Wednesday 17 April 2019

The Hard Word cocktail

For some reason I always associate The Last Word cocktail with The Great Gatsby. In fact it doesn’t appear in the novel, though the characters do drink green Chartreuse,* which is a defining ingredient in the cocktail. The first published reference to it is actually in 1951, in Ted Saucier’s Bottoms Up!, but he states that it was first served 30 years earlier, in the Detroit Athletic Club. Later research in the club’s archives found the cocktail on a menu from 1916.

Traditionally it is equal parts gin, green Charteuse, lime juice and maraschino. For me this is too sweet and indeed Simon Difford actually prescribes three parts gin, but, as I discovered when trying out cocktails with Big Gin, it all depends on the gin—some are better than others at standing up to the pungent flavours of the Chartreuse.

Chartreuse itself is a herbal liqueur produced by Carthusian monks since 1737, allegedly to a recipe described in a manuscript given to them in 1605 by François Annibal d’Estrées, a nobleman originally in holy orders but who switched careers to become soldier (no one seems to know how he got his hands on it). Named after the Carthusians’ Grande Charteuse monastery, the liqueur is still produced at their distillery in nearby Voiron. It is made by macerating 130 herbs and flowers in alcohol and, like most of these things, was originally intended as a health-giving tonic. There is also a yellow version, which is sweeter, milder and less alcoholic, plus various aged versions and special editions. To this day the recipes are secret, known only by two monks who prepare the herbal mixtures.

Years ago—and I mean years ago—I for some reason bought a small bottle of their Élixir Végétal, a concentrated version of the same 130-plant extract. According to the Chartreuse website this concentrate is the original recipe, from which the various liqueurs were later derived once people started drinking the concoction for pleasure rather than as a medicine. It is sold at 69% ABV in 100ml bottles that come in an outer turned-wood case that reminds me of a Russian matryoshka doll. The elixir has a pronounced olive green colour.

Since I bought it the bottle has mostly sat at the back of a cupboard, but something recently got me thinking about it. Given its concentration, I wondered if one could use it in small quantities to add the distinctive herbal flavour but without the sweetness, and therefore the need to add lime or lemon juice for sourness to balance the sugar.

The purest form of this experiment seemed to be to make a Dry Martini and simply add a bit of the elixir. If a Last Word seems too complicated, too much of a punch-up between brassy sweet and sour flavours, may I present to you the Hard Word. The elixir does have sugar in it, but in these quantities it still leaves the cocktail a pretty dry beverage, yet with the distinctive pungent herbal flavour of Chartreuse.

Of course a purer form might be to dispense with the vermouth, or indeed to use vodka instead of gin, and I did try these: with just vodka and the elixir it’s easy to end up with something that’s like a not-very-sweet green Chartreuse liqueur, though if you get the balance right you can still taste some of the character of the vodka. With gin but no vermouth at least there is an interplay of the various botanicals, but I think the version below gives the greatest scope to combine flavours and adjust the strength and wetness of your drink by how much vermouth you use.

The Hard Word
2½ shots gin
½ shot dry vermouth
½ tsp Chartreuse Élixir Végétal
Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass

This might not sound like very much Chartreuse, but I measured out 2.5ml using a measuring spoon and I didn’t feel it needed any more. You’ll see I haven’t deployed a garnish: I did try serving one of these with a lemon twist—and it completely ruined the drink. Later I tried one with a green olive garnish and the briny, savoury flavour went a bit better, but I’m not sure it actually improved the cocktail. There may be an appropriate garnish out there (perhaps a herb of some sort) but I don’t know what it is yet.

* Chapter 5: “Finally we came to Gatsby’s own apartment, a bedroom and a bath, and an Adam study, where we sat down and drank a glass of some Chartreuse he took from a cupboard in the wall.” Now that I look, it doesn't actually specify green Chartreuse—and the yellow version had been around for almost 90 years by the time this scene takes place.

