Sunday, 30 May 2010

Mojito



The mojito is one of those drinks I'd always intended to blog, but it's taken time to build up to it. I've tasted an amazing mango variant and attempted a party version, but making a proper one at home takes some effort. A supply of fresh mint can be an almighty obstacle for starters, and that's before you've considered the crushed ice. Oh, and it helps morale if it's not raining outside. But I had to get round to it eventually, mainly because this Cuban refresher is a truly special cocktail.

Mojito

Six mint leaves

45ml (1.5oz) white rum
15ml (0.5oz) simple syrup
1/2 lime
45ml (1.5oz) soda water
Crushed ice*

Place five mint leaves and the simple syrup into a highball glass and use a muddler to gently mash the leaves to release the minty oils. Add the half a lime (slicing into four segments works nicely) and muddle some more, taking care not to shred the mint leaves (get too rough and they can taste bitter). Add crushed ice, then the rum, and stir carefully. Add soda water, and some more ice if necessary, and garnish with another mint leaf.

*For crushed ice: Put some ice cubes into a plastic bag, wrap with a tea towel and whack with a hammer until suitably crushed. Best attempted outside.

So there you go. This is a rewarding cocktail, even if - as has been written elsewhere - it's a pain-in-the-ass to make. But life wasn't supposed to be simple, right? No, it was supposed to be difficult, easy to mess up, complicated, and ultimately disappointing on an existential level. Time for another mojito, methinks.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Scrumpy



I'm beginning to get the idea now. Slightly cloudy, often still, appley (I know that sounds obvious, but have you ever tasted Strongbow?), and hiding plenty of booze behind a silky exterior. Welcome to the world of scrumpy cider.

Scrumpy in general refers to traditional ciders made in the south and west of England, taking in Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. This one in particular, Scrumpy Cloudy Cider (7.5% abv), came from Herefordshire-based Westons, and was consumed very appropriately in an authentic Herefordshire garden (pictured above). Worryingly, the brew appeared to resemble fellow Westons scrumpy Old Rosie, responsible some years ago for what I remain convinced was the worst apple-based hangover ever to be endured by man. Nevertheless, I pushed on, in the national interest.

The label on our flagon of Scrumpy Cloudy - "matured in old oak vats for a full and fruity flavour" - recommended tilting the bottle here and there to disrupt the sediment for a properly cloudy experience. The liquid was dark orange in colour, with aromas of smoky apple and wood, while the taste was fizz-less, with a medium-dry tartness giving way to a sweeter finish.

The day was especially hot, so some of us put ice in the cider to help it down. Like Old Rosie it was deceptively boozy - apple juice with a rather agressive edge, but fortunately this time I was able to recognise when it began to tighten its grip on my person, and after a couple of glasses I knew it was time to move onto the vodka.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Daiquiri



Never mind the Gimlet, if it's a short, sharp refresher you're after on a sunny spring evening try a Daiquiri, which essentially replaces the vodka with rum.

Daiquiri

60ml (2oz) white rum

22.5ml (0.75oz) lime juice
1 teaspoon fine sugar
Lime peel to garnish

Place ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into a small, preferably chilled martini glass and garnish with a twist of lime peel.

Although I refuse to count out vodka entirely, I'm beginning to become more conscious of its limitations, in cocktails at least. Rum, by contrast, is growing on me.

MORE DAIQUIRI
: Read the Rum Dood on this "most iconic" of rum drinks.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Scotch Malt Whisky Society



SMWS
19 Greville Street
London EC1N 8SQ

Had Willy Wonka turned his back on chocolate and gone into whisky, I rather suspect he would have liked the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Entering the London rooms of this palace of malt, for the first time, I felt for a moment like Charlie without Grandpa Joe. Forget the regular array of brands one might find at a discerning pub, this place was covered ceiling-to-floor with SMWS's very own number-coded single malts, bottled straight from the cask. Each cask tastes different, of course, which is why the Society is rather coy about revealing the identity of the distillery from which each bottle is taken. Instead, drinkers are encouraged to pick their drams from an impressively extensive SMWS menu, containing many outlandish names (Whisky-flavoured Condoms and Skunk Road-kill, anyone?) and tasting notes bordering on the poetic. Prices for a generous pour range from a reasonable £4.50 to an eye-watering £23 at the other end of the scale. Bottles may also be purchased on site.

