The Society’s High Strength Gin Martini

This is wonderful gin. It’s not trying to be anything else. It’s juniper and citrus and booze. And it’s smoother than you could ever hope to be, mate.

Christ, yes. A martini with the Wine Society’s High Strength Gin.

I know it’s been a while, and I know this is going to look cursory. Like I’m fobbing you off.

Fob fob fob.

But, listen. The Wine Society’s High Strength Gin costs £19 for a bottle. That’s got to be some kind of fabulously benevolent joke, right? I mean, every artisanal gin-wanker on the planet is selling their wares for £30+ a pop — and good luck to them. But, right here, you have a bloody fantastic gin (at 50% ABV, no less) for nineteen sodding quid.

So you get home. You grab your martini glass from the freezer. You lace it with a dash of vermouth (mine’s Noilly Prat at the moment, but more often Dolin). You swirl the glass to get that vermouth coating the sides. Then you lift your Wine Soc Gin out of the freezer and you pour it on top. Generously.

You sling on your lemon twist. And you Friday.

This is wonderful gin. It’s not trying to be anything else. It’s juniper and citrus and booze. And it’s smoother than you could ever hope to be, mate.

Fob fob fob.

Fort Gin Review: Mighty Fortress or Crumbling Ruin?

Now, a fort is supposed to protect you against danger, right? I’m not convinced. Fort Gin, y’see, is pretty damn dangerous in itself. Take a gulp and you’ll understand why…

Portsmouth! Following last week’s account of our adventures at Portsmouth Fish Market, we’re back to Pompey today — but this time we’re swapping fish for fortifications. Specifically, Fort Gin (£31.95, Master of Malt), which is made by the Portsmouth Distillery.

The name Fort isn’t arbitrarily chosen: the distillery occupies one of Portsmouth’s old naval fortresses — designed, I suppose, to ward off whatever bunch of undesirables Portsmouth was worried about at the time.

You’d expect a gin called fort to be rather solid, heavy, strong — wouldn’t you? Probably pretty classic, punchy stuff? Well, follow me, my pretty one. Follow me into the Fort and you may be surprised…

I had my first gulp of Fort Gin at a tasting here in Petersfield, organised by the lovely General Wines. But a gulp was not enough. On the back of that gulp, I went to General Wines’ shop and bought a bottle of the stuff.

Fort Gin, you see, is bloody delicious. This is so smooth a gin that you can very happily sip away at it without any tonic or other accoutrement, pretending to be all mannered and sophisticated. Because that’s how society regards people who drink gin neat, isn’t it?

It’s smooth and it’s sweet. I don’t mean actually sweet in the sense of being sugary, but the botanical elements give it a powerful impression of sweetness. There’s definitely juniper there, but there’s also a lot of (warm, aromatic) spice, which we’ll talk about more below.

As usual, I’ll burble a bit about how Fort Gin tastes in three contexts: the G&T, the Negroni and the Martini. But I do suggest you try this bugger on its own too.

The Fort Gin and Tonic

Right. You need to use a light tonic here. Fever Tree Naturally Light is the one I’d suggest. And don’t you go sloshing it into your glass like a maniac. Because this gin needs remarkably little tonic to reach its ideal balance, in my view. Try it with 1:1 ratio and see what you think.

The Fort G&T is bloody good. It has that delicious creaminess of toasted nuts (almonds or cashews), and while there’s plenty of juniper to keep us anchored, the dominant flavour I taste is cardamom. Which is good, because I happen to like cardamom quite considerably. There’s also coconut and plenty of floral shenanigans going on. In concert, those flavours gel beautifully, as they might in, say, a South Indian curry. Double down on that, I suggest, by chucking a wedge of lime in there. Sodding delicious. A benefit (or danger) of the fact that Fort requires so little tonic is that you can get a good few drinks from a single Fever Tree mini-bottle or can.

You’ll get through them quickly, I’ll warrant.

Fort Gin and Tonic Verdict

Verdict: Neck it!

The Fort Gin Negroni

Hmm. This one’s a bit weird. The negroni context amps up the sweetness already present in Fort Gin, which isn’t really called for. What’s more, adding cardamom to the negroni’s already crowded flavour profile turns it into a bit of a riot. It’s still nice, I should say, but rather all over the place. You don’t get the benefit of Fort’s elegance and subtlety, here, that’s for sure. It does have a rather lovely creamy aftertaste though.

Personally, I’m not sure you’d want to spend over 30 quid on a bottle of Fort Gin only to use it to make negronis.

Fort Gin Negroni Verdict

Sip it!

No. Instead of negronis, you want to use it ALL for…

The Fort Gin Martini

Christ, this is smooth. Smooth and sweetly floral. Rose. Soft cinnamon. Vanilla. Cream — oh god, cream.

