Monday, August 29, 2016

Shetland Reel Gin with David Howarth's The Shetland Bus

I've been going through the gin in the wardrobe trying to decide which ones not to write about (it's not been an easy choice) but I couldn't miss out Shetland Reel gin.

Shetland Reel is the first gin to be made in Shetland, Blackwoods made claim to being a Shetland gin, and for a while the original company behind the brand had plans to open a whisky distillery there, but in truth all they ever did was source a couple of botanicals there and put a Viking ship on the label. Blackwoods is a decent gin, worth trying if you find it, but the use of the Shetland name has always curbed my enthusiasm for it.

Shetland Reel (the name explicitly references country dancing and music, but I wonder if they're making a point about provenance as well) is made in Unst (predictive text badly wants that to read aunts...) which is as far north as both Shetland, and Britain, goes. Being 'the most northerly' is a nice usp to have, but it comes with some interesting logistical considerations and expenses, so anything you make there needs to be good to justify the inevitable price tag (it's around £35 which puts it firmly in the premium range, but you can easily spend more).

Shetland Reel is good, it uses local apple mint, but it's nowhere near as pronounced as the mint in Daffy's, rather it presents as a fresh, green, note that balances out the juniper, both of which feel like a supporting act for citrus. Basically a good crisp gin, light and elegant, and beautifully balanced. I'm currently enjoying it in a G&T but I'd like to try it on something like an English Garden cocktail, and maybe with mint rather than cucumber.

I'm watching Reel gin with interest, I love the idea that someone can go to Shetland and make a living doing this, it's exciting to see for lots of reasons, and it's made Christmas presents for daughters very easy for my father for the last couple of years.

Book wise, David Howarth's extraordinary account of the sadly under told story of the 'Shetland Bus' is a must. As a navy man it seems safe to assume Howarth was a gin drinker, and by the end of the book you'll want to raise a glass of something in honour of the men who ran this 'bus'.

For those who don't know the story there's a comprehensive Wikipedia article Here, but basically it was a joint operation between the British and Norwegians during the war to get agents and supplies in and out of Norway. Initially they used fishing boats to cross the North Sea in, and then later got 3 submarine chasers - which were safer. To avoid detection they would sail as late into the winter as they could, often in horrendous conditions. Howarth was a junior navel officer who helped set up and operate the base in Shetland - his tone is very much the stiff upper lipped sort, which is charming in itself, add that to the bravery with which these sailors faced very real danger (there were some terrible losses) - well, as I said, it's a story that should be better known.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Rock Rose with Hugh MacDiarmid's 'Scotland Small?'

D bought me my first bottle of Rock Rose, he's originally from Caithness so when he saw it he had to buy it. (In Fortnum and Mason's, they might not have the biggest gin selection in town, but I believe it still runs to over 100 bottles, the guys on the counter know their business, and they have tasting samples of almost all of them if you ask nicely.) For me it was like getting gin and flowers all in the same package, I was so delighted with it that it's set the bar for casual gifts ever since. Happily, when we've been in Scotland it's been easy to find so it's become something to look forward to on trips North.

It makes sense that so many good gins are coming out of Scotland at the moment; the well established whisky industry, especially the way that single malt took off from the 1970's onwards, is a great example of how to do it. (Conversely the English are getting in on the act, making single malt in distilleries that started off making gin, it'll be interesting to see how that pans out.)

With Rock Rose there are a handful of locally sourced botanicals (including rowan berries, sea buckthorn, blaeberries, and of course rock rose root) which tie the gin to the landscape it comes from. The ceramic bottle with its arts and crafts/Charles Rennie Mackintosh/Glasgow four overtones is strikingly attractive (serious shelf appeal), I love the way it references Scottish design history, its own namesake botanical, and a certain fin de siècle loucheness all at once.

