Monday 28 September 2020

A cocktail in a can—without the cocktail

A Champagne Cocktail made with items from the kit

Despairing of face-to-face get-togethers for the time being, a friend held a virtual birthday party last night. While Zoom may be efficient for business meetings, it’s hard to use it for general socialising, and she enhanced the organisational side of things by laying on live entertainment. She also sent everyone packages of strange costume items plus some sparkling wine, accompanied by a “cocktail kit”.

Given that the kit itself didn’t actually include any booze, it was enterprising of the manufacturers (The Cocktail Box Company) to find anything to put in it at all, but their efforts were endearing. It was for a Champagne Cocktail, and the pleasantly Olde World tin contained three cocktail picks for “your desired garnish” (not included), some sort of coke spoon, some instructions, a smaller tin neatly holding six cane sugar cubes, and the star of the show—three bottles of bitters. There is even a burlap coaster.* The instructions tell you so soak the sugar cube with bitters in the glass and top up with Champagne: they don’t actually mention the Cognac that traditionally goes in before the Champagne, yet they earnest have you use the tiny spoon to stir five times clockwise then five times anticlockwise. Given that the sugar is left intact to dissolve gradually, I’m not sure what we’re actually stirring together here, but if you decide to add brandy as well then I guess the spoon will prove useful. The packaging advertises that it serves six, though of course there are only three picks, so I guess it’s designed for tag-team drinking (and you’ll all have to squabble over the coke spoon).

I’ve not tried Scrappy’s Bitters before, and in this cocktail the the Aromatic Bitters struck me as classic, Angostura-style, but warmer and more complex—vividly fruity and smoky, with notes of orange peel, cardamom and cinnamon to the fore, though the tiny 5ml bottle is too small to list any ingredients and Scrappy’s website doesn’t give anything away. This was complemented by two smaller 2ml bottles, one of lavender bitters and one of “black lemon” bitters. The lavender made rather an intriguing variation on the cocktail, with a strong lavender note that tricked me into thinking that there was honey in there too—and I guess you could make the cocktail with honey rather than sugar. The lemon bitters made less of an impression, though perhaps you need to be more generous with that one. The bottle smells of lemon, perhaps preserved lemon, if you’ve ever tried making that, though the website explains that a “black lemon” is actually a kind of dehydrated lime used in Middle Eastern cooking, which they describe as earthy and smoky. Confusingly, the bitters does not actually have any black lemon in it, just attempts to evoke those aromas and flavours.

The Cocktail Box Company range also includes an Old Fashioned—the delightful packaging of which looks just like a Penguin Classic paperback (see picture): the others in the range keep the styling but vary the main colour—containing sugar and three types of bitters; a Moscow Mule, with grapefruit and lemon bitters, plus sachets of ginger syrup and lime juice; a Margarita, with orange bitters plus sachets of “margarita syrup” (orange flavoured?) and lime juice; a Mai Tai, again with lime juice and orange bitters, along with “Mai Tai syrup”, which I assume is coconut-flavoured. Finally there is a Gin and Tonic kit. Some will argue that a G&T isn’t really a cocktail as such, but the big question is what such a kit could contain, given that it has neither gin nor tonic in it. The answer is orange and lavender bitters (not lemon, surprisingly) plus lime juice and tonic syrup.

So the idea is that you are using your kit somewhere where there is booze, plus access to soda water, but not to any other mixers—such as tonic water for the G&T or ginger beer for the Moscow Mule. I’d be curious to know if this came about from experience, and the feeling that this was a real need to be answered, or whether the idea of the kit came first, followed by some head-scratching about what could possibly be included. Tonic syrup is not a new thing, and a combination of soda and, say, the Battersea Quinine Cordial, produces a result not really like commercial tonic water. You can also use the syrup neat, without soda, plus gin and lime juice to create a short “GT Turbo” cocktail—I wonder if that is what the Cocktail Box people had in mind with this kit, as you wouldn’t normally put lime juice in a G&T (although you might well garnish it with a slice of lime). I haven’t had a chance to try any of the other kits, so I don’t know what these syrups are like, nor how the lime juice is preserved (and how that might affect its flavour).

