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.

I couldn’t help wondering what the thinking was. 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.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

A marvel of 1930s cocktail technology

The Rapid patent cocktail mixer from 1933. You can see it in action in the video below
Drifting through my local flea market (sorry, “Antiques & Collectibles Fair”) my eye was caught by a strange device. It looked a bit like a cocktail shaker with a glass body, silver-plated cap and integral spout, but protruding from the top was a plunger or piston. Closer inspection revealed that it was not for shaking—instead there was a spinning paddle inside, driven by pumping on the button on the top. It was an automatic cocktail stirrer.
Drawings from Rolph's patent application

To shake or to stir? Most cocktails require chilling and while some are constructed around ice cubes that stay in the drink, many are chilled through brief and vigorous exposure to ice before being strained and served ice-free, to avoid unfortunate and unpredictable dilution as the ice melts. You can do this most flamboyantly and speedily by putting the drink and the ice in a shaker and shaking it hard. But this will break up the ice a bit, leaving little shards of it in the cocktail (which bar pros tend to strain out by pouring the finished beverage through a device a bit like a tea strainer) and a cloudy finish that bothers some people—though to be honest the cloudiness fades quickly. (Japanese bar legend Kazuo Uyeda, on the other hand, seems to like these bits of ice: not only does he use a Manhattan shaker without a strainer, but he up-ends the shaker and gives it a good waggle to chase out any ice shards that might be lurking inside.)

But others are so concerned about ice contamination that they won’t shake certain cocktails at all, preferring to stir them over ice. This way your drinks stays clear and dilution is kept to a minimum. Many consider that certain drinks like a Martini will be “bruised” if shaken—the entrenchedness of this idea is precisely why James Bond bucks the trend and insists his Martinis are shaken.

The machine in the market had clearly been designed to enable drinks to be stirred but in a low-effort and thoroughly modern way. I immediately made it clear to Mrs H. that this would be a highly suitable thing to buy me for Christmas.

An earlier patent of Rolph's, for a "radiator cap
ornament". That's pretty much all it says, though it
looks to me as if the head and hands bob up and down
In time I discovered that it was an invention called The Rapid. It was the brainchild of one William Mair Rolph, who patented it in 1933. There isn’t much about Rolph online, though he was clearly a serial inventor—as well as pumps, syringes, devices for the accurate measurement of doses of liquid and a picnic hamper that unfolds into a table, he came up with many improvements for motor cars, such as indicators, windscreen wipers, a sun visor for the driver, and—bizarrest of all—a radiator cap ornament in the form of a seated Chinese figure which, according to the patent documents, really is nothing but an ornament. Aside from that I gleaned that he was inducted into the Royal Aero Club in 1914 and in 1917 was decorated by the King of Belgium for his contributions during the Great War. (I like to imagine he was in the Royal Flying Corps but I have no evidence for this. He may have been a spy, for all I know.)

I’ve seen various configurations of the Rapid design online, including one which is all metal. The patent application suggests it should have gradations marked up the side to help mixing, but whoever made mine clearly decided to go with the vertical cut-glass fluting for aesthetic reasons instead. The patent document also shows an alternative paddle with fork-like prongs for beating eggs, cream, etc. But the point is that this was not just a pipe dream—these things were actually manufactured.

So does the Rapid work? It’s more fiddly to load and clean that a bar glass or beaker but, as you can see from the video below, that paddle really does swoosh the ice and liquid around. For any given length of time spent mixing, the Rapid delivers more cooling than a human arm and a barspoon, yet the resultant liquid is perfectly limpid and seems not to taste any more diluted.

However, I did discover that my particular example has a tendency to jam. (In fact you can see in the video that at the end of the mixing, just before I pour it, it does precisely this.) But when it’s working it does a good job. Needless to say there are electric drink mixers out there now, but nothing as stylish as this.



Sunday, 8 March 2015

Terminus: the absinthe to end all absinthes

Ted with his two new products, Terminus Oxygénée Absinthe and Coeur de Jade
Thursday was National Absinthe Day in the US, marking the day in 2007 when the ban on absinthe, introduced in 1912, was lifted. One of the men responsible for getting the law changed is Ted Breaux of Jade Liqueurs but he was actually in London at the time launching a couple of new products, and I met up with him in the Punch Room of the London Edition hotel

Ted conducts a webcast from the bar
Being out of the country on such an important day didn’t hold Ted back, as he was able to do a live webcast, answering questions that were texted to him. I admire his powers of concentration, being able to do that using a laptop in a noisy hotel bar, and I resisted the temptation to photobomb, perhaps drifting across the background swigging from a bottle of Ted’s finest…

Ted’s new absinthe, Jade Terminus Oxygénée Absinthe Supérieure, gets the name “Terminus” from the fact that he claims it is the last absinthe he will launch (or at least the last in his “portfolio of historically accurate absinthes”). “Oxygénée” represents the special historical process that Ted has recreated for this product.

