Happy Birthday to me!

decon1The Boo Lion turned one last week, so I decided to get busy with the power tools and do a little deconstruction work.

But first, some thanks to those of you who have helped me during my first year, and yes, I mean you, the readers. I’m very grateful to my friends, and anyone who stopped by to read this blog. I’m always pleasantly surprised when I run into a friend I haven’t seen in a while, and they say how they’re enjoying reading my blog. The even greater surprising pleasure was the wonderful kindness and support from complete strangers in the cocktail blogging community. I hadn’t even read blogs before I started this one, and I was amazed at how nice and friendly other bloggers can be.

Thanks a lot guys!

Anyway, after a year it’s about time to pull out the power tools in service of mixology.

Last week, I blogged about Negronis. I left out one of the most fun – the Deconstructed Negroni.

The Deconstructed Negroni has nothing to do with Derrida and postmodernism. It’s about separating out some of the ingredients through the technology of molecular mixology, specifically nitrous canisters to create foam. I know it doesn’t sound like a job for the average kitchen cocktailian, but don’t despair, there is another method!

The Deconstructed Negroni is made by Charlotte Voisey as a version of her Unusual Negroni, which I featured last week, but with the Aperol being made into a foam that sits on top of the gin and Lillet Blanc mix.

If, like me, you don’t have nitrous canisters, you can use a whisk. Eric Felten recommends using a sturdy wide mixing glass, and rubbing a small whisk between your hands like a boy scout rubbing a stick to make fire. I don’t have a small whisk, and I wasn’t very happy with my resulting foam (although it was still quite passable). Electric whisks are very expensive in this country. Electric whisk heads are not. Neither are power drills.

DSC_1174Oh, yeah! That’s the way I do it.

DSC_1180I can’t believe I waited a year to use power tools in the service of the cocktail arts.

DSC_1101The Deconstructed Negroni

1 1/2 oz gin

1 1/2 oz Lillet Blanc

Aperol foam

Lightly stir gin and Lillet over ice in a rocks glass. Spoon Aperol foam on top.

Aperol Foam

1 oz Aperol

1 egg white

2 oz strained grapefruit juice

2 tsp orange bitters*

Whisk ingredients into a frothy foam (with whisk, electric beater or power drill).

First of all 2 teaspoons of orange bitters is a hell of a lot! I like my Angostura Orange Bitters, but they’re very strong, and can easily overpower a drink. I used two small dashes, and less would have been fine. But you certainly want some, as I think orange is very important in a Negroni.

As with the Unusual Negroni, you want a light and/or citrusy gin with this one – Plymouth and Hendricks work well.

Finally if, you don’t have Aperol and Lillet, you can use the usual Negroni ingredients – sweet vermouth and Campari. This makes a good drink, but the Aperol and Lillet combo is better.

The drink is a winner! It’s fun to make, good to look at or show off, and delicious to drink.

Addendum

A final Negroni variation I neglected to mention is apparently quite chic in cocktail circles now, but I don’t have ingredients for it. It’s the White Negroni. Putney Farm has a great article about it, and Jason Wilson has a recipe in the Washington Post. I’m on holiday for a couple of weeks, and checking out a few of Wellington’s cocktail bars. Maybe I’ll get a chance to try one.

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Negroni2This post is mostly about the Negroni, but I’m going to start with an Italian lesson.

1. americano (n)

An Americano is a drink made with bitters (Campari), vermouth and soda. According to most sources it got its name around about the 1890s because of all the American tourists drinking it. I call bullshit. Were there loads of American tourists in Italy in the 1890s? Did they then choose to drink strange bitter European liqueurs? I think the more likely explanation is that the name came from ‘ameri’ the word for ‘bitter’. I have no evidence to back this up.

2. Negroni (n)

The name of an Italian Count who wanted to strengthen his Americano by subbing gin for soda. It worked, and the story seems a little more legit, although there are at least two Italian Counts vying for the credit.

3. sbagliato (adj)

Mistaken, as in, “I mistakenly poured champagne into your Negroni, instead of gin, by mistake. (Mama Mia!)”. You mistakenly what? No I don’t believe it. The Beefeater and the Asti Spumante look nothing alike. The bubbles weren’t a giveaway? Now, I read that the drink usually called ‘Negroni Sbagliato’ is simply called ‘Sbagliato’ in Italy. Back in the day, cheap (or not-so-cheap) dry sparkling wine was often used as a luxury version of soda water. So the Sbagliato is really just a luxury Americano, but maybe its invention really was a happy mistake.

Now that we’ve learnt the lexicology, let’s get on to the boozeology.

The Americano was actually originally called the Milan-Turino. It was invented by Gaspare Campari, who was a master drinks-maker by the age of 14, invented the most famous bitters in the world and founded the company that was to become the sixth-largest multinational spirits producer. Quite a guy! He was from Turin, but moved to Milan and opened his Caffe Campari there, naming his signature drink after his two home cities, which were also home to the two ingredients, his own Campari, made in Milan, and Cinzanno Vermouth, made in Turin.

americanoAmericano

1 1/2 oz Campari

1 1/2 oz sweet vermouth

soda water

orange or lemon slice

Build over ice in an Old_Fashioned glass, top with a squirt of soda and garnish with orange or lemon slice. Alternatively, build in a highball glass of ice and add about 2 oz of soda.

Lemon is the traditional garnish and orange was used in the Negroni to distinguish it, but personally I think that the orange just works better with the Campari.

The Americano is a nice enough drink, but the improvements are better.

As mentioned, if you use sparkling wine instead of soda water, you get a Sbagliato. This drink was invented (mistakenly or not) by bartender Mirko Stochetto, at the Bar Basso in Milan during the 1960s.

sbagliatoSbagliato

1 1/2 oz Campari

1 1/2 oz sweet vermouth

dry sparkling wine

orange slice

Make in the same way as an Americano, in an Old-Fashioned glass, although, for fun, I like to put it in a Champagne glass.

For authenticity, the sparkling wine should really be Italian. It seems that the original was probably Asti Spumante, but it’s trendier to use Prosecco, these days. There’s nothing wrong with using cheap Champagne, Cava or something else, though. I’ve tried all three, and like this drink quite a lot. It’s light, fun and easy to drink.

That finally brings us to the Negroni – the strengthened (and I think much improved) version of the Americano.

The most probable story of the invention of the Negroni was that the Italian playboy Count Camillo Negroni (when returning to Italy after having been a cattle rancher in the US for a while when he fled home due to the fathering an illegitimate child), drinking Americanos at the Cafe Casoni in 1919, decided to strengthen them with a bit of gin. A classic was born.

Negroni1Negroni

1 oz gin

1 oz Campari

1 oz sweet vermouth

orange slice or zest

Combine in an Old-Fashioned glass of ice and stir, or stir in a mixing glass of ice and strain into a coupe or Martini glass. Garnish with orange slice, wheel, wedge or zest.

That’s the drink, in all its simplicity. Now let’s get on to some choices and variations:

The simplest choice is if you want it on the rocks or up. Apparently in Italy it is always served in an Old-Fashioned glass with ice, but in recent years, cocktail fans have been straining it into a cocktail glass. I prefer the latter approach. It seems to make a nicer drink to me, and can also be a beautiful clear red which just makes it more appealing.

A few drops of Angostura or orange bitters is another common choice, although it’s not really necessary, given that Campari is, itself, a form of bitters. That said, I do like a couple of drops of orange bitters in my Negroni, especially if I’m using Aperol instead of Campari and using lighter citrusy gin.

