Monday, 11 March 2019

Something to chew on from Greece

We were on holiday in Athens, prompted by the chance to visit a friend in the last weeks of his tenure as British ambassador to Greece (we even got to stay in the embassy for a few days—something that’s not likely to happen ever again), but he was a busy man and we were mostly left to our own devices. On the first night we were finishing dinner in a restaurant when the waitress glided by and placed two small liqueur glasses in front of us. “Μαστιχα,” she said, which I assumed meant something like, “On the house.” The liquid in the glasses was indeed a sort of liqueur, but earthy, and not like any I’d tried before.

Later we discovered that the waitress was actually identifying the liquid as mastiha, a liqueur made from a resin from a tree that grows on the island of Chios. In fact the gum is known in Greece as “tears of Chios” and it has been harvested there for over 2,500 years. Traditionally the mastiha gum is chewed to freshen the breath and because it was believed to aid digestion and dental health and prevent illness. Later, on a foodie walking tour, we got to try chewing some actual gum. In fact the name comes from the Greek word to chew, and is where we get “masticate” in English (and, presumably, “mastic”, the rubbery stuff builders use to seal joins). Making a liqueur out if it is a relatively recent refinement but still goes back a few hundred years.*

"Tears" of mastiha resin
We quickly discovered that the Greekness of mastiha was self-consciously used in other products: in a wine shop I was intrigued to discover Old Sport, a Greek gin that included mastiha as a botanical. And at the airport we even came across some halva (a crumbly sweet delicacy made from sesame with a fibrous texture) with mastiha in it.

Let’s start with the gin. Who knows what is going on with the label: the stylised beard may be designed to appeal to hipsters, though the sculptural treatment suggests the beards of Gods and heroes in Greek marbles. But then, where the beard’s owner’s face should be, there is a photo of a bloke with a moustache that looks like it’s come off a cigar box or banknote. That bloke pops up on the website next to the line “165 years of distilling”, so he may be the distillery’s founder. There’s no clue on the site as to why it’s called Old Sport—a Great Gatsby reference?

So what’s it like? Opening the bottle and I get fresh orange or tangerine. When I pour it into a glass it shifts to a weird sour smell, like the inside of a plastic bottle that previously held orange juice but is now empty and has been left in the sun. Then a dark note emerges, a dry, woody smell, and, oddly, a sweet sesame note—like halva.

In the mouth there is a suggestion of liquorice, cumin seed, maybe fennel seed or caraway, but not really any juniper. The base spirit itself if a bit rough and leaves the tongue feeling slightly seared. Again there is an earthy, dry root element, like horseradish but without the heat.

According the back label the botanicals are juniper, angelica, rosemary, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, orris, liquorice, coriander seed, lemon peel, bitter orange peel and mastiha. So, no cumin, but perhaps the nutmeg and cinnamon suggested it, in combination with the mastiha. Rosemary is an interesting one and I can get that.

While it is not offensive, it is hard to like Old Sport. On paper the botanicals sound as if they should make a complex and punchy libation, but instead of being vivid and intriguing it seems lifeless and stale. Some gins fascinate as the flavours evolve and interplay but Old Sport just sits there like an experimental infusion you made years ago and forgot about. It’s dominated by a sour, waxy, mid-range woody note, with none of the bright, refreshing elements one rather looks for in a gin. The website describes it as “mildly complex”, which sounds like damning with faint praise, though I suspect they mean it is both mild and complex. In fact it is neither of these things.

The Skinos mastiha liqueur was bought at the recommendation of a man in a booze shop (Mr Vertigo in Filikis Eterias Square). I would say it was sweeter than the digestif we were served on that first night, but it nevertheless intrigues. Open the bottle and you’re hit by a powerful earthy smell—exactly that “horseradish without the heat” that I detected in Old Sport but much stronger. There are also hints of cucumber and chocolate.

Allow it to expand in a glass and the aroma becomes creamier, but with a high grassy note—a bright, sharp layer that actually reminds me of juniper (an element that seemed sadly lacking in Old Sport gin)—but then one would expect mastiha to be resinous. On the palate Skinos is arresting, serving up white chocolate and the sweet earthiness of halva.

