Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A Mulled Manhattan with some vVntage John O'Hara

A good few years back I really fell in love with the writing of both John O'Hara and John Cheever. Drinking too much is a theme in both (though it's arguably a more sinister element in Cheever's writing, and possibly his life, than in O'Hara's). I've been hunting for my copy of Cheever's short stories for a couple of days without much success - to the point that I'm no longer sure I ever even owned it (did it stay on a wish list? I don't think so, but who knows).

What is clear is that my books need thoroughly sorting out again, odd things are popping up all over the place, order is needed. Also more bookshelves and a bigger flat so this project might not get very far. What I did find is a collection of John O'Hara stories, and a reminder that I never bought his collected New York Stories when Vintage published them last year. There are always more books to buy.

There's something about the lengthening nights that suits O'Hara's slightly seedy world; maybe it's the imminent return of the students to the city centre and the impending nuisance that is freshers Week for those of us who live near them. Combine that with the now cool night time temperatures and the idea of a Mulled Manhattan is very attractive.

This is a drink that should see you all through winter, the recipe in 'A Spirited Guide to Vermouth' specifies Punt e Mes which is at the more bitter edge of the (rosso) Vermouth spectrum, but I see no reason to stick to that. The basic recipe is 50ml of vermouth, 25ml of bourbon, 10ml water, and a dash of Angostura bitters per person. Put everything into a pan with a strip of orange peel and heat to just below a simmer. Serve immediately with another twist of orange (in a mug or something with a handle).

As an alternative to Mulled wine this is giving you a whole lot more spice, and much less sweetness, both of which are welcome if, like me, you find Mulled wine can be far to sugary. It's very easy to scale up, and depending on what bitters you have available there's some room for playing around with this too.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Paris À Table 1846 with a Pompier

My copy of 'Paris À Table' has lead a somewhat shameful existence. It follows me around my flat, always the next book but one that I intend to read. Occasionally I open it at a random page, get sucked in for a bit, wonder why I haven't got further with it and then reluctantly remember a more pressing commitment. It's a shitty way to treat a vivid and delightful view of the gastronomy of 19th century Paris.

Worse, it was a review copy from Oxford University Press, so there's that nagging feeling of not having written a thank you letter after Christmas. It really has to be the next book but one that I read.

The recipe for a Pompier (named for a French fireman) that I found in 'A Spirited Guide to Vermouth' feels like an excellent choice to go with it. If I was living my best life my early evenings would definitely have a book with a drink hour. What my early evening actually had today was a fight to format a stock manifest sheet onto one page so that I could transfer some whisky without vital paperwork getting lost. And so it goes.

The Pompier is 45ml dry vermouth with 30 ml crème de cassis stirred well over ice, strained into a highball glass, given more ice, and topped up with soda water. It's a cheerful ruby red colour with the cassis giving the dry vermouth a real black current boost, and the vermouth taking the sweeter edge off the cassis.

As cassis is another liqueur that wants to be used up quite quickly once it's open this is a really sensible drink to have in your repertoire. And in your daydreams whilst you deal with stock manifests.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Wintering with Vermouth and Ginger

My week off is over, I didn't get all the things I meant to do done, and today it rained, it's cold, it's dark and since getting home I've spent 2 hours struggling over trying not to sound like a prat in a C.V.    It's also very clear that people are starting to wind down at work and no longer care very much. Sickness had gone through the roof - or at least that's apparently why there was nobody to look after my wines, and why they were in such a bloody mess this morning.

I probably shouldn't let it bother me as much as it does, but with this job coming to an end I'm aware of how much I love the product, and how much I dislike it not being treated with respect (I may feel that by extension that's a lack of respect for me too). Despite the Monday blues there are things to be positive about, and one of them is Stephen Rutt's 2nd Book of the year.

'The Seafarers' is easily one of my favourite books of the year so I'm really looking forward to 'Wintering', which looks specifically at geese. There's an extra bonus in that for me, because I do actually get to see geese on a daily basis on the river outside my flat, they're also one of the few birds I hear fly overhead (city centre flat living means I get geese, peregrine falcons, crows, a really loud blackbird, and the occasional amorous pigeon - nothing else). The book is out on the 26th, but I'm lucky and have a review copy so am already reading it.

One of the most fun things about my job has always been customer tastings, especially the sort where you have a more or less free hand to play around with products - especially mixers. It's not really cost effective to buy half a dozen or more mixers to take home to mess about with, but it makes perfect sense at work. The surprise hit is almost always ginger ale, and so it was when we tried the Cinzano rosso 1757 with ginger.

