Wednesday 18 October 2017

What do you give the woman who has everything? Her own cocktail

A friend was thinking of ways to mark another friend’s 50th birthday and, being a sterling cove, he decided she needed a cocktail created for her and named in her honour. To which end he approached me. (Yes, it’s the same friend who previously asked me to come up with a cocktail to go with the new Bognor Gothic typeface he had designed.)

To get me started I was given a list of his friend Sarah’s likes and dislikes:

Likes: Vodka, tequila, gin, Champagne/Prosecco, triple sec, fruity flavours

Dislikes: Brandy, whisky, chocolate, creamy drinks

OK, so a Brandy Alexander was out. But the combination of tequila, Champagne and fruit flavours immediately made me think of the Paloma Royale combo I came up with last year. This is a blend of tequila, Champagne and grapefruit juice (inspired by the popular Paloma drink of tequila and grapefruit soda); at the time I felt that it worked fine like that, but I also experimented with adding a sweet/sour element with lime juice and syrup. So I felt sure that you could take this base and tweak it a bit more.

My first port of call was the reference in the list of likes to the orange liqueur triple sec (e.g. Cointreau). Sure enough, adding a little of this worked very well, but it really needed just half a teaspoon (2.5ml). At this level the note of orange is clear, but doesn’t swamp the grapefruit, and the earthiness of the tequila still comes through and you’re aware of the mouthfeel of the sparkling wine too. (I used Prosecco this time.) Judging by the photos it looks as if I used pink grapefruit juice last year and I was using white grapefruit juice this time—which might explain why I previously decided that sweetening wasn’t necessary, whereas this time I had to admit that a smidgeon of added sweetness (i.e. the amount in ½ tsp of Cointreau) was just right. If you have a sweeter tooth you could try pink juice.

Sarah’s Surprise No.1
25ml tequila
40ml grapefruit juice
2.5ml (½ tsp) triple sec (e.g. Cointreau)
100ml Champagne or sparkling wine

Shake the first three ingredients with ice and strain into a flute or Champagne saucer then add the sparkling wine and give a gentle stir.

Adding ginger to the original Paloma Royale works well—but with white
grapefruit juice it does need a hint of sweetness added
As I mention in a footnote of the previous post, I’ve noticed in the past that tequila and ginger go well, and indeed my friend had suggested using ginger to give it an autumnal warmth (Sarah’s birthday is in November). An obvious strategy would be to use a ginger liqueur like The King’s Ginger. But (a) I didn’t have any, and (b) based on my previous experience I was worried about making it too sweet. So instead I decided to try muddling fresh root ginger in the cocktail shaker before adding the tequila and grapefruit juice. This does work for sure, and you can adjust the ginger flavour by how big a slice of ginger you use (about an inch across and ⅛ inch thick is a good starting point). You will probably want to fine-strain this, as mashing up the ginger does fill your shaker with bits of fibrous root.

For me this may well have been fine as it was if I had been using pink grapefruit juice, but since I was on the less sweet white juice this time I had to concede that even for me it needed a hint of sweetness. I did try combining both versions of the cocktail by adding triple sec as well, but this was actually a flavour too far and the whole thing became confused.

In the end I found that ½ tsp maraschino did the trick (and I was not unconscious of the reference to the Papa Doble Daiquiri, a version of the rum-based Daiquiri cocktail that adds maraschino and grapefruit juice, apparently preferred by Ernest Hemingway).

It also occurred to me that if you simply garnished the drink with a maraschino cherry, deployed with a barspoon or teaspoon, then enough of the syrup would be transferred to add the same sweetness as using the liqueur, and sure enough this was the case.

Sarah’s Surprise No.2
25ml tequila
40ml grapefruit juice
Slice of root ginger
2.5ml maraschino, or one maraschino cherry
100ml Champagne or sparkling wine

Muddle the ginger in the base of a cocktail shaker, then add the tequila, grapefruit juice and maraschino if using. Shake with ice and fine-strain into a flute or Champagne saucer, then top with sparkling wine. If using the cherry, add it, then give the drink a gentle stir.

Adding a maraschino cherry, using a teaspoon or bar spoon, brings across enough of the syrup to balance the sweetness

Monday 16 October 2017

Marc my words

I went to make myself a Champagne Cocktail the other day and found that I had run out of Cognac. However, I noticed that I had the tail-end of a bottle of marc, so I thought I would give that a try.

