Friday 27 June 2014

Adnams gin, old and new

The original 50cl sample (left) and a newly-purchased 70cl bottle
I noticed that my local Sainsbury’s had started selling Adnams First Rate gin. Having remembered it as impressing me favourably when I reviewed the Adnams spirit range back in 2011, I bought a bottle. It still impresses me, with a powerful spicy, herbaceous flavour that makes a punchy Martini.

While poking around in a cupboard, however, I came across the last of the original bottle I was sent for review purposes. I was interested to see that they had made some minor changes to the label design. This got me wondering if they had changed the contents as well, so I did a comparative tasting.

On the nose the old bottle is herbaceous, aromatic, with a slightly medicinal, almost eucalyptus-like note. The new bottle, while recognisably the same, has more juniper steel about it, plus a more pronounced orange aroma, with darker elements of butter and caramel.

On the palate the old bottle is soft, with a hint of florality; the caramel notes that you can smell on the new batch come through here. Meanwhile the new gin is sharper in the mouth, with the aromatic qualities now making themselves felt, and a long, lingering finish.

Have they changed the formula? Or am I witnessing the effect of three years in a bottle that is now only about a quarter full? They say that spirits don’t change once they are in glass, but the older batch would have been exposed to quite a bit of air on repeated openings, and the bottle itself contains a fair amount. It makes sense that perhaps some of the alcohol will have evaporated, and we know that the same gin can come across differently at different ABVs (just taste the regular and Navy Strength versions of the same gin). If this has happened it might explain why the older batch seems softer in the mouth—there may be less alcohol in it.*

Just to be sure I ask John McCarthy, Adnams’ Head Distiller, if the recipe has changed. He assures me it has not. He agrees that oxidation is likely to have played a part in the difference in flavour between the two bottles I have, but he also adds, “Batches of botanicals, being natural ingredients will have slight variations batch to batch (we try and make adjustments to allow for this).” Interestingly, he also suggests that maturation may be a factor: “Flavours will change and develop over time, even in bottle.”

So, should we be “laying down” bottles of gin to mature? Of course there is no suggestion that spirits in the bottle will necessarily change for the better. You may just lose volatile elements, sanding off the aromatic corners. But it’s an interesting idea.

Ironically, the thing that prompted this experiment—the change to the label design—turns out not even to be a change. The original sample I was sent was a smaller 50cl bottle and, looking at the online shop, I realise that the 50cl bottles just have a different label from the full-size bottle, without the latter’s photo of what looks like bits of a yacht. They still have the same label as the one I have.

* I experienced a striking illustration of this recently. I poured myself a jigger of malt whisky as a nightcap, drank half of it but then either forgot to finish it or perhaps just fell asleep. Either way, the half-full shot glass sat on my desk for several days waiting for a suitable occasion for me to finish it. When I finally took a sip I nearly spat it out in disgust. While it was still clearly related to peaty malt whisky, it was now sour, dusty and thin—I suspect that the bulk of the alcohol had evaporated away, leaving mostly water.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

Pop goes the G&T!

As I drifted past a posh deli in the very posh town of Petworth, my eye was understandably caught by this in the window. A packet of “Gin & Tonic” flavoured popcorn. Obviously I couldn’t resist nipping in to inspect.

The packaging claims that the product contains 5% actual gin and 5% tonic, though the list of ingredients also includes “natural gin flavour”. Juniper? The manufacturers, Joe and Seph, offer a wide and ambitious range of popcorns, including such flavours as blue cheese with walnut and celery, strawberries and cream, madras curry with black onion seeds and lime, and toffee apple and cinnamon. In addition to G&T the range includes three cocktails—Mojito, Margarita and Cosmopolitan.

The G&T popcorn is air-popped corn coated with caramel—which seems to be the base of most if not all of the products in the range—with further flavourings added. Open the packet and you immediately get an aroma of butter and caramel and a mealy grain smell. But there does seem to be a higher note too, perhaps something fruity. Bite into a piece and, lo and behold, there does seem to be a fruity aromatic flavour pretty reminiscent of juniper (I wouldn’t say that I could detect any other gin botanicals). The first thing that strikes me is surprise that juniper sits so comfortably with caramel.* (Oddly, the conjunction of the two flavours suggests banana to me as well.)

And tonic? Well… if you try hard you can convince yourself that there is a lemon note and a little bitterness, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t notice any such thing if I tasted it blind.

Most importantly, of course, these are tasty and rather moreish snacks. Do they go with G&T? Certainly—particularly with a fruity gin there is quite a synergy, though you may well find that ordinary caramel popcorn also goes with G&T just as well.

I am now curious to try the other products in the “cocktail range”…

* There are, I discovered, plenty of “Caramel Martini” recipes out there, but most are based around vodka or schnapps. I found hardly any that actually combine caramel with gin.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Opihr gin's eastern promise

We had a Casablanca-themed Candlelight Club event last month and one of the cocktails devised by our mixologist David involved Opihr gin, of which I had not previously heard. Launched last year by Quintessential Brands and distilled at Greenall’s, it describes itself an an “Oriental Spiced Gin”, and the schtick is that the botanicals come from the fabled Spice Route—the interactive website carries you on a sea voyage, taking on board cubeb berries from Malacca, Tellicherry black peppers from Malabar, cumin seeds from Turkey, juniper from Italy, coriander from Morocco and sweet orange peel from Spain. I gather there are ten botanicals in total, the others being cardamom, grapefruit peel, ginger and angelica.

