Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Test Valley Gin





In the Hampshire market town of Romsey to visit my elderly mother-in-law a few weeks ago, we were hunting for lunch among the tentatively opening shops (it’s a place with an ageing population, so I guess they have to be careful in COVID times). In a deli that I’d not set foot in before I noticed a display of local gins (inevitably these days, I suppose). One that caught my eye was Test Valley Gin, from Wessex Spirits.

They don’t give much away on the label other than that the botanicals include fresh herbs—I wondered if these were infused post-distillation, as the gin has a pale yellow hue. The gin’s website doesn’t elaborate much more, other than to mention fresh basil and thyme specifically (and they do indeed use the word “infused”).

Uncork the bottle and you are not overwhelmed by aroma—maybe a hint of orange. In the glass the bouquet is herbaceous with a sweet and aromatic angle. Knowing that there is thyme involved I can believe that this is the source, and perhaps the basil contributes to the sweet fragrance. I happen to have a sprig of fresh thyme to hand from the garden, and the fragrance is not the same, but related. There is a savoury woodiness too, and something vaguely salty like olives—in this respect the gin reminds me somewhat of Gin Mare. And as it opens up in the glass I’m sure I’m getting off wafts of something low and honky like bananas.

So a pretty complex nose. On the tongue it is immediately soft and sweet, with a delicate sappy herbal note, lingering pungently like watercress, and a sugary weight. Despite being diluted to a bottling strength of just 37.5% ABV (the minimum permissible for a gin, so I guess done to keep the duty as low as possible) it has a respectably long finish.

I try Test Valley in a Martini with Belsazar Dry vermouth: straightaway there seems to be a natural harmony between the herbaceous character of the gin and the botanicals in the vermouth, with the two ingredients forming a continuum, a wide vegetal vista on the tongue, plus a sweet, buttery mouthfeel. I initially mixed and tasted it without chilling, and I would say that any application of ice—whether shaken or stirred—has the disadvantage of of diluting what is already a fairly dilute gin, washing away some of the flavour. (Some stronger gins actually benefit from a bit of dilution and only really come into their own with a bit of ice, but not this one.) A solution might be what DTS calls the Diamond Method, keeping the gin in the freezer, but at 37.5% ABV I think that Test Valley Gin would start to freeze, unless you are able to have a dedicated booze freezer set to an ideal temperature.*

I also try a Negroni, though the results are less exciting. The gin certainly harmonises with the vermouth and Campari, but at equal parts it gets a bit lost, and even at 1½ parts gin it’s still hard to pick out.

A Test Valley G&T with prescribed thyme garnish


Although Test Valley do suggest a Martini as a suitable serve, their first choice is a G&T, garnished with a spring of thyme. It certain works, with that herbal character sitting comfortably with the tonic (Fevertree Light is my go-to). But I do find you have to add quite a bit of gin before the distinct flavour comes through—again this is probably a reflection of the niggardly ABV. So in my opinion a Martini is probably the best platform for this gin, making an intriguing and savoury beverage.

* Of course this is something you can turn to your advantage. I first discovered this issue with Bombay Dry/Bombay Original, which I prefer to Bombay Sapphire. In the past it was hard to come by in the UK, but when you found it it was a respectable ABV; now it has been relaunched here as the brand’s entry product they have reduced the strength to 37.5% to keep the price down. In order to avoid further dilution from ice, I tried keeping it in the freezer and found that it does indeed start to form ice crystal inside the bottle. However, I realised that if I quickly emptied the liquid contents into a jug, warmed the bottle to melt the ice left inside, poured the meltwater away, then decanted the gin back into the bottle, I had simply removed some of the water, leaving a higher ABV gin behind. Sure enough, after doing this a couple of times the problem goes away, as the residual liquid is presumably now alcoholic enough to resist freezing—and you end up with a more concentrated flavour.

However, I don’t know if some flavour component might be lost with the ice. So it occurs to me now that, instead of melting the ice then just pouring it away, you could actually use that meltwater to make ice cubes that you could then use to make your Martinis! Crikey, sometimes my genius astounds me.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Drinking off the land

The final version


Of course foraging is a bit of a Thing these days (doubtless part of the whole trend for “artisan” everything, slow living, etc). But I still find it rather uplifting to be able to cook with and eat something I have just found growing wild. It doesn’t come up much here in London, but often on holiday in more rural bits of Britain I’ll be able to gather wild garlic or marsh samphire (and, on one occasion, rock samphire—though I wouldn’t recommend that). This time round, while stomping around Cornwall’s Penwith peninsula (the most westerly part of mainland Britain) we were surrounded by blackberry bushes—every country path was bordered by them and they are equally happy popping up at the edge of a car park or road. These wild ones were not generally as sweet as the huge commercial ones you can buy in supermarkets, but it did seem a waste not to do something with them.

The Mk I with berries but no mint

So I made myself a sort of Bramble cocktail. This Dick Bradsell creation is normally made with gin, lemon juice, sugar syrup and crème de mure, but I used fresh blackberry juice instead of the liqueur. It worked pretty well, though I think you have to get the balance between gin and fruit right, to keep the juniper in its place. (I was using Tanqueray.)

But we also found fresh water mint growing by a stream near to where we were staying: it was rather tasty, with a zippy, almost mentholic mint flavour. So my next experiment was a sort of Southside Fizz—gin, lime juice and sugar syrup as before, but this time with about a heaped teaspoon of mint, chopped then muddled with the lime and syrup, before adding the gin, ice and—in the absence of soda water—a little tonic. (Without the mixer it is just a Southside.) This was actually more successful, with the mint flavour clear and refreshing.

