Tuesday 27 March 2012

World Whisky Day—A Cocktail

Today is the very first World Whisky Day, a celebration created, not by a card company in order to sell Whisky Day greetings cards, but by a Scot, Blair Bowman, to enable people to become more interested in Whisky.

In honour of this celebration, I thought I'd write about a whisky cocktail. Many cocktail aficionados are keen on a Manhattan; in fact, only yesterday I spoke to a lady who said that, until she masters the Manhattan, she won't move on to another mixed drink—dedication indeed. There is a version of this cocktail that uses Scotch instead of American Whiskey, The Rob Roy. I have not really been a fan of this drink, but in the spirit of innovation and open-mindedness I thought I'd give it another go.

The Rob Roy dates from around 1894 and was apparently invented by a bartender at the Waldorf Hotel in New York. Originally it used Dewar whisky, but we're going to try something a bit different. First, I needed to decide which whisky to use. I eventually chose Black Rory, which is a blend Scotch made for the Northumberland company, Spirit of the Coquet, who are also behind a gin that is aged for 10 years. Black Rory himself was a daring smuggler and illicit distiller in the Coquet Valley in Northumberland. All sounds rather swashbuckling!

Then for the vermouth. Red vermouth the order of the day and there are a lot of great varities out there, but I decided to go for a good standard in Martini Rosso, which came out well in our Red Vermouth Tasting last year.

Black Rory's Red Raul (RedRoy)
25ml Black Rory
25ml Martini Rosso
Dash of Spanish Bitters 
STIR with ice and strain.


This was very smooth on the tongue. After a couple of seconds, a burst of sensations dominated by the bitters transformed this into a cocktail full of remarkably animated flavours, a whole array of elements: lots of herbal notes, including something much like basil; savoury notes, like red chilli; and hints of sweet spice, like paprika.

Black Rory Whisky is available form the Coquet Website at £35 for 70cl Martini Rosso is available all over the place a litre typically costing around £11.

Dr Adam Elmegirab Spanish Bitters are available from the Whisky Exchange for around £10 a bottle.

Thanks to Adam, Billy and Sara for the help with this article.

Saturday 17 March 2012

A cocktail for St Patrick's Day

I don't know if anyone still sends St Patrick's Day cards…
In case you hadn’t noticed, it is St Patrick’s Day. As saints’ days go this one is always greeted with an especially bibulous enthusiasm—and not just by the Irish, as if everyone feels the right to be adopted as temporarily Irish for this one night of partying, and that this somehow excuses the alcoholic excess that is to come…

Because 17th March falls on a Saturday we couldn’t resist having a Paddy’s Day special at the Candlelight Club. And given the theme, I couldn’t resist getting in some Poteen. Because of its high strength I didn’t really want people drinking it neat, so all the more reason to come up with a poteen-based cocktail.

An illicit poteen still
Poteen (or poitín, pronounced pot-CHEEN and named after the small pot-shaped still) is a traditional Irish spirit, sometimes made from potatoes, sometimes from grain, sometimes from other things. It is unaged and colourless. In 1666 the British government made it illegal to distil poteen without a licence, leading to 300 years of cat-and-mouse between producers and the law. Clandestine stills, on remote farms or out in the wilds, would operate on windy days to disperse the telltale smoke of the peat fire. Popular at weddings, wakes and other parties, the spirit was also used as a muscle rub and a cure for sick calves.

Poteen-making equipment seized by the Gardai
Only in 1988 was a licence granted to export it, and only in 1997 did it become legal to sell in Ireland. Two brands of which I am aware make it commercially, Knockeen Hills and Bunratty. The latter produces at 40–45% ABV but Knockeen Hills takes the traditional high-strength approach and bottles at 60% (“Farmer’s strength”), 70% (“Gold”) and 90% (“Gold Extra Strength”). The first two are triple distilled while the 90% is quadruple distilled. It is the 60% version I resolved to use.

Knockeen Hills are vague about how it is made, but there is this on their website:

In the 15th and 16th Century, Crown Agents, and in later times the Garda, could impose heavy fines and confiscate farm machinery where sacks of grain or barley were found that they decided were intended to be used to produce a mash and subsequently poteen. Avoiding these telltale signs that poteen was being produced … meant producers could work more freely without worry.

Therefore, as no cow was ever known to have been confiscated, milk was frequently used in the spirit-making process, and our poteens follow that centuries-old tradition. We apologise for labelling errors on some bottles advising that grain sprit is used.

So there it is: Knockeen Hills is milk-based. This doesn’t mean it is entirely milk-based, but from this it is clear that no grain is involved. Using malolactic fermentation to make intoxicants is certainly not unknown—in Central Asia fermented mare’s or yak’s milk is a popular tipple.

