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 that 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, serve 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.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Maplay - Distilled Maple Syrup Spirit

This is my first and last post of the year. 2014 seems to have slipped away at the IAE south coast branch; not quite as bad as "The Lost Weekend", though. Now, if I was going to write about anything, it would be Maplay.

This is from the US and is made by fermenting and distilling maple syrup, which is then aged. An interesting point for readers is that this is genuine moonshine, i.e. it is illicitly distilled (at least in its country of origin). As such, it has no official bottle, but a picture of spirit can be found below.

On its own (room temperature)
Nose: Bright, with some dry, woody notes to start, before moving onto rich and intense maple and nut flavours, as well as hints of vanilla, butterscotch, and cream brule.

Taste: There's a pleasant texture to the spirit, with the alcohol upfront and then a gently unfolding patchwork of sweet confectionery and spice notes, very similar to the nose with the addition of stone fruit and a touch of chocolate and plum jam. The finish is long and lingering, with lots of dry, nutty maple and pecan notes.

Frozen
Beautifully viscous, with an intriguing dry - almost grainy - woody start. This is followed by the flavour of very dark chocolate (think 95%), then sweeter notes of roasted cashews and pecans, as well as a subtle maple element that is rather delicious. There is also a slight herbal, fruity note throughout, somewhat reminiscent of vermouth.

Manhattan
This is an intriguing drink, which has elements of both a dry and a sweet Manhattan backed up by the complexity of the spirit, which is easily equal to most whiskey versions. Rich spice, vanilla, and cassia are accompanied by hints of cinder toffee, toasted nuts, and that dry, maple element. If you like Manhattans, this is one to try.

Negroni
A soft and smooth drink with the characteristic bitterness of the drink at the end. The Maplay gives some of the dryness and spice that you would expect from a gin, but also adds a complex sweetness and complements the sweet vermouth very nicely.

Old Fashioned
Simply superb. This is easily my favourite way to enjoy the spirit. I've been a fan of substituting sugar for maple syrup in whisky Old Fashioneds for a while, but this just takes it one step further. Simple, yet luxurious; the bitters, water, and sugar seem to tease out a whole array of flavours from the Maplay - all of the notes previously referred to come through in a chorus.


In Conclusion
As you can guess, I really like the Maplay and it is a shame that, for the moment, it remains unavailable. It is a fascinating spirit with a legion of potential fans out there ready to discover it. My favourite drink was the Old Fashioned.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Marks & Spencer cocktails-in-a-can

In October I reviewed the KÖLD line of premixed cocktails, the latest in the cavalcade of attempts to offer instant mixology for people who lack the equipment, ingredients or inclination to make their own cocktails at home.

The trick with such things is how to preserve the more perishable ingredients in the mix—the impressive Handmade Cocktail Company range from Master of Malt simply focuses on old fashioned cocktails (including the Old Fashioned) that lack fruit juices and are high enough in alcohol to be self-preserving. KÖLD sold their mixes in foil pouches, which made me suspect they had been heat-treated after sealing.

Queuing in the small Marks & Spencer branch on Charing Cross station the other day I was confronted by some tins containing the chain’s own attempt at premixes. I scooped up a couple for sampling, a Mojito and a Cosmopolitan.

For those who don’t know, M&S occupies a space in most British people’s hearts as a reliable place to buy underpants, work shirts and the like, but they also do food, pitched as fairly high end, and even have some branches selling nothing but food. The travel outlet at Charing Cross has quite a high bias towards booze, clearly catering for commuters who can’t get through the train ride back to suburbia without a single-serving mini-bottle of Pinot Grigio to dull the pain.*

The Mojito hits you with a mint flavour that has a mouthwash artificiality. It’s not too bad, with detectable lime notes, but a tad thin with a slightly bitter finish. A little like bitter lemon, in fact. But that chemical mint is what dominates. It also seems to coat your teeth. The KÖLD Mojito likewise struggled with the artificiality of its mint flavour: clearly it is not possible to get a fresh mint taste in a premix, but the nation must be crying out for tinned Mojitos as this particular cocktail keeps cropping up.

The Cosmo has a terrifying colour, followed by a bubblegum fruity smell that fills the room. But it’s not actually that bad, with a reasonable balance between sweet and sour and the triple sec (or rather “orange distillate”, as it says on the ingredients list) detectable. I’m not sure I’m really getting cranberry juice, though the label claims it is in there (from concentrate).

