Category: Alcoholic

The sensory cider experience of Magners Specials

Magners cider portfolio

After you’ve lived in the West Country for a while, you inevitably pick up the cider drinking habit and fall in love with it. The cider worship in this part of the country is contageous.

I remember when I first moved to Bristol for university, I knew almost nothing about cider except that I hated it. All my previous dalliances with cider had been as part of “snakebite” (lager, cider and blackcurrant) where it’s preferable that the blackcurrant flavours overpower everything else. In the West Country, I was only offered “cider and black” if I wanted to adulterate my drink.

Over the course of my degree, I learnt to love the drink and frequented The Coronation Tap for its extensive collection of ciders including the frozen Thatcher’s Ice Gold and the extra strong Exhibition cider. By the time I was leaving Bristol, it had become a drink of choice. Now whenever I spot ciders on my travels, especially the artisanal kind, I always raise a glass to my time at Bristol.

So I was curious to hear that Magners, the Irish cider giants, are launching a new range of ciders – an addition to their original, light and pear ciders. These new blended ciders are called Magners Specials and come in Pear and Ginger, Spiced Apple and Honey, and Spice Apple and Rhubarb.

While Magners are made in Ireland rather than the West Country, they are one of the biggest producers of cider in the UK. Their parent company also owns the likes of Bulmers (in Ireland), Gaymers, Blackthorn, Addlestones and more. I guess that means they know a thing or two about making ciders.

The tasting room at Magners cider tasting

I was invited to the basement bar of Dream Bags Jaguar Shoes to learn more about Magners ciders from Aoife Sheehan, an expert on the Magners Sensory Panel. She was part of the team which helped to develop the new ciders and has a PhD in Flavour Science – pretty swish.

On the night, Sheehan talked about the whole complex process of cider production and blending and then led us through a sensory experience of cider.

First we dabbed blue food colouring on our tongues to help count our taste buds and determine whether we’re a none-taster, taster or super-taster. This was followed by tasting spoonfuls of cinnamon sugar first while holding our noses, then without – try it at home, you’ll be surprised. Both of these little exercises were designed to show us that flavour isn’t just taste but also aroma.

Before we got into the cider though, we still had to taste different apple juices. Magners, we were told, is made from fresh apple juice rather than from concentrate. Finally, it was on to the most important part of the night – the cider tasting. Of course I was already familiar with Magners original and pear so was very excited to get into the new flavours. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The Pear and Ginger, Magners Pear cider blended with ginger, is described as “a lightly spiced cider which is fruity and warm and has a very refreshing taste on the palate”. While the Spiced Apple and Honey, Magners Original cider blended with honey, zesty orange peel and a touch of cinnamon, is “an elegant, smooth cider with refreshing hints of citrus”. And then there’s the Spiced Apple and Rhubarb, Magners Original cider blended with a light spice and rhubarb, which is “a distinct, subtly sweet cider with gentle cinnamon notes”.

Just like for Sheehan, it was very difficult for me to choose between them. Each had their own unique angle but my favourite was definitely the Spiced Apple and Honey. Its sweetness and force of intense flavours is both warming and refreshing at the same time – something I imaging could work both warm and cold.

On the way home, I considered the cider. How different these flavours are to the other ones on the market and what a way to adulterate the cider.

Below is a few snaps from the cider tasting:

Kirin pop-up Yatai at Dray Walk Gallery, Truman Brewery

A little while ago I was invited to the launch of the Kirin First Cut Short Film Competition.

That competition has now closed and a selection of finalists have been chosen with the winner yet to be decided. Between the 3rd and 8th of August, diners at the Kirin pop-up Yatai will be able to see and vote for their favourite finalist from the selection. The winner will then be announced at the 55th BFI London Short Film Festival, which starts from the 12th of October and runs until the 27th October.

The Yatai is created in conjunction with the head chefs of Yashin sushi and will be at the Dray Walk Gallery in East London. Visit www.kirinfirstcut.co.uk/how-to-book.php to book your space.

Below is a selection of images from the press launch:

London’s Cocktail bars: An Aperitif

They say that cocktails are great lubricators of conversation and amazing catalysts for fun times. True, but they should do all that and more. Cocktails should inspire you. And, when drinking fabulous cocktails, one should expect the venue to be as interesting as the cocktail itself. Why would you want to sip an outstanding drink somewhere that’s duller than the patina on a Bronze Age statuette? It would be like drinking Château Latour 1982 with your blueberry pancakes in a shed-like Texan diner: utterly unthinkable.

69 Colebrooke Row

So, here are some suggestions for suitable venues in which to imbibe a cocktail or three. Let’s start with something gentle to ease you in.

