually states that local ingredients are used “where possible”. I confess I was not immediately taken—it seemed a bit cloying and not very ginlike—but I will withhold judgement until I’ve given it a proper tasting.

In John’s – The Liquor Cellar, again in St Ives, I asked for a recommendation and came away with an elegantly square bottle of Foy gin. It’s made in Fowey, which is indeed pronounced “Foy”, and the producers must have decided it was simpler to spell it that way than be forever correcting people who asked for “Foh-ee” or “Fow-ee”. The label gives little away, other than that is has six botanicals and, intriguingly, is made from their own alcohol. “They” turns out to be Fowey Valley Cider, and producer Barrie Gobson confirms that the base spirit is made from apples. They also make a vodka, an eau de vie distilled from their vintage cider, and a liqueur blending the eau de vie with apple juice.

Barrie’s description of the development process is interesting: “I had a few groups of tasters in the area—all gin fans. My first few creations got the ‘OK, but not great’. I personally think a lot of the new gins have rather overpowering botanicals with a lot of ‘aniseedey’ and ‘liquoricey’ flavours. Eventually I gave up on the unique ingredient idea and went back to some very old recipes for inspiration. This was the breakthrough and eventually our ‘back to basics’ classic dry Foy Gin was born.”

Neat, the gin leads with juniper and prominent juicy orange peel. There is also a definite stemmy, herbal element and warm sweetness that reminds me of gingernut biscuits but may just be suggested by the orange. The sweetness extends to a floral note. On the tongue it is dry; I’d like to say I can detect apples, but I can’t. There is a delicate whirl of warm spices and a lean, slightly bitter, finish. In a G&T it has quite a distinct character, with a whiff of what reminds me of fresh cucumber and dry woody spice like coriander or cumin on the palate.

The whole “artisan gin” game seems to accept, as one of its rules, that these gins are pricey, typically around £35 a bottle. But Foy gin is £32 for just 50cl—the equivalent of £48 for a regular bottle—so you would have to be jolly keen on it to make it your everyday snifter. Some of that price is going to come from the expensive-looking bottle. It has occurred to me that self-consciously “local” gins could have a scheme where you can take your empty bottles back to the distillery shop and get them refilled at a discount, but I guess this might defeat the object—having an expensive-looking bottle is your justification for charging a premium price. (Making your own base spirit certain pushes up costs, but the gin itself is never going to be the expensive bit: even an off-the-shelf bottle will probably cost the producer more than its contents.)*

The other two gins I came away with were both from brands I’d already tried and liked, Trevethan and Tarquin’s Cornish Gin, but in each case I discovered they had produced a Navy strength edition and decided to give them a try.

Generally speaking (and I believe it is the case for these two) a Navy stength gin is the same recipe as a distillery’s regular offering, but bottled at around 57% ABV. Apparently back in the 18th century, when globe-trotting Royal Navy officers were stocking their ships with gin (there was a Naval ordinance declaring how much gin was required to be carried on board), there developed a suspicion that suppliers were watering the stuff down. Being in the Navy they had plenty of gunpowder knocking around and they discovered that if gin were spilled on to gunpowder, the gunpowder could still be lit if the gin was at least 57% alcohol. So that become “Navy strength”, since it was easy to test if any given sample complied.

So what, in this day and age, is the point of Navy strength gin? I have often wondered this myself. In a G&T you could simply adjust the amount of tonic and it would come to the same thing. Drink it neat? Really, at 57%? I suppose that if you feel that stirring or shaking with ice dilutes your Martini too much, then you might feel that Navy strength can counter this—so that after dilution from shaking, the gin comes back down to the ABV you wanted in the first place.

Neat, Trevethan Chauffeur’s Reserve is pretty intense. I’m definitely hit by that coriander-driven character, but I’m sure I remember a more complex interplay of flavours from the regular-strength version. I make a Martini and it still feels a bit closed. I experiment with re-shaking it repeatedly, therefore introducing more water from the ice each time, and I’m struck by the velvety smoothness of the mouthfeel, almost chocolatey.

So I try some basic gin cocktails, staring with an Aviation (roughly two shots gin, half each of lemon juice and maraschino and about a teaspoon of crème de violette). The Foy makes a nice drink, still with that vegetal/cucumber thing going on. Then I try one with Trevethan and suddenly I change my tune—the character of the gin shines through, the coriander dry-spice vibe sitting very comfortably with the wood-tannin element of the Luxardo maraschino. It’s a thought-provoking experience—the two versions are the same cocktail but quite different drinks.

So perhaps this is the point of Navy strength gin. There are definitely cocktails out there where more delicate gins are just swamped by the other ingredients. I try a Corpse Reviver No.2, which definitely falls into this category of cocktail. (Classically it’s one shot each of gin, curaçao, lemon juice and Kina Lillet plus a dash of absinthe—Kina Lillet hasn’t been made since the 1980s, but Cocchi Americano works well, and China Marini works well too, though its dark colour messes with the visuals.) Again the Trevethan is a triumph, easily standing up to—and harmonising elegantly with—the other components.

The simple but powerful Negroni (equal parts gin, Campari and red vermouth) can challenge more subtle gins, but here again the Trevethan makes its presence easily felt.

Tarquin’s Seadog gin is his Navy strength offering. As soon as you stick your nose to the bottle there is an extraordinary parma-violet floral concentration. This gin does use violets, picked from Tarquin’s garden, although it’s interesting that I wasn’t struck by a floral character from the regular gin. I think the chap who sold me the Seadog might had intimated that they adjusted the balance of the botanicals for this expression, but it’s worth noting that the botanical bill includes orris and angelica too, which might actually be where the floral thrust is coming from. Neat I also get a black pepper element. Stirred with ice I notice that the gin louches a bit, testament to the high concentration of essential oils dissolved in all that alcohol.

A Negroni made with Tarquin's Seadog gin

I try a Seadog Negroni, and once again get proof that this cocktail is a good showcase for Navy strength. Mind you, that’s not to say that the Negroni is the best thing to make with Seadog: the fruity/floral character, while rising clearly above the powerful flavours of the vermouth and Campari, does seem to lend the drink a Jelly Baby character, and I’m not sure that is a good thing.

A Seadog Aviation turns out to be more successful. I confess I was expecting this to be slightly pointless and one-note, given that the cocktail has crème de violette in it anyway, but it’s a profound drink with an intense synergy between the sweet and floral notes and the wood tannin edge of the maraschino—definitely a drink where the distinct barrel-aged character of Luxardo really works. Moreover there is a definite dry violet note floating above the sweet/sour/fruit combination of the liqueur and the lemon juice. (I use Bitter Truth crème de violette, which is pretty dry, and not really like a liqueur at all.)

Finally, I try a couple of White Ladies with the Navy gins (gin, curaçao and lemon juice—it should have egg white too, for a silky texture, but I didn’t have any to hand). Both drinks were a success, though for me the refined coriander backbone of the Trevethan makes for an elegant, patrician beverage that nudges ahead of the floral exuberance of the Seadog version.

* This is based on what Martin Price of SW4 told me.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more Negroni variants see this post from 2015.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Maraschino: is wood good?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

From grain to glass in the city of dreaming spires


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*** See https://www.thejamesbonddossier.com/james-bond-drink/the-james-bond-gin-tonic.htm

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


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

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Palmetto: secrets of the old-school shiners


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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