Monday 28 May 2012

Bringing back the Good Old Days of vodka

I've noticed a recent trend with Russian vodkas to evoke some sort of old-school official sanction. At the Distil trade fair the other day I came across Kremlin Award which, the laconic Russian girl told me, was the official vodka at Kremlin dinners. "It's very high quality, because if it were not good enough everyone would get fired." (I think she said "fired"—or did she mean "shot"?). Meanwhile Russian Standard is named after an 1894 decree by the Tsar to create an Imperial "standard" vodka.

Now we have Green Mark Vodka, which takes its name from a later decree, this time a Soviet one from the 1920s. From that decade until the 1950s the government body Glavspirttrest regulated the quality of Russian vodka and awarded its seal of excellence, the Green Mark, to those that passed muster. With the fall of the Soviet Union this sort of centralised specification fell away, presumably replaced by market forces. Then in 1998 the Russian Alcohol Group decided to revive this quality standard commercially: researching Glavspirttrest archives for information on production methods, and conducting consumer tests, both with younger consumers and older ones who remembered the vodka from the 1950s, they came up with something they felt was a faithful recreation of the style and quality of this era—an era about which many Russians evidently feel rather nostalgic these days.

They've clearly hit the mark, as in 2008 some 9 million 9-litre cases were sold in Russia and it is now that country's no.1 vodka in its category. It is also one of the top five selling vodkas worldwide.

The bottle with that unusual cap
Glavspirttrest records were apparently quite specific about the recipe and production process. The wheat had to be of the Moldavia 76 variety, which was found to be growing wild in the Volga region of Central Russia. Trickier, the recipe specified a natural yeast, whereas most modern production processes used a laboratory-grown strain. But a small family operation was found still producing yeast in the same way it had been doing since the 1940s. The water comes from a well 300 metres deep, where it is naturally filtered through the rock. After distillation the vodka is filtered using "silver filtration", a process that utillises carbon impregnated with silver as a catalyst.

There is something retro about the packing too. The shoulders of the bottle taper to a surprisingly narrow neck, giving a sort of rustic feel, and the stopper is a flat plastic cap reminiscent of the utilitarian metal crown caps you used to see on hardcore bottles of Russian vodka—clearly once those puppies were opened there was no notion that you might want to reseal it again. (In fact the Green Mark cap conveniently pops on and off, so you don't have to drink the whole bottle in one sitting!) The poster art channels a sort of Art Deco/Constructivism that again harks back to the über-cool 1920s (but then I would say that).

Sniff the open bottle and you get a light medicinal whiff; in the glass this 40% ABV vodka opens to a creamy, fruity nose, with a little vanilla sweetness nicely balanced by a pencil-lead edge. On the palate it is very smooth and drinkable, with no burn to speak of. Yet it is not water-light like some—it still has distinct body and character, with a slight hint of caraway. From the freezer it pretty much retains the same profile, and I don't think it particularly benefits from this way of serving, as some other vodkas do where the super-low temperature might mask a roughness or lack of backbone. I would be inclined to drink Green Mark neat or on the rocks. I also discovered it makes a cracking vodka Martini: using Noilly Prat and my favoured ratio of 4:1 you get a drink where the vodka's own character is still clear, while the vermouth actually gets to display its own particular flavour more distinctly than in most gin Martinis. In fact this would be quite a good showcase cocktail for high-end or unusual vermouths.

Tried alongside some other vodkas that I happen to have to hand, Green Mark emerges as ethereal and refined. Russian Standard has a heavier, more vegetal nose, like cooked peppers, plus a hint of coffee; on the palate it too is smooth but with a darker fruit, like blackcurrants. Adnams Longshore has a woody, toffee nose and a more peppery, minerally fierceness (it is 48% ABV). Heavy Water again has a bit of toffee and a sharp graphite spike on the tongue. Finally Krepkaya is, unsurprisingly, rather intense (it is 56% ABV), with a petrol/rubber element. Compared to all of these, Green Mark comes across as light and pure, yet with its own presence. A classy an highly quaffable vodka.

Green Mark is, or soon will be, available from Waitrose, Tesco, Morrisons, Asda, Co-op, Nisa and Costcutter for around £15 a bottle. Which makes it pretty good value in my opinion.

Thursday 24 May 2012

Cocktail in a Can—Finally a tasty ready-to-drink cocktail?

Everytime I write about premixes I mention how I’m curious about them and am always keen to find a hidden gem among a generally mediocre market-place.

