Tuesday 31 July 2012

Wychwood Snake's Bite

The flavoured cider, perry and alcoholic ginger beer trend has been roaring away for over five years now and seems to show no signs of abetting. One producer with their ear to the ground is Wychwood, who excel at a mix of innovation and surfing the tide of change.

Wychwood Brewery (of Witney, Oxfordshire) have already ventured into this market with Ginger Beard (an alcoholic ginger beer), which was released at the back-end of 2012.

Now, whenever I hear the term “snakebite”, I think of the “Student’s Snakebite” (AKA “Snakey B”), which is a mix of Carling, Strongbow and blackcurrant cordial. Snake's Bite from Wychwood is described as a “blend of traditionally crafted beer infused with cider apples”; essentially, Snakebite in bottle.*

The Taste
Nose: Strong, malty ale, plus creamy apple tart.
Taste: More malt to taste, followed by a burst of sweetness and then a bitter hops flavour. Finally, there’s some cream on the finish.

Over ice:
This improves the drink somewhat, but, for me, it is too sweet and the ice brings out an odd and unpleasant metallic quality in the drink.

In Conclusion
I think that the quality of this product is obviously far better then the mix served in your average Students’ Union, but you probably wouldn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that it wasn’t really for me. It does leave me wondering what portion of Wychwood’s existing fans would drink this; it seems like it would to be too sickly for the ale drinkers and too hoppy for the fans of their cider or ginger beer.

* The blackcurrant cordial in the Snakebite recipe is technically optional.

Stella Artois Cidre (Apple Cider)

With so many bottles, tasting notes and notebooks in the Institute’s South Coast branch, it is not surprising that sometimes things go missing; such was the case with this article. The tasting notes and photographs were taken approximately one year ago, but, as these records were never formalised, you lovely folk never got to the results.

The subject in question was the launch of Stella Artois Cidre (Spring 2011), which was slightly marred, because there was a product recall (some of the bottles had a tendency to explode in people’s fridges; an issue which has now thankfully been resolved). I won’t go into the finer details of their advertising campaign, as they are well set-out in this article on the new Pear variety.

Stella Artois Cidre is made using hand-picked apples and is made to a Belgian recipe. It is bottled at 4.5% ABV.

The Taste

Colour: Bright orange colour, somewhat akin to the artificial glow of Magners or Bulmers.
Taste: Rather effervescent, with an initial dryness which was followed by the sweetness of freshy-pressed apple juice. Served out of the fridge, this is very refreshing and one of the better bottled sparkling ciders available.

With Ice: I don’t think Stella Artois Cidre (apple) improves with ice, as it loses a lot of its flavour, is less fizzy and, ultimately, provides less refreshment.

In Conclusion
A rather good product once you get past the cidre/cider marketing pap; good value for money and worth a punt.

Monday 30 July 2012

The Emperor Napoleon Cocktail

Whilst I was mixing some Courvoisier Cocktails for the Diamond Jubilee, I noticed again that the bottle had a picture of Napoleon on it (please make your own ironic comments here). Given that I also had Napoleon’s favourite wine, Vin de Constance, and a small sample of Mandarine Napoleon to hand, I was immediately inspired to mix up a drink.

Following a little research, I found that The Cocktail DB already lists a Napoleon Cocktail and so my creation is called the Emperor Napoleon.

The Emperor Napoleon Cocktail

The Emperor Napoleon
30ml Courvoisier
10ml Vin de Constance
10ml Mandarine Napoleon

This makes a rich and flavourful drink that has strong, warming Cognac on one side, the juicy and sweet Mandarine Napoleon sitting on the other, and the Vin de Constance in the middle. There are herbal elements, too, as well as a lot of sweet citrus. For a tart and extremely refreshing drink, add 10ml of lemon juice, to make an “Emperor’s Vacation”.

Courvoisier VS Cognac is available from  al major grocery stores – RRP £23.79 for 70cl

Thursday 26 July 2012

Kopparberg Raspberry Cider

Kopparberg Swedish Cider like to innovate and bring a couple of new flavours to the market each year, keeping things fresh. I, for one, always look forward to trying the new varieties. Top of my list of all-time favourites are: Blackberry, Blackcurrant Witches Brew (Halloween 2006) and, more recently, Naked Apple.

Today, I am looking at a raspberry-flavoured Kopparberg, which is made by combining their basic apple cider with raspberry juice and a touch of mint. Without further ado, let’s look at what it was like.

The Taste

Colour: Rose pink.

Nose: Sweet, jammy raspberry, a touch of sweet apple and a herbal note towards the end.