I say gentle but it’s really quite dramatic. Good Godfrey’s at the Waldorf is the epitome of the glamorous hotel bar with a West End twist. In fact, it’s positively theatrical. Nestled among the cream of the theatrical crop, the bar screams opulence with its original, listed panelling and illuminated marble and chrome fixtures. It’s named after Howard Godfrey, the bandleader of the ‘Waldorfians’ house band back in the 1920s – and everything else is inspired by drama.

Take Very Very Pretty; the name is a reference to the only stipulation of the ‘Gaiety Girls’, performers at the neighbouring Gaiety Theatre, who didn’t require any particular skills. And Thé Dansant, inspired by the tea dances at the Waldorf’s Palm Court. Then there’s the Hot Gin Punch and the Astor Hip Flask, which are served up in a giant teapot and a hip flask respectively. All, rest assured, are expertly created by the award-winning Nelson Bernardes.

Good Godfrey barElsewhere on our map there is something thoroughly modern. Not the Millie but The Folly, a garden-themed venue with multiple bars and endless space for eating and drinking. It’s probably the biggest venue within the Square Mile and it could be the greenest place in EC3 too with its Norwegian Spruce tree trunk at the bar, the plant pot lighting over the restaurant and the potted plants in the deli-come-bar. You can pick up a gardening kit with your customised cocktail or a bunch of flowers with your sandwiches. And that’s just upstairs; there’s another whole level downstairs with even more subtly different pockets of microcosms.

Those conscious of alcohol calories will be pleased to hear that there’s a range of ‘skinnies’ to choose from, complete with calorie count to help you make an Informed Decision. The Watermelon and Raspberry Ripple is simply bursting with health, but the Ziggy is the one that’s been created by Ezekiel Maledon at The Folly – call it the house special. If you want something outrageously left-field though, there’s always the Thai Tini – it comes with a prawn.

Speaking of left-field, the London Cocktail Club has a courageous cocktail list with a décor to match. Where else can you enjoy a Bacon and Egg Coupet under spidery glow lights? The LCC is tucked away in a Goodge Street cellar space, but there’s also a sister venue on Great Newport Street called The Covent Garden Cocktail Club (which was formerly, and confusingly, also called the London Cocktail Club). Although each venue has its own unique character, both follow “that classic LCC/CGCC theme”. I’m still trying to work out what that is exactly but their outrageous wall paper and extensive cocktail list simply intoxicate me; the Brixton Riot (peach, cranberry and lychee liqueur, flamed with Wray & Nephew overproof rum) is a real flaming eye opener.

It seems that every other cocktail here comes with a helping of food for garnishing (bacon, bread, shortbread, ice cream and so on), but if you did fancy something a bit more substantial, the bar snacks are Raymond Blanc-approved. That is, the LCC co-owners JJ Goodman and James Hopkins were the winners of the third series of the BBC’s The Restaurant and have since been working with Raymond and other notables to create these unexpected cocktail clubs.

The Folly BarIf the upstairs lounge is more your thing then you might enjoy Tempo, the Curzon Street Italian. It speaks Mayfair in volumes in the restaurant downstairs but the first floor bar is a whole different Regency period, all decked out in original Rococo Revival panelling and mouldings. The plush and contemporary seating will leave you in no doubt over the modernity of your cocktail. The Tempo Punch isn’t bad and the Basil Grande adds something extra to your strawberry purée – ground black pepper and basil to be precise – but there is one cocktail that defines this venue: the Mayfair Gem.

There’s a gem in the East End too. When you walk down Rivington Street in search of the double C of Callooh Callay, you’ll probably wonder what could possibly entice anyone not wearing brogues, skinny jeans and an oversized t-shirt with safety-pinned sleeves to tackle this part of town. It’s in the heart of Shoreditch with The 100 Club in one direction and some ‘invitation by word-of-mouth only’ abandoned warehouse rave in the other. But when you brush past the bouncers, doing your best to refrain from attempting a secret nod, and push through the heavy double doors, it’s all shirts and frocks inside.

The first room will be so dark that you’ll barely be able to read their outlandish menus but even if you could, you won’t be sure what you’re going to get. What does violet liqueur taste like anyway? Beets Me! is the thing to have either in the back room (much brighter) or upstairs in the Jub Jub bar (the seats are velvety). Of course, if you are a member of the Jub Jub bar – and that helps if you hope to get into Callooh Callay when it’s really busy – you could always order something on the Jub Jub menu or go off-piste.

