Monday 27 September 2010

Observations on the preparation of absinthe

Undiluted Absinthe Duplais
Even if you are not, for some reason, irresistibly attracted to the romance of absinthe (or indeed have actually tasted some, pronounced it foul and vowed never to breathe its name again) you still probably know that there is a whole ritual to its preparation. But when you ask yourself why, that's when things get interesting.

Absinthe is usually bottled at somewhere between 55 and 70 per cent ABV, but it was never intended for the stuff to be drunk neat. (The high strength is actually because the chlorophyll that leaches from some of the herbs in absinthe and gives it the famous green colour is not stable at alcohol concentrations below that: it tends to turn brown more quickly and throw a sediment, which would be rather unappealing.) It is usually diluted with water—and always has been—and I've heard recommended levels of anything up to 8:1 water to absinthe. But more than that, the water is traditionally added slowly, drop by drop.

Water is added and the louche starts
to form, hanging at the bottom
In absinthe's heyday, the preparation involved all manner of paraphernalia. Absinthe glasses often had a demarcated section at the bottom, sometimes a sort of bulb or lobe, which represented the section that was to be filled with the spirit—the rest of the glass was for the water. (See the Lucid glasses in the photos in the post below.) This apportionment was known at the "dose", a fact which doubtless fuels the idea that absinthe was a drug. In a café or bar there would be absinthe fountains, big vessels (usually glass, but I'm told that New Orleans' Old Absinthe House had marble ones) filled with iced water from which taps or spigots projected: you put your glass under one of these and dripped water into your drink. It was usual to sweeten the drink by placing a sugar lump on an "absinthe spoon", a flat, perforated, metal object that rests across the top of the glass. As the water dripped over this it would gradually dissolve into the drink. Absinthe spoons were made in all manner of handsome, elaborate designs; vintage ones are still knocking around and since the absinthe revival many new absinthe disillers offer branded equipment.

More water and the louche dominates,
with the hydrophobic layer showing
distinctly at the top
All manner of stories abound of how ruinous the incorrect preparation of absinthe can be. Henri Balesta in his 1860 Absinthe et Absintheurs describes the almost predatory "professors" of absinthe, just itching to show the novice how badly wrong they are getting it, and offering lessons for a fee. (In Raymond Queneau's 1968 fiction The Flight of Icarus the seasoned absintheurs are so horrified by the carelessness with which Icarus has diluted his drink that they insist it is discarded and he start again.) Modern absinthe maker Ted Breaux is fond of quoting French author and absintheur Raoul Ponchon, who said that if the water is too warm you might as well be drinking "donkey piss or an enema broth". (Never having tasted either I will bow to superior knowledge here.)

"Absinthe does take a bit of experience to prepare," says David Nathan-Maister, absinthe expert and MD of absinthe specialists Oxygénée. "It's not like bourbon where a first-timer can pour it, taste it and think, 'Where have you been all my life?' Absinthe is more difficult to prepare, more subtle, and you ideally have to know its history and culture."

Cynics might note that Balesta paints a picture of the novice first tasting the absinthe that he's been hearing all about—and finding it rather nasty. The suggestion is that not only will peer pressure keep him trying until he develops the taste, but also the belief that inexperienced preparation will ruin the drink will persuade the drinker that absinthe isn't actually horrible after all—he is just not drinking it right.
Nearly there (some might drink it
at this stage)

Cognoscenti of the ritual also seem to value style and flourish—there was even a fashion for adding the water from a great height—but even if we dismiss this as just social ritual, there is still the recurring emphasis that the water should be added slowly. But what is the point of this?

Part of it is surely visual. As you dilute the drink the alcohol concentration drops, reaching the point where the various aromatic oils dissolved in it are forced to precipitate out, forming a milky emulsion—and watching the pretty opalescent patterns gradually swirl and form is half the fun. But Nathan-Maister says it does also affect the taste, as the different oils in the mixture precipitate out at different concentrations. When I spoke to him recently at the Boutique Bar Show in London he suggested there was a "layering effect going on". (So different strata of the finished drink will taste different? I have certainly not found that to be the case.) On the Oxygenee website it is claimed that by releasing the different oils separately you get to appreciate their aromas separately. Does this mean you have to have your nose over the glass as the water goes in? Or do the aromas marshal themselves in different zones of airspace for your delectation?

