Monday, 12 June 2023

Gimme that gomme! Making your own gomme syrup

The gum Arabic powder as it comes (against white paper for colour comparison)

If you’re in the habit of perusing vintage cocktail books (of course you are) you may well have encountered references to “gomme syrup”. The purpose of this was to make cocktails sweeter, without adding any other flavours—as opposed to flavoured syrups such as grenadine (flavoured with pomegranate) or orgeat (almond-flavoured).

Indeed the term is often used just to refer to a simple syrup of sugar and water, and you certainly need to have a sugar syrup to hand to make many classic cocktails. Some people mix sugar and water 1:1 but I prefer 2:1 sugar to water. You can heat it up in a pan, but Ed McAvoy once showed me that you can make it quickly by filling an empty wine or spirit bottle two-thirds full with dry granulated sugar, then carefully topping it up with just-boiled water, and shaking it vigorously until all the sugar is dissolved. 

However, real gomme syrup also contains gum Arabic (hence the name, gomme), which comes from the sap of acacia trees and serves as a thickener. Nowadays you can buy commercial gomme syrup (though I think that when I first started taking an interest in these things about 15 years ago, you possibly could not). I’m not sure I’ve ever knowingly tasted any, so I decided to make my own.

Fortunately you can buy gum Arabic easily enough. I bought some from a health-food outlet on Etsy. Some examples I’ve seen come as brown crystals, buy mine arrived as a plastic bag of off-white powder. Searching online for recipes, I found they all tend to have the same proportions, though they vary in method. In the first instance you need to blend the gum powder with a little water—some say boiling water, some say room temperature. Beating or whisking out the lumps takes about 5–10 minutes. After this some people have you move straight on to the next stage, others say you must leave it for 48 hours. I went with another recipe that said to leave it for three hours, and it all seemed to work OK.

Gomme Syrup
1 oz or 4 tbs gum Arabic
1 cup granulated sugar
¾ cup water

Boil the water and add ¼ cup of it to the gum powder. Whisk until all the lumps have gone, then set aside for three hours. Put the remaining water and the sugar in a pan over heat, add the gum mixture and stir until all the sugar crystals have dissolved. Leave to cool, then bottle.

What the gum looks like after whisking with a little water

To establish what, if anything, the gum added, I simultaneously made a sugar syrup using the same proportions of sugar and water (so a bit more water than I would normally use for syrup), so I could compare the two. To look at, my gomme had a tawny tinge to it, while the plain syrup has no colour (see the photo below).

I should not have been sceptical, because the effect of the gum, while not dramatic, is quite noticeable. I made two Daiquiris (rum, syrup and lime juice), identical except one used the simple sugar syrup and the other used the gomme syrup. In the mix, with the colour of the lime juice present, the two cocktails were indistinguishable to look at, but the gomme clearly added a richer mouthfeel. 

This texture is something that other recipes (such as the White Lady) pursue by adding egg white; and indeed pineapple juice—when shaken vigorously—also produces a thick, creamy texture. But having tried it, I would say that gomme syrup has the advantage that, once made, it will keep, while egg white and fruit juice will not. (Also, if you have to crack an egg, then you’re left with the question of what to do with the yolk. Here in the UK you can buy pint cartons of pre-separated egg white in the chilled section of supermarkets, which is convenient if you need to make 50 White Ladies in a hurry, though a bit of a waste if you only want one.) Gomme also has the advantage over pineapple juice that it won’t make everything taste of pineapple.

Ordinary simple syrup on the left, gomme syrup on the right

Some sources say your gomme syrup will keep in the fridge for six months, others say just one month. A couple of people claim that adding a tablespoon of vodka will add another month of fridge-life, though I find it hard to believe that the resulting ABV of about 3% is going to have much of a preservative effect, compared to the high concentration of sugar. I’m also not clear what happens to the syrup after this: perhaps it’s just likely to go mouldy, which I have seen happen to syrups in the past.

I would certainly recommend giving gomme a go. While it’s a bit of a faff compared to regular syrup, once it’s done it’ll probably keep you going for quite a while, and my packet of gum powder, priced at £3.95, is enough to make four batches like this.

Sunday, 28 May 2023

Is this the Martini-lover's bible?

Hot on the heels of his book Negroni (OK, a bit over two years later) m’colleague David Smith has published his new work, Martini, again written in conjunction with Keli Rivers. As its name suggests, it is an exploration of variations of this classic cocktail.

