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.

Thursday 13 June 2013

Think pink but bring an umbrella…

A Pink Puppy cocktail
“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” Robert Browning opined, “Or what’s a heaven for?” Of course in this country it’s the heavens themselves that can put the kibosh on the most deserving of dreams.

I was invited along to check out a new al fresco pop-up bar on the roof of the Gaucho restaurant in London’s Canary Wharf. It is sponsored by Veuve Clicquot and is raising money for breast cancer research—not only is Veuve’s rosé Champagne very much in evidence, but everything else is pink too. There is a signature cocktail called the Pink Puppy that is impressively close in shade to the pink furniture and pink drinks menu. They have deckchairs and daybeds, and they’ve even brought in some pink S-shaped love seats—I don’t know if it is intentional but, viewed from the side, these look like giant brassieres.

The bar was only intended to be in existence for three weeks, but during this time they had a schedule of live music—including a resident pink piano—and were planning a boules tournament on the grass, culminating in finals at the end of the run, with a prize of a jaunt on the Gaucho Sunseeker yacht.

I had originally planned to swing by last Friday, but at the last minute the PR announced that it was closed that day (on a Friday night?). So I finally popped by on Tuesday. Fortunately the pinkness of the furnishing made it easy to tell I was in the right place, because I wouldn’t otherwise have known that there was supposed to be a bar there at all. It was a rather inclement evening: it has been drizzling on and off and with the wide view across the river we could see that more grey clouds were heading our way. There were no customers and the furniture was all being packed away as we arrived at 6pm. The press release had promised cocktail waitresses in pink uniforms by Thomas Pink, but there were only burly chaps stacking the seats and windbreaks in one corner.

Everything is carefully colour-coordinated
The pop-up had opened on 28th May and the manager assured me that the previous week, which had at last seen some summer weather, had been packed, but now the elements had turned on us.

Not only that, but the Canary Wharf authorities had forbidden them from playing boules on the grass (apparently for health and safety reasons—go figure) and when local residents got wind of the plans they organised a petition against the bar on noise grounds, with the result that the music (which was only ever going to be acoustic) was banned too. They are also obliged to use only plastic glassware, presumably in case the combination of sun and Champagne drives all the bankers into vicious bottle-fights (having run out of boules with which to pelt each other).

Still, the furniture was fun (although the rigid plastic love seats would have benefited from drainage holes, as they had turned into bird baths in the rain) and the bar staff were instructed to stop packing it away for a minute and craft us some Pink Puppies. Although served in a Champagne flute, there is actually no Champagne in this one. It has a Belvedere vodka base plus a clever combination of citrus—lemon, lime and grapefruit juices—some egg white for texture, chocolate bitters and just enough grenadine to give it the colour. It’s an enticing drink, with a subtle harmony of flavours, and dangerously quaffable.

If you find yourself in the Canary Wharf area between now and 18th June (when the bar’s run comes to an end) and it is actually a sunny evening, get yourself down to Westferry Circus, bask in the glow with a Pink Puppy in hand (oo-er) and watch the majestic sunset. But knowing the British summer, you may end up having to make your own Pink Puppy indoors as the storm batters the windows.

What the bar looks like when it is sunny

Friday 7 June 2013

Introducing the Sloppy Giuseppe cocktail

In our ceaseless quest for interesting corners of the Prohibition world around which to theme Candlelight Club parties, we have twice taken advantage of Cuba’s romantic and exotic place in booze history. When alcohol was banned in the States, it didn’t take long for Americans to notice that Cuba was jolly close indeed and was untouched by the Volstead Act. Before long Havana became one big party, filled with neon-signed jazz clubs and cocktail bars. Bacardi teamed up with Pan Am to lay on boat plane flights from Key West right into Havana Harbour so no drinking time could be lost, inviting holidayers to come and "bathe in Bacardi rum". "I have seen people leaving incoming ships," commented US Consul Hurst, "who have stopped at bars on their way to the hotel… By the time they reached the hotel they could scarcely ask the reception clerk for a room."

Rum was the national drink, thanks to a climate ideal for growing sugar cane, and some of the best-loved rum cocktails came out of this era. The Mojito (rum, fresh mint, lime juice, sugar and usually a splash of soda) derived from an ancient drink originally made on the island from a pre-rum sugar alcohol. The Daiquiri (rum, lime juice, sugar) is said to have been developed by American mining engineers in 1898 fed up with drinking Planter’s Punch, who named it after the village where they were stationed. The Cuba Libre (rum, lime juice, cola) is named after the battle cry of the rebels fighting to escape Spanish rule—although this conflict ended in 1898 and Coca Cola did not reach the island till 1900.

The reopened Sloppy Joe's today
There was also a drink named El Presidente which was apparently very popular both in Cuba and back in the US (illicitly during Prohibition and legally afterwards). Named after President Mario Garcia Menocal, it consists of equal parts Bacardi rum and French (i.e. dry white) vermouth, plus a bar spoon of grenadine. Perhaps it was inevitable that someone would try to create a “Cuban Martini”, a sophisticated drink for classy clientele. So I was keen to try it out as a possible drink for the menu at our event. The only problem was that it isn’t very nice: I made myself one as an experiment and it was thin and astringent. Adding more grenadine didn’t help either, just created a clash of flavours.

