Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Audemus Pink Pepper Gin with Perfume: A Century of Scents

I've just been having a conversation on Twitter about drinking culture, and how much pressure there is to drink when perhaps you shouldn't, and drink more than you might want, so it seems like time to reiterate that I'm all about drinking sensibly. I have so much gin around the place only because I don't drink much (if I did most those bottles would have long gone to be recycled). I enjoy a drink but it's been a long time since it was in anything but moderation. I believe in quality over quantity every time, and whilst I'll happily encourage anybody to try a new gin (or similar) if I think they might like it, I hope I never put pressure on anybody to do so. A good gin and tonic is a beautiful thing, a hangover is not.

After which auspicious start it's on to Audemus Pink Pepper gin... This one's from France, Cognac to be specific, where they know a thing or two about distillation, but where I'm guessing there's no great tradition of gin making or drinking (I could be very wrong about that). The result is something that's definitely gin, but also quite distinctively different in its approach. It's worth reading this review Here from Gin foundry (they're my go to place for gin reviews and general information about distilleries).

The pepper element is front and centre with this gin, and the juniper is unmistakably there too. I was surprised to read that coriander doesn't feature mostly because it almost always does, and I associate it with citrus flavours in gin. There is citrus here though, even if it's not altogether clear where from. There's also the mention of honey, thinks beans, and vanilla, as well of those pink peppercorns - all of which remind me of perfume descriptions as much as they do a list of gin botanicals.

I was also interested to read that this is a gin that changes and develops with age - that's a new idea to me with spirits, and an intriguing one. It also lead me back to perfume again, hence the Lizzie Ostrom book.

When I talk about tasting drinks what I'm talking about specifically is a tasting process, one which relies heavily on the nose. The first step when you pour anything to taste is to asses it by eye - is it clear, a good colour, in any way distinctive (notes will be made). Next you nose it - approaching with caution if it's a spirit - sniff to deep and the alcohol will knock your nose out of shape and you'll get no useful information, then you taste. Even when you do actually have the liquid in your mouth it's the nose that's doing the bulk of the work - and you should be breathing in through the mouth out through the nose at this point.*

When you're nosing a drink you're assessing first of all if it smells clean (as opposed to faulty or unpleasant in some way) and then trying to identify different components from the whole. This might be to help describe it later, but it's more to do with helping you remember, define, and think about what you're drinking. Unless it's your job there's no need to take it to seriously, but I do think it's worth spending a few moments thinking about what you're drinking - it's more enjoyable when you do (at least it is when you're drinking something good, and really - there's no reason to drink anything which isn't good).

The nose matters, and this heady concoction of juniper, pink pepper, vanilla, honey, tonka, and citrus - which I'd wear with joy if I could - is a splendid reminder of that.

*If you want to know exactly how much work the nose does mix a little cinnamon and sugar together, hold your nose and think about what you can taste, then let go of your nose and see the difference.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Hendrick's Gin with a bit of Victorian excess

I had to really think about writing about Hendrick's gin. I'm not that keen on it so it was tempting not to bother, but then it's been so influential that it seemed wrong not to. I don't think it's coincidence that I've really struggled to think of a book to match it.

Hendrick's was launched in 2001, its success, and it is successful, setting the template for modern gin branding. I've heard Hendrick's described as a good gin to start with if you're not sure you like gin - the juniper is there but it's held in check by the cucumber and Rose elements that are added after distillation - and that's precisely why I'm not very excited by it. It's a perfectly nice gin, I take no issue with the cucumber garnish (I wouldn't object if you wanted to stick a rose in it either), but it simply isn't juniper forward enough for me. That's an entirely personal response, a gin doesn't get to be as popular as Hendrick's through marketing alone, it's a very well made spirit that deserves its fan base.

Not that I want to undersell the marketing though, it is a triumph, and worth celebrating. 15 years down the line it's perhaps hard to remember how fresh Hendrick's looked. The bottle shape and colour, the Victorian style decoration, the humour, even the tea cups... Hendrick's basically persuaded a generation of drinkers that gin was cool again (it is, they were right). They keep making it fun, and I don't doubt for a moment that they'll continue to do so, and that in itself is more than enough to make me raise a glass to them.

