Sunday, 26 July 2015

A naming of names

Thanks to my sister and brother-in-law for giving me a real brass IAE nameplate, modelled exactly on the graphic device at the top of this page. I finally got round to putting it up today. For some reason Mrs H. wouldn’t let me fix it to the front door* so it now graces the door to the den where this rubbish gets written, a small room in a Victorian terraced house, piled high with stacks of paper, old beige computer equipment, scribbled notes with important numbers on them, dusty gadgets and adaptors of one kind and another. (All surfaces seem to have acquired an alluvial sediment of bits of paper, obsolete technology or gewgaws and personal effects left behind by customers at Candlelight Club events.** There is really only one small area, the corner of a shelf, that offers enough horizontal space for a mug of tea.)

* A courier once came to deliver a sample, addressed to “The Institute for Alcoholic Experimentation”. I don’t know what he expected to find, but Mrs H. clearly heard him through the front door, on the phone to his boss, saying, “…But it’s just a house!”

** Of course I do message them all asking who is missing this bit of jewellery, or that hat, or this set of house keys, or that small black cardigan, but they very seldom claim these items. The larger things get taken to the charity shop while the rest sit in a number of shoeboxes. Some were probably only bought as costume or props for the occasion, but other items—such as a single high-heeled shoe—one might have expected the owner to want back. One day I shall make an artwork by laying them all out together in a room…

Friday, 24 July 2015

The purity test: is your water and ice letting your drinks down?

I received a press release recently for a bottled water called Isbre. It is sourced in Norway from an aquifer under a 5,000-year-old glacier at the end of the Hardanger Flord in Ulvik, where it is bottled on site. The Big Thing about Isbre is its purity, showing no more than four parts per million (ppm) of total dissolved solids, which is apparently the lowest figure ever for an unprocessed water.

Purity is an interesting concept in drinks. There is a natural tendency to associate it with safety and health, and producers of spirits, especially vodka (about which there is not much else to say) frequently use the p-word, either talking about the purity of the spring water they use to dilute their alcohol, or bragging about innovative filtration methods, often involving precious metals or stones. In fact if you look at the website of Technofilter, a leading manufacturer of filtration systems for the vodka industry, they make the point that, while filtration (traditionally through birch charcoal) was once necessary to remove impurities that imparted bad flavours or odours or even made the vodka unsafe, nowadays any producer can buy in incredibly pure alcohol and all distilleries will have the means to make distilled water on site. Modern vodka filtration is more about altering the flavour and perhaps fishing out unsightly particles that may have been introduced from machinery or from additives like sugar or honey that are sometimes introduced to create a perceived smoothness.

Naturally sparkling, Apollinaris pitched itself as having medicinal benefits, "the sworn enemy of gout,
rheumatism and indigestion", in this detail from an 1876 advert. Despite the high mineral content it also
speaks of "purity" and "softness". Note also that they recommend it as a mixer for brandy, gin and wine
(click to enlarge)

This 1903 ad is pushing Apollinaris (by now threatened
by mechanically aerated waters) as a mixer for Scotch
Once upon a time drinking water that came in bottles was generally referred to as “mineral water”—the point being that you drank it precisely because of the dissolved minerals in it, either for the taste or for imagined health benefits. (According to a table on the Isbre website Evian has 300 ppm total dissolved solids, Vittel 400, San Pellegrino 990 and Apollinaris, a German spring water with a long history, which I’ve not seen for sale in the UK, a whopping 1800.) Our modern interest in bottled water may have been prompted simply by fashion and marketing, so that we want to be seen clutching the hippest water brand, or perhaps by a rise in health-consciousness and a belief that tap water is not safe. (There have been scares in recent years about the levels of oestrogen in mains water, for example, or worries about fluoridation, although in fact UK tap water has to pass more stringent tests than bottled water does.)

I live in south-east London and my tap water is pretty tasty (not true of some parts of the UK I have visited). It is a hard water with, on average, 261 ppm of calcium carbonate, which comes from the chalky composition of local aquifers. (This can tend to leave lime scale deposits in your kettle or on the showerhead, but it makes the water quick to wash away soap and apparently forms a film on the inside of old lead pipes which prevents the metal from leaching into the water supply.) The UK Drinking Water Inspectorate regularly tests tap water and apparently London’s is the best in the country (mind you we are talking about a 99.98% pass rate compared to 99.94% in the worst-performing area, so there is not much in it). You can see a full chemical analysis here.) No fluoride is added but the total dissolved solids are about 350–400, compared to Isbre’s 4.

SW4 gin diluted half and half with tap water, Isbre and distilled water
All of which got me wondering about water in booze—not the water that is used to dilute spirits to bottling strength (over which I have no control), but water that we might add at the point of preparing a drink. Many people believe, for example, that adding a small amount of water to malt whisky helps unlock flavours and aromas. And even if you don’t add water, any drink that you serve on the rocks will be diluted as the ice melts.

