Wednesday 28 February 2018

When is a gin Cornish?

I like Cornwall, England’s westernmost county, and regularly go on holiday there. It was on a previous jaunt, to the Roseland Peninsula, that I came across Tarquin’s Cornish Gin, which got me thinking about how one could meaningfully create a gin that seemed redolent of Cornwall itself. (Tarquin’s gin has mostly conventional botanicals from all over the world, with the only local one being violets from Tarquin’s garden.)

The last time I was in the area I popped into the Polgoon winery near where I was staying. I’d been before, sampled their wines and frankly found them pretty unpalatable, but I like the idea so I went back to give them another try. Their product was still unexciting (though they also make cider, which is better), so I poked around in the shop and found a whole wall of Cornish gins. More or less at random I picked three to try, Curio, Wrecking Coast and Trevethan. Each of these takes a different approach to what might make a gin distinctly “Cornish”.

Curio gin is made by the Curio Spirits Company in Mullion, west Cornwall, which is husband and wife team William and Rubina Tyler-Street. The Big Idea is that Curio uses rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum) as a botanical, which grows on cliffs in the area. It is not to be confused with the more commonly-encountered marsh samphire (Salicornia europaea), which I first came across in a fishmongers some years ago, sold as an accompaniment. I was told it grew on the coast and was only in season for about three weeks a year; later I foraged my own one summer on a flat, marshy beach in Norfolk. It has a pleasant crunchy texture and a light salty flavour. It is sometimes called sea asparagus, but it is not nearly as strongly flavoured as asparagus. Nowadays it is sufficiently fashionable (at least in London) that I see it in supermarkets all year round, imported from the Middle East and elsewhere.

Rock samphire, on the other hand, is still pretty obscure, probably because it has a strong, alarming flavour. While rambling on the coast we crossed a beach where, according to the guidebook, rock samphire grew on the cliffs; I did nibble some stalks of what I concluded must be the right plant (though Mrs H. was sceptical) and it was pretty fiery and pungent. Curio has a dominating flavour of mint, both on the nose and the palate, a sort of soggy mint with an undertone of fennel. I’m guessing this is your rock samphire, as it is also known as sea fennel. The illustration on the label shows the samphire, and also juniper and star anise (and what looks like coriander leaf but presumably isn’t). The company say that there are 15 botanicals but won’t give them away apart from samphire, juniper, star anise, cinnamon and seaweed. Mind you, there is a photo on their website which seems to show them all. How good are you at identifying them? I can also spot lemon peel, nutmeg, coriander seed, fennel sea, and what looks like ground almond and orris root powder, plus some sort of dried flower?

The botanicals that go into Curio

It's one of those occasions when I can’t really pick up on many of those, so dominating is that sweet mint/fennel thing. There is a waft of fresh lemon on the nose, and a bit of pepper and caramel on the finish. It goes well enough with tonic, but that mint flavour persists and, for me, becomes more cloying as you go on. The recommended serve is on the rocks with a pinch of sea salt. The spirit is certainly smooth neat (they say their spirits are “quadruple distilled”) and the salt adds the briny promise that is there on the label but not in the spirit itself (despite the presence of seaweed in the mix), but I can’t really warm to this gin. I am just haunted by those nagging pungent, aromatic oils.

Wrecking Coast is made at Tintagel, on an area indeed known as the Wrecking Coast because of the violent winter weather. The microdistillery uses a selection of 12 botanicals (apparently juniper, coriander, chamomile, vanilla, angelica, liquorice, orris, grains of paradise, cassia bark, cinnamon quills, lemon peel and aniseed), steeped in neutral grain spirit for 14 days, then redistilled through a computer-controlled iStill designed in the Netherlands, before being rested for a further seven days. But the Big Idea with Wrecking Coast, in fact the starting point for the whole project and the thing that makes it self-consciously Cornish, is clotted cream. In case you don’t know, clotted cream is a local delicacy, made by gently heating cream to produce a very thick, slightly caramelised end result with a fat content of at least 55%. The distillers seem to blend clotted cream with more grain spirit (I assume the fat dissolves in the alcohol) then use a separate, hand-blown glass vacuum still to redistill that mixture.* I guess they must have found that traditional heat distillation did something horrid to the taste. The two distillates are blended then diluted down to 44% ABV.

