Monday 19 December 2011

A cocktail for Christmas

Only a few days left till Christmas now, but still time for me to wish a hearty “God rest you!” to all you merry gentlemen and gentlewomen and to share a few tots of Christmas spirit.

I’m pleased to say that our seasonal cocktails went down a treat at the Candlelight Club this weekend, so I thought I’d share the recipes. However, I then realised that all but one of them involved ingredients you probably won’t have to hand—the Mince Flip uses mincemeat vodka (kindly made for us by DBS himself), the Cherry Christmas uses a rosemary tincture (made by infusing rosemary in vodka for about 24 hours), the Figgy Pudding uses fig liqueur and the Chestnuts on an Open Fire uses chestnut syrup. And of the course the Gold, Frankincense and Byrrh uses Byrrh and Goldschläger, not to mention Frankincense bitters!

But the sixth cocktail only uses ingredients you can easily find in the supermarket. It’s a sort of cross between the Dark n’ Stormy mixture of rum and ginger beer and that cheesy classic the Snowball. Mrs H. has become quite addicted to them.

Ginger Snap
1½ shots rum
1 shot advocaat
1 shot ginger wine (optional)
Ginger beer to top

Either shake everything but the ginger beer with ice and pour into an ice-filled highball, or just build it in the glass with ice if you don’t have shaker to hand. Then top up with ginger beer. Advocaat is made from brandy and eggs and is a bit like alcoholic custard, lending a rich, puddingy quality to this drink, which makes it dangerously moreish! The ginger wine isn’t essential but adds a bit more gingery pep.

If you’re after inspiration for more easy-to-make Christmas cocktails, Tesco have launched a slick-looking Christmas Cocktail Finder app on their Tesco Real Food website. You can search for recipes based on the ingredients you have to hand, or by details such as sweetness, glass type or even whether it is shaken, stirred or blended (presumably handy for when you really fancy a cocktail but simply haven’t the energy to deploy a shaker).

Despite all these variables, the database currently has only 69 recipes on it, but that’s still plenty to keep you going and almost certainly includes combinations that will be new to you. And while something like Simon Difford’s similar searchable database has, by contrast, thousands of recipes, the emphasis with the Tesco version is that all recipes require only ingredients you can easily get hold of in a supermarket. Such as Tesco, for example. As a spin-off from the website’s recipe finder, it also tells you the nutritional content of each drink (though not the number of alcohol units, oddly). I’ve just found another advocaat recipe here, the Kentucky Cheesecake (203 calories), which combines advocaat with bourbon, amaretto, lemon juice and maple syrup: I’m going to have to go and try that one. (That’s the thing about advocaat, by the way—once it’s open you’re supposed to keep it in the fridge and consume within six months. But you’re not really going to be wanting to drink it in the summer, so the only solution is just to keep drinking it now…)

Now, for the record, here are those other recipes:

Mince Flip
2 shots mincemeat vodka
1 shot cream
1 shot sweetish sherry, such as Harvey’s Bristol Cream

Shake everything with ice and pour into a Martini glass, then dust with nutmeg. The vodka is made simply by steeping mincemeat in vodka, though I couldn’t tell you exactly how David does it. Trade secret, I suspect!

Cherry Christmas
1½ shots gin
¾ shot cherry brandy
½ shot sugar syrup
¼ shot rosemary tincture
Dash of cherry bitters
Cranberry juice

Shake everything but the cranberry and pour into an ice-filled highball, then top with cranberry and stir briefly. This drink is all about the unexpected combination of cherry and rosemary. The precise amount of tincture you need will depend on how strong you have made it, so go easy to start with. We used Fee Brothers cherry bitters, which made quite a difference to the cherryishness of the drinks, as will the cherry brandy you use. Cherry Marnier has bright confectionary cherry flavour, whereas Cherry Heering is actually rather dark and savoury.

Chestnuts on an Open Fire
2 shots gin
1 shot apple juice
½ shot Laphroaig single malt whisky
½ shot chestnut syrup
½ shot lemon juice

Shake everything together and strain into a martini or coupe glass. I’ve lost track of the number of people (all ladies, now I think about it) who declare that they don’t like whisky but love this drink. It’s a relative of the Smoky Martini but lengthened and sweetened. You don’t have to use Laphroaig but it probably has the most smoky flavour so you don’t need much to make the point. The combination of spicy gin, fruit from the apple juice, chestnutty sweetness and smoky iodine from the whisky is fascinating. We used Monin chestnut syrup.

Figgy Pudding
2 shots bourbon
½ shot crème de figues
½ shot ruby port
Dash of Angostura Bitters
Orange peel garnish

Shake everything with ice and strain into a Martini glass. Squeeze a strip of orange peel over the top and drop it in. A variation of the Manhattan, the bourbon here sweetened and fattened by the puddingy flavours of figs and port with some Christmassy orange zing to finish. We used Briottet crème de figues, though there may be other fig liqueurs out there.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Gold, frankincense—and stir!

Gold, Frankincense and Byrrh: Stare into the drink and you can see the flakes of
gold from the Goldschläger

At the end of last month a bunch of us gathered at the newly opened Shaker & Co (formerly the pleasantly oriental Positively 4th Street and the scene of the New Sheridan Club’s 2008 “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” party) for an experimental seminar courtesy of the London Cocktail Society and Master of Malt, to have a look at the latter’s new range of “single varietal” bitters. I’ve talked a bit about them before, along with some experiments I have conducted using individual bitters in cocktails, but the object of the exercise on this occasion was to have a competition to blend them to make a definitive LCS bitters, which Master of Malt would then undertake to market.

The full range was there and the samples had helpfully been categorised into those you could safely use a lot of and the scary ones—such as very bitter infusions of wormwood or gentian, or the volcanically hot naga chilli—that you were warned to go easy on in your mix. I formed a team with Jenny from Sip or Mix: calling ourselves the Artemisians we decided to make an absinthe-influenced bitters which had 5 parts fennel, 4 parts liquorice, 4 parts coriander, 4 parts cardamom, 5 parts curaçao and one part each of black pepper, frankincense, angelica and, or course, wormwood. The aniseedy liquorice and fennel were actually balanced by the pretty strong citrus influence of the curaçao, and the bitterness of the wormwood offset by the sweetness of the curaçao and the liquorice. But it’s odd working on a bitters neat, given that it is something that will actually be used in minuscule doses in a cocktail. Should it even taste nice on its own? Peychaud’s certainly doesn’t! Perhaps it would be best to test it by putting a few drops in a glass of water…

Needless to say we didn’t win. I haven’t tried the winning formula, as it is presumably now an industrial secret in the Master of Malt labs, but it should be available for the MoM website soon. But it certainly gets you thinking about how some of the single varietals could be, erm, “leveraged” in cocktail making. Such as the coffee, chocolate or kola bitters, for example.

I’ve been doing some more tinkering with the Frankincense Bitters, not least because it is seasonal. Frankincense is not something that most of us are used to working with (though it is a key ingredient in Sacred gin). Made from the sap of the Boswellia sacra tree it is a fragrant resin that is burned for its aroma and smells a bit like cinnamon and a bit like hot solder (which has resin in it), a mysterious, almost dangerously aromatic smell, which was why I used a bit of the bitters in our Opium Dream cocktail for the 1920s Shanghai event at the Candlelight Club. My friend Fr. Michael Silver, a high-church priest by trade, sampled one of these cocktails and immediately picked up on the frankincense note, and I guess he would know!