Marc is a French spirit made from the grape must left over from making wine (like Italian grappa). I first encountered it on holiday in France. In a booze shop my eye was caught by a bottle of marc from Chateau Mont-Redon—my wife’s degree dissertation had been on the artist Odilon Redon, so it seemed somehow preordained that I should sample this liquor. Marc is, or can be, extremely strongly flavoured, and I remember how powerful the aroma of the Mont Redon was, firing off elements of dried fruit, nuts and stewed vegetables. My wife said she could smell it from the other side of the hotel room.

The marc I had this time was from Briottet, who produce a handy range of high-quality, reasonably priced liqueurs ideal for cocktail making. This was their Très Vieux Marc de Bourgogne, from the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beane regions, aged for ten years in Burgundy barrels. Tasting the last thimbleful of it now, it does smell a lot like grappa, a sharp woody aroma with nuts and cherry stones, chocolate, raisins and dates. On the tongue these flavours are joined by a marmaladey orange note and something like pine nuts. Even after ten years in the barrel it’s pretty fierce, and you could believe it was stronger than its 43% ABV.

So does it work in a Champagne Cocktail? Yes, it certainly does, but you have to go easy. I started off using the same proportions I would use with Cognac (and I use less Cognac than many people) and the marc swamped it. I actually think that 5–10ml is about right, depending on the marc and the Champagne or sparkling wine you use. Adding the wine to the marc brought out extra elements of prunes and tobacco. The resulting cocktail seems very autumnal in its earthy flavours. I used the traditional sugar cube doused with Angostura bitters, but I found myself wondering whether a little pear purée might add a similarly autumnal form of sweetness.

Champagne Cocktail, Marc 2
Sugar cube
Angostura bitters
5–10ml marc
Champagne or sparkling wine
Apply several dashes of bitters to the sugar cube then drop it into a Champagne glass. Add the marc then top up with the sparkling wine.

Monday 25 September 2017

Adnams Rising Sun gin

Back in 2011, when Suffolk brewery Adnams entered the distilling game with two gins and three vodkas, I was much taken with all of them. The basic Copper House gin, which is cheaper and more widely available, is based on Adnams’ entry-level barley vodka and features hibiscus in the botanicals, giving it a smooth, floral character; the more expensive First Rate gin is based on the more complex three-grain Longshore vodka and has a drier, more juniper-forward character.

Adnams is based in the seaside town of Southwold, with their brewery and distillery a stone’s throw from the seafront. I was in the town last week and found myself in their dedicated store (in fact they have two). Their range has expanded further, with a young single malt whisky, a triple-malt (wheat, barley and oats) blended whisky with a bourbon character, their Spirit of Broadside, distilled from their Broadside ale, an apple brandy, a triple sec, a limoncello, a rye vodka and also a third gin—Rising Sun.

The defining characteristics of Rising Sun are the use of two key botanicals—lemongrass and Japanese matcha tea—and the base spirit made from rye. (In fact the name apparently comes from the fact that the rising sun’s rays hit Jonathan Adnams’ field where the rye grows before any other. They don't say whether this spirit is the rye vodka that is now sold as a product in itself.) It seems to be quite divisive: a friend of mine who had already tried it was quite sure that he did not like it, saying that it was too savoury for him; and the woman in the smaller of the two Adnams shops declared that it was sharp and peppery, thanks to the use of grains of paradise, and she said it in a way that made it clear she wasn’t that keen herself.

In uncork the bottle and Rising Sun greets me with a reassuring waft of juniper,  some sweet orange peel and something floral like violets; concentrate the fumes and this becomes slightly overripe. There is a distinct sweetness, a hint of ginger and something biscuity, perhaps with a sharpness like varnish fumes, which may come from the rye base.

On the palate I’m half expecting a pronounced rye-whisky sharpness, but it is actually quite smooth. In fact it is complex, as if the spirit base is lean and dry but the botanicals are smoothing things out. For me the most striking element is the matcha tea which is quite noticeable (more so, for me, than in Beefeater 24, which prominently includes Japanese sencha and Chinese green teas among the botanicals). Not so sure I’m getting the lemongrass, but overall it is comfortably within the territory of modern smooth/sweet/floral crowd-pleasers. I’m not really seeing why it would wrinkle noses in the way that it has done. In fact to me it seems to have a faint aftertaste that is sugary like a boiled sweet (without actually being sweet as such).

I make a Dry Martini using Rising Sun and Belsazar Dry vermouth and the character persists, except that there is now a toffee-mint note emerging.

I try mixing the gin with Franklin’s tonic water and it brings a fruitiness—a concentrated kind of fruit like dates or dried figs, plus a note of chocolate. (Although I am quite new to Franklin’s, these flavours don’t come from the tonic itself—I checked.) And still the matcha tea note cuts through.