The end result is intriguing stuff, like vodka, as you might expect, and yet not. The nose is at first acidic and fruity, perhaps like grappa, then comes a creaminess, like strawberry ice cream. Then toffee and maybe coconut, plus a strand of that medicinal note you often get in vodka. On the palate it strong in a whiskyish way (perhaps because it reminds me of cask strength whiskies), then that sweet fruit again, like fruit gums. But quite dry. Add a little water and something of shampoo wafts in but still mainly that sweet fruit. A hint of sourness comes out, perhaps the only hint of a milk base.

My first thought is to try something like a Martini, that won’t smother the distinctive flavour. But at 60%, in a party environment, the poteen really needs a little lengthening. Out of the usual mixers apple juice feels the most Irish and indeed it works nicely, working with the spirit’s fruitiness, and also adding some useful sweetness. I feel it needs a touch more of the latter, so I add a dash of Monin’s green apple syrup, for a little dayglo apple-iness, plus some elderflower liqueur, to bring out the floral high notes. Through all this the character of the base spirit still cuts through. The resulting cocktail is also appropriately green.

A Poteeni
1 shot Knockeen Hills Farmer’s Strength Irish Poteen
1 shot dry vermouth
1 shot cloudy apple juice
¼ shot Monin Green Apple Syrup
¼ shot elderflower liqueur, such as St Germain

Shake or stir all ingredients together and strain into a cocktail glass.

If you mysteriously don’t have any poteen in the house but still want to toast St Patrick (and I guess a Snakebite would be out, arf, arf) how about a Black Velvet? Apparently invented at Brooks’s Club in 1861 to mourn the death of Prince Albert—as if a glass of Champagne is wearing a mourning band—this is basically just half stout and half Champagne, or sparkling wine. It sounds highly suspect, but in fact works quite well—the sharpness of the wine balances well with the toasty, creamy and slightly metallic stout, evening it out. Slainte!

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Pash-ion for Vodka #12 - Absolut Orient Apple

Since its global release in 1979 (Absolut Vodka was actually founded in 1879) Absolut Vodka have already released over a dozen flavour variants of their original product. As part of this expansion, in 2007, they started a series of annual limited edition releases all inspired by a variety of US cities:*

2007 - Absolut New Orleans (Mango and Black Pepper)

2008 - Absolut Los Angeles (Acai, Acerola, Pomegranate & Blueberry)

2009 - Absolut Boston (Black Tea & Elderflower)

2010 - Absolut Brooklyn (Red apple & Ginger)

2011 - Absolut San Francisco (Grape, Dragon Fruit & Papaya)

2011 - Rio (Orange, Mango and Passionfruit)

2012 - Absolut Miami (Passionfruit & Orange Blossom)

Today Absolut Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco have been re-branded as permanent editions as Absolut Berry Acai, Wild Tea and Grapevine, respectively. Absolut Brooklyn was re-branded Absolut Orient Apple and I picked up a bottle of this during a recent jaunt abroad.

Absolut Orient Apple is bottled at 40% ABV and blends Absolut Blue with flavours of ginger and apple.

How does it taste?

On its own
Nose: Fresh apple, alongside some leafy elements, but no immediately evident ginger. Maybe some cinnamon and nutmeg (spice).
Taste: Quite smooth, with both apple and pear coming through strongly. Ginger appears as a fiery tingle on the finish.

This was sweet and a little thicker than the vodka at room temperature. Good apple flavour is accompanied by some spice and a hint of caramel and toffee. Very nice. I thought this was a particularly good way to enjoy this vodka.

This was richer and more creamy than drinking the vodka on its own; it was also sweeter and had more of a buttery apple flavour. It had quite a pudding-like flavour to it, being softer and less fresh, but the ginger was lost for me. Overall, I thought this was okay.

Vodka & Tonic
Quite pleasant, this had a good amount of flavour; mainly fresh apple and some spice. A slight bitterness reminded me of a little of apple soda. Refreshing and tasty.

*Absolut Vancouver and Absolut London (2012) are both part of a similar "city series" but disappointingly they are just regular Blue Absolut in a fancy bottle. I personally would have like to have seen Absolut London flavoured with Tea and Juniper.

Saturday 10 March 2012

Welcome to the Big Smoke

At an event at Shaker & Co. a couple of months ago I got a chance to try the new smoked vodka from Master of Malt. MoM are on something of a roll at the moment when it comes to putting out odd blends of their own (see my post about their mysterious Secret Leap Year Cocktail), including an infused gin and their own spiced rum. In keeping with the Victorian-mad-scientist shtick of their “Professor Cornelius Ampleforth” range, they’ve dubbed it “Besmoked Vodka”.

