Saturday, 17 March 2018

Happiness is a torpedo on the sun deck

While looking for poster imagery that captured the tone of a Candlelight Club party last month to celebrate the golden age of luxury ocean liners, I came across the delightful image above. I found quite a high-res copy, enabling me to zoom in and look at the details. Details such as the drinks tray by the gentleman’s side.

What’s he drinking? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a crazy bottle like that before, with no bottom, but I quickly discovered that it is known as a “torpedo bottle”, or sometimes “Hamilton bottle” after William Hamilton, a purveyor of carbonated drinks who produced many such bottles with his name stamped on them. It was used in the 19th and early 20th centuries to hold soda water and the like, and what you usually read is that the idea was it couldn’t be stood up, forcing you to store it on its side. This keeps the wired cork in contact with the liquid inside, ensuring it does not dry out, shrink and allow the pressure to escape. But I did also wonder whether the domed shape makes for a stronger structure, better able to resist cracking under the pressure inside. After a bit of poking around I found out that in Hamilton’s patent specification of 1809 he does indeed state that this shape of vessel “can be much stronger than or jar of equal weight, made in the usual form”.

While it was obviously possible to make a conventional bottle that could take pressure (such as a Champagne bottle) this required high-quality glass that wasn’t worth using for a soda bottle. (And note that Champagne bottles generally do have a domed bottom too, but the dome goes inwards, enabling you to stand the bottle up.) By the time of the First World War glass-making had improved to the point where this shape was no longer necessary which probably explains why torpedo bottles died out.

I’ve found a couple of references suggesting that these bottles had a particular use on shipboard: because you couldn’t stand them up they couldn’t fall over if the ship pitched. This is appealing, as our picture is indeed on a ship. But this doesn’t make much sense, as a bottle like this on its side would obviously roll straight off a table or shelf, so you’d need to keep them in racks. And if you’re using a rack then it doesn’t make much difference what shape your bottle is.*

The stand that we see the bottle in must have been an inevitable consequence of the bottle design. (Some say that part of the intention of the torpedo design, on the manufacturer’s part, was that once you’d opened it you couldn’t put it down until you’d finished it, but I can’t see that going down well in polite society, and this benefit is not mentioned in Hamilton’s patent notes.) Note that the 1895 patent shown here only claims to have made improvements to the design, so bottle stands had obviously been around for a while already.

Out gent’s torpedo bottle has colourless liquid, probably soda water, and there is a glass of it on the tray. But the other glass contains something orange (or possibly red, given that this image looks as if it may have the colour balance skewed too much towards yellow). It could be an Americano (Campari, red vermouth and soda), although DBS thinks it is probably just Campari and soda.

I have tried to identify the label on the side of the torpedo bottle—an orange disc with a white diagonal stripe—but without success. It may be a figment of the artist’s imagination, but if you come across this logo in real life let me know!

*  There is, of course, the ship’s decanter shape, which flairs to a very wide base, to make it bottom-heavy and stable on a moving ship. As far as I can tell this is the genuine purpose of the design—and it is worth noting that is effectively the opposite of the torpedo design.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Bone in the throat

A friend announced that his favourite cocktails were the White Russian (vodka, Kahlua and milk/cream) and The Bone.

The what? I googled it and discovered it was invented by David Wondrich, apparently for the Chickenbone Café in Brooklyn. It’s one of those recipes that, once you’ve read it, you simply have to try—reader, I even went out and bought some Tabasco specially.*

It’s not an attractive drink. Even fine-strained it has a murky quality to it. You’ll notice that Wondrich does not specify anything like a garnish, just has you pour it into a shot glass, though as you can see I used something more foppish.