The Botanist BarAfter all the dimly lit venues you will need The Botanist on Sloane Square. The quirky ‘nature’ theme here is subtle and reminiscent of sunny days out in Kew Gardens except, instead of the sun, there’s floor-to-ceiling glass to make the most of that natural light streaming in from the similarly proportioned windows, and the plants engraving the walls give all the air of botany without any of the hassle of hayfever.

Of course, that is not to say that it doesn’t offer the usual trappings of Sloane Square. After all, more than a few young Royals have been spotted propping up the bar.

That fact has definitely rubbed off a little on the cocktail menu, with the suggestively named Indigo Royale and God Save the Quince. I’m partial to a little Tea House Martini myself, but I hear the non-alcoholic (gasp!) Boost is also a popular choice. Should you happen to find yourself ravenous and the attractive clientèle not quite sating your hunger, there’s always the option of eating from the bar menu or popping next door into the restaurant.

Similarly Royal-inclined is Awana, down the road. The gourmet Malaysian restaurant has a bijoux alcove opposite a well-furnished bar looking out onto Sloane Avenue. If you’re not a member, this is the perfect place to spot who’s stumbling in and out of Bart’s next door while sipping on cocktails and enjoying a satay something. (I hear Prince Harry has been seen deep in conversation with a ‘mystery caller’.) The house classic is Havana-Banana-Awana but if that’s a bit of mouthful, go for Blooming Hibiscus.

For something that’s a bit more grown up, maybe even old fashioned, try the bar at The Zetter Townhouse (ZTH for those down with acronyms). It’s the latest venture of Tony Conigliaro, the man behind the now infamous and award-winning bar with no name at 69 Colebrooke Row, in collaboration with The Zetter. Inside is a boudoir of dramatic nick-nacks including taxidermy and old paintings. The dolled-up cat is a bit disconcerting and you wouldn’t want to get into a boxing match with the kangaroo on your way to the bedrooms after one too many, but the staff have the most adorable little outfits; you’d wish they were minuscule enough to pop into your pocket and take home. Figurines should definitely be the next thing on their agenda.

Tony Conigliaro and mixologistThe Master at Arms is the drink created for ZTH, which will be adored by all port lovers, but the Harvard is just that bit more aromatic. If you discover their games room with the ping pong table, you will almost certainly need reinforcements. The food at ZTH is provided by Bruno Loubet, chef/patron of Bistro Bruno Loubet just across the square. In fact, you can probably spot him dashing between the two once in a while. The charcuterie platter is particularly good, but just make sure you order plenty of bread.

Of course if you don’t mind venturing further afield, the bar with no name comes highly recommended, by everyone. In the lab above 69 Colebrooke Row, Tony concocts some of the most interesting cocktails around. With mini distillation devices and water baths to play with, there’s certainly a lot of experimenting going on. There’s even a Manhattan up there that’s five years in the making. The menu is completely different from ZTH, of course. If it wasn’t so seasonal I could drink the Rhubarb and Hibiscus Bellini forever, but for now there’s a Lipstick Rose and a Liquorice Whisky Sour to keep me company.

Now that you have a handful of recommendations to take you through at least a week and half, I hope, go forth and explore. But please, report back interesting findings. And do drink responsibly; fabulous cocktails aren’t made for binging, you know.

Good Godfrey’s, The Waldorf Hilton, Aldwych, WC2B 4DD. Tel. 020 7836 2400. Website.

The Folly, 41 Gracechurch St, EC3V 0BT. Tel. 0845 468 0102. Website.

The London Cocktail Club, 61 Goodge St, W1T 1TL. Tel. 020 7580 1960. Website.

The Covent Garden Cocktail Club, 6-7 Great Newport Street, WC2H 7JA. Tel. 020 7836 9533. Website.

Tempo,  54 Curzon Street, W1J 8PG. Tel. 020 7629 2742. Website.

Callooh Callay, 65 Rivington Street,  EC2A 3AY. Tel. 020 7739 4781. Website.

The Botanist, 7 Sloane Square, SW1W 8EE. Tel. 020 7730 0077. Website.

Awana, 85 Sloane Avenue, SW3 3DX. Tel. 020 7584 8880. Website.

The Zetter Townhouse, 49-50 St John’s Square, EC1V 4JJ. Tel. 020 7324 4545. Website.

69 Colebrooke Row (the bar with no name),  N1 8AA. Tel: 07540 528 593. Website.

(First seen on The Arbuturian)

Whisky and more at 69 Colebrooke Row

Pouring whiskyI was recently invited to sample some fine Scotch whiskies at 69 Colebrooke Row, where many a delightful cocktail had been consumed in the past. It’s the sort of bijou venue where there’s just enough light to cast a pleasing glow over everything, and everyone. And, if you know someone who knows someone, you can even take a tour in the lab upstairs where the possibilities are simply endless.

