Friday 23 May 2014

D1 London Gin: By the Power of Blueskull!

The front of the D1 bottle
I was saying to someone only the other day that I couldn’t think of a single gin that marketed itself in the same “ultrapremium” lifestyle way that vodkas like Grey Goose and Belvedere do, the sort of product that uber-cool club kids want to be seen with. Of course vodka does rather lend itself to this sort of thing, given that you are unlikely to turn someone off because of the taste, and in terms of the actual product most of them just focus on being smooth (and in some cases quite possibly sweetened). Gin, on the other hand, is relatively strongly flavoured, and many people just don’t like the steely, resinous taste of juniper.

Low and behold, a few days later I am invited to the launch of D1, a gin that openly targets that market. The launch is held in Kensington nightclub Boujis (where, at the end of the evening with the presentation over, waitresses duly bring out illuminated Belvedere ice buckets, so we are clearly in the homeland of that market). Moreover, the makers, D. J. Limbrey Distilling Co., have teamed up with trendy artist Jacky Tsai, perhaps best known for the floral skull image he created for the late Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer 2008 collection. Another floral skull appears on the D1 bottle, and at the launch event there were floral skull sculptures on display (apparently so valuable that each one had to have its own bodyguard).

The back of the bottle, showing the Union Flag on the back of
the label; the skull is printed on both sides
There was also an ice skull sculpture—which founder Dominic Limbrey admitted had perhaps been placed a little to close to the air conditioning and it was melting pretty quickly—and a tank of smaller skulls with goldfish swimming around. At the peak of the evening, while a musician screeched away alarmingly on a stringed Chinese instrument (possibly an  erhu), Jacky himself brought in another large ice skull which he dumped into the tank, where it would gradually melt, presumably saying something about change, transition, decay, etc. It was all very elaborate: Gin Monkey, who was called in to consult, told me that the fish tank had to be partitioned so that the fish were not in the same water as the ice, otherwise the temperature change would kill them. Even the Perspex plinths on which art and gin bottles were displayed had been specially made at great expense. Poking through the going-home goody bag I found a Jacky Tsai floral skull baseball cap and a rubber floral skull mask.

The partly-melted ice skull
I chat to Richard Maton of Limbrey and he cheerfully admits that there is no particular connection between the gin and the skull image. It is just a way of identifying the gin with a modern vision of fashionable Britain (there is also a big Union Jack on the back of the bottle label, and the literature uses the phrase “a bold reinvention of the London tradition”). But there is a reason why they have chosen Tsai. The artist came to Britain from China in his twenties and his art combines traditional Chinese painting with Western pop art. And Limbrey are not just targeting the fashionable set in Britain but also have their eyes on the Chinese market. Not many gin brands are out there at the moment, Maton tells me, and Limbrey want to get in there from the get-go.

There is more to this than just marketing. The gin has actually been engineered to serve the target audience. Compared to, say, Tanquerary Ten, Maton points out, it is lower in alcohol and less botanically intense, making it easier to drink neat—it is certainly intended as a “sipping gin” (not a term you hear very often). Most of the botanicals are fairly normal—juniper, orange peel, lemon peel, angelica root, cassia bark, almond and
liquorice—but there is also nettle leaf. There are references to a “daring kick of nettle”, and nettle is a rather British sort of plant, but just as cooked nettle (as in nettle soup) has no sting, neither does distilled nettle. In fact I’m told that its presence adds a smoothness and sweetness balanced by a tea-like bitter edge. (The nettles are actually selected for them by a tea blender.)

Even the plinths on which the bottles were displayed
apparently cost a fortune
Tea. You can see where they are going with this, vis à vis the Asian market. And Maton tells me that the flavour of the gin has been designed to work well with watermelon and cranberry, two popular mixers in that market. The little booklet that comes attached to the neck of the bottle has all the text in both English and Chinese. The recommended serves in the booklet are noteworthy: firstly, you simply stir with ice and serve over more ice, with a twist of lemon (something they call a “London Rocks Cocktail”, though it is hard to argue that it is really a cocktail as such). The second serve is simply mixed with watermelon or cranberry. The final suggestion is the Jacky Tsai cocktail, which blends the gin with blue curaçao. The orange flavour of the curaçao is not going to quarrel with the gin, but I assume the main reason for this ingredient is that it makes the drink blue, matching the colour of the floral skull on the bottle.

