|The Pickering's mechanical Martini mixer|
|A Gimlet made with Pickering's|
|The Pickering's mechanical Martini mixer|
|A Gimlet made with Pickering's|
I suppose no one should have been surprised that, hot on the heels of the recent gin boom, where half a dozen new gins seem to be released each week and every town or visitor attraction has its own brand, there should then be a vermouth boom. Well, maybe not a boom exactly, but certainly when I was a youth you basically had Martini and Cinzano, plus some dodgy supermarket clones. If you were a bit classy there was Noilly Prat and bar-trade insiders might favour Dolin. But now new brands are springing up all over the world, including Regal Rogue from Australia and my current favourite Belsazar from Germany. Often the USP will be the use of local wines as a base.
The latest aromatised infusions to tickle my jaded palate come from much closer to home—London (specifically Queen’s Park, which is the other side of the city from my manor, Greenwich). A friend emailed with a mysterious request for my mailing address—he said a friend of his had something to send me. In due course three bottles arrived from the London Vermouth Company.
Set up by Ben Leask, Andrew Wealls and Guy Abrahams, three friends with diverse backgrounds but a shared interest in food and drink, the LVC, as its name suggests, focuses on the local sourcing. Mind you, it’s a bit of a fudge, as not a lot is grown in London itself. But the S.E. Dry vermouth uses Bacchus wine from the South Downs, gooseberries from Essex and Bramley apples from Kent, so near London if not actually in it. (It does contain London honey, though, from Dulwich, not far from me.) The Amber Limon uses Kentish rhubarb, but I’m assuming the blood oranges are not from anywhere very nearby. And Camille’s Red uses dry wines from Kent and Surrey, but also ruby port.
The Amber and the Red also feature largely unnamed botanicals (numbering 21 and 23 respectively), although the website does mention that Indian cardamom features in Amber Limon and S.E. Dry, orange flowers from Marrakesh in Amber Limon and Camille’s Red, and Indonesian cloves and black pepper in the red as well. But they were at least able to find local bay leaves, grown in Guy's back garden.
In each case the founders asked a specialist to concoct the recipe: the amber and red vermouths were crafted by drinks expert Camille Hobby Limon, of The Bar With No Name and Zetter Townhouse, while the S.E. Dry was created by chef Steven Edwards, winner of MasterChef: The Professionals in 2013. Neither had made a vermouth before, but the chaps behind LVC specifically wanted to see what happens when someone who is a genius in one field takes on a challenge in a different one.
Uncorking the bottle releases rather a complex and intriguing aroma—honeysuckle sweetness, nettles, elderflower, raspberries, meringue and candied fruit and angelica. All rather tantalising and exciting. But when you slosh some of the liquid into a glass the bouquet suddenly changes and becomes more overwhelming and actually less appealing, with a heavy layer of flowers that have “gone over”. There is still a bright orange/grapefruit citrus character, but now with the burdensome confectionary miasma of hard-boiled sweets, along with something pungently herbaceous.
On the palate there is a strong, sharp vegetable note of rhubarb, with roiling meadow flowers and stalks. It’s a bit cloying, though the balance is medium sweet overall. I try some Belsazar Dry alongside for comparative purposes. I always think of this as quite savoury, with almost a saline note, but I’m surprised to find it is actually no less sweet than the S.E. Dry; however the flavour is sharper, more about tart berries than mulching flowers.
I try the obvious and make a Dry Martini with it. This actually works better than I expected. It’s not much like Belsazar; it’s more floral and has an overriding aroma of elderflower and gooseberries floating above it. I don’t think it’s likely to become my new favourite vermouth but, especially when partnered with a stern, savoury gin, it can make for a soft, summery Martini that balances the hard juniper edges of the spirit.
As mentioned, this stars rhubarb and blood orange, and is indeed amber in colour. Sniffing the open bottle yields a smell not dissimilar to the Dry but tighter, more citric, toasty and perfumed. Like hip marmalade. But once again, in the glass the aroma gets overwhelmed by heavy floral overtones, but this time I can’t help being reminded of synthetically-fragranced paper hand towels.
On the tongue there is a totally unexpected resinous spice like frankincense, along with floral and herbal weight. It’s a bit like wandering into a patchouli-doused head shop. There’s a bit of violet and strawberry in there too, citrus tartness and rhubarb bitterness, plus a lemon balm note that runs through both vermouths. But that patchouli note dominates.
