Tuesday 30 November 2010

Curiosity Cabinet #4 - Shannon's Irish Coffee

So I was on a supply run for ingredients to make some more Old Tom Gin & Mincemeat Vodka when I came across a small package of what I initially thought were just two toddy glasses, I was half right. They were toddy glasses but they had been pre-filled with Irish Coffee.

For any vintage nostalgics the box is a treat, picture of 1940s flying boats, old maps a flying cap and gloves all accented by gold and browns. This is not too surprising as, according to the box, this sort of Irish Coffee was served on the 1940's flying boats on the river Shannon.

The box suggests the first Irish Coffee came about:

One night in 1942 when bad weather forced a transatlantic flying boat to turn back to its base. As coffee was served to the bedraggled passengers, a drop of Irish Whiskey was added to their cups.
A surprised American asked "is this Brazilian coffee?" "No" came the reply, "That's Irish Coffee."

Cocktail historians may notice there is no mention of Joseph Sheridan of Foynes one of the suggested creators.

Back to the drink itself, as I said the glasses already contain the separate cream and coffee whiskey and have a foil top. To make the drink hot you pierce the top of the foil and microwave it for 45 seconds.

Hold on! Surely they know you shouldn't put metal in the microwave? Apparently not.
If you do buy this product I strongly urge you to remove the foil and not risk damaging your microwave, try some microwavable cling-film instead.

So avoiding sparking appliances, I had a drink that was as black as Guinness on the bottom with a half inch of light as Bailey's-coloured liquid on the top. (Actually it looked a bit more like evaporated milk.)

As soon as my mouth touch the top of the drink I expected the cream layer to dissipate leaving a curdle-looking mess, but I was wrong, up until the last sip the separation between cream and coffee was maintained. It was quite to pleasant to sip the coffee mixture through the cream as it added a touch of richness. On reflection the drink tasted better than I thought, it was actually quite nice. The problem was that due to it's extreme richness it was difficult to finish, after each sip you felt you probably drawn a bit too much from the glass.

In conclusion, I must admire Shannon's for the technical work in maintain the separation of the light cream and the dark coffee but I must question the wisdom of putting foil in the microwave.
But if you are in the market for two pretty neat toddy glasses, this is quite a nice way to get them.

Sunday 28 November 2010

Ice ball update

I've become rather addicted to the ice balls I described earlier. I now make them with mineral water, though I don't know how much difference that really makes. They are certainly not crystal clear—I think you have to buy in elaborately made professional ice to get that. In fact I added one to a glass of bourbon last night and noticed some rather pretty patterns in the ice:

Rather like a tiger's eye gemstone, isn't it?

Can any science boffins out there tell me what is going on here? I'm guessing that as the water freezes from the outside in, something happens to trapped air, but I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it before.

Or like a frozen exploding sun. There's a good name for a cocktail

Friday 26 November 2010

Plymouth gin tasting, 29th November

Please note that, owing to the tube strike, this event, which I mentioned before, has now been postponed to 13th December.

Ham Cam Retrospective: Ham Porn!

If you came to the last Candlelight Club you will probably have tasted Will's Martinez-cure ham. He has sent me some more snaps of the elaborate process of making it. Last time we saw it swimming in the salt cure. After that it was boiled and then roasted.

After boiling

After roasting

Can't help expecting Nigella to ooze into camera at this point

After slicing—and just before being slipped between slices of bread…

Wednesday 24 November 2010

I’m the guy who found the lost cocktail

The mysterious bottle

Adopting my usual position at the bar at Graphic at the tasting of No. 209 gin last Monday, I noticed an unusual small bottle filled with red liquid and with a simple label that read “Crème de Griottes”. I asked Adam what it was and he told me that, during the cocktail competition held by No. 209 earlier in the day, a chap had come in with it—and evidently left it behind. Adam thought he’d said he made it himself.

Exercising marine salvage rights, I persuaded Adam to open it. Griottes are a strain of sour cherry and this was indeed a cherry-infused liquor, subtle and complex and not sugary like a liqueur, but with a refined sweet-dry palate. I ordered an Aviation cocktail made with this stuff.

Modern Aviations are often a blend of gin, maraschino and lemon juice but the original recipe, first published in 1916 by the drink’s inventor New York barman Hugo Ensslin, had crème de violette in it too, giving it a sky blue colour. I think the use of this ingredient faded as it became harder to get hold of. Being a sucker for authenticity I’ve only ever had them with the crème de violette, but Adam now made one in which this was replaced by crème de griottes, boosting the overall cherryness of the thing. It was a warm, approachable drink, not too sweet and with its cherry element more subtle that you might expect. It is also quite pink.

The finished drink
I hope this mystery visitor makes his infusion commercially available*. In the meantime if you’d like to sample it it looks as if you may have to go to Graphic.

Pink Sky At Night
1¾ measures gin
½ measure maraschino
¼ measure crème de griottes
½ measure lemon juice

Shake with ice, strain and serve with a lemon twist.

* Having said that, you evidently can get hold of crème de griottes commercially. DBS even found a cocktail online that goes under the name “Demon-Raped Soul”. Don't you just love that aura cocktail-lounge sophistication?

Tuesday 23 November 2010

The Number of the Gin is 209

Branding gimmicks? Not a bit of it. Graphic
manager Sarah Mitchell is handily placed to
give you a sense of scale.

What’s with numbers all of a sudden? There is “6 O’Clock” gin from Bramley and Gage; only last week we were tasting Berry Brothers’ “No.3” gin; and last night at the Juniper Society it was “No. 209” gin. (I’m not a number, I’m a free gin!) The figure this time comes from the birth of the distillery in California’s Napa Valley in 1882: in those days, to guard against illegal distillation, a distillery had to display its licence prominently, and this establishment was the 209th to be licensed in America.