Quite why humans are so keen on the taste of smoke I don’t really know, when you consider that it’s carcinogenic and has no nutritional value (and betokens fire—which is essentially pretty dangerous), but this is the second smoked vodka I’ve tasted, although the two are quite different.

Chase make their Oak-Smoked Vodka by burning oak and allowing the smoke to sit in a vat of their distinctive potato vodka for a week or so. The end result has a relatively subtle, cool smokiness. On the nose you’re actually hit first by the vanilla creaminess of the underlying vodka, and then a delicate smoke underneath which blends harmoniously with the vodka character. On the palate the smoke comes forward more, in a petrolly way, but you’re still aware that it is vodka, and a particular vodka, that you’re drinking. There is something about the fatty character of Chase vodka that makes the combination heavily reminiscent of smoked salmon (a food which was, I gather, the inspiration for the vodka); DBS also commented that it tasted the way bacon vodka ought to taste (and he speaks as someone who has made some pretty stomach-turning bacon vodka).

MoM’s offering is made in a much more ebullient manner: a specific blend of woods (maple, apple, cherry, pecan and hickory), plus rosemary, is burned in a traditional briar pipe and the smoke is vigorously sucked through a carboy of vodka using a vacuum pump. In keeping with all their house blends, they don’t say what the base vodka is. Here is a film of it being made:

The result has a much stronger smoke flavour: hold your nose to the bottle and it’s like standing over a bonfire. You expect your clothes to smell of it when you come away. It’s quite an interesting smoke, essentially woodsmoke but with herbal elements that remind me a little of smelling certain full-on gins like Gin Mare. It treads a thin line between drawing you in and repelling you in the way that smoke is supposed to, with a hint of acridness at the back. Very smoky on the palate, like sucking a charred stick that has fallen out of the fire. The vodka used doesn’t seem to have the body of the Chase, or perhaps it is somehow “thinned” by the bitterness of the smoke. Not that it is mouth-puckeringly bitter (and not like Campari either), but it is more so than a normal vodka and when working with it in a cocktail context you quickly come to realize that its presence in a drink does add bitterness.

Although I actually find the Besmoked Vodka a bit hard to take on its own—perhaps it triggers that primordial part of my brain that says, “Look out! The forest’s on fire!—I immediately thought that its pungency might make it handy in cocktails, as a small amount would go a long way. (By comparison I actually found it quite hard to use the Chase product in cocktails as it had a tendency to be smothered easily, which is a bit of a waste of a £30-a-bottle ingredient, although I did eventually come up with the Heart of Oak, which partnered it with sloe gin. A simple vodka Martini might be the best showcase for it.) One experiment with Besmoked Vodka ended up as the Bloodbath cocktail for the Candlelight Club’s “St Valentine’s Day Massacre” event:

1 shot bourbon
1 shot Besmoked Vodka
1 shot red vermouth
1 shot blood orange juice
Dash of Angostura Bitters
Shake all the ingredients together with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.

Here the vodka was intended to add a whiff of gunsmoke, although I admit the taste is clearly woodsmoke rather than cordite. It’s a fairly successful combo, but still the flavour of the vodka suggests something more savoury, and the obvious thing to try is a Bloody Mary. Indeed it works well, though you may find that it’s best to blend it half-and-half with ordinary vodka—the smoked vodka still makes its presence felt strongly, and it's also a way to introduce some vodka complexity from the second brand, whether it be the creaminess of Chase or Sipsmith, say, or the minerally character of Krepkaya. Some people add sherry to a Bloody Mary—with medium sherry here it seems to bring out the smokiness even more, though the bitter edge to the vodka means it works best with a sweeter sherry such as Harvey’s Bristol Cream:

Smoky Mary
2 parts Besmoked Vodka, or 1 part Besmoked and 1 part unsmoked vodka
4–6 parts tomato juice
½ part lemon or lime juice
½ part sweet sherry
Dash of Worcestershire Sauce
Dash of Tabasco
Pinch of celery salt
Grind of black pepper
Serve long over ice

I did experiment with using MoM’s Chipotle Bitters instead of Tabasco, but it didn’t really work: it takes at least a dozen drops for the heat even to be noticeable (or indeed the chilli flavour, which is a distinct thing from the heat itself) and you can achieve this effect much more readily with a dash of Tabasco; at the same time the smoke flavour of the bitters is lost against the in-your-face char of the vodka.

People often think of certain malt whiskies as “smoky” (and indeed the malt has been smoked), a flavour that can be used in cocktails to interesting effect (such as our own Chestnuts On An Open Fire Christmas cocktail). But that iodiney flavour is far more abstract than the immediate, literal burning-wood taste of MoM’s Besmoked Vodka. If you like smoked things in general you probably won’t forgive yourself if you don’t check this product out.