Which brings me to the gin. I think the best choices are either a good traditional London dry like Tanqueray (one of my top choices) or a milder gin with good hints of citrus, such as Plymouth Gin. I wouldn’t recommend more herbal gins like Bombay Sapphire or the Botanist, really.

One trend is to increase the amount of gin. Personally, I think this is a mistake. I don’t really consider the Negroni a ‘gin drink’. With the equal parts formula, the three ingredients come together to create a completely new third flavour which is neither gin, Campari nor vermouth – the Negroni flavour. I think you lose this if you up the ratio of gin. You have a new gin drink, which is not a Negroni, nor is it as good.

Another, much better, trend is to use the Negroni template – gin, bitters, vermouth-like sweetener – to create similar drinks. There are quite a lot of these, but many require Amari (Italian potable bitters) that I just can’t get. Neither can I get any kind of sweet Vermouth (Carpano Antica, and Punt-e-Mes are popular ones) other than Martini and Rossi. Here are a few that I have tried:

unusualThe Unusual Negroni

1 oz gin

1 oz Aperol

1 oz Lillet Blanc

orange twist

Stir ingredients with ice (or ‘throw’) and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with orange twist.

This drink was created by bartender Charlotte Voisey for Hendrick’s Gin, and it’s a good gin for the drink. A lighter gin is called for, and one with good citrus flavours, so I’ve also found that Plymouth works well in this drink. Aperol is a lighter, more orangey, sweeter version of Campari (read to the end for availability in Taiwan), and can work well to introduce those wary of Campari to Negronis. The Aperol, being sweeter, is balanced by Lillet Blanc, being less sweet than Italian vermouth. Lillet is an aperitif wine with a similar profile to vermouth, but again, like all ingredients in this drink, it’s lighter and brighter. I like to add just two drops of Angostura Orange Bitters, as well.

Voisey ‘throws’ this drink to create some aeration, but I haven’t actually tried that myself.

The Unusual is my favourite Negroni, and a great bet if you want to win someone over to the drink. In my experience, no one likes their first Negroni, so see if you can make this their (or your own) second.

But sometimes you don’t want light:

cyn-cin (2)Cyn-Cin

1 oz gin

1 oz Cynar

1 oz sweet vermouth

1 dash bitters

2 wedges orange

Shake liquid ingredients and juice of one of the wedges with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with the other wedge.

Jason Wilson attributes this variation to bartender Chris Cunningham, and writes of it, and other variations, in his book ‘Boozehound’, and in a Washington Post column.

Cynar (sadly unavailable in Taiwan) is the fantastic artichoke liqueur that I’ve written about before. It makes this Negroni rich and herbaceous. Another winner.

hankypankyHanky Panky

1 1/2 oz gin

1 1/2 oz sweet vermouth

2 dashes Fernet Branca

orange twist

Stir well with ice in a mixing glass and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

Ted Haigh unearthed this cocktail, created by Ada Coleman at the Savoy Cocktail, home of one of the most influential cocktail books ever. He stresses the importance of actually expressing the essential oils in the orange before garnishing. He also says that the drink languishes because of its unfortunate name. I love the name! Apparently, upon tasting it, a certain Sir Charles Hawtrey declared “By Jove! That is the real Hanky Panky!”

I agree with Charles. This might be a bit clichéd for cocktail geeks, but Fernet Branca (alas, also not to be had in Taiwan) is one of my very favourite drops. I use a teaspoon in this drink. The proportions are different from a standard Negroni, but the Fernet is stronger, and a lot more bitter than Campari, so it still has a definite Negroni-ness. It’s great.

Deconstructed Negroni

Another good one, but I’m going to cover that in my next post.

luciengaudinThe Lucien Gaudin Cocktail

1 oz gin

1/2 oz Cointreau

1/2 oz Campari

1/2 oz dry vermouth

orange twist

Stir with ice in a mixing glass and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with the twist.

Another drink from Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, named after a famous French fencer from the 20’s. It makes sense as a Negroni with the added orangey flavours of Cointreau, but I wasn’t too thrilled with it. I think it needs a bit of Orange Bitters, and would quite likely also work better with Aperol instead of Campari.

BoulevardierThe Boulevardier

1 1/2 oz Bourbon

1 oz Campari

1 oz sweet vermouth

orange twist or cherry

Stir with ice in a mixing glass and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with orange twist or cherry.

I’ve left this to last for the obvious reason that it’s not a Negroni at all, being made out of Bourbon rather than gin. No matter, it’s a wonderful drink that stands up to both the Negroni and its other relative the Manhattan in quality. I’d recommend it to anyone.

Conclusions

The Negroni is a marvellous drink, not only of itself, but in the way it can be easily adapted. I’ve only listed a few of the variations, being, as I am, constrained by my lack of alternatives for the Campari and the Vermouth, but there are countless variations possible. Try one.

Note: I have found Aperol in only one place in Taiwan, a small distributor called Fontanbev. Their website is a horrible Flash mess, so if you can’t navigate it, their address is Zhongxiao E Rd, Sec 5, No. 508, 21F-3, and they have a small shop on the first floor of the back of that building (Phone 02-2759-1358). The Aperol is about 900NT, I think. I’ve mentioned before that you can get Lillet Blanc from Sundy.

Gin Tasting – Premium Gins

November 17, 2012

Saturday afternoon, my good friend is visiting the country, we have a scheduled power cut for five hours, and there’s torrential monsoon rain outside. What to do?

Cue my second round of gin tasting.

The first time I did something like this was several months ago and was much more basic. That time, I tried some very different products – Tanqueray, Plymouth, Old Tom and Genever.

This time around I set up three premium gins with three more regular brands (except that most bars would probably call the regular ones ‘premium’ and the others ‘super-premium’ or something).

My friend, my wife and I tried them all straight (after a little nosing), with a little water and in a gin and tonic (2 parts Schweppes tonic to 1 part gin with lemon wedge). Several weeks later, with a different friend, we did it again, but this time with a Martini (4:1 with Martini & Rossi and a dash of orange bitters + lemon twist) instead of gin and tonic. And we had a new gin, too. They weren’t blind tests. I had some knowledge of the brands (although I hadn’t read anything recently) but the other two were unencumbered by pre-formed expectations.

I have to say that none of us are expert tasters, and speaking for myself at least, I’m pretty awful at identifying smells and flavours. I can basically pick out sweet, sour, bitter, yucky and yummy.

I remember a long time ago Googling phrases like “What is the best brand of gin?” I now know that it’s not a good question. There are loads of quality brands and they all depend on your tastes, your mood, and what you’re mixing with. If you’re a gin fan, you wouldn’t rely on just one brand any more than a wine-lover would only drink one kind of wine.

That said, there were a few winners in our little testing.

Here are the seven we tried, and our thoughts on each. I have included some information from the makers or other sources about their botanicals used. That doesn’t mean we actually tasted all of them! Also, note the alcohol by volume. This differs in different markets – some countries or states tax spirits with higher ABV much higher, so these strengths are not usually sold. I prefer a good 47% or so strength for gin, especially for mixing, but it’s possible that the bottling we tasted is different from that available to you locally. All of these are available in Taipei, and I’ve noted where.

