Wednesday 31 December 2014

Maplay - Distilled Maple Syrup Spirit

This is my first and last post of the year. 2014 seems to have slipped away at the IAE south coast branch; not quite as bad as "The Lost Weekend", though. Now, if I was going to write about anything, it would be Maplay.

This is from the US and is made by fermenting and distilling maple syrup, which is then aged. An interesting point for readers is that this is genuine moonshine, i.e. it is illicitly distilled (at least in its country of origin). As such, it has no official bottle, but a picture of spirit can be found below.

On its own (room temperature)
Nose: Bright, with some dry, woody notes to start, before moving onto rich and intense maple and nut flavours, as well as hints of vanilla, butterscotch, and cream brule.

Taste: There's a pleasant texture to the spirit, with the alcohol upfront and then a gently unfolding patchwork of sweet confectionery and spice notes, very similar to the nose with the addition of stone fruit and a touch of chocolate and plum jam. The finish is long and lingering, with lots of dry, nutty maple and pecan notes.

Beautifully viscous, with an intriguing dry - almost grainy - woody start. This is followed by the flavour of very dark chocolate (think 95%), then sweeter notes of roasted cashews and pecans, as well as a subtle maple element that is rather delicious. There is also a slight herbal, fruity note throughout, somewhat reminiscent of vermouth.

This is an intriguing drink, which has elements of both a dry and a sweet Manhattan backed up by the complexity of the spirit, which is easily equal to most whiskey versions. Rich spice, vanilla, and cassia are accompanied by hints of cinder toffee, toasted nuts, and that dry, maple element. If you like Manhattans, this is one to try.

A soft and smooth drink with the characteristic bitterness of the drink at the end. The Maplay gives some of the dryness and spice that you would expect from a gin, but also adds a complex sweetness and complements the sweet vermouth very nicely.

Old Fashioned
Simply superb. This is easily my favourite way to enjoy the spirit. I've been a fan of substituting sugar for maple syrup in whisky Old Fashioneds for a while, but this just takes it one step further. Simple, yet luxurious; the bitters, water, and sugar seem to tease out a whole array of flavours from the Maplay - all of the notes previously referred to come through in a chorus.

In Conclusion
As you can guess, I really like the Maplay and it is a shame that, for the moment, it remains unavailable. It is a fascinating spirit with a legion of potential fans out there ready to discover it. My favourite drink was the Old Fashioned.

Monday 29 December 2014

Marks & Spencer cocktails-in-a-can

In October I reviewed the KÖLD line of premixed cocktails, the latest in the cavalcade of attempts to offer instant mixology for people who lack the equipment, ingredients or inclination to make their own cocktails at home.

The trick with such things is how to preserve the more perishable ingredients in the mix—the impressive Handmade Cocktail Company range from Master of Malt simply focuses on old fashioned cocktails (including the Old Fashioned) that lack fruit juices and are high enough in alcohol to be self-preserving. KÖLD sold their mixes in foil pouches, which made me suspect they had been heat-treated after sealing.

Queuing in the small Marks & Spencer branch on Charing Cross station the other day I was confronted by some tins containing the chain’s own attempt at premixes. I scooped up a couple for sampling, a Mojito and a Cosmopolitan.

For those who don’t know, M&S occupies a space in most British people’s hearts as a reliable place to buy underpants, work shirts and the like, but they also do food, pitched as fairly high end, and even have some branches selling nothing but food. The travel outlet at Charing Cross has quite a high bias towards booze, clearly catering for commuters who can’t get through the train ride back to suburbia without a single-serving mini-bottle of Pinot Grigio to dull the pain.*

The Mojito hits you with a mint flavour that has a mouthwash artificiality. It’s not too bad, with detectable lime notes, but a tad thin with a slightly bitter finish. A little like bitter lemon, in fact. But that chemical mint is what dominates. It also seems to coat your teeth. The KÖLD Mojito likewise struggled with the artificiality of its mint flavour: clearly it is not possible to get a fresh mint taste in a premix, but the nation must be crying out for tinned Mojitos as this particular cocktail keeps cropping up.

The Cosmo has a terrifying colour, followed by a bubblegum fruity smell that fills the room. But it’s not actually that bad, with a reasonable balance between sweet and sour and the triple sec (or rather “orange distillate”, as it says on the ingredients list) detectable. I’m not sure I’m really getting cranberry juice, though the label claims it is in there (from concentrate).

As usual with premixes, both these cocktails are unnaturally low in alcohol for what they claim to be (8% in each case, the same as the KÖLD range), but this is apparently because the target market would otherwise be drinking alcopops of the same ABV. I didn’t try spiking them with extra spirit this time, though I’m sure it would have been an improvement. The Mojito did go down the sink, but I did actually end up finishing the Cosmo, which must tell you something.

* I can’t see this range on the M&S website, although I have now discovered that they also sell a different range of classier premixes in 50cl bottles. I seem to recall that there was also a Bloody Mary and a Harvey Wallbanger in the range, along with a G&T about which I have read bad things.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Tequila cocktails with Ocho

Tequila is a bit of an enigma, but its star is certainly on the rise at the moment. It doesn’t seem to have been drunk much outside of Mexico until Americans discovered it in the 1920s during their runs across the border to avoid Prohibition. Then it surged again in the 1940s when US alcohol production was earmarked for industrial purposes for the war effort. According to Dale Degroff, it has only really been available in the UK for 40 years but he believes that the Margarita could well now be the most popular cocktail here—I have certainly heard that it has that status in the US.

When talking to tequila brand ambassadors you still hear that their biggest hurdle is getting punters to think of the spirit as something to savour rather than something to knock back. But I’m sure that is changing now, perhaps due in large part to the efforts of Patron to create the concept of the high-end tequila. Last year I sat in on a session with Matthias Lataille from Olmeca’s high-end, 100% blue agave brand Olmeca Altos, and it was clearly a welcome revelation to many there how much could be had from this spirit if one simply sipped it from a nosing glass rather than chugging it from a shot glass.

Then in the summer I was intrigued by the Pierde Almas range of single varietal mezcals, celebrating not just the effect of different agave species and different terroir, but also the batch-to-batch variations of artisanal products like this.

Tomas Estes
Most recently I chatted with Tomas Estes, the man behind Café Pacifico and La Perla restaurants here in London. The Mexican National Chamber of Tequila has crowned him Ambassador of Tequila to the European Union, and not only has he also now opened El Nivel, a dedicated agave spirits bar above La Perla, but he also has his own tequila brand, Ocho, which takes the celebration of variety one step further—not only do his bottles all state the precise field from which the family-grown agaves were harvested, but they declare the vintage as well.

The tequila is made for Estes by Carlos Camarena. The name Ocho, meaning “eight”, has a highly involved explanation: (i) the finished product is from the eighth test batch; (ii) it takes an average of eight years for the agaves used to ripen; (iii) it takes about eight kilos of agave to make one litre of Ocho; (iv) it takes eight days from when the agaves reach the distillery to when the blanco tequila is finished; (v) Camarena has eight brothers and sisters; (vi) the Camarenas are in their eight decade of tequila making. I was rather disappointed that the person behind all this only managed to find six reasons for the name Ocho, although in fact I later learn that the reposado version is rested in wood for eight weeks and eight days. Damn, just one more reason and we’d have eight…

Margarita with Ocho
My sample has a label across the cap identifying it as the 2014 vintage from Rancho La Magueyera, which you can find on a map on the Ocho website. I line it up against three other blanco tequilas I have to hand, Patron, Olmeca Altos and Tierra Noble. The Patron is fresh, fruity and soft, ultimately the least strongly flavoured of the lot.* The Olmeca Altos has a more pronounced agave flavour, a “blue”, petrolly note; the palate is drier and more flavourful than Patron, with a hint of blue cheese, but it is softer and smoother than the Tierra Noble, with an almost waxy character. Tierra Noble is more pungent, with a noticeably smoky element to the nose. (The agaves are cooked slowly prior to crushing, to release the sugars; more artisanal tequilas use agaves cooked in traditional brick or stone ovens and the degree to which they are exposed to smoke can be controlled.)