Taste: A medium-level of fizz accompanied a good raspberry flavour.  It was creamy, and was neither too sweet, nor too dry. Like on the nose, there was a slight herbal note at the end, courtesy of the mint.

Taste over ice: Much improved. This seemed to be fresher and less intense, which made it more refreshing and easier to drink. The raspberry flavour remained strong throughout.

In Conclusion
Having tried so many varieties of Kopparberg, I know that some are bound to be better than others. This Raspberry version is average, but with a positive outlook; as such, I would have it again, if I had a particular hankering for it (which I can imagine happening).

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Stella Artois Pear Cidre (Cider)

Last year, I reviewed the new cider from Stella Artois, which, for reasons of pretension and/or marketing guff, they insist that everyone call “cidre not cider”, even going so far as to provide phonetic notes*. That said, the cider itself was pretty well-received, both from me and the cider-drinking folks I speak to.

So popular, in fact, that a second product has been added to the range: a pear cider (oops, sorry, I mean cidre!); this follows in the footsteps of Magners, Bulmers and Kopparberg.**

Stella Pear Cidre is made with hand-picked pears using a Belgian recipe and is bottled at 4.5% ABV. Beyond that, I couldn’t find out much.

But how does it taste?

Colour: Light green (rather like Rose’s Lime Cordial).

Nose: Slightly acidic; there’s some fruit, but it’s not that inviting.

Taste: Far, far better than the nose (but then who goes around sniffing cider?), with a medium-high level of fizz. It is not too sweet and has plenty of juicy, fruity notes and a good amount of dryness. Overall, I thought it was rather good and pretty refreshing, but maybe a touch too gassy.

Over ice: I don’t think that ice adds much to the flavour of the drink, but it will keep it cooler for longer and will quickly cool down a bottle that’s at room temperature. Personally, I would rather drink Stella Pear Cidre without ice, but well-chilled.

In Conclusion
I think that, all thing considered, this is a pretty good product and is far better than the offerings from Bulmers or Magners (which I’m not very keen on). I’d buy Stella Pear Cider again.

Stella Artois Pear Cidre (Cider) is available to purchase from supermarkets for around £1.80 for 568ml (one imperial pint).

* I think that this is a pretty vain and nonsensical gimmick; if someone has trouble pronouncing the name of your product, they are going to be less likely to order it from a bar. That said, in supermarkets (where no such oraton is required), this cider has done very well; according to The Grocer magazine, it has done £36m of supermarket sales, which is the equivalent of 16.8% (by volume) of the current cider market.

** Strongbow have also followed suit with a pear cider.

Monday 23 July 2012

Bootlegger 21 vodka

You can see why this appealed to us when Nick, my partner in crime in the speakeasy-styled Candlelight Club, got talking to one of the people behind it on a recent trip to the US. Confusingly, the Prohibition Distillery behind it has nothing to do with either Prohibition Gin, a fascinating “New Western” style made by Heartland Distillers, nor with Prohibition Ale, made by San Francisco’s Speakeasy Ales & Lagers, but they seem to have snaffled the name for themselves, and their packaging and website are all about the Prohibition era. (See a CNBC video of the chaps here.)

It’s a story of a pair of coves who, despite the recession, decided to quit their jobs in software sales and HR and start the distillery of their dreams in New York, evoking both the wily determination of the bootleggers and the post-Depression can-do spirit of their forebears. Up till now their product has been distilled for them by the Tuthilltown Distillery but they are soon to move into a 1929 firehouse in Roscoe, NY, where they will be doing their own distilling. Their first efforts won them a silver medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, so they spent another nine months tweaking it, producing something that won gold at the 2010 New York International Spirits Competition and an “Exceptional” rating from the Beverage Tasting Institute.

Their vodka, named Bootlegger 21 after the 21st Amendment in 1933 repealing Prohibition, comes in a splendid “case”-style rectangular bottle with Art Nouveau designs moulded into it, suggesting a period apothecary. (I gather that the first person to sell whiskey in bottles in the US was George Garvin Brown, founder of Brown-Forman, who had a background in pharmaceutical sales and understood the reassurance that a sealed container gave to customers.) No metal or plastic screwcap here: it comes with a stopper, though I’ve discovered that if you serve the vodka from the freezer it can be a bugger to get the synthetic cork out of the bottle—I guess the glass contracts but the bung doesn’t yield that much…

Click on the image to see it larger
The marvellous label evokes period officialdom—it’s based on one of those certificates that allowed you to get liquor for medicinal use (and the side label reads “Original Bootlegger 21 purchase ticket”), but it also has “In vodka we trust” blazoned across the top, suggesting banknotes. Interestingly, if you look at their homepage, the photo shows the label glued over the Art Nouveau design, but the bottle I’ve got (possibly the only one in the UK) wisely puts the label on the blank side of the glass, leaving the floral design unobscured on the back (see photo below).