A Fort Gin Martini is alarmingly easy to drink. It makes a martini that slides down your throat in the sweetest, softest, most beguiling way. It’s rather a long way, then, from the typical experience of this noble cocktail: if you’ve read me blathering on about the perfect martini, you’ll know that my platonic ideal of the martini is a pretty punchy piece of work.

A Fort Martini, though, caresses rather than thwacks. It’s, as I may have mentioned, extraordinarily, creamily smooth. It makes an extremely accessible martini. It is not standard Parn issue stuff, but it is bloody delicious nevertheless.

Serve it with lemon twist, for god’s sake; an olive in this context would be barbaric.

I tried it with Blackdown Vermouth (£20.15, Master of Malt — made in neighbouring Sussex; review in the works) and the result was almost indecently floral. Genuinely quite extraordinary. I also tried it with my staple, Dolin Chambery (£10.49, Waitrose). I prefer it with the more austere and pared-back Dolin: I don’t think Fort Gin needs extra florality and sweetness, and the Blackdown slightly over-eggs a pretty damn deliciously eggy pudding. The Dolin keeps it in better balance.

Fort Gin Martini Verdict

Verdict: Neck it!

In summary, then: this is a very fine gin. If you prefer your gins trad, or aggressive — or if you don’t like cardamom — it won’t be for you. But otherwise I urge you to give it a gulp. Hole yourself up in your fortress, mix up a martini, sit back and enjoy the siege.

What I’m doing (March Edition)

All the odds and sods that went on in March and I didn’t bloody tell you about. Hampshire yomps, Hampshire scoff, wine bizniz and a special arrival…

Yeah, I know it’s April now. Sue me. Here’s what I’ve been up to in March.

Walking the Hangers Way

Isn’t it fabulous — genuinely fabulous — to live in a country so crisscrossed and enmeshed with long distance paths? Of course there are the well known national trails: your Ridgeways and West Highland Ways. But there are hundreds more. The Hangers Way passes only minutes away from our house and is named for the range of hills about and atop which it meanders, the Hangers. In spring its woodlands are carpeted with wild garlic and the Hangers bloom from brown to green. Like so many of these paths, the variety of terrain and ecosystem is fantastic.

Eating at the White Hart, South Harting

The White Hart is one of the best of several good food-oriented pubs that dot our patch of the South Downs. Come here for lunch or dinner after you’ve clambered your way up and down neighbouring Harting Hill. We had supper here on Saturday with Amy’s parents: excellent mushrooms, egg and prosciutto on toast (yup, with wanky shrooms), then tender, deep-flavoured venison haunch. Cooking is generally very good and the staff are charmingly gauche. The place has a pleasantly convivial atmosphere and is (crucially) welcoming of yellow labradors. Wine list could do with a revamp (too few food-friendly reds) but the Berry Bros Claret is a solid choice.

Reading about Majestic’s demise

If it weren’t for Majestic Wine, my life would undoubtedly be very different. The bastards rejected my graduate trainee application after interview on the basis of my not being ‘a natural salesman’. A fronthanded compliment indeed.

Majestic is to be subsumed into the company it bought a few short years ago, Naked Wines, which (in the abstract) gives a whole new resonance to the phrase caveat emptor. But nobody watching the UK wine bizniz with even the vaguest interest can have been much surprised.

I enjoyed two takes on the sadly predictable story, both (in their contrasting ways) eloquently evoking the dissolution of the old Majestic: Victoria Moore’s and The Sediment Blog’s.

Celebrating with Veuve Clicquot

I’ve never had the pleasure of tasting the main Champagne houses’ non vintage wines side-by-side, so I have no objective favourite champagne. My subjective favourite, though, is Veuve Clicquot. So there. I’m not reviewing it because it was consumed in celebration — of the fact that, on the same day that Theresa May failed to deliver Brexit, my dear sister succeeded in delivering an infinitely more welcome entity: one tiny human female.

My niece, Elara, with her father Ed.

So, really, all the above waffle is nothing. What was up to in March was: becoming Uncle Parn.

A Squid Supper + Portsmouth Fish Market

‘How about this one?’ he says, at length, with the barest modicum of enthusiasm.

We look at the fish. Potato looks at the fish. The fish looks glassily at the ceiling. Portsmouth Fish Market falls silent once more.

It is a beautiful (if somewhat blustery) Spring morning, and we are outside Portsmouth Fish Market. For the past year or so, Amy and I have repeatedly vowed to make this peregrination — this piscine pilgrimage — but despite living half an hour or so down the road, we’ve failed to enact our vows.

Until now.

Amy’s famously large and expressive eyes are sparkling with excitement (or perhaps they’re just watering; it’s hard to be sure. As I say, it’s somewhat blustery). She’s been murmuring and crooning excitedly to herself, these past weeks, about the anticipated joys of the fish market. The hubbub of the bartering crowds! The riot of colour and excitement as today’s catch is roughly thrown down upon the stalls! The thrill of the jostle for a place in the unruly throng of punters!