Opium Dream
2 shots gin
2 shots mandarin, clementine or orange & mandarin juice
½ shot poppy liqueur
¼ shot lime juice
1 splash of bleue/blanche absinthe (we used La Clandestine)
5 drops Frankincense bitters

Shake and strain into a Martini or coupe glass. The poppy liqueur I used was from the Briottet range. Obviously I mainly used it because it existed and seemed appropriate, though it has a very confectionary, floral taste, a bit like rose or violet creams. It reminded me of grenadine, so this cocktail is really a Monkey Gland with Liqueur de Coquelicot de Nemours instead of grenadine, plus the frankincense. The mandarin juice was originally just there as a joke because it fitted the Chinese theme, but being sharper than orange juice it balances the sweetness of the liqueur. They sell cartons of clementine juice in Tesco now, I see.

The Gold, Frankincense and Byrrh cocktail
I’m using these bitters again for our Christmas party in a cocktail that I couldn’t resist inventing just for the name, really:

Gold, Frankincense and Byrrh
1 shot Byrrh
½ shot Goldschläger
5 drops frankincense bitters
Champagne or sparkling wine to top

Either shake the first three ingredients with ice or simply add them to a Champagne flute or coupe and top with chilled Champagne or sparkling wine. It has a distinct gingeriness from the Goldschläger plus aromatic and bitter notes from the Byrrh and that resinous mystery from the bitters. Like a very refined and holy mulled wine. Which isn’t mulled. But is quite seasonal.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Christmas book competition: the results!

To win a copy of Victoria Moore’s new book How to Drink at Christmas, I asked you simply to tell me what your favourite Christmas drink was, in whatever manner you chose. After much deliberation, bribery and a steward’s enquiry, I can reveal the winning entries.

Mr Giles Culpepper was quick to jab in his response: “My favourite Christmas tipple is a tumbler half full of red wine topped up with Scotch, commonly known as Queen Victoria’s Tipple.” As an afterthought he adds, “Go easy on the Scotch unless you’re keen on an evening of utter oblivion.”* Well, if you can’t embrace oblivion at Christmas, when can you do it? This makeshift and appealingly desperate-sounding drink is nicer than it sounds. I tried a half-and-half mix using a bottle of Primitivo I had open and some Johnnie Walker Red Label and it was actually rather unpleasant—somehow more astringent than either of the component ingredients. But when I increased the wine to two thirds it suddenly began to make more sense. I’m not sure if it is supposed to be drunk on the rocks but I doubt it would do any harm.

A Secret Martini, made using a miniature
shaker that I picked up from Shaker & Co:
very handy for one-person cocktails
Our next winner is Mr Maximillion Conrad, who submitted a cocktail recipe with accompanying haiku:

Fucking Christmas... Shit!
The New Sheridan Club, ahh...

Brings me Chappish joy. 
Secret Martini (a good name for the New Sheridan Club spy-themed party, no?)
3 oz. Gin

1 oz. Lillet Blanc

2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Shake with cracked ice (preferably to the rhythm of "Jingle Bells") and strain into a chilled martini glass. I find it to have the perfect balance of inducing forgetfulness, and making conversation flow effortlessly.

Related to the Vesper Martini (from the James Bond novel Casino Royale: 3 parts gin, 1 part vodka, ½ part Lillet, lemon twist), this drink does away with the vodka, and doubles the presence of the Lillet Blanc. The Vesper was originally made with Kina Lillet, which contained quinine and would have had a bitter edge, like the red vermouth Punt e Mes; as here, many modern bartenders add Angostura to replace the lost bitterness, though of course this also adds colour. (As an alternative try Cocchi Americano or China Martini.) I knocked one up using No.3 gin and the resulting cocktail was relatively sweet, both from the sweet orange in the gin and the orangey sweetness of the Lillet.

Ms Sadie Doherty submitted this intriguing blend:

My favourite Christmas tipple would have to be 1 part Goldschläger (or Becherovka if you can get your hands on some—I’ve only had it once but it was lovely), 1 part ginger wine, 1 part lemon juice, shaken with plenty of ice and topped up with fiery ginger beer. It doesn’t really have a name so I will call it a Gingerbread Fan for want of better pun.

A Gingerbread Fan made using Becherovka.
That garnish is a slice of ginger, by the way,
not a potato crisp
Ginger and cinnamon flavours make this a very Christmassy drink, though the hearty dose of lemon counters the sweetness of the liqueur and actually makes it sharp and refreshing. It’s not too alcoholic, if that should prove a factor. Becherovka is indeed not that easy to get hold of here (though ubiquitous and dirt cheap in the Czech Republic).

Ms Elaine Myburgh’s offering comes with an elaborate origin story:

It was a treacherously dark and stormy night, with howling winds and shrieks galore, when two aspiring mixologists called on help from above to create a drink so potent as to bleach all their nefarious deeds from their fellow mens’ memories.
Out came the Sailor Jerry’s rum to warm their cockles, the port to put hair back on chests that had long forgotten what it felt like to puff up in pride, the orange flame to hearken back to days in sunny splendour on far of shores. 
Stirred slowly over ice, with the bartenders version of Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble softly repeated four times to hide the true potency of this devilishly delicious concoction it was then finished of with a dash of fresh OJ and a cinnamon stick to stir as garnish.

Sailor Jerry’s is not my favourite spiced rum—too sweet with cloying vanilla for me—but in the right combination it can work. Elaine has so far not given me the actual recipe, but it clearly involves Sailor Jerry’s, port, orange juice plus the cryptic reference to the “orange flame”. Sounds a bit sweet, but certainly Christmassy.

A Sloe Gin Fizz
The final prize goes to Ms Claire Wallin for reminding us that Champagne and sloe gin are an excellent combination, with the dry acidity of the wine balancing with the sweetness of the fruity spirit. “The mix of bubbly goodness with what I class as (almost) one of my five a day is a perfect
seasonal treat!” she says.

As it happens this drink is in the very book that you have been competing for, as a Sloe Gin Fizz, mixing one part sloe gin to three parts sparkling wine. I would probably use less sloe gin than this, but it depends on the intensity and sweetness of the brand (or homemade special) you have to hand.

Those are our five winners, though honourable mention must go to Mr Rob Harrison, who introduced me to the Gin Basil Smash, a drink invented at Le Lion in Hamburg and which went on to win Best New Cocktail at Tales of the Cocktail in 2008, but of which I don’t think I was aware. Not only that but he presented his recipe in limerick form:

“Hendrick's smash”, a delectable sin:
Take lemonade, ice, to begin,
A fistful of basil,
A lemon to dazzle,
Then fill to the top with some gin!