But the best was yet to come. For my final experiment I combined both of these ideas into one cocktail—to great effect, I felt, as the blackberries and the mint have a natural harmony. (I also felt the that the blackberries sat more comfortably with the gin, which may just mean I got the proportions right: sadly I had no measuring equipment with me, so the proportions here are an estimate.)

The Mk II, Southside Fizz

Forager Cocktail

45ml gin
Juice of half a lime
About 1–1½ tsp sugar syrup
1 heaped tsp chopped water mint (although I’m sure it would work with other kinds of mint)
About 30 wild blackberries (fewer if using larger commercial berries)

Add the mint to a glass with the syrup and lime juice and muddle to extract the flavour. Add the berries and muddle until reduced to a pulp. Strain (rubbing through the strainer if necessary, to release all the juice) into another glass, filled with ice, or into a shaker and shake with ice then pour into a cocktail glass. Garnish with mint, a lime wedge, or a blackberry. I was constructing this in the kitchen of a rented cottage, so I had no shaker or special equipment, but I imagine you could use a food processor to purée the berries, but they will still need straining, as they contain a lot of seeds.


Saturday, 27 June 2020

A cocktail fit for a Queen


Recycling again. I liked this Charles Merser & Co. Rum bottle so much I hung on to it after I drank its contents, and I’ve now had the perfect opportunity to find a use for it: for my sister’s 50th birthday I knocked up a batch of this regal-looking cocktail.

(The name I’ve given the cocktail is a reference to Queenie in the TV sitcom Blackadder II—she’s a capricious Queen Elizabeth I with the soul of a toddler, whose response whenever someone suggests she can’t or shouldn’t do something is, “Who’s Queen?” This phrase became associated with my sister so long ago I can’t remember why…)

Although eminently suited to a golden jubilee, the concoction itself is actually based on a cocktail invented in 1935 for George V’s silver jubilee, called a Jubileesha. The original contains ⅔ gin and ⅓ “Lillet”, plus three dashes of orange bitters. At the time “Lillet” would have been Kina Lillet, an aromatised wine with quinine in it, so notably bitter. Kina Lillet was a popular cocktail ingredient back in the day but in the 1980s Lillet discontinued it and replaced it with the current Lillet range—it’s generally agreed that Lillet Blanc (sweet and orangey) isn’t the same thing. Even if you’ve never tasted Kina Lillet—which I haven’t, but many scholars have—you can tell from making vintage cocktails that Lillet Blanc doesn’t work in those recipes. There are various theories about what currently-available product is closest to Kina Lillet, and I feel that Cocchi Americano does seem to fill the gap—in the sense that, used in the same proportions in these vintage recipes, it creates balanced cocktails.

I actually wrote about this cocktail before, back in 2012 when we had a Candlelight Club event themed around the Queen’s jubilee that year. But I didn’t simply replace the Kina Lillet with Cocchi Americano—I actually used a half and half mix of Cocchi and Lillet Blanc. I can’t remember why I decided that a Lillet Blanc/Cocchi Americano blend worked better than just the Cocchi on its own—it’s quite exposed in this recipe, so maybe I decided that this blend dialled down the bitterness and added some needed sweet and fruity elements. I certainly feel that it works, though. As for the gin, this time round I actually tried four different gins that I had to hand, and concluded that Broker’s gin worked best. It’s a gin I intend to explore in greater depth.

So the recipe this time is:

Who’s Queen?
50 ml gin
12.5 ml Cocchi Americano
12.5 ml Lillet Blanc
3 dashes orange bitters
1 dash grapefruit bitters

Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with strips of lemon and orange peel.

As you can see, for this bottled version we upped the ante by adding edible gold leaf, which creates a regal snow-globe effect when you shake the bottle. To serve this version you would shake the bottle to distribute the leaf, then pour out the desired quantity into a shaker, shake with ice and pour out—this time without fine-straining. Interestingly the gold leaf doesn’t seem to get stuck in the shaker as long as you pour it out vigorously.

Saturday, 30 May 2020

Hernö Pink BTL gin

Just as the lockdown was taking effect I had an email from Jon Hillgren of Hernö. I’m a big fan of their gin, which is classic in its profile but somehow manages to be more vivid and 3D than most. Jon announced he had “a bottle” he wanted to send me. When it arrived it turned out to be the new Pink BTL gin.

Pink BTL comes across as a gin with issues. You’ll notice that it is emphatically the bottle (or more specifically the label) that is pink, not the gin. Jon would have no truck with giving gin a silly colour. In fact the accompanying letter begins with the sentence “This is a no-bullshit gin” in large type, a phrase that is repeated on the label. I’m not sure if having the word “bullshit” on you label might offend some potential stockists or customers, but you have to admire Jon’s conviction. The label also states: “This is not a cocktail. Pink Gin is a cocktail. This is a pink bottle of gin.”

The letter goes on to bemoan that many producers are jumping on the gin bandwagon but offering products that aren’t really gin. So Pink BTL is an attempt to be creative with gin, offering the fruity, floral profile “that so many are asking for”, while emphatically staying true to the juniper-driven essence of what makes gin gin. In fact we are told that Pink BTL actually uses more juniper than the regular Hernö gin.

The letter explains that neutral grain spirit is infused with juniper, coriander and strawberries, heated to 60 degrees C and left for 18 hours. Then rose petals, cassia, black pepper, lemon peel and vanilla are added and the liquid resdistilled, one-shot, then diluted to bottling strength (42%) using water from Hernö’s own well.

