Thursday 30 December 2010

How we like to take our medicine

Some bitters are now sold with one specific benefit in mind

Given that alcohol is, most of the time, fundamentally bad for you, it’s interesting how often we as a species turn to it in the hope that it will improve our health. I suppose there is the idea that anything that makes you feel good must be doing you good, plus the known preservative capabilities: in fact in many cases the alcohol may simply be a vehicle for the cure. But there is an interesting cycle of medicine and recreation. Gin started life probably as a tincture of health-giving juniper berries; by the time Englishmen in far-flung malarial parts of the Empire were looking for something to wash down their medicinal quinine the gin to which they turned was fully recreational. And it was not long before the quinine tonic was being consumed for fun too.

Dr Leizaola explains the medicinal/recreational interface to DBS
Visual Anthropologist Dr Ricardo Leizaola recently put on a modest exhibition (now sadly closed) at Goldsmiths College, in New Cross, south London, on just such alcohol-based healing. Originally intended simply as a compendium of remedies, the display became more complex, illustrating “the intersections between and among nominally different ways of thinking” as Dr Leizaola discovered a vast range of tinctures from different cultures—all for sale in multicultural London.

Here among things we recognise, such as Angostura, Peychaud’s and the offerings of the Bitters Truth, we see Yoyo, Taabea, Adutwumwai and Dr Aladdin’s The 7 Keys. Dr Laizaola makes a good point by showing how one can buy Dandelion and Burdock Bitters marketed as a cocktail ingredient at the same time that you can buy it as a health-giving tonic—ironically even as a “detox” tincture (and this is something that is 45% alcohol). It’s easy to forget how herbal snifters such as Jägermeister, Becherovka and Chartreuse were originally medicinal.

"Gin bitters"—apparently rather tasty
Dr Leizaola himself remembers how, growing up in Venezuela, it was common to stuff a handful of watercress into a bottle of rum to make a tonic. “Watercress is used more as medicine than as salad green in Venezuela,” he says. “It is boiled in milk and given to those with chest-related problems and colds. It is macerated in rum for the same problems but also used for recreational purposes. It is actually
one of the most popular bitters, with a peppery flavor and clear colour. Radishes are also macerated in rum or vodka as a warmer and appetizer—it tastes quite good despite the funny smell!” I think we’re going to have to get busy in the Institute’s lab…

Other products, once sold as a cure-all, are now marketed in some parts of the world entirely as enhancers of male sexual potency—a video screen shows a TV commercial for Mamajuana Kalembu, from the Dominican Republic, in which a young buck eyes a nymph emerging from the sea towards him…then straight past him into the arms of a goofy nerd. His secret? You guessed it. Meanwhile one Caribbean product seems to rely solely on its name—“Bedroom Bully”—to make the point, while Mighty Power and Resurrection Formula don’t leave too much to the imagination either.

Even today restorative/detoxifying tinctures are sold as a conceptual
opposite of booze, yet containing as much alcohol by volume as whisky
The actual content of these tinctures varies enormously: in London markets you can buy dry herb/spice/bark mixes so you can knock up you own mamajuana and Dr Leizaola bought a few examples, clearly containing different ingredients, despite claiming to be the same thing. Perhaps it’s all a testament to our universal need to believe we can change our health and fortunes by eating strange, rare things.

In parts of Africa there is a tradition of “gin bitters”. English colonists brought with them their own traditional infusions—gin and tonic—and the name stuck. (I had guessed that the oddly-named King George Bitters—“God’s Blessing”—which claims to cure at least seven different ailments, hailed from some ex-colony, as I know that Trinidad’s Angostura* was an official supplier of bitters to George V, but Dr Leizaola tells me it actually comes from this country.)

Now Ghanian Herb Afrik Gin Bitters is sold** for recreational consumption too—and is actually Dr Leizaola’s top tip for tastiness, along with Alomo Bitters from the Kasapreko company, also in Ghana. Expect some cocktail recipes on this blog soon.

More photos from the exhibition may be found at our Flickr page.

Dr Leizaola’s tip for buying many of these products is Kumasi Market in Granville Arcade, Brixton, London.

* Actually invented by a German doctor in Venezuala, as a cure for stomach upset and fever.
** By GIHOC Distilleries—who also produce a couple of "gins" based on molasses spirit, which sound intriguing.

Monday 27 December 2010

Winter wonders at Purl

DBS considers the merits of the Blue Blazer
You may recall an earlier reference to a foray to molecular mixology nexus Purl in November—it’s a place where nothing is quite as it seems and drinks you thought you knew are deconstructed and reimagined before your very tongue. So we were delighted to be invited down there again to taste some highlights from their new winter menu.