Paloma with Ocho
Coming after all that, Ocho is striking. Not only is it the most strongly agave-flavoured of the lot, perfumed and pungent, but it is dry and sharp on the tongue. In fact I could almost have believed that what I was drinking had lime juice mixed in already. This is no accident, as the literature does emphasise that Ocho is all about extracting and presenting as much actual agave flavour as possible. Nosing the aroma carefully, you’re struck first by dry herbal notes, then darker elements like coffee and chocolate, honey and cooked apple, and something a bit like wet plaster. It is initially sharp on the tongue, giving way to flavours of pears and a fading sweetness. (At El Nivel I had the opportunity to taste the 2013 batch, from Rancho Los Fresnos: it had a similar nose but a noticeably softer palate.)

The literature does stress that the best way to enjoy Ocho is sipped from a brandy balloon or similar glass, noting how its character changes in the glass with exposure to air. (I find that the attack softens and a floral note like violets starts to appear.) But they also list some cocktails, a mixture of old and new.

El Diablo with Ocho
As it happens we are theming our Candlelight Club party this weekend around Prohibition-era Mexico and the burgeoning party culture to cater for American visitors looking to drink and gamble with impunity, so I try out some of the cocktails we are looking at.

Margarita Well, it would be rude not to. It’s a classic combination of tequila, triple sec and lime juice, with an optional ring of salt on the rim of the glass. The exact proportions vary, with Dale Degroff giving 1½ parts tequila to 1 part Cointreau and ¾ part lime juice, while Simon Difford matches 2 parts tequila to just ½ a part each of lime and triple sec. I tend to use 2:1:1, though it depends on how dry you like it. Certainly a dry, strongly flavoured tequila like Ocho easily makes its presence felt in these proportions, poking through as mineral and earthy against the fruity citrus.

Paloma This is apparently how tequila is mostly drunk in Mexico, with lime and grapefruit soda, such as Squirt or Fresca. The closest you can find in the UK is Ting, and the Ocho site’s recipe adds 20ml fresh grapefruit juice to 50ml tequila and the juice of a lime, topped up with grapefruit soda. I can see the appeal, though I don’t think that Ting is ever likely to be my favourite mixer (and it doesn’t taste a great deal like grapefruit to me). The extra fresh grapefruit juice makes all the difference, though you may want to add some agave syrup as it is all quite tart (I tried Martini Fiero—see below—with delightful results).

El Diablo A 1940s recipe from California, this is built in a highball on the rocks using 50ml tequila, 20ml crème de cassis and 25ml lime juice, stirred together and topped with ginger beer. (In the past it would have been ginger ale but ginger beer is more flavoursome.) It’s not subtle but it is not simplistic either: you can taste all the ingredients, and I do think that tequila and ginger go well together, with the blackcurrant flavour slotting neatly in there as well. Bold and moreish.

Mexican 88 with Ocho

Mexican 88 Basically a French 75 using tequila instead of gin. This recipe is from Ocho’s website and specifies 30ml tequila, 20ml lemon juice, 10ml agave syrup, all topped up with Champagne. I guess it depends on the size of your glass, but I found this too heavy on the lemon and syrup. Another 10ml tequila helped, along with a bit more fizz, and then it balances nicely, with the earthiness of the tequila sitting quite effectively underneath the fizzy tartness of the Champagne/sparkling wine.

Screaming Viking made with Ocho, Cederlunds Torr
and Martini Fiero
Screaming Viking This one was created by Brian Silva, in response to an episode of Cheers in which the plot revolves around a cocktail of this name, which turns out to be imaginary. Various people have produced their own real-world versions, and Brian’s playfully uses Swedish Punsch to explain the “Viking” element of the name. Swedish Punsch dates back to the days of the Swedish East India Company, and is a liqueur made from arrack, a smoky rum-like Javanese spirit distilled from sugar cane and rice. The recipe mixes 35ml tequila with 25ml Punsch and the juice of half a lime, shaken, poured over ice and “coloured” with Martini Fiero, a very orangey vermouth made from blood oranges. (I used Cederlunds Torr Caloric Punch; the recipe also specifies a dash of agave syrup, but I didn’t find that necessary.) Made with Ocho, the tequila is to the fore, but with a solid sweet–sour balance from the liqueur and the lime. But it’s not a bouncy, fruity number. The presence of the vermouth and the arrack give this drink dry and bitter subtleties that seem to be a Silva trademark. It’s a grown-up drink, and very much to my own taste.

An Ocho Old Fashioned with Angostura Bitters and
agave syrup
And finally the Tequila Old Fashioned. It seems to be inevitable that any spirit that wants to be taken seriously presents itself in this simple, and therefore exposed, format. Traditionally made just with bourbon or rye whiskey, sugar, bitters and a little water, served on the rocks with a lemon peel garnish, this can also be an agreeable vehicle for rums, such as the sublime Botran Solera 1893, and complex gins (especially aged ones such as Big Gin Bourbon Barreled). Even with the blanco, Ocho owns this cocktail, its pungency marrying with sharp-sweet aromatic Angostura bitters and the lemon peel like an extension of the tequila’s character. I use agave syrup instead of sugar and such is the dryness of the spirit that this drink can take quite a bit without seeming too sweet. All in all, a good way to contemplate the personality of this, or indeed any other, tequila.

* Which I suspect is a deliberate strategy, given the way it is marketed as a super-premium product in the same way that certain vodkas are. Here the emphasis is all on brand associations, and you don’t want to throw a spanner in the works by producing something with too strong a flavour!

Monday 10 November 2014

Big Gin makes a big impression

While helping to judge the recent Craft Distilling Expo Gin of the Year, it was my great pleasure to meet Ben Capdevielle and Holly Robinson of Captive Spirits Distilling, part of the wave of “craft”, “boutique” or “artisan” distilling that is sweeping the US at the moment. Based in Ballard, near Seattle, they make Big Gin, both in its standard form and in a version that has been aged in ex-bourbon barrels.

Theirs is not a happy-go-lucky tale of casting around for something to do and hitting on the idea of making a gin on a whim.* Ben is actually a third-generation distiller—his grandfather was a distiller for Templeton Rye** during Prohibition—and the pair spent four years visiting distilleries and experimenting with botanicals and distillation variables before finally launching their product in 2012. “We are using the traditional method of making gin,” Holly explains, “and creating a small scale, boutique brand just using two 100-gallon pot stills. We are exclusively a gin company, instead of making a variety of spirits like most of the budding brands. We have a few other gin-centric products that will trickle out in the next few years…”

Holly and Ben (second and third from the left) at the Craft Distilling Expo Gin
of the Year judging
As the name suggests the idea was to make a bold, unashamedly gin-flavoured gin. “We took this away from all the big players in the gin game,” Holly says. “Consumers are used to drinking Beefeater, Bombay, etc—we wanted something that ginners could identify with, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.” The botanicals are indeed mostly conventional—juniper, coriander, bitter orange peel, angelica, cassia, cardamom, orris—plus grains of paradise (not unusual either, being present in Bombay Sapphire) and Tasmanian pepper berries. The spirit base is made from corn. “This was the most neutral base we found to impart the botanicals,” Holly says.

Uncork a bottle of Big Gin and it is certainly big, with a strong waft of juniper. But it is more complex than that, with orange peel, dried fruit and a pronounced floral note like crystallised violets, perhaps from the angelica. There is also a herbal stemmy quality and a hint of ginger. It is big, bright and rich.

A Last Word made with Big Gin
On the palate it is powerful but remarkably smooth and sweetish, given that it is a hefty 47% ABV. Perhaps the corn-spirit base lends this sweetness. The flavour follows on from the nose, with that floral note to the fore and a slight peppery-bitter finish. It easily works in a Martini or gin and tonic, basically making its own rules. It is well-suited to a Negroni, clearly making its presence felt, whereas more delicate gins can sometimes get lost in the present of the Campari and vermouth.