Of course, for all the talk of heritage there is no suggestion of a vintage recipe—because no one drank vodka in the US in the Prohibition era. It might seem odd that they would choose so un-period a liquor to produce, but vodka is relatively cheap to make, requiring no ageing, so would be a good source of revenue for a start-up company.

“We initially had an idea to do a gin,” explains co-founder Brian Facquet, “which of course is period-appropriate. However, all other craft spirits companies announced they were doing gin and whiskey. We thought our base spirit was stellar, so we threw caution to the wind. Our shared space at Tuthilltown prevented us from entering into aged spirits, but at our new distillery in Roscoe we’ll begin whiskey and gin production in the future.”

A bottle of Bootlegger 21 fresh from the freezer, showing
the Art Nouveau design on the back
Bootlegger is made from 100% corn, something that is relatively uncommon and mostly found, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the US and Canada. As such they trumpet the fact that it is gluten-free. (Do glutens pass through the distilling process? I have no idea.) At room temperature it hits me with a nose of sugar, some fruit, perhaps raspberries, and a paper/cellulose character. Compared to my current benchmark Green Mark, it is sharper, rougher, with a fruity spike and the cellulose thing again, like a damp cardboard box that has been used to store pencils. Compared to Russian Standard, with its vibrant spicy/savoury vegetable character, Bootlegger is defined by that dry sugar flavour. Contrary to what I previously said about frozen vodka, this is one that possibly does benefit from the low temperature. From the freezer it has a nice oily consistency and smells pleasantly like an iced cake.

Brian says that they chose corn for its soft mouthfeel and sweet, delicate finish. “We are six times distilled, then filtered through a massive amount of hardwood charcoal—we developed our own filtration systems that allow for extremely slow filtration over long periods of time. The result: we have a vodka that has no burn. Several critics called it a sipping vodka and last week Hooch Life called it ‘liquid silk’.” I’m not sure I’d say that, exactly, but it does have a sweet character.

There are a host of cocktails listed on the Prohibition Distillery website, so I try a few. Owny Madden’s Bootlegger 21 Martini is a basic dry Martini with orange and grapefruit bitters: the bitters dominate, at least at first, but the sweetness of the vodka does seem to balance with the bitterness and herbal quality of the vermouth. They suggest a few Gimlet varitions, interestingly using fresh lime juice rather than Rose’s Lime Cordial (sacrilege in some eyes); again the sweetness is apparent, along with a slight butteriness, but perhaps I’m now just thinking of corn on the cob!

Finally I try the Improved Prohibition Cocktail. I’ve not encountered any previous version of the Prohibition Cocktail, but I think it’s a cracking recipe. I’m not sure how much the vodka is contributing because I haven’t tried it with any other brand, but the combination of Cocchi Americano and apricot liqueur is an inspired one:

Improved Prohibition Cocktail
1½ shots Bootlegger 21 vodka
1½ shots Cocchi Americano
¼ shot orange juice
Bar spoon of apricot liqueur
Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a rocks glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

There are currently no plans to distribute Bootlegger 21 in the UK, though Brian says he would love to do so. If anyone is interested, get in touch!

Thursday 19 July 2012

Down on the farm – Rock Hill Farms, Single Barrel Whiskey

This year saw my first visit to the Imbibe trade show, where there were lots and lots of lovely brands to explore. One of the stands that immediately caught my eye upon arrival was the one representing the Buffalo Trace Distillery.

I first tried some of the bourbons made by this American distillery at a wonderful tasting held at The Whisky Exchange in Vinopolis, but that was a good few years ago now, when I was just starting to explore the world of whisk(e)y.

Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel Bourbon is made  by the Sazerac Company in Frankfort, Kentucky and was introduced in 1990.

Nose: This was a deliciously sweet, but rich bourbon nose: I caught distinctive hints of cinnamon, vanilla, and fudge. Despite those notes, it wasn’t overly sweet, with the wood adding a dryness towards the end.

Taste: Wonderful, real, genuine notes of oak, followed by a very pleasant warmth. It had a good body to it, too—I often find some bourbons don’t have much going on in the middle of the taste profile, but that wasn’t the case at all with this one. 

Finish: The same real wood notes, lifted very slightly at the end with sweet, dark sugar caramel and toffee. Lasted for a good while, gradually becoming drier.

In Conclusion

A lovely, full-bodied bourbon, with lots of development of flavour, measured hints of the sweeter whiskey characteristics and genuine notes of oak. A little pricey in the UK, but definitely one of the premium bourbons that I’d be more likely to buy.

