Wednesday 31 August 2011

Tonic Water Update

Out second batch of tonics for tasting

Perhaps it was inevitable that the surge of interest in gin would be accompanied by a rash of new tonic waters. Further to our blind tasting on which I have posted before, we have had the chance to sample a few more.

DBS returned from a trip to Calais armed with a bunch of new tonic waters, some of them only available on the other side of La Manche, and we had a quick analysis of a dozen that had escaped us before, including some artisanal syrups/concentrates:
Look Tonic An exclusively French offering, I think. A sharp vervey tonic, light and sharp, and quite nice, though perhaps with some gins it slightly leaves a hole in the middle.
Tesco Finest Indian Tonic Water Very soft, with a sophisticated feel to it. With gin it is subtle and reveals SW4 quite well, though perhaps is a touch sweet for me. Mind you, on its own this is probably my favourite of the lot—so when my liver finally packs up and I’m forced to exist on soft drinks alone, this is what I’ll be sipping on in the corner.
Hartridge’s Very fizzy and limey. As a mixer it’s too soft and sweet, and actually a bit stomach-turning.
Heritage Indian Tonic Has an odd taste of carrots. Rather teeth-coating feel to it.
Waitrose Essential Tonic Water Fizzy and lemony, but a bit synthetic-tasting.
Fevertree Mediterranean An unexpected floral nose, like rose, perhaps. As a mixer I feel it has a bit too much going on in the middle, just as I sometimes feel about standard Fevertree.
Tonic by Carrefour Pretty neutral. OK with gin, though a bit sweet.
Hartridge’s Low Calorie Tooth-coating nastiness.
Schweppes Our control, and still a good benchmark.
Esprit de Schweppes Another French exclusive, it seems. The label says “moins amer” and “plus léger”, but to me it actually seems as if they’ve stripped out much of the sugar, leaving quinine and a bit of citrus, making it actually more bitter than most. I find this rather appealing—as if it really is stripping things back to the essence of what tonic water should be about.
Tom’s Tonic Syrup Weird, savoury, rooty smell, with citrus and dusty, earthy spice. With gin it comes across as strongly gingery with a strong bitter aftertaste. Not unpleasant, exactly, but rather too busy to be of much use in my mind.
John’s Tonic Syrup Very bitter, plus citrus peel and what tastes like quite a bit of cinnamon.

Out of all of these, the most interesting was the Esprit de Schweppes, though Tesco’s Finest probably scores as the nicest to drink on its own. But of course the real point of tonic water is as a mixer, and I find I veer away from very complex examples—God knows, many contemporary gins are complex enough, and I seek a tonic water that acts primarily as a platform for the gin to show what it’s got. The more busy tonics, such as both types of Fevertree and especially Fentiman’s, might work well with a very simple, juniper-dominated gin, but all the mid-range spice tends to quarrel with a lot of gins.

1724 tonic water
Since that tasting I have come across two more, very promising tonics. One was given to me by Chris Goulbourne of 10 Degrees C: it’s called 1724, and is named after the height above sea level where the quinine is harvested. It’s made in Argentina and I do not think it is distributed in the UK yet, but pray that it will be, as it’s the best tonic I’ve tasted to date.

South America is, of course, where quinine comes from, but Chris tells me that moreover the continent has a long-standing tonic water style that is different from that typically enjoyed in the UK. He explains that the ingredients are carefully selected, the water for its purity, the plants are organic, etc. I can’t find much of this on the website (which, oddly, has Spanish headings on the English language version and vice versa), only lifestyle marketing guff. But the tonic itself does somehow taste fresh and real, leaving others seeming rather synthetic. It has something in common with Esprit de Schweppes, in that it is light, sharp and clean, leaving a blank canvas for the gin to express itself. But I’d say it had a defter, more sophisticated palate, almost an extra subtle dimension to it.