Ready to drink!
But there is one thing I can attest to. At a Lucid tasting Breaux suggested that one should add water until a specific visual cue is reached: as the cloudiness (known as the "louche") starts to form it hangs at the bottom of the glass, with a dark, transparent, oily-looking layer at the top, technically called the hydrophobic layer. This gradually reduces, and the suggestion is that you should stop dilution when this layer just disappears, or is about to. I put this to the test with Lucid and La Maison Fontaine, a new white absinthe brand, and it was something of a revelation. I had tasted both products before but this time I got much more out of them.

The Lucid had a sweet anise bouquet with subtle herbal elements, aromatic top notes and what I can only describe as a pleasant rubbery hint. On the palate it showed a broad and balanced spectrum of flavours, with hints of orange and blossom, a dry woody spice and a distinct peppery finish. I expected the Maison Fontaine to be less complex—I guess because of the lack of plant-derived colour—but in fact it had a livelier nose, full of sweet flowers, butter and vanilla. The palate too is floral. Overall, I'd say it is perhaps a bit cloying for my tastes, and I preferred the drier, quieter presence of the Lucid.

Why did these absinthes taste so different? Perhaps the precise dilution is ideal for releasing all the aromatic elements, or perhaps it is true that the gentle precipitation of the oils does preserve their subtleties. But if you find yourself with a bottle of absinthe within arms reach do try preparing it this way and see what you think.

To sugar or not to sugar
Belgian Victor Berlemont prepares absinthe in his Soho
pub, The York Minster (later The French House), in 1939.
Absinthe was never made illegal in Britain. (Apologies
to Getty: I'm not made of money, you know.)
I've personally never found an absinthe that I felt needed sweetening. (Even the foul, bitter Czech ones just taste foul and bitter with an uninteresting sugariness alongside.) However, historically most absintheurs would have had at least one lump of sugar with their dose. I gather that palates at that time were fonder of sweetness and French drinkers were more attuned to cordials, syrups and sweet liqueurs. One thing you should definitely avoid is the "Czech fire ritual", where a spoonful of sugar is soaked in absinthe, ignited (ostensibly to caramelise the sugar) then stirred into the drink, invariably setting fire to the absinthe in the glass. This was created in the 1990s for practical marketing reasons. "Absinthe has always been a public drink, partly because of the ritual," says Nathan-Maister. "In that sense it's like tequila, with the ritual of the lime and the salt. But the traditional absinthe ritual is slow and contemplative, and that's no use in a modern nightclub. So the UK importer of an early Czech absinthe came up with the fire ritual, developed from the traditional way of serving Sambuca, alight with a coffee bean floating in it." In any case, many Czech "absinthes" don't actually louche—although this is preferable to the practices of nineteenth-century purveyors of low-grade ersatz absinthe, who added antimony salts to create an artificial louche.)

Some antique absinthe spoons. See the picture of M. Berlemont to see how they were used, placed over the glass

Thursday 23 September 2010

Warning: do not attempt to use this product!

So, clearly pecan nuts are within its capabilities, then?

I realise that, as a man, I’m not supposed to read instructions. But the ones that came with my new Kenwood Mini Chopper were but a single sheet and it didn’t look as if I’d lose too much time reading them. And, to be honest, I’ve managed to break two of these devices in the past, so it seemed a worthwhile investment of five minutes.

The object in question is a fist-sized food processor. (This does not mean you should try putting your fist into it. That should be instruction No.1.) It’s handy for puréeing soft fruit, making breadcrumbs, grinding spices, etc.

However, I’m a bit disappointed by all the caveats. “This processor is not suitable for processing very hard foods, e.g. ice cubes, coffee beans, hard spices…or processing hot liquids.” OK, I did once manage to punch a hole in one of these by trying to render a dried-up lump of parmesan into something edible. But could it really not manage coffee beans or spices?

It gets worse: “Various spices such as Cloves and Cumin seeds can have an adverse effect on the plastic of your mini chopper and should not be processed.” An “adverse effect”? Now I want to know more. What have their scientists discovered? Are cumin seeds like Alien blood, a “molecular acid” that will eat through seven decks of my spaceship? Surely people have been grinding cumin seeds for centuries without this happening? I can only assume that they’ve realised they’ve managed to invent a plastic that happens to burst into flames if exposed to cloves, and they’re frantically trying to cover themselves.

A Bellini, without tie shreds
And they’re not  pinning themselves down—“various spices”. You mean there are others? And you’re not going to tell me which they are? Or do you not even know? Just how deep does this conspiracy go? Exactly how many everyday foodstuffs are out there which, if I casually drop them into my mini chopper as I hum Mantovani while whipping up a sauce for my guests in the dining room, will turn the plastic instantly into napalm?

