Friday 28 January 2011

Botanicals—the more the merrier?

A mixological magpie, DBS is forever accumulating samples. Every time I see him he presents me with small bottles and phials, to the extent that Mrs H. has made me remove the collection of miniatures that was spilling off the booze shelf. David, meanwhile, was wanting some of the bottles back, so I realised it was time I actually drank some.

One of the latest samples he gave me is of a gin called The Botanist that is made on the island of Islay (in fact is the only gin made on the island, as they proudly point out) by the Bruichladdich whisky distillery. This business of making gin as a sideline seems increasingly common: on holiday in Wales once I got talking to a shop owner about a Welsh gin he was selling (must have been Penderyn’s Brecon gin). He told me it was really only being produced as a quick source of ready cash (DBS’s oaked experiment aside, gin doesn’t need to be matured) to fund the real project which was whisky—a previous incarnation of the company having gone bust while waiting for the product to mature. I don’t know if Bruichladdich’s motivation is the same or whether it’s simply that gin is now so fashionable that anyone with anything resembling a still is bashing out a gin to cash in. (While mooching around Gerry’s in Soho the other day we got to sample two new gins made by the brewer Adnams; initial tastes were very promising and I hope to report further shortly.)

In keeping with Bruichladdich’s brand image of sophisticated independence The Botanist augments nine conventional botanicals with no fewer than 22 others all from Islay. In fact it may well be that every single plant growing on the island has been stuffed into the still to see what it all tastes like. (See the full list at the bottom.) These have apparently been “hand-picked” from the wild by the “expert foraging team* from the windswept hills, peat bogs and Atlantic shores” of the island. These are presumably macerated in the spirit before distillation in Ugly Betty, their experimental Lomond** pot still, which runs at a lower pressure than normal and takes three times longer to distil a batch than their whisky stills do. The gin is bottled at 46% ABV and the 2010 offering is limited to just 15,000 bottles.

Ugly Betty is installed
Presumably to assuage traditionalists, Bruichladdich point out that this gin actually has a “historical relevance”. Before the days of legitimate whisky, cask-aged into smooth complexity, clandestine distillers would consume their spirit young and clear, and would attempt to improve the rough flavour by bunging hillside plants into it. One such was juniper, which grows wild on the island. Therefore, they assert, the original whisky, as it were, may well have been more like gin.

This is all as may be, but what does it taste like? The Botanist may have 22 wild, whole-earth, dew-picked Islay botanicals in it, but it also has nine bog-standard ones—they list juniper, cassia bark, coriander seed and orris powder—and it is these that dominate. So first and foremost it tastes like gin. I’m assuming there is orange peel in the mix too, because to me there is a strong element of this. I also get the feeling there is some kind of allium in there, though I may be confusing it with something like Meadowsweet, which I think has a Parsley-like gentle pungency to it. A Botanist Martini has a dry perfume and a prominent herbal notes, with a hint of crystallised violets. Tasting it in a G&T I again get orange and savoury spice, plus berries and mint (not surprising as there are three kinds of mint in the mix, and indeed elderberry).

The Botanist is a complex gin. I don’t think I can taste all 31 botanicals, but who says you have to? It’s an approachable gin that works in all the conventional recipes but rewards greater study. It wouldn’t surprise me if different botanicals popped up as you experimented with combining the gin with other mixers or cocktail ingredients—but alas my tantalising phial is empty.

The Botanist's island botanicals:
White Birch, Camomile, Creeping Thistle, Lady’s Bedstraw, Elderberry, Gorse, Common Heather, Common Hawthorn, Lemon balm, Meadowsweet, Foxtail Mint, Peppermint, Water Mint, Common Wormwood, Grande Wormwood, Red Clover, White Clover, Sweet Cicely, Bog Myrtle, Tansy, Common Thyme, Wood Sage.

* I quite like the idea of being an “expert forager”: I can picture it on my business card. Plus of course the Hollywood movie, where a crack team of the world’s top foragers is assembled, grizzled veterans brought out of retirement for “one last job”, each with their own special skills, personal mythologies and individual hang-ups (“I thought I made myself clear!” I snarl into our mysterious client’s face, “I don’t touch meadowsweet!”).

