Sunday, 23 March 2014

Catwalk cocktails fit for a Snow Queen

Judges tweet frantically as Robb Collins prepares to show his stuff
Like most people I’ve long been aware of the cocktail competitions that seem part of the industry’s DNA, but last Tuesday was the first time I’d actually sat in on one. It was the Snow Queen Martini Masters, organised by The Spirits Business magazine at The Club at The Ivy in London.

Robb's ingredients don't seem too weird, but wait
till you see the presentation
You can see the logic—Snow Queen stump up for the whole thing and make the hungry next generation of bartenders aware of the brand. They also get to style how we should feel about the product: the brief was clearly not just to come up with a Vodka Martini variant but to think about how to reference the target audience of women and the cultural origins of the product in Kazakhstan.

It has become a recognised part of an ambitious young bartender’s career ladder: at the Candlelight Club our resident mixologist David Hamilton Boyd has at least three of these gongs, the Jameson Mix Master world final, Vestal Vodka UK cocktail competition winner and Hendrick's Gin UK cocktail competition winner.

To be honest the relationship between the cocktail competition and real life cocktail bars seems much like that between catwalk fashion shows
All contestants were being filmed as they performed
and high-street fashion: the former is far too strange and impractical to enter the latter, but over time a filtered version of it may appear. In this competition each bartender shortlisted had to make their beverage on camera, and present it, sometimes in a tableau of hardware, flowers, fake snow, hot rocks, etc, that seemed more complex to assemble than the drink itself. Not
only that but they had to talk us through their concept as they were doing so, filling us in on how they arrived at the recipe and how it fulfilled the brief of (a) being something you could call a “Martini” (without actually being a Martini, because that has already been taken, so no scope for points there), (b) appealing to the female palate, (c) expressing the origins (and doubtless “values”) of the brand and (d) perhaps relating to the name “Snow Queen”—cue some textual analyses of Hans Christian Anderson’s original gruesome fairy tale and at least one
Robb's presentation involved Kazakh glassware, lilies, ice
cubes with lilies frozen inside them, some fake snow and
a teapot spewing dry ice everywhere. See? Anyone can
make cocktails at home
religious deconstruction.

As you might expect, there were some pretty leftfield ingredients—citric acid, aloe vera leaves, pickled cauliflower, oyster tincture, “atomised sea buckthorn”—and some predictable ones: tea is still clearly on trend, as is the inclusion of unexpectedly savoury herbs, such as tarragon. (And citric acid, come to think of it.) In fairness, a couple of contestants explained that the tea was a reference to the beverage’s popularity in Kazakhstan, and their presentations included traditional tea sets and glasses.

Sadly it wasn’t part of my role actually to taste the cocktails (though we were served Clubland Cocktails, an old recipe—it’s in the Café Royal Cocktail Book from 1937—combining vodka and white port to very agreeable
Fabio Immovilli, from the Metropolitan Park Lane, presents his concoction involving basil leaves
and Cocchi Americano infused with Chinese puerh tea. You have lotus flowers (or the nearest he
could find in London) and healing hot rocks on a bamboo mat sprayed with lotus scent, pearl powder
in the Chinese tea cups and, referencing the herbalistic medicinal powers of basil, tea, pearl and
tonic wine, each cup comes with some pharmaceutical dosage instructions. He lists the beautifying
and anti-ageing properties of these ingredients and links it all to the purity of the vodka and the
beauty of the Snow Queen herself. The crazy tie knot, by the way, is a reference to the French
character The Merovingian in The Matrix—because he loves beautiful women. Mind you, I think
the "Drink Me" bottle is perhaps confusing things with its reference to Alice in Wonderland
Elliott Ball's ingredients are explained as both an
expression of the nature of femininity and as
representing plot points in The Snow Queen. Wow.
effect). I did sneak a sip from a couple that were lying around, and at home I was also able to reconstruct the Warmth Within cocktail from Elliot Ball of Steam & Rye in London, combining vodka, Cocchi Americano, Parfait Amour, a rinse of Galliano and some bergamot oil. (OK, I didn’t have any of the last ingredient but I did add a dash of Briottet’s bergamot liqueur.) I rather liked it, and found the combination of Cocchi Americano and Parfait Amour rather interesting and not cloying as I thought it might be. Mind you, Mrs H. pulled a face when she tasted it, not liking the Cocchi’s bitter quinine finish, so clearly this mix wasn’t succeeding in tickling the female’s palate’s fancy. (Though you could argue from this perspective that the essence of the Martini involves vermouth of some stripe, which always implies an element of bitterness.)

He even served it on a mirror that he cracked before us.
I foresee Heath & Safety issues.
Vodka cocktails are an interesting area, as it doesn’t take much for the flavour of the vodka to be masked. In that sense a Martini makes sense, as it is mostly spirit with a spritz of vermouth. But in an attempt to make an essentially dry drink more appealing to the female target audience (and this was assumed to mean “sweet”), many added honey and jam and syrups and liqueurs, and I wonder how much of Snow Queen’s flavour really remained. A number of the bartenders explained how they were seeking to express Snow Queen’s character of “purity”, but it’s ironic that they chose to do this by adding a bucket of other flavours to it…

Incidentally, if you want a vodka cocktail that still allows the specific character of the vodka to come through, try a vodka Gimlet (about 2 ½ shots vodka to ¾ shot Rose’s lime cordial).

More tea pots, this time from Matteo Corsalini of China Tang at the Dorchester. His Her Majesty 
cocktail is served with passion fruit caviar and more fake snow. Jasmine smoke comes into it
somehow as well.

