Friday, 8 January 2021

Spiced rum death-match

I asked David, who runs the food and drink side of the Candlelight Club, if there was one of our previous Christmas cocktails that we could offer people to make at home, as a sort of vicarious seasonal experience. The cocktail in question was the Spiced Clementine Daiquiri (see below). The base spirit is spiced rum, which got me pondering.

At some point in the past I acquired a bottle of Sailor Jerry’s spiced rum and I found it repellently sickly. I’ve rather avoided spiced rum ever since. But I also remember, at the launch of the Chairman’s Reserve Rum range, that they had an incarnation that I thought was actually not bad. So I did a bit of online research to collate as many “top spiced rums” lists as I could find and, based on these recommendations, ended up with a short list of four. So, in the spirit of scientific rigour for which the Institute for Alcoholic Experimentation is renowned, I bought all four.

The cheapest on the list is Red Leg, which is common in supermarkets and can be had for £15 a bottle. It’s made from “Caribbean” rum, aged in barrels for an unspecified time before being infused with vanilla and ginger. It is named after the Red Legged Hermit Crab native to the Caribbean. It’s a golden colour, with a nose that is a strong, rather cloying, blast of vanilla and caramel or butterscotch. On the palate it is pretty sweet with a flavour of brown sugar and vanilla, with some heat: it’s only 37.5% ABV, so I’m guessing this might be from the ginger, although aside from this the flavour of ginger is not hugely apparent. It’s quite one-dimensional, all about the sugar/vanilla thing.

Next up is Dead Man’s Fingers, created at the Rum and Crab Shack in St Ives, Cornwall. These crazy cats wanted to add some unexpected flavours (I mean, does rum and crab even go together?), citing Cornish saffron cakes, spiced fruit and an ice cream they serve made with sweet, concentrated Pedro Ximenez sherry, plus “nutmeg, vanilla and a hint of orange”. It’s a darker colour than the Red Leg and has a powerful nose with a noticeable ginger element, plus what smells to me like lime. There is also a rather savoury mid-note, almost like onion, and I can get saffron too. After it opens up in the glass a smoky element emerges. On the palate it is less sweet than the Red Leg. There is definitely vanilla (which seems to be the main defining flavour in spiced rum), but a prominent flavour of fresh ginger, giving it a fiery kick, like ginger beer, and a slightly bitter finish. It leaves an aftertaste of Turkish delight, the kind that comes dusted in icing sugar.

Despite the skull on the bottle, Dead Man’s Fingers is not named after anything piratical, but after the local nickname for a crab’s gills (a bit of the crab that is discarded, as it doesn’t taste very nice). So that’s two rums named after crabs. The next up is Foursquare Spiced Rum which, by contrast, is named after the sugar estate, apparently one of the oldest in Barbados, where they’ve been making rum since 1640. The bottle gives nothing much away about its contents, only that the blending recipe is a secret known only to generations of the Seale family. It is very lightly flavoured compared to the others, paler than Dead Man’s Fingers and not really sweetened at all. Many reviewers talk about a primary flavour of cinnamon, but for me the most noticeable element is coconut, with a hint of sherry, which gives it a refined edge, and maybe a whiff of oatmeal. (I don’t know if there is any coconut in it, though I detect a hint of a similar aroma on the next rum and I wonder if it’s an impression created by clove in combination with something else.) On the tongue it is also mostly coconut that I get, plus the dry barkiness of cinnamon. Mind you, perhaps I’m doing it a disservice by tasting it after the gutsy punch of Dead Man’s Fingers, but I’m not really getting much at all from this rum. I try it again the next day, and I would say that it does have a quiet, genteel polish to it, but compared to the others there is not a lot going on.

The Foursquare is about £26 a bottle, and my final sample creeps up to £32—the Chairman’s Spiced Rum. It’s also 40% ABV, while all the others are just 37.5%. The label admits to “Caribbean fruits, bark and spice”, naming cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, clove and bitter orange specifically. The nose is buttery, with a strong waft of orange peel and some cocoa. It’s a bit like smelling a Terry’s Chocolate Orange. There is also a strong note of raisins, plus cinnamon and clove. The palate is led by the orange note again. They talk about “bitter” orange, but the result is rich and smooth, a bit like eating a liqueur-filled chocolate—though not particularly sweet as such.* This rum is the one that I would choose to drink neat, smooth but not too sweet, rich but subtle, detailed and not overblown. As you dig in new flavours emerge, all deftly blended. Going back to the Foursquare, the latter is certainly cultured enough to drink on its own, but it does seem thin and dry by comparison with the Chairman’s.

