Tag Archives: distillery

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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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!

Highland Adventure: Applecross to Skye

2 May

How peaceful it must be to be a Highland cow munching away on a cliff top with no realisation of just how deadly a slip off the edge would be. Although the photo does not illustrate this, behind them is not a gentle rolling hill but a vertical plunge to the Loch. Unfortunately, I am not like the Highland cow – instead, I am horrendously fearful of horrendously edged drops.

This was highlighted wholeheartedly as the boy and I made our way around the Applecross Road, which runs around the Applecross Peninsula. Seen as one of the most dramatic roads in Scotland, the single-track route takes drivers 2000 feet up the side of a mountain. Complete with “passing points” every few dozen metres, the road is winding, narrow and terrifying to those (like me) who are petrified of cliffs.

As such, I spent most of the 45 minutes as we inched along the route clenching desperately to the car’s seat, heart palpitating, palms sweaty. Oh, to be an unaware Highland cow.

Despite this, the route is incredible. After you climb to the top through the ever-increasing mist and fog, you snake your way back down and glimpse the spreading loch in front…it’s hard not to be mesmerised.

Through the mist and rain, the loch appears below the snaking roads.

When finally we emerged from the mountain’s grip, we continued on our way to the Isle of Skye. We had a distillery to visit!

As we drove through the small town Kyle of Lochalsh I saw the Skye Bridge illuminated in the crisp sunlight. Finally the fog had cleared and the arcing structure gleamed enticingly. Crossing over Loch Alsh, we could see for miles into the picturesque distance: mountains, shimmering azure water and gently moving boats. At the top of the bridge’s arc, the whole of the windscreen was filled with this image, eliminating any of the bridge’s structure so it almost felt like we were floating. I’ve never become quite so worked up over a bridge. But maybe it was just the final release of emotion after the terrifying drive.

Entering onto Skye is like finding yourself in the middle of an alien planet. Mars-like red earth contrasts with sharp-edged grey stones. The winding roads seem almost out of place, as if they’ve been rudely carved into this beast of a landscape.

An hour of driving later and we reached our destination: Talisker distillery at Carbost. There we were meeting Mark Lochhead, the distillery manager.

Mark has worked for Talisker for just over three years and been in the industry for 25. After a quick cuppa and chat, he took us around the distillery, showing us the whole process in detail, from mashing, to fermentation and distillation in the beautiful, copper stills.

The distillery brings in its barley pre-malted from Glen Ord, just north of Inverness. From there, everything is done on site. During our visit, the mashing and fermentation tubs weren’t in use, due to a water shortage from the springs at Hock Hill.

“I’ve got everyone doing rain-dances,” said Mark.

In the distillation room, we saw the oddly shaped stills, which are the only ones in Scotland to have a U-bend at the top, which increases the amount of copper contact the liquid has during distillation, and creates a lighter flavour in the whisky.

Finally, we stopped off at the cask warehouse, in which a proportion of the Talisker stock is housed for aging.

It was the boy’s first visit to a distillery and learning about the process from one end to the other was eye-opening, he said – a fact which I recommend anyone curious about whisky to take on board. Once you know about the process, it’s easier to become fascinated with the final product. The distillery, which is owned by Diageo, gets an astounding 55,000 visitors a year and will soon be expanding its visitors centre to keep up with demand so definitely check it out if you get the chance.

After the tour, we headed back up to Mark’s office to taste some Talisker drams – well, let me correct that. I tasted some stellar drams – the boy had a wee sip of a couple because he was driving.

We started with the new make spirit (the natural spirit before it is aged in oak barrels). It was briney, with hints of olives and fleshy fruit on the nose, and cigarettes, sweat and rubber on the palate.

Next was the creamy butterscotch smelling 10 year old. In the mouth was a delicious lemony and Werther’s Original flavour.

Then came the 18-year old: a long-time favourite of many whisky drinkers and a dram that is often sold out everywhere. This was slightly thicker on the nose, with deeper scents of caramel and fudge, while on the palate was an earthy, oily sweet taste with a hint of candied orange. Stunning!

The final dram was the 25-year old, which was much sharper: lemon and peat on the nose, and salt, sea, brine, almonds and smoke on the palate. One of my favourites.

The boy tried the 18-year old and, to my great joy, said he “finally got whisky” when he tasted it.

With a triumphant finish to the day, we said our goodbyes and headed back from where we came to the east side of the Isle of Skye, finally arriving at our next luxurious hotel: Duisdale House. But more on that later…

In part 4, the boy and I drown our tiredness in a four course meal and the luxuriousness of Duisdale House and navigate our way back to Inverness in the snow.

Spirit of Victoria

5 Jul

On my continual quest to find good, unique booze, I recently came across a fantastic little outfit producing some of the best spirits I´ve  tried of late.

Nestled away up a country road on a former vineyard in Saanich, just outside Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, is the small, artisan distillery called Victoria Spirits, which produces Canada’s first premium gin – along with a selection of other products like hemp vodka and orange bitters.

It’s a family affair, with everyone from the mom and step-dad, to the son, daughter and in-laws contributing in their own small way, from marketing and label design to, of course, lots of taste testing.

It all begins in a small workshop with a wood-fired still, made by third generation still makers in Germany.

On the day of mine and my father´s visit, Peter Hunt, the master distiller, was whipping up a batch of hemp vodka. The golden pipes of the still were snaking around a large, copper orb where the various ingredients that comprise each tipple bubble and brew, like a witch’s cauldron on Halloween. Inside the 217 litre pot – which is sealed like a bank vault – were thousands of toasted hemp seeds bobbing around in liquid. It smelled oily, nutty and intoxicating, sure to cast a spell.

It’s a labour-intensive process – because it’s a wood-fired still, the process needs to be controlled throughout the full six hours and wood added every five to 10 minutes to keep the temperatures perfectly balanced. But this is what makes it a grand example of an artisan distillery.

After checking out the ¨lab¨ we headed upstairs to try out the final product. And I wasn´t disappointed.

The signature gin is rich and flavourful, with each of the 10 botanics that it is comprised of (things like orris root, coriander, star anise and, the classic, juniper) working together rather than overpowering. The Oaken Gin – or aged gin, which Hunt jokes is the “gin for whisky drinkers” is distinct, slightly oakey and a far cry from the products a corporate distiller would pump out, while the Left Coast Hemp Vodka is nutty and much fuller than any ordinary vodka, leaving an oily aftertaste that is pleasantly surprising and could easily be drunk on its own over ice.

The company is growing strong, and will soon be in stores across Canada – my only fear…everyone else will find out about it and I won´t  have any to myself!

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