As you might expect from the proportions, it is mostly about the whiskey. (Wondrich specifies Wild Turkey rye 101-proof (50% alcohol), but I used Bulleit, which is a high-rye bourbon. But even in small quantities the other ingredients make their presence felt. The lime is clear, but not mouth-puckeringly sour, just fruity, while the sweetness of the sugar balances it and smooths the whiskey like in an Old Fashioned. And the odd thing
is that there is a suggestion of salt, even though there isn’t any. (Perhaps some knee-jerk part of my brain is thinking of tequila…)

And then there is the Tabasco. Don’t try this drink if you really don’t like spicy food, as three dashes is enough to pack a punch. Each sip is a journey, with whiskey up front, then the sweet and sour notes sort of slide round the side of your tongue, with that inexplicable saltiness bringing up the rear. You think that is it, but then the pepper sauce jumps out from behind a tree and delivers a sucker-punch. For something relatively simple it holds your attention from mouthful to mouthful, stimulating every part of your palate that it can find.

50ml Wild Turkey rye (or other 100-proof rye or bourbon)**
1 tsp fresh-squeezed lime juice
1 tsp simple syrup (made with equal parts sugar and water)
3 dashes Tabasco sauce
Strain into chilled tall shot glass and serve.

*  I was quite surprised to discover I didn’t have any—I always thought of Tabasco as one of those things like Angostura bitters that you never actually run out of. You just buy a bottle once, in your youth, and carry on using minuscule amounts now and then for the rest of your life. Although now I think about it, I do vaguely remember looking at the half-empty bottle I had before, doubtless with a price label in pre-decimal currency, its contents now a sort of grey colour, and thinking that maybe it was time to lay it to rest in the drains.

** In fact it looks as if Wild Turkey Rye in the UK is now only available at the 81 proof strength.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

When is a gin Cornish?

I like Cornwall, England’s westernmost county, and regularly go on holiday there. It was on a previous jaunt, to the Roseland Peninsula, that I came across Tarquin’s Cornish Gin, which got me thinking about how one could meaningfully create a gin that seemed redolent of Cornwall itself. (Tarquin’s gin has mostly conventional botanicals from all over the world, with the only local one being violets from Tarquin’s garden.)

The last time I was in the area I popped into the Polgoon winery near where I was staying. I’d been before, sampled their wines and frankly found them pretty unpalatable, but I like the idea so I went back to give them another try. Their product was still unexciting (though they also make cider, which is better), so I poked around in the shop and found a whole wall of Cornish gins. More or less at random I picked three to try, Curio, Wrecking Coast and Trevethan. Each of these takes a different approach to what might make a gin distinctly “Cornish”.

Curio gin is made by the Curio Spirits Company in Mullion, west Cornwall, which is husband and wife team William and Rubina Tyler-Street. The Big Idea is that Curio uses rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum) as a botanical, which grows on cliffs in the area. It is not to be confused with the more commonly-encountered marsh samphire (Salicornia europaea), which I first came across in a fishmongers some years ago, sold as an accompaniment. I was told it grew on the coast and was only in season for about three weeks a year; later I foraged my own one summer on a flat, marshy beach in Norfolk. It has a pleasant crunchy texture and a light salty flavour. It is sometimes called sea asparagus, but it is not nearly as strongly flavoured as asparagus. Nowadays it is sufficiently fashionable (at least in London) that I see it in supermarkets all year round, imported from the Middle East and elsewhere.

Rock samphire, on the other hand, is still pretty obscure, probably because it has a strong, alarming flavour. While rambling on the coast we crossed a beach where, according to the guidebook, rock samphire grew on the cliffs; I did nibble some stalks of what I concluded must be the right plant (though Mrs H. was sceptical) and it was pretty fiery and pungent. Curio has a dominating flavour of mint, both on the nose and the palate, a sort of soggy mint with an undertone of fennel. I’m guessing this is your rock samphire, as it is also known as sea fennel. The illustration on the label shows the samphire, and also juniper and star anise (and what looks like coriander leaf but presumably isn’t). The company say that there are 15 botanicals but won’t give them away apart from samphire, juniper, star anise, cinnamon and seaweed. Mind you, there is a photo on their website which seems to show them all. How good are you at identifying them? I can also spot lemon peel, nutmeg, coriander seed, fennel sea, and what looks like ground almond and orris root powder, plus some sort of dried flower?