Book wise I feel Hendrick's calls for something that really celebrates Victorian eccentricity and excess. If I knew much about steam punk (beyond that it's a thing) I'm pretty sure I could find something perfect, but it's not a genre I've read. I suspect Jules Verne or H. G. Wells in science fiction mode would be appropriate but I've only seen films so they would be cheating. Wilkie Collins at his most sensational might do (I'm thinking 'Poor Miss Finch' levels of plotting craziness) but then the gin is perhaps to serious for that (allusions to blue ruin notwithstanding). It's a reminder that I ought to read some Florence Marryat or, Sheridan Le Fanu, but as I haven't...

The obvious choice for me ends up being collections of Victorian ghost stories and Gothic tales. This is partly in recognition of the current Hendrick's box which references the Victorian fascination with spiritualism and raising spirits, but mostly because I love this kind of thing.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Caorunn Gin with George Mackay Brown

My first brush with Caorunn gin was in Aberdeen airport, my sister bought a bottle when we were en route to Shetland for a family visit. We drank it with enthusiasm, and on the way back I bought more, it's been a favourite ever since. (Which was helpful when we first got it at work, the rep was so pleased with my enthusiasm he gave me another bottle - he's a lovely man).

Caorunn is made in Scotland, specifically at the Balmenach distillery in the Cairngorms, where they can draw on a long history of distilling. The name is Gaelic for rowan berry - which is one of the botanicals, rowan's have all sorts of mythology and folklore attached to them (planted next to a house they're meant to keep witches and other evil spirits away). The five sided bottle is inspired by Scottish Art Nouveau, and the five pointed star shape on it references the five specifically Scottish botanicals which also include heather and bog myrtle. This is a product that celebrates its provenance, it's also really good.

The result is a clean crisp gin in the London style with a nice balance between spice, citrus, and juniper. It makes an excellent G&T, and is a good all round cocktail gin - garnish wise Caorunn suggest red apples (apples are another botanical) and they also have This recipe for a winter toddy with apple juice, port, bitters, lemon juice, and sugar. It's one I'll be trying.

I think someone has just started making gin in Orkney, but until I get to try it, and despite gin not being the first drink I'd associate with George Mackay Brown (that would be whisky) the personality of Caorunn seems well suited to his work. He said of himself that "I sometimes see my task as poet and storyteller, to rescue the centuries treasure before it is to late. It is as though the past is a great ship that has gone ashore, and archivist and writer must gather as much of the rich squandered cargo as they can".

It's what he does time and again in his short story collections along with celebrating the landscape and the seasons. In its own way Caorunn does that too with all the ways it references its Scottish origins, along with the hint of ancient folklore tied up in those botanicals. Not that there's anything nostalgic about this gin - it's more a sense that it celebrates where it's come from. Anyway, it seems perfect, especially in toddy form, to enjoy with Mackay Brown's stories of Orkney life - especially when the wind blows and the rain chucks it down outside (as it is tonight).

Saturday, August 20, 2016

William Chase Seville Orange Gin with P G Wodehouse

Although they disappeared from off-licence and bar shelves something before my time, orange flavoured gins used to be popular. From what I've read I'm assuming they were fairly sweet and used mostly as a cocktail ingredient. William Chase's Seville Orange Gin is dry enough to satisfy the most traditional of gin drinkers (it certainly pleases me) but it too makes an excellent cocktail ingredient.

when I first tried it I was already familiar with, and a fan of, Chase's marmalade vodka, and that coupled with the glorious colour of this gin had led me to expect something aggressively orangey. It isn't at all, the orange flavour is there and it makes no bones about being the star of the show, but in many ways it's surprisingly subtle. The flavours are beautifully balanced and unmistakably gin like, albeit a citrus dominated gin, the end result was much more sophisticated than I expected and utterly contemporary - though the idea that it has a foot in gin history is pleasing too. 

It makes a brilliant gin and tonic, is excellent in a martini (I'd must try it in a breakfast martini* some day), and is worth trying in any citrus inclined gin cocktail - though it's such a good gin I don't like to mess around with it to much. It sings in a G&T and my cocktail making skills are limited.**

I'm not sure what Jeeves would make of this gin, I like to think it would be dry enough for him to approve of, but I'm certain that Bertie Wooster would love it, especially in a breakfast martini. That hint of marmalade could have been designed on purpose to compliment Wodehouse's world, a deckchair somewhere pleasant on a sunny afternoon with a glass of something involving this gin in one hand, and a book outlining why 'Aunts Aren't Gentleman' in the other, would be an afternoon well spent (and the stuff my dreams are made of). 