As usual with premixes, both these cocktails are unnaturally low in alcohol for what they claim to be (8% in each case, the same as the KÖLD range), but this is apparently because the target market would otherwise be drinking alcopops of the same ABV. I didn’t try spiking them with extra spirit this time, though I’m sure it would have been an improvement. The Mojito did go down the sink, but I did actually end up finishing the Cosmo, which must tell you something.

* I can’t see this range on the M&S website, although I have now discovered that they also sell a different range of classier premixes in 50cl bottles. I seem to recall that there was also a Bloody Mary and a Harvey Wallbanger in the range, along with a G&T about which I have read bad things.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Tequila cocktails with Ocho

Tequila is a bit of an enigma, but its star is certainly on the rise at the moment. It doesn’t seem to have been drunk much outside of Mexico until Americans discovered it in the 1920s during their runs across the border to avoid Prohibition. Then it surged again in the 1940s when US alcohol production was earmarked for industrial purposes for the war effort. According to Dale Degroff, it has only really been available in the UK for 40 years but he believes that the Margarita could well now be the most popular cocktail here—I have certainly heard that it has that status in the US.

When talking to tequila brand ambassadors you still hear that their biggest hurdle is getting punters to think of the spirit as something to savour rather than something to knock back. But I’m sure that is changing now, perhaps due in large part to the efforts of Patron to create the concept of the high-end tequila. Last year I sat in on a session with Matthias Lataille from Olmeca’s high-end, 100% blue agave brand Olmeca Altos, and it was clearly a welcome revelation to many there how much could be had from this spirit if one simply sipped it from a nosing glass rather than chugging it from a shot glass.

Then in the summer I was intrigued by the Pierde Almas range of single varietal mezcals, celebrating not just the effect of different agave species and different terroir, but also the batch-to-batch variations of artisanal products like this.

Tomas Estes
Most recently I chatted with Tomas Estes, the man behind Café Pacifico and La Perla restaurants here in London. The Mexican National Chamber of Tequila has crowned him Ambassador of Tequila to the European Union, and not only has he also now opened El Nivel, a dedicated agave spirits bar above La Perla, but he also has his own tequila brand, Ocho, which takes the celebration of variety one step further—not only do his bottles all state the precise field from which the family-grown agaves were harvested, but they declare the vintage as well.

The tequila is made for Estes by Carlos Camarena. The name Ocho, meaning “eight”, has a highly involved explanation: (i) the finished product is from the eighth test batch; (ii) it takes an average of eight years for the agaves used to ripen; (iii) it takes about eight kilos of agave to make one litre of Ocho; (iv) it takes eight days from when the agaves reach the distillery to when the blanco tequila is finished; (v) Camarena has eight brothers and sisters; (vi) the Camarenas are in their eight decade of tequila making. I was rather disappointed that the person behind all this only managed to find six reasons for the name Ocho, although in fact I later learn that the reposado version is rested in wood for eight weeks and eight days. Damn, just one more reason and we’d have eight…

Margarita with Ocho
My sample has a label across the cap identifying it as the 2014 vintage from Rancho La Magueyera, which you can find on a map on the Ocho website. I line it up against three other blanco tequilas I have to hand, Patron, Olmeca Altos and Tierra Noble. The Patron is fresh, fruity and soft, ultimately the least strongly flavoured of the lot.* The Olmeca Altos has a more pronounced agave flavour, a “blue”, petrolly note; the palate is drier and more flavourful than Patron, with a hint of blue cheese, but it is softer and smoother than the Tierra Noble, with an almost waxy character. Tierra Noble is more pungent, with a noticeably smoky element to the nose. (The agaves are cooked slowly prior to crushing, to release the sugars; more artisanal tequilas use agaves cooked in traditional brick or stone ovens and the degree to which they are exposed to smoke can be controlled.)

Paloma with Ocho
Coming after all that, Ocho is striking. Not only is it the most strongly agave-flavoured of the lot, perfumed and pungent, but it is dry and sharp on the tongue. In fact I could almost have believed that what I was drinking had lime juice mixed in already. This is no accident, as the literature does emphasise that Ocho is all about extracting and presenting as much actual agave flavour as possible. Nosing the aroma carefully, you’re struck first by dry herbal notes, then darker elements like coffee and chocolate, honey and cooked apple, and something a bit like wet plaster. It is initially sharp on the tongue, giving way to flavours of pears and a fading sweetness. (At El Nivel I had the opportunity to taste the 2013 batch, from Rancho Los Fresnos: it had a similar nose but a noticeably softer palate.)