The whisky was a flight of seven single malts from Diageo‘s ever expanding portfolio. The comparative tasting was led by Dr. Nick Morgan, Scotch Knowledge and Heritage Director at Diageo, with the aim of exploring the subtle nuances between different flavour profiles – from delicate to smoky, and light to rich.

Dr Nick Morgan from DiageoWe started the tasting with the Glenkinchie 12 yo, the lightest and most delicate of the seven. Created at one of the few remaining Lowland distilleries, the Glenkinchie 12 yo is often served as an aperitif in France because of its lightness. It’s also quite malty and very easy to drink – a very good way to start off the flight.

The second whisky, while still light, was decidedly more smoky – the Dalwhinnie 15 yo. In sharp contrast to the Glenkinchie, the Dalwhinnie was created in one of the highest distilleries in Scotland. It is the only distillery allowed to use water from Lochan an Doire Uaine, part of what goes into creating its uniquely clean taste.

Whisky flavour mapThe next two, Cragganmore 12 yo and Oban 14 yo, were not too dissimilar. Both were fairly rich with fruity and honeyed notes. However, the Cragganmore 12 yo was perhaps a little more smoky with hints of sandalwood and cigars. The Oban 14 yo, on the other hand, had a distinctive brininess – a reflection of its seaside distillery location.

Then we graduated on to a heavily smoky Talisker 10 yo. It’s almost overpowering until you mellow it out with a drop or two of water, which I know some will be horrified at but it really does help to bring out the flavours. In this whisky you would expect to find that rich sweetness of dried fruit as well as a slight pepperiness.

The last two we sampled were both from Lagavulin, the 16 yo and the Distiller’s Edition. Created on the Isle of Islay from heavily peated barley and mineral water, both are smoky and complex due to the prolonged distillation process. The 16 yo was very rounded with a profile that reminded me of sweet smoked paprika. I imagine it would make a very good BBQ rub, that is, if you’re not too precious about using sipping whisky in cooking. The Distiller’s Edition, while still smoky, was a lot more mellow having been aged in Pedro Ximinez casks as well as the American Oak casks.

Lagavulin liquorice whisky sourThat concludes the flight of whiskies but the evening doesn’t stop there. We also tried the Lagavulin 16 yo with a selection of blue cheeses – Gorgonzola Piccante, Roquefort and Valdeón; and the Distiller’s Edition with chocolates from Paul A Young – 64% Dominican Republic, Sea Salted Caramel truffle and Port and Stilton truffle. I must say I wasn’t a big fan of the blue cheeses but the chocolates, especially the Sea Salted Caramel, were absolutely divine.

And as it was 69 Colebrooke Row, it wouldn’t be right to end the evening without a couple of cocktails. The Sterling Soda was the Lagavulin 16 yo shaken with lemon juice, barley water and vanilla cream soda then served in a tall Collins glass. The Lagavulin Liquorice Whisky Sour was the Lagavulin 16 yo shaken with lemon juice and liquorice syrup served in a coupette. Paul A Young has also created a special Lagavulin Liquorice Whisky Sour chocolate, with a gorgeous shimmery finish, to accompany the drink. And a very fine match it was too.

That just leaves enough room for one last cocktail before my long journey home, a rhubarb and hibiscus Bellini that got me savouring for hours. I suppose that explains why I am always the last to leave – the savouring.

(First seen on Foodepedia)

Kirin First Cut

Kirin Ichiban

Last night I was invited to an event at Shoreditch Studios. It’s the sort of event where there’s high ceilings in a loft studio space and trendy Shoreditch types. The event in question was the launch of ‘Kirin First Cut’ Short Film Competition.

Kirin Ichiban, a light beer, was available on draught and in bottles. Kirin is a Japanese beer brand, although Wells & Young’s Brewing Company produces it in the UK; and Ichiban because the beer is made via the Ichiban Shibori process, which literally translates to ‘first press’. This means that the ingredients are used only once in the brewing process.

It might seem random for a beer to create a short film competition but actually Kirin sponsors a number of arts, fashion and design projects including BALTIC, a contemporary arts centre in Gateshead. For the Kirin First Cut competition they are looking for shorts, made in any format, based on the theme of ‘First Press’. This can be literal or metaphoric. There will be prizes of course, ranging from a year’s supply of Kirin Ichiban to £3,000 and premiers at various short film festivals.