Another muscular cocktail to test a gin is the Last Word, traditionally equal parts gin, Green Chartreuse, lime juice and maraschino: it has a balance between the sweetness of the liqueurs and the tartness of the lime, but these elements and the herbal blast from the Charteuse can drown the gin. I have to say that even Big Gin struggled here. But I noticed that on Simon Difford’s website he is now advocating a 3:1:1:1 ratio (the 3 being the gin). With Tarquin’s Cornish Gin I find that it does really need these proportions before you can really taste the gin in the mix, but Big Gin reaches that point at only 2:1:1:1.***

An Aviation made with Big Gin
I felt that Big Gin was less successful, however, in an Aviation, being perhaps too powerful for the subtle flavours of the maraschino and crème de violette (of which there is only about a teaspoon, otherwise the colour of the cocktail veers from the pale lilac-blue meant to represent the sky, from which the drink gets its name: try something like 50ml gin, 12.5ml lemon juice, 12.5ml maraschino, 5ml crème de violette).

You can get a sense of the big, savoury qualities of Big Gin from the recommended cocktails on the Captive Spirits website. The Out-of-Towner involves making a fennel syrup (plus gin, lemon juice and triple sec), and two of the recipes use elderflower liqueur (such as St Germain). The Morning Paper tops gin and elderflower with sparkling wine and a splash of grapefruit juice, and there is definitely a continuum between the gin botanicals and the sweetly pungent qualities of elderflower.

Although Captive are determinedly not planning to make a whiskey, they are interested in pushing their gin in different directions, such as the bourbon barrel aged example now on the market. “All the worlds best spirits are aged in bourbon barrels,” Holly explains. “With Big Gin being so flavorful, we thought it could stand up well and one could still actually taste the gin. Thankfully, we were correct.”

A Martinez made with Bourbon Barreled Big Gin
Ageing gin is all the rage it seems, but at a tasting of several of them earlier this year I did feel that none of the examples seemed particularly successful, with the wood notes somehow quarrelling with the essential gin flavour. But there is certainly a tradition: Seagrams have always rested their gin in charred new oak barrels to smooth off the rough edges of the spirit.

The barrel-aged version of Big Gin came as a revelation to me, however. Perhaps there is something about the prominent orange notes in the gin which marries well with the wood flavours, or maybe there is something about these particular barrels (which presumably have had bourbon in them for a long time, damping down the sawmill quality of fresh wood). On the nose the sharp juniper of the base gin is softened but still present, while a warmth and sherried sweetness are added, plus an enhancement of the dried fruit flavours I noticed before and a pleasant woody, almost mossy, mustiness. On the palate there is excellent integration of the aromatic gin elements and the tannic, vanilla wood flavours, plus clear notes of bourbon, emphasising the orange peel.

On a whim I try to make a sort of sweet Martini using Regal Rogue Bianco and the result shows remarkable balance and harmony from two strongly-flavoured ingredients, a little like a Martinez with orange and herbal notes all blending well. I try making a Martinez, using 2 shots gin, ½ a shot each of dry and sweet vermouth and a dash of maraschino, the result is sublime. Likewise in a Negroni it works as well as the normal Big Gin but with an extra dimension that fits naturally, as in a Manhattan or Boulvardier**** (which it virtually is). It really is a revelation.

A Spring Fling made with Bourbon Barreled Big Gin
There is a recommended cocktail, the Spring Fling, that once again uses elderflower liqueur, this time with the barrel-aged gin plus dry vermouth and some celery bitters. It’s an extraordinary tour de force, with the elderflower merging with the big herbal flavours of the gin, followed by a sweetness emerging and woody notes, then a fiery warmth. You also get a sense of sun-kissed Mediterranean aromatic herbs, like thyme or oregano. The prescribed garnish is grapefruit zest, but I only had lemon to hand and its aroma floats over the other flavours, balancing without muddying.

If you like gin then you should try Big Gin. It’s nice to come across a product that is not trying to make a “gin” for people who really want vodka, nor is it trying push the flavour in outré directions for reasons of gimmickry alone. But at the same time Big Gin is distinct. And it is big.

In the UK you can buy Big Gin through Master of Malt for £39.96 and the bourbon barrel aged version for £44.85.

* Talking to Holly you realise that the process of starting up a distillery is more of a bureaucratic slog than most of us realise, especially in the US. “There is a lot of red tape, but mostly several different levels of permitting, each of which cannot commence without the previous—it's a domino game. First Federal, than State, then City, then Fire, etc… Every state/city has different ideas of what/how things should be done. That’s the confusing part. Once that is all waded through, it’s a slow start to getting product out the door.” To help with all of this the couple got a third partner, old friend Todd Leabman, to help with the paperwork and accounting.

** The good folk of Templeton, Iowa, apparently carried on distilling whiskey throughout Prohibition and Al Capone is said to have like it so much he would send a driver all the way there from New York to stock up. 

*** It an interesting experiment, because if you start with the punchy sweet-and-sour traditional recipe and just add more gin, it’s easy to think, “Oh, no, this is getting too dry.” But if you come back to it later and try it you do realise it as a good, subtler cocktail. All the lime and Charteuse are very much there, but now you can taste the details of the gin too. Hurrah.

**** 1½ shots bourbon or rye whiskey, 1 shot Campari, 1 shot sweet vermouth, so a sort of mash-up between a Negroni and a Manhattan. It was invented by New Yorker Harry McElhone after he emigrated to Paris, fleeing Prohibition, and set up Harry’s New York Bar. He created it for ex-pat Erskine Gwynne in honour of his Parisian magazine The Boulvardier.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Halloween cocktails

Bobbing for Apples
Last time I featured some Halloween cocktails they were for a menu I devised for the Candlelight Club Halloween Ball and I played to the gallery more than usual with some visual effects, such as the black and red bands in the Black Widow.

This time our Halloween cocktail list has been put together by Brian Silva, formerly of the Connaught and Rules. Brian’s taste in cocktails is classic: he doesn’t go in for zany effects, nor does he seem keen on making his own exotic infusions, tinctures or flavoured syrups, but sticks to the barman’s essential job of combining commercially available ingredients to exquisite and elegant alchemical effect.

His Bobbing for Apples cocktail is, at heart, a French 75 with added apple juice. It doesn’t sound like a lot of apple juice but it really is enough to make itself felt without turning the drink into a long, fruity number.

Bobbing for Apples
25ml gin
25ml apple juice
15ml lemon juice
5ml gomme syrup
Sparkling wine
Apricot eau de vie mist

Shake the first four ingredients with ice and strain into a coupette. Top with sparkling wine and spray a dusting of apricot eau de vie on the top. If you lack either the eau de vie or a mister, I have experimented with adding 5ml of apricot brandy, which has a nice effect. In any case you may have to adjust the amount of syrup depending on how sweet your apple juice is.

Bermuda Triangle
The Bermuda Triangle is a name with several different recipes attached to it. One version includes peach schnapps, another uses a mix of orange juice and cranberry juice, but Brian’s version is simpler, essentially just rum, orange juice and lime juice. As a Halloween concession he suggested adding a dash of grenadine at the end—it will sink to the bottom, creating a blood-red layer than bleeds upwards. (The other rum drink in the running was, of course, the Zombie, essentially rum, pineapple juice and apricot brandy, although recipes can be very complicated with perhaps three different rums involved.)

Bermuda Triangle
50ml golden rum
3 lime wedges
Orange juice
Dash of grenadine

First squeeze three lime wedges into a glass (“not two, not four, but three” Brian’s recipe admonishes). Add the rum, then ice, then top with orange juice and stir, adding the grenadine at the end. The recipe doesn’t specify what happens to the lime wedges once squeezed but I dropped them into the glass. They end up looking a bit like antediluvian sea beasts rising from the murky depths…

Autumn Sour
The autumn sour is an interesting cocktail in that it doesn’t really have a spirit base, simply combining two liqueurs with lemon juice to balance the sweetness and egg white for texture—so it is not that strong as cocktails go. Which is just as well, as it is quite moreish.

