Friday, 7 April 2017

Strange fruit and the Moroney cocktail

We have a couple of little fruit trees in pots, an orange and a lemon, which struggle to thrive in our London garden. Over winter we brought them indoors and I watched as the orange tree produced a couple of fruit. Sadly, it wasn’t very happy and started dropping its leaves until pretty much all that was hanging from its spindly branches were the two fruit, and the stems supporting them were the only green, healthy looking ones. I was hoping that they would in time look like, you know, oranges; but by the point they both dropped off last week they were still resolutely green.

After a week sitting in the fruit bowl they clearly weren’t about to change colour, so I sliced one open. Rather gratifyingly, the inside looked just like an orange. A little on the small side, but nevertheless orange and juicy, like an orange should be. Its juice was somewhat astringent, but definitely orange juice.*

In fact the combination of the green skin and orange flesh is rather striking and, in combination with the white pith, reminiscent of the Irish flag. When I thought about cocktails traditionally garnished with an orange slice I immediately hit upon the Negroni (equal parts gin, Campari and red vermouth) and, to give it an Irish twist I tried using Irish whiskey instead of gin. Or course there is every reason why this should work, since the same thing with American whiskey is a Boulevardier, and I’ve noticed in the past how Irish whiskey, with its milder character than Scotch, lends itself better to cocktails.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Moroney. And very well it works too, with the caramelly warmth of the whiskey balancing the herbal bitterness of the amari with a bit of sweetness from the vermouth (I used Martini Rosso and Jameson whiskey in this case).

I wish I’d thought of this in time for St Patrick’s Day last month. Perhaps I can pretend it is to mark the 101st anniversary of the Easter Uprising…

Ice ball courtesy of a G'Vine ice ball maker


*When I posted a photo on Facebook a friend observed that once upon a time oranges were actually green, until later being bred to have orange skin, so I can tell myself that we must have a Heritage Orange Tree.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Vintage cider: how do we like them apples?

DBS contemplates the three vintages

Along with the fashion for cider (or “cyder” as the really poncey brands have it) comes “vintage” cider. In some cases this doesn’t actually seem to mean the cider has a vintage as such, merely that it is “vintage” in style, but here in the UK mainstream brands such as Weston’s and Thatcher’s do produce aged ciders of a specific year.

I recently had a chance to do a vertical tasting, albeit under rather unscientific circumstances. My sister lives in rural Kent and has a few apple trees in her large garden, so every year she gathers friends and family for a rather messy cider-making party. Small children are sent up into trees to gather the apples, which are loosely chopped by cackling crones, then “scratted” into a pulp. Scratting involves a machine so that job is done by blokes.* The pulp goes into a pleasingly old-fashioned wooden press and the resulting juice is fermented in plastic bins or glass demijohns with bubbling water valves to let the CO2 out but ideally let nothing in to contaminate the cider. In all, each year’s harvest makes about 70 bottles. Mrs H. and I traditionally compose labels for each vintage in time for Christmas which is roughly when the cider is ready for bottling. As a joke we named it Chapple Downer (there is an commercial vineyard in Kent called Chapel Down; my sister’s married name is Downer and the cider is made from apples) and the name has stuck.

It’s a nicely circular process, because by the time of each event the previous year’s cider is drinking nicely and the cider-making party consume quite a lot of it in the process. (For this reason the 2015 vintage was named Perpetuum Mobile—perpetual motion.)

Anyway, my sister gave me a set of 2013, 2014 and 2015 samples at the end of last year, so earlier this year I invited DBS along for this rare chance to try them all together.

2013 Bumper Scrump (so named because it was a bumper crop that year)**
Nose: Instead of fresh apple, it is more like baked apple. Extraordinarily it seems to include aromatic cinnamon and clove notes and raisins too. I keep wondering if this is just suggested to me by flavourings you might add to baked apple, but it does genuinely seem to be there.
Palate: The same thrust as the nose. It’s dry, but not mouth-puckeringly dry. The acidity is well balanced, with a hint of bitterness on the finish. Although bottled as a sparkling cider (with a supposedly calculated dosage of extra sugar for a controlled secondary fermentation) this bottle is not really fizzy any more, but it is nevertheless zesty and refreshing. But overall its character is deep, dark, complex cooked apple.

2014 People's Farming Collective of Littlebourne Fermented Apple Product (I think the name was a reference to the sheer number of people involved in the production)
Nose: Although this sample seems slightly darker in colour than the older cider, the nose is less profound, with more fresh apple and less of the spicy baked apple.
Palate: Properly sparkling with a delicate mousse. Slightly sweeter and more appley than the 2013. But there is a dark fruity weight on the tongue which makes you think that in time it would mature into the spiciness of the 2013.