** Or Lomand, depending on which press release you read. A Lomand still is a cross between a Coffey and a pot still, with removable neck sections and adjustable plates to alter the weight of the spirit that emerges. Only one has ever been built, in 1956 at the Dumbarton distillery, and it is this one, refurbished, that now squats at Bruichladdich.

Some of the samples DBS has recent bestowed: Mozart dry chocolate liqueur, homemade apple gin
crème de mure, Giffard brown crème de cacao and Giffard white crème de cacao

Thursday 27 January 2011

Oaked gin: tasting notes after two days

Mr Bridgman-Smith's oaked gin

DBS recently pressed a small phial of yellow liquid on me and demanded I tasted it at once. Fortunately it wasn’t a urine sample but some of his experimental oak-aged gin (see post below).

I think he said that the sample had been drawn after just 36 hours: I was impressed by how much colour had been taken on already, but I guess chipped wood does have a very high surface area.

The nose was clearly gin, but also had a smoky, caramel/burnt sugar element and a hint of petrol—subtle but clearly there. On the palate this is carried across: a touch of petrol oiliness which augments the dry, steely juniper rather well. Again a whiff of smoke but also a definite butteriness, reminiscent of big, butterfat/vanilla oaked New World white wines.

I confess I am aware of the shortcomings of the gin itself, which seems rather rough and fierce. I gather it’s Aldi own-label Oliver Cromwell gin. But David tells me that he too recognises this issue and is working on a second batch that uses Sipsmith gin. Bring it on, I say. Without doubt this experiment is worthwhile—my overall impression is that the warm characteristic of the oak should fruitfully augment the dry edge of gin and make rather a fascinating drink.

Gin safari!

The precious map that led us to our prize
Of course we’d all heard the rumours. But it wasn’t until an old wino staggered into the IAE offices and inconveniently expired in the wingback in reception that we realised it might be true: clutched in his right hand (after we opened his fingers with a bolt-cutter) was a map—torn and charred but unmistakeable.

In our report on the recent exhibition about bitters we mentioned that the curator Ricardo Leizaola regarded Herb Afrik and Alomo Bitters as the tastiest examples of all the “world bitters” he encountered. I had noticed that the makers of Herb Afrik, the Ghanaian distillery GIHOC, also produced three gins: Castle Bridge, Lawyer (with a label that is surely a close reference to Gordon’s Export) and Betsuo. Curious, I’d tried contacting them but had failed to elicit a response.

Meanwhile DBS had become interested in a Ugandan gin called Uganda Waragi. So when our vagrant friend—who turned out to be a burnt-out ex-bartender famous for his trips into the Interior to source rare ingredients, and widely regarded as insane after the tragedy with his Puffer Fish and Durian Fruit Daquiri—snuffed it holding a map with a big “X” marking the fabled land of Forest Gate, we knew it was a sign. Saddling the club mule (startled at being asked to leave the stables for the first time in 15 years) we loaded up with iron rations of foie gras and Sauternes and headed up country.

Forest Gate turns out to be a hive of multicultural trading. David had actually established that one shop, Pascheal Exotics, did stock Uganda Waragi and had reserved a few bottles. But on the way there and back we ducked into various trading establishments looking for the bitters—when we eventually found some the store also sold Castle Bridge. “All the way from Ghana,” the shopkeeper said with a mixture of pride and wistfulness. “It’s lovely.” My curiosity was well and truly piqued: what could be so different about this gin that it was worth importing to a small shop in north-west London? Yet the retail price of £12 for Castle Bridge and £15 for Waragi was cheap enough to make you wonder just how rough this was going to be, when bottles of domestically-produced Gordon’s and Beefeater sell for £14–15.

Interestingly Uganda Waragi also comes in soft plastic sachets, each a couple of double measures. It has a strangely utilitarian feel, as if it had come from a UN aid parcel, and there is something sinister about a delivery method that of course must be drunk all in one go. I’m told a lot of drinks are sold this way in Africa, though some campaigners are trying to get the format banned.