A band of skulls
So what does D1 taste like? There is definitely juniper on the nose, though the first thing that strikes me as actually citrus, a juicy Opal Fruit (or Starburst to youngsters) hit of orange and lime—even though there is no lime in it. The tasting notes emphasise blackcurrant and I wouldn’t argue with that. There is more there too; I’m getting the cassia, some nutmeg, a floral note, something sappy and herbaceous, perhaps like coriander leaf, and some savoury, curry spice. But overall it is about fruit (they suggest apricot and I’d agree that is in there). Even with your nose up close in the tasting glass it is a sweet, fragrant aroma, not fierce and sharp or dominated by sinus-clearing aromatic juniper.

Dominic Limbrey addresses the masses
On the tongue it is very smooth, plump and gives an impression of sweetness (liquorice as a botanical is often used to achieve this sensation). The dry spice is notable, as is a florality and the juniper edge. Overall, it is subtly poised but pretty understated.

Diluting the gin half and half with water brings out the woody spice, though the citrus still dominates. The London Rocks serve has the same effect, though I’m struck by the slightly bitter/dry finish here.

Unsurprisingly, D1 makes a very approachable Martini, though there is more to it than that. Using Noilly Prat, even a relatively small amount of vermouth adds striking aromas of vanilla and orange blossom, plus fruit elements like melon or strawberry. Perhaps the understated character of the gin allows vermouth to shine, meaning that perhaps a D1 Martini is a useful testbed for vermouths. As you would imagine, this cocktail goes well with a lemon peel garnish.

Boujis' staff struggle to keep up with demand
And, yes, I can report that D1 does go well with cranberry juice (or “cranberry juice drink” which is the closest you are likely to encounter here), the harmony of fruits getting a (gentle) edge from the juniper and some warmth from the spices. D1 one is less successful in a gin sour, where it struggles against the powerful sweet/sour flavours—although for the first time I am struck by the blackcurrant note that they talk about.

D1 is a quiet and approachable gin, but one with subtleties that can be coaxed out. I don’t know how it will play with the Chinese but it’s worth trying in a Martini. The one thing that doesn’t ring quite true is the name.* It sounds like a wartime secret government department, or a move in a game of battleships (perhaps the next move after SW4?). But apparently the D is just for Dominic, the founder. I heard that the 1 is because it’s the first product, though I don’t think Richard Maton was that specific.

But he did tell me that in Chinese the name read out, “dee-wun”, means “number one”…

D1 is currently only available from Harvey Nichols, priced at £39.99 for a 70cl bottle

* Now, if they want to invade Grey Goose's territory, perhaps they should have simply called it Greyskull

Cocktails on the night included one with puréed watermelon (on the left) plus one with nettle and
peppermint cordial and dry cider (right). I tried one of the latter and one that simply combined the
gin with a nettle and black pepper cordial; perhaps I chose unwisely or perhaps the staff were
just too rushed but I have to say I was underwhelmed

(Left) One of the super-valuable floral skull sculptures; (right) Mrs H. models the rubber mask

Wednesday 21 May 2014

A little vodka alchemy from U'Luvka

Apparently this is what a balance of male and female looks like
My sister is a Human Resources type. Nowadays she is freelance, but she used to work for a “wealth management” company. Clearly anyone above a certain level in the business was assumed to have wealth of their own that needed management, and they would regularly receive presentations from people with investment opportunities to offer. One such was a new vodka brand called U’Luvka. You’ve probably heard of it now but at the time it was a bold new concept. I’m not sure why there was a feverish belief that it was a surefire money-spinner but, several years down the road, I spotted a bottle in my local Sainsbury’s, marked down from £35 to £30 (I think it was nearer £42 originally). Needless to say, curiosity got the better of me and I bought one of these oddly-shaped bottles to find out what the fuss is all about.