Autumn Sour
35ml amaretto
15ml apricot brandy
25ml lemon juice
White of an egg

Shake all ingredients vigorously with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. The egg white gives a silky texture and a pleasing foam at the top. The amaretto and apricot are a natural partnership (the almond-flavoured amaretto is in fact sometimes made from apricot stones) and the lemon juice balances the sweetness.

And what Halloween classic cocktail menu would be complete without the Corpse Reviver No.2,* originally equal parts gin, triple sec, lemon juice and Kina Lillet, with a dash or rinse of absinthe? Kina Lillet, with a bitterness from quinine, is no longer made and most people use Lillet Blanc instead, but I always find that this produces too sweet and orangey a cocktail; in the past I have tried cutting the triple sec and boosting the gin. Last time I had decided that the traditional proportions worked OK if you used Noilly Prat dry vermouth instead, but my current thinking is to use Cocchi Americano instead, which is an Italian aromatised wine with a distinctive bitterness and probably a lot like Kina Lillet was. I was interested to learn that Brian uses Cocchi as well.

Corpse Reviver No.2
Corpse Reviver No.2
25ml gin
25ml triple sec
25m lemon juice
25ml Cocchi Americano
Dash of absinthe

Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a strip of lemon peel or a maraschino cherry.

* Despite the gruesomeness of the name, it is actually intended to denote a pick-me-up: this cocktail is designed as something you might drink the morning after the night before (remember, drink responsibly, folks!). In case you’re wondering what the Corpse Reviver No.1 is, The 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book gives the recipe as ¼ part Italian (sweet red) vermouth, ¼ part calvados and ½ part brandy, commenting that it is “to be taken before 11am or whenever steam and energy are needed”. Yes, they were pretty hardcore in those days. Since it is apparently National Calvados Week at the moment, perhaps we should all give this a try. Meanwhile there is another Corpse Reviver recipe that combines 1½ parts brandy with 1 part crème de menthe and ½ part Fernet Branca, which minty blast would certainly be an eye-opener. If you want something a little gentler, the Café Royal Cocktail Book (1937) combines equal parts brandy, orange juice and lemon juice with a couple of dashes of grenadine, all topped up with Champagne. Which sounds rather nice…

Thursday 23 October 2014

Hoist the gin pennant for Cornwall's finest

Walking along the cliff path on St Anthony Head in Cornwall, with views out over the mouth of the Fal, the ancient fortifications of Pendennis and St Mawes Castles, the boats slicing in and out of Carrick Roads, I got to wondering what a self-consciously Cornish gin might taste of—what local botanicals could you use that would evoke the flavour of the place? Seaweed or something briny? Or the blackberry bushes that line all the paths, from which I idly picked as I walked along?

So I was interested to notice, while sitting in a fairly minimalist restaurant in St Mawes, that one of the few spirits on offer was Tarquin’s Cornish Gin. I tracked it down and discovered that it is, indeed, made by a chap called Tarquin Leadbetter at Southwestern Distillery in Wadebridge. They make just two products, the gin and Cornish Pastis (see what they did there?), using a small flame-fired copper pot still. They use fairly traditional botanicals from around the world (though mostly sourced through a bloke called David, apparently)—juniper from Kosovo and coriander from Bulgaria (which they describe as lemon-sherbety rather than hot and spicy like Moroccan coriander), angelica root from Poland, orris root from Morocco, green cardamom seeds from Guatemala, bitter almond from Morocco, cinnamon from Madagascar and liquorice root from Uzbekistan. They also use fresh (rather than dried) citrus peel, orange, lemon and grapefruit, from wherever they are in season in the world. And the final, magic ingredient—and the one that makes it distinctly Cornish—is Cornish violets, grown in Tarquin’s garden. It is diluted down to 42% ABV using springwater from near Boscastle (which is also bottled and sold as mineral water, called MeadowSweet). Each bottle of the small, 300-bottle batches is signed and numbered by hand by Tarquin himself, and dipped in striking blue wax for good measure.

I notice that, in addition to Tarquin’s signature and the bottle number, the label also includes a box labelled “Character”, again filled in by hand on each bottle. You might think the character of the gin would be fixed by the recipe, but Tarquin deliberately includes these tasting notes to emphasise the variations you get with gin made in this way. “We're celebrating the nuances between batches, highlighting the fact that our spirits are not mass-produced,” he tells me. “We could have blended batches, or implemented a sherry-style solera bottling system. But I think it's quite fun to do our crafty sort of way.” My sample was “Earthy orange”, while another bottle I had a taste from was “Eastern spices” and one in a photo on the website is “Fresh orange blossom”.

“In the months up to Christmas we're doing something special with some filming, to make these tasting notes more interactive,” Tarquin adds. “…So stay tuned!”

Tarquin's hand-written tasting note on my bottle from batch 91
If I expected the gin to smell of violets I was in for a surprise. Chilled you mostly get fresh, stern juniper and lemony coriander to the fore. On the palate you also notice a softness, perhaps from the water, or the liquorice or the orange peel. At room temperature the orange notes are more prominent on the nose too, along with an interesting herbaceous quality that emerges as quite a characteristic. Interestingly Tarquin says, “One unusual ingredient is the Devon violet. From these I take the delicate leaves, which add a vibrant green freshness to the gin and create something deliciously unique.” So it is not the violet flowers involved but the leaves, and this is presumably the stemmy, herbal element that I am getting.

I instantly warm to this gin, not least because it is a gin that knows it’s a gin. So many modern gins shy away from juniper in favour of sweet or floral elements which are, let’s face it, aimed at attracting people who don’t really like gin. But Tarquin puts juniper up front. As such the gin works well in a G&T and especially in a Negroni, where the juniper pokes through but the mid-range elements and the underlying softness round the drink out too. Then you have that interesting herbal layer combined with the orange aroma, and at the bottom a relatively soft, sweet finish so as not to scare the horses. This also makes it good for a Martini as it is relatively approachable neat.

To get a clearer picture I put the gin head-to-head with some others. Bombay Dry emerges as drier, with a lemon-sherbet sharpness, with Tarquin’s gin softer and sweeter. SW4 has a similar fullness, but Tarquin’s gin comes across as more savoury, leafy and herbal, while SW4 is plumper, sweeter and more about spice. Tanqueray is quite similar on the nose but Tarquin’s is fatter and more complex, with more herbal punch and again a softer, sweeter finish. Beefeater 24 does have a tea element which stands out and it is lighter and drier. Finally, G’vine Nouaison matches up in the aromatic stakes, smelling quite minty and suggesting sweet roots. In fact it seems positively cloying, again emphasising the savoury herbal cut of Tarquin’s jib.

Overall I think Tarquin’s Cornish Gin is a remarkable achievement, managing somehow to combine the steely, upright juniper cutting edge of classic London Dry Gin, with a sophisticated modern soft finish, and a distinctive mid-range of orange zest and sappy herbaceous punch, like fresh leaves crunching under foot. It is complex and versatile, but not so outré as to fall down in classic gin cocktails.

Does it remind me of Cornwall? The bottle has images of fishing boats, basking sharks and what looks like the lighthouse not fifty yards from where I was staying, but there is nothing of the sea about the liquid (though I suppose a dash of Islay whisky might remedy that). But Cornwall does have a warm, humid microclimate, so perhaps the waft of verdant undergrowth in this gin is apt.

Tarquin’s Cornish Gin can be had online from Master of Malt for £35.57 or if you’re in Falmouth you can pop into the Bottle Bank and get it for about £29. For more stockists see

Monday 13 October 2014

Regal Rogue, an Aussie vermouth fit for a king?

It seems only yesterday that I was commenting how rare it was for a new vermouth to be launched. That was in the context of Quintinye Vermouth Royal, and in truth it was a full eight months ago. (By comparison, last Monday I was helping DBS judge the Craft Distilling Expo’s Gin of the Year awards and although it was only open to craft gins launched since July 2013 of this year, there were 41 entrants.)