The Queen of Issyk, by Tim Ward of Popolo in Newcastle, scores points just for the ravishing
glassware. This colourless concoction is one I wish I had tried, being a basic Dry Martini
 of Snow Queen and Dolin Blanc, plus oyster essence, rhubarb liqueur and citric acid

The four finalists, Robb, Fabio, Matteo and Sam Baxendale of Monteiths in Edinburgh, go
through a Mystery Box round, where they must come up with a cocktail using only the
mystery ingredients presented to them. 

Eventual winner Robb Collins, from Meat Liquor in London, with Gulnida Toichieva, founder
of Snow Queen (left) and Daisy Jones from The Spirits Business.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Aged gins: is the wood good?

In the march for novelty in the crowded gin market it seems that time of barrel-ageing may well have come. I was invited to a tasting of half a dozen varieties at Megaro Bar by King’s Cross in London last week. The event was hosted by Maverick, who are handling the Professor Cornelius Ampleforth aged version of the Bathtub Gin, and the line-up also included Filliers from Belgium and three from the US, from New York Distilling, FEW and Smooth Ambler.

I suppose it was inevitable that someone would try this, partly because barrel-ageing is fashionable with all manner of drinks (including pre-mixed cocktails) as part of our current love affair with all things small-batch, artisanal and homemade, but also because there is a school of thought that some of the character of the elusive Old Tom Gin may have been the result of resting in barrels.* Certainly Seagram have been resting their gin in charred white oak barrels since time immemorial in order to smooth off the rough edges.

Geoff Robinson from Maverick leads the tasting
Note the term “resting”. In Seagram’s case it is a matter of just 3–4 weeks. Defunct brand Booth’s used to rest their product for 6–12. Some believe that in the days when gin was shipped in barrels, rather than bottled at the factory, it would have gained some subtle benefits from just such a short period in contact with wood. But in any case no-one seems to age gin for more than a few months; extended time in wood is presumably found to erode the character of the botanicals, or subordinate them overly to the barrel flavours.

While we were milling around before the presentation we were given Collinses made with the Ampleforth version. I was immediately struck by a musty note, which I realised was the wood; it did indeed taste a bit like the inside of a barrel. This product ages in “octave” barrels, just one-fifth the capacity of standard hogsheads, which means greater exposure to the wood.

When we came to the tasting proper, this gin was the first one we sampled. The Ampleforth has a strong nose of juniper, orange peel and cloves (all of which are in the botanical mix, plus coriander, cinnamon and cardamom). The palate is strongly bitter-sweet (actually first sweet, then bitter) with a very woody taste. It’s fierce but not rough. In a way it seems typically full-on for the Ampleforth infusions (cf. their smoked vodka compared to the relatively delicate example from Chase; from a cocktail point of view the Ampleforth version proved much more useable, with the Chase example too easily lost in a mixed drink). We are later sent home with a sample that I make into a Martinez (Jerry Thomas style, equal parts gin and red vermouth with dashes of curaçao and bitters), which, being related to the whiskey-based Manhattan, seems like a good thing to try. Sure enough the woody character pokes through. I find it at first a little disconcerting for that musty quality, but at the same time it does work. I wonder if that particular flavour is a combination of vanilla wood notes combined with high aromatic juniper flavours. I gather they create a blend of batches variously aged in bourbon and sherry barrels, and then rest the mix a bit longer in malt whisky barrels. The total ageing time is just 3–6 months, and the flavour is not really like wood as it presents itself in whiskey, dark soft flavours and rich vanilla. Instead it is fresh and vivid, like a mossy tree stump that has just been split.

Next up is Filliers Gin 28, from Belgium. This gin is essentially clear but with a pale, almost greenish tinge. It is aged for four months in ex-Cognac barrels. The nose offers orange, menthol, leafy lime peel, something rooty and floral (angelica?) and, unexpectedly, chocolate. On the palate I’m getting chocolate orange again. I’m not getting much obviously woody about it, though I wonder whether the chocolate notes have been picked up from the Cognac-impregnated barrels. (There are, we are told, 28 botanicals, a secret blend of citrus fruits, herbs and roots.)

After this we move to US samples for the rest of the tasting. First up is Smooth Ambler’s Stillhouse Barrel-Aged Gin. We’re very much in American whiskey territory here: it’s made from a mash bill of 68% corn, 16% wheat and 16% malted barley and aged for at least four months in a mixture of new and used bourbon casks from the same distillery.
The result is a pale gold, with a nose of toffee, pencil-lead juniper, plus odd things like blue cheese and warm vinyl. (I suspect the high ABV—49.5%—is yielding some in-your-face fumes.) It is spicy on the palate with sawmill wood flavours and hints of banana esters and some black pepper. It has a full, mealy mouthfeel. (Botanicals are juniper, coriander, cardamom, angelica root, orange and lemon peel and black pepper.)

FEW’s example is a rich amber-gold colour, made from a mash of 70% corn, 20% wheat and 10% unmalted barley, aged in small barrels (the greater surface area to volume ratio yielding more wood influence), some new, some ex-rye and ex-bourbon, all from the FEW distillery’s own whiskeys. There are five botanicals with an emphasis on juniper and coriander. The nose yields lots of strong mentholic juniper fumes, almost like Bostik, with a bit of chocolate, coriander, orange, banana and something floral. On the palate the bold flavours conjure anise and a strong heft of caraway.

The name of the next sample—Chief Gowanus New Netherland Gin, from New York Distilling—is a mouthful in itself. It is a greeny-yellow colour and has a nose of green juniper with a floral musky undertone, some toffee and high, spicy grain notes, perhaps from the three months it spends in the distillery’s own rye whiskey barrels. The palate is not that woody, but strikes me as light and fruity. There are in fact just two botanicals, juniper and cluster hops. The spirit base contains no malt—it is rye-based—yet some people in the room felt that it was evocative of the “Hollands Gin” that you see referred to in old cocktails books (generally considered to be genever): this is certainly the intention of the producers, aiming to recreate the style of spirit that would have been drunk back when Brooklyn was still a Dutch colony.