Mrs. B

Whisky galore

I’m no whisky expert—and there are plenty of websites and blogs devoted solely to this spirit—but I do like the stuff, so I was pleased to received a copy of Ian Buxton’s new pocket-sized tome, 101 World Whiskies to Try Before You Die, published by Hachette Scotland a couple of weeks ago (yes, always first with the news, that’s me). Following the success of his previous 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die (2010)—and clearly realizing that the first 101 hadn’t killed off too many of his readers—Ian is back with a second collection, this time focusing more heavily, as the title suggests, on drams from less obvious nations, including Australia, Austria, France, Finland and even England.

It’s a highly approachable tome: Ian is very much against pompous connoisseur-speak and refuses to give marks or scores. His passion is clearly just to spread awareness of the wide and wonderful world of whisky and to get more people tasting. He doesn’t attempt to rank them and doesn’t encourage you to do so, merely to try them and to see what you think. (The bottom of each page has a couple of lines for your verdict.) If you’re looking for a system to save you time and just tell you which are the best whiskies in the world, you won’t find it here. The text focuses more on the stories and characters behind the products and Ian does not go overboard in his descriptions of what the whiskies taste like. In fact in some cases he hasn’t even tasted the whisky in question, usually because it is still maturing and hasn’t been released yet, but he is confident that the finished result will be worth waiting for.

Meet Hammer Head, a Czech single malt born of the desire of the state authorities in Soviet Czechoslovakia to show they could do whatever the capitalists could do. But shortly after it was made the Berlin Wall came down, staff and ownership changed and the barrels literally lay forgotten for 23 years before being recently rediscovered and released. Meet Whisky Castle, a Swiss distillery where one product is made exclusively with water from melted snow and another only with water drawn on the night of the full moon. Or the Kavalan distillery in Taiwan, where money, technology and the island’s high temperature and humidity accelerate the ageing process, producing “mature” whisky in just 3–4 years. Or the distillery in New York where they play loud rap music to their barrels at night, on the grounds that the bass frequency vibrations encourage the uptake of flavour and colour from the wood. Yes, if you thought you knew whisky, think (and more importantly drink) again.

Another thing Ian doesn’t hold with is the idea of buying whisky as an investment. As far as he is concerned whisky is meant to be drunk, and something that is bought (or, worse, produced) specifically as an investment is by definition not destined to be tasted. Very sad (and Ian clearly fears for the souls of the people who distil such editions). Whiskies can now go for silly money, but you’ll be pleased to hear that Ian takes a dim view of bottles over £100, is very critical of something over £500 and powerfully minded to ignore those costing £1,000 and over. Having said that, he does allow himself a bonus 102nd whisky, the Johnnie Walker Diamond Jubilee. At virtually 60 years old, it is the oldest Johnnie Walker ever released. It comes in a crystal decanter shaped like a huge crown-cut diamond, with a solid silver collar, and is accompanied by a pair of engraved crystal glasses and a personalized hand-bound artifact book, with everything presented in a bespoke cabinet made of wood from the Sandringham and Balmoral estates. The price? If you have to ask, darling… Apparently it’s at least £100,000, but you have to be invited to buy one of the 60 bottles produced. (Actually there was a 61st, presented to Her Majesty herself.) Some 20 bottles had already gone by March. All the profits are being donated by Diageo to the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, which helps promote traditional craftsmanship. Ian doesn’t tantalise us with tasting notes, noting merely that it is “Very nice… Would I lie to you?”

My sample bottle of the Glenfarclas 1953
As it happens, Diageo aren’t the only ones who put out a jubilee dram. I was intrigued to receive a sample of the Glenfarclas 1953 single cask single malt, again the oldest spirit ever to leave the distillery. Four casks exist from that year and a panel of experts unanimously chose no. 1674—originally carrying sherry from Spain to Scotland, it was filled with Glenfarclas whisky on 20th November 1953—to be bottled, yielding just 400 70cl bottles. It was bottled at cask strength, only 47.2%, such was the “angel’s share” (evaporation over the years). One member of the panel is none other than Ian Buxton and each bottle comes with a commemorative book penned by him.

Oddly, the documentation seems to state that this dram has been bottled exclusively for an outfit called Wealth Solutions, who help rich Polish people spend their money. However, it still seems to be for sale on the Master of Malt website—one of the Panel of Four was MoM’s Ben Ellefson—for a modest £5,995 for a 70cl bottle.