Making alcohol from dairy is nothing new—some vodkas are milk based and it was a common base for illicit Irish poitín (in fact I believe Knockeen Hills is made from milk) but I have not heard of someone mixing cream with neutral grain spirit then redistilling that.** Wrecking Coast say that the resulting drink retains the flavour of the cream while also gaining a “rich, velvety feeling in the mouth”. Certainly some spirits do have a creamy, unctuous mouthfeel, such as Sipsmith and Chase vodkas, though neither of those has any dairy in them.

The first thing that hits me on Wrecking Coast’s nose aside from mentholly jumiper, is citrus, plus lemony coriander and something herbaceous, like lemon balm. There is also a strong sweetly floral element, like violets. Particularly when sniffing the neck of the bottle I get toffee or caramel notes too. The palate is also citrus-forward plus juniper, coriander, perhaps berry fruit, and a perceived floral sweetness (orris?), which grows if you let ice melt in the gin. I also find a growing sense of that aniseed. I am much taken by this gin; I like its botanical intensity and the sweet/savoury balance. But I confess I don’t get cream. And a velvety feel in the mouth? Actually, out of the three gins on test here, this one actually has the fiercest mouthfeel, but then it is the strongest at 44% ABV.

Trevethan takes its Cornishness from its back story. In the 1920s local man Norman Trevethan was a chauffeur to Earl and Lady St Germans and would sometimes take them to events in Jazz Age London. Inspired by the cocktail culture he found there, he decided to join in by making his own gin. There was a long rural tradition of making alcohol from seasonal crops, though quite how easy it would have been for Norman to find conventional gin botanicals I do not know. Then in 2015 two industrial food and drink scientists got talking—one of them, Robert Cuffe, is Norman’s grandson and the other, chemist John Hall, heard about his friend’s grandfather and had a hankering to recreate the family recipe.

I’m not sure how much resemblance the modern version has to the original—the suggestion is that they merely “tweaked” it. I met John at the World Gin Awards judging and he told me that Rob’s mother can remember going out with Norman to gather botanicals for the gin, so I guess they must have some idea of the original recipe. The modern gin does contain elderflower and gorse flower foraged at Trewonnard Farm in Treneglos, and, like all the gins here, it is made with Cornish spring water.

Norman Trevethan
The distilling notes are enlightening. They know that Norman only made his gin in small batches, which is how they made their test recipes, but scaling that up to their 300-litre copper pot still (still “small batch” by commercial standards) meant making adjustments to keep the flavour the same. In tests they used the gorse to add a hint of sweetness but found they needed to add vanilla to maintain this at high volume, which also helps create a smooth, oily mouthfeel. They describe the profile as juniper-led, backed up by cassia and angelica, with citrus “hiding in there” and cardamom “lingering at the end of the mouthful”. Other botanicals mentioned are coriander, orange peel, lemon peel.

Compared to the other gins tasted here, Trevethan immediately emerges as more elegant and poised. I like Wrecking Coast but it is more boisterous and in-you-face, whereas Trevethan has a reserved complexity. At times I have decided it was all about coriander, then cardamom (and I think the cardamom does emerge more with dilution). Sniffing the bottle again now I get lemony citrus, balanced by warm, perfumed lower notes, definitely including cassia. Then you notice the resinous juniper. And now and then you’re hit by a sideways stab of very savoury curry notes. It is indeed smooth and oily on the tongue, though sipping it now I still feel that high, dry, aromatic coriander seed notes dominate, followed by fresh coriander or parsley leaves. On the finish I could certainly believe there is elderflower here.

