Friday 25 February 2011

Not only here for the beer: spirits from Adnams

Anyone with a still seems to be chucking out a gin at the moment, but I was surprised to hear recently that Adnams, brewers of fine Suffolk ales since 1872, had also now produced a range of vodkas and gins. I shouldn’t have been, really—their premium spirits are made from exactly the same grains as their beer, a mixture of locally sourced barley, wheat and oats. Even though they’ve had to have a still installed—a copper one, for they too subscribe to the cult of copper—it’s all part of the process. So are they bandwagon-jumping or do they have something to bring to the party?

Let’s start with Adnams Copper House Barley Vodka (40% ABV). It’s made from East Anglian malted barley, brewed into a wash at 6% ABV without hops, then distilled. They describe it as “beautifully smooth…with a natural sweetness”, but to me it has a keen nose with a hint of dry sherry. The palate does have cream, by comparison with mass-produced vodkas, but compared to other premium vodkas I’ve had recently it tends more towards fruit and minerals—this is a characterful drink. Indeed Adnams describe it as having “plenty of character from our handmade copper pot still”. I couldn’t say if that is where the flavours come from but if I line it up with some others I have to hand—SW4*, Sipsmith, Chase and Indiana—it seems to have oranges, grapes and even cherries going on. Sipsmith and SW4 are also made from barley but their styles are quite different. If you’re after a vodka that is all about creamy smoothness and nectar sweetness, then this probably isn’t the one for you, but my curiosity has been well and truly piqued.

Next up is Longshore, a vodka bottled at 48% ABV, made from the more complicated three-grain blend and a finer “cut”—taking just the choice middle section of the distillation batch. And what a difference it is. If the Copper House barley vodka has an edgy, fruity character, this vodka smells like a meringue, rich and sweet. But on the palate it still has a family resemblance to the first one—rather than the unctuous smoothness of Sipsmith it has a distinctly citrus-cream fruity flavour with hints of wood. It tastes like a wooden crate that was used to store oranges.

As a relative vodka novice I’ve been astonished by the variety of flavours you can get from this basic recipe. The Chase potato vodka, for instance is vinous on the nose with a smooth palate and a hint of pears. So what will we make of the third Adnams offering—North Cove Oak-Aged Vodka, a version of their Longshore that is bottled at 50% ABV after sitting in oak barrels? (The sample that I have spent a month in a mix of French and American oak though I’m told the production version will use just European barrels.) As soon as you stick your nose in the glass you really can smell the wood, and not just a general “woodiness” but actual sawn planks. Then comes the buttery, vanilla richness, familiar from oak-aged wine. Adnams suggest coconut too, and it is there, in a coconut-matting kind of way. On the palate again a strong wood character—probably too much for some—giving it an edge almost like red wine. You can imagine this vodka pairing well with food, such as smoked salmon; this, or perhaps the lighter vodkas, might be a good match with sushi.

To me this whole range has a striking fruit character. The oak-aged one has elements of prunes and marmalade, but even the basic barley vodka has it too. The next morning I smell all the empty tasting glasses and, while Indiana, SW4, Sipsmith and Chase have no residual aroma to speak of, all of the Adnams range do, especially the oak-aged, though less so the Longshore. When we tried them all together I got the impression that DBS was most keen on SW4, followed by Indiana and Sipsmith. I think they’re excellent too, but I have to say I’m taken by the forthright character of the Adnams range.

The family also includes two gins, the Distilled Gin made from the barley vodka and First Rate gin made from the Longshore vodka. The Distilled Gin has six botanicals, featuring sweet orange peel and hibiscus flower, plus juniper, cardamom, coriander seed and orris. This sweet, floral approach is very much of the moment. Berry Bros. No.3 gin is specifically intended for Martinis and also includes sweet orange peel in its spartan botanical list: I assume the sweetness is there to make it more palatable served more or less neat.

Certainly there is juniper and citrus straightaway and a pronounced floral aroma. I don’t really know what hibiscus tastes/smells of but here there is a sweetness and a hint of blackcurrants too. This perfumed character reminds me slightly of soap, though I guess that is more a comment on how we choose to fragrance our toiletries than on the gin. On the palate overall it’s again about sweet orange, flowers and also gingerbread. Plus a smidgen of geranium. Diluted by half with water, it maintains this character, though I get a whiff of strawberries too.

First Rate gin immediately contrasts by having more juniper on the nose. It has the same botanicals, minus the hibiscus, and adds caraway and fennel seeds, cassia, angelica, lemon peel, liquorice, thyme and vanilla. You do get a clear family resemblance: flowers, gingernut (interesting that there are no flowers in this one, and no ginger in either) and that stemmy geranium note. On the palate this persists, though it also has more alcohol, plus the smooth, creamy character of the underlying vodka. Watered by half, I also get a dry aromatic perfume like lavender, which must come from the thyme and perhaps the seeds.

Comparing these two with SW4 gin, you realise how much more the latter is characterised by mid-range spice notes of coriander, cinnamon, cassia and maybe nutmeg, compared to the floral characters on display here. Oddly I am reminded of the G’Vine range, which is also all about flowers (vine flowers in their case), sweetness and with a strong ginger note. They too have a lower ABV version and a higher ABV one with a sterner, more junipery mix: I assume the basic idea here is to have a sweet, floral, approachable version marketed at people who basically are put off by traditional gin’s austerity, plus a more juniper-driven one for people who do actually like gin.