These aren’t instructions, they’re a warning. A warning that: “Whatever you want to do with our product, it may not work, and that’s not our fault. And it may kill you.”

My favourite instruction is: “This product is not intended for use by persons (including children*) with reduced physical, sensory or mental cababilities.” Which is a way of saying that if anything goes wrong, you’re just too stupid to be allowed to use the product.

It also means that if you’re trying to puree a peach to make a Bellini and your tie gets sucked into the blades, don’t bother complaining:

“Your mini chopper ate my tie!”

“Were your mental capabilities reduced through drink, sir?”


(*So pets are OK then?)

Tuesday 21 September 2010

An Orange Fist…in an Orange Glove

Philip Wilson with a Fifty Pound "case gin" bottle
When someone is talking about a drink they make or sell it can sometimes be heavily technical, sometimes heavily business-oriented. But Philip Wilson prefers to operate on a much more personal level. "If we like the guy who makes it, we're happy to bring it in," he says with an affable shrug. "Does he care? Has the basic product been well made or are there flaws and imbalances in there? Right now we're dealing with this Australian whisky maker—we'll sell the square root of not a lot, but we like what he does." OK, this makes Philip sound like a cross between a hippy and a Mafia godfather, and he is neither. But he and his four colleagues at Eaux de Vie Ltd specialise in very niche products so are used to dealing in passion rather than high volumes.

We're at London's Graphic Bar to taste Philip's Fifty Pound gin. Mercifully the name is not an indication of price but a reference to the tax brought in by George II in an attempt to quash dangerous low-end gins that were flooding the place and damaging the nation's health. (Not dissimilar to the situation in France in the late 19th century when the soaring popularity of absinthe led to a flood of dangerously low-grade drinks.) Which is a bit odd considering that Fifty Pound was actually put together for the Spanish market. Yes, there is a huge market for gin in Spain, and a big sherry distributor decided to add one to their list. So they had something knocked up by Thames Distillers in south London (New Sheridan Club Members may be interested to note that this is the same company who manufacture SW4 gin, sponsors of the NSC summer party). Philip was looking through their sherry list and came across the gin. His curiosity piqued he had a bottle sent over and decided to distribute it in the UK.

Fifty Pound is a muscle gin.* It's intended to imitate the old-style London Dry Gin—"big, fat and flavoursome", as Philip puts it. The 11 botanicals (juniper, angelica root, coriander, liquorice root, grains of paradise, lemon and orange rind and savoury, plus another three secret ones) are cold-macerated in quadruple-distilled grain spirit then redistilled just once. (Other gins may use multiple distillations post-maceration to create a "purer" effect, but a single distillation hangs on to more of the essential oils—and this is a gin that packs a punch.) The distillation takes place in batches in a small John Dore still. Crucially, the gin is then allowed to "rest" for three weeks—to allow all those oils to integrate fully with the spirit—before bottling in distinctive rectangular bottles that taper from the shoulder to the base. (The design is modelled pretty closely on the earliest gin bottles, known as "case gin" because the shape made the bottles easier to pack together in cases.) The label of each bottle is marked with the number of the 1,000-bottle batch from which it comes.

Fifty Pound with the Tanq and the Fever Tree we used for the G&T test
Sampled neat, at room temperature, Fifty Pound has plenty of the juniper coming through with a steely graphite top note, and also red berries. But for me the defining characteristic is the orange rind, giving it a warm, spicy quality. It's like a Christmas gin. The official brand characteristics are smoothness and balance, though it didn't strike me as especially smooth on the palate—but then most of the action was on the nose, which is boisterous, like being hit over the head with an orange in a sock.

Philip had also brought some Tanqueray to taste alongside, and the comparison was intriguing. After the Fifty Pound the Tanq nose struck me as delicately perfumed in a floral way, refined and subtle; the palate was woody, aromatic and more lingering than the Fifty Pound. Much as I warmed to the latter I also found myself developing new respect for the Tanqueray.