There aren’t really any classic amber vermouth recipes so I try making a Negroni using this one. For me this is dominated, as soon as you smell it, by a note that reminds me of creosote though Mrs H. gets mainly boiled sweets again. I eventually managed to balance it up a bit by adding more Campari and gin, but it really is a bit pointless using this vermouth in the first place.
I do a search for bianco vermouth cocktails and discover that Simon Difford thinks the El Presidente—Cuba’s Martini, made with rum and vermouth—it best made with bianco. A 2:1 blend of white rum and the Amber Limon certainly doesn’t clash, though it isn’t transformative either. You still have to like the vermouth’s cloying pungency. Another Difford suggestion is bianco vermouth with tequila, and this turns out to be more successful. The herbaceous prickle of the tequila locks horns with the heavy floral and resinous notes of the vermouth; with Olmeca Altos Plata I find that at 2:1 the vermouth is actually rather swamped and you need 1:1 proportions to get a good balance between the two. Difford’s recipe includes a bit of maraschino—thought I don’t think it needs sweetening—plus lavender bitters; I have none to try, but I can imagine the result would be a very complex cocktail, full of fleshy vegetable layers and late-summer floral tendrils.
One other thing Difford suggests is an Algonquin cocktail, which uses rye whiskey, vermouth and pineapple juice. I don’t have any of the latter, but a mix of rye-high Four Roses Small Batch bourbon and the Amber Limon is also very interesting, the spirit’s woody rasp more than a match for the vermouth.
In addition to the two English wines, ruby port and those spices, this apparently includes bonfire toffee—toffee made with black treacle (molasses). A sniff of the bottle offers a promising dark scent or orange and woody cinnamon, a bit of clove, plus that candied layer all these vermouths seem to have. In the glass it is less cloying than the other two; there is rhubarb, something floral, coffee, toffee and ruby port notes.
For my taste, the balance of sweet and bitter on the palate here is the most successful out of the three, with herbal, rooty and candied elements. Out of the three this is probably the only one I could drink neat—despite the dominating “potpourri” note that they all have—though in comparison Belsazar Red is tighter, leaner and certainly more bitter.
I try a Manhattan using this vermouth; it’s certainly distinctive, with strong wafts of citrus and rhubarb on the nose, but on the palate it lacks something in the middle. Oddly, it has a cough-mixture quality but seems kind of dry too. Adding a dash of maraschino helps, but again you’d be better off just using a different vermouth.
In a Negroni things start to look up. Straightaway the blend has what I can only described as an openness or transparency. I think the rhubarb and grapefruit elements sit comfortably with the citric bitterness of the Campari and the heady thrust of the juniper in a vivid harmony. There is also an intriguing perfumed aftertaste. The vermouth really comes into its own here, but you’d better be OK with bitterness. I tried it with several different gins and it is a solid winner.
The stated aim here, to make specifically London vermouths, is a bit hit and miss—not only do so many of the ingredients come from other countries, but the whole idea of vermouth has nothing to do with British food and drink traditions (other than our willingness to drink the stuff, though that applies to most boozes). But have they created something that tastes particularly Londonish? Rhubarb is a strong presence, which is fair play, though if you wanted a bittering agent then hops would also have been authentic for the region. And if the smell of over-mellow honeysuckle and elderflower makes you think of England then that is a thread that runs through these offerings. It’s a smell I get from gins sometimes and it usually makes my nose wrinkle and my lip curl, but to each his own.
As I say, Camille’s Red makes a bright, open, vivid Negroni and the Dry makes a blossomy, summery Martini. The Amber is the most challenging for me, but initial experiments suggest it’s best matched with the powerful savoury flavours of tequila and American whiskey.
No.1 Amber Limon and No.3 S.E. Dry are £24 for 50 ml, and No.2 Camille’s Red £26 for 50 ml, all from the London Vermouth Company online shop
If you think Brussels sprout gin is wilfully strange, check this out. You may remember how taken I was by both the regular Caspyn Gin and the Midsummer gin from the Pocketful of Stones distillery: I noticed recently that they have now added a squid ink gin to the range.