Well, the wait is over at last. In we go, Amy! Into Portsmouth Fish Market!

(We go in.)

Portsmouth Fish Market is … smaller than anticipated. To be precise, Portsmouth Fish Market is Amy, myself, Potato the Labrador, and one impatient man behind a table of fish.

To be fair, it’s a fairly large table. But I can tell without looking that Amy is very disappointed.

The fish market vendor casts an appraising eye at Potato. Potato casts an appraising eye at the fish table.

We stand a while, the four of us, in silence.

‘So what you want?’

We have no idea what we want, it emerges. I think we’d expected to, y’know, browse a little. To take in the atmosphere.

We take in the atmosphere.

‘Um… What do you recommend?’ Amy asks, bravely.

Fish Man fixes Amy with a look that implies his recommendation is that she piss off. Then he looks down at his table.

‘How about this one?’ he says, at length, with the barest modicum of enthusiasm.

We look at the fish. Potato looks at the fish. The fish looks glassily at the ceiling. Portsmouth Fish Market falls silent once more.

Amy steps forward.

Potato steps forward.

‘Hey, will you get the dog away?’

***

Ah! Portsmouth Fish Market!

I came away with a bag stuffed with fish and seafood, including (yes!) some squid. Amy came away with a small bundle of shattered dreams. Potato came away with nothing.

Anyhow. Let’s talk about the squid, shall we? Specifically, how to cook the buggers.

The Spanish squid stew I concocted is the kind of thing my dear father is excellent at throwing together, and I’ve loved squid from an early age as a result of meals like this. As with the Irish stew I burbled on about a few weeks back, this is a pretty thrifty supper: squid are very cheap, you know. So long as you’ve half a bottle of leftover wine kicking about (or a full bottle you don’t mind sharing with the pot) the rest of the ingredients are mostly storecupboard stuff. Assuming you’re the kind of wanker who has two different types of paprika in his storecupboard.

When you’re cooking it, there’s really only one thing you need to know about squid: cook it incredibly slowly or bloody quickly. This recipe opts for the former. Your end result is meltingly soft rings, purpled by the long dark simmer in wine which, by the end, has simmered down to a rich, glossy mahogany.

Squid simmering in a dark red wine sauce
About half way through cooking. It will get darker. Be patient!

Spanish Squid Stew Recipe

Ingredients

  • 2 good-sized squid, or 3 babies (yes, I am still talking about squid), cut into moderately thick rings.
  • 2 large onions, sliced
  • 2 chubby cloves of garlic
  • 2 largeish tomatoes, quartered and de-seeded
  • ½ tsp hot smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp sweet smoked paprika
  • Olive oil
  • Half a bottle or so of red wine (bonus points if it’s Spanish like mine: the almost implausibly cheap 3C Carinena from The Wine Society, £5.95)
  • Generous handful of parsley
  • Salt and pepper
  • Half a lemon

What to do

Start with the onions. Using a large pan with highish sides (make sure you have a lid for it; you’ll need that later), fry them over a medium heat with a proper few glugs of olive oil (be generous). While the onion is softening, slice the garlic and chuck that in too.

Onions frying with garlic in a pan

Now the tomatoes. Some people might tell you to faff around skinning them. I honestly don’t think it makes much difference in this context, so advise you not to bother. They should be quartered and de-seeded. Dice each quarter into pieces around a cm or so square. No need to fuss too much, they’ll cook down. Lob them in.

Chopped tomato with a Sabatier knife

Now add the two types of paprika and give the lot a good stir. Turn up the heat, slosh in the wine, and add the squid rings. If you have tentacles too (or, rather, if your squid did), by all means chuck those in as well.

Bottle of 3C Carinena wine being poured into a stew for cooking

Bring it all to the boil, then turn the heat down really low, so it’s at as gentle a simmer as you can manage, and cover — leaving the lid slightly ajar.

Leave that pan to simmer gently for a good long while. A couple of hours, I’d say. Stir it every so often to check it’s not sticking or drying out.

While that’s bubbling away, you’re getting a bit peckish, aren’t you? Time for anchovies! Waitrose sells these delightful critters marinated in garlic (yeah, four quid, I know — but worth it).

An anchovy on a fork. Glass of sherry in the background.

I suggest you also crack open the bottle of Manzanilla Sherry you bought at the same time (Waitrose Manzanilla Fina, £7.69). This is squarely a Parn Essential, and I should write about it separately at some stage, I suppose, with its full-on gob-punch of lemon and sea and sunshine.

Waitrose Manzanilla Sanlucar Dry Sherry alongside some paprika

When you’re ready to eat your stew, season with plenty of salt and pepper and lemon juice to taste. You can serve it with bread or rice, and perhaps a green salad of some kind. And it’s pretty much guaranteed to cheer up anyone who’s been to Portsmouth Fish Market.

Unless they’re a labrador who didn’t get any.