So far I like this gin. To me the green tea element makes perfect sense, but others may feel differently. It does not seem sharp to me as it did to the woman in the shop, but perhaps it is the rye that puts some people off: in the user comments on Adnams’ website one reviewer describes it as “propanone and sourdough starter gone bad”, which definitely sounds like a reaction to the spirit. (I suspect his “propanone” is what I refer to as reminding me of varnish.)

And I wouldn’t really call it savoury. But then I myself tend to prefer gins that are savoury in the sense of being herbal, so perhaps it just seems normal to me.

Comparing Rising Sun alongside Copper House, the latter seems cloyingly floral and fruity; I much prefer Rising Sun. But certainly I feel there is a house style to Adnams’ gins that is quite bold, citrusy, smooth and floral. (I have the remains of a bottle of Beefeater 24 for comparison and it is quite different, restrained with a stern, lean mouthfeel.)

I notice that on the webpage for Copper House gin they say that they first had the idea of using hibiscus when they encountered it in tea, so you get a sense of the overarching family of flavours that make up the Adnams approach to gin.

Wednesday 23 August 2017

Gin and tonic—but not as we know it

For your drinking pleasure: a Hartley Gin Tonica, featuring my own penchant, the addition of Campari

The ceaselessly industrious Mr Smith sent me a copy of his new tome, all about the Spanish style of serving gin and tonic. DBS himself (always a fan of taxonomy) long ago decided that this serve was sufficiently distinct to count as a separate drink, referring to it specifically by the Spanish name gin tonica, and that is indeed the title of his book.

The Spaniards’ love of a G&T apparently started in the Basque country and is now so entrenched that this beverage is considered the national drink. What makes a gin tonica different from a gin and tonic? Essentially, attention to detail. The punter is presented with a range of gins and tonics, which are complemented by elaborate garnishes, all served in extravagant balloon glasses to capture and channel the aromas. Large quantities of high quality ice are vital and the tonic is added as delicately as possible so as not to damage its effervescence (I’ve even heard of someone pouring the tonic down the shaft of a barspoon to try and minimise the loss of bubbles). The whole preparation process can take up to 15 minutes, and the wait is considered part of the experience.

David’s book offers 40 recipes, broken down into Classic, Contemporary, Experimental and Seasonal, starting with simple variations on standard garnishes, such as the Evans which deploys both lemon and lime, the James Bond, where a lime is squeezed into the drink (as described in Dr No), the Pink Gin (with added Angostura bitters), plus general variations made with aged gin or sloe gin.

Here you will also find the Hartley, named, I am honoured to say, after myself. I had mentioned to David that I sometimes like to add a dash of Campari to my G&T, so his version has a teaspoon of Campari and a teaspoon of orange juice (to balance the bitterness with sweetness).

But even the “Classic” section calls for unusual garnishes such as thyme, rosemary, bayleaf and coffee beans. Moreover, the recipes never specify simply “gin”—each one is a precise combination of a particular gin and a particular tonic. Alternative gins are also given, but if you fancied working your way through the recipes it would mean buying a lot of different gins and quite a few different tonics that may prove hard to come by.

Moving into the “Contemporary” section we find more esoteric gins, featuring unusual botanicals or spirit bases made from rye or rice, as well as exotic garnishes, the flavours of which start to take more of a defining role—such as the combination of grapefruit and vanilla pod (which apparent synthesise the impression of chocolate) or infusions of teabags. Also in this section we encounter the addition of other spirits such as Bénédictine, crème de violette or even malt whisky.

Once we get into “Experimental” territory, the only certainty is that there is gin involved in some way (although it may be joined by another spirit or liqueur, such as rum or blue curaçao). Garnishes include lemon sorbet, gummy sweets, rock candy or marmalade, and the tonic itself may be augmented or replaced by lemonade or soda water.

The “Seasonal” section offers recipes that will feel in keeping with different times of year, although the ingredients are not necessarily any less exotic, featuring gins made with spices or actual Christmas puddings and tonics pre-flavoured with cranberries, elderflower, grapefruit and rosemary. The winter recipe adds ginger ale, ginger wine, cinnamon sticks and cloves. There is a Chocolate Gin Tonica (is that a season? Why, I hear you cry, it is every season) made entirely of ingredients you will be outraged to find you never knew existed—gin made with cocoa nibs, coffee and vanilla, a cardamom tonic water and chocolate bitters. Finally, the New Year’s Eve version uses a gin that comes in a Champagne bottle and is served with a little Champagne as well.

As I say, you would have to be a dedicated home mixologist to source all the various gins and tonics specified in these recipes, with the patience to delay your post-work loosener while you hull strawberries and shave ribbons of cucumber. But if you love a G&T and wish to explore all the drink’s nuances, then this inspiring book is for you.