The literature does stress that the best way to enjoy Ocho is sipped from a brandy balloon or similar glass, noting how its character changes in the glass with exposure to air. (I find that the attack softens and a floral note like violets starts to appear.) But they also list some cocktails, a mixture of old and new.

El Diablo with Ocho
As it happens we are theming our Candlelight Club party this weekend around Prohibition-era Mexico and the burgeoning party culture to cater for American visitors looking to drink and gamble with impunity, so I try out some of the cocktails we are looking at.

Margarita Well, it would be rude not to. It’s a classic combination of tequila, triple sec and lime juice, with an optional ring of salt on the rim of the glass. The exact proportions vary, with Dale Degroff giving 1½ parts tequila to 1 part Cointreau and ¾ part lime juice, while Simon Difford matches 2 parts tequila to just ½ a part each of lime and triple sec. I tend to use 2:1:1, though it depends on how dry you like it. Certainly a dry, strongly flavoured tequila like Ocho easily makes its presence felt in these proportions, poking through as mineral and earthy against the fruity citrus.

Paloma This is apparently how tequila is mostly drunk in Mexico, with lime and grapefruit soda, such as Squirt or Fresca. The closest you can find in the UK is Ting, and the Ocho site’s recipe adds 20ml fresh grapefruit juice to 50ml tequila and the juice of a lime, topped up with grapefruit soda. I can see the appeal, though I don’t think that Ting is ever likely to be my favourite mixer (and it doesn’t taste a great deal like grapefruit to me). The extra fresh grapefruit juice makes all the difference, though you may want to add some agave syrup as it is all quite tart (I tried Martini Fiero—see below—with delightful results).

El Diablo A 1940s recipe from California, this is built in a highball on the rocks using 50ml tequila, 20ml crème de cassis and 25ml lime juice, stirred together and topped with ginger beer. (In the past it would have been ginger ale but ginger beer is more flavoursome.) It’s not subtle but it is not simplistic either: you can taste all the ingredients, and I do think that tequila and ginger go well together, with the blackcurrant flavour slotting neatly in there as well. Bold and moreish.

Mexican 88 with Ocho


Mexican 88 Basically a French 75 using tequila instead of gin. This recipe is from Ocho’s website and specifies 30ml tequila, 20ml lemon juice, 10ml agave syrup, all topped up with Champagne. I guess it depends on the size of your glass, but I found this too heavy on the lemon and syrup. Another 10ml tequila helped, along with a bit more fizz, and then it balances nicely, with the earthiness of the tequila sitting quite effectively underneath the fizzy tartness of the Champagne/sparkling wine.

Screaming Viking made with Ocho, Cederlunds Torr
and Martini Fiero
Screaming Viking This one was created by Brian Silva, in response to an episode of Cheers in which the plot revolves around a cocktail of this name, which turns out to be imaginary. Various people have produced their own real-world versions, and Brian’s playfully uses Swedish Punsch to explain the “Viking” element of the name. Swedish Punsch dates back to the days of the Swedish East India Company, and is a liqueur made from arrack, a smoky rum-like Javanese spirit distilled from sugar cane and rice. The recipe mixes 35ml tequila with 25ml Punsch and the juice of half a lime, shaken, poured over ice and “coloured” with Martini Fiero, a very orangey vermouth made from blood oranges. (I used Cederlunds Torr Caloric Punch; the recipe also specifies a dash of agave syrup, but I didn’t find that necessary.) Made with Ocho, the tequila is to the fore, but with a solid sweet–sour balance from the liqueur and the lime. But it’s not a bouncy, fruity number. The presence of the vermouth and the arrack give this drink dry and bitter subtleties that seem to be a Silva trademark. It’s a grown-up drink, and very much to my own taste.

An Ocho Old Fashioned with Angostura Bitters and
agave syrup
And finally the Tequila Old Fashioned. It seems to be inevitable that any spirit that wants to be taken seriously presents itself in this simple, and therefore exposed, format. Traditionally made just with bourbon or rye whiskey, sugar, bitters and a little water, served on the rocks with a lemon peel garnish, this can also be an agreeable vehicle for rums, such as the sublime Botran Solera 1893, and complex gins (especially aged ones such as Big Gin Bourbon Barreled). Even with the blanco, Ocho owns this cocktail, its pungency marrying with sharp-sweet aromatic Angostura bitters and the lemon peel like an extension of the tequila’s character. I use agave syrup instead of sugar and such is the dryness of the spirit that this drink can take quite a bit without seeming too sweet. All in all, a good way to contemplate the personality of this, or indeed any other, tequila.

