Wednesday, 19 October 2022

Maverick spirits from Brewdog


I was intrigued to notice on the supermarket shelves two spirits made by BrewdogLone Wolf Gin and Seven Day Vodka

Brewdog, as their name suggests, are best known for brewing beer, and have established their brand mainly through controversy. They have repeatedly produced what they claim is the world’s strongest beer: Tactical Nuclear Penguin was an alleged 32% ABV and, when a German brewer trumped them with a 40% beer, Brewdog came back with the tastelessly named Sink the Bismarck at 41%, followed by The End of History at 55% (a record that has since been claimed by Snake Venom from fellow Scottish brewery Brewmeister, alleging an ABV of 67.5%). Brewdog are forever being censured by the UK’s Portman Group, a drinks industry self-regulation body, and are also litigious themselves, having threatened legal action against a pub called Lone Wolf and another called Draft Punk, which they considered an infringement of their Punk IPA brand.

The super-strength beer was achieved through freeze-distillation, chilling it to a temperature low enough for water to freeze but not alcohol, allowing the ice to be removed leaving a more alcoholic liquid behind, but Lone Wolf and Seven Day Vodka seem to have been distilled in the normal way. The distillery boasts a “triple bubble” still, with three bubble-shaped swellings in the neck rising out of it. A traditional pot still is not that efficient at separating out the elements in the fermented mash, producing a distillate that retains more of the flavour but usually means the process has to be performed two or three times. The triple bubble still, which seems to be a sort of pot/column still hybrid, can effectively perform these multiple distillations in one pass, with an emphasis on purity rather than retaining flavour from the mash. Head distiller Steven Kersley also says the design allows plenty of copper contact—copper is the material of choice for stills as certain undesirable elements in the vapour stick to it, drawing it out of the final distillate.

The distillery’s line-up of stills, with the triple bubble job on the left. Last year they moved operation to a new facility in Ellon, which (judging from photos) lacks the huge mural of a wolf.

Vodka brands tend to bang on about purity rather than flavour. Maybe they just decided that this is a better marketing ploy, since most people probably think vodka doesn’t taste of much anyway. In reality, if you sit down and taste several vodkas side by side you quickly realise how much variety there is, at least if you’re tasting neat. If you want purity you can, of course, just buy 96% pure neutral spirit and add water. In reality the various filtration processes that vodka is subjected to are more about imparting a desired flavour.

Seven Day Vodka is so called because they say it takes seven days to make, three of which are in the triple bubble still, starting from a wheat and barley base. It has a nose of vanilla and icing sugar, with a hint of red berries and cocoa nib. On the tongue it is smoothish, though with a bitter, slightly sharp top note—a tad sour with a ghost of vegetation—that overbalances the palate, with too little coming from the chocolately body.

Vodka cocktails tend to smother the taste of the vodka itself, though I find that a vodka Gimlet (vodka and lime cordial) can retain the character of a characterful vodka. Sadly this is not a very characterful vodka and I find myself repeatedly adding more vodka to the mix in the hope of striking a harmonious balance.

Interestingly, this is one of the few vodkas that benefits from being served from the freezer. Although it’s a hip way to drink vodka, all too often I find this just kills the flavour, and it’s disastrous for subtle and sophisticated products like Haku. Perhaps Seven Day Vodka just doesn’t have many subtleties to kill, but in all honesty it is highly approachable served this way, with an impression of gentle sweetness, the cocoa character coming to the fore and with a slight, odd, hint of ginger on the finish. This is certainly how I will deploy the rest of this bottle.

Lone Wolf Gin takes its name from the original name of the distillery, intended to be a battle-cry for turning your back on convention and doing things your own way, though (after a physical move) the place is now just the Brewdog Distillery. Unlike the vodka, this gin is not short on flavour, though perhaps again lacking in subtlety. Regular readers will know I like a gin that tastes of gin, and this one is certainly juniper-led, with a fierce resinous waft of it on the nose, joined by lemon and lime citrus, a warm caress of lavender and some earthy notes. On the palate the juniper continues to dominate, an evergreen pine thrust, accompanied by a lightly chocolate low-mid and a slightly bitter finish.

A Dry Martini is usually a good showcase for a gin’s nuances and its interplay with dry vermouth, but a Lone Wolf Martini is crude and frankly a bit silly, with that pine-resin character completely dominating. In a Negroni (gin, Campari and sweet red vermouth) it makes a bit more sense: this cocktail is a complex blend of powerful flavours with strong sweet and bitter elements, and the gin easily makes its presence felt. But that presence is a sinus-scouring resinous one, so that has to be something you want. Perhaps the best serve is a simple gin and tonic, where even quite a modest proportion of gin will be clearly detectable.