Finally we taste Dry Rye Reposado from St George Spirits. Its colour is dark amber, but even this one has only spent 4–6 months in wood, in this case casks previously used for Syrah and Grenache wine. The botanicals include juniper, caraway, coriander, lime, grapefruit and black pepper, and the nose suggests juniper, biscuits, orange marmalade, coffee, chocolate and prunes. The palate is surprisingly sweet and soft, with juniper and bananas. (I actually get less caraway from this than from the FEW which, to my knowledge, actually contains none.)

As you can see there was quite a bit of variety in how these products are put together—and almost as much variety in how they are labelled. At our tasting there was much talk of defining a recognised category for this sort of product. You might wonder if this is really necessary, but there are those who feel that these spirits are likely to be overlooked by bartenders and mixologists unless they occupy a recognised seat at the table. Some also worried that, without definitions for the category, some might knock up aged spirits using chips or staves of wood for a quick result, rather than the more time-consuming use of a barrel.**

DBS, looking a bit like Bacchus, with Becky Paskin from The Spirits Business
Which brought us to the matter of terminology. If you want a recognised category, what do you call it? Aged, barrel-aged, cask-aged, rested..? (St George use the tequila term reposado to get at the idea of a shortish time in wood.) DBS tells us that the term “yellow gin” was used for this sort of thing by such people as Kingsley Amis and David Embury, but we all agreed this was not a selling proposition (ever heard of the deadly yellow snow?). Likewise “brown gin”, apparently also used, sounded even worse. There was some favour for “amber gin”, however.

I think the category is a noble enterprise, and there were those in the room who declared some of the examples to be “sipping” gins, which were too complex to ruin with mixing. I’m not sure I really feel the same way: I think it is telling that my favourite was the Filliers, which was probably the least wooded. For my money the influence of the barrels in these examples seemed too coarse and sawdust-like, compared to the smooth subtlety you can get in a whiskey that has spent many years in wood. I’m guessing, however, that producers have found that if you age gin in wood any longer than a few months the delicate influence of the botanicals is lost altogether. It is as if you can flavour spirit either with an infusion of herbs, spices, roots and barks, or by a long period subtly interacting with wood—but not both.

* Old Tom Gin is, generally speaking, a style that was popular before London Dry took over. It is generally considered to have been sweeter, though opinions differ as to whether this was simply through the addition of sugar, or through the use of a botanical intensity focusing on ingredients such as liquorice that give an impression of sweetness. It seems likely that much of this was an attempt to mask poor quality base spirit, and and that the invention of the column still, which makes it easier to produce pure spirit, made this approach unnecessary, paving the way for a leaner, crisper, drier, less botanically heavy style of gin.

** I’m not convinced this is such a big deal, as long as you don’t actually lie on the label. It’s not as if there is a grand, revered tradition that anyone is trying to piggy-back on. It’s all frontier territory for now.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Boodles gin returns home

The modern bottle design
Drifting through the spirits aisle of Sainsbury’s I noticed that they were now stocking Boodles gin. This took me slightly by surprise—DBS has always proclaimed it to be his favourite gin (and this from a man who has tasted hundreds), but I had never hitherto been able to taste it, as it was no longer available in this country. Clearly that is no longer the case.

The gin was named after Boodle’s, the gentleman’s club at 28 St James’s Street that celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2012. (This club itself was founded by the Earl of Shelburne, later to become Prime Minister, but was named after its head waiter, Edward Boodle.) According to the brand owner’s website it was created in 1845 and was a favourite of Winston Churchill’s (although I’ve also heard that Plymouth was his top tipple.) It doesn’t seem as if it was the house gin at the club, however. Throughout the 20th century it was bottled by Seagram in the US, ownership later passing to Pernod Ricard.

The back label
Made by Greenalls in a Carter-Head still* as a botanical concentrate (i.e. distilled with a high quantity of botanicals, and therefore with a very concentrated flavour), it was, by the time I became aware if it, being shipped to Arkansas where it was diluted with alcohol and water to get its flavour down to a palatable intensity and its ABV to 47.2% (which later dropped to 45.2%). Since 2013, although still made by Greenalls in the same way, it has been owned by Proximo, of Kraken rum fame, and is bottled in Burlington. Although still sold in the US at 45.2%, the version distributed in the UK is only 40% ABV. (This is quite a common pattern.) David certainly feels that the 40% version is not a patch on the higher strength expression.

Boodles famously has an understated juniper component, and this is indeed how it strikes you, the nose offering candied floral notes and something like lemon sherbet. Orange seems to be present, although in fact there is, unusually, no citrus among the nine botanicals—juniper, coriander seed, angelica root and seed, cassia bark, caraway seed, nutmeg, rosemary and sage. I’m guessing the impression of citrus is coming from the coriander and nutmeg, both rather lemony in their way. On the palate it is smooth, with an immediate impression of sweetness on the tip of the tongue, which then dries out. There is black pepper on the finish and, for me, a slight bitter aftertaste. As you add water you get more of an orange/lemon suggestion, and something like violets (presumably from the angelica, the root of which is doubtless adding to the sense of sweetness).

An Aviation cocktail made with Boodles
Some of those botanicals are pretty rare groove. Can I taste rosemary and sage? Not really. I can believe there is rosemary there, though its resinous herbaceous character occupies similar territory to juniper.