2015 Perpetuum Mobile
Nose: Essentially similar to the 2014
Palate: Balance now is too much towards the acid, making it not quite comfortable to drink. Interestingly, this bottle was stoppered and left for a day or two, after which its pale colour had darkened (presumably through oxidation) and the palate had mellowed a bit.***

Of course all of this ignores the fact that, especially with production on a haphazard, domestic scale like this, not only will each year’s harvest differ, but the fruit going into each squeeze of the press and each of the various fermenting containers may not be consistent in terms of either quality or balance between different varieties (there are different species of apple tree involved, including a quantity of crab apples, which are apparently important, although nothing is measured very precisely). Different demijohns will ferment differently depending on the sugar present, the viability of the yeast and any accidental infections.

However, there does seem to be a pattern apparent where the youngest cider is acidic, dry and most redolent of fresh apple, then as it ages the attack softens and deeper spicy notes appear. The 2013 is very interesting, and not like any commercial cider I have tasted; DBS said it was by far his favourite, but I think some people might find it a little too over-mellow, and it would be harder to partner with food. The 2014 probably has the best balance between these complexities and the basic package of fruit, tannin and acid, while the 2015 gives the impression of not quite being there yet.

* The first year the scratter was a crude blade attached to an electric drill, which was spun round inside a plastic bucket of apples. Last year we tried using a cheap garden chipper. This was pretty effective at first, but after a while the engine started cutting out. The blokeyest of the blokes starting taking it apart, gradually bypassing switches and safety cut-offs in the hope of getting it going again: eventually is was pretty much just a motor wired into the mains, and it still didn’t work so we had to concede defeat at this point and scratted the rest of the apples in a food processor. Which was pretty effective too. 

** “Scrumping” means stealing apples from someone’s orchard

*** I’ve just tried it again now, some weeks after it was opened, though it has been kept stoppered. It is now frankly brown in colour, but has taken on a Fino sherry note, that high aromatic edge that reminds me of Bostik glue (but in a good way). It’s aggressive, and you feel you wouldn’t want to leave it in contact with your tooth enamel for longer than necessary, but actually quite interesting. I wonder if some sort of flor has developed…

The complete set of Chapple Downer labels:

Osbourns is the name of my sister's house

2012 saw a relatively meagre harvest, which we spun as being "select"

By contrast, 2013 was a bumper harvest

This is where the Richard Scarry homage reaches its peak to date

The worm here is a reference to the Midgard Serpent in Norse myth


Sunday, 5 March 2017

Experimenting with monkey glands

Early in one’s drinking career one will encounter spirits lengthened with mixers—gin and tonic, rum and coke, perhaps whisky and ginger ale (or whisky and soda water, if you are of a different generation). It was when I was a student that I first encountered gin and orange juice. I was sceptical, as I was inclined to think of OJ as a wholesome breakfast beverage, not a louche partner-in-crime to the Demon Drink, the innocent-faced, outwardly respectable enabler that distracts you from the hard spirits you are guzzling. It didn’t not work, but it was clearly intended as a way to mask the flavour of the spirit.

It was later, when I had found a copy of Cocktails and How to Mix Them (1922) “by ‘Robert’ [Vermeire] of the American Bar, Casino Municipale, Nice, and late of the Embassy Club, London”, that I first encountered the Monkey Gland cocktail. The name comes from experiments conducted at the time by surgeon Serge Voronoff, who believed he could boost longevity/virility by surgically implanting monkey testicle tissue into men. The cocktail was created by Harry MacElhone, who opened Harry’s Bar in Paris (though Vermeire identifies him by his tenure at Ciro’s in London) and I assume the name was chosen to suggest that the effect it had on the drinker was invigorating, even rejuvenating—and not that it left you feeling like you’d just woken up from surgery (or, even worse, feeling the way the monkey did when, and if, he woke up).

It’s a mix of gin and orange juice, with grenadine and absinthe. Recipes vary, but it is roughly equal parts gin and OJ, with small quantities of the other two ingredients. I tried it at the time, using Pernod (this was the 1990s and absinthe hadn’t made its triumphant return by then) and commercial grenadine, and I don’t think I was terribly impressed.

