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 www.southwesterndistillery.com.

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.