Back at the Institute we dashed to the lab without even brushing the trail dust from our topees, eager to put the drinks through their paces. Castle Bridge is bottled at 40% ABV and has a very juniper-led nose, almost a bit ham-fisted in its unsubtlety. Neat the palate is light and astringent. I always think of Beefeater as rather ethereal and straight-backed but compared to Castle Bridge it seems fat, spicy and complex. SW4 is a juniper-led brand specifically intended to be quintessentially ginny but again, compared to Castle Bridge’s pencil-lead juniper fixation, SW4’s sweet orange notes are emphasised. Mind you Castle Bridge is a perfectly creditable gin. It’s more palatable than Hogarth and about the same price, while DBS assures me it’s considerably pleasanter than Richmond, his current benchmark for repulsiveness.

The name and the styling are clearly trying to evoke an Old World European sophistication and the year “1792” is emblazoned across the top label, though the significance of this date is never mentioned. It clearly calls itself a “London Dry Gin” though I wonder whether it really fulfils the EU requirements. Neither the bottle nor the website give anything away about the botanicals* but what originally roused my curiosity was the fact that it is made from molasses neutral spirit. This sounded rather exotic, but in fact sugar beet molasses turns out to be the base for quite a bit of mass-market gin and about a third of European vodka production.

I dig out some Gordon’s green and mix up a couple of G&Ts with Schweppes tonic, using Castle Bridge in one and Gordon’s in the other. I offer them blind to DBS and ask which he prefers. Without much deliberation he chooses the Ghanaian gin. In truth even the 37.5% Gordon’s green is more complex than Castle Bridge in my opinion, but the latter has an appealing freshness to it and, as I suspected, when mixed with tonic it performs its role in the partnership perfectly diligently. I suspect its simplicity might actually make it ideal with more elaborate tonics.

So there you have it, ladies and gentleman: at £2–3 cheaper per bottle Castle Bridge is better value than Gordon’s (and a higher ABV too).

Our booty for the day. Yes, that's a carton of Egg Nog
At £15 a bottle Uganda Waragi (40% ABV) is dearer. The term “waragi’ is actually a generic one for locally distilled spirit, made from all kinds if things including banana and cassava. The word apparently means “war gin” and was coined by European ex-pats, referring to the practice of drinking before battle for “Dutch courage”; the local word for such spirits was enguli. I suspect the actual “gin” style of flavouring was brought by the settlers themselves and adopted locally. Despite decades of legislation plenty of the stuff is distilled illegally—only last year 80 people died from drinking toxic banana moonshine.

The beverage that is branded as Uganda Waragi is made by East African Breweries Ltd, makers of Tusker beer and ultimately owned by Diageo. It is triple distilled from millet and its sales represent a third of the entire spirits market in Uganda. Interestingly, although this product clearly is what you would call gin, the label only uses the word in very small writing near the top, and I have seen pictures of some labelling which doesn’t mention gin at all. (Perhaps it is only labelled as gin for export.)

It’s quite sweet, floral and spicy compared to Castle Bridge, with a remarkable perfume to it, though I feel that it could possibly tend towards cloying, with something in the smell that reminds me of plasticine. Up against SW4 it actually has a similar overall profile though the latter is more complex as well as more juniper-driven.

DBS carted three bottles of the stuff away. I’m assuming this batch is harmless, though, now I think of it, I haven’t heard from him in a while…

* The label does helpfully explain that it is "blended from superior ingredients according to an old secret formula".

To find out how we got on with the bitters, plus various strange soft drinks, tune in for Gin Safari 2, coming soon…

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Update from the Lab #5 "Cask-Ageing Gin"

With the news that the Juniper Society's late-January session will feature the French Gin Citadelle, I got thinking about their two products—Citadelle Standard (1) and Citadelle Reserve. It is the latter that interests me most, as it is "refined" in oak casks. (2) This results in an altered taste and a liquid that is straw yellow. The flavour is quite mellow although there is some warmth after and there is some subtle flavour of vanilla, something which don't recall from the Standard Citadelle. (3) This is small batch gin and the bottle I was recently given (from 2008) suggested that only 21 "small" (4) casks of the gin will be released that year. The bottle is numbered. (5)

So that got me thinking about oak-aging (or refining) my own spirits. I know that there are folk experimenting with ageing cocktails. Mr Hartley and I had the pleasure of trying an aged Manhattan at 69 Colebrook Row—definitely worth trying.

Most folk who do this, though, use whole casks. The issue with this is the expense, (6) a space to store it in (with the right conditions) and the fact that even the "small" casks take several litres of alcohol to fill, quite an investment.