The gin itself is great, there's a hint of rose on the nose, and the sea buckthorn adds a certain sharpness to the palate that works well with the juniper. It's a fairly classic gin, but with enough subtle twists to make it distinctive. Rock Rose recommend garnishing with rosemary, which I'll try next time. (I'm also very keen to try their navy strength gin, next time I see a bottle it's mine.)

When I was thinking of what to match it with my first thought was Neil M. Gunn's 'The Silver Darlings' - Gunn was from the right part of the world and it's definitely a gin that wants to celebrate where it's from, but I haven't yet managed to finish 'The Silver Darlings', and anyway it feels like more of a whisky book. My second though was Josaphine Tey (she was from Inverness) which just as swiftly reminded me that I want to read 'The Singing Sands' and haven't. Tey's books do suggest gin to me, but somehow not this one.

Then I thought of Hugh MacDiarmid. I don't read a lot of MacDiarmid, he can be heavy going, but his story is interesting (see Here for brief details) and 'Scotland Small?' Is a favourite poem for the way it celebrates a landscape that's certainly families to Caithness. It's obviously not a poem about gin, or the process of tasting it, but nevertheless it strongly reminds me of the discipline of tasting (as opposed to just drinking).

Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?
Only as a patch of hillside may be a cliché corner
To a fool who cries ‘Nothing but heather!’ where in September another
Sitting there and resting and gazing around
Sees not only the heather but blaeberries
With bright green leaves and leaves already turned scarlet,
Hiding ripe blue berries; and amongst the sage-green leaves
Of the bog-myrtle the golden flowers of the tormentil shining;
And on the small bare places, where the little Blackface sheep
Found grazing, milkworts blue as summer skies;
And down in neglected peat-hags, not worked
Within living memory, sphagnum moss in pastel shades
Of yellow, green, and pink; sundew and butterwort
Waiting with wide-open sticky leaves for their tiny winged prey;
And nodding harebells vying in their colour
With the blue butterflies that poise themselves delicately upon them;
And stunted rowans with harsh dry leaves of glorious colour.
‘Nothing but heather!’  ̶  How marvellously descriptive! And incomplete. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Daffy's gin with Ian Fleming and James Bond

Daffy' is pretty new on the gin scene - launched at the tail end of 2014 after a couple of years intense development work - it also says a lot about where gin is going. It's a high quality product that conforms to a traditional gin flavour profile, but with an emphasis on a particular botanical - in this case Lebanese mint. It references gins history; Daffy is an old slang term for gin (it comes up in Dickens), though the label is pure 1960's martini glamour. The Daffy's gin people like to say it refers to the goddess of gin. Along with that back story the rest of the packaging is absolutely immaculate - it's all extreme polished, and it's paid off quickly with awards and a national distribution deal with Waitrose.

Daffy's is the brain child of an Edinburgh based couple (with a sound drinks background) and apparently partly inspired by whisky in so much as they wanted something that was recognisable in the same way (distinctly gin, but also distinctive), the Lebanese mint does the trick. It's a salad mint (I looked it up) so not harsh, the flavour is integrated, but unmistakable. The other thing Daffy's wanted was to be a gin which would drink well neat. Success again.

It works very well in a G&T, and that distinctive minty note makes it a good choice for cocktails that really allow the gin to shine through (Martini's, Gin Ricky's - that sort of thing).

The label design is what really stands out about this gin for me though. It is after all the first impression that you get of it, and it's also really distinctive. The label was designed by Robert McGinnis who's probably most famous for the James Bond posters in the 60's and 70's, and I've not really seen anything else like it, it certainly stands out. It's possibly also a love it or hate it label, I don't love it but I do admire a strong brand.

The Robert McGinnis connection makes James Bond an obvious choice, though when I think about Bond I think of the films rather than Ian Flemmings books, of which I've only read Casino Royale (the Modesty Blaise books would work too). I'm definitely thinking of Roger Moore as Bond, and a 70's jet set lifestyle. The origins of the botanicals - Belgium (angelica), the Balkans (juniper and coriander), Morocco (orris), Spain (orange and lemon), Malaysia (Cassia), and Lebanon (mint) certainly read like a set list for a Bond film (and some interesting holidays).