That intriguing high note makes me wonder how this would blend with a classic juniper-led gin. I have some Christopher Wren gin from City of London Distillery within arm’s reach so I give it a try, roughly half and half. The gin does not have the warm sweet bottom end that many modern gins attempt, but the Skinos smoothes its sharp edges. It’s a toppy, crisp gin with juicy, leafy undertones and a peppery, dry mouthfeel. The mastiha obviously makes it sweeter and the earthy root flavours sit below the gin’s high notes. Moreover, I definitely think the blend of Skinos and Christopher Wren gin makes a pleasanter, better balanced and more complex drink than Old Sport, though with the added sugar it could not count as a gin in itself.

The final mix: 2 shots gin, ½ shot Skinos, ½ shot lemon
juice. It's a polished, grown-up cocktail that clearly
showcases the resinous, earthy flavour of the mastiha
This got me wondering what would happen if you added lemon juice to balance the sweetness—it would be the classic combination of base spirit, sugar or liqueur and lemon or lime, that is the structure of so many well-known cocktails. Effectively it’s like making an Aviation but using mastiha instead of maraschino. I added lemon juice to the blend I’d already made and I can report that it works. Mrs H. found it a bit strong, but at this stage I hadn’t shaken it with ice which would have diluted it. (I added tonic and found that the flavours continued to present and balance in the same way.) Finesse the proportions and that’s a cocktail right there.

And what of the mastiha halva, I hear you ask? It tasted like halva.

* It seems the liqueur is properly known as Chios Mastiha. The terms mastika is used in neighbouring regions to refer to an aniseed drink more akin to ouzo or raki.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Happy Birthday, Prohibition: a cocktail in your honour

One hundred years ago today Prohibition passed into US Federal law, when the 18th Amendment was ratified by the 36th state.*

It was intended to improve the health and morals of the nation, but it had some unintended consequences. Some sources say that it did reduce alcohol consumption, while others suggest consumption initially went down but after a few years rose to higher than pre-Prohibition levels. Certainly in cities the number of places you could get a drink sky-rocketed as drinking went underground. This playful map below from 1932 suggests there were 500 speakeasies in Harlem alone. There must have been a clientele for all these speaks: a lot of ordinary people weren’t keen to give up booze but now these previously law-abiding citizens were declared to be criminals, creating a new flexible morality. (In fact some pro-Prohibition activists later swapped sides and campaigned to have it abolished, on the grounds that it had created a generation with no respect for the law.) Drinking had previously been concentrated in saloons, places where respectable women did not venture; but Prohibition suddenly meant that everyone slipping into an illegal drinking den was on an even moral footing, and for the first time it became acceptable for women to drink in public. This was the age of the flapper.

Previously the government had derived significant revenue from taxing booze sales: now that revenue passed into the hands of organised criminals, some of them soldiers returning from WWI with gun skills but little prospect of work, who set up sophisticated smuggling operations to satisfy demand. The old saloons had been hotbeds of political intrigue and moralists hoped Prohibition would clean things up, but bootleggers like Al Capone made so much money they could buy whole cities: at his peak Capone had the Chicago mayor and most of the police on his payroll. In Chicago the fashionable middle classes bragged about the gangsters they knew.

Prohibition affected the wider world too, as out-of-work American bartenders went abroad to seek employment. Although cocktails had been around through the 19th century this migration did much to spread the fashion for mixed drinks—not least because fashionable and wealthy Americans could travel overseas to find a legal snifter (and even the not-so-wealthy could make it to Havana, where a host of new cocktails were developed to cater for them). In London hotels and clubs now began having an “American bar” serving cocktails. Every ocean liner had to have its own signature concoction.

One of these expats was Harry Craddock. In fact he’d been born in Britain, but went to train as a bartender in the US and became a citizen. He claimed to have shaken the last cocktail before Prohibition came into force, then promptly sailed back to Blighty where he set up at the Savoy Hotel in London. He is best known for penning The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930), which is still in print and a useful source.