Ted is a native New Orleanian with a background as an environmental scientist. He became curious about the famous Old Absinthe House bar that still stood in the city, a testament to the era when New Orleans, with its French connections, was the country’s absinthe capital. There has been a lot of voodoo talked about absinthe, what it had been, the psychotropic effects it had on the brain, etc.* Ted was in a position to use modern scientific techniques (mass spectrometry and gas chromatography, I believe, though don’t ask me how they work) to analyse exactly what was in extant samples of pre-ban absinthe and the bulk of his Jade range are recreations of specific products (though I believe that for legal reasons he won’t necessarily spell out which ones on the label).

Before the ban, the Cusenier distillery in France produced Cusenier Oxygénée Absinthe Hygenique, a product that they subjected to an oxygenation process that they claimed made it uniquely “hygienic” and safe, an attempt to stem the growing tide of opinion that absinthe was deleterious to the health. It sold at a considerable premium. Ted’s new product uses the same botanicals as the original (as well as a unusual species of Artemisia from the foothills of the Alps, rarely found in absinthe), and is also subjected to a “hot oxygenation” process that closely mirrors the original technique. Ted doesn’t give too much away but he observes impishly that it involves pure oxygen and hot distillate and, consequently, he makes sure there is no one else around when he does it. (If you hear reports that the Combier distillery has exploded you’ll know why…) Prior to bottling the spirit is rested for three years.

Terminus on the left and V.S. 1898 on the right, neat
I line up a sample of Terminus against Jade V.S. 1898 to try and get a handle on its character. Although it’s hard to see in the photos, the Terminus seems slightly more yellow to me. Neat, the V.S. seems to have high, sharp notes of caraway on the nose, while the Terminus is softer, broader and grassy. Add water and the general distinction continues, with the V.S. having high, lean, clean, aromatic notes, with a hint of violets, while the Terminus is softer, earthier, more buttery, a bit more pungent, with a dash of orange peel on the nose and more “dark” notes (e.g. woody cinnamon) than the V.S.

Terminus left, V.S. right, louched (1:2.5 absinthe:water)
The other product Ted had with him was his new Coeur de Jade. It’s not an absinthe at all but an eau de vie, the base spirit that he uses for the absinthes. “People would taste it and ask me why I didn’t bottle it,” he explains, “so I did.”

It is a colourless grape spirit (mostly Chenin Blanc), double pot-distilled as would have been done pre-ban. I’m intrigued by this because it is surprisingly smooth for an unaged spirit (it is 42% ABV), and I might have guessed that over 100 years ago they could not have produced something so clean, but Ted assures me it is authentic. In fact it is the use of the less “efficient” pot still, rather than a modern Coffey still, that enables the spirit to retain its flavours and be more than just “neutral” alcohol.

Technically it is a fine (made just from grape juice), as opposed to a marc, which uses the leftover lees, skins, stalks, etc, from the winemaking process, in the same way that grappa does. (I’ve had some delightful marcs, but they can be huge, filling the room with their aroma.) It is an intriguing product, because it is subtle but with a distinct character. It is reminiscent of grappa (and I gather that the Italians were the most vocal in wanting Ted to bottle it), but more delicate than most grappas I have tried. There is a floral, almost candied, fruit nose from the grapes, with elements of apricot, almond and strawberry. The mouthfeel is relatively rich, sweet and smooth for an unsweetened spirit, and I get a distinct impression of rosewater on the tongue.

Subtle as it is, I’m immediately struck by the mixing possibilities, perhaps blending with light vermouths to make a fragrant summer cooler. And indeed the obliging barman in the Punch Room makes a Sazerac with Terminus absinthe and the Coeur de Jade in place of whiskey or Cognac (depending on your personal feelings about how a Sazerac should be made), which works very well indeed, with the distinctive fresh fruit fragrance of the spirit coming across clearly and harmonising with the aromas of the absinthe.