Philip had one more trick up his sleeve: Death's Door gin, from Wisconsin. Anyone who finds that all gin just tastes of gin should stick their snout into this. It's dominated by fennel, so much so that to me it doesn't smell or taste like gin at all. Not just fennel but a sort of pungent stewed fennel, with hints of other stewed veg and burnt rubber, like a bad ratatouille. Mr Bridgman-Smith couldn't see what I was complaining about and confessed he rather liked it, but for me the one thing it was good for was giving you a renewed appreciation of the other two gins. Just smelling them again after the Death's Door was like collapsing into the arms of the love of one's life (sadly quite close to the truth…). The comparison really brought out a rose-petal bouquet to the Tanq and a aromatic wood note to the Fifty Pound.

Fifty Pound gin is around £30.50 a bottle.

* I keep wanting to pronounce it "fiddy-poun", like it's the obvious thing for 50 Cent to drink with his homies. I think the days of cognac—sorry, "nyak"—as the de rigeur hip-hop drink are surely over.

Just the tonic!

Sarah from Graphic with the remains of our five-way tonic test
I've long been an advocate of Fever Tree tonic, a fact that annoys Mr Bridgman-Smith as he feels that much pro-Fever Tree opinion is just dogma. He likes Fentiman's and also—the result of a blind tasting of his own—Britvic. My experimentation with Britvic has suggested a rather artificial sweetness and citrus spike. So at the Fifty Pound tasting at Graphic last night we, and some other ginthusiasts, held an ad hoc five-way blind tonic test. In each case the tonic was mixed 2:1 with Fifty Pound gin.

I'm pleased to say that, after some head scratching, I did guess all five correctly. Q tonic (which, on its own, I've previously thought was distinguishable by not tasting of much at all—at great expense) emerged has actually having rather an odd taste; Sarah from Graphic put it well by saying it tasted like a mouthful of soil.

Fentiman's was the most striking: very bold flavours of lime and lemongrass. I can see why the staff think of it as a nice soft drink on its own, but too overbearing as a mixer.

Schweppes, oddly, was the one the identity of which I was most confident about—even though I would characterise it by its neutrality. Which is perhaps why it is the default tonic for many when it comes to G&T tastings.

And the two I had the most difficulty distinguishing? Fever Tree and Britvic! I can't really explain this, though in combination with gin the differences are obviously eroded. I would also expect that different gins would partner better or worse with different tonics. I would describe Fever Tree as having a mid-note complexity (where Britvic was more "scooped", emphasising high citrus notes and a bottom-end sweetness) and as I am a fan of gins like Miller's, which I think of as having a steely, high-note character, perhaps this explains my positive feelings towards it.

The results were interesting enough for us to decide to have a proper tonic test in the future. One candidate is something I wouldn't have thought to try but which Philip Wilson from Eaux de Vie recommended—Asda's own label. Watch this space.

Absinthe to make the heart grow fonder

Ted Breaux (left) with the Institute's own
Mr Bridgman-Smith

I clearly remember the first time I encountered absinthe. On holiday in Prague I doubletook as I spotted a bottle of Hill’s finest green fluid. I “smuggled”* it back to Blighty and saved it for a gothic dinner party I was planning as the crowning highlight of the evening—look everyone, REAL ABSINTHE. The illegal stuff that gives you hallucinations and drives you insane. In fact by that stage in the evening everyone was too stuffed and wasted to pay much attention, but I took my dose and waited for the visions to begin.

Of course they did not. Hill’s is just a highly alcoholic green drink that was invented in the 1990s to cash in on absinthe's mystique. (Radomil Hill claimed to be using an old family recipe but there's scant evidence for this.) It had never been banned in what was by then the Czech Republic, mainly because there was no particular tradition of drinking it there. No one knew what it was supposed to taste like so they just made something up. The famous Czech “tradition” of igniting an absinthe-soaked sugar cube then stirring it into your drink was also invented at that time.

One man who has highly mixed feelings about all of this is Ted Breaux, founder of Jade Liqueurs. He cheerfully admits that the mystery, infamy and illicit mythology of absinthe helped him launch his mainstream brand Lucid across the US in 2007. “But we’re way past the fascination stage, where people only want to try it out of curiosity because it was banned,” he insisted, when Mr Bridgman-Smith and I had a chance to chat with him a fortnight ago on as part of Lucid's UK launch. “Eighty per cent of our US sales are now restocking. Our demographic is incredibly broad, from college kids to older consumers who have perhaps travelled in Europe.” This is important to Ted, because his whole career in absinthe is driven by a passion to bust myths and show the world what absinthe is really supposed to taste like.