Harry Craddock

One of his creations is the Prohibition Cocktail. There is no record of how it came to be created—and it may have been a spur-of-the-moment thing in response to a request, as it is almost identical to another of his cocktails, the Charlie Lindbergh—but he must have been cocking a snook at the Noble Experiment, and possibly at the “Prohibition cocktails” being touted on the other side of the ocean. Some of these were attempts to get drinkers enjoying fruit-juice based blends (what I guess we would call “mocktails” today), while others were synthesised to taste like the Martinis and Manhattans that drinkers used to enjoy—apparently with invariably foul results.**

Harry’s Prohibition Cocktail is a proper cocktail, and moreover a very tasty drink, so on this day it seems apt to revisit it. His recipe in The Savoy Cocktail Book is:

½ Plymouth Gin
½ Kina Lillet
2 Dashes Orange Juice
1 Dash Apricot Brandy
Shake well and strain into a cocktail glass. Squeeze lemon peel on top.

As we have observed before, Kina Lillet is no longer made. Lillet themselves would have you believe that modern Lillet Blanc is a suitable substitute but it is generally considered that Kina Lillet was more bitter (its name presumably derived from quinine-laden cinchona bark). I find that Cocchi Americano is a good substitute—in the sense that if you follow vintage recipes you end up with something that looks and tastes right. (For example, a Corpse Reviver No.2 made with Lillet Blanc is just too sweet and orange-flavoured, so you end up adding more gin and less Cointreau to try and get it balanced.) If you can’t find that you could try Lillet Blanc plus some bitters. China Martini is another good substitute but is harder to find that Cocchi Americano. See DBS’s post on his search for the Vesper Martini and various substitutes for Kina Lillet. Apricot brandy seems to be getting easier to acquire: most larger supermarkets near me stock it these days.

I find that this makes a good modern version, though you may need to play around with the proportions depending on what gin you use or whether your OJ is freshly squeezed or from a carton:

35 ml gin
35 ml Cocchi Americano
10 ml orange juice
5 ml apricot brandy

Get the balance right and it has sweetness and bitterness, juniper backbone from the gin and distinct notes or orange and apricot.

Happy birthday, Prohibition. Here’s mud in your eye!

* Nebraska, as it happens, though some states were already operating Prohibition at a state level. The amendment stipulated that the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol would be banned from one year later, 17th January 1920. The actual details of what counted as an alcoholic beverage and what exemptions there might be were sorted out in the Volstead Act later in 1919.

** For more on Prohibition Cocktails see Greg Moore’s scholarly post on his Cocktail101 blog.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

The Jack Calloway cocktail

Not many of us get to have cocktails named after us—it tends to be film stars (Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin) or statesmen (Roosevelt, Colonel Rickey, who allegedly invented the Rickey). So I was intrigued when a chap named Jack Calloway recently joined the New Sheridan Club and, on the application form where we ask a number of vapid questions, gave his favourite cocktail as “The Jack Calloway”.*

Jack’s the leader of a 1930s-style dance orchestra. “The cocktail was created in Bristol three or four years ago when the dance orchestra was first starting out,” he explains. “We used to rehearse in a bar called the Bootlegger on Gloucester Road. I was fond of Charlie Chaplins [sloe gin, apricot brandy and lime juice] but asked the barman, Drew Pratley, if he could make me something that better suited my sweet tooth. He asked me various alcoholic questions and came up with the Jack Calloway. He wanted something sweet and cheeky but with a ‘debaucherous’ party vibe— much like myself, apparently.”

Naturally I had to try this cocktail out. Here is the recipe Jack gives:

Jack Calloway
Blackberries and blueberries
1–2 shots vodka
1 shot crème de cassis
1 shot elderflower liqueur or cordial
Juice of half a lime.
Fill a shaker with blackberries and blueberries and crush thoroughly. Add the other ingredients. Shake well with ice, pour dirty in a fancy tumbler, or in my case a fine champagne coupe. To finish, squeeze a final wedge of lime over the mixture and let it float in the glass. Garnish with a sprig of mint.

