Tag Archives: alcohol

A tipple of apple

12 Dec
Domaine du Coquerel

Domaine du Coquerel

Before I discovered Calvados, I thought the main way to have apples alcoholised was in cider.

I enjoy cider a lot, having family in Herefordshire – one of the main cider producing regions of the UK. I can even remember taking illicit sips from a cup of the sweet staple Strongbow as a kid. My taste buds have moved on from the very sugary brand onto drier, more farmhouse style ciders, like those from Gwatkin.

But during a recent trip to France with the boy, I discovered I quite like what happens when apples get much more alcoholised and turn into calvados.

Luckily, the boy’s family live in Normandy – the region where calvados has been produced for centuries. We headed off to award-winning Domaine du Coquerel, a small independent producer in France. It was started in 1937 by Rene Gilbert and was, at one stage, owned by the Guinness group, before Jean Francois Martin, the owner, gave up his job working at Diageo to buy out the company in 1996.

Casks with aging calvados.

Casks with aging calvados.

Everything is done on-site at Domaine du Coquerel as we discovered during a walk around the premises, which features a huge, stone chateau and large sweeping grounds looking out to the countryside of Normandy. Each year, between 5,000-6,000 tonnes of 55 different varieties of apples are brought to the distillery, all collected within 15km, making it truly a local business.

The apples are then fermented (pips and all) in vats for at least one month, after which it can be called cider. Afterwords, that fermented juice is distilled in copper column stills, allowing for a much more alcoholic spirit. The spirit is reduced to 40-42% before it is put into white oak ex-Cognac casks for aging which are managed by the distillery’s cellar master who has worked for the company for 30 years.

Jean Francois Martin, the owner.

Jean Francois Martin, the owner.

Like Cognac, Calvados is bottled at varying ages with different ‘age statements’. In its case, the ‘Fine’ label indicates it’s two years at least, the ‘Vieux’ is a minimum of three years, while the ‘VSOP’ label equates to four years of aging and the ‘XO’ to eight years (although it will include a blend of 8, 10 and 15 year old Calvados).

A tipple of apple.

A tipple of apple.

Domaine du Coquerel is considered a small, independent producer, but still makes around one million bottles a year, 50% of which is exported. It has recently been given a gold medal at the World Spirit Awards for both its ‘Fine’ and ‘XO’ bottlings.

We tried a variety after our tour and during our discussion with Jean. My favourite was the youngest one, the Fine. While the others were very tasty, they verged too much into whisky territory, with loads of vanilla and oak influence. I preferred the slightly more acidic, heavy apple end of the younger style. The boy agreed, and we ended up with a bottle for our drinks shelf. And a realisation that highly alcoholised apples are rather pleasurable to sip on!

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Finding the perfect match

1 Oct

The new gin from Heston.

Pairing food and drink is becoming a particular interest of mine. I love playing around with how a food tastes when paired with one wine or another or, even more so, with one whisky or another. And it’s something I’m seeing more and more companies and restaurants taking on board. We’ve suddenly moved past simple wine and cheese matching, into whisky and food, and beer and food combinations.

Recently, I was invited to try out some of the new collection of beers and spirits being released by Waitrose. And while it was rather delightful to have access to a room full of whatever alcohols I fancied trying (including the new earl grey tea and lemon gin being released by Heston Blumenthal) I was mostly keen to check out its food and alcohol matching class.

On hand to take a group us through the various matches were Alex Buchanan, marketing manager of Thonbridge Brewery, along with Jamie Baxter and Alex (the new distiller) from Chase Vodka, along with chefs from the Waitrose cookery school.

We started out with a damson vodka infused wild salmon gravalax with a fennel salad paired with the Sipsmith damson vodka. The vodka was served icy cold and the fruitier flavours were meant to bring out the fishy and acidic flavours in the dish. While I enjoyed it, I found the damson vodka too sticky and jammy for my taste buds, but I bet a lot of people who enjoy densely sweet drinks would like this match.

We then moved onto Thornbridge’s Wild Swan ale matched with dressed crab. This, for me, was a glorious coming together of flavours. The ale is crisp and wheaty, with hints of lemon and grapefruit, which really brought out the fishy goodness of the crab. I recommend!

The next two dishes – a rich meat stew and a sausage stew – were paired with a few beers. The former matched, for me, best with the Fuller’s ESB because, while the ale is malty and rich, it has fruitier flavours which helped to cut through the intensity of the beef. The latter, meanwhile, paired perfectly with the Beglian Tripel Karmeliet (one of my favourite beers) due to the yeasty sweet flavours in the beer, which helped accentuate the slightly sweet flavours in the dish.