Both the Adnams gins are comfortable with tonic at 2:1. Again the Distilled is sweet and floral while the First Rate brings in a steely note of juniper and the sharp aromatics of the spices and resinous thyme. Adnams themselves feel both gins work well with tonic or as Martinis, and benefit from lime garnishes, adding that First Rate is also “stunning with a strip of cucumber”.

Personally I prefer the First Rate, because I like a drier, more pokey spirit, but I think both are well made, intriguingly complex products. They’re not cheap, mind—and with both First Rate and Longshore the more pernickety distillation method cranks up the price further. Adnams Copper House Barley Vodka is £22.99 for 70cl; the Longshore Vodka is £23.99 for 50cl; the North Cove Oak Aged Vodka is £25.99 for 50cl; the Distilled Gin is £23.99 for 70cl and the First Rate Gin is £24.99 for 50cl. All may be purchased directly from Adnams’ website.

* This vodka doesn't really have a name yet. On the Park Place Drinks site it is called Radost but it hasn't actually been brought to market yet. Perhaps you can email Martin your suggestions for a name?

Saturday 19 February 2011

Bringing it all back home III: Prohibition Gin

A couple of weeks ago I found myself in possession of the country’s only bottle of a new gin from Heartland Distillers, makers of Indiana vodka. It’s called Prohibition. I think the name comes from maker Stuart Hobson’s belief that Prohibition pretty much killed off the rich distilling tradition in his state, a tradition that he is manfully trying to revivify. It doesn’t hurt that all things Prohibition- and speakeasy-related seem suddenly in vogue, perhaps thanks to Boardwalk Empire, creating a new “Mad Men effect”. (Not that I’m one to talk.)

So is this authentic bathtub gin, taking crude alcohol and trying to mask the roughness with juniper essence (a roughness that is often attributed with boosting the whole cocktail tradition, as bartenders added emollient ingredients to make the underlying spirit palatable)? Not a bit of it. Stuart takes his super-smooth, award-winning, sextuple-distilled vodka and in the last distillation adds his botanicals in a Carter Head style flavour-box, through which the vapours pass. “This vessel is packed with the fresh botanicals in a specific manner to obtain the flavor profile we desire,” Stuart explains.

I was under the impression that this tends to create a lighter style of gin than a pot still process where the botanicals are actually macerated in the spirit before distillation, but Stuart says, “I would characterise our gin as a full flavour gin. We’ve broadened the flavour profile so you can taste all of the botanicals we use. Many gins boast of all their botanicals, but when you taste them all you get is the juniper. With Prohibition Gin all of the botanical flavours are present. The use of fresh botanicals produces a clean fresh mouth feel.”

So it’s not a juniper-led gin. One sniff of the bottle—a powerful whiff of curry powder to me—and you realise we are in the same territory as Aviation, made by Ryan Magarian in Portland, Oregon. Ryan even has a name for his non-juniper-led school, “New Western Gins”. To me Aviation has powerful savoury elements, with lots of coriander. Prohibition is similar, but actually with more of a concession to juniper, plenty of citrus edge plus a very strong element of celery seed on the finish. It’s remarkably balanced, with citrus and cassia finding a place, and something like lavender on the palate; oddly I always get tomatoes, but I guess it’s just the Bloody Mary ingredients in the gin that get my juices flowing, plus the citrus. Doing a direct comparison you find that Aviation actually has a fattier and more biscuity nose and striking fennel notes.

Here I am tussling with Emma Stokes over the precious
bottle of Prohibition
“You are spot on with the flavour profile,” says Stuart—though he won’t actually reveal all the botanicals, only juniper, coriander, angelica root, cassia, licorice root and grains of paradise. “I like to tell people that this is not your grandfather’s gin, this is richer and fuller flavoured. I would be comfortable with it being thought of as a New Western Gin.”

But the interesting thing about this “new” gin that it actually very much is your grandfather’s, or rather Stuart’s grandfather’s. He says he came across the recipe in a nineteenth-century book on distilling techniques. This got me thinking: if it really represents an older style, does it shed any light on the ongoing debate about exactly what “Old Tom” gin—a style that was popular before London Dry Gin took over—actually tasted like? DBS and I are comparing the different theories and compiling samples of the different approaches to modern revival Old Tom styles for a future group test, but my eye was caught the other day by a mail-out from David Nathan-Maister. In addition to being a strong advocate for the Campaign for Real Absinthe, David also deals in vintage spirits, including the sorts of pre-ban absinthe upon analysis of which the new “authentic” absinthes are based, but also including old rums, bourbons and the odd gin.

This mail-out describes, among other jewels, a batch of gin distilled in or before 1913. Author Dave Hughes has tasted a sample and comments: “With time in the glass the citrus notes begin to take over while the mature herby character is always there. It would appear that coriander must have been a major component as it begins to show after a long while in the glass. All rests on a gentle supporting spice.” His reference to the strong coriander element reminded me of the New Western style.