*which is in no way the same thing as having a martini for breakfast, that is something I have no intention of trying. Those days, if I ever had them, are long gone. 

** I've had occasional enthusiasms for trying to make cocktails at home, but experience has taught me to keep it simple and leave the business of serious cocktail making to professionals. It's less sticky that way. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Martin Miller's Gin with Gavin Maxwell

Martin Miller's gin is another ground breaker, and one I'm particularly fond of. It first saw the light of day in 1999 which was the same year I started working for Oddbins. One of the things I loved about being there was when we got new spirits to launch (in those days we would often be the first off licence to have them, and way ahead of supermarkets). I can't remember exactly when Martin Miller's hit the shelves, but I do remember trying it for the first time at a wine fair (neat, and it's still one of the few gins I find I could enjoy neat). I also remember the incentive scheme they ran to push sales. Every bottle sold was a point towards various prizes, sell 25 bottles and you got a magnum of Miller's. I got 3 magnums, one empty one is still doing duty as a toilet roll holder.

It's a great gin, and deserves a bit more shouting about then it gets. Martin Miller's was the first super premium gin to come along after Bombay Sapphire. The unique selling point was that after distillation the gin was shipped up to Iceland to have water added to bring it down to 40% abv, and then shipped back to the UK (hence the map on the bottle). The reason for this is that Iceland has the purest water in the world, and for whatever mysterious reason it apparently really does make a difference to the taste.

To drink it's quite citrusy, with the juniper coming in the middle of the palate, the finish is soft and clean, and there's a depth to the flavour that really underlines the quality of this gin. Of all the gins I've chosen for this project, this is the one that I'd urge people to try if they haven't already (and are inclined too. No hard sell here, I promise!). It's easy to find, it's not horribly expensive, and it's very, very, good.

It's the map on the label that puts me in mind of exploration and adventure, the shipping forecast, and a certain northern sense of romance. These are all things I associate with Gavin Maxwell's books, but in this case particularly 'Raven Seek Thy Brother' where he visits Iceland to research the possibility of farming Eider ducks for their down (predictably with Maxwell this was a failure, but it still made me want to go there - and one day I will).

I'm not clear if Maxwell was an alcoholic or not, it seems in questionable taste to pair his books with alcohol if he was. He certainly seems to have drunk a lot though that might have as much to do with the drinking culture of his time. Whatever the truth, amongst all the other things in his books there is a sense of martini drinking, a bottle of whisky stashed in the cabin of his shark fishing boats, or brandy in his club, along with a whiff of cigarette smoke, and fish oil, tar... A gin enjoyed responsibly is surely an appropriate accompaniment.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Darnley's View Spiced Gin with Walter Scott

If Sir Walter Scott had done gin marketing I'm pretty sure he'd have come up with something very like this:
“With renowned expertise for the production of fine wines and spirits, our gin is made from a family recipe and captures the moment in 1565 when Mary Queen of Scots spied her future husband, Lord Darnley, through the courtyard window at Wemyss Castle. From this marriage came a prince who later united the thrones of England and Scotland as James VI and Ist. We like to think of Darnley’s son, conceived through a union that began at Wemyss, as a symbol of our desire to combine the best of England and Scottish distilling to create a unique gin.” 
So it's appropriate that D bought me back this bottle from Scott country (if he will go to the Borders without me, a bottle of gin to return with is the least he can do...) I like to think that Scott himself would have enjoyed the cinnamon and nutmeg notes in this gin too, they're flavours that seem as at home in Sir Walter's time as they do in the sixteenth century.

For myself it's conformation that if it's not going to be all about the juniper, than a spice influenced gin will hit the spot (as far as personal taste goes I'm less keen on floral gins, subtlety is not apparently my thing in a drink). Dar let's View Spiced has an appropriately spice rack nose, is a pleasingly well balanced gin (quite smooth enough to drink nest, but good in a G&T, and apparently makes a very good negroni too, I've also seen it mentioned in connection to hot punches which will be something to explore in a month or two) and really follows through with its promises on the palate. The nutmeg and cinnamon are definitely there, not overwhelming, but unmistakably present, clove and ginger also play their part - overall the impression is of warm spiciness. It's a great addition to a gin collection - well made, and with something different to offer.