Gin Tonica by David T. Smith is published by Ryland Peters at £7.99.*

* If you follow up both those links you'll see that the image on the Ryland Peters website actually shows a different cover design from the copy I was sent. I wondered if the UK and US editions were different, but on the cover is the same as

Wednesday 28 June 2017

Northern light: Ungava Canadian gin

I was in ASDA yesterday, which is frankly not the most upmarket supermarket, and I was surprised by the range of gins they had on offer. My eye was caught by Ungava, not so much because of its lurid neon-yellow colour but because it comes from Canada. I was actually born in Canada, as my parents lived there for a few years, so I have a soft spot for all things connected with that country (though, as my wife points out, I am a fairly rubbish Canadian, never having been back there since I left at the age of three). So I decided to give Ungava a try.

The name comes from the vast wilderness region in the north-east of the country where six botanicals are foraged during the brief summer: Nordic juniper, wild rose hips, crowberry (looks a bit like a blueberry), cloudberry, Labrador tea, the white flowers and evergreen leaves of which are described as giving a herbal flavour to the gin, and Arctic blend, which is very similar to Labrador tea and its flowers, leaves and stems apparently contribute the “underlying botanical base” of the gin. It’s not clear if these are all the botanicals involved or whether some other conventional ones are included as well; if it’s just these six then the distillers have done an impressive job of covering all the bases of the basic gin flavour profile with the plants to hand.

The gin is bottled at 43.1% ABV and, although they don’t actually say, I have read elsewhere that the base spirit is made from corn. There is a conventional steeping and redistilling process as well as a post-distillation infusion, which accounts for the colour. (They don’t mention which of the botanicals is responsible for the colour; it looks suspiciously artificial to me, the colour of Galliano, but they insist that all the ingredients are 100% natural.) The colour is said to recall the aurora borealis, which can be seen in the region. The bottle itself is adorned with Inuit characters, which I assume spell out something relevant. (The word above the name does, according to Wikipedia, say “Ungava”.)

This colour is apparently natural
Uncork the bottle and stick your nose to the neck, and the first thing that hits you is, reassuring, juniper. There is also a prominent citrus note, plus something herbal and mentholly, like wintergreen, a dustiness and even something that reminds me of banana, which I suspect is a slightly over-mellow floral element. You can believe there is tea is there too. It’s a pretty appealing nose, with just a suggestion that it might become cloying.

On the palate the flavour carries on from the nose. It does not strike me as hugely smooth (other gins of the same ABV do manage a smoothness) and there is a slightly bitter aftertaste. It is subtly complex, but not very strongly flavoured compared to many, quickly fading to leave a stemmy, grassy finish and a ghost of Opal Fruit (Starburst to you younger people).

As you can see from the botanicals, there is quite an emphasis on berries, and the dominant character of Ungava is a fruitiness. Add a little water to ease the alcohol burn and a sweetness emerges on the tongue, giving the whole thing a candied tone to match the candy colour.

A Dry Martini made with Belsazar Dry (which is quite dark in itself)
I try making a Martini using Belsazar Dry, and the result is an approachable drink that brings out the fruitiness, making me think of an orange and lemon ice cream. With this in mind I make a Gimlet (gin and lime cordial) and, as you might imagine, the result is harmonious. But when I compare this to a Gimlet made with Gin Mare, a bottle of which happens to be nearby, the latter drink is frankly much more interesting: Gin Mare is pretty wild, but its powerful, pungent, rosemary-led blast certainly holds your attention.

A gin and tonic made with Ungava is the colour of Pinot Grigio and again shows an essentially ginny, but quite restrained, character. Citrus is to the fore, with a dusty herbal layer and a dry, slightly bitter aftertaste. Not unpleasant by any means, but a G&T made with Thomas Dakin gin with the same tonic (Fevertree) in the same proportions has much more punch: a lively but harmonious collection of essentially classic flavours that bursts on your tongue.

Maybe that is just distracting, with the botanical intensity of Gin Mare and Thomas Dakin giving them an unfair advantage in comparison; but as interesting as Ungava is on paper, it is fairly quiet in practice. You can play with the colour (I’ll have to try an Aviation, which logically should end up green), but that’s a bit of a gimmick and Ungava is quite restrained on the tongue.

Having said that, it did grow on me, and I suspect the best way to drink it might be simply on the rocks, puckering your brow over the delicate notes of tea on the nose that subtle grassy aftertaste.