The botanicals that go into Curio

It's one of those occasions when I can’t really pick up on many of those, so dominating is that sweet mint/fennel thing. There is a waft of fresh lemon on the nose, and a bit of pepper and caramel on the finish. It goes well enough with tonic, but that mint flavour persists and, for me, becomes more cloying as you go on. The recommended serve is on the rocks with a pinch of sea salt. The spirit is certainly smooth neat (they say their spirits are “quadruple distilled”) and the salt adds the briny promise that is there on the label but not in the spirit itself (despite the presence of seaweed in the mix), but I can’t really warm to this gin. I am just haunted by those nagging pungent, aromatic oils.

Wrecking Coast is made at Tintagel, on an area indeed known as the Wrecking Coast because of the violent winter weather. The microdistillery uses a selection of 12 botanicals (apparently juniper, coriander, chamomile, vanilla, angelica, liquorice, orris, grains of paradise, cassia bark, cinnamon quills, lemon peel and aniseed), steeped in neutral grain spirit for 14 days, then redistilled through a computer-controlled iStill designed in the Netherlands, before being rested for a further seven days. But the Big Idea with Wrecking Coast, in fact the starting point for the whole project and the thing that makes it self-consciously Cornish, is clotted cream. In case you don’t know, clotted cream is a local delicacy, made by gently heating cream to produce a very thick, slightly caramelised end result with a fat content of at least 55%. The distillers seem to blend clotted cream with more grain spirit (I assume the fat dissolves in the alcohol) then use a separate, hand-blown glass vacuum still to redistill that mixture.* I guess they must have found that traditional heat distillation did something horrid to the taste. The two distillates are blended then diluted down to 44% ABV.

Making alcohol from dairy is nothing new—some vodkas are milk based and it was a common base for illicit Irish poitín (in fact I believe Knockeen Hills is made from milk) but I have not heard of someone mixing cream with neutral grain spirit then redistilling that.** Wrecking Coast say that the resulting drink retains the flavour of the cream while also gaining a “rich, velvety feeling in the mouth”. Certainly some spirits do have a creamy, unctuous mouthfeel, such as Sipsmith and Chase vodkas, though neither of those has any dairy in them.

The first thing that hits me on Wrecking Coast’s nose aside from mentholly jumiper, is citrus, plus lemony coriander and something herbaceous, like lemon balm. There is also a strong sweetly floral element, like violets. Particularly when sniffing the neck of the bottle I get toffee or caramel notes too. The palate is also citrus-forward plus juniper, coriander, perhaps berry fruit, and a perceived floral sweetness (orris?), which grows if you let ice melt in the gin. I also find a growing sense of that aniseed. I am much taken by this gin; I like its botanical intensity and the sweet/savoury balance. But I confess I don’t get cream. And a velvety feel in the mouth? Actually, out of the three gins on test here, this one actually has the fiercest mouthfeel, but then it is the strongest at 44% ABV.

Trevethan takes its Cornishness from its back story. In the 1920s local man Norman Trevethan was a chauffeur to Earl and Lady St Germans and would sometimes take them to events in Jazz Age London. Inspired by the cocktail culture he found there, he decided to join in by making his own gin. There was a long rural tradition of making alcohol from seasonal crops, though quite how easy it would have been for Norman to find conventional gin botanicals I do not know. Then in 2015 two industrial food and drink scientists got talking—one of them, Robert Cuffe, is Norman’s grandson and the other, chemist John Hall, heard about his friend’s grandfather and had a hankering to recreate the family recipe.

I’m not sure how much resemblance the modern version has to the original—the suggestion is that they merely “tweaked” it. I met John at the World Gin Awards judging and he told me that Rob’s mother can remember going out with Norman to gather botanicals for the gin, so I guess they must have some idea of the original recipe. The modern gin does contain elderflower and gorse flower foraged at Trewonnard Farm in Treneglos, and, like all the gins here, it is made with Cornish spring water.