One final tonic water is Thomas Henry, a sample of which DBS gave me recently. Despite its English-sounding name it actually hails from Germany. To me it has a lot in common with 1724, with a sharp, clean taste that frames gin well. In the fact the marketing makes it clear that all Thomas Henry products are strikingly bitter, which they see as an “intense and mature” flavour profile.

Admittedly I have whatever you would call the opposite of a sweet tooth, so these tonics may not be to all tastes. But I do think that they would partner well with the current generation of gins that are rich, spicy and perfumed, and particularly those that have more of a sweetish profile, such as G’Vine  or Adnam’s Copper House Distilled Gin (not that I’ve tried these combinations yet—if I can get my hands on a supply of 1724 I certainly will).

1724 tonic water is rigorously tested against Schweppes with a range of gins

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Pash-ion for Vodka #8 - Stolichnaya Gala Apple

Readers of the New Sheridan Club newsletter will be aware of my fondness for the vodka brand Stolichnaya, whether it be the Red (40%), the Blue Export (50%), which is perfect for making a Vesper, or the superb and excellent value-for-money Stolichnaya Gold.
Stolichnaya also make a range of flavoured vodkas. My old favourite, Stolichnaya Kafya (coffee), is no longer made, and so today I shall be looking at something new: Stolichnaya Gala Applik. 

This new vodka is flavoured with Gala Apples* and is bottled at 37.5% ABV.

The Taste

Room Temperature Immediate taste of the apple; quite crisp, with the sweetness that comes from the apple's flesh. A little jamminess, similar to apple chutney or sauce. Smooth, with some warmth at the end.

From the Freezer Lovely viscosity and texture, being bitingly cold. Smooth & tingly at the same time. The taste of sweet apple comes through well, with a long finish.

Smooth and crisp to start, then a little herbal vermouth, before a finish of ripe, juicy apple. Like an appletini, but far more subtle and sophisticated.

Stoli Applik Martini (from the bottle label)
1 part Stolichnaya Gala Applik
1 part apple juice
½ part cranberry juice SHAKE
A pleasant light pink fresh rosiness of the apple still there and is slightly freshened by the juice the cranberry adds some bite and balance. Not my usual tipple but quite good.

Stolichnaya Elit

I also got a chance to re-try "Elit by Stolichnaya" (Stolichnaya Elit), the jewel in the crown of the Stolichnaya Range. 
The emphasis is on the vodka being a clean and pure spirit and this is achieved by blending the product of the distillation with balanced water and then filtering it three times. During this, the Elit is held in a tank at -18°C (-4°F). The idea being that, as the liquid's density increases, the impurities freeze to the side of the tank.** After this cooling period the vodka is then filtered another two times. 

I have tried Stolicynaya Elit before, and those who attended my Martini talk a while back may remember the story. I had it in a bar near London Wall from a lady who had never mixed a Martini before. I told her my preference of ratio (5:1) and she vigorously shook the drink. It is easily in my top three Martinis ever and is probably my favourite; every sip was as superb as the one previous and, as I left, I still had a beautifully cool feeling in my chest, a feeling that lasted for about an hour. A memorable and lovely experience.

This time around, I enjoyed the Elit straight from the freezer and sipped it from a small chilled glass. Once again, I was impressed at how smooth and pure it was, but also that it still had some texture and a light grain flavour; it had a superb balance of smoothness and flavour and is a really good vodka.

Stolichnaya Gala Applik is available for around £19 for 70cl from The Whisky Exchange Elit by Stolichnaya is avaialble for around £45 for 70cl from The Whisky Exchange

* My favourite type of apple.
** This is a method thought to have been used in the day of the Tsars, but, rather than a metal tank, they would use oak barrels in the snow. 

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Ready-mixed cocktails redeemed?

