Friday, 30 April 2010

Dry Vermouth (Old & New)

Looking back on it, I'm not sure why I thought I could get away with keeping an opened bottle of dry vermouth in the cabinet for more than a year. I know that wine, once opened, starts to oxidize and can turn a little sour after just a few days. For some reason, though, I'd always assumed my trusty bottle of 21% vol Noilly Prat - essentially a fortified wine - would go on and on, tasting just right. I'd managed to make it last so long because I only ever use the stuff to make martinis - and even then I only use a small dose to balance the gin. The problem, partly related to the above, is I'd forgotten what fresh dry vermouth was supposed to taste like. In any case, I kept using it, until the bottle was nearly empty and I was ready to buy a new one. Then I read about an interesting taste test on top cocktail blog Oh Gosh! and decided to, well, copy the idea. Here follow my blind tasting notes for two bottles of Noilly Prat, the only difference being that one was 'aged' in the bottle for an extra year.

Old one (pictured on the left)
Colour: Dark gold or amber.
Aroma: Old, pungent, astringent, sweet apples. Off.
Taste: Bitter, strong, sour, in your face.

New one (on the right)
Colour: Light straw.
Aroma: Aromatic, of pear.
Taste: Complex, rich, strong, sweet, white wine, long finish.

The difference in taste was startling. The only way to make the old one tolerable, I realised, would be to smother it in gin - exactly what I'd been doing for the past few months. The new one tasted far more complex, giving me a long-forgotten sense of the 20 herbs and spices that go into making this concoction. It was a different drink altogether, and one I plan in future to enjoy - from the fridge - for no longer than 12 weeks at a time.

Thursday, 29 April 2010


For a while I wasn't sure whether Desperados counted as a beer cocktail, or just a strange beer. I first tried this tequila-flavoured lager on the Continent (in Lille, France) about three years ago, when I was thrilled by the sheer cheek of the drink. More recently, again in France, I tried a couple more, and found myself wondering out loud what the hell it could be.

What it's not, is beer blended with real tequila, which is a shame, because the '5.9%' on the bottle was enough to suggest it just might have been. Neither is it Mexican. In fact, it's made in France by Brasserie Fischer, owned by the people who bring you Heineken. Desperados' ingredients are listed somewhere as "water, malted barley, glucose syrup, corn, sugar, aromatic compounds (75% tequila) citric acid, and hop extract". According to the beer's UK marketing company, the brewing process is "quite clever", as well as being "all-natural", taking the aroma and flavours of tequila without the spirit itself. Might they hurl a smattering of agave plants into the brew to steep alongside the hops? Could they infuse the beer with flavour by storing it in old tequila barrels? Something for someone to investigate, perhaps.

Whatever the secret, the finished product, a strong, pale, continental-style lager, certainly hints at tequila and lime. It's a little sweet, with some body, and well-refreshing, and with any luck I'll soon be able to get my hands on a few bottles closer to home.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Martin Miller's Gin Class

Miller's Residence

111a Westbourne Grove
London W2 4UW

Within seven seconds of entering the bar at Miller's Residence I was holding a cold, crisp martini. Now that’s what I call a welcome. I say ‘bar’, but this was more like a drawing room full of oddities and uncommon things. We were here for a gin class, and my martini was part of the lesson. By the end of the evening, led by gin master Craig Harper, we had worked our way through five variations of the classic drink, and would have happily stayed behind for detention if given the chance.

Before I get to the drinks, if you please, I'd like to share some of my lecture notes. The cocktail, we learned, was born some 200 years ago, in America, as a short, sharp, strong ‘eye-opener’ to start the day. Over the years it developed, with the emergence of the early evening cocktail hour, as the beverage that marked the point when work gave way to leisure, a moment poetically captured by historian Bernard de Voto, in his 1950s book The Hour:
"This is the violet hour, the hour of flush and wonder, when affections glow and valor is reborn, when the shadows deepen magically along the edge of the forest and we believe that, if we watch carefully, at any moment we may see a unicorn."
Gin, we also learned, came into first use as a medicine, of sorts, before Dutch soldiers began downing the stuff as they charged into war, with attendant “Dutch courage”, and the spirit caught on as something to imbibe for pleasure.