I gather that in Japanese whisky bars it is de rigeur that if you add water to your whisky you use only water from the same spring where the whisky is made. Camper English of Alcademics has done some interesting experiments diluting different Scotch whiskies with spring water from different parts of Scotland. The general result was that water from a particular region brings out flavour characteristics associated with whisky made in that region.

But the test here today is about the benefits of purity in water. I decided to put Isbre* up alongside London tap water. And to push things to the other extreme, I also got hold of some commercially produced distilled water.**

The same test using Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt whisky
Tasted neat, the three waters seem remarkably similar to me, though the purity of Isbre does give it a softer feel and a perceived sweetness to the finish. The hard tap water, particularly after it has been in the glass for a while, has a flatness, a hint of something sour or metallic. (I expected the distilled water to taste much the same as the Isbre, but to me it actually tasted less pleasant, with a slight bitterness to the finish.)***

I try diluting some SW4 gin (the high-strength 47% version), half and half with water. I don’t normally drink gin this way, though my father-in-law likes his gin half and with water and a dash of bitters. It’s quite a revelation, actually, because the botanicals in the gin are loud and proud, with the high, resinous juniper joined by orange sweetness and floral, woody notes, and a bitterness towards the end. To my surprise there was quite a noticeable difference between tap water and Isbre, with the former seeming to have a heaviness or roughness. Gin and Isbre, on the other hand, felt lighter and more ethereal on the tongue and, moreover, you had a sense of perceiving the botanicals more clearly and vividly. The distilled water gave the same effect, and I honestly couldn’t detect a difference between that and Isbre.

Ice cubes made from (left to right) tap water, Isbre and distilled water. As you
see, the purity of the water does not have an effect on the clarity of the ice
I try the same thing with Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt Japanese whisky, again half water, half whisky, and get the same result. The tap water gives a hard, flat quality, compared to the sweet smoothness of Isbre. Distilled water is likewise smooth and light.

What about ice? If you pour yourself a whisky on the rocks and sip it slowly enough for the ice to melt, then you have diluted your drink quite a lot by the end. I always regret doing this, because ice made from my tap water leaves a gritty deposit in your drink when it melts. I make some ice from Isbre and try the same thing and, hey presto, no grit.

Nothing to see here: vodka with cubes of the three ices. They look identical until…
But if you think that ice made from pure water will be crystal clear, think again. The clarity of ice is affected far more by how fast it freezes and at what temperature (see this explanation). I make up trays of ice cubes using Isbre and distilled water and they look the same as ice cubes made from tap water.

I start off with vodka on the rocks, taking 25ml of Ketel One and adding two cubes each of the three types of ice. As you might expect the results are essentially the same as when we simply added water: at first the samples seem alike but as the ice melts the sample with tap water ice takes on a flatness, something a bit like soggy cardboard, with a slight sour note, compared to the other two, which seem to maintain the original flavour of the vodka better.

Once the ice has melted, the vodka with the tap water ice now has white mineral
deposits at the bottom of the glass. This was from just two cubes of ice. No such
deposits appeared with ice cubes from Isbre or distilled water
But in my household I suspect more ice gets used in the shaker (then discarded) than added directly to drinks. Would water purity still make a difference in this context? I rustle up three Martinis, using SW4 47% and Noilly Prat. I follow James Bond’s example and shake, rather than stir, on the grounds that this will presumably result in more dilution and an enhanced effect.

Three Martinis, shaken with ice made from (left to right) tap water, Isbre and distilled
I use a measure of gin and a teaspoon of vermouth for each sample, add six ice cubes and shake exactly 40 times. I eschew a garnish to help focus on the matter in hand. Not unexpectedly, the differences are less noticeable this time, though I still think that the Isbre has a softer, sweeter mouthfeel and a sense of greater depth and transparency in the flavours of the ingredients. The tap water ice seems to give a slight masking harshness and again even the distilled water seems less appealing, which I cannot explain. But these are subtle distinctions.

This whole process has been a revelation to me. There are many bottled waters out there, with their own flavour profiles that may or may not blend harmoniously with other ingredients, but as a simple starting point it is an eye-opener to use water that is much more neutral than what I am used to. While the contribution in ice used to shake cocktails is subtle to say the least, when it comes to ice over which drinks are served, and certainly where water is directly added, using purer water makes a noticeable difference. When Isbre comes to market in the UK (I can’t find it for sale anywhere yet) it will be about £1.50 a litre: for ice to serve in drinks (as opposed, perhaps, to shaking) I think this is certainly worth paying.

One thing I am keen to try now is absinthe—which is typically served with two to five times as much water as spirit…

* Of course Isbre isn’t the only bottled water one could try—in fact while searching my inbox I stumble across a press release sent to me a few years ago for a brand called Sno, made in Iceland from a glacier, this time 20,000 years old. They also bang on about purity, but Sno contains 68ppm of dissolved solids according to the press release (though on their current website this has dropped to 52), so for the purposes of our experiment Isbre is more useful.