You can see that Rob is firmly in the Hendrick’s camp, though I notice that Jörg Meyer, the inventor, doesn’t specify a brand. Interestingly Rob uses lemonade, whereas most recipes combine gin and basil with sugar syrup and lemon juice: take a good handful of basil, muddle it in a shaker with half a lemon to extract the juice from both. Then add 20ml sugar syrup and 60ml gin. Shake it all vigorously with ice and double strain into a glass filled with cracked or cubed ice. The result is quite green.

However, in the final analysis, interesting as this cocktail is, I decided it wasn’t Christmassy enough to make it into the winning five! Sorry, Rob.

Thanks to all who entered, and a Merry Christmas (with the emphasis on merry) to all our readers.

* Kingsley Amis’s advice for making this drink is: “The quantity of Scotch is up to you but I recommend stopping a good deal short of the top of the tumbler.”

Friday 9 December 2011

Down on the farm... A Cocktail from McDonalds

We like, nay, we are obligated, to experiment here at the institute and inspiration can come from all sorts of places. For the festive period this fast-food chain, founded in 1955, has released a range of limited-edition foods. These include Mozzarella Bites, which are small circles of deep-fried mozzarella.

City Farm
A variation on the Red Snapper, this pairs tomato juice with the rather herbal Berkeley Square Gin, a dash of lemon juice for balance and some bitters for bite. The Mozzarella Bite is used as a garnish.

25ml Berkeley Square Gin
50ml Tomato Juice
10ml Lemon Juice
Dash of Bitters

Shake with ice, strain into a Martini glass and garnish.

The Taste
I was dubious but it works surprisingly well, rather well balanced. The herbal notes of the gin, basil, sage and a touch of lavender are good partners for the tomato juice and the lemon juice adds some bite.

Additionally you get a little snack from the garnish which you can dip in the cocktail in the same way you may use salsa.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Win a copy of 'How 
to Drink at Christmas'

To help your Yuleide quaffing go with ease, confidence and panâche, I have five copies of How to Drink at Christmas by Telegraph drinks columnist Victoria Moore to give away.

A spin-off from her successful How to Drink volume, this little tome gives a manageable overview of seasonal boozing, from what you need to keep in stock, drinks ideas for large and small parties, including party food too, warming drinks, non-alcoholic drinks and, of course, a step-by-step guide to getting people drunk on Christmas day, including food to go with Christmas fayre and how to choose Champagne.

Ms Moore also gives her opinons on favourite spirit brands and takes an interesting detour to look specifically at vodka, as well as what she considers to be the perfect Martini. There are plenty of cocktail recipes, both classic and creations of her own (with a particular obsession with clementine juice for some reason—although by coincidence I discovered that my local Tesco sells the stuff in cartons now).

To be in with a chance of winning one of these books, just email telling me what your favourite Christmas tipple is. It can be a cocktail of your own devising, an impassioned defence of an established beverage, a mercilessly logical argument, a letter to Santa, a filthy limerick… the world is your prairie oyster. Come next Monday, the five which have amused or impressed me the most will receive copies of the book.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Update form the Lab #9 - Armadillo Liqueur

A few weeks back, I made a Terry's Chocolate Orange Liqueur, which was inspired by the fact that one once existed. After she had tried some, Miss Sally suggested that a Dime* (Daim) Bar based chocolate cream liqueur would be another good one to try. Dime being my favourite chocolate bar**, I thought this was an excellent idea.

Dime was a little tricky to come by today; I had to go five different shops before I found some. Even once I had done so, I realised that, as there is not a lot of chocolate in a Dime Bar, the crunchy caramel inside would quickly burn if I tried to melt it on its own. Luckily, Waitrose sell some Milka Swiss Chocolate with real Dime (Daim) Bar pieces in it, which has a much higher chocolate to Dime crunch ratio.

Here's the recipe:

Dime Bar Liqueur

Half a 100g bar of Milka Swiss Dime Bar Chocolate (£0.98 for 100g in Waitrose)
One Dime (Daim) Bar
60ml Semi-skimmed Milk
60ml Double Cream
60-100ml Vodka

Melt the Milka Chocolate in a Bain Marie with a splash of milk.
Whilst waiting for it to melt, crush a Dime Bar to pieces with a pestle and mortar until you get Dime Bar dust.
Whilst continuing to stir the mix,
add the semi-skimmed milk,
then the double cream,
then the Dime Bar dust.
Keep stirring until you have a smooth mixture.
Remove the mixture from the Bain Marie and add the vodka.
Allow to cool, bottle and keep in the fridge.

How does it taste?
The key to any of these liqueurs is to try and get the end product to taste like the chocolate bar that you are emulating. This one has a mixture of milk chocolate and hard caramel on the nose, just like a freshly snapped Dime Bar. The taste is like liquid Dime Bar in a glass: smooth, creamy chocolate, slightly salty caramel and buttery burnt sugar. The alcohol also adds a very slight warmth at the end.

What's next? Probably a Caramac Liqueur but suggestions are welcome.

* In continental Europe, Daim Bars have always been known as such; however, up until a few years ago in the UK, they were known as Dime Bars.
** My ultimate was the Champagne Crunchie (discontinued about 10 years ago), although I also quite like Twix and Kitkats (when riding a train).

Friday 11 November 2011

Unleash the bitterness inside you

Following on from my review of part of the range of “single varietal” bitters from Master of Malt, you may like to know that the London Cocktail Society are having a tutored tasting of this range on Wednesday 23rd November at Shaker & Co., 119 Hampstead Road, London NW1 3EE. Looks as if you’ll be able to taste the terrifying Naga Chilli (the world’s hottest chilli, I believe), smoked Chipotle and Sour Cherry bitters, among others. After that, those present will divide into small groups to have a go at blending their own bitters using the separate varietals. There will be a blind tasting and the winning formula will go into production as London Cocktail Society Bitters! Because of demand there will be two sittings for the blending, at 7pm and 7.45pm, followed by the judging at 8pm.

Places are strictly limited. If you fancy coming along see for more details.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Cocktails for Bonfire Night

Right from when I noticed, earlier in the year, that Guy Fawkes night (5th November) fell on a Saturday I had the idea of doing a themed Candlelight Club party, somehow creating cocktails with smoky, fiery flavours.

A few ingredients immediately leapt to mind. First was Chase’s Oak-Smoked Vodka, which is produced in limited editions (now on its second batch) by allowing oak smoke to infuse into the spirit for about a week in a specially designed smoke chamber. It’s an extraordinary taste—and not to everyone’s liking, as my partner observed when he wrinkled his nose and said it smelled like bacon. (I didn’t tell him that bacon vodka is a well-established concept.) But it’s also quite a subtle flavour. I tried various vodka cocktails, such as one called a Hot Tub which combines vodka with pineapple juice and prosecco, but the results weren’t very nice. It works fine in a Bloody Mary, but that’s quite a feisty cocktail for a delicate vodka (and many people are convinced it’s really a breakfast drink). So I decided it perhaps needed showcasing in a simpler recipe and ended up with a Collins/Fizz arrangement and hit on the idea of adding a bit of fruit body from sloe gin, a seasonal and rather English beverage.

Heart of Oak
2 shots Chase oak-smoked vodka
1 shot sloe gin (I used Hayman’s)
½ shot lemon juice
½ shot sugar syrup
soda water
Shake first four ingredients and strain into an ice-filled highball. Top with soda water.