And a full-size bottle—just £5,995 to you, guv
I’m not sure I have a clear idea in my mind of what a six-grand whisky should taste like, but I guess I expected the 60 years in the barrel to produce a very soft, sweetish spirit. In fact the Glenfarclas is bone dry. The nose is dry, with elements of baked apple with raisins, prunes, toffee, chocolate, halva and boot polish. It’s a big, complex, evolving smell, a strange combination of dry caramel and wood (what you might expect a sherry barrel to smell like) along with surprisingly fresh fruits—apricots, pears, figs and oranges. As if it has just been drawn from a demijohn full of bobbing pears. But there is varnished wood too, like a wooden fruit crate, or something older, a nostalgic smell of something precious stored. On the palate it is dry, “like concrete dust in your mouth”, I’ve got written here, though on second tasting I think that is a little unfair. But it does have a grappa-like grape-pip dryness, and a strong alcoholic presence. Adding a little water brings out oranges but also phenolic coal tar and shampoo smells. Time in the glass, on the other hand, emphasizes the caramel and sherry flavours. It is fascinating, but I would say that most of the interest is on the nose; on the palate its astringency means it is not an easy sip.

Mind you the Glenfarclas is a relative snip: Gordon & MacPhail have a Jubilee edition of Glen Grant, distilled on 2nd February 1952 (four days before the accession) and bottled on 2nd February this year, making it exactly 60 years old—and priced at £8,000 a bottle.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Pash-ion for Vodka #17 – Absolut CherryKran

Most of Absolut’s most recent releases have either been a part of their city range or else a rebranding of previous products from that range, so it was nice to hear of something different, the release of Absolut CherryKran, which is flavoured with a mix of cherry, white cranberry and plum.

The Taste

1) Room temperature
Nose: A rich and complex nose of cherry, sloe berry, almond, cranberry, dark berries, jammy plum and—oddly—bubblegum.
Taste: Berry bubblegum and confectionery, followed by some dry cranberry and floral almond. Sweet and smooth, but I quite like it.

2) From the freezer
Woah! This had a lot more flavour when chilled. It was very perfumed, but still full of sweet, confectionery notes, like those of bubblegum or gummy worms. Whilst not wholly unpleasant, it’s not what I expect from a vodka, flavoured or no.

3) Martini
This works as a drink, moving towards a Cosmopolitan, but dryer and less fruity. This would appeal to Cosmopolitan drinkers who don’t want the calories from the fruit juice.

4) Vodka & Tonic
The fruity flavour comes through well, but the bitterness of the tonic clashes badly with the flavour of the vodka. Not great and not recommended.

Absolut CherryKran is available for around £50 for 70cl from VIP Drinks.

Friday 13 July 2012

An "immersive" experience from Courvoisier

Top London bartenders Amanda Humphrey, Mickael Perron and Chris Lacey,
who helped put the experience together

I was invited to a preview last night of Courvoisier's "Institute of Grand Cocktails", a sort of interactive theatrical experience that is open to the public today and tomorrow. It is set in the Heritage Rooms within the enormous and labyrinthine Victoria House that squats between Bloomsbury Square and Southampton Row. If you like Art Deco architecture the place is mouthwatering, a series of period offices with wood panelling, marble fireplaces and, curiously, a safe built into the wall in each room. I'd be interested to know what these offices were originally built for.

One's experience involves moving through a sequence of rooms, in a group. Each room presents a sort of interactive tableau, and I gather the overall schtick is that this place is an ancient institute for cocktail making; apparently each scenario is meant to give you the sensation of "stepping inside a cocktail".

I think this sort of thing can work well, especially given that drink is an essentially sensory experience—you can only glean so much by reading or looking at websites. But to make the most of it, the event needs to capitalise on the punter's physical presence. And I confess I'm not really clear on what the Institute of Grand Cocktails is trying to achieve. Each room has bottles of Courvoisier everywhere and the brand name in gold transferred on to all the fireplaces (which does indeed look rather grand, as you can see in the picture above), so the brand presence is not subtle. But if you are hoping to learn anything concrete about the product, think again. In the first room they are dispensing a nice enough punch made with watermelon, citrus and, apparently, jasmine tea, served in jam jars for some reason (perhaps to suggest jam?). The room has boxes of oranges, lemons and limes against the walls and there is some geezer carrying on like a greengrocer. I waited to see if anyone would talk to us about the product, but we just milled around before being ushered into the next room. If standing in a room full of lemons is supposed to give me an insight into the divine marriage of Courvoisier and lemon juice, it wasn't working. I did get an orange to take home, though.

In the next room I immediately get a strong waft of incense. The floor is covered in pretty piles of brightly coloured spices and tagines full of sugar cubes. A bloke in a djellaba and turban is reclining on the floor, evidently smoking the incense stick. I'm hoping we'll find out something about Courvoisier and spice, perhaps taste some interesting combination, or at least consider how the aroma of the cognac mingles with the incense. But in fact we stand there while he gives us some strange stream-of-consciousness spiel about how we are each on our own journey, and how the poet says we must choose the wine that is right for us. One girl is invited to stick her finger into a bowl of what turns out to be (I gather from her blog) muscovado sugar and turmeric, while the rest of us get to watch. Then he gives us each a sugar cube and indicates that it is time to bugger off.