Fans of Cuban cocktail history will no doubt have been pleased to hear that Sloppy Joe’s, one of the most popular Havana bars from the era, reopened in March after some 57 years. (I’d like to take this opportunity to plug a 1933 Warner Bros movie called Havana Widows, starring Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell, which I discovered in my researches; it’s full of outrageous wise-cracking dialogue and features a drunk lawyer who can usually be found in a bar called Sloppy Moe’s, which goes to show how famous Sloppy Joe’s was in its day.) In a news item on the subject, Imbibe included a recipe for a Sloppy Joe’s Cocktail,* which combined rum and French vermouth with dashes of grenadine and curaçao, plus lime juice. Most Cuban cocktails seem to come back to lime juice, and there’s no denying that the union of rum, lime and sugar in a Daiquiri is a perfect thing. I made myself a Sloppy Joe’s Cocktail and it does hold together—you can taste all the elements, the underlying rum, the fruitiness from the grenadine and curacao, and their sweetness balancing the sour element of the lime, plus a gentle bitterness rising up from the vermouth. But Mrs H was unmoved by it, and I can’t see myself making one very often. It’s one of those recipes where you feel the grenadine and curacao have been stapled on in an attempt to fix an underlying problem.

A Sloppy Joe cocktail
However, when I first attempted to make one of these cocktails I looked in the fridge and realized that I didn’t actually have any dry white vermouth (Noilly Prat is my normal choice). What I did have was a bottle of China Martini, a strongly flavoured vermouth with, as its name suggests, a strong dose of quinine. Derived from the bark of the South American quina tree (China Calissaia), quinine was used by locals to combat fever and it came to international recognition when it saved the life of the wife of the Spanish Viceroy in Peru in 1638. It became a staple part of life in the Raj where, made into “tonic water”, it was soon found to go well with gin. As with many alcoholic infusions and distillations, what started out as a way of preserving something with medicinal qualities was soon being consumed for purely aesthetic reasons. Likewise the pleasing bitterness of quinine is a key part in the flavour of quinated wines like China Martini,** and there is a long Italian tradition of making such infusions. Likewise, the word “vermouth” derives from the German Wermut, which is wormwood—for this bitter herb, famously a defining ingredient in absinthe, is also to be found in vermouth.

Back in the day there was a French vermouth-style drink called Kina Lillet, which appeared in famous cocktails from the Corpse Reviver No.2 to Ian Fleming’s Vesper Martini, which James Bond creates in 1953’s Casino Royale. This drink was discontinued in 1986, and the manufacturers today produce Lillet Blanc, a sweet, orange-flavoured wine-based blend, which is rather pleasant but with a delicate flavour that is easily swamped in a cocktail, in my opinion. I’ve never been able to taste Kina Lillet but it is generally considered to have been more bitter,*** more along the lines of Italian products like China Martini and Cocchi Americano. (For some reason I had got the idea that some of these were developed recently to fill the gap left by Kina Lillet, but in fact Cocchi Americano has been in production since 1891. It’s hard to find out much about China Martini, and Martini’s own website doesn’t mention it, but it also clearly has a heritage, as this bizarre TV advert, from 1958, attests.)

A Sloppy Giuseppe cocktail
So I tried knocking up a cocktail using China Martini, rum and lime juice. China Martini is pretty sweet so I left out the grenadine and curacao. And it is something of a revelation. Essentially it is a Daiquiri that uses the vermouth for sweetness rather than sugar, with the added herbal notes and piquant bitterness too. Unlike the Sloppy Joe it is pleasingly simple, with just the three ingredients, and is resilient when it comes to proportions: it works with one shot of each, though I think it’s best with the rum increased to 1½ or 2 shots, depending on how strong you want the sweet and sour elements. Perhaps the only downside is that China Martini is not an attractive colour and the resulting cocktail is a sludge brown.

Sloppy Giuseppe
1½–2 shots rum
1 shot China Martini
1 shot lime juice

Shake ingredients together with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. If you prefer it sweeter, you could reduce the amount of lime juice, or perhaps add a dash of grenadine.

It also works with Cocchi Americano, though not as well: Cocchi Americano always seems to me to have quite a ginger flavour to it which sits comfortably with things like whisky, but I’m not so convinced here. I can also confirm that the recipe works well with Americano Gancia (less so with Martini Rosato, which is not sweet enough) and it would presumably work with a number of the many bitter-sweet vermouths out there.

By chance I stumbled across an article that David Wondrich wrote about the El Presidente. Like me he was never won over by it and couldn’t see why it had been so popular—until he noticed that a number of the early Cuban recipes specified “Vermouth de Chambery”. He writes that Dolin is the only remaining Chambery style vermouth and that, in addition to dry white and sweet red, they also make a semi-dry blanc (as indeed producers such as Martini and Cinzano make a pale but sweeter bianco). As soon as he tried the cocktail using that, the whole thing came together.

Which is similar to my own experiences with the Sloppy Joe—or Sloppy Giuseppe, as I have christened my new version (with apologies to Pizza Express who have a meaty pizza bearing the same name).

China Martini is available from the Whiskey Exchange priced at £23.25. Which is a lot for a vermouth, I know.

* I have the 2008 reprint of the Sloppy Joe's Cocktails Manual from 1931, and the only cocktail in it named Sloppy Joe's actually contains cognac. pineapple juice, port, grenadine and curaçao. The recipe described in Imbibe appears as an American President cocktail, while the El Presidente recipe, with the addition of curaçao, is actually called a Cuban President.

** See also Cocchi's wonderful Barolo Chinato which I mentioned before as a good accompaniment to chocolate.

*** I’m sure I’ve read a claim from the manufacturers that Lillet Blanc is little different from Kina Lillet, insisting, oddly, that the latter actually had less quinine in it, though don’t bother looking at their website today as it has been a just a holding page for some time. I’ve seen two quotes from Lillet at the time saying that the new version is “fresher, fruitier and less bitter”, but the only link I’ve found in relation takes you to Lillet’s French site which seems to be dead.