My first experience of the Society's exciting wares had come at the
inaugural session of the Whisky Squad at The Gunmakers pub some weeks earlier. This time, on my first visit to the Society's Greville Street quarters, as a guest of booze blogger Billy, our group sampled at least the following:

Pepper, Lemon and Smoke

(38.18) 59% vol, 12 yrs, from mothballed Speyside distillery Caperdonich.
Nose of vanilla and caramel. Loads of pepper and lemon on the palate, not much smoke, but plenty of chunky chocolate brownie, finishing lengthily.

Kissing a Mermaid

(26.66) 60% vol, 10 yrs, Highland distillery Clynelish.
T writes: Fortified wine on the nose, on the palate petrol and a handful of chilli-infused salt followed by toffee chews.

Ooh! Ouch! Aaah!

(4.137) 58% vol, 12 yrs.
Dark gold colour. Cured meat on the nose. Firey with sherry flavours. Add a few drops of water for toffee apple.

Onions Spring Eternal

(10.71) 55% vol, 11 yrs, Islay distillery Bunnahabhain.
Onion on the nose! Sherry-sweet finish.

Hazelnut in Every Bite

(28.20) 57% vol, 19 yrs, Highland distillery Tullibardine.
Before I knew what this was called I found mint and cucumber on the palate. After I was told the name I suddenly found hazelnut. Funny, that.

Others I could mention:

Swelling, Crashing Waves of Flavour: (53.140) 56% vol, 18 yrs, Islay distillery Caol Ila.
Soot and Ash: (72.19) 57% vol, 20 yrs. Speyside.

Despite the mightily fine whisky, and brilliant staff, I can't help but end with a quick grumble about the Greville Street premises, whose "light and contemporary" interior resembles an Ikea showroom. The website claims these pine-lined rooms are "ideally placed to mix business with pleasure", and I concede their proximity to the City means that is probably the case, but the blandly corporate hotel-bar feel suggests the scales may have tipped too far in favour of Business here.

INTERESTED? The SMWS is a members-only club, with individual 
membership starting at £100 for the first year, and about £40 annually thereafter. Members are permitted to bring up to three guests to any of the Society's three tasting venues, in London, Edinburgh and Leith.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Martini (1:1)



I've already dealt with the martini, here and here, but after trying the following recipe from David Wondrich's wonderful cocktail bible, Imbibe, I decided this one simply had to be blog-ed.

Dry Martini

45ml (1.5oz) gin

45ml (1.5oz) dry vermouth
Dash of orange bitters
Twist of orange peel

Pour ingredients into a mixing glass with ice. Stir well and strain into a martini glass. Squeeze a piece of orange peel over the surface of the drink.

Observant observers will notice the interesting element here is the 1:1 proportion of G to V, rather than the more common 2:1 ratio (as seen here). To stand up to such a large slug of vermouth the gin should preferably be robust (Tanqueray or Beefeater is recommended). The vermouth called for is Noilly Prat.

Crucially, or at least interestingly, t
he "dry" in this dry martini denotes the use of dry (French) vermouth rather than the sweeter Italian sort, as traditionally used. It does not mean hardly any vermouth, which seems to be a modern tendency, like Pop Idol or grime music.


As Wondrich writes: "Mixed like this, with half gin and half vermouth and a dash of orange bitters, the Martini is an entirely different drink to the one we know... a gentleman among cocktails."

Monday, 17 May 2010

WS#2: Flavour Map



The curse of the 'difficult second novel' is well documented, but how would the Whisky Squad fare when it sat down for its second ever whisky tasting? Very well, as it happens, which is maybe why there are more whisky drinkers in the world than there are novelists. For Whisky Squad #2, we wanted to get a sense of the contrasts in flavours and styles of this great beverage, and so reached for the
Flavour Map, constructed by Diageo and whisky expert David Broom. This useful diagram places whiskies according to four characteristics: smoky, rich, delicate and light. The whiskies we tried - blind, at first, to prevent us from relying on our prejudices - were plucked mainly from the far corners of the map, giving us some useful insights into our preferred flavour profiles. The session was led, as before, by living whiskypedia Darren (the whisky guy).