In the next chamber are a stack of Courvoisier barrels and two blokes, one self-consciously English and the other self-consciously French. They fill you in on some rudimentary stuff about what cognac is, how it is aged in barrels, and that VSOP stands for Very Superior Old Pale. One member of the group gets shown the correct way to smell the aroma of the brandy, which might have been quite interesting if the rest of us got to do this as well. But at this point the two men fall into an argument about Anglo-French supremacy and we are invited to leave again.

The next room, billed as a "grand but derelict Rococo ballroom", presents a Miss Haversham-esque dining table of sweetmeats covered in dust and cobwebs, while a bar gives us a chance to sample a classic Champagne cocktail. Some 19th-century aristocrats, made up to look like they have been dead for some time, toss us a few riddles to solve then invite us to waltz. Immediately a factotum warns me that Sir Arthur is prone to mood swings so we must watch out. Sure enough, when our time is up, his lordship slips into a funk and we are advised to make ourselves scarce. While this scenario does fit the best with the Deco-Classical decor, it does rather leave you with a sobering association between the product and ennui, alcoholism and black despair. Possibly not what they intended.

After this we find ourselves in the "New Orleans Apothecary", a bar dispensing Sazeracs. We get to tarry here a while and the preceding cocktails have kicked in so people are getting chatty. There is a jazz band playing (which one of the actors insists is a New Orleans jazz band no less, though in fact they had managed to hire a Django-style gypsy jazz combo—but I thought it churlish to point this out). The bar top has various bits of chemistry-set gear on it and the cocktails are served in small lab beakers with measurements up the side. I got ready for some "molecular" mixology, though in fact the only concession to this was to use an atomiser to spray the absinthe into the vessels.

An artist's impression of the New Orleans Apothecary. Pretty accurate,
except I don't remember any dry ice
Here we also got to meet "Doc", a mad scientist with a face blackened by some failed experiment (not "failed" he insists, but "differently successful"). After signing a rather amusingly-worded disclaimer form, we are blindfolded and subjected to an experiment in kinaesthesia, attempting to see whether sensations of taste are affected by other sensations (in this case touch) that are received at the same time. This is something that the Italian Futurists were very much into in the 1920s, and it's precisely the sort of thing I had been expecting all along from this "immersive" experience. I have to say that my own nervous system is clearly rather stubborn and I didn't really find that the taste of things dropped on to my tongue changed if I simultaneously stroked a piece of fur—it just felt like going into the drinks cabinet in the dead of night and finding a guinea pig under your palm while you were having a snifter. Sort of thing that happens all the time. But one girl there said that it reminded her of her cat, which gave her sensations of warmth and security. Another guest was transported back to her childhood when we, still blindfolded, were given what turned out to be popping candy to stick in our mouths while sampling the cognac. All very Heston.

One final treat was in store: we were tapped on the shoulders in small groups and invited into the office of Master Masters, who told us we had been hand-picked to join the Secret Order of Cocktail-Makers. At this point I hoped we might therefore get to make some cocktails, but in fact there just followed an overwrought swearing-in ceremony, with breathy group hugs, and we left with an envelope containing a Courvoisier brochure. A couple of us expressed an interest in the handsome bottle of L'Essence de Courvoisier sitting on the desk, but we were promptly told to put it down because it was worth £1,800.

As I said at the beginning, I'm not really sure who this experience is aimed at. The branding is heavy, but if they are trying to sell it to the press or industry then it would help if they actually told us something about the product or, better, gave us cocktail masterclasses—something to capitalise on our physical presence in the room. But they are selling tickets to the public at £10 each—and for that I would expect something more satisfying from a personal perspective rather than a lot of mute brand presence and standing around looking at your shoes while an actor freestyles. I'm guessing that this was inspired by things like You Me Bum Bum Train—I've never had the pleasure myself, but I'm told that customers are moved, individually, from one chamber to the next, where you might find yourself in a dentist's chair or faced with a US football team expecting you to give them a pre-game pep talk. If the public get to experience the Institute one at a time, then I can see it might be different, more hands on, but as it is, compared to the Bum Bum Train, only the kinaesthesia experiment really lives up. Perhaps they just blew most of their budget on the sumptuous venue.

The Courvoisier Institute of Grand Cocktails runs until tomorrow (Saturday 14th July) evening, with last admission at 9.30pm. Tickets from courvoisierinstitute.eventbrite.co.uk.