But let’s not forget that the starting point for all of this was a cocktail. How do these rums perform when mixed? Here is the recipe:

Spiced Rum Daiquiri
50 ml spiced rum
75 ml clementine juice
10 ml vanilla syrup
10 ml lime juice (optional)
3 good dashes of Angostura bitters

Shake all the ingredients together with ice in a cocktail shaker and strain into a (largish) cocktail glass. Garnish with a strip of clementine or satsuma zest.

Clementine juice is something that most supermarkets seem to sell at Christmas, though perhaps not at other times. It’s actually strikingly different from orange juice, sharper with more or a rindy pep, almost as if it already has a little lime in it. In any case, for my palate the added lime juice is needed to balance the syrup, but if you have a sweet tooth you may wish to leave it out. With spiced rum’s typical flavours of vanilla, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, orange peel and clove, plus the clementine juice (and Angostura has quite a cinnamon stripe to it) you've basically got Christmas in a glass. (I also tried it with a bitters that David had made a previous Christmas, which is heavy on clove, and this really boosted the Christmasy combination.)

Although I found the Red Leg rum a bit sickly on its own, it works fine in this cocktail, and it was Mrs H.’s favourite out of the lot, though she has a sweeter tooth than me. Dead Man’s Fingers benefits from its strong flavouring and punchy profile, easily making its presence felt against the other ingredients. For me this was probably the best choice for the drink, though Mrs H. didn’t like it so much—I think the edge of bitterness it brought wasn’t to her taste. The Foursquare was the least successful here: it’s too delicate to make much of an impression, and if you try to adjust this by adding more of the rum, it just unbalances the cocktail. Finally, the Chairman’s Spiced Rum certainly does work well in this drink, though I would argue that its leading flavour of orange might get a bit lost against the other citrus in the drink—and to be honest I’d rather save it to drink neat.

I also tried these rums with Fentiman’s ginger beer, with and without a squeeze of lime (so a Dark and Stormy cocktail). For me the Red Leg is just too sweet without a hefty dose of lime juice, and again the Foursquare got lost, but the other two worked well. You might think that the Dead Man’s Fingers with its strong peppery ginger character would be overkill with the ginger in the mixer, but it seemed to work OK. Again, I think the vividness of this rum makes it good with mixers in general.

But for me the star of the show was the Chairman’s Spiced Rum. It’s the only one I would choose to drink neat, and that is indeed what I was doing with it over Christmas. In a way it’s the first spiced rum I’ve tasted that, for me, justifies the existence of spiced rum as a concept—they are generally too sweet, crude and overblown for me, but this example is complex and poised. Whether you’d want to mix with it, given the price, is another question. If you specifically want a spiced rum for mixing, at £18 the Dead Man’s Fingers is a good bet.**

* I have a distant recollection that the Greek spiced fortified wine Metaxa tastes a bit like this, with an orange thrust. I’ve got some Metaxa in the cellar so I go and check: the dusty bottle is 95% empty, so probably not at its best, but in fact it has a floral nose and a muscaty taste, so nothing like the rum at all. Forget I ever mentioned it. And I can report that the Chairman’s Spiced Rum is a far superior drink in any case.

** The Kraken is another popular spiced rum, but I didn’t include it in this experiment as it didn’t really feature in my initial trawl of other people’s top-spiced-rum lists, but I have tried it at a trade show once and I don’t recall being terribly impressed. I think was was probably too sweet, and the underlying rum a bit rough.

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Brussels sprout gin?

A couple of summers ago we were visiting friends in Edinburgh and they suggested we stopped in at Summerhall where they made their own gin. This turned out to be Pickering’s Gin, and very nice it was too. The backstory is of a recipe dating from 1947 in Bombay, kept a family secret until they decided to start distilling at Summerhall. (There’s always a story like that, isn’t there?) The botanical bill for their main gin includes juniper, coriander, cardamom, angelica, fennel, anise, lemon, lime and cloves. They also make a “1947 edition” which adds cinnamon. It’s a fairly modern style of gin with an emphasis on smoothness. Their suggested serves and cocktails often have an emphasis on citrus.

So I was interested to see that they have produced, for the festive season, a Brussels sprout gin. You read that right. The famously divisive pellet of pungent-bitter cabbage-iness. Moreover, this is apparently the third year they have produced it, such is its popularity. How could I resist? OK, I was suspicious enough to order only a 20cl bottle, so I needed to be careful how I deployed my limited supply.