The original project was part of the Edge Hill Winery set up in 1867 by Civil War general Erasmus Keyes. This was later bought by the enterprising William Scheffler who not only built a still, but built a vacuum still—working on the principle that if you lower the pressure within the still the liquid will boil at a lower temperature. Scheffler believed that this made for a more “sanitary” product, a healthier alcohol, if you will. That may or may not be hooey, but he won a medal for his product at the Grand Exposition in Paris in 1889—at a time when Napa Valley was a joke backwater in the global booze fraternity. (The medal turned up on eBay in 2004 and the firm were able to buy it back.)

It’s interesting to see the UK brand Oxley now make such a song and dance about their use of vacuum distillation—they don’t claim it is healthier but they do believe that by not exposing the botanicals to high temperatures they are preserving flavour elements that would otherwise be destroyed by “cooking” them.

The current owners of Distillery No. 209 moved the business to Pier 50 in San Francisco. They say that, thanks to the Dot Com boom, actual industrial space in SF is hard to find, which is why they ended up on a pier—the only distillery in the world built over water. Technical Director Arne Hillestand (known as “The Ginerator”) adds that by being built over water the distillery benefits from a far more consistent temperature.

Blimey, there's that brand again…
No. 209 is a proudly American gin. Its water comes from the city’s private supply at Hitch Hitchy in Yosemite, dammed in 1923 and piped all the way from the National Park. Arne filters it through charcoal and resin beads to remove all particulate matter, then ionises it. “It started as meltwater,” he tells us, “and I try to bring it back to meltwater.”

But the product’s taste derives from more than just good water. “Traditional London gins have a lot of juniper, coriander and often some liquorice. I wanted to tone down the juniper a bit and bring up the citrus and spices.” Arne is not alone in this restlessness with gin orthodoxy and indeed he acknowledges he is part of a movement that was named “New Western Gin” by Ryan Magarian of the Oregon gin Aviation (a product I find rather fascinating and to which I will be returning in a future post).

San Francisco may seem terribly remote to us here in London but, for the record, Arne sources his botanicals from a dealer in Peterborough, Joseph Flach & Sons Ltd, coincidentally also founded in 1882. The mix focuses on juniper, coriander seed, sweet angelica from the north of England, Cardamom (apparently the second or third most expensive spice in the world, owing to its pickiness about growing environment), cassia, a bark that is very similar to cinnamon (and indeed much “cinnamon” sold in the US is actually cassia) and bergamot, a citrus peel that will be familiar to lovers of Earl Grey tea—much of the bergamot grown is for its essential oils that go to flavour that classic brew. The mix is macerated in the spirit overnight before being slowly distilled over 11 hours in small batches. In fact the gin is distilled five times in the pursuit of smoothness and purity.

Head distiller Arne Hillestand. In addition to banners, logos and
giant bottles, our American visitors brought with them the fabled
PowerPoint technology as well
No. 209 are a socially aware brand. Arne uses only a small “heart”, the central portion of each batch distilled in the firm’s swanky new copper pot still (sourced again in the UK, this time from Forsyths in Scotland); the leftover “heads” and “tails” (the first and last liquid to come out of the still with any given batch) are not poured down the drain, though, but given to a chap in southern California who recycles it into some sort of motorcar fuel. Arne even makes a special version of 209 that is kosher for Passover. His usual corn neutral spirit is out, so he gets spirit made from sugar cane. He even had to replace the cardamom—considered by some strict Jews as essentially a pulse, as it comes in a pod—with locally sourced bay laurel leaves.

Arne is a clearly a man with an attention to detail. The bottle is a rather common square-shaped “case gin” design (for easy packing in a case), but the litre bottle comes with a cap that happens to contain exactly a 50ml double measure—something that bartenders in the room had noticed. “If you’re going to make a good cocktail you have to be precise,” Arne shrugs.

Tasted neat it is, reassuringly, quite clearly gin. The initial nose has a green, juiciness that evolves into a sweet, warm perfume, at times almost cloyingly sweet. I’m convinced I also got a hint of green apples, though clearly none went into it. The palate is fiery at first (it’s bottled at 46%) but with a sweetness, and also a strong dryness, like the fragrant dryness of lead pencil shavings. It has similar fat, waxy mid-notes to Aviation, though not in so obstinately profound a way as that very savoury gin.

Oh, look. There's that brand again
I am handed a No. 209 Martini at the beginning and I’m struck that the cardamom comes across even with the other elements there, seeming to complement the fresh lemon twist particularly well. In fact even tasted neat you get a sense of something like grapefruit peel—which must be the bergamot, apparently less sour than a lemon but more bitter than a grapefruit*—again seeming to marry well with the spice: you get both dry exoticism and juicy fruitiness at the same time. No. 209 may have only six botanicals, but you sense a poise and confidence in the non-juniper path they have chosen, even if the end result is more diplomatically gin-like than the likes of Aviation or Death’s Door.

Arne finished his presentation with a quote from Oscar Wilde: “It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears 
is said to be seen in San Francisco.
 It must be a delightful city and possess 
all the attractions of the next world.” Is No. 209 a glimpse into heaven? That’s pushing it, but it’s certainly a refined and though-provoking tipple.

No. 209 is about £37.50 for a litre.

*Actually I think there are other botanicals, including other citrus elements, that Arne won’t tell us about.