Rosebank 12 (43% abv) LIGHT/DELICATE
Lowland, triple-distilled (like Bushmills!). Distillery closed in 1996.
Light straw colour, aromas of honey, vanilla and cola bottle sweets. Taste sweet, fruit, citrus.

Glenfarclas 15
(46%) RICH/DELICATE-SMOKY
Speyside. The oldest family-owned distillery in Scotland (est: 1836). Non-chill filtered.
Sweet sherry on the nose. Fizzy on the tongue, chocolatey, with a tiny bit of peat smoke.
ALSO:
Glenfarclas 21 (43%) - smooth, slightly peaty, fruity, Xmas cake.
Glenfarclas 25 (43%) - thicker mouthfeel, caramel, essence of Manhattan cocktail.

Lagavulin Distillers Edition 1993 (43%) RICH/SMOKY
Islay. Double matured in bourbon then sherry casks. 40ppm (learn about phenols here). Pairs well with blue cheese, says Darren.
Aromas of bonfire/forest fire. Thick mouthfeel. Huge and complex, peaty.

Ardbeg 10
(46%) LIGHT/SMOKY

Islay. Jim Murray's 2008 World Whisky of the Year.
Very light colour. Aroma of potent, but light, peat. Lightly salted, floral taste with more peat (higher phenol content) than Lagavulin. More complexity too?


I definitely plan to return to the Glenfarclas and the Lagavulin, my favourites of the evening, although I also feel compelled to pay a respectful tribute to the Ardbeg, for the sheer force of its personality. Good whiskies, good times.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Honey Monster



I tasked myself with creating an after-dinner cocktail for a poker night, and ended up gambling on this:

Honey Monster

15ml (1/2oz) vodka
15ml (1/2oz) vanilla-infused tequila*
7.5ml (1/4oz) Drambuie
7.5ml (1/4oz) Grand Marnier

Pour ingredients into mixing glass with ice. Stir well. Strain into a serving glass with fresh ice.

*To make the vanilla-infused tequila, take a few pods of vanilla, split them open lengthwise with a knife, drop them into a bottle of tequila and let sit for a few days, shaking the bottle now and again.

The recipe above has been slightly modified from the formula I served with the poker chips, which ended up being a tad too sweet for my taste (warning: Drambuie dominates everything, which is why I knocked it down from 15ml to 7.5ml here). The Honey Monster tastes exactly as it sounds - vanilla/honey/herbs/booze, with a sweetish finish - perfect for sipping while one slyly assembles a Royal Flush.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Waves



This was interesting - a single malt from the Islay distillery of Bruichladdich (pronounced Brook-laddie), branded simply "Waves". Interesting, because while most Islay whiskies are heavily peated, this one was altogether more delicate. On the nose the peat aromas were subtle, with honey and a touch of salt. To taste, again the peat was gentle, with a long, sweet finish. I like to think the 46% abv gave a pleasant thrust without things getting out of hand.

Waves (more details here) is a multi-vintage bottling, which means it's a mix of whiskies of different ages, in this case matured in bourbon and madeira casks. The website bumf notes that the peat here is largely free of "sea iodine medicinal flavour" (the stuff in Laphroaig that tends to whack one in the face), thanks to the distillery's long necked stills. This, by my reckoning, is a very good thing indeed. I've got my first trip to Islay coming up next month - and Bruichladdich may just have jumped to the top of my growing list of should-visits.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Gimlet



With the sun peeking its little head through the clouds from time to time, thoughts turn to drinking for refreshment, as well as nourishment. The Gimlet is a short, sharp cocktail, ideal for those moments when you need something with a bit of zip.