* Which I suspect is a deliberate strategy, given the way it is marketed as a super-premium product in the same way that certain vodkas are. Here the emphasis is all on brand associations, and you don’t want to throw a spanner in the works by producing something with too strong a flavour!

Monday, 10 November 2014

Big Gin makes a big impression

While helping to judge the recent Craft Distilling Expo Gin of the Year, it was my great pleasure to meet Ben Capdevielle and Holly Robinson of Captive Spirits Distilling, part of the wave of “craft”, “boutique” or “artisan” distilling that is sweeping the US at the moment. Based in Ballard, near Seattle, they make Big Gin, both in its standard form and in a version that has been aged in ex-bourbon barrels.

Theirs is not a happy-go-lucky tale of casting around for something to do and hitting on the idea of making a gin on a whim.* Ben is actually a third-generation distiller—his grandfather was a distiller for Templeton Rye** during Prohibition—and the pair spent four years visiting distilleries and experimenting with botanicals and distillation variables before finally launching their product in 2012. “We are using the traditional method of making gin,” Holly explains, “and creating a small scale, boutique brand just using two 100-gallon pot stills. We are exclusively a gin company, instead of making a variety of spirits like most of the budding brands. We have a few other gin-centric products that will trickle out in the next few years…”

Holly and Ben (second and third from the left) at the Craft Distilling Expo Gin
of the Year judging
As the name suggests the idea was to make a bold, unashamedly gin-flavoured gin. “We took this away from all the big players in the gin game,” Holly says. “Consumers are used to drinking Beefeater, Bombay, etc—we wanted something that ginners could identify with, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.” The botanicals are indeed mostly conventional—juniper, coriander, bitter orange peel, angelica, cassia, cardamom, orris—plus grains of paradise (not unusual either, being present in Bombay Sapphire) and Tasmanian pepper berries. The spirit base is made from corn. “This was the most neutral base we found to impart the botanicals,” Holly says.

Uncork a bottle of Big Gin and it is certainly big, with a strong waft of juniper. But it is more complex than that, with orange peel, dried fruit and a pronounced floral note like crystallised violets, perhaps from the angelica. There is also a herbal stemmy quality and a hint of ginger. It is big, bright and rich.

A Last Word made with Big Gin
On the palate it is powerful but remarkably smooth and sweetish, given that it is a hefty 47% ABV. Perhaps the corn-spirit base lends this sweetness. The flavour follows on from the nose, with that floral note to the fore and a slight peppery-bitter finish. It easily works in a Martini or gin and tonic, basically making its own rules. It is well-suited to a Negroni, clearly making its presence felt, whereas more delicate gins can sometimes get lost in the present of the Campari and vermouth.

Another muscular cocktail to test a gin is the Last Word, traditionally equal parts gin, Green Chartreuse, lime juice and maraschino: it has a balance between the sweetness of the liqueurs and the tartness of the lime, but these elements and the herbal blast from the Charteuse can drown the gin. I have to say that even Big Gin struggled here. But I noticed that on Simon Difford’s website he is now advocating a 3:1:1:1 ratio (the 3 being the gin). With Tarquin’s Cornish Gin I find that it does really need these proportions before you can really taste the gin in the mix, but Big Gin reaches that point at only 2:1:1:1.***

An Aviation made with Big Gin
I felt that Big Gin was less successful, however, in an Aviation, being perhaps too powerful for the subtle flavours of the maraschino and crème de violette (of which there is only about a teaspoon, otherwise the colour of the cocktail veers from the pale lilac-blue meant to represent the sky, from which the drink gets its name: try something like 50ml gin, 12.5ml lemon juice, 12.5ml maraschino, 5ml crème de violette).

You can get a sense of the big, savoury qualities of Big Gin from the recommended cocktails on the Captive Spirits website. The Out-of-Towner involves making a fennel syrup (plus gin, lemon juice and triple sec), and two of the recipes use elderflower liqueur (such as St Germain). The Morning Paper tops gin and elderflower with sparkling wine and a splash of grapefruit juice, and there is definitely a continuum between the gin botanicals and the sweetly pungent qualities of elderflower.