Just nobody mention the deadly yellow snow


I wasn't entirely right about the Aviation—more dark yellow than green…

An Aviation cocktail made with Ungava: yellow sky in the morning, aviator's warning…

Friday 7 April 2017

Strange fruit and the Moroney cocktail

We have a couple of little fruit trees in pots, an orange and a lemon, which struggle to thrive in our London garden. Over winter we brought them indoors and I watched as the orange tree produced a couple of fruit. Sadly, it wasn’t very happy and started dropping its leaves until pretty much all that was hanging from its spindly branches were the two fruit, and the stems supporting them were the only green, healthy looking ones. I was hoping that they would in time look like, you know, oranges; but by the point they both dropped off last week they were still resolutely green.

After a week sitting in the fruit bowl they clearly weren’t about to change colour, so I sliced one open. Rather gratifyingly, the inside looked just like an orange. A little on the small side, but nevertheless orange and juicy, like an orange should be. Its juice was somewhat astringent, but definitely orange juice.*

In fact the combination of the green skin and orange flesh is rather striking and, in combination with the white pith, reminiscent of the Irish flag. When I thought about cocktails traditionally garnished with an orange slice I immediately hit upon the Negroni (equal parts gin, Campari and red vermouth) and, to give it an Irish twist I tried using Irish whiskey instead of gin. Or course there is every reason why this should work, since the same thing with American whiskey is a Boulevardier, and I’ve noticed in the past how Irish whiskey, with its milder character than Scotch, lends itself better to cocktails.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Moroney. And very well it works too, with the caramelly warmth of the whiskey balancing the herbal bitterness of the amari with a bit of sweetness from the vermouth (I used Martini Rosso and Jameson whiskey in this case).

I wish I’d thought of this in time for St Patrick’s Day last month. Perhaps I can pretend it is to mark the 101st anniversary of the Easter Uprising…

Ice ball courtesy of a G'Vine ice ball maker

*When I posted a photo on Facebook a friend observed that once upon a time oranges were actually green, until later being bred to have orange skin, so I can tell myself that we must have a Heritage Orange Tree.

Tuesday 4 April 2017

Vintage cider: how do we like them apples?

DBS contemplates the three vintages

Along with the fashion for cider (or “cyder” as the really poncey brands have it) comes “vintage” cider. In some cases this doesn’t actually seem to mean the cider has a vintage as such, merely that it is “vintage” in style, but here in the UK mainstream brands such as Weston’s and Thatcher’s do produce aged ciders of a specific year.

I recently had a chance to do a vertical tasting, albeit under rather unscientific circumstances. My sister lives in rural Kent and has a few apple trees in her large garden, so every year she gathers friends and family for a rather messy cider-making party. Small children are sent up into trees to gather the apples, which are loosely chopped by cackling crones, then “scratted” into a pulp. Scratting involves a machine so that job is done by blokes.* The pulp goes into a pleasingly old-fashioned wooden press and the resulting juice is fermented in plastic bins or glass demijohns with bubbling water valves to let the CO2 out but ideally let nothing in to contaminate the cider. In all, each year’s harvest makes about 70 bottles. Mrs H. and I traditionally compose labels for each vintage in time for Christmas which is roughly when the cider is ready for bottling. As a joke we named it Chapple Downer (there is an commercial vineyard in Kent called Chapel Down; my sister’s married name is Downer and the cider is made from apples) and the name has stuck.

It’s a nicely circular process, because by the time of each event the previous year’s cider is drinking nicely and the cider-making party consume quite a lot of it in the process. (For this reason the 2015 vintage was named Perpetuum Mobile—perpetual motion.)

Anyway, my sister gave me a set of 2013, 2014 and 2015 samples at the end of last year, so earlier this year I invited DBS along for this rare chance to try them all together.

2013 Bumper Scrump (so named because it was a bumper crop that year)**
Nose: Instead of fresh apple, it is more like baked apple. Extraordinarily it seems to include aromatic cinnamon and clove notes and raisins too. I keep wondering if this is just suggested to me by flavourings you might add to baked apple, but it does genuinely seem to be there.
Palate: The same thrust as the nose. It’s dry, but not mouth-puckeringly dry. The acidity is well balanced, with a hint of bitterness on the finish. Although bottled as a sparkling cider (with a supposedly calculated dosage of extra sugar for a controlled secondary fermentation) this bottle is not really fizzy any more, but it is nevertheless zesty and refreshing. But overall its character is deep, dark, complex cooked apple.

2014 People's Farming Collective of Littlebourne Fermented Apple Product (I think the name was a reference to the sheer number of people involved in the production)
Nose: Although this sample seems slightly darker in colour than the older cider, the nose is less profound, with more fresh apple and less of the spicy baked apple.
Palate: Properly sparkling with a delicate mousse. Slightly sweeter and more appley than the 2013. But there is a dark fruity weight on the tongue which makes you think that in time it would mature into the spiciness of the 2013.

