Wessex Gin Review

Let’s talk about Wessex, shall we? Back in the Dark Ages, there was no England (which must be a concept that’s upsetting for people like Mark Francois). Instead, an ever-changing mishmash of kingdoms, of which Wessex was one, incorporating, at different times, a sizeable chunk of the south of what’s now England.

One of the last kings of Wessex was Alfred, who seems to have been a fairly good chap. Not long after his reign, seemingly on the basis of much of his canny political manoeuvrings, Wessex expanded and became the dominant party in the newly unified English nation.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle is silent as to Alf’s alcoholic preferences, but we can be pretty sure he didn’t drink gin, since it didn’t exist. He did, however, foster scholarship, personally translate religious texts, and implement an organised network of fortifications for the repelling of invading Danes. Which is almost as worthwhile as drinking gin. The makers of Wessex Gin tie their booze into the legendary king by incorporating botanicals such as coriander (which ‘represents his appreciation of the importance of learning and scholarship’). Hmm.

Tenuous botanical symbolism notwithstanding, the people behind this gin clearly know what they’re doing (this is not a first-time hobbyist; founder Jonathan Clark previously ran the City of London Distillery). That shows. This is a well balanced, carefully designed product — both in terms of flavour and in terms of presentation (beautiful packaging being so ridiculously important in so competitive a market). This gin succeeds in looking different without looking gimmicky or cheap. It has integrity, in many senses, and I like it a whole lot. So let’s put it into some drinks, shall we?

Wessex Gin & Tonic

The Wessex G&T is exceptionally well balanced. The gin manages to be assertive without allowing any one locus of flavour to dominate: citrus, juniper, spice… the classic elements, in exquisite equilibrium. And there’s subtly unusual stuff going on too: chervil is one of the (rather inspired) botanicals used, which imparts an ethereal waft of anise. Aniseed haters, fear not; it really is quite subtle.

Spiced and smooth, serious and subtle, this is an extremely rewarding gin in your G&T, and I thereby suggest that you go ahead and

Verdict: Neck it!

I’d take the classic lemon and Fever Tree Light route here, but feel free to stick rosemary in there instead, which might be rather nice.

Wessex Gin Martini

Yes! This is a delicious martini right here. First I tried it in the style of Duke’s Hotel (for those who don’t frequent Duke’s, this entails no stirring on ice, just freezer cold gin and freezer cold martini glass rinsed with vermouth). Not all gins shine in this context, but Wessex is very well suited: there’s not an ounce of ill-mannered booze-burn, but an invigorating thwack to your tastebuds nonetheless, all spice and bitter complexity — a mouthful of thickets, briarwood and wild English herbs, including that delightful chervil.

I also tried Wessex Gin in a classic dry martini (here’s how I make it) and I think it’s even better like this. The small amount of dilution introduced by stirring over ice brings out more of the chervil and sharpens the gin’s complexities, as well as softening that initial bosh of juniper and wood whilst retaining its foresty depth.

I tried adding an olive, which brings out the deeper notes of the gin, but my preference was for the zip and zing of the lemon twist. Both are good, though.

Verdict: Neck it!

Wessex Gin Negroni

As is often the case with our friend the negroni, I find myself very much enjoying the drink whilst simultaneously slightly regretting using a premium gin to make it. Don’t get me wrong, a negroni needs a good gin. But thanks to its bolshy ingredients (Campari is an incorrigible loudmouth), this cocktail tends to squash the subtlety of most gins.

Bottle of Wessex Gin with two glasses of negroni in front

In the case of the Wessex Gin Negroni, you lose that lovely chervil note and, ultimately, I reckon you could have a pretty similar drink using basic Tanqueray and save yourself the dosh. That’s not to say it’s bad in any way: it’s bloody nice, B+ grade stuff. But I think Wessex Gin deserves to be used in drinks that allow its complexities to shine.

Verdict: Gulp it!

So, in summary, a bloody good gin.

My challenge to Jonathan Clark and the Wessex Distillery team would be, though, not just to nod botanically in the direction of King Alfred, but to match the guy’s political achievements. HAVE A BIT OF AMBITION, DAMN IT. I mean, look at where this bloody country is heading. After Brexit, it’s presumably only a matter of time before Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales extricate themselves from the Union — like guests excusing themselves politely (Christ, England! What did you do to deserve such politeness?) from a dinner party at which the host has served himself most of the food, poured himself most of the wine, and is now drunkenly ranting, making unwanted lecherous advances at people half his age, and farting like an old dog who just ate a chicken out of the bin.