The bottle was, I believe, one of the selling points; the brand owners clearly believe no one could resist its charms. Personally I find it really annoying—at 14½ inches too tall to fit on a normal shelf, poorly balanced for pouring, etc. And I don’t know what it is saying about the vodka—it’s like a giant crystal sperm.

I tend to be suspicious of any “ultrapremium” vodka, as clearly there is a lot of marketing bollocks going on to make up for the fact that vodka doesn’t taste of that much. (And I assume that vodka rather lends itself to this kind of marketing, as the sort of person who is won over by it probably doesn’t like booze that much and might be upset by something really flavourful.) I actually dislike Grey Goose, as it tastes unpleasantly sweetened to me.

High-end vodka usually ends up trading either on provenance or on notions of “purity”. (In fact producing 96% pure alcohol and diluting it with distilled water is relatively easy, but most punters probably wouldn’t like the taste of it; I gather that most of the fancy filtration techniques used on vodka are more about nudging the flavour one way or another.) U’Luvka is made in Poland and the back story concerns a 16th-century chemist and alchemist named Sendivogius (Michał Sędziwój) who distilled a vodka for the court of King Sigismund III. Apparently the court’s habit of constantly offering toasts of vodka meant that they were plagued with permanent hangovers from the rough spirit: Sendivogius was commissioned to distil something purer, thus freeing the court to carry on quaffing while still being in a condition to carry on affairs of state. Of course, while darker spirits, red wine, port, etc., do contain congeners that might make you feel rougher, if you drink enough of any booze you will get a hangover, however “pure” it might be. And I can’t imagine that a court that is permanently drunk is going to be any more competent to govern than one that is permanently hung over! Anyway, U’Luvka claims—in a vague sort of way—to be a rediscovery of this recipe.

Sendivogius: no longer involved in the production of U'Luvka
It is made at a distillery outside Wroclaw from a blend of 50% rye, 25% wheat and 25% barley grown in the north of Poland. Despite the blarney about purity, the vodka is deliberately filtered only twice to retain a certain amount of character. The packaging is apparently all about alchemy, embodying the balance of opposites: the bottle is meant to combine female (the rounded body) and male (the tall—if inexplicably crooked—neck). The symbol on the front merges the alchemical glyphs for spirit, soul, man and woman, thus presumably celebrating alcohol’s ancient transformative power to get men and women together (something they possibly regret the next morning once the spirit has worn off). Even the suggested cocktails on the website all have names relating to alchemy.

For all this guff, I can report that fortunately U’Luvka isn’t bad at all. For me the nose has a striking aniseed/caraway character, presumably from the rye, essentially fresh and vibrant, with an orange zestiness and a cereal note. On the tongue it is very smooth, creamily approachable and with an impression of icing-sugar sweetness, yet without actually being cloying at all. It is subtle and poised, but with some balanced complexities, whispers of wood, rubber and pineapple. It retains these qualities in a vodka Gimlet or vodka Martini, and does indeed make good examples of these cocktails.

I grab a few other vodkas for comparative purposes—Ketel One, Chase and Russian Standard. Ketel One has the most similar character, though with a slightly richer mouthfeel and darker notes of chocolate and a hint of strawberry. Chase has a woodier nose and is very plump in the mouth and has a darker balance than the bright U’Luvka. Russian Standard is admittedly outclassed here, coming across as a rougher spirit.

I like U’Luvka, but would I buy it again? Probably not. For me Ketel One offers a pretty similar experience for about £10 a bottle less (and a more practical bottle design at that), while for the same money as U’Luvka Chase offers a more sumptuous presence if you are planning to sip it neat.