I think I'd drink this with just about any Walter Scott novel, not least because the descriptions of illicitly distilled whisky that I've read make it sound as much like gin as a modern day malt. The initial process of pot stilling is the same. Early moonshine type whisky wouldn't have had the years of ageing in oak casks which is where the colour and much of the flavour we now recognise comes from. But it seems it was flavoured in various ways to make it more palatable - though not with juniper, but still I think it would have been harder to tell the two spirits apart.

'Kenilworth' is the book that springs to mind, it's also the Scott I want to read next, but a hot gin punch would go just as well with 'Waverley', or indeed any of Scott's romantic presentations of Scottish history that I've read so far (and it seems safe to assume all the ones I haven't read too). Scott can be wordy, and slow going until you give in and decide to enjoy the pace he sets - which is probably why he's so unfashionable these days. Given the chance though he can also be deeply enjoyable to read, and he should be given the chance.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Opihr Gin with Breakfast With the Nikolides

Opihr gin is the work of Joanne Moore (she's also the distiller behind Thomas Dakin gin) and it's a great example of some of the exciting things that are happening with gin at the moment. Moore is in the enviable (and well deserved) position of master distiller for G&J Greenall (Britains second largest gin distillery) where she's proving, not that proof is really needed, that interesting gin isn't just the preserve of independent artisanal mavericks.

From what I've read, her baseline approach was to develop a gin flavour wheel (like this one Here) and look for gaps in the market on it which could then be coupled with other sources of inspiration. In the case of Opihr gin the inspiration is the spice route. There's a distinct hit of cardamom on the nose, and the finish is defined by the cubeb peppers - they're not overwhelming, but like the horseradish in the Thomas Dakin, it's a distinctive element. The packaging is equally distinctive and very much picks up on the story behind the gin.

I have a particular fondness for Opihr because it's a gin that allowed me to prove a point. It makes a perfectly good gin and tonic, but it goes particularly well with ginger ale (a gin buck). When we first had it open for customer tastings at work that's what I paired it with - and that's how I got a lot of people to realise that when they thought they didn't like gin and tonic, what they really didn't like was tonic. It was a wonderful afternoon of being able to say 'told you so'.

The other thing I really like about Opihr is that at around £22 it's a very reasonably priced premium gin. It's good to know there are interesting bottles out there for considerably less than the £30+ I'm starting to get used to paying for favourites.

Book wise it's has to be something which captures the exotic imagery of the spice route, but something that avoids too many associations with the Raj. It's altogether too easy to think of gin in terms of a vehicle to down quinine in a palatable form in the days of empire, but Ophir doesn't taste traditional enough for that. It's the botanicals that matter in this bottle and I feel they're telling a different sort of story.

Rumer Godden's spikey, uncomfortable, tales of Europeans trying to make a life in pre partition India are a different thing altogether. She celebrates the country and its indigenous culture all the while using it to highlight the tension caused by the inevitable clash with European ideas and customs. Everything is always on the cusp of change, and that seems right for such an individual sort of gin.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Gin Mare with Barcelona Shadows

I don't know why it came as a surprise to me to learn that gin was a huge thing in Spain, but it turns out they're Europes biggest gin drinkers (bigger than Britain which was specifically what surprised me) and they're serious about their tonic too. With that in mind, not having a Spanish gin around the place would be seriously remiss.

The easily available, and excellent, if slightly extravagent option is Gin Mare. It's a gin that pushes the boundaries of what gin is with rosemary, thyme, olive, and basil amongst the botanicals. It's deeply rooted in the area it comes from (just outside of Barcelona) and the history of Spanish gin. It's distinctive enough to stand out from the crowd - it really does taste distinctly Mediterranean in character and has a certain savoury quality about it that makes it an acceptable match with tapas. It's also a splendid excuse to go all Spanish with the garnishes (there's more to this than the choice between lemon or lime)...
I know almost as much about Spanish literature as I do Spanish gin (which is at least an invitation to drink and read more widely on my part) but even if I'm selecting from a very small choice 'Barcelona Shadows' by Marc Pastor is an attractive option. Warm August nights are not the worst time to be reading darkly gothic horror, or drinking well iced gin-tonic. Maybe it's the contrast between sultry air and well iced gin, dark subject matter and a clean crisp spirit, it certainly helps that the flavours in the gin echo the culinary produce of the region. It's just faintly exotic and that too, in its way feeds back into the book.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Sipsmith Gin with The Crimson Petal and the White

Sipsmith is the gin that makes so many of the current crop of artisanal craft gins possible, it's hard to overstate what a game changer it's been, and it all started with two men who had grown up as friends and both gone into the drinks industry. Sam Galsworthy, and Fairfax Hall.