I found that 6 blackberries and 12 blueberries seemed an appropriate amount. It’s an interesting drink, obviously dominated by the berries; the elderflower presence is subtle (though in fairness the St Germain liqueur I used was quite old, so possible not as puissant as it used to be). Overall it’s a bit sweet for me, although adding more lime juice didn’t quite seem to work, so perhaps it is what it is. Obviously the vodka isn’t really contributing to the flavour—I tried it with gin, but it didn’t work for some reason. I also tried it with white rum, which I thought was OK, though Mrs H. thought otherwise, feeling that the sugariness of the rum made it seem too sweet.

If you have a sweetish tooth and like berries, give this one a try, though it needs a bit of patience to do all the muddling, and it takes a long time to pour through all the pulp! It strikes me also that if you’re doing “Dry January” (shudder) and you are bewitched by the berry/elderflower combo, you could make a virgin version of this using elderflower cordial.

* In truth that is a stage name and not entirely his real name. The surname was chosen in homage to Cab Calloway.

Fine-strained for fancy folk

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Win a bottle of Yuletide Gin!

Those irrepressible kids at That Boutiquey Gin Company have dug even deeper in their search for unlikely gin botanicals, with the release of their Yuletide Gin. While Sipsmith have a Mince Pie Gin and Sacred offer a Christmas Pudding Gin, TBGC have attempted to capture the entire season, starting with conventional botanicals such as juniper, cassia, nutmeg and cardamom, then adding more Christmassy ingredients like cloves, allspice, raisins, dates, and finally some off-the-wall things like panettone, gold, frankincense and myrrh, and a whole gingerbread house. (The gold is in the form of gold flakes in the bottle, like Goldwasser, which gives the whole thing a snow globe quality.) They probably even bubble some Goodwill to All Men through it just before bottling.

What does it taste like? I’ve no idea. The one bottle that they have sent me is a prize for one of you. Yes, you could be the lucky winner of this eccentric elixir. Then you can tell me what it tastes like.

To be in with a chance of winning, email with your answer to the following question: which of the following is NOT a genuine ingredient used to flavour TBGC’s Yuletide Gin:

A. Mince pies
B. Sherry
C. Chestnuts
D. Christmas tree needles

Closing date is Friday 14th December. The winner will be drawn at random from the correct answers received.

Terms and conditions:
You must be aged 18+ to enter 
The prize is a single 50cl bottle of That Boutiquey Gin Company’s Yuletide Gin
There will be one winner, drawn at random from those who have sent in a correct answer by the close of business on Friday 14th December. You will be contacted by email and asked to supply an address that we can mail the prize to
Competition open to UK entrants only
No purchase is necessary to enter
Winners will not be made to pay more to enter

Check out that flurry of flakes of real gold

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Six of the best from Suntory's painstaking gin

Earlier in the year I had a chance to taste Roku gin while visiting a friend, and found it arresting. Now I see that it is being stocked by my local Sainsbury’s supermarket, currently at a very reasonable £25, and I have found it more intriguing than ever.

Produced by Japan’s Suntory, this is the first Japanese gin that I can recall trying (I’m not counting Jinzu, a “Japanese-inspired” gin made in Scotland)—though in fact Suntory launched a gin called Hermes as far back as 1936. I’m a big fan of Japanese whisky (or I was until prices went through the roof), which seems to me to be characterised by a subtle complexity, poise and harmony. And I get something similar from this gin.

Opening the bottle I am relieved to be hit initially by a wave of juniper—so this is not one of those gins that feels the need come up with crazy, unginlike flavours to draw attention to itself. After that I get something crisp and fresh like apples, then a distinct citrusy layer of orange and cinnamon, followed by a sweetness that is both floral and fruity like cherries. Woven into this are savoury hints of cucumber and peppery celery. This is quite a complex nose.

In the mouth it is soft and round, easy to drink and sweetish without being cloying (or actually sweet). There is orange again and a distinct nutty fullness on the tongue.

Roku and tonic with strips of fresh ginger
So what is actually in Roku? It has eight traditional botanicals: juniper, coriander seed, angelica root and seed, cardamom, cinnamon, bitter orange peel and lemon peel. To these are added six distinctly Japanese botanicals: sakura flower (cherry blossom), sakura leaf, sencha tea, gyokuro tea, sanshō pepper and yuzu peel. The gin is made at what the Suntory website calls their “Liquor Atelier” (images of starving distillers eeking our a living in a gloomy garret to bring their art to the world), using different distillation techniques for the various botanicals. “For instance, the delicate scent of cherry blossom is drawn out through vacuum distillation in stainless pot stills, whereas the deep flavour of yuzu is achieved by distillation in copper pot stills.”