Potato the yellow labrador gazes pleadingly at camera

Schweppes 1783 vs Fever Tree Tonic Water

Startled from its decades-long slumber, the leviathan Schweppes has cooked up a new range of premium tonics, called 1783. How do they fare against the upstart Fever Tree? Let’s find out, shall we?

So, today — as the rather prosaic title might imply — we’re comparing Fever Tree’s tonic water (both Naturally Light and Regular versions) against Schweppes’ fancy-pants newish 1783 sub-brand (again, Light and Regular variants). And while we’re at it, let’s chuck in a comparison against classic bog-standard Schweppes tonic water for good measure.

I’ve tasted the five of the above tonics blind with dependable old Gordon’s gin. Is Schweppes’ new offering a Fever Tree beater? And how does 1783 compare against standard Schweppes tonic? I suppose we’ll find out, otherwise these two paragraphs will have been an extraordinarily cycnical instance of bait-and-switch.

Mini-cans of Schweppes 1783 Crisp Tonic water and Fever Tree Premium Indian Tonic Water

Poor, dozy old Schweppes, eh? You have to feel sorry, don’t you?, for a global brand when it takes its eye off the ball for a mere decade or so and misses a renaissance within its core category. It’s easily done.

While Schweppes was lounging around in its anachronistically colonial hammock, the upstart Fever Tree coshed its way into the marketplace and ended up with a multi-billion-pound stock market valuation (which does sort of seem, y’know, um, fizzy? But still…). In the process, a new category of ‘premium’ tonics was created — and now throngs with other challengers such as Double Dutch, Barker & Quin, 1724 and more (of which, more to come in a future post…)

At some point, I suppose, the Schweppes execs awoke from their slumbers, tumbled comically from their hammocks, and realised something was amiss.

Cue the rebrand of Schweppes Tonic and the launch of an offshoot family of tonics: 1783. The fact that I’d entirely missed this launch, despite being, as you know, fairly committed to the pursuit of gin-induced shit-facedness, is perhaps an indication of the prominence of the launch. Anyhow. 1783 is the year Schweppes started doing its anti-malarial thing, obv, and it’s the premium spin on the familiar old brand.

As soon as I realised this had happened, a mere year or two after the fact, I knew I’d be obliged, dear squidgy reader, to let you know what this new uber-Schweppes, this heritage-Schweppes, might taste like. They have a bunch of flavours including cucumber tonic, floral tonic, salty lemon tonic and suchlike. Bah. Call me a boring fart, but I go to gin for my flavour. So I’ve only bought and tasted the two normal ones.

Here’s how they fared in my blind tasting, from least nice to best. Links are all to Waitrose.com, because of course they are.

Four tonic water mini cans (Fever Tree and Schweppes 1783) plus a big bottle of Schweppes regular tonic

Schweppes vs Fever Tree Tonic Tasting

5. Schweppes 1783 Light Tonic Water

Schweppes 1783 Light is a bit odd. I mean, it doesn’t really taste like tonic, does it? It’s not hideous, I should say, but I feel like it’s more of a skinny bitter lemon than a genuine tonic water. Which is fine if that’s what you want — you misguided imbecile — but not really what I’m after, tbh. It’s got a school-trip-packed-lunch-fizzy-pop hyperactivity to it with lots of artificial perfumey stuff going on: violet and sherbert and shizz. It’s enough to give you a headache just thinking about it.

I suppose it’s possible this could partner well with certain gins (I suppose I’ll be seeing if I can find any, given I have five more mini-cans of the stuff to get through, so will let you know) but with a classic London gin, I just don’t think this works. At all.

A six-pack of Schweppes 1783 Light Tonic Water is currently on offer for £2 at Waitrose. Regular price will be £3.69, making it 61.5p per can.

4. Schweppes Tonic Water

Then we come to regular ol’ Schweppes. Now, this is sad. Because — you know what? — in so many respects it’s actually really good. It has more of a quinine kick than almost any other tonic out there. And quinine is great! It’s far more pronounced in classic Schweppes than in 1783. It’s harder, drier, more aggressively one-dimensional than any of the other tonics here. And, you know, that’s a wonderful thing. I mean, drinking it on its own, it’s nasty, obviously. But you, my friend, you are drinking it with gin. The gin is where the interesting stuff comes from, let’s be honest. Where Schweppes basic gets it TOTALLY right is in its commitment to a limited role that leaves the gin to shine. It makes for a wonderful dry G&T in which its contribution is largely limited to that dry laceration of bitterness; no floral crap and not too much sweetness.

But.

You know what’s coming, don’t you? Fucking sodium saccharin, that’s what. Jesus Howling Christ, I cannot stand artificial sweeteners. I know plenty of people don’t have this problem, and, yeah, I’m immeasurably happy for them (dickheads). But, really. That ganky catch at the back of your throat, that pissy, chemical bitterness. How can you stand it? Rank.

