Tuesday 19 November 2013

The Green Fairy's new wings

I haven’t written about absinthe in a while, not least because the last time I did it revealed just how weird the absinthe world can be. I reviewed the whole of the La Fée range at the time, presenting what I thought was a pretty fair summing up—the high-end “XS” products are excellent, while the more mainstream “Parisienne” was OK for what it was, but I railed against the suggestion on the La Fée website at the time that its artificial colouring was a normal part of the absinthe tradition. The green colour of traditional absinthe derives from the fact that some of the botanicals don’t distil well, so they are infused into the spirit after distillation, and so leave their colour from the chlorophyll.*

Such is the craft, mystery and voodoo associated with absinthe and its romantic history, that it’s a divisive field. Many seemed to revile La Fée’s creator George Rowley, seeing him as a betrayer of the true spirit of absinthe. Unfortunately I had not been able to speak to George before writing it (apparently he never received my emails), but he later gave me an interview in which he answered some questions and denied rumours I had heard that La Fée was compounded from flavourings. I revised my review to put across these points—and incurred the scorn of the absinthe mafia. Some people genuinely seemed to think I had been bribed to update the review.

Old La Fée Parisienne on the left, new La Fée Parisienne on the right
So I will be interested to see what that camp makes of the latest development in the La Fée stable. I heard rumours earlier in the year that the new La Fée Blanche expression was very good—none other than Ted Breaux, of the high-end Jade range and the massive Lucid brand in the US, told me so. And now the brand’s signature Parisienne mainstream absinthe has been completely reformulated: the new version is all natural. Whereas the XS products are made on George’s behalf by boutique distillers (François Guy in Pontarlier makes the Française and Claude-Alain Bugnon in Couvet makes the Suisse), the new Parisienne is still made by its old producer, Cherry Rocher near Lyons.

When I spoke to George back in 2011 he was at pains to point out that he had tried many times to get natural colouring into his absinthe but it simply wasn’t stable enough. Producing something that was shipped to 38 countries in a variety of climatic conditions, he didn’t feel that his customers would accept the batch-to-batch variation he would get from natural colour.

Old La Fée on the left, new La Fée on the right, this time louched
When I met George more recently at the Boutique Bar Show, he seemed excited more than anything about the new bottle that La Fée Parisienne comes in. Instead of being clear glass, revealing the synthetic green colour of the old Parisienne, it is now an opaque green, with a high-tech UV-proof coating.** This apparently protects the colour of the new liquor.

But if you taste new Parisienne against a sample of the old stuff, the difference is vast in more ways than just the colour.*** Yes, the new drink is a paler, softer, more olive green, but the flavour profile has changed completely. Old Parisienne has a brassy nose of strong green anise with a stab of rooty wormwood, quite simplistic and one-dimensional. The palate is sweet with rubbery anise, some wormwood and a slight bitter edge on the finish.

Straightaway new Parisienne is different: much less green anise is used and the nose is delicate with dusty, woody dried spice, fennel, caraway, orange peel and liquorice.**** It’s complex and fascinating, drawing you in. It reminds me strongly of the smell of Aviation gin. The palate carries on the profile of the nose. It is sweet enough on the tongue but not really anise-driven. To me it is more about spices—fennel seed, coriander… It is not especially floral compared to some, especially the blue styles, but there is a hint of parma violets.

I have a couple of other comparisons to hand, Jade’s Nouvelle-Orléans and Artemisia’s Butterfly. Nouvelle Orleans has a sharper nose with floral high notes and pungent, aromatic layer like tarragon. The palate is lighter, drier, with less of the orange notes that strike me in new Parisienne. Butterfly has a bright nose of fresh mint and watercress and a weighty bitter-sweet palate—it makes me realise that new Parisienne is not heavy but ultimately fresh and refreshing. Back in the early days of its popularity absinthe was drunk as an aperitif by the middle classes in the “green hour” after work, and I can imagine this recipe working well in that role.

I’m actually surprised that the new Parisienne is so different from the old one—there are other natural absinthes out there that I think are closer to the flavour profile of the old one. I wonder what loyal consumers will make of it.

The new La Fée Blanche was actually released before the new verte. Tradition has it that colourless absinthes are a Swiss thing—more usually known as La Bleue over there—deriving from the fact that, not being green, they were easier to disguise after absinthe was prohibited. But in fact colourless absinthe was being made in both France and Switzerland before the ban. The La Fée family already has a bleue in the form of the XS La Suisse (around £80 a bottle), but the new one is made on an industrial scale by Cherry Rocher and as such can be had for about £35 a bottle.

The label describes it as being made with more fennel than most vertes and as such being sweeter and softer. It’s true that most bleues do seem sweeter and to me often more floral. But La Fée Blanche strikes me, like the new Parisienne, as marked by dried spice, pleasantly pungent with savoury hints almost like onion, but also with both mentholic freshness and wafts of mint and cucumber. (OK, it’s beginning to sound like a curry dinner.)

I try it up against two other white absinthes, La Clandestine from Artemisia and an obscure bottle called La P’tite (a fairy reference, I think) that I must have picked up years ago. This last example has a sweet, floral nose, quite understated, and a palate that is likewise sweetish, offering anise but not much else. La Clandestine is more hefty, with a nose of rubbery “overripe buttercups”—I smell I get from a lot of white absinthes, though I’ve no idea what it is. It suggests alpine wildflowers. Unfolding also are vanilla and banana, plus perfumed, floral notes—altogether more complex than La P’tite. This carries over on to the palate, which is sweet and weighty.

By comparison, La Fée Blanche strikes me as lighter and drier. As with the new Parisienne, it is more about high spicy notes, fennel seed, coriander, even turmeric, and less about green anise sweetness.

I think that both of the new absinthes are splendid additions to the market, but my favourite is probably the Parisienne. It’s the sort of absinthe that you keep coming back to as new aromas and flavours unfold. (Try coming back to an empty glass that has had neat absinthe in it and give it a sniff…) If this is going out at the old Parisienne price of about £38–40 then it could be game-changing.

* Colour is one thing that never passes through distillation—any spirit is colourless as it comes off the still. Whisky is only brown because of the years it spends in contact with wood after distillation. Absinthe is made by taking an alcoholic spirit and soaking a blend of plants in it; then the spirit is redistilled, taking the flavours with it. In this respect the process is exactly like that of making gin. But traditional green absinthe then macerates further botanicals in the spirit after this stage, hence the colour.

** I assume it also offers some thermal protection, because in my last interview George was saying that it was temperature variation as well as light that damaged natural colouring in absinthe.

*** For the record, I tried all the samples with a ratio of one part absinthe to 2½ parts water.

**** The label says there are nine herbs and spices involved, but only reveals four—Grand Wormwood, fennel, green anise and star anise. (The website adds hyssop and coriander seed.) The label for the Blanche only says that it uses more fennel than a typical verte, though the website elaborates that there are 11 botanicals—the same ones as for the verte but adding mint and lemon balm.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Brimstone and bubbly

“Contains sulphites” (or “sulfites”, if you are American). These two words are like a clang of doom on many a wine label. The fact that wine-makers are obliged to print this notification probably contributes a lot to our growing wariness of sulphites and the belief that they poison our bodies—and give us hangovers.

So I was interested to be invited to try Laurenti, a Champagne that has been popular in France for 90 years but which is new to the UK: the main selling point seems to be that it is low in sulphites and therefore less likely to give you a headache the morning after.

As you know, here at the Institute we like to take a rigorously scientific approach, but I couldn’t think of a way of really putting this to the test. Do you drink a load of Laurenti one night and then an equal amount of a rival brand the next, and see how you feel? Do you get a pair of identical twins to match each other glass for glass across a table and see who feels worst in the morning? In the office of the PR company the girls mulled on this and decided that drinking just the one bottle wouldn’t be enough to give them a hangover anyway. And as one bottle is all I had, I had to give up on the idea of empirical testing.