The smoke is not at all puckering or cloying: it’s a subtle background dry waft, almost meaty, indeed like smoked duck or bacon. The sloes are again calm, dry and rather ethereal compared to, say, the blackberries in cassis (see below), with a hint of spice. With the pencil-lead juniper from the base gin this ends up a little like smoked game with a sloe and juniper jus. The lack of cloyingness to the fruit makes this a lean, refreshing number; just the thing to follow a country ramble in the late autumn afternoon—with a suggestion of dinner to come!

In the spring I was introduced to a ballsy product called Fireball, made from Canadian whisky blended with a cinnamon liqueur. Despite its name it’s not really hot, but has a vague pepperiness to its cinnamon spice. But for the name alone I thought it was worth including. One of the brand’s signature serves is a cocktail called Dub Dub’s Apple Pie, cleverly combing the cinnamon of the whisky with apple, a classic pairing. But Fireball is a pretty in-your-face flavour, with a medicinal quality that reminds me of surgical spirit (or rootbeer, depending on your drinking history), so I replaced half of the Fireball with calvados to calm it down a bit while emphasising the apple:

Hot Apple Pie
1 shot Fireball cinnamon whisky
1 shot calvados
1½ shots apple juice
1 shot lemon juice
10ml egg white
1 dash Angostura bitters
Shake all ingredients vigorously and strain into a Martini or coupé glass.

Even in this reduced quantity, the sweetness of the Fireball offsets the lemon juice pretty well, though some might want to add a bit of syrup. It is a lot like baked apple with cinnamon!

There is a well-established simple cocktail called a Smoky Martini which adds a small amount of whisky (most likely a smoky Islay malt or a blend with a high smoked malt content) to a normal Martini (often omitting the vermouth). In a party environment I tend to steer clear of cocktails that are basically all spirit, so I combined this idea with the Abbey/Bronx direction of lengthening it with a small amount of orange juice, plus a sweet-sour mix of sugar syrup and lime juice to give it body.

1½ shots gin
½ shot Islay malt whisky
1 shot orange juice
½ shot sugar syrup
¾ shot lime juice
Shake all ingredients and strain into a Martini or coupé glass.

The flavour of this cocktail will obviously depend on your choice of whisky. With Bowmore it is fairly subtle but with Laphroaig it’s more up-front in its smoky, peaty, iodine character. But even using Laphroaig it makes a drink that Mrs H.—who basically doesn’t like whisky—declared to be very tasty.

Everyone seems to be using tea in cockails at the moment, so inevitably the idea of smoked lapsang souchong tea came up. There is a cocktail called a Smoky Old Bastard (on the grounds that it is a bastardisation of an Old Fashioned) that combines Bourbon, lapsang and maple syrup. I had some maple syrup knocking around so I gave it a try. I found it a trifle thin so I experimented with fruiting it up a bit using apricot (which I always think goes rather nicely with bourbon) and plum bitters.

Bonfire of the Vani-Teas
2 shots bourbon
2 shots cold lapsang souchong tea
1 shot crème d’abricot
½ shot lemon juice
¼ shot maple syrup (or regular syrup)
2 dashes plum bitters
Shake all ingredients and strain into a rocks-filled glass

The apricot liqueur adds sweetness so you don’t need much syrup—in fact you probably don’t much notice the fact that it is maple syrup, so I’m sure simple syrup would do just as well. The tannins in the tea dry it out, so it’s quite a refreshing drink, not hefty.

Finally, I wanted to include ginger, and ended up adapting a recipe from the 1940s called El Diablo. This is tequila-based, but I wanted something that better evoked the pagan horrors lurking in the English hedgerow, so I used gin instead, along with the ginger beer, lime and crème de cassis of the original, plus some of Monin’s extraordinary gingerbread syrup, mainly because it seemed seasonal.

The Horned One
2 shots gin
¾ shot crème de cassis
1 shot lime juice
1 tsp (5ml) gingerbread syrup
Ginger beer
Shake first four ingredients and strain into an ice-filled highball. Top with ginger beer.

The gingerbread syrup can be very overwhelming and, even with just a teaspoon, it and the blackcurrant are the dominant flavours—and they go together very well. (I see that Gabriel Boudier makes a blackcurrant and gingerbread liqueur, so I am clearly not the only person who thinks this.) To be honest you aren’t much aware of the gin and it would probably work well with white rum too.

I had just acquired some of Master of Malt’s chipotle (smoked chilli) bitters and was intrigued to try adding some, to turn up the heat of the ginger (some ginger beer has chilli in it), while again adding some smokiness, but Mrs H. persuaded me that it might be nice to have at least one cocktail that was neither hot nor smoky, so I let it lie. For now. Mwah, hah, hah hah…

All that Glitters Is Gold

I was sitting in a local Tavern with my folks and Mrs. B when I noticed dear old Mumsie's drink seemed to be shimmering. Upon closer inspection it seemed to have glitter floating in it. Thinking that I may have found a new source of Goldfinger's favourite metal I was quickly corrected that it was actually J2o Glitter Berry the soft drinks latest limited edition, a mix of cherry, grape, spice and glitter.

It appears that this not only available in the local drinking dens but also in hypermarkets too, as Mumsie seemed to have a stock of them at home. I acquired two bottles to test for the good fellows (readers) of the IAE.

Metal is not uncommon in alcoholic drinks, Goldschläger (Swiss/Italian cinnamon schnapps) is a well known brand* and there was once a Silverschläger; no doubt local varieties of these products still exist on the continent.** For a tenuous link one could point to the alcoholic Sanatogen Wine with Extra Iron.

So what makes it glitter? A quick call to Britvic Consumer Careline revealed it to be "edible food-grade glitter"*** also known as E171 and E172.****

The Glitter, clearly visible after the bottle had been resting on its side.

But how does it taste?

Very smooth, with long cherry notes, jammy and fruity, quite intense but not too sweet. Some nutmeg and cinnamon too and a hint of vanilla. A slick texture but very nice with it. A long finish and, no you can't taste/feel the glitter.


It wouldn't be the IAE without a cocktail so here we go.

The Henry Ruschmann

50ml Laird's Apple Jack (made in New Jersey)
100ml J2o Glitter Berry
Ice and a Dash of Bitters

It is quite amusing to have a sparkling drink and also quite festive. The sweet apple warmth goes well with the intense jammy cherry notes of the drink, add a dash of Caralicious caramel vodka and it would be like a cherry and apple pie. Easy to drink and pretty tasty. If you are averse to sweet drinks I suggest adding a splash of lemon juice.

*The gold is in there as it was originally thought to have medicinal benefits. The idea that the metal makes little cuts in the inside of your throat so that alcohol can be quickly absorbed is the stuff-and-nonsense of a tanked-up know-all teeny bopper.
** For the high-rollers you could have Platinumschläger or even Diamondschläger, with tiny crushed up diamond in it. Until then you'll have to be happy with Precious Vodka. 
*** Some tortology for you there.
**** Also known, respectively,  as titanium dioxide and iron oxides/hydroxide—both  of which are illegal as food additives in Germany.
***** Named after the New Jersey engineer who invented glitter

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Spirited Cries - Tasting 'Owler Pear Spirit

This weekend I found myself in the heart of the New Forest at a strange cross between a cider festival and steam rally; I watch a ceremony of Wassail and was serenaded by the jangled tones of The Plonker, the local agricultural orchestra. In between picking out bit of straw from scrumpy I tried an interesting product that was a little out of place #1 it was distilled #2 it was from Gloucestershire*.