Gimlet

45ml (1.5oz) vodka
15ml (0.5oz) lime juice
15ml (0.5oz) simple syrup

Pour ingredients into a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Shake well and strain into a glass. Garnish with a lime wheel.

If you don't have any limes, use lemons. If you don't have any lemons either, what are you playing at? Feel free to adjust the citrus/sugar ratio, depending on the sweetness of your tooth.

MORE: If that looks too easy, check out my Ginger Green Tea Gimlet.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Paradox Springbank



I'm getting a taste for ales that pack a punch or two. Having recently marvelled at Dark Star's Imperial Stout, that great clunking fist of a beer, I found myself reaching into my booze cupboard for the bottle of Paradox Springbank I'd been saving for something. I'd bought it from a whisky shop after reading T's effusive guest post, here, on the sublime joys of Paradox Smokehead. Paradox Springbank is almost the same, except this time, as the name suggests, the whisky barrels used to mature BrewDog's imperial stout for six months are old casks from the Springbank distillery, Campbeltown.

The resulting beer, infused with the flavours and aromas of Scotch, was gratifyingly smoky. On the nose, I found treacle and toffee. Like Dark Star's stout, the mouthfeel was oil-slick, with a slight spritz, but the hops cut into the sweetness, providing a balance of sorts, and the finish was bitter liquorice and oak. After a couple of minutes I was made aware of the beer's pleasantly warming capabilities: it does carry 10% abv, after all. Interestingly, the nature of the drink suggested its own drinking style: while I often prefer to gulp my beer, here I imbibed in slow, reflective tastes, like I would a whisky.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Veuve Clicquot Champagne



What is it about Champagne that makes grown-ups willing to part with so much cash? Don't they know it's just fizzy white wine? I love the stuff, but there's still a bit of me that doesn't really 'get it'. Regardless, Champagne is the Boss. It rules. So I doff my hood.

For M's special birthday (it had a nought in it) we popped open a bottle of Veuve Clicquot's Brut Yellow Label, a blend of Pinot Noir (50-55%), Chardonnay (28-33%) and Pinot Meunier (15-20%). This is described as a "powerful and complex" blend, about a third of which comes from "reserve" wines aged up to 20 years.

The aroma was biscuity - M, who's been on a tour of the region, says this is common - with a bit of grassiness and melon too. I struggled to describe the flavours, other than "complex" (I'll try harder next time). Interestingly, I found my first sip a little tart, but by my second fluteful things had become softer and friendlier. I would guess the reason people drink Champagne, or indeed fizzy wine generally, is because of the bubbles. Bubbles equal fun, or at least they gets the fun into the veins more quickly. VC's Brut was the bottle with which M and I toasted our engagement, and no doubt in future it'll help us acknowledge other Significant Things. Some traditions are too ingrained to question much, particularly when they taste biscuity and bubbly.

HISTORY:
The House of Veuve Clicquot was founded in Reims, France, in 1772.

COOL FACT:
The greatest Champagne vintages, according to Veuve Clicquot, include 1998, 1996, 1990, 1989, 1988, 1985, 1979, 1976, 1969, 1959...

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Georgefest 2010



The Lord Clyde
340-342 Essex Road
London N1 3PB

My dad used to drink beer at home out of dimpled pint glasses (I believe that's the technical term) and there is something undeniably life-affirming about a tankard of foaming ale. That's one reason why I like The Lord Clyde, in north London, which serves its beer with said dimples. Another highlight for me is its choice of house ale - Harveys Sussex Best (blogged here). But what really compelled me to write about this pub was its mini beer festival, Georgefest, timed to coincide with St George's Day. Georgefest 2010 was certainly the smallest celebration of ale I've ever been to, with a corner of a side bar set up to accommodate little more than a dozen casks from around the country over a single weekend. 

Luckily for visitors, and the English people as a whole, the beer selection was interesting and (incidentally) the Scotch Eggs astonishing. Here follow my highlights, annotated as usual with my mini tasting notes.

American Pale Ale 4.7% - Dark Star, Sussex
"Hoppy, a little sweet."