The first thing you notice is that it is green. I have no doubt, however, that the colour is artificial, added for gimmickry—it’s a rather bluish green which, in the world of absinthe, is a sure-fire sign of artificial colouring. The colour from naturally green absinthe tends to a more olive shade, and it is rather unstable, particularly when exposed to light; hence such absinthes tend to be sold in very dark bottles. So the hue of this gin in its clear glass bottle is presumably fake.

Upon uncorking the bottle I actually laughed out loud. Sure enough, there was that sharp, sour, sulphurous note that some reviewers describe as “cabbage water”. But it quickly resolves itself into something like turmeric—Mrs H. commented that it had a curry smell. There is an element of rubber too. All very savoury. On the palate this continues, though clear juniper comes in too, with a slightly bitter, peppery finish. It’s quite “dark”, with caramel notes (without being sweet), but altogether less pungent than you might expect.

A muddy-looking Brussels sprout Aviation
I try a Martini using Belsazar Dry vermouth. Adding the vermouth seems to release a new waft of that initial cabbage aroma, though on the palate the savoury character of the gin seems to go quite well with the herbal elements of the vermouth. Well, they don’t clash, which is perhaps not quite the same thing. Is it nice? I’m quite a fan of savoury, herbal gins, but I have to say—no. “Not as horrible as I was expecting,” was Mrs H.’s verdict on the Martini, which is about right. But the truth is that there is little joy to be had from this drink.

I couldn’t resist trying an Aviation (gin, maraschino, lemon juice and crème de violette), partly because it is one of my go-to cocktails for testing gins, but also, I admit, because I wanted to see what colour it would be. As you can see, between the green of the gin and the violet of the violette, it’s a rather muddy colour. Taste-wise, it is not a success, a constant argy-bargy between the delicate juniper-fruit-floral axis of the cocktail and the sulphur-savoury thrust of the gin, which elbows its way through now and then. It is not a harmonious combination; it’s a cocktail that exists in spite of its ingredients rather than because of them.

Given the vegetal nature of this drink I wondered how it would work in a Red Snapper (a gin-based Bloody Mary), and I see on their website this is indeed a recommended serve. I also wondered how it would work in a Last Word (gin, lime juice, maraschino and green Chartreuse). But by now I’d used up about half of my 20cl so I had to choose my experiments carefully. I made up a scaled-down Last Word and I do think that it is a place where this gin can feel accepted, its savoury intensity standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the herbal intensity of the green Chartreuse. With both the Chartreuse and the maraschino it is potentially quite a sweet cocktail, but the gin keeps making savoury, almost salty, sallies on to your tongue. Having said that, Mrs H. still made a face like Beelzebub had just tried to steal her tongue. She is not a fan.

A G&T made with the sprout gin

It seemed sensible to try this gin in a straightforward G&T. From my earlier experiences I guessed that adding the tonic would stir up a hornets’ nest of sulphurous swamp tones, but in fact it worked better than I expected; there’s a mysterious synergy between the tonic and the gin. The recommended garnish is a strip of cucumber; in fact cucumber and elderflower crop up as key ingredients in a number of the showcase drinks, which gives you some idea of exactly how the sproutiness translates into a gin flavour. As you can see, I bowed to that suggestion and garnished my drink with a long strip of cucumber peel and a single, noble sprout. You can, of course, immediately pick up the sprout-note on the nose, though I must concede that there is something in common between the sprouts and the cucumber. However, after much consideration I would have to say that the cucumber does not emerge well from the association; while we tend to think of cucumber as fresh and herbal in a zingy way, this drink, while not repulsive, does seem to emphasise less pleasant botanical associations. It’s as if the cucumber has fallen in with a bad crowd, that brings out its less pleasant side.

Would I recommend Pickering’s Brussel sprout gin? No. Although it has some polish, you ultimately find yourself longing for the underlying gin without the sprouts in it. If you fall into the camp of those who actively like sprouts (and I do), and you like herbal, savoury gins, you might want to try this one. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Monday, 28 September 2020

A cocktail in a can—without the cocktail

A Champagne Cocktail made with items from the kit

Despairing of face-to-face get-togethers for the time being, a friend held a virtual birthday party last night. While Zoom may be efficient for business meetings, it’s hard to use it for general socialising, and she enhanced the organisational side of things by laying on live entertainment. She also sent everyone packages of strange costume items plus some sparkling wine, accompanied by a “cocktail kit”.