Without doubt Trevethan is my favourite of these three. It’s a sort of “desert island gin” in the sense that it does the fundamental job required of a gin, without being gimmicky, but also has a complex balance that reveals different nuances at different times. Even after you’ve swallowed it the aftertastes continue to evolve. It rewards study if you want to ponder it, but it also delivers if you just want a drink without thinking about it.

Does any of these gins capture the essence of Cornwall? No, but then gin is not a quintessentially Cornish thing. Curio may well pack a big hit of rock samphire, but there is probably a reason why we don’t eat rock samphire very much. Wrecking Coast is a fun gin but does appear crude next to Trevethan, and I’m damned if I can detect clotted cream in it. Trevethan, on the other hand, make the point that theirs is traditional—because Norman was trying to create a normal gin, not trying to stand out in a crowded market by being Other.

In my rambles along Cornwall’s clifftop paths I have often reflected that, aside from brine, one powerful fragrance of the area is indeed gorse, which is everywhere and has a powerful smell, sweet and distinctly redolent of coconut. I’m not sure that, blind-tasting Trevethan, I would leap up and yell “Gorse!”, but it does have a sweet, warm, perfumed element to the nose in which I can definitely believe that gorse is playing a part.

* Conventional distilling raises the temperature of the liquid till the alcohol evaporates off and can be condensed in a second chamber. Vacuum distillation achieves evaporation by instead lowering the pressure inside the vessel. In fact lowering the pressure has the effect of causing the temperature inside the vessel to drop. Ian Hart from Sacred Gin does all his distilling this way and I believe that Oxley does as well. Clearly if you are not “cooking” the liquid the end flavours may well be different.

** Today I learned that in the early days of vodka-making it was common to distill the spirit a couple of times, then mix it with milk before distilling it again, which is much more like what Wrecking Coast are doing.

Thursday 22 February 2018

Taking a shine to the fruit of Prohibition

One of the defining characteristics of whisk(e)y, and what makes it expensive to produce, is the time it has to spend in the barrel to soften and acquire character. Scotch and Irish whiskey must legally be aged for at least three years. (In the US there is actually no minimum age requirement, though “straight whiskey” must have at least two years in oak.) Yet for all this there has been a trend for releasing unaged “white whiskey”, perhaps as a nostalgic throwback to Prohibition times when moonshiners would not have had the luxury of ageing.

I haven’t had a great deal of exposure to white whiskey, though one sniff of an open jar of Georgia Moon (a corn spirit guaranteed aged no more than 30 days—and in moonshine style it does indeed come in a jar rather than a bottle) sent me reeling from the raw fumes so that I never actually had the courage to taste the stuff.

So I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised when people try to come up with a novelty product that evokes the idea of white whiskey but without the eye-watering roughness. The first one I encountered was Bootlegger, actually made in the UK from wheat and distilled several times to make a smooth spirit, then flavoured with a “wood tincture” to give it a slight colour and vanilla/caramel woodiness, designed to mimic the slight barrel flavour from being stored and transported in wood.

More recently I was sent samples of O’Donnell Moonshine. It makes a clear reference to Prohibition, and takes its name from Spike O’Donnell, head of the South Side gang in Chicago, but in fact it’s another European creation, launched in Germany four years ago and now expanding into the UK with premises in Hackney.

According to director Hugo Cooke, O’Donnell is also essentially a wheat vodka, briefly aged in wood to impart a light colour and woody flavour—“the main difference being,” Cooke says, “that vodka has to be filtered and we don’t filter our sprit. The effect this has on the final product is that you should have a distinctive taste of wheat.”

O’Donnell Original has a pale straw-coloured tint and a nose essentially of vodka but with subtle, evolving elements of raw potato, apple, butter, vanilla, biscuits, varnish and a hint of hot dust. As you become acquainted with it I think it is the biscuit aspect (by which I mean something like a digestive biscuit) that comes to dominate.

On the palate it is a not particularly smooth spirit with a bit of raw wood (though not the powerful sawmill character I expected), some vanilla ice cream and a slightly bitter finish. Nothing much like whiskey, really.