Brewdog don’t list all the botanicals on their website, but it turns out that in addition to Tuscan juniper they do use Scots pine as well, which explains a lot. Elsewhere online I’ve found references to grapefruit peel, pink peppercorns, Angelica and orris roots, Kaffir lime, mace, lemongrass and, indeed, some lavender. Going back to it I’d agree there is aromatic pink peppercorn on the nose.

A Brewdog Vesper

Given that I have both a gin and a vodka from the same distillery and—for want of a better word—the same philosophy, it makes sense to make a Vesper. This cocktail, described in the James Bond novel Casino Royale, requires three parts gin to one part vodka to half a part Kina Lillet, well shaken, and garnished with a large strip of lemon peel. (Kina Lillet hasn’t been made since the Eighties and Cocchi Americano seems to be the closest analogue.) On the face of it you’d think the proportions would render the vodka irrelevant, but I found with Roku gin and Haku vodka, from Suntory, something interesting happened. And here I can confirm the same: despite the high concentration of gin, this drink presents a subtler and softer offering than a Lone Wolf Martini, doubtless partly because the Cocchi is bitter-sweet, but I sense that that the vodka is also lending a sweetening, mellowing effect. Make no mistake, that pine juniper character is not to be denied, but if you have these products then this is a good way to deploy them.

As you can tell, I’m not vastly impressed by either of these spirits, but I should point out one thing they have in their favour: they are relatively cheap. The vodka is just £20 for a 70cl bottle and the gin £25 (though I think I bought mine marked down to £21). Both are 40% ABV. By comparison, most “craft” gin seems to be around £35–37. 

On the other hand, however, Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire and Sipsmith are all cheaper than Lone Wolf and I’d sooner drink those.

Brewdog also make three “flavoured” gins (I mean, it’s not as if the regular gin is short of flavour)—peach and passionfruit, cactus and lime and cloudy lemon—a navy strength Gunpowder Gin (featuring additional Szechuan and black peppercorns, bitter orange and star anise), plus three flavoured vodkas: raspberry and lime, passionfruit and vanilla, and rhubarb and lemon. I haven’t had the opportunity to taste any of these, but I tend to take a pretty dim view of this sort of thing.

Thursday, 11 August 2022

Red vermouth title fight



Like many people, I have Antica Formula to thank for the revelation that red vermouth could mean more than just Martini Rosso. Since then, the Second Golden Age of Cocktails has brought us many new vermouth brands, but for a while now my go-to has been Belsazar (both their red and their dry white). 

Recently Mrs H. and I were having lunch at the National Gallery’s new Ochre restaurant. We had a couple of exquisite cocktails before eating and I (unsurprisingly) got talking to the gentleman who would probably nowadays be called the Beverage Director. I was asking about the ingredients in my drink and he was keen to show me the red vermouth he had used, and even gave me a taste of it. It was made by Cocchi and I was intrigued. (I later discovered that Cocchi actually make two, their Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino plus their fancy Dopo Teatro Vermouth Amaro  with a dose of quinated Barolo in it,* but I think it was the former he showed me.) So I decided to get myself some to try at home.

A week or two earlier I had been drifting through Waitrose in Romsey and spotted a red vermouth from the sherry house Lustau, made from a blend of dry Amontillado and sweet Pedro Ximenez sherries, and was intrigued enough to scoop up a bottle of that. I’d been happily using that to make Manhattans, but now I decided it was time to put these three vermouths up alongside each other to see how they varied and whether I still felt that Belsazar should be my house pour.

I’d mentioned Belsazar to the Beverage Director and he agreed it was nice, but said that it had too much sediment in it to be of use in a professional cocktail environment, where appearances are important to the experience. He has a point. Belsazar red is seldom less than hazy, and towards the end of the bottle you do get a visible sediment slithering at the bottom of the neck as your pour. I have sometimes wondered whether it would be a good idea just to pour each new bottle in its entirety through a coffee filter before rebottling it, but so far I have not got round to trying this out.

Sampled neat, Belsazar has a sharp, rhubarb nose, with clear notes of orange and an earthy undertone. On the palate it immediately strikes me as having a good sweet/bitter balance—assuming you like a bit of bitterness. I’m also getting some fresh mint, and cinnamon on the finish. The base wines are from the Baden region of Germany, the sweetness from grape must and the fortification from fruit brandy; I can’t find any information about the precise botanicals.

