Saturday 4 September 2021

Harris's patented* pick-me-up bitters

D.R. Harris is an ancient pharmacy in St James’s, the heart of London’s “Clubland” (that’s “club” in the sense of gentleman’s club full of leather armchairs, not in the Ibiza sense of the word). It’s been there since 1790. Not the bright strip-lights and melamine shelves of Boots or Superdrug, but rather a carpeted gloomth and mahogany shelving displaying tastefully modest quantities of their soaps, fragrances, shaving products—I’m sure the discreetly scarce volume of product on display is somehow designed to create a sense of scarcity that will justify the high prices. There is even an elegant pedestal wash basin in one corner: I’m not sure if this is so you can actually try stuff out, or whether it’s designed to show you how great their products will look in your bathroom.

Back in the 19th century the shop was famed for it’s “pick-me-up” tonic, available either as a ready-to-drink draught over the counter for those with an immediate need, or in concentrated form for home use. As might be appropriate in Clubland, it was much prized as a hangover cure. It was on sale from the 1860s but at some point in the early 2000s they discontinued it; there is a suggestion that it didn’t really taste very nice, though the main ingredients were cardamom, clove and gentian which (aside from the bitterness of the gentian) don’t sound too bad.**

So I was intrigued to hear that they have now brought it back in the form of a cocktail bitters, reimagined with the help of Bob Petrie from Bob’s Bitters. Interestingly, the blurb on the website still looks at the concoction as a restorative, listing the beneficial effects of the ingredients on the digestion, liver, mood, etc, but at the same time offers cocktail recipes. I guess it saves time if you can take your hangover cure at the same time as the drink that gives you the hangover in the first place.

Although there have been many bitters entering the market in recent years, I decided to do my analysis alongside Angostura bitters, without doubt the most well known, and probably the only bitters that most people in the UK have heard of—here even Peychaud’s is not known outside the realm of the enthusiast. 

Open the cap and sniff the Angostura bottle and you get a powerful smell, an earthy base with bitter menthol or mint top notes. For me there is a strong element of cinnamon or cassia, with clove and a bit of chocolate too. Taste it neat and again there is heavy cinnamon, with bright, brittle mentholic fumes rising up. They don’t give much away about what is in it, other than gentian plus various vegetable extracts.

The Harris bitters has an immediately similar nose (but then gentian and clove are key ingredients), but at the same time fruitier and less woody. I get lime—in fact this is not given as an ingredient though there is lemon peel and bergamot. Pour some out and you’re immediately struck by the pale, straw-like colour compared to the dark red-brown of Angostura. Tasted neat it again shows less of the woodiness of cinnamon but it does have a fruitiness like jam or marmalade. I would say that the two bitters clearly have similar building blocks, with woody, earthy base notes and bitter, aromatic top notes, but the Harris offering does seem more sophisticated; you find yourself probing its complexity as tendrils of vanilla, chocolate and even chilli emerge (the fiery hint may come from ginger). 

The two bitters with water, Angostura on the left and Harris on the right

Compared to the Harris, the Angostura does seem rather crude now. But of course neither of these concoctions is intended to be consumed neat. The original Harris pick-me-up was simply added to water, so I tried adding five good dashes to a shot of water. The Angostura retained its essential character strongly at this dilution—cloves, cinnamon and gentian bitterness. The Harris was again lighter and more complex. I’m convinced you can smell the honey, but on the tongue I’d say it was actually less sweet than the Angostura. (Note that the Angostura bottle releases liquid much more readily that the Harris bottle, so it is hard to be scientifically precise about the quantities involved.) Overall the Harris is lighter, brighter and with a more pronounced high bitter finish.