In its purest sense a Martini is a mixture of gin and vermouth. The iconic Dry Martini uses dry white vermouth in a ratio that greatly favours the gin. (In the early to mid-20th century there seemed to be a cult of minimising the vermouth presence, by delivering it with a pipette, atomiser or even a “Martini stone”—a stone that was kept in a vessel of vermouth. One added the stone to the glass, trusting that what vermouth clung to it would be sufficient.) The traditional garnish is either an olive or a twist of lemon peel. A Perfect Martini uses a half-and-half mix of dry white and sweet red vermouth. You don’t encounter Sweet Martinis much, though the Savoy Cocktail Book (1930) does have one that uses “Italian” (i.e. sweet red) vermouth, rather than bianco (sweet white) vermouth as you might expect.

There was as time in the 1990s and beyond when it was fashionable for any cocktail to be dubbed a “[Something] Martini”, even if its ingredients had nothing in common with those of a Martini, simply by virtue of serving it in a v-shaped “Martini glass”. To his credit, Mr Smith does tend to stick to recipes with some relation to the basic idea of a Martini, with a base spirit (usually gin or vodka, though occasionally straying into tequila or rum territory) augmented with a smaller amount of vermouth or something standing in for vermouth, such as sherry, amaro, liqueur, etc., and sometimes also small amounts of citrus juice and/or syrup. We do get a Dry Manhattan, which would seem to be a whole different ballpark, but whereas a Manhattan more often uses sweet red vermouth, here it uses dry white, so I guess it’s a sort of Martini/Manhattan hybrid. Perhaps inevitably we encounter the Espresso Martini (see my previous post) and the Porn Star Martini but, being vodka based, they are at least slightly related to a real Martini. (The Porn Star Martini features passion fruit purée and/or liqueur, lime juice and an element of vanilla, either from vanilla syrup, vanilla vodka or vanilla liqueur, such as Galliano.)

We encounter classics such as the Dirty Martini, which includes brine from the olive jar, or the Gibson, which is a Dry Martini garnished with a cocktail onion. (No mention of the Murphy, however, where the garnish is a radish. Though, as I discovered, there is a good reason for this—it adds nothing.) We get the related classic the Gimlet, gin and lime cordial, along with its modern version made with fresh lime juice and syrup. Another classic is the Pink Gin, just gin and Angostura bitters, sometimes with water, but here we instead get the Pink Gin Up, with added dry vermouth, so a cross between the Pink Gin and the Martini. We get the modern classic the Vesper, created by Ian Fleming for his 1953 James Bond novel Casino Royale, which blends gin and vodka and uses Kina Lillet instead of vermouth. (Kina Lillet hasn’t been made since the 1980s; Cocchi Americano is a useful alternative, though here David suggests a 50:50 mix of Lillet Blanc and China Martini.) 

An Improved Appletini, a 2:1 mix of gin and Calvados with a little curaçao

Red vermouth is also represented, in the form of the classic Gin and It, where the “It” is short for Italian (sweet red) vermouth, as well as the Martinez: here it is also gin and red vermouth, though using Old Tom gin (usually sweeter than London Dry) and splashes of maraschino and bitters. (It’s an old recipe, possibly even older than the Martini, and other recipes feature curaçao or both dry and red vermouths.)

We get two versions of the Cosmopolitan, the original 1930s recipe of gin, curaçao, lemon juice and raspberry syrup, and the 1980s reinvention of vodka, curaçao, lime juice and cranberry juice. We’re also treated to some modern twists, such as the Leggero Martini, essentially a Martini spliced with a G&T, or the GT Turbo, which is in a way the opposite—a GT concentrated into a Martini glass, using a “tonic syrup”. There have been commercially available tonic syrups, but David suggests making one by heating tonic water in a saucepan until reduced to a syrup.

We get the historical curiosity which is The Saint, inspired by an incident from the 1930s when the bar on the airship the Hindenburg ran out of gin, so Pauline Charteris, wife of the novelist Leslie Charteris, suggested using kirschwasser instead. And the book finishes with some seasonal ideas, such as a Halloween-appropriate version of tequila, sherry and blood orange, garnished with “fangs” of grapefruit peel, or, for New Year’s Eve, the Millionaire’s Martini, with a splash of Champagne.

Martini is a slim volume of just 64 pages, but it contains much useful, well-curated material, offering both a grounding in the essence of the Martini, as well some variations, from the traditional to the exotic (fancy a Breakfast Martini, made with a spoonful of marmalade?). There is no jokey filler here:* the recipes are actually things you might want to drink. In each case specific gins and vermouths are suggested, but the recipes are not dependent on having those to hand, and hints are offered as to what kind of flavour profile would make a suitable gin for that recipe.