'Owler Pear Spirit is made by Charles Martell, the man behind Stinking Bishop Cheese** and is made at Hunts Court Farm Distillery in Dymock Gloucestershire. It is an unaged pear spirit / eaux-de-vie and is bottled at 40%ABV.

It's not cheap, £50 for 70cl***

The Taste
nose: dry, full, hint of vanilla pear and apple
taste: really, really smooth. Full pear flavour but not too sweet and with a pleasant dryness. Hints of vanilla and almond. Like the nose dry, and then warmth at the end. As eau de vies go it's pretty good.

* Not 'Ampshire or even Daw-sett.
** This is a Glouchester cheese made from the milk of Gloucester cattle, which in 1972 consisted of only 68 Gloucester breed heifers. It has a distinctive odour which comes from the process with which the cheese is washed during its ripening; it is immersed in perry every four weeks while it matures.
***  This is what first caught my eye, I wondered how they could justify charging so much.

Friday 28 October 2011

What use are "single varietal" bitters?

Most of us probably have a bottle of Angostura bitters somewhere: it’s one of those things, like Tabasco, that never seems to get finished. But such is the strength of the cocktail revolution going on at the moment that all manner of other bitters are being unleashed on to the market, ranging from the primordial Peychaud’s bitters, recreations of ancient recipes such as celery bitters and Jerry Thomas’s favourite Boker’s bitters, to all manner of fruit and veg flavours (grapefruit, rhubarb, cranberry, plum…) and oddities like chocolate bitters.

Bitters are the granddaddies of the cocktail world. Originally medicinal infusions of bitter herbs, roots and barks, it’s likely that we started blending them with booze to make the medicine easier to take, then developed a taste for it. The original definition of a cocktail was specifically a spirit augmented by any or all of bitters, sugar and water. Any other kind of mixed drink fell under a different name. Now the term “bitters” is used for any concentrated flavoured tincture a dash or two of which might be used to deepen a cocktail’s flavour or add aromatic notes.

Master of Malt have thrown their hat into the ring with a range of “single varietal” (a term taken from the wine world, I assume) bitters—each featuring just one flavouring ingredient, infused in vodka, bourbon or rum. The range includes sour cherry, cinnamon, black pepper, cumin, juniper (a kind of “gin concentrate”—add a few drops to vodka, perhaps, and voila?), cardamom, clove, coriander, fennel, angelica, cocoa, coffee, liquorice, sweet orange, gentian, curaçao (bitter orange), chilli (both smoked chipotle and volcanic naga) and frankincense. They also do their own blended products, such as their whisky-barrel aged bitters and a forthcoming Christmas bitters.

Of course the first thing that sprang to mind with the single varietal ones was—is this any better than just using the ingredient itself? For example, why use cumin bitters rather than just a pinch of cumin? I tried using just such an ingredient in one of the North African inspired drinks at the A Night in Casablanca event that the Candlelight Club held in August:

Djinn Fizz
2 shots gin
1 shot lemon juice
½ shot crème de menthe blanche
½ shot sugar syrup
Pinch of cumin/few drops of cumin bitters
2 shots soda water
Shake first five ingredients, strain into a glass and add soda. Garnish with fresh mint.

The cumin is by no means essential but in moderation it is quite interesting, adding a flavour that is fresh but quite savoury. I tried this with both ground cumin and cumin bitters and the result is pretty much the same, though you need more of the bitters than you might think.

Or course the big difference is that the bitters are liquid and therefore blend easily. Spices as a rule do not dissolve as such: I don’t know what actually happens to the cumin in the Djinn Fizz, but in the following cocktail—created for the Candlelight Club’s Boardwalk Empire Season 2 launch party—I had trouble with the ground cinnamon:

Applejack Rabbit
1½ shots Laird’s Applejack
½ shot Aperol
½ shot maple syrup
¾ shot lemon juice
1 shot orange juice
Pinch of cinnamon/few drops of cinnamon bitters
Apple slice to garnish
Shake and strain into an ice-filled highball. Garnish with a slice of apple. An old cocktail from the 1930s, with added Aperol (something that currently vies with tea as the cocktail ingredient du jour).

It tasted right, but the actual particles of cinnamon are quite visible and quickly sink to the bottom. I also noticed that if you left the cocktail for a while the cinnamon flavour intensifies, as the ground bark spends more time infusing. On the night the bar staff mostly just sprinkled the cinnamon on the top instead. By contrast, the Master of Malt Cinnamon Bitters avoids this problem altogether.

Similarly, another cocktail from our Moroccan night (originally created by Will Sprunt for our Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, and here just wheeled out again under a different name because it went so well with the theme) originally used cardamom seeds:

Rose Martini (aka Queen of Hearts)
2 shots gin
¾ shot dry vermouth
½ shot rose syrup

The seeds from a cardamom pod/few drops of cardamom bitters
Lemon twist 

Shake cardamom, gin, syrup and vermouth together, and strain into a martini glass. Finish with lemon peel. This is a cracking cocktail that tastes like alcoholic Turkish Delight.

First of all I found that you really need to crush the seeds with a muddler to get any flavour out in the short time that you are shaking. But actually splitting a cardamom pod is pretty fiddly and not really something you want to be doing in a busy bar environment. In this example, using 5–6 drops of the cardamom bitters was a godsend, adding the desired flavour quickly and without any solid residue to worry about.

Then you have something like the Master of Malt Frankincense Bitters. Most of us probably don’t have lumps of frankincense knocking around the house, so if that is the flavour you are after then this is clearly a good way to go. Frankincense (a resin tapped from the Boswellia sacra tree) is a hard flavour to describe, being a bit like cinnamon but less overtly woody. If you’ve ever done any soldering (solder includes resin) the smell of frankincense will be familiar. I plan to try using the bitters in a Christmas cocktail called Gold, Frankincense and Byrrh (using Goldschläger or Goldwasser, Byrrh and Frankincense Bitters, perhaps with a gin base)—expect a report in a month or so as to whether this has any merits beyond a play on words.

Another possibility is to play with gin by using the coriander, cinnamon, angelica or cardamom bitters (all common enough gin botanicals) to push your gin’s flavour balance one way or another. Fennel and clove too, now I come to think of it. Of course these are infusions rather than distillations, so things like the gentian bitters (which I have not tried yet) will presumably be indeed very bitter (like Peychaud’s or Angostura bitters, which contain it), compared, say, to Ian Hart’s Sacred range of single-botanical distillates, in which the distillation process removes all bitterness from botanicals such as gentian, hop or wormwood.