** Curiously, almost all suppliers had a footnote that their product was not suitable for human consumption. Considering that the whole point of distilled water is that it contains nothing but water, this is odd. It could be that if you habitually drink nothing but distilled water you would miss out on vital minerals, but I suspect it is simply that any product that is intended for human consumption has to undergo various tests that the water distillers don’t want to pay for—their products are actually designed for laboratory use or cleaning delicate equipment.

*** Although Isbre’s website only talks about total dissolved solids, I did find another site which gave more of a breakdown. This suggests the only detectable minerals are nitrates (0.05 ppm) and silica (2 ppm) from the rocky aquifer. My distilled water, for the record, has <0.2 ppm nitrates, <0.1 ppm lead, <0.2 ppm ammonium and <10 parts per billion silicon and chloride. So the distilled water actually has more of all these contaminants than Isbre, with the exception of silicon—and I gather that 5–25 ppm silica is typical for natural water, so Isbre is still fairly low. This site also gives Isbre’s pH as 5.7, which is slightly acidic. I can only assume that the silica (silicon dioxide) is in solution in the form of silicic acid. Which, in case you were wondering, is considered to be good for you. However, I later got hold of the latest lab report from Isbre themselves: it doesn't give a figure for silica but I see that the pH is 6.6, which is pretty close to pH neutral. Nitrates in this sample are down to 0.015 ppm and there are around 0.5 ppm traces of calcium, sodium, sulphate and chloride and 0.1 ppm magnesium and potassium. Total dissolved solids are given as just 3.9 ppm.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Absinthe, tequila…and cucumber

The experimental Maid in Jalisco. Looking at it, I think I should come up with a cocktail for St Patrick's Day,
garnish it in the same way with thin slices of cucumber, and call it a Four-Leafed Clover…

Cucumber in booze is nothing new—both Hendrick’s and Martin Miller’s gins include cucumber among the flavourings.* But synchronicity dictated that I receive two emails today that embraced the noble plant and, since it is summer and I am in England, what could be more apt?

Emerald Street, a well-written daily offshoot from Stylist magazine, today featured a number of inspiring things you can do with your blender, including a frozen Margarita that includes puréed cucumber (two peeled ones, the juice of five or six limes, 100ml tequila and four cups of ice cubes, whizzed together, plus agave syrup to taste).**

Meanwhile, a post on the Real Absinthe Blog takes a scholarly look at Hemingway’s consumption of absinthe and concludes that, in his writing at least, he only ever drinks it in the traditional way with water, plus the Death in the Afternoon cocktail (absinthe and Champagne). Absinthe has such a powerful flavour that where it does appear in cocktails it is often present in homeopathic quantities (typically the serving glass is rinsed with absinthe that is then discarded before the cocktail is poured in). Last year Gaz Regan in his Regan Report noted the importance of absinthe as a cocktail ingredient but likewise warned against adding too much. Anyway, the post included a link to an earlier item describing the Maid in Cuba cocktail:

2 shots white rum
1 shot lime juice
½ shot sugar syrup
Small handful of mint leaves
3 slices of cucumber

Vigorously shake the first five ingredients with ice and strain into a glass that has been rinsed with the absinthe. It’s essentially a melding of Cuba’s two most famous cocktails, the Daiquiri and the Mojito, with added cucumber and absinthe.

Absinthe is pretty complex stuff in its own right, so you might argue that it is best drunk on its own. However, that would be a coward’s way out, so I found myself wondering what it might naturally synergise with. Gin, with its botanical arsenal, seems a likely contender, and classic absinthe cocktails like the Corpse Reviver No.2 and the Monkey Gland (gin, orange juice, absinthe and grenadine) do tend to be gin-based.*** I wouldn’t say that absinthe had a particular affinity for the white rum in the Maid in Cuba, as it is pretty much a blank canvas, but just thinking about it you can suspect that the herbaceous nature of tequila is going to marry well. And you’d be right. Just try rinsing a glass with absinthe then pouring in some tequila and you’ll see what I mean—the flavours of the two ingredients merge seamlessly.

So, by splicing Emerald Street’s cucumber Margarita with the Maid in Cuba you come up with something we might call the Maid in Jalisco:

2 shots tequila
1 shot lime juice
Agave syrup to taste (½ shot perhaps, although this was too sweet for me)
3 slices of cucumber
½ tsp absinthe

Shake with ice and strain. I started off just rinsing the serving glass with absinthe but I felt that it needed another ½ tsp at least (I was using Jade Terminus). I think the absinthe really works, though I must admit I’m less sure about the cucumber. I think that just by adding absinthe to a Margarita you have something very interesting indeed.