2015 Perpetuum Mobile
Nose: Essentially similar to the 2014
Palate: Balance now is too much towards the acid, making it not quite comfortable to drink. Interestingly, this bottle was stoppered and left for a day or two, after which its pale colour had darkened (presumably through oxidation) and the palate had mellowed a bit.***

Of course all of this ignores the fact that, especially with production on a haphazard, domestic scale like this, not only will each year’s harvest differ, but the fruit going into each squeeze of the press and each of the various fermenting containers may not be consistent in terms of either quality or balance between different varieties (there are different species of apple tree involved, including a quantity of crab apples, which are apparently important, although nothing is measured very precisely). Different demijohns will ferment differently depending on the sugar present, the viability of the yeast and any accidental infections.

However, there does seem to be a pattern apparent where the youngest cider is acidic, dry and most redolent of fresh apple, then as it ages the attack softens and deeper spicy notes appear. The 2013 is very interesting, and not like any commercial cider I have tasted; DBS said it was by far his favourite, but I think some people might find it a little too over-mellow, and it would be harder to partner with food. The 2014 probably has the best balance between these complexities and the basic package of fruit, tannin and acid, while the 2015 gives the impression of not quite being there yet.

* The first year the scratter was a crude blade attached to an electric drill, which was spun round inside a plastic bucket of apples. Last year we tried using a cheap garden chipper. This was pretty effective at first, but after a while the engine started cutting out. The blokeyest of the blokes starting taking it apart, gradually bypassing switches and safety cut-offs in the hope of getting it going again: eventually is was pretty much just a motor wired into the mains, and it still didn’t work so we had to concede defeat at this point and scratted the rest of the apples in a food processor. Which was pretty effective too. 

** “Scrumping” means stealing apples from someone’s orchard

*** I’ve just tried it again now, some weeks after it was opened, though it has been kept stoppered. It is now frankly brown in colour, but has taken on a Fino sherry note, that high aromatic edge that reminds me of Bostik glue (but in a good way). It’s aggressive, and you feel you wouldn’t want to leave it in contact with your tooth enamel for longer than necessary, but actually quite interesting. I wonder if some sort of flor has developed…

The complete set of Chapple Downer labels:

Osbourns is the name of my sister's house

2012 saw a relatively meagre harvest, which we spun as being "select"

By contrast, 2013 was a bumper harvest

This is where the Richard Scarry homage reaches its peak to date

The worm here is a reference to the Midgard Serpent in Norse myth

Sunday 5 March 2017

Experimenting with monkey glands

Early in one’s drinking career one will encounter spirits lengthened with mixers—gin and tonic, rum and coke, perhaps whisky and ginger ale (or whisky and soda water, if you are of a different generation). It was when I was a student that I first encountered gin and orange juice. I was sceptical, as I was inclined to think of OJ as a wholesome breakfast beverage, not a louche partner-in-crime to the Demon Drink, the innocent-faced, outwardly respectable enabler that distracts you from the hard spirits you are guzzling. It didn’t not work, but it was clearly intended as a way to mask the flavour of the spirit.

It was later, when I had found a copy of Cocktails and How to Mix Them (1922) “by ‘Robert’ [Vermeire] of the American Bar, Casino Municipale, Nice, and late of the Embassy Club, London”, that I first encountered the Monkey Gland cocktail. The name comes from experiments conducted at the time by surgeon Serge Voronoff, who believed he could boost longevity/virility by surgically implanting monkey testicle tissue into men. The cocktail was created by Harry MacElhone, who opened Harry’s Bar in Paris (though Vermeire identifies him by his tenure at Ciro’s in London) and I assume the name was chosen to suggest that the effect it had on the drinker was invigorating, even rejuvenating—and not that it left you feeling like you’d just woken up from surgery (or, even worse, feeling the way the monkey did when, and if, he woke up).

It’s a mix of gin and orange juice, with grenadine and absinthe. Recipes vary, but it is roughly equal parts gin and OJ, with small quantities of the other two ingredients. I tried it at the time, using Pernod (this was the 1990s and absinthe hadn’t made its triumphant return by then) and commercial grenadine, and I don’t think I was terribly impressed.