If you don’t have this problem, Schweppes basic tonic may well be the best tonic out there. Enjoy it. You bastard. If you want the rest of my bottle, drop me a line.

A 12-pack of Schweppes Tonic costs £4.09 at Waitrose, making it 34p per can.

Now. With those first two out of the way, things get really rather interesting. And really rather nice.

3. Schweppes 1783 Crisp Tonic Water

Third place goes to Schweppes 1783 regular. It’s good. There’s an echo of that old Schweppes bite, though as I said it’s less quinine-heavy. It has slightly less depth and complexity to it than Fever Tree Regular, which (meine meinung nach) tastes that bit more adult, more savoury. With 1783 Regular, lemon zestiness is more forward, and there is a slight lemony loo cleaner aftertaste (that sounds dreadful, I realise, and it’s not nearly as bad as all that, but you know what I mean?). So it’s not quite as nice as Fever Tree, but that’s comparing the two side-by-side — and you absolutely would not be anything other than delighted if somebody gave you this G&T. It’s a good, solid, honest drink. Sweetish, softish, but with lemon and bite enough to make its presence felt.

A six-pack of Schweppes 1783 Crisp Tonic Water is currently on offer for £2 at Waitrose. Regular price will be £3.69, making it 61.5p per can.

Good stuff. But not quite as good as…

2. Fever Tree Indian Tonic Water

Fever Tree’s Regular tonic is jolly nice. I think this might possibly even be a tad sweeter than 1783 (though there’s not much in it; both are too sweet for my own preference, though not nearly as much so as some tonics). The thing that lifts Fever Tree Regular above 1873 Crisp Tonic, though, is its fullness, its depth and slight savoury element. There’s something subtly yeasty going on, alongside the usual citrus and quinine, that really fills out the drink and complements the gin without dominating. If only it were less sweet.

An eight-pack of Fever Tree Indian Tonic Water is £4.25 at Waitrose, making it 53p per can — cheaper than 1783 at full price.

Which leaves the winner. By a furlong:

1. Fever Tree Naturally Light Tonic Water

Best in show. I mean, this is normally my tonic of choice, and I’m reassured to find it remains my favourite when tasted blind. It’s the only one of the five tasted here (with the massively qualified exception, perhaps, of Schweppes basic) that isn’t too sweet, and that lets the gin shine to its fullest extent. I’m strongly of the view that the better and more interesting your gin, the more compelling the case for accompanying it with Fever Tree Light Tonic. It’s lean and clean and modest — as it bloody should be — and it steps back from the limelight. It’s got a good bite to it and it balances your gin very easily (whereas I find that the Fever Tree Regular and Schweppes 1783 both demand very careful adjustment of ratio to make sure they tip over into neither tonicky over-sweetness nor gin-heavy alco-belch territory). Fever Tree Naturally Light is far more forgiving, simply because it’s less goddamn sweet.

An eight-pack of Fever Tree Naturally Light Tonic Water is £4.25 at Waitrose, making it 53p per can — cheaper than 1783 at full price.

Please, god, tonic-makers, just tone it the fuck down with the sugar, can’t you? I realise most people presumably disagree with me on this, otherwise why would the sweet stuff be the default option? Obviously, most people are idiots.

You’re not an idiot, are you, though? No, you read this excellent blog. So you’ll stick around for the conclusions.

Fever Tree beats Schweppes 1783…

…but it’s not the thrashing I half-expected. Sure, Fever Tree Naturally Light craps on all the other options from a fairly considerable height — and it’s disappointing that the 1783 Light option isn’t close to being a worthy adversary.

But the two ‘regular’ tonics are really both very good, and Schweppes’ premium effort is only a whisker less nice than Fever Tree’s.

Not a bad effort after a few decades swinging indolently in one’s hammock, I suppose.

Review: Moselle Les Hautes-Bassières Pinot Noir, Château de Vaux 2016

This is an extremely nice, supple, elegant pinot noir from Alsace. I gulped it down alongside some Burgundian escalopes a la Keith Floyd.

Ah, Floyd, lovely Floyd.

I wrote about the lovely Keith Floyd (who, I’m aware, was perhaps not consistently lovely as a man to live with in real life — but, by god, was lovely on camera in his heyday) as an inspiration for restarting this blog. Today’s wine, a fabulous Pinot Noir from Alsace with a ludicrously long name, was an excellent accompaniment to a recipe cribbed from one of the low-fi Floyd clips that the BBC hasn’t yet snatched away from those of us without TV licenses:

I made something akin to the above, but with pork rather than veal. Floyd’s culinary reference point is Burgundy, and the closest I could muster (without straying too far into the costly zone of my wine rack) to Burgundy was a Pinot Noir (same grape, you realise) from elsewhere in France: Moselle Les Hautes-Bassières Pinot Noir, Château de Vaux 2016 (The Wine Society, £13.50 — link is to the 2017, as they’re out of stock of 2016 now).

And, Christ, it’s good.