I like to maintain a healthy cynicism about most things, and while showmanship is part of the cocktail experience I do like to judge every drink on what it ultimately tastes like. Purl’s mango and pine “caviar” is imaginative and looks beautiful, but part of me feels that I don’t really want rubbery sacs floating in my drink. But much of molecular mixology is actually (ironically)  about this sort of unmixing, and presenting the flavour elements somehow separated; the most successful Purl drink I’d had to date was their Earl Grey Martini, where the tea flavour is locked into a foam that floats on the Martini and you are hit by alternating taste waves as you sip. And there is much to be said for this—after all, I’m sure we all would rather our Christmas dinner plate contained discrete piles of turkey, gravy, roasties, stuffing, sprouts (hey, I like sprouts), between which our knives and forks can flit, rather than a purée of everything together.

So what did Purl have in store for us? And would it make sense on the tongue or be merely full of helium and jelly, signifying nothing?


(Left) Crystal Clear Martinez, (right) a teacup of Purl
David had: 
Crystal Clear Martinez
Jensen’s Old Tom Gin, Gancia sweet vermouth, maraschino, Bob’s Orange Bitters

Orangey and sweet. Makes you realise just what a long journey it has been from this sort of drink to the Dry Martini. I’m not familiar with Gancia, but my tastebuds are fooled into thinking there is red vermouth in here even though the colour shows otherwise. Perhaps it’s just been years since I drank a sweet white vermouth (although my mother used like Cinzano Bianco on the rocks as an aperitif with a slice of lime, and I recall thinking it was rather a nice drink). But I don’t have a terribly sweet tooth, and all in all this is a bit too sugary for me. My search continues.

Clayton had:
Hendrick’s gin, Doom Bar bitter, hops, cinnamon, anise, wormwood

The drink that the bar is named after, purl was originally ale spiked with wormwood and perhaps other bitter flavours such as orange peel. It was apparently popular as an early-morning eye-opener for labourers—I guess the bitterness kept you perky (ale was not originally hopped). Later it became a drink of mulled ale spiked with gin, sweetened with sugar and tickled with spices. Purl’s purl is a combination, a mix of bitter beer and gin, served warm and sweetened with brown sugar and honey. Not all the ingredients are listed on the menu: I’m pretty sure there is orange in this too. It is sweet but also with a bitter edge and a striking savoury note—perhaps salty, almost meaty. Christmas spices are to the fore and it all seems very seasonal. But again, it is ultimately too sweet for my palate, too sticky to be hearty or quaffable.
DBS says: “I found this a rather tasty drink and was happy to finish off Hartley's teacup. A recent enthusiast of hot cocktails (I've even tried a hot Martini!) I enjoyed the transition from the spirit to the sweetness of the ale finishing with spice.”


Tom prepares the ice cream
David had: 
Nitro-Egg-Nog Ice Cream
Diplomatico Reserva rum, whole egg, cream, sugar and spices, topped with flamed mincemeat

David wolfed down this construction before I had a taste so Purl co-owner Tom knocked me up a taster of my own. Given that egg nog traditionally contains egg, cream and sugar I guess it was inevitable that the twitchy trigger fingers of the Purl gang would bring the liquid nitrogen to bear and turn it into an ice cream. My sample was actually much less intense than I expected, in terms both of booziness and sweetness, but expect a rum and raisin ice cream essentially.

The impish Pickleback
Clayton had:
Black Bush Irish Whiskey, served straight up, with a dill pickle foam, dill pickle flavoured cocktail stick and pickle selection

DBS had been gleefully telling stories of the concept of the Pickleback for some time—a shot of Irish whiskey with a pickle juice chaser “to take the edge off the whiskey”. This is clearly nonsense, as Irish whiskey in my experience doesn’t have an edge to be gotten rid of, but the combination here rears its head. It’s not so strange a concept: many cocktails take base spirits and add sweet and/or sour ingredients and the use of vinegar rather than lemon juice goes back to “shrubs” of the 18th century*. In fact the drink here comes across as a sort of Gibson Manhattan, if you see what I mean.

The vinegar presence is subtle and the there is also a strange savouriness, salty and smoky, but also with hints of cream and chocolate. The beverage is served in a port pipe, a vessel with a stem at the base, like a tobacco pipe, allowing you to draw liquid off the bottom. As a way of drinking port it’s pretty pointless (I was given a set once and even the manufacturers struggle to explain themselves, muttering something about the liquid at the bottom being unoxidised; yet the aroma from the surface of the drink is a big part of the pleasure). In this case it means you can sip your drink while the garnish sits, undisturbed, right under your nose, and the aroma of juicy veg and onion acids plays a big part in the experience. Tom did suggest, as I daintily sucked on my pipe stem, that if you knocked it back in one hearty suck then the whiskey is quickly followed down the pipe by the pickle foam, with an intriguing flavour evolution, but I was not about to cane my cocktail. Normally the foams work well because you smell and taste them as you tip the liquid through them to your lips, but here perhaps the port pipe concept is actually working against the foam. I enjoyed this drink, though I couldn’t comfortably drink more than one.
DBS says: “I tried an original Pickleback (a shot of Jameson's followed by a shot of pickle brine) about twelve months ago, and found that horrific. I still shudder at the memory. So you can imagine my reluctance to try Hartley’s drink. In the interests of science I proceeded—and was pleasantly surprised. In short, if you must have a Pickleback, have one at Purl.”