You may have noticed that DBS has rather an obsession with pre-mixed cocktails. It’s not something I share, mainly because the premixes I have tasted tend not to be very good. (At Distil we came across a new range where the components of the cocktail are stored in separate compartments within a complex piece of plastic packaging: to serve you twist or pull it in a particular way, seals are pierced and the various pods disgorge their contents into a central chamber which then serves as a shaker. The fact that the ingredients were not actually mixed until the last minute was supposed to be a selling point, but the chap pointed out that, in the example of the Margarita we were trying, the lime juice had to have a certain amount of the tequila already in it, as a preservative, so it wasn’t really freshly mixed anyway. The end result wasn’t up to much.)

So I didn’t approach the new range of premixes from the Handmade Cocktail Company, a wing of Master of Malt, with any great expectations. But I was very pleasantly surprised.

They’ve chosen five* classic cocktails—Gin Martini, Manhattan, Rob Roy, Negroni and a fifth which is currently variously named the “          “ Cocktail, or The World's Best Cocktail. In fact it is a Sazerac (as the label on earlier bottlings attests), but apparently they have been leant on not to use the name, as it is owned, presumably by Sazerac rye. The mixes are handsomely presented in 70cl glass bottles that resemble those used by Sipsmith. I was sent a couple of sample packs of 30ml bottles, so I experimented with serving one dose of each cocktail stirred or shaken with ice, and the other straight from the freezer—something made possible by having a drink premixed like this.

I don’t know what proportions they use for their Martini but the vermouth certainly makes its presence felt. The ingredients are referred to only as “premium copper pot still gin” and “the very best dry vermouth” but I believe the gin is No.3 and the vermouth is Noilly Prat. Stirred with ice it immediately hits you with a fruity orange nose (No.3 does indeed have prominent sweet orange among its botanicals), followed by a smooth palate with a savoury, almost salty element (as if there were a dash of olive brine in the mix). There is a hint of vanilla ice cream in there too. Straight from the freezer the strong orange citrus note is there again but balanced by juniper. The palate is drier and again the juniper is more noticeable served this way. It’s punchy but complex too. Some experts feel that a Martini needs the dilution you get from shaking it with ice, but based on this experiment I would say that this premix certainly doesn’t and indeed more of the flavours seem to come across neat from the freezer.

The manufacturers point out that one advantage of premixing is that the more delicate ingredients, such as vermouth, are added when at their freshest and then preserved by the alcohol in the base spirit. I’m certainly dogged by oxidation in vermouth, which yields a sour whiff and happens within days of opening the bottle, even if you keep it in the fridge (it affects dry vermouth more than heavier, sweeter styles). They told me also that interesting things happen in the bottle after mixing and a six-month-old mix of theirs has beaten a freshly made Martini in a blind taste.

Another benefit of the premix is that you can get more complicated with your blend than a normal person would be able to if making the drink at home. The Rob Roy is made from a single malt whisky, matured in sherry casks, plus a blend of three vermouths and bitters. The Rob Roy isn’t my favourite cocktail (there is something about the initial smell of the combination of the vermouth and the Scotch that reminds me slightly of vomit—sorry to lower the tone, but there it is), but I have to say that this example makes a damned good a case for it. Stirred over ice it is smooth and soft on the tongue, slightly caramelly, and the subtle aromatic qualities of the bitters are clearly exposed. From the freezer the drink is noticeably cloudy and has swirls of matter in it. It is strikingly different in the mouth, stronger and seemingly sweeter too. The whisky seems more prominent and the bitters less so (but then aromatic elements do often come to the fore as you lower the ABV with water). But either way this is a very good cocktail, balancing the woody, peaty, smoky elements of the whisky with the bitter-sweetness and aromatic herbal notes of the vermouth and bitters.

