Sunday 29 April 2018

Maraschino: is wood good?

Luxardo's maraschino and Sangue Morlacco cherry brandy. The blossom is
from Greenwich park here in London and I doubt it is marasca cherry
Maraschino is an ancient cocktail ingredient, a liqueur made from marasca cherries. I used to wonder if it was often used mainly to add sweetness, as the flavour is quite delicate, but I recently had a revelation that changed my thinking.

Maraschino has been made in Dalmatia for hundreds of years but in this country the brand with the highest profile has to be Luxardo. Having said that, it’s not a hugely high-profile product at all—I recently ran out and discovered that no supermarket seems to sell maraschino. They have crème de cassis, crème de pêche, sambuca, etc, but not maraschino. In fact I’m sure the only other brand I’ve ever seen is Briottet, though a Google search shows that there are others available in this country, including examples by the other general liqueur manufacturers such as Giffard and Boudier.

Up to now I’ve mostly used Briottet, because it is cheaper than Luxardo (I think the whole Briottet range are extremely good value). It has a light fruit flavour plus a bitter-almond element that comes from the cherry stones that are included in the fermented pulp. But I recently acquired a bottle of the Luxardo version and I was struck by the difference in flavour. Moreover, as Luxardo had early worldwide success, it made me wonder whether this was the flavour that was intended in all those classic cocktail recipes.

The Luxardo brand goes back almost 200 years, when Girolamo Luxardo was sent as a diplomat from the Kingdom of Sardinia to Zara in Dalmatia, which was then part of the Austrian empire. There was a local tradition of making “rosolio maraschino” from the native marasca cherries, which Girolamo’s wife Maria took an interest in. The couple began to experiment with distilling their own from the cherries in their orchard, apparently after spending some years tinkering with the recipe. They founded a distillery in 1821 and things took off for them when the Austrian emperor gave their brand his stamp of approval and it was soon being exported all over the world. (The distinctive wicker wrapping on the bottle was originally to protect it during sea crossings.)

I must admit that I always thought maraschino was an Italian liqueur and, depending on how you look at it, you could say that it is. Prior to 1797 Dalamatia had been part of the Republic of Venice, and after the First World War part of it (including Zara) joined the Kingdom of Italy. The Second World War led to a change of fortunes for the Luxardo company, which by then was being run by the fourth generation of the family. Heavy bombing destroyed the factory and the orchard was burned. In 1947 the area became part of Yugoslavia and many Italian citizens fled; they were persecuted by Tito’s partisans and many were killed, including Piero and Nicolò Luxardo, and Nicolò’s wife Bianca, who were forcibly drowned.

But Giorgio Luxardo founded a new distillery in Torreglia, in the Veneto region of Italy, and started to rebuild the business. Apparently just one cherry sapling had been saved from the orchard in Zara (now Zadar in modern Croatia), and all the trees in today’s Luxardo orchard are descended from that one. The firm is still being run by the same family, now into its sixth generation.

An Aviation made with Luxardo maraschino.
Apologies for the lack of fine-straining
I’m not sure how other maraschinos are made (there is only talk of “maceration” of cherries) but Luxardo make theirs in a singular way. Cherries are crushed along with their stones (and, I gather, leaves and stalks too) and fermented. The resulting alcoholic soup is distilled to produce an eau de vie that is blended with sugar and water to make a liqueur. But the liqueur is aged for two years in Finnish ashwood vats. (The pulp left over from distillation is infused into alcohol and sugar to make their excellent “Sangue Morlacco” cherry brandy.)

The first thing that hits you on the nose with Luxardo maraschino is actually earthy, dry aromatic wood notes, with a hint of Angostura Bitters. The light cherry fruit comes after that. It is not cloying at all, and has a sweet/dry balance (presumably from wood tannins) and a spiritous heat.

I have a habit of adding a splash of maraschino to Manhattan cocktails, but the specific character of the Luxardo product is lost against the woody power of the whiskey. However, in an Aviation cocktail (roughly two measures of gin, half of maraschino, half of lemon juice and a teaspoon or so of crème de violette) that dry wood flavour is quite noticeable.

I can’t find a reference to any other commercial maraschino wood-ageing its product in the Luxardo way, including the Maraska brand made in Croatia, which claims its recipe dates back to the 16th century. Before Luxardo the Drioli brand was a major player (and a previous holder of the Austrian emperor’s warrant)—it was laid to rest in 1980 but I don’t know how widespread it still was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the cocktail tradition was being developed.*

So it is hard to say if, for example, Hugo Ennslin was using a barrel-aged maraschino when he developed the Aviation (first published in 1918). But it is something to be aware of: if you find many classic cocktails too sweet you should try using Luxardo. And if you have been using it and find your drinks too dry and woody, consider using a different brand.**

* Mind you I did discover this website which says the Drioli brand was obtained by Luxardo and it seems to be in production again, though I don't know how widely distributed it is.

