Young & Crazy

There are several disadvantages to drinking red wine. You’re familiar, no doubt, with many; I shalln’t try your patience and morale by enumerating them. I like to think that we go into this (this, y’know, drinking) with our collective eyes open as to its downsides. But it turns out there are risks, dear reader, of which even I was unaware.

Let me take you back to a Friday night some time ago. A Friday night that came at the end of a day spent working my mouse-finger to the bone, selling cheap shit to idiots on the internet.

Amy is out — out for dinner in Big London. Me, I’m enjoying some quality time with Potato the labrador.

Some quality time with Potato the labrador and a bottle of Villa Melnik’s Young & Crazy Melnik (£8.50).

Young & Crazy came from The Wine Society (of course it did) and is pink and honest and straight. A bit like me, I guess. There’s some juicy ol’ plum in there, along with cherry, liquorice and herbs. There’s a decent hoof of tannin giving it some grab and grit, but also some woozy boozy solventy stuff which I guess fits the ‘young’ part of the name fairly aptly. It’s somewhat rough around the edges and not particularly complex — but what do you expect for under nine quid? Frictionless trade across a hard border?

Potato and I are approximately the same age in our respective species-years: an age at which one begins to realise (I speak for myself, at least; Potato’s self-awareness is hard to fathom on this score) that one may be straining the definition of ‘young’ in the eyes of some.

Crazy, though? Potato and I both do a very good line in crazy. Which is how, a glass or two of Y&C having been slugged back, we came to find ourselves rolling on the sitting room floor, locked in a titanic struggle of man versus hound. Potato and I enjoy such battles (well, I do, anyway), all the more so when Amy isn’t here to tut irritatedly when we distract her from whatever 19th century Russian novel she’s immersed in at the moment. In such situations, Potato’s submissive tendencies become (oh, the paradox!) his strongest weapon, as his frenzied licking causes even the most determined of dog-wrestlers to flinch jerkingly away, in an effort to avoid a tongue to the face—

SPROOOOOOONNNNK!

What the devil was that?

That, friend, was the sound of one large glass of red wine salmoning itself gracefully off the side table, onto the definitely-not-red carpet. It was also the trigger for me to make the journey from one mode of crazy to the next.

I am (let me be the first to admit) rather a distance from being a cleaning influencer (god save our miserable skins). But I’ll cut to the chase and save you a lot of frantic googling by letting you know that the very best thing to do ASAP when you spill red wine on a pale grey carpet is to yell a loud obscenity.

You should then start wildly tearing off handfuls of kitchen towel and, my friend, you should blot like you’ve never blotted before.

I blot. I blot hard. You know those cookery programmes where you watch some implausibly old peasant type character kneading bread like a goddamn machine? That is how I blot. But with less peasanty stoicism and way more aggression. I blot until there are stars in my vision and I am gasping for breath. There is a time at which I think I must be almost done. I am wrong. I blot ABSOLUTELY LOADS MORE BECAUSE I WAS NOT ALMOST DONE AND THE BLOTTING NEVER ENDS.

I’ll say one thing about spilling red wine on the carpet: if you’re anything like me, the blotting will be the most intense cardio workout you’ve had in years.

When the blotting is over (if you’re still able to raise your arms without them shaking, the blotting is not yet over, friend) it’s time to spam salt EVERYWHERE. Don’t be stingy! Salt makes everything taste better! Including carpet!

Oh no, wait. There’s actually one thing it doesn’t improve the taste of: the bitterness of impotent rage at one’s own clumsiness. Because that stuff tastes pretty damn good unseasoned.

Potato at this point is no longer crazy. He very quickly saw the lie of the land and took himself off into the dining room, where (sensitive fellow that he is) he lies quivering in his bed. At some point, Amy shows up, takes one look at the aggressive blotting in the sitting room, joins Potato in the dining room, helps herself to a glass of what remains in the bottle and starts reading Gogol. Which, I think you’ll agree, is behaviour nobody is likely to brand either young or crazy (or, for that matter, especially helpful).

I may at this stage be somewhat wild-eyed. Like one of those characters in a fantasy movie of whom a terrible bloodlust takes hold, except with blotting rather than orc slaying. But we have now run out of both kitchen roll and salt. As I shamble into the dining room, Amy eyes me wearily. We stay that way for a little while, in silence.

‘I think I’ll book a carpet cleaner tomorrow.’

‘Hmm, yes, probably.’

‘Sorry about the blotting.’

‘Don’t apologise to me; apologise to Potato.’

‘Sorry, Potato.’

Potato is very forgiving.

***

A few days later, the morning sun streams spitefully through the sitting room window onto the ghastly swathe of discoloured carpet. Fortunately, the Carpet Man is here.

‘Oh, that’s not bad at all!’ he cheerfully exclaims. ‘I’ve seen much worse.’

‘Oh, I blotted as much up as I could,’ I casually reply, trying to keep any note of pride from my voice.

‘Mmmm, that’d do it. Well, this should take me about half an hour, so you can leave me to it.’