Breaux is a New Orleans native, and he was working there as a commercial environmental biochemist in 1993 when he got to wondering about a local watering hole called The Old Absinthe House. He asked a friend about it and learned what absinthe was—a ruinous drink that had been banned in the US in 1912—and that New Orleans had previously been the home of absinthe in the US. The drink is an alcoholic distillation infused with a mixture of herbs, the principle three being anise, fennel and grande wormwood (Artemisia absinthium)—this last is the defining ingredient in absinthe. Breaux looked it up in the Merke Index, a database of chemicals, and found that it did indeed cause “stupor, tremor, convulsion and death”.

But something about all this didn’t make sense to Breaux the chemist: why would a drink that caused such effects have been so popular? Soon his colleagues began to wonder why the lab always smelled of anise on Monday mornings—Ted was trying to synthesise his own absinthe.

Travelling to Eastern Europe Ted was, like me, surprised to see bottles of absinthe openly for sale—but was appalled by the vile, bitter concoction he tasted. Was this what all the fuss was about?

For him the revelation came when he got hold of two unopened bottles absinthe that had been lurking in cellars since before the ban. He tasted the contents and found it rich, complex and divine. He set about a rigorous chemical analysis—and found nothing toxic about it whatsoever.

Using his skills as a chemist, Breaux “backwards engineered” the authentic drink and decided to try and rediscover the techniques and ingredients used during absinthe’s heyday, eventually finding the Liqueurs Combiers works in Saumur: founded in 1834 and legally a museum—its ironwork was designed by Gustave Eiffel—this plant has antique copper stills that are still in good working order (two of which were salvaged from the original Pernod Fils factory after fire destroyed it in 1901). Here, in 2004, Breaux began making his own absinthe, as authentically as possible.

Like all proper absinthes, Lucid "louches"
(clouds) as you add water
While many modern “absinthes” are made from bulk spirit that is cold mixed with industrial extracts and essential oils, then dyed green (or even blue, red, purple or black—hell, why not?), Breaux insists upon toting bales of real herbs which are macerated in spirit then the whole redistilled. Some herbs, however, such as hyssop, don’t distil well and are macerated after distillation—the chlorophyll leaching from these is what gives absinthe verte its famous green colour. (Traditional absinthe blanche or bleu misses out this stage and is bottled colourless.)

It’s actually been six years since Ted created the first four Jade absinthes: PF 1901 is designed in imitation of the original Pernod Fils drink (the number is the year of the distillery fire!); Edouard is a copy of the product made by Edouard Pernod in the late 19th century; VS 1898 (formerly “Verte Swiss”) is modelled on the Swiss product made by C.F. Berger in Couvet, Neufchâtel; and Nouvelle Orleans is a personal take on the absinthes popular in his home town, often drunk as a cooling frappé (mixed with crushed ice and sugar syrup) in the Old Absinthe House itself.

But making absinthe this way is expensive and slow: Ted's four “ultra-premium” brands sell for about £57 a bottle. (Annoyingly, the cheaply made absinthes on the market ride on the coat tails of the more lovingly made ones and tend to charge just as high a price, adding insult to injury. As Ted says, “Would you pay $60 to $70 for a  fine red wine’ whose label read  made from alcohol, grape extract and FD&C Red #40’?”)

If Ted was going to spread his message and show the whole of his native country what absinthe should taste like he had two problems: (a) he’d have to be able to produce it in bulk, and (b) absinthe was still illegal in the US. That’s when he teamed up with Jared Gurfein, a disillusioned corporate lawyer looking for a change of direction. Gurfein formed Viridian Spirits and did some research, discovering that there was no specific prohibition against any of the ingredients in true absinthe. (They even discovered that the original ban probably wasn’t even valid—under the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, Gurfein says, it needed to be signed by three cabinet members, and in fact had only been signed by one.) They handed over their proposed product for testing and it passed with flying colours. Then they put the word “absinthe” on the bottle and that's when the fuss started. But over the course of a 13-month legal campaign Ted was able to provide the historical and scientific evidence to show that real absinthe was safe. In 2007 they were given the go-ahead to sell Lucid in the US.

“Immediately after we got the ban overturned there were 61 applications from other firms,” Gurfein says sourly. “Most of these died in the recession.” In fact ancient Swiss brand Kübler was also working to have absinthe legalised in the US at the same time, but Lucid still represents 60 per cent of the US market.