Check out the full range of Master of Malt bitters here.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Cocktails with Jameson Irish Whiskey

Me looking proprietorial at the Jameson Apartment—just before the real barman
came and threw a bar towel at me

If you fancy a drink in London’s Soho area any time between now and 27th October, why not slide by No. 39 Greek Street. Jameson have conjured a pop-up “cinematic speakeasy”* out of the largest of the private dining rooms on the first floor of ancient restaurant Kettner’s, with its own door into the street. As well as an agreeably quirky room, with lush oak panelling and a moulded plaster ceiling, you get to enjoy a menu of cocktails made with Jameson.

Not only that, but I will be there in a sort of “host” capacity every night except tonight, Sunday 16th. (We’re also having Candlelight Club parties on the Saturdays, but those are ticketed events and I’m afraid they have sold out.) So do swing by and say hello.

I must say that Celtic style whisk(e)y—as opposed to American style—is not something that obviously springs to my mind as a cocktail ingredient, and specifically Irish whiskey less so. But now that I am spending my evenings as a professional barfly I have had the chance to find out how well the stuff works in cocktails.

There aren’t so many classic cocktails featuring Scotch, apart from things like the Rob Roy (essentially a Manhattan made with Scotch)—and, if I’m honest, the Rob Roy is a pretty good example of why.** There is something pungent about Scotch which seems to quarrel with so many other ingredients. Ed McAvoy, now a Jameson ambassador, who designed the drinks at the Apartment, says it is the smokiness in Scotch that causes this problem. I have certainly found that trying to use a really smoky, iodine-flavoured Islay malt to make a Godfather cocktail failed dismally because the whisky worked so badly with the Amaretto.

But Jameson don’t smoke any of their grain. And they also triple distil their whiskey, whereas most blended Scotch is apparently only twice distilled. Given that, with each distillation, the “heads and tails”—the very first and very last vapours to emerge, which contain undesirable parts of the alcohol spectrum—are discarded, the more times you repeat the process, in theory, the more “pure” a spirit you’ll end with. This purity may or may not be what you are after (and at the Boutique Bar Show recently I tasted the single-distilled Polish Vestal Vodka which is hair-raisingly full of characterful congeners), but apparently the smooth approachability of Jameson can be attributed to the triple distillation.

Ed’s cocktails contain some bold flavours, but the other ingredients aren’t there to mask the flavour of the Jameson. Rather, he has spotlighted some unexpected combinations that work really well with the woody, caramel flavours of the whiskey. Combinations such as whiskey and kiwi fruit in his Jameson Emerald Presse or Jameson and raspberry in the Jameson Macree. Elsewhere he plays up the caramel character, such as in the Irish Martini that uses butterscotch schnapps and textural pear juice (which manages to be silky and slightly grainy at the same time)—and despite the name contains none of the ingredients of a Martini—and the Jameson Caramel Manhattan, one of my favourites:

Jameson Caramel Manhattan
35ml Jameson
15ml caramel liqueur
12.5ml red vermouth
25ml pineapple juice
2 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters

Shake all ingredients with ice and fine strain into a chilled glass. Squeeze a lemon twist over the top (and discard) and garnish with a pineapple wedge on the rim.

What hits you first is the caramel, backed up by the whiskey. The pineapple juice, by comparison, creeps up on you. In fact if you didn’t know what was in it you might struggle to work out what was giving that balancing character, the rather spiky flavour of the juice evening out the sweet burnt sugar of the caramel. The only problem with this cocktail is that it is so moreish you are tempted to finish it too quickly!

Another of my favourites is this one:

Jameson Apricot Sour
35ml Jameson
12.5ml apricot brandy
20ml apricot purée
20ml pressed cloudy apple juice
10ml freshly squeezed lemon juice

Shake and strain. Again the caramel warmth of the whiskey marries delightfully with the apricot, and the lemon juice and rind oil give it a wake-up zest. I tried this using apricot jam and it works well, though I personally think that the cocktail tastes better with 50ml of whiskey. Even Mrs H. agreed and she admits she doesn’t really like whiskey—but really likes this cocktail. Job done, Ed.

* The cinematic connection is that Jameson sponsor the BFI London Film Festival, which runs for precisely the period that the Apartment is there, and other film festivals around the world too. I gather the film link is all about storytelling, and an idea of a specific Irish love of storytelling as part of any convivial—and therefore whiskey-fuelled—evening.
** Though if you want to try probably the nicest Rob Roy you are likely to come across, try the ready-mixed, bottled version from Master of Malt.

Friday 14 October 2011

There is Worcestershire Sauce. And there is Worcestershire Sauce Special Edition

If you thought the attempt to create a premium version of Marmite with Marmite XO was unexpected, then check this out. Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce now comes in a luxury version called Worcestershire Sauce Special Edition. (In what sense a sauce can come in an “edition” I do not know. It hasn’t exactly been “edited”.)

Like Marmite XO, the bottle of the new version is larger and darker than the standard version, though not quite as weightily opulent as the black and gold makeover given to the pot that the yeasty paste comes in, with its suggestion of the decadence of a Roman Emperor, or perhaps a slightly scaled down version of Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides. The label on the Lea & Perrins basic sauce bottle is already dark brown and orange with gold details, and the SE mostly just adds a lot more gold. But the bottle itself has gone from clear to frosted, opaque dark brown—as if it is just not safe for mortal eyes to gaze upon the wondrous liquid inside.

Like Marmite XO, Worcestershire Sauce SE has been lovingly blended for a fuller flavour and aged for longer: normal Worcestershire Sauce is kept for 18 months, but this stuff matures for “up to” two years. Like the Marmite, it also comes with a hefty price tag, in this case £3.35. (But then it comes in a 290ml bottle, almost double the size of a normal bottle, which sells for around £1.57 for 150ml, so the price difference is not actually significant. One would have though that such a precious tincture would actually come in smaller bottles than normal, but perhaps the manufacturers know that anyone likely to buy this product is probably some sort of addict who puts Worcestershire Sauce on everything that passes his lips.)

Apparently the sauce was created in the 1830s by Worcester chemists John Wheeley Lea* and William Henry Perrins at the behest of local Lord Sandys who wanted to revisit exciting tastes he had encountered on his travels to Bengal. The story goes that the two boffins were not very happy with their concoction, and just put the barrels aside and forgot about them. It was only when they rediscovered the experiment some months later that they found it had mellowed into the murky sweet-sour-salt blast that we know and love today. The label proudly claims that it “Brings food alive!” I don’t think I actually want the food on my plate to be brought to life: mealtimes would become quite traumatic if you had to chase your sausages around the room as they begged for mercy.

As usual the precise recipe is a closely guarded secret, but the ingredients in the Standard Edition are listed in this order: Malt vinegar (from barley), spirit vinegar, molasses, sugar, salt, anchovies, tamarind extract, onions, garlic, spice, flavouring. The Special Edition contains the same ingredients but in different proportions: Malt vinegar (from barley), molasses, spirit vinegar, sugar, salt, onions, tamarind extract, anchovies, garlic, spice, flavourings.

When I compared Marmite and Marmite XO I initially thought I could taste the distinct flavour of the new spread, but when I tasted them blind I eventually had to concede that I just couldn’t tell the two apart. Would I find the same with the tangy nectar from Messrs Lea and Perrins?