We leave him to it and rejoin Potato, whose fondness for tradespeople means we have to shut him away when they visit, for fear he may abdicate with them when they leave. His Young & Crazy experiences seem to have left no scars.

‘Well, he seems very nice,’ says Amy, of Carpet Man. ‘If he’s good, I think we should get him to come and do that stain up on the landing.’

That stain on the landing, I reflect, was entirely Amy’s doing.

‘I suspect he’ll find that stain more difficult. I seem to recall you did very little blotting.’

Amy looks at me but does not reply.

***

‘Right, that’s all done.’

And Carpet Man has done a splendid job: the evidence of my idiocy has been almost entirely erased. If only Carpet Man could do this for other manifestations of my past idiocy, I find myself thinking.

‘That looks fantastic. Thank you.’

We are standing in a strange configuration, thanks to the narrow hallway and the need to avoid treading on the drying carpet. I perch halfway up the stairs and Amy stands in the hallway, at the door to the sitting room. Carpet Man is at the front door. Our positions form a triangle.

‘Oh brilliant!’ exclaims Amy, delighted. ‘That’s amazing.’ She looks up at me, one eyebrow raised. She is thinking, I realise, about the stain on the landing. Her stain. I understand how she feels at this time. The guilt. The promise of redemption. I give her a nod. She turns back to Carpet Man.

‘You’ve done such a good job. I’d like to ask you back for some upstairs business later in the week.’

I look at Amy. Amy looks at Carpet Man. Carpet Man looks at me, then back at Amy, then back at me again.

I decide it is time for me to pay.

Copperfield Gin Review

‘Do you like Dickens, sir?’

‘I don’t know. I’ve never been to one.’

That was a favourite joke of Mr Jarvis, my A Level English teacher. To the degree, I seem to remember, that he had to ask someone in the class to provide him with the setup question in order that he might triumphantly deliver the punchline. Which is nice for you to know.

What’s also nice for you to know is that Copperfield Gin may be the most handsomely packaged gin I’ve seen. Obviously I dig it because it’s literary, innit, and given that my idea of a perfect sitting room is one bedecked with books floor to ceiling, how could I not be seduced by a book-themed gin bottle? Or, at least, one so bloody well executed. Hats off to the designers, who presumably like Dickens.

This gin was one of the leaving presents bestowed upon me as I scrammed from my last job, along with a couple of grape vines (how well they knew me!) and suchlike. So, fortunately, it turns out to be good. One of the innumerable perils of blogging about booze is the potential awkwardness of reviewing a mediocre bottle received as a gift. Fortunately, at least one of my former colleagues must’ve liked Dickens.

So Copperfield London Gin is rather good. It’s fairly classic, I’d say, and balanced — not trying to do anything too funky. Its flavour isn’t dominated by a particular characteristic, and as such, it’s a versatile beast. So let’s put it through the usual tests, shall we?

Copperfield Gin and Tonic

This is a decent, honest G&T. There’s a backbone of juniper, though not a hoofing amount, a dab of citrus (a dab, not a smudge), a bit of spice and pepper to tingle things up a bit, and a rich, smooth, woody quality that ties it all together. Nothing is done to excess. I’d liken it to something like 6 o’Clock Gin, which has a similarly balanced quality and shares the smoothness. Despite whacking in at 45% ABV, there’s nothing remotely rough about Copperfield. It’s good stuff. I’m putting it with lemon in my G&T, though lime might also work nicely.

Copperfield Martini

Copperfield London Dry Gin and martini

That balance I was just talking about? That stands Copperfield in pretty good stead when it comes to the ultimate test. It makes a martini that’s squarely classical, rather traditional. Which I like.

There’s a fantastic marzipan smoothness holding the whole thing together. As that implies, there’s a touch of sweetness, but that’s balanced by pepper and spice and, yeah, a bit of fire. Lime comes through towards the end, cutting the creaminess rather nicely. That sounds as if there’s a lot going on (which there is), but this is far from a try-hard gin. It’s pretty clean and subtle, in fact. I think that subtlety betrays a great deal of careful tasting and balancing on the part of the makers.

So. A fine martini and a fine G&T. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that Copperfield Gin is the kind of thing of which you could happily partake every night and not get bored.

In that respect, rather like Dickens? I suppose I should ask Mr Jarvis.

The Sloe & Steady Portfolio

With Brexit slouching towards Britain to be born, a couple of jokers vying for the helm of the sinking ship that is the United Kingdom, and a low-functioning sociopath clogging up the White House’s (metaphorical?) plumbing with his (metaphorical?) shit, where the hell should you invest? A question to which, you may well believe, Old Parn devotes much thought and sage analysis. Please be aware, while reading the post that follows, that I am neither licensed nor qualified to provide investment advice, but I’m going to anyway.

These handsome jars are, I predict, one of the best investments I’ll make this year. Alongside, y’know, the emotional investment of getting married, and suchlike… But, yeah, I certainly expect the next few years’ impact on the liquid contents of these jars to be rather more benevolent than their impact on my FTSE All Share tracker fund holdings.