Snatch it to your nose and you’re enveloped in a heady musk of solvents, fruit and sand. To me it smells oh so magenta. Your own pretentious synaesthesiac mileage may vary.

Straight out of the bottle, it still had a certain stalkiness and petulance, but we hoofed it into the decanter and coaxed away its sulkiness. If you’re drinking the 2016 as well, I suggest you do likewise (or else hold onto it for a few more years, you patient, sensible, tedious old fart). It has that blooming, fruited warmth of a bloody good cherry brandy (dry, rich, complex; not some hideous confected crap) but absolutely no sentimentality or flab. There’s a wonderful steely edge of acidity that stirs your tastebuds into action like a riding crop to the arse of a shambling pony.

Then your pony effortlessly breaks into this sinuous, viscous canter of fruit and spice and warm, long, lovely, friendly alcohol.

I love this (amongst other things — so many other things) about Pinot noir: its ability to be both dancingly light and ridiculously powerful. It’s so goddamn honed. A featherweight boxer of a wine.

And it went delightfully with my pork escalopes — thank you for asking: that acid cutting elegantly through the cream and butter. I’m sure Floyd would have approved. And opened a second bottle.

Some English Hanky Panky

I mean, when a cocktail is already called a Hanky Panky, what else is there to say? This was my first go at incorporating Asterley Bros Britannica Fernet into a drink that doesn’t make my friends hate me. I think it worked.

Oh relax. It’s just a bloody cocktail, you prude.

A bottle of Asterley Bros Britannica Fernet (£32.95 from The Whisky Exchange) showed up in my latest booze delivery. As you may have gathered, I’m intrigued by the alcoholic antics of the Asterleys. I’m also a Fernet novice. That’s one reason why I’m not going to attempt a ‘review’ of this critter: for once, I’m sufficiently conscious of my own ignorance to be deterred.

I did, though, have the pleasure of passing a glass of the stuff round at a gathering of chums, the other night — and hearing one after the other give some variation of the theme of, ‘Whhheeeuooargh!’ as the tastebrains of each scrambled to process their first mouthful.

I enjoy a little light libationary sadism.

Which is by way of saying: Britannica Fernet (in common with Fernet in general, I believe) is not the easiest of beverages.

I’m pretty sure that neat, over ice, it’ll be a grower. But I’m going to have to work at it.

Meanwhile, though, I have a more accessible means by which to unlock its charms:

Closeup of the surface of an English Hanky Panky cocktail

English Hanky Panky Recipe

A fantastic cocktail with a stupid name but which is really, I suppose, simply a negroni variation: Fernet hoofs Campari out of its usual place in the mix. I’m calling this one the English Hanky Panky because, well, all the ingredients (except the orange twist, I guess) are from this screwed up, snarling little brat of a country. Here’s how to make one.

  • 1 part London Gin (something like Tanqueray, Sipsmith or Gordon’s)
  • 1 part red vermouth (I’m using Asterley Bros Estate Vermouth, £23.25 from The Whisky Exchange)
  • ½ part Fernet (I’m using Asterley Bros Britannica Fernet)

Add gin, vermouth and fernet to a mixing glass/shaker filled with ice. Stir (gently yet firmly, y’know) for a good 20-30 seconds, so that everything gets good and chilly. Then strain into a cocktail glass (ideally one that’s been lingering deep in the recesses of your freezer for just such a purpose). Twist a length of orange peel over the surface of the drink so that the oils squeeze out, then drop the twist into the drink.

You can vary the amount of Fernet according to the amount of bitterness that lingers within your soul. I find the above ratio is bracing without allowing the Fernet to overpower the rest.

It’s a bloody delicious alternative to the Negroni and I love the fact that the Britannica Fernet’s bitterness, whilst brutal, isn’t confected or sugary.

Hanky Panky cocktail in a martini glass with twist of orange. Made from gin, vermouth and fernet.

Any more Fernet cocktail recipes? Let me know…

Parn Essentials: The Society’s Corbières

An essential is all very well. But is it more than an essential? Is it, you may ask, the kind of wine to engender obsessive, bewildering, blind devotion bordering on cultism? Is it, you ask me, paraphrasing to ensure I understand your query, the kind of wine about which one might full-throatedly bellow a simplistic refrain based upon its name?

‘Ooooooooah! Society’s Corbières!’

You know I like this one, of course. The post title gives it away: it’s a Parn Essential because my wine racks are seldom without a bottle or two.

An essential is all very well. But is it more than an essential? Is it, you may ask, the kind of wine to engender obsessive, bewildering, blind devotion bordering on cultism? Is it, you ask me (paraphrasing, I assume, to ensure I understand your query) the kind of wine about which one might full-throatedly bellow a simplistic refrain based upon its name? Is this humble Mr Corbières destined to be the subject of some mindless White-Stripes-bastardised chant redolent of the football stadium?

‘Oooooooah! Society’s Corbières!’