Ted Breaux’s comments on this batch are: “The gin is much lighter than the typically juniper-heavy London-dry style that dominates today. It is far more like the lighter, sweeter Old Tom style that was popular in both the UK and the US toward the end of the nineteenth century, which was specified in many of the gin cocktails in the earliest bartender guides—cocktails that aren’t as enjoyable when overpowered by juniper. What is significant is that it is isn’t a ‘Holland gin’, with a malt wine base, but is an example of the newer style (for the period), which was based upon a redistillation of a neutral spirit—something not possible until after the invention of the multi-plate alembic in the 1830s.”

An Inhibition made at home
Some people believe that “Old Tom” does refer to a maltier Dutch style (you can create an impression by rinsing a glass with malt whisky then adding gin), others to something that is simply sugared, while Christian Jensen’s recreation aims for “sweetness” through the botanical balance rather than added sugar. But could it be that the New Western styles, with big flavours but less emphasis on juniper, might offer a clue? I intend to try using Aviation and Prohibition to make some of the old cocktails that specifically call for Old Tom (in books that also specify London gin or Plymouth gin in other recipes) and see how well they work.

I leave you, however, with a thoroughly modern cocktail dreamed up on the spot by Graphic barman Adam Smithson when I went in there with the precious bottle:

40ml Prohibition
5ml Coco Kanu coconut rum
10ml Creole Shrubb rum orange liqueur
25ml lime juice
20ml homemade chai syrup
Top with soda and garnish with a lime wedge

Stuart Hobson himself was delighted with this recipe when I sent it to him—possibly because, of course, the Indiana Infusions range includes a Chai Tea one. Using this instead, Stuart has posted a variant on the Prohibition Facebook page.

I knock up a version using what I have to hand: Prohibition gin, “Windward white rum with coconut” from Asda, Cointreau, lime juice and Indiana Chai Tea Infusion, and decide just to shake it and serve it straight up. If you can get the proportions right (the coconut in particular needs microbalancing) the result is fascinating. The coconut and lime are quite prominent, but work surprisingly well with the savoury spice elements too. I think I could become gently fascinated by Prohibition gin.

Thursday 17 February 2011

Bringing it all back home II: Indiana Infusions

Flavoured vodka is everywhere, to the extent that some of the more exotic gins out there could be more usefully described as flavoured vodkas (which, in a sense, of course they are), and are probably aimed at the same market.

As I mentioned in the last post, Indiana vodka produces a range of seven “infusions”. I haven’t tasted them all, but I managed to get my hands on their Chocolate Espresso, Cherry Vanilla and Chai Tea versions. (They also make Double Vanilla, Raspberry Citrus, Honey Lemon and Orange Cream.) Apparently, early on in the experimentation process they decided that adding a complementary flavour to the main one worked jolly well, and they do that with all apart from Double Vanilla.

Of course there is nothing wrong with adding flavours to a vodka or any other spirit—that’s essentially what making a cocktail is—but there is something rather suspect, rather tacky or cheesy about the idea. For reasons that are hard to explain I find myself in possession of a bottle of Absolut Raspberri: you just have to smell it to realise it has never been anywhere near a raspberry (or even a “raspberri”). The cough syrup smell is deeply synthetic.

I don’t know how Indiana’s Infusions are made—the labelling only refers to “flavors” rather than actual ingredients, which doesn’t bode well—but they, on the other hand, give more of an impression that they might have involved real food. In truth they feel like something middle class people have a splash of in their cappuccinos—whereas the Absolut one is like something given a candy flavour to make it more palatable to underage drinkers in the park.

Absolut Raspberri: the drink and the raspberries
had not met before the photoshoot
Cherry Vanilla The aroma is most strongly of marzipan. This suggests that real cherries were involved, because cherry stones do have an almond essence, in the same way that sloe stones give sloe gin an almond flavour. Tasting it, I’m rather surprised to find that it is sweetened, like a low-intensity liqueur. (Oddly the Absolut Raspberri, for all its candy flavouring, is unsweetened.) There are cherry elements in there too, but almond dominates. It’s like a liquid Bakewell tart. And also a good way to mask any cyanide you might want to offer a guest.

Chocolate Espresso A rather subtle nose: the first element that hits me is actually vodka, before cacao and coffee come in. Again it is sweetened, with the overall effect of a rather restrained Kahlua or crème de cacao.

Chai Tea A complex nose to this one, with black pepper hitting me first, then cinnamon. Nutmeg comes through on the palate as well (though there doesn’t seem to be any nutmeg in it—perhaps it’s the cardomom). It’s rather tasty, with a subtle flavour that invites you in rather than shouting at you.

So restrained are these that I do wonder what they are for. I give them to Mrs H. to taste without saying what they are. She thinks the Chai is like Becherovka (which does have a pronounced cinnamon note), can’t really place the Cherry Vanilla but thinks the Chocolate Espresso reminds her of Kirsch, which is interesting.

An early pack shot: I assume they dropped the "IV" idea for fear that
people would actually try to administer it intravenously
The Infusions site has some cocktail recipes: it suggests mixing 1 shot of the Chai Tea with an unspecified amount of egg nog. I’ve got some Advocaat in the fridge so I try it with that—if you mix 2–3 parts Chai vodka with 1 part Advocaat it does work quite well. Despite the sugar in the Infusion it dries out the Advocaat relatively speaking. “Vodka custard,” was all Mrs H. had to say on the subject. I myself don’t have a sweet tooth so I find myself wanting to mix the Chai Tea Infusion with something dry like unsweetened apple juice, where its mincemeat flavours should marry well. The Infusions site does suggest Chai vodka with Apple Schnapps.