It's the perfect autumn/winter long drink. The warmth of the ginger balances the relative sweetness of the combination, and works well with the richness of the vermouth. It's a comforting drink that's also comfortably low in alcohol. I like that it's colour is something like an autumn leaf too.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Gin & It and early Molly Keane

I've been making Damson jelly today, which got slightly fraught. It boiled over once, and then despite repeated wrinkle tests didn't seem to be reaching a setting point, which was around the time that I started mixing Gin & Its (because multitasking). Eventually I potted the jelly anyway, judging by the way it's sticking to everything it touched it did reach setting point, even if it didn't want to wrinkle on the cold saucer provided for it.

I was grateful for the cocktail by then. The Gin and It is one of the great neglected classic cocktails, the It being short for Italian Vermouth. It's half and half gin and vermouth, an orange garnish or a drop of bitters being optional, stirred over ice and strained into a glass. Simple and delicious.

If you want a stronger, dryer, version use less vermouth (the Savoy Cocktail Book has a recipe for an Artillery cocktail which is 1/3rd vermouth 2/3rds gin which is great, I also like it about a 1/4 vermouth 3/4's gin - which probably also has its own name, I think of them all as Gin & It).

Today because I was using the slightly more bitter Dopo Teatro Vermouth I used the slightly sweeter than I'd normally go for Tanqueray Sevilla gin. This was last summers big success which I bought, quite liked, and then couldn't really work out what to do with, which is my perennial problem with flavoured gin.

For a gin and tonic I prefer a gin that's really heavy on the juniper, and dry. The slightly sweeter flavoured styles aren't sweet enough to treat like liqueurs and so tend to sit neglected at the back of the shelf but this is a combination that really worked. The orange character worked nicely with the vermouth, and overall the sweetness was just right. Orange flavoured gins go back a long way so it doesn't feel like I'm taking a liberty with the Gin & It either.

I can't remember where I first saw a Gin and It mentioned, it might have been in an Angela Thirkell book, but it could also have been in a Molly Keane. Her impoverished Anglo Irish aristocracy might have had definite views about flavoured gins, but this mix also has something of the stirrup cup about it so it feels like a good match for her earlier books where hunting is more likely to be discussed and there are pre war standards to be maintained.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Age of Scandal with Cocchi Dopo Teatro

Today has been one of those perfect September days caught somewhere between summer and autumn where the light has a particularly clear quality, the sky is especially blue, and the sun shines benignly. It persuaded us to go to Stowe landscape gardens where we saw a lot of eighteenth century follies.

We've been meaning to look at Stowe for a while now, and as it's only about an hour away I'm not sure why it took so long - it's well worth going to see, and perfect if you have a dog judging by the number we met. It was also once the home of T. H. White, who was a master there (Mistress Masham's Repose' uses Stowe and its gardens as a background, it's the only one of his books I've actually finished). Surprisingly the gift shop didn't sell any of his books.

The trip reminded me that I've got a battered copy of T. H. White's 'The Age of Scandal'. Written in 1950 it's a set of essays about Georgian scandals, which has never made it to the top of the book pile, but which I always think will be fun to read, albeit as a curiosity. It also looks like just the book to match with Cocchi's Dopo Teatro, a Vermouth I bought days before the redundancy news came, and which I've been a bit unwilling to open ever since (I'm fighting a tendency to hoard at the moment, I do not need to save Vermouth for a rainy day. If things get bad I'll be much better off with a cup of tea),

Anyway, I have opened the Dopo Teatro, named after the tradition in Turin to drink it chilled and garnished with lemon zest after a visit to the theatre - or so it says on the back of the bottle. It sounds like a delightful practice, it is an excellent vermouth. Velvety spice with an extra edge of bitterness from a double rose of quinine, but still with enough sweetness to balance it. The recipe is apparently a 19th century one.

Because bitter isn't entirely my thing I garnished my glass with a wheel of blood orange - it is my new favourite drink. There's enough bitterness in it to be the perfect companion to White's slightly waspish look at the eighteenth century, the sweet orange feels like a nod that way too. I always think of vermouth as having a distinctly antique flavour (in a very good way), and this one is no exception, the extra bitterness also recalls a negroni (if you like them this would be an amazing vermouth to use)  but again, one that's palatable to those like me who find Campari to bitter to really enjoy.

It's also the perfect compliment to the season, cold enough to enjoy on a warm September afternoon, but all that velvety spice feels just right for the changing season, and to take me through the winter. This is probably the one vermouth I'd encourage anybody to track down and try. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

Surfacing with The Adonis

It's the weekend, it's been a beautiful evening, and the sky is clear to enjoy the full moon. I've been dipping in and out of Kathleen Jamie's new collection 'Surfacing', and for the last little while have been amusing myself trying to find the perfect cocktail to go with it.