Mixing the Blue Blazer
David had: 
Blue Blazer
Four Roses Yellow Label bourbon thrown ablaze between silver vessels, with selected spices and sugar

Invented as a showpiece by the legendary “Father of Mixology” Jerry Thomas in the 19th century, the Blue Blazer involved mixing burning Scotch whisky with hot water by tossing it between two tankards. “If done well this will have the appearance of a continued stream of liquid fire,” wrote Thomas in his 1862 How to Mix Drinks. Tom certainly has the action down. But I’d always thought the drink sounded rather dull actually to imbibe. I was pleasantly surprised by this one: it is smoother than neat bourbon, with a softening fruitiness, yet has a whisky bite on the finish. The heat brings out the aromas of the volatile citrus oils. It has a really interesting flavour and a medicinal quality—in a good sense. The Purl boys don’t put all the ingredients on the menu, but I think Tom said this one also contained Chase blackberry liqueur and Green Chartreuse, which explains some of the fruity, spicy complexity.
DBS says: “I am in no doubt that the Blue Blazer is my favourite and very likely the most enjoyable one I have had at Purl so far (but then I am one for theatrics).”

The egg cup with its cover
Clayton had: 
Green Fairy Sazerac
Hennessey VSOP stirred with sugar, lemon peel and Peychaud’s Bitters, topped with a Butterfly absinthe “air”

The vessel for this one is a silver egg cup that comes with its own domed cover. The drink is actually served in the cover, inverted and rested in the cup, becoming a flagon that can only be put down in its “holder”. This sort of fun aside, the Green Fairy Sazerac turns out to be my favourite drink of the evening. A Sazerac normally has its dose of absinthe controlled by, say, rolling some around the inside of the glass then pouring out the excess before adding the remaining ingredients. Here the green foam (sorry, “air”—there is a difference apparently) holds the absinthe flavour apart from the cool sweetened brandy beneath so that you are aware of both and the absinthe neither dominates nor is lost. There is something creamily moreish about it, reminiscent of an Alexander.

(Left) the Blue Blazer; (right) the Green Fairy Sazerac in the upturned cover
Butterfly is a new brand in this country but is made to a 1905 Boston recipe and has a minty quality. We’re actually showcasing it at the Candlelight Club on Saturday 15th January.

My favourites of the evening? The Sazerac, followed by the Blue Blazer followed by the Pickleback. By the time you come to drink it the Blue Blazer is simply an intriguingly-composed hot whisky drink, but the other two make good use of the flavour separation that is a hallmark of molecular mixology. I’d like to taste the Pickleback in a more conventional glass, though.

For more pictures see this set on Flickr.

* I can’t quite establish whether shrubs used either spirits (typically run or brandy) or vinegar, or whether you'd mix vinegar with your booze; sources conflict.

Thursday 23 December 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.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

#3 The Christmas Curiosity Cabinet

#3 The Christmas Curiosity Cabinet

You've finally finished the delayed Christmas Dinner, watched Her Majesty addressing the nation and, as you're cosy and rather full, it's time for a little afternoon tipple before the inevitable turkey sandwiches for supper.

What to drink? Sherry? Port? An Old Fashioned or perhaps an Evans Gin & Tonic? All good options, but what about those beverages that only seem to rear their heads during the festive season; Snowballs, Cherry B and the iconic Babycham? Here is an introduction to these classics so that you can make a suitably informed decision on your holiday beverages.

Babycham (6.0%ABV)

A sparkling champagne perry made in Shepton Mallet under the label of the cider company Gaymers. It was created in 1953 and, by the look of the packaging, it hasn't ever changed. Doing a little digging on the Waitrose website, it seems that Babysham was the first alcoholic beverage to be adevrtised on UK TV and was seen by some as representing a form of feminisim from the fifties in the male-dominated UK pubs of the time. Apparently the "cham" in Babycham comes from their logo, which shows a Chamois (a goat-antelope).

Babycham is a golden colour and not too fizzy; it has a slight smell of pears, mixed with a light maltiness. The initial taste is of perry: basic, but okay. The taste doesn't last too long and is a bit flat. One of its most notable characteristics was a finish which is reminiscent of corn savoury snacks, such as Wotsits.