Sunday 21 November 2010

Curiosity Cabinet #2 – Perigan's Cannabis Gin

The Curiosity Cabinet #2
Perigan's Cannabis Gin (37.5%)

OK, OK, calm down: I know that it's a crazy idea, but there is such a thing as a Cannabis Gin and this is the feature of the second Curiosity Cabinet.

Made by Beveland Distillers of Spain, the label makes no bones about what it contains, with the word "cannabis" featured at least four times on the front label, not to mention what appears to be a cannabis leaf dominating the front.

Sharp-eyed readers will note the attempt to add a touch of regality to the product by adding a coat of arms (possibly from clip art), and the border of juniper berries (no doubt to help to remind you that,"Yes, this really is meant to be a gin.").

A quick scout around online shows that Beveland have also made a Cannabis Vodka, a Cannabis Absinthe and a non-cannabis Perigan's Gin.

So is hemp one of the botanicals? No (I'm not sure how well it would work, actually). The gin is cannabis flavoured and I imagine the fluorescent mouthwash-green colour is also introduced during the flavouring process.

The Taste

Neat: The nose is overwhelmingly one of cinnamon. In terms of taste, cinnamon is again at the foreground, with a little juniper at the end. This is not a juniper-led gin.

Gin & Tonic: What's this, another taste of Christmas? Truly, this is the first Gin & Tonic that I have had that tastes of cinnamon. Beyond this, there was a little citrus. (Mrs. B seemed to quite like it though!) A poor example of a G&T, but not a bad drink.

Martini: The drink keeps Perigan's trademark spearmint green colour, but its trademark flavour (no, not cannabis; cinnamon) remains. A very flat Martini.

All-in-all, it seems:
(A) Perigan's doesn't taste of cannabis, and
(B) it doesn't make very good drinks. But, really, what did I expect?

Perigan's Cannabis Flavoured Gin is bottled at 37.5% ABV and Beveland stress that their product was marketed in accordance with the law. However, The Portland Group (a responsible drinking watchdog) investigated the brand after receiving a complaint from a publican in Bristol stating:

"This product is surely in clear breach of the code with, I feel, irresponsible and obvious illegal drug references"

The complaint was upheld and the importers (Ultimate Brands) decided to stop importing the product. I emphasise, though, that the contents of the gin was not in breech of the law.

As a result, it looks like it may be rather difficult to get your hands on some of this in the UK these days. The remainder of mine has been entrusted to the vaults of Plymouth Gin, where it now rests on their Gin Wall.

Friday 19 November 2010

Become a Gin Genie

A dry Martini. By the end of the evening you'll be able to
spot one of these at several paces.

As you will have noticed, I spend an unhealthy amount of time at the regular Juniper Society sessions at Graphic in Golden Square, near Piccadilly Circus. I’m sure I’ve painted such an arcadian picture that you can hardly keep yourself away—to which end, why not join us on Monday 29th November? Plymouth Gin are hosting a free gin tasting and Martini Masterclass and have asked me to extend the invitation to any curious coves who might be interested.

Winston Churchill was a big Martini fan and
Plymouth was his gin of choice.
The event kicks off at 6pm and the fun starts as soon as you arrive, as a cocktail is pressed into your hand. You will taste a selection of fruit Martinis (steady at the back, there—some people do believe in them) before attending two sessions: in one you’ll learn about the history of this famous cocktail, what goes into it and how to knock up the perfect example to wow your Christmas and New Year guests at home. The other session will introduce you to the delights of Plymouth gin itself with a tasting and talk by the “brand ambassador”. (Plymouth is not just a brand of gin but actually an EU Protected Geographical Indication: only gin made in Plymouth—indeed I believe only a certain area of the city—can call itself Plymouth gin. This is more a historical curio than anything else, but DBS is always mooting the idea of surreptitiously renting property just within the zone and making our own Plymouth gin, just to throw a spanner in the works.)

Anyway, after all this training you will leave “true gin and Martini connoisseurs”, or at least rather giggly, which is almost as good. There is no need to book—just turn up on the day.

For more info see the Juniper Society page. For other Juniper Soc events see the Graphic calendar.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

G & Tea?

Beefeater 24's bottle looks like it belongs
among the Crown Jewels
Can booze and tea sit happily in the same glass? Oh yes.

You have to feel sorry for Desmond Payne. He’s a master distiller (formerly at Plymouth, now at Beefeater) who’s been at it for 43 years—but always charged with distilling to other people’s recipes. He lives with a portrait of James Burroughs, the Beefeater founder who developed the formula 150 years ago, glaring down at him from the wall.

Finally he was asked to make his own gin, a special edition that would end up dubbed Beefeater 24, and DBS and I were present at 69 Colebrooke Row for a celebration of it a few weeks ago. (Mind you, I notice that it isn’t so much his own gin as his own “expression” of the Beefeater house style. Always the bridesmaid…)

I’d heard a story that the “24” in the name referred to there being 24 different botanicals, but this turned out to be codswallop: the gin has 12. “But it is not about how many botanicals you have or how exotic they are,” says Desmond. “It is about how they work together. Getting the right balance is crucial.” In fact the “24”  refers to the 24 hours for which the botanicals are left to soak in the base spirit before the whole soup is redistilled into glorious gin. Mind you, the 24-hour maceration is common to all Beefeater gin*—so what makes Beefeater 24 different?

Desmond explained that he at first tried a host of likely botanicals, but without success. While he was in Japan he craved a G&T—but quinine was not allowed, apparently, so no tonic water. Seeking a similar dry, sharp hit, he tried iced lemon tea—and was inspired to try using tea as the direction for Beefeater 24. What could be more English, as English as gin? He found that green tea worked best as it imparted the aromatic elements he wanted but without an overwhelming amount of tannin. But the presence of the tea also changed the relationships of the other botanicals—back to the importance of balance again—so a lot of tweaking was required.