Finally a martini should be stirred, not shaken, and Ian Flemming knew it, there are a lot of theories as to why he specifies shaken (I've even heard it was to annoy his bartender, I would love it if that was true). The reason you should stir is mostly aesthetic, shaken martini's are likely to be cloudy, and some argue more dilute (but that's debatable). I've also read that when you shake gin it can 'bruise' it, bringing out a bitter note - though I've not tested that. Stirring takes longer, but the ritual of making a drink is important, if a things worth doing, it's worth doing properly.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Berkeley Square Gin with Nancy Mitford

Berkeley Square gin is another Joanne Moore creation (she's behind some great gins, though this one could maybe have been better marketed). I didn't try it until we stopped stocking it (it was reduced to clear and I love a bargain) if I'd known how good it was I'd have bought more.

Marketed as a gentleman's gin (Bloom is the feminine equivalent from the same stable) and inspired by the herbs in an English garden, what we get is a lovely fresh gin which explores the herbaceous notes of the traditional gin flavour profile. Which is precisely what makes Joanne Moore's gins so exciting - I love the way she takes an element that is in itself perfectly conventional within the gin flavour spectrum and then expands upon it. The result is something intriguingly different but still a traditional gin.

The idea of marketing gin by gender doesn't appeal to me at all - and perhaps explains why Berkeley Square wasn't as popular with our customers as it might have been. Bloom (which does have a particularly pretty bottle) does better, but Opihr has been a much bigger hit, and Thomas Dakin looks set to do better as well (they're all out if the same stable).

It's a shame because it really is a good gin, the sort that works in its own over ice, makes a really decent gin and tonic, and shines in cocktails (Gin foundry suggest something called The Last Word, sadly it involves Chartreuse which I really don't like, but I might give it a go anyway. Details Here).

The tag line 'effortlessly superior' and the Mayfair styling remind me of irrisistably of Nancy Mitford with her U and non U snobbery (which I've always assumed is a bit tongue in cheek - but then I guess the gin marketing is too). These days I like Mitford in small doses, I find she can be hard to take in any quantity - but sometimes nothing else will do.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Warner Edwards Rhubarb Gin with Miss Buncle's Book

I find it very hard to resist the idea of a flavoured gin - or any odd liqueur, it has led to some dreadful mistakes in the way of alcohol purchases. I fear I will never quite live down a really unpleasant, and very expensive, holly eau de vie - and yet I still don't learn. Last year at a gin festival I used a precious token, whilst still entirely sober, to try a Parma violet flavoured gin. It tasted exactly as you might expect, and didn't impress the friend I was sharing with (her choices were all impeccable). I can't resist the romance of the idea (I'd match Parma violet gin with something like Ethel. M. Dell's 'The Way of an Eagle', the gin wasn't bad - but a little went a long way. I imagine a good mixologist could make something witty and delicious out of it, maybe one day I'll find out. Ethel. M. Dell is hard going, but a phenomenon in her day which makes her interesting.)

Warner Edwards Rhubarb gin on the other hand is bloody marvellous, my bottle was a gift from someone who knows me well enough to have the gift giving thing nailed, and who also has the good taste to choose something delicious as well as vaguely novel. It's also a local gin to me, or local enough, it's made on the Leicestershire/Northamptonshire border.

The Warner Edwards story is a good one, their Harrington Dry gin which forms the base of this one is excellent, and all the ingredients for their flavoured gins have excellent local provenance. Warner Edwards do have a national presence (you can buy them in John Lewis of all places) but they're also a great local product. Not every gin can be a big selling brand name, but every good gin can make its mark locally, and there's something really satisfying about finding a product rooted in its landscape.