The trick with sloe gin is always to make more each year than you drink, allowing yourself to accumulate increasingly valuable stocks. If you’ve never tried homemade sloe gin that’s been kept for years (I mean 5, 10, perhaps longer), you won’t realise how fabulously good this drink can be. And you thought it was pretty good after one or two, didn’t you?

Best strategy of all: keep yourself going with other more short-term investments in the meanwhile, preventing you from prematurely drawing down your long-term investment. The alcoholic equivalent, I guess, of one of those fixed-term high interest savings accounts or something.

YOU WANT METAPHOR, DON’T YOU? YOU GOT IT.

A row of jars containing homemade quince brandy, sloe gin, greengage gin and blackberry gin

This year’s short term investments are blackberry gin, greengage gin and (Amy’s concoction, this) quince brandy. Because these are all softer fruits, without the austerity and tannin of the sloe, they’re likely to be less rewarding of years spent maturing.

I shalln’t bore you with recipes, as you can Google those and I’m no expert. I just half-fill the jar with the fruit, then add gin. The important thing (in my opinion) is not to add the sugar until you’ve finished the fruit-steeping, as it’s bloody hard to get the balance right if you can’t taste what you’re doing. Once you’ve strained the liquid, you can simply make up a sugar syrup (heating equal weights of water and sugar gently in a pan until the sugar dissolves) and add it to taste.

Anyhow, that’s it. Those jars are going back in the cupboard. I guess I’ll entertain myself watching the stockmarket while I wait.

What could possibly go wrong?

Commuter Belters 2: M&S Vermouth & Tonic

Here we are again for another instalment of COMMUTER BELTERS, my quest to find the booze best matched to the knees-rammed-against-plastic pleasures of southwestern railways.

This time, emboldened mayhap by our liaison with M&S gin-in-a-tin, let’s push the boat out a little further into the treacherous seas of M&S’s canned booze range — to their Vermouth & Tonic.

Now, to be a true commuter belter, a drink must have an affinity for the typical cuisine and ambience of the South Western Railways experience. Much as one might judge a restaurant’s wine list by its wines’ ability to punch at the level of the main dishes, one judges a would-be Belter by its resilience against whatever degradations a typical journey from Waterloo might throw its way.

Today’s degradation of choice? One carton of Pret’s Spicy Egg & Chorizo Omelette. What better foldable tray-mate for my tastefully duotone can of V&T?

In one sense, the omelette is an excellent match: the experience of consuming both it and the drink is purgatorial. One might argue that they thereby cleverly echo — satirise, even — the experience of travelling frequently by South Western Railways. But satire is no excuse for this miserable stuff.

I’ll tell you a little about the food first, shall I, since we’re both here and have relatively little else to do? Well, the egg has the texture of that expanding foam filler stuff they use to repair car bodywork. It is hideously, malignantly overcooked. Most of it is stuck to the bottom and sides of the cardboard container, and I’m certainly not tempted to scrape away at it to get my money’s worth. Pret’s hot snacks, while always touch-and-go, aren’t normally as bad as this. Small pellets of chorizo and enormous moist slugs of red pepper provide relief of a kind from egg-chewing, in the same way that being punched in the face provides relief of a kind from a bout of norovirus. A woeful effort.

As is the drink. You’re warned as much as soon as you pfft the thing open and take a sniff. Friend, it smells like making a terrible mistake.

It’s a mixture of bitter lemon and that horrible fizzy-sweet reek you get from godawful energy drinks. And that’s exactly how it tastes. Ye gods, it’s sweet. Horribly, horribly sweet. The best thing about it is the initial lemon taste (not because that’s what you wanted, but because it’s at least in the proximity of an honest flavour), but almost immediately the bombardment of sugar hits, hollowing out all other flavours but the quinine from the tonic (like the G&T-in-a-can, this does at least feature quinine-heavy tonic).

The most criminal thing about it all is that despite this pitiless assault upon my senses, I can barely taste any goddamn alcohol. I mean, there’s a vague whiff of medicinal grapiness lingering in the background, like the smell of the crap someone took in the stall five minutes ago, but nothing more. The can says it’s 5.5% ABV but the impression is less boozy than most alcohol-free beers. It tastes like the heartless trick you’d play on a gullible child in order to put them off drink for life.

In summary, our Commuter Belter is not to be found here. All change, please.

The Best Tonic for your Gin — 2019 Edition

Which tonic is supersonic? According to the laws of physics, none of them. But what care we for physics? We have gin. So the idea of this post, in case the title didn’t tip you off, is to taste and rank the numerous premium tonics in a quest to crown the best tonic for your gin.

You remember, don’t you, my pretties, the time that we blind tasted ten gins in an attempt to crown 2019’s best gin for a G&T? Well, this is the inevitable tonic-centred follow-up.

The market for premium tonic waters has become a lot livelier since Fever Tree first booted it up the arse. The question is, with which of these new wanky tonics should you grace your G&T? Which, in short, is the best tonic for a gin and tonic?