** Apologies for reusing a headline from 2014 but the matter here is essentially the same question: with certain spirits, is wood-ageing actually a Good Thing?

Wednesday 25 April 2018

From grain to glass in the city of dreaming spires

Tom with the TOAD, Physic and Ashmolean gins
I was lucky enough to be given a tour of The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD) last Sunday by none other than Tom Nicolson, founder, chairman and CEO. After a successful career in the music business managing artists and running a recording studio, Tom was looking for a new challenge and cast back to his ancestors, who were involved in the wine and whisky business in Scotland, for inspiration. His former career must have left him with the experience, and presumably capital, to do things properly from the beginning, and everything about the project oozes careful consideration and long-term planning, from the ingredients he uses to the intricate symbology of the logo.

The distillery is located in a former council depot by Oxford’s South Park, part of which is Grade II listed. The Oxford Preservation Trust holds a legal covenant of the site which actually prohibited the sale and production of alcohol—something that Tom managed to persuade them to change. Distillery tours were clearly part of the business plan from the beginning (for which they charge £20 or £50 a head) and he has now been given permission to add a restaurant and gin garden. I get the impression that Tom is a shrewd operator and it seems that his application was oiled by the fact that the garden and toilet facilities will be made available to all park users, whether they buy anything or not.

Above and below: some of the botanicals in the gin-recipe lab

In keeping with a lot of “artisan” food and drink, there is a strong emphasis on locality: their Physic Gin takes its cue of Oxford’s Botanic Garden, founded in 1621, and the gin’s 25 botanicals are all taken from the stock list made in 1648 by the keeper Jacob Bobart, some of them actually foraged from the garden itself. The 17 botanicals in their Ashmolean Gin are inspired by the exotic contents of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, including jara lemon, rose, jasmine and spices from the Middle East and Asia. Like many small-batch gins they have started by getting into local bars and restaurants (though the scope of their plans is global). Oxford is a shrewd place to try this: it’s a well-heeled area (and TOAD products are not cheap) which is also flooded with tourists sucking up the local character and looking for touristy activities, such as a visit to a local distillery. TOAD even have a couple of distinctive minibuses for fetching and returning visitors from the city centre.

But the concept behind TOAD is much more sophisticated than that. Tom wanted to emphasise not just locality but sustainability and traceability too. Most gin-makers in this country, whether large or small, simply buy in neutral grain spirit as the base for their product. This is usually made from intensively-farmed wheat grown in some other part of the world, such as Ukraine, and there is no way to know what has really gone into it. Tom is taking a long view here, as he believes that ten years from now traceability will have become mandatory and he thinks it’s good business to get ahead of the game.

Tom with some of the rye plants, showing how much taller they are than intensively-farmed wheat

TOAD have worked with archeo-botanist and local farmer John Letts, who has spent his career rediscovering ancient grain varieties and sustainable farming methods. Modern grain tends to be a monoculture, with every plant in the field a clone of the others, making them more susceptible to disease and pests than a genetically diverse field as it would have been farmed in medieval times. The modern solution is to nurture the monoculture with chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, which depletes biodiversity all the more. Tom showed us some of the heritage rye plants of the kind from which TOAD source their grain—they grow up to six feet tall, overshadowing competing weeds and creating a sheltered environment for animals, birds and insects. As many as a thousand different strains of grain go into the distillery’s spirits.

Tom with the big pot still, named Nautilus,
and the two column stills
Producing their own base spirit means that TOAD have not only a large pot still for gin-making but a pair of column stills for turning the fermented rye into 96.5% ABV spirit. Rather than buying an off-the-shelf still from Germany like most people, Tom wanted to try something a little different and keep this part of the process as local as possible too. He approached the South Devon Railway’s engineering team, originally in the hope that they could actually convert a steam engine into a still. Engineer Paul Pridham pointed out that this might not be a great idea, given the use of arsenic in the manufacturing process, but being industrial coppersmiths they did end up making bespoke stills for TOAD, including some design flourishes such as a porthole salvaged from a decommissioned ship.

So what does the end product taste like? I’m pleased to report that all the products I tried were very impressive. They make a vodka by filtering the rye spirit through coconut charcoal—OK, so the “local” emphasis goes a bit out of the window at that point, but there must be a reason why it has to be coconut. It’s a good vodka, smooth and unctuous with a pronounced flavour of cocoa nib and butterscotch.

They also make a whiskey, though they aren’t allowed to call it that yet as it isn’t old enough. It’s becoming increasingly common for English (and, in the case of Penderyn, Welsh) distillers to make Scotch-style whisky, but again Tom wanted to try something more off the beaten track, so the whiskey that Master Distiller Cory Mason produces is modelled more on an American rye whiskey (Cory himself is American). At the moment they are bottling a Pure Rye Spirit that has had just two months in a barrel and it too is remarkably smooth, with a pronounced new-wood flavour. I’d be interested in trying a Manhattan made from this.