Jade Terminus Absinthe Oxygénée can be had for £68.95 and Coeur de Jade for £29.95, both from the Whisky Exchange.

* Even Phil Baker’s excellent The Dedalus Book of Absinthe from 2001, one of the first volumes I read on the subject, asserts that pre-ban absinthe contained perhaps 25 times as much thujone as modern examples, and it was this that gave it its mind-bending potency. In fact subsequent analysis shows that absinthe from this period contained no more thujone than modern versions, and it is unlikely that this chemical is responsible for any special effects absinthe is perceived to have. Ted himself does believe that absinthe has a particular physical effect on the drinker, the famous “lucid intoxication”, and believes it can probably be attributed to the combination of stimulant and sedative plants in the botanical mix.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Armagnac, Gascony's sleeping beauty

I was intrigued to be sent a pack of samples from an outfit called Rueverte, an online spirits retailer based in Germany but clearly aiming for a worldwide reach. As the name suggests, they began as an outlet for absinthe, and in fact the co-founder is the great absinthe guru David Nathan-Maister, but have now branched out, with sub-sites at absinthes.com, digestif.com and bitters.com. The impression is that they prefer to handpick lesser-known gems rather than attempting to cover all the obvious bases—their Cognac section only has one brand, Tesseron, and none of the well-known names in this high-profile category.

My sample pack is one of their “Explore Sets”, containing three 50ml phials, in this case of three different blends from Armagnac house Goudoulin, enabling you to do your own comparative tasting. (Master of Malt do something similar here in the UK.) The bottles are square in shape and fit snugly in the dense foam insert of the presentation packaging, protecting them in transit.

The Armagnac section of Digestif.com is better represented than Cognac, with six brands to choose from, though only one (Darroze) of which I had previously been aware. Despite being less well known than Cognac, Armagnac is apparently the oldest type of brandy in France (700 years old in 2010). Its chief defining characteristic is that it is made in certain regions in Gascony, specifically Bas-Armagnac, Haut-Armagnac and Armagnac Tenareze, each with its own soil type that influences the white grapes that go into the spirit. Cognac is mostly Ugni Blanc grapes, plus Folle Blanche and Colombard while Armagnac typically adds Bacco too (and in fact the official Armagnac authorisation body allows some ten different varieties). Whereas Cognac is distilled twice in batches in a pot still, the traditional Armagnac still is a column design enabling continuous distillation.

I was under the impression that the invention of column distillation (where the vapour rises up a column containing metal plates that encourage the undesirable heavier components to condense out and fall back down) allowed for a purer spirit. But it seems the 19th-century Verdier design traditional in Armagnac is much less efficient that the Coffey still, producing a “rustic” distillate at the relatively low strength of 52%, compared to the Coffey’s 96%, meaning that Armagnac retains more, and more varied, flavours. Years in the barrel naturally erode this down to bottling strength, meaning that it is seldom diluted, again helping to retain a breadth of flavour. (Cognac, by contrast, emerges from its second distillation at 70%.)

The Armagnac column still (from the Goudoulin website)
In each case the spirits are then aged in oak barrels—in Cognac it is Limousin or Tronçais oak which softens the spirit, while in Armagnac it has to be black Monlezun oak which imparts more colour and vanilla/toffee notes. Both types of spirit are often blended. In a three-star or VS blend, the youngest spirit must be at least two years old; in a réserve three years old, in a VSOP four years old, a Napoléon or XO six years old and an Hors D’Age (optimistically “beyond age”) ten years old. Armagnacs are more likely to have specific vintages or age statements.

The house of J. Goudoulin was named after Madame Jeanne Ménal Goudoulin, who married into the business in 1908, but lost her husband in 1925 to injuries sustained during the First World War. She learned to manage the growing collection of spirits laid down by the house and from 1935 formed J. Goudoulin, running it for the next 30 years. Her nephew Christian Faure took over, selling it in 2009 to Michel Miclo of the family firm G. Miclo (who make some fine eaux de vie).

The emphasis here does seem to be on building up a stock of old spirits to sell and to blend. Goudoulin has an impressive portfolio of single vintages (Rueverte offer a 1938 and I’ve seen a 1914 for sale elsewhere) as well as blends where the youngest spirit is as old as 60 years. My sample set offers the eight-year-old blend, the Hors D’Age and the 20-year-old blend.