Sulphites are used in wine to kill bacteria and combat oxidation. I guess we think of the use of them as a regrettable modern industrial technique for mass production, but in fact the yeast that creates the alcohol in wine naturally produces sulphur dioxide during fermentation, so even a wine without any added sulphites will still contain some. Wines that are made virtually sulphite-free tend to come with instructions to store them at low temperatures at all times and consume them very quickly, so you can see why most wine-makers use sulphites. My sister and brother-in-law went to a tasting of sulphite-free wines and pronounced that some of them tasted very peculiar indeed. I wonder if this is just because of the difficulty in stopping them going off at the drop of a hat, rather than any suggestion that we are used to the taste of sulphites? For I get the impression that under normal circumstances we wouldn’t taste sulphites anyway.* In my brief foray into home wine-making (which lasted until the first batch was ready to drink, and I realised how repulsive it all was), I dutifully added sulphury-smelling Campden Tablets (sodium metabisulphate), but could never detect any whiff of them in the finished wine.

The use of sulphur in wine probably goes back to ancient times and was mentioned in a German legal document in 1487; by the 18th century it was being used on an industrial scale. But thanks to advances in wine-making technology, modern wines actually contain less than in the past. Moreover, red wine, which most people probably feel is more likely to give them a hangover, tends to contain less sulphite than white, because the tannins from the grape skins are a natural preservative (and red wines are often more alcoholic, which is also preservative) so less sulphur is needed. The legal EU limits are 160 parts per million for red wine and 210 for white, but any wine containing more than 10 parts per million must feature the warning on the label. Sweet wine actually contains the most (EU limit of 400 ppm), because some of the added sulphur binds with the sugar and loses its protective effect. Presumably for the same reason, dried fruit contains even more—the EU limit is 1,000 ppm—and it is also used in fruit juices made from concentrates.

Some people are allergic to sulphites (the US FDA estimates 1% of people are sulphite-sensitive) and it can be dangerous for asthmatics, but for the rest of us there is not, as far as I am aware, any proof yet that sulphites give you a hangover—although the World Health Organisation does have a recommended consumption limit of 0.7 mg per kilo of body weight. (If a wine actually contained the upper allowance for white wine, the average man would apparently exceed this after drinking just a third of a bottle.) I gather that sulphites are known to destroy vitamin B1, which is needed to metabolise alcohol, so perhaps this is where the hangover idea comes from. If you find that red wine gives you a hangover it may be the naturally occurring tannins or histamines that are doing for you.

If you nevertheless want to avoid sulphites, you could try drinking only very old wines—the sulphur breaks down naturally over time—or switch to spirits, of course.

Or you could drink Laurenti. Founded by Joseph Laurenti in 1923, the house uses only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes grown on its own estates in the South Champagne district. In addition to low sulphites (just 7 ppm free SO2), the Grande Cuvée that I was tasting is relatively low in sugar, featuring a modest dosage (the sugar added to the wine before the secondary fermentation in the bottle that creates the bubbles). It is a pale gold colour and has a lively mousse that gives it a full but velvety texture on the tongue. The nose is sweet and fruity, but with dark, warm notes in there too; quite complex and balanced. On the palate it is clean and very appley, with a sweet finish on the tongue. Rather than woody depth, it seems to be all about a fresh, juicy hit. I can see that it would be ideal for parties—a good “session” Champagne, if you will. I suspect this is how they are pitching it, hence perhaps the emphasis on low sulphur and the suggestion that this will lessen hangovers…

The Laurenti range is available from Wine Direction. The Grande Cuvée is £34.99 a 70cl bottle, the Grande Cuvée Rosé £36.99 and the Grand Cuvée Tradition (aged for 12 years as opposed to the Grande Cuvée’s three years) £39.99

* Although this organic wine website claims that normal people can taste it at 11 ppm.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

National Calvados Week—The Pere Magloire & King's Ginger Flask

This week is National Calvados Week (for more information and events check out http://www.nationalcalvadosweek.com/) and I am rather a fan. Any one who has ever spoken to me about the French apple brandy will know that I am very keen on keeping it in my hipflask during the winter—the spicy apple note is cosy and comforting and the spirit is thoroughly warming. It takes the edge off the world; after all, isn't that the point of a hipflask?

Given this affinity I decided to mix up a special Anglo-Franco flask utilising another warming spirit notably King's Ginger. The recipe is simple:

4 parts Pere Magloire VSOP*
1 part The King's Ginger
Add to a hipflask (preferably a pewter one)

The taste

In the interests of thoroughness in experimentation these tasting notes were taken after the hipflask had been in my pocket for an hour, to warm up, and was sipped after an early-morning frosty stroll.

The dry, fruity apple is complimented by the contrasting sweetness of the liqueur but on the finish the sweet spice of the spirit and the ginger combine and mix together for a warming after-glow. After a long walk across frozen heathland few thinsg will warm the cockles as well as this.

* Some details on Pere Magloire

Pere Magloire is a Calvados Pays D’Auge, which means that is subject to even more regulation than regular Calvados. It has to be made in the Eastern part of the Calvados region, and Pere Magloire is made in the village of Pont l’Eveque. In addition to the rules defining Calvados AOC, Calvados Pays D’Auge must be made from cider that has fermented for at least 6 weeks and must also be distilled twice (double distillation). In the theory of distilling, the longer fermentation (consuming more sugars) and the double distillation should lead to a cleaner, dryer, smoother, and higher quality spirit.

Nose: Fantastic—very engaging and enticing; rich apples with just a hint of acidity, reminding me of refreshing, still cider. Also, hints of spice and vanilla.
Taste: A well-rounded spirit and one that leads on well from the nose. Dry, crisp apple with a little sweetness in the middle, along with hints of toffee, caramel, cinnamon and nutmeg, which provide an impression of spiced baked apple. It has a warming finish, but no burn; as you continue to sip, a pleasant, cosy warmth builds in the chest. Just what you need on a cold, rainy day.

Saturday 5 October 2013

Tea-Total Cocktails

A Medina Rose

Making cocktails with tea has been fashionable for quite a while now. (And that’s just this time round—tea was a common ingredient in punches, some of the earliest mixed boozes created by man.) But I was intrigued to be contacted by Tea Horse, a artisanal tea merchants dealing exclusively in loose leaf tea, in regard to a couple of tea blends that they had created expressly for use in cocktails.

“We ran a competition to create three new tea blends, and one was to specifically be used in a cocktail,” explains Ali Silk, director of Tea Horse, “to showcase how flexible and exciting an ingredient tea can be.” The resulting blends were shown to mixologist Julian de Feral of Gorgeous Group. “Julian was most inspired by the Pistachio Rose tea, so we worked on the tea blend with this in mind. He then took the tea and created the cocktail from it.”

The tea in question blends green tea with rose petals, Hojicha Japanese roasted tea, rooibos, calendula and sunflower petals, pistachio and almond slices, mallow flowers and vanilla. It creates a smooth, sweet, creamy tea with floral and nutty notes.

“The idea of pistachio and rose tea got me thinking of the bustling alleys of the souks of Marrakesh,” says Julian, “where it’s customary to be offered a refreshing cup of sweetened mint tea while bargaining over a rug.” Julian points out that there is a connection here with the famous Southern US drink the Mint Julep—it is believed that the word “julep” comes from the Arabic golāb, meaning “rosewater”. “Though Mint Juleps are now typically made with whiskey, at the turn of the 19th century Cognac would have been the spirit of choice,” Julian says, and indeed his Medina Rose julep-style cocktail uses this spirit. “The subtle fruitiness, slight spicy dryness and wood influence from a good Cognac perfectly compliment the floral and nutty flavours of the tea, while contrasting with the mint.”

Medina Rose
2 heaped tsp Tea Horse Pistachio Rose tea
2 heaped tsp golden caster sugar
35ml VSOP Cognac
Zest of one orange
Small bunch of mint
Crushed ice
3 drops rosewater (optional)

Brew the tea with the sugar in 250ml water for four minutes, then chill in the fridge. Add the tea, Cognac and rosewater to a large glass or julep cup. Crush the larger mint leaves in your hands and add. Squeeze the oils from the bulk of the peel over the top, then add crushed ice and stir. Top with more crushed ice, some choice mint leaf tops and a twist of orange peel.

The tea itself smells strongly of marzipan, fruit and rose. For some reason it reminds me of old ladies. On the palate it is warm and smooth with the same flavours; it’s quite cocktail-like already, perhaps because of the intrinsic sweetness. In the cocktail the tea is to the fore, even with all that crushed ice to dilute it. In fact all the main flavours in the cocktail seem to be coming from the complex tea, along with the fresh mint and the orange peel that is under you nose when you drink it. I found myself adding a hefty splosh more of Cognac to try and bring its presence into focus.

