Another gin, you say? Yes, people don't seem to get enough of it. Which recently lead to the quaint discovery that our blood vaguely tastes of juniper. A fact which largely broadened our Transylvanian fanbase by the way. Read below why you should try Steam Gin.
Steam Gin is the product of a unique cooperation between the Van Damme Distillery, Small Distillery Lede and VDS Distillery. And there is at least one reason why we got interested in this gin, namely, it’s distilled by Van Damme Distillery…
Van Damme is better known for its fantastic genever products, especially Balegemsche Graanjenever 54° – aka: Ol’ Blue One. Further more Van Damme distillery is the only farm distillery left in Belgium. We used to have hundreds, but one law and two world wars later, there’s only one left. What’s so special about a farm distillery you wonder? Well, a farm distillery produces its spirits entirely by itself. So everything, except for the bottle, is made on the farm, beginning with the grain. They have one expression which sounds great in Flemish and much less so in English nevertheless I will enrich you with it: “Van de grond tot in de mond!”, translated this becomes: “From the soil to the mouth!”
So, apart from growing, malting and distilling their own grain they also have on or two other special features. They use open fermentation and next to this barrel stands a huge f***ing steam engine that heats their column! It dates from 1862 and was recently completely disassembled, cleaned, lubricated and put together again. It’s quite an impressive sight and it rolls like a dream! It’s also – like you might have guessed – the origin of the name for this gin.
We especially like the bottle design, which is custom created in Italy and took longer than Caesar to arrive in Belgium apparently. The scorched cork and pewter seal are nice details. We couldn’t fathom, though, the need, reason and meaning of the motto: “we saw taste”. It’s only later, when you turn the bottle around, and read the poem on the back of the label that you see the origin – yet still not the reason – for it. In light of good taste we suggest to dispose of the motto, as well as the poem.
The taste is rather good and well balanced, a nice mixture between flower and spice with distinct juniper and cardamom notes. It works very well in G&T with a grapefruit twist, less suitable for Dry Martinis, but surprisingly superb in Negronis and very nice neat over ice. So get steaming!
And you know what they say, an apple a day... Olivier Jacobs from Jigger's (Ghent) wanted to make a spirit that is honest and responsibly made. A product which he followed from apple to bottle. Distilled by Biercée this results in an eau de vie that is an absolute jewel and there's only 2000 bottles...
Olivier really loves apples and right he is, I mean apples are a big deal. Catholics have built their entire faith around it, Newton discovered gravity, the Greeks went to war for more than ten years because of one apple, we have named cities after it and stuff that takes pictures of you! Apples are good!
After all it is not so surprising that at one moment some people are going to stand up and say: “everybody’s making gin, well to hell with that, I’m going to make an apple eau de vie!”. So one year ago some 40 people started to pluck apples from an orchard in Namur and they did an incredible job, because after some calculation Olivier deduced that they must have used around 40.000 apples to make 1000 litres of apple eau de vie! When he said that, I tried to picture that mount of apples and 40 very tiered people.
The apples are from different varieties, but mostly Belle Fleurs, whence the name. They thought of calling it iApple or Eye Apple, but quickly abandoned the – rather cheesy – idea. So Belle Fleur it is and it’s lovely! We’ve always loved apple schnapps, it reminds of winter, snow and après ski get togethers. And God know’s I have left a rib on every piste in Austria that I visited. Speaking of ribs, Eve in the Garden Of Eden shouldn’t have bit the apple, she should have distilled it and probably ended up with Belle Fleur.
It is neat as well as in cocktails and we tasted two examples of it: a wonderful sour with liquorice syrup and a brilliant thirst quenching long drink with ginger and cider.
So, if you like apples – and who doesn’t- you should definitely try to lay your hands on one of those bottles. Cheers!
Every year Maison Ferrand launches a cocktail book in a different city, this book represents the (cocktail) culture and bartender scene of the country the city is located in. It started 5 years ago in Paris, followed by Berlin, London, Singapore, NYC and now Antwerp, Belgium. The good people of Maison Ferrand immediately spotted how surreal our country is and decided without a single drop of hesitation to adopt the famous painter Rene Magritte as inspiration and leading theme.
'Ceci est un cocktail book." was born. Location: Ben Belman's beautiful bar 'Bijou'.
After introductions Alexandre Gabriel, owner and master blender of Maison Ferrand took the stage. Well, stage is a big word, we cramped him in a corner where at least 75% of the attendees could see him. I mean this bar was filled to the brim with Belgian bartenders… and some press. A few exceptions give or take, I believe that everybody ever mentioned on this blog was there. The place was vibrant with enthusiasm. Just like Mr. Gabriel, this man was on fire. Not literally of course, but he was the proverbial waterfall of passionate fact- and storytelling, all of it interlaced with brilliant quotes. He started off immediately with: ” A good spirit is like a great book. Not a good book. ‘Good’ is not good enough, it has to be memorable!” Meaning that you need not necessary like the spirit, but it has to leave an impression on you. By that he wasn’t referring to splitting headaches, a hole in your tongue or diabetes, but more something like, you know, worth remembering.
When asked to describe Maison Ferrand, he replied: “We’re one of the oldest cognac houses in the world. The family goes as far back as 1610.” Quickly followed by “We’re also a bunch of misfits who like doing things differently!” How exactly? “By don’t sticking to the guns, as a Master Blender I always wanted to revisit the spirits, approach them from a different angle and that’s what we’re trying to accomplish with our little company.”
Don’t walk the beaten path is basically what they’re doing and I love that. Next there was a tasting of their spirit range and we started off with the 1840 cognac (not a bad start don’t you think?). “I love young cognacs… that are made more than a hundred years ago!” said Mr. Gabriel and we couldn’t agree more. If your spirit needs to retire for several generations in a barrel before it starts to resemble something palatable then there must be something wrong with your distillation method. There’s a lot of spirits these days that taste like a wooden plank dipped into some sort of marmalade or fudge, soulless junk in my opinion. Not so with the 1840 cognac, I loved it, it’s all grapes and standing on rolling green hills with the occasional wild flower under a summer sun, finishing with the distant humming of a single bumblebee. For the record, it is not made in 1840, but it is made in the fashion and style of an 1840 cognac (in this case a Pinet Castillon).
Next up was the Cognac Pierre Ferrand with Banyuls finish. Although not our favourite, again a good example of Maison Ferrand ‘doing things differently’ and you gotta love them for it. For ages people thought it was illegal to store cognac in wine barrels, but Alexandre and some other people started to dig in the past and question this. After extensive research they concluded that: “it is legal, but you better not tell anybody.” That’s exactly why they put “Banyuls Finish” on the label… are you beginning to see why I love these people?
The following bottle was a familiar friend: Dry Orange Curaçao. This is amazing, you have to try this, it’s an absolute wonder potion in cocktails, but also nice to taste neat. Somebody once said when asked to describe it that it tastes like Cointreau only less sweet. That does not nearly begin to describe it! Less sweet, sure, but also the cane sugar is toasted and barrel aged and the liqueur is distilled in the same pot still as the cognacs. Taste and try!
Next up Citadelle Reserve Gin. I always liked the Citadel range, it’s straightforward and delivers the goods as a good gin should. Very unlike some of the neo-gins which are described a lot like shampoos containing strawberries and lychee or lapsang and yuzu. That’s not approaching a spirit from a different angle, that’s running away from it. Actually yuzu is in the recipe of Citadelle Reserve, but you know, it’s done differently! Alexandre said: ” a great gin is not a Caesar’s salad!” And right he is. The Reserve is a ‘yellow gin’ , meaning that it’s aged for a while. In this case exactly the amount of time it would take you to smuggle a barrel out of the port of Dunkirk ( in what we now call France, but used to be Flemish and a real pirate hole too) and bring it to London. Why? Because it happened on a regular basis after 1775.
After that it was the Plantation Jamaica 2002, which is a fine rum, very intense. A real slice of Jamaica. And last, but not least, we tasted the famous Plantation Pineapple Rum: Stiggins’ Fancy. It is a rum created by Alexandre Gabriel and none other than David Wondrich. Pineapple rum was already a thing in the 19th century to such extent even that was mentioned in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers where a reverend named Stiggins enjoyed a sip of pineapple rum before and after every sermon so to speak. This spirit is an absolute delight, it’s good in cocktails but we equally enjoy it neat. It is made by infusing the skin of Victoria pineapples for one week in Three Star Plantation Rum and afterwards distill it in the pot still. In the meanwhile they have infused the fruit of the pineapple for three months in the Plantation Original Dark, then they marry the two spirits together into Stiggins’ Fancy. Sheer bliss!
The cocktail book, you ask? Well it’s a booklet of a hundred pages long, filled with beautiful pictures by Evy Ottermans and recipes from about every self respecting cocktail bar and their best bartenders in Belgium. A must have, we believe.
As a conclusion I must say that Maison Ferrand is a house that I could call home. It’s small, cozy, visionary and passionate. It rebels, does things differently, producing a unique vision on spirits and a range with character and history. A toast to you, with this fine Plantation Angels Share. Cheers!
No doubt Sipsmith, as a relatively new gin, has earned its place among the classics and will keep it for a long while. Fairfax, Sam and the well known Jared Brown took their first steps into sip smithing with prudence, which also happens to be the name of their first small copper still. A few steps later, due to high demand "Constance" and "Patience" were installed. Make no mistake "the one with the swan" will survive many other 'new' gins.
Smithing a sip, that’s actually where the name comes from, a distiller that creates a drink like a blacksmith would create a fine blade. I had no idea. I, until recently, believed it honestly was somebody’s surname, you know, a Mister Sipsmith… probably connected to the usual story: being somebody from the 19th Century who made a gin everybody forgot about until some seven years ago, when suddenly somebody – with thunder and lightning – discovered the ancient recipe and considered it his sacred duty to reproduce it even though he himself was an IT consultant from Fordwich and could spell distillate as well as Tatcher could spell empathy.
That’s not what happened here! This about three men who want to prudently, constantly and patiently hammer good drinks into life. And they do know a lot, if not everything, about distilling the finest of spirits. And Sipsmith is a fine spirit indeed.
Sipsmith is a London dry in the truest sense of the word. It’s a very traditional and classic London dry, tasting quite dry with hints of citrus and being distilled in London itself. It’s a well balanced gin with a capital G. You know that lovely dry, herbal tartness with juniper and citrus flavours. This gin is like born to make Dry Martinis with, they’re fabulous! And we happily approve of this, for many of these new “gins” are made solely for the purpose of producing a (dreadful) Gin Tonic. We hardly can call those “gins”. Not Sipsmith, Sipsmith is Gin!
If you ever wondered why there’s a swan’s head in the logo, it’s a reference to the ‘swan neck’ copper still they use. Speaking of old swans, the Queen turned 90 recently and everybody knows Lizzy enjoys a good drink, therefor the three at Sipsmith released a limited edition bottle to honour her, draped in imperial purple and with a little Union Jack upon it. The Queen especially loves the following sensation before lunch:
3cl Sipsmith London Dry
stirred over ice
garnish with lemon wheel
The protocol demands to sip it with a majestical gesture!
And please, remember, be prudent and drink responsibly, because if there’s one thing you’d want to avoid it’s being hammered by a sip-smith!
Last week one of the cocktail competitions we judged was the Saint James Cocktail Competition. Fifteen candidates squared off against each other in the lovely ‘La Tricoterie’ in Brussels in the hope of winning one of the great prizes – amongst them one of the last bottles of Saint James 250 for Belgium.
Saint James Rhum is an underestimated product I believe. It is virtually unknown in Flanders (Belgium) even by people who call themselves rum-lovers and that’s a shame, because it is a wonderful product. Saint James is a typical rhum agricole with a very funky character. The very first incarnation of this rhum was called “guildive”, which actually means “Kill Devil” and that is saying something! Relax, it is much less “hellish” now than its 18th century ancestor, but it still carries the heritage. I had the good fortune to be able to visit the picturesque distillery of Saint James on the beautiful tropical island of Martinique and it was there that I really started to understand what rum is in my opinion.
You really can taste the island in its rum. And that’s no illogical thing to say, considering the wild yeasts and the sugar cane. My impression was that they approach their sugar cane like wine grapes, which is also reflected in their rum range with lots of ‘cuvées’ and ‘millésimes’. It makes more sense to me than some brands who try to approach their “rum” as a whisky, you know: ageing it for decades in a gazillion of different barrels hoping something tasty will come out. Knowing that the ageing process in the Caribbean goes at least twice as fast than it does in Scotland, the number on your bottle needn’t be so big. In fact their unaged ‘Coeur de Chauffe’ is one of the best rums I ever drank, that’s a lot of ‘hogo’ in one bottle.
Back to the competition. It was a very colourful competition, a wide spectrum of skillsets performing on stage (or trying to). I especially recall Michel Van Hecke’s (Thon Hotel) variation on Ti Punch. I like Ti Punch, especially with a good agricole, it’s fun, it’s simple, it tastes great. But instead of going for the simple, lime, cane syrup and rum combo, Michel enthusiastically veered off course with chamomile and cucumber, amongst other things. My first thoughts when listening to him were: “Oh no, the horror!”, but actually it fitted together quite nicely. It was a very original take on the Ti Punch, quite daring, and he received a well deserved third place in the competition.
Another cocktail I liked a lot was the drink made by Cathy Mutis (Boos Bar). It tasted so different from all the other cocktails (i.e. it wasn’t too sweet and/or drowned in fruit juices), it was refreshing, a little sharp even. There was a strange note that went very well with the Saint James, but I couldn’t immediately lay my finger on it. She had used ‘essence de muscade” from Martinique itself! Ah, rum and nutmeg, always a good combo.
And then the winner, Mr. Filoo About from Vagabond Barrr made us a very yummy Tiki in nice glassware with a beautiful garnish. A Tiki with Tonka syrup and Thai bitters served in a skull, we couldn’t say no to that!
And we close this article with a final remark: next time there is a Saint James competition, please allow the competitors to bring their own home made syrups instead of using commercial ones and make it mandatory to use freshly squeezed fruit juices, instead of commercial ones. Saint James Rhum deserves no less.
Mauritian rum brand New Grove chose Belgium's first and foremost Tikitender Tom Neijens from the Drifter to organise a Tiki cocktail competition at Uncle Babe's Burgerbar in Ghent. The result was great fun with an amazing diversity in drinks! It shows how much you can do with rum. Next to the usual suspects there were also quite a few new faces among the competitors and they did a really great job! Alas, to no avail, because Vitas was on fire (almost literally) and combined a spectaculair drink with a fantastic presentation.
New Grove’s got funk, New Grove’s got soul
The island of Mauritius has produced rum since the 18th century, but the New Grove brand is a relatively young player on the field. Tikitender Tom introduced us to the better part of the New Grove range: the Plantation Rums. It’s a lovely rum, well balanced in sweetness, funkiness and fruitiness. The funkiness comes from the typical Mauritian yeast strain and the relatively long fermentation process. I love the funk, it gives soul to the rum. Next to the rums they also make three liqueurs (honey, vanilla and coffee). And you always fear the worst when you have to try a rum based liqueur, more often than not it practically is a syrup with a hint of herbs. Not in this case! Nicely balanced, not too sweet and good aromas. The vanilla for instance is real and comes from the nearby island of Madagascar. The coffee also is very nice, especially when you have to compare it to Kahlua. New Grove is young and groovy, we’ll be hearing a lot more from this brand soon.
The Tiki competition
The lady and gentlemen from the jury for this lovely event were: Flo Harel and Didier Noel from New Grove, Scotty Schuder from The Dirty Dick, a bar in Paris’ red light district and used to be brothel and our own tikitender Tom Neijens from The Drifter, Ghent.
First up was a new face: Ruben Patoor. Considering the fact that this was his first competition he did very well. He presented a Tiki made of rum, guave and amongst other things a white beer from Ghent.
Ran Van Ongevalle from The Pharmacy, Knokke drew inspiration from his recent trip to South East Asia and made us soup, yes, soup. Based upon Tom Kha Kai, a coconut soup from Thailand. He prepared everything in a mortar which also served as the Tiki mug. He concluded the presentation with a pyrotechnical magic trick, which we failed to capture on photo! Great presentation, good drink!
Bruno Simons from Mixing Tales made us breakfast with coffee liqueur and cream in an atypical tiki cocktail.
Yoerie De Schepper, our youngest candidate from L’Histoire d’O, Ostend gave us a fabulous presentation. We will definitely be seeing this guy again very soon! He puzzled 3/4 of the jury with his explanation as to why he had chosen an aged rum: ” My boss used to tell me that if you want to learn how to ride, you have to do it on an old bike!” Which is an English translation of a Flemish expression that has more to do with popping cherries than it has with riding a bike. His cocktail was named “Revenge of the dodo”.
Frederic Geirnaert from Cafe Theatre, Ghent, presented us an exotic concoction in an elephant’s foot. Another first timer who performed very well.
Vitas Van de Cauter from Uncle Babe’s was on fire and blew everybody away with a fantastic presentation and a fabulous drink. He made a “Mount Murr Punch” named after a volcano on Mauritius. He stated quite clearly that “in Tiki the theory of less is more does not count, in Tiki more is…more”. Also his only reason to name the drink after a volcano was because he wanted to put things on fire and so he did. Loved it!
Sofie Ketels from Sofie’s Living Room, Koksijde told us the story of Paradise Vicky and put her drink in a claw! She caramelised nuts in New Grove rum, yummy! Lovely presentation.
Finally there was Mitchell Martin, another new face with a spectacular drink and a lovely garnish.
Well Vitas won this incredibly fun competition and can spend a week on Mauritius sipping rum! If there’s one thing we remember that is the fact that Tiki cocktails are not just rum and fruit juice and that rum is a very versatile product and fire is fun!
Sometimes you really start wondering, seeing these countless and delicious variations and dedications. Quite a few people go very extreme in this, resulting in the unavoidable remark by someone: “is this still a Negroni?”. The question is, if not, what is then? The answer must be sought in its clouded and disputed origin…
The official recipe as we all know, is equal measures of gin, Campari and red vermouth. And logically, when we want to make a variation on it we start to substitute one of the ingredients for another. starting with the spirit, this resulted quickly in rum Negronis, whisky Negronis, bourbon Negronis, cognac Negronis, genever Negronis and so on. Next we switch Campari for other amaro like Cynar or Averna or others. Finally we can change the vermouth from red to dry, white or even use quinquinas and other stuff. Also measurements can be adapted, bitters can be added, glasses can be rinsed, perfume or smoke can be used, etc, etc…
Actually it is fantastic to see this unbridled, unlimited passionate creativity of bartenders playing around with this famous Italian aperitif cocktail. Recently we had the BeNeLux Negroni Competition organised by Campari and even though the jury contained several very experienced Negroni lovers like Salvatore Calabrese en Mauro Mahjoub, it must have been very difficult reaching a decision on the winner (in this case Sofie Ketels from Sofie’s Living Room, De Panne, Belgium) seeing and tasting all these different and delicious Negroni styles. But what when you encounter a recipe in a book, that contains gin, sherry and Galliano; then you really start to wonder, delicious as it might be, is this still a Negroni? And if not, why then?
We recently had the good fortune to attend a workshop concerning the famous Negroni cocktail. The workshop was given by the great Luca Picchi from Florence, Italy, who wrote a hefty 221 pages about the Negroni, focussing on its origins. We like the book a lot, we read it with pleasure and delight and eventually learned and deduced something that was new for us about the origin of this iconic cocktail.
Most of you already know the origin of the Negroni, featuring the famous Count who gave his name to this delicious red libation. Camillo Negroni probably was indeed the original reason for the creation of the cocktail. There are pictures of him drinking (a Negroni?) at Casoni Café and more importantly there is a letter, dating 1920, from a friend who advises him not to drink more than 20 ‘Negronis’ a day. This letter actually proves that there was a drink in 1920 named after him. Much more interesting is: what’s in it and how did it became to be (the drink, not the letter) in the first place?
‘Americano’ is not just one cocktail
The popular story is that count Camillo, whilst in Florence, walked into Casoni’s and asked Fosco Scarselli, the bartender, to…erm…”spike” his ‘Americano’. Now here the story starts. I always thought the actual Americano cocktail was meant here and only to be told later that it was in fact a Milano-Torino, which was called Americano afterwards (so they say) due to the high popularity with Americans (tourists, businessmen or soldiers you can choose between stories here). In my strictly personal opinion ( I do not claim this to be the absolute truth, it’s just a theory of mine) he did not mean the actual Americano cocktail. Americano just means ‘American style’ and refers to the then rather new fashion of mixing one drink with others. That is what we’ve learned from Luca Picchi.
The drink in this case probably just being vermouth, which was extremely popular in Italy at that time. “American style” meant ‘the way they drank drinks in America’ and the very popular ‘American bars’ in Europe. So it probably has nothing to do with American soldiers after the war – a story which I hear and read frequently. Americano was probably nothing else than saying “cocktail” in Italian. You know, mixed with a spirit or amaro over ice. That information was new for me.
Vermouth as a base
So Camillo probably ordered a simple Italian vermouth (which was extremely popular by then), but had it made American style to strengthen it. The bartender, Fosco Scarselli, chose gin and then Camillo himself chose to add some bitters – Campari most probably – and thus created his signature drink. We deduce this out of an interesting interview with Fosco himself in 1962 about the Negroni. He (Fosco) literally says: “I added a few drops of gin to fortify the drinkand then the count had the habit of adding a few drops of bitters“.
Eventually other guests at Casoni were curious and also ordered an Americano ( meaning, I think, as much as ‘vermouth cocktail’ or just ‘cocktail’ in general), Negroni style. And so the birth of one of the most famous cocktails in history came to be. I think the story is very credible knowing that the count spend more than seven years in the USA in the exact ‘golden age of cocktail making’ before he came back to Florence and ordered his drink. Also, the vermouth back then, was served in small liquor glasses (about 1 or 1,5 oz), which explains the “drops” of gin and bitters and the sentence in the letter that warns him not to drink more than 20 of it each day. Also when you consider his words, he says he adds two things (gin and bitters) to something he didn’t mention. Something so obvious that he needn’t mentioning it and I think that’s vermouth.
And the story of Gaspare Campari who made his famous red amaro “americano” to make it more palatable and trendy for the Milanese high rollers at that time is a different story that eventually converged into the Negroni drink. The theory makes sense, I think, also considering the way Negronis are made today. By which I mean all the variations on it. What really defines a Negroni? Is it the gin? Surely not, it is the first thing they replace by something different. Is it Campari? Although most Negronis are made with it, it can also be made with other bitters and even though chances are high that the first one was made with it, we’ll never know for sure.
So actually it’s two different kinds of Americano coming together: one being gin + vermouth, the other being: amaro + vermouth. Of which the common element is the vermouth. In the end it gives us our answer to the question as to what defines a Negroni. In my opinion it is – very simply like the recipe says – a combination of spirit, vermouth and amaro. May you break this rule and create something else? Sure! Can you call it a Negroni? Well, it’s a free country, so you can call it whatever the hell you want, as long as it tastes good. Because, no matter how many Negroni “families” you create, the real Negroni will always be remembered as equal measures of London Dry, Campari and red vermouth.
Speaking of Negroni families… how about the other count Negroni? You know, General Pascal Olivier de Negroni, which one of them is the real Count? Well, why does one of them have to be fake? It is perfectly possible. A letter written by Pascal mentions a vermouth cocktail which was received well by the other officers. Perfectly possible, although it would be interesting to know more about the ingredients.
In the end it doesn’t really matter who invented the drink, eventually somebody somehow would have come up with gin, Campari and red vermouth. You know, I prefer ‘countless’ Negronis over Count Negroni, any time.
O’de Flander is an organisation that safeguards,showcases and promotes the loveliest local product of East Flanders: genever. Both a quality label and a brotherhood they organise a festival each year to promote their genevers to the public and all the things you can do with them, like for instance cooking or cocktails. The Cocktail Nation was asked to make some genever cocktails.
Genever is a spectacularly rich spirit with a fantastic array in flavours similar to gin ( duh), whisky (duh) and in one case even rum like. Products like the Vintage 1997 from Filliers distillery and the XO Founders Reserve by De Moor distillery are brilliant and I was happily surprised to see quite a few of the distilleries sporting these long aged whiskey like genevers. Also almost all of them have started to make their own gin or even more than one. I love the way they speak about this, they shrug their shoulders, look you in the eye and say “why not”. Most of these gins are amazing too by the way. Last one I tasted was the Hertekamp gin, if you ever have the chance then taste and try it.
Actually it was quite impressive to see all these different kinds and types of spirits spread out over the tables. These guys make everything! Spirits, liqueurs, anything! I have visited old whiskey distilleries, gin distilleries, rum distilleries and so on, having generations of experience and craftsmanship in creating their drink. But these people have 100 or 200 years of experience in distilling everything. It is amazing really, to speak to these people about some old liqueur only to see them reaching behind the counter, saying: “you mean this one?”.
So we set out to make three different genever cocktails. The location was the ‘Meat House’ near castle ‘Gravensteen’ in the medieval city centre of Ghent, a beautiful – if somewhat chilly – location. The weather was shite, perfect circumstances for the consumption of genever. We set up en prepared for the first cocktail and I was a little bit anxious because I needed a sourdough bread to make a food pairing with my first cocktail and there’s a lot of different styles of sourdough bread and also the quality ranges from “bweeeeuurk!” to “waw, that’s amazing!”. Now, apparently one of the organisers was a bakery teacher and he had made an Italian style sourdough bread with a 12year old sourdough, he told me. People, readers, this bread was amazing!
The first cocktail is called “Nen Deugeniet”, in Dutch – or rather – Flemish dialect, this means a naughty boy or girl. The drink somehow reminds me of cold winter mornings with a low sun, reflecting her blinding light on snow-covered fields lined with pollard willows. The drink is dedicated to my late Grandfather who had the reputation of being very naughty (in a friendly way). The base of the cocktail is a 5 year old Filliers genever, fantastically smooth and full of flavour. Added to that is an equal part of Kummel. Kummel is an old liqueur made from caraway and cumin seeds, which give it an anise flavour. It originated in the Low Countries and was very popular in Prussia and Russia. It is still popular in Scotland, at least in certain Golf Clubs, where they have a shot of Kummel before they take their first swing. The story goes that they brought it with them from Holland after WWII.
So genever and kummel, both old heroes from the Low Countries, our countries. Mixed in equal parts and stirred over ice. Not too long, you don’t want to dilute it too much. Strained and served with a lemon twist. Accompanied with a little side dish of sourdough bread smeared with an abundant layer of salted butter. (We used Kummel made by De Moor Distillery)
The second cocktail was a Martinez variation, made with Dirk Martens genever. Dirk Martens is a famous 16th century humanist from Aalst, who introduced the art of printing in the Low Countries and a personal friend of Erasmus and Thomas More. So the Dirk Martinez is made with 5cl Dirk Martens genever, 3cl Martini Gran Lusso, a dash of Luxardo Maraschino and two dashes of orange bitters. Serve with an orange twist.
The last cocktail was a variation on Jerry Thomas’ Improved Gin Cocktail. The base for it was a 54% ABV Balegemsche Genever from Van Damme distillery. This distillery is the last surviving farmer’s distillery in the entire country. We used to have hundreds, but wars and so called “government” destroyed them. It is a fantastic genever, it has grassy notes – almost hay – that marry it so smoothly with the juniper berries and the rye. So we used 6cl of it. A hefty dose or in our language “ne goeien dreupel” :). Then 0,5cl of simple syrup, one dash of Luxardo, one dash of absinthe and two dashes of Jerry Thomas bitters. Well stirred over ice and strained and served neat, no garnish. This cocktail was everyone’s favourite. And I can see why…
I’ve always liked the Famous Grouse, being one of the first blended whiskeys I ever tasted. A bottle can become empty quite fast, when in good company. This very affordable Scottish whiskey has three, maybe less famous, friends: Black Grouse, Snow Grouse and Naked Grouse. All three very fine blends, but you know what’s better? Making your own blend…
So a while ago we were invited to attend a Grouse tasting at The Egg in Brussels (a 5000 square meter event venue). The room was small, but awfully cosy and possessed a peculiar detail, a fancy quirkiness, that I wasn’t able to perceive the first five minutes I had entered it. I was distracted – as I often am – by the beautiful table before me.
Why is it called ‘famous’? Well, for starters, it apparently is one of the best selling whiskeys in Scotland itself since the ’80s. Especially round Christmas so it seems. And we fully agree with that, it’s perfect if you want to grab a quick bottle with a nice, smooth flavour and you don’t want to spend a fortune on it. Better grab two, because they’ll be killed quite fast. Secondly, the grouse was one of the most popular birds to shoot out of the sky and gobble up at exquisitely decadent hunting parties (it has a doomed tendency to fly quite low).
Why ‘Grouse’? Well, most importantly because ‘Gloag’ sounds like you’ve got something down your throat that doesn’t belong there in the first place. And Matthew Gloag, the Scottish father of Famous Grouse, realised this quite quickly. “If I want this whiskey to be something on the international market I can’t just name it after myself.” I better name it after the bird with the biggest violent death ratio in Scotland! And right he was, to the effect that the expression: “let’s shoot some Grouse,” has a very different meaning now.
By the 1920s Famous Grouse was an international product, going as far as the Caribbean. The blend consists – if I remember correctly – out of 1/6th part of grain whiskey, actually corn, which gives it that characteristic sweetness and the rest is a mix of Glenturret, Highland Park and Rhuidmore single malts. All this is aged in American sherry and bourbon casks and finished in Spanish sherry casks.
In the end we were allowed to make our own blend out of a selection of 5 single malts and 1 grain whiskey. This was great fun and at the same time it shows you how difficult it is to be a Master Blender. I baptised my concoction the ‘Famuzze Gruzze’. Which is how you would pronounce the brand in West Flemish dialect after you had a bottle or two.
Now Black Grouse is actually a more smokey, slightly peated version of Famous and is actually very nice and very affordable. Naked Grouse is something else entirely, extremely rounded and smooth, but long lasting in the end. It’s called naked not because it maybe has a grouse deprived of feathers on the bottle (it does not), but because there’s no label at all (except a small one round the neck and the back of the bottle with all the legal stuff). Snow Grouse is meant to be put in the freezer a few minutes before you drink it, to get that syrupy texture. Not really our thing, but I am sure students love it.
So, after a fun tasting, brilliant blending and a nice chat with Brand Ambassador Lucy Whitehall we were ready to go home again. And then it hit me, it wasn’t the Scotch, it was the room! Everything was reversed, you know, upside down, the paintings, books, lamps furniture, the whole shebang. Rather quaint.
Anyway, if you want good value for money without having to spend a lot and you need a quick bottle then remember the bird.
Tanqueray’s Master Distiller Tom Nichol has created his final Tanqueray gin: the Bloomsbury. We love its masterfully balanced modesty. The gin possesses a quintessential purity in itself without losing character or the Tanqueray personality, so much that it almost becomes an archetype of gin itself.
Let me explain the above. For starters it’s not boring, that’s not what I meant. It’s a beautiful balance between juniper berries, coriander, angelica and crushed cassia, just like the bottle says. And frankly, we were almost moved by this honesty. Many contemporary gins try to combine so many flavours and aromas resulting in the loss of their own identity of gin and consequently more resembling a startled skunk in a fireworks factory. But no worries, if you put an entire bottle of tonic over it, something eventually will shine through.
Not this gin. This one can stand on its own or take tonic without losing character and more importantly it can take other things besides tonic and works beautifully in cocktails. It makes one hell of a Dry Martini for instance. Actually when you taste it, it feels like the grandfather of Tanqueray Ten. You know, without the grapefruit or citrus notes and much more rounded, smooth with that little hint of cassia and all the blessings of juniper berries.
Grandfather may be an apt title for it, because Tom Nichol based it on an old recipe from Charles Waugh Tanqueray ( the son of Charles Tanqueray who took over the company after his father’s death in 1868) himself. ‘Waugh‘ was actually the first thing I said when I tasted it. Well, Mr Nichol, if this was the last gin you made for Tanqueray I would say it is a daring masterpiece and a fitting farewell. Because somehow, this day and age, it seems easier to continually diversify than to make the actual real thing. Which you did!