To find out, I (aided as ever by the delectable Amy) blind tasted fourteen of the buggers. FOURTEEN. Imagine, ten years ago, even being able to lay hands on that many tonics! Okay, so it turns out you wouldn’t want to lay hands on some of them, but hey, I guess progress punches both ways. I tasted them blind with Gordon’s — the classic, natch — as well as the frankly outstanding Society’s High Strength Gin (£19, The Wine Society) to see how they fared against a more hoofing spirit. Finally, I tasted them on their own, because I’m a masochist.

Below, my impressions of each — and, at the end, the ranking.

An assortment of glasses filled with tonic ready for tasting
Glasses coded, labelled and ready…

The Tonics: Tasting Notes

Le Tribute Tonic Water

£1.75 for 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange

This one has cardamom aplenty, along with the usual lemony goings on. It is balanced and there’s a bit of bite there. It does taste like tonic but definitely pushing the boundaries with that big dose of cardamom. It’s actually nice to drink on its own. But too sweet for me in a G&T. Get used to this last observation, won’t you?

Main flavour: Cardamom/spice
Bite: 2/5
Sweetness: 4/5
G&T rating: 6/10

Barker & Quin Light at Heart Tonic Water

£33.95 for a case of 24 20cl bottles from Amazon

Quinine dominates here. A classic tonic. Nice and moderately bitter; dry yet also full. Not too sweet and feels like a proper, serious G&T. Extremely goddamn nice. Barker, Quin — I don’t know who you are, and you probably only exist in the imagination of some branding arsehole who didn’t think adequately about how Barker & Quin would be abbreviated (B&Q is surely not a brand adjacency that does you many favours), but I nevertheless raise my hat to you. Your light tonic is excellent.

Main flavour: Quinine
Bite: 4/5
Sweetness: 1/5
G&T rating: 10/10

Thomas Henry Tonic Water

£1.15 for 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange

A pretty classic, down-the-line approach from Mr Henry. There’s a decent amount of quinine dryness here, which I like, but too much sugar. Lemon is the other dominant flavour. Compared to the strongest contenders here, this is on the lemonadey side, but definitely better than many in that dodgy neck of the woods.

Main flavour: Lemon
Bite: 3/5
Sweetness: 3/5
G&T rating: 6/10

Barker & Quin Finest Indian Tonic Water

£33.95 for a case of 24 20cl bottles from Amazon

This is relatively balanced, but quinine is again pushed further back in the mix than I like in favour of lemon. Note to y’all, tonic makers: if I want to add lemon to my drink, I have a super-simple way to do that. The same is not true of quinine. Adjust your mixers accordingly, please. Anyhow, B&Q’s regular variant is close to Fever Tree Regular but a little less savoury/complex and a little less assertive. The fizz is quite soft and frothy compared to most. And — what do you know? — it’s too sweet.

Main flavour: Lemon
Bite: 2/5
Sweetness: 3/5
G&T rating: 5/10

Fever Tree Naturally Light Tonic Water

£0.95 for 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange

Not too sweet! What’s more, it has good character. It’s similar to Barker & Quin Light in being quinine-led and serious. Comparing the two side by side, I think Fever Tree is possibly slightly less dry and quinine-driven. Bloody good though.

Main flavour: Quinine
Bite: 3/5
Sweetness: 1/5
G&T rating: 9/10

Fever Tree Premium Indian Tonic Water

£0.95 for 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange

Balanced. Although it falls into the ‘too sweet’ category (along with the goddamn majority), it’s one of the strongest contenders otherwise, with a decent dose of quinine assertiveness and savoury complexity that supports but doesn’t overwhelm.

Main flavour: Balanced (Lemon/Quinine)
Bite: 3/5
Sweetness: 3/5
G&T rating: 7/10

Distillers Tonic Original

£1.10 for 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange

This one has a lemony initial hit but a brutally bitter aftertaste. There’s decent quinine bite to begin with, but the bite becomes a chew, then a gnaw, then finally a gnash. It leaves residual bitterness lingering in your gob for a long time. All I can say in its favour is that at least it’s not sweet. Tastes like what Amy imagines dandelion juice would, if that’s helpful. The bottle says it’s the “distillers’ choice”; I’m afraid it’s not mine.

Main flavour: Bitterness
Bite: 5/5
Sweetness: 0/5
G&T rating: 1/10

Schweppes 1783 Crisp Tonic Water

£3.69 for 6 150ml cans from Waitrose

I wrote about the new premium Schweppes tonics at some length before, and my verdict there stands: Schweppes 1783 Crisp Tonic is sweetish, softish, but with lemon and bite enough to make its presence felt. A somewhat less compelling take on Fever Tree Regular, with the same problems (too sweet, too sweet — sing along with me, children! — too sweeeeeeet…)

Main flavour: Balanced (lemon/quinine)
Bite: 3/5
Sweetness: 3/5
G&T rating: 6/10

Double Dutch Skinny Tonic Water

£0.95 for 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange

Most of the ‘light’ tonic variants focus in on the quinine elements, but Double Dutch has a distinctive softness: it’s not sweet, which is great, yes, but it ALSO has the quinine dialled back. What you do get is a cloudlike impression: soft, enveloping, ephemeral perfume which dies away incredibly quickly. There’s also some artificial lemon flavour in there. I like the lack of sweetness, but not the lack of punch.