Those are good questions. I mean, really good questions. So good I can scarcely believe I didn’t construct them myself.

Let’s start with the obvious: The Society’s Corbières is red. Duh. It’s also modest. For a start, it only costs £8.25. But beyond that, it has no pretensions of grandeur. Its simple ‘Society’s’ own label telegraphs as much: it’s very much a representative of a greater whole.

I mean, you could argue that there’s a kind of meta-arrogance in adopting that kind of position, couldn’t you? But, I mean, let’s not overthink it, eh?

‘Oooooooah! Society’s Corbières!’

Jeremy Corbyn at some goddamn rally

Once you get the wine into your gob (which is, I suppose, the point of the exercise, god knows how many paragraphs in) you’ll find, though, that its modesty belies its substance. AND HERE’S WHERE THINGS GET TRICKY. Because, you know, this wine is actually just as good in reality as you might reasonably have hoped. More than that, it’s also fun. It’s full, it’s rounded, it doesn’t take itself laughably seriously. That is to say, it’s not the kind of wine that’s fucking desperate to go off on a tedious monologue about its own bêtes noires — Hugo Chávez, say, or the atrocities of Blairism. If you were talking to this wine, which hopefully you realise is testing the limits of metaphor, I think you’d find it a generous conversationalist. You know, one with give and take.

Because, y’know, it’s genuinely humble, genuinely modest. It’s not got that false humility that actually telegraphs a monstrous ego. There’s not a mite of harshness, here, of impatience. I could drink bottles of this shit (and, indeed, do). Because it’s a very easy wine to drink. But that’s not because it’s patronising. Instead, it’s like the best kind of speechwriter, who writes sentences that seem so deceptively simple, yet communicate with an audience beyond their hollering devotees.

‘Oooooooah! Society’s Corbières!’

It’s generous, too: full, and fruit-laden (without being banal and sugary, I should add). It gives you what you want without lectures or circumvention.

I mean, fuck, imagine going on a date with Jeremy Corbyn [OH CHRIST, IS THAT WHO YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT? YOU COULD HAVE MADE IT CLEARER…]

‘Well, I personally don’t believe in indulging in the wasteful and indulgent drinking of alcohol. But would you like a drink?’

And you’d get a 125ml glass of house red, wouldn’t you? If you dared even say yes in the first place.

Fucking hell, this was supposed to be enjoyable. When we set off, you and I, upon this blog post, it seemed amusingly inconsequential, didn’t it? We thought, crikey, this seems like an entertaining premise for an article/leader of the opposition, didn’t we? Oh what japes! What could possibly go wrong?

Well here we are. I hope you’re happy.


The Society’s Corbieres is £8.25 from The Wine Society (a proudly cooperative endeavour). You may freely taste it safe in the knowledge that it won’t tacitly threaten other rival wines you might like to try in future with deselection. You’ll need membership of The Wine Society rather than the UK’s Labour Party to buy it. But the former is, in my experience, an investment you’re substantially less likely to regret.

Peasant Life: countryside, gin and stew. But no bloody giblets.

The other day I felt peasanty. I often feel peasanty. So I went to Waitrose (very much in the manner of a typical peasant) looking for thrifty cuts of meat.

Why is it so bloody difficult to find non-prime cuts of meat? Waitrose is better than most supermarkets, but still, try finding breast of lamb, or beef shin, or oxtail, or ANYTHING WITH SODDING GIBLETS WHATSOEVER. (Except the customers and staff, I guess. They must have giblets. But I doubt they’re for sale.)

I realise the lack of supermarket giblets reflects the realities of supply and demand. I shouldn’t be irritated at Waitrose, you’ll tell me in that patronising manner you sometimes adopt; I should be irritated that nobody buys giblets. I should be irritated at people in general.

Well, joke’s on you. I am already irritated at people in general. For so, so many reasons.

(Joke may actually be on me.)

Christ, get on with it, Parn.

So. Grubbing around in the refrigerator cabinets of Petersfield Waitrose I chanced upon some lamb ribs. Not a common find in Peef Waitrose, let me tell you. So I elbowed a few dithering OAPs squarely in the giblets and shouldered them roughly aside — and lobbed those ribs straight into my basket.

We’ve loads of carrots, potatoes and onions, thanks to our excellent (if occasionally chaotically administered) vegetable box. So while ribs aren’t the classic cut of lamb for an Irish stew, they’re bony and fatty. Which is good enough for me.

Now, what you need after the giblet-free geriatric scrimmage of a weekend visit to Petersfield Waitrose is either (a) an immediate escape to the quiet of the countryside or (b) a strong gin and tonic. I opted for (a) then (b).