French 7.5mm*
1 lump of sugar, 3-4 drops Orange Bitters
Juice 1/4 lemon, 15-20ml Gin
Add the Orange Bitters to the suagr cube in the bottom of a Champagne Flute.
Add enough gin to cover the sugar cube, add lemon juice, give a little swirl and
top up with Babycham.

In case you haven't guessed, this is a tongue-in-cheek "baby" version of the French 75 (supposedly named after the 75mm artillery piece).

Cherry B. (11.5% ABV)

Served in small, crown-capped bottles, Cherry B is a cherry wine that is best served on ice or with lemonade. As with the other two drinks, this brand is managed by Constellation Europe, a Guildford-based drinks company. Further information on this is thin on the ground.

Cherry B tastes a bit like cherry pie filling. It looks dark and could easily be mistaken for port. On reflection, this tastes predominently of wine and not of cherries. It tastes like it should be more syrupy or sticky then it actually is, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, it has a metallic aftertaste, which easily counteracts any inital pleasant flavours.

Snowball (3.5% ABV)

This a premixed version of the advocat, lime and lemonade cocktail and was made by Goldwell until 1989. It is now made in Shepton Mallet under Constellation Europe (just like Babycham).
The vintage mascot of Goldwell's drink, Susie Snowball, suggests that it "gives you that oooh! feeling", but, judging by the reaction of a friend who tried it yesterday, I would say that it gave him more of an eeew! feeling.

For the record, despite the above, I quite like Snowballs and they are the firm favourite of dear Mumsie and have been for decades. So, on to the taste:

For me, this was unquestionably the best of the bunch. Visually, it reminded me of a light custard or lemon curd. It tastes very sweet and a touch sickly; after the initial sweet creaminess, you feel the bubbles of the lemonade, followed by some citrus notes. I'd like to do a compariosn with this and a freshly mixed snowball. For interest alone, this is recommended.

All three are available from Asda (Babycham is also available here in 70cl) and they cost about £3 for a pack of four.
Tescos sell Babycham and Snowballs for a similar price.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

A new gold standard for mincemeat

David's mincemeat vodka—with IAE gong, I notice

Took delivery of Mr Bridgman-Smith’s homemade mincemeat vodka for the Candlelight Club the other day. I don’t know what the bottles originally contained but he’s made his own labels—and I see he has awarded himself an IAE Gold Medal. Well, what’s the point in running an institute if you can’t shower yourself with awards, prizes and commendations?

Having finished the vodka he took the boozy mincemeat left over and added it to cider—presumably on the same principle that spent sloes from sloe gin are sometimes used to make “slider”. I’ve had some and it’s jolly tasty: it would probably suit mulling.

The mincemeat vodka has been made an as ingredient in one of the cocktails for this Saturday’s Candlelight Club Christmas special. Here are the recipes that Will Sprunt has come up with:

Mince Flip

Homemade mincemeat vodka, sherry, cream, nutmeg

Related to the Alexander cocktail, this concoction is basically Christmas in a glass

Chestnuts on an Open Fire

SW4 gin, Bowmore single malt whisky, chestnut syrup

A fruity, smoky, nutty short

Ginger Snap
Rum, advocaat, ginger beer, Boker’s Bitters

Like a spicy Dark n’ Stormy cocktail with an extra indulgent richness

Cherry Christmas

SW4 gin, cherry bitters, rosemary tincture, cranberry juice

Long and fruity with an aromatic perfumed twist

Mulled Sour

SW4 gin, port, cointreau, lemon juice, Boker’s Bitters

Sweet and sour mulled-wine flavours in a chilled tongue-tingling extravaganza

If you’re interested in coming along on Saturday, check out the details and ticketing info at

Sunday 12 December 2010

Meddling with the forces of Nature

The humble medlar, a mystifying bullet of a fruit
This a medlar. I’d heard of them but never actually seen one until a man turned up selling punnets of them at the market the other day. He advised that I could either make a jelly from them now or wait until they were “bletted” and eat them raw.

It turns out that, while related to the apple, they are actually part of the rose family, native to Persia and cultivated by the Romans, whence they spread all over Europe. They fruit late and are hardy enough to grow in all manner of conditions, even Scandinavia.

But they’re pretty tough even when ripe, hence the idea of the bletting—which basically means leaving them to soften. The Victorians used to sit them in damp sawdust or bran to blet, bringing them to the table in their sawdust. But how do you know when a medlar is bletted? (Sounds like a question for Rambling Syd Rumpo.)

