Category: Other Drinks

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.

A hop and a skip to malt at Sambrook’s

Sambrooks brewery pull clips

Sambrook’s Brewery, Battersea, is a place full of reinventions.

The brewery’s co-founder, Duncan Sambrook, was a City accountant before he threw in the towel to become a brewer in 2008. The brewery’s premises in Battersea was a television studio prior to having its double-panelled floors stripped bare, the walls resprayed with hygiene paint and 20 barrel-capacity brewing equipment installed, transforming it into a microbrewery in the heart of London. In some respects the whole operation is rather like the revival of the brewing industry, with smaller microbreweries becoming increasingly popular compared to larger industrial manufacturers.

Reinvention has certainly suited Sambrook’s. Since its first cask was tapped in November 2008, over one million pints have been served to thirsty punters across London. Junction, one of its two permanent ales has even won Beer of the Festival at this year’s Battersea Beer Festival. So on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I headed down to Sambrook’s to see what the fuss is all about.

When I arrived for the tour of the brewery I was met by Duncan Sambrook in a reception area decorated to look like a pub. On display at the bar were the pump clips of the cask ales produced by Sambrook’s – Wandle and Junction. The Wandle is named after a tributary of the Thames, from where Sambrook’s draws its water, while the name Junction is derived from Clapham Junction, Sambrook’s nearest station. It all feels very local, which is exactly the ethos that Sambrook’s is trying to maintain – a London brewer making beer for Londoners.

We were also joined by a group of beer connoisseurs from Brighton CAMRA who were very enthusiastic about the pint of Wandle to start the tour. It was light, slightly sweet and very refreshing.

Given that my last tour of a brewery was the Guinness factory in Ireland, I had expected huge containers for the brewing and even bigger warehouses to store the hops and malt. The kind of place where you start to feel drunk just by breathing in. Sambrook’s was tiny in comparison so it was surprising to learn that by brewing four times a week, Sambrook’s actually produces around 27,000 pints. That’s a lot of thirst quenching.

Unlike most breweries, Sambrook’s likes to mill their own malt. It’s so that they get “just the right amount of sugar” to kick off the process. That much at least will be drilled into you by the end of the tour.

The milled malt goes into a vat called the mash tun where hot water is sprayed on top to create wort, the brown sugary liquid used for the beer. The wort is then pumped into the copper where it is boiled; hops are also added for flavour and preservation of the beer. The resulting liquid is allowed to cool before it is fermented for six days.

So a week later you have your tasty Wandle or Junction, depending on the mix of malt and hops used, ready to be pumped into firkins, kilderkins or barrels and delivered by Sambrook’s drivers to any of the 120 or so pubs within the M25 that serve their ales.

The tour was a real insight into the world of microbrewing and it’s quite obvious that Duncan Sambrook is as enthusiastic about his brewing now as he was on day one. This is a man who is proud to welcome visitors to his brewery, where tours with tastings are run Mondays to Thursdays plus Saturdays. And of course it wouldn’t be right if we didn’t end the tour with a pint of Sambrook’s other permanent ale; the award-winning, darker, stronger and slightly bitter, Junction.

Sambrook’s is at Unit 1&2 Yelverton Road, Battersea SW11 3QG www.sambrooksbrewery.co.uk

(First seen on Foodepedia)

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