But how about using whisky barrel chippings? I managed to find some which were billed as "BBQ chips" (7) and I figured that these might well do the trick. In fact I did wonder whether they might even be better, or work faster, given that, when they are suspended in the liquid, they have a greater surface area for contact with the spirit. (8)

I filled a clean, empty jam jar with some chips and then added some gin. I used a good but inexpensive gin from Aldi. The picture here shows the results after just 12 hours in the jar. Sampling after 24 hours I found that some of the flavours were starting to change (easy to spot with a side-by-side analysis). After 36 hours the flavours are even more pronounced—very interesting. I've also got a vodka on the go for comparison and fancy trying even some Campari. (9) Cocktails would also be an interesting experiment—an "aged" Gimlet, or Old Fashioned, Martinez or Negroni (10), although I think I'll leave off the Alexanders and I fear a Gin & Tonic just wouldn't work. (11)

For those interested in coming along to the Juniper Society on January 31st there is a brief introduction to Gin starting at 19:00 and the show really kicks off at 19:30. For further details and to reserve your place (the event itself is free) call
Graphic Bar on: 020 7287 9241

I will keep you updated on the aged gin. (12)

(1) Citadelle contains 19 botanicals, a huge number beaten only by The Botanist with 31.
(2) I imagine there is some technical reason why it can't be considered "aging".
(3) I wondered if anyone has ever used vanilla as a botanical—it appears that the answer is yes: Tru2
(4) You can get at least 45 bottles out of a cask so I wonder how "small" it actually is. I suppose it's all relative.
(5)  If you're interested mine was Cask 9 of 21 and Bottle No.45
(6)  Particularly when you consider shipping
(7)  For fancy chips the 'Trose (Waitrose for the uninitiated) sell Jack Daniels ones (£8)
(8)  "To increase the surface area" was a standard responses in my Biology exams and it's that phrase that got me my O Level.
(9)  This has just come to me and seems insane as I detest this bitter liquid of sadness.
(10)  Again with the Campari!
(11)  No reason not to try though!
(12)  Some readers may be wondering why their are so many footnotes in this post, well it a nod to Sir Richard Francis Burton, the explorer who's work is noted for (among other things) his frequent use of footnotes. On some occasions there is more text in the footnotes than books main body.

Sunday 23 January 2011

The Murphy cocktail

A vodka Murphy with a peeled radish

Martin Price, the man behind SW4 gin, also has a vodka which is provisionally branded “Radost”. There’s a story behind this—I think it means “joy” in Czech—but I’m always teasing him that it is radish vodka.

So I was interested to come across the Murphy cocktail, which deploys a radish.

I’ve long been partial to a Gibson, which is a Martini garnished with a cocktail onion—I always look forward to crunching up the onion at the end, so I suspect it just reflects my interest in food (which may explain my fascination with savoury gins like Aviation). The story goes that illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, used to join his chums for Martini sessions at New York actors’ hang-out the Player’s Club in the 1890s. In order to keep a clear head to carry on working afterwards, he developed a ruse with the bartender Charlie Connolly: Gibson’s drinks were just water, and Charlie marked these by using an onion rather than an olive. But the rest of the gang took a shine to the garnish and started ordering their Martinis that way, naming the variation after Gibson.

According to Shaken NOT Stirred (1997) by Anastatia Miller and Jared Brown, one Player’s Club guest “Cyril Cusick” (Cusack?) took the idea with him to Murphy’s Bar in Dublin. One day, out of onions, the barman used a radish instead, and the Murphy was born.

I’m quite partial to a radish, so I decided to give it a go. I doubted the average radish would radiate that much flavour so, to give it a chance, I peeled it and made the drink with vodka.

The result? Zilch, I’m afraid. The radish added no flavour to the Martini and, when I ate it at the end, had acquired no discernible influence from the Martini. Onwards and upwards.

Monday 10 January 2011

The Twelve Beers of Christmas

Sitting around the Christmas tree en famille I was intrigued to be handed a present from my sister with a good heft and a familiar clink. Indeed it contained two pint-bottles of beer. Then I opened another package to find two more, then two more. In total there were a dozen. These were, she in formed me, the Twelve Beers of Christmas, as suggested by online retailers, and offering a mix of regular and special Christmas brews.

