Friday, 18 October 2019

Merser rum: reviving a London tradition


To Temple, by the river, for the launch of a new rum. It’s the brainchild of Hayman’s, whom you probably know as a gin distiller. Hayman’s present themselves as a family firm (I chatted to both Miranda and James Hayman, fifth generation in the business), though in fact Hayman’s gin only dates back to the 1980s. Miranda’s and James’s father Christopher, head honcho, is the son of Marjorie Burrough, of the Burroughs family behind Beefeater Gin, a family gin brand that dates back to 1863.

This sense of history is actually what lies behind the new product. Apparently back in the day the Thames was lined with rum blending houses, importing source rums from around the Caribbean and practising the art of skilful blending to create a perfect balanced product. Industrialisation and cost-cutting later drove this trade elsewhere, and Hayman’s are hoping to bring the old skills back to life.

The whole brand, called Charles Merser & Co., is steeped in this olde worlde image. The launch took place in a four-storey Georgian merchant’s house a couple of streets off the Strand, which they have named At the Sign of the Post and Hound. Charles Merser is actually a family ancestor, James tells me, but they are not reviving an old rum-blending business—they simply picked his name, not least because it has a City-of-London mercantile sort of ring to it. The Post and Hound name is a reference to the fact that in the old days pubs were identified by the imagery on their signs, rather than a written name, because most of their clientele couldn’t read. (The post refers to the wooden posts that Thames barges full of rum barrels would tie up at; the dog is a greyhound, apparently a London connection.) I asked if this meant their plan was to turn the building into a rum bar, which seems the obvious way to go, but apparently that sort of decision is a long way off. For now the high narrow building just seems to be a visitor’s centre.

At the launch the ground floor had shelves of bottles, plus some branded enamelled mugs, in one of which I was served a simple hot rum punch, essentially rum, hot water, sugar and spices (cloves and, I think, star anise). I think this room is intended as a shop front. Up on the first floor was a tasting room where we sampled the rum and on the top floor was a bar where vintage cocktails were being dispensed. Down in the cellar was their blending room. The idea is that the blending really will take place here, although it is no longer permissible to store barrels of rum in a London town house, for fire safety reasons, so all the storage will go on at the Hayman’s distillery plant in Balham. At the time of my visit there were only some empty barrels plus some pieces of barrel to show how they are made.

It was in this room that I learned a bit about how the new rum was concocted. It is made from three existing blends, in turn composed of some ten source spirits. The three component blends are imported, blended here then left in barrels for a number of months. Whereas the aged rums in the blend have matured in tropical conditions, which accelerates the interaction with the wood, the final ageing takes place in the temperate British climate, using barrels already used first for bourbon and then for whisky, so there is far less flavour imparted from this process. It is more about allowing the blend of blends to settle and marry. Given that so many different rums go into the mix, I asked if it was expected that as time went by different source spirits would be used, with the blending process used to adjust the recipe to ensure a consistent final flavour was maintained, and this does indeed seem to be the plan. Up in the top-floor bar there were rows of the source rums on display (not for tasting!), ranging in colour from completely colourless to dark brown.

Source rums for blending

The product we were tasting was to be their signature “Double Barrel” blend, though it is envisaged that other products may join the stable, such as limited edition blends. The bottle is striking, with a dimpled surface. I’m not quite sure what this is meant to suggest—to me it looked a little like the straw or wicker protective jacket you sometimes see on a glass carboy used to transport wine or spirits, but I was given no encouragement that this is in fact the intention. The three component blends are: 19% (A) a mix of 3-year-old Barbadian rum, 3-year-old Dominican rum and unaged Jamaican rum; 47% (B) a mix of 8-year-old Barbadian rum, 8-year-old Dominican rum and 6-year-old Panamanian rum; and 34% (C) a mix of 5-year-old Barbadian rum, 8-year-old Dominican rum, 3-year-old Guatemalan rum and unaged Jamaican rum. Blend A is said to add a fresh pine-like element, blend B the warming, rich, dark-sugar notes and blend C bright tropical fruit and toasty oak.



On the nose there are hints of the pungent Jamaican pot-still character (which pokes you in the eye when you open a bottle or Wray & Nephew), but these are well controlled within a soft and smooth aroma, with distinct notes of pineapple and mango, a bit of banana, plus caramel and for me a sweet sherry aroma. On the palate it is smooth and subtle, fruity and chocolatey. It is very easy to drink neat, elegant and refined. It’s more like an old-school butler than a hipster flairtender. It doesn’t scream one particular flavour, but dignifiedly suggests one nuance after another with a discreet cough. Add a little water and the chocolate and pineapple seem to come out more on the nose, and for the first time I notice the wood, while the palate takes on a creamy quality.