Julian also decided to make a cocktail from another Tea Horse blend, their Silver Rose, a blend of the popular Silver Needle white tea with very English rose and elderflower. Here he chose to evoke the flavours of England in the late summer:

Cider With Rosie
50ml gin
1 tsp Tea Horse Silver Rose tea
1 tsp honey (orange blossom if available)
50ml dry cider
50ml pressed cloudy apple juice
Apple slices and rose petals for garnish

Infuse the tea in the gin with the honey for 20 minutes. Strain into a long glass and add the cider and apple juice and some ice. Stir and garnish with apple slices and rose petals if desired.

Unsurprisingly this cocktail has a strong apple hit, but the gin’s presence is very much felt too. The floral notes are detectable but this time I don’t feel the tea is coming through that strongly—although the apple juice has tannins that might mask it. Perhaps it is better to infuse tea in boiling water to extract the flavours, as in the previous recipe. The tea itself, made with hot water, is subtly pleasant, with an elderflower edge and not heavy or sickly at all.

It’s quite an interesting concept, really, the “cocktail tea”, engineered to carry the desired flavours in the cocktail. Hitherto mixologists have used flavoured syrups or bitters/tinctures to carry favours other than those of alcoholic beverages (with the concentrations of either sugar or alcohol acting as preservatives). Here, rather than using the basic flavour of tea as an ingredient in a cocktail, they have thrown a host of combined flavours at the tea blend itself: the essence of the “cocktail” is created at the point that you infuse the tea, after which you just add booze. (So dehydration is the preservative this way, rather than sugar or alcohol.) It could catch on.

Thursday 12 September 2013

Hernö: like gin, but more so

A rare bottle of Hernö Juniper Cask Gin, with a cask in the
background (the real ones are much bigger)
I went to the launch of a new gin on Monday, from Hernö in Sweden, proudly the northernmost distillery in the world (is this good?). Mrs H. rolled her eyes when she heard. “Another gin?” she said. “Surely we’re all ginned out now?”

It certainly seems that each new gin must have to fight its corner to get noticed, but what we’re also seeing is exploration into new types of gin. Not very long ago few people would have heard of Old Tom gin, the sweeter style that predated London Dry, but launching your own version seems to be the latest fad. Then there is navy strength* gin, with several of those launching recently. And also aged gin.

The gin we were launching on Monday, at the bijou Charlotte’s Bistro in Chiswick, fell into this last category. Hernö take their normal gin blend and age it, for just 30 days, in barrels made, not from oak as might be normal, but from juniper wood.

I’d not had the pleasure of sampling Hernö gin before. Their standard product, Swedish Excellence, comes in at 40.5% ABV. In their own 250-litre copper pot still at their distillery in the village of Dala near Härnösand, they distil it twice (presumably starting with commercial neutral spirit), first to make a vodka, getting the character from the interaction with the copper, then the second time to make the gin. Before this second distillation the botanicals are macerated, for varying amounts of time. The juniper and coriander are in there for 18 hours, but the fresh lemon peel, which master distiller Jon Hillgren explains he cuts himself from lemons bought at the local shop, is added just before distilling. The botanicals, which are all organic, also include cassia bark, black peppercorns, meadowsweet, lingonberries and vanilla.

DBS enjoying some Hernö. He's also a
fan—in fact they quote his tasting notes
in their brochure and on the website
I like a gin that fundamentally tastes of gin, and I’m immediately taken by Hernö. Big, aromatic juniper hits you first and bright, fresh citrus, but you can also clearly pick out the cassia and black pepper. It seems stronger than 40.5%, perhaps because the pepper gives a subtle bite.

There is also a Hernö Navy Strength, which is exactly the same gin but bottled at 57% (the water for dilution comes from their own well and there is no chill-filtering), and I’m even more taken by it. At this strength the vanilla comes through more strongly but you can still pick out the other ingredients; the residue in an empty glass develops a strong cassia character. Somehow they have made a very elegant gin, with some modern twists to an essentially classic profile. Where other gins might throw many more botanicals at the problem (or maybe fewer) and end up with a homogenised, one-dimensional taste, Hernö doesn’t take the flavour profile in any terribly whacky directions, but somehow manages to have a 3D vividness to the flavours that are there, yet deft and polished, without any sharp edges. It is gin, but more so.

So what of the aged gin we are here to launch, Hernö Juniper Cask Gin? The idea of wood-aged gin may well have caught on as an adjunct to the search for the true nature of Old Tom. All we really know about the latter is that it was sweeter than London Dry, most likely to mask the roughness of the underlying spirit in the days before the invention of the column still made relatively pure alcohol easy to achieve. Some assume that Old Tom was simply sugared, others believe the perceived “sweetness” came from a heavier, spicier botanicals, such as liquorice. Some have suggested that the barrels used to store and transport the spirit before the 1861 Single Bottle Act would have affected the flavour—and indeed ageing in wood has long been a way of softening and adding complexity to spirit (the whisky industry is based on it, and Seagram’s gin in the US has always been rested in oak barrels for three to four weeks before bottling).

You can see how the gin has soaked through
the wood of the barrel
Most wood-aged spirit has spent some time sitting in oak barrels, which imparts a classic vanilla/butter flavour. But Hernö, which is pretty juniper-led to start with, instead gets to sit in barrels made from juniper wood. Jon explains that none of the available juniper trees in Sweden was big enough to produce planks more than a couple of inches wide, so the timber was imported from the US and made into barrels by Sweden’s only cooper. Jon admits that juniper wood is not really ideal for storing liquids, as the contents seep through to the outside. The wood exudes a resinous sap which can be clearly smelled.**

After just 30 days the gin has a pronounced yellow colour. But instead of plump, creamy oak character, you get enhanced high notes, a fresh resinous zing and a bright fruitiness. The juniper presence borders on the menthol-like but that just-peeled lemon element still comes through too, along with something floral and a hint of anise. On the palate it does not seem as dramatically changed as it does on the nose, but it is instructive to compare the cask gin side by side with the navy strength. The balance with the latter seems to favour the warm spice notes more, meaning that ironically it comes across as “woodier” than the wood-aged version.

Add tonic water to the cask gin and a sweet, clover-like floral note emerges (perhaps this is meadowsweet?). It’s a great combo, though I find it needs a bit more tonic than usual to achieve a comfortable balance. Likewise it makes a fascinating Martini, but again it seems to want a fairly a “wet”mix of about two parts gin to one part vermouth. With its pokey, piney juniper thrust, the cask gin also stands its ground easily in a Negroni, which I think is essential in this in this gutsy combination.

Hernö gins, as with any other boutique product, are not cheap: the Swedish Excellence is about £30 for 50cl, and you’ll be lucky to find Navy Strength or Cask Gin at all. But do seek it out. There is something rather life-affirming about the way they have passionately reinvented flavours we think we are so familiar with.

And the Cask Gin comes with a cap of beeswax that Jon obtains from a neighbouring beekeeper and hand dips himself.

* About 57% alcohol by volume, the point at which, if you splash some on to gunpowder, the powder can still be ignited. Rum which could pass this test was said to be “proof”, hence the old measurement of “degrees proof” as a way of indicating alcoholic strength, where 100 degrees is this tipping point. Hence “overproof” rum that is stronger than this.
** Jon confirms that in time they will experiment with reusing the barrels, perhaps creating distinct second fill and third fill editions.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Sipping on ‘yak’…

My kit for blokeish heaven*

Although cocktails based on Cognac are among the oldest created, it’s no surprise that major brandy players are keen to get hip to the “Second Golden Age of the Cocktail” (which we’re in, if you hadn’t noticed) and persuade the young and cool that Cognac is for hipsters, not just for septuagenarians in gentleman’s clubs.

This time last year Courvoisier created their multi-room, immersive “Institute of Grand Cocktails Experience”, where each room was meant to be “like stepping inside a cocktail”. Their Courvoisier Exclusif expression was actually developed as a cocktail ingredient, and in London Cocktail Week 2010 they sponsored a seminar on that most ancient of mixed drinks, punch.

Now Rémy Martin have taken a more blokeish approach and are sponsoring the GQ Men of the Year Awards ceremony on 3rd September, which will include the special Rémy Martin Breakthrough Award for newcomers. Rémy cocktails will be served through the ceremony and afterwards the brand will be running a bespoke bar at the after-party on the Royal Opera House balcony.