The raven lurking on the inside of the label
Finally he had an end result ready for testing by a panel of esteemed mixologists: people liked it—but didn’t really pick up on the tea. So he went back to the lab and added Japanese Sencha tea with a fresh, green, slightly seaweed quality, that brought out the top notes. He was afraid that his tea dose would oxidise during the regulation 24 hour steeping, but was relieved to find that the alcohol preserved it. (Round about this time he discovered that James Burroughs’ father had actually been a tea merchant with a Royal Warrant—would Burroughs have approved of Payne’s new direction all along?)

When a batch of gin—or the mixture of spirit and steeping botanicals that will become gin—is distilled, different elements of the flavour emerge in a certain order: the distillery will actually smell different at different times of the day. In practice the citrus notes come out first, then juniper, then coriander. With Desmond’s tea injection he found that the high aromatic notes emerged at the very beginning while the tannic elements arose after the juniper. It’s normal for distillers to discard the very first and last distillate from a batch, but Desmond ended up making a “cut” that was particularly picky—in fact he discards some 30% of the juice that comes out of the still.

So what does it taste like? You can immediately tell how careful Desmond was to stay within the Beefeater house style, which I always think of as rather ethereal in its construction, with a delicacy that makes me think of quiet civil servants in wood-panelled rooms, as opposed to some of the two-fisted gins strutting on to the market now. Yet there is a subtle tea perfume here too joining the orange notes in the midrange, and a smoky element, but much more delicate that simply adding a peaty whisky rinse to your glass as in some “Smoky Martini” cocktails.

The Earl Grey Martini knocked up for us at Purl
The bottle in which Beefeater 24 is clad has had just as much thought and attention lavished on it. The patterns in the glass are taken from Royal Doulton ceramic designs: back in the day the distillery, like most, also produced a range of liqueurs and these were bottled in just such ceramic containers. The distinctive red punt is a nod to the Crown Jewels (this is Beefeater gin, remember) and if you look through the “window” in the bottom left corner on the back you can see a raven printed on the inside of the front label. The legend goes that if the Tower of London’s resident ravens ever leave, the kingdom will fall. “So if you finish the bottle,” Desmond adds, “put the cap back on so the raven can’t escape.”

By interesting synchronicity, the idea of tea in booze seems to have cropped up quite a bit of late. At Purl a few weeks ago I came across their dry Martini served with an Earl Grey “air” (foam to you and me, though I gather there is a technical difference). This sits on the surface of the drink—looking rather as if the glass has just been washed up and not rinsed properly—and is actually one of the more convincing examples, in my opinion, of how molecular mixology can work. The tea flavour is all encapsulated in the foam: you hit it as you go in, but then strike crystalline Martini underneath, and the two elements are not just mixed all together. On a plate of food this separation of flavour elements is normal enough but it’s quite an achievement in a drink.

Two of David's homemade tea liqueurs
And of course how can we ignore Mr Bridgman-Smith’s recent experiments making his own tea liqueurs? I’ve tasted his lapsang souchong and his English Breakfast and I was mightily impressed. Homemade infusions have a tendency to fall into the “interesting, but…” category but I think he could convincingly bottle these and sell them at a farmer’s market somewhere. But the most interesting potential must be as a cocktail ingredient; at Graphic recently barman Adam took up the challenge and invented a smoky brew we dubbed the Fag Hag:

A Fag Hag cocktail
Fag Hag
30ml gin

20ml lemon juice

15ml lapsang souchong liqueur

10ml sugar syrup

20ml egg white

Dry shake the ingredients first to bind, then add ice, shake and strain into a glass.

You could probably achieve a similar effect using strong, cold tea and a little extra syrup.

Beefeater 24 is about £23 (or £29 if you buy it over the counter at Harrods)

* Beefeater claim that this 24-hour maceration is unique to them, but Hayman’s say their gin steeps for 24 hours, so do Berry Bros. and Rudd of their No.3 gin, Park Place about their SW4, and I have a feeling I’ve heard it about others too.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

“Ham cam” interlude…

A mixture of pork leg, loin and belly
If you’re attending Saturday’s Candlelight Club pop-up cocktail event (and if not, you really should), you’ll know that the food menu will include a ham sandwich made with a homemade juniper-cured ham. Will, our foodmeister, has sent me these photos of the ham beginning its journey to yumminess. You’ll note that he has included not just juniper berries in the cure but also vermouth and Cointreau—so it is not so much a gin-cure as a sort of Martinez-cure. I suggested this to him and he said that it does indeed smell rather like a Martinez at the moment.

In goes the cure
Here are Will’s prelim-inary comments:

Pork, a bit over 3kg in all: 
pork leg (half—home butchered) 
pork loin, pork belly (for variety and curiosity) 

1 gallon of water
2 lbs of curing salt: sodium chloride, sodium nitrate, potassium nitrate
¼ lb of dark brown sugar
A handful of bay leaves
A healthy scoop of juniper berries
A small glass of Cointreau 
A shot or two or vermouth (it ended up smelling rather lovely and so I stupidly tried tasting it... not a good idea) 

The secret ingredients of the "Martinez Cure". (I myself
regularly take the Martinez Cure. It hasn't worked yet but
I have every faith in my doctors and will keep trying.)

The cure was all heated together to steep the herbs and dissolve the salt apart from the alcohol and half the water which went in last to not kill the flavours and to help cool it. The pork all went into a large non-reactive (can't get much less reactive than enamel) pot and, once the cure had cooled to a cool room temperature (specifically my frigid sitting room temperature of 13 degrees), it was poured on top and weighted down with sterilised tiles wrapped in aluminium foil to keep the meat submerged.