The three bitters in the Champagne Cocktail set, plus the three cocktail picks

You get the idea that these kits are intended to appeal to business travellers who always want to have the wherewithal to make the perfect cocktail as they sit in their lonely hotel room with only a bottle of spirits for company—you can even buy replacement lime juice and syrup sachets. But I wonder whether the main market isn’t people looking to give cute gifts to other people who like cocktails.

Would I recommend the cocktail box? If you’re looking for a cute gift for a cocktail-lover then I think the attention to detail will please. At £18 the kit is not cheap, but you’d pay £20 to £25 for a full 150ml bottle of the bitters, so it’s a handy way to try out three from the range.

* The coaster sadly has a logo sewn on, made from some shiny, plasticky material that actually causes it to stick to the bottom of your glass when you lift it up, but once this label has been removed it is absorbent enough to work well.

Wednesday 23 September 2020

Test Valley Gin

In the Hampshire market town of Romsey to visit my elderly mother-in-law a few weeks ago, we were hunting for lunch among the tentatively opening shops (it’s a place with an ageing population, so I guess they have to be careful in COVID times). In a deli that I’d not set foot in before I noticed a display of local gins (inevitably these days, I suppose). One that caught my eye was Test Valley Gin, from Wessex Spirits.

They don’t give much away on the label other than that the botanicals include fresh herbs—I wondered if these were infused post-distillation, as the gin has a pale yellow hue. The gin’s website doesn’t elaborate much more, other than to mention fresh basil and thyme specifically (and they do indeed use the word “infused”).

Uncork the bottle and you are not overwhelmed by aroma—maybe a hint of orange. In the glass the bouquet is herbaceous with a sweet and aromatic angle. Knowing that there is thyme involved I can believe that this is the source, and perhaps the basil contributes to the sweet fragrance. I happen to have a sprig of fresh thyme to hand from the garden, and the fragrance is not the same, but related. There is a savoury woodiness too, and something vaguely salty like olives—in this respect the gin reminds me somewhat of Gin Mare. And as it opens up in the glass I’m sure I’m getting off wafts of something low and honky like bananas.

So a pretty complex nose. On the tongue it is immediately soft and sweet, with a delicate sappy herbal note, lingering pungently like watercress, and a sugary weight. Despite being diluted to a bottling strength of just 37.5% ABV (the minimum permissible for a gin, so I guess done to keep the duty as low as possible) it has a respectably long finish.

I try Test Valley in a Martini with Belsazar Dry vermouth: straightaway there seems to be a natural harmony between the herbaceous character of the gin and the botanicals in the vermouth, with the two ingredients forming a continuum, a wide vegetal vista on the tongue, plus a sweet, buttery mouthfeel. I initially mixed and tasted it without chilling, and I would say that any application of ice—whether shaken or stirred—has the disadvantage of of diluting what is already a fairly dilute gin, washing away some of the flavour. (Some stronger gins actually benefit from a bit of dilution and only really come into their own with a bit of ice, but not this one.) A solution might be what DTS calls the Diamond Method, keeping the gin in the freezer, but at 37.5% ABV I think that Test Valley Gin would start to freeze, unless you are able to have a dedicated booze freezer set to an ideal temperature.*

I also try a Negroni, though the results are less exciting. The gin certainly harmonises with the vermouth and Campari, but at equal parts it gets a bit lost, and even at 1½ parts gin it’s still hard to pick out.

A Test Valley G&T with prescribed thyme garnish

Although Test Valley do suggest a Martini as a suitable serve, their first choice is a G&T, garnished with a spring of thyme. It certain works, with that herbal character sitting comfortably with the tonic (Fevertree Light is my go-to). But I do find you have to add quite a bit of gin before the distinct flavour comes through—again this is probably a reflection of the niggardly ABV. So in my opinion a Martini is probably the best platform for this gin, making an intriguing and savoury beverage.