Although Captive are determinedly not planning to make a whiskey, they are interested in pushing their gin in different directions, such as the bourbon barrel aged example now on the market. “All the worlds best spirits are aged in bourbon barrels,” Holly explains. “With Big Gin being so flavorful, we thought it could stand up well and one could still actually taste the gin. Thankfully, we were correct.”

A Martinez made with Bourbon Barreled Big Gin
Ageing gin is all the rage it seems, but at a tasting of several of them earlier this year I did feel that none of the examples seemed particularly successful, with the wood notes somehow quarrelling with the essential gin flavour. But there is certainly a tradition: Seagrams have always rested their gin in charred new oak barrels to smooth off the rough edges of the spirit.

The barrel-aged version of Big Gin came as a revelation to me, however. Perhaps there is something about the prominent orange notes in the gin which marries well with the wood flavours, or maybe there is something about these particular barrels (which presumably have had bourbon in them for a long time, damping down the sawmill quality of fresh wood). On the nose the sharp juniper of the base gin is softened but still present, while a warmth and sherried sweetness are added, plus an enhancement of the dried fruit flavours I noticed before and a pleasant woody, almost mossy, mustiness. On the palate there is excellent integration of the aromatic gin elements and the tannic, vanilla wood flavours, plus clear notes of bourbon, emphasising the orange peel.

On a whim I try to make a sort of sweet Martini using Regal Rogue Bianco and the result shows remarkable balance and harmony from two strongly-flavoured ingredients, a little like a Martinez with orange and herbal notes all blending well. I try making a Martinez, using 2 shots gin, ½ a shot each of dry and sweet vermouth and a dash of maraschino, the result is sublime. Likewise in a Negroni it works as well as the normal Big Gin but with an extra dimension that fits naturally, as in a Manhattan or Boulvardier**** (which it virtually is). It really is a revelation.

A Spring Fling made with Bourbon Barreled Big Gin
There is a recommended cocktail, the Spring Fling, that once again uses elderflower liqueur, this time with the barrel-aged gin plus dry vermouth and some celery bitters. It’s an extraordinary tour de force, with the elderflower merging with the big herbal flavours of the gin, followed by a sweetness emerging and woody notes, then a fiery warmth. You also get a sense of sun-kissed Mediterranean aromatic herbs, like thyme or oregano. The prescribed garnish is grapefruit zest, but I only had lemon to hand and its aroma floats over the other flavours, balancing without muddying.

If you like gin then you should try Big Gin. It’s nice to come across a product that is not trying to make a “gin” for people who really want vodka, nor is it trying push the flavour in outré directions for reasons of gimmickry alone. But at the same time Big Gin is distinct. And it is big.

In the UK you can buy Big Gin through Master of Malt for £39.96 and the bourbon barrel aged version for £44.85.

* Talking to Holly you realise that the process of starting up a distillery is more of a bureaucratic slog than most of us realise, especially in the US. “There is a lot of red tape, but mostly several different levels of permitting, each of which cannot commence without the previous—it's a domino game. First Federal, than State, then City, then Fire, etc… Every state/city has different ideas of what/how things should be done. That’s the confusing part. Once that is all waded through, it’s a slow start to getting product out the door.” To help with all of this the couple got a third partner, old friend Todd Leabman, to help with the paperwork and accounting.

** The good folk of Templeton, Iowa, apparently carried on distilling whiskey throughout Prohibition and Al Capone is said to have like it so much he would send a driver all the way there from New York to stock up. 

*** It an interesting experiment, because if you start with the punchy sweet-and-sour traditional recipe and just add more gin, it’s easy to think, “Oh, no, this is getting too dry.” But if you come back to it later and try it you do realise it as a good, subtler cocktail. All the lime and Charteuse are very much there, but now you can taste the details of the gin too. Hurrah.

**** 1½ shots bourbon or rye whiskey, 1 shot Campari, 1 shot sweet vermouth, so a sort of mash-up between a Negroni and a Manhattan. It was invented by New Yorker Harry McElhone after he emigrated to Paris, fleeing Prohibition, and set up Harry’s New York Bar. He created it for ex-pat Erskine Gwynne in honour of his Parisian magazine The Boulvardier.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Halloween cocktails


Bobbing for Apples
Last time I featured some Halloween cocktails they were for a menu I devised for the Candlelight Club Halloween Ball and I played to the gallery more than usual with some visual effects, such as the black and red bands in the Black Widow.