A misty South Downs landscape, taken in the countryside near Petersfield in Hampshire

That gin and tonic is worth talking about, actually. Hampshire Navy Strength gin (£36.99 from General Wine) and Fever Tree Light tonic water, with big boulders of ice and a sprig of rosemary. This is a very good gin, let me tell you. A true silken-gloved thump of a gin, thanks to its hoofing 57% ABV. It’s made just up the road in Winchester, and it’s damn fine stuff. A bit of smoke from the tea they use as one of the botanicals, and the buttery smoothness imparted by the high alcohol content. Grab some if you chance upon it, dear reader. I’ll probably review this beast before long, as I like it rather a lot.

Bottle of Hampshire Navy Strength Gunpowder Gin

Anyhow, back to the lamb ribs. My preferred Irish Stew recipe is simple: lob a few sliced onions, some chunks of carrot, some peeled potatoes, loads of black pepper and a tablespoon or two of pearl barley into a big pot along with the lamb pieces. Cover with water and bring it to the boil, then simmer (gently, gently!) for a good long time… Several hours, please. The potato gradually melts and thickens the cooking liquid, while the onion turns ghostly and diaphanous and the lamb disintegrates. Outstanding.

If you have the self-control, make the stew a day ahead and then reheat when you’re ready to eat it, as (like most stews) its flavours improve that way.

When you can wait no longer, season to taste and add loads of rough-chopped parsley. I had mine with a bottle of the blindingly cheap Chapelle de Pena 2015 from The Wine Society, but the buggers seem to have stopped listing it. Probably because someone bulk-bought the lot. But something cheap and rustic feels, y’know, appropriately peasanty.

Bottle of Chapelle de Pena in front of a pot of Irish Stew

Anyway, I love eating like this because it’s incredibly simple, it generates virtually no washing up, and it’s bloody cheap. A pack of lamb ribs costs well under a fiver, and lamb breast or neck, if you can find it, is similarly thrifty. My single glass of gin & tonic probably cost me more than the whole portion of Irish stew I ate. Now, you may retort that you don’t need to save money by scrimping like a peasant — and that’s fine; good for you, your lordship. But I think there’s something conceptually satisfying about making a sodding delicious dinner for extremely little money — and, if you set aside the challenge of finding the meat in the first place, plus the effort required to clear your path of bumbling geriatrics, similarly minimal effort.

I still want some giblets, mind.

Booze of the Week: Nordesia Red Vermouth

Nordesia Red Vermouth may initially get you a few weird looks at a party. But those looks will quickly turn worshipful when the buggers actually try the stuff, I’ll warrant.

I blame the Asterley Brothers.

Ever since I snagged that bottle of their English Red Vermouth, I’ve been mildly obsessed with seeking out new (to me) vermouths.

The obsession was further fueled by two charming chaps I met at a party who had brought along a bottle of Spanish vermouth. What a splendid drink to bring to a party, eh?

Stop staring at me like that. It’s disconcerting.

So I snouted and snuffled around the vermouthy category at The Whisky Exchange and turfed up this opaque-bottled charmer, Nordesia Red Vermouth (The Whisky Exchange, £22.25). It comes in a litre bottle (cue further party cred) and is made in Galicia from the Mencia grape.

So let’s crack it open.

Wow, blimey, it’s spicy. Cinnamon is the biggie — heaps of it — but ginger and vanilla too. Along with the cinnamon, the other thing that hits you in force is red berry fruit (sour cherries) overlaid with orange oils. Like Asterley Bros Vermouth, it’s built on a foundation of red wine not white, and you can feel it in the tannins. I enjoy the extra depth, the grab. It also has a fair old dose of well-integrated bitterness. I’d read that Spanish Vermouths tend to be lighter and more accessible than French or Italian, but I wouldn’t say Nordesia Tinto bears that out: it’s certainly not what I’d call light. Set aside a glass of Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, this is clearly the more challenging to drink on its own.

That’s not to say it’s challenging in any kind of pejorative sense. It’s a bloody delight.

I’m drinking it neat over ice with a twist of orange peel and that’s how I’d recommend you drink it too, if you please. It’s an entirely different beast from your usual Martini-style vermouths, as you’ve probably gathered by now, and extremely well-suited to drinking in this way. I’ve experimented with Nordesia Vermouth in the context of various cocktails and haven’t yet found one in which it shines. In a Negroni, it’s tough to balance; none of the gins I’ve tried it with has harmonised well. It makes a pleasant enough — if rather spikey — Manhattan, but I’d say other vermouths fit that cocktail considerably better.

But that’s fine by me. The joy of having a bottle of red vermouth open is that you can happily pour yourself a glass on a week night — and keep to just a glass. That’s a feat I find near-impossible with a bottle of wine, so conscious am I of the perils of oxidation. With your red vermouth, you can keep it happily enough in the fridge for a week or two and it holds onto its flavour and freshness pretty well. It makes for a simple and self-contained aperitif, no faffing with shakers or fumbling for multiple bottles, and a mid-week-friendly ABV of 15%.

But you and your mates are going to down the bottle in one sitting anyway, aren’t you? You goddamn sophisticated party animals.