Todays feature will look at the Authentic Cocktail Company and four of their flavours. The Authentic Cocktail Company is operated by the Manchester Drinks Company who make a variety of premixes and other ready-to-serve drinks as well as a Champagne alternative and their own fruit cup.

All of the cocktails are served in 250ml cans and “bottled” at 5% ABV.
With the distinctive green-blue glow of bitter lemon, this was also quite fizzy. Sweet initially with some rum and then a relatively fresh mintiness with a slightly tart mint-sauce quality, although it sounds very fizzy when poured the extreme effervescent quickly subsides to a gently bubbling.

Pina Colada

Good strong buttery Bounty coconut smell. Very coconut flavour too then some rum and the pineapple juice. For my money maybe it’s a bit strong on the coconut but otherwise a perfectly pleasant, suppable still beverage.

On The Beach

Clearly a Sex on the Beach cocktail but with the offending word removed*.  This tastes pretty much like a Sex on the Beach (although it’s been a few weeks since I last had one!) Quite fruity with the peach coming through and pleasant fruit salad impression. This is refreshing and very easy to drink without any unpleasant cloying or sickly sweetness.


A staple of the premix cocktails market but usually too sweet.

Very smooth and with little presence from the alcohol. This is very easy to drink with hint of strawberry and cranberry coming through and a tart citrus at the end. I actually thought this was quite pleasant and is easy to drink on it’s own chilled, or on the rocks.

In Conclusion
It is true that there is a lot of awful premix/ready-to-mixes out there that bear little to no resemblance to the cocktails they are looking to imitate but I have to hand it to the Authentic Cocktail company they have created a range of very respectable and affordable drinks (all four cost me less than £5) some are better than others but they are all very easy to drink and would appeal to a wide variety of people.

The panel’s unanimous favourite was: Cosmopolitan 

Authentic Cocktail Company Drinks are available for around £1.20 for a can from Asda.

*For a split second I thought “surely no-one has copyrighted ‘Sex on the Beach’” and then realised that was ludicrous idea. It just shows the nonsense I, and many others, have become accustomed to with cocktail trademarking. Looking in the direction of some rum and brandy/whisky cocktails…

Thursday 10 May 2012

Turbo Aged Gin (well Vodka)

I was given a small olive-wood egg cup at the weekend and I thought that it would make an amusing drinking vessel. So I due set about removing any flavour from the inside by leaving some vodka* in it for a few days to draw out any residual flavours.

But after 2 hours I realised that vodka had been absorbed through the wood and was starting to leak out. I then emptied the vodka into a glass to find that it was already coloured.

TurboAged Vodka and The Eggcup!

Now I don't know the finer points of the treatment of my olive wood egg cup although I know it is varnish and doesn't smell like it has been treated with anything but just be to be safe I only gave it a tiny (3ml) sip and I could perceive the effects of the ageing.

Now I'm not suggesting we should all start ageing spirit through egg cups but could you age a spirit by passing it through wood?

*Gin is great but has more flavour.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Pimm's in a Pudding?

Whilst wandering down the aisles of my local supermarché, I spied a little box containing "2 Spring into Summer Berry Puds with Pimm's". Given my love of Fruit Cup—and the fact that the desserts were on offer—I promptly purchased them from the shopkeeper.

The puddings contain:
Summer Berries (interpreted as: redcurrants, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackcurrants, orange and cucumber) infused with Pimm's and layers of Genoise sponge immersed in blackcurrant and raspberry syrup.

It was a nice, fruity pudding; moist and flavourful with a good sweet/tart berry mix, but can you taste the Pimm's? My lab assistant had no idea that it contained Fruit Cup and never mentioned it, even when prompted. Once I revealed that it contained Pimm's, she said, "But it doesn't taste like it at all!"

The pudding contains 4% Pimm's, but, with such strong flavours coming from the fruit, it needs to be more like 20%.

In order to correct this injustice, I added half a shot of Fruit Cup to the pudding, to spruce it up a little. This made a substantial, and positive, impact and the flavours of the Cup—citrus, gin and spice—went really well with the zingy dessert, making it altogether rather delightful.

Less of a "cheeky splash" and more of a cheap-o dribble!

In Conclusion
In itself, the pudding was really nice, but only tasted of Pimm's when I added some extra. In fairness, this is not the first food-stuff to bill itself as being flavoured with a liquor but which, upon tasting it, you discover that the desired flavour is nowhere to be found.

Given that they have such little flavour of the hooch, you wonder why people even bother to make these "booze flavoured" foods, whether that be Jack Daniels sauce, Sloe Gin and Duck Pate or Gu Pimm's Puds.

Gu Summer Pudding are available from Waitrose for around £3 for two.