The basic TOAD gin is Tom’s favourite for a G&T (served with Fever-Tree Light* and a wedge of lime that he squeezes into the drink, James Bond style).** It is juniper-forward with immediate citrus flavours followed by a rising floral note. The Physic Gin is the only one that I took away a bottle of, so I’ve been able to give it a bit more attention.*** And it merits that attention: it’s a complex spirit (Tom prefers to sip it neat as an after-dinner drink). Uncorking the bottle releases a waft of lemon and gingernut biscuit. In a glass I get aromas of butterscotch again, followed by a gentle floral note, sweet citrus and sappy, savoury herbal elements. It is quite light and savoury on the tongue with a peppery finish that hints at cumin. Adding water seems to bring out more pungent herbaceous notes on the nose and a suggestion of liquorice on the palate.

I make a Martini with the Physic Gin and Noilly Prat vermouth: it produces an initial stab of coriander seed, which almost immediately melts away to be replaced by violets and again an angle of liquorice. I still get rushes of butterscotch and also an abiding suggestion of absinthe—I gather there is wormwood among the botanicals, along with rue and sweet woodruff.****

Tom has no end of plans for TOAD. They are gathering barrels previously used for various wines for use in barrel ageing (I saw racks of Muscat and port barrels). They are planning to work with local orchards to make an apple brandy.

And what about the symbology of the label? I learned that the sideways O in TOAD is meant to be the toad’s eye, as is the overall elliptical shape of the label as well. The symbols at the top of the T-shirt design are alchemical symbols for the Philosopher’s Stone and creation; in the middle is an inverted all-seeing eye or Eye of Providence. The Latin motto means “spirit of toad”. I’m sure there are more layers of meaning, but that knowledge is forbidden to novices…

Oxford Dry Gin (47% ABV) is £39.50 for 70cl; Oxford Rye Vodka (40% ABV) is £34.95 for 70cl; Oxford Pure Rye Spirit (40% ABV) is £39.95 for 70cl; Physic Gin (42.1% ABV) is £34.95 for 50cl; Ashmolean Gin (% ABV) is £39.50 for 70cl. All are available from the online shop.

* I, too, have discovered the joys of Fever-Tree Light. I would normally avoid diet tonics, which frequently use artificial sweeteners, but Fevertree Light just uses less sugar than the regular version. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so I find it has an appealing juiciness and makes a good palette to appreciate the gin.

** I did get to try the Ashmolean Gin too, but all I can remember was that it seemed botanically intense with warm, mid-range spice flavours. The online shop describes it as full-flavoured with notes of cardamom and myrrh, finishing with orris and lemongrass.

*** See

**** Intriguing, according to the TOAD website the distillery also makes an absinthe, though I didn’t see any evidence of one while I was there and it isn't for sale in their online shop.

The TOAD-mobiles, ready to whisk you to a distillery tour

Saturday 14 April 2018

Palmetto: secrets of the old-school shiners

While writing the post about O’Donnell Moonshine I was reminded about an email I’d yet to respond to, from another “moonshine” manufacturer. This one is from the Palmetto Distillery in South Carolina, via their UK distributor. Unlike O’Donnell and Bootlegger, which are European products made from wheat and flavoured to taste a little like what they think consumers think moonshine might taste of, Palmetto is a genuine unaged corn whiskey.

We associate moonshine with the Prohibition era, but in fact the history of illicit distilling goes back further, to the 1700s, as small-scale distillers sought to avoid taxes. The Palmetto distillery is run by Trey and Bryan Boggs, using a recipe they trace back to their ancestor Dock Boggs, who began moonshining in the early 1900s to make a bit of extra money. They describe it as South Carolina’s first legal moonshine: I must admit I would have thought that moonshine was, by definition, illicit, but clearly it is being defined in some other way here, because they say that the production of it was only legalised in 2010. As far as I can tell, prior to this the making of unaged whiskey simply wasn’t legal. 

The Boggs brothers also make a barrel-aged whiskey with 21% rye, but the unaged moonshine is 100% corn. It’s made in a custom copper pot still with a secret weapon they call a “thumper”, through with the spirit passes after it leaves the still. This is a cylindrical object, and I wondered if it was a sort of column still. Mark from the UK operation says it is more like a secondary pot still, but a bit of research reveals that a thumper, or thump keg, is a fairly traditional bit of moonshine kit, and simply contains water, presumably kept at a specific temperature between 78 and 100 degrees C—which is to say below the temperature at which water condenses but higher than the temperature at which ethanol condenses. The vapour coming off the still is bubbled through the thumper to strip out some of the water in it before the vapour is condensed in the next vessel. The object of the exercise is to get a higher proof spirit.