The concentrated salt solution both sterilises the meat and draws moisture out of it, effectively “cooking” it.

The Ham Cam will be training its unblinking eye on our supper again, so stay tuned…

Sterilised tiles are used to weight the pig in its briny bath

Sunday 14 November 2010

Introducing the Plasma Mary

A Plasma Mary on the rocks

Some years ago I was in a fancy restaurant and was served a complimentary amuse bouche that consisted of a shot glass of a clear, slightly pinkish liquid. It turned out to be tomato juice, highly sieved and strained but still very recognisable on the palate.

For some reason this came back to me recently and I got it into my head to try making a Bloody Mary from just such an extract—I suppose I was feeling a bit molecular and fancied the idea of something that tricked the mind by looking like a gin and tonic but tasting like a Bloody Mary. It’s probably been done before, but I’d never seen one.

I quickly found a recipe online from a Dutch chef for clear tomato juice. She actually has you zap Marmande/San Marzano tomatoes in a blender—by chance Mrs H. had been growing just this variety in our garden and had an end-of-season glut—and flavour the tomato pulp with Worcester sauce and tabasco before straining through a double layer of tea towel, along with 100ml of “vegetable soup”. I wasn’t sure what kind of soup she meant, so I made up 100ml of vegetable stock using Marigold bouillon powder. (I also missed out the vanilla vinegar, figuring it would be safer to adjust the acidity later with the lemon juice in the cocktail.)

Sieving the tomato pulp
At first I didn’t think it was going to work—the pulp just sits there in the strainer, glowering at you. But I did as I was told and left the whole lot in the fridge overnight and forgot about it. Sure enough after about 24 hours I had a bowl of pretty clear liquid, though hardly colourless. I found it delicious, in a much more savoury way than commercial tomato juice, which is more citric by comparison—and it made an excellent, and dangerously moreish, Bloody Mary. (Mrs Schmeinck is right: you can indeed use the leftover pulp as the basis of a nice pasta sauce.)

But the pursuit of clarity brings new problems. If you want to add more Worcester sauce or Tabasco it’s going to add colour; celery salt, on the other hand, doesn’t cause any problems though (and I’m interested to try celery bitters), and one could use white pepper, though I didn’t have any to hand.* And when you add your lemon juice you are reminded that this too is anything but clear. Having made up a finished drink I tried straining it again through a coffee filter paper. This again takes a hell of a long time, but you do end up with something that looks like a pale white wine. (I say that pointedly, as I was storing the juice in an old white wine bottle in the fridge and one evening I idly reached for a bottle to pour a glass of wine to go with whatever I was eating: it was only when I tasted it that I realised my mistake.)

The initial juice is clear but far from colourless
Because of the very savoury nature of this juice, I had the idea early on of using basil in the cocktail. I tried muddling it at the bottom though I was wary of damaging my hard-won clarity with bits of green floating around. What gave the most striking result, at least at the beginning of the drink, was rubbing a basil leaf around the rim of the glass before serving—you’re hit by this amazing perfume as you raise the glass, which fits perfectly with the flavour of the drink.

One other thing I want to try is infusing bits of vine stem or tomato leaves in the juice to try and extract that fresh zingy element that is so vibrantly, recognisably tomato yet tends to be missing from the actual flesh of the fruit (and is certainly absent from commercial juice). Some people are wary of doing this, as the leaves do contain a toxin. However, no less a source that Harold McGee, the father of molecular gastronomy, assures us that this is perfectly safe.**

An alternative serve to show off the clarity of the final version
If I can bring myself to make enough of this magic juice I’m going to serve this drink—which Mrs H. christened the Plasma Mary—at one of the Candlelight Club cocktail events, see if I can mess with a few heads…

Plasma Mary
2 measures vodka
4-5 measures clear tomato juice
½ measure lemon juice
celery salt/bitters
white pepper
Worcester sauce and Tabasco (optional depending on whether you introduced these elements while making the juice)

Stir all the ingredients with ice and strain into an ice-filled glass. Rub the rim with a basil leaf and garnish with more basil.

* I had some dried jalapeño flakes so I tried soaking a few to extract a liquid I could use to add heat, but the elixir turned out to be quite coloured, and I’m not convinced it’s the right sort of heat.
** Harry tells us that the leaves of the tomato (which is, after all, part of the nightshade family) do contain a potentially toxic alkaloid called tomatine. However, recent research has found that in our digestive systems tomatine binds tightly to cholesterol molecules—and our bodies absorb neither. So in fact tomatine reduces the amount of cholesterol you take in. (Source: Harold McGee, McGee on Food and Cooking (Hodder and Stoughton, 2004.)

Friday 12 November 2010

Update from the Lab #2

Update from the Lab #2 – Old Tom and Forbidden Fruit

As promised in the last lab update, I shall be looking at making Old Tom Gin. This is by no means the last word on the subject and I know my fellow drinksmiths at the Institute are keen to look at this in greater depth.

My idea stems from a conversation we had with Tony at 69 Colebrook Row who mentioned that drinks expert David Wondrich suggested creating Old Tom gin by rinsing a glass with Scotch whisky, adding gin and sugar syrup and then using that to make your drink; a cocktail within a cocktail, you might say.

I scaled this up to make half a bottle's worth; I have another experiment coming up where I will need large quantities of Old Tom so being able to produce a substitute will be useful.

I added a small amount of whisky to gin and cane sugar I then gently warmed this until the sugar had dissolved and then cooled, strained and bottled the result.