* Of course this is something you can turn to your advantage. I first discovered this issue with Bombay Dry/Bombay Original, which I prefer to Bombay Sapphire. In the past it was hard to come by in the UK, but when you found it it was a respectable ABV; now it has been relaunched here as the brand’s entry product they have reduced the strength to 37.5% to keep the price down. In order to avoid further dilution from ice, I tried keeping it in the freezer and found that it does indeed start to form ice crystal inside the bottle. However, I realised that if I quickly emptied the liquid contents into a jug, warmed the bottle to melt the ice left inside, poured the meltwater away, then decanted the gin back into the bottle, I had simply removed some of the water, leaving a higher ABV gin behind. Sure enough, after doing this a couple of times the problem goes away, as the residual liquid is presumably now alcoholic enough to resist freezing—and you end up with a more concentrated flavour.

However, I don’t know if some flavour component might be lost with the ice. So it occurs to me now that, instead of melting the ice then just pouring it away, you could actually use that meltwater to make ice cubes that you could then use to make your Martinis! Crikey, sometimes my genius astounds me.

Sunday 20 September 2020

Drinking off the land

The final version

Of course foraging is a bit of a Thing these days (doubtless part of the whole trend for “artisan” everything, slow living, etc). But I still find it rather uplifting to be able to cook with and eat something I have just found growing wild. It doesn’t come up much here in London, but often on holiday in more rural bits of Britain I’ll be able to gather wild garlic or marsh samphire (and, on one occasion, rock samphire—though I wouldn’t recommend that). This time round, while stomping around Cornwall’s Penwith peninsula (the most westerly part of mainland Britain) we were surrounded by blackberry bushes—every country path was bordered by them and they are equally happy popping up at the edge of a car park or road. These wild ones were not generally as sweet as the huge commercial ones you can buy in supermarkets, but it did seem a waste not to do something with them.

The Mk I with berries but no mint

So I made myself a sort of Bramble cocktail. This Dick Bradsell creation is normally made with gin, lemon juice, sugar syrup and crème de mure, but I used fresh blackberry juice instead of the liqueur. It worked pretty well, though I think you have to get the balance between gin and fruit right, to keep the juniper in its place. (I was using Tanqueray.)

But we also found fresh water mint growing by a stream near to where we were staying: it was rather tasty, with a zippy, almost mentholic mint flavour. So my next experiment was a sort of Southside Fizz—gin, lime juice and sugar syrup as before, but this time with about a heaped teaspoon of mint, chopped then muddled with the lime and syrup, before adding the gin, ice and—in the absence of soda water—a little tonic. (Without the mixer it is just a Southside.) This was actually more successful, with the mint flavour clear and refreshing.

But the best was yet to come. For my final experiment I combined both of these ideas into one cocktail—to great effect, I felt, as the blackberries and the mint have a natural harmony. (I also felt the that the blackberries sat more comfortably with the gin, which may just mean I got the proportions right: sadly I had no measuring equipment with me, so the proportions here are an estimate.)

The Mk II, Southside Fizz

Forager Cocktail

45ml gin
Juice of half a lime
About 1–1½ tsp sugar syrup
1 heaped tsp chopped water mint (although I’m sure it would work with other kinds of mint)
About 30 wild blackberries (fewer if using larger commercial berries)

Add the mint to a glass with the syrup and lime juice and muddle to extract the flavour. Add the berries and muddle until reduced to a pulp. Strain (rubbing through the strainer if necessary, to release all the juice) into another glass, filled with ice, or into a shaker and shake with ice then pour into a cocktail glass. Garnish with mint, a lime wedge, or a blackberry. I was constructing this in the kitchen of a rented cottage, so I had no shaker or special equipment, but I imagine you could use a food processor to purée the berries, but they will still need straining, as they contain a lot of seeds.