On the nose resinous pine and lemon peel are up front, but lurking behind is a sweet strawberry fruit. It really is quite subtle—as if Jon was terrified of its becoming cloying. You almost feel as if Jon has approached this whole project against his will. But it’s a point worth making that if you buy this gin because you want a sweet, fruity drink—and perhaps you don’t really like gin—then you will be disappointed. In fact, to you, it will simply taste of gin.

On the palate it has a smooth, polished mouthfeel. The juniper is strong but not fierce, and behind there is gentle strawberry and black pepper on the finish.

I try a fairly Dry Martini, made with Belsazar Dry, in what looked like 10:1 proportions, though it could have been wetter. Juniper is still up front, but the vermouth adds an exotic saline finish, joining that black pepper again. The nose has a definitely creamy note—we’re looking at strawberries and cream! It’s a clever balancing act between the stern juniper rod of classic gin and a soft, flighty summer fruit angle from the strawberry and rose.

An Aviation made with Hernö Pink BTL
I wondered how the light florality would work in an Aviation (50ml gin, 12.5ml lemon juice, 12.5ml maraschino and about a teaspoon of crème de violette). As it turned out there was no risk of it becoming cloying in combination with the cherry and violet elements. In fact it makes a very grown-up cocktail, with a complex interplay of savoury and soft flavours. The dry steeliness of the juniper still underpins, with the black pepper helping to keep the drink’s feet on the ground, but the faint strawberry fruit floats behind that, interweaving with the rose and violet. This cocktail is a good one for assessing gins, not least because the sweet and sour elements (maraschino and lemon juice) are present in quite small quantities.

I’m interested to see what elements come out when served just with tonic water. It certainly makes a nice enough drink, though in fact the dilution is not especially transformative. It’s still reassuringly juniper-dominated, though you do sense the rose now.

I also try Pink BTL in a Corpse Reviver No.2 (gin, curaçao, lemon juice, Cocchi Americano and a dash of absinthe). It’s a tough gig for a gin, as it’s up against some powerful sweet, sour, bitter and pungent flavours. This one turns out to be a nice example of its kind, and the strong juniper backbone of the gin can be relied upon to keep any classic gin cocktail on the straight and narrow, but I wouldn’t say that Pink BTL shone in this combination.

Ultimately, although Pink BTL has a strong presence, the things that make it different are those fairly subtle notes of strawberry, rose and black pepper. As a final experiment I make a White Lady, skipping the egg white and reducing the quantities of curaçao and lemon juice by half—normally you’re looking at about 50ml gin and 25ml each of the other two, but I cut these to 12.5ml, along the same lines as the Aviation. Sure enough, this works. It’s not a classic White Lady but you can appreciate the character of the gin.

And it’s a character worth appreciating. In the right sort of cocktail, in the right proportions, it creates harmonies with thought-provoking subtleties. Out of the ones I tried, a straight Martini probably works best, but in the Aviation—or other cocktails constructed with similar proportions—it has a lot to give, and makes for an adult drink with summery echoes.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Coke Signature Mixers: even better than the Real Thing



Trolling through the aisles in Sainsbury’s my eye was caught by these, and I remembered reading about the project. Coca-Cola have produced a range of four “Signature Mixers”, designed specifically to be mixed with dark spirits, created in association with mixologists. No.1 Smoky was created with Max Venning of Three Sheets in London. No.2 Spicy was created with Adriana Chia from La Antigua Compania de las India in Barcelona and Pippa Guy, head bartender of the American Bar in the Savoy. No.3 Herbal was created with Antonio Naranjo of Dr Stravinsky in Barcelona. No.4 Woody was created with Alex Lawrence of Dandelyan Bar in London. (Not sure why they are all from either London or Barcelona, but there you go.)

So I thought I’d give them a try. Having trooped out to buy all the recommended garnishes, I then got distracted for a few days before realising that these fresh ingredients weren’t going to last forever. Since the basil was looking a bit wilty, rather than going in numerical order, I started with…

No.3 HERBAL

With these drinks I was expecting subtle variations on the conventional Coke flavour, so I was surprised when this hit me on the nose with a pungent peppermint or spearmint thrust, with elements of fennel and dill. On the tongue there is more of the Coke taste, but still with a strong character of spearmint chews from the 1970s. (Mrs H. reminds me they were called Pacers. Gosh, that takes me back.) In fact there is no mint in it: it apparently has hops, dill seed, tagetes (a marigold native to Mexico) and lemongrass.

The prescription says to mix it with Cognac or Scotch and use a basil garnish. With Cognac it doesn’t quarrel but I don’t entirely get it. I can taste the two different things but they don’t seem to be on speaking terms. The basil leaf seems lost in all the spearmint woosh. Almost as an afterthought I try it with Scotch (Queen Margot 8-year-old, the multiple-award-winning juice from budget supermarket Lidl), and it goes surprisingly well. The malty rasp of the Scotch and the pungent herbs of the Coke make natural drinking buddies. Mrs H. isn’t so impressed, but in fact I actually find this combination rather exciting, as it’s not often I think that Scotch really works in mixed drinks.

No. 2 SPICY

This one smells more obviously like Coke, perhaps with a hint of chilli. It does have jalapeño, plus lime, ginger, rosemary and jasmine. If you focus you can pick up a floral hint from the jasmine. On the palate I’m struck by the sweetness. It tastes of classic Coke plus chilli and something like root beer. You can certainly find lime and ginger, though the latter does not seem prominent to me (but then the recommended garnish is root ginger, so you can dial it up that way). The recommended combinations are with golden tequila and Scotch. With the latter, I don’t really get it—it’s hard to strike a balance. I’m using Queen Margot 8-year-old again and apart from the smoke the rest of it gets a bit lost.