Although I don’t know much about real ale it is, in fact, my drink of choice in a pub environment. Perhaps this just says something about the alternatives, but a decent pint of bitter is a joyous thing (and a million miles from flat, flavourless keg offerings such as John Smiths). However, I’ve repeatedly had the experience of sampling some delectable local ale somewhere in the provinces, then later spotting it in a London pub—only to discover that it tasted very different. I assume it’s a combination of bar staff who don’t know how to care for cask ale plus low sales meaning the beer sits around until it goes off. (I used to drink with colleagues at The Grapes in Shepherd Market: among its many charms it often had an impressively broad range of ales, but these were frequently way past their best, sometimes tending towards cider vinegar. On the other hand there was a pub* near where I lived that usually had a guest ale—and whatever it was, it was always excellent, almost suggesting that the skills of the publican make more difference than how the beer is made in the first place!

So is the solution bottle-conditioned ale? CAMRA approve, describing this as “the next best thing” to a pint of draught ale in the pub. Unpasteurised beer is bottled while the yeast is still alive, which not only allows subtle flavours to develop but apparently also has a natural preservative effect. It leaves a sediment of dead yeast so you have to pour carefully. There are some 500 bottled ales made in the UK, often hand-crafted in tiny batches by gnarled madmen. I almost never drink beer at home, so I braced myself for a voyage of discovery. Starting on Christmas day, I drank a ale a day till Twelfth Night…

Reindeer’s Delight (Oakleaf Brewing Company, 4.5% ABV)
A sweet, floral nose and a light and fresh palate, with a prominent hoppy bitterness. But there are fruit and nut elements too which are brought out by well matched food. The handy crib sheet that comes with the case gives confident suggested food pairings and advises cheese with this one. So I rustle up a cheese platter—and they’re right. The beer goes particularly well with vignotte, the cheese’s lemony freshness fencing with the tongue-tickling bitterness of the hops.

Admiral’s Ale (St Austell Brewery, 5% ABV)
Created to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar (the messenger carrying the news of victory stopped first at the Blue Anchor Inn, a St Austell Brewery pub, so there’s nothing tenuous about the connection whatsoever), this ale doesn’t avow a Christmas connection but it has a powerful aroma of boozy fruitcake. It’s actually more noticeable from the neck of the bottle than the glass (thus opening up the whole question of the correct glass from which to drink different drinks). Later I get hits of marzipan too. It’s richer and meatier than yesterday’s ale, with a toasty maltiness. It’s darker and sweeter too—though a long way from the treacly opacity of some “winter” ales—but with plenty of bitter hop action and tart acidity too.

Bad Elf (Ridgway Brewing, Oxfordshire, 6% ABV)
Made by the former head brewer of the defunct Brakspear. Oddly the brew’s label proclaims that it is brewed in the UK for the US market. Apart from the Surgeon General’s warning we get a warning that huge amounts of hops go into the beer—is this because the US market is not used to the spiky hoppiness of bitter? Bad Elf is a light, pale amber colour with a fresh flavour and not much of a nose. The head is loose and open and dissipates in a couple of minutes. It is hoppy, but no more so than Reindeer’s Delight, it seems to me. The chief characteristic is a tangy, orangey citrus note; which is quite Christmasy in its way. Refreshing and quite quaffable as ales go, though I guess that if you’re used to lager this will have a strikingly full mouthfeel.

Colomb-O (Otley Brewing Company, 4% ABV)
Nose is immediately toasty but somehow juicy at the same time. Palate is sweetish, hints of heather and honey. The hops are there at the back but this is a soft, approachable ale. No head; almost still, in fact. Subtle. Perhaps the lower ABV and less hoppiness allow you to think about the other flavours, the subtle fruit and savoury notes that make it feel less of a stylistic showcase and more like food, a staple, like a part of an ancient landscape. It makes me think of rain-soaked leafy hillsides, for some reason. Very easy to drink.

Pickled Santa (Hop Back Brewery, 6% ABV)
Apparently made with spices—cinnamon, nutmeg and coriander—so you expect it to smell like mulled wine but in fact it has a very yeasty aroma. There are perfumed spicy notes there but it’s not what hits you first. Its colour is dark and it has a robust flavour with a heavy, hoppy, toasty, almost sour weight on the tongue. They suggest it would go well with a beef stew and I can see that it would stand up to the metallic meatiness of beef. But oddly, I don’t think it needs food—its complexity grows on you, with hints of chocolate and smoke arising. Very interesting.