So the arrival of Regal Rogue still marks a rare example of a new vermouth range. And in fact it literally turned up on my doorstep unannounced: a courier knocked on the door and handed over a cardboard suitcase, which turned out to contain a complex assemblage. In addition to bottles of two new vermouths, a rosso and a bianco (according to the website there is also a dry), there were bottles of approved mixers, along with approved garnishes too. There were various bits of paper and cardboard, a couple of straws, a silk pocket square and a feather. The handkerchief is one of three that have been produced to play up the gentleman-rogue image, each one representing the botanicals of one of the three vermouths. My one (see picture) represents the Dry, according to the name of the image file on the website, though I’m not sure exactly what is being depicted—it looks like a bacterial culture under a microscope. As for the feather, the only clue I can find is the recent win at the Sydney Design Awards, which they refer to as “a feather in our cap”…*

The box of goodies, including mixers, garnishes and a silk handkerchief
Vermouth is wine that has been “aromatised” with herbs, spices, fruits, barks, etc, and often fortified as well. Its homeland is Italy and France, but Regal Rogue hails from Australia and makes use both of local wines and local botanicals. It is intended as a celebration of these and apparently is also made in annual batches to mark the variations from vintage to vintage (although in fact the bottles I was sent have no vintage statement on them). The bianco is made from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, bottled at 18% alcohol by volume and infused with bush lemons, lemon myrtle, finger limes, sage, oregano, basil, native thyme, lemongrass and vanilla. The rosso (19% ABV) is made from a blend of Semillon, Shiraz and port. This is interesting in itself, because red vermouth is typically not made from red wine, but usually white wine, with caramel colour sometimes added. Regal Rogue Rosso is therefore redder than many rossos. This wine blend is infused with wattle seed, pepper berries, orange, cocoa nibs, clove, cinnamon and ginger.

Behold the Regal Rogue Dry official pocket square
Official straws, the Dry at the top and the Bianco below
The name “vermouth” comes from vermut the German for wormwood, and vermouth is traditionally defined by the presence of this bitter herb, consumed for its perceived health and digestive benefits, yet neither the labels nor the website suggest there is any of it in Regal Rogue rosso or bianco.* (Mind you, the website does state that the dry vermouth contains wormwood, along with olive leaf, juniper, rosemary, quandong, nettle leaf, gentian and orris infused into Sauvignon Blanc; sounds interesting, especially with the juniper and orris, both traditional gin botanicals.)

Where Quintinye played upon a historical connection with Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinye, botanist to King Louis XIV of France, Regal Rogue manages to embrace its bouncy, earthy, playful New World origins, but at the same time projects itself as the character of “Lord Ward” an imaginary aristocrat playboy (so, to be pedantic it’s more Noble Rogue than Regal Rogue…). On the bottle he appears as a medieval knight, though elsewhere in the literature the milieu seems to be the 17th or 18th century.

The preferred serve for the bianco, with elderflower pressé,
garnished with a slice of grapefruit and a spring of rosemary
But what of the liquid itself? Despite the unusual ingredients, the bianco’s nose is recognisably that of vermouth, hitting you primarily with sage and lemon balm or lemon thyme. Compared to Noilly Prat it is heavier and more pungent, where Noilly is sharper, more delicate and honeyed, with a hint of vanilla. Regal Rogue is more of a savoury, vegetal punch. Maybe it was because I was tasting it around suppertime, but I kept thinking it would be nice in pasta sauce…

On the palate it is sweetish but with a slightly bitter finish, and the same sage/lemon thyme thrust. Noilly is obviously drier (but then the Regal Rogue I’m tasting is a bianco, traditionally a sweet white, not a dry). Although it is definitely doing the same job of the French vermouth, it takes a more muscular approach.

Time to try it in the obvious cocktail, a Martini, which I approach with 40ml Bombay Dry gin and 10ml Regal Rogue bianco. This obviously makes a sweetish Martini, but at this ratio the vermouth is not as powerful as I might have expected after tasting it neat. But even here you can tell, from the distinctly savoury character of the vermouth, that this drink is yearning to be a Gibson (a Martini served with a cocktail onion as garnish). Add another 10ml of vermouth and we reach an agreeable botanical balance, though it is now a bit sweet for me.

The preferred serve for the Rosso, with ginger beer and garnished with
a slice of orange and a sprig of mint
The accompanying literature actually has a recommended Martini recipe, unexpectedly combining 40ml vermouth with just 20ml gin—they recommend Westwinds Sabre Gin. I don’t have any but I try Captive Spirits’ Big Gin, which is indeed big, punchy and pungent. The juniper backbone certainly makes its presence felt but this is too vermouth-heavy and sweet. Add just another 10ml gin, however, and the balance comes into focus: it’s busy but everything seems in its place.

Interestingly, the bits and pieces that came in the box are actually geared towards a less traditional serve: on the rocks with a mixer, in this case elderflower pressé, garnished with a slice of grapefruit and spring of rosemary. Probably not a combo you would have knocking around at home, which I guess is why they included the components in the box. And it is indeed an excellent combination, the vermouth’s herbal pungency merging with the prickly aromatic tartness of the elderflower, and the grapefruit adding a fresh citrus note to the lemon thyme dimension already present.

I attempt to compare the Regal Rogue Rosso to some Martini Rosso, although the latter has been around a bit and looks distinctly brown. But the nose of the two is still remarkably similar. The Regal Rogue has the trademark pungency but the sage notes are less pronounced here; I get orange, cinnamon and cloves and a hint of nettles and even tomato. On the palate it is less sweet and caramelly than the Martini, lighter, fresher, more delicate and more aromatic. It has both tartness and bitterness and is not particularly sweet, being more a broadside of fresh, aggressively fragrant herbs. Mind you, when I try to make a Manhattan featuring Regal Rogue Rosse and Rittenhouse Rye 100 Proof, the vermouth surprisingly takes a back seat at 2:1, although it adds a little sweetness and softness. Add a bit more and orange notes come through, along with the strange tomato element. I’m not sure it’s ideal for this cocktail.

A Gibson made with Regal Rogue Bianco and Big Gin
But try their recommended long drink, on the rocks with ginger beer, garnished with a slice of orange and a spring of mint, and once again they have a winner, with the herbal notes blending seamlessly with the ginger tang (and there is ginger in the vermouth too). It is rather moreish like this and more drinkable than the vermouth on its own.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about these two Regal Rogue products is the fact that they don’t seem to be pushing them in the traditional cocktail ingredient roles, but instead suggesting them long with mixers and no other alcohol. I have noticed of late a bit of a move towards lighter, longer mixed drinks, using wine and vermouth and no spirits, so Regal Rogue may have been created to ride this wave. Perhaps more of a summer thing than for the autumn, but that is just a niggle. And I’m sure in time mixologists will come up with plenty of spirit-based cocktails that make the most of the unique flavours of this new range.

At the moment you can only buy Regal Rogue by the bottle at Selfridges (at a hefty £24.90 for 70cl), plus in select bars such as the Soho House Group and Granger & Co.

* I later spoke to someone from the PR agency and he didn’t know about the feather either, but guessed it might be connected with the owl that is depicted sitting on the rogue’s shoulder on the label of the bottle. I had assumed that the whole package had been dreamed up by the agency, but apparently it all came from the founder of the brand, Mark Ward—truly his is an all-encompassing vision.

** At the launch of Quintinye, Jean-Sébastien Robicquet stated that under EU regulations anything labelled as vermouth had to contain wormwood. (In fact see Section 2 (a) here.) Indeed, after speaking with the founder, the PR was able to confirm that all three Regal Rogue products do contain it.

Tuesday 7 October 2014

Premixed cocktails coming in from the cold?

The KÖLD cocktails come in boxes of two sachets each
There is nothing new about premixed cocktails: as DBS will tell you, manufacturers have been trying to peddle ready-mixed beverages for about as long as cocktails have existed.* For the dedicated lush, it might seem a bit pointless—why not just mix your cocktail when you want it?—but I’m sure there are many people out there who like the idea of cocktails but aren’t interested in keeping in all the ingredients and equipment required to construct them at home.