With tequila it’s a different kettle of fish. I would not normally think of mixing Coke and tequila, so I don’t immediately have anything to compare this to, but here the earthy agave notes mesh very neatly with the mixer. (I’m using Casamigos Anejo, as it’s the only aged tequila to hand.) Oddly at this point the chilli suddenly comes out, along with a note of orange, for some reason. This is a genuinely interesting combination, with new flavours continually emerging.

No.4 WOODY

Again the nose is primarily Coke, but this time with a hint of sandalwood. The label says it has balsam and patchouli and on the palate I can agree those are there, but I don’t immediately get basil or yuzu, which are also listed. And as for what vetiver tastes like, I really don’t know what I’m looking for. However, after a while, once it’s opened up in the glass a bit, I do get basil—aromatic notes that seem to reinforce the resinousness of the wood, which is not how I would have thought of basil before.

The recommended pairings are with rum or bourbon. Rum and Coke is a fairly classic combo, but with Havana Club 7-year-old it’s a bit ho-hum. No exciting synergy, just dark sugar elements against the intrinsically sugary Coke backdrop. With bourbon, however, it is a different story. Bourbon and Coke, or at least Jack Daniels and Coke (and JD is actually a Tennessee Whiskey) is again a recognised Thing, but it’s not something I drink so again it is hard to say whether this Woody incarnation goes better than regular Coke. But when I mix it with Buffalo Trace there is an immediate harmony between the woodiness of the bourbon and that of the mixer.

No.1 SMOKY

This one has ylang-ylang, ambrette seed, Peru balsam, oak extract and guaiacwood, whatever that is. And this time as soon as you lever off the cap and put your nose to the bottle neck you can tell it is not normal Coke. It is smoky, in a BBQ sauce kind of way, but there is also something heavy and floral—perhaps the ylang ylang. This is dominant on the palate too, sweetly floral but with a spicy mid-range to it, plus a balsamic weight on the tongue. I have to say that it reminds me of some sort of fragranced fabric softener or cleaning fluid. In fact it smells like the inside of a chest of drawers at an elderly aunt’s house, perhaps because the dense floral smell is combined with the woodiness.

With dark rum it goes OK, the dark sugar sitting quite happily with the sweet fragrance, though I would say the two elements tolerate each other rather than being greater than the sum of their parts. The other recommended mix is with bourbon. This is pretty successful, with the wood and caramel notes of the whiskey happily at ease with the wood and sweet aromas of the Coke. Oddly this combo brings out a note of orange which for me now comes to the fore. Interestingly the prescribed garnish is indeed orange peel, though when I try adding this I feel it is now too much.

I think both of these mixes work well enough, though I can’t really get excited by either of them. Perhaps I’m just put off by the cloying nature of the Coke itself. Even Mrs H. couldn’t finish the centimetre that I left in the bottle for her to try.

There is one question, however, that I still have to answer. As I say, I almost never drink Coke, either as a soft drink or a mixer, so I need to establish if these fancy Cokes actually go any better with spirits than the regular version. Sure bourbon and regular Coke is not a million miles away from the bespoke Woody version, but Mrs H. and I both agree that the latter is preferable, if only because there is more going on, more nuances and harmonies. Mrs H. feels the regular Coke has a bitter finish by comparison and it does seem to be a bit of a dead hand on the drink compared to the Signature version.

Tequila and Coke is definitely not something I would think to drink normally, but for the sake of scientific enquiry I compare normal Coke with the No.2 Spicy version. I’ve run out of the Casamigos Anejo so I have to make do with a blanco. Again the version with regular Coke is not vile, but the blend with the Signature is more interesting, and bearing in mind that all these mixer Cokes are specifically designed to go with aged spirits we can safely assume that with aged tequila the match would be even neater.

With Scotch and No.3 the difference was most pronounced, not least because the spearmint flavour of the Coke is so distinctive. In this case the regular Coke comes across with a flavour of burned sugar with a bitter aftertaste. Odd as this mixer is, I would definitely say it blends better with Scotch whisky.

The project has clearly been a success for the Coco-Cola Corporation, because I gather that the mixologists who worked on these four products are now helping the company find the next generation of bartenders to collaborate on a second series of mixers.

While we’re on the subject of Coke, I was also given a sample of Fever Tree’s Madagascan Cola. This too is specifically intended as a mixer for dark spirits, rather than to be drunk on its own. They describe it as having a “delicate sweetness”, and it does come across as sweet, an impression enhanced by the prevalence of vanilla in its profile. With bourbon, up against bourbon with regular Coke, the latter seems to have more of an edge, a more noticeable lime note, again with a slight bitterness to the finish; the Fever Tree’s vanilla blended more easily with the wood flavours of the whiskey, and Mrs H. preferred it, though I’m not sure whether I wouldn’t find it a bit cloying after a while. With Wood’s Old Navy Rum I felt that with regular Coke you were more immediately aware of the rum, perhaps because with Fever Tree the two drinks blended together more easily, but you can definitely taste the rum there too. I think that rum and Coke is a more effective combo than bourbon and Coke anyway, so I felt that here it was more a question of taste, the high vanilla presence in the Fever Tree pushing it more in the direction of spiced rum.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

A cocktail for St Patrick's Day



I produced this on Tuesday, for St Patrick’s day, obviously, and should have posted it then, but what the hell. I was reminded of the garnish effect I accidentally produced with the Maid in Jalisco cocktail a few years ago—at the time it reminded me of a four-leaf clover and I made a mental note to do something shamrocky with it for St Paddy’s Day.