I was reminded of this drink again when Mrs H. recently gave me a copy of An Anthology of Cocktails, put out by Booth’s gin in 1935.* It features a whole list of celebs of the time with a recommended cocktail for each one and a cheesy testimony from them on the glories of Booth’s. For example, man of the turf Lord Westmorland declares, so we are led to believe, “A cocktail without Booth’s is a cocktail under a handicap,” while actress Sybil Thorndike asserts that, “A cocktail in which Booth’s plays a leading part receives an enthusiastic reception from the most captious critics,” while racing driver Brian Lewis blurts, “A party without Booth’s is like a car without wheels.” Quite how the Great and the Good were persuaded to lend their names (and indeed their signatures, printed alongside) to these abortions of the copywriter’s art boggles the mind.

The volume also includes a list of London clubs and theatres that serve Booth’s and a list of top barmen from the city with their favourite Booth’s recipes. You can see a page-turning PDF of the whole book at https://euvs-vintage-cocktail-books.cld.bz/1955-An-Anthology-of-Cocktails.

The Monkey Gland as such does not appear—the cocktails recommended by Booth’s for the celebs do tend to have a name that is relevant (Brian Lewis gets the Self Starter, winter sportsman the Earl of Northesk gets the Snowball, Ivor Novello gets the Star, etc), so I doubt that any of them would have appreciated being paired with the Monkey Gland—but it does feature a number of cocktails that similarly feature fruit juice not as a mixer to lengthen but as an ingredient, in amounts less than that of the base spirit. The Star, for example, is half-and-half gin and Calvados, plus a dash each of French and Italian vermouth, and only a teaspoon of grapefruit juice. The Smiler cocktail, recommended by horse breeder Tom Walls (“Would that the pedigree of a horse were as reliable a guide as the name of Booth’s on a bottle of gin,” he creaks) is essentially a Martini made with a blend of French and Italian vermouth, Angostura bitters and just a dash of Orange juice.

As it happens I had an orange looking for a purpose in life, and I was inspired to give the Monkey Gland another go. The upshot was most uplifting but I had to do a lot of experimenting to get there.

In the first instance I would say that the proportions are probably the most important part. Get the gin/OJ balance wrong and things go awry. Exactly how much grenadine you use may depend on how sweet your tooth is; but it is very easy to throw the whole thing out by using too much absinthe—in one attempt I escalated the absinthe to a whole ½ tsp and it ruined the drink. It should be a playful suggestion of pungent herbal flavours lurking in the background. The simplest way to keep that under control is to start by rolling some absinthe around your mixing vessel, then pouring it all out back into the bottle. What is left clinging to the sides of the shaker is all you need.

I also found that squeezing the orange juice freshly makes a big difference. It doesn’t exactly fail with commercial OJ from a carton, but this will make a more watery drink. Juice squeezed from an orange is sweeter and more intensely flavoured, with sharp aromatic notes from the rind oils. I imagine that when all these early cocktails with small amounts of fruit juice were developed, cartons of ready-squeezed juice may not have been available, so if a recipe specified the juice of a citrus fruit it was assumed that you would produce this by squeezing an actual fruit.

Monkey Gland
50ml gin (Adnams Copper House)
37.5ml freshly squeezed OJ
Absinthe rinse (La Fée new formula)
½ tsp grenadine
Coat the shaker with a rinse of absinthe and drain. Add the other ingredients and shake with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass and squeeze a strip of orange peel over the top.

As mentioned, the gin/orange balance is important, so neither swamps the other, a balance of sweetness, fruitiness and spirit warmth. When it’s right, interesting chocolate flavours emerge. Maybe it’s the use of freshly squeezed OJ, but the spirit and juice seem to integrate in a way that suggests the rich orange character of curaçao. I also tried varying the gin brand, using Anno instead, and it still works, though I found that the approachable, fruity, floral character of Adnams Copper House sat more comfortably. I didn’t try varying the absinthe brand, but as long as it is real absinthe (avoid anything that is a bluish green, which is artificial; naturally coloured absinthe tends to be an olive green) I would imagine it’ll be OK in these proportions.**

Grenadine is traditionally a pomegranate syrup, and I have previously railed against modern commercial grenadines, which are actually based on “red berries”, and probably don’t even feature any real ones of those anyway. But it is easy to make a good one, not too sweet, with some of the tannic dryness of the fruit, by mixing equal parts by volume of 100% pomegranate juice (POM Wonderful is the brand I have used in the past) and granulated sugar, heated in a pan to dissolve, then cooled. I keep some in the fridge and it never seems to go off.

*Most of the recipes specify “Booth’s gin”, and more than once the text refers to the “mellow” or “matured” character—DBS tells me that Booth’s was actually rested in wood barrels (casks previously used for sherry or Burgundy, depending on the era) for 6–12 weeks to soften its rough edges. Some of the recipes, on the other hand, specify “Booth’s dry gin”; certainly by the mid-20th century Booth’s were selling their High and Dry Gin, claiming to be “the driest gin in the world”, though I’m not sure if, at the time this booklet was published, they were selling both versions. Sadly there is nothing actually about the product within its pages. Aged gin has become fashionable again (and in fairness Seagram’s have always rested their gin in wood for 3–4 weeks). In recent years a Booth’s Cask Mellowed Gin has been produced again.

