Friday 18 October 2019

Merser rum: reviving a London tradition

To Temple, by the river, for the launch of a new rum. It’s the brainchild of Hayman’s, whom you probably know as a gin distiller. Hayman’s present themselves as a family firm (I chatted to both Miranda and James Hayman, fifth generation in the business), though in fact Hayman’s gin only dates back to the 1980s. Miranda’s and James’s father Christopher, head honcho, is the son of Marjorie Burrough, of the Burroughs family behind Beefeater Gin, a family gin brand that dates back to 1863.

This sense of history is actually what lies behind the new product. Apparently back in the day the Thames was lined with rum blending houses, importing source rums from around the Caribbean and practising the art of skilful blending to create a perfect balanced product. Industrialisation and cost-cutting later drove this trade elsewhere, and Hayman’s are hoping to bring the old skills back to life.

The whole brand, called Charles Merser & Co., is steeped in this olde worlde image. The launch took place in a four-storey Georgian merchant’s house a couple of streets off the Strand, which they have named At the Sign of the Post and Hound. Charles Merser is actually a family ancestor, James tells me, but they are not reviving an old rum-blending business—they simply picked his name, not least because it has a City-of-London mercantile sort of ring to it. The Post and Hound name is a reference to the fact that in the old days pubs were identified by the imagery on their signs, rather than a written name, because most of their clientele couldn’t read. (The post refers to the wooden posts that Thames barges full of rum barrels would tie up at; the dog is a greyhound, apparently a London connection.) I asked if this meant their plan was to turn the building into a rum bar, which seems the obvious way to go, but apparently that sort of decision is a long way off. For now the high narrow building just seems to be a visitor’s centre.

At the launch the ground floor had shelves of bottles, plus some branded enamelled mugs, in one of which I was served a simple hot rum punch, essentially rum, hot water, sugar and spices (cloves and, I think, star anise). I think this room is intended as a shop front. Up on the first floor was a tasting room where we sampled the rum and on the top floor was a bar where vintage cocktails were being dispensed. Down in the cellar was their blending room. The idea is that the blending really will take place here, although it is no longer permissible to store barrels of rum in a London town house, for fire safety reasons, so all the storage will go on at the Hayman’s distillery plant in Balham. At the time of my visit there were only some empty barrels plus some pieces of barrel to show how they are made.

It was in this room that I learned a bit about how the new rum was concocted. It is made from three existing blends, in turn composed of some ten source spirits. The three component blends are imported, blended here then left in barrels for a number of months. Whereas the aged rums in the blend have matured in tropical conditions, which accelerates the interaction with the wood, the final ageing takes place in the temperate British climate, using barrels already used first for bourbon and then for whisky, so there is far less flavour imparted from this process. It is more about allowing the blend of blends to settle and marry. Given that so many different rums go into the mix, I asked if it was expected that as time went by different source spirits would be used, with the blending process used to adjust the recipe to ensure a consistent final flavour was maintained, and this does indeed seem to be the plan. Up in the top-floor bar there were rows of the source rums on display (not for tasting!), ranging in colour from completely colourless to dark brown.

Source rums for blending

The product we were tasting was to be their signature “Double Barrel” blend, though it is envisaged that other products may join the stable, such as limited edition blends. The bottle is striking, with a dimpled surface. I’m not quite sure what this is meant to suggest—to me it looked a little like the straw or wicker protective jacket you sometimes see on a glass carboy used to transport wine or spirits, but I was given no encouragement that this is in fact the intention. The three component blends are: 19% (A) a mix of 3-year-old Barbadian rum, 3-year-old Dominican rum and unaged Jamaican rum; 47% (B) a mix of 8-year-old Barbadian rum, 8-year-old Dominican rum and 6-year-old Panamanian rum; and 34% (C) a mix of 5-year-old Barbadian rum, 8-year-old Dominican rum, 3-year-old Guatemalan rum and unaged Jamaican rum. Blend A is said to add a fresh pine-like element, blend B the warming, rich, dark-sugar notes and blend C bright tropical fruit and toasty oak.

On the nose there are hints of the pungent Jamaican pot-still character (which pokes you in the eye when you open a bottle or Wray & Nephew), but these are well controlled within a soft and smooth aroma, with distinct notes of pineapple and mango, a bit of banana, plus caramel and for me a sweet sherry aroma. On the palate it is smooth and subtle, fruity and chocolatey. It is very easy to drink neat, elegant and refined. It’s more like an old-school butler than a hipster flairtender. It doesn’t scream one particular flavour, but dignifiedly suggests one nuance after another with a discreet cough. Add a little water and the chocolate and pineapple seem to come out more on the nose, and for the first time I notice the wood, while the palate takes on a creamy quality.

