It’s been a while since I wrote a ‘what we’re drinking’ article, but lately I’ve been over run with interesting bottles and new products launching in the UK. So with that in mind I’ll share with you a few of the more interesting ones that have arrived at b&t HQ. I don’t use a star rating system on these reviews for the simple reason that what appeals to one person, doesn’t necessarily appeal to another, instead I just offer up some interesting spirits that are well worth a try.
It’s fair to say that a few of the products bellow might even prove to be quite divisive in terms of their popularity. I haven’t gone for obvious choices, instead I’ve chosen the products that have made me stop and consider them. It’s often the case that I get a new Gin and simply think ‘yeah, that’s pretty good, I bet it makes a good bramble or aviation’, but it’s rare that I get one that I feel is different and interesting enough that it makes me really want to play around with it.
So below you’ll find what I hope are a handful of interesting products, a few of my thoughts on them and of course a few cocktail ideas that should showcase them well. Oh and before I get the usual comment from someone who doesn’t know how b&t works, no this is not a paid for article, I simply select the products I find interesting and offer them up for you to think about. I hope you’ll give them a try!
Having shared a few things you should know about Gin, I thought perhaps I should write about some of the gins I think you should try. I originally thought it would be difficult to narrow down the list to just 10, but bearing in mind the fact that I want to offer a selection of gins that are quite different from each other it has proved more difficult than I imagined. Trying to find a selection of new and old gins that all have something unique and remarkable about them, and that don’t sit too close together has been a challenge to say the least.
Below you will find a good range of products, which are (in my opinion), well made and interesting to drink. Many of the ‘new’ gins I have tried (and I’ve tried quite a few) are perfectly fine products, but haven’t made the list because they either don’t bring anything different to the category, or they stray too far away from what I consider to be the key characteristic of gin, and that of course is being juniper led. I’ve ruled out the ones with over-powering botanicals (no coconut gins here thank you very much) and have crossed off the fairly standard ones that just taste like another average gin. The result is a list that should cover all of your drinking needs!
I’ve been thinking a lot about gin recently. I seem to have a love-hate relationship with the spirit, and I think it’s because of its recent rise in popularity. There are plenty of great Gins that have been on the market for a long time, but it seems like I stumble across a new one every couple of days. Now SOME of the gins that have launched in the last two or three years are fantastic products that have added a new dimension to the category. The problem is though, that for every one new gin that I like, there seem to be twenty that I just don’t get. Many new Gins, just don’t taste or smell like Gin to me, in fact many of them sit in a broader category of ‘botanically infused spirits’, but not Gin. It used to be simple to think of Gin as that junipery stuff that makes Martinis taste good, it’s now so broad in taste and style that I sometimes don’t know where gin ends and herbal spirits begin.
So with my mind wandering across this brave new world of Gin, and the b&t drinks cabinet bulging at the seams under the weight of new products, I thought maybe now was as good a time as ever to look at what makes Gin so interesting. Hopefully while looking into the facts, stories and of course some of the rules and regulations that define Gin, I might just get my head around what makes some Gins great, and others, quite frankly baffling.
I don’t know about you, but this year the span from Christmas to New Year had a lot of potential for hangovers. For once though I was prepared for the silly season as I had decided that my first update of 2013 would be on the subject of everyone’s favourite morning after cure. The Bloody Mary is one of those rare ubiquitous cocktails, found on menus the world over, and known to every bartender in one form or another. But why is it such a popular drink, and how has it come to be such a well-loved cocktail?
I personally see the Bloody Mary as the ‘last man standing’ in a very old tradition of morning drinks. I’ve written before about Corpse Revivers, and it’s well documented that many cocktails started as ‘bracers, eye openers, revivers or pick-me-ups’ and yet these days the Bloody Mary is really the last remaining drink that it’s socially acceptable to be seen drinking before noon. That alone is enough to give it a fond place in most people’s heart, that and the fact that it is seen as the drink that helps you on your way to recovering from your hangover.
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.
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.
There’s a lot of colourful, descriptive and evocative language used when describing spirits, and while the imagery called to mind can make a spirit sound inviting, the descriptions themselves can sometimes be a bit over-the-top. Generally the language used to describe a spirits aroma, flavour and mouth-feel isn’t quite as elaborate as with wine tasting (can you really smell the fresh dew on a dandelion petal in the morning sunlight?) but to someone who’s new to smelling and tasting spirits, it can still be intimidating.
To a lot of people bourbon smells like whiskey, gin smells a bit piney and vodka smells like alcohol, so when they read that they should be smelling dried apricot, pencil shavings and vanilla fudge, they wonder if they're doing something wrong. So I thought I’d take a look at the language we use to describe the effect alcohol has on our senses and the way we approach identifying the characteristics of different spirits. Take this as a beginners guide to the language of tasting spirits, if you will.
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.