Next I tried a Pink Gin, the classic bitters-forward blend of just gin and bitters, usually with water. This was a favourite of my father-in-law, who took it unchilled, which I believe is traditional. I blended 15ml gin with 10ml water and three dashes of bitters. In these proportions the Angostura bitters certainly make their presence felt and do sit well with the botanicals of the gin (I was using Tanqueray, which famously employs just four, juniper, coriander, angelica and liquorice). With the Harris bitters, of course, your Pink Gin isn’t pink. It also has a subtler nose with honey and ginger coming up. On the tongue I would say it was actually more harmonious with the gin than Angostura, but again with a more bitter finish. Intriguingly, it also seemed to evolve and “open up” in the glass, becoming more characterful as time goes by.

A Martinez with Harris bitters, made using the recipe on the site. Very good it is

Finally, I try a Manhattan, mixing 15ml of Bulleit bourbon with 5ml of Belsazar Red vermouth and a good dash of bitters. Even in this reduced quantity compared to the previous test, and against some powerfully flavoured other ingredients, there is a difference between the two bitters: the Angostura makes for a heavier, jammier cocktail, while the Harris bitters made a lighter, more approachable drink, with a pronounced bright bitterness. It does come across as more sophisticated, less heavy and somehow more thoughtful—if that is something you look for in a cocktail.

So overall I am impressed. The Harris bitters are not cheap: 100ml is £20, though you can buy a 10ml taster for £6.50. But by comparison Angostura is £10 for 200ml, so a quarter of the price. (Angostura is more alcoholic too—44.7% compared to Harris’s 34%—but in the quantities in which it is consumed this is not really relevant.) But certainly the Harris Pick-Me-Up bitters are worth it, given that 100ml will last you a while. A note of warning, however: you had better like bitter flavours. I gave both versions with gin to Mrs H. to taste and she made that scrunched-up “this tastes like poison!” face that even hoppy ale produces in her. But if you are at ease with bitterness you will also find much more to this complex blend.

D.R. Harris’s Pick-Me-Up bitters can be ordered from the company’s website or if you have access to the capital you can saunter into their shop and buy it over the counter.

* I’ve no idea if it is patented.

** Elsewhere I’ve seen a suggestion that it was only in the early 2000s that they realised they would need an alcohol licence to sell it, which they clearly had never had, though I guess they must have an off-licence now.

Saturday 24 July 2021

Happy birthday, Luxardo!

It was nice to be invited out on "Freedom Day"—last Monday, the day that Covid-related social restrictions were lifted here in the UK (though for how long, who knows?). In this case it was to a celebration of 200 years of Luxardo, most famous for their maraschino liqueur—see my previous analysis of the singular way they make it. It was a small gathering of only a dozen or so: previous plans for a big party had had to be abandoned, what with the plague and everything. Incidentally, the event falling on Freedom Day was a coincidence: the real reason they chose 19th July was that this is the 200th day of the year.

The venue was a "secret piazza" created for the summer at Hush Mayfair in London. Turn off Brook Street down Lancashire Court and you'll find an open courtyard with outdoor tables and a cocktail menu featuring Luxardo products. I'm not sure how Italian it really feels but being outside is a boon during Covid times. Here we sampled the new Antico vermouth-style aperitivo—not technically a vermouth because it is made from fermented cherry juice rather than grape wine, but it tastes very similar to red vermouth, with a hint of cherry at the end. I liked what I tasted and would be keen to try Manhattans and Negronis made with it.

We tasted the Antico neat, in a Spritz and also in a sgroppino, a traditional Venetian combination of lemon sorbet, vodka and Prosecco, in this case with added Antico. It's kind of a cross between a drink and a dessert and was probably the highlight of what we sampled on the day. The red powder sprinkled on the base of the glass was apparently dried raspberry, though I couldn't find a practical way of verifying this…

We were also honoured to get a taste of the Perla Dry Riserva Bicentenario, made from 50-year-old cherry distillate. It has less sugar than regular Luxardo maraschino; in fact it has a nose a bit like fino sherry and tastes a lot like grappa with notes of almond and chocolate. But don't expect to spend the summer swigging the stuff, as only 12 bottles are destined for this country (one of which I assume is the one I photographed here), at a price of £120 each. 

"G" Franklin, Luxardo's Global Brand Ambassador introduces the Perla Dry

Thanks to David T. Smith of Summer Fruit Cup for swinging me the invitation. The Luxardo Secret Piazza will be at Hush Mayfair until 30th September.