Sharp’s Single Brew Reserve 2009 (Sharp’s Brewery, 4.5% ABV)
From the makers of the suddenly ubiquitous Doom Bar, the coppery yeast aroma of this one hits you from a distance as you pour it. It’s a mid-dark colour with an excitable fizz and a big initial head. There is also something floral about the nose and the most striking thing when you taste it is the rich, velvety mouthfeel. The name somehow suggests it’s been aged but I gather it just reflects that fact that the head brewer personally made just one batch of this, last month. I expected an intense wall of flavour but in fact it’s very approachable and balanced. Quaffable but with that intriguing texture and floral perfumed note.

Good King Senseless (Vale Brewery, 5.2% ABV)
The aroma is sweet, perfumed and somehow fresh, though the colour is very dark. It initially seems heavy on the palate with a bitter/sour taste, but in fact it’s more complex than that. There is an earthiness, with strata of walnuts and coal tar or creosote, but then wafts of violets arise too.

Funnel Blower (Box Steam Brewery, 4.5% ABV)
A very yeasty, toasty nose. In fact it smells of caramelised oats. It is black and treacly and, despite the bitter hops, on the tongue it is predominantly smooth and sweetish. They apparently use vanilla to make it, and you pick that up, but for me the most striking note is chocolate. Hints of violets too. Moreish, like ice cream.

Festive Totty (Cheddar Ales, 4.7% ABV)
Maybe it’s the brewery’s name but when I stick my nose to the bottle I’m sure I can smell cheese on toast. In fact this Christmas porter, dark as a winter sky at night with a sepia head, is based on their normal Totty Pot but with added port. They say this adds notes of chocolate and fruit—and it does, though it’s more fruitcake than fresh fruit, and I would still say that Funnel Blower has a more striking chocolate note. But the flavour evolves in the glass: the bitterness is like espresso coffee but then you get elements of red berries too (perhaps from the port?). An intriguing draught: as you keep sipping to pin down the flavour you suddenly find you’ve nearly finished it… somehow both hefty and gluggable.

Old Timer (Wadworth, 5.8% ABV)
A sour, metallic nose, preceding a heavy, yeasty flavour. It’s soupy, almost like Bovril in some ways. On its own it seems unbalanced, with the sour/bitter elements dominating. So I try it with food: they suggest it goes well with cheddar. I don’t have any to hand but try it with Red Leicester and Wensleydale; with the latter in particular it is an excellent match, the cheese somehow absorbing the sharp aspect of the beer, leaving the drink’s subtler fruity notes to emerge.

Chimera Dark Delight (Downton Brewery, 6% ABV)
What a monster head—the only beer in this collection that really has a head to speak of. You could shave with it. A dark porter style, this beer is rich and mysterious, and the most mysterious thing about it for me is that it smells and tastes of coffee. There are fruit elements there too, and the people suggest liquorice, smoke and salt, but for me it’s mostly coffee. Plenty of hoppy bitterness, which just serves to remind me of espresso.

Hoppy Christmas (Conwy Brewery, 4.3% ABV)
A fresh fruity nose—it makes me think of strawberry and raspberry syrups. Pale in colour, almost like lager, though I see it is officially categorised as a “golden ale”, and it’s actually got more depth and a broader range of flavours than lager. I get hints of honey and cloves and something aromatic, like lavender. Perfectly drinkable on its own, though they suggest partnering it with smoked salmon and canapés—a strange image—but alas I have none to hand.

Well, Christmas is over and so is my ale case. Considering that all these beers essentially contain just water, yeast, hops and malted grain (usually barley) the range of flavours is extraordinary. And I would never have thought about matching beers with food in such an exact and satisfying way; as with wine, some of these ales are definitely better with food. And although there aren’t many cocktails that involve beer, the variety of taste here suggests all kinds of possibilities.