To look at they are pretty much impossible to distinguish (see photo below). But tasted neat—admittedly an odd thing to do—I believe there is a difference. Regular Worcestershire Sauce has a nose of caramel, gravy and fresh sawdust, plus an Angostura-like aromatic spiciness and a strong waft of oranges—like a crate (a wooden crate) of oranges that has been boiled right down into tar. This profile continues on to the palate, where it is joined by salt, molasses and a pepper heat.

The SE version essentially follows the same profile but is indeed more intensely flavoured. But on top of that I would say there is also a pronounced lime flavour which I don’t really detect (at least not to the same degree) in the original.

Of course there is a mixological significance to all of this, because Worcestershire Sauce is an important ingredient in a Bloody Mary, and related drinks like the Red Snapper, Bloody Maria, Bloody Caesar, etc. So I knocked up a couple of Red Snappers using Master of Malt’s curious Bathtub gin:

Red Snapper
2 shots gin
4 shots tomato juice
½ shot lemon juice
7 drops Tabasco sauce
4 dashes Worcestershire Sauce
Pinch of celery salt
Freshly ground black pepper

In case you can't tell, that's the SE on the left and original on the right
One drink was made with original Lea & Perrins, the other with the SE. Any difference? Actually, yes. Of course it is hard to know how much it has to do with subtle differences of proportion in the drinks, but it did seem to have a bit more presence and that limey edge that I detected neat (and which presumably comes from the tamarind). But at the same time I wonder if one could achieve much the same effect by just using more of the sauce in your recipe.

If you’re a Worcestershire Sauce fan and fancy the improved efficiency of a more concentrated dose, or tend to use the product in a way that showcases its subtleties (erm…) then give the SE a try. After all, who knows how long it will be around.**

* What kind of a parent calls their child Wheeley? Or perhaps it was just a nickname he picked from his BMXing days.
** I wouldn’t be surprised if someone buys up a batch and decides to barrel age it even further to see what happens. Years from now VIPs will be invited to gala events where guests are able to taste a rare bottle of the ethereal 2011 vintage…

Friday 7 October 2011

Red vermouth showdown!

DBS braces himself for the challenge of tasting 19 red vermouths
Our exhaustive blind tasting of dry white vermouths back in March has proved a continually popular post, attempting as it does to answer the question of how much difference the actual brand of vermouth makes in a Martini (and other cocktails too, but the Martini must surely be the quintessential dry vermouth drink, an obvious shibboleth and, arguably, the main reason for the liquid to exist*).

So it wasn’t long before DBS announced that he had corralled no fewer than 19 different red vermouths for a similar tasting. Red vermouth (or “Italian vermouth” as you will often find it in old cocktail books, referring to the bitter-sweet rosso style developed in Turin in the late 18th century) is based around wine, typically flavoured by infusion with various herbal and spice botanicals and fortified to around 14–17% alcohol by volume with spirit. It is not usually made from red wine, as I had always assumed, but is coloured primarily by the addition of caramel. It is invariably sweet, though often with a bitterness too—it’s part of that whole family of wines and spirits flavoured with bitter herbs that probably started as a medium for conveying and preserving the supposed medicinal benefits of the herbs. The classic bitter herb has to be wormwood, in its various strains, found in absinthe and also very much in vermouth; in fact in a recent lecture at the Boutique Bar Show, Jared Brown and Anastatia Miller (who were launching their new book on vermouth) informed us that the presence of wormwood was a defining characteristic—not unreasonably, considering that vermouth gets its name from German vermut, meaning wormwood. But red vermouths are flavoured with many other herbs and spices, citrus peel and sometimes cinchona bark too.

My (now patented) Vermouth Matrix
I don’t know that red vermouth has such an obvious quintessential cocktail as the Martini, though we went for two strong contenders, the Manhattan (in this case two parts rye whisky, one part red vermouth and a dash of Angostura) and the Negroni (equal parts gin, red vermouth and Campari).

So our tasting involved sampling all the different vermouths neat, then taking our short list and trying them in these two cocktails. So, in the order we tasted them…

1. Filipetti (15% ABV) A nose of vanilla, sandalwood, orange and perhaps cinnamon; quite pleasant though it smells surprisingly dry. On the palate, however, it is actually quite sweet, but not unpleasantly so; there is bitterness there too, and it’s pretty balanced.

2. Forteni Rosso (14.4% ABV) A more sour, dry nose, like biscuits or the sesame confection halva; a bit pungent. The palate is more bitter than the Filipetti, with a somewhat sour aftertaste. Not too bad overall, but less sophisticated than the Filipetti. We don’t know too much about the brand—it is one of DBS’s purchases from his regular trips across La Manche to Carrefour.

3. Dolin Chambery Vermouth (16% ABV) Dolin dry vermouth has found a place for itself in many bars and indeed it scored well in our own blind tasting. Their products are billed as “Chambery Vermouth”— vermouth from Chambery has AOC status, though Dolin are the last firm to be manufacturing it. This red one has a nose a bit like Coca Cola, almost leading you to expect it to be fizzy, plus a hint of ginger and something slightly “off” like decomposing seaweed. On the palate it is sticky, with a candied finish.

4. Sacred Organic Old English Spiced Red Vermouth (around 16–17% ABV) Shortly before conducting this tasting David and I had been lucky enough to visit Ian Hart’s Sacred microdistillery—which is basically a room in his house where he vacuum-distils a range of botanicals individually (after macerating the ingredients in neutral alcohol in his garden shed for sometimes weeks or months), then blends them into his Sacred Gin. But he was also considering other possibilities, such as making an absinthe and, as it turned out, vermouth. This pre-production sample was part of an attempt to make a very English vermouth, using local ingredients—this one had some 20 botanicals. It is indeed much redder than the more tawny-coloured first three samples. The nose is startlingly thyme-led, a very fresh and herbal attack. On the palate, the thyme again dominates and perhaps other woody, aromatic herbs, plus orange and sweetness. It apparently has elderberries in it, which might explain the colour, and tastes a bit like port infused with thyme. Compared to the previous samples, vanilla is notably absent.**

5. Carpano Antica Formula (16.5% AV) Carpano have been making vermouth since 1786 and this product is, I believe, a resurrection of an ancient recipe. It has been a big hit with bartenders (I’ve heard it described as a sort of universal ingredient that you just bung into everything to improve it). Since 2001 the company has been owned by Fratelli Branca, makers of Fernet Branca. Oddly the Antica Formula only comes in litre bottles, now at £30 a pop, and I was hesitant about stumping up that much for a vermouth, which one tends to use only in small doses but which has a habit of oxidizing after being open for a while. However, I ended up with the sample bottle from this tasting and I can confirm that, unlike most dry white vermouths, this one is not nearly so affected by oxidation, so it is safe to invest in a bottle. The nose is vinous and vanilla-led, and I also get chocolate, prunes and rum & raisin. The palate is complex and rich, with elements of chocolate and vanilla again, plus oranges and blueberries, yet all with a clean, bitter finish. Sophisticated and highly appealing.

6. Toso (14.8% ABV) The nose is sweetish, a bit like nougat, and you can sense the underlying wine base. The palate is mild and winey, a bit like grape juice. OK, but not very interesting.