Rémy’s mixologists apparently kept coming back to a signature combination of Cognac and ginger, so the house cocktail will be the R&G, Rémy and ginger ale. The sample kit I was sent included a bottle of Fevertree ginger ale, so that is clearly the preferred brand.

An R&G cocktail
50ml Rémy Martin VSOP
Ginger ale top
Lemon peel garnish
Build over ice and garnish with a lemon twist

With that twist it reminds me of the classic Horse’s Neck cocktail, which was in essence a soft drink of ginger ale with a long spiral strip of lemon peel—just like in the R&G photo—and bitters; but from its inception it has been regularly spiked, sometimes with bourbon but originally with Cognac. I’m sipping an R&G now and I can confirm that it is a good combination. The Rémy has aromas of oranges, bananas, almonds and hazelnuts and an underlying warmth that is indeed like ginger.

On Rémy’s website you’ll find a host more recommended cocktails—five of which contain ginger. Moreover, they have created a special drink just for the GQ awards, called, naturally the R&GQ. It likewise involves ginger but also, in a stroke of blokeish genius, contains beer!**

The manly R&GQ cocktail
35ml Rémy Martin VSOP
20ml Lemon juice
15ml Bottle Green Ginger and Lemongrass cordial
Very cold British ale
Build in a chilled half-pint glass tankard

Since they are not too specific about the ale, I figure that a Pale Ale style would be best, as these are often intended to be served cold, or at least cool (I plump for St Austell Cornish Pale Ale). I’ve never tried making a cocktail with beer before, and it is quite a revelation: for a start you can taste everything, the ale with its bitter hoppy finish, the sour lemon juice, the warm date-like Cognac and the fiery ginger (the lemongrass perhaps getting slightly subsumed into the lemon juice). It retains the quaffability of beer, but with a complexity and the typical sweet-‘n’-sour extremities of many cocktails. It feels a bit like drinking an 18th-century drink, like spiced, mulled ale (although it is cold) or punch. Fascinating. I’m definitely a convert.

The Rémy Martin Cognac house itself goes back to 1724. The spirit is distilled from grapes, mostly Ugni Blanc, grown exclusively in the Grande Champagne and Petit Champagne regions of Cognac. Barrel ageing is an important part of the Cognac process, and the spirit in the VSOP*** is a blend of batches between four and 14 years old, all aged in barrels of French Limousin oak.

The version I have here is the VSOP Mature Cask Finish: after the final blend of aged spirits is made, the mixture is rested for a further year in small oak casks, all more than 20 years old. Apparently this extra time in small casks (with a proportionally greater surface area) increases the gentle exposure of the brandy to the air, through the permeable wood, while presumably getting relatively little of the heavy vanilla character of fresh oak. This is said to increase the peach and apricot notes. I get the impression that this last stage is a relatively new development.

Sampling the Rémy neat, I get wafts of berries and the afore-mentioned stone fruit, plus vanilla from the oak and something sweetly floral like rose. It’s quite a complex nose, with unexpected things in the mix like ashtrays and sticking plasters too. Bring it up to your lips and the apricot nose intensifies. These flavours continue on to the palate, with little sparks of other things, like tobacco and figs, and on to a relatively smooth, warm finish.

I put the Rémy head-to-head with some of Sainsbury’s own VSOP Cognac that I happen to have, on the grounds that they are both VSOPs, though the Sainbury’s brandy is £21.50 a bottle and the Rémy is about £34. The Sainsbury’s has a big, soupy nose with a host of flavours, including raisins, dates, chocolate and copper, jostling with each other. It’s bold but a little chaotic. The Rémy, by comparison, has more refinement, poise and clarity. On the palate the Sainsbury’s is about as smooth as the Rémy, with some latent Christmas cake flavours, but a bit flabby and unresolved.

Rémy on the rocks, anyone?
My Rémy Martin Man Kit comes with a handsome highball glass, a sturdy bar spoon and, interestingly, a little ice bucket just the right size for a 35cl half bottle. (I later discover from the PR that it is actually intended for chilling the ginger ale!) Now purists will be perplexed and outraged at the idea of serving Cognac chilled, but a few years ago Cognac became the drink choice for hippety-hop hipsters in the clubz, presumably because of its traditional association with opulence and wealth, and I wonder if the preferred presentation in this environment became to serve it on ice. In any case, it reminds me of a conversation I had with a Rémy rep after a Cognac and cigar evening some years ago, when he talked about arranging a tasting to match Rémy VSOP and XO with various sweet and savoury foods—in some of these pairings the Cognac was served on the rocks, or even from the freezer. So clearly chilled Cognac is not just a nouveau riche affectation but something with the aesthetic endorsement of Rémy themselves.

Some other classic Cognac cocktails you might like to try include the Sidecar (Cognac, Cointreau and lemon juice), the Champagne Cocktail (Champagne, Cognac, bitters and a sugar cube), and, if you must, the Earthquake (equal parts Cognac and absinthe). Or for something a little more obscure but surprisingly effective, try the Ritz, which I believe may have been invented by Dale DeGroff:

Ritz Cocktail
¾ shot Rémy Martin
½ shot Cointreau
½ shot maraschino
½ shot lemon juice
Champagne/sparkling wine top
Orange peel garnish
Shake the first four ingredients with ice and strain into a coupe glass. Top with Champagne or sparkling wine and garnish with a squeezed strip of orange peel.

* This issue of GQ comes with five different (and doubtless highly collectible) covers, featuring the different members of One Direction, outlining how “heavier…rockier…cooler” One Direction's New Direction is. I hear that 1D's army of female teen fans have been so incensed by some of the less than hagiographical things that the GQ journalists say about the band that a barrage of death threats has been launched against the magazine's staff. That's how edgy a GQ bloke's life is.

** In fairness it has been trendy to make cocktails with beer for some time. I'm sure it gives the mixologist the chance to specify obscure craft ales and boutique porters…

*** Stands for Very Special Old Pale or Very Superior Old Pale. The categorisation requires that everything in the blend must be at least four years old, though as in this case, the average age will usually be higher than this.

Saturday 27 July 2013

Sacred Rosehip Cup—a thoroughly English aperitivo

To Primrose Hill last week for the launch of Sacred Rosehip Cup. The Sacred Spirits Company is basically Ian Hart, a thoughtful boffin with a twinkling curiosity, who has built a vacuum still in a room in his house. Dotted about the place are tubs of neutral spirit with various single botanicals macerating in them; when he deems each one ready he puts it into a glass vessel, then uses a big vacuum pump located in a garden shed to lower the pressure in the vessel till the spirit starts to evaporate. No heat is used to cause this evaporation;* the theory behind cold vacuum distilling is that the botanicals don’t get “cooked” and so retain their natural flavour.

Ian’s gin is doing very well for itself and keeps winning all kinds of awards. But he is always looking at ways of applying his concepts to other drinks. He makes a Spiced English Vermouth, intended to partner with his gin for a perfect Martini, and his latest wheeze is the Rosehip Cup, which is actually intended to be a sort of English answer to Campari. Like other aperitivos and vermouths, it is an infusion that is not redistilled, and is bottled at 18% ABV.

The starting point, Ian explains, was to use rosehip for fruitiness, rhubarb for acidity and gentian for bitterness.** They were going to call it a Rhubarb Cup, but the end result does not really taste that rhubarby—so he felt that those who don’t really like rhubarb (and it can be divisive) would be put off, while those who do would be disappointed. Hence the name Rosehip Cup.

The colour of Campari originally came from crushed cochineal beetles but nowadays is artificial. Ian didn’t want to go down the artificial route, however (the ingredients of the Cup are all natural and mostly organic). The rosehip actually made the tincture a pale, pinky-brown rather than the bright red he wanted. He considered cochineal, but then had a stroke of luck: he discovered that red grape skins, which are actually a purple colour and are the source of the colour of red wine, turn bright red in the presence of the acid from the rhubarb. This is where the colour of Sacred Rosehip Cup comes from. Ian has observed that, if you dilute the Cup with soda water, for example, as the acid concentration drops the drink turns purple again.

Ian with his Negroni kit gift pack
The signature serve is the Negroni, undoubtedly the classic Campari drink (equal parts gin, Campari and red vermouth). Ian prescribes the use of his own Spiced English Vermouth—you might say, “well he would,” but he explains that the Rosehip Cup is actually not as bitter as Campari, whereas the Spiced English Vermouth is more bitter than, say, Martini Rosso; and the Rosehip Cup needs this extra bitterness. At the launch I am given one of these Negonis to try (using Sacred gin, of course): it is a light, fruity example of its kind, with a slightly downplayed juniper, as one might expect from a complex gin like Sacred. Perhaps a good, light summer Negroni.