Highlights for me include the Funnel Blower, for it’s unexpected chocolately moreishness, and, at the other end of the scale, the light but complex Colomb-O. It’s nuanced rather than grandstanding, making you think that ales like this have been quietly doing their job for centuries. Should I ever find myself having to till a field, I like to imagine this is what I would quench my thirst with at midday. (Better not say that too loud in case Mrs H. hands me some sort of implement and directs me to the garden…)

* I think it was the Duke of York on Roger Street, Bloomsbury, but this was in the 1990s so it may have changed.

Saturday 8 January 2011

Cream of the crop

Left to right: Alexander's Sister, Dairy Fairy, Alexander, Quark-Gluon Plasma

If you grew up in the same era as me you’ll know the Brandy Alexander as a classic, classy, creamy, after-dinner sort of cocktail: equal parts brandy, crème de cacao and cream, sometimes served with a garnish of nutmeg or grated chocolate flake on the top. But it never occurred to me at the time that the reason it was called a “Brandy Alexander” was because a conventional Alexander was made with gin.

Visiting my parents-in-law recently I submitted to my usual duties as barman. My father-in-law has one of those wonderful freestanding bars on casters that probably haven’t been made since the 1970s. (He is an ancient mariner so his has a ship’s wheel on the front and I have visions of him tacking lazily across the living room floor after a few pink gins.) I found a glass cocktail shaker that, judging by the graphics printed on it, must date from the 1950s. It’s the kind that has measurements up the side for various traditional combinations, and I noticed the “Alexander”. This got me thinking about the cocktail. We don’t often have cream sitting around in the house but after a spaghetti carbonara fest we had a bit left over so as a nightcap on I cooked up a classic Alexander.

And I was blown away. Why have I not met this cocktail before? I would not have guessed that gin and chocolate would go together at all but it’s an awesome combination. I suppose chocolate and fruit (orange, blackcurrant) are often paired, so it’s not so strange.

The earliest printed recipe for an Alexander is in Hugo Ensslin’s 1915 Recipes for Mixed Drinks and the story goes that it was invented by Troy Alexander who worked at a New York lobster restaurant named Rector’s. A party was being held for Phoebe Snow—a fictional character who advertised the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. Phoebe always wore a white dress to emphasise the fact that DL&W trains were cleaner because they burned anthracite rather than normal coal. Focusing on this pure white concept Troy came up with:

⅓ El Bart gin
⅓ crème de cacao
⅓ sweet cream
Shake well in a mixing glass with cracked ice, strain and serve.

This was white crème de cacao rather than the brown version more common now. (Depending on the brand it may or may not taste the same: if you’re a member of the New Sheridan Club, have a look at the article on pages 22–23 of the latest Newsletter, where m’colleague Mr Bridgman-Smith presents a table analysing the effects on this drink of different colours of Giffard crème de cacao and different base spirits.)

A lot of modern recipes call for double cream, but I think single cream makes the point perfectly well and is less likely to make you throw up if you drink too many. I also agree with later writers, including Peter Benchley, writing in 1940, and Harry Craddock in his Savoy Cocktail Book (1930), that a better ratio is 2 parts gin to 1 part each of the other ingredients, though David Embury (who was clearly fundamentally suspicious of the drink), in the The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948), suggested boosting the gin to 6 parts to try and create a pre-dinner version that wouldn’t ruin your appetite.

Judging by DBS’s lab results I’d be inclined to stick with the more cocoa-flavoured brown version of the liqueur. I was also using SW4 gin, an ebullient juniper-heavy brand that stands up well to the richness of the other ingredients.

While we’re on the subject of creamy gin-based cocktails, what else can we try? There’s the Alexander’s Sister—equal parts gin, cream and crème de menthe—about which Craddock rather strangely comments, “Ladies are advised to avoid this Cocktail as often as possible.” Even if we ignore the odd wording* it makes you wonder why—is it because they will find it horrid, or because they’ll like it so much they’ll become hopelessly addicted (lacking the willpower of a man, perhaps?), or that it might have some deleterious effect on their complexion? I have no idea.

Anyway, it’s quite a tasty beverage, though the balance seems out to me: it is improved by again raising the gin to 2 parts and further by adding half a measure of brown crème de cacao (taking it in the direction of the Grasshopper, which is equal parts crème de menthe, crème de cacao, cream and milk).