Those six botanicals give this gin its name—roku meaning “six” in Japanese—and images of them are embossed on the fancy six-sided bottle. In a further layer of resonance, the sakura represents the spring, tea the summer, sanshō the autumn and yuzu the winter.

So that list explains some of the flavours I’m getting, such as the orange and cinnamon, the cherry, the florality of the Angelica and perhaps that pepperiness I associated with celery. Yuzu is a sour citrus fruit that looks like a pale yellow-green satsuma and tastes, it is usually said, like a lime crossed with lemon or grapefruit. I gather that sanshō peppers are citrusy too, which will be contributing to the gin’s citrus character.

To appreciate its subtleties, do try Roku simply on the rocks. Note the slight
louche—the cloudy haze familiar to absinthe drinkers—as the essential oils
dissolved in the alcohol come out of solution and form an emulsion as
water is added
Roku is not the first gin I’ve tried with tea in it—Beefeater 24 likewise features sencha tea as well as Chinese green tea, and Adnams Rising Sun gin has Japanese matcha tea as a botanical. I found the tea flavour easier to pinpoint in Rising Sun than I did in Beefeaster 24, and in Roku it is likewise not something that leaps out at me. I return to the empty glass and waft it under my nose—it’s citrus that is most prominent, plus cinnamon, angelica and fruity cherry and plum. I can certainly believe that I’m getting the aromatic dryness of tea, though I’m not sure I would have identified it unprompted. (Incidentally, I return to the empty glass an hour or two later and I’m now just smelling faint lime.)

Roku is fascinating and approachable enough to drink neat, and it certainly makes a refined and thought-provoking Martini. The preferred serve seems to be a G&T garnished with matchstick-sized strips of fresh ginger. The flavour of the ginger is at first low-key, but it gradually spreads; and its fiery, rooty spice does seem to blend elegantly with the citrus and floral elements of the gin. I also tried a Negroni and, while all these work perfectly well, I still feel that the subtle sophistication of this gin works best unencumbered by other ingredients. Try it in a Martini or just on its own. I thought about making a gin Old Fashioned but, sipped simply on the rocks, Roku’s velvet mouthfeel doesn’t need any sweetening and its complex balance of fruit and savoury layers does not need the aromatic lift of bitters.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Wilful eccentricities from That Boutique-y Gin Company

The box of samples, exterior. You can see images of finger limes and cucamelons

I don’t normally do “unboxings”, but those giddy types at That Boutique-y Gin Company sent me a set of samples packaged in a way that required a photographic record.

The company is an offshoot of That Boutique-y Whisky Company, in turn descended from Atom Supplies who run Master of Malt. The whisky version has been bottling odds and ends for some years, with a trademark style of busy, cartoonish label, often featuring people involved with the product, and the gin version carries on this tradition. They describe themselves as the world’s first independent gin bottler, releasing small batches of new and experimental gins from various distillers, as well as producing some of their own.

Lid removed, revealing three sample bottles of gin and the three tiny phials

With so many gins on the market, and no let-up in sight to the idea that everyone needs to have their own gin, many new products seek to go somewhere unusual with their botanicals, to stand out from the crowd, often to the extent of describing the end result specifically as tangerine gin, blueberry gin, seaweed gin, what have you. (In fairness, a few of these concepts, such as orange gin, do have a heritage stretching at least back to the early 20th century.) So in order to be truly boutique-y, TBGC have gone out of their way to find some truly odd things to blend into their gins.

