Thursday, 11 August 2022

Red vermouth title fight



Like many people, I have Antica Formula to thank for the revelation that red vermouth could mean more than just Martini Rosso. Since then, the Second Golden Age of Cocktails has brought us many new vermouth brands, but for a while now my go-to has been Belsazar (both their red and their dry white). 

Recently Mrs H. and I were having lunch at the National Gallery’s new Ochre restaurant. We had a couple of exquisite cocktails before eating and I (unsurprisingly) got talking to the gentleman who would probably nowadays be called the Beverage Director. I was asking about the ingredients in my drink and he was keen to show me the red vermouth he had used, and even gave me a taste of it. It was made by Cocchi and I was intrigued. (I later discovered that Cocchi actually make two, their Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino plus their fancy Dopo Teatro Vermouth Amaro  with a dose of quinated Barolo in it,* but I think it was the former he showed me.) So I decided to get myself some to try at home.

A week or two earlier I had been drifting through Waitrose in Romsey and spotted a red vermouth from the sherry house Lustau, made from a blend of dry Amontillado and sweet Pedro Ximenez sherries, and was intrigued enough to scoop up a bottle of that. I’d been happily using that to make Manhattans, but now I decided it was time to put these three vermouths up alongside each other to see how they varied and whether I still felt that Belsazar should be my house pour.

I’d mentioned Belsazar to the Beverage Director and he agreed it was nice, but said that it had too much sediment in it to be of use in a professional cocktail environment, where appearances are important to the experience. He has a point. Belsazar red is seldom less than hazy, and towards the end of the bottle you do get a visible sediment slithering at the bottom of the neck as your pour. I have sometimes wondered whether it would be a good idea just to pour each new bottle in its entirety through a coffee filter before rebottling it, but so far I have not got round to trying this out.

Sampled neat, Belsazar has a sharp, rhubarb nose, with clear notes of orange and an earthy undertone. On the palate it immediately strikes me as having a good sweet/bitter balance—assuming you like a bit of bitterness. I’m also getting some fresh mint, and cinnamon on the finish. The base wines are from the Baden region of Germany, the sweetness from grape must and the fortification from fruit brandy; I can’t find any information about the precise botanicals.

The Lustau has a similar earthy aroma, again with clear orange citrus, but somehow both sweeter and meatier on the nose. The sharpness is more delicate, like rosehip rather than rhubarb. On the tongue there is an unavoidable sherry flavour, with less botanical intensity than the Belsazar, but it still has a deft sweet/bitter/sour balance, with a gentle drying tannin on the tongue (perhaps from the wood that the sherry has been aged in) and, oddly, a hint of spicy heat. The label admits to wormwood, gentian, coriander and orange as botanicals.

The Cocchi Storico is new to me, and quite different. It is not so predominantly sharp on the nose, more sweet, with strong notes of coffee and vanilla. On the palate it does immediately seem softer and sweeter than the others, but there is a bitterness that builds. There is coffee again and strong notes of orange peel. (The label admits to cocoa, citrus and rhubarb in the mix, and the website adds cinchona, star anise, achillea, rose petals, juniper, quassia wood, mace and coriander.)

Tasting these three neat, the Belsazar is clearly the least sweet and the most rooty and earthy; it seems muscular and rustic compared to the relatively urbane Lustau and Cocchi. Not, of course, that I do tend to drink vermouth neat—though if I were to, I think the Lustau would be my choice out of these, and in fact this is a recommend serve. The Cocchi is probably too sweet for me to want to drink much on its own.



Manhattan

For most of us, cocktails are the way we consume vermouths. So my next step is to make a Manhattan. In fact it’s a simplified Manhattan, in a ratio of two parts rye whiskey to one part vermouth (I normally might use more whiskey than this, say 2½ parts, plus bitters, of course, and usually a dash of maraschino). 

The Belsazar is immediately noticeable on the nose in this cocktail. On the tongue the bitterness is clear and the mint element meshes happily with the mintiness of the spirit.** This is a punchy Manhattan, a solid pre-dinner cocktail to whet the appetite, with lots of rough, bitter herbs to partner the sawmill wood of the spirit.

The Lustau, on the other hand, is a subtle presence. At 2:1 you’re just getting sweetness and some sherry ghost notes. If you increase the proportion of vermouth you can bring up the sweetness and the languorous sherry character, like shafts of afternoon sunlight on a leather armchair, making for a pleasant, Old World sort of Manhattan. It makes me realise how well whiskey and sherry can go together. But even at these enhanced proportions the spice and herbs keep a low profile.

With the Cocchi vermouth the coffee/chocolate strand is dominant. Even though the bitterness is certainly clear too, this vermouth makes a sweet, smooth, after-dinner sort of Manhattan, with a candied fruit finish.

Negroni

I think it’s safe to say that, after the Manhattan, the other classic red vermouth cocktail is the Negroni—equal parts gin, red vermouth and Campari—so I try this with my three vermouths. The Belsazar elbows its way in first, vigorous fruit and sharp rhubarb on the nose, and pepper and ginger on the palate. This is a Negroni to blow away the cobwebs and sharpen your palate for dinner. Or more cocktails.