I also tried making a cocktail of gin, cream and absinthe (because I’m like that) and it was remarkably good. If you just don’t like anise (Mrs H. included) don’t bother, but I found it did a good job of bringing out some of the secondary flavours in the absinthe—which is a pretty complex drink if you give it a chance. I used some Doubs absinthe I had knocking around.**

Dairy Fairy
2 parts gin
1 part absinthe
1 part single cream
1 part sugar syrup
Shake with ice.

Finally there is another of my own inventions, coined on the spur of the moment in November to celebrate the success of our plucky boffins working on the Large Hadron Collider who smashed some lead ions together and created a “mini-Big Bang”***. This happened at a temperature a million times hotter than the core of the sun. “At these temperatures,” said a boffin, “even protons and neutrons, which make up the nuclei of atoms, melt, resulting in a hot, dense soup of quarks and gluons known as a quark-gluon plasma.” I suppose I should have served the drink mulled but it’s nice chilled too. I think the combination of triple sec and crème de violette is actually rather interesting

Quark-Gluon Plasma
2 parts gin
1 part triple sec
1 part crème de violette
1 part single cream
(Optional: ¾ –1 part sugar syrup)
Shake over ice. Or leave in the centre of the Sun to warm gently.

* Saying “as often as possible”, rather than “as much as possible”, opens the philosophical question of exactly how you measure how many times you have not done something.
** I think there is a new Doubs (named after the river) that is a proper distilled absinthe, but this one, which is quite a few years old, is probably a cold-infused faux absinthe, judging by the rather unnatural colour. I would certainly like to try this cocktail with a decent modern absinthe, such as Butterfly or one of Ted Breaux’s Jade range. Or indeed a bleu such as Clandestine or La Maison Fontaine, in which case it might not need the syrup.
*** Surely a contradiction in terms: does it not just cancel out and become a Medium Bang?

Friday 7 January 2011

Astringent Cocktail

Astringent Cocktail

Whilst researching Ginger Ale I stumbled across this recipe in Jack's Manual from 1910:

I used Croft Indulgence Port and Martell and some ginger water as my Jamaica ginger.
The Taste: Quite repulsive! spoils the Port, Brandy, Ginger Water and even the Angostura Bitters. Such a waste! The final tingle of ginger was the only upside.

On the other-side Mrs. Godfrey loved it's profile of warmth and thought it rather tasty and smooth. Well they do say opposites attract and this was one cocktail she was welcome to finish!

Wednesday 5 January 2011

Lab Update #4—Apple Gin Recipe

Lab Update #4—Home-made Apple Gin Recipe

Whilst investigating potential ingredients for an upcoming article "Raiders of the Lost Cocktail Cabinet" I came across a long-lost ingredient, apple gin. Made in the UK this was sweetened apple-infused gin, though sadly it has been unavailable for a long time.

A form of apple gin is available in the USA, made by Seagram's (the second biggest gin producer in the world). It's part of their "twisted" range and, along with their Purple Grape variety, it sadly isn't up to much. It certainly doesn't match the above description. So in the spirit of The Institute I decided to make my own.

Recipes for apple gin or apple vodka are a bit thin on the ground—many of them also contain pears, so not much luck there. One useful tidbit I did find was that red apples were consistently recommended for the best results.

The apples were peeled and cored and then added to some gin (I used Tesco's Distiller's Reserve—perfectly good in its own right, of course) I added a little lemon to bring out the flavour. I didn't sweeten it at this point as I wanted to see how the flavour would turn out first.

It took about two weeks to get a decent amount of flavour out of the apples, I then sweetened it with some sugar syrup, at about one part syrup to four parts gin.

The result: a light straw-coloured liquid smelling of cut apples, a little vanilla and a slightly bitter note. A good amount of the gin comes through with apple in the middle and towards the and. The finish is juniper. One thing that is clear is that this is certainly apple gin, my only criticism being that I should probably have added a little more sugar.*

I then tried it in a cocktail:

3/6 Apple Gin
1/6 Orgeat (Almond) Syrup
1/6 Lemon Juice
1/6 Kirsch

This was pretty tasty and lack of sweetness in the apple gin was compensated by the orgeat, the overall impression was apple marzipan, with the lemon juice and kirsch there to balance out the sweetness. Not a bad first cocktail to try this with.

* Adding a little sugar syrup to a glass does improve things.