You read that right. Apparently they’ve been trying to make Dr Squid Gin work since 2018, and the final recipe uses, they admit, only a very small amount of squid ink. The website doesn’t say if it uses their regular gin as a base (as the Midsummer gin does), only that this version also features vanilla and sea buckthorn. Before you even clap eyes on the gin itself you are struck by the other departure with this product—instead of a bottle it comes in a rectangular copper flask. I’m wondering if this was a practical necessity—for example, if it turned out that the colour of the gin was unstable if kept in a transparent bottle—or if they just wanted find a way to add to the “special edition” vibe. If you look at comments and reviews, customers have certainly had problems pouring from the flask without spilling gin all over the place, and my example actually came with a speed pourer to jam into the neck to create a reliable spout, so clearly they have conceded that there is a bit of a design flaw here. Other comments suggest that some customers detected a metallic taint in the gin or allegedly found bits of copper swarf in the liquid.
The flask is certainly a handsome object, however. Let's pause for some packaging porn:
There is no explanation given as to why it’s “Dr Squid” Gin. Who is Dr Squid? The stick-on label features a top-hatted Edwardian gentleman whose lower half is a squid, so I guess it’s him. But it’s a bit odd, having a tin that is all about the Cornish identity of the gin, then a label and title that goes off on Hendrick’s-esque self-consciously-eccentric diversion.
Some reviewers have complained that the gin consequently has a fishy smell, but I must say that I cannot detect anything of that nature. Sniffing the open flask, I get a hit of bold juniper plus warm orange and lemon citrus notes. In the glass I also get a strong coriander element, plus something floral like violets (and I don’t think that is just suggested by the colour!). There’s also a strong herbaceous element—the first thing that springs to mind is parsley, perhaps blended with watercress and a smidgeon of pungent sage.
On the palate it is immediately sweet and smooth (perhaps from the vanilla, though I don’t obviously get vanilla as such), with flinty juniper, prominent coriander seed and a dry finish. It’s a powerfully flavoured gin—you can’t help wondering if this is done deliberately to mask the taste/smell of the squid ink! There’s something in the herbal/mentholic notes that make me wonder if they have included rock samphire in the botanical mix, which would be a consciously Cornish thing to do.*
|A daunting-looking Dr Squid Martini|
Another cocktail I often use to put a gin through its paces is the Corpse Reviver No.2—equal parts gin, lemon juice, triple sec and Cocchi Americano (standing in for Kina Lillet, which is no longer made), plus a dash of absinthe. It’s a powerful combo and some gins get smothered by it. Made with Dr Squid, it’s certainly a nice, complex drink, with sweet, sour, bitter and herbal elements—but then it always is. The coriander comes out noticeably and one thing I notice for the first time with this gin is a saline element, which I don’t recall being a characteristic of this cocktail. Of course the colour is weird, with the purple gin meeting the yellow of the lemon juice to produce a not-unattractive pinky colour. But from a flavour point of view, the cocktail is certainly a success. It makes me think that I should try more combinations of Dr Squid and absinthe.
|The pinkish colour of a Dr Squid Corpse Reviver No.2|
Shaun Bebington, the man behind the distillery, was helpful last time so I drop him a line and he comes back with some interesting answers. He confirms that Dr Squid does not use their existing gin as a base. “It is a new recipe we developed to compliment the main ingredient, squid ink,” he explains. “Botanicals included in this recipe are coriander, lemon peel, sea buckthorn, cinnamon, vanilla, hibiscus, black mallow and blue pea flower. The phenolic taste you're getting is a direct result of the squid ink being used.”
He also reveals the truth about the tin: “It was envisioned for the whisky we are planning to release later this year but was too good a combination not to run with it for Dr Squid—the fact that it stops UV is an added bonus. Saying that though, any floral infusion post distillation will suffer from oxidation resulting in a loss of colour anyway.”