Norman Trevethan
The distilling notes are enlightening. They know that Norman only made his gin in small batches, which is how they made their test recipes, but scaling that up to their 300-litre copper pot still (still “small batch” by commercial standards) meant making adjustments to keep the flavour the same. In tests they used the gorse to add a hint of sweetness but found they needed to add vanilla to maintain this at high volume, which also helps create a smooth, oily mouthfeel. They describe the profile as juniper-led, backed up by cassia and angelica, with citrus “hiding in there” and cardamom “lingering at the end of the mouthful”. Other botanicals mentioned are coriander, orange peel, lemon peel.

Compared to the other gins tasted here, Trevethan immediately emerges as more elegant and poised. I like Wrecking Coast but it is more boisterous and in-you-face, whereas Trevethan has a reserved complexity. At times I have decided it was all about coriander, then cardamom (and I think the cardamom does emerge more with dilution). Sniffing the bottle again now I get lemony citrus, balanced by warm, perfumed lower notes, definitely including cassia. Then you notice the resinous juniper. And now and then you’re hit by a sideways stab of very savoury curry notes. It is indeed smooth and oily on the tongue, though sipping it now I still feel that high, dry, aromatic coriander seed notes dominate, followed by fresh coriander or parsley leaves. On the finish I could certainly believe there is elderflower here.

Without doubt Trevethan is my favourite of these three. It’s a sort of “desert island gin” in the sense that it does the fundamental job required of a gin, without being gimmicky, but also has a complex balance that reveals different nuances at different times. Even after you’ve swallowed it the aftertastes continue to evolve. It rewards study if you want to ponder it, but it also delivers if you just want a drink without thinking about it.

Does any of these gins capture the essence of Cornwall? No, but then gin is not a quintessentially Cornish thing. Curio may well pack a big hit of rock samphire, but there is probably a reason why we don’t eat rock samphire very much. Wrecking Coast is a fun gin but does appear crude next to Trevethan, and I’m damned if I can detect clotted cream in it. Trevethan, on the other hand, make the point that theirs is traditional—because Norman was trying to create a normal gin, not trying to stand out in a crowded market by being Other.

In my rambles along Cornwall’s clifftop paths I have often reflected that, aside from brine, one powerful fragrance of the area is indeed gorse, which is everywhere and has a powerful smell, sweet and distinctly redolent of coconut. I’m not sure that, blind-tasting Trevethan, I would leap up and yell “Gorse!”, but it does have a sweet, warm, perfumed element to the nose in which I can definitely believe that gorse is playing a part.

* Conventional distilling raises the temperature of the liquid till the alcohol evaporates off and can be condensed in a second chamber. Vacuum distillation achieves evaporation by instead lowering the pressure inside the vessel. In fact lowering the pressure has the effect of causing the temperature inside the vessel to drop. Ian Hart from Sacred Gin does all his distilling this way and I believe that Oxley does as well. Clearly if you are not “cooking” the liquid the end flavours may well be different.

** Today I learned that in the early days of vodka-making it was common to distill the spirit a couple of times, then mix it with milk before distilling it again, which is much more like what Wrecking Coast are doing.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Taking a shine to the fruit of Prohibition

One of the defining characteristics of whisk(e)y, and what makes it expensive to produce, is the time it has to spend in the barrel to soften and acquire character. Scotch and Irish whiskey must legally be aged for at least three years. (In the US there is actually no minimum age requirement, though “straight whiskey” must have at least two years in oak.) Yet for all this there has been a trend for releasing unaged “white whiskey”, perhaps as a nostalgic throwback to Prohibition times when moonshiners would not have had the luxury of ageing.