The Taste: the sugar gives the gin a silky smooth quality (as you may expect) making it much more sippable. The whisky seems to tweak the flavour a little bit and certainly colours the gin a light gold. The juniper still comes through in the middle and at the extreme finish is a flavour akin to violet. This is a sweet gin and does resemble some of the other sweetened Old Tom gins in a basic way. Another work in progress but the work will be fun.

Forbidden Fruit
Not content with telling our lab observers merely about Old Tom gin, I decided to recreate a drink known as the Forbidden Fruit which appears in Louis' mixed Drinks (1906) under "Miscellaneous Drinks" see recipe below:

My first issue was that I had misremembered that the recipe calls for a grapefruit and went out and bought a melon, still we had a nice breakfast and starter for our dinner. Having obtained the right fruit I followed the recipe.

The result was a drink with an interesting temperature range, hot at the top and warm at the bottom. Mrs. B described it as a "serious drink which was also sweet and fruity". It was surprisingly smooth and rather drinkable, even to a non-brandy drinker like Mrs B. The grapefruit oil from the skin of the fruit mixed well with the burnt sugar and brandy and reminded me of a similar effect made from flaming orange, particularly nice (I'm told) over a Negroni.

This drink does involve fire so please make sure you take full safety precautions before making this drink, I used glove and apron and as you can see did it over the sink.

Thursday 11 November 2010

Beefeater shows its winter coat

Beefeater Winter Edition

If the traditional gin style is like a sober suit and tie, then recent years have been like one long Dress-Down Friday, with new brands popping up that have the confidence to leave the house in whatever outlandish get-up they feel expresses their personal style. To extend this creaky fashion metaphor, Beefeater are now bringing seasonality into it as well—in the summer they produced a Summer Gin, flavoured with floral notes of elderflower, hibiscus and blackcurrant, and they have now unveiled their Winter Edition, enhanced with Christmas spices and complete with a label depicting a strangely timeless couple ice-skating on the frozen lake in front of their stately home. (Well, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without that, would it?)

If you’re expecting a Brockmans-style flavour overhaul (i.e. something that doesn’t taste like gin) you’ll be disappointed. Tasted side by side with regulation Beefeater, this is still recognisably in the Beefeater house style, but with an additional mid-note warmth of orange and cinnamon. There’s nutmeg and pine in there too. You could argue that by extending the flavours in these fat, jazzy areas, taking emphasis away from the starched-collar juniper high-notes, they are actually acknowledging the direction of some of the modern gins while not abandoning their traditions. Like tentatively partnering your sober suit with an exotic tie someone gave you for Christmas. (OK, enough with the clothing metaphors.) I like it. Tasting it neat I think actually like it better than the normal all-seasons version.

Beefeater suggest a few mixed drinks to showcase their new formula, so I decide to give a couple of them a try.

Winter Kir Royal. That's not my
house you know.
Winter Kir Royal
25ml Beefeater Winter Gin
25ml sloe gin
100ml Champagne or sparkling wine
Pour the gins into a Champagne flute and top up with the fizz. I used cava and some Plymouth sloe gin that I had to hand. The recommended garnish is a blood orange twist. It’s a good idea, though dominated by the sloe gin; you know my feelings on Champagne based cocktails, and some experimentation showed that reducing the sloe gin to around 10–15ml gives a subtler, more complex and better balanced drink by allowing the wine to make its presence felt.

A burglar's-eye view of
the Hot Apple Gin
Hot Apple Gin
1 part Beefeater Winter Gin
3 parts warm apple juice
Pour gin into a toddy cup or mug, heat the apple juice in a pan and add to the gin. Garnish with a cinnamon stick and grating of nutmeg.
Just the thing to curl up with when you come in pink-cheeked from some crisp outdoor activity like hunting or clearing snow or stealing potatoes. Since I seldom leave the house except to slide into some urban watering hole, I felt a bit of a fraud, but it’s a nice combination. I used a phial of artisanal apple juice purchased at a farmer’s market at great expense, fresh and foodlike on its own, but added hot to the gin it produced a rich drink that really brought out the spiciness of Beefeater Winter even without the added cinnamon stick.

Beefeater Winter Edition is packaged in a matching box and they’re obviously hoping we’ll be buying bottles of it to stick under the Christmas tree for each other. It  will be available for a limited period this winter from Selfridges, Harvey Nicks, Fortnums and Harrods for about £18 a bottle.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Goodness gracious, great balls of ice

Any ideas?

At Phil Duff’s erudite seminar on “The Prehistory and Evolution of Gin” during London Cocktail Week we were given a complimentary object courtesy of sponsors G’Vine. It looks like it’s got something to do with silicon breast implants for toddlers (only a matter of time, you mark my words) but in fact it’s for making ice balls.

An invention of the Japanese, who take the diligent art of bartending to almost penitent levels, the ice ball is a single lump of ice that is only just small enough to fit into a glass. The point of them—aside from looking rather cool—is that the lower surface area, compared to a similar amount of ice in normal cube form, means the ice melts more slowly, so it doesn’t dilute your drink as much. It’s intended for a beverage like an exquisite whisky that might be served on the rocks and nursed thoughtfully over a period of time, which you might otherwise find gets rather watery before you’ve finished it.

In Japan they were originally carved by hand (see video above), an incredibly labour-intensive process that produces a ball with an interesting rough-hewn texture. Someone invented an impressive bar-top device that looks like an evil robot from an 80s movie, made from blocks of aluminium, which uses pressure and thermal conductivity to shape a rough chunk of ice into a neat sphere in about 30 seconds. They now come with cheesy mould shapes, such as diamonds, footballs, baseballs, etc (see video below).