Plymouth Gin

Plymouth is the only gin in this taste-test that isn’t, strictly speaking, a ‘London Dry’ style of gin. It’s technically the surviving example of it’s very own category ‘Plymouth Gins’. That said, the basic taste profile is not that different. In fact, it’s closer to a ‘clean’ London Dry style than many gins with a more ambitious use of botanicals, so can make a good ‘neutral’ gin in cocktails.

ABV: 41.2%

Botanicals: juniper, angelica root, cardamom pods, coriander seeds, lemon peel, orange peel, orris root

Plymouth Gin is made in a 155-year-old copper pot still and is said to be distinguished by its ‘buttery’ base spirit and the naturally peaty granite-filtered water from the local Dartmoor Reservoir.

Tasting: We could taste light juniper, a little citrus and ‘lemon zestiness’. It tasted weaker and emptier others such as Tanqueray. Water didn’t improve it. It was much nicer in a gin and tonic, where we thought it was good. In the Martini the vermouth overpowered it.

Conclusions: Plymouth is nice; it just seemed weak and boring up against the other gins in our test. That said, it’s a popular mixing gin these days and I’ve come to appreciate it as such. It seems to go very well in Negronis and other cocktails which need a bit of orange citrus flavour. Orange bitters are a good match with Plymouth. Also when making earlier cocktails (ie pre-1890), Plymouth may be a better fit than London dries. It can go well in a drink where you want the gin to be a bit more subtle.

Availability in Taiwan: 9 City

 

Broker’s Gin

Although Broker’s is fairly new (1998) it is made to a 200-year-old recipe in an old distillery that is the same age. The botanicals used are all traditional gin botanicals, so it is a very traditional London Dry style gin. The first thing you notice about Broker’s is the bowler cap on the stem. Some hate it as a gimmick, but I think it’s cute. Just be sure to take it off if you’re using it often – it could easily make you drop the bottle.

ABV: 40%

Botanicals: juniper, coriander, orris, nutmeg, cassia bark, cinnamon, liquorice, orange peel, lemon peel, angelica root

Broker’s is made in a copper pot still with water from an underground spring at the distillery.

Tasting: We tasted strong juniper and the classic gin profile. We thought it was very similar to Tanqueray, but with perhaps a bit more citrus (and looking up the ingredients later seems to bear this out). Drinking neat, my wife thought it was a little lighter than Tanqueray, and my friend described it as a ‘gin hit in the mouth’. We thought it improved with the addition of water, but failed somewhat in a gin and tonic, lacking character. Tasting it on the second occasion, I thought it much better than the first time, and it tasted good in a Martini.

Conclusions: Broker’s suffered in our test as we thought Tanqueray was very similar, but better. That’s not surprising as both are very classic London Dry styles. That said, it’s still a very good gin, and you might like it if you feel that Tanqueray is a little too brash.

Availability in Taiwan: Carrefour, Breeze

Tanqueray Gin

Tanqueray is probably the most well-known of the gins in our taste-test, and perhaps also best epitomises the characteristics of a traditional London Dry style of gin. Its botanicals are part of a secret recipe, but are thought to be few – as little as four – with only three given by the distillers themselves. Started in London in the 1830s, Tanqueray is now produced in Scotland (much of the distillery was destroyed in the blitz).

ABV: 47.3%

Botanicals: juniper, coriander, angelica, and (widely assumed) liquorice

Tanqueray is now made in copper pot stills, including the 200-year-old ‘Old Tom’.

Tasting: We tasted strong juniper, a little spice and a hint of lemon. From the ‘nosing’ onwards, we all thought that Tanqueray was THE classic expression of gin. For me it just tastes ‘ginnier’ than all other gins. It was also described as ‘velvety’, full-bodied, dry tasting and tonic-like. The addition of water improved it. In a gin and tonic it was one of the very best, and also what we all thought of as the quintessential G’n’T. It was great as a Martini as well.

Conclusions: Tanqueray is my ‘go-to’ gin. I use it as the ‘default’ whenever trying a new gin cocktail. The 47% we get here stands up well to other ingredients, and it’s just ‘the classic’ London Dry profile. I know some think it’s too heavy on the juniper, but for me, more juniper just means more gin-like. Tanqueray was one of our top picks.

Availability in Taiwan: Carrefour and many bottle stores

Darnley’s View

Darnley’s is a very new gin dating back only to 2010. It is made by the Scotch-producing Wemyss family near Edinburgh, but is a fairly traditional, though light, London Dry style. The name is based on the view Mary Queen of Scots had of her future husband Lord Darnley, who was to father James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England, uniting Scotland and England (presumably in the same way that Darnley’s unites English and Scottish gin. I think it’s a stupid name.)

ABV: 40%

Botanicals: juniper, lemon peel, coriander seed, angelica root, elderflower and orris root

Tasting: We tasted weak juniper and a little citrus. Overall, we simply found it weaker and duller than most of the others. We thought the addition of water only brought out the flavours a little. We thought the gin and tonic rather boring and the Martini weak and watery.

Conclusion: I feel sorry for Darnley’s View; it seems like the real loser in our taste testing. But it’s certainly not a bad gin. I find the bottle alluring and am never disappointed when I take a sip. Maybe we missed it’s subtleties, as I’ve since found it to perform very well in Negronis, although I still doubt it’s ability to stand up well in most classic cocktails.

Availability in Taiwan: Megacity Mall City Super

Martin Miller

Started ten year’s ago by an antiques entrepreneur, Martin Miller’s gin has a few interesting qualities. Firstly, the earthier botanicals are distilled separately from the citrus ones before being blended. A small amount of distilled cucumber is also added as a drying agent. After distillation, as portrayed on the (very nice looking) bottle, the gin is transported to Iceland to be blended with what they call the  ‘purest water in the world’, which is apparently super oxygenated with a high surface tension which gives the gin a softer gentler taste.

ABV: 40%

Botanicals: juniper, coriander, angelica, lemon peel, orange peel, orris root, powdered licorice, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cassia bark

Martin Miller is distilled in a 100-year-old pot still called ‘Angela’.

Tasting: We tasted citrus and cucumber. We all had great first impressions of this gin. It could have been the excellent marketing and image of the bottle at work, or it could have ben truly living up to its image, but we all thought Martin Miller tasted exceptionally fresh with a smooth arctic coolness and not so much bite as more juniper-forward gins. We eventually identified with instant certainty the cucumber taste as one of the main reasons for this. Hendricks is known for cucumber, but I think you can taste it much more clearly in the Martin Miller, where it works very well. The addition of water improved the flavours and it was great in a gin and tonic (which I also later tried with a cucumber garnish which was also very nice). The vermouth seemed to accentuate these tastes making for an exceptional, albeit rather non-standard, expression of the Martini.

Conclusions: Undoubtedly a winner for all three us in this taste-testing, Martin Miller is an exceptional fresh and refreshing cool summer gin. That said, you’d have proceed with caution when mixing classic drinks, as its profile is so non-standard. But G’n’Ts and Martinis alone easily justify buying this gin. This could also be a good gin to lure vodka drinkers onto the true path.

Availability in Taiwan: 9 City, Breeze

Hendrick’s Gin

Hendrick’s Gin, also little over ten years old, is made in Scotland. Its smooth marketing brands it as an unusual gin, and plays up its additives of rose and cucumber – spearheading the use of cucumber in place of lemon/lime in a G’n’T. Its distinctive opaque bottle adds to the image of a distinctive gin.