Note the darkened, wrinkled skin of the first fruit I tried
After a week or so I noticed that one side of one of them was dark, soft and slightly wrinkled, do I delved in. The flesh had browned, with a few cavities appearing: it looked frankly off and had that powdery texture of an apple that is past its best. Out of curiosity I tried a bit that was still pale green and firm. It does taste like an apple but tart and with an extraordinarily dry mouthfeel. Not inedible but it’s hard to see why you would eat one when you could eat an apple instead.

From Alan Davidson’s The Oxford Companion to Food I learn that bletting is an “internal fermentation” that “gives the fruit an acid, aromatic taste that appeals to some and not to others”. D. H. Lawrence referred to them as “wineskins of brown morbidity, autumnal excrement”, giving off an “exquisite odour of leave-taking”. Probably wouldn’t work on the poster.

So it seems that the soft brown “off” flesh I discarded may have been precisely the delicacy I was looking out for. The Victorians used to scoop this out and mix it with sugar and cream for a dessert.

I originally decided to include this post simply out of curiosity, even though it didn’t really have anything to do with booze. But that reference to “fermentation” makes me realise that, when correctly bletted, there is something boozy going on. Those crafty Victorians, getting blatted on bletted fruit.

Four days later I noticed that the remaining medlars were beginning to soften to the touch, though without the exterior darkening. I sliced one in half and was surprised to see that the flesh was brown again, though this time without the pitting of the last fruit I tried. All one’s senses and experience say, “Do not eat this—it is putrefying,” but I decided to give it a go all the same.

The flesh of what I guess is a properly bletted medlar, now with the consistence of chestnut purée
This time it was rather different. The texture is like that of chestnut purée and the taste is like apple—baked apple, just as the man in the market said it would be. There are large seeds inside too, hidden in the sticky brown pulp, which take up much of the body of the fruit. And I wouldn’t describe it as a “wineskin” exactly—but I can just imagine mixing this with cream.

Subsequent investigation showed that they eventually pass over and become less pleasant, like that first one I tried. But at their peak they taste and feel remarkably like luscious, slow barked apple, with strong hints of almond.

Is there a place for the medlar in mixology? I doubt it. It doesn’t produce juice, exactly, though perhaps the molecular crowd could try fashioning some of the paste-like pulp into a quenelle and using it as a garnish or allowing it to sink to the bottom of the glass like a shipwrecked cargo of ambergris or frankincense. Actually its most useful characteristic is probably that incredibly dry mouthfeel of the under-ripe ones: when we were last at 69 Colebrooke Row Tony was extracting a tannin essence from grapeseeds solely so that he could use it to make a drier-than-dry Martini. I think a medlar could give it a run for its money.

Thursday 9 December 2010

London Cocktail Society Xmas Bash

Team 1 get busy creating their cocktail

An invitation came last week to what turned out to be a very jolly affair on Monday, the Christmas party of the London Cocktail Society. I think the LCS has only been in existence since September and it’s the brainchild of a clutch of drinks bloggers—Mark the Cocktail Geek (find him on twitter as @thecocktailgeek), Kate of London Cocktail Guide (@londoncocktail) and Emma the Gin Monkey (@ginmonkeyuk). You can check it out and sign up at

The results of the first round
Highlight of the evening was the Ready Steady Shake competition: each team was given a box of ingredients, at least three of which they had to use to make a cocktail—and the more ingredients they used the more points they would score, though the teams were all ultimately judged by the quality of the drink. Teams also had access to an array of standard cocktail ingredients and equipment and had two minutes to examine the contents of the box and just four minutes to create the drink.

Our own concoction was a variation on the Bloody Mary featuring muddled red chilli pepper, a sage-rubbed rim, three different citrus juices and rocket pesto! It was garnished with a strawberry, though having tasted it after the event I think it would have benefitted from the sweetness of a few strawberries muddled in the mix. Still, I think we managed to use everything from our box. We came third which, out of just six teams, is not exactly stellar, I suppose.

Our own cocktail is judged, it would appear, against a raw potato
There was also a Swap Shop table where people brought in samples, particularly of their home-made tinctures—needless to say DBS produced some wanton peculiarities such as Perigan’s so-called Cannabis Gin and his own bacon vodka, by which the guests were appropriately horrified.

Big thanks to the organisers and suppliers of the goody bag contents—vodka from Chase, Old Tom gin from Hayman’s, Fevertree’s Mediterranean Tonic Water, cocktail vouchers from The Loft and a discount offer from Gerry’s.

This unlucky team find a tin of cat food in their box. They don't use it. (Though it did give me the idea of
simply smearing the outside of the glass with it and calling your cocktail a Dirty Protest…) 

David gloats over the Swap Shop table. Note his bacon vodka in the foreground

Saturday 4 December 2010

Sloe! sloe! Quick, quick—sloe!