Luxardo Antico aperitivo, 16.5% ABV is £20 for 70cl. Luxardo Perla Dry Riserva Bicentario, 40% ABV, is £120 for 70cl.

Left to right: the Antico, the Antico with soda, the sgroppino and Luxardo's luminous orange regular Aperitivo, which is a bit sweet for me

Thursday 10 June 2021

Pickering's Gin, 1947 Gin and Navy Strength Gin

Back in December I reviewed the Brussels Sprout gin made by Pickering’s of Summerhall in Edinburgh. We’d stumbled across it while visiting friends during festival season, spending our days in damp basements that had become “venues” for three weeks. Although I ultimately can’t recommend the sproutwater, the basic Pickering’s gin was very agreeable.

I noted that in addition to their main gin they also did a “1947” edition, and now they have a navy strength too. So I decided to do a “horizontal flight” comparison.

The story goes that Marcus Pickering and Matt Gammell decided to start a distillery and make gin after Marcus inherited a gin recipe from a friend of his late father. Like many new gin-makers they had no experience of distilling, but unlike many they actually built theirs. They mention that their various previous business ventures together have revolved around, among other things, engineering, and the pair clearly love to make eye-catching promotional things. Things such as a pop-up tasting bar that folds out of a vintage trunk, a modified Japanese airport fire engine that dispenses cocktails from tanks through hoses, and a mechanical Martini mixer adapted from a wind-up gramophone and some 1960s chemistry equipment (which, as far as I can tell, can still play 78s). So far so Steampunk—Hendrick’s had better watch out. (Although one could observe that the Pickering’s creations are all actually functional, rather than just visual whimsy. In the words of Sir Reginald Pikedevant, “Just glue some gears on it and call it Steampunk”…) 

The Pickering's mechanical Martini mixer

The actual recipe, allegedly from a document handwritten in Bombay in 1947, was “full of fragrant spices and fresh citrus fruits”, evidently quite punchy, while the 21st-century Pickering’s people decided modern punters wanted something softer and smoother, so they tweaked the recipe. They also use a bain marie heating system for the still (rather than direct heat) which they feel coaxes out the soft, subtle flavours. The botanicals in the main gin are juniper, coriander, cardamom, angelica, fennel, anise, lemon, lime and cloves. The 1947 edition, which, as its name suggests, is “made precisely to the original recipe”, adds cinnamon. Pickering’s Navy Strength Gin is, as far as I can tell, the same as the main recipe but bottled at 57.1% ABV. You also can’t help but notice that it proudly sports a military bearskin, to mark its becoming the official gin of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

Now I’ll be honest that I was surprised to read that the basic Pickering’s gin actually has no cinnamon in it. Tasting it again for this comparison, I opened the bottle and got a pleasing spike of juniper, followed by a creamy orange citrus character plus sharp lime and lemon notes, something floral and a warm, middly, woody note that I might have guessed was from cinnamon. Apparently not. Swirling it in a glass I get some caramel and mint too—though I suspect that herbal impression may be from the fennel. All of the above appear on the palate, making an immediately balanced impression. It is smooth and almost chocolatey, but still with the juniper backbone. But I could swear I’m getting cinnamon too. While it is the juniper that greets you, I would characterise this gin as being warm, smooth and spicy, rather than lean, fresh, crisp and dry.

In a Martini it retains this character, rich, smooth and perfumed. In fact if you like your Martini stern, airy and crystalline, you may consider this gin a bit wallowy. Oddly, in a Negroni the juniper comes out more. It’s a punchy but balanced example of the cocktail, bitter-sweet but smooth.

Given that the basic Pickering’s struck me as warmly spiced, I did laugh a bit when I first opened the 1947. It just seemed a bit bonkers to make another gin that was even more dominated by these elements. To me it is less well balanced, without the juniper structure that I personally require in a gin and more of those herbal notes, in addition to cinnamon. On the palate you can find juniper but it is sort of lurking in the background.

