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.

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