I haven’t had a great deal of exposure to white whiskey, though one sniff of an open jar of Georgia Moon (a corn spirit guaranteed aged no more than 30 days—and in moonshine style it does indeed come in a jar rather than a bottle) sent me reeling from the raw fumes so that I never actually had the courage to taste the stuff.

So I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised when people try to come up with a novelty product that evokes the idea of white whiskey but without the eye-watering roughness. The first one I encountered was Bootlegger, actually made in the UK from wheat and distilled several times to make a smooth spirit, then flavoured with a “wood tincture” to give it a slight colour and vanilla/caramel woodiness, designed to mimic the slight barrel flavour from being stored and transported in wood.

More recently I was sent samples of O’Donnell Moonshine. It makes a clear reference to Prohibition, and takes its name from Spike O’Donnell, head of the South Side gang in Chicago, but in fact it’s another European creation, launched in Germany four years ago and now expanding into the UK with premises in Hackney.

According to director Hugo Cooke, O’Donnell is also essentially a wheat vodka, briefly aged in wood to impart a light colour and woody flavour—“the main difference being,” Cooke says, “that vodka has to be filtered and we don’t filter our sprit. The effect this has on the final product is that you should have a distinctive taste of wheat.”

O’Donnell Original has a pale straw-coloured tint and a nose essentially of vodka but with subtle, evolving elements of raw potato, apple, butter, vanilla, biscuits, varnish and a hint of hot dust. As you become acquainted with it I think it is the biscuit aspect (by which I mean something like a digestive biscuit) that comes to dominate.

On the palate it is a not particularly smooth spirit with a bit of raw wood (though not the powerful sawmill character I expected), some vanilla ice cream and a slightly bitter finish. Nothing much like whiskey, really.

What with the mason jar container and the Prohibition-related name, it’s clear that O’Donnell are trying to give the consumer a frisson of Prohibition daring and glamour—in fact on their website is a video in which an ordinary Joe goes into a bar, the barman pours him a shot of O’Donnell (somehow they have hammered a speed pourer into the screw cap of the mason jar), he knocks it back… and suddenly the room around him becomes a Jazz Age speakeasy filled with flappers and men in, erm, braces. The effect seems to wear off pretty quickly, leaving him back in the 21st-century—so he immediately makes lingering eye contact with the barman to hit him with another shot. A powerful metaphor for addiction of all kinds.

So I find it surprising that the brand’s main focus is not on this faux-moonshine original spirit but actually on the three flavoured versions of their product, described as “Roasted Apple (20% ABV) with apple, lemon juice, cinnamon, vanilla and almond, Bitter Rose (25% ABV) made with grapefruit, rosehip and elderberry and Tough Nut (25% ABV) made from hazelnut, caramel and a hint of whiskey.”* (They say that all the flavourings are entirely natural.) I guess since the product is presumably aimed at vodka drinkers, and flavoured vodka is a Big Thing, then it was a natural progression.

All the flavoured versions are coloured and even in the small sample jars I received (like the miniature jars of jam you get for breakfast in hotels) there was a noticeable sediment, suggesting that genuine organic matter did indeed go into them, rather than chemical flavourings. So what do they taste like?

Tough Nut
Smells just like a digestive biscuit—caramel and vanilla but definitely something buttery and floury too. This continues on to the palate, which it is almost painfully sweet for me, plus some spirit warmth. The biscuitiness is the same character in the original but more intense—in fact if you compare Tough Nut with Original the main difference is that it is sweeter and has an added dark caramel dimension.

Roasted Apple
The nose is sour and sweet, very confectionary. In the mouth it is not as sweet as Tough Nut, but that biscuit character from the Original once again pokes through. This tastes of sour apple in the way that a jelly bean might, though overall it is surprisingly lightly flavoured. This might limit its usefulness as a cocktail ingredient, though mixing doesn’t seem to be a thrust for the brand—they suggest drinking the Bitter Rose with tonic in the summer, and that is about it.