The Lustau has a similar earthy aroma, again with clear orange citrus, but somehow both sweeter and meatier on the nose. The sharpness is more delicate, like rosehip rather than rhubarb. On the tongue there is an unavoidable sherry flavour, with less botanical intensity than the Belsazar, but it still has a deft sweet/bitter/sour balance, with a gentle drying tannin on the tongue (perhaps from the wood that the sherry has been aged in) and, oddly, a hint of spicy heat. The label admits to wormwood, gentian, coriander and orange as botanicals.

The Cocchi Storico is new to me, and quite different. It is not so predominantly sharp on the nose, more sweet, with strong notes of coffee and vanilla. On the palate it does immediately seem softer and sweeter than the others, but there is a bitterness that builds. There is coffee again and strong notes of orange peel. (The label admits to cocoa, citrus and rhubarb in the mix, and the website adds cinchona, star anise, achillea, rose petals, juniper, quassia wood, mace and coriander.)

Tasting these three neat, the Belsazar is clearly the least sweet and the most rooty and earthy; it seems muscular and rustic compared to the relatively urbane Lustau and Cocchi. Not, of course, that I do tend to drink vermouth neat—though if I were to, I think the Lustau would be my choice out of these, and in fact this is a recommend serve. The Cocchi is probably too sweet for me to want to drink much on its own.



Manhattan

For most of us, cocktails are the way we consume vermouths. So my next step is to make a Manhattan. In fact it’s a simplified Manhattan, in a ratio of two parts rye whiskey to one part vermouth (I normally might use more whiskey than this, say 2½ parts, plus bitters, of course, and usually a dash of maraschino). 

The Belsazar is immediately noticeable on the nose in this cocktail. On the tongue the bitterness is clear and the mint element meshes happily with the mintiness of the spirit.** This is a punchy Manhattan, a solid pre-dinner cocktail to whet the appetite, with lots of rough, bitter herbs to partner the sawmill wood of the spirit.

The Lustau, on the other hand, is a subtle presence. At 2:1 you’re just getting sweetness and some sherry ghost notes. If you increase the proportion of vermouth you can bring up the sweetness and the languorous sherry character, like shafts of afternoon sunlight on a leather armchair, making for a pleasant, Old World sort of Manhattan. It makes me realise how well whiskey and sherry can go together. But even at these enhanced proportions the spice and herbs keep a low profile.

With the Cocchi vermouth the coffee/chocolate strand is dominant. Even though the bitterness is certainly clear too, this vermouth makes a sweet, smooth, after-dinner sort of Manhattan, with a candied fruit finish.

Negroni

I think it’s safe to say that, after the Manhattan, the other classic red vermouth cocktail is the Negroni—equal parts gin, red vermouth and Campari—so I try this with my three vermouths. The Belsazar elbows its way in first, vigorous fruit and sharp rhubarb on the nose, and pepper and ginger on the palate. This is a Negroni to blow away the cobwebs and sharpen your palate for dinner. Or more cocktails.

The Lustau Negroni is dominated by the Campari on the nose, but there is still a sweetness and a silky strand of honeyed wood on the tastebuds. It is quiet and subtle, with just a genteel sherry rasp. A refined example of the cocktail.

The Cocchi Negroni has that signature mocha note, and is strikingly sweet compared to the other two. Maybe a bit too sweet and chocolatey for this cocktail—these qualities come to dominate and rob the drink of its aperitivo sparkle.

So what have I concluded? I’ll probably stick with Belsazar for these cocktails, though I might experiment with the Lustau more, even just on the rocks. It comes in a bottle that is only 50cl, rather than the normal 70cl, but at the moment this is just £10 in Waitrose, which is pretty good value compared to the others.

As for the Cocchi, even though I found it intriguing and beguiling when I first tasted it at Ochre, I have to admit that I struggled to find a purpose for it, seeming as it does less satisfactory in these two classic cocktails. Feeling that the coffee/chocolate note worked better with rye than with gin, I wondered if the addition of Campari to counter the sweetness might make everything come together in a Boulevardier (whiskey, red vermouth and Campari). I tried this—but up alongside a Boulevardier made with Belsazar too, to compare. If you fiddle around with the proportions with Cocchi (i.e. get the whiskey and Campari levels up enough to counter the sweetness) you actually get a balanced, nutty version of the cocktail. But is it better than the bitter, fruity sucker-punch version with Belsazar? Hmm…

* I encountered this first at a trade show, during a demonstration of things to drink with chocolate, and I can confirm that Barolo Chinato is a fascinatingly good candidate for this notoriously difficult match.