ABV: 41.5%

Botanicals: quite secret, but seem to include juniper, coriander, citrus, angelica, orris

Hendrick’s is distilled partly in a Bennet copper pot still, and partly in a rare Carter-head still where the more floral botanicals are added. These two distillates are then blended to make the final gin after the addition of cucumber and Bulgarian rose distillates.

Tasting: The scent of Hendricks was floral and perfumy, and the nice floral qualities came through when tasting it neat and with water. Juniper was in the background. We couldn’t taste the cucumber, but that might have been what made the Hendricks taste smoother than most of the other gins. Hendricks made one of the best gin and tonics in our test, but was middle of the bunch for Martinis.

Conclusions: We were very impressed with Hendrick’s in our first round of tasting (with gin and tonics) but a little less so in the second round (with Martinis). Hendrick’s seems to polarise a little, with many loving it and many finding it over-hyped. I tend to towards the former camp, but wouldn’t go the way of the Wall Street Journal and call it the best gin in the world. This is a good gin for cocktails where you are mixing with other floral ingredients.

Availability in Taiwan: 9 City and quite a few other bottle stores

The Botanist

Islay Scotch producers of the Bruichladdich distillery widen their portfolio with this aptly named gin containing 9 standard botanicals and a further 22 special botanicals all sourced from Islay itself. That’s 2-4 times as many botanicals as in most gins, which could make it either a gin of unmatched complexity or a complete mess of too many flavours.

ABV: 46%

Botanicals: juniper berries, angelica root, cassia bark, cinnamon bark, coriander seed, lemon peel, orange peel, liquorice root, orris root, apple mint birch leaves, bog myrtle leaves, chamomile, creeping thistle flowers, elderflower, gorse flowers, heather flowers, hawthorn flowers, juniper (prostrate) berries, Lady’s Bedstraw flowers, lemon balm, meadowsweet, peppermint leaves, mugwort leaves, red clover flowers, sweet cicely leaves, tansy, thyme leaves, water mint leaves, white clover, wood sage leaves

The Botanist is slow-distilled in a 60-year-old Lomond pot still called Old Betty. The standard botanicals are macerated first and the local botanicals are added via an infusion basket in the still. Islay spring water is used in  the distillation and bottling.

Tasting: We tasted juniper and strong herbal flavours. We thought it dry and fairly bitter, but certainly interesting. I didn’t have this for our first round of tasting, so we didn’t try it in a side-by-side gin and tonic test. I made one later though and thought it fine. However, it really shone in the Martini. It was very herbal with a touch of cinnamon.

Conclusions: The Botanist was one of our favourites in the Martini – complex, distinctive and fascinating (though again quite non-standard). I wouldn’t use it in recipes calling for a normal London Dry, at least not expecting a normal result. This is another gin for appreciating on its own, in Martinis or with simple mixers. It’s not a refresher, but a gin for those who like a nice complex drink.

Availability in Taiwan: 9 City

Summary

The gin-tastings were a fun experience and a great way to get to know some gins and see the differences between them. Honestly, there were no winners, but going up against other heavy hitters left some otherwise excellent gins tasting boring and nondescript.

Plenty of gins that are available in Taipei were left out (I can only buy so many at once): Beefeater (a great traditional gin), Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray No. 10, Greenall’s, Gordon’s (which I don’t care for), The London No.1 and more. I want to try them all sometime.

I expected it, but it’s very clear that there is no ‘best gin in the world’. It all depends on not only your own preferences, but what you’re mixing it with and what sort of mood you’re in.

Awards

Best gin for gin and tonic: Tanqueray, Martin Miller and (runner-up) Hendrick’s

Best gin for Martini: Tanqueray, Martin Miller and The Botanist

Best traditional gin: Tanqueray

Best atypical gin: Martin Miller (runners-up: Hendrick’s and The Botanist).

What should I be trying next? What’s your favourite gin?

Table of (Known and Assumed) Botanicals

Tanqueray Darnley’s Hendrick’s Plymouth Broker’s M Miller Botanist
juniper
coriander
angelica
orris
lemon
orange
liquorice
cassia
cinnamon
nutmeg
elderflower
cardamom
others

Further Reading

Gin tasting at Bunnyhugs

Gin Tasting at Raised Spirits

The Gin Blog

Gin Reviews at Summer Fruit Cup

Having a smashing time!

October 4, 2012

The ‘Smash’ is a cocktail predecessor based on mint – a “Julep on a small plan” as is often said.

This post is the last in a short trilogy on mint, following Mojitos and Juleps.

Before the ‘Cocktail‘ (in the official sense of the word – spirit, bitters, sugar and water), there was the ‘Sling’ – spirit, sugar and water (or ice). The addition of mint, simply makes it a ‘Smash’, and according to David Wondrich, this was a pretty popular drink in the late 19th century. Another way of looking at it is as a cocktail (like an Old-Fashioned) with mint instead of bitters as the spice.

The Smash I’d heard reference to the most was the Gin Smash. I had an old recipe from somewhere and tried it.

Gin Smash

2 oz gin

1 tsp sugar

1 tsp water

3 sprigs of mint

Muddle the mint in sugar and water, add gin, and shake. Strain into an Old-Fashioned glass of ice with some finely chopped mint, and garnish with an extra sprig.

Well, it was OK. It should have been better. With some thought, here was what I came up with.

Why shake that mint? Julep and Mojito experts don’t shake it. Everyone says it bruises and tastes unpleasant. Why would it be better shaken in a Smash? But even Wondrich says he likes to shake, and a Smash (SMASH!!!) sounds like it should be shaken.

It needs to be sweeter. Maybe it’s just me, but I think mint requires a little more sugar. I found my Juleps much better that way,

Tanqueray, with its brash Juniper-forward profile, might not have been the best choice for gin. Dutch Genever would have been the stuff in the original Smashes, and failing that something milder is called for.

I tried again, three more times, with Genever (Bokme), the sweeter Old Tom Gin (Haymans) and the milder Plymouth. I came up with a plan for the mint. Here’s what I got:

Gin Smash (Take 2)

2 oz gin or genever

2 tsp sugar

1 tb  water

about a dozen mint leaves

1 mint sprig

Briefly stir sugar in water to almost dissolve it in your serving glass. Muddle mint leaves lightly in sugar. Fill a mixing glass or shaker tin with ice. Strain mint and sugar over this and discard the leaves. Add gin. Shake. Fill serving glass with crushed ice. Strain the drink over it. Garnish with a good mint sprig (giving it a slap to release smell first) and serve with a short straw which forces the nose to go right down in the mint.

Well that was much better!

The trick with the glasses is just a way of getting the mint out and throwing it away after the muddling flavours the water. It’s just a light touch, and a lot of the mint ‘taste’ comes from the garnish sprig in the nose (thanks, Ben, for suggesting discarding). I really think this method works. You could also just fish the mint out with a barspoon. Oh, and rubbing the rim of the glass and the end of the straw with mint works too.

Genever was great. I love that spirit. Pity you can’t get it in Taiwan. It’s very different from normal gin, though.

The Old Tom and the Plymouth were quite similar (you can buy Plymouth Gin at 9City), and much better than the Tanqueray in this drink (although I think the latter would taste much better with this new method). It’s a really nice drink. I don’t think a slice of lemon would go amiss. You could also try something like Benedictine, Curacao, or another liqueur as the sweetening agent too (just leave out the sugar, or muddle mint straight into liqueur). The possibilities are endless.

