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

* 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”.

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