The website also describes the spirit as “triple distilled”, so I assume it passes through both the still and the thumper three times. This whole contraption is, they say, exactly how the moonshine was produced back in the day.

American Moonshine
The plain moonshine is bottled at 52.5% ABV. I say “bottled” but as with most such products it comes in a screw-top mason jar. I open the jar and approach it cautiously, expecting fumes like those from Georgia Moon. But the nose is light, slightly fruity, and comes on a bit like fino sherry; as you take it away from your nose you are left with a lingering biscuity trail. On the palate it is strong, to be sure, but surprisingly smooth considering the ABV and the lack of age. Not what my experiences with Georgia Moon led me to expect. I’m pretty sure I’ve never tried unaged whiskey before, and it is hard to describe—it has something in common with grappa and vodka, and yet not. There is a slight mustiness (not at all unpleasant) and a fruitiness to the mid-palate. The finish is smooth with a slight hint of wood; overall it has a pretty unctuous mouthfeel. 

It’s worth noting that, after having tried the infused versions of Palmetto, when I return to the unflavoured spirit I am now struck by a more strongly recognisable whiskey character.

Peach Moonshine
In keeping with most foodstuffs designated as having the flavour of a particular other thing, I expected a blast of synthetic fruit, but this is pretty understated, with the spirit to the fore and a dusty veil through which it is hard to discern the peach. (I handed it to my wife without telling her what it was and she was unable to identify it as peach.) 

Coming after the plain spirit, this is sweetened and juicy; less like a liqueur than a long drink knocked up by mixing the spirit with a little (not too much) peach juice. It is low-key but grows on you. And it’s not too sweet, with nothing cloying about it. The lack of peach aroma is a little disappointing but in the mouth it is a well balanced drink.

Apple Pie Moonshine
I’m struck by the cloudy appearance of this one, though in fact the peach version has this too, as do the other infusions. The nose here is gentle but warming cinnamon; as with the peach, the actual fruit notes are subtle. There’s a slight woodiness. The palate shows a mild acidity from the fruit but the cinnamon still dominates. There are other flavours in there, which are hard to pin down (but perhaps something I recognise from apple juice rather than apples per se), but nothing that really strikes you as like biting into an apple.

This one is particularly disconcerting given that the small jars in which the samples are supplied are basically the same ones in which you find jam at hotel breakfast tables. The nose is recognisably jammy—not fresh strawberries but cooked. I swear I was convinced I could smell toast too, though I’m sure that was just an autosuggestion. On the palate it is indeed boozy jam. But again the emphasis is primarily on the booze.

As with all the flavoured drinks in the range, the fruit here is not sparkling, Technicolor and bubblegum-intense. It is quiet and almost ghostly, redolent of neglected sheds and mossy verandahs in late afternoon dappled sun. Like someone just brushed the dust off a long-forgotten mason jar, tasted its venerable and faded contents and thought, “This is quite nice, actually.”

Not black or dark red in colour, but muted and frankly brown. The sort of observation that makes you pretty confident no artificial colours or flavours were deployed. But this final sample bucks the trend by having quite a powerful aroma, an aroma a bit like cough syrup. On the tongue it has a stronger acidity than the others, doubtless from the berries, but it still reminds me primarily of medicine—not just generally, but of some very specific linctus from my childhood.*

United colours of Palmetto: (left to right) American Moonshine, Peach, Apple Pie, Strawberry, Blackberry

As with O’Donnell Moonshine, the plain version is the one I’m most interested in (and you can always add fresh fruit to your spirit if you want a mixed drink). But the fruit versions here clearly have been made with real fruit—they have the colour and smell of stewed fruit, rather than synthetic primary colours and chemicals tastes. And—the blackberry aside, for me—they make pleasant drinks, still spirit-driven, like ancestral recipes for taking the edge off your moonshine using the produce that was to hand.

But for me the real revelation from all of this is the unadulterated spirit itself. It is not just a creditable stab but a genuinely palatable drink with a character of its own. If what the producers say is true, then this is achieved without additives or modern-day techno-fudges aimed at finding a quick and easy way to produce something for vodka drinkers with a little of the faux-frisson of the Prohibition era’s glamour. If what the producers say is true, this is the real deal, made in exactly the way it was back then. There can no doubt that a lot of moonshine was much less pleasant than this, shored up with dubious contaminants in a cynical attempt to engineer something that wouldn’t make customers gag. But Palmetto Moonshine shows that you could produce an enjoyable corn whiskey without risky and expensive time in a barrel.

* You’re right, this was just an excuse to use the word “linctus”, something I find frustratingly lacking in everyday life.