Friday, 17 March 2023

Goodwood and Porthleven gins

A couple of new gins have come on to my radar in recent months. Of course, this is nothing but a teardrop in the ocean of gins that are constantly erupting on to the market, but one does what one can.

Goodwood is a place I associate these days with the Festival of Speed motorcar spree and the Goodwood Revival, which focuses specifically on vintage vehicles, and to which many of my chums in the vintage fraternity often go. Levin Down Goodwood Gin is produced for the estate and does include some botanicals sourced locally. I confess I was actually sent a sample last year, and it has taken me a while to get round to commenting on it. The bottle is notable in that the stopper is made entirely of glass, with a only a plastic grommet to give an airtight seal. The label features a drawing of a top-hatted rider in mid-air, apparently celebrating the days when Levin Down, a local hill, was popular for fox hunting—being too steep for farming—and the occasion when the third Duke of Devonshire galloped his horse down the hill so quickly that he flew over a gate at the bottom, inadvertantly inventing the hunt tradition of fence jumping. 

The label admits to local juniper, coriander, gorse and mint (plus presumably some other, non-local, botanicals). On the nose you get juniper plus orange and lime citrus notes, but also something distinctly savoury and vegetal. When I first opened the bottle this element, like nettles or sage, was rather dominating and frankly off-putting. After the bottle had been open a while it seemed to soften and the whole thing came a bit more into balance. I’ve never noticed this with a spirit before.

Now, some months later, I would say that, nosed neat, orange and lime lead the profile, but that other element is still there. I’m guessing it’s the mint. But the warm citrus dominates now, making for an inviting nose.

For the palate, I’ve written several adjectives: “pointy”, “toasty”, “waxy”. I’m not getting gorse, which I associate with a sort of coconut smell, but the mint is definitely there. My first reaction was that it was slightly curried, perhaps from the coriander, but that impression is quickly lost. There’s even a hint of banana, and the mint flavour is not so much fresh mint, but more like cooked mint—as in the mint sauce that in Britain is traditional with roast lamb.

I try a Dry Martini, using Belsazar vermouth, and that savoury element continues to dominate, but now with an unexpected note of caramel. In fact I would characterise this cocktail by flavours of mint and caramel. I try the gin with tonic water and, at my standard test ratio of 2:1, the gin is hard to pick out at all. I add a bit more to the mix, and a sort of rubbery note emerges. I’m beginning to get the impression that this gin does not mix well: with other ingredients it goes to pieces, becoming soggy and cloying.

My other new gin is one that I encountered late last summer on holiday in Porthleven, Cornwall. I feel it’s hard to keep up with Cornish gins, though this may be more a reflection on the amount of time I spend in Cornwall than on the greater concentration of gins there—nowadays every town, institution or stately home in the British Isles seems to have to have its own gin. Porthleven Gin is made by Serena Pengelly, who actually runs the excellent Ship Inn on the harbourside. Porthleven actually already had a gin distillery, Curio, whose gin I reported on a few years ago. Initially Serena’s gin was made by them, but then she switched to the Rock Distillery

Compared to Goodwood, Porthleven gin is more exuberant and forthcoming on the nose, with a cool, juicy, slightly blackcurranty nose. On the palate, however, it is not fruity as I was expecting, but characterised by strong dry spice high notes, perhaps from the coriander, and possibly the celery seeds, listed among the botanicals. (It also contains orange, juniper, angelica and orris roots, and pink peppercorns.) I try a Porthleven Martini alongside the Goodwood one, and it is effortlessly superior, with that dry spice squaring up to the vermouth to make a dry, contemplative, grown-up aperitif. In a G&T—in the same 2:1 proportions that defeated the Goodwood—that same coriander thrust cuts through, with peppercorn notes swirling in its wake, to make a dry, crisp drink. Whereas Goodwood gin rather falls apart when you mix it, Porthleven gin almost gets better, which must surely be a hallmark of a good, practical gin.

While sipping the Goodwood neat I tried to think of other flavours that it might work well with. Perhaps sharp lemon juice might balance the slightly wallowing character? So I tried both gins in a White Lady: two parts gin to one part lemon juice and one part triple sec (I omitted the egg white on this occasion, out of pure laziness). 

Again, in these standard proportions the Goodwood gin was hard to detect at all. I raised the proportion to 2½ parts and it began to emerge as a dark, low-note presence (again with a hint of banana). Not unpleasant, but not very ginlike. It’s odd, because, neat, the gin seemed to have a pronounced citrus character, which you’d think would go with orange and lemon, but as soon as you mix it, it seems to collapse into a soggy gloop.

By contrast, a Porthleven Gin White Lady is an instant triumph, with the bright, dry coriander notes rising up—though you can feel the other elements too, such as a welcome suggestion of violets (which might be from the orris)—all slotting into place with the cocktail’s other ingredients.

While I’ve been writing this I’ve been sipping on a generous Porthleven G&T, from a bottle that is now nearly empty, which tells you all you need to know. Not sure what I’m going to do with the rest of the Goodwood, though…

Sunday, 29 January 2023

The Mexican Blackbird

During lockdown the New Sheridan Club started entertaining the troops with a weekly virtual pub quiz, delivered via Zoom. This has continued post-Covid as a monthly treat, and a couple of months back one of the questions was actually a task—to create a cocktail in ten minutes using whatever ingredients were to hand, which the quizmistress then judged conceptually rather than by actually tasting it, obviously. One contestant let himself down by putting lighter fluid in his concoction (or so he claimed), whereas my invention was more conventional.

I had some crème de cassis which I’d bought for some other project, and I was reminded of the El Diablo cocktail from the 1940s, which combines this with tequila. I think I’d also recently restocked with Cocchi Americano, which I use as a substitute for Kina Lillet in vintage recipes. It’s bitter-sweet and I always feel it has an element of ginger to it, and I also think that tequila goes well with that flavour too (in fact the El Diablo is lengthened with ginger ale). So my cocktail was slightly inspired by the classic Corpse Reviver No. 2, which is equal parts gin, lemon juice, Kina Lillet (or Cocchi Americano) and triple sec, with a dash of absinthe. In this case I actually used two parts tequila to one part each of lemon juice, Cocchi Americano and crème de cassis. To make it more visually fun, I added the cassis last, pouring it through a funnel that I put into the drink, against the bottom of the glass, so that the liqueur formed a lower layer.

When it comes actually to drinking the cocktail, I would recommend mixing it all together: even if you have a sweet tooth and fancy the neat cassis, the rest of the drink is a bit tart without it. For me, I found I actually preferred it with only half a measure of cassis, as the Cocchi adds some sweetness too.

Mexican Blackbird*
2 shots tequila
1 shot Cocchi Americano
1 shot lemon juice
½ shot crème de cassis

I heartily recommend this cocktail. As you raise the glass you are first hit by the petrolly herbaceous note of the tequila. Then on the tongue is the unmistakeable blackcurrant unctuousness of the cassis, but any possibility of cloying sweetness is immediately scooped out by the tartness of the lemon juice and the bitterness of the Cocchi—making for a distinctly grown-up cocktail. You can taste all the elements and they riff off each other in a way that encourages contemplation.

*A song by the immortal ZZ Top