This time our Halloween cocktail list has been put together by Brian Silva, formerly of the Connaught and Rules. Brian’s taste in cocktails is classic: he doesn’t go in for zany effects, nor does he seem keen on making his own exotic infusions, tinctures or flavoured syrups, but sticks to the barman’s essential job of combining commercially available ingredients to exquisite and elegant alchemical effect.

His Bobbing for Apples cocktail is, at heart, a French 75 with added apple juice. It doesn’t sound like a lot of apple juice but it really is enough to make itself felt without turning the drink into a long, fruity number.

Bobbing for Apples
25ml gin
25ml apple juice
15ml lemon juice
5ml gomme syrup
Sparkling wine
Apricot eau de vie mist

Shake the first four ingredients with ice and strain into a coupette. Top with sparkling wine and spray a dusting of apricot eau de vie on the top. If you lack either the eau de vie or a mister, I have experimented with adding 5ml of apricot brandy, which has a nice effect. In any case you may have to adjust the amount of syrup depending on how sweet your apple juice is.

Bermuda Triangle
The Bermuda Triangle is a name with several different recipes attached to it. One version includes peach schnapps, another uses a mix of orange juice and cranberry juice, but Brian’s version is simpler, essentially just rum, orange juice and lime juice. As a Halloween concession he suggested adding a dash of grenadine at the end—it will sink to the bottom, creating a blood-red layer than bleeds upwards. (The other rum drink in the running was, of course, the Zombie, essentially rum, pineapple juice and apricot brandy, although recipes can be very complicated with perhaps three different rums involved.)

Bermuda Triangle
50ml golden rum
3 lime wedges
Orange juice
Dash of grenadine

First squeeze three lime wedges into a glass (“not two, not four, but three” Brian’s recipe admonishes). Add the rum, then ice, then top with orange juice and stir, adding the grenadine at the end. The recipe doesn’t specify what happens to the lime wedges once squeezed but I dropped them into the glass. They end up looking a bit like antediluvian sea beasts rising from the murky depths…

Autumn Sour
The autumn sour is an interesting cocktail in that it doesn’t really have a spirit base, simply combining two liqueurs with lemon juice to balance the sweetness and egg white for texture—so it is not that strong as cocktails go. Which is just as well, as it is quite moreish.

Autumn Sour
35ml amaretto
15ml apricot brandy
25ml lemon juice
White of an egg

Shake all ingredients vigorously with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. The egg white gives a silky texture and a pleasing foam at the top. The amaretto and apricot are a natural partnership (the almond-flavoured amaretto is in fact sometimes made from apricot stones) and the lemon juice balances the sweetness.

And what Halloween classic cocktail menu would be complete without the Corpse Reviver No.2,* originally equal parts gin, triple sec, lemon juice and Kina Lillet, with a dash or rinse of absinthe? Kina Lillet, with a bitterness from quinine, is no longer made and most people use Lillet Blanc instead, but I always find that this produces too sweet and orangey a cocktail; in the past I have tried cutting the triple sec and boosting the gin. Last time I had decided that the traditional proportions worked OK if you used Noilly Prat dry vermouth instead, but my current thinking is to use Cocchi Americano instead, which is an Italian aromatised wine with a distinctive bitterness and probably a lot like Kina Lillet was. I was interested to learn that Brian uses Cocchi as well.

Corpse Reviver No.2
Corpse Reviver No.2
25ml gin
25ml triple sec
25m lemon juice
25ml Cocchi Americano
Dash of absinthe

Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a strip of lemon peel or a maraschino cherry.

* Despite the gruesomeness of the name, it is actually intended to denote a pick-me-up: this cocktail is designed as something you might drink the morning after the night before (remember, drink responsibly, folks!). In case you’re wondering what the Corpse Reviver No.1 is, The 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book gives the recipe as ¼ part Italian (sweet red) vermouth, ¼ part calvados and ½ part brandy, commenting that it is “to be taken before 11am or whenever steam and energy are needed”. Yes, they were pretty hardcore in those days. Since it is apparently National Calvados Week at the moment, perhaps we should all give this a try. Meanwhile there is another Corpse Reviver recipe that combines 1½ parts brandy with 1 part crème de menthe and ½ part Fernet Branca, which minty blast would certainly be an eye-opener. If you want something a little gentler, the Café Royal Cocktail Book (1937) combines equal parts brandy, orange juice and lemon juice with a couple of dashes of grenadine, all topped up with Champagne. Which sounds rather nice…