(Left to right) 8-year-old, Hors D'Age and 20-year-old


The eight-year-old immediately strikes you with notes of pear and marzipan on the nose, perhaps with a slight bitterness at the end. This is followed by plain chocolate, coffee and toffee. The palate is dry and spicy, but with a pronounced and wholly unexpected floral element, like rose and violet chocolate creams, or perhaps Turkish delight. There is pear tart too. I really am struck by the complexity here, combined with an absence of the fiery fumes that Cognac often seems to lead with. It evolves in the glass but even after half an hour or more it still has a striking combination of fruit, flowers and dry chocolate on the tongue. I realise it reminds me of the flavour of a cigar too, with something of tannic but aromatic cedar wood about it.

I try the Hors D’Age next, as I am assured it (or rather the youngest spirit in the blend) is ten years old. The pear, marzipan and chocolate elements are still clearly there, but now there is a strong aroma of apricots too. The palate is less obviously different, perhaps with those floral notes less pronounced and a bit more chocolate; maybe a bit less dry, though still not sweet. Toffee and caramel emerge and an underlying aromatic wood character.

Finally we come to the 20-year old. I notice less of a clear change from the Hors D’Age, though I think there is less of the apricot and a bit of cooked apple. The palate seems softer and maybe with a bit less fruit and a bit more of the chocolate.

I dig around for some Cognac to try it against and unearth a bottle of Courvoisier VSOP Exclusif, a blend intended for mixing. It immediately strikes me as having more tight, dry, high notes, with an emphasis on orange and orange blossom. The palate is immediately fiercer; it subsides quickly to a softer, chocolate balance but it is undoubtedly less complex. I also have a bottle of regular Courvoisier VSOP: here I get pears as well as chocolate, plus an element of tea, perhaps from wood tannins. But it is frankly rougher than any of the Goudoulin Armagnacs.

In fairness a VSOP need only be four years old, half the age of the youngest of the Goudoulin samples. But the best price for Courvoisier VSOP I can find is £32.50, while the 8-year-old Goudoulin is not much more at £38 (though with Rueverte you’ll have to spend £150 to get their free delivery, otherwise it is a hefty £9 for that one bottle).

I was highly impressed by these samples. I had previously dipped a toe into Armagnac waters on more than one occasion but hadn’t really thought about it much in recent years. That may well change now, not least because, for the age and complexity of the spirits involved, they do represent pretty good value.

The Goudoulin Explore Set is £20.50 plus delivery.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Don't be afraid of Fernet-Branca

Fernet-Branca is one of those cocktail ingredients from the dawn of time, when there wasn’t too much to choose from. Many younger people may never have heard of it, and those who have often roll their eyes and dismiss it as rocket fuel, but to the best of my knowledge it was never out of production and does seem to be experiencing a cautious revival. It was specified in one of the cocktail recipes prepared for us by Brian Silva at the Excelsior Club events that we did last year, which is what got me thinking about it.

Fernet is a style of bitter infusion that was peddled as a tonic and cure-all in early advertisements; the name comes from Dr Fernet, an imaginary Swedish Man of Science originally billed as co-creator, who was claimed to have lived to more than 100 thanks to the restorative powers of his tincture. Fernet is traditionally drunk as a digestif. Apparently they are keen on it in Argentina (where they drink it with cola), and in the US it’s particularly popular in San Francisco, which accounts for 25% of the country’s consumption.* Fernet-Branca (which I have to admit is the only Fernet I have encountered, though there are other brands) was created in 1845 in Milan by Bernardino Branca and went on to be produced by Fratelli Branca at their distillery. I had idly assumed that it was an aromatised wine, so I was surprised to see that it is actually 39% ABV and thus has more in common with something like Gammel Dansk than vermouth. In fact some see it as an alternative to Angostura Bitters, and indeed the label proudly calls it “The international bitters”.

Of course the recipe, as is traditional with these things, is a secret, known only by the firm’s president, Niccolò Branca, who personally measures out the ingredients. But the back label calls it “an infusion from a unique blend of selected blossoms and rare aromatic herbs, carefully aged in the historic Branca cellars”. (Specifically, aged for 12 months in wood, according to the Fernet-Branca website.) The site lists myrrh, linden, galangal, chamomile, cinnamon, saffron, iris, gentian, aloe, zedoary, colombo and bitter orange, but it is said that there are fully 27 (or alternatively 40) ingredients, among which rhubarb and red cinchona bark might also number. Rumour has it that production of Fernet-Branca accounts for 75% of the world’s saffron consumption.