I attempt to make a subtle Chocolate Martini using the Chocolate Espresso Infusion. At 3 parts SW4 gin to 1 part Infusion it’s still pretty subtle. At 3:1½ it comes through, though it’s now a bit sweet for me. I suspect I might get more joy from Mozart Dry, which is more chocolately yet bone dry.

One other cocktail they suggest for which I have the ingredients is the Tipsy Shirley, a distinctly unmasculine combination of 1½ parts Cherry Vanilla Infusion, 4 parts ginger ale and a splash of grenadine. It’s not bad but for me still a bit cloying. I try it without the grenadine and it is greatly improved—the cherry/almond flavour of the vodka works rather interestingly with the ginger. The drink just looks like pale ginger ale, so perhaps the grenadine was just there to make it the colour you expect from the taste. But I notice that, with a lot of the cocktails they recommend, the flavour of the infusion is reinforced by some other ingredient—all the Chocolate Espresso Infusion recipes have added chocolate or coffee liqueur; the Sara Soda has Orange Cream Infusion and orange soda; the Lemon Drop Martini has Honey Lemon Infusion with lemon juice and sugar, etc. It seems to defeat the object a bit, and suggests a lack of confidence in the infusions themselves.

Personally I think that the subtlety of these infusions, and the interesting flavour pairings in each one gives them good scope for grown-up mixology ideas, though I do wish they hadn’t added the sugar…

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Indiana vodka: bringing it all back home

Given that, on paper, vodka is just alcohol and water, the continuing release of new brands—each claiming to be the vodka you’ve always wanted—could reasonably strike you as little more than marketing exercises. They tend to focus on authenticity, honesty, heritage and “purity” rather than coming out and saying “Hey, this tastes really good.” Perhaps they’re just afraid that to the typical punter they all just taste like, you know, vodka.

I’ve not spent much time tasting vodkas (unlike DBS who, I discovered recently, used to be quite a connoisseur before he got into gin) so I was actually quite struck by the differences when we lined up half a dozen vodkas recently (more of which anon). One of those was Indiana vodka from Heartland Distillers in Indianapolis, Indiana. It is not yet commercially available in the UK but I was lucky enough to get a sample from Bar Spirits who will be distributing it.

Heartland is actually the first new distillery in Indiana since Prohibition, and founder Stuart Hobson believes that Prohibition pretty much killed off the state’s distilling tradition. He seems to be driven by local pride as much as anything, making a point of sourcing his raw materials locally, as well as a desire to make something artisanal and old-school. All the bottling and labelling are done by hand, he says—each bottleneck is even hand-dipped in wax.

Many vodkas boast that their spirits are “tripled distilled” or “four times distilled”, but Heartland ups the ante by distilling Indiana six times. It is distilled and redistilled in batches, and each time they discard the “head” (the first distillate to emerge, which contains impurities you don’t want) and the low-alcohol “tail” (at the end of the distillation) keeping only the “heart”, thus gradually filtering the less desirable bits of the spectrum.

Like Sipsmith, they believe copper stills are best (in fact their still was made by the same Bavarian company as Sipsmith’s, Christian Carl), and that the copper reacts with the spirit to remove certain impurities such as sulphites.

Indiana is made from corn and maize, which Hobson believes produces a smoother and lighter flavour, with a sweeter finish, than vodkas made from wheat or potato. Just think, he says, how much tastier corn on the cob is compared to bread or mashed potato. Hmm. I don’t know that this argument holds much water, but there’s no doubting that Indiana is cracking vodka. It’s a lot like Sipsmith, in fact, in that it is smooth, sweet and creamy (a characteristic that Sipsmith attribute to their vodka’s being made from barley—not corn). It’s also remarkably fruity.

I have some Sipsmith to hand, so how do they compare? The Sipsmith has a much softer nose, with less of the fruitiness of Indiana, and its palate is dominated by a smooth unctuousness. I’ve also got a mini of Chase potato vodka: this is fruitier again on the nose, almost vinous, but the palate is quite buttery, hinting at ice cream. Chase somehow tickles the sour-receptors of the tongue without actually tasting sour, whereas Sipsmith bats its eyelids at your sweetness-receptors*. Compared to both, Indiana actually seems quite dry.

The only vodka I have to hand that I think may be made from wheat** is Smirnoff Red. It’s probably an unfair comparison, but I try the Smirnoff alongside. It seems to have no nose at all—and no taste***, only a little burning at the back of the throat to let you know it was there.

Clearly vodkas are not created equal. But I’m not convinced that any particular grain is the bee’s knees. I wouldn’t say that Indiana, the only corn/maize vodka I have knowingly tried, is superior to Chase potato vodka or Sipsmith barley vodka****. But it’s certainly good.

Matt Ford from Bar Spirits tells me the retail price of Indiana will be £23–26 when it gets here around 28th March. From their vodka Heartland make a range of seven infused versions as well as a gin they call Prohibition, which I will tell you about very shortly.