I believe Churchill was fond of a Martini, and I can see that the sweet, softness of this gin makes for an approachable example of this drink. I make one up, and get the same floral character with hints of vanilla and ginger. In an Aviation** the gin blends in smoothly and harmonises with the cherry and violet fragrance. It shows warm, dry spice that almost reminds me of turmeric or cumin. I think this gin likes an Aviation, and it’s interesting to note that I thought the same of Gin Mare, the only other gin I have tasted with rosemary in it.

Finally I try a side-by-side comparison with Tanqueray and Plymouth. Tanqueray has an up-front juniper nose and is dry on the tongue, while Plymouth has a softer nose and a smooth palate with plenty of orange peel. Boodles by comparison leads with that lemon sherbet element, which is refreshing, though I’m not keen on that hint of bitterness on the aftertaste. I decided to try and combat the latter by mixing the three gins with sugar and lemon juice. Now the Boodles comes across as coyly sweet and smooth compared to the others (perhaps too much so: one needs to control the sugar), and floral complexities unfold, with refreshing suggestions of lime.

I don’t think that Boodles could become my favourite gin, but I can see how it, like Plymouth, might appeal as a Martini ingredient. Like Gin Mare, it sounds as if it should be savoury but in fact blends best when you consider its forward floral character. But as for gins with unusual herbs in them, I prefer Gin Mare.

* The defining characteristic of the Carter-Head is that, instead of macerating in the alcohol prior to redistillation, the botanicals are placed in a basket within the still so that the alcohol vapour passes through them. This process, without any actual steeping in the liquid alcohol, extracts different flavours.

** Gin, lemon juice, maraschino and crème de violette, although after the last ingredient became hard to find many got into the habit of leaving it out. Of course without the crème de violette, your cocktail does not have the pale blue colour from which its name derives. I use the modern version from The Bitter Truth. You only need a small amount, but the violet note is distinctive part of the cocktail.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Poitín: Irish moonshine comes out of the shadows

Sam MacDonald gives us a history of poitín
To Kentish Town last night and a subterranean bar called Shebeen, for an evening swilling poitín (or poteen, pronounced pot-CHEEN), the notorious Irish white spirit which bar owner Dave Mulligan is championing wholeheartedly.

The name means “little pot”, referring to the small pot stills used. Back in the day poitín-making was a cottage industry and everyone had their own special recipe. Things really changed in 1661, we are told by Sam MacDonald, brand ambassador for the Teeling Whiskey Co., as he gives us a canter through the history of the spirit. In this year the British government changed the licensing laws (and Ireland was part of the UK in those days) to favour large corporate distilling concerns over smaller domestic-scale stills that were hard to tax. (Presumably the idea was to drive the smaller concerns out of business and encourage Irishmen to buy their liquor from big companies that could be properly taxed.) This didn’t seem to have the desired effect, so the next year the small pot stills themselves were outlawed.

There followed hundreds of years of cat-and-mouse between the garda and the poitín makers. Sam tells us that the laws encouraged the big distillers to emphasise speed and volume, leading to a drop in quality—meaning that the small-batch illicit products edged ahead of them in desirability. Production was (and still is) centred in the more remote western parts of the country, away from the authorities’ prying eyes. In 1820 the laws in Scotland were changed and duty cut by two thirds, which had the effect of encouraging many a moonshiner to go legit; not so in Ireland.

Shebeen's small but tasteful interior
It sounds like a strange state of affairs, akin to the way Prohibition was enforced in the US. In any town the local gardaí will probably know who makes the stuff but are unlikely to do anything about it unless leaned upon to make some token arrests. Dave tells us of a seizure made not so long ago where the officers tasted the contraband and realised how good it was. Loathe to destroy it, they placed a container under the pipe from the sink and decanted it through—so that they could tell the judge, in all honesty, that they dutifully poured all the poitín down the sink.

It seems that even today poitín is an unspoken part of the fabric of life. Dave tells us of his first exposure, at the age of 11, when he went into the bakery where his mother worked and saw what he assumed was a bottle of water. The old women in the bakery could have stopped him quaffing from it but thought it more amusing to let him carry on. Perhaps it was considered a rite of manhood. He tells us of one uncle who never touched the beer or wine at family meals, but sat there clutching a glass of clear liquid. The young Dave didn’t know what it was but remembered the uncle’s face becoming redder as the evening went on.

Dave with some examples: the three on the right
are moonshine products in reused bottles
In fact it was made legal to produced poitín for export—properly licensed, of course—in 1988, and for sale in Ireland in 1997, hence the range of poitíns on the back bar at Shebeen. Dave says that when he started the bar he was planning to do classic cocktails and Irish whiskeys, but back home in Ireland he was telling his father about his new venture and the old man poured him a slug of poitín and suggested he tried it. Dave couldn’t believe no one was embracing this category and decided to make it his mission. It took eight months to gather together all the legal examples they could find and poitín cocktails now make up a third of the menu.

So if poitín is such a neglected category, what exactly is it? What are its defining characteristics? How does it differ from vodka? I think the simple answer is that it is unaged whiskey, traditionally made from malted barley in a pot still. Given the modern interest in small-batch distillation, as well as the trend for releasing “new make” or “white dog” whiskey, poitín’s time must surely have come. (In fact one example we surreptitiously tasted turns out to be an unofficial sample of unaged whiskey from one of the major producers—sure enough, this pre-ageing sample is, to all intents and purposes, poitín.)

But Dave’s answer to the question is different: the distinction he draws is that, whereas vodka, certainly as a category, very often seeks to produce a smooth, clean finished product—to remove the flavour, if you will—the tradition of poitín is all about creating flavours. And in fact the make-up of the mash can vary a great deal. Particularly when distillation went underground, people started making it from potatoes, treacle, sugar beet, even whey from milk (which is how Knockeen Hills is made). Dave tells how people traditionally added fruit or other flavourings to the mix.* Modern production poitíns may be made from grain rather than malt and may be produced in a column still rather than a pot.