Thursday 12 July 2012

Curiosity Cabinet #9 - Bol's Silver Strike

Most people who have ever been to a night club or teenage/student party will probably have come across Goldschlager (a cinnamon liqueur containing floating, gold flakes) and will probably have found the some plonker who is wielding it, trying to impress people and saying that the gold flakes are there to cut the inside of your mouth/throat so that the alcohol is more quickly absorbed. This is, obviously, rubbish.

Rather, the gold flakes are a reflection of the once widely-held belief that gold has healing properties; as such, it was included for medicinal reasons just like alcohol before its wider recreational use.

The concept of adding gold goes back to Eastern Europe, where products such as danzig goldwasser* and silverwasser were produced. Some of these were sweetened schnapps, but, more often, they were much dryer and more closely resembled vodkas. Sadly, these days, most goldwassers go down the liqueur route and are not at all like dry vodka.

Silverwasser is essentially the same deal, but - yes, you've guessed it - containing silver flakes instead of gold ones. These days, silverwassers (of either the vodka or liqueur varieties) are hard to come by in the UK and all I could find was Silver Star, a product by Bols.

In addition to the historical use of gold and silver flakes, I did notice BlueNun have just brought out a sparkling wine with gold flakes.

1) Own
The silver flakes settle to the bottom and look interesting, but how will they effect the taste? This had a smooth and full texture, was quite sweet and had a strong flavour of  confectionery cinnamon, like a Danish pastry, cinnabon or BIG RED chewing gum; a flavour that I believe Americans describe as "Red Cinnamon". The silver is almost imperceivable in terms of both taste and texture.

2) The Prospector
[Layer 40ml of Rye Whisky on top of 15ml of Bols Silver Strike]

This is the sort of drink that you could imagine was served in a saloon in Silver City; if you can't find silver in the hills, then maybe you can find it at the bottom of your glass!

The whisky is smooth and light and so went well with the cinnamon, without giving it too much burn. Definitely something of a novelty, however.

3) Buffalo Bill
[50ml Buffalo Trace, 10ml Silver Strike, 15ml Red Vermouth - STIR]

This Manhattan-variation is a tribute, not to the dog-toting kidnapper from "Silence of the Lambs", but rather the sharp-shooting showman of the 19th Century.

This Manhattan was stirred** and tastes just like a Manhattan only with a cinnamon kick, making it a touch more warming. The sweet balance is actually quite good and this has a nice, autumnal feel.

In Conclusion

Silver Strike liqueur certainly has its place in cocktails and, whilst I shall politely refrain from labelling the silver flakes as a gimmick, their effect is almost entirely visual and needs to be considered when mixing. I also suggest shaking the bottle before pouring, as the flakes have a tendency to settle.

Bols Silver Strike is available for around £16.25 for 50cl from The Whisky Exchange.

* Not be confused with the brand "Gold Wasser", which is just one variety of the liqueur.
** I stirred this drink, not for some pretentious stuffiness about the horrors of shaken Manhattans, but rather because it's easier to see the silver specks in a transparent drink. I think that if you like your Manhattan shaken, then drink it shaken (and the same goes for Martinis) and don't let any self-appointed expert tell you that you should have it otherwise!

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Danzka vodka

Mooching around in Copenhagen airport on the way home the other week I came across Danzka Vodka. Ah, a local tipple, I thought.

In fact the front label immediately admits that it is “imported”. Oddly, the Wikipedia entry for the brand states that it is made in Denmark from Danish wheat, though the website makes no mention of where it is actually distilled (only that it is made from 100% wheat), preferring to focus on the bottle design. Given that has been owned by Belvedere since 2006, perhaps it was once made in Denmark (it’s been going since 1989) but Belvedere now find it easier to produce elsewhere, perhaps in France.

The bottle is made from brushed aluminium and they make no bones about the fact that they are trying to chime with Denmark’s fame for chic minimalist design. They point out that it is unbreakable and “infinitely recyclable”. Does that mean I can take the empty back to the shop and get it refilled from a bucket out the back? At least if I get the shakes and drop it, it won’t smash. Or perhaps they just mean the aluminium is recyclable. In any case, they also make the point that a metal bottle cools more quickly when you put it in the freezer, so if you like your vodka frozen and you’re in a hurry to start necking it as soon as you get back from the shop, this could be the one for you.

Danzka has a nose lightly fragranced with violets, berry fruits, chocolate, a bit of curaƧao, maybe a hint of strawberry. On the palate it’s fairly smooth, fruity and again slightly floral. I compare it to a couple of vodkas I have to hand, Green Mark and Russian Standard: compared to the former, Danzka seems softer and more fruity, and a rougher spirit—which is not to say that it is rough as such. Green Mark has a quiet nose and a balanced, minerally body. To me it seems a bit more “grown up”, somehow. It produces a refined, poised vodka Martini.