For me I think the perfect drink for this book might be a dry as a bone Manzanilla Sherry with its slight suggestion of salinity, or a peaty single malt with all the memories of time and place that they evoke in me. But I have vermouth to drink, and I don't have to get up early, so I've been looking at Sherry and vermouth cocktails.

The Adonis is a classic from the Savoy Cocktail Book which mixes 2 parts dry Sherry (Fino or Manzanilla) with red Vermouth, a dash of Angostura bitters and a strip of lemon peel stirred over ice and then strained into a coupe glass to drink.

It's a cocktail that mixes things that I like a lot on their own, but for some reason very dry Sherry doesn't work for me mixed with other things. I don't much care for The Adonis (I've tried making summer cups with Fino too, with equally little success) at the moment, though possibly with practice I could come to like it better.

Fortunately there's another option in the form of The Other Adonis (thanks to Jack Adair Bevan's A Spirited Guide to Vermouth again for this one) which uses Amontillado (still a dry Sherry, but nuttier and richer) and Lustau Blanco Spanish Vermouth, and orange bitters instead of Angostura.

I don't have any Lustau Blanco, so I've been improvising, but somewhere between these two recipes is a drink I do like. Amontillado or Oloroso, at least in my opinion, mix much better with other things (they both make an excellent base for a summer cup too). All versions are relatively low in alcohol (this is comparative, but at least I'm not concerned tomorrow will be a write off) and a reminder of the versatility of Sherry as well as vermouth.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

P. G. Wodehouse and the Perfect cocktail

There is a tow of P. G. Wodehouse books on a shelf that's eye level with my bed - they have little Martini glasses on the spines, a constant reminder that cocktails are something of a theme for Wodehouse (as are hangover cures). There is probably no writer better suited to being enjoyed with a cocktail and some form of Martini is as good a choice as any.

There are a lot of versions of the Martini, it's a drink that seems particularly susceptible to fashion. When the Savoy Cocktail Book was written - which is about the right time for vintage Wodehouse vermouth proportions were much higher.

The Perfect cocktail is a sort of Martini, and is worth making for a couple of reasons. It calls for equal parts of gin, French vermouth, and Italian (rosso) stirred well over ice and then strained into a glass.

The first good reason to make this is that there's a pernicious idea about how dry a Martini should be. I have no problem with people enjoying a good gin, or vodka, neat, but I don't consider that to be a Martini. Starting with a lot of vermouth is a good opportunity to dial back the machismo and find what the right ratio for you might actually be.

The second reason for making the 'Perfect' is that it's good practice for mixing more than one type of vermouth, which doesn't necessarily feel like an intuitive thing to do. Having taken care to buy good Vermouth the natural thing for me to do is to want it to speak for itself in a drink. Mixing two together feels like a lot of personality in one glass to me - I have to persuade myself to do it.

Having started with the Perfect, I know now that I like a Martini to have a good bit of vermouth in it - something between 1/3rd to a 1/4 of the drink. I also know that I'm still more comfortable using only one vermouth at a time but that I also appreciate the balance of flavours that using two gives. I'm also sure that both Bertie Wooster and Psmith would approve of the quest to get it right.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Madensky Square with Vermouth and Soda

I suppose if I was being strictly accurate the match here is blogging with a vermouth and mineral water - I'm drinking Belsazar's summer edition reisling based vermouth (quite sweet, tastes unexpectedly of pineapples, and was worth the trouble of tracking down online) with lots of San Pellegrino in it, and a sprig of Rosemary.

I have this week off and one of the jobs I'd set myself was to try and bring some sort of order to The Books. Something which is both a chore and a delight. A chore because there really isn't space for all The Books so it's mostly a case of shuffling things around from one heap to another, a delight because I always find loads of things I'd forgotten I had.

Today that was a couple of Eva Ibbotson books I bought a couple of summers ago because they seemed just the thing for lazy, hot day, reading. Despite plenty of hot days I never got round to them, but 'Madensky Square' is now much nearer the top of the pile. 

Using soda or mineral water as a mixer in alcoholic drinks is something I came to relatively late - but it's a very good idea. Gin Ricky's were the gateway, followed by a revisitation of whisky and soda, and now with vermouth. 

The drink I currently have in hand has got just enough vermouth in it to add flavour and a little bit of body - it alcohol content can only be a few percent. That flavour is complex enough to be thoroughly grown up, but it's also distinctly summery and frivolous. It's certainly not boozy enough to distract from reading or to make you think dinner can't come soon enough to soak up the alcohol. 