Dave's own brand. The name Bán sounds like a reference to
illegality but in fact means "white" in Gaelic
So we try three commercial products. First up is Ban, Dave’s own brand. It’s made for him by West Cork Distillers from 80% malted barley and 20% sugar beet. It has a strong, curious nose, smoky and vinous, with a hint of rubber in the same way that Reislings sometimes have. It tastes of toasted wheat or corn, with a slight sourness on the finish that I come to think of as characteristic of poitín. Although there are some examples at 40% ABV, most poitíns are stronger—this one is 52.7%, but is remarkably smooth given the alcoholic strength.

Next we tried a poitín from the Teeling Whiskey Company (the Teeling family were behind Cooley which was recently sold to Beam). This 61.5% spirit smells more like vodka to me, fruity with cooked pears and apples, and a hint of powdered sugar. On the palate it reminds me of grappa (a good thing, in my opinion) and tastes strongly of pears, reminiscent of Poire William eau de vie.

Finally we taste Knockeen Hills Gold Extra Strength, which is bottled at 90% alcohol by volume. They are circumspect about how and to whom they serve this and I approach it with respect. Again it is fruity, with those pears again, and that slight sourness (am I imagining it, or is there a hint of milk?). It’s surprisingly palatable neat.

After this we are invited to approach the bar and try some illicit examples that Dave has collected in his travels. You can see them in the photo, but needless to say the bottles are all recycled from legit whiskies. One was a bottle that an old lady had had in a cupboard for years—Dave reckons it must date from the 1970s. I’m amazed by the sheer breadth of aromas and flavours here: wood, varnish, ink. One tastes strongly of apricots and almonds, another reminds me of the smell of the sea. All this could be down to the way it is distilled, or what went into it—no one knows how they were made.

A tray of poitín Old Fashioneds is produced
A bottle of Vestal Vodka also comes out, and you can see why, as it is quite similar. Vestal highlight the fact that it is only distilled once, hence the range of extra flavours that are retained compared to many super-clean vodkas. However, this does not seem to be the case with poitín—I think that much of it is twice distilled. Knockeen Hills is tripled distilled, apart from the 90% which is quadruple-distilled.

So how does poitín work in cocktails? You would expect something with so much flavour to work well; I think that they have gone to some extremes with the recipes but are currently regrouping and getting back to basics. I try a poitín Old Fashioned, and it works very well, the distinct flavour of the spirit sitting clearly and effectively with the sugar and bitters. (In fact I have to check with Dave that this is all there is in the mix.)

I can heartily recommend a trip to Shebeen, and I strongly expect that poitín will rapidly grow as a category.

* Dave freely admits that he doesn’t know exactly how any illicit poitín is made as people won’t talk. As a Dubliner he is viewed through most of Ireland with suspicion and assumed to be an official of some sort if he starts asking about poitín. Everyone seems to know someone who makes it, but no one ever admits to doing it themselves.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Quintinye Vermouth Royal

Vermouth, the aromatized wine that mostly hails from France or Italy, is one of the founding cocktail ingredients, along with spirits and bitters (and like bitters vermouths were often medicinal in their original conception). Yet, while every week brings another new gin, it is not often that someone launches a new vermouth. So I was interested to be invited along to the launch of the Quintinye Vermouth Royal range.

The three products, a Blanc, a Rouge and an Extra Dry, hail from Eurowinegate, the folks behind G’Vine gin, and the launch showed a familiar head-on aplomb. The venue was the Café Royal (geddit?), in the extraordinary grotto of mirrors and gold ormolu that is the Grill Room. Various staff, including Gaz Regan, were drifting around dressed like courtiers from 17th-century Versailles. (The DJ was so attired as well, though, disappointingly her music occupied fairly safe house territory with not a tinkling harpsichord to be heard.)

At the launch we are transported to the Palace of Versailles
So what is “royal” about this vermouth? And what’s with the name? DBS was there and grumbled about the moniker, which he thought was obscure and complicated. He may have a point: if someone can’t pronounce the name of a product are they less likely to buy it? As it turns out, the range is named after Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinye, botanist to King Louis XIV of France. Quintinye was commissioned by the Sun King to create the kitchen gardens at the Palace of Versailles, and each bottle of the vermouth features a drawing of him. The manufacturers like to think they are carrying on in the tradition of this herbalist visionary.

Even Gaz Regan is in costume
These vermouths are created in the Charentes region, home of Pineau des Charentes, a sweet “wine” that is created by blending grape juice with Cognac, a process that preserves some of the delicate characteristic of the grape which might normally be lost in the fermentation and distillation process. Pineau de Charentes is used in the blends of wines that go into these vermouths and this seems appropriate, given that G’Vine gin, as well as being based on grape spirit, includes vine flower in its botanicals (as do all the Quintinye vermouths). Clearly EWG are all about preserving the essence of the fruit that lies at the heart of all their products, the grape.

In addition to this unusual wine base (plus some Cognac for fortification) the vermouths contain a wide array of infused botanicals—18 in the Blanc, 27 in the Extra Dry and 28 in the Rouge. Chief among these is wormwood; this may be something you had associated with absinthe, but in fact vermouth (the name of which derives from vermut, the German for wormwood) must contain it under EU regulations. (EWG’s Jean-Sébastien Robicquet points out that in the US anything with wormwood in it must be submitted for testing by the FDA—presumably still wary of it because of its association with the long-illegal absinthe—and since many producers can’t afford the $10,000 fee, they prefer to leave that ingredient out. Mind you, I doubt that many consumers will be intrinsically outraged to discover their vermouth contains no vermut, even if they might prefer the taste of vermouth with it in.)