I’d received a promotional email from Difford’s Guide with some Irish whiskey drinks in it, and one included cucumber, which is what reminded me. Now while cucumber is to be found in and around gin all the time these days (see my recent posts on Caspyn and Hendrick’s), cucumber and whiskey are not obvious bedfellows. This recipe is called an Irish Maid and consists of:

Irish Maid
60ml Irish whiskey
15ml elderflower liqueur (St Germain is what I used, though I imagine cordial would work too)
20ml lemon juice
10ml sugar syrup
2 slices of cucumber

Muddle the cucumber in a shaker, add the other ingredients and shake vigorously with ice. The garnish is obviously optional, but you can tell I have time on my hands now with the corona virus stalking the land. (These are Difford’s proportions; others allow slightly more sugar, though I personally think it is quite sweet enough.)

The cucumber certainly makes its presence felt. The spiky elderflower is more subtle, though it’s a flavour that seems to merge seamlessly with the cucumber, in a savoury, herbal way. The lemon and sugar are just the classic cocktail sweet ’n’ sour building block, and the whiskey rises up behind with caramel warmth. It’s unexpected but it really works, and it all to easy to drink.

The cocktail is apparently derived from the Kentucky Maid, essentially a Mint Julep with added lime juice and cucumber. Two days ago when I went to the supermarket I found the shelves mostly empty (thanks to panic buying by hoarders—really this epidemic has brought out the worst in people). In the fresh veg section the only thing left was a large quantity of cucumber, so I see the promotion of cucumber-based cocktails as Doing My Bit. (In two different shops the only fruit they had left was grapefruit, so watch this space…)

Monday, 16 March 2020

Cornish gin update 2.0


Back in Cornwall last summer I popped once again into John’s Liquor Cellar in St Ives to see if they had any new local gins in. What they suggested this time was Caspyn Midsummer Dry Gin, made by Pocketful of Stones who have a distillery just outside Penzance in Long Rock. In fact the man behind the distillery is a displaced South African, Shaun Bebington, but the lure of the coastal life he grew up with drew him from London where he’d been running a pub. The name Caspyn came from a Neolithic stone circle near the distillery: it’s actually called the Merry Maidens—apparently Bebington misread a sign that was actually an acronym: CASPN, “Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network”, but by the time he realised his mistake the gin was named.

I was immediately taken by it: the nose is a perfumed tapestry of citrus and other fruits—blueberries, pears, melons—with cucumber and dry spice like cumin. On the tongue it is fruity and spicy, with a curious salty finish (what could be more Cornish than that?). The cucumber is not a coincidence: the very pale green colour of the gin is because fresh cucumbers are infused in it. In a Martini it intrigues with a combination of floral perfume on the nose and a relatively savoury, vegetal palate, again with that very subtle briny finish.

In fact the Midsummer gin is a relatively recent addition, a development from the original Caspyn Cornish Dry Gin (the suggestion is that the Midsummer is nothing more than the original Dry Gin with those cucumbers infused in it). This brings us back to the old question of what makes, or might make, a gin intrinsically Cornish—last time I idly suggested gorse and brine, and Caspyn does indeed have gorse in it, which they say combines with orris to give a sherbet finish. (There is no suggestion of brine, but, as I say, I do get a hint of salt on the finish.)

Mind you, the other botanicals don’t seem particularly Cornish: floral hibiscus, citrus from lemon and orange peel, lemongrass and lemon verbena, Japanese tea. And it’s lemon that really hits you on the nose when you sniff the Cornish Dry, plus something vividly herbaceous; there is also a floral note, something like berries, and an earthy echo at the end, but overall the nose is bright and zingy. By comparison the nose of the Midsummer version is mellower, slightly waxy, with a definite cucumber note but also savoury hints like agave or dill pickle.



On the palate the Cornish Dry is sharp, dominated by that lemon zestiness, with a peppery finish. They do say the aim is to make it taste like a crisp Cornish spring morning, bright but cool. Again the Midsummer version is mellower, with the citric spike softened and more of a fleshy vegetal warmth. Maintaining the climatic analogies, the distillers say that the Midsummer gin is intended to evoke a hazy summer afternoon. Both gins are absorbing, with vivid flavours that reveal themselves in layers, inviting close contemplation, but if the Midsummer really has just had cucumbers bunged into to it for a while, it’s interesting how much of an effect they have had.

Of course putting cucumber into gin is not new—Hendrick’s famously do it and so do Martin Miller’s. But Hendrick’s don’t use fresh cucumber: they use a commercial essence sourced from the Netherlands (I’ve tasted it neat, and found it rather delicious). In each case it seems well established that trying to macerate cucumber prior to redistillation, as you do with normal botanicals, doesn’t work, so it has to be added after distillation. Why do Hendrick’s use an essence rather than the real thing? I guess with their multi-shot technique (essentially producing a botanical concentrate, which is then diluted with alcohol and water to boost the volume for bottling) it is perhaps too difficult to get a strong enough flavour this way. The Caspyn Midsummer certainly achieves a distinct cucumber flavour, which balances deftly with the other flavours.

I like both these Caspyn gins. After I first tasted the Midsummer I decided I wanted to post about it but, tellingly, I got through it so quickly I had to order another bottle, along with a bottle of the original Cornish Dry for comparison. As I write this both bottles are nearly empty. This tells you all need to know. They are vivid and inviting, with a smooth spirit base that makes them all too easy to drink neat.

But of course most of us don’t drink gin neat most of the time. I was afraid that the Cornish Dry’s pronounced fresh lemon effect of the lemon peel, lemongrass and lemon verbena, when combined with the citrus thrust of most tonic waters, might be too much, but in fact it works well. What seems to come out in this combination is a midrange herbal spiciness and a gentle earthy note. The Midsummer mixes with tonic to bring out the cucumber character, mellow and relaxed, again with an earthiness. It is savoury almost to the point of being like food.