I was reminded of this drink again when Mrs H. recently gave me a copy of An Anthology of Cocktails, put out by Booth’s gin in 1935.* It features a whole list of celebs of the time with a recommended cocktail for each one and a cheesy testimony from them on the glories of Booth’s. For example, man of the turf Lord Westmorland declares, so we are led to believe, “A cocktail without Booth’s is a cocktail under a handicap,” while actress Sybil Thorndike asserts that, “A cocktail in which Booth’s plays a leading part receives an enthusiastic reception from the most captious critics,” while racing driver Brian Lewis blurts, “A party without Booth’s is like a car without wheels.” Quite how the Great and the Good were persuaded to lend their names (and indeed their signatures, printed alongside) to these abortions of the copywriter’s art boggles the mind.

The volume also includes a list of London clubs and theatres that serve Booth’s and a list of top barmen from the city with their favourite Booth’s recipes. You can see a page-turning PDF of the whole book at

The Monkey Gland as such does not appear—the cocktails recommended by Booth’s for the celebs do tend to have a name that is relevant (Brian Lewis gets the Self Starter, winter sportsman the Earl of Northesk gets the Snowball, Ivor Novello gets the Star, etc), so I doubt that any of them would have appreciated being paired with the Monkey Gland—but it does feature a number of cocktails that similarly feature fruit juice not as a mixer to lengthen but as an ingredient, in amounts less than that of the base spirit. The Star, for example, is half-and-half gin and Calvados, plus a dash each of French and Italian vermouth, and only a teaspoon of grapefruit juice. The Smiler cocktail, recommended by horse breeder Tom Walls (“Would that the pedigree of a horse were as reliable a guide as the name of Booth’s on a bottle of gin,” he creaks) is essentially a Martini made with a blend of French and Italian vermouth, Angostura bitters and just a dash of Orange juice.

As it happens I had an orange looking for a purpose in life, and I was inspired to give the Monkey Gland another go. The upshot was most uplifting but I had to do a lot of experimenting to get there.

In the first instance I would say that the proportions are probably the most important part. Get the gin/OJ balance wrong and things go awry. Exactly how much grenadine you use may depend on how sweet your tooth is; but it is very easy to throw the whole thing out by using too much absinthe—in one attempt I escalated the absinthe to a whole ½ tsp and it ruined the drink. It should be a playful suggestion of pungent herbal flavours lurking in the background. The simplest way to keep that under control is to start by rolling some absinthe around your mixing vessel, then pouring it all out back into the bottle. What is left clinging to the sides of the shaker is all you need.

I also found that squeezing the orange juice freshly makes a big difference. It doesn’t exactly fail with commercial OJ from a carton, but this will make a more watery drink. Juice squeezed from an orange is sweeter and more intensely flavoured, with sharp aromatic notes from the rind oils. I imagine that when all these early cocktails with small amounts of fruit juice were developed, cartons of ready-squeezed juice may not have been available, so if a recipe specified the juice of a citrus fruit it was assumed that you would produce this by squeezing an actual fruit.

Monkey Gland
50ml gin (Adnams Copper House)
37.5ml freshly squeezed OJ
Absinthe rinse (La Fée new formula)
½ tsp grenadine
Coat the shaker with a rinse of absinthe and drain. Add the other ingredients and shake with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass and squeeze a strip of orange peel over the top.

As mentioned, the gin/orange balance is important, so neither swamps the other, a balance of sweetness, fruitiness and spirit warmth. When it’s right, interesting chocolate flavours emerge. Maybe it’s the use of freshly squeezed OJ, but the spirit and juice seem to integrate in a way that suggests the rich orange character of curaçao. I also tried varying the gin brand, using Anno instead, and it still works, though I found that the approachable, fruity, floral character of Adnams Copper House sat more comfortably. I didn’t try varying the absinthe brand, but as long as it is real absinthe (avoid anything that is a bluish green, which is artificial; naturally coloured absinthe tends to be an olive green) I would imagine it’ll be OK in these proportions.**

Grenadine is traditionally a pomegranate syrup, and I have previously railed against modern commercial grenadines, which are actually based on “red berries”, and probably don’t even feature any real ones of those anyway. But it is easy to make a good one, not too sweet, with some of the tannic dryness of the fruit, by mixing equal parts by volume of 100% pomegranate juice (POM Wonderful is the brand I have used in the past) and granulated sugar, heated in a pan to dissolve, then cooled. I keep some in the fridge and it never seems to go off.

*Most of the recipes specify “Booth’s gin”, and more than once the text refers to the “mellow” or “matured” character—DBS tells me that Booth’s was actually rested in wood barrels (casks previously used for sherry or Burgundy, depending on the era) for 6–12 weeks to soften its rough edges. Some of the recipes, on the other hand, specify “Booth’s dry gin”; certainly by the mid-20th century Booth’s were selling their High and Dry Gin, claiming to be “the driest gin in the world”, though I’m not sure if, at the time this booklet was published, they were selling both versions. Sadly there is nothing actually about the product within its pages. Aged gin has become fashionable again (and in fairness Seagram’s have always rested their gin in wood for 3–4 weeks). In recent years a Booth’s Cask Mellowed Gin has been produced again.