Main flavour: Perfume
Bite: 1/5
Sweetness: 1/5
G&T rating: 4/10

Distillers Tonic Dry

£1.10 for 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange

Well, okay. This one is utterly without sweetness: it sure is dry. There’s some quinine bite there, but the whole thing has an odd sense of being watery: empty. This could work well with some new-wave high-flavour gins, but with both Gordon’s and Society’s High Strength Gin it just tasted like a G&T with too much ice-melt. A shame.

Main flavour: the absence thereof
Bite: 2/5
Sweetness: 0/5
G&T rating: 3/10

Double Dutch Indian Tonic Water

£0.95 for 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange

Oh, this is not very nice, I’m afraid. It’s TOO SWEET and has less bite than your toothless great aunt. There’s a not-at-all-welcome bubblegummy whiff hanging about, which doesn’t help.

Main flavour: confectionery
Bite: 1/5
Sweetness: 4/5
G&T rating: 2/10

Schweppes 1783 Light Tonic Water

£3.69 for 6 150ml cans from Waitrose

Again, you can read more about this tonic in my Schweppes vs Fever Tree post, but the gist is that it’s funky and weird: violet and sherbert and shizz. It’s not actively nasty, but nor does it taste much like I want a tonic to taste.

Main flavour: parma violet and suchlike
Bite: 3/5
Sweetness: 2/5
G&T rating: 3/10

London Essence Co. Classic Tonic

£0.75 for 20cl bottle from The Whisky Exchange

Argh, Jesus, take it away. This is truly horrible. It’s not really like a tonic water at all. There’s lashings of vanilla, which is all very well, but not something I want added to my gin, and the flavour is pitilessly artificial. And in case you were looking for further reasons to sling this fucker as far as you can hurl, it’s got artificial sweeteners in it. Piss off.

Main flavour: despair
Bite: 3/5
Sweetness: 3/5 (but satanic, artificial sweetness)
G&T rating: 0/10

1724 Tonic Water

£1.25 for 20cl bottle at The Whisky Exchange

Inoffensive. 1724 is another tonic that seems slightly worried about being a tonic, and ends up tasting lemonadey and diffident. And it’s far too sweet, even by the standards of most of this lineup. If it weren’t for the sweetness, it’d be fine. Y’know, just fine. But needs more quinine.

Main flavour: lemonade
Bite: 1/5
Sweetness: 5/5
G&T rating: 4/10

The Best Tonic Water: Rankings

Bottles of tonic water in a line. Lots of different brands.

So, from best to worst, here’s a summary of how they fared.

  1. Barker & Quin Light Tonic (10/10)
  2. Fever Tree Naturally Light Tonic (9/10)
  3. Fever Tree Regular Tonic (7/10)
  4. Schweppes 1724 Crisp Tonic (6/10)
  5. Thomas Henry Tonic (6/10)
  6. Le Tribute Tonic (6/10)
  7. Barker & Quin Regular Tonic (5/10)
  8. Double Dutch Skinny Tonic (4/10)
  9. 1724 Tonic (4/10)
  10. Schweppes 1724 Light Tonic (3/10)
  11. Distillers Dry Tonic (3/10)
  12. Double Dutch Original Tonic (2/10)
  13. Distillers Original Tonic (1/10)
  14. London Essence Tonic (0/10)

So Barker & Quin Light snatched it by a whisker. Good luck finding it in your local supermarket, though. Waitrose shoppers needn’t be disheartened: to be honest, there was very little to choose between B&Q Light and Fever Tree Light; I found it rather tough to pick a winner. But nobody said the life of a booze blogger was easy, did they?

DID THEY?

And what have we learnt along the way? Firstly, I suppose (and forgive me if I should’ve made this more obvious above), that the vast majority of tonics are far too goddamn sweet. I suppose I ought to be grateful that most of them (with the ignoble exception of the revolting London Essence) at least eschew artificial sweeteners.

Second: while Fever Tree may’ve been first to start gobbling from the premium tonic cash trough, it’s no clapped out old sow yet. Most of its would-be challengers are significantly less nice, even while they’re frequently more expensive.

Third: a surprisingly large number of so-called ‘premium’ tonics are not very good. Over half my list scored 5/10 or lower. No supper for them.

Shall we stretch to a fourth? Oh go on. Fourth: tonic has a classic flavour profile you dick about with at your peril. You think a dash of violet or vanilla might zazz up this party? You are almost certainly wrong. The one tonic that didn’t fail too badly on this score was Le Tribute, which whacked in the cardamom without being disgusting. But still, not really what I want to add to my gin.

Anyhow. If I missed any blinding tonics (not literally), please shout at me in the comments or on whatever social network takes your fancy, so long as it’s not sodding Pinterest. Much obliged.