** Am I the only person who thinks that American whiskey often has a minty flavour to it?

Thursday, 14 July 2022

Taste the rainbow

One of the minis of gin I was sent
I was contacted out of the blue by Jane Oake from a gin that was new to me, Rainbow Gin. She was actually hoping to get us to stock it at the Candlelight Club, but as a pop-up we can’t have a huge back bar, just a few key flavours. However, I’m always interested in new products, and I asked her what the distinguishing features of the gin were.

“Our USP is our Rainbow Branding,” she replied. “We set out to create a vibrant, colourful brand which would stand out on the shelf. We wanted a gin with a glamorous, celebratory feel.” I’m sure no one can attempt to market a gin, or anything else, without giving plenty of thought to branding but it’s interesting to encounter a gin that is presented primarily in terms of its branding. I mean, you can’t actually taste a rainbow, so it’s not rainbow-flavoured gin.

In fairness, Jane did then add, “In addition to this we have the gin itself! It is not only delicious, it is incredibly smooth with a creamy finish.”

Given the name, I asked if there was an LGBT connection. No, there isn’t, but “we want to celebrate all things Rainbow with our brand.  We are donating £1 per bottle to charities with a Rainbow connection.” I didn’t probe as to what a “rainbow connection” might be, but I’m assuming we’re talking about charities with the word in their name, rather than charities that create rainbows or hunt for crocks of gold at the end of them. I also wondered if there was an interesting origin story behind how and why the creators decided to make their own gin; I asked Jane what her background was before this, but she just said that her background was “very varied” and left it at that. You could be forgiven for thinking that the whole exercise has been generated by an experimental marketing bot.

When I read some of the literature I discovered there was more: the name also refers to their botanicals “reflecting the colours of the rainbow”, and Jane confirmed that, having established the branding, they then asked their Master Distiller to come up with a botanical bill that did this. These botanicals are red grapefruit, orange, lemon, (green) bay, (blue) gentian, juniper (which I guess is ticking the “indigo” box) and violet. Citrus peel and juniper are obviously fairly standard gin botanicals, but I’m not sure I’ve encountered bay before, so that’s intriguing. I know of at least one gin that uses violets (Tarquin’s Cornish Gin, which deploys violets from Tarquin’s own garden), but it’s still quite a rare botanical. 

A full-size bottle
As for gentian, it’s usually used for its bitterness—however, none other than Ted Breaux himself told me that it’s pretty hard for bitterness to pass through the distillation process, as the molecules responsible for that flavour are heavy and tend to get left behind.* I mentioned this to Jane, who spoke to their Master Distiller (who is not named anywhere), who insisted that the gentian does lend bitterness, so who knows? But remember that Jane herself gave the gin’s smoothness as a key characteristic, so I’m not sure why you’d actually want a bittering agent. A cynic might suggest that they wanted something blue and perhaps gentian has the advantage that it is certainly that, while not having any real effect on the flavour.

Anyway, what’s it actually like? On the nose there is a strong citrus element that hits me first, almost candied, before any juniper, plus something more flatly herbal and savoury. This could be the bay—certainly once I’d noticed this on the botanical list I could convince myself I could detect it. As time passes it’s this herbaceous note that comes to dominate. I don’t get any violets. On the tongue it is indeed smooth (though it’s not an especially high ABV). My first impression is that it is very savoury, almost salty, though I’m wondering if the strong notes of orange on the nose trick you into subconsciously expecting it to be sweet, exaggerating the absence of sweetness.

I only had a couple of miniatures to play with so I couldn’t do endless experiments, but I tried making a Martini using Rainbow Gin and Belsazar vermouth. On the nose the gin melds fairly effortlessly with the herbal character of the vermouth, and now I do get a hint of violet—perhaps it takes a bit of dilution to reveal itself. Likewise, on the palate this serve is more complex and interesting that the gin on its own (OK, so I guess that’s the whole point of cocktails, but I mean that I’m getting more from the gin this way than I do neat). It’s sort of sweet and salty. I even get a whiff of cinnamon, which is strange as there is none in the gin. But am I getting a rainbow of flavours? No. A tricolor at best.

Finally, I try a gin and tonic, using Fever Tree Light in a 2:1 ratio. Comparing it directly with G&Ts made with Beefeater and Tanqueray, which I happen to have to hand, the Rainbow produces a dark and savoury element like cumin that floats up (again, though there’s no cumin mentioned in the botanical bill). And despite the citric nature of both the tonic and this gin, in combination the gin actually seems to smooth away the tonic’s sharp citric edge, even though, deep down, there is still a lime Opal Fruit note. ** Overall it makes a smooth and mellow G&T. With no hint of gentian bitterness.