Given that the kit itself didn’t actually include any booze, it was enterprising of the manufacturers (The Cocktail Box Company) to find anything to put in it at all, but their efforts were endearing. It was for a Champagne Cocktail, and the pleasantly Olde World tin contained three cocktail picks for “your desired garnish” (not included), some sort of coke spoon, some instructions, a smaller tin neatly holding six cane sugar cubes, and the star of the show—three bottles of bitters. There is even a burlap coaster.* The instructions tell you so soak the sugar cube with bitters in the glass and top up with Champagne: they don’t actually mention the Cognac that traditionally goes in before the Champagne, yet they earnest have you use the tiny spoon to stir five times clockwise then five times anticlockwise. Given that the sugar is left intact to dissolve gradually, I’m not sure what we’re actually stirring together here, but if you decide to add brandy as well then I guess the spoon will prove useful. The packaging advertises that it serves six, though of course there are only three picks, so I guess it’s designed for tag-team drinking (and you’ll all have to squabble over the coke spoon).

I’ve not tried Scrappy’s Bitters before, and in this cocktail the the Aromatic Bitters struck me as classic, Angostura-style, but warmer and more complex—vividly fruity and smoky, with notes of orange peel, cardamom and cinnamon to the fore, though the tiny 5ml bottle is too small to list any ingredients and Scrappy’s website doesn’t give anything away. This was complemented by two smaller 2ml bottles, one of lavender bitters and one of “black lemon” bitters. The lavender made rather an intriguing variation on the cocktail, with a strong lavender note that tricked me into thinking that there was honey in there too—and I guess you could make the cocktail with honey rather than sugar. The lemon bitters made less of an impression, though perhaps you need to be more generous with that one. The bottle smells of lemon, perhaps preserved lemon, if you’ve ever tried making that, though the website explains that a “black lemon” is actually a kind of dehydrated lime used in Middle Eastern cooking, which they describe as earthy and smoky. Confusingly, the bitters does not actually have any black lemon in it, just attempts to evoke those aromas and flavours.

The Cocktail Box Company range also includes an Old Fashioned—the delightful packaging of which looks just like a Penguin Classic paperback (see picture): the others in the range keep the styling but vary the main colour—containing sugar and three types of bitters; a Moscow Mule, with grapefruit and lemon bitters, plus sachets of ginger syrup and lime juice; a Margarita, with orange bitters plus sachets of “margarita syrup” (orange flavoured?) and lime juice; a Mai Tai, again with lime juice and orange bitters, along with “Mai Tai syrup”, which I assume is coconut-flavoured. Finally there is a Gin and Tonic kit. Some will argue that a G&T isn’t really a cocktail as such, but the big question is what such a kit could contain, given that it has neither gin nor tonic in it. The answer is orange and lavender bitters (not lemon, surprisingly) plus lime juice and tonic syrup.

So the idea is that you are using your kit somewhere where there is booze, plus access to soda water, but not to any other mixers—such as tonic water for the G&T or ginger beer for the Moscow Mule. I’d be curious to know if this came about from experience, and the feeling that this was a real need to be answered, or whether the idea of the kit came first, followed by some head-scratching about what could possibly be included. Tonic syrup is not a new thing, and a combination of soda and, say, the Battersea Quinine Cordial, produces a result not really like commercial tonic water. You can also use the syrup neat, without soda, plus gin and lime juice to create a short “GT Turbo” cocktail—I wonder if that is what the Cocktail Box people had in mind with this kit, as you wouldn’t normally put lime juice in a G&T (although you might well garnish it with a slice of lime). I haven’t had a chance to try any of the other kits, so I don’t know what these syrups are like, nor how the lime juice is preserved (and how that might affect its flavour).

The three bitters in the Champagne Cocktail set, plus the three cocktail picks

You get the idea that these kits are intended to appeal to business travellers who always want to have the wherewithal to make the perfect cocktail as they sit in their lonely hotel room with only a bottle of spirits for company—you can even buy replacement lime juice and syrup sachets. But I wonder whether the main market isn’t people looking to give cute gifts to other people who like cocktails.

Would I recommend the cocktail box? If you’re looking for a cute gift for a cocktail-lover then I think the attention to detail will please. At £18 the kit is not cheap, but you’d pay £20 to £25 for a full 150ml bottle of the bitters, so it’s a handy way to try out three from the range.

* The coaster sadly has a logo sewn on, made from some shiny, plasticky material that actually causes it to stick to the bottom of your glass when you lift it up, but once this label has been removed it is absorbent enough to work well.

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.