Some of the cocktails on offer
Other ingredients include vine flower, angelica, orris, cardamom, cinnamon, bitter orange, nutmeg, ginger, cinchona bark (source of quinine and a key element in quinated vermouths like China Martini and the long-lost Kina Lillet), liquorice and the bitter Quassia Amara.

We start our tasting with the Blanc. The nose is rich, sweet, with hints of orange, cucumber and grapefruit. It reaches out to your with a gentle but enticing floral aroma, with elderflower, a whiff of coal tar and a faint earthy bitterness. In that latter respect it actually reminds me of Campari a little. On the palate there is an unexpected dimension: it’s a sort of slightly sour, slightly over-ripe floral note that I get from some white absinthes, and I suspect it comes from the wormwood. It vaguely reminds me of Plasticene and I’m not keen on it. But overall it is a subtle drink, with a honeyed underlying sweetness, not cloying at all. I can see this appealing as an aperitif chilled on its own or over ice.

Next up is the Extra Dry, staple of the classic Dry Martini. There is a strong family resemblance to the Blanc, but it is more intense—that twisted floral element that I’m not keen on is much more prominent and there is not the inviting, fruity sweetness of the blanc. It is sharper and drier with a tarragon/anise pungency, and notes of bergamot and pencil lead.

DBS doesn't know which cocktail to try first
Although these are clearly sophisticated, subtle blends, I have to confess that I’m not that keen on them neat, because of the dominance of that (I assume) wormwood element. But how many of us drink vermouth neat? And I quickly discover that in a cocktail context these are different beasts. Mix either of these with gin to make a sweet or dry Martini and that disconcerting element vanishes (in all but the wettest mix). Using Tanqueray as a fairly classic sort of gin, a half-and-half band with the Quintinye blanc produces a highly approachable drink with juniper to the fore but the mellow fruity sweetness of the Pineau curling seductively around the edges, warming orange, and finally some spicy/bitter sparks firing off at the end.

Even at 50:50 (far wetter than most people would make it) a Dry Martini with the Extra Dry is not as disconcerting to me as the stuff is neat. And at 4:1 (how I normally make a Dry Martini) the balance is perfect: the gin’s juniper and coriander forces are marshalled at the front, but the softening floral, honey and herbal notes are right behind, and in the mouth the fresh bitter-sweet contributions of the wine are just right. It’s the sort of thing that reminds you what the point of a Dry Martini actually is. I’m still not that keen on the pronounced wormwood flavour (if such it be) but this is nevertheless a sophisticated vermouth that has been thought through from the ground up.

At the launch the final product we tasted was the rouge. The wine blend includes red Pineau des Charentes, which is noteworthy—most red vermouths are actually based on white wine. Tasted neat, for me this was the star: a rich and fascinating nose of red berries, raspberries, orange, cinnamon, marshmallow, celery, raisins, careering between sweet and aromatic and drily bitter. This continues on to the palate with pronounced coffee notes and some chocolate, roses, parma violets, gentian, cedar wood… As you can see it evolves constantly.

Sadly the DJ's gear and music could not keep
up the retro credentials of her outfit
One of the classic red vermouth drinks is the Negroni (equal parts red vermouth, gin and Campari) and EWG are clearly using this as their signature serve: most of the drinks served on the night seem to be variations on this and we are all given a special edition of Gaz Regan’s book dedicated to this cocktail. At the time it strikes me that the Quintinye has many of the elements of the Negroni already going on, so later at home I see what happens if we add one part gin to two parts Quintinye rouge. Straightaway the high juniper waft marries well with the warmth of the vermouth, before the latter begins to assert itself again in a jammy, chocolately way, with still those spikes of bitter root-notes. Dial in some more gin (taking it in a Martinez direction) and it still works, with a woody, cinnamon flavour seeming to emerge between the two ingredients. Unsurprisingly it starts to remind me of the sweet and dry Martinis. Although pretty much all of the Quintinye botanicals are found in gin (though not necessarily in Tanqueray, which famously has only four, juniper, coriander, angelica and liquorice), perhaps it is the fact that the botanicals are infused rather than distilled that allows the vermouths to bring a fresh, bitter-sweet, fruitiness to compliment the gin and make for a more complete drink.

And of the Negroni? The launch event peppered us with different recipe variations, but sticking with the classic blend of equal parts gin, red vermouth and Campari, I compare a Tanqueray-based version using Quintinye red with one using Martini Rosso. Aside from a darker, redder colour,* the Quintinye is softer, smoother, sweeter, with a more evolving subtle complexity, while the Martini is high, dry and herbal. Some may prefer the sharper combo with the Martini (and, much as I love Antica Formula in a Manhattan, for example, I have always believed that it makes a less satisfactory Negroni than Martini Rosso); but the Quintinye certainly makes its fresh, vivid character felt.

I though it slightly odd that they should have these sheaves
of pungent herbs on the tables at the tasting…
The other classic red vermouth drink must surely be that Manhattan, so I give that a try. Even with a cheap bourbon, the Quintinye rouge has quite a transformative power—the pronounced wood and sweet characteristics of the whiskey blend easily enough with the wood-spice and Pineau elements of the vermouth, but the latter brings much more besides. Even outnumbered by the bourbon two to one, it softens the rough edges and unfurls bitter, sweet, floral and aromatic tendrils in all directions. Compared side by side with Noilly Rouge, the Quintinye strikes me as actually less sweet and more subtle, a characteristic I would extend to the whole range: once I started mixing with them I found you could blend in quite a high proportion without the vermouth taking over.