The name comes from a Biblical region, the hangout of King Solomon and famed for its wealth and exotic spices. The bottle is rather appealing, featuring a pair of colourful elephants. What’s not to like about a gin with elephants on it?

Opihr themselves describe the gin as having “citrus notes balanced with earthy aromatics and warm, soft spices”. On the nose the first thing that hits you is a sherbet-like sweetness, then a strong element of limes, oranges, and dry lemony coriander seed. You can detect juniper in there too but it is not very dominant. It’s quite complex, the enticingly juicy Opal-fruit lime character balanced by savoury notes of cumin and maybe turmeric.

On the tongue this gin is strongly biased towards cardamom, which gives it an exotic sweet-seeming approach, strongly redolent of rose. Cardamom is a common enough spice in gin but the heavy presence here serves to make this product smack of the souk. There is coriander too and some black pepper on the finish.

This character persists in a G&T, and also in a Negroni (equal parts gin, red vermouth and Campari). I find that often more subtle gins get lost in this punchy concoction, and it can be a good place for in-your-face spirits such as the Hernö juniper-cask-aged gin with its almost eye-watering resinous juniper fumes. So I was surprised that Opihr’s distinctive cardamom character came coiling up from the cocktail. It works well, with the sweet smoothness balancing against the bitterness of the Campari and vermouth.

An Opihr Gin & Tonic with prescribed chilli garnish
It’s a gin that is relatively easy to drink on its own, and it is possible that (as with D1) this was something the developers had in mind. It works perfectly well in a Martini, the gin’s essential character blending with the bitter herbal elements of the vermouth without trouble. As you might expect, the rose-like quality of the cardamom sits comfortably with the floral character of the crème de violette in an Aviation cocktail (gin, maraschino, lemon juice and violette). In fact you could argue that it blends in a bit too much, almost getting lost. I might have thought that this citrusy gin would be an obvious contender for a Gimlet (gin and Rose’s Lime Cordial), and it is an interesting combination; but the sweetness of the cordial actually emphasises the drier spices of the gin and seems to evoke a bitterness. It’s a somewhat awkward union and I’m not sure this is really the best gin for this cocktail.

One recommended serve is a G&T garnished with a red chilli pepper! I give it a try, and (insofar as a cocktail with chilli in it is a good idea) it doesn’t not work. I guess we are used to the combination of chilli, cardamom, coriander and cumin in curries, and it is normal enough to balance chilli heat with sweetness; while the gin isn’t actually sweet, the cardamom does give an impression of sweetness. They also suggest using the gin in a Red Snapper (a Bloody Mary made with gin instead of vodka), another cocktail with peppery heat in it.

Despite the Spice Route USP, none of the botanicals is unique to Opihr—London Dry Gin, that most quintessentially English of spirits, has always been made with spices shipped in from all over the world. Whether you’ll like Opihr depends on how much you like cardamom and to what extent you think gin really should be dominated by juniper. I assume it is, like so many new gins these days, aimed at people who would not normally drink gin at all, hence the emphasis on the impression of sweetness from botanicals like orange and cardamom (liquorice is often used to achieve the same effect), and the downplaying of gin’s defining flavour, juniper. I quite like it myself, but because of the lack of juniper it would not be my desert island gin.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Something WKD this way comes

DBS is not without his mischievous streak, and for a connoisseur his tastes are remarkably catholic—this is man who conducted his own Bacardi Breezer group tasting. (In this respect he reminds me of another friend who is quite the gourmet and has eaten in some of the world’s finest restaurants, yet is equally likely to scoff a packet of Haribo or urgently seek out the new Marc de Champagne flavoured Magnum.) So it was no real surprise that he presented me with this.

It’s not the only “limited edition” booze product pushed out to cash in on World Cup fever (Ish gin have rebranded their Ish Limed as Ish Limão for the occasion), and in WKD’s case it is so limited that it isn’t even mentioned on their website.

WKD Brazilian is an alarming fluorescent yellow colour. Pop the cap and you are assailed by a powerful confectionary fruit aroma that reminds me of Refreshers or Parma Violets. On the palate the association with Refreshers is enhanced by the fizziness. The taste is an intense blast of synthetic melon, lime and kumquat, but with sort of sour, overripe off-note and a slightly bitter aftertaste. Mrs H. thinks it tastes of lime jelly, and I think she is right—it is reminiscent of lime but overblown and unnaturally concentrated. Oddly, there is also a hint of tea, a slightly drying element. It coats your teeth in a rather disturbing way.

As you can probably tell, I’m not a fan of WKD Brazilian. I guess I didn’t expect it to taste particularly natural, but what surprises me is how concentrated the flavour is—a bit like eating fruit gums (or indeed raw jelly cubes). On the WKD Facebook page they give a few punch-style cocktails and I can imagine that this drink becomes more palatable in dilution.

But, at the end of the day, why not just make a Caipirinha?