So does this mean that the colour of Dr Squid will actually fade with time? “Yes the liquid will fade,” Shaun confirms. “Even out of the light. All liquid will have diluted oxygen in it as well as the oxygen in the space in the bottle. So unless the liquid is vacuum packed and has less than 1.8 parts per million of diluted oxygen it will oxidise and fade over time. Our sister distillery in South Africa, www.wcdistiller.com, is working on this at the minute with their Night Shade Gin.”
|A Dr Squid Tuxedo|
It’s actually a very interesting cocktail: I was afraid that the high proportion of vermouth to gin might make it seem watery, but with the hits of orange, absinthe and aromatic spices from the Angostura it’s complex and reasonably balanced. For me it’s a bit on the sweet side (and I was actually using dry gin rather than the Old Tom prescribed). I think it needs some sweetness—although the Tuxedo Cocktail No.1 from the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book is simply equal parts dry gin and dry vermouth with two dashes of absinthe and a strip of lemon peel, so much drier—and I later try it with just dry vermouth, controlling the sweetness using the maraschino, and then again using a 3:1 ratio of dry to sweet vermouth, but it didn’t seem to recapture what seemed to make it all pull together the first time.
Would I recommend Dr Squid Gin? You can tell that a lot of effort and polish has gone into it; it’s certainly interesting, and tasted neat it reveals intriguing strands of flavour. But in most cocktails (and even in a G&T) I confess that the drink actually tastes nicer with a different gin. If you particularly like that phenolic thrust it might be to your taste, and it does seem to work best in strongly flavoured cocktails that have absinthe in them. But then there’s the price: unless you particularly want one of these copper flasks then it is hard to justify.
* You may have encountered marsh samphire in fishmongers or delicatessens: it’s a salty crunchy thing that is in season in the UK for a few weeks in June, growing in marshy areas by the sea. Rock samphire, or sea fennel, is not actually related (it’s part of the carrot/deadly nightshade family) and grows on cliffs in Cornwall. While holidaying there I did harvest what I’m fairly sure was rock samphire and tried eating it—it had a powerful phenolic taste and aroma (“fumes” would be a better word). Apparently it’s considered a delicacy, and is a good source of vitamin C, but I wasn’t convinced. It’s traditionally pickled, so maybe I should try preparing it that way next time I’m in the area.
I asked David, who runs the food and drink side of the Candlelight Club, if there was one of our previous Christmas cocktails that we could offer people to make at home, as a sort of vicarious seasonal experience. The cocktail in question was the Spiced Clementine Daiquiri (see below). The base spirit is spiced rum, which got me pondering.
At some point in the past I acquired a bottle of Sailor Jerry’s spiced rum and I found it repellently sickly. I’ve rather avoided spiced rum ever since. But I also remember, at the launch of the Chairman’s Reserve Rum range, that they had an incarnation that I thought was actually not bad. So I did a bit of online research to collate as many “top spiced rums” lists as I could find and, based on these recommendations, ended up with a short list of four. So, in the spirit of scientific rigour for which the Institute for Alcoholic Experimentation is renowned, I bought all four.Red Leg, which is common in supermarkets and can be had for £15 a bottle. It’s made from “Caribbean” rum, aged in barrels for an unspecified time before being infused with vanilla and ginger. It is named after the Red Legged Hermit Crab native to the Caribbean. It’s a golden colour, with a nose that is a strong, rather cloying, blast of vanilla and caramel or butterscotch. On the palate it is pretty sweet with a flavour of brown sugar and vanilla, with some heat: it’s only 37.5% ABV, so I’m guessing this might be from the ginger, although aside from this the flavour of ginger is not hugely apparent. It’s quite one-dimensional, all about the sugar/vanilla thing.