*  Ian Hart of Sacred Gin once gave me a couple of infusions of wormwood and hops to taste—and both were very bitter. Then he gave me distillates made from those same infusions, and there was no bitterness whatsoever. (I think the wormwood had a soft earthiness to it; I can’t quite remember about the hops.)

** Starburst to you youngsters.


Monday, 7 March 2022

Instant Mint Julep

This is what the syrup looks like neat
I found myself with a glut of fresh mint after one of the Candlelight Club events. I don’t like to see food go to waste, so I’ll usually round up all the left-over ingredients and cart them home. (After Halloween, in addition to the flesh cut from the giant jack-o-lanterns, I also brought home half a dozen squashes of various kinds, which had been bought for decoration—and I’m pleased to say we made our way through all of them.)

Obviously fresh herbs won’t keep for that long, and there is only so much tabbouleh a man can eat, so I hit upon the idea of making a mint-flavoured syrup.

The Mint Julep is a classic—nay, the classic—drink of the American South, but I’ve always struggled to make satisfactory examples at home. The general idea is that you mash fresh mint at the bottom of a glass with sugar or sugar syrup before adding whiskey and lots of ice; but I always find the mint flavour elusive and the mangled shrubbery in the glass a bit unsightly.

So for this experiment I infused the mint into the syrup ahead of time, kept it in the fridge and just added it to bourbon on the rocks to make the drink. And it worked extremely well.

I did this a few months ago, so I’m a bit hazy on the proportions but I think I measured about 400 ml of granulated sugar and 200 ml or water and heated them in a pan till all the sugar was dissolved. I added two rough handfuls of mint and left it on a low simmer. I can’t quite remember exactly how long I left it—certainly no more than 30 minutes, and to be honest by the end I was sure I wouldn’t want to leave it any longer, as the mint was just starting to take on a cooked flavour. I strained and bottled it. And the result was a julep with a clearer mint flavour and no bits of greenery floating around.

To be honest, I have heard that at the Kentucky Derby—of which the Mint Julep is the official drink—they use a mint syrup, perhaps just for speed and efficiency, though I don’t know if any fresh mint is involved with that or just a commercial essence.

One caveat is that although it keeps quite well without the flavour changing, it won’t last forever. After a few months the flavour is somehow not as fresh and, like all syrups, it is at risk of mould.* And to be honest I don’t drink juleps that often, so it does tend to hang around here. But if you do have a julep habit, then you should consider making a batch of this stuff at the beginning of the summer.

———

UPDATE 23rd June 2022: I later made a second batch and this time I muddled the fresh mint continuously for five minutes in the simmering syrup, then strained it immediately. I think this is a better bet, as the flavour was no less strong, but you avoid any hint of a “cooked” mint taste.

A julep made with the mint syrup (in the jug to the right). It should really be crushed ice.


* The hardiest syrup I make is grenadine. This is traditionally made from pomegranate juice, but I was surprised to see that commercial grenadine today is mostly made from red berries. Since you can buy 100% fresh pomegranate juice in the supermarket (ever since the pomegranate was declared a super-food), it was easy enough to experiment with. For simple syrup I normally blend two-thirds sugar with one-third water, but I found that using the same ratio with pomegranate juice actually produced something that set solid at room temperature—perhaps there is pectin or something in the juice. However, at 1:1 it words a treat. The resulting syrup has a certain tannic tartness that balances the sweetness and makes it a very useful cocktail ingredient if you don’t have a massively sweet tooth. And, kept in the fridge, it seems to last an extremely long time.


Saturday, 4 September 2021

Harris's patented* pick-me-up bitters

D.R. Harris is an ancient pharmacy in St James’s, the heart of London’s “Clubland” (that’s “club” in the sense of gentleman’s club full of leather armchairs, not in the Ibiza sense of the word). It’s been there since 1790. Not the bright strip-lights and melamine shelves of Boots or Superdrug, but rather a carpeted gloomth and mahogany shelving displaying tastefully modest quantities of their soaps, fragrances, shaving products—I’m sure the discreetly scarce volume of product on display is somehow designed to create a sense of scarcity that will justify the high prices. There is even an elegant pedestal wash basin in one corner: I’m not sure if this is so you can actually try stuff out, or whether it’s designed to show you how great their products will look in your bathroom.