* Evidently cucumber doesn’t work if you infuse it with the other botanicals and distil, so it must be added post-distillation. (See my exploration of how Hendricks is made.) This means that these gins can’t call themselves “London Dry Gin” as this is an EU-defined category that does not allow any additives after distillation. Some people get quite exercised about this and query whether the definition or terminology should be changed, but I have always said that consumers almost certainly won’t consider the term “London Dry Gin” to be a stamp of quality. If anything they will probably assume that it means it was made in London, which it probably wasn’t, as the term does not encompass any geographical requirement.

** Classically the Margarita uses triple sec (such as Cointreau) but it is increasingly common to use agave syrup instead.

*** With the noble exception of the Sazerac, of course, a New Orleans classic that adds a smidgeon of absinthe to rye whisky, Cognac or a blend of the two, along with sugar and bitters.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Your smooth-talking bar steward…*

A friend of mine, who is an actor specialising in historical roles, rang me up in March and asked if I could help him out. He’d taken a small job for English Heritage but had now been given an audition for Mr Selfridge on the same day. Would I mind taking over from him in the English Heritage job?

The entrance hall at Eltham Palace where we shot the video
I’ve never done any acting but the job in question was simply to pretend to be a 1930s cocktail waiter in a video to promote the wonderful Eltham Palace. It’s a place well worth visiting, with some parts of it dating from the time of Henry VIII, and other parts added by Stephen and Virginia Courtauld in the 1930s, including the magnificent Art Deco entrance lobby with wood-inlay murals and a revolutionary concrete dome roof with glass-block skylight. Once you’ve see this room you’ll subsequently notice it cropping up in period movies all the time. Apparently Stephen himself used to make cocktails in that room every day at 6pm.

Stephen and Virginia aboard the Virginia
The team had chosen three cocktails (evidently from the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book, judging by the recipes they gave me), the Aviation, the Mah-Jongg and the Commodore. I admit I had not actually heard of the latter two, but I’m a big fan of the Aviation. My friend the actor had already sourced the ingredients so I just scooped up some ice, brought a carload of vintage glassware and cocktail accessories as set dressing and a couple of dinner suits.

I was surprised to discover that there was no script: I was simply asked to talk as I made the drinks. Fortunately it’s a subject I’m quite interested in so I didn’t run out of things to say (in fact they have wisely edited out a lot of my rambling).

Mah-Jongg the lemur
The cocktails were evidently chosen for the relevance of their names. The Courtaulds had a pet lemur named Mah-Jongg. They also had their own yacht, the Virginia, and even a separate map room at Eltham Palace where they planned their voyages. In fact it was pointed out to me that the entrance hall was designed to resemble the prow of a ship from a certain angle. (Stephen himself was never a Commodore, though—he did serve during World War I but in the army, not the navy.) I think the Aviation was chosen to reflect the popularity of aviation as a sport in the 1930s; after Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1927 the world went Lindy crazy for some time.

The recipe that appears in the Savoy Cocktail Book is:

⅔ dry gin
⅓ lemon juice
2 dashes maraschino
However, this cocktail originally contained crème de violette too (it is present in the earliest printed recipe, in Hugo Ensslin’s 1917 Recipes for Mixed Drinks). I’ll never understand why it fell out of favour—I can only assume it became hard to get hold of—as it is its presence that gives the cocktail its distinctive sky-blue colour, as well as a touch of floral violet. The recipe I use is:

2 shots gin
½ shot lemon juice
½ shot maraschino
1 tsp crème de violette
Don’t be tempted to overdo the violette as you’ll lose the subtlety and your drink will go purple.

The Savoy recipe is:

1 glass of Canadian Club whiskey
1 tsp syrup
2 dashes orange bitters
Juice of ½ a lime or ¼ a lemon
I find it works best if the quantity of lemon/lime juice is roughly equal to that of the sweetener, so my proportions were:

2 shots whiskey
½ shot syrup
½ shot lemon juice
2 dashes orange bitters
Not bad, though not hugely fascinating either.


2 shots gin
½ shot Bacardi white rum
½ shot Cointreau
On paper a rather odd mix, with the gin base augmented by a surprisingly small amount of white rum, but it is actually rather nice. You would not expect to be able to taste the rum, but you can subtly, and I wonder if it is there to smooth off the finish of the gin? As I point out in the video, all the ingredients here are spirit-strength, so it is a potent cocktail.

* For those too young to remember, a reference to the 1990s TV adverts with Stephen Fry

Afraid that I would spill booze over the famous Art Deco carpet, they carefully rolled it back, and I was
interested to see a wooden floor beneath. Staff said they believed it was a dance floor for the Courtaulds' parties

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Some Negroni variants

A Mr President cocktail
I like a Negroni (equal parts gin, red vermouth and Campari), and I seem to have this in common with much of the world, as it is on trend these days. (Which is interesting when you consider that it is quite bitter—perhaps we are just getting more sophisticated in our cocktail palates, or perhaps it is the appeal of the vintage/heritage aspect.)