The bottle design embraces commercial necessities, but those
eyes are at least a bit authentic: they're a reference to the Chat
Noir posters from the Belle Epoque era…
So if real absinthe is cosy and harmless, where did its reputation come from? There are various conspiracy theories about absinthe becoming a scapegoat for the temperance movement, or being assassinated by a jealous wine industry. The active ingredient in grande wormwood is thujone (also present in sage) and for a long while this was believed to cause the drink’s special effects. In the 1970s some scientists noted thujone’s molecular similarity to THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, and proposed that thujone acted on the same neuro-receptors, though this was quickly dismissed. In truth thujone in high doses will cause “stupor, tremor, convulsion and death” (but no evidence yet for hallucinations) and the EU has a limit of 10mg per litre for absinthe. Past theories have suggested that pre-ban absinthe may have had much higher levels, but modern analyses such as the ones Breaux was able to conduct show that this is not true, and in fact they generally had less than the EU limit. In order to get a toxic dose of thujone from absinthe you would have to drink so much that the alcohol would kill you first.

Even back in the late 19th century some were complaining about the cheap ersatz absinthes being thrown together to satisfy the craze for it, and many now suspect that both the harmful and psychotropic effects described by some at the time were actually caused by illicit additives such as methanol. I myself can’t say that I have ever felt an “effect” from absinthe other than that of the alcohol, but many contemporary absinthistes say that they do. Ted Breaux attributes this to the blend of herbs involved, some having an excitatory effect and others a sedative one. He believes that the resulting “heightened” or “lucid” intoxication (where Lucid gets its name) is what would have appealed to artists of the Belle Epoque, enabling them to get creatively sozzled but still have the energy and clarity to work.

Needless to say the Institute will be following this matter with a  keen eye. I already have a dozen of so absinthes collected and I think a comparative tasting is in order. In the meantime we can report that Lucid is smooth and balanced and a far cry from bitter Czech firewater. Lucky for Americans that, thanks to Ted Breaux, most of them have never had to make this distinction.

* In fact absinthe was never illegal in the UK—it just passed out of fashion when France and Switzerland, where it was made, outlawed it. A 1988 EU law effectively overruled an national legislation, though nobody quite realised this at first. Production in Switzerland was officially legalised in 2005 while in the Netherlands an off licence owner found himself obliged to challenge the law in 2004 when police found a bottle of absinthe in his shop. Successful, he was dubbed the King of Absinthe and found himself suddenly shifting 40 or 50 bottles a week.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

A Nostalgic Wander Down Gin Lane

'Gin Lane' by William Hogarth
I was at a tasting of Bloom gin a few weeks ago at London's Graphic Bar, home of the Juniper Club. If you're nice to the staff they will produce a bottle from behind the bar and offer it to you with a chorus of sniggers. It is a gin brand called Hogarth. I seem to remember it doesn't taste as foul as you're expecting after the, erm, bouquet—which is headily redolent of window cleaning fluid. But the strangest thing about this brand is that anyone thought it was a good idea to name a gin after printmaker William Hogarth, who famously condemned gin drinking with his depiction of 'Gin Lane', a place where society was collapsing from the evils of the drink. (His solution was for us all to drink wholesome beer instead.) On the front label it simply says, "Over two centuries ago Hogarth set standards of excellence which have withstood the test of time. This superlative London Gin is of a quality worthy of his name." Surely someone is taking the piss here?

Anyway, I assumed that the product in question was an ill-conceived curio that fell flat on its face when launched. So I was surprised, and perversely delighted, when, on a stag weekend in Cardiff I went up to a bar and was confronted by a whopping bottle of the stuff squatting over an optic. I didn't order it.

A proud bottle of Hogarth gin on sale in a Cardiff pub (which I shan't name)

Brandy and Cigars: A Match Made in Heaven?

Alexandre with the XO. He is very French

It’s the end of your fantasy evening and for what do you bellow? Brandy and cigars, of course.

Imagine how my curiosity was piqued when I was invited along to a cigar-and-brandy event last night at the Stafford Hotel in St James’s. The cigars were Cohiba Siglo VI courtesy of Hunters and Frankau and the Cognac was Remy Martin VSOP and XO. These brandy categories indicate age, but not anything terribly specific: the cognacs are blends of spirits of different ages. “VSOP” requires a minimum of four years (in practice the Rémy VSOP consists of eaux de vie aged between four and 14 years) and XO six years (though from 2016 this will rise to ten).