At Miller's Residence - the spiritual home of Martin Miller's gin - our journey started in 1884 with the first known martini recipe to make it to print, the Martinez (below right), which I quickly decided was the closest thing I’d ever tasted to a Winter Martini, if such a drink exists. In contrast to more recent recipes, this one used sweet vermouth, the Italian kind, made with about 50 different herbs and spices, rather than the dry French style, which uses about 20.


35ml (1.2oz) Martin Miller’s Gin
35ml (1.2oz) sweet vermouth
5ml (one bar spoon) Curacao
2 dashes of bitters

Stir ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass.

It was sherry-sweet, which M loved, with a rather heavy mouthfeel, but I felt the sweet vermouth was rather too present. It was certainly interesting. Try one and see.

Dry Martini

35ml Martin Miller’s Gin
35ml dry vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters
2 dashes Curacao
1 dash Peychaud’s bitters
Lemon twist

Stir ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass.

This was a Dry Martini circa 1903, back when the "Dry" denoted the choice of dry vermouth, rather than the near-absence of any vermouth, as current fashions seem to prefer it. This was the first time I’d had my martini with Curacao (Grand Marnier, to be specific) and bitters, and overall it made a nice, pinkish aperitif, crisper than the Martinez. Someone said the taste was “flat”, and I see what they meant. It provided less of a gin taste than one would normally expect from a martini, which some palates might like.

Time passed, and soon we’d reached 1922 on our gin travels. The Harry’s Dry Martini (below right) distinguished itself here by its call for the cocktail shaker, a choice that would no doubt find favour with a certain British spy.
Harry’s Dry Martini

50ml Martin Miller’s Gin
25ml dry vermouth
Orange or Angostura bitters, if required.

Shaken with ice, not stirred. Strain into a cocktail glass.

This was the first time I’d really appreciated the difference between stirring and shaking. The shaken ones (make sure you use lots of ice!) look cloudier than the stirred ones (that would be the air bubbles), but they’re also significantly colder, as well as more diluted. Ice-cold, crisp and gin-strong – this may well have been my favourite of the evening.

Post-war, things got a little more ginny, with a Martini De Lux from 1948 increasing the ratio of gin to vermouth to seven-to-one.

Martini De Lux

70ml Martin Miller’s Gin
10ml dry vermouth
Lemon twist

Stir ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass and add a twist of lemon peel.

This was the drink I was served as I entered the classroom, and it was certainly one of my favourites. Craig's simple and effective lemon twist technique was a revelation, spraying a fine citrus mist into the air and covering the surface of the drink with fragrant lemon oils...

Lemon Twist

1. Use a knife to cut a circle of lemon peel, about the size of a 10-pence piece, taking care to leave behind the pith.

2. Hold it over the glass with the peel-side facing the drink.
3. Pinch it fiercely between thumb and forefinger, spraying the oils over the surface of the drink.
4. Discard peel.

Finally, to the Fifties. The Super Dry Martini Doble (circa 1951) called for Martin Miller’s Westbourne-strength gin (45.2% abv rather than the usual 40%). My impression was of a crisp, slightly sweet drink, with an appealing anise aroma.

Super Dry Martini Doble

50ml Martin Miller’s Westbourne-strength gin
25ml dry vermouth
2 dashes absinthe
2 dashes orange bitters
Lemon twist

Stir ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass and add a twist of lemon peel.

I didn’t need convincing that gin was a fine drink but I came away from the tasting more convinced regardless. As for Martin Miller’s Gin, in particular, it’s distilled in England before being shipped to Iceland to be mixed with "unbelievably pure" Icelandic water; the aroma is juniper and lime, the taste is clean and a touch citrus-sweet - and it makes a fine martini.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010


A trip to Cologne - or Köln, to be geographically pedantic - brought me in close and frequent contact with the local brew, named Kölsch. Most of the time, if you offered me a bland lager, I'd say no, thanks, but for some reason this stuff hit the spot. 'Bland' is probably a little harsh, but there was something undeniably neutral about this pale coloured, barely carbonated and - in taste terms - hopless, maltless beverage. No matter: sitting in a German pub, or bier haus, as they insist on calling them, the Kölsch flowed like water. It was served in puny 20cl glasses (see above), which would ordinarily - in the UK at least - necessitate too-frequent trips to the bar. In Köln, by contrast, every time I emptied my glass, a bier haus man appeared to replace the empty with a fresh one, frothy head afoaming. Only when you placed a beer mat on top of the glass did the guy leave you alone. It was like beer on tap, except the tap was human.