I was therefore intrigued when I later encountered the Boulevardier, which is effectively a Negroni with the gin replaced by bourbon or rye whiskey. It was created by Harry MacElhone, of Harry’s Bar in Paris, for Erskine Gwynne, socialite, nephew of Alfred Vanderbilt and editor of the Boulevardier magazine. It appears in Harry’s book Barflies and Cocktails, published in 1927, where it is given as equal parts bourbon, Campari and red vermouth. (Harry’s earlier ABC of Mixing Cocktails has an Old Pal cocktail that is equal parts Canadian—i.e. rye—whiskey, Campari and dry vermouth, which is a pretty dry drink. Oddly, a cocktail with the same name appears in the 1927 book made with red vermouth.) You often now find the Boulevardier with the whiskey elevated to 1½ parts, though certainly with Redemption Rye or Rittenhouse 100 Proof equal parts is easily enough. I would certainly put this cocktail up there with the Negroni; if you like Campari you should try it, as it is essentially a Manhattan with added Campari. Even with milder Maker’s Mark bourbon I think equal parts works fine, though ramping the bourbon to 1½ is still interesting.

Count Camillo Negroni, alleged inventor of the cocktail of
the same name. However, the contemporary Negroni family
insist that their ancestor Count Pascal Olivier Negroni is the
real creator. See here for the low-down on the spat 
All of which got me wondering what would happen if you tried using other spirits in place of the Negroni’s gin.* What about rum? In Havana’s Prohibition-era glory days as a watering hole many extant cocktails seemed to spawn an equivalent that used rum instead of the original base spirit—the Sloppy Joe’s Cocktails Manual has three “President” cocktails, all essentially a Dry Martini made with rum instead of gin, with a few other bits and pieces thrown in. Sure enough such a thing as a rum Negroni already exists: the Kingston Negroni uses pot still Jamaican rum, while the Mr President uses white Cuban rum (though the proportions are different here: 1¼ shots rum, ¾ shot red vermouth, ½ shot Campari). I’m not entirely convinced about either of these: the white rum is easily smothered by the other ingredients, contributing only a little sugar character; although clean, I find it a bit too sweet. In the dark rum version (I used Myers’s) the rum certainly makes its presence felt, though I suspect that I am ultimately not really a fan of this sort of Jamaican rum with its dry, dusty, woody rasp, and it is debatable here whether this quality compliments the rooty bitterness of the Campari or quarrels with it. I think on balance that this is a successful combo, in that you can certainly taste all the ingredients in the mix, although they seem to be circling each other warily. Compared to the Boulevardier, however, it is definitely less inspired.

A Milano is simply a Negroni made with vodka instead of gin, or an Americano (originally known as a Milano-Torino) made with vodka instead of soda. Ultimately it lacks the complexity of the Negroni or the Boulevardier, as you can’t taste the vodka, even if you bump up the proportions. It is also known as a Negroski. This cocktail need detain us no further.

A Rosita cocktail
Inevitably, where one whisky goes another will follow, and the Scotch Negroni uses blended Scotch instead. I used Famous Grouse and, although I am not generally a fan of Scotch-based cocktails, this one undoubtedly works. The whisky balances against the orangey fruit notes in much the same way as it does in a Blood and Sand (Scotch, orange juice, red vermouth and cherry brandy) and seems to add a chocolatey warmth.

Replacing the gin with Cognac (I tried Courvoisier Exclusif) is surprisingly successful, and quite different from the other variants. The fruitiness rises up, suggesting apples and prunes, and it balances in a very satisfying and complex way, though the overall effect is more a warming autumn drink (I imagine—I’m writing this during a heatwave here in the UK). I also tried it with Calvados and it works too, in the same fruity way, though it lacks the complex spread of flavours that the Cognac offers.

Finally we come to the Rosita, made using reposado tequila (I used Tierra Noble**). Simply replacing the gin with tequila at equal parts, the tequila sits squarely in the mix; the recipe I found gives 1½ parts tequila and although this still works I’m not sure it’s necessary. (The recipe, from Gaz Regan's Bartender's Bible, actually has the vermouth as an even blend of red and dry white; this gives a subtle and quite dry result, though I think I prefer it with just red vermouth.) It’s a fascinating combination, with the petrolly, smokey, herbaceous agave flavours entwining with the bitter, orange notes of the Campari. It works in a similar fashion to the Scotch version, with smoke being present in each case and each a relatively subtle blend compared to the minty, sawmill punch of the rye whiskey version.

Out of all of these, for me the Rosita takes first prize—it’s not just “interesting” but is a cocktail I will definitely come back to—thought the Boulvardier and the Cognac Negroni are definitely worth trying too.