Somewhere along the line they decided they wanted to make their own gin, and do roughly a decade ago that's what they set out to do. And instantly hit a huge HMRC shaped stumbling block. The problem was that they were proposing to produce under 300 litres at a time (Chase got around a similar problem by buying a bigger still) which would technically have classed their gin as moonshine. After a couple of years wrangling, and selling their houses to fund the project, the law was changed and a licence was granted. The first licence for a copper pot still based in London to be granted for over 180 years. Its still on the wall in the now expanded distillery premises in Chiswick, partly handwritten, because there was no dedicated form to fill in at the time.

With the help of distiller Jared Brown, and a still called Prudence (named after Gordon Brown's speech about fiscal prudence) they went into production in what had been whisky writer, Michael Jackson's garage (it had also been a micro brewery at one time; a garage with a serious drinks pedigree) and don't seem to have looked back since.

Sipsmith was the first gin distillery I visited, and after any number of whisky distillers it came as quite a surprise. Prudence looked tiny, she wouldn't even need a big garage, suddenly going into gin production seemed eminently possible...

Sipsmith's is a traditional London dry gin, has a nice balance between citrus and juniper, is well rounded and smooth, and is altogether a classic in the making. They continue to innovate, have a particularly good website (See here) where I've found some brilliant cocktail recipes*, and generally do a very, very, good job indeed whilst looking like they're having a great time in the process.

I've chosen 'The Crimson Petal and the White' to go with Sipsmith's because I feel they both demonstrate where craft meets art. Both pay homage to a certain Victorian can do spirit, neither get bogged down in nostalgia or historical trappings. Mostly though, it's the feeling that both book and gin are so very well crafted that makes me want to associate them with each other.

*It was on a Sipsmith label that I found a recipe for something called White Cargo. It's provenance goes back to the '20's, it's roughly equal amounts of gin and good quality vanilla ice cream, shaken until smooth. I can't say I personally loved it, but it's always been ridiculously popular at customer tastings, so it's worth a try - the ice cream means no need to mess around with ice, and it has the beauty of being simple. It's also where I found The Bee's Hot Knees - which is far more to my taste.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Williams Great British Gin with The Age of Uncertainty

Chase are an interesting distillery (I'm told they do an excellent tour if your ever in Herefordshire). The story goes something like this, William Chase started as a potato farmer who wanted more out of what he was doing, so he founded Tyrells crisps, and then somewhere along the line started thinking about vodka - it's the other obvious thing to do with potatoes. From vodka it's but a small step to gin (vodka is basically a neutral spirit, gin is what happens when you flavour it with juniper and a few other choice botanicals) and they've created some really interesting ones. My favourite of these might actually be the Seville orange gin, but the Great British Extra Dry gives it a close run.

The Chase philosophy is a 'from field to bottle' one, these are single estate products (not really a concept that gin is associated with) with impeccable provenance. They have the Chase name all over them, which rightly demonstrates a pride in the product - drinking it shows that that pride is fully justified.

GB is a classic gin (lots of juniper, a nice hint of spice, as dry as you like) which makes a particularly satisfying G&T. Potato based vodkas have a creaminess about the mouthfeel that's quite distinctive, and whilst I'm not claiming I can detect that in this potato based gin I like to think it's there in the smoothness of the spirit and something about the way the botanicals work in it.

I'd been trying to think of just the right book to go with GB for a while when I read this - I've been following The Age of Uncertainty since I started blogging, 7 years ago, and I'm going to miss it. Happily I can still follow its creator on Instagram and Twitter, and hope that he finds something he wants to write about and share again.

Until that time it seems fitting to raise a glass to toast what has been a stand out blog - and one that I think reflects the excellent qualities of the gin (though I make no claims for it being especially junipery). It's not precisely a book recommendation, but it is a bookseller recommendation.