Thursday, 28 March 2013

G'Vine seeks the flower of London's bartenders

The breathtaking view from Paramount at the top of Centrepoint

To Soho last Monday, for the finals of the London leg of the G’Vine “Connoisseur Programme” 2013, in the Paramount bar at the top of the Centrepoint Tower. Despite the grandiose title, this is a bartender competition of the kind that many brands have, now in its third year. Other cities are having their own local contests, and the winners will vie to be the British representative in a global final.

Floraison (left) and Nouaison (right)
Such competitions are very much part of the woodwork these days. Obviously they raise awareness of the brand among the bartending profession, but it’s also interesting how they are part of an understood pathway for bartenders themselves: you start in a bar, but where can you go from there, other than perhaps owning your own place? With these competitions you can be elevated to national or international renown. Then there is the concept of the Brand Ambassador, a hired representative—always from a bartending background, as opposed to the Brand Manager who is presumably from a marketing background—travelling around promoting the brand to other bartenders. In fact this year’s G’Vine competition is styled L’Edition Ambassadeur, acknowledging that it is a hunt for a brand ambassador. Gin expert Phil Duff, who help set up the competition, observed that since the first programme in 2010 the finalists were being snapped up as brand ambassadors by other brands within weeks of the competition closing.

Hannah receives her prize from soi disant cocktail
legend Salvatore Calabrese 
Once again I was part of a mob tasting the cocktails on offer and voting for our favourite. I find these events a fascinating snapshot of which cocktail ideas are trending and how mixologists respond to the base spirit they are working with—in short, what they think cocktails are all about. G’Vine itself is a French gin launched in 2006. Unusually the spirit is distilled from grapes, and they bring out this character by including vine flowers in the botanicals. It comes in two versions, Floraison (with the green cap), at 40% ABV, with a soft, sweet and floral character, and Nouaison (with its sterner, more masculine grey cap), which is stronger, at 43.9%, and has a more conventional, juniper-driven style, though still exhibiting the floral notes (both versions seem to have sweet, spicy elements of ginger too). This strategy of simultaneously launching two expressions, one aimed, frankly, at ladies and people who basically don’t like gin (c.f. Bloom, another floral gin aimed at the female market), and a stronger more ginny gin intended to capture that sector of the market that does actually like gin, seems to me to be exactly what Adnams did by bringing out their Distilled Gin and First Rate gin together.

Sebastien explains his cocktail. Contestants were
marked up for having all this gubbins at their stations
As ever, there were some pretty exotic combinations on offer on the night. Winner Hannah Lanfear from Boisdale in Canary Wharf offered up the Mary Jean, a Tiki-ish mixture with Coco Real cream of coconut, grapefruit juice and Aperol. The overall balance was a bit tart in my opinion, though the most interesting thing was the use of Abbott’s bitters, a strongly cinnamon-flavoured tincture that I had not encountered before. It was served with a freeze-dried rosebud as a garnish, though given the thick, opaque nature of the drink it looked to me like it was spiralling on the surface of a prehistoric tar pit before being sucked below, perhaps to emerge millennia later as amber…

Andreas with his absinthe fountain, a smoking
gun (hidden) and various sprays
Tea was once again widely in evidence. Runner-up Sebastien Kasyna from Coq d’Argent offered a mix of Lillet Blanc, umeshu plum wine, green tea and melon juice, which was refreshing but a bit tannic and dry overall. And Fredi Viaud from Charlotte’s Bistro, who could talk the hind legs off a donkey, directly infused an Earl Grey teabag in the gin, then added oloroso sherry and the wonderful Fee Brothers Plum Bitters. This had an amazingly complex aroma of sherry, plums and figs, though on the tongue it was very thin and astringent. Even as someone who likes a dry Martini, I found this too dry to drink very much of.

The other runner-up was Andreas Tsanos from Spirit Level @ Baku, about whose concoction I had mixed feelings. On the one hand it was profound and flavoursome, redolent of odd things that weren’t in it, like preserved lemons, smoked bacon, pungent honey and surgical spirit. On the other hand the process was almost comically complex, involving La Maison Fontaine absinthe smoked with oak, hickory and applewood, bergamot mist, Champagne reduction, rose petals, lavender and vanilla. There is a part of me that feels that a good cocktail is greater than the sum of its parts, rather than burdened down by them.

"I am French, I talk with my hands," explained
Fredi. He also talked a lot with his mouth
For all that, Andreas’s cocktail was actually one of my favourites, along with the May Fair’s Dimitris Gryparis’s blend of Antica Formula vermouth, rosemary-infused honey, grapefruit juice and orange juice, which made an intriguing balance between the grapefruit and the vanilla/chocolate character of this great vermouth. But a refreshing alternative came from Caroline Hoskins of House of Tippler in East Dulwich. Her cobbler-style drink consisted of Floraison gin, St Germain elderflower liqueur, grapefruit juice and sauvignon blanc wine. Wine-based cocktails are making a comeback but they are still pretty rare, and this one got my vote eventually for being both refreshingly different and having an uncluttered harmony, with all the elements making a clear contribution—including the gin itself.

This last point is significant, as I did feel that some of the cocktails would have tasted much the same with any other gin, or indeed without the gin at all. Imants Zusmanis of Kensington Place presented a drink involving muddled strawberry, pineapple and fresh red chilli, plus June grapeflower liqueur (from the same makers as the gin), Nouaison, limoncello, pineapple juice, lemon juice, cranberry juice and sugar syrup—yet it was really just about the clever synergy between strawberry and chilli (although in my notes I do say that the gin character is at least detectable).

Imants Zusmanis prepares his intriguing strawberry n' chilli combo
One other notable mention should go to William Pravda from Merlin’s Bar and his L’Escalier cocktail. I thought this meant a staircase but he translates it as an escalator, with the idea that it has a rising flavour. It’s a charmingly old school drink mixing Floraison with Martini Rosso, Benedictine and Angostura Orange Bitters, so a bit like a Negroni or Martinez, with the gin flavour distinct, and it does indeed have a pleasing bitter aromatic quality that seems to rise up on the finish. He served it with a sugar rim and some grapes floating in it, but it was too sweet for me. He admitted that he himself preferred it without all this but if you want to win a cocktail competition you apparently have to go in for all this fol-de-rol. (His orange peel garnish was even clipped to the side of the glass with a tiny clothes peg.) I glanced at a marking clipboard over the shoulder of a judge and saw that there was actually a column for how the contestant decorated their station, and other such hooey.

So what would I do with G’Vine? When I first experimented with it I found it a bit disturbing in many classic gin cocktails, because its emphasis on soft, sweet, floral notes doesn’t deliver the juniper steel you expect. But in cocktails that are more floral to start off with, such as the Aviation, it works perfectly well, and brings it’s own interest. It also works well in a French ‘75—whether there is any synergy going on between the grape spirit and the Champagne I don’t know; more likely between the vine flower character and the Champagne. And I discovered it makes a rather good Gimlet, partly because the relative softness of the gin balances with the tartness of the citrus but also because the gingeriness of the gin makes a natural harmony with the lime.

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