* Of course there is much more you can do to a Negroni than just vary the base spirit. In fact Gaz Regan has written an entire book about it… 

** I was given a couple of samples at a trade show, but I don’t think they ever did sort out distribution in the UK. Which is a shame as it’s a great product.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Bar tools: is copper proper?

The copper-plated items from Sainsbury's with the ingredients for a White Lady
I was marching through the mega-Sainsbury’s supermarket at Beckton, hoovering up Prosecco deals, when my eye was caught by a display of tools for the home bartender. What made them unusual was that they were made from steel plated with copper. In fact in this case they turned out just to have shakers and ice buckets, but by chance a couple of days later I was checking out a new restaurant in my neighbourhood when I saw, behind their freshly fitted-out bar, a whole array of copper plated tools, including hawthorn strainers, bar spoons, jiggers and tongs. I subsequently discovered that Cocktail Kingdom sells all this stuff, which I suspect is where the restaurant got it from. They even sell copper-plated speed pourers.

What was the thinking here? In truth I suspect it is just meant to look fancy: Cocktail Kingdom also do silver- and gold-plated equipment. And let’s not forget that none other than Jerry Thomas himself, once he got rich and famous, adorned both himself and his bar tools with precious metals and jewels.

But I couldn’t help wondering what effect the copper might have on the drinks being made. Gold is famously unreactive, as is the stainless steel that this equipment is made out of. But copper, like aluminium, is reactive. In fact I have a copper bowl designed expressly for whipping egg whites, as the copper is said to react with the egg and help to stiffen it. And given that cocktails often involve some acidic ingredients, would contact with the copper give the drink a metallic taste?

Two White Ladies
There was only one way to find out: a head-to-head comparison between the copper item from Sainsbury’s and a stainless steel shaker I already had. I decided to make a White Lady cocktail because it not only contained a shot of lemon juice, but also egg white—so I could test the egg-stiffening theory. I used 1¾ shots gin, 1 shot Cointreau, 1 shot lemon juice and the white of 1 egg. Each was shaken hard to froth up the egg white. (For simplicity’s sake I refrained from “dry shaking”, either before or after the ice, a practice some use to get a thicker texture from the egg white.)

I can’t say that I detected a metallic taste in the cocktail made with the copper shaker. Initially I didn’t fine-strain, and the drink from the copper shaker had a different texture because it actually had small pieces of ice in it—perhaps I unconsciously shook that one harder? After fine straining the two drinks I actually felt that the drink from the steel shaker had a richer texture, though Mrs H. said she couldn’t tell them apart.

The cap and shoulder of the shaker are copper-plated on the inside too, while the body is not
As another test, I made a brace of Daiquiris. I even added the ingredients to the upturned cap and shoulder of the copper shaker (these bits are copper-plated on the inside for some reason, while the body of the shaker is not), so they might have a chance to interact before I added the ice and shook. My feeling this time was that the drink from the copper shaker had a different, slightly “off” taste. But then it struck me that each drink had included the juice of a whole lime—so I could just be tasting the difference between two different limes. So I repeated the experiment, this time blending the juice from the two limes before dividing it between the two shakers.

The result? Nothing that I can detect. Copper is widely used for making stills in the distilling industry because it is said to absorb sulphurous impurities, so clearly it is viewed as a reactive component in the presence of alcohol. But it doesn’t seem to affect the taste of cocktails at the end-user stage.

You can see the ice particles in the cocktail
on the left (click to enlarge)
One thing that did emerge from this comparison, however, was the difference in shaker design. I don’t think I can blame the shape or construction of the copper shaker for the preponderance of ice particles in my White Lady—that is more likely to be down to poor technique on my part, or just being too lazy to fine-strain.* But I did notice that it seemed rather unwilling to pour the finished drink, compared to my trusty steel shaker. Looking closely you can see that the latter has long, narrow slits around the side of the built-in strainer, in addition to the circular holes, while the copper shaker just has the holes, making it slower to pour. Bar pros all tend to use Boston shakers anyway (either glass-and-tin or tin-and-tin), but I rather like the iconic shape of the Manhattan shaker. So if you’re in the market for one, it might be an idea to look at the design of the strainer.

Note the extra slots around the side of the strainer on the right. Even though the holes are smaller
it pours more quickly and smoothly than the copper one

* Japanese bar legend Kazuo Uyeda, also a fan of the Manhattan shaker, doesn’t fine-strain his cocktails as he says he likes the fine ice particles in the drink.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Four Roses rises

All the bottles in the range feature the four-rose symbol moulded into the glass

I met up with James Childs of Spirit Cartel recently to talk about Four Roses bourbon. Spirit Cartel have only fairly recently taken on this brand, but it is one with a longer history than most American whiskeys.

Founded by Paul Jones Jr, Four Roses moved from Atlanta to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1884, but Jones claimed production and sales back to the 1860s. The name Four Roses has a romantic back story: Jones plighted his troth to a Southern Belle and she told him that if she decided to accept his proposal of marriage then she would wear a corsage of red roses to the forthcoming Grand Ball. On the night she was indeed wearing four roses, and Jones allegedly named his bourbon in her honour.