At £38 a bottle the Double Barrel is not cheap, but at the same time it seems good value to me. My immediate impression is that this is not a rum you would smother with mixer, but Hayman’s are keen to showcase some cocktails with it. The Hot Spiced Rum that I was served when I arrived was a bit sweet for me—I found myself wanting to add a squeeze of lemon juice. Up in the top floor bar I got to try a Polo, two parts rum, one part orange juice and one part lemon juice. It’s nice enough and you are aware of the rum, but having recently sampled it neat I now find myself wishing I could taste more of it in the mix.

A row of Palmettos being rustled up

I’m keen to try the Palmetto, combining rum with red vermouth and a dash of orange bitters. It’s nice, but again I instinctively feel there should be a bit more of an emphasis on the rum. The next day, at home, I make my own. I can see that the recipe in the booklet handed out at the launch gives equal parts rum and vermouth: by analogy with a Manhattan or a Rob Roy, this is a bit vermouth-heavy, so I try one that uses two parts rum to one part Antica Formula red vermouth, plus a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters. It’s bloody fantastic, with lots of toasty caramel flavour hitting you up front and a Christmasy cinnamon flavour (I think the Angostura is partly responsible for this).

50ml Merser Double Barrel
50ml or 25ml red vermouth
Dash of orange (or Angostura) bitters
Stir over ice

Another cocktail that catches my eye in the booklet is the Flapper, made with rum and dry white vermouth, plus a dash of Angostura. The stated proportions are 1:1 again, and again I am cautious about overwhelming the rum, but in fact in this mix the rum holds its own easily. In fact at equal parts the vermouth is hard to pin down, yet clearly affects the overall flavour: I’m using Belsazar Dry and it seems to add a saline finish, creating a pronounced note of salted caramel. It’s a good, subtle, complex drink. I also try making a Small Dinger, a recipe I found in Bar Florida Cocktails (1935) which no one else seems to have heard of or make, but despite the unlikely wheeze of combining rum and gin, I think it really works. Again it performs well with Double Barrel, with the rum showing its character and cozying up comfortably with the gin in the way that it mysteriously does in this cocktail.

50ml Merser Double Barrel
50ml dry white vermouth
Two dashes of Angostura
Stir over ice and garnish with a maraschino cherry and a slice of orange (though I drink mine straight up with a lemon peel garnish)*

As you can tell, I’m much taken by Merser Double Barrel. It’s complex but approachable, easy to drink on its own and working well in certain classic style cocktails where it retains its character. In longer drinks I think it gets a bit lost, but there are plenty of short drinks to experiment with, until you suddenly find you’ve reached the end of the bottle…

*I take a fairly dim view of garnishes in general—sometimes their big fresh flavours can ride roughshod over subtleties of the cocktail ingredients; with some Martinis I regularly put a bit of lemon peel in then instantly regret it, as the vigorous rind oils steamroller the gin’s aromas. And when gin brands recommend you garnish their G&T with a kumquat, I find myself thinking, “So why didn’t you just put more kumquat in the botanical mix?” (Though I concede that some things taste quite different fresh from the way they do when infused then redistilled.) But in this case the lemon rind really complements the cocktail.

Thursday 10 October 2019

Gin from the Western Isles

A friend of ours who lives in Edinburgh came to stay and brought us a bottle of Isle of Harris gin, made on the Outer Hebridean island of that name. She knew and liked the gin already, but was also taken by the quaintness of the process of acquiring it—you can only buy it from the distillery, either by mail or you can place your order then collect it at an appointed time and place, furnished with a wonderfully old-fashioned docket (see photo). I don’t know if this is to do with the logistics of getting the gin to the mainland or whether it is part of a deftly constructed image, designed to evoke a sense of scarcity and old-world craftsmanship.

The website’s homepage is mostly about their vision of themselves as “the social distillery”. This manifests itself in being constantly open to visitors—though in fairness most shrewd distilleries offer tours, tastings, a cafĂ©/restaurant, etc, these days—but also as a shot in the arm for an island suffering “acute economic problems” as a result of a dwindling population, by creating a business that uses local resources to produce jobs and income, as well as acting as a global advertisement for the island’s charms. It’s interesting that the distilling team all come from other backgrounds—a builder, a joiner, a crofter and ex-engineer, etc. All have re-trained from scratch to learn how to make spirits.

