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.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Happiness is a torpedo on the sun deck



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Bone in the throat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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