The event was finished off with a pairing of one of the most gorgeous trifles I’ve ever tasted (concocted from roasted panettone soaked in gin, with jelly, gin-soaked figs and spices) and Janneau Armagnac. This was, quite simply, gorgeous. And while I don’t normally opt for puddings when out, if this were in a restaurant I would happily snap it up.

Matchings such as these are taught at the Waitrose Cookery School’s cocktail and canape class, which the company says is about “showing customers how versatile spirits can be.” But it also does classes on more traditional matchings, such as a wine and gourmet food class coming up on 10 October, which is being put on in conjunction with the Wine & Spirits Education Trust.

After trying all the lovely foods and innovative drinks coming from British distillers and brewers, I felt thrilled to learn of new things I could try at home. And I recommend all of you to give it a shot (or, if all else fails, have a shot) – whether in a class or at home. It’s a great way to learn about flavours and how your personal palate responds to different groups of foods and drinks. Plus, you’ll probably have a rather pleasurable time doing it!

Gin, jazz and teacups – The Langham’s Palace

24 Sep

A London gin palace of the 19th century.

In the early 19th century, gin palaces were all the rage. They sprouted up like mushrooms around London, pulling lovers of ‘mother’s ruin’ easily into their web and fascinating people with their use of gas lights both inside and outside of their buildings. They were known for being overly inviting, with riche interiors, and were – along with the huge numbers of beer houses – responsible for helping many on their way to drunkenness.

Fast forward nearly 200 years and one of London’s most luxurious hotels – The Langham – has resurrected that 1820s style by installing a Sipsmith ‘gin palace’ in the hotel’s Palm Court, an opulent ground-level tea room normally known for serving up teas and cakes.

The Langham’s version of a gin palace.

Now, every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, patrons will be able to eschew petit fours and tea for hot jazz and G&Ts, concocted by Sipsmith’s master distiller, Jared Brown, and The Langham’s head mixologist Alex
Kratena.

The boy and I headed there on opening night to find out what it was all about.

Outside, throngs of teenage girls lined the pavement (an odd sight, indeed, until we realised a certain Canadian teen idol was stalking the floors). Once we’d realised they weren’t there to welcome us in, we headed into the grand, marble lobby and up into Palm Court. We could already hear the gentle reverberation of jazz as it drifted out the doorway and, once inside, we swiftly found a comfy chaired corner and coddled glasses of champagne to get the night going.

The room was dimly lit, with gold flecked walls picking up the sparkling lights from the oversized chandeliers. All around us, the well-heeled circulated the room with glasses of gin cocktails, while perfectly turned out waiters carried heavy looking, glass orbs filled with a bright orange liqueur that was being poured into tea cups. It seemed to be a cross between Victoriana and Alice in Wonderland.

After the first jazz set, we took a ‘turn about the room’ picking up some saucy, spicy ginger and lily cocktails on our way. Served in a leggy cocktail glass, this drink was sharp but satisfying, heating the taste buds with the gin and ginger combination, before ending with a wee sweet hint garnered from the lily cordial. It was delicious and if they had made cocktails like this in the early 19th century, I think there would have been even more turning towards the dark side of gin consumption.

With one cocktail down, we decided to have a rest in another lounging chair and opt for the teacup cocktail. Gin in a teacup – how could I resist?

This drink – called the Ginervistic – is made from a Dutch gin-style liqueur called Loyaal Zeer Oude, along with Sipsmith gin, lime and lemon juice, Champagne and The Langham syrup. It was mouth-puckeringly sharp – a bit too much for my taste. But, as the waves of sulty jazz rolled over us, and as I asked for a refill of my teacup, my taste buds became more accustomed to the bite of the drink.

When finally we decided to leave the cushy surroundings and head back into the chilling autumn air, it was with a sigh. The Langham does luxury like few others (maybe that’s why the Beibermeister – who the boy and I just missed apparently on our way to the loo – decides to rest his pop-fuelled self there). And the hotel’s gin palace is just as divine. Cocktails are of the higher-end London varietal (£15) but if you can spare the change, I recommend taking in the surroundings over just one cocktail and allowing yourself to be transported back to a bygone age. After all, it’s not everyday you’ll drink gin from Wedgwood china.

For more information on The Langham’s Gin Palace at Palm Court, visit: http://www.palm-court.co.uk/#/gin-palace/

Innis & Gunn get fruity

10 Sep

Fruit beer is one of those things that I’m just never sure about.

The first time I tried one of the better known brands – Früli – a few years ago, it was after continuous recommendations from some work colleagues that it was the best thing since our office had decided to let us drink at our desks after 3:30pm on a Friday (this is Europe after all!). But when I tried it at Dutch pub De Hems, I found its sweetness to be too overwhelming. I promptly purchased my favourite, heavier-duty Trappistes Rochefort 8 and continued on my merry drinking way.