Ginger Beer 4.0% - Hadrian and Border Brewery, Newcastle Upon Tyne
"Dry, a little sour, strong ginger aroma, smells better than it tastes, not so much bite on the palate, said to be flavoured with real stem ginger."

Dartmoor Best Bitter 3.9% - St Austel Brewery, Cornwall

"Dry, malty finish."

Dark Hatters Mild 3.3% - Robinsons, Cheshire

"Light on the hops, lovely caramel finish, mild."

Apple Blossom Ale 4.3% - Downton Brewery, Wiltshire

"Refreshing, light straw coloured, not much aroma, citrussy and tart."

Orange Wheat Beer 4.2% - Jack Green Brewing Co, Suffolk

"Sweet orange peel, subtle hint of marmalade."

Gorgeous George 4.3% - Loddon Brewery, Oxfordshire

"Described as 'traditional old-fashioned bitter'. Vanilla, hoppy, honey."

If the Clyde can keep this up St George could soon (in a hundred years, say) be giving St Patrick a run for his money. Looking forward to Georgefest 2011 as I write.



Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The Evening Star



55/56 Surrey Street
Brighton
East Sussex
BN1 3PB

The Evening Star
is conveniently no more than three minutes' walk from Brighton rail station, and I can think of no better stop-off for a parched traveller arriving from London. On my most recent visit to this fantastic public house, the spiritual home of the Dark Star Brewing Company, my determination to try a few more of its interesting ales knew no bounds.

Two to mention. First (pictured above), the Dark Star Imperial Stout, brewed with plenty of roasted barley to create a great clunking fist of a beer (10.5% abv). The slight fizz lightened the oil-slick mouthfeel and the taste recalled dark chocolate, merlot wine, and, as J had it, "mature Cornish turf". This was truly a biblical beer, which lingered in the throat like a force of darkness. Lovely. For those who like to hide their ale in cupboards rather than drink it down suddenly, it's worth mentioning that the Imperial, already aged in the brewery, is designed to "improve for many years" in the bottle.

Following that - not easy for any beer - I tried a pint of Dark Star Original (5%), from the cask (right), which in some respects resembled a childhood nephew of the Imperial Stout. Its colour was the darkest red, with the dominant flavour slightly sweet malt, alongside chocolate and honey. Unlike the Imperial, however, the seeds of evil were in their infancy here.

These were great beers and this is a great pub. Brightonians are lucky people indeed.

HISTORY: The Dark Star Brewing Co starting making its beers in the cellar of the Evening Star in 1996, before moving to ever-larger premises, first to a site near Haywards Heath, then most recently to Partridge Green - both in West Sussex.

ALSO: Read about other Dark Star beers I've tried here and here.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Palo Santo Marron



*Guest post by Tim*
With some taste experiences it is hard to work out whether you love them or hate them.
For me preserved ginger, Marmite (although other yeast extract products would probably apply) and pickled chillis are in this category.
So is Dogfish Head's Palo Santo Marron.
It is a quite astonishing American beer. It has the maltyness of a souped-up Scottish 80/-. It is aged in wooden casks (exotic Paraguayan wood no less so the label tells me). This adds vanilla, smoke and, um, wood. Underlying it all is a fruity sweetness.
The feel in the mouth is almst oily and it comes in at a toppy 12% ABV.
This is a pungent heady brew, the like of which I have never drunk before. But is it pleasant? I just can’t decide.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Bushmills Sessions



Prior to this tasting session, my experience of Irish whiskey had been limited to the odd dram of Jamesons, which I'd always found smooth and inoffensive to the point of boring. Still, I'm not one to say no to a free drink or two, and having been invited to a Bushmills sampling, I packed away my prejudices and got my craic on.

I was joined by my malt-loving friend C, who visited the Bushmills distillery in, er, Bushmills, Northern Ireland, a while back. It claims to be the world's oldest, having been granted a royal licence to distill in 1608. Our tasting, branded Bushmills Sessions, was led by the whiskey's amiable master distiller, Colum Egan, who introduced us to three varieties of Bushmills - and a Scotch to help us compare'n'contrast.