A Prohibition-era bottle of Four Roses sold as a medicine from a drug store
Most famously the brand continued to distil throughout Prohibition. Jones bought the Frankfort Distilling Company in 1922, a facility with a licence from the US Government to produce whiskey for “medicinal purposes” (one of only six such distilleries in the country). If that seems odd, bear in mind that many “patent medicines” of the era had high alcohol contents, even if they made no mention of this on the label or in advertising (and in some cases actually claimed not to contain alcohol). This was part of a trend for establishing acceptable (albeit veiled), domestic forms of consumption—as distinct from the unseemly and socially harmful world of the saloon. Such was the moral labyrinth of the issue, where many prohibitionists were politically dry but personally wet, that when nationwide Prohibition was finally enacted many Americans, who might have voiced their support for it, were actually taken aback by the completeness of the ban.

A liquor prescription form (written on St Patrick's Day, 1926), looking
like a share certificate or government bond (click to enlarge)
It’s worth noting that only in 1917 the American Medical Association had issued a statement that there were, in fact, no medical applications for alcohol at all. However by 1922, with Prohibition now under way, they did a volte face and declared that booze was indeed a medicine suitable for the treatment of 27 different conditions, including cancer, diabetes, asthma, snakebite and old age, and that any attempt to control such medicinal application was “a serious interference with the practice of medicine”. Surely only a cynic would suggest a connection between this and the fact that doctors generally charged $3 to issue a liquor prescription and pharmacists $3 or $4 dollars to fulfil it. In the first six months of Prohibition 15,000 doctors applied for a permit, allowing them to write up to 100 prescriptions per month.*

So now your doctor could write you a prescription for whiskey (or spiritus frumenti, “spirit of grain”, if trying to be dignified about it)—one pint every ten days. So could dentists and even vets. And it seems that, even as a medicine, alcohol’s efficacy was affected by quality and style: the Frankfort catalogue for pharmacists lists specific brands of rye, bourbon, rum, brandy and gin. Not only did some druggists do well, but some were not really pharmacies at all: one Manhattan saloon nicknamed the Hell Hole simply closed its doors, then reopened as a “pharmacy”, and carried on pretty much as before. In The Great Gatsby Jay Gatsby, clearly a bootlegger, is said to have made his money from “a lot of drug stores”…

In this 1940s postcard (left) the Four Roses name dominates Times Square; in Alfred Eisenstaedt's
famous photo of Times Square on VJ Day (right), you can make out the same sign

The American distilling industry didn’t readily bounce back from Prohibition: whiskey making needs a certain continuity because barrel-ageing is such an important part of the process. Until the recent resurgence in craft distilling and the proliferation of small distilleries all over the country, there were whole states with no real distilling tradition left at all (something Stuart Hobson of Indiana vodka was consciously trying to rectify in his own state). This put Four Roses in a strong position precisely because it had carried on producing and its brand was recognised—in fact it is believed that during Prohibition one in four bottles of bourbon sold in the US bore the Four Roses label. Until the 1950s it was the top-selling bourbon in the US. But then Seagram, who had acquired Frankfort in 1943, made the decision to focus on European and Asian markets and stopped selling Kentucky Straight Bourbon in the States, offering only a blended whiskey in that territory.** Today even the brand’s own press release describes this as “made mostly of neutral grain spirits and commonly seen as a sub-par ‘rotgut’ brand”.

But the brand was bought by Japanese brewery Kirin in 2002 and they are consciously trying to rebuild its once stellar reputation, selling only Kentucky Straight Bourbon. It seems to be going well, as Four Roses Distillery (now in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky) was named American Whisky Distiller of the Year in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015 by Whisky Magazine, which also inducted Jim Rutledge, Four Roses master distiller since 1995, into its Global Whisky Hall of Fame in 2013.

The single storey of the Four Roses warehouse
So what goes into the bottle? Uniquely, Four Roses use five different yeast strains and two different mash bills to make ten different bourbon recipes, which are individually barrel-aged and then blended to make their range of bottlings. They make much mention of their single-storey warehouse: Kentucky can get pretty hot, and in warehouses many storeys high the ones at the top will get hotter and the interaction with the wood will be accelerated compared to those resting at the cooler lower levels; it is also the case that the hotter barrels lose water through the wood, raising the ABV over time, while the cooler barrels lose alcohol as they age, lowering the ABV. Some facilities capitalise on this by selecting whiskey from different levels for different purposes, or rotate barrels between the different levels to even out the effects, but at Four Roses they simply store all the barrels at ground level, believing this to create a gentler and stabler ageing process. (The barrels are still stacked six-high, and even here the lower barrels lose alcohol while the higher ones lose water.)