Next up is Dead Man’s Fingers, created at the Rum and Crab Shack in St Ives, Cornwall. These crazy cats wanted to add some unexpected flavours (I mean, does rum and crab even go together?), citing Cornish saffron cakes, spiced fruit and an ice cream they serve made with sweet, concentrated Pedro Ximenez sherry, plus “nutmeg, vanilla and a hint of orange”. It’s a darker colour than the Red Leg and has a powerful nose with a noticeable ginger element, plus what smells to me like lime. There is also a rather savoury mid-note, almost like onion, and I can get saffron too. After it opens up in the glass a smoky element emerges. On the palate it is less sweet than the Red Leg. There is definitely vanilla (which seems to be the main defining flavour in spiced rum), but a prominent flavour of fresh ginger, giving it a fiery kick, like ginger beer, and a slightly bitter finish. It leaves an aftertaste of Turkish delight, the kind that comes dusted in icing sugar.Foursquare Spiced Rum which, by contrast, is named after the sugar estate, apparently one of the oldest in Barbados, where they’ve been making rum since 1640. The bottle gives nothing much away about its contents, only that the blending recipe is a secret known only to generations of the Seale family. It is very lightly flavoured compared to the others, paler than Dead Man’s Fingers and not really sweetened at all. Many reviewers talk about a primary flavour of cinnamon, but for me the most noticeable element is coconut, with a hint of sherry, which gives it a refined edge, and maybe a whiff of oatmeal. (I don’t know if there is any coconut in it, though I detect a hint of a similar aroma on the next rum and I wonder if it’s an impression created by clove in combination with something else.) On the tongue it is also mostly coconut that I get, plus the dry barkiness of cinnamon. Mind you, perhaps I’m doing it a disservice by tasting it after the gutsy punch of Dead Man’s Fingers, but I’m not really getting much at all from this rum. I try it again the next day, and I would say that it does have a quiet, genteel polish to it, but compared to the others there is not a lot going on.
But let’s not forget that the starting point for all of this was a cocktail. How do these rums perform when mixed? Here is the recipe:
Shake all the ingredients together with ice in a cocktail shaker and strain into a (largish) cocktail glass. Garnish with a strip of clementine or satsuma zest.
Clementine juice is something that most supermarkets seem to sell at Christmas, though perhaps not at other times. It’s actually strikingly different from orange juice, sharper with more or a rindy pep, almost as if it already has a little lime in it. In any case, for my palate the added lime juice is needed to balance the syrup, but if you have a sweet tooth you may wish to leave it out. With spiced rum’s typical flavours of vanilla, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, orange peel and clove, plus the clementine juice (and Angostura has quite a cinnamon stripe to it) you've basically got Christmas in a glass. (I also tried it with a bitters that David had made a previous Christmas, which is heavy on clove, and this really boosted the Christmasy combination.)
Although I found the Red Leg rum a bit sickly on its own, it works fine in this cocktail, and it was Mrs H.’s favourite out of the lot, though she has a sweeter tooth than me. Dead Man’s Fingers benefits from its strong flavouring and punchy profile, easily making its presence felt against the other ingredients. For me this was probably the best choice for the drink, though Mrs H. didn’t like it so much—I think the edge of bitterness it brought wasn’t to her taste. The Foursquare was the least successful here: it’s too delicate to make much of an impression, and if you try to adjust this by adding more of the rum, it just unbalances the cocktail. Finally, the Chairman’s Spiced Rum certainly does work well in this drink, though I would argue that its leading flavour of orange might get a bit lost against the other citrus in the drink—and to be honest I’d rather save it to drink neat.
I also tried these rums with Fentiman’s ginger beer, with and without a squeeze of lime (so a Dark and Stormy cocktail). For me the Red Leg is just too sweet without a hefty dose of lime juice, and again the Foursquare got lost, but the other two worked well. You might think that the Dead Man’s Fingers with its strong peppery ginger character would be overkill with the ginger in the mixer, but it seemed to work OK. Again, I think the vividness of this rum makes it good with mixers in general.
But for me the star of the show was the Chairman’s Spiced Rum. It’s the only one I would choose to drink neat, and that is indeed what I was doing with it over Christmas. In a way it’s the first spiced rum I’ve tasted that, for me, justifies the existence of spiced rum as a concept—they are generally too sweet, crude and overblown for me, but this example is complex and poised. Whether you’d want to mix with it, given the price, is another question. If you specifically want a spiced rum for mixing, at £18 the Dead Man’s Fingers is a good bet.**
* I have a distant recollection that the Greek spiced fortified wine Metaxa tastes a bit like this, with an orange thrust. I’ve got some Metaxa in the cellar so I go and check: the dusty bottle is 95% empty, so probably not at its best, but in fact it has a floral nose and a muscaty taste, so nothing like the rum at all. Forget I ever mentioned it. And I can report that the Chairman’s Spiced Rum is a far superior drink in any case.
** The Kraken is another popular spiced rum, but I didn’t include it in this experiment as it didn’t really feature in my initial trawl of other people’s top-spiced-rum lists, but I have tried it at a trade show once and I don’t recall being terribly impressed. I think was was probably too sweet, and the underlying rum a bit rough.