Some miniatures from the range, given out at the party earlier this year

Early this year I went to their birthday party where I was confronted by such oddities as a gin made from botanicals that have been shot into space (no, it didn’t seem to affect the flavour) and gin aged in Canadian icewine barrels. The three samples sent to be this time were Finger Lime Gin, Cucamelon Gin and Strawberry & Balsamico Gin. Finger limes are an Australian plant which apparently have a texture like caviar with a lime-like flavour (though apparently not actually related to the citrus genus). Cucamelons are indigenous to Central America and look like small watermelons and taste, it says here, of “lime-dipped cucumbers”. For the final gin they take a gin base, add fresh strawberries as well as strawberry and black pepper distillates, and balsamic vinegar from Modena, aged for 12–25 years in barrels of chestnut, cherry, oak, mulberry, ash and juniper wood.

Each of the gin samples was accompanied by a tiny phial of a key distillate in concentration (60% ABV)—or, in the case of the last one, a phial of the vinegar in question. These have been vacuum distilled from whole finger limes, or whole cucamelons with a bit of liquorice root. However, this does not seem to be an indication that the gins are made by distilling botanicals individually then blending the distillates (as happens with Sacred and Gin Mare), as the notes suggest that for the actual gins all the botanicals are macerated together.

Tasting the gins together there does seem to be a house style, with a rich, smooth, sweet feel: where some traditional gins are dominated by steely juniper high notes, mixing well with tonic, these give the impression they are meant to be approachable neat, easy on the tongue and weighted with woody, floral middle notes.

The Finger Lime Gin has a nose of lime, unsurprisingly, but it’s a soft, sweet, perfumed smell, without the sharpness of a fresh lime. It is plump in the mouth, with a jammy fruit character up front, then some savoury, stemmy flavours coming afterwards. It’s pretty drinkable neat, with only a hint of bitterness on the finish.

In a gin and tonic (with Fever Tree Naturally Light)*, however, the Finger Lime Gin is pretty disappointing, in my opinion. I was expecting a joyous, juicy drink, but the gin lacks the juniper backbone that would traditionally balance the sweet/citrus/bitter contributions of the tonic. It’s a bit too soft and sweet in its own right, and creates a G&T that’s a bit unnerving, almost sickly. (I’m struck by an odd salty finish, not entirely unwelcome, but I’m not sure where that is coming from.)

So I figured it might sit more comfortably in a Martini, but I’m not convinced about that either: again a bit too sweet and not sitting comfortably with the vermouth (Belsazar Dry in this case). So I try another of my standard gin tests, an Aviation, made with woody Luxardo Maraschino, dry Bitter Truth crème de violette and lemon juice. Now, suddenly, it all comes together. And the weird thing is that, as I adjust the amount of gin to get the balance right, this is the first time that I have been particularly aware of the Finger Lime’s juniper content. I can’t entirely explain it, but a Finger Lime Aviation is a very satisfying cocktail.

Next I try a Gimlet—a traditional blend of gin and Rose’s Lime Cordial. I honestly expect it to be a bit of a pointless exercise, since the gin has lime in it anyway, but again I am surprised. For the second time I notice the gin’s juniper aspect, and however the various lime elements are relating to each other, it is a pleasant cocktail overall, with just enough sweetness from the cordial helping to round things out.

The little phial of finger lime distillate is an interesting idea—not that you would have any difficulty spotting the presence of lime in the finished gin blend. At 60% ABV the distillate is drinkable, and offers a sharp blast of fruit/sour/bitter. It’s like biting into a particularly intense kumquat.

By this time I’m running low on the Finger Lime gin, so I turn my attention to the Cucamelon. It has a general family resemblance, being fragranced on the nose and plump and smooth on the tongue, but with an obvious cucumber element that makes it straightaway more savoury. In a Martini it is obviously more ginny, again with the savoury cucumber notes (and cucumber in gin is not novel, thanks to Hendrick’s and Martin Miller’s). But there are complex layers unpeeling here, first a wholly unexpected blackcurrant fruity sweetness, then a woody dry spice like cassia on the finish. And there is juniper too. In a Gimlet and an Aviation it works perfectly well but doesn’t transform like the Finger Lime did—I’m guessing drinks like those are the Finger Lime’s spiritual home, while for me the Cucamelon is more successful in itself and therefore works better in simpler serves.

The cucamelon distillate proves even more fascinating. Yes, there is obviously a bright cucumber element up front (and, oddly, nothing that I would really identify as melon) but there is another wave of flavour, darker, more mid-range—seriously, it’s suggesting orange, rose, banana, artichoke and more—plus a finish of pink peppercorns.