* Apparently we were lied to in school and the tongue does not have specific zones for different tastes. Which must be a bit embarrassing for high-end drinks glass merchant Reidel who used the “tongue map” as justification for their vast range of specific vessels for every conceivable alcoholic drink. Well, I don’t suppose they do one for Thunderbird or WKD, but they do an awful lot and they tend to be very expensive.
** Actually it's hard to know what it is made from. I heard a rumour that it was made from molasses spirit, as a lot of European volume vodka apparently is, but the Diageo PR I spoke to insisted it is "grain"-based. This website aimed at those with food allergies offers a list that gives Smirnoff as corn-based, something I've seen elsewhere. Yet another site suggests that in its original form it was made from wheat and rye, which I think is quite traditional, but that under Diageo it can be made from all manner of grain and non-grain spirits. Neither Smirnoff's nor Diageo's sites tell you anything.
*** Amusing, in 1938 Smirnoff was (quite successfully) marketed by one distributor in Kentucky as "White whiskey—no taste, no smell".
**** Martin Price, the man behind SW4, also has a vodka up his sleeve, as it were. It has not been brought to market yet, so I don’t even know what it will be called, but it is also made from barley. It’s jolly good, but it is different from Sipsmith, with saltier, edgier style.

Thursday 10 February 2011

Gin Bombe—with a Liquid Gin Centre

The Institute for Alcoholic Experimentation proudly presents....

The SW4 Bombe

The Gin Bombe is essentially a tonic ice ball with a liquid gin centre. So how do you make such a... drink?

First you need some ice ball moulds (we got ours from G'Vine). You then carefully fill these with tonic water. When I did this I noticed that the fizz of the tonic meant that, when it froze, the inside of the ice ball was hollow. This got me thinking...

I bored a hole in the ice ball with a cork screw and then covered the rest of the ball in a thin layer of water. I returned it to the freezer to let it ice up (so that it could hold gin).

After a little while I then poured some SW4 from the refrigerator (gin at room temperature the ball would melt too quickly, from the freezer too slowly) into the bore-hole.

This is best drunk with a straw but it is interesting that as the drink warms up the flavours change and your straight gin becomes more and more like a gin & tonic. Presenting someone with a glass of the below should create some confusion and amusement.

Sunday 6 February 2011

Absinthe: putting the "blind" into blind tasting

Your noble experimenters with some of the samples (that's Doubs in the glass)
I first got interested in absinthe a few years ago when I stumbled across Phil Baker’s The Dedalus Book of Absinthe (2001). It’s an excellent book, though a little out of date now—back then we didn’t have so many earnest attempts to recreate the subtleties of “proper” absinthe and Ted Breaux hadn’t won his battle to legalise it in the States. The focus of my gnat-like attention span drifted on to other things and it was only last year, when Ted’s Lucid brand started making headway and others like La Clandestine, Butterfly and La Maison Fontaine began to see if they could rebuild a market in the UK, that I started thinking about it again.

I have written elsewhere about the general history of the Green Fairy but the business of today’s exercise is actually tasting the stuff. I still had a collection of bottles knocking around, and David occasionally gives me strange samples too, so we decided that we should have a big comparative tasting of everything we had to hand.

I should stress that this was not a scientific analysis of everything on the market—it really was just a curious exercise in comparing those that we had: absinthe is bloody expensive so we weren’t planning to buy anything in specifically for this test. In all we blind-tasted 19 samples, ranging from Czech “fauxsinthes” to recently released distilled recreations of pre-ban styles. But there were notable absences: no La Fée, no Lucid, and indeed no La Maison Fontaine. I suppose it was just an attempt to see whether we really could tell the difference between the fancy brands and the knock-off green-dye-and-essence jobs.

It has been observed that attempting to have absinthe blind tastings will always be hampered by the fact that there is so much variety and subjectivity in how the drink is prepared: different manufacturers recommend different degrees of dilution and there is the question of whether to add sugar. But for the sake of this test we did not sweeten any of them and prepared each sample in the same way: 10ml of absinthe to 25ml of water, tasting them mostly from shot glasses for the sake of space and convenience.

The variety of colours is interesting—note the drinks measure being used
as a makeshift tasting vessel
DBS prepared the samples, so he knew which was which, but I was tasting completely blind. Obviously I could see which were green styles and which colourless “bleue” or “blanche” absinthes—plus there were a couple that were actually verging on the blue or indeed bright red.

The absinthes were presented in no particular order, in tranches of four, and we each aimed to find our favourite overall three. There were four bleue samples, which I also ranked within that category.

To see which absinthes were actually included, see my tasting notes below (bearing in mind I didn’t know what anything was when I was tasting it). David actually has a much sweeter tooth than me (even unsugared, some of them felt too sweet for me, although these perceptions can be greatly affected by what you have tasted just before) and our rankings within the tranches differed, but I think we broadly agreed on the overall favourites. Which were:

First: Butterfly
Second: Angelique
Third: Mari Mayans

These are all green styles—and it’s possible I just generally prefer this style—but out of the four bleues our ranking was:

First: Clandestine (2006 batch)
Second: Clandestine (recent batch)
Third: Eichelberger 68
Fourth: La P’tite

In truth I pondered long and hard over whether I preferred sample 11 or sample 12—much to David’s amusement as he knew they were both Clandestine. One was from a bottle acquired very recently and the other was from an open bottle distilled in 2006 (it handily had a batch date on it). Yet we agreed they clearly tasted different. The older one had a more restrained flavour, but which threw up subtleties when you gave it a chance, while the newer one was more in-your-face with the sweet, floral elements that seem characteristic of bleues.*

The biggest surprise must be the presence of Mari Mayans in third place. I was under the impression that it was not a “proper” distilled absinthe, where the botanticals are macerated in the spirit then redistilled, like gin (although the green colour of green absinthes comes from a post-distillation maceration of certain botanicals that don’t distil well). However, their website says that, “It is made from distilling the leaves and stems of hand-picked Artemisia Absinthium (Wormwood) and is then macerated in herbs.” It is “100% natural” and apparently made to the same formula that the distillery has been using since its foundation by Juan Mari Mayans in 1858.