Monday 8 April 2019

Nissos Gin

I generally don’t have much time for LinkedIn. I tend to say yes to any request to connect but I’ve only been approached twice about potentially viable work opportunities, and on both occasions the people in question turned out to be bonkers and their project clearly pie in the sky.

So it was a welcome change recently when I was approached by Alexandros Kouris. He has a beer brand in Greece, Nissos, and is in the process of launching a gin too. He found me because of some gin judging I did and he wanted me to sample his gin-in-progress.

I don’t normally do “unboxings” but the package sent to me was certainly eye-catching. Inside the wooden box was a flask, the cork secured with string and a traditional glass “mati” bead glued on top. The “eye” design of the bead is a recurring motif in that part of the world and is intended to ward off the Evil Eye. But Alexandros insisted it was not there for any magical purpose, simply because his wife thought it looked nice.

The effort with the packaging is particularly appreciated considering that this is not even anything like the planned production packaging (see the image below).

I uncork the flask and from the bottle neck I first get juniper and citrus, then something floral, sweet vanilla and an earthiness too, with hints of chocolate and something that reminds me of cake.

I pour some into a glass and the aroma becomes a bit more savoury, an interesting balance of sharpness, with floral and leafy layers, woody spice like cinnamon or cedar and earthy roots.

On the palate it is powerfully flavoured, with sweet/floral elements and an almost menthol punch, plus something that seems drily aromatic, like saffron, but more floral—it made me wonder if there was an emphasis on orris root, but Alexandros tells me there is none in there. The earthy/rooty angle also made me assume that there was mastiha in it (see the previous post)—which would be an obvious choice to make something self-consciously Greek, but again Alexandros tells me there is none.

This is a complex gin tasted neat, bright and spicy with notes of ginger, but with a mellow, floral approachability. It is smooth and sweet on the tongue, combined with a spice that reminds me of gingerbread, and has a lingering aftertaste that also has the ginger/molasses character of gingerbread.

In dilution the warm, sweet spice notes become more dominant and the juniper less so, to the extent that if you’re looking for a classic G&T this might not be your best bet.

In an Aviation cocktail it sits very comfortably, blending so seamlessly with the fruit and violet flavours that it becomes hard to pick out the character of the gin itself. As you can see from the picture, I garnished this with lemon peel and the aroma of that meshed very neatly with the gin.

The production bottle design
After some goading Alexandros tells me there are ten botanicals: hops (well, he is a brewer), wild mint, thyme, cumin, cardamom, lemongrass, pepper and two kinds of local berry (which are used fresh rather than dried), in addition to juniper, of which there is not a lot. The spirit base is grape alcohol (“the same as used for Cognac”, he says)* and the gin is distilled in a copper pot still and bottled at 40% ABV.

I might guess that the citrus element I got initially must be from the lemongrass but Alexandros says that note comes mainly from the hops. I don’t really get cardamom specifically, but now that I know I can sense cumin, contributing to the dry spice angle that struck me. I think that the sweetness must be from the mint and the berries. I can also believe that the mint is responsible for the dominant spicy/pungent character, though Alexandros says, “The mint is not very prominent. Quite difficult to handle, this one, though it adds depth and of course makes it spicy.”

Nissos is a modern gin, and a poised, polished performer. Whether neat or in dilution, new flavours keep emerging. It manages to be both warmly pungent, evolving into dry, woody spice, but with a bright top note of citrus and juniper. I also keep thinking I get a whiff of honey. My experiments with cocktails suggest that while it’s unlikely to clash it may get a bit lost, so perhaps simple serves are the best way to appreciate its subtleties. Alexandos didn’t give an idea of when the gin might launch, but keep your eyes peeled.

* By which I assume he just means it’s a grape eau de vie, not that it comes from the Cognac region—which would be a bit mad when there must be plenty of grape alcohol nearer to hand.

An Aviation cocktail made with Nissos gin