Back in the 19th century the shop was famed for it’s “pick-me-up” tonic, available either as a ready-to-drink draught over the counter for those with an immediate need, or in concentrated form for home use. As might be appropriate in Clubland, it was much prized as a hangover cure. It was on sale from the 1860s but at some point in the early 2000s they discontinued it; there is a suggestion that it didn’t really taste very nice, though the main ingredients were cardamom, clove and gentian which (aside from the bitterness of the gentian) don’t sound too bad.**

So I was intrigued to hear that they have now brought it back in the form of a cocktail bitters, reimagined with the help of Bob Petrie from Bob’s Bitters. Interestingly, the blurb on the website still looks at the concoction as a restorative, listing the beneficial effects of the ingredients on the digestion, liver, mood, etc, but at the same time offers cocktail recipes. I guess it saves time if you can take your hangover cure at the same time as the drink that gives you the hangover in the first place.

Although there have been many bitters entering the market in recent years, I decided to do my analysis alongside Angostura bitters, without doubt the most well known, and probably the only bitters that most people in the UK have heard of—here even Peychaud’s is not known outside the realm of the enthusiast. 

Open the cap and sniff the Angostura bottle and you get a powerful smell, an earthy base with bitter menthol or mint top notes. For me there is a strong element of cinnamon or cassia, with clove and a bit of chocolate too. Taste it neat and again there is heavy cinnamon, with bright, brittle mentholic fumes rising up. They don’t give much away about what is in it, other than gentian plus various vegetable extracts.

The Harris bitters has an immediately similar nose (but then gentian and clove are key ingredients), but at the same time fruitier and less woody. I get lime—in fact this is not given as an ingredient though there is lemon peel and bergamot. Pour some out and you’re immediately struck by the pale, straw-like colour compared to the dark red-brown of Angostura. Tasted neat it again shows less of the woodiness of cinnamon but it does have a fruitiness like jam or marmalade. I would say that the two bitters clearly have similar building blocks, with woody, earthy base notes and bitter, aromatic top notes, but the Harris offering does seem more sophisticated; you find yourself probing its complexity as tendrils of vanilla, chocolate and even chilli emerge (the fiery hint may come from ginger). 

The two bitters with water, Angostura on the left and Harris on the right

Compared to the Harris, the Angostura does seem rather crude now. But of course neither of these concoctions is intended to be consumed neat. The original Harris pick-me-up was simply added to water, so I tried adding five good dashes to a shot of water. The Angostura retained its essential character strongly at this dilution—cloves, cinnamon and gentian bitterness. The Harris was again lighter and more complex. I’m convinced you can smell the honey, but on the tongue I’d say it was actually less sweet than the Angostura. (Note that the Angostura bottle releases liquid much more readily that the Harris bottle, so it is hard to be scientifically precise about the quantities involved.) Overall the Harris is lighter, brighter and with a more pronounced high bitter finish.

Next I tried a Pink Gin, the classic bitters-forward blend of just gin and bitters, usually with water. This was a favourite of my father-in-law, who took it unchilled, which I believe is traditional. I blended 15ml gin with 10ml water and three dashes of bitters. In these proportions the Angostura bitters certainly make their presence felt and do sit well with the botanicals of the gin (I was using Tanqueray, which famously employs just four, juniper, coriander, angelica and liquorice). With the Harris bitters, of course, your Pink Gin isn’t pink. It also has a subtler nose with honey and ginger coming up. On the tongue I would say it was actually more harmonious with the gin than Angostura, but again with a more bitter finish. Intriguingly, it also seemed to evolve and “open up” in the glass, becoming more characterful as time goes by.

A Martinez with Harris bitters, made using the recipe on the site. Very good it is

Finally, I try a Manhattan, mixing 15ml of Bulleit bourbon with 5ml of Belsazar Red vermouth and a good dash of bitters. Even in this reduced quantity compared to the previous test, and against some powerfully flavoured other ingredients, there is a difference between the two bitters: the Angostura makes for a heavier, jammier cocktail, while the Harris bitters made a lighter, more approachable drink, with a pronounced bright bitterness. It does come across as more sophisticated, less heavy and somehow more thoughtful—if that is something you look for in a cocktail.

So overall I am impressed. The Harris bitters are not cheap: 100ml is £20, though you can buy a 10ml taster for £6.50. But by comparison Angostura is £10 for 200ml, so a quarter of the price. (Angostura is more alcoholic too—44.7% compared to Harris’s 34%—but in the quantities in which it is consumed this is not really relevant.) But certainly the Harris Pick-Me-Up bitters are worth it, given that 100ml will last you a while. A note of warning, however: you had better like bitter flavours. I gave both versions with gin to Mrs H. to taste and she made that scrunched-up “this tastes like poison!” face that even hoppy ale produces in her. But if you are at ease with bitterness you will also find much more to this complex blend.

D.R. Harris’s Pick-Me-Up bitters can be ordered from the company’s website or if you have access to the capital you can saunter into their shop and buy it over the counter.