Given that I thought the normal gin made a warm, dark Martini, you won’t be surprised to hear that a 1947 Martini is rather on the muddy side. In a Negroni you still get a warm, spicy, bitter-sweet drink, and in fact you can find the juniper if you dig, but it doesn’t rise up to offer the effortless but complex triumvirate of a classic Negroni.

The fact that the 1947 formula seemed to play up the herbal elements (which I first interpreted as mint but which in fact must be fennel) reminded me of absinthe and made me wonder if this gin might work best in drinks that included absinthe. The Corpse Reviver No.2* sprang to mind and I have to say that it’s actually rather an intriguing triumph in itself, with the fennel and anise obviously sitting comfortably alongside the absinthe and the lemon and lime flavours marrying with the lemon juice and triple sec. But of course, lacking juniper, it’s not your classic Corpse Reviver.

If there were any doubt which version of the gin goes to make the Navy Strength it would be dispelled with one whiff of the majestic juniper fumes that come from the open bottle. It’s an immensely appealing aroma (if you like gin, and ginny gin at that). It’s remarkably smooth and drinkable despite its high strength. 

A Gimlet made with Pickering's
For scientific purposes I made a Negroni with it, and unsurprisingly it tastes like a Negroni made with the normal Pickering’s gin but on steroids. Using the standard equal proportions it’s a bit unbalanced, to be honest; you could just use less of the gin, but you might as well just use the regular-strength gin. In a Martini, this gin comes into its own, creating a powerful concoction, clearly a classic, juniper-driven Martini, but complex and evolving on the tongue. I was using Belsazar Dry vermouth, and its herbal strands intertwined voluptuously with those fennel and anise notes in the gin. Needless to say, a normal-sized Martini made with the navy strength will tend to make you squiffy.

Thinking about the citrus elements, I also tried a Gimlet. Classically this is a blend of gin and lime cordial,** though some prefer to make it with fresh lime juice and sugar syrup, which is nice but not the same. (Others suggest making a lime syrup by adding lime juice and zest while making sugar syrup, though I have not tried this.) I’m pleased to report it works very well. Again, the softness of the gin combined with the sugar in the cordial makes for a smooth, approachable drink. As before, I prefer the more prominent juniper from the regular Pickering’s but if you’re not that keen on that element then a Gimlet made with the 1947 gin will make a rich, complex, spicy, citrussy glass of happiness.

Pickering’s gins can be had for about £26 a bottle from various outlets, but if you buy direct from Pickering’s themselves you can currently buy a full litre for £28.

* Equal parts gin, lemon juice, triple sec and originally Kina Lillet—Cocchi Americano is a good modern-day substitute—plus a smidgeon of absinthe.

** The proportions are moot. Some say equal parts, but I think that makes for a cloying and tooth-curling sweetness. Perhaps start at 2:1 or 3:1 and see what you think. 

Monday 22 March 2021

Apples but not pears: the London Vermouth Company

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.

S.E. Dry

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.

Amber Limon

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.

Camille’s Red

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 of 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 

Tuesday 2 March 2021

Negroni Safari

David T. Smith,  drinks writer and sometime contributor to this blog, has just published a new book on the Negroni cocktail. You may wonder how one can fill a book on the subject of one cocktail, but this volume is essentially a collection of variations, from subtle tweaks on the classic form to seasonal variants and radical reinterpretations.

In its basic form the cocktail is a blend of equal parts gin, Campari and red vermouth, and it has enjoyed quite a renaissance over the last decade or so. Generally speaking I take a dim view of people who peddle so-called variations of a drink which in reality are just borrowing a name that people will recognise and perhaps trust—the world is full of “[insert word] Martinis” which in fact contain none of the ingredients of a Martini but are simply served in what is often called a “Martini glass” (more properly a “cocktail glass”). Yet the Negroni is more open to legitimate variation than a Martini because it has more ingredients and each has many varieties—there are legion gins out there, plenty of red vermouths, and even Campari is part of an Italian tradition of bitter, herbal amari.