As you can see from the photos, different bier hauses produce their own versions of Kölsch, and restaurants and bars will proffer their preferred brands. What you see here are in essence different interpretations of the same drink.
Personally, I preferred the first one I tried: Fruh Kolsch (below left), which was served from the 'fass' (barrel). Refreshing, utterly and completely quaffable, but with some kind of moreish vanilla (?) thing going on. Lovely.

Those who were particularly serious about their beer could order it by the metre at some places (see above right). This involved a rack of 10x20cl glasses lined up in a row like some stag-like provocation. We also found a place selling the stuff by the litre - three or five litres, to be precise - brought to your table in giant tube-like dispensers, with taps. Alas, when we made this discovery we were already too far gone to attempt one between the two of us. Next time, we'll return with reinforcements, and our only limits will be our appalling German vocabulary.

Monday, 26 April 2010


La Perla
28 Maiden Lane

My FIRST EVER TASTE of mezcal. Okay, so maybe the event doesn't warrant block caps, but having been a firm fan of distilled agave plants in their tequila form for several years it strikes me as odd that I'd managed to avoid this one for so long. I ordered a glass on a return trip to La Perla, Covent Garden, whose drinks list I previously gave a proverbial pat on the back, if not a high five. The mezcal impulse was triggered by my drinking companion asking about the infamous "worm in the tequila bottle". It doesn't exist, I said, at least not in any tequila bottle you'd be happy to get your lips around. But they are dropped in bottles of mezcal, I added, don't ask me why. That's when the idea hit me. "Barman?!" There were two available and I went for the cheaper one - £3.50 a pour, and out came a bottle of Lajita. Check out the worm (below right).

Mezcal can be made from any of a range of plants from the agave family, and on the evidence of this particular dram, it's very much a poorer, rougher relation to tequila, its blue agave-based cousin. On the nose it was rough, and shockingly smoky. I don't mean peaty in a Scotch whisky way - I mean burnt. This, I later learned, is down to the production process, which involves cooking the hearts of the plants for three days in pit ovens fired with wood charcoal before turning them into a mash for fermentation. On sipping, the taste was equally unrefined, with strong smoke followed by a petrol-flavoured finish and a hint of soap. Reader, I couldn't finish my glass.

And what about the dead worm that Lajita saw fit to throw into the bottle? Technically, it's not a worm, but a larval form of moth - a caterpillar - that lives on the agave plant. It's also nothing more than a marketing gimmick, as our barman was gracious enough to confirm. Despite it all, I'll probably give mezcal another go - not Lajita, mind, but maybe the slightly dearer one (Mezcal La Penca, at £4.95 a pour), should I ever find myself in La Perla again with a sense of recklessness about me.

UPDATE: Thanks to Frederic (see comments below) for highlighting my category error. It would seem tequila is itself a form of mezcal. Which means I have already drunk the stuff on many, many occasions (looks like the block caps were definitely an over-reaction). That said, this remains the first time I've tasted non-tequila mezcal. And my verdict stands.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Gin Fizz

I can think of no better way to introduce the Gin Fizz than with this heartfelt tribute from San Franciscan barman Ernest P. Rawling, circa 1914:
"At any time or in any place where the tongue and throat are dry; when the spirits are jaded and the body is weary; after a long automobile trip on hot and dusty roads; it is then that the Gin Fizz comes like a cooling breeze from the sea, bringing new life and the zest and joy of living."
(Quote taken from Imbibe by David Wondrich)
Having already experimented with a more fiddly variation of this refreshing American cocktail, the Ramos Gin Fizz (see here and here), I decided it was time to give the original a try.

Gin Fizz

60ml (2oz) gin

1.5 tsp simple syrup
Juice of half a lemon
Soda water

Add simple syrup, lemon juice and gin to a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into a glass and top with soda water.

If you're wondering why this cocktail is strained, and served without frozen water, it's because it was designed to be a quick refresher - a drink to be downed in shortish order rather than pondered over at length.