* I’ve no idea if it is patented.

** Elsewhere I’ve seen a suggestion that it was only in the early 2000s that they realised they would need an alcohol licence to sell it, which they clearly had never had, though I guess they must have an off-licence now.


Saturday, 24 July 2021

Happy birthday, Luxardo!

It was nice to be invited out on "Freedom Day"—last Monday, the day that Covid-related social restrictions were lifted here in the UK (though for how long, who knows?). In this case it was to a celebration of 200 years of Luxardo, most famous for their maraschino liqueur—see my previous analysis of the singular way they make it. It was a small gathering of only a dozen or so: previous plans for a big party had had to be abandoned, what with the plague and everything. Incidentally, the event falling on Freedom Day was a coincidence: the real reason they chose 19th July was that this is the 200th day of the year.

The venue was a "secret piazza" created for the summer at Hush Mayfair in London. Turn off Brook Street down Lancashire Court and you'll find an open courtyard with outdoor tables and a cocktail menu featuring Luxardo products. I'm not sure how Italian it really feels but being outside is a boon during Covid times. Here we sampled the new Antico vermouth-style aperitivo—not technically a vermouth because it is made from fermented cherry juice rather than grape wine, but it tastes very similar to red vermouth, with a hint of cherry at the end. I liked what I tasted and would be keen to try Manhattans and Negronis made with it.

We tasted the Antico neat, in a Spritz and also in a sgroppino, a traditional Venetian combination of lemon sorbet, vodka and Prosecco, in this case with added Antico. It's kind of a cross between a drink and a dessert and was probably the highlight of what we sampled on the day. The red powder sprinkled on the base of the glass was apparently dried raspberry, though I couldn't find a practical way of verifying this…

We were also honoured to get a taste of the Perla Dry Riserva Bicentenario, made from 50-year-old cherry distillate. It has less sugar than regular Luxardo maraschino; in fact it has a nose a bit like fino sherry and tastes a lot like grappa with notes of almond and chocolate. But don't expect to spend the summer swigging the stuff, as only 12 bottles are destined for this country (one of which I assume is the one I photographed here), at a price of £120 each. 

"G" Franklin, Luxardo's Global Brand Ambassador introduces the Perla Dry


Thanks to David T. Smith of Summer Fruit Cup for swinging me the invitation. The Luxardo Secret Piazza will be at Hush Mayfair until 30th September.

Luxardo Antico aperitivo, 16.5% ABV is £20 for 70cl. Luxardo Perla Dry Riserva Bicentario, 40% ABV, is £120 for 70cl.



Left to right: the Antico, the Antico with soda, the sgroppino and Luxardo's luminous orange regular Aperitivo, which is a bit sweet for me


Thursday, 10 June 2021

Pickering's Gin, 1947 Gin and Navy Strength Gin



Back in December I reviewed the Brussels Sprout gin made by Pickering’s of Summerhall in Edinburgh. We’d stumbled across it while visiting friends during festival season, spending our days in damp basements that had become “venues” for three weeks. Although I ultimately can’t recommend the sproutwater, the basic Pickering’s gin was very agreeable.

I noted that in addition to their main gin they also did a “1947” edition, and now they have a navy strength too. So I decided to do a “horizontal flight” comparison.

The story goes that Marcus Pickering and Matt Gammell decided to start a distillery and make gin after Marcus inherited a gin recipe from a friend of his late father. Like many new gin-makers they had no experience of distilling, but unlike many they actually built theirs. They mention that their various previous business ventures together have revolved around, among other things, engineering, and the pair clearly love to make eye-catching promotional things. Things such as a pop-up tasting bar that folds out of a vintage trunk, a modified Japanese airport fire engine that dispenses cocktails from tanks through hoses, and a mechanical Martini mixer adapted from a wind-up gramophone and some 1960s chemistry equipment (which, as far as I can tell, can still play 78s). So far so Steampunk—Hendrick’s had better watch out. (Although one could observe that the Pickering’s creations are all actually functional, rather than just visual whimsy. In the words of Sir Reginald Pikedevant, “Just glue some gears on it and call it Steampunk”…) 

The Pickering's mechanical Martini mixer

The actual recipe, allegedly from a document handwritten in Bombay in 1947, was “full of fragrant spices and fresh citrus fruits”, evidently quite punchy, while the 21st-century Pickering’s people decided modern punters wanted something softer and smoother, so they tweaked the recipe. They also use a bain marie heating system for the still (rather than direct heat) which they feel coaxes out the soft, subtle flavours. The botanicals in the main gin are juniper, coriander, cardamom, angelica, fennel, anise, lemon, lime and cloves. The 1947 edition, which, as its name suggests, is “made precisely to the original recipe”, adds cinnamon. Pickering’s Navy Strength Gin is, as far as I can tell, the same as the main recipe but bottled at 57.1% ABV. You also can’t help but notice that it proudly sports a military bearskin, to mark its becoming the official gin of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