First the basic, Bushmills Original (left), which is a blend of Bushmills' four-year-old single malt and an Irish grain. The first thing to report is how smooth this stuff is. Most Irish whiskey is triple distilled (by contrast, Scotch is usually distilled twice) before being aged, in this case in oak casks. Another characteristic of Irish whiskey is its lack of smoke/earthiness, due to the absence of peat in the malting process of most whiskeys. All of which contribute to an easy sipping spirit. The Original provided lovely aromas of sweet vanilla and honey, with the taste adding maple syrup and a little maltiness in the finish. Fairly uncomplicated - but very moreish.

Black Bush
is another blend, mostly malt with some grain whiskey, this time aged in sherry casks. The resulting spirit, slightly darker in colour, issued forth aromas of coconut, spicy cedar and a nutty sort of vanilla. The taste was, again, smooth, but this time richer and spicier, with a drier, warming finish.

That was our cue to try a "mystery" Scotch, to help us better appreciate the contrasts in styles. It turned out to be Johnnie Walker Red, a robust blend of about 35 grain and malt whiskies, whose smoky finish provided the necessary contrast and, surprisingly, left me wanting more Bushmills.

Our final taste of the evening was Bushmills' 10-year-old Single Malt, aged in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks, and lighter in colour than the Black Bush. I have to admit I struggled to identify a distinct aroma but when prompted agreed it might resemble milk chocolate. Following the Scotch, the sweetness was evident, but the taste was perhaps drier and tarter than the other Bushmills, with a minty maltiness about it. The finish was longer, more interesting, than the other two expressions. A decent after-dinner drink, maybe.

Bushmills also produces 16- and a 21-year-old malts, but alas, they weren't on offer this time. Towards the end of the evening, as our gathering moved to the free bar, we tried a couple of Bushmills with mixers, at Colum's suggestion. I have to say, despite reassurances, the whiskey was smothered somewhat. Perhaps a one-part cola, one-part whiskey mix might be more productive. After ditching the mixers, C and I ordered a straight Bushmills Original side by side with a Jameson, just to compare, like. The results were interesting, because alongside the Bushmills, which sparkled, the Jameson tasted incredibly uninteresting: sweet and smooth and little else. (Perhaps by then our palates had become overly conditioned to the Bushmills formula).

Jameson aside, having sipped our trio of Bushmills expressions, repeatedly and with as much concentration as I could muster, I honestly couldn't decide which one I preferred. All my instincts said the Single Malt should be superior (you can spot a whisky snob a mile away, right?) but I kept coming back to the Original, for its easy going nature and its vanillery simplicity, and the Black Bush, a kind of Original plus, with its spicy cedary notes. The single malt was counter-intuitively less satisfying, don't ask me why. If I was being unkind, I'd say it suggested a rather ordinary Scotch. Whatever - that night another of my prejudices disintegrated. There will be many times, of course, when only the complexity and punch of a peaty Scotch will provide the goods. But I now realise there will be other occasions when a clean, easy-sipping, soft & sweet malty caress is precisely what I need.

BONUS FACTS:

* Avoid coffee before a whisk(e)y session. Apparently it distorts your senses and can alter the flavours.

* Bushmills, in common with many big brands - adds "a fraction of one drop" of caramel, an extract of sugar beet, to its younger whiskeys to achieve a consistency in colour, since spirits aged in different barrels for shorter periods might otherwise reach the bottle in varying shades, frightening the punters. Such an additive is not considered necessary for older whiskeys, since they've had time to take on a consistent colour from the cask naturally.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Pink Rhubarb Gin & Tonic



Bob Bob Ricard
1 Upper James Street
London W1F 9DF

As a curtain raiser to a Russian vodka tasting at Bob Bob Ricard, 
we were served a drink so delicate and delightful that it demands its own post. The pink rhubarb G&T was ice-cold, barely carbonated - just a slight spritz - sweet/sour and warming, topped off with a playful sugary foam. The gin - Bombay Sapphire - had been infused with rhubarb and sugar over a hot stove and left to steep before being strained. I may try this at home one day - but first I may have to return to BBR for further research in the field.