In an Aviation cocktail the Cornish Dry slots effortlessly into the drink with poise and balance, though the Midsummer is perhaps a bit too bohemian and savoury for the floral/tart structure of this cocktail. In a Negroni the Cornish Dry again shows its classic credentials and works well, but again the Midsummer is a bit odd. In a straightforward Dry Martini the Cornish Dry is crisp and sharp, with a warm and slinky midrange perfume—very inviting. By direct comparison, the Midsummer again seems strikingly savoury; it’s nice but certainly not a classic Martini. I’m beginning to think the Midsummer gin’s natural place is in a G&T, which is probably how it was intended.



The Caspyn gins come in chunky, round-shouldered bottles with wood-capped corks for a high-end feel. The labels have hand-written batch numbers. The Cornish Dry features a picture of a basking shark, rather a local emblem in Cornwall, also featuring on Tarquin’s label, though I’ve never actually managed to see one in the flesh. The Midsummer Gin, somewhat bizarrely, features a picture of a hoopoe—an odd choice for a gin that is meant to evoke an English summer. Is this a reference to Bebington’s South African roots?

“I first started thinking about using the hoopoe whilst I was is Croatia doing some juniper research and one happened to cross my path,” Shaun tells me. “The hoopoe does reside in South Africa during the Southern Hemisphere summers but flies to Europe for the Northern Hemisphere summers, mostly to the countries around the Med. Occasionally they overshoot their migration route and end up in Cornwall. I’ve yet to see one but I’ve seen photos. I liked that it was symbolic of our occasional summers here in the UK and I liked the link between South Africa and Cornwall.”

The connection between South Africa and Cornwall has just got stronger, as Shaun tells me he is now making a version of Caspyn gin at West Coast Distillers in Langebaan, South Africa. “The South African version is made with South African botanicals,” Shaun explains. “They are very similar but whereas the Cornish version has Cornish lemon verbena and bergamot (Earl Grey tea) the SA version has rooibos, honeybush and citronella pelargonium, a lemon-scented geranium.” This recipe is intended only for the South African market, though Shaun tells me that he hopes to bring the Nightshade Gin and Mutiny Bitters made at Langebaan over to the UK.

My (virtually empty) miniature of Penzance Bathtub Gin
For reasons I forget, we stepped into a deli in Penzance, and I noticed they were selling a “Penzance Bathtub Gin”. OK, I thought, I’ll bite. But for how much? Even a tiny 50ml sample bottle was £8—the equivalent of £112 for a 70cl bottle. You’ll be pleased to hear that, if you like the stuff, you can get a better deal by buying a larger bottle now from their website, though it looks as if changes have been afoot. When I got my sample last summer it was (as you can see from the photo) sold as a bathtub gin—the joke being that Penzance’s famous Art Deco lido, the Jubilee Pool, made it a town with a vast bathtub. (And since Prohibition bathtub gin dated from the same era as the Pool, all the more reason for Penzance to have its own version.) But I see that they are now selling it simply as “Penzance Gin”—the label design has the same image of the lido, but the word “bathtub” has been removed. But I will assume for now that it is made in the same way.

I wondered which distillery had made the gin, but the label simply said it had been made in association with the Cornish Hen. Which turned out to be the deli where I’d bought it. So seemingly a very local, handmade thing. The website says it was dreamed up by three friends over a few drinks at a local pub quiz.

The current label, shown on the website
As you can tell from the colour, this is an infused gin. They have clearly bought neutral grain spirit (or perhaps just vodka from the supermarket), macerated it in their own botanical blend, and sold it on. Nothing wrong with that. Would you want to pay £8 for 50ml? Well, I wouldn’t. It is very strange stuff: on the nose there is a strong orange citrus note, but combined with something wheaty that reminds me overall of orange Club biscuits from my youth. In fact the citrus is so strongly combined with notes of wheat, and even butter, that it profoundly suggests lemon drizzle cake.

The makers do not say what goes into it, other than that it features gorse. The palate seems clumsy after the Caspyn, with the same orange peel and wheat flavours in a rather thin, astringent spirit base. And, if I’m honest, I don’t feel there is much about it that reminds me of gin. But the product seems to have taken off rapidly in a way that makes it possible the current product is not quite the same as the batch I tasted.

Caspyn Cornish Dry and Caspyn Midsummer can by bought widely online for about £39. Penzance Gin can by bought from penzancegin.co.uk for £38.

Sunday, 8 March 2020

Going soft? Try Chillio



I’m not much one for soft drinks. If I want something tasty I drink booze, and if I’m thirsty I drink water. I’m perplexed by products that seem to be offering a thirst-slaker of water contaminated by small amounts of fruit juice or other flavourings—London tap water is pretty good, so there is no reason not to quaff it.

I was thus intrigued to be sent these new soft drinks, Chillio Soda, in pineapple, guava and watermelon and flavours. They are very specifically not intended as mixers, but rather as an alternative to alcoholic drinks—so you could, in all fairness, ask what place they have in this blog. But it’s an interesting pitch, a non-alcoholic fizzy drink aimed squarely at the adult palate. (And thus, I suppose, the opposite of an alcopop—an alcoholic drink aimed, let’s face it, at the childish palate.) The range is low-calorie, vegan and gluten free, with no refined sugar and no artificial flavouring. Described as a “dry, sessionable drink”, it’s clearly intended as something you can use to match your beer-swilling buddies pint for pint (well, drink for drink) while keeping your body a temple.