I was also surprised that the 1901 absinthe from Ted Breaux’s Jade range didn’t score higher, though it was sampled in the same tranche as Butterfly which might have overshadowed it. I did think it was quite interesting, though I  wasn’t quite sure about its pungent aroma. Also in that tranche was Eichelberger 68 which did quite well. We categorised it as a bleue though there is a hint of green about it. It was apparently the result of a competition in 2005 to come up with a better quality German absinthe—15 homemade recipes were entered and the winner made into a commercial product.

Also absent from the field, of course, was any genuine pre-ban absinthe! These do come up now and then and it is on the analysis of these that some of the newer ones are based. Perhaps if we do this again some generous Green Fairy can supply us with a dose for comparative purposes…

Tasting notes (all tasted blind):
Tranche A
1. Angelique Very pale, with just a hint of green. Strong louche. Gentle, fresh nose
and rich taste of rubbery anise and caramel. More complex and sappy than no.3.
2. La P’tite A bleue with a buttery, slightly sour nose, and a hint of dark berries. The buttery element carries on to the palate, where there is anise too, though that fatty/floral element—like an over-ripe flower—dominates. DBS is unimpressed: “not really absinthe”.
3. Mari Mayans Solid louche; greener than no.1. Not much nose, though a hint of old varnished wood. Flavour is a shade waxy, but also with a lot of anise. DBS likes this aniseed “punch”.
4. Pernod Less louche. Not much going on; taste is warm and sugary and a bit synthetic.
Best of this tranche: 1 with 3 a close second
Tranche B
5. Dedo A lot of blue in the green colour; light louche. Nose is strong, sweetish and reminiscent of coffee. Aniseed warmth on the taste but a bit thin and bitter.
6. Van Gogh Pale yellow-green and light louche. Not much nose, not much taste apart from a bit of anise; remarkably sweet.
7. Duplais Mid green, good louche. More interesting nose, with something resinous, piney. Seems strong ABV. Taste is more bitter with vegetal elements.
8. Hapsburg Red Bright red, no louche whatsoever. Smells candy-sweet. Palate: clumsy synthetic fruit flavours, recently snuffed candles. Not much aniseed. Just silly.
Best of this tranche: No.7
Tranche C
9. King of Spirits Gold Pale yellow-green, no louche at all. Little smell, though vaguely like a urinal. Very bitter attack but with a sweetish finish. It has a rubbery aromatic element, like a fake pint scent—perhaps this reminds of toilet cleaner, hence the “urinal” reference! Not pleasant at all.
10. Hapsburg Green Bluish-green, virtually no louche. Nose: sweet orange, maybe a hint of parma violets; palate too reminds me of some childhood confectionary. Bit like drinking sweetened cologne. [Note: I am informed by Dale Sklar, the owner of Hapsburg, that the different colours of the product all taste the same, just vary in ABV and colour. Mind you, he also insists that they louche, which clearly they don’t.]
11. La Clandestine (recent batch) Bleue; good louche. Nose: rubbery, buttery, slightly sour. Palate: fresh and meadow-floral, well balanced with just the right degree of sweetness for me. Can’t decide if I would find that butteriness a bit cloying after a while.
12. La Clandestine (2006) Bleue; less louche than 11. Seems less sweet on the palate, a shade more astringent, more restrained but still interesting. Can’t decide if this has less going on than No.11 or just more restrained.
Best of this tranche: toss-up between 11 and 12
Tranche D
13. Eichelberger 68 Essentially a bleu but with a hint of green; good louche. Fresh nose with a citrus element; palate on the bitter side, with a bit of cinnamon.
14. Butterfly Strong louche and darkest green yet (DBS describes it as like “off lime juice”). Warm with rubbery anise and big, fascinating aftertaste—tea, apples, bit of grapefruit.
15. Jade 1901 Pale grey-green; moderate louche. Nose: floral and remarkable pungent, almost gamey. Palate: good balance and interesting subtleties of bracken and twigs.
16. Absinth Original Very pale green with no louche; looks like a glass of soave. Nose: none, apart from a hint of solvent. Palate: mostly just bitterness; very thin.
Best of this tranche: No. 14, followed by 13 then 15
Tranche E
17. Fruko-Schulz Absinth 70% Dark purple-red, no louche. Smells of nothing. Tastes of watery toothpaste.
18. Sebor Pale mid-green, no louche. Nose: piney; not bad but a bit artificial and sweet. Palate: bitter-sweet, some dusty herbs.
19. Doubs Vivid green, mild louche. Nose: cinnamon, menthol, pine. Palate: very menthol, like Vick’s VapoRub. Bold but artificial, possibly the most artificial-seeming yet.
Best of this tranche: 19 (best of a bad batch)

* I subsequently mentioned this to Alan Moss of La Clandestine. This is his reply: “I asked Claude-Alain [who distils it] about the difference between four-year-old Clandestine and one that was much younger. He's not surprised. In his view, an older blanche would typically taste "softer," maybe more rounded in the mouth (a bit like our wine-based Clandestine). We've always said that our absinthes, being completely natural and the product of the terroir, can also vary from year to year (and on a lesser scale from batch to batch).”