It's certainly refreshing, thanks to the soda water, which along with the sugar manages to balance the acidity of half a lemon without trouble. It's not overly sweet, though, providing more of a plain, savoury taste. I keep coming back to the word refreshing, as indeed I will keep coming back to the Gin Fizz.

MORE: The Gin Fizz may become a Whiskey Fizz, Brandy Fizz or Rum Fizz with a small but crucial tweak of ingredients.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Rioja at Harrods

If someone had told me a couple of years ago that a couple of years hence I'd be attending wine tastings at Harrods I don't know what I would have done. But there I was, in the poshest shop in the world, making pronouncements about Riojas. In fact, it was a pretty good deal - £25 a ticket, for all the wine, canapes and jamón you could want. Imagine an upmarket happy hour.

I began the session by tasting wines I considered affordable - the Harrods Rioja 2006, for instance, at just over a tenner - in the hopes of taking advantage of the store's one-night-only discount to pick up a couple of bottles as I left. Described as "light and easy drinking", my notes for this one read "dry", rather abruptly, but it was my first taste of the evening and perhaps my palate needed working on. After a dud or two I was tempted into trying Artesa Organic 2007 (pictured below left), which was lovely, with plenty of cherry going on, proving it's not the age that counts, it's what you do with it. Not sure what effect the organic-ness had on the taste, and since I doubt they keep non-organic vines to help us compare I suppose we'll never know.

Shortly afterwards I tossed aside my affordability rule and lunged for some very special Riojas indeed. They included La Alta Gran Reserva 890 1995, which normally retails at £115 a bottle. I know! What struck me about his one, which I recorded as "earthy and dry", and other similarly "traditional" Riojas available for tasting, was how light they were, both in colour and density. For some reason I'd always assumed the older and grander the wine the fuller-bodied it would turn out to be. I've since learned that the opposite is true, at least when it comes to Rioja. Traditional styles are aged for longer, usually in American barrels, which impart that earthy spiciness, and their colour is more like Ribena than the rich, almost black-red wines of the "modern" style, which generally rest in French oak for less time, to produce rich, dense and "upfront" fruit flavours.

The king of the old-school Riojas at this tasting was the Monte Real Gran Reserva 1964 - my parents would have been teenagers when these grapes were harvested. I noted a "rusty" colour, a "thin" mouthfeel, and gorgeous flavours of mint, bourbon and oak, with a long finish. If only I had a spare £135. I KNOW!

In betwixt the affordable and the, er, less affordable wines were a bunch of what might be describable as quality mid-priced bottles. I should mention the Miguel Merino Gran Reserva 2000 ("smooth, chocolatey and light-bodied") and the La Alta Arana 2001 ("vanilla, soft"). I was also pleased to see an old favourite of mine from our trip to Rioja last year, the Finca Valpiedra Cantos de Valpiedra 2006, and picked up a bottle post-haste at the on-the-night tasting price.

Then, towards the end of evening, as I was congratulating myself on having spent relatively little, I got chatting to the guy from Bodegas Ramon Bilbao and was seduced by his Mirto 2005 (right), whose description includes blackberries, smoked wood, toasted bread and nutmeg. Even with the discount, I spent a fair whack of money on this bottle, avid reader, but I spent it for you, since just as soon as I find an event, anniversary or celebration worthy of these grapes (my 100th birthday?) I'll be writing stuff down and posting it here.

Harrods do these tastings
monthly, focusing on a different region or style each session, and I can tell you never has posh binge drinking been so appealing.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Harviestoun Old Engine Oil

At first glance, decanted into a glass, this tar-black stout-like beer resembles a cola drink gone flat. On tasting, anyone expecting a cola drink would be deeply surprised, and probably disturbed. This was coffee and chocolate with a slightly bitter finish. Imagine an intense, concentrated Guinness drink, without the creamy top and with far more depth of flavour and intensity.