Of course one of the problems with bottling cocktails is how to preserve them. With their Handmade Cocktail Company range, Master of Malt got round this problem by only producing classic cocktails containing spirits, vermouths, sugar, bitters, etc: the resulting blend is high enough in alcohol to be self-preserving. There is a widening school of thought that there are some benefits to letting this type of cocktail age after mixing; it’s popular to barrel-age such things to get some interaction with the wood, but certainly MoM seem to feel that their cocktails benefit from resting, even without interplay with wood. Moreover, ingredients like vermouth do go off pretty quickly once a bottle is opened, so premixing cocktails is actually a way of using the alcohol in the spirit to preserve that vermouth at its freshest.

But a lot of popular modern cocktails contain things like fruit juice, which needs to be preserved somehow. The Coppa range which I reviewed a couple of years ago just used preservatives and the results were unimpressive. Now I have been sent samples from a new range called KÖLD.** The gimmick here is that the premixes come in sachets that you bung in the freezer. When it’s time to serve you allow the sachet to defrost slightly then squeeze the contents into a glass.

However, the point to note here is that the products are not sold frozen, so the freezing has nothing to do with preservation. In fact the ingredients do include things that may be there to preserve (I’m not really sure what malic acid is in there for) but it is possible that the foil pouch means that you can heat-treat it, rendering the contents sterile until opened. Another odd thing is that, like the Coppa range, the KÖLD range are all remarkably low in alcohol. A conventionally mixed Cosmopolitan will be about 25% alcohol by volume, but the Coppa example was 10% and the KÖLD example just 8%. I’m assuming that the reason for this is the same one given by Coppa’s distributor—the target market are the same people who might otherwise buy a Bacardi Breezer or Smirnoff Ice. (Which is not to go so far as to call them alcopops, drunk by children, but there may be an element that it would irresponsible to market something like this at an ABV of 25%.)

The KÖLD range (left to right): Cosmopolitan, Mojito, Lychee Martini
It may also be the case that at a higher ABV it wouldn’t freeze properly, but since the contents are preserved and you need to thaw them slightly to serve, I don’t know that this would be a bad thing.

Anyway, I try three of them, the Cosmpolitan, the Mojito and the Lychee Martini, from the freezer, thawing them slightly under a tap so I can squeeze the contents into glasses. I’m guessing that the thinking behind this gimmick is that many people probably don’t keep a great deal of ice at home. The Coppa premixes were sold in metal canisters that doubled as shakers, which gets round the need for the customer to have a cocktail shaker at home, but when I tried them out at my sister’s house we did find that her ice supply wasn’t really up to the job.

So what we have here are alcoholic slushies (well, mildly alcoholic). I’m a sucker for lychees so I forgive the fact that the “Lychee Martini” doesn’t have much in common with a Martini (it contains vodka, lychee juice from concentrate, white grape juice from concentrate, sugar, natural lychee flavouring, malic acid and cloudifier). It’s hard to drink when frozen, and with its sweetness it is more like a sorbet than a cocktail (I resort to using a spoon to consume it). There seems to be a slight bitter aftertaste, but it’s hard to know what effect the low temperature has on your tongue.

The Cosmo has a nice balance of flavours with lime to the fore, a bit of curaçao and a grapefruity sharpness. (It actually contains water, vodka, orange liqueur, cranberry juice from concentrate, lime juice from concentrate, “natural cosmopolitan flavouring”, whatever that means, and citric acid.) The Mojito is a bit of a disappointment, relatively low on flavour compared to the others and feeling a bit vague, though possibly the Mojito just isn’t really the cocktail for me.

But I allowed all three cocktails to thaw to the point where the lumps of ice had melted, and I have to say that all three of them improved dramatically, simply because in a liquid state and a higher temperature you could actually taste them more. I have to say that I also experimented with adding a measure of base spirit to each one (vodka for the Cosmo and Martini, rum for the Mojito), which was a big improvement. The Lychee Martini is ultimately too sweet for me but wasn’t dogged by noticeably artificial flavours. The Mojito was my least favourite—there is something about the mint flavour which doesn’t have much in common with fresh mint (“minty lempsip” is how Mrs H. described the taste of this cocktail).***

The Cosmopolitan emerges as the most successful for me, drier and more balanced. I still think you’ll achieve better results just making a cocktail from scratch but I guess that isn’t the point. One thing I would say about all of them is that you are better off serving them with ice (if you have some) and not frozen, as they all taste better this way.

You can buy KÖLD cocktails directly from their website. At £6.99 for a box of two 225ml pouches they are good value compared to a cocktail in a bar, but then they don’t have much alcohol in them. (Coppa cocktails are currently about £9.45 for 700ml, so cheaper but nastier. And you can buy 4 x 275ml Bacardi Breezers for £4.25 from Tesco, so you pays your money…)

* Since you ask, I believe the earliest known reference to a “cocktail” in print dates from around 1795.
** And who doesn’t love a spurious umlaut? It reminds me of heavy metal bands from the Eighties, like Mötorhead and the Blue Öyster Cult.
*** There are no obvious preservatives in the ingredients for this one (water, white rum, lime juice from concentrate, sugar and “natural Mojito flavouring”—no actual mention of mint, you’ll notice), which does make we wonder if it is heat-treated. I find that some of Funkin’s fruit juices and purées, which likewise come in heat-treated foil pouches, have a “cooked” quality to them which is not really like the fresh equivalent.

Sunday 20 July 2014

Mezcal: Mexico's smoky spirit comes to town

The Pierde Almas range that we were tasting
Most people with at least a passing interest in booze will have heard of mezcal, but probably very few know what it actually is. Many will think that it is a bit like tequila but has a worm in it with hallucinogenic properties.* In fact mezcal is a more general term for a type of agave spirit of which tequila is just a specific example.

The people of Central America have been making booze from agave in a traditional way for a long time: there are 200 different species that are used, and 150 that are just found in Mexico alone. But the distillers of the area where tequila is made started pressing for legislation to protect their particular version: “tequila” can only be made in the state of Jalisco and limited areas in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas and it must be at least 51% blue Weber agave (many premium examples are 100%), a strain bred for the purpose. Much of it is made under modern industrial conditions.

Jonathan Barbieri
Everything else is mezcal.** But there is more to it than just the huge variety of agave that is used and the varied terroir. I was lucky to be invited to a masterclass at Amathus in Soho led by Jonathan Barbieri, the man behind the Pierde Almas brand. Jonathan is an articulate and engaging speaker and clearly passionate (sorry to use the P-word, but there it is) about both promoting this little-known spirit and protecting the traditions behind it. He explains that in addition to the variety of plants that go into mezcal—25–30 species in Oaxaca state alone, the region where he has his distillery—and the effect of different soil, traditionally each village will have its own style, and within each village there might be 40 families with traditions of their own. Mezcal is perfect example of an “artisanal” product, made by many people but typically as a sideline and essentially for personal consumption. For this reason, until recently you couldn’t even buy it in Oaxaca de Juárez, the state capital. Jonathan believes his products are “true” mezcal, tasting pretty much as it would have done 150 years ago.

Like most mezcals the Pierde Almas batches have no standard ABV (with the exception of the Puritita Verda, which is standardised at 40% to help barmen make cocktails with constant results). In each case the master distiller decides what ABV best suits that bottling. The examples we taste on this occasion are 48, 49, even 50.9%. (By contrast tequila, while permissibly between 35 and 55%, is typically 38–40%.) Jonathan explains that all kinds of natural factors affect the flavour: if it is cold the fermentation takes longer.*** If it is rainy water may seep into the oven pits where the agave is roasted prior to fermentation and cool the contents, reducing the level of smokiness imparted by heat. The maestros test ABV by dribbling some of the spirit from a bamboo tube into a gourd bowl. By observing the formation and behaviour of the bubbles (“las perlas”) they can gauge the alcohol strength accurately to within 1%. (Nowadays they also have lab equipment to verify their conclusions to comply with legal requirements, but they still use the old method in the first instance.)