Metcalfes Skinny Topcorn Wasabi Popcorn

The event had a nice tie in with food as well. Aside from the wasabi nuts and assorted snacks available with the beer, there was also sushi and kushiage – deep-fried skewers of food. In fact kushiage was precisely the sort of food you might find at the Kirin Ichiban pop-up Yatai, which will open at a secret East London location in August 2011, where shorts from the competition will be shown.

The entertainment of the evening was traditional music (shamisen and drums) plus Go, origami and Kanji stands. I think perhaps my favourite part of the evening was the short film screenings. We were given Wasabi flavoured popcorn and shown a series of shorts from Future Shorts. There were quite a few different genres and it reminded me how much I enjoyed short films. I went to a lot of screenings but I think started with this one:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6YgY_-DTO0]

If you’re interested in making and submitting a short, visit www.kirinfirstcut.co.uk. You can also book a table for the pop-up Yatai at the website.

Making Japanese cocktails at Watatsumi

Watatsumi is at 7 Northumberland Avenue Trafalgar Square London WC2N 5BY (this restaurant is now closed)

Watatsumi tables

Have you been to Watatsumi? It’s a bit fishy in there.

No, not in that “there’s something suspicious going on” sort of way but rather, they’re a bit fish obsessed.

You see I was recently invited to an evening of cocktail making at Watatsumi, the high-end Japanese restaurant at The Club Quarters Hotel. It was a great opportunity to hone my cocktail making skills, try a few drinks inspired by Japanese food and sample some of the seafood on their extensive menu.

The informal masterclass was held at the bar on a quiet Tuesday evening. You knew it was informal because there were guests sitting on the other end of the bar listening in – but that’s great because it means they’re not afraid to show off their skills. Unfortunately the same couldn’t be said for the participants – I know I made more than a few mistakes! But more on that later.

We started off with a Momiji – a champagne cocktail made with Midori, rose liqueur, Campari, Momiji (a spicy vegetable paste made with daikon) and of course champagne. One lucky volunteer, Tania, went behind the bar to start us off.

First, you shake up 15ml of the Midori, rose liqueur and Campari with half a bar-spoon of Momiji in an ice filled cocktail shaker. Then, after double straining into a champagne flute, you top up the glass with champagne. To create a tiered effect, you need to pour in the champagne gently and it’s best achieved with a swizzle stick that has a perpendicular base. To finish, slip in a few shreds of cucumber and daikon. Et voilà, a champagne cocktail with an unexpected kick. We were having some salmon maki rolls and that kick matched rather well with the wasabi.

I started browsing through the drinks menu to find out exactly what we were drinking and to see what else was available. But alas, all the cocktails we were making were new additions to the menu so I couldn’t find them in print, yet. But I did spot shoals of fish swimming happily around the sake list and darting between the pages to the wines.

The second cocktail of the evening was a Shiso martini. We were introduced to another new ingredient – the Shiso leaf. It’s like a mint but bigger, thinner and more delicate in aroma. Unfortunately that also makes transportation and storage a nightmare and consequently this means a reflection in the price.

For this second cocktail, Amy was the volunteer. And to make it, you measure out 50ml of Disaronno, 20ml of yuzu juice and 25ml of sake into an ice filled cocktail shaker. If you haven’t come across yuzu before, it’s an aromatic citrus fruit found in Asia that tastes like a cross between orange, grapefruit and lemon. Then you take two Shiso leaves and slap them in the palm of your hand to bruise them slightly, thereby releasing their aroma, before adding them into the cocktail shaker as well. Give the whole thing a good shake before double straining the contents into a martini glass. It’s very refreshing with the calamari.

Watatsumi fish lights

I tried to avoid being chosen for the final cocktail by admiring the lights. And it was very impressive too – a school of fish swimming around the light casting fish shadows across the room and when it’s quiet enough, create a wind chime effect. But it was no use. The final cocktail of the evening was made by yours truly and it was a Japanese mojito.

Having had many a mojitos in my time, I was off trying to add double shots of rum to my glass. Then of course I spilled the sake everywhere. In reality however, you should be muddling four Shiso leaves with some sugar, 20ml yuzu juice, 25ml rum, and 50ml sake in a glass filled with crushed ice. Top with more ice after the muddling and a splash of Chambord to serve. Mine was a little strong but that’s ok, it tasted pretty good.

Cocktails made, drinks had and dinner consumed – it was time to head off. But not before one last one for the road – a shot of lychee liqueur with ice cream covered in glutinous rice. Hic.