** I see that the International Bartenders Association gives their prescribed recipe as even leaner: 50ml gin, 30ml OJ and just two drops each of grenadine and absinthe.

Friday, 24 February 2017

The definitive "correct" Martini recipe?

A friend has drawn my attention to a curious volume, the American National Standard Safety Code and Requirements for Dry Martinis, which you can view online here.

Evidently it was produced as a tongue-in-cheek publicity stunt to raise awareness of the American National Standard Institute and its work, but there are some interesting observations to make nevertheless.

Whoever wrote the pamphlet (or whatever committee) nails their colours to the mast—they like their Martini dry, with just 5% vermouth for lower-strength gins, and it must be served with an olive, pitted but not stuffed, or alternatively no garnish at all. Lemon peel and the Gibson’s cocktail onion are verboten.

There is a curious emphasis on colour, which must be as pale as possible. It’s true that Dry Martinis do tend to be pretty pale because they are mostly gin, but I’m guessing there is an unconscious sense that paler = purity and strength, especially in the macho world where you are supposed to strive for the driest Martinis possible. There is even a suggestion that vermouth manufacturers had responded by making their products paler, which is something I hadn’t thought about (but then I wasn’t drinking a lot of Martinis back when this pamphlet was released, so I don’t know if vermouths used to be more coloured). Certainly they do vary—Belsazar Dry, one of my favourites, is actually pretty dark (and probably gets darker if you allow it to oxidise after opening). Oddly, the text states that, “The colour shall be either water-white of faintly blue”. Blue? I’m assuming this is poetic license, derived from the idea that something can be so white that it is bluish, but I must say that if my Martini were blue I would send it back. (There are some gimmicky gins that are coloured blue but we don’t talk about them.)

And these drinks are big. I doubt that any official publication today would breezily announce that a “regular” Dry Martini should contain 3½ ounces of gin—over here in Europe that is 103.5 ml, which is over four units of alcohol. (For a long time the UK government’s maximum recommended intake for a man was 3–4 units a day, though the spoilsports later reduced this to 2–3, and I have a feeling they may recently have reduced it further.) If you fancy saving time and having a double you’ll be swallowing 2–2½ days’ worth of alcohol allowance in one drink. Drink responsibly, kids.

On the subject of olives, it is curious that the guide seems to suggest that maximum olive size for a large Martini is larger than for a regular, but for a double it goes back down to the same size as a regular. Perhaps the message here is that choosing a large Martini is an aesthetic decision, whereas choosing a double is simply a matter of alcoholic need. Or it may just be a typo.

It terms of mixing, no mention is made of shaking. A Martini must be stirred (and there are many who agree here) or blended from pre-chilled ingredients (what my colleague Mr Bridgman-Smith calls the “Diamond Method”). Interestingly they also mention the “radiation” method. This is presumably a reference to the old joke, attributed to Winston Churchill, about making a Dry Martini by simply allowing a shaft of sunlight to pass through a bottle of vermouth on to the gin. Curiously the sunbeam here is replaced by a 60-watt bulb. Either this is a self-consciously urban adjustment, or it is purely logical, based on the idea that if it is Martini time then it might well be the evening, so there is no sunlight. Or it could simply be a pseudo-scientific trope—by specifying the wattage of the bulb and the distance between all the objects you can control the precise amount of light.

The whole tone of the pamphlet reminds one of Jazz-Age wags like Robert Benchley, so it is surprising that this was actually published in 1974—surely well into the cocktail Dark Age, between the Golden Age and the New Golden Age, where we apparently are now. I’m sure that some Dry Martinis were still being consumed in the 1970s but they could hardly have felt like part of the zeitgeist. You can’t help wondering if what this shows us is simply how glacially the mechanisms of official bureaucracies actually work. Some bright spark at the Institute probably had the idea for this gag in 1928 but by the time it had passed through countless committees and sub-committees somehow 26 years had passed…

Of course right-thinking drinkers would probably bristle at the very idea that cocktail recipes should be standardised by any central agency—what scope does that leave for bar-room arguments, varying ingredients or indeed for personal taste? But in fact in 1937 the UK Bartenders Guild produced a volume for professionals entitled Approved Cocktails (later incorporated into the Café Royal Cocktail Book for consumers), which attempted to do precisely that. You can see it online here.