The two halves, with G'vine logo sunk into one
It’s pretty amazing to watch—but from a domestic perspective you would need a source of big blocks of ice in the first place—and the machine would set you back about £650. So this green silicon mould is a more accessible alternative.

It came with no instructions but you can see roughly how the two halves nest together to form a sphere. I initially tried pouring water through the small holes (which leaves you with as much water on the outside of the sphere as inside it), until I read somewhere that you should start by filling the bottom tray all the way up to the top of the skirt, then push the upper half of the mould down on top, displacing some of the water over the side but also up into the top dome, with the small holes just being there to allow air out. Once it’s frozen you just peel away the silicone halves of the mould.

A finished ball (made with tap water, I'm afraid).
You can just see the G'vine logo on the top
I tried it in a Negroni and I can vouch that even by the time I’d finished the drink (and I did take a decorous time over it, honest) the ball was still substantially intact. My only observation would be that, while it doesn’t melt as quickly as cube ice, by the same token it doesn’t actually chill the drink as quickly either, if you’re starting with ingredients at room temperature, but it does get there—and keeps your drink at the right temperature for longer.

Where can you get one of these moulds? I’m not really sure. The only reference I can find is that MOMA in New York apparently sold an identical thing in their gift shop. MUJI sell a different design that seems to do the same sort of job.

With the addition of whisky

Monday 8 November 2010

Update from the lab.

Here in the Institute's south coast branch, with a plentiful supply of lightning storms to power my Vermouth Interocitor and my Quinine extractor, I have been busy with a few home-made projects.

Update from the Lab: 8th Nov 2010

#1 Mincemeat Vodka & Mincemeat Liqueur
I was inspired to make this by an end-of-the-aisle display in my local hypermarket. I added mincemeat to vodka (no sugar was required, as mincemeat
has sugar enough already) and left for a week, shaking at intervals.

Vodka: I was surprised at how much flavour has been infused into the vodka; the smell of the fruits and spices is there and that is represented in the taste. On the downside, the finish is a little harsh, but I think that this may be better for mixing in cocktails, whilst the liqueur may be better for sipping.

Liqueur: This is essentially the former spirit, diluted with extra water and sugar. The flavours of the mincemeat are still very present and Mrs. B says it reminded her of Stollen and Christmas. She is very keen for me to try using it in a hot cocktail.

#2 Ginger Tonic Water Syrup
This was my first attempt at making Ginger Ale Syrup, but it really turned out more like Ginger Tonic Water.

On it's own: This is an odd one; it definitely isn't ginger ale, but it has a savoury-ness and an understated sweetness that is hard to place. The ginger comes through, as does the bitterness from the Cinchona bark, but it is not as tart or tangy as tonic water syrup.

With Gin: Initially, this tasted just like a gin and tonic, but towards the end the bitterness is replaced by a gingery warmth; rather odd, but Mrs. B liked it.

#3 Ginger Ale Syrup
This was created in a similar way to the Ginger Tonic syrup, apart from the additional of lemon zest, the exclusion of Citric Acid and Cinchona Bark, and, before any water was added, the sugar, ginger and lemon were caramelised together. OK, it was the same as the Tonic syrup in that it contained ginger, water and sugar!

On it's own: As with all syrups, the trick is getting the right dilution. After a little experimentation, we were left with a sweet ginger ale, with a bit of citrus and a little fire towards the end; spicy, but not blazing. Quite nice for a first go.

With Gin (Gin Buck): The gin is more dominant and, in order to get the ginger through, I had to add more syrup, making it sweeter. For the next batch, I think I need a bit more ginger and a less sugar. A work in progress.

What I'm drinking:
It seems to be the latest trend in London Bars, a Gin & Tonic in the "Evans" style: garnished with both Lemon and Lime, citrus bliss! (I used Oliver Cromwell Gin & Waitrose Tonic)

What's Next?
Can one man make his own Old Tom Gin?

Sunday 7 November 2010

Tonic for the troops

The guinea pigs prepare for the blind tasting
Although I often find myself sampling gins neat, I seldom actually drink gin that way for pleasure. Part of gin’s recent surge in popularity is precisely its versatility as a cocktail ingredient, but let us not forget the humble gin and tonic, which is how I suspect a lot of people almost always drink their gin. (It was for just this “silent majority” that SW4 gin was created.)

Mr Bridgman-Smith tests gins exhaustively in about 16 different ways: I’m not sure my tastebuds or my liver have the stamina, but you certainly can’t get the measure of a gin without trying a G&T. Yet it has always niggled with me that if you’re really comparing different products this way then you surely can’t ignore what probably makes up at least two thirds of your drink—the tonic.

DBS explains his elaborate scoring system. He is roundly ignored
It’s not surprising that we’ve seen a rise in the range of tonics out there too, with recent arrivals Q and 6 O’Clock joining Fever Tree and Fentimans which have been around a few years, and venerable brands such as Schweppes and Britvic. A couple of months ago we had a spontaneous tasting at one of our regular ginthusiast nights at Graphic, but DBS was determined to formalise the process and so, last Monday, we returned to blind-taste eight tonic waters.

Just as gin started life as a way of both making crap spirit taste better with a juniper infusion and as a way of preserving the medicinal benefits of juniper, so tonic water began in the days of the Raj as a way of making the daily anti-malarial quinine dose more palatable by diluting it with water and adding sugar. Inevitably someone realised it was even more palatable with gin in it.