Haggis and whisky tasting at Boisdale

Boisdale of Belgravia is at 15 Eccleston Street, Belgravia, London SW1W 9LX www.boisdale.co.uk

Ahead of Burn’s night on the 25th of January, I was invited to a lunch time blind tasting of haggis and malt whisky at Boisdale of Belgravia.

Andy Rose at Boisdale

Boisdale is, for some, synonymous with Scottish food. The owner, Ranald Macdonald, is a Scotsman whose family’s roots can be traced back to the 14th century. His father, also Ranald Macdonald, is the 24th Chief and Captain of Clanranald – a branch of one of the biggest clans in Scotland. With these strong Scottish ties, it’s only natural that the restaurant takes an air of, well, Scottishness. That bit is obvious as soon as you enter the restaurant and see the tartan chairs.

Tartan aside, the restaurant is eccentric to say the least. Every wall is filled with something framed – be it painting, drawing or photograph. Each room also embodies some quirky characteristic. And there’s certainly plenty of character to choose from, with the Macdonald Bar, a courtyard garden, a back bar, the Auld restaurant, the Jacobite room and a cigar terrace. Perhaps that’s why it’s also the perfect venue for events such as live jazz, cigar nights and whisky tastings, which Boisdale runs regularly.

Haggis at Boisdale

The haggis and whisky tasting is one such event. On this occasion, the attendees were a mix of members (the restaurant has its own member’s club), their guests and regular diners of the restaurant. The restaurant’s head chef, Andy Rose, presided over the tastings and introduced the haggis. We also enjoyed a recitation of “An Address To A Haggis” by a descendant of Robert Burns.

We each had a sample of six whiskies and six haggises to taste. The idea was that we would taste them all in turn and pick our favourite haggis, whisky and haggis/whisky combination. In practice however, the events were a little more lively. That is not to say, of course, that people didn’t take it seriously. On the contrary, some took it very seriously in fact and tried to guess the whisky according to its defining characteristics. But others were simply content to taste some fine whiskies with some delicious haggises. And when you gather a room full of strangers over drink and food, things, inevitably, takes on an air of “Come Dine With Me”.

But back to the haggis and whisky.

Whisky at Boisdale

It was my very first taste of haggis and I have to say, I rather liked it. Each haggis had a very distinctive taste and texture, with its own unique blend of spices. My favourite was from Mogerleys of Dumfries for its slightly more meaty flavour. We also tried Crombie’s of Edinburgh, Macsweens, Ramsay of Carluke, Findlay’s of Portobello and Boisdale’s own, specially created by Andy Rose.

On the whisky front, we had Johnnie Walker Black Label 12y.o., The Macallan 10y.o., Talisker 10y.o., Glenfiddich 12y.o., Glenmorangie The Original 10y.o. and The Glenlivet 12y.o. Of these, the Glenfiddich 12y.o. came up tops for me although both of my neighbours had different ideas. Such is the nature of personal taste.

After that jolly lunch, some retired to the bar for more drinks, others stayed for more haggis and conversation. And if you’re me, you would have gone out searching for coffee to try and counter the inevitable intoxication.

(First seen on Foodepedia)

The long road to Mother’s Ruin

Garage door at Sipsmiths Distillery

Behind one nondescript blue door on a quiet residential street in Hammersmith, a single garage is the home of the microdistillery producing award-winning spirits. Located on the site of a former microbrewery, Sipsmith is the brain-child of Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall. Taking advantage of a little wintry sunshine, I went to meet the makers to learn a little more.

Through the blue door, the distillery is clear – the still is at the back, the ingredients in the middle and the office just a couple of steps in. The office was already a hive of activity when I enter. Although Sipsmith is still a relatively small operation, it already seems to be bursting at the seams with five core members of staff and the occasional intern. Sam gives me a brief introduction to Sipsmiths before handing me over to Fairfax.

Prudence still at Sipsmiths Distillery

The inspiration for the microdistillery came in 2002.

Sam was working for Fuller’s in America and Fairfax had just started an MBA there. During their time abroad, they saw an explosion in the popularity of microbreweries and microdistilleries due to changes in legislation and were both fascinated by the processes involved. Having visited many establishments and sampled the small-batch beers and spirits, they were surprised and impressed by the quality of the products. Sam and Fairfax soon found themselves drawn to the idea of opening their own distillery in London, the home of gin.

Back in the UK, the idea lay dormant and Sam continued to work for Fullers while Fairfax went to work for Diageo. But it wasn’t for very long because in January 2007, they both quit their jobs, sold their houses and put all their effort into making their dream a reality.

Of course it wasn’t as easy as simply leasing the premises, getting the equipment and creating the recipes to set up shop. They needed a licence for the distillery.