DBS braces himself for the task ahead. He looks suitably daunted
Sloe gin is not something I think about most of the time. But while testing some serving suggestions with Beefeater’s Winter Edition gin I tried one cocktail that called for sloe gin as an ingredient. I happened to have a miniature of Plymouth’s version and it got me wondering how many firms made it and how they compared.

I suggested a tasting to DBS and, being a compulsive taxonomist, he jumped at the idea. Considering that one manufacturer told us that most of the people he knew who drank it actually made their own, it was surprising that we managed to unearth 17 different products to try. (There at least another three which we have not yet tried.) All the producers were happy to supply samples (well, all except Gordon’s, but since theirs is the mostly widely distributed perhaps they felt they didn’t need the publicity)—in fact I think many were delighted that anyone even knew about their product.

Traditionally you harvest sloes, fruit of the blackthorn and related to the plum, and infuse them in gin with sugar, sometimes adding cloves, cinnamon and/or almond (though apparently a well-made sloe gin extracts an almond-like flavour from the sloe stones). Pick your berries in October or early November when they are most ripe, and prick or cut them. Folklore has it that this should be done using thorns from the bush itself—and if you must use a metal knife or fork, be sure it be silver. Arrrr. I have heard that the sugar is not just for taste, but is necessary early in the procedure to extract the full flavour from the berries. Add the sloes in a half-and-half mixture with gin, along with the sugar, and shake daily for the first week, then weekly for a month or two. Sounds like the idea is to have it ready just in time for Christmas, though I’m told the flavour will be better if left till the next Christmas. Even after the liquor is strained off, the leftover berries can by used to make “slider”, cider infused with post-gin sloes, or indeed to make sloe jam.

(Left to right) Will Sprunt, me, Fleur de Guerre, Compton-Bassett, David
Bridgman-Smith, Robert Beckwith, Sara Bridgman-Smith
What you end up with conventionally is something that balances red berry fruit, tartness, sweetness, dry tannins from the skins and warmth from the spirit. But if making your own is such a traditional ritual (even Prince Phillip does it), how would these commercial products measure up?

We assembled a team of seven: David and Sara Bridgman-Smith, Fleur de Geurre, Compton-Bassett, Robert Beckwith, Will Sprunt and myself. In order to sample this many different products between seven of us would mean 119 glasses which our venue, Graphic, weren’t able to free up, so we sourced some plastic shot glasses. (I’ve no idea what the “correct” vessel for tasting sloe gin is, but at least this way it was a level playing field.) Perhaps we should have had some homemade sloe gin to compare against, but we would have needed to think about that months earlier—and it wouldn’t really have been much use to you, the reader, as you could not have gone out and bought that anyway.

Of course it’s hard to keep a memory of 17 flavours in your head, and David had an idea to split the samples into four tranches, giving a favourite out of each, then seeking our favourites of the favourites (slightly flawed—what if the best and second best of all turn out to be in the same tranche?). We also paused halfway through, to wrap our tongues in hot towels and massage them back into shape.

Made it to the end! And my notes are still relatively legible
But it quickly emerged to me that there was another way of subdividing the samples. Some seemed clearly “classic” in style—specifically Plymouth, Hayman’s, Gordon’s and Marks and Spencer—with a deep red colour and aiming for a traditional balance of the flavours described above. Then there was a second group which I described as “ginny”—Hawker’s, Sipsmith, Foxdenton and Sloe Motion. These were the ones that clearly wanted you to remember that this was originally gin. (I gather some commercial products just use neutral grain spirit and bypass the actual gin stage; which seems valid enough to me. I suspect that the traditional reason for starting with gin is that that is what was to hand. It might be interesting to home-make batches side by side using gin and vodka.) These high-gin examples unsurprisingly were also the ones highest in alcohol. (Overall the sloe gins ranged from 17.6% to 30% ABV, but most were around 26%, evidently the point which most manufacturers felt offered the right balance.)

The remaining samples, which I dubbed “artisanal”, went in various directions. Some were light and fruity, others sweet, others heavily spiced. I’ll save my individual tasting notes till the end and cut to the chase—which drink was best? Attempting to rank all 17 in order of preference was too big a task for a mortal palate, but we felt that tasters would probably gravitate towards certain favourites, so we asked everyone to name their top three, in order. Awarding three points for a first place position, two points for a second and one for a third, we were able to come up with a reasonably scientific scoring system. It’s also worth noting that between seven people picking three sloe gins each, only ten products actually featured at all. Out of the total of 42 points awarded, here is how they were allotted:

(7 points)

Hawker’s, Sipsmith and Bramley & Gage Organic
(all with 6 points)

(5 points)

6th: Juniper Green (4 points)
7th: Jack Cain (2½ points)
= 8th: Sloe Motion (2 points)
= 8th: Bramley & Gage Original (2 points)
10th: Gabriel Boudier (1½ points)

See below for the also-rans that received nul points.