Martini was published by Ryland Peters & Small on 9th May, priced at £8.99

* Even the Mr Blue Sky, which has blue curaçao for colour and is garnished by a “cloud” of white candy floss

Tuesday, 23 May 2023

Luxardo Espresso Liqueur

Luxardo kindly sent me a sample of their new Espresso liqueur. They describe it as “a traditional Italian liqueur obtained from a thirty-days infusion of a selected variety of fine coffees (Brazil, Columbia, Kenya), with the Arabica type predominating”. It certainly tastes very coffee-ish: I’m assuming it contains water, neutral spirit (it’s bottled at 27% ABV), sugar and coffee.

The obvious thing to compare it with is
Kahlúa. The first thing to note is that the Luxardo product is quite a bit less sweet, which would certainly make it more flexible—after all, you can always add more sugar, but you can’t really take it out. Secondly, while the Kahlúa does taste convincingly of coffee, the Luxardo liqueur tastes specifically of espresso coffee, that earthy, bitter, high-roast flavour, with hint of berry fruit (and a touch of rubber). In fact there is more to it than that: Kahlúa is made from a rum base, and the nose has rum and vanilla notes as well as coffee, whereas the Luxardo liqueur has a simpler nose, really just of coffee and sugar. The Kahlúa’s palate has distinct rum elements, whereas the Luxardo does not have any noticeable contribution from the spirit base; and Kahlúa’s coffee note is less profound, whereas the coffee flavour of the Luxardo has considerable depth to it (more than most cups of coffee I’ve had). 

Espresso Martini
Luxardo suggest drinking the espresso liqueur neat, chilled or on the rocks, though I don’t know how many people will do that. I get the impression that it’s all about the Espresso Martini, a cocktail created by Dick Bradsell in the early 1980s, originally served on the rocks, but converted to straight-up in a cocktail glass in the 1990s—a decade when every cocktail seemed to be served this way and named a “[Something] Martini”, even if its ingredients bore no resemblance to a Martini. This is typically made from vodka, freshly made espresso, coffee liqueur and sugar syrup. (Perversely, Simon Difford, on his website, omits the syrup but adds a couple of drops of saline solution, and adds that he likes to squeeze a lemon peel over the top. However, in my copy of Difford’s Cocktails #8, from 2009, the recipe just has vodka, espresso and sugar, so he’s obviously changed his mind since then. On the website he gives Bradsell’s recipe from the 1990s and it includes a blend of Kahlúa and Tia Maria.)

On this occasion I use the recipe from m’colleague David Smith’s new book Martini (Ryland Peters & Small):

Espresso Martini
45ml vodka (he suggests Beluga, but I’m using my new favourite, J.J. Whitley Artisanal Vodka)
15ml coffee liqueur (he uses Conker, but obviously I’m using Luxardo)
30ml espresso coffee
10ml simple syrup
Shake hard with ice and serve in a cocktail glass: it should have an appealing layer of foam on the top (what I believe coffee nerds call a crema). Garnish with coffee beans.

Reflecting on Difford’s original recipe, is this cocktail essentially vodka and coffee with a bit of sugar? (Apparently Bradsell’s original was just this, created at the request of a model who asked for something that would wake her up, then f**k her up.) Given that the liqueur has sugar in it anyway, you could just mix vodka and the liqueur—interestingly, another of the three cocktail recipes on Luxardo’s webpage for the liqueur is a Black Russian, which is precisely this, vodka and coffee liqueur. It’s a viable drink, particularly if you don’t want anything too sweet. Compared to the Martini, it’s obviously more about the alcohol, whereas the Martini is quite different, from having actual espresso in it. Which is interesting, given that the liqueur is made from coffee beans. But there is something earthy about the flavour and also the texture, which I guess comes from the suspension of coffee particles. To be honest the Espresso Martini from this recipe is too sweet for me, though Mrs H. is drinking it happily.

Coffee Old Fashioned
The Luxardo webpage gives only one other cocktail suggestion, a blend of 45ml coffee liqueur with 5ml sambuca, which they call an “Espresso, What Else!” I don’t have any sambuca to hand, though I’m guessing this is a riff on the tradition of serving sambuca on fire with a few coffee beans floating on the top.

Instead, it occurs to me that the coffee flavour should pair well with bourbon, and indeed it does. I offer it to Mrs H. and she said it needed chocolate. I do actually have some chocolate bitters from Mozart, and I can confirm that 3 or 4 dashes of this does go very well, making a sort of Coffee Old Fashioned. Needless to say, I’m not the first person to have this idea, and if you Google “Coffee Old Fashioned” you’ll find a few iterations, several of which use orange bitters. In fact I find it works well with chocolate bitters, orange bitters or regular Angostura bitters.

Coffee Old Fashioned
50–60ml bourbon (rye would doubtless work too)
15ml coffee liqueur
3-4 dashes of Angostura, orange or chocolate bitters (or a perhaps a combination)
Build in a tumbler with ice.


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