A Hanky Panky cocktail
Fernet-Branca is a brown colour (from caramel colouring, I believe) and has a strongly aromatic nose with woody spice underneath. There is mint and also coffee, chocolate, balsam, menthol, sandalwood, sesame seeds… This is carried over on to the tongue but if you expect sweetness (perhaps from the aroma’s similarity to cough medicine) then you are in for a shock as it is quite dry and bitter.

I gather that Fernet-Branca has been gaining popularity as a cocktail ingredient again, as punters become more interested in classic cocktails, drier and more bitter than the long, sweet, fruity cocktails of the 1980s. In a way it doesn’t surprise me that they like it in Argentina, as my taste of classic Argentine cocktails made it clear that the national palate likes a bitter element. Perhaps the best known cocktail containing it in this country is the Hanky Panky, probably the most famous creation of Ada Coleman (see my last post) during her long tenure at the Savoy’s American Bar. The story goes that she created it for Noel Coward’s mentor Sir Charles Hawtrey when he came in one day announcing he was tired and needed something with a bit of pep. He took one sip and announced, “By Jove! That is the real hanky-panky” (an expression which apparently meant sorcery, rather than sexual naughtiness as it did in the US).

Hanky Panky
1½ shots gin
1½ shots red vermouth
2 dashes Fernet-Branca
Shake with ice, strain and garnish with a twist of orange peel

The vermouth and the Fernet merge in an aromatic continuum, with the gin joining in too, depending on how powerful the high juniper presence is in the gin you choose, and it is worth playing around with the quantity of the Fernet to suit your palate. It’s a bracing drink, a perfect pick-me-up or aperitif to stimulate the tastebuds. But the high proportion of vermouth does mean that your bottle needs to be in good condition, not old, oxidised and turning brown.

As it happens, the Savoy Cocktail Book (1930) contains both the Hanky Panky and also the “Fernet Branca Cocktail”, which has exactly the same ingredients but in fiercer proportions: 2 parts gin to 1 part red vermouth to 1 part Fernet-Branca. The book adds, “One of the best ‘morning after’ cocktails ever invented. Fernet-Branca, an Italian vegetable extract, is a marvellous headache cure. (No advt.)” This is a recurring theme—Fernet-Branca’s puissance as a cure of hangover, nausea, cramps, poor digestion, etc, etc.

Meanwhile, Cocktails: How to Mix Them (1922) by Robert Vermeire has a “Fernet Cocktail” that is equal parts Fernet-Branca and either Cognac or rye whiskey, plus a dash of Angostura and two dashes of sugar syrup. I was convinced that I had encountered something similar as a “Corpse Reviver No.1”, but when I looked, most recipes I found under this name were a combination of equal parts Cognac, Calvados and red vermouth. However, eventually in Larousse Cocktails (2005)—which is admittedly often out there on its own—I find a “Corpse Reviver” consisting of 3 parts cognac to 1 part each Fernet-Branca and white crème de menthe. This sounds like it is going to be rather sickly, but in fact it is well balanced, with the liqueur’s sweetness balanced out by the bitter Fernet, creating something like a brandy Old Fashioned with a refreshing minty aromatic pep.

Under Vermeire’s Fernet Cocktail recipe he notes, “This cocktail is much appreciated by the Canadians of Toronto.” There must be something in this as there is also a well-known Fernet cocktail called a Toronto.

A Toronto Cocktail, served on the rocks, though it is sometimes
shaken and strained into a cocktail glass
Toronto Cocktail
2 shots Canadian whiskey
¼ shot Fernet-Branca
¼ shot sugar syrup
(Some recipes add a couple of dashes of Angostura)
Stir with ice, strain and garnish with a strip of orange peel

Although I can find no mention of the origins of this drink, it is pretty primordial in what it is doing—it is a cocktail in the original sense of a spirit augmented by sugar, bitters and/or water—and is essentially the same as Vermeire’s Fernet Cocktail, just with different proportions. It is also similar to the Boulevardier, which uses Campari instead of Fernet for bitterness and red vermouth for sweetness. You also find the Toronto made with American rye whiskey, and sometimes with more Fernet-Branca in the mix (though I’ve not seen it with as much Fernet as Vermeire’s version). To drink, it is much like an Old Fashioned, with the combination of Fernet and whiskey (I used Canadian Club) evoking a chocolate/caramel flavour. I think it highlights the appeal of Fernet-Branca in a cocktail, creating a drink that is both comforting and invigorating at the same time.