The next one I was tried was a Brandy Smash, with this recipe from Eric Felten:

Brandy Smash

1 1/2 oz brandy

1/4 oz Benedictine

3 or 4 mint leaves

1 tsp sugar

In a  short glass, gently crush the mint in the sugar with a splash of water. Fill the glass with well-crushed ice, add the brandy and Benedictine, and stir. Garnish with a sprig of mint.

I used Courvoisier Exclusif VSOP for the brandy. I think it mixes very well, and I like it more and more.

This is another good Smash. With the Benedictine, it’s a little like a mild and minty B & B. Great stuff.
Conclusions

Smashes are good. They’re a good alternative to other simple drinks. I tried the Gin Smash again before I finished this post, with Tanqueray and Martin Miller. They were fine, but the Plymouth (or Old Tom) is the way to go, and Genever, if you can get it. I’ll also definitely try the Brandy one again as we get into the cold weather that usually sees me drinking B & B’s. That said, of all the mint drinks, the Mojito is still my favourite.

Part 1: Mojitos

Part 2: Mint Juleps

I thought I knew all the places to buy gin in Taipei and all the brands that were available.

Then I stumbled on this bottle store (with three branches) called 9City.

What an amazing surprise! Seven brands of gin that I haven’t seen anywhere else in Taipei! Seven! (Like all bottle stores in Taiwan they specialize in Scotch, but in comparison with most, this place is a regular gin palace).

Best of all, a gin that is old, unique and specifically called for in certain recipes, at a superb price of 450NT, and hitherto unavailable in Taiwan:

Plymouth Gin!!!

Next a few premium gins that seem like they might well be worth a try:

Gin No. 209

The Botanist Islay Dry Gin

Boudier Saffron Gin

A few that I see fewer glowing reviews of:

Pink 47

Josephine Gin

William Chase

One that is only available one other place:

Martin Miller’s

Two at higher strengths:

Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength (45.2 – very keen to try)

Hendricks 1 litre (which I think is 44% rather than the usual 41.4)

If you’re interested in gin, this is the place to go. Get some Plymouth at the very least.

There are three branches in Taipei. Here are the addresses:

Taipei City, Chang An E Rd Sec 2, No. 197 (3233 9399)

Taipei City, Renai Rd Sec 4, L.112, No. 21 (2778 9338)

Xinbei City, Yonghe, Zhongshan Rd Sec 1, No. 322 (2709 5168)

The story of how cocktails happen is more one of variation and adaptation than raw ‘invention’, so when I’ve come up with a ‘new’ cocktail (not very often) I never know when to call it a new ‘invention’ or a variation, but I suspect 99% of cocktails are just variations of others that came before (and 1% inspiration).Perhaps it’s all in the name.

My last post was my ‘invention’ the (Return of the) Green Hornet. Here’s a few more I’ve come up with recently.

The Cherry Collins

2 oz gin

1 oz cherry syrup

1 oz lemon juice

2 dashes cherry bitters (Fees)

soda

Shake and strain (all but the soda) into a Collins glass filled with ice. Top up with soda. Stir lightly.

This is a simple Tom Collins variation – cherry syrup instead of water and a touch of appropriate bitters. Why?

I made a big batch of rummed-up homemade cocktail cherries for my guest bartender night at the Green Hornet this Saturday. A by-product from 4 jars of cherries is one jar of a thick cherry syrup. Now I’ve actually tried a cherry fizz (almost identical to a Collins) with Cherry Brandy (which is actually a liqueur, not a brandy) and it was OK. But the actual syrup works much better and the cherry bitters ramp it up a couple more notches into an excellent refreshing drink, which is not too sweet at all, but still nicely cherry-tasting.

The name was a cinch, as variations of the Tom Collins just rely on varying the name (eg Ivan Collins for one made with vodka etc).

I am very happy with this one, and my wife loves it too. If you can get down to the Green Hornet on Saturday night, I’ll be able to serve you one.

(Apologies for the awful photo)

The Nora Ephron

2 oz dark rum

1 oz ginger syrup

1 oz lime juice

soda

Build in a highball glass. Fill with ice. Top up with soda. Stir lightly.

Another one with ingredients I’d prepared for Saturday night – this time the ginger syrup I used for the (Return of the) Green Hornet. I used Havana Club Anejo Especial for the rum. It’s kind of a simplification of the modern classic, the Anejo Highball, created by Dale DeGroff. Or, if you like, a highball daiquiri with ginger syrup instead of sugar.

This is another great refresher, and my wife likes it enough that she just asked me for another one. It’s 31 degrees C right now, at 10PM, so I don’t blame her. Again, I can make you one at the Green Hornet this Saturday if you ask.

The name is on honour of the screenwriter who had, I discovered, passed away on the day I first made this.

The New Amsterdam

2 oz genever

1 oz sweet vermouth

2 dashes orange bitters

Stir well with ice and strain into a chilled martini glass.

This is, of course, a Manhattan with the old Dutch gin-like genever as a base rather than bourbon or rye whiskey. The earliest martinis were also a bit like this too, but by that time they were using Old Tom gin instead of genever, so it’s different again. Genever while being quite gin-like also has an earthy aged taste which makes it sort of whiskey-like too. So it’s no surprise that while I thought of this drink on my own, I was far from the first to do so. So I can hardly call it my own invention.

But how about the name! I’ve seen this online with white vermouth called a ‘White Manhattan’, but come on – this drink named itself. Dutch Manhattan … If you see a genever Manhattan served anywhere – as a ‘White Manhattan’ or under any other name – please insist that it be renamed instantly.

Sadly genever is unavailable in Taiwan, and my stocks (the bottle) are running low, otherwise I’d drink this delicious cocktail much more.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture for the next one.

The Guns of Normandy

1 – 1 1/2 oz Calvados

2 dashes Angostura Bitters

a sugar cube

Normandy Brut Cider

Put the sugar cube in a champagne flute and pour the bitters on top. Add the Calvados. Fill with ice. Top up with the cider. Don’t stir.

This one was a matter of applying the logic of a Champagne Cocktail, to Calvados and Cider. Calvados is ‘apple brandy’ made in Normandy. It’s a ‘true’ brandy in the sense that it is actually distilled from fermented apples, rather than being infused or flavoured with the fruit in the way that some ‘brandies’ (commonly cherry, apricot and peach) are.

So a common Champagne Cocktail uses Champagne and Cognac – fermented grapes strengthened with a little distilled fermented grapes. The Guns of Normandy uses fermented apples strengthened with a little distilled fermented apples.

I made this on the cheap with Carrefour’s selected ‘Reflets de France’ branded Calvados and the similarly branded Cidre Brut. I don’t know enough about Calvados to know how it compares, but it is ‘Appellation Pays d’Auge’ which should stand for something. The cider is really nice and refreshing, and very cheap at Carrefour in Taiwan.

I couldn’t help wondering if apple bitters instead of Angostura might be good to take the theme even further, or an apple slice garnish, but that would probably be overkill. Maybe a cube of apple instead of a cube of sugar? It’s something to try.

The name comes from the apparent practice in World War One of naming champagne cocktails after artillery pieces. The French 75 is the most well-known example, but I’ve seen references to at least three others. So this one is two big guns from Normandy and also a nod to George G. Blackburn, World War Two veteran and writer. The drink’s good. It really works.

That’s about the extent of my invention for now (the successes, at any rate). If anyone tries one, I’d love to know what you think of it. I don’t plan on entering any world mixology championships any time soon, but I’m quite pleased with these results. I’d also love to hear of any successful creation you’ve made.