Harris is most famous for Harris Tweed, the choice of country gentlemen everywhere, and the only fabric in the world protected by an Act of Parliament that closely defines how, where and from what it can be made. This year the distillery had a project to create their own Harris Distillery Tweed pattern, and you can see how they are keen to borrow from the cloth’s sense of tradition and artisanal integrity and quality in how they present their own products. On the underside of the bottle is the Latin motto Esse quam videri—“To be, rather than to seem”.

Of course gin is not a traditional product of the island. (Oddly, neither is whisky, though the distillery is working on its own dram: in fact they think of themselves primarily as a whisky distillery. Like others, they clearly realised they needed the gin to bring in revenue during the long years it takes the whisky to mature.) So the distillers have instead sought a botanical bill that they feel captures “the elemental nature of our island, particularly the maritime influences of the seas which surround us”. The most striking botanical is sugar kelp, a local seaweed harvested by hand by a diver. What does sugar kelp taste of? Who knows—unless they have sampled the “sugar kelp aromatic water” that the distillery also sells, but the implication is that, as its name suggests, it is both briny and sweet. The other botanicals are all common enough: juniper, coriander seed, cassia bark, angelica root, bitter orange peel, cubeb, liquorice root and orris root.

The most striking reference to the sea is actually the bottle that the gin comes in, with rippled glass to echo the waters of Luskentyre, a marine blue rising from the bottom and a label made of paper flecked with copper leaf and sugar kelp—no two are the same.

So what does it taste like? I was expecting a bold mouthful with an ozoney whiff of the sea, but in fact to me Harris gin is rather elusive. The nose has piney juniper and an agreeable character of fresh lemon peel and grapefruit, a floral element like violets or rose, and a hint of black pepper (possibly from the cubebs). Dig in and there is a subtle herbal layer too. The palate follows on from this with much the same balance, and perhaps a slight sugariness at the end (is this from the sugar kelp?). A direct comparison with Plymouth Gin, which I happen to have a bottle of, shows that both have a strong citrus element, but the Harris gin has the smoother, sweeter mouthfeel of a more refined spirit. (Liquorice can also give a suggestion of sweetness.)

Does it remind me of the sea? Not really, but this is a question that has come up before with my studies of Cornish gin—what exactly would make a gin redolent of the sea? I suppose if I concentrate hard I can persuade myself there is a slight brininess on the finish, but I don’t think it is something that would strike me if I weren’t actively looking for it. I notice that a number of the cocktails that various bartenders have created for the gin, listed on the website, use Fino or Manzanilla sherry, which does indeed have a sea-breeze quality to it, or some kind of seaweed, or indeed added sea salt, suggesting they felt the gin needed a bit of help if it was to smack of the waves. (One recipe actually has you add salted fish roe.)

The recommended serve is essentially neat. They advise you to try it as it is, then, if you must, add some ice, but large pieces to minimise the dilution. If you insist on adding tonic, use only a splash. For a garnish they recommend not a sprig of seaweed or something preserved in brine, but a slice of grapefruit. I tried this and it certainly sits comfortably with the strong citrus notes, but doesn’t have much to do with the sea.*

I think some gins probably are best consumed neat or just on the rocks, such as Roku or TOAD Physic Gin, because their subtle complexities are easily swamped. Harris gin is certainly subtle, but I’m not sure it is that complex. It’s upfront character is essentially sweetish citrus.

I find I’ve worked through almost the whole bottle of Harris gin in my quest to try and establish its character—so it is certainly drinkable, but hard to pin down. Finally, still riffing on the brine angle, I make a Dirty Martini, using carefully controlled amounts of Belsazar Dry vermouth and Stirrings Dirty Martini olive brine (yes, it’s dedicated, bottled brine, that has had olives in it but from which the olives have since been removed before bottling—something DBS gave me ages ago). It’s nice enough, though I’m not sure the salty, savoury, olive brine really goes that well with the essentially sweet, fruity nature of the gin. But I concede it does (slightly) bring out the stemmy, herbal notes, and it is certainly a more complex drink that the gin on its own.

* Except in as far as the classic Salty Dog cocktail features gin, grapefruit juice and a salt rim.