A heap of discarded bottle tops from bottles of tonic water

Blackdown Silver Birch Vermouth Review

Well, it’s been a while since I hoofed a vermouth review in your direction, so let’s change that. Like Asterley Bros, it’s another English vermouth, but this time white not red: Blackdown Silver Birch Vermouth.

As it happens, Blackdown’s vermouth (£20.25, The Whisky Exchange) is made not so very far from me, nestling in neighbouring Sussex’s portion of the South Downs. The titular reference to silver birch? It’s because the base wine is made from the sap of the birch trees growing around the distillery. Apparently, getting that sap is a pain in the arse, with each tree yielding a very small amount. According to Blackdown’s website: ‘In 2017 we tapped over 300 trees, with an average tree providing 5 gallons a day collecting over 1,500 gallons producing 15 gallons of pure syrup’.

So I shalln’t be setting out to make silver birch wine any time soon.

But I’ll happily drink someone else’s. So — how shall we do this? You can crack it into your martini in place of your regular Noily Prat/Dolin or what have you. Or you can drink it on its own, over ice, like the sophisticated metropole you are.

Let’s talk cocktails first, shall we?

Now, Blackdown Vermouth in the context of the martini is an interesting thing. As you may know from my burblings on the subject of the perfect martini, I like a martini with some hoof to it, albeit not at macho-dry ratios. My ur-martini is a lean, clean, deliciously spartan thing.

Blackdown vermouth makes for a fuller, rounder, sweeter martini. I’ve tried it with a variety of gins, at various ratios, generally pitted against Dolin vermouth for comparison. And what you’ll make of it, my dear, very much depends on your criteria. For me, y’know, it’s a touch OTT in most contexts. It’s so gentle that I find myself missing the bite, the sting of my regular vermouth. There’s not really that spiky mid-palate attack I expect. Instead, by martini standards, it ends up long and soft. Smooth, honeyed, unctuous, even.

Not what I’d go for as a standard martini, but if that sounds like your bag, more power to your elbow, I suppose.

I flung a tweet in the direction of the folk of Blackdown to ask their martini recommendations, one of which was a flamboyant 2:1 mix with Sipsmith. A good deal wetter (ie. more vermouth heavy) than most martini drinkers’ norm, and given Blackdown’s abovementioned qualities, the effect is of a different cocktail entirely. Apples, toffee, chocolate — sweet, accessible, richly autumnal flavours.

For an austere martini man such as myself, the above is all rather opulent. Personally, I was more drawn to drinking Blackdown on its own. In this context — over plenty of generous sized ice cubes, with a twist of lemon rind — it’s a fabulous aperitif for those occasions on which a martini (or other spirit-heavy cocktail) might be de trop. The same is true of some red vermouths, natch, but Blackdown is drier.

Removed from the martini, you appreciate its softness and touch of sweetness (contrast against Dolin Chambery, which isn’t great to drink neat: sharper, more one-note, squarely an ensemble player not a soloist). Arguably, what makes Blackdown such a pleasure to drink neat is what makes it less successful in a martini (where, I humbly submit, gin rules all and vermouth bends the knee before its sovereign).

Unadulterated, over ice, Blackdown is calm, so calm. For me, the defining essence is of apples. Not crisp, green apples, but rusty English apples in an old greengrocer, or in a brown paper bag at your grannie’s house. There’s bitterness there, alongside warm and woody spice (clove, cinnamon and the gang), but those play their hand with subtlety. The overwhelming impression is of mellow autumnal fruit and mellifluous honey. Really rather lovely. Wankily, I might call it nostalgia in a glass.

Bottle of Blackdown Vermouth alongside a squeezed lemon half atop a juicer -- prelude to making syllabub

Oh, and one more thing. It makes a bloody delicious lemon syllabub — pudding of kings.

Commuter Belters 1: G&T-in-a-Can

You’ll have observed, no doubt, my proclivity for starting new ‘series’ on this blog which fail to extend beyond their first post. And I’m sorry if you mistook the expression on my face for that of somebody who gives a shit about THAT. It is with an arrogant, Dominic Cummings-esque defiance bordering on sociopathy, indeed, that I double-down and inaugurate another. This one I shall call ‘Commuter Belters’: chronicling a journey both literal (Waterloo to Petersfield, many many times) and metaphorical (the search for BELTINGLY good alcoholic beverages with which to aneasthetise oneself against the tedium of the aforementioned).

Let’s have at it.

Waterloo. It’s Friday, 6.15. Amongst the thronged congregation on the concourse, eyes raised reverently to the departure boards, waiting for the hallowed platform number to blink into existence; ‘on time’ to flip to ‘boarding’.

And when it happens, the usual weary surge of bodies is a little faster, a little looser. It’s Friday.

If you’re clever (you’re clever), you’ve anticipated your platform number and you’re quick to the gates. The gates that all operate on fractionally different timings, so that the interval between inserting your ticket and the door-flaps clacking open wrong-foots you each time. They’re open. Jerking abruptly forward, you’re through. It’s Friday.