Amusingly, on the blog of James Boudreau, a bartender from Montreal, he says that he had to leave Canada before he encountered the Toronto cocktail, as Fernet-Branca was not available in his home country. So it may be that the drink was not created in Toronto, but was so named simply because it used Canadian whiskey. But does this mean that Vermeire was misled when he said that the drink was popular in Toronto, or perhaps that Fernet-Branca used to be available there in the 1920s but had fallen out of fashion by Boudreau’s time?

Meanwhile Brian Silva’s recipe for us was a twist on the (currently hugely fashionable) Negroni:

Negroni Aprés
2 shots gin
1 shot Aperol
½ shot Fernet-Branca
½ shot Amer Picon
Soda (optional)
Add all the ingredients to an iced cocktail shaker. Stir for one minute.
Strain into an iced rocks glass

The name is a reference to Brian’s view of this an a digestif version of a cocktail that is normally an aperitif. I’m not so sure about that myself—the bright, aromatic, bitter-sweet flavours from three different amaros (plus an emphasis on bitter orange flavours) still seem to me to be classic get-the-juices-flowing territory.

Another more modern cocktail that we served recently is one I found on Simon Difford’s website. It goes by the name of Staffordshire Delight which is a pretty awful name, but it is a great drink:

A Staffordshire Delight cocktail
Staffordshire Delight
2 shots golden rum
1½ shots pineapple juice
½ shot Fernet-Branca
½ shot lime juice
½ shot orgeat (almond syrup)
Dash of Angostura Bitters
Shake everything together and strain into an ice-filled glass

This is a complex drink. It can be hard to get the balance right, but it is worth persevering. You clearly get the minty aromatic freshness of the Fernet, its bitterness balanced by the orgeat, the almond notes of which slip into the middle ground, with the rum giving power and the pineapple a silky texture.

Finally, there is another combination that I have encountered more than once, a blend of equal parts Fernet-Branca, lime juice and ginger syrup or liqueur; one recipe added an equal part gin to this (a Fernet Reviver) and another instead an equal part red vermouth (an Eva Peron). On paper you can see how this works, an equal balance of strong sweet, sour and bitter elements—and ginger is a traditional cure for nausea, so we are back in touch with Fernet’s curative background. In practice, however, the Fernet does dominate, although you can taste the other ingredients. It’s certainly warming, with the ginger adding its fire to the Fernet, and the gin version is inevitably drier than the vermouth one. But I have to say that I certainly don’t get the feeling that this drink is doing me any good…

* I gather it is the tipple of choice for bartenders, as an eye-opener when starting a shift—on the grounds that no one will miss the purloined liquor, owing to the dark bottle and the general unpopularity of the contents…

Monday, 12 January 2015

The Claridge Cocktail

My version of the Claridge Cocktail
I was talking to a relative before Christmas and she mentioned how her mother-in-law (my wife’s aunt) regularly enjoyed a Claridge cocktail. Naturally my ears pricked up, partly because not many people these days have a home cocktail habit, but also because I was not familiar with the drink in question.

I was duly sent the recipe:

2 shots gin
2 shots dry vermouth
1 shot apricot brandy
1 shot Cointreau

“Shake with ice and serve, nowhere near a naked flame. Ma-in-law used to enjoy two cocktail cherries with this, which I think served as one of her ‘five a day’.”*

Now, obviously this is quite a lot of alcohol, but I’ll assume that this recipe was for two drinks! In any case these proportions are the classic recipe. I found it in the Savoy Cocktail Book (1930), the 1930 reprint of Cocktails by “Jimmy” Late of Ciro’s and the Café Royal Cocktail Book (1937). I didn’t find it in either version of Jerry Thomas’s work, nor in O.H. Byron’s Modern Bartender’s Guide (1884), suggesting it was a production of the Golden Age of cocktails.

So many modern cocktail recipes involve peculiar infusions, homemade tinctures or pre-smoked garnishes, and I have a fondness for recipes like this one that just make use of the commercial booze products that were available at the time. (And of course there would have been far less to choose from then—so many supposedly distinct cocktails from the era seem to be subtle variations on each other, with the same ingredients but slightly different proportions.**)

Ada Coleman of the American Bar at the Savoy:
had nothing to do with the Claridge Cocktail
To look at, this is essentially a wet Dry Martini with added triple sec and apricot brandy. But if you’re expecting anything like a Dry Martini you are in for a shock, as this much liqueur does make it quite a sweet drink. I immediately find myself tinkering with the proportions to suit my palate, and I end up with this:

2 shots gin (I tried both Plymouth and Tarquin’s Cornish Gin)
1 shot dry vermouth (I used Noilly Prat)
¼ shot (about 6–7ml) apricot brandy (I used Briottet)
¼ shot (about 6–7ml) Cointreau

Garnishwise, I’m not a huge fan of the maraschino cherry, and I found that a lemon peel garnish works well with the fruit flavours.

