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.

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…

Booze of the week: Asterley Bros Estate English Vermouth

Many things are nicer than a bout of labyrinthitis-induced vertigo. Asterley Bros English Vermouth is one such thing. You possibly shouldn’t drink this until your room spins, but far be it from me to dissuade you… It’s bloody good.

What’s worse than a hangover? I’ll tell you: the symptoms of a hangover (the absolute worst kind), lasting for days, without the benefit of actually having been drunk beforehand.

Reader, welcome to the world of labyrinthitis.

Thanks to questionable goings-on in my manky old inner ear, the world has been spinning in a decidedly unpleasant manner lately. Needless to say, the beast alcohol has taken a back seat during this nausea-wracked time. Along with work, the outside world and anything beyond the most rudimentary forms of motion.

Labyrinthitis isn’t all that fun.

Anyhow, this weekend the good ship Parn seems to have steadied. And I’d like to celebrate that fact, if I may, with a generous glassful of the subject of today’s post: Asterley Bros English Red Vermouth.

I mentioned this vermouth before (in my post about the Negroni Manzanilla, remember?), but only as a footnote. It’s better than a footnote, though. It deserves the spotlight.

There aren’t many English Vermouths knocking about, as far as I can tell. Asterley Bros (they actually are brothers, I believe) leapt with typical Forest Hill panache into the breach. What is it, incidentally, about Forest Hill and alcohol? I’ve only been there once or twice, but you have the Asterley HQ, you have Robert McIntosh (patron saint of UK wine bloggers), you have Forest Hill Gin Club, whose virtues a friend of mine extols… None of these things, mark my words, do you have in Petersfield, Hampshire.

Anyhow. The bros Asterley knocked up a vermouth (alongside, intriguingly, an Amaro and a Fernet, neither of which I’ve yet tried). Unlike lots of red vermouths, the Asterleys’ isn’t made from a base of white wine (the colour of red vermouth normally comes from caramel, not the original wine). Asterley Bros Vermouth, though, is made from a base of red wine (in this case, pinot noir from Gusbourne Estate in Kent). It’s instantly evident, both in terms of the drink’s appearance (darker, tending more towards opacity) and its taste: the grip of the tannin and heft of darker berry fruits is unlike the more herb-led Italian vermouths (Martini Rosso et al).

Which is all frightfully interesting, of course. But you don’t come here for facts, do you?

(Please tell me you don’t come here for facts.)

Let’s taste, then. Starting with Asterley Bros Vermouth unadulterated (well, except for the obligatory twist of orange peel): neat, over ice.

Glass of English Red Vermouth alongside a table lamp

It’s indecently full and sweet in the gob to begin with, but a very nice catch of bitterness steps in fairly quickly, handing over to a bunch of spicy, rooty characters to escort you out. Considerably less sweet than some of its ilk (I’m looking at you, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino) and rather delicious to sip when you want something without the hefty ABV of a whisky (or a Negroni) but with some depth and complexity to it. I know it’s customary in Spain to drink Vermouths neat in this way, and I raise my glass to our Iberian friends in approbation.

And in a Negroni, too, it’s excellent — so long as you’re not after a classic Negroni. Because of its depth and bitter edge, it certainly muscles into the drink. My preference is not to put it up against Campari, but instead pair it with the mellower Sacred Rose Hip Cup (£27.95, The Whisky Exchange), against which I don’t feel it competes to the same degree.

Oh, and it’s sodding blinding in a Manhattan. Really extremely good, anchoring the drink superbly. I put it in a 1:2 ratio with Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey (£27.75, The Whisky Exchange) and a couple of dashes of Angostura Bitters.

Now, sorry in advance. I’m going to talk dirty.

I’m going to talk (urgh) marketing.

I don’t know whether the Bros have a natural grasp of the dark arts or whether they’re superbly well-advised. But they’ve done a couple of pretty intelligent things with their drinks. Firstly, by the look of it, they’ve spent a decent amount of cash on the packaging design and sourcing, and have accomplished the two most important goals: it looks expensive and it looks different (bear in mind this will sit alongside bottles of Martini Rosso, Punt e Mes and the like).

Bottle of Asterley Bros Estate English Red Vermouth

Secondly, they did some rather clever ‘beta testing’ whereby those registering early interest in the company were sent samples of alternative blends before the product was finalised and asked to confirm their preference. An alcoholic A/B test, in other words. What a fabulous, low-cost way to build an engaged base of customers and advocates (and do market research at the same time). Well done, chaps.