My scoring grid, before I cover it in tonic-spattered
tasting notes that ignore the categories of bitterness.
sweetness and effervescent DBS has carefully laid out
Quinine itself came originally from South America. In 1638 Countess Chinchona, wife of the Spanish Viceroy in Peru, was cured of a fever by a local healer using bark from the native quina tree; this popularised the substance across Europe, where it cured Charles II and Louis XIV, and the tree acquired the botanical name Cinchona Officinalis after the countess. However, the bark seems to have been in use in Rome (surrounded by malarial swamps in those days) at least as early as 1631, having been brought back by Jesuits (in fact it was known as “Jesuit’s bark”). The active ingredient quinine took its name from the native word for the tree, though “cinchona” turns up in the names of fortified wines like Kina Lillet and China Martini, which both contain extracts. Peru and the other countries where it grew outlawed the export of trees and seeds, and the bark became rare and precious, but eventually seeds were smuggled out to Indonesia and the tree became widely cultivated in Asia and the West Indies.

Mind you, modern tonic waters have much less quinine (but apparently still enough to make them fluoresce under UV lighting—there’s something you can try at home), although tonic is still recommended for treating nocturnal cramps. In fact anyone genuinely wanting to take therapeutic quinine might be interested in a concentrated tonic syrup that DBS and I were given to try by Louis Xavier Victor-Smith of Hendrick’s. It’s called Battersea Quinine Cordial though I don’t think it has actually had a commercial release yet. I thought it was yummy.

The quinine cordial they don't
want you to have
However, the Battersea Quinine Cordial was not among the tonics we tasted on Monday, although we had been sent a phial of John’s Tonic Syrup all the way from Arizona—it comes as a concentrate and you add soda water.

We initially tasted the tonics neat and DBS asked us to rank them in order of preference. Although the blindness of the tasting was laudable, owing to a shortage of glassware we had to taste the samples one at a time, which meant you somehow had to remember the flavours of all of them to make a comparison. DBS, ever the instinctive taxonomist, does like to know which of any group of samples is your “favourite”, but I often don’t have one—I’m just interested in the differences. Here are my tasting notes, in the order we tasted—bearing in mind that at the time I did not know what I was tasting in each case:

Tesco own brand Lime on the nose and palate. A bit one-dimensional. Quite sweet, lacking in bitterness. Not very effervescent.

Schweppes More fizz, more dominant bitterness, less citrus than the last one. Not much happening in the aroma department.

Britvic Very effervescent, giving an interesting mouthfeel. Balanced citrus notes. Nose is more complex than previous two.

John's Tonic Syrup, handmade at the Tuck Shop
restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona
John’s Tonic Syrup This one is frankly brown, which is a bit of a giveaway (although, as we didn’t even know which tonics were on test, I guessed it was David’s own homemade tonic syrup, which is pretty terrifying). This one was unexpectedly savoury and vegetal, with an extraordinary spicy, herbal nose and earthy root flavours. Plenty of bitterness—perhaps too much for drinking on its own. Leaves a disturbing tide mark of interesting scum around the glass. Overall, quite intriguing, but a bit outside the comfort zone if tonic water is what you're after.

Fever Tree Good mouthfeel from the balanced effervescence. Plenty of citrus on the nose, although unfortunately it reminds me of some cleaning product. Good level of bitterness, though a shade too much for drinking on its own. Good balance of lemon and lime, though the taste seems a bit crude.

Schweppes Slimline Big citrus nose—though not backed up on the palate, which is pretty empty. A slightly austere mouthfeel. Overall a bit watery, which at least makes it easy enough to drink on its own.

Fentimans Rather an overwhelming nose of citrus. Big exotic flavours, including lemongrass, are a giveaway: although we weren’t trying to identify the brands, Fentimans is pretty distinctive.

6 O’Clock Very bold! Nose does have a hint of varnish but on the palate it is rather tasty.

Obliged to rank them, I put Schweppes and Britvic joint first, 6 O’Clock third, Tesco fourth, Fever Tree fifth, Fentiman’s sixth, Schweppes Slimline seventh and poor John’s tonic last. In truth I was only certain about the last three, and even then I think Fentiman’s is actually quite nice but too overwhelming as a mixer. Likewise the brown syrup is fascinating but not what I look for in a tonic water. (Or perhaps it just takes a bit of getting used to?)

The winners, by popular vote
As a group, our overall rankings put Schweppes first, Britvic and Schweppes Slimline joint second, Fever Tree and Fentimans joint fourth, Tesco and 6 O’Clock joint sixth and John’s syrup limping in lasting place. Apparently these are pretty standard results for this sort of blind test, and in fact mirror a home tasting that DBS held, where Britvic came out a surprise winner.

I don’t drink tonic water on its own, so I had no real yardstick to compare against; but I do drink G&T, and we now had a chance to taste the top three (plus 6 O’Clock, for curiosity’s sake I guess) with gin (Bombay Sapphire in this case). I added Fever Tree too, because it is what I usually drink at home. The results were a bit different:

Britvic Dominated by citrus and sweetness—too sweet for my tastes.

Schweppes Less sweet than Britvic and more citric than Fever Tree. Has a sort of neutrality about it; arguably a benchmark taste for what a tonic “should” taste like.

Fever Tree Compared to the others this is all about mid-range notes for me, warm and almost spicy (Fever Tree don’t say what goes into it but do mention “botanical oils”), compared to the high citric notes that dominate some others. It’s probably worth experimenting with matching different gins and different tonic waters.

6 O’Clock Rather nice, though I kept getting an odd hint of mustard (I was alone in this observation). This tonic was actually created to match with 6 O’Clock gin, a combination I’d be keen to try.

Schweppes Slimline Doesn’t taste much of anything.

The lesson? Well, if you’ve always used the same tonic you might well be surprised by the differences if you shop around. Mind you, if your default tonic is Schweppes then this test at least shows that you can rest assured life is not passing you by.