It's a tough game, this blogging, but someone has to do it

Friday 4 February 2011

What ales thee, Ginger?

DBS explains the importance of our mission
Everything seems a bit ginger at the moment. Last week we were at a launch of Crabbie’s new range—following the success of their alcoholic ginger beer they have now followed this up with a cloudy, non-alcoholic one, plus a diet version, a chilli-kick version, plus a “twist of orange” version—which was my favourite until DBS pointed out that its taste was reminiscent of Fanta, after which I couldn’t get the association out of my mouth. They even let us taste their new blended whisky, presumably intended to mix with their soft drinks, a product so hush-hush they wouldn’t let us photograph the bottle.

The rep did say she thought that ginger seemed to be the flavour du jour, so the Institute was clearly on trend when, inspired by the success of our group test of tonic waters in November, we held a ginger ale tasting on 17th January. We were at Graphic once more, under the banner of the Juniper Society, and we had 28 souls blind-tasting 11 ginger ales—ten readily available in shops plus a mysterious wild-card eleventh. Most people chugged them one after another but I was indulged with my own set of 11 glasses—DBS knows I like to be able to return to any sample at will to make close comparisons.

I confess I don’t really drink ginger ale as a rule (in fact, tonic water aside, I don’t really drink soft drinks) so I had less of a vested interest this time, nor any preconceptions or yardsticks. It was simply a question of which of the drinks tasted the nicest. I’ll put my tasting notes at the bottom but, when obliged to give my top three, I personally rated Canada Dry Diet at the top, followed by Britvic and the Mystery Ginger Ale in third place. This is admittedly odd, given that the diet versions overall didn’t fare that well. Looking at my notes I see that I found this one “less sickly” that the others, albeit on the watery side—so perhaps I just preferred it because it tasted of less! Oddly there were three products which, to me, had a noticeable taste of sesame—Sainsbury’s, Tesco Diet and, to a slightly lesser extent, Canada Dry. Others picked up on this when I pointed it out. I’d be curious to know what ingredient was responsible for this.

So, when we compiled the votes of all 28 people, who won?

Mystery Ginger Ale



Note the fizzy, cloudy nature of the Mystery Ginger Ale
Yes, it was a good day for the supermarket brands. But what was the Ginger Ale With No Name? It turned out to be homemade by David. Having previously made a tonic syrup (sugar syrup with quinine and citric acid) and a bitter lemon syrup (the same plus lemon juice, zest and pith), he simply infused fresh ginger into some of the latter then added soda water. The result is arguably too cloudy and a bit too gingery to be considered ginger ale per se (is it a ginger beer instead? See box above), but it beat the commercial products hands down.

Coming soon: ginger beers and alcoholic ginger beers…

My tasting notes (tasted blind):
Fevertree Ginger and lime aroma; perhaps smells more like ginger beer than ginger ale. Palate a bit thin but also sickly. Surprisingly unfizzy. Smells nicer than it tastes.
Tesco Fizzier than Fevertree. Much less ginger on the nose and more lime, plus hints of grapes and nail varnish remover. Still a bit sickly with an Opal Fruit aftertaste.
Canada Dry Diet Pinkish colour and a grapefruit nose. Palate is less cloying; somehow watery, which means it seems easier to drink on its own.
Sainsbury’s Whiff of industrial solvent on the nose but with an odd dry hint of oats or halva/tahini. This sesame element continues on the palate.
Tesco Diet Not dissimilar to the Sainsbury’s but with quite a fierce pepperiness on the finish and on the vapour, which made me cough. A slick sweetness I don’t like, though the actual taste is surprisingly thin. Hint of rose water, plus that odd sesame thing.
Britvic Rather neutral, which might be a good thing if you’re looking for a serviceable mixer. No corners. Dry nose.
Carter’s Hugely fruity nose but a lightish palate. Hint of chilli. Others observed a floral nose, in a Fairy Liquid sort of way.
Waitrose Initial off-note which dissipates leaving a neutral, solid profile.
Canada Dry That sesame thing again. Good initial ginger and lime smell with a peppery hint, though the actual palate is a bit synthetic, like toilet cleaner.
Baron's Ginseng Ginger Ale Ridiculous cherry-bomb nose and flavour. “Like a tuck shop,” someone said. Very sweet and synthetic. Like synthetic strawberries.
Mystery Ginger Ale Is this homemade? Cloudy and with an immense head of foam like none of the others. Has an intriguing savoury quality—smells like Cuppasoup or vegetable bouillon powder. Tomato? Pepper kick on the tongue but also a butteriness. Quite complex and lingering. Would actually have rated it higher if it weren’t for the disconcerting buttery element.