Bitter Rose
Smells like a cross between sloe gin, cough mixture, prunes, poached apricot and a fizzy sweet. (Anyone remember Spangles? Boiled sweets that somehow had a carbonated tingle in them.) And slightly dusty, like a fruit liqueur you brought back from holiday, which then sat on a shelf for the next seven years. It tastes a little like port, though perhaps specifically like port mixed with Coca Cola. It neither smells nor tastes like roses, though perhaps the name is just a reference to the colour. It does indeed pair well with tonic water—about half and half seems to work best—which brings the citric grapefruit character more to the fore. (In fact on one page of the website they specifically refer to it as a grapefruit liqueur.)

The basic O’Donnell Original is £24.90 for 70cl, so you could get a genuine American whiskey for less money from any supermarket. Clearly it really is aimed at a vodka-drinking market who fancy the idea of moonshine whiskey, because of its associations with the romance and style of the Prohibition era (and who am I to argue—it’s what I do for a living), but don’t actually like whiskey itself. And maybe really like biscuits. (Has anyone tried dunking a digestive in O'Donnell?) I confess I don’t get it, but then I like whiskey and have never met a flavoured vodka** to which I would give the time of day.

For me the most noteworthy aspect of this is Hugo’s mention of their spirit not being filtered. The Original really does have an unusual floury, digestive biscuit flavour (and allegedly it has no additives, just a little time in a barrel), literally like someone has left a few biscuits to soak in a jar of vodka, so this must indeed be the flavour of unfiltered wheat spirit. Which is interesting.

* In fact at time of writing the UK website shop was out of stock of the Original.

** Unless you count gin, of course, which is arguably a flavoured vodka. You know what I mean.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

What do you give the woman who has everything? Her own cocktail

A friend was thinking of ways to mark another friend’s 50th birthday and, being a sterling cove, he decided she needed a cocktail created for her and named in her honour. To which end he approached me. (Yes, it’s the same friend who previously asked me to come up with a cocktail to go with the new Bognor Gothic typeface he had designed.)

To get me started I was given a list of his friend Sarah’s likes and dislikes:

Likes: Vodka, tequila, gin, Champagne/Prosecco, triple sec, fruity flavours

Dislikes: Brandy, whisky, chocolate, creamy drinks

OK, so a Brandy Alexander was out. But the combination of tequila, Champagne and fruit flavours immediately made me think of the Paloma Royale combo I came up with last year. This is a blend of tequila, Champagne and grapefruit juice (inspired by the popular Paloma drink of tequila and grapefruit soda); at the time I felt that it worked fine like that, but I also experimented with adding a sweet/sour element with lime juice and syrup. So I felt sure that you could take this base and tweak it a bit more.

My first port of call was the reference in the list of likes to the orange liqueur triple sec (e.g. Cointreau). Sure enough, adding a little of this worked very well, but it really needed just half a teaspoon (2.5ml). At this level the note of orange is clear, but doesn’t swamp the grapefruit, and the earthiness of the tequila still comes through and you’re aware of the mouthfeel of the sparkling wine too. (I used Prosecco this time.) Judging by the photos it looks as if I used pink grapefruit juice last year and I was using white grapefruit juice this time—which might explain why I previously decided that sweetening wasn’t necessary, whereas this time I had to admit that a smidgeon of added sweetness (i.e. the amount in ½ tsp of Cointreau) was just right. If you have a sweeter tooth you could try pink juice.

Sarah’s Surprise No.1
25ml tequila
40ml grapefruit juice
2.5ml (½ tsp) triple sec (e.g. Cointreau)
100ml Champagne or sparkling wine

Shake the first three ingredients with ice and strain into a flute or Champagne saucer then add the sparkling wine and give a gentle stir.