Even with these reduced proportions the liqueurs make themselves felt, both in terms of the aroma and flavour of the fruit and in the sweetness, but for me this has a better and more sophisticated balance between the dryness of the gin and vermouth and the sweetness of the liqueurs. It’s an interesting interplay, with different ingredients seeming to work on different parts of the tongue at the same time, and the savoury elements of the vermouth having an almost salty quality. If you are a fan of really dry cocktails then you are never going to get this to work for you, as the orange and apricot flavours would disappear altogether if you reduce the levels of liqueur much below this.

Barflies and Cocktails (1927) has the clue
Interestingly, I later consulted Larousse Cocktails (2005) by Fernando Castellon and found that not only did he list this drink but his proportions are almost identical to mine, so clearly I am not mad (although in fact he specifies just 1 tsp, 5ml, each for triple sec and apricot brandy).

However, none of the books in which I find the recipe gives any indication as to its provenance. The name suggests a connection with the prestigious London hotel Claridge’s, which was at the height of its fame in the Roaring Twenties and is famous for its Art Deco interiors. Indeed there is a theory that Ada Coleman, who famously went on to become head bartender at the Savoy from 1903 to 1926 (an unusual achievement for a woman at the time) created the drink while she was previously at Claridge’s. It is not on the hotel’s menu today but I contact them to find out if they have any archive details about it.

“The information that we have is that it is accredited to ‘Leon’, bartender at the Claridge Hotel, Champs Elyseé, Paris, in Barflies and Cocktails, 1927,” says Andreas Cortes, Assistant Manager at Claridge’s Bar today. “This disproves the theory that Ada Coleman created it whilst at Claridge’s, London, or the Savoy.”*** Barflies and Cocktails, by Harry MacElhone (of Harry’s Bar in Paris) is a volume I do not have, but I swiftly acquire a copy of the version reissued by Cocktail Kingdom, and it is as Andreas says: no connection with London’s Art Deco palace.

By strange coincidence, at the weekend I visit the relevant relatives and stay over with the parents-in-law in question. As we arrive on their doorstep in the early evening on Saturday night they say, “Oh, you caught us just having a cocktail.” It is indeed a brace of Claridges. “I’ll make you one if you like.”

The Claridges prepared for us by my wifes uncle
I watch my wife’s uncle produce a pair of sizeable beverages: the pair of them are in their late eighties, and they consume their own drinks in oversized cocktail glasses printed with images of lipsticks and other glamorous things, which look as if they have been in service since the 1980s, in a room where even the cushions are embroidered with flappers sipping Martinis. Huge respect for the lifestyle. He doesn’t use a measure but I notice that his recipe is different again—pretty much equal parts of all four ingredients. It’s sweeter than I would like, but it still works in that you can taste all the ingredients.

This is the joy of mixology in the home: there is so much to discover in the pursuit of your own personal tastes—and the chance of creating something new!

* An explanation for non-UK readers: the British government has recommended that we all consume five “portions” of fruit or vegetables a day, for health reasons. There are tables available defining what counts as a “portion”. I’ve also heard that the Science really suggested that we should have nine portions, but the Powers That Be decided that this was a hopeless cause in the British Isles and five was a more realistic target.

** Although it can be disappointing to read the recipe for a “new” cocktail and find that has the same ingredients as one you already know, just slightly different proportions, I guess it helps customers to get the drink they want without having to give (or know) technical specifications. Perhaps these things arose because one bartender made the drink in particular way that people got to like so they gave it its own name. In any case, it is interesting to think that the three different versions of the Claridge described in this article would probably have had three different names back in the 1920s!

*** I’m not clear on the chronology here: I’m not aware that anyone knows when Leon was at the Claridge (I contacted the hotel and they replied that Leon used to work there in the 1930s, but it must have been earlier than this given the date of the book), but Ada was at Claridge’s from 1899 till she moved to the Savoy.