One mystery is the name. Unless I’ve missed it, nowhere on the website do they explain it, though elsewhere online I’ve found an explanation that it means “legless” in Polish, referring to the vodka toasting glasses used in Sigismund’s day that had no bases and so could not be put down until empty. Legless indeed…

Thursday 1 May 2014

With a cherry on the top: Luxardo Sangue Morlacco

Cherry brandy is one of those ancient cocktail ingredients and, like “apricot brandy”, isn’t really a brandy at all but a liqueur. Typically neutral spirit is infused with crushed cherries, although some posher examples use grape brandy as a starting point. (None of which is to be confused with a spirit made from fermented and distilled cherry juice, such as kirschwasser; maraschino, another cocktail staple, is also a liqueur, made by diluting and sweetening a spirit made from fermented and distilled marasca cherries, and is consequently colourless and tends to be drier and more delicately flavoured than cherry brandy.)

At a recent Candlelight Club event, our mixologist David Hamilton-Boyd included a recipe that specified Luxardo Sangue Morlacco Cherry Liqueur. I’d not heard of this and was interested to find that it is a cherry brandy that is oak-aged for two years. Luxardo are better known for their maraschino, and I gather that this is a by-product: cherries are fermented and then the alcohol is distilled off to make the maraschino. The left-over post-fermentation pulp is what is used to make the Sangue Morlacco, infused into neutral spirit with added sugar. There is a long history to this, and the name Sangue Morlacco—“blood of the Morlaccos”—was given to the drink by the poet Gabriel d’Annunzio in 1919 in respect of its colour, after the fiercely proud Dalmatian warriors who fought for the Republic of Venice and defended their homeland against invading Turks.

Pretty much all cherry boozes seem to include the stone, often grinding it up with the flesh, with the result that the dominant flavour is actually of almond. (It’s hard to conjure the flavour of cherries as distinct from their stones: I happen to have a jar of dark cherries in Luxardo kirsch in the fridge, so I eat one. But mostly you get the texture of the cherry flesh and that almond flavour of the kirsch. In fact while working on this post I open a bottle of red wine that has more of a distinct cherry fruit aroma than any of these spirits.)

I’ve got two other cherry brandies to hand, one by De Kuyper and some Cherry Marnier, by the same folk who make Grand Marnier. These two are quite tawny in colour, whereas the Morlacco is a vibrant purple-red, which is quite impressive after two years in a barrel.

The De Kuyper has a nose of marzipan and much the same on the palate. It is cloyingly sweet and pretty one-dimensional, with a very short finish. The Cherry Marnier is warmer, with darker, more complex flavours. To me it still essentially tastes of almonds, but there are elements of fresh fruit on the nose and palate too. The Sangue Morlacco immediately strikes me as more vinous on the nose, almost as if there were red wine in it—I suppose it does contain fermented cherry juice as well as spirit, and it has spent two years in a barrel. That familiar marzipan note still dominates the aroma and taste, but in the mouth it is less cloying that the others, with pronounced tartness and dry tannins (presumably from the wood) to balance the sugar. There is also a pepperiness on the finish.

There’s no doubt that, out of these three, the Sangue Morlacco is the most interesting, having more balance and depth. But I don’t think I would choose to drink any of them on its own.

The Blood and Sand* is a classic cherry brandy cocktail, so I rustle up a couple, one with De Kuyper and one with Sangue Morlacco. The traditional recipe is equal parts Scotch, cherry brandy, red vermouth and orange juice. I follow Simon Difford’s lead and double the quantity of Scotch (in this case Famous Grouse, with Martini Rosso as the vermouth).

First off, the Morlacco version is quite a different colour, a tawny red, as opposed to the sludge hue of the De Kuyper concoction. On the nose and palate, this latter is dominated by the confectionary almond element, giving it a slight cough-mixture quality. The same cocktail made with Sangue Morlacco is drier, with dark flavours, seemingly more emphasis on the vermouth and something reminiscent of port. It is altogether more of a grown-up drink, methinks. For me, this is where the superior qualities of Luxardo’s Sangue Morlacco come into their own—making cocktails with cherry brandy in them much more palatable.

* This cocktail was created in 1922 to celebrate the new Valentino movie of the same name. It was quite common in those days for movies and plays to be saluted in this way. It doesn’t seem to happen much today, but then would you want to drink a Fast and Furious 3? Or, for that matter, an Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag?