I think very much that blends are not necessarily blands. Blends can be of high quality and can be full of robust, delicious flavours.
I think very much that blends are not necessarily blands. Blends can be of high quality and can be full of robust, delicious flavours.
There are drinks for all rhymes and reasons, all moods and feelings. One might associate spirits with cigars, leather chairs and musty tomes in the library, and for most part they couldn’t go wrong with that. There’s also the singular experience of gulping down vodka to the scent of stale smoke, sweat and disco lights (and there’s plenty that could go wrong with that).
The third course of enjoying drink in the garden, surrounded by the smells of earth, grass and flowers, is sadly unexplored. What a pity too! There’s nothing like enjoy a long sip of a cold drink and watching the world go by.
It’s that time of the year again.
It’s time to collect presents, meet some old friends and drink ourselves silly.
It feels difficult to have just one favourite bar nowadays; a true first world problem.
With so many quality establishments to choose from, one’s choice of bar usually comes down not just to the drinks, but the quality of the experience and the chemistry one has with the bar’s own personality. Considering all that, I came to a conclusion that I might have a new favourite bar. It might be a newcomer, but it hits so many of the right notes that it’s hard not to love it!
Once in a while, I like to make two drinks at once just so that I can compare them. Inevitably, in the zealous quest to taste the difference, one can’t help but enjoy a languorous afternoon just drinking away. The trick, of course, is to find two drinks that are similar enough, yet unmistakably different so that there’s just enough to think about. Extra credit for having a similar theme to a recent event.
The cocktail wave is riding high in Singapore now and there has been an absolute feast of riches when it comes to quality cocktail bars. During cocktail week this year, I had the opportunity to try out many of them myself and found much to love about all of them. While it’s definitely working in favour of consumers like us, the difficult thing for any upcoming bar is setting themselves apart from their rivals.
The Martini isn’t the oldest cocktail in the world. That honour belongs to the alcoholic punch. It isn’t even a particularly original cocktail. It is actually an evolution of an even older cocktail, the Martinez.
Yet, of all the cocktails in the world, none have the same hold on the imagination as the classic Martini. Even James Bond drank a variant on the martini.
Perhaps it has to do with its utter simplicity. At its core, it has only three ingredients: gin, dry vermouth, and a garnish of either lemon peel or an olive. Simple, but not easy; with only two ingredients, every little change is immediately obvious to even the least discerning drinker. The quantity of ingredients used, the proportion of each, must be precise. Quality of the spirit, too, is paramount. A cheap Martini will taste cheap, but a good spirit will really come into its own.
My own first sip of a Martini was not a pleasant one, and I shied away from it for years. Since then, however, I’ve come to appreciate how the ingredients complement each other. The end product is a refreshing aperitif that feels both simple and sophisticated.
The true history of the Martini has been lost to time, but we do know that it’s been a part of the cocktail world since at least the late 1800s, possibly 1880s, where it appeared on the bar menus of the hottest bars of its day. While other theories link it to the gold rush in the 1840s, or even the advent of the Martini brand Extra Dry vermouth in 1900, the evidence around those ideas is wafer thin at best.
What’s more interesting than the origin of the Martini is its evolution. The vermouth used for Martinis is always dry and white, and bot much has changed in the last 50 years. There really aren’t that many brands; my favourite is Dolin, though Noilly Prat works just as well. The same can’t be said of the spirit.
It seems that these days the question of whether the Martini should be made with Gin or Vodka inevitably comes up. The original spirit is indubitably, and in my opinion, correctly, gin. Unflavoured vodka lacks a strong taste of its own for the most part, gin is always flavoured with juniper berries and other botanical ingredients. These work in tandem with the vermouth to provide a unique taste. Choosing vodka as the base spirit robs the Martini of most of its character (by the way, a “vodka martini” is more correctly termed a “kangaroo”.)
What’s more interesting is that the gin itself has changed. The gin we know and love today wasn’t the gin that went into the first Martinis. Back then, good gin was Dutch genever, and had malt notes in it, consequently giving it some extra weight. At the time, then, the vermouth and “gin” were mixed in a one to one ratio.
Over time, the London dry gin gained popularity, and it this style of gin that most people think of today when you mention the word gin. As its name suggests, it is much dryer and lighter than its predecessor. The gin at this point also ran at a 3 to 1 ratio to the vermouth, a much drier and stiffer drink.
The world never stops changing, and in this modern world, the even drier 5 gin to 1 vermouth is considered the gold standard – and many bartenders stick by this proportion. Things get more extreme, however; some bars even suggest not even bothering with the vermouth. All they do is swirl a little dry vermouth in the glass, dump it all out, and fill it with gin. Some even recommend just whispering the word “vermouth” over gin to make the perfect Martini. Even Winston Churchill himself famously remarked that the best way to add vermouth to a martini was to look in the direction of France while vaguely lifting the bottle over the Martini.
The end product of these efforts to go too far would not really be a Martini. but an extremely cold gin.
To complicate matters, different gins will work differently with the vermouth and the proportions will change yet again. No two gins are the same, because of the different botanicals that go into each of them. Generally, a juniper-heavy gin will lean towards less vermouth, and a floral, herbal gin will lean towards more vermouth. I like Martin Miller’s, Hendricks and Monkey 47, which are well balanced and can work either way.
What’s the definitive proportion of gin to vermouth in the Martini then?
The secret answer is that there isn’t one. The best proportioned Martini is the one that you like best. I myself prefer a classic 3 to 1, which would be considered a wet Martini, though it’s still plenty dry. You will have to experiment a little here; I tasted about 8 variations on this before I could make up my mind. If you desire something truly balanced, I’d start with the classic ratio first.
Put it all together:
The Classic Martini
15ml Dry French Vermouth
A thinly sliced lemon zest
Measure the proportions of gin and vermouth precisely and stir with ice in a mixing glass till cold. Strain and serve with the garnish of lemon zest.
Yes, Martinis should be stirred, not shaken, unlike what a certain superspy would have you believe. A stirred martini is crystal clear and tastes smoother and lighter, even if it is not as icy cold as the shaken one!
It’s amazing how much debate can occur over a cocktail that has, at its heart, only two ingredients! There are enough variations to suit every one. If you’re bored with the classic martini, why not try a variant? The Reverse Martini is 5 Vermouth to 1 Gin. The Gin and It is a Martini made with Sweet Italian Vermouth. Change the gin. Serve it with an orange peel. There’s so much fun to be had in tweaking the Martini to be just right for you. That’s the beauty of this seemingly simple drink.
It’s your drink.
So, it’s been a mighty long while, but my expeariment from a few weeks back finally bore fruit.
I had decided at the point to use the Bosc and Abate pears in separate infusions. I selected them for both taste and fragrance, and merrily went about the normal infusion of adding the sliced fruit into spirit. At that point, I wasn’t quite sure which of them would turn out to be the winner. Fortunately, I had the answer quite shortly after.
That is to say, both turned out below the mark when put to the traditional infusion method.
The Abate pears were added directly to vodka and left to infuse. Turns out that the very light and delicate flavours did not infuse well at all. At the end of three weeks what I got was mildly pearish vodka, and even that was giving it more credit than it deserved.
The Bosc pears were added into champagne cognac in the hopes of a more robust flavour marrying well with the more robust flavours of the brandy. Turns out that it fared only a hair better than the vaguely pearish vodka. There was more flavour, but it was still hopelessly lost in the cognac.
All in all, a set of dismal failures.
Faced with the awful prospect of literally having all that hard work going down the drain, I did what any sane person would have done.
I fought back.
I went out and bought another set of exactly the same ingredients. Another basket load of pears. This time however, I didn’t stop at merely slicing them up. After all, why repeat the same experiment and get the same results? I instead employed that battle tested method of extracting flavour that we’re all familiar with today.
I, in fact, cooked the pears this time. More specifically, I boiled the pears in a tiny amount of water. In colloquial terms, it would qualify as the wading pool school of stewing. Very very slow cooking over a low fire to avoid destroying all the flavour compounds. I added the results to the still infusing liqueurs.
Two weeks later, I was still not satisfied. The pear tastes were definitely there now, albeit with a rounded, stewed flavour to them. Yet, they had not captured my imagination. Then it struck me. Why not blend some other fruits in and see what happened?
Some research ensued. Research to answer the question: What on earth goes well with stewed pears?
Of course, the title is dark and full of spoilers, so you already know what I did.
I chose Medjoul dates to go with the Abate. Honeyed, slightly smoky tastes to complement the mild stewed pears.
I was really pleased with the result. A mellow concoction with spicy notes. Sweet, but with more rounded smoky, but not peaty notes.
The cognac, I decided, required a different touch. I chose a bolder flavour to contrast with the all too mild pear tastes. Apricots are mild, but have a tartness that plays quite well with the Bosc pears’ spicy, earthy, yet sweet flavours.
This one was a bit strange. The pairing did not work exactly as I expected, and the tartness was much stronger than I had thought. On the other hand, once I got past the initial sour flavours, there was a definite layering of stewed pear that dovetailed with it. It took some getting used to, but I actually found this much more interesting. An acquired taste, perhaps, but one I’m glad to spend time acquiring.
Overall, I would say I’m quite happy with the expeariment. Things didn’t go exactly as planned, but it ended up just fine. That’s the whole fun of trying something different!
Yes, you read the title correctly.
It’s tough to nail down the right ingredients for an infusion. You’ll see “orange” and “apple” very often, but that’s not very helpful. There are over 7,500 varieties of apples- and all of them taste different. Then put that with the different types of bourbon- which also taste different, and you’ve got too many combinations to list (and a raging headache).
Of course, the looking and experimentation is what makes it all fun in the first place. Wouldn’t life be so boring if everything was utterly predictable?
So, for the next experiment, why not go to…pears? I particularly love the mellow sweetness, with soft, grainy texture of the white (one thinks) flesh. They would probably make a very light, refreshing infusion; not quite as upfront as a citrus but with a soft and subtle fragrance.
And it so happens that pears are in season right now…with plenty of varieties to choose from, as you can see above. They don’t even look the same!
With such a challenge, there’s only one thing to do: have a tasting and selection for the next project.
I like to call it…the expeariment.
Blush pear– starting from the top left, a small green pear with a characteristic red shade as its name suggests. There’s really not much information about this that I could find, so my guess is that it’s a new variety or hybrid. It’s very crisp and sweet, but I found it cloyingly so. Not much of a pear taste here, and I won’t be using it for any infusion.
Bosc – a golden brown, thick-skinned pear that originates from France. It’s also known as the European or Kaiser(!) pear, but it’s oddly popular in the US. Despite its somewhat rugged and homely appearance, the taste was unbelievable. The cream coloured flesh had a bold honeyed flavour with just a hint of spice in it. Very tasty just to eat out of hand; I’m pretty sure that it will go equally well in an infusion
Red Anjou – distinctive red skin. Very large and juicy, with mild pear notes and moderate sweetness. I found it very pleasant to munch on, but compared to the Bosc, it was lacking in flavour- which is pretty much a fail in an infusion. Looks really pretty, though.
Abaté Fétel – a banana-shaped Italian pear with russet brown-over-green skin. Named after the abbot who first cultivated it in the 1400s, it has presumably been popular ever since, and I can see why. I picked ripe ones with soft, pale white flesh. Very rich honeyed notes and a pronounced pear flavour that I think can lend such a great flavour to an infusion. Somewhat less sweet than the Bosc, which might actually make it more interesting.
Even after some pretty intense testing (I must have eaten about 8 pears in a sitting), I still couldn’t decide on which pear to use…so I figured, why not do more than one? I elected to use the most interesting, the Bosc and Abaté, in two different infusions which you will hear about in a month or so.
While I’m quite sick of eating pears right now, I’m sure that I’ll be pretty happy to just lap up the new brews. Stay tuned.
As the name of this blog suggests, I do indeed love my spirits. Not just whisky either, but pretty much all distilled liquor. And that includes Gin.
Gin is in a class of its own, but what makes it unique is not the type of spirit used, but the process of making it.
The main flavour of the gin does not come from the base ingredient used to create in, which is typically grain such as rye, barley, wheat or sometimes, to break the mold, even grape. Instead, the main taste comes from juniper berries, which are added during the distillation process to give gin its unique flavour.
In fact, gin takes its name from the word genévrier , which is French for juniper.
If that were all there was to it, gin could pretty accurately described as juniper vodka. So, another layer of complexity is added through a mix of botanicals, which is a fancy way of saying that more plant flavours are infused into the not-quite-gin. What these plants are differ from distiller to distiller, and they’re certainly not giving their secrets away. We do know that it could be anything from three to thirty ingredients, and include orange peel, cassia bark, coriander and a host of others.
Which brings us to our story today.
I love the smell of lavender. Calming but not nap-inducing like camomile. Sweet and fresh bit not cloying. Not earthy, not heavy. Just right for a nice, cool day. I already have a habit of adding just a pinch to my Earl Grey, so it seems logical that lavender, which is undeniably a botanical, should go very well indeed with gin.
First, a word on lavender. While abundant in Europe (so abundant as to be considered a weed in some places the horror!), it is much less available here in Singapore. I hunted everywhere for a fresh sprig, but alas, it was not to be. The next best alternative, dried lavender, was still an elusive herb. I had interesting responses from people I asked ranging from the forgivable (“We’ve got lavender tea?”) to the not so helpful (“How about lavender soap?”), to the downright bizarre (“You mean you want to get to Lavender mrt?”).
I finally solved my problem at a baking shop- which had beautiful sealed and dried lavender buds. Not as good as the fresh ones, but not too bad!
700ml London Dry Gin (I used Bombay Sapphire)
2 Tablespoons lavender buds
Mix the 2 tablespoons of lavender buds with the gin in a container. Let infuse for 3 days, then filter and bottle the gin. Take care not to infuse it for too long, or the scent and taste of lavender will overpower everything else.
The final product was a light gold liquid that gave off delightful scents of lavender- almost like smelling the buds directly. The infused lavender gave the gin a mellow, sweet and slightly herbal taste. The experience of drinking the gin straight was almost intoxicating. Waves of relaxation emanated from the calming aroma and earthy, sweet taste, putting me in a rather contemplative mood.
A byproduct of the contemplative mood was the musing on how to evolve the lavender gin. A bit (well ok, quite a bit) of experimentation later, I came up with something that was a bit of an oxymoron. Refreshing- but mellow!
Lavender Gin and Honey Lemon Tonic
3/4 Oz. lavender gin
1/2 Oz. fresh lemon juice
1/4 Oz. natural honey
3/4 Oz. tonic water
Fill a mixing glass with ice, and add the ingredients, including the tonic water. Stir well, then strain into a glass. Garnish with Lavender buds and serve.
The citrus taste of lemon complemented the earthy taste of lavender, creating a balanced tart yet smoky flavour. The honey and tonic water added bittersweet elements that created a fine balanced drink. The sharp lemon and the effervescence of the tonic water created a refreshing mouthfeel that was just heavenly (on top of being intoxicating). Seems like you can create an oxymoronic drink and still enjoy it after all!
In fact, I liked this liquid ambrosia so much that I’m close to finishing my entire batch of lavender gin just making it and pairing it with biscuits.
The beautiful thing, of course, is that I get to make even more.
I’ve tried plenty of other spirits for use in infusions.
Vodka, Gin, Rum, Bourbon.
How about Brandy? I haven’t done that yet.
It’s actually pretty common to make fruit-based spirits, and these are referred to as brandies. Grape brandies (which are technically Cognacs), apricot brandies and cherry brandies are pretty common.
Why don’t I simple make my own versions of those then?
Trouble is, we can’t distill spirits in Singapore without a license. That aside, distilling is a fine art by itself. You could go blind if you don’t do it properly and drink the toxic parts of a distillate. It’s a tough and risky process.
And then there’s the fine qualities of the spirit itself. Well aged grape brandy is a mild, smooth spirit that goes well with pretty much everything. Brandy infusions, if done correctly, retain a little of the heat and fire of a Cognac, but are still smooth and full of flavour. In fact, one of my favourite digestifs, Grand Marnier, is basically a brandy infused with the flavour and fragrance of orange peels.
So then, what to infuse? I’ve already tried citrus, apples, and even meat. What’s next?
How about plums?
A well aged cognac is said to have notes of prune or plum that slowly develops over the course of years. Those notes are often accompanied by the scent of vanilla, perhaps from the oak used in the aging process. Both ingredients should accentuate the corresponding flavours in the cognac and go wonderfully in the infusion, then.
I used dark Friar plums from Australia, choosing almost overripe plums which are full of juice and close to bursting with flavour; this is the opposite approach to the traditional Asian plum wine such as Umeshu, which use green, unripe plums. As an infusion, I wanted to make sure there was enough flavour to balance with the fiery, smoky VSOP cognac.
1 Bottle VSOP Cognac
12 plums, pitted and halved
1 Vanilla Bean
1 Cinnamon Stick
In a mason jar, pour in the entire bottle of Cognac, 10 plums, vanilla bean and cinnamon stick. Leave to infuse for 3 weeks. After 3 weeks, extract the juice of 2 fresh plums.Make a syrup by dissolving 200g of sugar into a 400g mix of water and plum juice. Pour the skins and pulp into the mixture and stir for 5 minutes. Cool the syrup and pour it into the infusion, then leave the whole mixture to sit for another 3 weeks. After 3 more weeks, filter the entire infusion’s contents and bottle the liquid.
So how did it turn out? As you can see, the deep purple skin of the plums melded with the amber cognac to give a dark garnet spirit. At first whiff, I could immediately pick up the vanilla and plum smells, which turned out to be heavenly.
Best of all was the taste. The tartness of the plums and the smoke and grape flavours of the cognac melded together to form something pleasantly sweet. balanced and perhaps even a little delicate. A little sour mixed with a little sweet, but neither being too strong and overpowering the other. There was no trace of the alcohol burn at all; the final product was as smooth as silk.
Verdict: Definitely one of the milder infusions that I’ve ever done, but definitely one of the more drinkable. Love it.
This post is a little overdue. After all, I did my shopping more than a month ago.
Still I’d like to think that the wait was worth it.
The final product was savoury-sweet with a hint of smokiness, citrus and spice that I got from mixing my orange-cinnamon syrup. Unsurprisingly. it goes quite well with actual Bak Kwa.
You might wonder how on earth you get the taste of Bak Kwa into a cocktail. I created a slide show just to show you how I did all that. You can check it out here.
I tried serving it to friends and family during Chinese New Year and opinions were polarised, to say the least. Some loved it, and some hated it. Some of those opinions were strong enough to start a passionate debate on the craziness of turning barbecued pork into a liqueur (though I did notice the bottle was fairly well drained at the end of the night. Whatever it was, there was plenty of conversation around it.
And isn’t that what drinking is about?