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.


  1. Shrubs were both vinegar and spirit, but not generally together. Either way a shrub is more about the preservation of the fruit than the flavour of the liquid .

  2. nice post and you are the best blogger I've ever read.