I developed a taste for Campari while honeymooning in Venice in 2000. A huge Campari sign loomed over the Lido (now gone, I think) and the locals’ aperitif of choice was the “Spritz”, a mixture of Campari, white wine (sometimes sparkling) and fizzy water. The Austrians who ruled the place in the early 19th century started all this, using seltzer water to thin the strong local wine. Nowadays Aperol (sweeter, fruiter, less bitter) has taken over from Campari in the Spritz—Venice is filled with tables of bright orange drinks where they used to be red—and you have to ask specifically for a Campari version, although in fairness it was always acceptable to make it with either, as well as Select Pilla or Cynar, an amaro flavoured with artichoke.

A bright red, bitter drink that's bottled at 25% ABV, Campari was invented in Turin by Gaspare Campari in the early 1800s and his son was responsible for the iconic advertising images that helped promote it through the 19th century and beyond. The recipe is allegedly a closely guarded secret but is said to involve some 60 ingredients. In flavour it comes across as herbal and citric with a bitter finish. Its colour traditionally comes from cochineal, a cactus-boring insect from South America, though in 2007 they replaced this with an artificial colouring.

The Negroni owes its existence to another cocktail, the Americano. By 1862 Gaspare had his own bar, Caffè Campari, in Milan, where he devised a blend of Campari, sweet red vermouth and soda water, calling it a Milano-Torino, after its origins. It later became known as an Americano because of its popularity with tourists. Legend has it that, in 1919, one Count Camillo Negroni went into the Caffè Casoni in Florence and asked the barman, Fosco Scarselli, to beef up his Americano with gin. (Whether at this stage the gin actually replaced the soda, I’m not clear.) This became Negroni’s favourite drink and it took his name. (To give you an idea of the cultural significance of the drink, there is actually an ongoing spat about who invented it, with the contemporary Negroni family insisting that their ancestor Count Pascal Olivier Negroni is the real creator. They even claim that Camillo never existed, though it’s fairly certain he did; the truth about his alleged careers as a cowboy and riverboat gambler are another matter. See for a taste of the vehemence.)

Mr Smith’s book, written with Keli Rivers, includes a range of variants where the role of the Campari is played by other bitter drinks, as well as some long-established concoctions which are essentially Negronis with the gin replaced by another spirit: the Boulevardier, first published in 1927, uses bourbon and the Old Pal, from the same era, uses rye whiskey. I myself have previously experimented and found that it works with tequila, Cognac, rum or Scotch, and similar variants appear here. 

Other versions focus on the fruitiness of Campari and the fact that a Negroni is traditionally served with an orange slice garnish, and add orange, grapefruit or pineapple juices. David also suggests pre-mixing a batch of Negroni and letting it “age”, or trying one of several types of White Negroni, using white vermouth and something like Suze to create an almost colourless version (see also this delightful version made with Luxardo Bitter Bianco).

Inevitably there is a “Royale” version with Champagne (although a Negroni Sbagliato, using Prosecco instead of gin, has been an Italian tradition since the 1980s), a Christmas-oriented Snowball version with Advocaat, even a “float” version with ice cream. But perhaps the strangest is the “clarified” version, where a convention Negroni is mixed with lemon juice and milk—the acid curdles the milk which draws the colour from the drink, so that when you strain it through a cheesecloth or coffee filter you get something that tastes like a Negroni but is a pale straw colour. Whether this is worth the effort only you, gentle reader, can decide.

Negroni will be published by Ryland Peters & Small on 9th March, RRP £7.99

Monday 1 February 2021

Squid's in. In the gin.

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:

As you can see, the exterior is etched with Cornish scenes: on one side are sea creatures (shark, whale, turtle, penguin, some fish and an evil-looking squid), a surfer and a galleon, while on the other we find birds and land creatures, including a fox, a badger and a hedgehog, plus a standing stone with a hole through it (Mên-an-Tol, I assume). On the spine, uniting the land and sea, are a mermaid, a chest of pirate treasure, some decorative skulls and what I think is St Michael’s Mount. Technical problems notwithstanding, this flask is clearly not cheap to make, which goes some way to explaining the hefty price tag of £50 for 70cl.