Having knocked Harviestoun a little for its bottled Bitter & Twisted, for not being sufficiently bitter nor twisted, I am happy to insist that its OEO tastes remarkably like an alcoholic impression of old engine oil. And that, believe it, is meant in an entirely complimentary way. I had the good fortune to be able to try it from the cask (at The Gunmakers - fast becoming my mid-week drinking hole of choice), and surprised myself by wanting to drink three pints of the stuff (4.5% abv). I followed that up a few weeks later with a bottle (pictured top), at 6% abv, which while not being quite as tasty as its cask relation, would still come high on my Amazon wishlist, should they decide to stock it.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010


It seems unnatural to have maintained a drinks blog for this many months without having made a single martini. This cocktail was a favourite of mine a while back, when my gin of choice was Plymouth. Having recently discovered Hendrick's, I thought I'd try out a recipe from that distiller's website, using a cucumber garnish rather than the usual olive or lemon twist. The result (pictured above) was ridiculously good. The debate over the most effective proportions of gin to dry vermouth will continue to rage, but I felt those recommended here (two parts G to one part V) worked just fine.


45ml (1.5oz) Hendrick's Gin
22.5ml (0.75oz) Noilly Prat dry vermouth
Slice of cucumber

Stir gin and vermouth over ice cubes in mixing glass. Strain into martini glass. Drop in a cucumber slice.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Milk & Honey

61 Poland Street

My new philosophy, if I may call it that, is to drink
better. That means fewer nights downing multiple pints of Sam Smith's Old Brewery Bitter, or bottles of over-priced vin rouge from restaurants that know full well they're ripping me off but don't care. It also means occasional trips to special bars where the drinks are memorable and life-enhancing. And so, to test out this radical philosophy, J and I paid a visit to the dimly lit Milk & Honey bar in Soho. Here we learned that M&H's "painstaking" cocktail-making methods run to hand-squeezing all its fruit juice, pre-freezing all its glassware, counting the number of times a drink is shaken or stirred to achieve consistency in dilution and chilling and, our favourite, "twice-frozen" ice. All this is liable to be ridiculed, of course, particularly by the patrons of Sam Smith's outlets, but the real question is does it work? By which I mean are the drinks sufficiently kick-ass?

My Boston Cobbler (pictured top left) used port, Calvados, lemon, orange and pineapple to achieve a surprisingly refreshing cooler. Surprising, because I expected something richer and sweeter, like the Rye & Port Cobbler I tried at
The Player. But no, it didn't look like a port drink and it didn't taste much like one either. The Calvados (apple brandy) dried things out and the fruit freshened things up again. There was a taste of caramel in there somewhere too - pleasing, overall.

J's Knickerbocker Royale was a twist on the Knickerbocker single-glass punch, which dates back to 1850s New York. Here, the usual rum, raspberry, curacao (orange liqueur), lemon and sugar were elevated by a 
soupçon or two of champagne. Smooth and delicately sweet, it seemed to leave J profoundly contented.

At this point we realised we'd been raising our voices to make ourselves heard over the music, and decided to take our leave (note to staff: good jazz, but do you really need this place to feel like a nightclub on a Tuesday?). Nevertheless, my new philosophy appears to be working. Sometimes, and helpfully for my personal finances, one good drink is all I need.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Cornish Ales

It's not that Cornish ales get a bad press - it's that they barely get any press at all. Fear not, Good Drinks Etc is here to help. A group of us sat down to sample four interesting-looking bottles, carefully handpicked by ale-mad T.

HSD: St Austell Brewery Walter Hicks Strong Cornish Ale (5%). Description: "The real ale alternative to a well rounded premium red wine."
Tasting notes: Malty, toffee, bitter finish.

Chalky's Bite: Sharp's/Rick Stein (6.8%). Description: "Classic aged beer naturally flavoured with wild Cornish fennel."
Tasting notes: Gentle, treacle, caramel, longish finish.

Chalky's Bark: Sharp's/Rick Stein (4.5%). Description: "Classic aged beer naturally flavoured with fresh ginger."
Tasting Notes: Not gingery, sweet, citrussy.

Atlantic IPA: Sharp's (4.8%). Description: "Candy floss aroma... dangerously drinkable."
Tasting Notes: A bit smooth, maltier than lager. Session - or just bland?

None of these were bad beers. HSD undoubtedly had the fullest flavour - probably good with dinner. Atlantic IPA was surprisingly and enjoyably gulpable. As for Chalky's, I have to say the Bark (a rather gingerly gingery beer) was worse than the Bite, which at least made an impression.