The Strawberry & Balsamico gin has a nose, unsurprisingly, of strawberries. It was never going to be exactly like fresh strawberries (strawberry infusions always end up tasting of stewed or baked fruit, like the strawberry Palmetto moonshine), but this is closer than I had expected. The balsamic note is subtle, but combines with the fruit to suggest coffee. The juniper is clearly present too. On the tongue is has the thick, rich texture of those intense, dark Pedro Ximenez sherries; but, though sweet, it is not tooth-curlingly so.

So what does one do with it? It makes a surprisingly viable G&T but TBGC suggest trying it lengthened with sparkling wine. This does work very well (I tried it with some rosé Champagne, which possibly emphasised the strawberry notes), creating what is effectively a one-stop Champagne-style cocktail, with the fruit element clear—but also again I found myself noticing the juniper character more strikingly in this combination with as much ginniness as you would get from a French 75. It’s a complex, sophisticated combo.

As for the tiny phial of balsamic vinegar? Absolutely delicious. It combines a sweet, delicate approachability with a depth and complexity of flavour that I’ve not previously encountered in a vinegar, balsamic or otherwise. I don’t know how much this stuff costs for a bottle but it’s probably worth it.

So what of the TBGC range in general? They tend to be competently made, though there is something of the dog-on-its-hind-legs about these eccentric botanicals. To my surprise, the one I would be most keen to hang on to is the least versatile, the Strawberry and Balsamic gin—simply because of the cocktail it creates when added to sparkling wine. Of the other two, I probably preferred the cucamelon over the finger lime, but one does get the impression that they dream up odd flavours for the sake of being different. And what’s wrong with that? Every now and then they’re going to come across something that strikes such a chord it could be a future classic.

The TBGC range sells for from £30 (50cl), up to £50 for their Very Old Tom.

* This is a favourite of mine at the moment: it doesn’t have any artificial sweeteners, just less sugar than the regular tonic.

Strawberry & Balsamico Gin with Champagne

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Lux coin: whisky with a hint of mint

Those crazy kids at Wealth Solutions have been at it again. As their name suggests, these Polish entrepreneurs take the view that wealth is a problem needing to be solved and they specialise in creating fantastically expensive things for rich people to spend their money on. Rare booze is a thing with them, and I first encountered them when they sent me a sample of their Jubilee bottling of Glenfarclas 1953. Their next move was the frankly bonkers idea of buying a bottle of 1762 Cognac—the oldest ever sold at auction—then putting a drop of the spirit inside a glass capsule mounted in a specially commissioned wristwatch by boutique Swiss manufacturer Armin Strom.

Compared to the watch, their latest wheeze seems relatively conventional. This time they’ve bought a bottle of Old Vatted Glenlivet 1862 whisky, believed to be the oldest extant whisky in the world, and placed a drop of it inside a glass capsule mounted in a solid gold coin. The coin is carved with images of whisky-making and bears the words “WHISKY 1862” by the capsule. (Which sounds a bit vague to me, for something so rare and valuable—why not “Glenlivet 1862”? There is plenty of room.) This should lessen the risk of the cleaner mistaking it for tea or WD40 and trying to buff it away.

The coin, marketed by subdivision Lux Coin, was created by the Perth Mint, who have been making limited edition precious metal coins for 30 years. Mind you, if you look at their website (where you can buy the coin) there is something bathetic about the way it appears alongside gaudy Looney Tunes commemorative sets and a coin shaped like Iron Man’s mask.

But here’s the kicker: the Whisky Coin is legal tender—in Tuvalu, where its face value is 50 dollars. (You do wonder how many other governments they tried before they found someone who would go for it. The forthcoming Rum Coin is legal tender in Barbados, where the rum was actually made, and the Cognac coin is worth 100 Congolese francs, which at least has a French connection.)*

In case you’re wondering, the spirit coins are all priced at €7,900 in limited editions of 300.

* In fairness, Tuvalu did used to be part of the British Empire, and is still in the Commonwealth, so I suppose there is a tenuous link with Scotland.