** I see that the International Bartenders Association gives their prescribed recipe as even leaner: 50ml gin, 30ml OJ and just two drops each of grenadine and absinthe.

Friday 24 February 2017

The definitive "correct" Martini recipe?

A friend has drawn my attention to a curious volume, the American National Standard Safety Code and Requirements for Dry Martinis, which you can view online here.

Evidently it was produced as a tongue-in-cheek publicity stunt to raise awareness of the American National Standard Institute and its work, but there are some interesting observations to make nevertheless.

Whoever wrote the pamphlet (or whatever committee) nails their colours to the mast—they like their Martini dry, with just 5% vermouth for lower-strength gins, and it must be served with an olive, pitted but not stuffed, or alternatively no garnish at all. Lemon peel and the Gibson’s cocktail onion are verboten.

There is a curious emphasis on colour, which must be as pale as possible. It’s true that Dry Martinis do tend to be pretty pale because they are mostly gin, but I’m guessing there is an unconscious sense that paler = purity and strength, especially in the macho world where you are supposed to strive for the driest Martinis possible. There is even a suggestion that vermouth manufacturers had responded by making their products paler, which is something I hadn’t thought about (but then I wasn’t drinking a lot of Martinis back when this pamphlet was released, so I don’t know if vermouths used to be more coloured). Certainly they do vary—Belsazar Dry, one of my favourites, is actually pretty dark (and probably gets darker if you allow it to oxidise after opening). Oddly, the text states that, “The colour shall be either water-white of faintly blue”. Blue? I’m assuming this is poetic license, derived from the idea that something can be so white that it is bluish, but I must say that if my Martini were blue I would send it back. (There are some gimmicky gins that are coloured blue but we don’t talk about them.)

And these drinks are big. I doubt that any official publication today would breezily announce that a “regular” Dry Martini should contain 3½ ounces of gin—over here in Europe that is 103.5 ml, which is over four units of alcohol. (For a long time the UK government’s maximum recommended intake for a man was 3–4 units a day, though the spoilsports later reduced this to 2–3, and I have a feeling they may recently have reduced it further.) If you fancy saving time and having a double you’ll be swallowing 2–2½ days’ worth of alcohol allowance in one drink. Drink responsibly, kids.

On the subject of olives, it is curious that the guide seems to suggest that maximum olive size for a large Martini is larger than for a regular, but for a double it goes back down to the same size as a regular. Perhaps the message here is that choosing a large Martini is an aesthetic decision, whereas choosing a double is simply a matter of alcoholic need. Or it may just be a typo.

It terms of mixing, no mention is made of shaking. A Martini must be stirred (and there are many who agree here) or blended from pre-chilled ingredients (what my colleague Mr Bridgman-Smith calls the “Diamond Method”). Interestingly they also mention the “radiation” method. This is presumably a reference to the old joke, attributed to Winston Churchill, about making a Dry Martini by simply allowing a shaft of sunlight to pass through a bottle of vermouth on to the gin. Curiously the sunbeam here is replaced by a 60-watt bulb. Either this is a self-consciously urban adjustment, or it is purely logical, based on the idea that if it is Martini time then it might well be the evening, so there is no sunlight. Or it could simply be a pseudo-scientific trope—by specifying the wattage of the bulb and the distance between all the objects you can control the precise amount of light.

The whole tone of the pamphlet reminds one of Jazz-Age wags like Robert Benchley, so it is surprising that this was actually published in 1974—surely well into the cocktail Dark Age, between the Golden Age and the New Golden Age, where we apparently are now. I’m sure that some Dry Martinis were still being consumed in the 1970s but they could hardly have felt like part of the zeitgeist. You can’t help wondering if what this shows us is simply how glacially the mechanisms of official bureaucracies actually work. Some bright spark at the Institute probably had the idea for this gag in 1928 but by the time it had passed through countless committees and sub-committees somehow 26 years had passed…

Of course right-thinking drinkers would probably bristle at the very idea that cocktail recipes should be standardised by any central agency—what scope does that leave for bar-room arguments, varying ingredients or indeed for personal taste? But in fact in 1937 the UK Bartenders Guild produced a volume for professionals entitled Approved Cocktails (later incorporated into the Café Royal Cocktail Book for consumers), which attempted to do precisely that. You can see it online here.