Paris is a city that I’ve struggled with in the past if I’m honest: I always wanted to love it, but it never quite did it for me. Well I can safely say that it has finally won me over, and as you might have guessed it’s all because of the cocktail scene and the amazing bartenders that seem to have sprung up from nowhere in the last year.
I think it’s fair to say that with one or two notable exceptions, Paris has traditionally been a city with an underwhelming cocktail scene, given its size and international reputation. Sure there was Le Forum and Candelaria, and of course it has it’s historical cocktail bars such as Harry’s and the Ritz, but by comparison to other large cities it just felt like the number of truly great bars was lacking, and there wasn’t the energy or excitement in the cocktail scene that you find in other cities such as London, Sydney or New York.
In the last year or two though the cocktail culture has begun to grow and develop, and in the last year especially it has positively exploded. New bars have opened, bartenders have stepped up their game, and now Paris is one of the most exciting cities to drink in. In fact I can’t remember feeling so inspired by a cocktail scene since I discovered the amazing bar culture in Copenhagen back in 2009. There can be no doubting that Paris is coming in to it’s own when you see that 5 bars from the World’s 50 Best Bars 2013 are from this city.
Firstly may I apologise for the length of time between updates, but as it has been ‘Bourbon Heritage Month’ I felt I should dedicate myself to promoting this fine spirit in various countries across Europe! Last month I shared with you a few things that everyone should know about Bourbon, so it seems only right to share some of the Bourbons I enjoy drinking. To be honest, for me narrowing it down to just 11 has been challenging as there are over 80 Bourbons in the b&t drinking room at the moment. Of those 80, I’m pretty sure there isn’t a bottle that hasn’t been opened, and most of them get enjoyed on a regular basis.
In tackling this task, I considered breaking them up into different styles to make sure that Bourbons with high rye, corn or wheat recipes were well represented, but somehow that didn’t balance out, as I tend to be a little biased towards rye heavy Bourbons. Then I tried breaking them down by distillery, but there are just too many distilleries! Doing it by price seemed like a reasonable course, but once again I didn’t find the balance I was looking for, so instead I have done something a little less formulaic. Below you will simply find a selection of Bourbons that I like, with a description, and a cocktail for each. There is everything from super premium to entry level Bourbon, some made with wheat some with rye. There are lots of Kentucky Bourbons, but also a few from newer distilleries in other parts of the US. The main thing that they all have in common is that they’re tasty examples of this fine and versatile spirit.
It has been a good year to be British so far: our Queen celebrated 60 years on the throne by throwing a party in London and giving us an extra day off, the 2012 Olympics rocked, giving us a chance to show the world how it should be done, and our bars and bartenders showed that London is still the cocktail capital of the world. The first two reasons may have grabbed more headlines, but honestly they pale in significance when compared to our achievements at Tales of the Cocktail this year. You see every single ‘International’ category at the Spirited awards was won by a UK bar or bartender (Angus, we’re still claiming you even if you spend more time away from the UK than in it, you have the accent, you’re ours!)… yep, every single one! Now I’m not one to gloat, but that’s pretty amazing really!
Having been at the awards I can tell you that I felt proud to know all the award winners and consider many of them to be friends, and the feeling of seeing one after another walk onstage to collect their trophies was amazing. So upon arriving back in the UK my first thought was that we should get all those trophies together and make a few drinks to toast this amazing feat. To be honest I’ll be surprised if we scoop so many awards again, with bars from the US, Australia and many countries in Europe nipping at the heels of London when it comes to cocktails.
Last month I wrote about how difficult it can be for small brands to compete in a crowded spirit marketplace, especially when they often compete against larger companies with big budgets. Well when I bumped into Alex Stein at Imbibe Live last week, it reminded me that there’s another way for a brand to become successful, and that’s to buck the trend and put quality above cost in their list of priorities. You see Alex is the mastermind behind Monkey 47 Gin, a brand that is fast becoming a firm favourite with bartenders in the UK and across Europe. The more you learn about Monkey 47 though, the more you realise that no compromises have been made in the name of cost savings, which is pretty rare when it comes to spirits.
Having spent a couple of days in the company of Alex and his master distiller Christoph Keller, I’ve seen how they have set out to create the best gin they possibly could, regardless of cost, and the result is a high-end gin that’s worth paying for. All too often when it comes to ‘super premium’ spirits, I’ve felt that you’re paying for a fancy bottle and a lot of expensive marketing, but in the case of Monkey 47 I think you might just be getting value for money.
I was chatting to some friends in the drinks industry the other day about the challenges facing new-to-market brands in the UK. As tends to happen over a few beers, we started setting the world to rights, as well as drowning our sorrows about the challenges smaller brands often face. With a handful of large companies holding a portfolio of leading products, it can be hard for smaller brands to find their place in the market, and even good products don’t always last long. The conversation stuck with me (despite the beer drinking) and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on this subject. It’s an important topic, as actually it comes down to how bartenders and brand owners have to work together in order for good brands to survive in one of the most competitive drinks markets in the world. I’m sure many of the things mentioned below will ring true to those of you working in other countries too.
I should start this by pointing out that this is not me taking a swing at the larger drinks brands, or disrespecting what they add to our industry. In fact one of the things that we all agreed on was that we wouldn’t have such a vibrant industry, or nearly as many great events, without the financial clout of the larger spirit brands. Without their sponsorship and marketing spend, many great bar shows and cocktail gatherings wouldn’t be possible at all. In fact global brands such as Bacardi, Absolut, Gordon’s or Jose Cuervo, form the backbone of our industry and have paved the way for smaller brands to reach a larger audience.