Ian is actually planning to sell a “Negroni kit”, of three 20cl bottles of Sacred Gin, Sacred Rosehip Cup and Sacred Spiced English Vermouth (see photo left). That’s everyone’s Christmas presents sorted, then.

Alternative ways to drink the Rosehip Cup are with Fentiman’s Rose Lemonade or with Prosecco; the latter produces a dry, fruity number, a bit like adding Pimm’s to sparkling wine, if you’ve ever tried that.

Rosehip Cup on the left, Campari on the right
Back home I line up a direct comparison between Campari and the Rosehip Cup. As you can see from the photo, they look pretty much identical. Tasted neat they are similar but Campari has a more citric, floral nose with a steely savouriness, and a hint of cooked peppers, celery, even onion, and maybe some cinnamon. All this is carried through on to the tongue, plus bitterness, obviously, and something woody (perhaps that’s the cascarilla bark).

By comparison the Rosehip Cup, while broadly similar, has a softer and more fruity nose, comforting like rosehip syrup. It is sweeter on the palate, though with bitterness too, and there is something like parma violets in there as well.

A Negroni made with the Rosehip Cup (apologies
for the garnish—I didn't have any oranges)
I don’t have any of the Spiced English Vermouth at home, so I knock up a Negroni using Martini Rosso, and then source some extra bitterness from Peychaud’s Bitters (which I find is more simple heads-down bitter, whereas Angostura has has other aromatic things going on too). The end result is very agreeable, a good showcase for what a fine cocktail the Negroni is, and I find one can dial in all the bitterness one wants using this method.

Sacred Rosehip Cup is £28.50 from www.sacredspiritscompany.com

* Actually the vessel rotates in a warm-water bath, which is simply to keep it at room temperature, otherwise the drop in pressure would cause the temperature to drop dramatically too. Oxley gin is also made using vacuum distillation but they, I believe, allow the temperature to drop to –5 degrees C.

** Campari won’t say what their ingredients are; Ian said he thought the bitterness came from gentian, though I see that whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry believes it contains the bitter-sour fruit chinotto and cascarilla bark, while this person is adamant it contains “quinine, rhubarb, ginseng, orange peels and aromatic herbs”.

Thursday 25 July 2013

Some tequila cocktails

A Matador cocktail

Asked to name a tequila cocktail, most people would pipe up with the Margarita (roughly two parts tequila to one part lime juice and one part triple sec, with an optional salt rim, though some nowadays advocate replacing some or all of the triple sec with agave syrup). It’s a great platform for tequila, with a natural harmony like that between rum, lime and sugar in a Daiquiri. And indeed salt and lime, Matthias Lataille of Olmeca Altos (see the last post) tells me, are staples of the cuisine in Mexico. But can you name any more tequila cocktails?

For the Mexican-themed New Sheridan Club party Matthias had come up with some suitably vintage drinks, the first of which was the Picador, from the 1937 Café Royal Cocktail Book. As you will notice, it is identical to the Margarita, though with no mention of salt. Most of the (many) theories about the origin of the Margarita hail from the 1940s, and usually revolve around its being named after a customer called Margarita/Margaret—for example, that it was created in October 1941 at Hussong’s Cantina in Ensenada, Mexico, by bartender Don Carlos Orozco for Margarita Henkel, daughter of the German ambassador. But the Picador predates those, although the book gives no information as to the drink’s origins.*

¼ fresh lime or lemon juice
¼ Cointreau
½ tequila
Café Royal Cocktail Book (1937)

Also in the same book is the Toreador, which essentially takes the Picador and replaces the Cointreau with that other great period ingredient, apricot brandy. I really liked the idea of this one, but I’m not sure there is really a synergy between tequila and apricots.

½ tequila
¼ apricot brandy
¼ fresh lime or lemon juice
Café Royal Cocktail Book (1937)

El Diablo is a long drink that seems to have been born in California in the 1940s. This is the recipe from Trader Vic’s Book of Food and Drink (1946), with US ounces converted to millilitres:

A Margarita (left) and a Mexican Mule
El Diablo
45ml tequila
15ml lime juice
15ml crème de cassis
Ginger ale
Add all to an ice-filled tall glass and top with ginger ale

Some would boost the tequila to 50 or 60ml and double the lime and maybe the cassis too. Others use ginger beer instead of ginger ale. Sometimes the cassis is dropped in at the end and allowed to sink, like the grenadine in a Tequila Sunrise. It’s a nice drink, though for me the most interesting aspect is actually the pairing of tequila and ginger, so it’s not surprising that Matthias’s final drink is not really a period one exactly, but a tequila version of the Moscow Mule (which in itself is a vintage drink):**

Mexican Mule
50ml Tequila
15ml lime juice
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Ginger beer
Build in highball glass and top with ginger beer. Some add the Angostura on the top at the end

During my own experiments I made the discovery that tequila goes rather well with pineapple juice. But I should have guessed that I was not the first to notice this, and in fact there is a well-known cocktail called a Matador, which effectively replaces the triple sec in a Margarita with pineapple juice, though some recipes include triple sec as well, and it can be served long on the rocks too. Here is the recipe from Trader Vic’s Bartending Guide (1947):

30ml Tequila
60ml Pineapple juice
Juice of half a lime
Shake and strain into a cocktail glass

A Paloma made with pink grapefruit juice and
Briottet pink grapefruit liqueur
Some would use more tequila than this, so it’s worth experimenting. But get the balance right and it’s a great combination. Personally I think it works better if you nudge the tequila to 45ml and the pineapple to about 70ml, then add a generous teaspoon of maraschino: the sweetness and subtle cherry favour fill a gap.

So which of these is the way that Mexicans drink tequila? None, apparently. Matthias tells me that the most common drink is the Paloma, which combines tequila with grapefruit soda, such as Fresca, Squirt or Jarritos, plus a lime wedge. You don’t seem to be able to buy grapefruit soda here, so a common alternative is to use grapefruit juice and soda water, plus something to sweeten it.

Makeshift Paloma
2 shots tequila
2 shots grapefruit juice
½ shot lime juice
¼–½ shot sugar syrup or agave nectar
[½ shot grapefruit liqueur]
Soda water
Shake everything but the soda and strain into an ice-filled highball. Top with soda

Some serve this with a salt rim too, or just add a pinch of salt to the mix. Trying it out, I feel the basic recipe lacks heft in the middle, and it works better with a little grapefruit liqueur (Briottet do one)—the sweetness balances things a bit and it stops the grapefruit character from being watered down by the soda.

* It has also been observed that the Margarita is not very far from a Daisy, a Victorian drink where citrus and a syrup or liqueur are added to a base spirit: and “margarita” is Spanish for daisy…

** The story goes that the Moscow Mule was invented by John Martin, who bought the rights to Smirnoff from impoverished Russian Rudolph Kunett in 1939, along with Jack Morgan, owner of the Cock ‘n’ Bull pub in Hollywood, which had its own brand of ginger beer. Head bartender Wes Price says that they invented the cocktail as a way to promote two products that were proving hard to shift. To seal the drink’s image they came up with a signature vessel, a copper mug with a kicking mule engraved on it—this was apparently prompted by the fact that Martin had a girlfriend who had inherited a copper factory that made copper mugs that were also proving to be poor sellers. In a stroke of genius Martin bought an early Polaroid camera and would get barmen to pose with one of these mugs and a bottle of Smirnoff. He’d give them one copy of the photo and take another copy to the next bar, to show them what their competitors were up to. It worked.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Tequila: busting myths and fighting red tape

Matthias addresses the mob
The New Sheridan Club’s summer party on Saturday had (rather inexplicably, I admit) a Mexican theme. It proved a rich seam, with Frida Kahlo rubbing shoulders with Zorro, plenty of bandidos and Zapatistas, and one guest who came with a bloodied chainsaw and the head of a drug rival in a bucket. Our games included cutting the heart from an Aztec sacrificial victim and shooting a glass off the head of William Burroughs’ wife Joan Vollmer, in a recreation of the ill-fated “William Tell routine” in Mexico City.