Adding ginger to the original Paloma Royale works well—but with white
grapefruit juice it does need a hint of sweetness added
As I mention in a footnote of the previous post, I’ve noticed in the past that tequila and ginger go well, and indeed my friend had suggested using ginger to give it an autumnal warmth (Sarah’s birthday is in November). An obvious strategy would be to use a ginger liqueur like The King’s Ginger. But (a) I didn’t have any, and (b) based on my previous experience I was worried about making it too sweet. So instead I decided to try muddling fresh root ginger in the cocktail shaker before adding the tequila and grapefruit juice. This does work for sure, and you can adjust the ginger flavour by how big a slice of ginger you use (about an inch across and ⅛ inch thick is a good starting point). You will probably want to fine-strain this, as mashing up the ginger does fill your shaker with bits of fibrous root.

For me this may well have been fine as it was if I had been using pink grapefruit juice, but since I was on the less sweet white juice this time I had to concede that even for me it needed a hint of sweetness. I did try combining both versions of the cocktail by adding triple sec as well, but this was actually a flavour too far and the whole thing became confused.

In the end I found that ½ tsp maraschino did the trick (and I was not unconscious of the reference to the Papa Doble Daiquiri, a version of the rum-based Daiquiri cocktail that adds maraschino and grapefruit juice, apparently preferred by Ernest Hemingway).

It also occurred to me that if you simply garnished the drink with a maraschino cherry, deployed with a barspoon or teaspoon, then enough of the syrup would be transferred to add the same sweetness as using the liqueur, and sure enough this was the case.

Sarah’s Surprise No.2
25ml tequila
40ml grapefruit juice
Slice of root ginger
2.5ml maraschino, or one maraschino cherry
100ml Champagne or sparkling wine

Muddle the ginger in the base of a cocktail shaker, then add the tequila, grapefruit juice and maraschino if using. Shake with ice and fine-strain into a flute or Champagne saucer, then top with sparkling wine. If using the cherry, add it, then give the drink a gentle stir.

Adding a maraschino cherry, using a teaspoon or bar spoon, brings across enough of the syrup to balance the sweetness

Monday, 16 October 2017

Marc my words

I went to make myself a Champagne Cocktail the other day and found that I had run out of Cognac. However, I noticed that I had the tail-end of a bottle of marc, so I thought I would give that a try.

Marc is a French spirit made from the grape must left over from making wine (like Italian grappa). I first encountered it on holiday in France. In a booze shop my eye was caught by a bottle of marc from Chateau Mont-Redon—my wife’s degree dissertation had been on the artist Odilon Redon, so it seemed somehow preordained that I should sample this liquor. Marc is, or can be, extremely strongly flavoured, and I remember how powerful the aroma of the Mont Redon was, firing off elements of dried fruit, nuts and stewed vegetables. My wife said she could smell it from the other side of the hotel room.

The marc I had this time was from Briottet, who produce a handy range of high-quality, reasonably priced liqueurs ideal for cocktail making. This was their Très Vieux Marc de Bourgogne, from the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beane regions, aged for ten years in Burgundy barrels. Tasting the last thimbleful of it now, it does smell a lot like grappa, a sharp woody aroma with nuts and cherry stones, chocolate, raisins and dates. On the tongue these flavours are joined by a marmaladey orange note and something like pine nuts. Even after ten years in the barrel it’s pretty fierce, and you could believe it was stronger than its 43% ABV.

So does it work in a Champagne Cocktail? Yes, it certainly does, but you have to go easy. I started off using the same proportions I would use with Cognac (and I use less Cognac than many people) and the marc swamped it. I actually think that 5–10ml is about right, depending on the marc and the Champagne or sparkling wine you use. Adding the wine to the marc brought out extra elements of prunes and tobacco. The resulting cocktail seems very autumnal in its earthy flavours. I used the traditional sugar cube doused with Angostura bitters, but I found myself wondering whether a little pear purée might add a similarly autumnal form of sweetness.