So when I recently learned that craft brewery and bastions of cask-aged beer Innis & Gunn had decided to release its own fruit beer under the brand name Melville’s Craft Lager, I was intrigued though slightly skeptical.

Melville’s Raspberry Craft Lager

The lager is made from a standard base (British malt, hops, yeast and water) that is infused with cold pressed berry juice from juice producer Ella Drinks. The company has released a strawberry and raspberry flavour, both of which I have sampled, and both of which will now be permanently available in Tesco and in Scottish Sainsbury’s branches for around the £1.70 mark.

My preferred choice was the raspberry version. It’s a heady, thickly sweet drink but with elements of an almost treacle-like flavour and an instant rush of sharp raspberry to counter the sugary side. It’s quite a punchy drink for a fruit beer – it’s not watered down or too sickly, though it is definitely going to be too much for those that like their lagers drier. The flavour of Swedish Berries (a North American candy) was also present. I wanted to be sat on a lawn chair in the sun drinking this one.

Stawberry delight anyone?

The strawberry version took the sugar level further and I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who would choose a starter over a sweet at dinner – those with a greater love of their savoury taste buds might revolt. It saves itself, however, from falling into the sugar syrup, tweenie drinks (WKD anyone?) by having a lovely, bitter twang right at the end which balances things out a bit better. Strawberry foams from pick n mix, or Haribo strawberry sours dominate.

Both are quality craft lagers, which one can tell have been flavoured with real fruit and not any sugar additives. While they’re sweet, they’re enjoyable.

It’s an interesting move for Innis & Gunn – with its following by lager aficionados (especially in Canada where it seems to be immensely popular) it seems somewhat strange to move into this other market. Equally, it will give the company a wider remit by targeting a very different demographic. And, as the bottle does not say ‘Innis & Gunn’ anywhere on the label many may not even realise the tie-in.

And although I won’t reach for them as a staple beer, I enjoyed the raspberry enough to keep a bottle or two around for when I’m looking for something a bit sweeter than my normal bitters and ales. Which, given my normal dislike of fruit beer, says a lot.

Discovering Rakia the Serbian way

11 Jul

Central and Eastern Europe is, I’ve always found, full of random liqueurs. My cupboard is hiding many a strange bottle of fruit based drinks I’ve picked up over the years in Montenegro, Croatia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

But my best discovery in recent years came as a bit of a surprise. During a trip to Serbia to learn about the country’s food and drink heritage, I came across Rakia (or, fruit brandy). And it’s one purchase I don’t imagine will be gathering dust in my cupboard for long.

Grape rakia at Distilerija restaurant, Belgrade

Rakia is a traditional drink made across the region, from Slovenia to Bosnia and Serbia. For hundreds of years, families have had minute copper stills at home to distill the strong, sweet liquor themselves. Flavours range all across the board, from quince, to apricot, grape, raspberry, young walnuts, herbs and – the most popular – plum. The latter – called Slivovitz in Serbian – is what you’ll find most commonly and can run the gamut from pretty horrible to deliciously drinkable. But with most sitting at an alcohol level over 45%, I recommend you mind how much of the latter you’re getting down your gullet.

The first references to the drink in Serbia originate with stories about Turkish invaders of the 14th century. It has been mass produced since the 19th century and is traditionally served up in every cafe and bar, and drunk at any point in the day.

While in Serbia, I visited both a distillery and a rakia bar called Distilerija, in Belgrade. Both opened my eyes to the product which was very exciting as a drinks lover.

The distillery, called Zarić, was located in a hilly region in western Serbia called Kosjerić, which is famous for producing various fruits that end up in the drink. The distillery was established in 1946 and produces three millions litres of brandy a year through a process much like whisky or gin distilling.

Zaric stillhouse

Dusko Disanović, the master distiller, took me around the distillery and explained the process.

To start, the chosen fruit, enzymes and yeast are fermented in large vats for 20 days. Then, the resulting mash is distilled in large copper stills powered by steam, coming off at 60-70% ABV. The pear and raspberry brandies are distilled on a column still, as it helps hold in the fruit essences more fully.

A single distillation takes 10-12 hours, although it’s longer for Slivovitz, which is double-distilled. The alcohol content is brought down by adding distilled water to the vats (or, in the case of Slivovitz, to the large casks it will mature in).

The Slivovitz is then aged for a minimum of six months in huge, 250,000 litre Slavonian oak barrels from Croatia, which gives it a darker colour and deeper flavour than the other brandies. This one was definitely my favourite. While some of the fruit ones were interesting – the raspberry, for instance, had a nice, sharp twang to it – many were too sweet for my liking. The Slivovitz, however, was more balanced, with notes of vanilla, spice and stewed plums.

A random Gwiltypleasures interview with Serbian TV about my thoughts on Rakia!