The Lustau Negroni is dominated by the Campari on the nose, but there is still a sweetness and a silky strand of honeyed wood on the tastebuds. It is quiet and subtle, with just a genteel sherry rasp. A refined example of the cocktail.

The Cocchi Negroni has that signature mocha note, and is strikingly sweet compared to the other two. Maybe a bit too sweet and chocolatey for this cocktail—these qualities come to dominate and rob the drink of its aperitivo sparkle.

So what have I concluded? I’ll probably stick with Belsazar for these cocktails, though I might experiment with the Lustau more, even just on the rocks. It comes in a bottle that is only 50cl, rather than the normal 70cl, but at the moment this is just £10 in Waitrose, which is pretty good value compared to the others.

As for the Cocchi, even though I found it intriguing and beguiling when I first tasted it at Ochre, I have to admit that I struggled to find a purpose for it, seeming as it does less satisfactory in these two classic cocktails. Feeling that the coffee/chocolate note worked better with rye than with gin, I wondered if the addition of Campari to counter the sweetness might make everything come together in a Boulevardier (whiskey, red vermouth and Campari). I tried this—but up alongside a Boulevardier made with Belsazar too, to compare. If you fiddle around with the proportions with Cocchi (i.e. get the whiskey and Campari levels up enough to counter the sweetness) you actually get a balanced, nutty version of the cocktail. But is it better than the bitter, fruity sucker-punch version with Belsazar? Hmm…

* I encountered this first at a trade show, during a demonstration of things to drink with chocolate, and I can confirm that Barolo Chinato is a fascinatingly good candidate for this notoriously difficult match.

** Am I the only person who thinks that American whiskey often has a minty flavour to it?

Thursday, 14 July 2022

Taste the rainbow

One of the minis of gin I was sent
I was contacted out of the blue by Jane Oake from a gin that was new to me, Rainbow Gin. She was actually hoping to get us to stock it at the Candlelight Club, but as a pop-up we can’t have a huge back bar, just a few key flavours. However, I’m always interested in new products, and I asked her what the distinguishing features of the gin were.

“Our USP is our Rainbow Branding,” she replied. “We set out to create a vibrant, colourful brand which would stand out on the shelf. We wanted a gin with a glamorous, celebratory feel.” I’m sure no one can attempt to market a gin, or anything else, without giving plenty of thought to branding but it’s interesting to encounter a gin that is presented primarily in terms of its branding. I mean, you can’t actually taste a rainbow, so it’s not rainbow-flavoured gin.

In fairness, Jane did then add, “In addition to this we have the gin itself! It is not only delicious, it is incredibly smooth with a creamy finish.”

Given the name, I asked if there was an LGBT connection. No, there isn’t, but “we want to celebrate all things Rainbow with our brand.  We are donating £1 per bottle to charities with a Rainbow connection.” I didn’t probe as to what a “rainbow connection” might be, but I’m assuming we’re talking about charities with the word in their name, rather than charities that create rainbows or hunt for crocks of gold at the end of them. I also wondered if there was an interesting origin story behind how and why the creators decided to make their own gin; I asked Jane what her background was before this, but she just said that her background was “very varied” and left it at that. You could be forgiven for thinking that the whole exercise has been generated by an experimental marketing bot.

When I read some of the literature I discovered there was more: the name also refers to their botanicals “reflecting the colours of the rainbow”, and Jane confirmed that, having established the branding, they then asked their Master Distiller to come up with a botanical bill that did this. These botanicals are red grapefruit, orange, lemon, (green) bay, (blue) gentian, juniper (which I guess is ticking the “indigo” box) and violet. Citrus peel and juniper are obviously fairly standard gin botanicals, but I’m not sure I’ve encountered bay before, so that’s intriguing. I know of at least one gin that uses violets (Tarquin’s Cornish Gin, which deploys violets from Tarquin’s own garden), but it’s still quite a rare botanical. 

A full-size bottle
As for gentian, it’s usually used for its bitterness—however, none other than Ted Breaux himself told me that it’s pretty hard for bitterness to pass through the distillation process, as the molecules responsible for that flavour are heavy and tend to get left behind.* I mentioned this to Jane, who spoke to their Master Distiller (who is not named anywhere), who insisted that the gentian does lend bitterness, so who knows? But remember that Jane herself gave the gin’s smoothness as a key characteristic, so I’m not sure why you’d actually want a bittering agent. A cynic might suggest that they wanted something blue and perhaps gentian has the advantage that it is certainly that, while not having any real effect on the flavour.

Anyway, what’s it actually like? On the nose there is a strong citrus element that hits me first, almost candied, before any juniper, plus something more flatly herbal and savoury. This could be the bay—certainly once I’d noticed this on the botanical list I could convince myself I could detect it. As time passes it’s this herbaceous note that comes to dominate. I don’t get any violets. On the tongue it is indeed smooth (though it’s not an especially high ABV). My first impression is that it is very savoury, almost salty, though I’m wondering if the strong notes of orange on the nose trick you into subconsciously expecting it to be sweet, exaggerating the absence of sweetness.