A welcome bonus came in the form of Olmeca Altos tequila: Matthias Lataille, the brand ambassador, gave us a brief masterclass at the beginning of the evening, with a tasting of the plata unaged spirit and the reposado, aged in oak for 6–8 months. There was also a menu of tequila cocktails from the 1930s and 1940s which Matthias had prepared.

I like tequila (I like all the boozes, frankly) but I don’t know much about it. This seems to be a common obstacle for Matthias: during our masterclass he was unsurprised by comments from people who said that they had never before tried tequila in a stemmed tasting glass (rather than knocking it back from a shot glass), and never before 2am! The product’s reputation as an exotic but rough-and-ready shortcut to oblivion is clearly a problem if you’re trying to get people to savour its aroma and flavour as a premium sipping spirit.

In fact Matthias tells me that tequila is one of the most heavily regulated spirit categories. It must be made from at least 51% blue agave and can be produced only in the state of Jalisco and limited regions in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. There are plenty of premium tequilas made from 100% agave, but in the cheaper ones the rest of the sugars come from sugar cane. (In fact, Matthias tells me, the prices of these two raw ingredients are constantly fluctuating, meaning that at times agave is actually cheaper than sugar cane.)*

Tequila must be between 35 and 55% ABV, but is typically 38–40%.** A blanco or plata must be unaged, or kept for less than two months in stainless steel or neutral oak; a reposado must be barrel-aged between two months and a year; an añejo must be aged between one and three years. In 2006 a new category of extra añejo was introduced, aged for at least three years.

Olmeca Altos is a premium expression from the existing Olmeca brand, the fourth biggest in the world and the largest in Europe. It was developed as a collaboration between master distiller Jesus Hernandez and UK bartenders Henry Besant and Dre Masso. Regular Olmeca has a lot of Aztec styling about the bottles, and it looks as if the Altos versions originally did as well, but they are in the process of switching to a simpler, cleaner design, with “Olmeca Altos 100% agave” stamped into the glass (with the word ALTOS dominating, to help distinguish it from regular Olmeca) and a certificate of authenticity as the only front label. The glass also has a knobbly texture to it; I’m not sure if this meant to suggest rough-hewn stone or just rustic glass, but I gather the whole redesign was aimed at emphasising the “craft” qualities of the product. (The dedicated Olmeca Altos website features the slogan “The Colours of Tequila”, along with a lot of super-saturated imagery of red soil and blue-green fronds; perhaps this is just meant to pick up on traditional colourful Mexican folk art, but it does rather suggest that you can expect some psychedelic experiences drinking this stuff!)***

New style plata and old style reposado bottles
The production process is fairly “crafty” as these things go. The agaves are all grown in the Los Altos region, at a height of 2,104 metres, where the red volcanic soil is apparently perfect. After 7–8 years the plants are harvested; the leaves are trimmed off by skilled jimadores, leaving a piña, the heart of the plant. These are then cooked to release the sugary sap. For Olmeca Altos the piñas are all cooked slowly in a traditional brick oven, which they say brings out the herbal flavour of the plant. Next the fibrous flesh must be pressed to release the juice. A proportion of the agave that goes into Olmeca Altos is crushed using the traditional tahona method, where a two-tonne wheel carved from volcanic rock rolls over the pulp.

The distillery, Destilería Colonial de Jalisco, was originally built to make Patrón, but after that deal fell through they were left with the brick ovens and the tahona stone, relatively unusual in a modern distillery. To make the most of it, Olmeca produce the super premium Tezón, which is 100% agave, all of it mashed by the tahona. Olmeca Altos is intended to get as much of that character as possible, but at a more affordable price (it’s about £30 a bottle for the plata in the UK), to which end, it is made from a blend of tahona-crushed pulp and modern milled juice. It is also specifically aimed at cocktail-making, which might explain the emphasis on the less aged end of the scale.

The tahona wheel: in the old days it would be pulled round by
a mule, but today it is machine-powered
So what difference does the tahona make? The alternative method is to put the cooked agave through a steel mill, where the pulp is washed with water to extract all the sugars, before the solid matter is sieved out. With the tahona method, however, the crushed pulp is fermented as it is, fibres and all, which one assumes imparts more of the agave character to the finished product. It is slower to crush the pulp in this way and the fermentation with the plant fibre is slower, so it is inevitably a more costly process.

One treat at our masterclass was some strips of cooked agave that Matthias handed round for us to taste. They are a dark brown and look a bit like anchovies. They are juicy in the mouth, but with a fibrous core, which you don’t really want to swallow. The flavour is complex: I’m hit by caramel first, and something that reminds me of poached pears. Other people suggest plums, plantains, sweet potatoes, dates, figs. This is a very handy experiment, because I can see that Olmeca Altos is about extracting as much of that agave flavour as possible.

Matthias with some strips of cooked agave flesh
To help me get a handle on this flavour, at home I dig out some other tequilas that I have knocking around, for comparative purposes. I have blanco, reposado and añejo samples from Excellia, a French-owned brand (from the people who brought you GVine gin) that matures the spirit in barrels previously used for Sauternes and Cognac (ex-bourbon barrels are more common), plus a blanco and reposado of Tierra Noble (samples that were pressed on me at a trade show a couple of years ago, and I don’t think the brand is actually distributed here; I seem to remember that their schtick is also that the tequila is both grown and aged at high altitude).

It’s hard to describe the essential taste of tequila, but I guess it is herbal, smoky, almost petrolly at times. For me cooked pears are in there and something like tarragon or anise. Out of the three unaged samples, Olmeca Altos has far and away the strongest agave herbal character, big, pungent, caramelly, with a tart orange note and a hint of onion, banana, pencil lead and maybe fresh wood (odd, given that I don’t think it is rested in oak at all), and butterscotch on the palate. Excellia is similar but smokier and not as sharp or big. Tierra Noble is sweeter and softer, with a buttery and slightly floral nose and a distinct chocolate finish on the palate. Perhaps the latter was designed more for drinking neat, and we know that the Olmeca Altos is intended for cocktails, so I guess they wanted a big flavour to push through other cocktail ingredients. But none of these spirits is rough or fierce.

Nice bottle, shame about the price
I decide that I should bite the financial bullet (£25 for 35cl) and get some Patrón the highest-profile “ultra premium” tequila, and probably the one that invented the market. It is also made with a blend of tahona-crushed agave, fermented on the fibre, and milled juice. At this price I’m expecting intense agave flavour—but its aroma is subtle, mellow, rather undemonstrative, when put up next to the other white tequilas. The palate is less smooth than the Tierra Noble, but then it is bottled at 40%; so I add a splash of water and it develops a sweeter feel on the tongue, but still with a slight bitterness on the finish. There is agave flavour there, but I am frankly underwhelmed. The Olmeca Altos has far more 3D herbal punch, and the Tierra Noble has more sweet, smoky aroma and unctuous mouthfeel. The labelling brags about how each bottle is hand-blown (click on the picture on the left: you can see little bubbles in the glass), but it seems that that is where your money is going.

Moving on to the reposados, the Tierra Noble has a sweet, smoky nose with that herbal, petrolly “blue” note and a palate of smoky pears, tarragon herbs and a bit of chocolate and coffee. This time the Olmeca Altos has a milder aroma, buttery with orange citrus. The palate is honeyed and more herbal, reminiscent of that cooked agave, with hints of anise and wood smoke, and again that citrus. The Excellia is smoky but with a brighter nose, tart like gooseberries and white pepper on the finish. (The añejo Excellia, for the record, has a surprisingly quiet nose but lots of dark, varnished wood on the palate, yet still that discernable herbaceous agave character.)

The motley collection of samples (the jam jar contains the
Olmeca Altos reposado, as there were no full bottles available)
As a bonus, I have a bottle of Aqua Riva Reposado too. This is the brand that has famously been launched by Cleo Rocos, who as a teenager was the foil in Kenny Everett’s TV show. But I gather she hasn’t just casually leant her name to it—she’s a genuine tequila fan and the spirit is made to her specification.**** She makes blanco and reposado “barman” tequilas for cocktails, and a premium sipping resposado too. It is all 100% blue agave. I have the barman reposado (discounted in Sainsbury’s) and to me it seems fiercer than the others, with a sharper, steelier nose and a palate more dominated by high notes. This character persists in cocktails, and I’m not really a fan.