Weekend before last I got another obscure aperitif wine. At least, I thought it was rather obscure. Turns out, it still sells quite well (albeit with a demographic skewed towards the elderly and particularly women of a certain age), was incredibly popular in the 30s, and was advertised like crazy in France up until at least the 70s and 80s.

Dubonnet (pronounced Doo-bon-ay) is a bitter-sweet fortified aperitif wine. It’s somewhat similar to sweet sherry, port, or vermouth. In fact it is sometimes classified as a vermouth, and goes well as an interesting (but different) substitute for Italian vermouth in drinks like the Manhattan. It’s made by blending fortified wine with various herbs and spices including quinine, making it what the French call a ‘Quinquina’ (of which Lillet Blanc is another example).

While the Brits were drinking gin and tonic to get their quinine, the French army also gave incentives to anyone who could come up with new ways to make the bitter medicine palatable to their troops serving in malaria-prone areas. One winning formula was that invented by pharmacist Joseph Dubonnet in 1846. It was to become the official drink of the French Foreign Legion. No old lady’s drink in those days.

Madame Dubonnet's Pussy

Apparently it became popular when Madame Dubonnet began serving it to society friends. A picture of her beloved cat still appears on the bottle today. Maybe this is her.

In the 1930s, at the height of Dubonnet’s popularity there were massive advertising campaigns. Apparently the word ‘Dubonnet’ can still be seen on old buildings across France and French Colonial Africa. There were also some great Art Deco posters, some featuring the slogan “Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet” which probably means something in French.

Then in the late 1970s, after the brand’s purchase by Ricard, there was a new wave of advertising, this time featuring American actress Pia Zadora, and a new slogan “Do you Dubonnet?” These advertisements are the pinnacle of wonderful Eurotrash cheese. By this time, following a sometimes violent feud between the Dubonnet sons, the company had split into French and American branches. Pia Zadora’s husband, 31 years older than her, was a major shareholder in the American branch.

Forward to the oo’s and Dubonnet is now firmly established as the drink of old ladies. One old lady in particular. Queen Elizabeth II, got the habit from her mother who took it one part to one with gin on the rocks. QE2 likes hers two parts to one of gin with a slice of lemon. This was firmly established in a 2007 documentary where the royal steward of the cellars spells out exactly how to make the monarch’s favourite tipple. Apparently a large spike in Dubonnet sales quickly followed.

Liz at Balmoral - Dubonnet on the left

Disaster almost struck two years later when the Queen visited the MCC to see the men in white wield the willow. Someone had forgotten to bring the Dubonnet! A butler was dispatched to buy a bottle but was temporarily barred from re-entry due to Lords’ strict no spirits policy. Luckily things were smoothed over and the Queen was not forced to endure the horror of watching cricket whilst entirely sober.

On to the cocktails:

The Dubonnet Cocktail

This is just Gin and Dubonnet. There are varying ratios and serving techniques though. I’ve nicknamed these according to the rule that each has to contain the letter ‘z’.

1 1/2 oz gin

1 1/2 oz Dubonnet

lemon and/or orange twist

Shake and strain this into a cocktail glass, and I dub it the Pia Zadora.

But I tried mine the way the Queen Mother took it. 50/50 shaken and strained on the rocks. So this is getting called a Queen Mumz. (Sorry, I had to get a ‘z’ in there).

The Queen Mumz wasn’t the best. The gin was fighting the Dubonnet a bit too much. I used Tanqueray. It might work better with a less Junipery gin like Plymouth. Otherwise try one of the next variations.

1 3/4 oz gin

3/4 oz Dubonnet

4 drops orange bitters

Stir and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon and/or orange twist.

This one gets the name The Zaza – an alternative moniker for the Dubonnet cocktail after a Broadway play that was popular at the time of its invention.

This was a much better drink. I guess it’s a martini variation, really, with Dubonnet instead of (regular) vermouth. I think allowing the gin supremacy led to a better drink than their clashing in the Queen Mumz. The bitters worked very well too, even with the already bitter Dubonnet. I’ll definitely be trying this again.

Finally, you can go the other way, and let the Dubonnet win out. This is the way Queen Elizabeth takes hers. So:

The Lizzie Windsor

1 oz gin (Gordon’s if possible)

2 oz Dubonnet

lemon slice

Lightly stir in a small glass goblet or wine glass. Add two large ice cubes and one seedless lemon slice.

I tracked down the 2007 documentary on the Royals which shows the steward of the cellars making this for the Queen, and these are his specifications. I managed to make out that Gordon’s was the brand of gin used. It is made by ‘royal appointment’ or something, so that stands to reason (although I had heard that the Royals preferred Booth’s – maybe that was in the past).

This is also a very good drink. The Dubonnet stands out and the gin (I used Tanqueray again) gives it a good kick. Very good in fact.

Gin isn’t the only thing that Dubonnet goes with. If you think of it as a sweet (but bitter) Vermouth, Bourbon or Rye are obvious choices.

Dubonnet Manhattan

1 1/2 oz rye or bourbon

1 1/2 oz Dubonnet

Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.

This really was very good. I used Rittenhouse Rye and didn’t add a cherry. It was basically just a delicious Manhattan (which is one of my favourite drinks at the moment, even though I don’t have any Vermouth at home yet).

The Dubonnet Manhattan leads to another, souped-up version – the Dandy.

Dandy

1 1/2 oz rye whiskey

1 1/2 oz Dubonnet

3 dashes orange bitters

1 dash Angostura Bitters

3 dashes Cointreau

1 piece of lemon peel

1 piece of orange peel

Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon and orange peel.

This was the best of the lot. A delicious citrusy Manhattan-like cocktail. Dubonnet also goes very well with orange, so I think the orange bitters and Cointreau really worked well in this.

Dubonnet is rich round and fruity, so aside from cocktails, or sipping straight, you can make some refreshing highballs.

The Appetizer Cocktail is equal parts Dubonnet and fresh orange juice strained into a cocktail glass, but I misremembered this and made it in a tall glass packed with crushed ice. It was really good and refreshing with the fruity flavours of the Dubonnet mixing very well with the juice.

Dubonnet Highball

2 oz Dubonnet

1/4 oz lemon juice

soda

Stir Dubonnet and lemon juice in a tall glass with crushed ice. Fill to the brim with more crushed ice and add soda. Garnish with lemon wheel.

This is the perfect vehicle for showing off the Dubonnet as it is and makes for a wonderful refresher.

Conclusions: Dubonnet’s a great drink. I liked the Zaza best (Dubonnet Martini) and the Dandy, with the Highball being the most refreshing.

Note: In Taipei, you can buy Dubonnet at the Drinks chain and at the liquor store on Jinfu Rd, Jingmei.

Fizzing it Like Ramos

March 7, 2012

Confession: I like creamy cocktails. They seem to have a terribly bad rep these days amongst cocktail geeks, and I can understand that. My first cocktail evenings were spent drinking cheap and nasty fuzzy ducks and the like at student watering holes in the early 90s. This kind of sweet, cheap and garish fare is exactly what the current classic cocktail movement is rebelling against. Even semi-classics I enjoy like the Brandy Alexander and the Grasshopper don’t get much love. But that very fact perhaps contributes to a nostalgic enjoyment on my behalf.

However, there is one creamy drink which has incredible credentials from the school of cocktail hip – The Ramos Gin Fizz.