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.

Part of the USP of this gin is it’s colour—squid ink black as it comes from the can, but miraculously turning pink when you add tonic. How does that happen? Well, as you can see from the photos, it isn’t really black at all, but dark purple; so it’s no surprise that this purple becomes pink as you dilute it. From my experiences of cooking with and eating squid ink in Italian cuisine, I don’t remember it being this colour, but according to Wikipedia, while octopus ink is black, squid ink is indeed “blue-black”.

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
That colour creates some odd effects in cocktails—a simple Martini is a terrifying murky presentation. At first I try a largely undiluted version, and the herbal notes are unsurprisingly brought out, the juniper and coriander; I’m also getting a sort of sweet/pungent effect that concentrates on the tongue like anise (which, oddly, I didn’t notice when tasting the gin neat). I try a heavily shaken version to dilute it, but the only thing that changes is a slight cellulose note. I have to say that I do not think this gin makes a terribly good Martini. A few days later I try a Martini again and this time it’s really that mentholic-pungent character that strikes me, somewhere between sage and anise.

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
On the website they mention that it works well in a Gin Mule, i.e. served with ginger beer. I try this, using Fentiman’s ginger beer: it’s nice enough, the juniper adding a sort of backbone to balance the sweetness of the mixer. Mrs H. is not keen, claiming she gets a “TCP” note—I don’t know how widely available TCP is, but if you don’t know it it’s a household antiseptic with a strong phenolic smell. Which brings us back to that pungent aromatic element.

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,, is working on this at the minute with their Night Shade Gin.”

A Dr Squid Tuxedo
Thinking about the success of the Corpse Reviver No.2 and the way that phenolic element in the gin reminds me of anise, fennel, sage and parsley, etc, I poke around for more cocktails that combine gin and absinthe and come across the Tuxedo. Invented at the Tuxedo Club in upstate New York some time in the late 19th century (the earliest printed record is in Harry Johnson’s Bartenders’ Manual from 1900), it was originally equal parts Old Tom gin and dry white vermouth with variously 1–3 dashes each of maraschino and absinthe. Later versions play around with the proportions, use dry gin and sweet vermouth, or add a spoonful of sherry as well. It’s essentially a variant of the Martini, which evolved around the same time. Simon Difford has assessed the various iterations and his own version, which I try with Dr Squid, uses a 50:50 blend of sweet and dry vermouths. 

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.

Friday 8 January 2021

Spiced rum death-match

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.

The cheapest on the list is 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.

Despite the skull on the bottle, Dead Man’s Fingers is not named after anything piratical, but after the local nickname for a crab’s gills (a bit of the crab that is discarded, as it doesn’t taste very nice). So that’s two rums named after crabs. The next up is 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.

The Foursquare is about £26 a bottle, and my final sample creeps up to £32—the Chairman’s Spiced Rum. It’s also 40% ABV, while all the others are just 37.5%. The label admits to “Caribbean fruits, bark and spice”, naming cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, clove and bitter orange specifically. The nose is buttery, with a strong waft of orange peel and some cocoa. It’s a bit like smelling a Terry’s Chocolate Orange. There is also a strong note of raisins, plus cinnamon and clove. The palate is led by the orange note again. They talk about “bitter” orange, but the result is rich and smooth, a bit like eating a liqueur-filled chocolate—though not particularly sweet as such.* This rum is the one that I would choose to drink neat, smooth but not too sweet, rich but subtle, detailed and not overblown. As you dig in new flavours emerge, all deftly blended. Going back to the Foursquare, the latter is certainly cultured enough to drink on its own, but it does seem thin and dry by comparison with the Chairman’s.

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:

Spiced Rum Daiquiri
50 ml spiced rum
75 ml clementine juice
10 ml vanilla syrup
10 ml lime juice (optional)
3 good dashes of Angostura bitters

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.