Thankfully though this gin is widely available because it's the perfect mix of sweet and tart. It makes a brilliant martini with a dash of orange bitters to bring out the citrus, and a very pink and summery long drink mixed with something like Crabbies rhubarb flavoured ginger beer. It feels pleasingly feminine - it's very pink - nostalgic in an English country garden sort of way, and is still a serious gin that deserves a bit of respect (that sugar is balanced with the sort of astringency that makes me think of Maggie Smith giving a withering set down in her best dowager countess mode).

Book wise it deserves a mix of romance and humour. Nothing too sensational, but with plenty of charm. D E Stevenson's 'Miss Buncle's Book' fits the bill for me.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Tanqueray Rangpur with Passage of Arms

August is disappearing faster than the list of gins I want to write about, how do I even go about choosing which ones to cut from the list, and which of the unopened, hoarded, bottles will stay that way until the next occasion to drink them finally comes along? It's a lot to think about on a Wednesday evening.

What I really haven't done yet though is fully share my enthusiasm for all things Tanqueray, high on the list of gins I want to try is their Old Tom, there's standard (not a word that does it justice) Tanqueray which is very much a favourite, the lavishly awarded Tanqueray Ten which really is phenomenally good, and then there's Tanqueray Rangpur.

Rangpur has its doubters, but I'm not one of them. Rangpur limes are apparently a bit special (extra juicy as far as I can tell) and here they're distilled along with the other botanicals to create a gin that really delivers on both the citrus and juniper fronts. Lime, lovely zesty lime, really dominates the nose but there's plenty of juniper punch in the palate - so basically my favourite style of gin (juniper forward) with a hefty dose of something else I really like (lime) for good measure in a crisp clean gin which makes an excellent G&T. A few customers have assured me that it's great with ginger as well but I like it so much with tonic that I've felt no need to explore further.

Tanqueray Ten does something sort of similar (and I accept that it might just do it with more finesse) with Mexican limes, and grapefruit, but Tanqueray Ten feels like the gin equivalent of a Bentley and sometimes a prefer the friskier Rangpur. In the end it comes down to personal taste, and this one ticks all the boxes for me. It's easy to recommend 'Ten', I never doubt its ability to live up to expectations, but I get enthusiastic about Rangpur in a different way, and just a little defensive when people say they don't see the point of it. Other gin drinkers will have to make up their own minds!

The book I would currently pair with it (I have happy recent memories of doing just that) is Eric Ambler's Passage of Arms. It's the extra lime that makes me think particularly of anywhere Eastern, and Tanqueray has been around long enough (even if this expression hasn't) to feel like it would have been quite at home in that post colonial world. It would be just the thing to cut through the sultry heat, would do well in a Singapore sling, and just looking at the bottle is making my fingers itch to reach for the next Ambler on the pile.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Audemus Pink Pepper Gin with Perfume: A Century of Scents

I've just been having a conversation on Twitter about drinking culture, and how much pressure there is to drink when perhaps you shouldn't, and drink more than you might want, so it seems like time to reiterate that I'm all about drinking sensibly. I have so much gin around the place only because I don't drink much (if I did most those bottles would have long gone to be recycled). I enjoy a drink but it's been a long time since it was in anything but moderation. I believe in quality over quantity every time, and whilst I'll happily encourage anybody to try a new gin (or similar) if I think they might like it, I hope I never put pressure on anybody to do so. A good gin and tonic is a beautiful thing, a hangover is not.

After which auspicious start it's on to Audemus Pink Pepper gin... This one's from France, Cognac to be specific, where they know a thing or two about distillation, but where I'm guessing there's no great tradition of gin making or drinking (I could be very wrong about that). The result is something that's definitely gin, but also quite distinctively different in its approach. It's worth reading this review Here from Gin foundry (they're my go to place for gin reviews and general information about distilleries).

The pepper element is front and centre with this gin, and the juniper is unmistakably there too. I was surprised to read that coriander doesn't feature mostly because it almost always does, and I associate it with citrus flavours in gin. There is citrus here though, even if it's not altogether clear where from. There's also the mention of honey, thinks beans, and vanilla, as well of those pink peppercorns - all of which remind me of perfume descriptions as much as they do a list of gin botanicals.

