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

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.