I only had a couple of miniatures to play with so I couldn’t do endless experiments, but I tried making a Martini using Rainbow Gin and Belsazar vermouth. On the nose the gin melds fairly effortlessly with the herbal character of the vermouth, and now I do get a hint of violet—perhaps it takes a bit of dilution to reveal itself. Likewise, on the palate this serve is more complex and interesting that the gin on its own (OK, so I guess that’s the whole point of cocktails, but I mean that I’m getting more from the gin this way than I do neat). It’s sort of sweet and salty. I even get a whiff of cinnamon, which is strange as there is none in the gin. But am I getting a rainbow of flavours? No. A tricolor at best.

Finally, I try a gin and tonic, using Fever Tree Light in a 2:1 ratio. Comparing it directly with G&Ts made with Beefeater and Tanqueray, which I happen to have to hand, the Rainbow produces a dark and savoury element like cumin that floats up (again, though there’s no cumin mentioned in the botanical bill). And despite the citric nature of both the tonic and this gin, in combination the gin actually seems to smooth away the tonic’s sharp citric edge, even though, deep down, there is still a lime Opal Fruit note. ** Overall it makes a smooth and mellow G&T. With no hint of gentian bitterness.

*  Ian Hart of Sacred Gin once gave me a couple of infusions of wormwood and hops to taste—and both were very bitter. Then he gave me distillates made from those same infusions, and there was no bitterness whatsoever. (I think the wormwood had a soft earthiness to it; I can’t quite remember about the hops.)

** Starburst to you youngsters.


Monday, 7 March 2022

Instant Mint Julep

This is what the syrup looks like neat
I found myself with a glut of fresh mint after one of the Candlelight Club events. I don’t like to see food go to waste, so I’ll usually round up all the left-over ingredients and cart them home. (After Halloween, in addition to the flesh cut from the giant jack-o-lanterns, I also brought home half a dozen squashes of various kinds, which had been bought for decoration—and I’m pleased to say we made our way through all of them.)

Obviously fresh herbs won’t keep for that long, and there is only so much tabbouleh a man can eat, so I hit upon the idea of making a mint-flavoured syrup.

The Mint Julep is a classic—nay, the classic—drink of the American South, but I’ve always struggled to make satisfactory examples at home. The general idea is that you mash fresh mint at the bottom of a glass with sugar or sugar syrup before adding whiskey and lots of ice; but I always find the mint flavour elusive and the mangled shrubbery in the glass a bit unsightly.

So for this experiment I infused the mint into the syrup ahead of time, kept it in the fridge and just added it to bourbon on the rocks to make the drink. And it worked extremely well.

I did this a few months ago, so I’m a bit hazy on the proportions but I think I measured about 400 ml of granulated sugar and 200 ml or water and heated them in a pan till all the sugar was dissolved. I added two rough handfuls of mint and left it on a low simmer. I can’t quite remember exactly how long I left it—certainly no more than 30 minutes, and to be honest by the end I was sure I wouldn’t want to leave it any longer, as the mint was just starting to take on a cooked flavour. I strained and bottled it. And the result was a julep with a clearer mint flavour and no bits of greenery floating around.

To be honest, I have heard that at the Kentucky Derby—of which the Mint Julep is the official drink—they use a mint syrup, perhaps just for speed and efficiency, though I don’t know if any fresh mint is involved with that or just a commercial essence.

One caveat is that although it keeps quite well without the flavour changing, it won’t last forever. After a few months the flavour is somehow not as fresh and, like all syrups, it is at risk of mould.* And to be honest I don’t drink juleps that often, so it does tend to hang around here. But if you do have a julep habit, then you should consider making a batch of this stuff at the beginning of the summer.

———

UPDATE 23rd June 2022: I later made a second batch and this time I muddled the fresh mint continuously for five minutes in the simmering syrup, then strained it immediately. I think this is a better bet, as the flavour was no less strong, but you avoid any hint of a “cooked” mint taste.

A julep made with the mint syrup (in the jug to the right). It should really be crushed ice.


* The hardiest syrup I make is grenadine. This is traditionally made from pomegranate juice, but I was surprised to see that commercial grenadine today is mostly made from red berries. Since you can buy 100% fresh pomegranate juice in the supermarket (ever since the pomegranate was declared a super-food), it was easy enough to experiment with. For simple syrup I normally blend two-thirds sugar with one-third water, but I found that using the same ratio with pomegranate juice actually produced something that set solid at room temperature—perhaps there is pectin or something in the juice. However, at 1:1 it words a treat. The resulting syrup has a certain tannic tartness that balances the sweetness and makes it a very useful cocktail ingredient if you don’t have a massively sweet tooth. And, kept in the fridge, it seems to last an extremely long time.