Now I’ll be honest that I was surprised to read that the basic Pickering’s gin actually has no cinnamon in it. Tasting it again for this comparison, I opened the bottle and got a pleasing spike of juniper, followed by a creamy orange citrus character plus sharp lime and lemon notes, something floral and a warm, middly, woody note that I might have guessed was from cinnamon. Apparently not. Swirling it in a glass I get some caramel and mint too—though I suspect that herbal impression may be from the fennel. All of the above appear on the palate, making an immediately balanced impression. It is smooth and almost chocolatey, but still with the juniper backbone. But I could swear I’m getting cinnamon too. While it is the juniper that greets you, I would characterise this gin as being warm, smooth and spicy, rather than lean, fresh, crisp and dry.

In a Martini it retains this character, rich, smooth and perfumed. In fact if you like your Martini stern, airy and crystalline, you may consider this gin a bit wallowy. Oddly, in a Negroni the juniper comes out more. It’s a punchy but balanced example of the cocktail, bitter-sweet but smooth.

Given that the basic Pickering’s struck me as warmly spiced, I did laugh a bit when I first opened the 1947. It just seemed a bit bonkers to make another gin that was even more dominated by these elements. To me it is less well balanced, without the juniper structure that I personally require in a gin and more of those herbal notes, in addition to cinnamon. On the palate you can find juniper but it is sort of lurking in the background.

Given that I thought the normal gin made a warm, dark Martini, you won’t be surprised to hear that a 1947 Martini is rather on the muddy side. In a Negroni you still get a warm, spicy, bitter-sweet drink, and in fact you can find the juniper if you dig, but it doesn’t rise up to offer the effortless but complex triumvirate of a classic Negroni.

The fact that the 1947 formula seemed to play up the herbal elements (which I first interpreted as mint but which in fact must be fennel) reminded me of absinthe and made me wonder if this gin might work best in drinks that included absinthe. The Corpse Reviver No.2* sprang to mind and I have to say that it’s actually rather an intriguing triumph in itself, with the fennel and anise obviously sitting comfortably alongside the absinthe and the lemon and lime flavours marrying with the lemon juice and triple sec. But of course, lacking juniper, it’s not your classic Corpse Reviver.

If there were any doubt which version of the gin goes to make the Navy Strength it would be dispelled with one whiff of the majestic juniper fumes that come from the open bottle. It’s an immensely appealing aroma (if you like gin, and ginny gin at that). It’s remarkably smooth and drinkable despite its high strength. 

A Gimlet made with Pickering's
For scientific purposes I made a Negroni with it, and unsurprisingly it tastes like a Negroni made with the normal Pickering’s gin but on steroids. Using the standard equal proportions it’s a bit unbalanced, to be honest; you could just use less of the gin, but you might as well just use the regular-strength gin. In a Martini, this gin comes into its own, creating a powerful concoction, clearly a classic, juniper-driven Martini, but complex and evolving on the tongue. I was using Belsazar Dry vermouth, and its herbal strands intertwined voluptuously with those fennel and anise notes in the gin. Needless to say, a normal-sized Martini made with the navy strength will tend to make you squiffy.

Thinking about the citrus elements, I also tried a Gimlet. Classically this is a blend of gin and lime cordial,** though some prefer to make it with fresh lime juice and sugar syrup, which is nice but not the same. (Others suggest making a lime syrup by adding lime juice and zest while making sugar syrup, though I have not tried this.) I’m pleased to report it works very well. Again, the softness of the gin combined with the sugar in the cordial makes for a smooth, approachable drink. As before, I prefer the more prominent juniper from the regular Pickering’s but if you’re not that keen on that element then a Gimlet made with the 1947 gin will make a rich, complex, spicy, citrussy glass of happiness.

Pickering’s gins can be had for about £26 a bottle from various outlets, but if you buy direct from Pickering’s themselves you can currently buy a full litre for £28.

* Equal parts gin, lemon juice, triple sec and originally Kina Lillet—Cocchi Americano is a good modern-day substitute—plus a smidgeon of absinthe.

** The proportions are moot. Some say equal parts, but I think that makes for a cloying and tooth-curling sweetness. Perhaps start at 2:1 or 3:1 and see what you think.