If you’ve not tried sloe gin there are, as you can see, plenty to choose from (though I note that the most widely available, Gordon’s, didn’t even make it into the top ten). I admit it’s not easy to get anything other than Gordon’s, though Majestic do stock Sipsmith’s. Follow the links to individual sites to find out how to purchase.

Full list with my tasting notes (in the random order in which we sampled them):
1. Moniack Sloe Liqueur (17.6%, £12.99) A light, orangey colour, more like a rosé wine. Cider nose. Sweet, light palate with a thin, simple taste.
2. Bramley and Gage Sweet Sloe Gin (26%, £11.49 for 35cl) B&G actually make three different sloe products. This is darker in colour than the Moniack and with a richer nose, of red berries. Also sweet, though better balanced. Almonds on the nose and palate. Herbal finish that, as Will points out, is reminiscent of certain Eastern European liqueurs and bitters.
3. Plymouth Sloe Gin (26%, c. £17.95) Darker but with a quieter nose and a drier, tarter palate. Balanced and straightforward. The website makes a song and dance about how traditional it is and the pure Dartmoor water that goes into it, but in fact the sloes come from Poland.
4. Sipsmith 2009 Vintage Sloe Gin (29%, £20 for 50cl) Sipsmith make their vodka, gin and sloe gin (in that order—the one from another) in a garage in west London, in the first new copper still to be built in London for about 200 years. They make a point of the fact that this batch was bottled last year. I categorise this as a gin-led product (hence the high ABV). Indeed it has a strong juniper “blue note” and makes the Plymouth seem quite almondy by comparison. I got a hint of pipe tobacco.
5. Bramley & Gage Sloe Gin (26%, £11.95 for 35cl) Unsurprisingly like no. 2 but not as sweet. Almonds less pronounced. Clear herbal nose with cinnamon on the palate. Expected to like it more.
6. Lyme Bay Sloe Liqueur (26%, from £13.23 for 35cl) Smells of juniper but is actually quite sweet and orangey on the palate. Also has some dark brown note, like coffee, perhaps.
7. Gordon’s Sloe Gin (26%, from £15.99) Citrus nose, balanced palate—almonds, alcohol, berries. Will mentioned that it tastes of used tea bags—in a good way—and once the idea is there you can definitely taste an Earl Grey element.
8. Hawker’s (28%, about £17.50) Apparently this was the first sloe gin to be made commercially, to a recipe dating back to 1790. Although it is made by Desmond Payne, Master Distiller for Beefeater, it actually uses Plymouth gin as its base, but its sloes (unlike with Plymouth’s own sloe gin) are wild-picked on Dartmoor. I think this is a cracking example and once I had tasted it it remained my favourite. It is a ginny sloe gin (hell, I guess I just like the taste of gin) but I these elements balance well with the sloes and the whole is better integrated than the other gin-led examples.
9. Juniper Green Organic Sloe Gin (26%, £22.25) Uses wild sloes from Romania. Citrus nose, with a hint of fermenting pears, and elements of cinnamon and coffee on the palate. Popular round the table.
10. Hayman’s Sloe Gin (26%, £17.29) An example of the classic style. Smells of mulled wine and oranges, with a hint of maltwine (i.e. unaged whisky, and a distinctive element in genever). Well balanced, but not hugely interesting. By comparison the M&S version seems more weighted towards citrus and the Plymouth seems chocolatey.
11. Bramley & Gage Organic Sloe Gin (26%, £13.27 for 35cl, £22.47 for 70cl) Uses a different (organic) gin base from the normal B&G version. Smells faintly of ink or boot polish, but not necessarily in a bad way. Almondy, but less so that the non-organic version.
12. Sloe Motion Sloe Gin (26%, £15.95 for 35cl, 22.95 for 70cl) These people are sloe-crazy, making sloe brandy, sloe whisky, sloe vodka, sloe chutney, sloe truffles. They probably live in a house  built from compacted sloes. Perhaps surprisingly, the sloe gin falls into the gin-led category. Hints of lavender.
13. Gabriel Boudier (25%, £17.55) Made in Dijon, in France. Very soft and quite sweet. Perhaps suffered from coming late in the list, as there is more going on than you at first think. Will sums it up as “kind of pleasant”, which sounds like damning with faint praise.
14. Marks and Spencer Sloe Gin (26%, £10.95 for 50cl) A classic style, with an almond element but balanced, with no angles or corners. Nice enough.
15. Foxdenton Sloe Gin (29%, £18.95) “Recognisably Different Sloe Gin”, they say. They’re right in the sense that, even among the other ginny sloe gins, this one tastes as if they really didn’t want to contaminate their lovely gin with any more sloes than absolutely necessary. Rather unintegrated. Doesn’t work for me though others like it; it’s DBS’s favourite.
16. Cowen Sloe Gin (26%, £15.29 for 50cl) Smooth, subtle, herbal, with coffee notes. OK.
17. Jack Cain’s Sloe Gin (30%, £24 for 70cl, £4.95 for 5cl) The driest and strongest sample here. Cain was a 19th-Century entrepreneur, smuggler and illicit distiller in Northumbria and this is made to an “old family recipe”. Quite a hardcore drink, more like a sloe bitters, seemingly with no added sugar. But intriguingly complex, with elements of vanilla, chocolate, coriander. Probably quite a useful cocktail ingredient; I'm definitely going to try a Sloetini. You can buy miniatures online but if you want a full bottle you’ll have to get it in person from the makers or from Fenwick’s in Newcastle.