Champagne Cocktail, Marc 2
Sugar cube
Angostura bitters
5–10ml marc
Champagne or sparkling wine
Apply several dashes of bitters to the sugar cube then drop it into a Champagne glass. Add the marc then top up with the sparkling wine.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Adnams Rising Sun gin

Back in 2011, when Suffolk brewery Adnams entered the distilling game with two gins and three vodkas, I was much taken with all of them. The basic Copper House gin, which is cheaper and more widely available, is based on Adnams’ entry-level barley vodka and features hibiscus in the botanicals, giving it a smooth, floral character; the more expensive First Rate gin is based on the more complex three-grain Longshore vodka and has a drier, more juniper-forward character.

Adnams is based in the seaside town of Southwold, with their brewery and distillery a stone’s throw from the seafront. I was in the town last week and found myself in their dedicated store (in fact they have two). Their range has expanded further, with a young single malt whisky, a triple-malt (wheat, barley and oats) blended whisky with a bourbon character, their Spirit of Broadside, distilled from their Broadside ale, an apple brandy, a triple sec, a limoncello, a rye vodka and also a third gin—Rising Sun.

The defining characteristics of Rising Sun are the use of two key botanicals—lemongrass and Japanese matcha tea—and the base spirit made from rye. (In fact the name apparently comes from the fact that the rising sun’s rays hit Jonathan Adnams’ field where the rye grows before any other. They don't say whether this spirit is the rye vodka that is now sold as a product in itself.) It seems to be quite divisive: a friend of mine who had already tried it was quite sure that he did not like it, saying that it was too savoury for him; and the woman in the smaller of the two Adnams shops declared that it was sharp and peppery, thanks to the use of grains of paradise, and she said it in a way that made it clear she wasn’t that keen herself.

In uncork the bottle and Rising Sun greets me with a reassuring waft of juniper,  some sweet orange peel and something floral like violets; concentrate the fumes and this becomes slightly overripe. There is a distinct sweetness, a hint of ginger and something biscuity, perhaps with a sharpness like varnish fumes, which may come from the rye base.

On the palate I’m half expecting a pronounced rye-whisky sharpness, but it is actually quite smooth. In fact it is complex, as if the spirit base is lean and dry but the botanicals are smoothing things out. For me the most striking element is the matcha tea which is quite noticeable (more so, for me, than in Beefeater 24, which prominently includes Japanese sencha and Chinese green teas among the botanicals). Not so sure I’m getting the lemongrass, but overall it is comfortably within the territory of modern smooth/sweet/floral crowd-pleasers. I’m not really seeing why it would wrinkle noses in the way that it has done. In fact to me it seems to have a faint aftertaste that is sugary like a boiled sweet (without actually being sweet as such).

I make a Dry Martini using Rising Sun and Belsazar Dry vermouth and the character persists, except that there is now a toffee-mint note emerging.

I try mixing the gin with Franklin’s tonic water and it brings a fruitiness—a concentrated kind of fruit like dates or dried figs, plus a note of chocolate. (Although I am quite new to Franklin’s, these flavours don’t come from the tonic itself—I checked.) And still the matcha tea note cuts through.

So far I like this gin. To me the green tea element makes perfect sense, but others may feel differently. It does not seem sharp to me as it did to the woman in the shop, but perhaps it is the rye that puts some people off: in the user comments on Adnams’ website one reviewer describes it as “propanone and sourdough starter gone bad”, which definitely sounds like a reaction to the spirit. (I suspect his “propanone” is what I refer to as reminding me of varnish.)

And I wouldn’t really call it savoury. But then I myself tend to prefer gins that are savoury in the sense of being herbal, so perhaps it just seems normal to me.

Comparing Rising Sun alongside Copper House, the latter seems cloyingly floral and fruity; I much prefer Rising Sun. But certainly I feel there is a house style to Adnams’ gins that is quite bold, citrusy, smooth and floral. (I have the remains of a bottle of Beefeater 24 for comparison and it is quite different, restrained with a stern, lean mouthfeel.)

I notice that on the webpage for Copper House gin they say that they first had the idea of using hibiscus when they encountered it in tea, so you get a sense of the overarching family of flavours that make up the Adnams approach to gin.