7. Punt e Mes (16% ABV) Made by Carpano since 1870, when it was allegedly created when a customer, a stock exchange agent, asked for vermouth plus china bitters (presumably one part and half a part respectively, as the name means “point and a half”). Another story is that Carpano’s stock went up by a point and a half on the stock exchange and the company released the new vermouth to celebrate. The drink is a very dark red with a port-like and slightly sour nose and a palate that is strongly bitter, but (to me) pleasantly so. Hints of coffee (someone said Camp coffee), chocolate and anise, and something banana-esque too. Jared Brown describes it as like Antica Formula with a dash of Campari.

8. Dubonnet (14.8%ABV) Created in 1846 by a Paris chemist as a way to make anti-malarial quinine doses more palatable for French Foreign Legion troops, Dubonnet has had an international presence ever since. It has a fruity nose, “like Ribena” according to one, plus a rooty element, and perhaps a hint of dishcloth. The palate strikes me as surprisingly light, with flavours of carrot juice and grape juice. It seems sweet to me, and not especially bitter, but then we were tasting is after the Punt e Mes.

9. Casa Marteletti Vermouth Classico (16% ABV) The flagship of the Filipetti range, this vermouth has a subtle coffee/chocolate nose and a smooth, complex, sweetish palate, with definite notes of anise, menthol and coal tar; it doesn’t seem bitter to me but has a lingering dry, rooty, herbal aftertaste, probably from wormwood.

Ian Hart (far right) from Sacred, sees his product square up to the competition
10. Sacred Organic Old English Amber (ABV?) Another experiment: the subsequent production version has less thyme, but in this version the thyme if very dominant; a piney resinous nose with what I call in my notes a “see-though vividness”, which may come from the fact that it had been distilled that afternoon. (I kept a sample and I think that in time the thyme softens and integrates.) The palate is also strong, vivid and quite bitter; to me it seemed more “together” than the red version (no. 4 above), which had a “scooped” quality of pronounced bitter high note and sweet low note, but not quite enough glueing the two together in the middle. The amber reminds me of East European style bitter liqueurs, like becherovka, but without the sweetness.

11. Homemade (ABV?) David made this using the same recipe as in the dry vermouth tasting (a recipe from a booklet handed out by Plymouth gin), but using sweet (white) wine as a base, extra citrus and dark brown sugar instead of white. In my tasting notes, though, I record that it didn’t smell of much at all and had a watery palate, sweet with hints of orange and dusty spice, and none of the dominating clove power I recall from the dry white version. Not a great success.

Adam from Graphic mixes up some Manhattans
12. Byrrh (18% ABV) Another oldie, invented in 1886 in Perpignan by two brothers who were drapers by trade but, for some reason, wanted to make a quinine drink, which they initially sold through pharmacies as a health draught. It declined after the war but has recently been rising in popularity again. It has a nose of Ribena fruit and wood and, on the tongue, a drying, herbal, woody liveliness, subtly complex and evolving with a bitterness that grows on the finish. Made me want to try it mixed.

13. Stock (16% ABV) The Extra Dry version didn’t impress last time, and the tradition is carried on here. This sample had a nose of Bovril and Worcestershire sauce and a palate of Bovril and cheap ruby port, but with a really nasty, sour oxidized finish.

Robert Beckwith (l) and David Hollander assess a cocktail
14. Lillet Rouge (16% ABV) Not sure this really counts as a vermouth: I seem to recall that Lillet Blanc is a mixture of wine and citrus liqueurs, with the original quinine bitterness (it used to be called Kina Lillet) dispensed with in 1985. Lillet Rouge was created only in the 1960s for the US market. It has a similar strawberry nose to the blanc and a soft, quiet palate. I think this sample had been open a while as it was noticeably oxidized, but at the same time you could tell it was once quite balanced.

15. Vya (16% ABV) Made by the Quady Winery in Madera, California, this vermouth uses Orange Muscat wine as a base. It is a mid-tawny colour and has a concentrated blackcurrant nose with added herbaceous notes and a streak of Benylin. On the tongue I am reminded of coconut flesh plus a bitter-sweet berry flavour. It is well balanced and intriguing, though I am not sure I like it, exactly.

16. Noilly Pratt Rouge (16% ABV) Noilly Prat Extra Dry is my dry vermouth of choice so I was looking forward to tasting this sample of the red version, which is not distributed in the UK, its main market being the US. However, I was disappointed: in fact I suspect the sample was off, as it tasted rank, dry and thin, with a strong waft of fermenting bananas.

17. Bellino (13% ABV) Not sure where DBS got this but he concedes it is not really a vermouth, but a mixture of wine, grape juice and herbs (although it seems there certainly used to be a vermouth called Bellino, as the poster attests). It has a sweet candied nose of Parma violets. The palate is likewise tuckbox sweet, tasting of Refreshers (which also probably don’t exist any more). It tastes like something children pour over ice cream. Which is probably worth trying, especially if you want them to be quiet.

18. Martini Rosso (15% ABV) Surprisingly woody and dry on the nose, full of aromatic herbs, thyme in particular. Maybe I expected it to be more cloying but on the palate the sweetness is again well balanced with the strong herbaceous elements. I gather that it is made in steel vats to preserve the botanical flavours rather than influence them with oak. I found it sound in concept, albeit (tasted neat) a bit crude in execution, not as polished of smooth as some.

19. Cinzano Rosso (15% ABV) Allegedly invented in 1756 and therefore the original vermouth di Torino, Cinzano has the usual secret recipe (though one which includes thyme, marjoram and musk yarrow). The brand was early to export round the world, from the 1890s, but has never matched Martini’s success. After a stint owned by Diageo it is now in the hands of Gruppo Campari. On both the nose and the palate, it is remarkably similar to the Martini we had tasted just before, although the taste seemed to me sweeter with more vanilla and chocolate notes.

So, which of these 19 did we like best? In truth there was no clear winner, because different vermouths seemed to find favour in different contexts. For example, on its own Antica Formula and the Casa Marteletti scored highest while Byrrh and Punt e Mes were preferred in a Negroni. Martini was rated the best all-rounder, while Antica Formula made the best Manhattan, its sweet, vanilla, chocolate tones balancing well with the woody edge of the rye.

Carpano Antica Formula

Martini Rosso, Byrrh, Punt e Mes & Filipetti Casa Marteletti (joint)

I personally would say that Antica Formula probably emerged the victor, with Martini, Byrrh, Punt e Mes and Casa Marteletti al  jostling for second place. I think that Antica Formula does indeed make a cracking Manhattan, but recently I have to admit that I’m not sure it’s the best choice for a Negroni—it seems it really is horses for courses. But if the only red vermouth you usually use is Martini Rosso, do check out the others in our top five.

* Of course you can drink dry vermouth on its own, but I don’t know anyone who does. When I was a student a friend and I spent an evening drinking a litre and a half of dry Martini vermouth and later regretted it.
** I met Ian again recently at the Boutique Bar Show and learned that he is now making three vermouths, but two of them are exclusively for Duke’s bar, who have cleared a number of their other vermouths to make way for him. The two samples tasted here did not make it into production, but descendants of them did, in practice with a lessened thyme presence.