I’m not going to write loads more about the Asterley vermouth now — you’re a busy person, I know, and I have another English Vermouth post planned. In any case, I’m too busy drinking.

I have a week of lost labyrinthitis time to make up for…

Asterley Bros Estate Vermouth is available from the Bros own website (£23.95 for 500ml) and is also stocked by The Whisky Exchange, if you want to buy it alongside a host of other booze. It’s 16% ABV, if you’re interested.

Three Choirs Winchcombe Downs 2009 review (Sunday quickie)

… will awaked your tastebuds with a zap like a shot from Commander Keen’s raygun

A tilted glass of pale white wineBy way of this week’s Sunday quickie, I lugged my laptop down to the Summertown Wine Cafe (one of the places I’ll especially miss, when I haul my skinny white ass out of Oxford, next month) — and snaffled me a glass of Three Choirs ‘Winchcombe Downs’.

And I liked it. A good acidic gobful, zesty and fresh as you like. Bish! It’s bracing, fresh, summery. Really awakens ye tastebuds with a zap. Like a shot from Commander Keen’s raygun.

It also gets kudos for being made from a mixture of grapes that includes both Phoenix and Madeleine Angevine. A few points in your grape varietals spotters’ guide for them, surely?

Getting through more than a glass of this without some form of snack/food would be a challenge — because of all that acid. So consider yourself warned.

Rating ★★★ 3 stars (good)
Region Gloucestershire
Grapes Phoenix, Madeleine Angevine & Huxelrebe
ABV 11%
Price £9.45 from Jascots; £10.95 from Summertown Wine Cafe (no online ordering)

English Bacchus Reserve, Chapel Down

… will give you a subtly blossomed English caress — but perhaps leave you dreaming of ecstatic frenzy and phallic symbolism

A bottle of English Bacchus from Marks & Spencer. Stylish black, red and gold label

Trust the Romans, eh?

Those unimaginative Romans, who came along and — without a by-your-leave — pinched the Greeks’ pantheon of gods, slapped a bunch of considerably less poetic names on them, carried out a few changes to make them altogether that bit more shit, and touted them as their own.

The Romans were a bit like Microsoft.

Anyhow. Bacchus was the Romans’ rebranded version of the Greeks’ Dionysus, god of wine — a tantalisingly androgynous kind of chap, holding (according to the oracular Wikipedia) ‘a fennel staff, tipped with a pine-cone and known as a thyrsus’.

For my next profile picture, incidentally, I intend to brandish a thyrsus, sure in the knowledge that I’ll thereby attract a large following of ecstatically raving bacchantes — female devotees who, via dancing and intoxication, ‘lose all self-control, begin shouting excitedly [and] engage in uncontrolled sexual behaviour’.

(Not to imply that I don’t already enjoy such a following, natch.)

Anyhow. Bacchus is also — and I hope this doesn’t come as too much of a crashing shock to you, after all that deity stuff — a grape variety. Grown in England, of all places.

So from Olympian heights, we find ourselves in the wine aisle of Marks & Spencer.

Mundane enough for you?

But let’s stave off thoughts of our own desperate mortality and get some of the stuff down our gullet, shall we? (Reminder: if you actually are in the wine aisle of M&S, you should probably buy the bottle and get it home before you do this.)

So — what’ve we got? First off, bacchus bears more than a passing likeness to sauvignon blanc. It has that springy zing to it. But here, there’s an appley softness, too. A subtly blossomed caress, if you want to get all wanky about it.

Yeah, it’s rounder, more welcoming, less showy-off than your everyday sauvignon blanc. Not quite as ‘June is bustin’ out all over’, y’know? But still with that crispness, that green taste to it — if you’ll forgive me coming over all synesthaesiac on you.

Nice and long and dry, with rather a lovely balance.

Yeah, it’s on the pricey side (which keeps it from earning that oh-so-coveted fourth star) — but perhaps that’s what you have to stump up for a subtly blossomed English caress, these days.

Alternatively, blossomed caresses be damned: just get yourself a thyrsus and bring on the ecstatic frenzy of those bacchantes. Who’s with me?

Rating ★★★ 3 stars (good)
ABV 12.5%
Price £10.99 from Marks & Spencer