A mezcal maestro can gauge the alcohol percentage from these bubbles
The agave used is all wild. (Only about three species of agave are cultivated, including the blue agave used in tequila.) Jonathon describes the process: although the land is common land, you must first apply for permission to harvest specific plants, which you may have been monitoring as they mature over 20 years. You trek out with your mule train, perhaps for five or six hours, to a particular spot. Having harvested and trimmed the plant you carry it back to the mules—and it may weight 70 or 80 kilos. When all your mules are laden you trek back, then return the next day to start again. Given that the harvesting window between the rains and when the plants start to flower (at which point they can no longer be used) may be just a month, it can be a struggle to fill your oven. Most of the products we taste with Jonathan are made in quantities of just 300–900 bottles a year.

To convert the starch in the agave into sugar that can be fermented, the plants are roasted. Wood fires are used to heat stones in pits and the agave are placed on top and covered. To prevent singeing the stones are covered with mats of damp agave fibre, and the amount of this used will affect the smokiness of the finished drink. Likewise, some villages line the pit with stones, which will reflect heat back in on the agave, while others do not.

Loading the pit oven to roast the agave piñas
Pierde Almas mezcal is made from agave grown at 1800–2000 metres above sea level. The first samples we try are made from the Espadin agave (of which the blue agave is a variant). The Puritita Verda is simply the Espadin mezcal standardised to 40% alcohol. The nose is dry, in a pencil-lead way, like grappa, less herbal and fleshy than tequila, with a hint of white wine (perhaps Reisling). There is fruit in the form of grapefruit and pears, and a smoky tar/creosote element which gradually grows. (In fact I find with all these samples that this smoky element develops the more you slop and swirl it round the glass.) The palate follows through with a strong tarry smokiness married with grapefruit soda. The Espadin product is basically the same drink but bottled in this case at 50.9%. At first the nose seems quieter, barring a buttery quality. But as it opens up in the glass it emerges as much like the Puritita Verda. This continues on to the palate, with an element of oranges too.

The espadin agave
Next we try the Tobaziche mezcal, made from the tobaziche (“long agave”, or Agave karwinskii) plant. This is a complex species, appearing in different forms under different circumstances. This strikes me as fruitier than the Espadin but with a distinct dry, mineral quality, almost like wet plaster or clay, plus wood, grapefruit again and dry sherry. After a while I also get a meaty element, like salami. It’s a complex and evolving beast. The palate is smoky again but much less sweet than the Espadin.

On the subject of meatiness, the next example, Pechuga, is peculiar indeed. The spirit is double distilled then distilled a third time, but this time a turkey breast is hung inside the still. Yes, a turkey breast. In fact traditionally it is a chicken breast (pechuga means “breast”), but Jonathon, for all his respect for tradition, is not averse to experimentation. What effect does this meat have? No one knows, Jonathan admits. It starts off the size of a man’s hand and, by the end of the distillation, it is the size of a walnut. This alarms some vegetarians in the room—has the rest of the breast somehow entered into the drink? Jonathan explains that it is the spirit of the turkey rather than its flesh that passes into the drink. (I suspect that the shrinkage is due to muscle fibres contracting in the heat—I’m sure most meat contracts if you cook it on a high heat.)

The tobaziche agave
But there is more to this recipe than just the meat. Before the third distillation a selection of fruits and nuts are infused in the spirit. Jonathan admits they are not pretty—ugly, potato-like apples, small pineapples, black bananas, hawthorn, almonds and a touch of anise. So essentially it’s being made like gin, though obviously the “botanicals” don’t include any of the traditional gin ones (aside, perhaps, from anise). It seems to me that any attempt to establish the effect of the turkey breast in this process is rendered a bit pointless when there is all this other stuff in there as well! The nose is initially sweet, clear and bright, evolving to caramel and the characteristic smoke, some stewed fruit and something gamey. On the palate there is definitely pineapple, something floral, quite grappa-like; I couldn’t say I was tasting turkey.

To take his experiments further, Jonathan decided to switch not just from one bird to another but to another phylum, choosing the cottontail rabbit. Because of the season it took several days to catch just a few rabbits, and in the whole year they only made 340 bottles. The Conejo smells to me very similar to the Pechuga, though most of us feel that it is sweeter and less smoky. I get more of the apples on the palate (some get a distinct game character but I didn’t pick it up myself).

As you can see, all the Pierde Almas products are unaged and colourless
As you will see from the photos, all the spirits look the same—there are no resposados in the range. Though mezcal is occasionally aged, it is traditionally drunk as it is, and certainly these examples, despite their high strength, do not need any softening in wood to make them palatable.

But Jonathan has one more trick up his sleeve—and indeed this is the whole reason DBS has come to the tasting. There is also a mezcal-based gin in the range, Botanica +9. Instead of infusing the botanicals, as with the fruit in the previous examples, they are vapour-infused—suspended in a hair net inside the still! The botanicals are juniper, coriander, fennel seed, angelica root, orris root, cassia bark, nutmeg and star anise. On the nose the juniper and orange are up front, with a sweet base and floral notes. The palate is dry with distinct elements of orange, coriander and orris. It has a nice “rustic” feel, but I don’t mean that it is crude, rather that you can clearly discern individual ingredients that went into it. I overhear DBS saying to Jonathan that, when he previously tasted the gin, he got more of the mezcal elements, but this time it just tastes like gin. But as with the whole range I think it is important to let the spirit open up in the glass: once again, after a while the smoky mezcal elements begin to emerge. I think this is a very interesting and worthwhile product.

And as for the name, Pierde Almas? Jonathan has a story about that. His background is as an artist and once, while getting ready for a show, he had an assistant to help with preparing canvases. But the man had a habit of vanishing for days on end. Finally, after a week-long absence, Jonathan determined to find out where he disappeared to, which led to an obscure, inaccessible drinking den, where denizens nodded in a sepia atmosphere, while from behind a bar that was an incongruously colourful desk, mezcal was dispensed by a man with one eye, one arm, no teeth and a crippled leg. He was known as Pierde Almas, “he who loses your soul”.

It seemed natural that Jonathan would borrow the name when he came to make his own product. The fibrous paper used for the labels is handmade, originally to his specification to resist a lot of rubbing out while drawing. It has a range of components, including cotton, acacia, mulberry and agave fibres. The logo, drawn by Jonathan, is based on a painting by Hieronymus Bosch and shows a lost soul falling into the hellfire of an agave plant.

Sounds a bit gloomy. “The mezcal may have caused us to lose our souls,” Jonathon says cheerfully, “but we’re better off without them.”

The Pierde Almas range is available from Amathus, priced £42.50 (70cl, 40% ABV) for the Puritita Verda, £72.70 for the Espadin (50.9%), £106.36 for the Tobaziche (47%) and Botanica +9 (45%), £162.35 for the Pechuga (47%) and £176.50 for the Conejo (48.3%).

* The worm is a moth larva that is found living in a few species of agave, but to find one in a finished bottle would suggest rather slack quality control. However, Jonathon tells us that the worms are considered rather a delicacy—they are collected, dried, fried on a skillet and ground up with sea salt and dried chillis. He gave us some to taste that they made at his distillery: in addition to the chilli and salt there was a curious dusty, musty flavour, with an element of something like saffron. Quite tasty.

** In fact there are now eight mezcal states with protected geographical indication status, though the whole country makes the spirit.

*** The yeasts are natural, and each family with a tradition of mezcal-making will have its own resident combination of strains. At Pierde Almas they have 14 yeasts which start all together. As the fermentation takes place, typically over six days, the strains vie with each other until just two dominant ones are left. But the other 12 leave their mark on the flavour. If the weather is cooler this struggle is more protracted, meaning the less dominant strains may have more time to influence the final flavour.