Then what? My money’s on the folk of Wessex being next to seceed. If only because they’d get to call it Wexit, which is marginally better than the coinage open to the good people of Sussex.

And all of a sudden Wessex is no longer a quaint, vague and marketable geopolitical concept, but an actual serious political entity. Governed by a tribal chief who’s built popular legitimacy, I suppose, on the basis of rooting out illegal immigrants from Sussex and Northumbria. Coming over here. Taking our jobs. (Yeah, okay, so our jobs are actually mostly in London. But taking the jobs that would be ours if we wanted them.) Bloody Northumbrians.

What I’m saying is: come those new Dark Ages, we’ll need a leader to bring together the warring tribes. To begin the slow, painful process of reunification. On the strength of this gin, I have to say, I’d trust the people at Wessex Distillery to to a better job of that than our current representatives in Westminster.

What greater praise can I give?

You can buy a 70cl bottle of Wessex Gin from the Wessex Distillery website (£29.95) or stockists such as Master of Malt (also £29.95). It’s 41.3% ABV.

Commuter Belters 3: Waitrose Maris Organic Rosé

We’ve sampled gin in a tin. We’ve sampled a heinous vermouth and tonic. What convenience beverage next for our thirsty commuter? This week, the fine folk at Waitrose have provided an enticing can of pink wine…

Now, I don’t usually buy rose in a bottle, let alone a goddamn can. But against the siren song of a yellow Waitrose reduced label — together, of course, with the prospect of masochism for your amusement, dear reader — I’m powerless.

And that’s how I come to be toting this rather fetching can of Maris Organic Rosé. Trying with all my might to disregard the last time I tried commuter-orientated wine.

So let’s crack it open and get this over with.

Jesus hell. Sniff the newly opened can and it smells like lager. Hideous! Give it a few minutes to ‘breathe’ (though I’m not sure it’s capable of respiration, to be honest) and the beery stench gradually dissipates, but I’m afraid you’ll be pining for that lost aroma soon enough. Because now — now — it smells even more horrific. Like a cross between overcooked cabbage and a Venetian canal in high summer.

But I disregard the warning signs and take a swig. For you, reader. For you. The good news, I suppose, is that it tastes better than it smells. This is not, alas, a high bar, insofar as it doesn’t taste of damp flannels and sewage. Instead, it just tastes like the most mean-spirited rose you’ve ever had the misfortune to share an evening with. Spiteful, miserly, acerbic. This is the vinous equivalent of a sour, Brexitty old geriatric whose years of reading the Daily Mail and curtain twitching have sucked away any joy and softness of spirit. Squint your tastebuds and you can just about make out the mournful ghost of some supermarket own-label strawberry jam, which I suppose must be the ‘gorgeous [fruit]’ referred to on the can.

It’s actually worse than I expected (and, believe me, I expected bad). I thought I was in for saccharine, Blush-Zinfandel-esque stuff: wine for people who actually still have the tastebuds of a five-year-old. But, y’know, just as the dumbest, most sugary pop song can in a certain light be impressive, so can a genuinely crowd-pleasing wine. But this, this is just grim. There’s no art to it, not even that of catering to the lowest common denominator.

I think I’d actually choose the can of M&S Vermouth & Tonic over this foul muck. I’d flush the remnants down the nearest South Western Railway loo, were I not genuinely concerned for the wellbeing of the staff who maintain the tracks where it might end up.

Hampshire Navy Strength Gunpowder Gin Review

About as local as gin gets (for me, that is), this distillery is practically my neighbour. And the best kind of near-neighbour: one that supplies me with bloody good booze.

Why do none of my actual neighbours do that?

I mentioned Hampshire Gunpowder Gin before, en passant. But it deserves a proper review, I think. One of the things I want to do this year is — in a spasmodic bout of localism — to write more about drink and food from my surrounds, meaning Hampshire, Sussex and thereabouts (where I live) and perhaps also London (where I work). So what better, SEO-friendly means by which to do this than by reviewing something that’s actually got the (key)words Hampshire Gin in the name?