The name Chillio comes from the fact that—as if more evidence were needed that this is a grown-up’s drink—these sodas have chilli in them. In fact the whole range is inspired by South and Central America, the flavours apparently based on local street drinks in the region. In addition to the key fruit flavour and the chilli, each drink has lime juice as part of its flavour balance. (In fact if you look at the ingredients list they all have apple juice too, and there are other things like carrot and blueberry: I don’t know if these crop up in the South and Central American street drinks that inspired the range or if the manufacturers just found they needed them in the mix to achieve the desired flavour in a canned beverage.)

First up is a drink inspired by Cuba. Open the can and the aroma is strongly of fresh pineapple. This carries on to the palate—it tastes pretty much of what they say it is, pineapple juice watered down, with a clear lime element followed by a mild chilli heat. This drink specifically has habanero chilli, and there is also prickly pear in there. I don’t know what that actually tastes of, but the elements here combine to make it more savoury and vegetal than you would expect of pineapple, so perhaps that’s the prickly pear’s influence. It is not particularly sweet.

Next is the Peruvian-inspired offering. Open it up and you again get an appealing waft of fresh fruit, this time of guava—not that I think I knew what guava smelled like before, but I’m willing to believe it smells like this. Poured out, it has the colour of rosé wine. Again on the palate there is a thinness which disappoints slightly: the nose suggests it will have a fuller flavour and richer texture than what you get. As with the Cuban, the lime is clearly but discreetly there, but the chilli (specifically pasilla chilli) this time is so subtle that I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if I hadn’t been looking for it.

The third version is inspired by Mexico, based on watermelon. The nose is certainly watermelon-inspired, but this time it’s a bit more synthetic, rather than the convincing fresh-fruit aromas of the other two. On the palate you pick up the same gentle lime presence, but the chilli (jalapeño) is more prominent here than in the other two, though nothing crazy. The liquid is a weird bubblegum pink, which seems somehow appropriate for the slightly sickly impression it leaves me with.

As mentioned, these drinks are intended as alternatives to alcohol. Did I try them as mixers with alcohol anyway? Of course I did. I tried the Cuban blend with rum and it frankly did not work. White rum would probably have been best but all I could find in the cupboard was Havana Club 7-year-old, and frankly for me this quarrelled with the pineapple character of the soda. As an afterthought—and thinking of the Miami Beach cocktail*—I tried it with gin and it actually works much better. But when you can just make the cocktail instead, I don’t see this mixer combination catching on.

I tried the Peruvian guava drink with pisco and it’s OK. The pisco has a light presence unless you dial up the concentration—at which point it’s not really that pleasant. Instead I make myself a pisco sour, which turns out to be much nicer.

And of course I experimented with mixing the Mexican blend with tequila. Again, it’s not revolting, but this mixer is my least favourite, so it’s hard not to feel it is a waste of tequila.

I guess I feel with all of these that the, generally rather inviting, aroma is then let down by the palate, which is more watery than I was expecting. I suspect this lack of body may be what makes it an awkward mixer, but of course that is not what it is intended for. They do call it “sessionable”, which can only mean you can drink a lot of it without ill consequences: perhaps they were being careful to make sure it does not become cloying or sweet after your fifth pint. When you think about it, the relative dryness, with tartness from the lime and sharpness from the chilli, is perhaps intended to replicate the mouthfeel of lager or IPA.

If you’re looking for a session drink free from alcohol, preservatives and artificial anything, and low in calories, then give Chillio a try if you come across it. My tip would be to veer towards the pineapple or guava versions, but don’t expect an explosion of fruit flavours dancing on your tongue.

* In fact there seem to be many cocktails with this name, all completely unlike each other, but the version I first encountered is in the 1935 Bar Floridita Cocktails, reproduced in 2008 by Ross Bolton. The book gave it as equal parts gin and pineapple juice with a teaspoon of sugar, while Difford doubles the proportion of gin. Later versions added vermouth or curacao but I found it works very well by replacing the sugar with Galliano, the vanilla-flavoured liqueur: 2 shots gin, 2½ shots pineapple juice, ½ shot Galliano. 

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Drinking in the Night Garden

DBS find his inner lunatic, clutching a Blue Lady
To Knightsbridge, for the launch of a new gin from Hendrick’s. It’s called Lunar Gin, and it’s intended to be a gin for later in the day, even after dinner. As such it’s richer than the regular gin: ordinary Henrick’s has rose in it, but the Lunar Gin adds “the aroma of night scented flowers” and some citrus. (For more on the making of regular Hendrick's see this post.)

The event was in a room at the top of Harvey Nichols, the up-market department store where spirit brands often launch exclusively. One room had been turned into a dimly-lit night garden, dominated by a nicely realised moon, about four feet high and slightly convex, mounted on one wall, with various plants, a garlanded swing and other garden furniture, a babbling fountain and various bits of mirror standing in for a reflecting pool. Eerie womblike noises were piped through speakers. The entrance corridor was lined with foil (which reminded me of the gold foil on lunar landing modules—not sure if this was deliberate) and had a mirror floor, which is rather disconcerting as it makes you feel as if you’re stepping off a precipice.

We were greeted by two actors, with long “eccentric” names, one playing an astronomer and one an astrologer. They delivered vague monologues about the moon’s influence on us, regularly breaking into well-known songs about the moon (‘Blue Moon’, ‘By the Light of the Silvery Moon’, etc). We’d been asked in advance what our star signs were, which obviously raised both suspicions and hackles, but this didn’t really come up. Instead one of the actors asked what my spirit animal was. Of course his was the wolf, but he didn’t seem to believe me when I told him mine was the tapeworm. In any case we agreed that tapeworms didn’t make a sound that you could emulate while gazing at the moon.