Friday 18 July 2014

US whiskey: it's the little things that count

DBS gets stuck in
The groundswell of “craft” distilling continues to accelerate (only today I discovered a new distillery just five miles from my house). Over here in Britain it tends to take the form of new gins, and sometimes vodkas. (There are some interesting new whisky products—Welsh whisky, English whisky—but these take so long to mature that the start-up companies tend to put out vodka and gin too, to help pay the bills while they wait.) Meanwhile in the US the number of new whiskey producers is skyrocketing too; while 99% of all the whiskey made still comes from just 13 large producers, the total number of distilleries now numbers in the hundreds, with several being the first in their state since Prohibition—it’s as if the whole industry went to sleep with the Volstead Act and is only now waking up. Some focus on very local production, buying only local grain and executing every stage of the process “from grain to glass” on their premises, yet I’m pleased to say that many of these very locally-minded products are making their way over here to the UK. Last week I was invited to a Boutique American Whiskey Tasting of eight products from four distilleries, organised by the crew behind the Boutique Bar Show and held at “classic Americana” bar and restaurant Steam and Rye.

Michael from Maverick talks us through FEW
First up was the FEW distillery, offering its bourbon and rye whiskey products. The distillery is located in Evanstown, north of Chicago: building a distillery here was a particularly bloody-minded gesture, as in the years before Prohibition Evanstown was the stronghold of the Temperance Movement. In fact it was founded as a dry community and remaining so up until the 1990s. The distillery’s name comes from the initials of Frances Elizabeth Willard, head of the forces of Temperance at the time. As another nod to the history of the period, the bottle and label design evokes the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. The FEW bourbon is a three-grain blend, mixing southern tradition with the spiciness of the rye more typical of the north—it is 70% corn (from a co-op in Indiana), 20% malted barley and 10% rye (from Wisconsin), aged in charred oak barrels. The nose hits me with wood first, plus cooked apples and oranges, and something like oatmeal. The palate has woody vanilla and meal again, with a hint of eucalyptus. It’s pretty smooth for a youngish whiskey (though there is no age statement) at 46.5%. The rye whiskey shifts the balance to 70% rye, 20% corn and 10% malt. Michael from Maverick Drinks, who handle the range in the UK, explains that rye is expensive and low yield and tricky to ferment. One new trick applied to this product was the yeast—it is a strain usually found in red wine making, specifically Syrah gown in the Loire valley. The nose has that meal quality that I’m beginning to associate with the brand, while the palate is sharp and spicy with cooked apple and caramel. And I’m convinced I’m getting a red wine angle too, with cherry and stone fruit.

An Old Forester julep
Old Forester is not actually new at all: in fact it dates back to 1870, in Louisville, Kentucky. In those days whisky wasn’t usually bottled at all but shipped in barrels and poured into decanters at the bar: there was nothing to control how much an establishment might water it down. One George Garvin Brown, a pharmaceutical salesman, noticed that quality was often poor and hit upon the idea of selling a bourbon in sealed bottles, each one signed by him to guarantee its quality. The result was “American’s First Bottled Whiskey” (technically the first exclusively bottled whiskey). In those days whiskey was frequently prescribed as a medicine (for pretty much everything), and the name Old Forester comes from that of a respected local physician who may or may not have endorsed it. Incidentally, this medicinal use of alcohol was one of the exceptions to Prohibition—yes, a doctor could prescribe you a bottle of whiskey—making Old Forester the only bourbon continuously distilled and marketed by the founding family before during and after Prohibition.* Tom from Brown-Forman tells us that Old Forester has never gone away, and in the area where it is made you see a lot of people drinking it. But as a brand it has been in the background in the Brown-Forman portfolio for a long while.

Old Forester is 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% barley, fermented using a “jug yeast” (i.e. nurtured, not chemically engineered) in open steel vats for seven days, double the time for most bourbons. Only 15 barrels are made at a time, and the barrels are made by the distillery themselves from white oak with a high toast and low char. Again there is no aged statement, but I think Tom said it was aged for about 7¼ years. We taste two bottlings, an 86 proof (43%) and a 100 proof (50%) “Signature” edition. The nose of the 86 is spicy and aromatic and for me carries a whiff of mint, which is carried over on to the palate, which is sweeter that the FEW samples. (Although this talk of sweetness and mint sounds as if I’m just imagining a julep…) The 100 proof is spicy but distinctly elegant on the nose, with a hint of citrus, and again smooth and polished on the palate.

The story of Hudson Whiskey is just as rich in strange incident. The Tuthilltown Gristmill, 40 minutes north of Manhattan in Gardiner, was purchased in 2001 by Ralph Erenzo as a site for a climbing centre. However, planning permission was refused, allegedly because neighbours didn’t fancy the idea of strangers trooping into town. The site had a working windmill, and one day a chap asked if he could mill some grain; they got talking and decided to go into the whiskey business, setting up the first distillery in New York since Prohibition. (Note that since then there are now 290 distilleries in the state, which gives an idea of just how much craft/artisan distilling has taken off.) It’s another grain-to-glass enterprise, aiming to “capture local flavour and ambience using the agricultural resources of local farmers while leaving a smaller footprint on the environment”.** They have also pioneered some interesting techniques: after someone suggested they could enhance the wood-ageing process by agitating the barrels every day, they hit upon the idea of playing bass-heavy music in the warehouse. (No one would comment, but I’m sure I’ve heard that it is, naturally, New York hip hop.)

I rather like the squat Hudson bottles
The Hudson Four-Grain Bourbon balances the richness of corn with the smoothness of wheat, the pepperiness of rye and the sweetness of malted barley. The make-up is 70% corn with 10% or each of the others. The aroma has a dusty sweet-dry quality that reminds me of halva (a Middle Eastern confection made from sweetened sesame seed paste) along with smoke and a hint of sandalwood. The palate is strong but smooth, with mint, caramel, orange and rye spice. We also try a 100% rye whiskey. This was not an easy course to take for a new distillery: as mentioned above, rye is tough to ferment, and their first eight or nine batches just turned to wallpaper paste. However, it was worth it, with the end result having a complex nose of apples, meal, toffee, caramel, prunes, kumquats, a blue smoky note and a hint of varnish. The palate is surprisingly subtle with elements of cooked apples, mint, sharp spice and cinnamon.

Finally we are introduced to Balcones, a tiny distillery built under a flyover, using handmade stills, that set out to create an entirely new tradition: Texas whisky (spelled without the “e”). Baby Blue and True Blue are the regular (46%) and cask strength (61.8% ish) version of their groundbreaking whiskey made from roasted atole blue corn meal. (Apparently all batches start out the same and any could go either the True Blue or Baby Blue route, until the master distiller decides, after which it can be shaped through the precise charring of the barrel, etc.) This is completely different from the other samples we’ve had, with a nose of maple syrup, pancakes, caramel, candyfloss and varnished wood. (Apparently the distillery is very hot, and they use small barrels, so there is a lot of interaction with the wood.) It is very soft on the tongue, with the same sugary flavours, plenty of wood and a hint of apples.

Our whiskey ambassadors at Steam and Rye
The Balcones team’s quest to push the envelope doesn’t stop there. They also produce Brimstone, made from corn smoked over a Texas scrub oak fire (the world’s first wood-smoked whisky, apparently), Rumble, made from honey, sugar and figs, and our last sample of the day, their Texas Single Malt Whisky. If I expected it to taste like single malt Scotch I was in for a surprise: the nose has more in common with the blue corn whisky, with strong meal elements, but also fruit and something strangely vinous. The palate is unexpectedly soft but with tropical fruit notes and an odd toasted aftertaste.

The lesson from all of this is that there is a hell of a lot going on in the US whiskey world at the moment. Age statements tend to be out of fashion, and you have some interesting techniques (such as the Tuthilltown bass frequency angle) to speed up the ageing process, while distilleries like Balcones are really opening up the possibilities of what you can make spirit from. The weight of tradition is much less of a marketing trope (in fact in this batch Old Forester really stands out for being so old), and instead brands identify themselves by the struggle, determination and ingenuity of the story behind the start-ups. The pioneering spirit—what could be more American than that?

* I think that there were four brands that had medicinal licences to carry on through Prohibition, of which I know Four Roses was one.

** I never thought of distilling as particularly wasteful of the earth’s resources, but this idea of “green distilling” is another trend. The Adnams distillery in Southwold has won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise for the sustainability of their operation.
Our gang at the tasting in the strange environs of Steam and Rye (I'm in the middle at the back)