I read an interesting article the other day on the Los Angeles Times website, about how clear spirits are the trend in Southern California at the moment. The article talks about ‘light drinks for sunny days, meant to refresh’ and goes on to say that ‘clear spirits often get the job done better than the dark stuff’. While I totally agree with much of what the article says, especially about treating these clear spirits with a delicate touch to stop them from being overpowered by other ingredients, it also got me thinking about how we often unfairly compartmentalise spirits to be for a certain occasion or time of year. So below are a few thoughts I have about not forgetting ‘the dark stuff’ when it comes to summer drinking.
I should start by saying that I love white Rum, Gin, blanco Tequila, and am even slowly growing fonder of Vodka. But having said that I’m often drawn to the complexities of dark spirits as a base for cocktails as well as for sipping neat. When the sun is shining I’ll admit that a Daiquiri, Margarita or Caipirinha are great thirst quenchers, or that a refreshing Collins can be hard to beat. But likewise there are some pretty amazing dark spirit drinks that fulfil the same role for me. A Mai Tai, Mint Julep or even a Whiskey Sour are pretty remarkable summertime cocktails.
In my blog about the history of the Martinez cocktail, I explored the timeline of a drink that is considered a classic, but is known today by a relatively standard recipe. In searching through old recipes I found that many, including some of the oldest, called for dry vermouth instead of sweet vermouth, and that over the years the recipe had undergone many changes. Since then I’ve been asked by a lot of bartenders which recipe I like the best and if there is a definitive recipe for the classic Martinez. The answer to the latter question is of course that there is no definitive recipe, but my thought is that the Martinez is more of a style of drink than a single drink with only one recipe.
If we look at other classics that developed around the same time such as the Manhattan and the Martini, we see striking similarities. They are cocktails that feature a spirit combined with vermouth and bitters, they are simple stirred drinks and of course they have stood the test of time to become classics. The one difference between our understanding of the Martinez and the others though is that both the Martini and the Manhattan appear as a family of drinks that include different styles of vermouths in different ratios. We’re all familiar with sweet or perfect Manhattans, and the same was originally true of the Martini, but for some unknown reason the Martinez has always been assumed to be a drink made only with sweet vermouth.
On the surface of it, the question of ‘what’s a Martinez’ seems pretty self-explanatory; after all, you can walk into any good bar, order one and be pretty confident about what you’ll get in your glass. The chances are you’ll get a lot of sweet vermouth, a little bit of gin, a splash of maraschino and a dash or two of bitters. Occasionally there might be a bit more gin and a little less vermouth, or you might get Boker’s bitters or orange bitters; you might even get a splash of curacao instead of maraschino, but all in all you’re likely to receive a sweet vermouth and gin cocktail, with a splash of liqueur and a dose of bitters.
Over the years there has been much debate about the intertwined history of the Martinez cocktail and the Martini, with speculation about whether the Martinez might be the forefather of the Martini or, if in fact they were once the same drink, known by similar names but got confused over the years. The truth is we’re never likely to know, but somewhere along the way the two drinks have diverged to become completely different cocktails. It’s now accepted that the Martini is made with dry vermouth and the Martinez with sweet, the former has no liqueur added but the latter is usually enriched with a barspoon of maraschino. The Martini is heavy on gin, with vermouth playing a supporting role, whereas the Martinez is a vermouth-led cocktail. In other words they are only connected in as much as that they are in the broad family of gin and vermouth based drinks.
It’s not every day you get a bottle delivered to your house of a new product that has a note from the brand owner telling you that this is the first bottle outside of his own house. So this past Thursday, when exactly that happened, and I found in my hands a bottle of Hammer & Son Old English Gin, I was pretty excited to say the least. I’ve been waiting for the release of this product for several months, ever since Henrik Hammer (of Geranium Gin) mentioned that he had found a 1783 gin recipe in the safe at a distillery and was going to have a go at recreating it, as closely as possible within the confines of modern production techniques and current regulations.
But what exactly is an Old English Gin? Well essentially it’s the original style of gin produced in England, and is somewhere between the sweet rich flavour of Genever, and the dry style of gin we’re used to today. It differs from London Dry in that it is slightly sweetened, a tradition that goes back to a time when poor quality spirits could have some of their impurities masked by the addition of sugar after distillation. The decision not to refer to this new product as an Old Tom Gin, as some might expect, comes from Henrik’s research into the history of gin in the 1700s, and his desire to produce a spirit that would be true to the origins of English Gin.
I’ve heard a few people say recently that they think the tiki craze is over, and I think I know what they mean. Tiki was heralded as the ‘next big thing’ much as tequila was before that, and while it has grown in popularity, and become more mainstream it has never really exploded in the way that was predicted. That’s not entirely surprising as it’s a niche style of drinking, but to say it’s dead seems a bit of an exaggeration to me.
Tiki, as I’ve written before, is a style of drinks inspired by Polynesia and tropical island culture and is predominantly based around rum, with plenty of exotic fruits, juices, syrups and liqueurs thrown in for good measure. It was originally popularised in the 1940s America when these enticing flavours from far-flung shores were a welcome bit of escapism after the gloom of WWII.
A few years ago there was a definite resurgence of interest in this style of drinking, with Tiki bars and nightclubs popping up on a regular basis. Of course many were quick to jump on the bandwagon to exclaim that Tiki would be the next big thing. Even if that promised explosion has somewhat failed to deliver, Tiki has still managed to establish a firm place within our global drinking culture. In almost every major city you will find at least one or two bars dedicated to tiki drinks, and on many cocktail menus you’ll find not only the classic Mai Tai or Zombie, but other modern tiki inspired cocktails. So to say that tiki is dead, to me at least, seems too strong a statement. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that tiki has found its place within modern cocktail culture, and has indeed added to it. Tiki isn’t dead, it’s alive and well, but in a limited way, and for that reason I say tiki is here to stay.