Walk nearly all the way to the far end of the train, and walk fast. Storm past those lumbering middle-managers and dithering execs. Get a good spot, minimising the (sadly still high) probability that some coffee-breathed drone will sit next to you with his fat playmobil laptop crammed onto the crappy little food tray and his elbows poking your side. Mate. It’s Friday.

Settle in for the homeward voyage. But what’s that you’ve got in your bag?

Can of Marks & Spencer Gin & Tonic in a can

That’s what.

***

I can explain. Oh Officer, for god’s sake, I can explain.

I don’t buy ready-booze from M&S. Not since that unfortunate incident with Le Froglet, all those years ago. I learnt my lesson.

But I can’t speak for my friends. Occasionally, a gentleman named Barnaby, of a neighbouring parish, is known to patronise the same railway service. It was for this Barnaby that the offending can was bought. I swear.

But Barnaby had to catch a different train and I, for my innumerable sins, was left with this object in my possession.

There’s only one thing to be done.

M&S Gin and Tonic in a can review

Drinking G&T straight from a can is ODD. There’s no objective reason not to do this, provided the can is extremely bloody cold. But, subjectively, it’s just not very nice, is it? It’s like eating a steak off a paper plate or getting into bed with your clothes still on. ODD AND WRONG.

G&T occupies a hallowed place in my aesthetic schema, whereby I apparently believe it is owed a certain level of reverence. It’s interesting to note that I’d choose a can of basic lager over a can of G&T — even though on a totally objective level I probably like the G&T more. But of the lager, I expect no better.

The gin in a can is, you see, actually not too bad. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a goddamn patch on a Parn-concocted G&T. But it’s not hideous. Which is an accomplishment. That it achieves this is down to the fact that (a) it goes heavy on the quinine, (b) it’s sharp and bracing and (c) it contains no filthy artificial sweeteners.

I’m really surprised. I’d expected oversweetness, but in fact this is far sharper and drier than the G&T you’d get in many bars (or homes). It tastes pretty old-school Schweppesy to me: bite like an alligator, absolutely no sentimentality or concession. The dry hit of quinine is excellent: almost abrasive.

They’ve clearly amped up the citrus in consideration of the average commuter’s inability to lay hands on a nice wedge of lemon, which takes it too far towards bitter lemon in my view, but — again — it’s not offensive (see how high I set the bar?).

Where this concoction falls down, though, is in its ratios. That’s a roundabout way of saying: NOT BOOZY ENOUGH. This is squarely a tonic & gin rather than a gin & tonic. The gin they’ve used is too light and simpering; the tonic too heavy and swaggering. As a result, especially with the amped-up lemon flavouring, I feel like I’m drinking a can of (admittedly pretty nice) fizzy pop.

Bottom line: this isn’t the belter we’re looking for. I’m sticking to my lager, and leaving the gin-in-a-cans to Barnaby’s consummate guzzling.

But no hard feelings, M&S.

It’s Friday.

The easiest way to make better cocktails & mixed drinks

This is important. What’s more, unlike most cocktail-improving tips, it’s incredibly bloody cheap (just like you). So there’s no excuse.

The one thing you can do, right now, for very little outlay, that will make the biggest difference to your cocktails and mixed drinks is this.

Buy a good ice tray.

If you are using whatever crappy plastic excuse for a tray came with your freezer, stop it. If you are using your freezer’s auto ice dispenser, stop it. If you are buying those bags of ice from the supermarket/off-license FOR THE LOVE OF GOD stop it.

You need good ice trays, friend. Trays where the icecubes are BIG. Not just in one dimension, but in all three.

Chunky ice cube alongside a tape measure. It's about 3cm cubed.

I’ve found these silicone trays are pretty good: they deliver chunky, cuboid ice at a good size for a G&T or Negroni. You can go bigger if you wish: I have this tray which makes tremendous cubes that form a delightful centrepiece to an Old Fashioned.

I am really not joking (would I?) about the quality of ice being the most transformative factor in cocktail making.

Why? Because ice melts. If ice melts too quickly, your drink is rapidly diluted and loses its punch. Four things you can do to control the speed with which this happens:

  1. Use big ice cubes. Because physics. A single big cube has less surface area than two smaller cubes of the same volume.
  2. Use solid, dense cubes with minimal frost. The clearer (more transparent) ice is, the denser and therefore slower-melting it will be. Notice how a snowflake melts instantly at a touch of your fingertip? That’s what the frost on an ice cube does in your drink. This is where those supermarket ice bags fall down: they are so flimsy and frosty (generally very rough in texture and hollow) that they melt appallingly quickly. Literally as soon as the liquid hits them, you can see them diminish. And the meltwater they make is quite nasty. You are adding that meltwater to your premium gin and wanky tonic.
  3. Make sure the liquid you pour onto your ice is already fridge cold (or colder. You keep your gin in the freezer, right?)
  4. Neck it so fast it doesn’t touch the sides.

I have drunk TOO MANY G&Ts in which all elements but ice quality were excellent: premium gins, Fever Tree Light Tonic, appropriate garnish, good gin:tonic ratio. But the ice cubes were too small, too flimsy, too frosty. Net result? Mediocre G&T.