The full flight of 11 with my gibberish tasting notes

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Budget Gin & Tonic


In the world of drinks there is decadence aplenty; maybe you fancy a £500 dram of whisky or a goblet of wine with the world's largest black pearl dissolved in it? But what about the other end of the spectrum? Can you get a quality drinks for pennies in the pound?

A staple favourite of our readers is the Gin & Tonic and, with £45-a-bottle gins and small bottles of tonic costing upto £2.50, the cost of a single double-measure serving of this beverage could quickly creep to over £4.55—and that's from the comfort of your own home, acting as your own bartender!

So I wondered, was it possible to find a very respectable (and tasty) gin and tonic for less than £1 (that's one hundred new pence). Saving the theatrics, the answer was "Yes".

Here is the solution:

The Gin
Oliver Cromwell London Dry Gin (Original)—£10.99 for one litre from Aldi. (100ml = £1.09)
Bottled at 37.5%, it's a good gin and great value for money. On its own it's OK but when mixed with tonic it's a gin that competes with the best of them.

The Tonic
Waitrose Regular—£0.49 per litre (or £2.09 for a six-pack of 250ml cans). (Sometimes this is available in a 3 for 2 deal, giving you even more savings.)
This has a good balance of sweetness and bitterness, and no overbearing artificial taste like many.

So the combination: a good example of a gin and tonic, you have juniper, you have a citrus you have a bitter edge and it is very refreshing. For 60p it is a bargain and you wouldn't feel like you were one step away from the bath-tub gin or cutting your Gordon's Gin by adding more water to make it go further.

Gin Safari 2: Bitter and Twisted

Just some of the tonic drinks we found in Wenty Tropical Foods

I recently reported on our expedition to darkest Forest Gate in search of two African gins. But what started it all was our curiosity about some African bitters we’d been told were rather tasty. During our safari we did manage to find some, plus some Caribbean tonics and soft drinks that were new to us—including the eye-catching Bedroom Bully which, like a number of tonics, sells itself mainly on a claim to boost male, erm, stamina.

Back at the lab DBS couldn’t wait to crack open the Bedroom Bully. In appearance it is brown and cloudy, like a glass of flat Coke from which someone has clumsily swigged after eating crackers. Its smell is vegetal, reminiscent of dock leaves and damp roots, with hints of orange, gravy granules and cheesy feet. After all this the flavour is unexpectedly thin, but with a pronounced aftertaste of rusty metal. David declines to finish it.

Herb Afrik Gin Bitters is 40% ABV and is sold in 70cl bottles as well as the smaller flask we purchased, intended to be drunk neat as well as mixed with gin, beer or soft drinks. The term “gin bitters” is derived from the introduction of European botanically flavoured alcohols but the drink has nothing in common with gin. In fact it doesn’t go into detail about what is in it but the website observes that, “The ingredients are carefully selected for their potency, and other beneficial properties. It is appreciated for its pleasant taste and soothing effect while it answers the growing need of consumers for a drink with potent and beneficial herbal ingredients.” So clearly it is intended to have some effect, but they don’t say what. (It’s interesting how no one sells gin on its medicinal properties any more…). Unless it is all just a euphemism for a cheap way to get drunk. It’s a rusty brown colour and the predominant smell and taste is ginger. It fact it reminds me of one of those Dutch speculoos spiced biscuits. Mixing it with Castle Bridge gin from the same distillers improves it, though frankly the gin is better without the bitters.

Alomo bitters is the other one recommended by Dr Leizaola. Made by Kasapreko in Ghana, it is bottled at 42% and again does not detail the “carefully chosen plant extracts” going into it, but asserts that it is “the best and most reliable restorative provided by nature” and “promotes vitality especially in Men”. It smells of boot polish and is very bitter on the palate. To me it tastes vaguely of mussels. Adding tonic water makes everything taste worse.

Sea Moss is a type of seaweed that is considered health-giving in the Caribbean, once again having alleged aphrodisiac and potency-boosting properties. Caribbean Flavours Sea Moss and Peanut sounded intriguing enough and smells enticingly of coconut and Baileys—in fact there is no coconut or alcohol in it, although there is milk. It actually tastes a bit like Baileys too but is disturbingly gloopy from the seaweed and has an unpleasant metallic aftertaste. Adding rum improves it but I couldn’t stomach much.

I also bought a can of straightforward sea moss drink (flavoured with vanilla). Boy is this stuff disturbing: it has the look and texture of snot (see photo). It is stomach-turningly repulsive and I could only manage a small sip. I was even scared to pour it down the sink in case it set in the pipes.

Not a glass of mucus but a sea moss beverage
Finally we cracked open a bottle of Solo Grape Soda, a Trinidadian beverage. I think David was attracted by the label, which is splendid and looks like it was designed in the 1930s. It has a violently synthetic colour and an astonishingly foul odour—we eventually agreed that it smells like someone has vomited in a Chinese supermarket. The taste is primarily sugar and water but that stench predominates.

DBS had also bought some other curios, such as “Sof Drink Kola Champagne”, but we’d had enough fun for now and needed a stiff G&T to cleanse our palates before any permanent damage was done.

I have to say that if Herb Afrik and Alomo were the best bitters that Dr Leizola encountered (and there were very many on display in his exhibition) then I think I’ll sit tight with Angostura for a bit.