At £38 a bottle the Double Barrel is not cheap, but at the same time it seems good value to me. My immediate impression is that this is not a rum you would smother with mixer, but Hayman’s are keen to showcase some cocktails with it. The Hot Spiced Rum that I was served when I arrived was a bit sweet for me—I found myself wanting to add a squeeze of lemon juice. Up in the top floor bar I got to try a Polo, two parts rum, one part orange juice and one part lemon juice. It’s nice enough and you are aware of the rum, but having recently sampled it neat I now find myself wishing I could taste more of it in the mix.

A row of Palmettos being rustled up


I’m keen to try the Palmetto, combining rum with red vermouth and a dash of orange bitters. It’s nice, but again I instinctively feel there should be a bit more of an emphasis on the rum. The next day, at home, I make my own. I can see that the recipe in the booklet handed out at the launch gives equal parts rum and vermouth: by analogy with a Manhattan or a Rob Roy, this is a bit vermouth-heavy, so I try one that uses two parts rum to one part Belsazar red vermouth, plus a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters. It’s bloody fantastic, with lots of toasty caramel flavour hitting you up front and a Christmasy cinnamon flavour (I think the Angostura is partly responsible for this).

Palmetto
50ml Merser Double Barrel
50ml or 25ml red vermouth
Dash of orange (or Angostura) bitters
Stir over ice

Another cocktail that catches my eye in the booklet is the Flapper, made with rum and dry white vermouth, plus a dash of Angostura. The stated proportions are 1:1 again, and again I am cautious about overwhelming the rum, but in fact in this mix the rum holds its own easily. In fact at equal parts the vermouth is hard to pin down, yet clearly affects the overall flavour: I’m using Belsazar Dry and it seems to add a saline finish, creating a pronounced note of salted caramel. It’s a good, subtle, complex drink. I also try making a Small Dinger, a recipe I found in Bar Florida Cocktails (1935) which no one else seems to have heard of or make, but despite the unlikely wheeze of combining rum and gin, I think it really works. Again it performs well with Double Barrel, with the rum showing its character and cozying up comfortably with the gin in the way that it mysterious does in this cocktail.

Flapper
50ml Merser Double Barrel
50ml dry white vermouth
Two dashes of Angostura
Stir over ice and garnish with a maraschino cherry and a slice of orange (though I drink mine straight up with a lemon peel garnish)*

As you can tell, I’m much taken by Merser Double Barrel. It’s complex but approachable, easy to drink on its own and working well in certain classic style cocktails where it retains its character. In longer drinks I think it gets a bit lost, but there are plenty of short drinks to experiment with, until you suddenly find you’ve reached the end of the bottle…

*I take a fairly dim view of garnishes in general—sometimes their big fresh flavours can ride roughshod over subtleties of the cocktail ingredients; with some Martinis I regularly put a bit of lemon peel in then instantly regret it, as the vigorous rind oils steamroller the gin’s aromas. And when gin brands recommend you garnish their G&T with a kumquat, I find myself thinking, “So why didn’t you just put more kumquat in the botanical mix?” (Though I concede that some things taste quite different fresh from the way they do when infused then redistilled.) But in this case the lemon rind really complements the cocktail.


Thursday, 10 October 2019

Gin from the Western Isles

A friend of ours who lives in Edinburgh came to stay and brought us a bottle of Isle of Harris gin, made on the Outer Hebridean island of that name. She knew and liked the gin already, but was also taken by the quaintness of the process of acquiring it—you can only buy it from the distillery, either by mail or you can place your order then collect it at an appointed time and place, furnished with a wonderfully old-fashioned docket (see photo). I don’t know if this is to do with the logistics of getting the gin to the mainland or whether it is part of a deftly constructed image, designed to evoke a sense of scarcity and old-world craftsmanship.

The website’s homepage is mostly about their vision of themselves as “the social distillery”. This manifests itself in being constantly open to visitors—though in fairness most shrewd distilleries offer tours, tastings, a café/restaurant, etc, these days—but also as a shot in the arm for an island suffering “acute economic problems” as a result of a dwindling population, by creating a business that uses local resources to produce jobs and income, as well as acting as a global advertisement for the island’s charms. It’s interesting that the distilling team all come from other backgrounds—a builder, a joiner, a crofter and ex-engineer, etc. All have re-trained from scratch to learn how to make spirits.