I tried all of these and many more at both the distillery and Distilerija. The latter was just opening when I visited, but is owned by Branko Nešić, who started the first rakia only bar called – quite logically – Rakia Bar in 2006. His new venture combines a quasi-museum providing the history of the drink and a full restaurant and bar.

Trying the types of tapas that go with rakia.

Rakia is normally served with small dishes of food, similar to tapas. I first tried a cold pressed grape rakia, paired with a pike carpaccio, that offset eachother wonderfully, the sharp lemon and fish flavours marrying well with the alcoholic bite of the rakia. Also on the menu was a quince rakia, that hinted at parma violets and fleshy fruit, and a buckwheat pancake stuffed with mushrooms and a type of Serbian cream cheese called Kajmak. But the best of the night was definitely the Slivovitz, once again. It was paired with a small dish of ox tail with a spicy paprika, dill and lemon sauce, which was salty enough to balance out the sweeter vanilla and brown sugar notes of the drink.

Throughout my journey to Serbia, one thing was clear: Rakia is king. Every home will offer the traveller a drink of it, while at every restaurant, a waiter will proffer it to start. It’s diverse and more enjoyable than traditional, thicker brandies we get in western Europe. So if you find it on liquor store rack somewhere, give it a try – I’d share mine but it’s too pleasurable to leave on my shelf for long!

Daytime drams…

26 Apr
I love whisky. Single malt rocks my world. But, I know many who don’t indulge in the “water of life” to the same extent – including the boy (ie: the boyfriend, Lee). Unfortunately, like many, he had a disastrous encounter with some cheap and cheerful whisky back in the day which left him with a horrid two-day hangover (more than once). Understandably, his perception of whisky is mainly that it’s rough. I shared this view until I went to a tasting a few years back, which turned my taste buds around and made me bat for the other side: the side that likes a wee dram, that is. A lingering goal of mine is to convince others that this beautiful spirit can be so subtle and complex, that it can take your breath away (and not just from its sharp bite).

SO, after a recent whisky event at the fabulous Albannach bar in Trafalgar Square (http://tinyurl.com/pt7vta) – at which I received one of their whisky taster sets – I decided what better way to try to convince the boy that he WILL like this golden liquid than to have a mini taste-testing sesh.

Now, as many Londoners will know, April’s weather has been more encouraging of Pimm’s consumption than whisky, but even so, I believe the “winter warmer” can be loved year-round. So even with the sun rays darting into our lounge, we decided what the heck! we’ll give these bad boys a taste. It was a Monday after all…

The three whiskies in the tasting set are elegantly presented in a white, silk-lined box (adorned with the Albannach symbol) and come with a Glencairn glass (the industry standard tasting glass). It includes a 10-year old Islay, a 14-year old Speyside and a 10-year old Blended.

A wee dram anyone?

With pens and paper at the ready, I poured us each a small sample of the Blended to get us started and, like seasoned pros, we took to the task tres seriously giving each a few notes on taste, smell and even a score out of 10! We followed with the Speyside and ended with the Islay.

So…what did we think?

I gave my high-scores to the Islay, surprising myself as I don’t normally drink this varietal as it’s often too harsh and smoky. But, this one was far from overpowering, proving instead to be a bit sweet and creamy, with a complex taste and aroma that reminded me of how the night air smells at a lake beside a campfire, along with leather and the sea. It had a delicious, smoky aftertaste too, and I gave it 8 out of 10. Lee took a more serious tone, linking it with his vision of what a tortured writer would drink or to quote: “What Hemingway would have drunk before shooting himself in the head.” But not in a bad way – no, no, he felt it was a deep and complex, sophisticated whisky, meant for those special occasions…or in Hemingway’s case, his final occasion…

Taking his tasting notes seriously!

The boy’s high-score, meanwhile, went to the Blended whisky – he considered it a summery, light and easy-going whisky, one that novices would enjoy, that had quality but was not too complex. He scored it a 9 out of 10. I rated this one  a 6 out of 10, but that was simply because I found it too sweet, with an overly butterscotch, or salt-water taffy taste for my liking. It was a quality whisky, but didn’t quite offer the bite and richness of the other two.

This left, of course, the Speyside. We both ranked it 7 out of 10, with the boy suggesting its lightness (note: the colour was nearly clear) in both colour and aroma, would fool a drinker into thinking it wasn’t rich, when in fact it was far more deep and intense than the caramel-coloured Blended whisky. I found its aroma pleasant – like green peas in a summer garden – but really enjoyed the sharp, almost-acidic bite it had, which struck me completely out of the blue.

We finished off all three – of course, what else would you do? – and I think I may be turning a curve in the whisky war. Or maybe it was just the fact we’d enjoyed drinking quantities of whisky on a Monday afternoon in the sunshine…only time will tell!

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