Winchester Distillery — the place behind this bottle — is about 20 minutes’ drive from my house (and a very nice drive it is, too, zipping down the A272 in one’s cheap 80s Porsche with dodgy electrics. Until one gets stuck behind a tractor.) They produce a range of gins, some of which I’ve still to taste, and this is the Navy Strength one. So called because of its hoofing 57% ABV. You can slosh this all over your gunpowder, safe in the knowledge that it’ll still ignite, thanks to the high alcohol content. Worth bearing in mind next fireworks night, eh?

But enough preamble. How does the blighter taste?

Hampshire Gunpowder Gin and Tonic

If you were expecting something aggressive and butch, you should reconsider your lazy naval stereotypes and hang your head in shame. Hampshire Gunpowder Gin is rather smooth and has a slightly sweet, herbaceous intro. A clean shaven sailor with immaculate personal hygiene who phones his grannie every weekend. While there’s certainly juniper around, it’s much less pronounced than in a down-the-line juniper-led spirit like regular Tanqueray. There’s an appealing drag of peaty bitterness across the back of the tongue, which I think is the influence of the tea, and this handsomely balances that initial dab of sweetness.

This is a fine gin for your G&T.

Serving suggestion

Fever Tree Light Tonic (as per usual) with lemon — or try rosemary, if you like, you crazy cat.

G&T Verdict

Verdict: Neck it!

Hampshire Gunpowder Gin Martini

I tasted this two ways: firstly in a classic Old Parn martini, and secondly in a Duke’s Hotel style martini (freezer-cold gin simply poured over a smidge of vermouth swirled around an ice-cold glass — no icecubes involved). My vermouth at the moment is Dolin.

In both Martini styles you again notice the drink’s fullness and richness. I found it somewhat overheated — a little full-on — especially in the Duke’s martini where it leaves a fiery wake on your palate. As with the G&T, there’s an initial subtle impression of sweetness, but in the martini you really notice the smokiness and bitterness of the tea.

The flavours are rather lovely, but even with the mild dilution of the ice-melt of the Parn Martini, it sizzles and tingles all over the place. While it’s by no means shabby, I’d say this gin isn’t as well suited to the martini as the G&T.

Serving Suggestion

Classic Martini with twist (olive works much less well). Try allowing more dilution than you would normally to tone down the burn.

Martini Verdict

Sip it!

Hampshire Gunpowder Gin Negroni

I think this works very well in a Negroni. With the classic mix (equal parts of gin, Campari and red vermouth), you get an excellent balance, with the Gunpowder Gin standing up to those punchy flavours rather admirably. Some more diffident gins need help fighting their corner against Campari, but this one can fend for itself, thank you very much. I love the rooty, deep flavours and the smokiness the gin brings to the mix.

Negroni Verdict

Verdict: Neck it!

So there you go. A commendable boozy representative of my home county. Here’s a few stockists of Hampshire Navy Strength Gunpowder Gin, should you wish to avail yourself. A bottle is 70cl; all prices correct at time of writing.

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.

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.

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.

Bargain Booze: Esprit de Puisseguin Saint-Émilion from Waitrose

Today’s Bargain Booze is a Bordeaux from Waitrose. 1/3 off at the moment. It may not set your meticulously curated world alight, but it’s pretty good. A proper everyday Bordeaux.

Consider this a weary, ambiguous gesture in the direction of topicality. Another occasional series of posts wherein I’ll highlight alcoholic offers and deals that you might find interesting.

Today’s is Esprit de Puisseguin 2016, a Saint-Émilion that’s currently 1/3 off at dear old Waitrose, bringing it from £13.49 to £8.99. As I said: BARGAIN BOOZE.

It’s not bad stuff. Sure, there’s a bit of tannin grabbing away at your cheeks like an old granny at those of a chubby baby, but whack it into a decanter (or just a bloody measuring jug for all I care) for half an hour and it softens up nicely.

It’s not going to set your meticulously curated world alight, but it’s pretty good. A proper everyday Bordeaux.

I’ve said before that I don’t tend to buy supermarket Bordeaux in this price bracket, as I think there tends to be better price:quality ratio elsewhere — and I probably wouldn’t steer you towards old Esprit de Puisseguin at full price, to be honest. But reduced to under a tenner, it’s rather a good shout.

Also: Puisseguin in my mind has become Pissed Penguin. Extra marks.