It’s hard to know where tequila is going at the moment, though Patrón seems to be leading the way for the high-end concept. The big news now is the opening up of the Chinese market, but the demand is only exacerbating an ongoing shortage of agave, leading to stories of unscrupulous tequileros buying up truckloads of immature agave from the mezcal-producing regions and illegally making tequila from it. This in turn is putting the squeeze on mezcal—along with the Mexican government’s attempts to pass legislation that would effectively outlaw most mezcal. Some are even predicting that the inability to meet sudden Chinese demand could be the end of tequila as we know it.

So perhaps the moral of all of this is to get out there and drink some decent tequila while you can.

* Agave, incidentally, is not a cactus; it was long considered part of the lily family, though it looks as if they’ve now decided it really belongs in the asparagus family.

** The majority of tequila I encounter actually seems to be 38%, lower than most premium spirits.

*** Which reminds me of the myth of the mezcal worm, one of the stumbling blocks that Matthias doubtless has to deal with. Many people probably think that the difference between tequila and mezcal is that the latter has a worm in it, which bold souls will dare to eat, believing that it contain mescaline, or some such. In fact the “worm” is the larva of a moth that preys on agave and the presence of one in a bottle suggests a severe lack of quality control; the idea of deliberately including one was a gimmick dreamed up in the 1940s. The real distinction between tequila and mezcal, Matthias tells me, is more like the difference between Cognac and Armagnac—they are both made from the same raw material but in different regions (giving an influence from the terroir) and using different distillation methods. Modern tequila is run along more industrial lines, whereas mezcal tends to be more rustic, in some cases being distilled in ways that haven’t changed for 200 years. Mezcal production is centred around the Oaxaca region and there is a wider range of permitted types of agave that can go into mezcal, though the bulk of it is Agave americana, whereas tequila can only be made from the Agave tequilana blue agave.

**** Another odd marketing ploy is her theory that if you drink nothing but 100% agave tequila and cocktails containing this plus agave syrup (but not sugary liqueurs like Cointreau) then you won’t get a hangover. This is probably based on the fact that agave nectar is pure fructose and has a very low GI, making it suitable for diabetics. But whether any of that makes it through fermentation (in which the sugar is consumed by yeast) and distillation, I am sceptical. 

Saturday 6 July 2013

Two Birds, Dodd's, Sacred—gins that show their craft

All looks orderly as DBS hands out pens and scoring sheets at the beginning of the session…

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to join a panel for a blind tasting of British “craft” gins, organized by DBS in association with the Craft Distillers Alliance. OK, so the obvious first question is: what is a “craft” gin? The name suggests something homespun and artisanal, and that is essentially what it is—and it’s apparently on the rise. It’s been going on for some time in the US, where there are more than 500 craft distillers, and now it’s happening here too. We tasted 18 gins, which were reckoned to be fully 90% of all the UK craft gins in existence (i.e. two declined to take apart), so we’re a little way behind the Yanks; but DBS points out that a year ago we couldn’t even have organised a tasting like this at all. Anyway, for the purposes of the tasting a “craft distiller” was someone who used their own still (as opposed to getting their gin made for them by a big distiller like Thames or Greenalls), but was not one of the major players.
The tasting took place at the “Ginstitute” upstairs room at the Portobello Star on Portobello Road in London, with the support of Fever-Tree mixers. Each gin was blind-tasted neat and we were asked to rate its nose, palate and balance, as well as giving it an overall score out of 100. Then we rated them all over again with tonic water. The resulting scores of all nine judges were aggregated to produce an overall winner.

Straight away it became clear that the concept of the craft gin was more useful than you might imagine: perhaps freed from the “regression towards the mean” understandable in a vast commercial enterprise, these gins went in some strange directions. In fact it was only the seventh sample we tried that we agreed seemed to be especially juniper-led.

Ultimately the laurels went to Two Birds, a gin produced in Market Harborough and only launched earlier this year. It is made in a still designed and hand-built by the gin’s creator Mark Gamble, in batches of just 100 bottles at a time. It contains five botanicals, of which only juniper is admitted to. (I notice that on their About page there is a photo showing juniper and elderflower, so I wonder if the latter is in the mix—they do emphasise that their gin is all about celebrating the English countryside—although I don’t think I can taste it.) The style of this one is actually quite classic (suggesting that, for all the experimentation going on with gin profiles these days, the judges essentially liked a gin that tastes of gin); this was the one that prompted me to write “Juniper at last!” in my notes. It also struck me as sappy and spicy with an orange note. On the palate neat it was smooth and approachable but well balanced in a classic way. Tasting it now against Tanqueray as a control, it has a bit more of an emphasis on cardamom and sweet/roundness, where Tanqueray is drier, more upright and with more coriander.

Tasted neat, the joint highest scorers were actually Sacred Coriander (see below) and Dodd’s gin, made in Battersea by the London Distillery Company (and named after Ralph Dodd, the idealist who founded a company of the same name in 1807, but never actually got to make any gin). The bulk of the botanicals (which include juniper, angelica, fresh lime peel, bay laurel, cardamom, red raspberry leaf and London honey) are distilled in a 140-litre copper alembic, but “the more delicate botanicals” are separately processed in a cold vacuum still, in the same way that Sacred gin is. The two distillates are then blended.

I myself actually seem to have ranked Dodd’s 10th in the neat round (I put Two Birds top, with Chase Williams, Sacred Coriander and Dà Mhìle all in joint second place), describing its nose as “wood resin and varnish [from juniper, I assume], with a hint of grapefruit and a smidgeon of curry” and adding that the palate has an “interesting balance between powerful high notes and earthy warmth”. Tasting it again now I would say its balance is heavily towards sweet, floral flavours of angelica and cardamom.

Sacred should come in for a special mention. Ian Hart makes the stuff in a vacuum still in his house, distilling each botanical separately then blending them at the end. This gives him the freedom to make different blends, and he sells packs containing the basic gin plus a selection of single-botanical distillates so you can experiment with tweaking the flavour this way or that. He now also makes gins that are heavily weighted towards one botanical—5% normal Sacred Gin mixed with 95% distillate of just one botanical. He had entered no fewer than seven samples into our tasting: his normal Sacred Gin, plus his Juniper Gin, Coriander Gin, Cardamom Gin, Orris Gin, Pink Grapefruit Gin and Liquorice Gin.

And it was certainly worth his while. Although he didn’t take the overall victor ludorum, in the aggregated scoring his standard Sacred Gin came second, his Coriander Gin (i.e. 95% coriander distillate with just 5% Sacred Gin mixed in) came third and this Cardamom Gin came fourth. As mentioned, tasted neat his Coriander Gin was joint first. And in the scoring for tasted-with-tonic-water, Sacred Gin came first, followed by Sacred Coriander.

In my own notes, with tonic I put Sacred Cardamom top, followed by Sipsmith VJOP (a special juniper-heavy blend made for the Japanese market), then Sacred Gin and Sacred Coriander in joint third place.

Not only does this suggest that Sacred is a Good Thing, but it also shows that we don’t necessarily need a huge number of botanicals to make a satisfying gin,* particularly when it is to be consumed with tonic water. Certainly this tasting reveals that one gin can be excellent on its own but not rated at all with tonic, and vice versa.

For me, a logical conclusion would be to look more closely at Sacred Coriander. It seems to be something of a jack-of-all-trades, coming joint first neat, second with tonic and third overall. And when I aggregate my own scores I find that Sacred Coriander comes first. On his website Ian sells the Pink Grapefruit, Cardamom and Juniper gins, as well as the standard Sacred Gin, but not the Coriander. “We will indeed be selling Coriander Gin shortly on our website,” he explains. “It’s just that the USA has bought nearly all our stock! I have been distilling coriander for the last few days, and we will be bottling 3,000 more bottles shortly.” I suggest that he must be a bit sick of coriander right now, but he replies, “Coriander is fascinating—so many different flavours come out at different points of the distillation!” Clearly a man who loves his work.

By the end of the session, things are a bit more
chaotic and voluble…
Tasting some of these samples now, side by side and knowing what they are, I’m struck by just how powerful the Sacred Coriander and Cardamom gins are—which perhaps gives them the ability to stand out in a mass tasting, particularly diluted with tonic water when tongues are getting tired. As soon as you, for example, blend these two together the overall punch seems to reduce exponentially. Sacred Gin itself contains 12 botanicals and is indeed quite subtle, particularly with tonic. I would describe it as elegant, refined and with an emphasis on rich, smooth, exotic elements. (Its name comes from the fact that one of the botanicals is frankincense; I’m not sure I can exactly pick it out, but you can believe there is a heady resinous note, like hot solder.)