If you make a G&T (or negroni, or cocktail of other kind) with crappy ice, I reckon you may as well just use cheap gin too. Embrace mediocrity.

But don’t do that. A couple of decent ice trays will cost you under a tenner. They will last you years. They will also look a lot better, rattle around more sonorously in your glass, and quite probably get you more friends.

You could do with a few of those, couldn’t you?

Got married. Got hacked.

So. Long story short, I got married and this website got hacked.

The latter fact accounts for the abrupt change in look & feel; the former for general lack of posts.

The site is largely cleaned up now (I hope nobody thought I genuinely wanted y’all to visit sites advertising sexual potency aids?) but I’ll probably need to redo elements of the theme — in other words, the way it looks. How tedious.

Meanwhile, though, bear with me. I have some posts simmering away for you, to follow.

Boxer Gin Review. Punchy or Paunchy?

I mean, when a gin’s called Boxer, how am I meant to avoid the most bloody obvious metaphor? Christ. Give me something to work with. Fortunately, Boxer Gin does exactly that, in abundance, as soon as you get it into your gob. Here’s how it measures up.

I bought Boxer Gin because it was the gin of choice at Poco Tapas Bar, the excellent Bristolian tapas restaurant at which I first discovered the Negroni Manzanilla. And given my predilection for punchy gins and stooping to lowest-common-denominator wordplay, what could be more auspicious than a gin that is literally punchy?

You know how this works by now, right? I’ll taste Boxer Gin in a martini and a gin & tonic, and I’ll tell you what I think. Let’s get on with it, shall we?

The Boxer Gin Martini

Yes. This is very good.

First thing you need to know: this is a proper gin. That means it has a good whack of juniper and isn’t trying anything fancy. That’s good. There’s an assertive oomph to the Boxer Gin Martini that I resoundingly commend.

But while the juniper and pine shenanigans make it abundantly clear it’s a gin martini you’re drinking, there’s a background of rather wonderful, unexpected things. Imagine you’re in a restaurant you’ve not eaten at before. You ordered steak (my, how bold of you) and it’s perfectly cooked: rare, yielding, delicious: exactly as steak should be. A few mouthfuls in, you notice they’re playing a fabulous piece of — oh, I dunno, Prokofiev — in the background. Not loudly; in fact, at exactly the right volume. So that the people who don’t give a shit about Prokofiev (fools) won’t really notice it much.

But you. You, my dear, exquisitely tasteful reader. You will appreciate the crap out of it.

This is not an attention-seeking, look-at-me gin, in other words. It bares its sophistication subtly and with elegance.

The Boxer Gin Martini is fairly smooth, and while characterised by juniper and pine and citrus initially, it has a delicious spiciness: the warm, aromatic spices like cinnamon and pepper and nutmeg. Perhaps the merest sprinkling of anise? Yeah, perhaps.

You’re drinking your martini ice-cold, I hope, so the spice will be very much in the background, but as you near the bottom (of your glass, as opposed to your moral and spiritual decline), you may notice that it comes through more assertively.

Boxer Martini Verdict

Verdict: Neck it!

That’s no excuse to linger, though. A martini that’s lost its frigidity is a sorrowful thing. Gulp the bugger down and let’s move on to…

The Boxer Gin and Tonic

Very good also: I approve. The elegance I admired in the martini is present here too. The citrus elements make more impact with a Boxer G&T than with some of the hoofers I commonly reach for (the Wine Society’s High Strength Gin, par exemple, or our old friend Tanqueray), but there’s still plenty of juniper to keep us tethered. And those same warm spices come through — perhaps more so than in the martini, but by no means aggressively. It’s all wonderfully balanced (a nimble-footed, deceptively graceful boxer, then, rather than a thuggish slugger).

There’s a beguiling touch of sweetness (very subtle, but there) while it’s in your gob, but don’t get carried away: the finish is dry as you like. Assuming you’re using the right tonic (Fever Tree Light, I implore you).

Boxer Gin & Tonic Verdict

Verdict: Neck it!

I’d probably gravitate towards lemon as the best garnish for a Boxer Gin and Tonic, but if you want to amp up the spices, you could be all wanky about it and shove a cinnamon stick in there (in your glass I mean. Shove it right in your glass. Your GLASS, I said) or black peppercorns.

Just don’t, for the sake of the weeping lord Jesus, use already ground pepper, like the idiots in some bar I went to, a few months back.

I’ll not be going back.

Anyway:

Boxer Gin Verdict

Excellent. This isn’t a wild, out-there gin, as you’ve probably gathered, and I like it all the more for that. It is balanced and has an admirable classicism. I’d sit it in the vague proximity of 6 o’Clock Gin (another handsome blue bottled gin) and Adnam’s — gins that make an excellent, rounded, mellow G&T that has unusual complexities and exotic qualities but doesn’t shove them up your GLASS.

It’d make a nice house gin for someone who’s too cool for the gins they stock in big supermarkets but still wants something versatile and classical.

If I were a tiresome wanker, you know how I’d close this?

I’d say it punches well above its weight.

You’re welcome. Now piss off.