The Negroni is one that you can’t drink from the freezer—because at 25.4% ABV it freezes (actually this probably depends on the temperature of your freezer, but the sample bottle froze solid in mine). I’m particularly partial to a Negroni, as I’m rather keen on Campari. This mix uses equal parts Campari and Aperol (a drink that until recently was impossible to find outside Italy but is now everywhere for some reason). I think the gin is No.3 again, and the website refers simply to “premium sweet vermouth”: there is no suggestion that this is a blend. I would guess Martini Rosso. They say that time in the bottle “smooths out the flavour” and it is certainly a very smooth drink. If anything I found myself wanting the gin to assert itself more: for comparison I knocked up a Negroni with equal parts Martini Rosso, Campari and Gordon’s Export (a pretty full-on juniper assault) and the juniper made its presence felt much more.

The Manhattan cocktail is again made with a blend of three vermouths, bitters and straight rye whisky. As soon as you start to stir it over ice it gives off a wonderful aroma, and on the palate the strong woody notes of the whisky are tempered by sweetness from the vermouths followed by a keen bitterness on the finish. It’s a good balance, but as Manhattans go it’s actually quite a dry version. From the freezer the cocktail is cloudy with swirls of sediment, and you don’t get that same bouquet. The taste is again stronger and sweeter—which is not necessarily a good thing. Again I feel that the dilution from the ice actually released more of the flavours. This probably isn’t the absolute best Manhattan I’ve tasted** but it is very good indeed.

The Sazerac/World’s Best Cocktail uses half and half rye whisky and VSOP cognac, plus bitters and a splash of unnamed absinthe. It’s one of those cocktails that I mostly can’t be bothered to make, as it seems awfully fiddly for something that ends up basically as a glass of whisky that’s been slightly interfered with (either that or I overdo the absinthe and spoil it). But this, again, is a blend that really makes the case for the cocktail itself. The mix is bang on, with all the elements coming through in just the right proportions—whiskey, absinthe and a sweetness hanging at the bottom. It’s a long, lingering flavour. Comparing the frozen version with one made with ice, I would say that, unlike some of the cocktails here, it works perfectly well either way. It’s obviously stronger from the freezer without ice, which gives a nice warm tickle, but the flavour balance is resilient.

This range of premixes certainly dispels my own prejudices against the idea. If I lived a life where I needed to serve large numbers of reliably good cocktails to guests at the drop of a hat I would definitely consider just keeping these in the cellar (although not, as I might have assumed, in the freezer).

Handmade Cocktail Company premixed cocktails are available online from Master of Malt, mostly at £30 a bottle (£27 for the Martini and £23 for the Negroni).

*Actually there was a sixth, the Old Fashioned, but at time of writing their website says it is sold out.
** To date that would probably be one I knocked up idly following Will Sprunt’s recipe for a Candlelight Club event in March, using Rittenhouse Rye, Antica Formula vermouth, maraschino and allowing some of the liquid from the cherry jar to follow the cherry in.

Just the ticket for a daily dose

I came across this item at an antiques fair in Ewell in Surrey. I would guess it was Victorian or Edwardian, and has two scales etched or scratched up the side, one for teaspoons and one for tablespoons. Medicine glasses like this might have been carried by doctors or nurses or used at home. Some examples also come with a separate glass “minim measure”—a minim was a unit used by apothecaries and equated to the amount of water in a single drop—with its own compartment in the case.

I rather thought it might be handy for getting measurements just right when making cocktails…

Pash-ion for Vodka #7 - Absolut Watkins

I've always been intrigued by the various flavours available from Absolut and usually actively seek out a new flavour or variety. Originally the different tasting varieties were based on one flavour but over the last few years they have released a range of US City Inspired versions:

Absolut NEW ORLEANS (Mango and Black Pepper)
Absolut LOS ANGELES (Acai, Acerola, Pomegranate and Blueberry)
Absolut BOSTON (Black tea and Elderflower)
Absolut BROOKLYN (City limited edition; red apple and ginger)
Absolut SAN FRANCISCO (grape, dragon fruit, and papaya)

In a similar travel-related theme Absolut also recently released Absolut Watkins, a variety I have wanted to try for ages: I finally found a bottle yesterday.