The single-botanical gins are actually a great way to appreciate the flavours of particular spices: the coriander is pungent with a combination of lemony high notes and a liquorice-like sweet rooty layer; the cardamom has an immediate confectionary appeal, a powdery sweetness with elements of lemon, lime and mango, but with a bitterness on the finish. But would either by my desert island gin? No, I don’t think so. All of which actually shines quite a light on the tricky business of gin blending, and on the achievement of Two Birds, and also Dodd’s and Sacred, in producing recipes that pleased all nine judges on the day!

* Mind you, it didn’t always work. The Sacred Liquorice Gin rated as not really smelling or tasting of much at all, and ranked second from bottom in my overall scores; clearly this is one botanical that plays its part in a blend but does not work on its own.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

A thoroughly Scottish gin

The mysterious box opens to reveal…
I was lucky enough to receive a mysterious package in the post the other day, which turned out to be from the folk at Caorunn, a relatively new gin from Scotland. Quite a bit of effort had gone into the package itself, so I have documented what I believe is known as the “unpack” in tech geek circles in photographs on the right.

I was initially a bit perplexed as to what the thing was handles was, but Mrs H guessed that it was for coring and slicing apples in a single stroke. It seems that just as, in a crowded marketplace, new gins frequently have oddball botanicals, so it also seems de rigeur to specify an unusual garnish, and in this case it is indeed slices of apple—coul blush apple being one of the botanicals.*

The other thing you notice straightaway is the unusual five-sided glass included in the package (not the easiest to drink out of but stylish nonetheless). In fact the bottle itself is subtly pentagonal, and the theme carries on in the five-pointed asterisk that graces the label.

A sticker with a five-pointed star, hiding…
Now at this point a weaker man than I would start to fear that this logo, which is to all intents and purposes a pentagram, heralded witchcraft or paganism—perhaps an overture to lure me on a “fact-finding mission” to the Balmenach Distillery in Cromdale on the Spey where it is made, only to find myself burned in a wicker man by villagers wearing animal masks.

Fortunately there is a more prosaic explanation. In addition to six conventional gin botanicals (juniper, coriander, lemon peel, orange peel, angelica root and cassia bark) Caorunn (pronounced ka-ROON) also features five Scottish botanicals as well, rowan berry, heather, dandelion, bog myrtle and the aforementioned apple). In fact caorunn is the Gaellic name for rowan.** In this respect it is like The Botanist gin, which uses only botanicals found on the island of Islay where it is made (which is not to say, I assume, that the actual botanicals used in the gin are all sourced on Islay). That gin manages to rack up a tally of 31 botanicals (which I had thought was a record, though I gather that Monkey 47 actually has 47), making Caorunn seem a model of Zen-like simplicity with only 11. Although Caorunn technically falls into the category of “London Gin” (the highest EU grade, indicating a high quality spirit, natural botanicals with no artificial flavourings, and no colours or flavours added after distillation), the labelling prefers to refer to it simply as “Scottish gin”.

A collection of intriguing objects
Like The Botanist, Caorunn is made by a whisky distillery, in this case the Balmenach Distillery, owned by the Inver House Group, which also includes Pulteney, Balblair, Knockdu and Speyburn-Glenlivet in its portfolio, and apparently a vodka made at its Airdrie facility too. Balmenach was one of the first distilleries to be sanctioned under the Excise Act of 1823.

The gin was allegedly inspired by the landscape of the Cairngorms in which the distillery is located. It is batch-distilled by hand using an unusual still a bit like a Carterhead, in that the botanicals infuse into the alcohol vapour rather than coming into contact with the liquid spirit. But where the Carterhead has a botanical basket at the top of a column, the Balmenach still has a unique copper “berry chamber” in which the botanicals are spread out on four horizontal trays, to maximise their exposure to the vapour. The spirit is triple distilled from 100% grain and the gin is diluted to 41.8% ABV using spring water that filters down through the Cromdale Hills behind the distillery.

The "berry chamber" with trays for the botanicals
Uncork a bottle of Caorunn and you are met by a soft aroma, a blend of inviting spice with an almost chocolatey warmth, and, higher up, a crisp, aromatic stemminess. I open up some Tanqueray for comparative purposes and it has a stiffer juniper/coriander nose. In a glass, Caorunn definitely has a softer juniper element than traditional gin, with subtle herbal notes and a pronounced fruitiness, which I guess must come from the rowan berries. Where Tanquerary packs a prickly high-note punch, Caorunn is softer and sweeter, almost creamy with berry fruit, aromatic apple notes, and a slightly toasty, biscuity finish.

Those mystical objects in detail. Both the bottle label and the etchings of the highball glass
show sort of Rennie Mackintosh stylised images of the five Scottish botanicals in the gin

I knock up a couple of G&Ts, one with Caorunn and one using Chancery, a fairly traditional own-brand gin from Tesco that is made by Greenalls. Where the Chancery emphasises dry spice the Caorunn at first offers a more pronounced orange element plus delicate, fragrant high notes that do seem something like apple. In any case the apple garnish does go very well.

Even the bottle (viewed here from the underside) is pentagonal
In some ways Caorunn is following the trend of producing gins that have a softer, sweeter character than traditional steely juniper-driven gin, presumably to attract people who do not consider themselves gin drinkers—perhaps because they are not that keen on juniper. Where some, like Bloom or G’Vine (and to a certain extent Adnams) add heavy floral flavours, Caorunn is a subtler, more elusive beast. To get the most out of its understated flavour it might be best consumed just with tonic or neat on the rocks, or in a pretty dry Martini (I try one at my usual 4:1 ratio and the gin is almost being masked by the vermouth).

Yes, the apple corer/slicer does actually work
In a standard Negroni (equal parts gin, red vermouth and Campari) the gin again seems swamped. But on the Caorunn website there is a large number of rather interesting-sounding recommended cocktails, one of which is a Negroni—but made with Aperol instead of Campari. So I make one like this and it does indeed work much better, the gentler flavour of the Aperol allowing the gin to make its presence felt in the form of gentle juniper and some floral notes.

I try another one from the site, called King James II and created by Mal Spence of Blythswood Square Hotel. It involves an interesting blend of the gin, Lillet Blanc, Pernod, elderflower liqueur, grapefruit bitters and gomme syrup. An inspired and imaginative combination in my opinion, with the anise and elderflower fencing in the foreground and the gin’s apple aromatics seemingly floating over the top. This is an interesting example of a Lillet Blanc cocktail where this ingredient really works—most are just using Lillet Blanc because Kina Lillet isn’t made any more, and it never seems to work, presumably because Kina Lillet packed more of a bitter herbal punch than the soft, sweet, orangey modern drink.

A King James II cocktail
Hats off to Caorunn for producing such a thoughtful cocktail list—many spirit brands will post just a perfunctory five or six “cocktails” that turn out to be simply the addition of a mixer. And the couple that I have tried so far do indeed seem to showcase the gin’s gentle subtleties, where many classic gin cocktail recipes might swamp it. 

Experimenting with flavour blends not led by juniper seems to be frightfully modish at the moment (as we discovered on Monday at the Craft Distillers Association gin awards organised by DBS, more of which anon). So even if you are not a Scottish nationalist you might want to give Caorunn a try. At about £25 a bottle it’s not unreasonably priced.

* At the Beefeater 24 global cocktail competition last December I got talking to one of the organisers and I commented that I thought it was a bit odd that these recommended garnishes are invariably one of the botanicals that go into the gin. He looked a bit shocked and said, “When we train bartenders we tell them always to garnish using only botanicals that are in the gin.” But while this will always keep you on fairly safe ground, there is an argument for saying that if the gin does indeed taste better with a bit more of that particular botanical, why not just add more when making the gin? Of course there may well be a difference between the flavour of a fresh ingredient and the flavour it might lend by being macerated in the spirit and then redistilled. But in any case I would have thought that garnishing could be as much an opportunity to investigate flavour combinations (by adding things that are not in the botanical list) as a way of emphasising a flavour that is already in the gin.

** Apparently rowan berries were used in Celtic medicines—as indeed juniper was also considered to have medicinal benefits, and was first used in spirits as a way of preserving those healing powers rather than as a way to flavour the hooch.