Sunday, 18 April 2010


These drinks, essentially mojitos sans soda water, were made in a friend's kitchen at a rather lively party (hence the plastic cups). The precise preparation method has been lost to booze-induced amnesia, but the essentials involve shoveling as much rum, lime, simple syrup, fresh mint and ice as you can afford into as many vessels as you can find and shouting jubilantly and incoherently. Salud!

Friday, 16 April 2010

Saffron Gin

I was birthday-gifted this bottle of Saffron Gin more than two years ago and, as you can see from the picture above, it's still not empty. That's largely because I've always struggled with the taste of saffron, which I would characterise as musty and bitter. Then, recently, I pulled out the bottle for a night of Cornish-themed drinking (saffron and Cornwall go together) and tried using it in place of regular gin to make variations on the Gin & Tonic and the Negroni. The results were surprisingly good, particularly for the Negroni (here renamed the Saffroni), with the bitter apperitif positively tingling with flavour. It would seem certain types of booze just need a killer app.

Saffron Gin & Tonic

60ml (2oz) Saffron gin
90ml (3oz) tonic water
Two dashes orange bitters
Orange slice to garnish

Pour gin and bitters over plenty of ice. Stir plenty. Add tonic water and stir again. Garnish with orange slice.


15ml (0.5oz) Saffron Gin
15ml (0.5oz) sweet vermouth
15ml (0.5oz) Campari
Two dashes orange bitters
Orange peel to garnish

Stir ingredients with ice then strain into a small glass and add orange twist.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Le Relais De Venise L’Entrecôte

5 Throgmorton Street

This is strictly a drinks blog, and Le Relais De Venise L’Entrecôte, while being many wonderful things, is not a drink. Fortunately, the house red served at this no-nonsense steakhouse extraordinaire is rather good, giving me an ideal excuse to write up the place. Indeed, Le Relais, which has branches in Paris, Barcelona and New York, as well as two in London (we went to the City outlet - the other is in Marylebone), was originally set up by a wine-producing family as a vehicle for shifting surplus bottles. For those who haven't been, the restaurant doesn't have a menu in the traditional sense. The 'choice' is steak - done as you like - in a secretive sauce with frites, plus a mustardy green salad with walnuts to start. The main course comes in two parts: just as you're finishing your first serving of steak'n'frites, along comes a waitress to 'top you up' with a second helping (more on the food here).

The house red, aforementioned, was a 2007 Bordeaux bottled in Chateau de Lardiley, a reliable cocktail of 60% merlot and 40% cabernet sauvignon grapes, weighing in at quaffable 12.5% abv. It was smooth, with big fruit and some oakiness too - paired well with steak. Boringly, we ordered only a half-bottle this time, for £8.50, but now we've got a taste for the stuff I expect we'll be back for a great deal more.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Peppermint Cream

Having picked up a slender bottle of Creme de Menthe from a supermarket for a mere £4, I let it sit in the cabinet for a few weeks while I wondered what to do with it. Finally, as always, I turned to Google for some advice, and It recommended making one of these...

Peppermint Cream

22.5ml (0.75oz) creme de menthe
22.5ml (0.75oz) white creme de cacao
22.5ml (0.75oz) Frangelico hazelnut liqueur
22.5ml (0.75oz) Baileys Irish cream
30ml (1oz) milk

Pour the creme de menthe, creme de cacao, Frangelico and Baileys into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake well, and strain into a cocktail glass. Top with milk, to taste.

The overall taste was pleasantly minty but not too sweet. "Like a Thin Mint," said M, referencing something from her homeland. For anyone lacking Frangelico, don't worry too much - it'll work without. In fact, you could probably get away with using various combinations of whatever liqueurs come to hand. As long as it's creamy and minty, you win.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

La Perla

28 Maiden Lane

A friend is moving to Texas so we decided to mark his passing with some Tex Mex at the Texas Embassy cantina on Trafalgar Square. Unfortunately, I had to cancel our booking after I checked their menu and discovered they don't appear to use fresh lime juice in their margaritas. Instead, since Mexico is almost Texas, geographically speaking, we shifted our sights to La Perla, an interesting looking Mexican restaurant that specialises in tequila - and even sells its own brand.

The first thing to report is the incredible happy hour - 4pm to 7pm every day. Arriving at ten to seven, we acted quickly and ordered the following for between £3.15 and £3.75 each:

Ocho tequila sour
: This was a long, refreshing tequila drink, served in a pint glass with soda water, lime, "blood" orange bitters and plenty of ice. The taste resembled a slightly watery margarita, which come summer wouldn't be something to sniff at.