Absolut Watkins was designed as treat for the weary traveller and as such is only available in the duty free market, described as a "traveller's exlcusive". This is a trick that is used by other types of spirit, most notably Scotch Whisky.

The bottle was designed by Swedish illustrator Liselotte Watkins* and is full of images of travel and transport. Bottled at 40% ABV, it is flavoured with spiced coffe, almond and a touch of chilli.

Nose: wheaty nose, a bit like sugar puffs, hints of coffee, vanilla and marzipan.
Taste: great mouthfeel, flavours of roasted coffe and french vanilla, reminscent of cappuccino. Hints of almond and marzipan and a little wamrth at the end. Medium finish and delicious.

A slight failure here as, even at 40% ABV, it froze. I had to wait a few minute for it to thaw. It wasn't really worth it, the vodka loses a lot of flavour and actually becomes a bit rough.

The herbal notes of the vermouth don't really go with the vanilla and the coffee. For me, it doesn't really work.

Vodka Tonic:
Chocolate and coffee on the nose. A dry biscuity coffee element is brought out by the tonic water. It's quite pleasant but I like my tonics to be crisp and so a dash of citrus may improves things.

Absolut Watkins and Coke:
Very good, the coffee/vanilla/coke combination reminds me of Kahlua and Cola or my favourite Pepsi variant Pepsiccino (Cappuccino Flavoured Pepsi). When I used Pepsi Max the similarity was even more apparent. It's easy to see why this is the recommendation on the bottle and it's the best drink I've tried with the vodka.

Absolut Watkins & Milk:
Inspired by the White Russian but as the vodka is coffee flavoured I didn't add any Kahlua or similar liqueuer.
Rather thin and very bland. I think it would be much better with cream a perhaps a touch of crème de cacao.

* This makes me think that I'd quite like to see a Quentin Blake Gin.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Bulmers No.17

Word of mouth is a great tool in this Business we call Booze and I love getting leads off friends, family and readers. The most recent one was a "new type of Bulmers" or a "Pink Bulmers"and when I heard that their new marketing campaign was "Experimenters Wanted" the IAE seemed like a perfect place to feature it.

Bulmers No.17* is a summer variety of their drink and follows hot on the heels of Bulmers Crisp Apple and Bulmers Red Apple. With this new flavour they have been a little more adventurous with a combination of cider, red berries and lime.

Look: Light Pinky Red
Taste: rather refreshing, strawberries, apple and then some tartness, courtesy of the lime. Reminds me a little of Strawberry and Apple Crumble. Although sweeter than most ciders and not really dry it was nevertheless quite refreshing.
I must state that although I am not usually a fan of cider on ice I thought that No.17 improves when served this way. Essentially it becomes more refreshing and easier to drink.

Given its pudding-like qualities I decided to "experiment" with it in a cocktail.

Summer Crumble Fizz

Toa champagne flute I added 20ml of the Fabulous Vodka Company's Caralicious I then topped this up with Bulmers No:17

Depsite the caramel vodka having it's own sweetness when mixed with the Bulmers it does not overwhelm the drink, instead the Caralicious adds a buttery, caramel twist to the drink. It furthers the whole apple crumble effect somewhat. The odd thing is that although it reminds you of something warm and comforting it is actually cool and refreshing, a veritable feast for the mind and senses.

In conclusion, I really like Bulmers No.17 and it's probably the best Bulmers I have tried.

Bulmers No.17 is available from (among other places) Tescos for around £2 for 568ml.

* It seems that Bulmers number each of their products although I'm not sure that all numbers make it to market:
No.9 Original Apple
No.10 Pear
Although I'm not sure of the assigned number, Bulmers have released an Apple and Pear Blend and a Red Apple Variety which sits somewhere in between 11 and 14.
No.15 Crisp Blend
No.17 Red Berries & Lime