These acronyms actually mean nothing in French—they stand for English phrases “Very Special/Superior Old Pale” and “Extra Old”, reflecting the dominance of the English market at the time they were devised. Rémy does actually produce a VS product too, we are told by Alexandre Quintin, the Rémy ambassador (who is very French and even looks like a character from Belleville Rendezvous). It’s a grade below VSOP, but is sold only in America. Make of this what you will, but it’s interesting to note that while the US is now an important market for cognac, the demographic has shifted dramatically from affluent white drinkers to urban black consumers, who now represent 60–80 per cent of sales. In studies many purchasers have confirmed that their choice of drink is specifically an endorsement of their favourite rap artist. Do not underestimate the power of hippety-hop.

Rémy are very proud of the high proportion of grapes from Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, the two more prestigious crus for cognac. A blend of the two, with at least 50 per cent Grande Champagne, is known as Fine Champagne and 80 per cent of all of this is made by Rémy. In fact their VSOP is 55 per cent Grande and the XO 85 per cent.

The Stafford event was originally scheduled to take place in the vaulted wine cellars, where I hung around twiddling my thumbs before discovering that it had moved to the courtyard. (I’m glad I saw the cellars, though, as they are a shrine to their WWII function as bunkers, filled not just with dusty wine bottles but old signs, helmets and other mementoes; perhaps worthy of further investigation.) Needless to say the weather whipped up and the heavens opened, leaving us huddled under canvas canopies. Hurricane conditions aren’t ideal for appreciating the subtleties of a stogie—the boxes of long cigar matches liberally scattered were of little use and I relied on the generous loan of a multi-jet turbo gas lighter (imagine lighting your smoke with a pocket-sized Death Star) from a fellow guest. Initially they plied us with Prosecco, which I thought was a surprisingly delicate flavour to risk against the leathery Old-World fumes of the cigars, but perhaps not—I was reliably informed by the Hunters and Frankau rep that certain cigars go very well with Champagne. Don’t believe me? I might arrange a Club event to investigate this assertion once and for all…

The story goes that an exceptional cigar roller, Eduardo Rivera, devised a particular long thin cigar for the private used of himself, family and friends. One of those friends was Bienvenido Perez, who happened to be Fidel Castro’s bodyguard. One day Castro was out of smokes and asked his minder to sub him. He enjoyed Rivera’s cigar so much he set the man up up with a team of five to produce them for the president’s exclusive use. (The name Cohiba came from the ancient Taino Indian word for the bunches of tobacco leaves that Columbus saw the original Cubans smoking.) Indeed it was not until 1982 that a range of Cohibas became available to the public; ten years after that the Linea 1492 range was added to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World, in five gauges dubbed Siglo (“century”) I to V. The relatively fat (a 52 in cigar gauges) Siglo VI, which we were smoking, didn’t arrive until 2003. Two of the filler leaves in Cohiba cigars undergo a tertiary fermentation in cedar barrels to impart smoothness. Apparently the Cohiba flavour is most often described as “grassy”, though I’m not sure I picked up on that. 

OK, cigar aside, what was the brandy like? I  must have tasted at least the VSOP before but coming to it fresh I was hit by an unexpectedly pronounced apple note. In fact if you’d given it to me blind and asked me what it was I might even have suggested that it was Calvados (Normandy’s apple brandy). After that, as you get your snout deeper in and then sample the palate, I got broader, spicier notes, but still all very lively and pugnacious. It may be an old world drink but it was still bouncing around on its toes. (The Rémy website claims you should be getting “the impertinence of wild flowers”. Don’t you just know that’s been translated from French?)

I then switched to the XO and immediately got a softer, wider, preserved-fruit barrage. Alexandre likened the flavours to Christmas pudding—it was figs and plums, very characterful but more like subtle woody memories, in which you want to wallow nostalgically, than the darting VSOP. 

I’m no connoisseur of cigars but I have enjoyed a few and I was interested to see if it was true that they could be meaningfully partnered with drink. Just because they are commonly associated doesn’t mean it works: after all, Champagne and chocolate are often sold together, yet make a foul gustatory combination. However, it won’t surprise you to hear that Cognac and cigars to do work. Just like a food and drink combination, the flavours of each emphasise aspects of the other. The sweetness of the brandy seemed to be brought out, a sugar cane quality that perhaps filtered any bitterness in the smoke, leaving smooth, rubbery, Reisling-like, petrol notes and aromatic woody hints. The two jostled and occasionally sparked: at one point I got a burst of mixed, candied fruit peel (back to Christmas pudding again, I suppose).

