Sunday, 23 March 2014

Catwalk cocktails fit for a Snow Queen

Judges tweet frantically as Robb Collins prepares to show his stuff
Like most people I’ve long been aware of the cocktail competitions that seem part of the industry’s DNA, but last Tuesday was the first time I’d actually sat in on one. It was the Snow Queen Martini Masters, organised by The Spirits Business magazine at The Club at The Ivy in London.

Robb's ingredients don't seem too weird, but wait
till you see the presentation
You can see the logic—Snow Queen stump up for the whole thing and make the hungry next generation of bartenders aware of the brand. They also get to style how we should feel about the product: the brief was clearly not just to come up with a Vodka Martini variant but to think about how to reference the target audience of women and the cultural origins of the product in Kazakhstan.

It has become a recognised part of an ambitious young bartender’s career ladder: at the Candlelight Club our resident mixologist David Hamilton Boyd has at least three of these gongs, the Jameson Mix Master world final, Vestal Vodka UK cocktail competition winner and Hendrick's Gin UK cocktail competition winner.

To be honest the relationship between the cocktail competition and real life cocktail bars seems much like that between catwalk fashion shows
All contestants were being filmed as they performed
and high-street fashion: the former is far too strange and impractical to enter the latter, but over time a filtered version of it may appear. In this competition each bartender shortlisted had to make their beverage on camera, and present it, sometimes in a tableau of hardware, flowers, fake snow, hot rocks, etc, that seemed more complex to assemble than the drink itself. Not
only that but they had to talk us through their concept as they were doing so, filling us in on how they arrived at the recipe and how it fulfilled the brief of (a) being something you could call a “Martini” (without actually being a Martini, because that has already been taken, so no scope for points there), (b) appealing to the female palate, (c) expressing the origins (and doubtless “values”) of the brand and (d) perhaps relating to the name “Snow Queen”—cue some textual analyses of Hans Christian Anderson’s original gruesome fairy tale and at least one
Robb's presentation involved Kazakh glassware, lilies, ice
cubes with lilies frozen inside them, some fake snow and
a teapot spewing dry ice everywhere. See? Anyone can
make cocktails at home
religious deconstruction.

As you might expect, there were some pretty leftfield ingredients—citric acid, aloe vera leaves, pickled cauliflower, oyster tincture, “atomised sea buckthorn”—and some predictable ones: tea is still clearly on trend, as is the inclusion of unexpectedly savoury herbs, such as tarragon. (And citric acid, come to think of it.) In fairness, a couple of contestants explained that the tea was a reference to the beverage’s popularity in Kazakhstan, and their presentations included traditional tea sets and glasses.

Sadly it wasn’t part of my role actually to taste the cocktails (though we were served Clubland Cocktails, an old recipe—it’s in the Café Royal Cocktail Book from 1937—combining vodka and white port to very agreeable
Fabio Immovilli, from the Metropolitan Park Lane, presents his concoction involving basil leaves
and Cocchi Americano infused with Chinese puerh tea. You have lotus flowers (or the nearest he
could find in London) and healing hot rocks on a bamboo mat sprayed with lotus scent, pearl powder
in the Chinese tea cups and, referencing the herbalistic medicinal powers of basil, tea, pearl and
tonic wine, each cup comes with some pharmaceutical dosage instructions. He lists the beautifying
and anti-ageing properties of these ingredients and links it all to the purity of the vodka and the
beauty of the Snow Queen herself. The crazy tie knot, by the way, is a reference to the French
character The Merovingian in The Matrix—because he loves beautiful women. Mind you, I think
the "Drink Me" bottle is perhaps confusing things with its reference to Alice in Wonderland
Elliott Ball's ingredients are explained as both an
expression of the nature of femininity and as
representing plot points in The Snow Queen. Wow.
effect). I did sneak a sip from a couple that were lying around, and at home I was also able to reconstruct the Warmth Within cocktail from Elliot Ball of Steam & Rye in London, combining vodka, Cocchi Americano, Parfait Amour, a rinse of Galliano and some bergamot oil. (OK, I didn’t have any of the last ingredient but I did add a dash of Briottet’s bergamot liqueur.) I rather liked it, and found the combination of Cocchi Americano and Parfait Amour rather interesting and not cloying as I thought it might be. Mind you, Mrs H. pulled a face when she tasted it, not liking the Cocchi’s bitter quinine finish, so clearly this mix wasn’t succeeding in tickling the female’s palate’s fancy. (Though you could argue from this perspective that the essence of the Martini involves vermouth of some stripe, which always implies an element of bitterness.)

He even served it on a mirror that he cracked before us.
I foresee Health & Safety issues.
Vodka cocktails are an interesting area, as it doesn’t take much for the flavour of the vodka to be masked. In that sense a Martini makes sense, as it is mostly spirit with a spritz of vermouth. But in an attempt to make an essentially dry drink more appealing to the female target audience (and this was assumed to mean “sweet”), many added honey and jam and syrups and liqueurs, and I wonder how much of Snow Queen’s flavour really remained. A number of the bartenders explained how they were seeking to express Snow Queen’s character of “purity”, but it’s ironic that they chose to do this by adding a bucket of other flavours to it…

Incidentally, if you want a vodka cocktail that still allows the specific character of the vodka to come through, try a vodka Gimlet (about 2 ½ shots vodka to ¾ shot Rose’s lime cordial).

More tea pots, this time from Matteo Corsalini of China Tang at the Dorchester. His Her Majesty 
cocktail is served with passion fruit caviar and more fake snow. Jasmine smoke comes into it
somehow as well.

The Queen of Issyk, by Tim Ward of Popolo in Newcastle, scores points just for the ravishing
glassware. This colourless concoction is one I wish I had tried, being a basic Dry Martini
 of Snow Queen and Dolin Blanc, plus oyster essence, rhubarb liqueur and citric acid

The four finalists, Robb, Fabio, Matteo and Sam Baxendale of Monteiths in Edinburgh, go
through a Mystery Box round, where they must come up with a cocktail using only the
mystery ingredients presented to them. 

Eventual winner Robb Collins, from Meat Liquor in London, with Gulnida Toichieva, founder
of Snow Queen (left) and Daisy Jones from The Spirits Business.

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