Harris is most famous for Harris Tweed, the choice of country gentlemen everywhere, and the only fabric in the world protected by an Act of Parliament that closely defines how, where and from what it can be made. This year the distillery had a project to create their own Harris Distillery Tweed pattern, and you can see how they are keen to borrow from the cloth’s sense of tradition and artisanal integrity and quality in how they present their own products. On the underside of the bottle is the Latin motto Esse quam videri—“To be, rather than to seem”.

Of course gin is not a traditional product of the island. (Oddly, neither is whisky, though the distillery is working on its own dram: in fact they think of themselves primarily as a whisky distillery. Like others, they clearly realised they needed the gin to bring in revenue during the long years it takes the whisky to mature.) So the distillers have instead sought a botanical bill that they feel captures “the elemental nature of our island, particularly the maritime influences of the seas which surround us”. The most striking botanical is sugar kelp, a local seaweed harvested by hand by a diver. What does sugar kelp taste of? Who knows—unless they have sampled the “sugar kelp aromatic water” that the distillery also sells, but the implication is that, as its name suggests, it is both briny and sweet. The other botanicals are all common enough: juniper, coriander seed, cassia bark, angelica root, bitter orange peel, cubeb, liquorice root and orris root.

The most striking reference to the sea is actually the bottle that the gin comes in, with rippled glass to echo the waters of Luskentyre, a marine blue rising from the bottom and a label made of paper flecked with copper leaf and sugar kelp—no two are the same.

So what does it taste like? I was expecting a bold mouthful with an ozoney whiff of the sea, but in fact to me Harris gin is rather elusive. The nose has piney juniper and an agreeable character of fresh lemon peel and grapefruit, a floral element like violets or rose, and a hint of black pepper (possibly from the cubebs). Dig in and there is a subtle herbal layer too. The palate follows on from this with much the same balance, and perhaps a slight sugariness at the end (is this from the sugar kelp?). A direct comparison with Plymouth Gin, which I happen to have a bottle of, shows that both have a strong citrus element, but the Harris gin has the smoother, sweeter mouthfeel of a more refined spirit. (Liquorice can also give a suggestion of sweetness.)

Does it remind me of the sea? Not really, but this is a question that has come up before with my studies of Cornish gin—what exactly would make a gin redolent of the sea? I suppose if I concentrate hard I can persuade myself there is a slight brininess on the finish, but I don’t think it is something that would strike me if I weren’t actively looking for it. I notice that a number of the cocktails that various bartenders have created for the gin, listed on the website, use Fino or Manzanilla sherry, which does indeed have a sea-breeze quality to it, or some kind of seaweed, or indeed added sea salt, suggesting they felt the gin needed a bit of help if it was to smack of the waves. (One recipe actually has you add salted fish roe.)

The recommended serve is essentially neat. They advise you to try it as it is, then, if you must, add some ice, but large pieces to minimise the dilution. If you insist on adding tonic, use only a splash. For a garnish they recommend not a sprig of seaweed or something preserved in brine, but a slice of grapefruit. I tried this and it certainly sits comfortably with the strong citrus notes, but doesn’t have much to do with the sea.*

I think some gins probably are best consumed neat or just on the rocks, such as Roku or TOAD Physic Gin, because their subtle complexities are easily swamped. Harris gin is certainly subtle, but I’m not sure it is that complex. It’s upfront character is essentially sweetish citrus.

I find I’ve worked through almost the whole bottle of Harris gin in my quest to try and establish its character—so it is certainly drinkable, but hard to pin down. Finally, still riffing on the brine angle, I make a Dirty Martini, using carefully controlled amounts of Belsazar Dry vermouth and Stirrings Dirty Martini olive brine (yes, it’s dedicated, bottled brine, that has had olives in it but from which the olives have since been removed before bottling—something DBS gave me ages ago). It’s nice enough, though I’m not sure the salty, savoury, olive brine really goes that well with the essentially sweet, fruity nature of the gin. But I concede it does (slightly) bring out the stemmy, herbal notes, and it is certainly a more complex drink that the gin on its own.

* Except in as far as the classic Salty Dog cocktail features gin, grapefruit juice and a salt rim.






Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Gin-in-a-tin gets exotic


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 26 July 2019

Haku vodka

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

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

So what does it taste like?

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

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

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

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

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

A Suntory Vesper


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

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

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Celebrate International Pineapple Day!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

The Hard Word cocktail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 8 April 2019

Nissos Gin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


An Aviation cocktail made with Nissos gin