A GQ&T**
As you can probably tell, I am favourably impressed by the Quintinye range. Even though I am iffy about the wormwood character in the Blanc and Extra Dry, there is a fresh, subtle, three-dimensionality to all the products that makes you rethink the whole point of vermouth. I haven’t felt this taken by an aromatised wine since I discovered Cocchi’s irresistible Barolo Chinato.

One other thing I like about this range is the acknowledgement that most of us drink vermouth in small quantities: although full bottles exist, we were sent home with 37.5-centilitre half bottles, and very dark bottles they were, with solid rubber/plastic bungs—all of this intended to preserve the freshness of the precious liquid. If you have read my woes about trying to avert the spoilage of vermouth, you will understand that I view this attitude as all too welcome.

Moreover, my new favourite aperitif is now a half-and-half mix of gin and Quintinye Blanc, topped up with tonic water and garnished with a lime slice—I call it a GQ&T, essentially a G&T with the added fresh herbal/floral infused flavours. By mid-summer all the kids will be drinking it, you mark my words.

* In fairness the Martini has been open a while, so oxidation may have turned it browner than God intended.
** As in Gin, Quintinye & Tonic, I'm surprised there aren't more cocktails involving tonic water (expect a post from me soon with some of my favourite G&T variants), although I recently realised that this "creation" of mine is not a million miles away from the clericot prepared for me by Argentine cocktail god Tato

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Down home with Jim Beam. In Shoreditch.

Before Christmas I was invited to the “Jim Beam American Stillhouse”. In town for just a couple of days it promised to transport me to “the rolling hills of Kentucky”, as well as offering “an attack on the senses through an authentic distillery experience”. Blimey, that sounds like the bourbon equivalent of a bungee jump, or perhaps just a drinking competition at an illegal Siberian still.

Run by the same people who brought us the impenetrably fey Courvoisier “Institute of Grand Cocktails” in 2012, this particular “immersive experience” proved to be much more down-to-earth. There were just the three rooms, erected from partitions within a space at the Old Truman Brewery, on Brick Lane in Shoreditch, connected by corridors plated with the ends of barrels, to make you feel like a termite creeping through a cavernous warehouse filled with slumbering whiskey. The first was the Heritage Room, where we were met by none other than Fred Noe (Frederick Booker Noe III, to give him his full honorific), seventh generation master distiller and great grandson of Jim Beam himself, who built the distillery upon the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.

Fred Noe addresses us, safe in the knowledge that
there is a bottle of Jim Beam to hand on the porch roof
Fred is a likeable character. He told us how to taste bourbon by doing the “Kentucky chew”, but was keen to emphasise that the brand is very easygoing about how you drink the product. The ringing refrain throughout his address was, “That’s OK.” You slightly got the impression that he was a bit overwhelmed by the weight of the heritage represented in the Heritage Room, and that his main goal during his tenure at the top was not to mess with anything that was clearly not broken. (Jim Beam is the biggest selling bourbon in the world.) He considered us from a fake veranda under the gaze of a huge photo of a statue of his father in the stillhouse grounds—the statue itself may be colossal too, though it’s hard to tell from the photo.

We had all been issued with “passports” and before leaving the Heritage Room we had to ours stamped. I’m not sure why we needed a passport to move from one room to another in a mocked up stillhouse in Kentucky (especially ironic given the huge proportion of Americans who don’t have passports because they have never left the country). But at least I can prove to US immigration authorities that I have tasted both Jim Beam regular and Jim Beam Devil’s Cut.

Attendant journalists relax, which is probably more than Fred can
do with a giant effigy of his father looking down on him
The latter was introduced in the next chamber, the Distillation and Ageing Room, where we were assailed by some highly dodgy Kentucky accents (Fred’s was clearly the only genuine one in the building) explaining to us how and from what, by law, bourbon can be made. (For the record it must be at least 51% corn, the rest being rye, wheat and/or malted barley; it must be made in the US, distilled at less than 80% ABV, entered into the barrel at no more than 62.5% ABV, bottled at no less than 40% ABV, and with no additives other than water to adjust the ABV; it must be aged fin new, charred white oak barrels; to be called “straight bourbon” it must be aged for at least two years.)

The Devil’s Cut is a product launched about a year ago. Deriving from the term “the angels’ share”, referring to the spirit that evaporates from the barrel during the years of ageing, the name Devil’s Cut represents the opposite—spirit that is left in the barrel at the end.

Whom should I bump into but vintage blogger and
pin-up Fleur de Guerre, seen here signing the barrel
After the whisky is ready and the barrel is emptied, there is a traditional practice known as “sweating the barrel”, where a little water is added the empty barrel, which is then kicked around to soak out any whisky left in the wood. Most distillers rinse or soak the barrels to try and extract these last drops, and Beam have apparently developed a proprietary technique. These—for want of a better word—dregs are then blended with six-year-old whisky. We get to sample some of the finished blend, and it is a darker, more intense tipple, with strong wood flavours and almost mouth-puckering tannins. Very agreeable, and suggestive of mixological potential.

The Mixology room proves stinting of its fruits
The final chamber is the Mixology Room where bartenders offer four different cocktails showcasing spirits from the Jim Beam range. Sadly we’re only allowed to try one each: I go for the Red Stagg Manhattan, utilising Beam’s black cherry flavoured bourbon, which doesn’t leave much of an impression; more interesting was the sip I had of someone else’s Mint Julep made with Devil’s Cut and marmalade syrup.

We have a final treat in store: there is a big barrel in the lobby, which we are all invited to sign. Apparently it will be taken back to Kentucky and filled with bourbon, and when it is emptied in four years’ time—assuming cirrhosis hasn’t finished us off in the interim—we each get a bottle from the barrel.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Absinthe and chocolate—the ultimate decadent pairing?