Botanicals at Sipsmiths Distillery

Given that the last licence issued in London for a distillery was for Beefeater almost 200 years ago, the application process was long and tedious. For one, the procedure was dusty and unclear, and then there was the slow rotation of the bureaucratic clog itself. Sam and Fairfax pushed on nevertheless. And finally, after almost two years, they were rewarded with the licence to open a distillery in December 2008.

Today the inconspicuous certificate hangs proudly by Fairfax’s desk. As he tells me the trials and tribulations of obtaining this document, the birth certificate of the distillery, he hands it to me. It looked like nothing more than a small piece of paper encased in a wooden frame but for them it meant a lot of hard work and persistence.

Sam and Fairfax commissioned a copper still from the family run still manufacturers Christian Carl. The still needed to be one that allowed them the flexibility to make different spirits and of a suitable size so they can make it in small batches. Copper was chosen because it purified the spirits during the distillation process, extracting sulphur, ethers and fatty acids, so it didn’t need to be filtered post-production. They also employed the skills and knowledge of drinks historian Jared Brown to craft the recipe for their barley vodka and dry gin.

On the 14th of March 2009, Prudence, Sipsmith’s new still, produced its first batch of vodka from British barley and soon afterwards, dry gin. It wasn’t until the end of June 2009, though, that Sipsmiths crafted the final product.

Their hard-work has certainly paid off. Sipsmiths have won 10 international gold awards in the 17 months since their first bottle was sold and most recently, they won the award for Best Newcomer in the Observer Food Monthly Awards. This last one is currently occupying pride of place between Sam and Fairfax.

Inside the still at Sipsmiths Distillery

These days Prudence sits at the back of the garage space reliably distilling spirits in small batches. So small in fact if you type the batch number on your bottle of Sipsmiths into their website, you can find a little anecdote about the day that the batch was produced. The small batches also helps to maintain the quality of the spirits produced. And to demonstrate, Fairfax offers me a sample.

For the vodka, only the first heart cut (the portion with the highest quality) is bottled producing a spirit which is smooth and rounded with a hint of sweetness. The second heart cut is distilled again with 10 botanicals including juniper berries, citrus peel and coriander seeds to produce the very refreshing dry gin. The Sipsmiths likes to drink theirs with two parts Fever-Tree tonic to one part London Dry Gin, just add ice and lime. The head and tail cut of the distillates are currently wastage although, Fairfax tells me, a Sipsmith vodka car is on the cards.

With that I leave the Sipsmiths to their business. As I step back out into the sunshine, I can’t help but smile and think of Hogarth. It’s barely 11am and there is just a hint of gin on my lips.

Sipsmiths is at The Distillery, 27 Nasmyth Street, London W6 0HA www.sipsmith.com

(First seen on Foodepedia)

Ron Zacapa, the story behind the rum

Lorena Vasquez with Ron Zacapa“When you make rum just to make rum, you make Ron Zacapa.”

Those would be famous last words if they weren’t the first thing that Master Blender Lorena Vasquez told me about Ron Zacapa, the Guatemalan rum brand established in 1976 to celebrate the centenary of the city of Zacapa. I met Lorena at Rumfest to learn more about the rum, which had been growing in popularity amongst bartenders even before its official UK launch.

Unlike most rums currently on the market, which are made from molasses, Ron Zacapa is made from “virgin honey”. This is the syrup containing 72% sugar, produced by heating and evaporating pressed sugar cane juice. Three grades of sugar can be extracted from virgin honey leaving molasses, which only has a sugar content of 48-50%, as a natural by-product. Making rum from molasses was effectively the way to monetise the wastage from the sugar production process while making rum from virgin honey produces only rum.

Using virgin honey to make rum in Guatemala down to tradition more than anything else. At the beginning of the 20th Century, there were many small distilleries in Guatemala making rum. Rum production in Guatemala was always meant to be an artisanal craft so only virgin honey was ever used for the process. In fact, in Guatemala, rum can only be legally defined as such if it is produced using virgin honey. Today there is only one distillery in Guatemala making rum, Industrias Licoreras de Guatemala. Ron Zacapa is one of a number of spirits produced there and to Guatemalans, it’s a drink which represents Guatemala on the international market.

When I asked Lorena what Ron Zacapa was like, she tells me: “Zacapa is like meeting up with an old friend – there’s good and bad moments. It’s friendly, sophisticated and complex and there’s always something new to discover”.

And it’s true. When you try it for the first time, you immediately discover its sweetness compared to other sipping rums. And as you slowly sup on it, you get hints of vanilla, chocolate and toffee.