What with the mason jar container and the Prohibition-related name, it’s clear that O’Donnell are trying to give the consumer a frisson of Prohibition daring and glamour—in fact on their website is a video in which an ordinary Joe goes into a bar, the barman pours him a shot of O’Donnell (somehow they have hammered a speed pourer into the screw cap of the mason jar), he knocks it back… and suddenly the room around him becomes a Jazz Age speakeasy filled with flappers and men in, erm, braces. The effect seems to wear off pretty quickly, leaving him back in the 21st-century—so he immediately makes lingering eye contact with the barman to hit him with another shot. A powerful metaphor for addiction of all kinds.

So I find it surprising that the brand’s main focus is not on this faux-moonshine original spirit but actually on the three flavoured versions of their product, described as “Roasted Apple (20% ABV) with apple, lemon juice, cinnamon, vanilla and almond, Bitter Rose (25% ABV) made with grapefruit, rosehip and elderberry and Tough Nut (25% ABV) made from hazelnut, caramel and a hint of whiskey.”* (They say that all the flavourings are entirely natural.) I guess since the product is presumably aimed at vodka drinkers, and flavoured vodka is a Big Thing, then it was a natural progression.

All the flavoured versions are coloured and even in the small sample jars I received (like the miniature jars of jam you get for breakfast in hotels) there was a noticeable sediment, suggesting that genuine organic matter did indeed go into them, rather than chemical flavourings. So what do they taste like?

Tough Nut
Smells just like a digestive biscuit—caramel and vanilla but definitely something buttery and floury too. This continues on to the palate, which it is almost painfully sweet for me, plus some spirit warmth. The biscuitiness is the same character in the original but more intense—in fact if you compare Tough Nut with Original the main difference is that it is sweeter and has an added dark caramel dimension.

Roasted Apple
The nose is sour and sweet, very confectionary. In the mouth it is not as sweet as Tough Nut, but that biscuit character from the Original once again pokes through. This tastes of sour apple in the way that a jelly bean might, though overall it is surprisingly lightly flavoured. This might limit its usefulness as a cocktail ingredient, though mixing doesn’t seem to be a thrust for the brand—they suggest drinking the Bitter Rose with tonic in the summer, and that is about it.

Bitter Rose
Smells like a cross between sloe gin, cough mixture, prunes, poached apricot and a fizzy sweet. (Anyone remember Spangles? Boiled sweets that somehow had a carbonated tingle in them.) And slightly dusty, like a fruit liqueur you brought back from holiday, which then sat on a shelf for the next seven years. It tastes a little like port, though perhaps specifically like port mixed with Coca Cola. It neither smells nor tastes like roses, though perhaps the name is just a reference to the colour. It does indeed pair well with tonic water—about half and half seems to work best—which brings the citric grapefruit character more to the fore. (In fact on one page of the website they specifically refer to it as a grapefruit liqueur.)

The basic O’Donnell Original is £24.90 for 70cl, so you could get a genuine American whiskey for less money from any supermarket. Clearly it really is aimed at a vodka-drinking market who fancy the idea of moonshine whiskey, because of its associations with the romance and style of the Prohibition era (and who am I to argue—it’s what I do for a living), but don’t actually like whiskey itself. And maybe really like biscuits. (Has anyone tried dunking a digestive in O'Donnell?) I confess I don’t get it, but then I like whiskey and have never met a flavoured vodka** to which I would give the time of day.

For me the most noteworthy aspect of this is Hugo’s mention of their spirit not being filtered. The Original really does have an unusual floury, digestive biscuit flavour (and allegedly it has no additives, just a little time in a barrel), literally like someone has left a few biscuits to soak in a jar of vodka, so this must indeed be the flavour of unfiltered wheat spirit. Which is interesting.

* In fact at time of writing the UK website shop was out of stock of the Original.

** Unless you count gin, of course, which is arguably a flavoured vodka. You know what I mean.