The entry level product is Yellow Label, bottled at 40% ABV. They give no age statements,*** but there is an interesting infographic on the website revealing that this blend includes eight different whiskeys. There are two core spirits, one with a rye-heavy mash bill (60% corn, 35% rye, 5% malted barley) and the other with more corn (75% corn, 20% rye, 5% malt) and both using yeast strain K, described as full-bodied with light spiciness and light caramel. The other conponent spirits use four other yeasts with each of the two mash bills. Next up is the Small Batch (45% ABV), which uses the same two core spirits, plus just two others. At the top of the range (not counting occasional limited editions) is the Single Barrel (50% ABV), using just the rye-heavy mash bill and yeast V, described as “light fruitiness, light vanilla, caramel and creamy”.

Samples of the three main bottlings. The Single Barrel seems darker which might suggest
more age but it could just reflect that, at 50% ABV, it is less diluted
James gave me some samples of the three main bottlings. The Yellow Label hits you with vivid sawmill wood notes and mint, with elements of citrus, caramel and even coconut. On the palate it is surprisingly light and smooth for an entry-level whiskey, with hints of rose, strawberry and peach.

Moving up to the Small Batch the nose is immediately warmer, richer, smoother and darker. By comparison the Yellow Label has a more obviously “mealy” flavour, something that reminds me of sesame or wet plaster. The Small Batch is strikingly different, with hints of coffee on the nose and a palate that is drier and tighter (perhaps from the higher ABV, but there may also be more rye in the blend) but with sweet orange and marmalade flavours too.

The Single Barrel has a smooth and refined nose, with pronounced peach and pear elements and hints of blueberries. At 50% ABV it is inevitably dense and fiery on the tongue, but remarkably smooth considering its strength. To experiment with diluting it a little I make an Old Fashioned with it and, sure enough, the complexity unravels, with smoky, tarry and woody notes emerging, along with pear, cherry and melon fruit flavours.

I dig out a few other bourbons from the cupboard for comparison. Bulleit retails at about £28, roughly the same as Four Roses Small Batch. They are actually in similar territory—which shouldn’t be a surprise as I gather that Bulleit source bourbon from Four Roses. The two bourbons share a peachy nose, though the Bulleit seems tighter, drier and spicier to me, and the Four Roses fruiter and mellower; I’m guessing the Bulleit uses more of the higher rye mash bill than the Four Roses Small Batch.

Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select sells for about the same price here but is quite different. With a mash bill of 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% barley, its flavour strikes me as mellower, offering an expanse with more wide and high notes whereas the Four Roses Small Batch by comparison seems more thrusting, dominated by forceful mid-range intensity with strong wood and smoke flavours.

Elijah Craig 12-year-old retails for about £35, making it pricier than the Four Roses Small Batch but not up with the Single Barrel at about £40. It has a warm and inviting aroma with fruit notes and a remarkably smooth, polished palate for its 47%, with notes of chocolate orange. The Four Roses Single Barrel by comparison is dominated by that sophisticated aroma of pear and peach, a fascinating, focused and refined fragrance that you can ponder on for some time. On the palate it is steelier (it’s 50% alcohol and 35% rye); I can’t find out anything about the Elijah Craig mash bill but I’m guessing it’s more corn heavy (online hearsay has it at 75% corn, 12% rye and 13% barley). It’s interesting that the higher up you go in the Four Roses range, the more dominant rye becomes.

The Four Roses approach is intriguing: really old bourbon is always going to be less common that really old Scotch, if only because of the climate differences, but it is interesting to see the de-emphasis placed on age here and the attention given to yeast strains. To me the end result offers pretty good value in the UK. The Yellow Label is about £20–21, which is near the bottom end of bourbon prices (nothing is much less that £17–18). At £26–27 The Small Batch represents a very worthwhile step up, while the Single Barrel offers something profound that’s really worth savouring.

* For more on this see Daniel Okrent’s excellent history of Prohibition, Last Call (Scribner, 2010)

** The terms are heavily regulated. Anything called “bourbon” must be produced in the US from at least 51% corn and aged in new, charred oak barrels. There is no minimum age requirement, though to use the name “straight bourbon” it must be aged for at least two years. If there is an age statement it must be the age of the youngest bourbon in the blend. Something labelled as “blended” whiskey must still be at least 51% bourbon but it can also contain neutral spirit, colouring and flavouring.

*** Jim Rutledge has commented that “in general I’m not a fan of Old Bourbon”. It seems that each individual barrel is aged until it tastes “mature”, and with so many source bourbons to play with the emphasis seems to be more on the blending. There is a private barrel scheme where visitors to the distillery can create their own blends of the ten source spirits, and whiskey nerds post online about mixtures they have tried. There are also blends that are created exclusively for the Japanese market—although the US is the brand’s fastest-growing market, Japan is their biggest. One thing that Jim says they might try is a rye whiskey, though he admits that he will have retired before it is ready to drink.