There are currently three rums in the Ron Zacapa family: 15, 23 and XO. They have all been produced using an adapted Solera system and have been aged between 5-15 years, 6-23 years and 6-25 years respectively. The Solera system is a system of blending and ageing which creates the complex bouquet of aromas found in the rum.

All Zacapa rums are first aged in white American oak barrels that contained either bourbon or whiskey. After sufficient aromas and flavours have been imparted to the rum, the contents are transferred to an intermediate vat and blended with older rums that are at the same stage of production. The product is then transferred to charred white American oak barrels that contained either bourbon or whiskey for further ageing. After the second ageing stage, the rum is transferred to an intermediate vat and again blended with older rums at the same stage in the production process. The process is then repeated for barrels that contained sherry and Pedro Ximenez, a sherry like dessert wine. At each stage, the rum is blended with aged rums. For the XO, there is an extra stage where the rum is aged in French oak barrels which had previously contained cognac.

After being aged in various barrels, the rum will have taken on different characteristics in terms of flavour and aroma. Because of the blending with aged rums, the result is both vibrantly alive like a young rum and deeply smooth like an aged rum. After the final barrel, Pedro Ximenez for the 15 and 23 and French oak for the XO, the rum is stored in used white American oak barrels for further ageing. The used barrels won’t add further characteristics to the profile of the rum so can be used for ageing. For Ron Zacapa, all of this takes place at an altitude of 2,300 above sea level which Lorena believes adds an unique quality to the rum.

When the rums are ready to be bottled after the whole ageing process, they are blended one final time to ensure the consistency in flavour of the rum. Once they are bottled the rums stops ageing and should reach the consumer as they had left the distillery. After that long and complicated process, some truly exceptional rums are produced.

The 15 is said to be soft and sweet to start, with peach, dried tropical fruits and a hint of nutmeg. The 23 has notes of honey, butterscotch, spiced oak and raisined fruit. The XO tastes of dark cherry chocolate, dried fruits and sweet oak spices. I’m not sure my palate was quite sensitive enough to detect the complexity in the blends but the smoothness of the drinks is unquestionable.

Lorena, whose highly sensitive nose has been bothered by the scent of curry served in the café across the room, likes Zacapa “neat and with good company”. At a push, she finally revealed that she enjoys the 15 for cocktails, 23 with food and XO to finish a meal. She also revealed that she has been experimenting on a new addition to the family, but it was top secret.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

(First seen on Foodepedia)

Rum ‘n’ Reason at Harrods

Lorena Vasquez with Ron ZacapaWith London Cocktail Week and Chocolate Week running at the same time, 11-17th October was pretty hectic. For me, there was one event that really helped to pull the week together – Rum ‘n’ Reason at Harrods Wine Shop – an evening of chocolates and rums.

I was given a glass and tasting sheets before being invited to make my way around the Wine Shop. The idea was to sample some of the premium sipping rums available at Harrods, along with the Godiva chocolates selected matched to them. This was an unusually relaxed consumer event held in Harrods’ newly renovated Wine Shop. In some ways it was also a special preview as the renovation hasn’t been completed yet. The official re-launch is currently planned for mid November and the new Wine Shop is said to contain 900 new lines plus an Aroma Zone, a Tasting Room and a temperature controlled Wine Vault. It all sounds very exciting.

Anyway, back to the rum. For most people, rum conjures up images of the Caribbean. While there were a fair few rums from the Caribbean, there were also many more that had their roots in Central and South America.

Take Ron Zacapa, for example, the rum created to celebrate the centenary of the city of Zacapa in Guatemala. Then there is El Dorado, the first brand in the world to produce a sipping rum, made in Guyana using old Navy rum distillation equipment. Of course Flor de Caña from Nicaragua, the rum with the highest number of accolades, was also present.

Unlike most tastings, there was no formal coaching. The different brands were laid out on different tables with a representative from the brand to assist the tasting. This was an opportunity to talk to the people who either produce or distribute the rums, who really knew their products inside out. It was very educational and eye-opening in terms of learning about the variety of different rums available, the different ways of producing rum and the different histories behind the brands.

All in all, there were 30 different rums available to sample and purchase at a special promotional price, including one very expensive 30-year-old rum from Appleton Estate which retails at £495. But if you wanted to fork out for some serious rum, the most expensive rum available for purchase that night was the Havana Club Maximo, priced at an astounding £1,350. There were none available for sampling unfortunately.

And if you were wondering how we all managed to stand up afterwards, there were lined vases acting as spittoons, mineral water for rinsing and canapés being served. No doubt, we all left feeling a bit merrier though.

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