A Lunar Gin and tonic lurks in the undergrowth
The brand ambassador wasn’t giving away the precise botanicals but emphasised the rich floral character. Floral is certain how you’d describe it, but it’s a warm, spicy kind of florality. The barman went further, explaining that various essential oils are added to conventional Hendrick’s gin, including lavender; I can certainly believe I get lavender on the nose. Tasted neat it has a rather thin, astringent, bitter finish, but I don’t suppose it’s intended to be drunk that way. We were offered a Lunar Gin and tonic and a cocktail called a Once in a Blue Moon. The G&T was garnished, as ever, with cucumber and also some pepper—being right under your nose they rather dominated what you smelled, but the gin certainly makes an agreeable drink. The cocktail contained gin, lemon juice, egg white and blue curacao, so is essentially a White Lady which is blue, rather a shrewd safe bet while harmonising with the purple/blue tones of the room.

This device creates a bubble filled with aromatic vapour: it would be cool if the bubble could be attached
to the glass so that it bursts when you drink it, but in practice it always burst during preparation


A Moonlight Buck
Back home I tried making an Aviation, figuring that the floral character of the gin should work well with the cherry and violet ingredients. In fact the gin rather disappears in this combination. On the other hand I think it makes rather an approachable Martini, with the vermouth (and the dilution from the ice) taking the edge off the spirit, allowing the warm, inviting botanicals to work their magic. The key serve actually seems to be the Moonlight Buck, gin with ginger ale and lemon juice, and they also suggest just making an Old Fashioned with it. I try making a Buck at home with Fever Tree ginger ale and it does work—it strangely brings out the lavender quality, which for some reason does harmonise with the ginger.

Hendrick’s make great play of the way their gin is lovingly made in small batches of just 500 litres. In fact, despite their eccentric, “not-for-everyone branding”, it now has a huge market all over the world and they have expanded their distillery to meet demand (it’s a “multi-shot” gin, with each batch of distillate made with a very high botanical intensity, a sort of gin concentrate, which is then blended with water and neutral grain spirit to produce the right dilution and volume for bottling). This ubiquity is partly what is behind limited editions like the Lunar Gin, to have something else that is rare and quirky. Last year they released their Midsummer Solstice gin—originally created for Global Brand Ambassador Duncan McRae’s wedding, before the subsequent decision to go commercial with it—as well as Orbium, a sort of gin–absinthe hybrid with wormwood, quinine and blue lotus that is definitely seen as “not for everyone”. (I keep wanting to call it Opprobrium, though in fairness I’ve yet to try it.) These offshoot products are described as coming from master distiller Lesley Gracie’s “Cabinet of Curiosities”, “a place of experimental botanic alchemy”, so you can see that they are keen to hang on to their playful, oddball image and not become a faceless juggernaut brand.


If you wish to sample the Hendrick’s Lunar Gin Experience for yourself, it will remain until 1st March. Tickets are £8, including a drink, from www.harveynichols.com. Lunar Gin is currently available from a limited number of outlets at £35.99 for 70cl (though I’m sure when I visited Harvey Nicks the bottles were price-tagged at £47…).



You can see more photos from the Lunar Gin Experience in this album on Flickr.

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Bitter sweet—absinthe-filled chocolate

A friend was holidaying in Switzerland and noticed this curio—I’m not sure if this was just in a regular shop or in the weird, fluorescent hell-cave of the duty-free shop at the airport, where all concept of value and worth are mysteriously sucked out of your brain. Yet she battled through the fog to realise that this was destined to be brought back for me.

On the face of it one should have no fear. The Swiss famously make great chocolate and their country (or rather the wormwood habitat that straddles the country’s border with France) is the home of absinthe, so what could go wrong? The packaging features a bucolic scene with a cow calmly munching some grass and NOT going off its nut on mind-bending substances, and even if you examine the image with a magnifying glass there is no trace of the 1905 bloodbath wherein Swiss labourer Jean Lanfray murdered his family—allegedly after an absinthe bender—which finally led to the banning of absinthe throughout much of Europe. OK, so the glass of absinthe in the foreground is sloshing around maniacally, as if it is sitting on the dashboard of a pickup doing 105 kilometres per hour along a busy Swiss arterial road, as the driver mutters to himself that what is about to happen is HER fault and she MADE him do it. There is even an absinthe spoon on display for verité, though you sense that, while the artist has probably seen one, he/she has no idea what you actually do with it, so it has been left leaning jauntily against the glass. The same glass that is about to lose its contents in a green tsunami as the pickup revs ever closer to its destiny…

Anyway, this is absinthe-filled chocolate, called “Larmes d’Absinthe”, or “Tears of Absinthe”. Which I admit does not sound that positive. In fact it has a hint of “we warned you” about it.

We’re all familiar with liqueur-filled chocolates, and this uses the same technique—I guess the nodules of absinthe are lined with some sort of sugar shell, which you can feel crunching as you bite into it, right before the liquid centre spills over your tongue. Needless to say, it is very good chocolate, and although the absinthe brand is not named it tastes authentic enough in the context. I admit that there is something disconcerting about it: precisely because we are familiar with liqueur-filled chocolates, each time I bite into one of these I am taken aback by the bitter pungency of the absinthe. But overall it does work—the chocolate and the sugar offer more than enough sweetness to balance the bitterness of the absinthe, and the chocolate is proper dark stuff, so overall it does seem like a decadent, grown-up treat.