I was also interested to read that this is a gin that changes and develops with age - that's a new idea to me with spirits, and an intriguing one. It also lead me back to perfume again, hence the Lizzie Ostrom book.

When I talk about tasting drinks what I'm talking about specifically is a tasting process, one which relies heavily on the nose. The first step when you pour anything to taste is to asses it by eye - is it clear, a good colour, in any way distinctive (notes will be made). Next you nose it - approaching with caution if it's a spirit - sniff to deep and the alcohol will knock your nose out of shape and you'll get no useful information, then you taste. Even when you do actually have the liquid in your mouth it's the nose that's doing the bulk of the work - and you should be breathing in through the mouth out through the nose at this point.*

When you're nosing a drink you're assessing first of all if it smells clean (as opposed to faulty or unpleasant in some way) and then trying to identify different components from the whole. This might be to help describe it later, but it's more to do with helping you remember, define, and think about what you're drinking. Unless it's your job there's no need to take it to seriously, but I do think it's worth spending a few moments thinking about what you're drinking - it's more enjoyable when you do (at least it is when you're drinking something good, and really - there's no reason to drink anything which isn't good).

The nose matters, and this heady concoction of juniper, pink pepper, vanilla, honey, tonka, and citrus - which I'd wear with joy if I could - is a splendid reminder of that.

*If you want to know exactly how much work the nose does mix a little cinnamon and sugar together, hold your nose and think about what you can taste, then let go of your nose and see the difference.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Hendrick's Gin with a bit of Victorian excess

I had to really think about writing about Hendrick's gin. I'm not that keen on it so it was tempting not to bother, but then it's been so influential that it seemed wrong not to. I don't think it's coincidence that I've really struggled to think of a book to match it.

Hendrick's was launched in 2001, its success, and it is successful, setting the template for modern gin branding. I've heard Hendrick's described as a good gin to start with if you're not sure you like gin - the juniper is there but it's held in check by the cucumber and Rose elements that are added after distillation - and that's precisely why I'm not very excited by it. It's a perfectly nice gin, I take no issue with the cucumber garnish (I wouldn't object if you wanted to stick a rose in it either), but it simply isn't juniper forward enough for me. That's an entirely personal response, a gin doesn't get to be as popular as Hendrick's through marketing alone, it's a very well made spirit that deserves its fan base.

Not that I want to undersell the marketing though, it is a triumph, and worth celebrating. 15 years down the line it's perhaps hard to remember how fresh Hendrick's looked. The bottle shape and colour, the Victorian style decoration, the humour, even the tea cups... Hendrick's basically persuaded a generation of drinkers that gin was cool again (it is, they were right). They keep making it fun, and I don't doubt for a moment that they'll continue to do so, and that in itself is more than enough to make me raise a glass to them.

Book wise I feel Hendrick's calls for something that really celebrates Victorian eccentricity and excess. If I knew much about steam punk (beyond that it's a thing) I'm pretty sure I could find something perfect, but it's not a genre I've read. I suspect Jules Verne or H. G. Wells in science fiction mode would be appropriate but I've only seen films so they would be cheating. Wilkie Collins at his most sensational might do (I'm thinking 'Poor Miss Finch' levels of plotting craziness) but then the gin is perhaps to serious for that (allusions to blue ruin notwithstanding). It's a reminder that I ought to read some Florence Marryat or, Sheridan Le Fanu, but as I haven't...

The obvious choice for me ends up being collections of Victorian ghost stories and Gothic tales. This is partly in recognition of the current Hendrick's box which references the Victorian fascination with spiritualism and raising spirits, but mostly because I love this kind of thing.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Caorunn Gin with George Mackay Brown

My first brush with Caorunn gin was in Aberdeen airport, my sister bought a bottle when we were en route to Shetland for a family visit. We drank it with enthusiasm, and on the way back I bought more, it's been a favourite ever since. (Which was helpful when we first got it at work, the rep was so pleased with my enthusiasm he gave me another bottle - he's a lovely man).