Friday 3 December 2010

When life gives you snow... make snowballs.

Well, not literally—I've not found too many people who are fond of this mix of Advocaat and lemonade (also available in handy premix bottles) other than dear old Mumsie.

But there has been some interesting work on snow cocktails. I was particularly impressed by a chap who had videoed himself in his garden making a mojito from the snow from his bird table.

There is a old fashioned lamp-post outside my wind, now adorned with lovely large icicles. Needless to say Mrs B. was not keen on me shimmying up it just to make a cocktail.

In the end I found some icicles donated by a kind neighbour...

Here is the result:
A Gin & Tonic made with Beefeater Winter (well, what else?) atheistically pleasing but a devil to drink.

A word about the Deadly Yellow Snow

A Deadly Yellow Snow in its simplest form
Reading DBS's post about his snowball experiments last night inspired me to go out and scoop up a pint glass of virgin snowflakes from the garden and attempt my own Snow Julep.

Like David I found that it pretty much impossible to drink without a straw—the liquid just sulks at the bottom of the powder.

The only solution I found was to mash the whole thing up with a spoon, producing, in effect, a Bourbon Slurpee. This looks rather pretty and holds its consistency very well: I can imagine it being a great thing to suck on of a hot summer's day.

Mind you, as I sat reading in bed last night nursing one of these concoctions I couldn't help thinking to myself that it actually wasn't very nice: it had unpleasant, bitter overtones that I put down to the mint that I found in the fridge not being in the first flush of youth.

But when I came down this morning I idly sipped the melted snow in the pint glass, expecting something, well, pure as the driven snow. In fact it was really foul, with horrible stale, dusty flavour. My wife thinks that foxes peed in the snow (but then she is convinced that everything in the garden is constantly urinated on by all of God's creatures). I suspect the truth is that the snow that lands in London has to fight its way through all kinds of pollution.

The Bourbon Slurpee serve
It's possible that DBS has a better quality of snow down in Havant. But if you're planning to experiment with snow in food or drink, you might want to taste it on its own first!

Deadly Yellow Snow
50 ml bourbon
Sugar lump
Fresh mint
Suburban snow

Place mint in a glass. Drop in sugar lump and muddle with the mint leaves. Add snow and pour in the whisky. Either drink with a straw or mix into an alcoholic Slush Puppy. Then discard.

Thursday 2 December 2010

Lab Update #3: Snow.

Lab update #3 - Fun with Snow

With all my scheduled meetings for the day cancelled, I decided to make the best of this impromptu day-off and use the weather in some drinks.
First I tried a Snow Julep using Jim Beam Green Label Bourbon, it's looks good and I thought it was a nice idea but it was very difficult to drink without a straw.

The next idea (below right) was inspired by Clayton (and I have to admit I feel the same) love of the G Vine ice balls, rather than one big ice ball to add to your whisky why not use a compacted snowball. Once I had packed it together I put it
in the freezer for a minute to let it harden up.
this seems to cool the drink moderately, but not as much as the Gvine cubes.
Below left: you can see a Gin & Tonic, "Evans" style served with another chunk snowball ice.

Some readers may think, using snow ice is all well and good but I would like to be warmed up.
Well I shall introduce you to my simple hot toddy recipe:

2pts Whisky
1pt Sugar Syrup
1pt Lemon Juice
4pts Boiling Water

I have scaled this up using 500ml whisky, 125ml sugar syrup, 125ml honey, 250ml lemon juice. I added the whisky sugar syrup and lemon juice to a saucepan and gently heated it, I then added the honey,a pinch of nutmeg, and stirred. After heating for a few minutes I removed the pan from the heat. After cooling I strained it and bottled it.
Voila! You have a premix hot toddy, just add hot water (1pt toddy mix : 2parts boiling water.)