Pisco sour: This was my first taste of Pisco, a young brandy made from muscat grapes. It was mixed with sugar, lemon juice and a dash of angostura bitters, and served on the rocks, producing a dry, bitter-sour apperitif-style drink that is probably not for everyone.

Pear and vanilla margarita (left): My favourite! Vanilla-infused tequila, agave nectar, fresh lemon juice and pear puree shaken and served on the rocks with a lime garnish. I was half-expecting the vanilla to lend the drink that familiar taste of processed essence, but this was altogether different. The bartender said they make their own "vanilla tequila curado" (essentially a silver tequila that has been naturally flavoured) by adding split vanilla pods to a bottle and letting it sit for a couple of weeks. It made a delicious drink that was sweet without being overly sugary.

During dinner, a couple of us ordered La Perla's bog-standard House Margarita (right), featuring that Jose Cuervo gold mixto nonsense (I know, but at £3.15 it was practically free!). It came frozen and with a salt rim, without prompting, which I guess is how they like it, but it tasted fine (particularly after our aperitifs) - plenty of tequila and just enough lime.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about La Perla (full menu here) is the existence of its own premium tequila line, called Ocho, a collaboration between Tomas Estes, the founder of Pacifico Group, of which La Perla is part, and the Camarena family distillery.

We ordered 35ml pours of Ocho's reposado and anejo tequilas to share after dinner. I have to say I was surprised by how fully the agave flavours came through. Both still retained a sharpish cactus-like taste - even the anejo, whose ageing in oak (for between one and three years) is usually enough to smooth the peppery edges a little more than was evident here. They were enjoyable, certainly, but not necessarily something to rave about.

La Perla Covent Garden was a top find, and for reasons of equality and justice, I should probably visit the other branch off Tottenham Road before too long. Then there's their sister venue, Cafe Pacifico, also in Covent Garden. And thus the wheels of booze keep turning.

Monday, 12 April 2010

London Drinker Beer & Cider Festival

Camden Centre
Bidborough Street

Having learnt my lesson from a previous beer festival, when I showed up on the fifth and final day and found many beers already gone, we headed to the London Drinker on the opening night - and found some ales were "not yet ready" for drinking. Oh well. The venue, near Kings Cross, was huge, and packed with ale lovers (check out the view from the balcony, above left). Here follow some highlights, featuring the proper programme notes plus our team's amateurish observations:

Crouch Vale Amarillo (5%): Golden ale using American Amarillo hops.
"Amazingly fruity."

Dark Star Espresso (4.2%): Real coffee in this stout, judged world's best specialty beer.
"Coffee notes, not too rich."

Dark Star Dennis Hopper
(4.2%): Festival special - a blend of Hophead and Golden Gate.
"Hops without malt."

Dark Star American Pale Ale
(4.7%): Light hoppy beer.
"Orange citrus overtones."

Isle of Purbeck IPA
(4.8%): A traditional IPA.
"Caramel, amber, bit of sparkle, lots of head-nodding all round."

Redemption Urban Dusk
(4.6%): Fairly dark, malty beer.
"Chocolate but balanced" (full review here).

St Austell Proper Job IPA
(4.5%): Aromatic hops leading to bittersweet finish.
"Golden smooth, no finish, doesn't taste as strong as 4.5%."

Thornbridge Wild Swan (3.5%): Pale gold bitter, with a citrussy taste and bitter finish.

Tipples Topper (4.5%) (pictured top): Roasty stout, with coffee and chocolate flavours.
"Coffee flavour, not too sweet, smoky, liquorice, leather."

Wentworth Bumble Bitter (4.4%): Best bitter with added honey.
"Golden, sweet finish."

And, finally, a bit of pear...

Newton Court Medium Sweet Perry
(6%) (pictured below left):

"Too sweet for me, slightly carbonated, less tart than apple cider."

Top beer of the night? For me, it was the Tipples Topper, a fine Norfolk stout with a moreish combination of striking flavours (see above). It was so good I even found myself reconsidering my recently acquired, and perhaps insufficiently developed, theory that "challenging" beers aren't worth the hassle.