Not only is it old and linked to obligatory anecdotes, it’s also takes a hell of a lot of effort to make. (And it’s not really all that creamy).

Henry C. Ramos

Henry C. Ramos started serving up his invention, ‘The New Orleans Fizz’, which was soon to bear his name, back in 1888, where it was an instant hit in its hometown and rapidly spread in popularity throughout the US.

The Ramos (actually pronounced RAY-moss) requires an awful lot of shaking, but labour was cheap, so Henry hired a ‘shaker boy’ for every bartender to speed things along. He later streamlined this process by instituting whole lines of shaker boys. When a bartender finished preparing the ingredients he’d pass it to the top of the line where the first boy would shake until his arms were tired and pass it along. Apparently on Mardi Gras 1915 the bar employed a line of 35 shaker boys working continuously and it still wasn’t enough.

Gin Fizzes for all!!!

One of the more colorful devotees of the Ramos Gin Fizz was Huey Long, Governor of Louisiana and a rival of Roosevelt – from the left. He loved his fizzes so much that when he went up to Washington and discovered none of the bartenders there knew how to make one properly, he had his own guy flown up to teach the locals. It is even said that the New Orleans Airline Highway ends at the back door of what was then the Roosevelt Hotel so that when driving down from Baton Rouge, Huey could get to his drink as quickly as possible. If this all seems a bit ostentatious for a lefty, his slogan was ‘Every Man a King’. Ah, a socialist paradise where everyone was wealthy enough to have Ramos Gin Fizzes made for them every day (except for the shaker boys, I suppose).

On to the drink:

Ramos Gin Fizz

1 1/2 oz gin

1/2 oz lemon juice

1/2 oz lime juice

1 oz simple syrup

2 oz heavy cream

1 egg white

2-3 drops of orange flower water

2 drops of vanilla essence

soda

Shake all the ingredients for several minutes. Add ice and shake for minutes more. Strain into a highball glass. Top with a little soda, stirring as you do so.

It really is important to shake this drink a lot. I’ve read from 8 to 12 minutes is standard. Egg white and cream are two ingredients which require good shaking, and when you put them together like this it really causes problems. Hence the shaker boy lines. With egg white, you need to ‘dry shake’ before adding the ice, and you need to keep the lid on really tight as there’ll be a lot of pressure and it will explode everywhere if you let go (it happened). I tried to shake this for 4 minutes before and after adding ice. Seemed to work.

For the gin, I used Old Tom the first time I tried, and it worked great. The second time I tried Tanqueray and upped the dose to 2 ounces. It was much less pleasant. If you try a London dry, don’t be tempted to make it strong, and you may even want to add a little more sugar. Otherwise use Plymouth or something without too strong a juniper taste.

The vanilla essence wasn’t in the original recipe that Ramos released after a couple of decades secrecy, but it has been claimed that he kept this as one little secret ingredient to give his fizzes a slight edge.

I like this drink a lot. Perversely I like all the work that goes in to it. I like that I had to go to New Zealand to buy the orange flower water for just this one drink. I like that it’s creamy and that it foams, yet is still stylish and classic. I like the play between the citrus, gin and cream. If it wasn’t for the colossal effort that goes into making them, I could quickly knock back way more of these than is good for me. Lucky I don’t have 35 shaker boys at my bidding.

Barring the ‘wave the Vermouth around’ style of ultra-dry Martini, the Pink Gin is the straightest way to drink gin as a ‘mixed’ drink. Gin and a few drops of bitters. That’s it. As it’s traditionally made with Plymouth Gin, which I recently acquired, and also as I’ve long thought it sounded cool, I gave it a try.

The Pink Gin was invented in the British Navy in the mid-19th century. Angostura Bitters had been found to be good for seasickness and to make it more palatable officers added gin to it (they were pretty hard those days). This was similar to the adding of gin to tonic water for the medicinal properties of the quinine. In fact, the gentian in Angostura Bitters was something of a forerunner to quinine. The Navy’s gin of choice was Plymouth, which is sweeter than modern London Dry Gin.

The variations of Pink Gin are minor. You can have more or less bitters, and you can drink it warm (traditional) or cold with ice in or out. Some use an old fashioned glass, but I thought a coupe glass seemed better. Some leave the bitters in, some dash it out, having it just coat the glass. I found that with just six drops, even a rather snappy discard leaves most of it in. I compromised on the ice issue, going for cooling the gin in the freezer for a couple of hours first, but skipping the ice. I tried it warm too, but preferred the cold version.

Pink Gin

2 oz Plymouth Gin

6 drops Angostura Bitters

Coat a cocktail glass well with the bitters and dash out the excess. Add ice-cold gin.

It’s an incredibly simple drink, but very good. Interestingly, the colour was more orange than pink, but the bitters added a definite tinge to the gin. It’s a very drinkable form of almost-straight gin. I’m really not one for enjoying straight spirits, but I had no problems with this whatsoever.

Then, having just purchased five different kinds of bitters in the Bitter Truth Travel Pack, I wondered what other drinks might be made this way. It was a light-hearted thought, but I gave it a whirl anyway, and the results weren’t half bad.

First up was vodka. Yes, vodka. It’s not very hip of me, as Vodka is the demon of the new craft cocktail movement. My favourite spirits writer, Jason Wilson rants against the over 500 different kinds of flavoured vodka on the market (including pink lemonade vodka, sweet tea vodka, cola vodka, root beer vodka, sake vodka, protein powder vodka, Dutch caramel vodka, espresso vodka, double espresso vodka, triple espresso vodka, mojito mint vodka and bubble gum vodka) and apparently the ultra-hip craft cocktail bars in the US don’t even serve it. Not even the plain kind.

But I heard an argument that gin is just juniper flavoured vodka anyway, really. It has to contain juniper to be called gin (legally, in the US). If you left it out, it would be flavoured vodka. Conversely, if you added juniper to your vodka flavourings, it would become gin. Or am I missing something? So the anti-vodka thing seems a bit overdone to me. I guess the cocktail geeks were a cause without something to rebel against, and vodka became it. (And vodka is too popular to be cool).

That said, I’ve never really been a vodka fan. I even got to try a couple of very expensive, supposedly ultra-premium brands at a gourmet supermarket. They didn’t taste as good as plain old Stoli. But there is one vodka I like, and its light botanical flavourings remind me a little of gin, which has been my round-about way of saying that I decided to try a Pink Gin variation with Żubrówka. This Polish vodka is flavoured with bison grass, and every bottle contains a blade. I like it with lime and soda and a lot of crushed ice in summer.

And orange goes with vodka right, so why not orange bitters? I wanted to try those out.

Orange Buffalo

2 oz Żubrówka vodka

6 drops Orange Bitters

Coat a cocktail glass well with the bitters and dash out the excess. Add ice-cold vodka.

That wasn’t bad at all. Much less harsh than a straight shot of the stuff. But still, if I want a drink like this, I’ll go for the gin.

Finally, getting sillier, I wanted something to go with the Bitter Truth’s Xocolatl Mole (chocolate)  bitters. I’d just bought a bottle of Ron Matusalem Platino from Carrefour – a smooth Cuban white rum with vanilla chocolatey buttery flavours – and thought that the chocolate bitters would match the sweet chocolatey tastes.

Xocolatl Rum

2 oz Ron Matusalem Platino rum

6 drops Chocolate Bitters

Coat a cocktail glass well with the bitters and dash out the excess. Add ice-cold rum.