Tonic water is a great way to go too, but it has a lot of sugar in it, I like the lighter feel of soda water, and the way that it lets the flavour of the Belsazar come through. If I was using tonic in the same ratio it would swamp the vermouth. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Gin and Murder, A Rob Roy, and thoughts in cocktail parties

There are a couple of reasons why I'm pairing a whisky based cocktail with 'Gin and Murder', the first being that gin feels in bad taste being the drink of choice of a central character who is an alcoholic. The second is that I consider the Rob Roy and its cousin (the Manhatten) a brilliant cocktail party option, and this book more or less opens with a cocktail party.

Originally published in 1959, 'Gin and Murder' is well worth seeking out. Josephine Puillein Thompson is better known for children's books, but this one is very definitely for adults. It gives a brilliant description of the 1950's county/horsey set, as well as the damage that alcoholism does in a portrayal that's both brutal and sympathetic. It's more usual to see excessive drinking glamourised, so this portrayal is important in a bit of lightish crime fiction. It's also an intriguing mystery - so wins on all counts.

The Rob Roy is half and half scotch whisky, Italian (red) Vermouth, and a dash of Angostura bitters shaken over ice and strained into a cocktail glass. Get a good vermouth (cocchi or cinzano 1757 rosso are my current favourites) and a decent blended whisky. I like Grouse for this, but keep meaning to try it with something a bit smokier like Johnnie Walker Black Label. Whatever you choose, with so few ingredients they need to be good.

Which brings me, possibly not for the first time, to some observations about hosting a cocktail party. I have known houses with purpose built bars in them (my grandfather had one complete with a sink and fridge - it really was a bar. We thought it was tacky, and it was, but I kind of see the point of it now that both he and it are long gone) but it's not common. You could make what you liked, as you wanted it, and had somewhere to clean equipment as you went along whilst still being part of the party.

Without that luxury one option is to make batches of cocktails beforehand and keep them in the freezer - perfectly sensible and a lot of the classics (like a Rob Roy, or any sort of Martini for example) are perfect for this. There's some specific suggestions in 'A Spirited History of Vermouth' along with some bar tenders tips as well.

Whenever you make the drinks though, the key is to limit the choice - otherwise all your measures, shakers, stirrers etc need washing between each drink which is a massive nuisance. Another advantage of limiting the options is that you're less likely to end up with a lot of sticky, bottles half filled with things likely to deteriorate horribly before you get round to using them again, and it's easier to control the costs.

I've seen a lot of people blow hundreds of pounds chucking a whole bars worth of spirits in a shopping trolley over the years, and whilst I'm not complaining about the spend I really do think less is more. Pick something to build your drinks around - in this case a good Rosso Vermouth, choose no more than a couple of options, make them well, and minimise the work you create for yourself.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Casino Royale with a Vesper

When it comes to Bond I prefer the films to the books. I'm not sure if the films are still the events they used to be, but I have early memories of being taken to the cinema to see Roger Moore era Bond (he's still my favourite) and how much we loved the special effects.

The only one of the books I managed to get all the way through was Casino Royale, but I do find Fleming's descriptions of food and drinks interesting, and the Vesper (which fortunately for me is in Casino Royale) still gets people to buy Lillet Blanc. Unfortunately it's Kinna Lillet that Bond specifies, which is no longer made, Lillet Blanc isn't as bitter so isn't the ideal substitute.

Hands up, I did not know this before I read 'A Spirited Guide to Vermouth', but at least I do now know that Cocchi Americano (the white one that I need to order online, not the pink one that I can buy in Waitrose*) is considered a reasonably accurate substitute.

There are a few other things that have changed since Fleming wrote Casino Royale - he specifies Gordon's Gin which has dropped its abv. Because the Vesper is shaken, not stirred, you get more dilution, so the change in abv matters a bit. If you can get Gordon's export strength great, if you can't a lot of people recommend Tanqueray, or you could look for a stronger vodka. Bond tells the barman that a grain vodka is better than the potato vodka he's used, so Smirnoff Blue Label would be perfect.

Vodka is another tricky beast, roughly speaking grain vodka will be crisper, potato based vodkas are creamier in the mouth. Fruit based vodkas (Chase do one made from apples, Ciroc is made with grapes as examples) retain a subtle but distinctive hint of their origins. The differences are more noticibly when you taste the products side by side. Personally as long as the abv is at least 40% I'm more or less happy with any mid range brand for cocktail making.

So - a Vesper is a mix of gin, vodka, and Cocchi Americano shaken over ice, and garnished with a strip of lemon. Bond specified 3 parts gin, 1 part vodka, 1/2 a part Kinna Lillet. The Wikipedia entry on the Vesper is worth a read.

*The recipes I've looked up, including Bevan's version in A Spirited Guide assume you know that Cocchi do more than one Americano, and that you will need the one that doesn't have nationwide distribution. I'm not convinced that this is obvious, but I'm pleased to know there is a good substitute for Kinna Lillet out there when I want it.