Hunters organise regular events of this kind but you’ll have to keep looking at their website: they are not allowed to do mail-outs, as this constitutes advertising. Rémy meanwhile are organising a “speakeasy” themed night next week, with Champagne reception, three-course meal and lashings of Cognac and cigars (is that really what speakeasies were like? I’m thinking more bathtub gin and raucous jazz). But this will set you back £140. In fact my evening was very much one of sampling the high life—while Rémy Martin VSOP is typically around £30, the XO closer to £90. Cohiba Siglo VI are around £22–25 singly.

So what other flavour combinations are there out there we should investigate? Chablis and chewing tobacco? Champagne and chewing gum? The Institute is at your service. Mind the monkey on the way out. He was testing our homemade puffer fish bitters last night and I think he’s still sleeping it off…

I'll drink any Gin but that!

Or, Gordon’s Gin, An Apology

One of the best drinks in the world is the Gin & Tonic and in the last 75 years it has gained many fans. Back in 1930s America if you had asked for a Gin mixed with tonic you would have probably been asked to leave (the establishment’s Squire presuming that to order such a hideous mixture you must have had too much already).

Well gone are those days and today many bars and homes are full of discerning Gin & Tonic drinkers, each with their own pet recipe.

Two things I often hear when being told the perfect method for preparing this libation are:

#1 the tonic has to be Schweppes (maybe Fevertree depending on how well-heeled the drinker is)

#2 the Gin should NOT be Gordon’s. (Bombay Sapphire or some such luxury brand seems to be preferred). Indeed Gordon's Gin is often looked upon with disdain, but what many folks don't realise is that there is more to this Gin than that familiar resident of a public house’s optics.

Gone are the days of Gordon’s making Lemon, Orange, Grapefruit or even Mint flavoured Gin or using Jamaican Cane Sugar as the alcohol base but there are still some alternatives to the contents of that famous Green bottle.

Current varieties include:

#1 Gordon's Green (UK Domestic) 37.5%*
#2 Gordon's Export (International) 37.5%
#3 Gordon's Export (International) 40%
#4 Gordon's Export (International) 42%
#5 Gordon's Export (International) 47.3%
# Gordon's Distiller's Cut 40%

Having compared the export to the domestic Gin I was convinced that the recipe was different as they certainly don't taste the same. However I have been reliably informed that they are in fact made from the same recipe but as they are not all made in the same place, differences in the water used and the people making it may result in some flavour fluctuations.

From a blind taste test the Export Gin (37.5%) certainly goes better with tonic than it's domestic counterpart. The 40% version provides a little extra kick and makes for a more citrusy and refreshing drink. The 47.3% (a personal favourite) makes a good example of a Gin & Tonic although it is a bit on the strong side. This version of the Gin is also perfect for recreating a Classic Vesper.

Which leads us to the Distiller's Cut, the premium version of Gordon’s which comes in a clear, silver labelled bottle but is a little tricky to come by. The suggested garnish for a Gin & Tonic made with Distiller’s Cut was strawberry but I ignored that and garnished it only with ice. It makes a lovely Gin & Tonic; it's soft and smooth and has a delicious flavour of stem ginger. This is not a typical London Dry gin but it does make some ruddy good drinks!

So there is more to Gordon’s than Gordon’s Green but as for the domestic variety itself, there is a reason why it sells well and there is a reason why it came out as the "Perfect Pour" when mixed with Britvic Tonic at recent industry taste test; that is because it is not as bad as many make out and all it needs is another chance.

*Alcohol By Volume

Hello and welcome

Come in, come in. Find somewhere to sit down—oh, just move that radium on to the floor. Actually that's not a beanbag it's an abnormal liver sample, but you can probably sit on it anyway. And don't mind the monkey; he won't bite unless he's got a hangover. Oh he did? I should make a note of that—he was doing the Raki blind tasting last night. He's probably still blind.

In case you don't know, The New Sheridan Club is a social club for retro-dandies, louche aesthetes and affable nostalgists. It is almost four years old now and runs a packed programme of social events, has a website and distributes a monthly Newsletter free to all Members. But while most of our Members like a drink or five, and we carry various drinks-related features in the magazine, there is only so much monomaniacal ethanol coverage that is appropriate for the standard NSC media organs, which is why we have created this blog as an outlet for more specific booze news, views and musings.

Why not get in touch, tell us what you think, make suggestions, or indeed have a look the New Sheridan Club itself. We're a welcoming, inclusive crowd and always keen to admit new Members.

Now, I think that calls for a drink. Somewhere there's is a bottle of bacon liqueur…