That was really nice! The two do go together well, and I thought I’d been just messing around. I could sip away at this one all day. It’d go well with dessert, too. But I think it’s time to stop before I go for chilli bitters and blanco tequila.

Last weekend was hot and sunny (in the middle of winter) – the perfect time for Gin and Tonics! I’d just bought three different styles of gin on my recent trip to New Zealand, and a bottle of Tanqueray from Carrefour. I was planning some taste comparisons anyway, and when my wife expressed interest it was all go.

Methodology

We poured an ounce of the gins into small glasses, sniffed, sipped and compared. Then we added a little water to what was left in each glass to dilute a little, possibly bring out some flavour, and so as to able to discern the differences a little more clearly without being distracted by high alcohol contents.

Next we made mini-G’nT’s with an ounce of each of the gins, crushed ice, 2 ounces of Schweppes tonic, and half a lemon wheel squeezed and thrown in. We then took turns blind tasting these.

Notes

These four gins are not just different brands; they are different classes altogether (something like Scotch, Irish, Bourbon and Rye Whisk(e)ys). So it wasn’t anything like a quality test. I was rather comparing the different styles and learning to identify them.

Disclaimer: I am a shit taste tester. It’s true. I’m just not very good at identifying tastes, and even worse at describing them (dancing about architecture and all that). Whilst I never expect to be great at tasting, I do hope to improve, and any feedback on this process is much appreciated.

Gin Number One: Tanqueray (47%)

This was my first time trying Tanqueray and I loved it. Tanqueray, like the vast majority of gins sold these days, is ‘London Dry’ style. Apparently the predominant flavours are juniper, coriander and angelica root. I couldn’t identify these either by smell or taste, but the presence of botanicals was very clear (and I later figured out how to identify the juniper).

My wife and I both really liked this, and the G’n’T was (I thought) clearly the best of the lot. It was exactly what the ideal of a Gin and Tonic is for me.

(I mentioned the 47% ABV as it is bottled at quite a lower percentage in some markets (tax reasons), although serious gin drinkers always recommend the higher level).

Gin Number Two: Plymouth Gin (41.2%)


Plymouth Gin is both a style and a brand. EU regulations say that only gins produced in the Plymouth region can call themselves ‘Plymouth’ and there is only one distillery in the region, and that is exactly what it calls itself (but it also known as Black Friars after the monastery that used to stand on the site, where, apparently some of the ‘pilgrims’ stayed before setting sail for America. Perhaps this accounts for the Mayflower on the (new) bottle). Plymouth was the big port for the British Empire, of course, and while it was decided that sailors should drink rum, the officers were to drink gin. I guess this led to the upper-crust image that Gin and Tonics have had. Naturally, as the navy sailed the tropics, they had to ward off malaria, and the quinine-heavy tonic water was added to the gin, making what is probably the greatest liquid invention of mankind (or of the British Empire, at least). Plymouth was also the favoured gin of Winston Churchill.

The style of Plymouth Gin is supposed to be a bit less dry than London Dry and people usually find it smoother. The first impression was that the spiciness of the botanicals was much more restrained than in the Tanqueray. Having learnt to identify the taste of juniper, I can clearly detect it in the Plymouth, but it’s a lot more subtle. In fact, that’s it in a nutshell. Overall this has all the complexity of the Tanqueray, but is a lot more subtle (and thus, I guess, smoother).

This was my wife’s favourite of all four gins. It made a decent G’n’T too, but I thought the Tanqueray was way ahead on this score.

Gin Number Three: Hayman’s Old Tom Gin (40%)

Old Tom gin is pretty special in cocktail circles these days, as (along with Genever) it was the style of gin called for in nearly all pre-prohibition mixed drinks. The difficulty was that until about five years ago, it hadn’t been available for several decades. Hayman’s are one of a few distilleries to revive this style based on old recipes. They are also the most readily available and versatile of the modern Old Tom gins. The story of Old Tom goes that after being brought into disrepute as the swill of the working classes (thanks to the elimination of taxes by William of Orange who wanted more trade with his native Netherlands where gin came from), gin was made illegal in many areas of England. One or more sly bartenders erected wooden ‘Old Tom’ signs outside their houses in the shape of black cats, with hidden pipes inside. In one of the earliest examples of the vending machine, sneaky customers would insert a penny in a hole on the sign, put their mouths to the cat’s paw, and receive a shot of gin poured by the bartender inside.

Old Tom is a clearly sweeter stlye of gin than London Dry. Early British gin was generally of pretty low quality, and sweetened to mask this. The habit of sweetening persisted even after the gin got better, and thus, the Old Tom style. This gin tasted quite similar to the Plymouth Gin, but with a clear extra sweetness which was pleasant and certainly not overdone or at all cloying. In fact we both thought it was an excellent drink. The G’n’T was fine, but like the Plymouth, I found it quite bland compared to the Tanqueray. The Tom Collins is probably the better relatively straight-up alternative for Old Tom.

Gin Number 4: Bokma Oude Genever (40%)

Genever (aka Jenever, Dutch Gin, Holland Gin) isn’t really gin, at least not as we know it today, but its ancestor, so it’s markedly different from the other gins we tried. Genever is distilled from a ‘malt wine’ made from grain mash, so it takes on woody, smokey, and malty tastes similar to whiskey.

The difference from the other gins was clear right from the first smell. The malty, whiskey taste comes through clearly, but it also tastes gin-like (the juniper is also fairly clear) making for a very interesting, and rather tasty earthy gin. That was what I thought, anyway. My wife, on the other hand, really didn’t like stuff, but she basically doesn’t like any dark spirits that remind her of medicinal tastes.

Genever wasn’t really made for a Gin and Tonic. The Dutch usually drink it ice-cold and straight. That said, the G’n’T was an interesting drink, that I quite enjoyed. I later tried the Bokma in a classic ‘Gin Cocktail’ and it was great.

Oh, as a side note, while in New Zealand I heard Genever referred to as ‘Square Gin’ a couple of times. I wonder if this is due to the shape of the Bokma bottle, and whether it is called this elsewhere.

The Gin and Tonic Tasting

As a fun exercise, having tasted the gins straight, and diluted with a little water, we made them all into little Gin and Tonics (with 1 oz gin, 2 oz Schweppes, crushed ice and half a lemon wheel squeezed and added). Using different coloured straws, we took turns mixing them up and have the other identify the drinks. It was a little harder than I thought, but given the very different styles of gin, still rather easy. I got them all right pretty quickly, and my wife just mixed up the Plymouth and the Old Tom. She then took these as her favourites to finish off, leaving me with my favourite – the Tanqueray – and the most interesting – the Bokma.

They were all nice drinks, no doubt, but the Tanqueray Gin and Tonic was easily the best of the lot – close to the perfect drink for me, yet one of the easiest (and cheapest) to make.

Conclusions

Tanqueray is my new favourite gin and THE choice for a G’n’T. Plymouth can be lauded for its subtlety, but I preferred the upfront nature of the dry. I’ll keep Plymouth for Pink Gins. I really liked the added sweetness of the Old Tom and look forward to trying it in more classic cocktails that call for it. The Bokma was a really interesting spirit, and I also look forward to getting acquainted with it, probably mostly in very simple ‘almost straight’ recipes. Overall, I find all four of these essential to my drinks collection, and am extremely pleased that I chose them.

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