We gave last weekend’s Candlelight Club a “Resolution Busters” theme: apparently the third week in January is round about the time that a lot of people who made New Year resolutions give up and go back to their old ways. Something like the Candlelight Club was never really in a position to offer a self-improvement angle, so we decided to go the opposite way, and our cocktail menu this time was based around things you might have hoped to give up, or indeed take up. Our Roll-Up the Barrel cocktail featured Jade’s Perique tobacco liqueur (as a nod to those trying to quit smoking); our Off Down the Gin cocktail featured a Lucozade Sport reduction (the world’s first isotonic cocktail? Replaces the gin lost through exercise).

We also had a Girl’s Best Friend cocktail which smuggled in chocolate via a harmless, neutral vodka and absinthe base. Our mixologist these days is David Hamilton-Boyd of Organic Spirit and his recipe included La Maison Fontaine Chocolat, a chocolate and French absinthe liqueur. I know Jenny of Sip or Mix who distributes La Maison Fontaine’s absinthe here, but I did not know about this product and was interested to check it out—off the top of my head I could certainly imagine that chocolate and absinthe might go together well.

The back label tells how this beverage was inspired by a hand-written recipe for crème de cacao dating from the 1920s and discovered in a recipe book at the distillery, which leads me to expect an intensely chocolately experience, with a little absinthe blended in. But as soon as you uncork the bottle you are hit primarily by that white absinthe smell: it’s a fragrance that all bleu/blanche absinthes seem to have, something I can only describe as overripe buttercups. With a hint of Plasticine. Perhaps it is wormwood or some other herb, but it lends a characteristic sour, floral element, quite sharp in this case. On top of that this drink has orange, anise and coriander seed on the nose, plus chocolate too, of course (though the latter is not dominant). There are suggestions of rum and ginger as well, reminding me of rum and raisin ice cream. But on a more mundane level you could say sit smells like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange that has been kept in the same cupboard as a box of liquorice allsorts.

The same balance follows through on the palate, which is again ruled by the absinthe elements. It is also pretty sweet (and, at 25% ABV, much lower in alcohol that absinthe itself). The chocolate is definitely there in the mix, but it is relatively subtle. In fact, in my quest to establish to what extent chocolate and absinthe are indeed well matched, I find myself spiking this drink with Mozart’s chocolate bitters, which are very chocolately indeed, particularly on the aroma side of things.

This leaves me thinking that the two things do indeed go together, but in fact my curiosity drives me to try adding the bitters to a green absinthe, in this case La Fée’s new recipe Parisienne. Although this absinthe is less anise-driven than the old formula, it does work better. La Fée’s blanche absinthe seems a bit more anise-led, so I try adding a drop or two of the chocolate bitters to that and the effect is very pleasing and harmonious indeed. The bright aromatic thrust of the aniseed seems to partner perfectly with the warm richness of the chocolate.

As for La Maison Fontaine’s offering, it is a curious beast. If you primarily like chocolate you may be disappointed—and you certainly have to like white absinthe to enjoy this drink. But, as I say, comparing it to a couple of other white absinthes reveals that this beverage has a curious, pungent fragrance all of its own.

A Chocerac
On La Maison Fontaine’s website there are some cocktails and suggested serves, several of which focus on combining this liqueur with salt: either licked on the side, as if drinking with a tequila shot, or dropped into the drink, or in the form of cheese and dried meats consumed alongside. I try it with some shavings of parmesan and it does indeed work well, the sweetness balancing in the same way that sweet chutney, quince jelly or fresh figs might go with cheese. I even find that the sharpness of that characteristic white absinthe element makes a good foil against the intense savouriness of the cheese. For my money this is the most pleasant way to consume the liqueur.

My eye is also caught by another suggested cocktail, a Negroni variant called a Trinité that combines 30ml of the Fontaine liqueur with 20ml Campari and 25ml reposado tequila. This too is enlightened—there is a synergy, or perhaps just a family resemblance, between the pungency of the absinthe, the soft, smoky, herbal notes of the tequila and the bitter, earthy rootiness of the Campari, with the liqueur also bringing a balancing sweetness that comes from the red vermouth in a normal Negroni.

Whoever created the cocktail recipes and suggested servings has done a good, thoughtful and inventive job. But ultimately all these drinks are dominated by that odd flavour. I don’t have any normal La Maison Fontaine blanche to hand to see how similar it is, but checking a couple of other white absinthes it seems to me that in those, perhaps more anise-inflected, contexts the flavour in question presents a better, and less disconcerting, balance than it does in this liqueur.

As a final experiment, I make a sort of Sazerac, a classic absinthe cocktail, but incorporating the Mozart bitters as well:

25ml Bourbon (I know it should be rye but this was all I had)
25ml Cognac
12.5ml sugar syrup
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
2 dashes Mozart Chocolate Bitters
3ml-ish La Fée Blanche Absinthe
Lemon twist garnish

Stir all but the absinthe with ice and strain into a chilled tumbler which has had the absinthe rolled around its inside. Squeeze a piece of lemon peel over the top; purists discard the peel rather than dropping it in. I actually added a bit more than just the absinthe residue, about a coffee spoon more.

This is a corker. Lift it to your nose and you get chocolate and lemon and dark, woody spices like cinnamon, plus a higher spice note from the anise too, and a hint of marmalade, all in perfect equilibrium. On the palate it is just the right level of sweetness for me, balancing the fire of the spirit, with all those spices darting around your tongue too. Probably the most satisfying Sazerac I’ve ever had. So there.

La Maison Fontaine Finest French Absinthe Chocolate Liqueur is about £30 a 70cl bottle.