Russian Standard, on the other hand, is green and sappy, vegetal and herbaceous, with a nose of caraway and carrot, and a palate that is smoother than Danzka. It makes a fun Martini with dominant earthy, vegetable notes.

I’m not actually a massive fan of drinking vodka from the freezer, because few vodkas seem improved by it and many are worsened—this makes sense, when you think about it, because all the aromatic elements are going to be subdued by the low temperatures. I’m told that one shouldn’t taste vodka like a wine but should knock it back, but this just seems silly to me. If anyone tells you their product is best tasted by pouring it down your throat, bypassing your tongue, then I figure they’ve got something to hide.

Nevertheless, I try all three vodkas from the freezer (and I’m sure the Danzka did indeed chill the fastest, but I wasn’t in any great hurry). I find the characters remain essentially unchanged; the Danzka is relatively perfumed, but now has a more bitter, dry finish. Overall I also find it has something “over-mellow” about it, like overripe bananas.

Over here you can buy Danzka from the DrinkShop for £22.85 (my airport bottle is 40% ABV but I see that the UK version is 37.5%), but unless you’re turned on by the bottle I wouldn’t really bother. Both Russian Standard and Green Mark are much more interesting, in my opinion, and considerably cheaper. If you want something super creamy, try Sipsmith (slightly cheaper), or for an in-your-face minerally character, taste the extraordinary Krepkaya. It works out slightly more expensive, but then it is 56% ABV…

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Pash-ion for Vodka #16 - Absolut San Francisco/Grapevine

In 2011, the Absolut City Flavours range moved from Brooklyn, on America’s East Coast, to “the City by the Bay” on the Pacific Coast, San Francisco. The flavours of choice in this version were grape, dragon fruit and papaya. The flavours were chosen to reflect Northern California’s Wine Country and the city’s Asian and Latin cultures. Towards the end of the year of its release, it was re-branded as Absolut Grapevine.

The Taste

1) Room temperature 
Nose: Fruity, with some bitter tannin-like notes and hints of berries and grapes. Taste: Quite smooth, but also quite sweet, the main flavour was a slightly artificial one of grapes; there was nothing fresh about it, which is a shame and results in the vodka tasting a bit cheap.

2) From the freezer
Ice-cold, this had a fresh, fruity, luscious nose, with lots of grape and papaya (a good start, there). Despite the promising nose, the taste was a bit of a let-down, with the white grape dominating and the papaya ending up being rather obscured. Like the spirit at room temperature, this was also quite artificial and a bit rough at the end; again, quite a disappointment.

3) Martini
Dry and bitter, with a dash of richer fruitiness, this was quite good and easily my favourite way to the drink this vodka; I’d definitely order it again.

4) Vodka Tonic
Not bad. Although a touch on the bitter side, with hints of tannins from the grapes, this also had a sweet fruitiness to it. Inoffensive.

Absolut San Francisco (same as Grapevine) is available for around £42 for 75cl from The Whisky Exchange.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Pash-ion for Vodka #15 - Absolut Boston/Wild Tea

I occasionally think about how nice it would be to be a fly on the wall when Absolut work out what flavours they are going to assign to a particular city special edition. Even better, how great would it be to have a say? Then I could right the wrong of Absolut London being regular Absolut in a fancy bottle. Personally, I’d have liked to have seen a juniper and tea vodka—blurring the line between vodka and gin!

Anyway, today’s featured Absolut vodka does contain tea: Absolut Boston (I’d like to think that this is a reference to the Boston Tea Party) is a mix of black tea and elderflower and was released in 2009. This was re-branded as Absolut Wild Tea in 2010.

The Taste

1) Room temperature

Taste: The taste is reflected by the nose and the vodka is both dry and sweet; very good.

2) From the freezer
The nose was very dry—so dry that it almost sucks you in—with notes of tea leaves and elderflower. The taste was very unusual: the tea really came through, but wasn’t too bitter; there were also some jammy, floral notes and a hint of smoke. Smooth and scrumptious.

Again, the tea really came through well, as does a touch of smoked cheese and dry tobacco. This was definitely a smoky Martini, although there was also a touch of sweetness from the elderflower. Overall, rather lovely.

4) Tonic
Very odd. This simply didn’t work; tannins and tonic are not good partners and so I would say that, with its strong tea notes, this is not the best way to drink this vodka.

Absolut Wild Tea is available for around £20 for 70cl from The Vodka Emporium