Caorunn is made in Scotland, specifically at the Balmenach distillery in the Cairngorms, where they can draw on a long history of distilling. The name is Gaelic for rowan berry - which is one of the botanicals, rowan's have all sorts of mythology and folklore attached to them (planted next to a house they're meant to keep witches and other evil spirits away). The five sided bottle is inspired by Scottish Art Nouveau, and the five pointed star shape on it references the five specifically Scottish botanicals which also include heather and bog myrtle. This is a product that celebrates its provenance, it's also really good.

The result is a clean crisp gin in the London style with a nice balance between spice, citrus, and juniper. It makes an excellent G&T, and is a good all round cocktail gin - garnish wise Caorunn suggest red apples (apples are another botanical) and they also have This recipe for a winter toddy with apple juice, port, bitters, lemon juice, and sugar. It's one I'll be trying.

I think someone has just started making gin in Orkney, but until I get to try it, and despite gin not being the first drink I'd associate with George Mackay Brown (that would be whisky) the personality of Caorunn seems well suited to his work. He said of himself that "I sometimes see my task as poet and storyteller, to rescue the centuries treasure before it is to late. It is as though the past is a great ship that has gone ashore, and archivist and writer must gather as much of the rich squandered cargo as they can".

It's what he does time and again in his short story collections along with celebrating the landscape and the seasons. In its own way Caorunn does that too with all the ways it references its Scottish origins, along with the hint of ancient folklore tied up in those botanicals. Not that there's anything nostalgic about this gin - it's more a sense that it celebrates where it's come from. Anyway, it seems perfect, especially in toddy form, to enjoy with Mackay Brown's stories of Orkney life - especially when the wind blows and the rain chucks it down outside (as it is tonight).

Saturday, August 20, 2016

William Chase Seville Orange Gin with P G Wodehouse

Although they disappeared from off-licence and bar shelves something before my time, orange flavoured gins used to be popular. From what I've read I'm assuming they were fairly sweet and used mostly as a cocktail ingredient. William Chase's Seville Orange Gin is dry enough to satisfy the most traditional of gin drinkers (it certainly pleases me) but it too makes an excellent cocktail ingredient.

when I first tried it I was already familiar with, and a fan of, Chase's marmalade vodka, and that coupled with the glorious colour of this gin had led me to expect something aggressively orangey. It isn't at all, the orange flavour is there and it makes no bones about being the star of the show, but in many ways it's surprisingly subtle. The flavours are beautifully balanced and unmistakably gin like, albeit a citrus dominated gin, the end result was much more sophisticated than I expected and utterly contemporary - though the idea that it has a foot in gin history is pleasing too. 

It makes a brilliant gin and tonic, is excellent in a martini (I'd must try it in a breakfast martini* some day), and is worth trying in any citrus inclined gin cocktail - though it's such a good gin I don't like to mess around with it to much. It sings in a G&T and my cocktail making skills are limited.**

I'm not sure what Jeeves would make of this gin, I like to think it would be dry enough for him to approve of, but I'm certain that Bertie Wooster would love it, especially in a breakfast martini. That hint of marmalade could have been designed on purpose to compliment Wodehouse's world, a deckchair somewhere pleasant on a sunny afternoon with a glass of something involving this gin in one hand, and a book outlining why 'Aunts Aren't Gentleman' in the other, would be an afternoon well spent (and the stuff my dreams are made of). 

*which is in no way the same thing as having a martini for breakfast, that is something I have no intention of trying. Those days, if I ever had them, are long gone. 

** I've had occasional enthusiasms for trying to make cocktails at home, but experience has taught me to keep it simple and leave the business of serious cocktail making to professionals. It's less sticky that way.