In every aspect Gold Gin would be the perfect gin for a Bond villain. I mean take a look at that bottle, it utterly demands to be looked at, you can’t miss it, but at the same time you can’t read what’s on it. It’s complex and mysterious. Just like its origin story, listen to this:
“At the beginning of the 20th century, as excavation works were taking place in the Alsace region, a site containing antique valuables was found. Amongst them, there was a gold pot still. After these objects were proved not to have any historic value, they were put on sale.
One of the buyers was an amateur distiller, a man who immediately fell in love with the gold pot still and acquired it. This man had spent years of his life looking for the perfect spirit, the perfect distillation, an elixir as valuable as the material the golden pot still he had just bought was made of.
He finally created a gin with tangerine reminiscences and a delicate memory of vanilla and almonds. He named this special spirit Gold 999.9 as he considered it to be his liquid gold, the purest one.”
We don’t know about you, but our imagination runs wild when we read origin stories like that. Apparently the archaeological dig had stumbled upon the hidden stash of a local pharmacist who – due to the Franco-Prussian War – had put his valuables there out of fear of being looted by the Germans. Something terrible must have happened because the pharmacist obviously never returned to dig it back up again. Nevertheless all of these events culminated into Gold Gin.
The Belgian Finals of the Gold Gin Competition took place in the famous BarZar in Antwerp. Owner and head bartender Maxime Biot joined us in the jury together with Yannick from Njam. There were three finalists: Saif El Ouachem from Cocktail Dreams, Donald Simons from Black Smoke and Bruno Simons from BarZar.
We will not bore you with details and go straight to the results: Bruno won with an excellent Negroni style cocktail based on Gold Gin and Suze Aperitif. The drink fitted the bill perfectly! Honourable mentions go to Donald who made a very nice Gin Sour in which he added marjoram (that’s a herb). The herb did wonders with the gin. And let’s not forget Saif who made us an unusual cocktail made out of rocket salad…
There's a thing about Irish whiskey that makes it very...well, Irish actually and because of that definitely a distinct category within the whisky sphere. It was once much more popular than Scottish whisky and it's doing its best to reclaim the title. Teeling Whiskey is relatively new on the field here, but in less than three years it made sure that it's in the vanguard of this Irish comeback. So 17th of March, have some of this and remember: "everyone's Irish tonight!"
Irish whiskey was the first whiskey we ever tasted and as a young lad we fell madly in love, especially with Tyrconnell whiskey. Irish whiskey is very Irish and by that we mean it’s apart, it’s different, it’s special, fuelled with emotion, both harsh and mellow at the same time. Our favourite Irish philosopher has a great description of what Irish people are often seen as, but definitely are not: “We’re not the twinkly eyed f***ers with a pig under our arm who say they will paint your house, but might steal the ladder! That’s only half true!”
Irish comedian Dylan Moran about the Scottish, English and Irish
That poetry and emotion is what makes Irish people in our mind’s eye. And their soul is in their drink. Now back to Teeling. It’s a very young distillery, only a couple years old, putting itself at the forefront of the Dublin Distillery revival and showing it’s serious about this by bearing a phoenix rising from a flaming potstill in its logo.
We received a bottle of the Teeling, Small Batch Whiskey and at first we didn’t quite know what to think of it, but after a few sips we knew: it’s Irish! It’s different, both harsh and sweet, mellow at the same time. Teeling really toys with your tongue here: rum, whiskey, whiskey, rum, what’s going on here? After close examination of the bottle we quickly understood: it has a 6 months finish on rum barrels. A daring (very Irish) move! But it works, I think, at least for me. Bottled at 46% abv, non chill filtered and finished on rum casks this drink both kicks and kisses you at the same time. It has both vanilla, chocolate and grassy, lemony things in it. We like it, it has a personality. It is the kind of bottle that will be empty the 18th of March.
There were lots of tasteful surprises in the box like chocolate, truffles, marmalade and even Jamaican jerky crisps, but the most amazing was the Irish, whiskey smoked, mineral, sea salt. Guess what was the first thing we did with it? Yes, indeed we put a pinch of it in the whiskey! And it’s f***ing amazing, the purest leprechaun blood you ever tasted!
So, have a Teeling on St. Paddy’s and try to chase the snakes away the morning after!
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!
Bijou, a diamond in the rough? No, it's definitely well cut and polished! A hidden jewel then? No, not really hidden, just rather modest. This bar created by cocktailian veteran, Ben Belmans and the bearded ginger sultan of drinks, Dieter Van Roy is a sparkling stone amongst pebbles! Even so that - not entirely unexpected - it won a Venuez Hospitality Award for Best Belgian Cocktailbar, within one year of its own existence.
As a young dad I can assure you that a babyless evening out feels like a million holidays. So after finishing off several bottles of milk we dropped our beloved baby daughter into the care of her grandmother, promising not to be late again to pick her up, etc, etc…
We set course for Antwerp and putting the pedal to the metal we arrived there without major traffic incidents (apparently that only happens when we have to take the baby to the doctor). Upon arrival in the big city, the adrenaline started to kick in, not a word was spoken, tension filled the cockpit, four eyes locked on both sides of the road, the 1000 yard stare, like a soldier in a trench. We were trying to find a parking spot and as we all know finding a parking spot in Antwerp is “damnation without relief”. It all comes down to luck, so we came prepared: I had put three horseshoes in the glove compartment, two rabbit’s feet on the rearview mirror, we were chewing four-leaf clover whilst throwing salt over our shoulder and before departure I had kicked a goblin in the nut sack, just to be sure.
And lo! A parking spot! After checking GPS, no more than 10 yards from the Bar itself, how lucky can you get (on a Saturday night in the City)? In gratitude I slaughtered a black hen, singing blessings to the entire Babylonian pantheon.
We were on a tight schedule: less than two hours for the bar and then off to the restaurant where we had booked a table (booking tables on a Saturday in Antwerp is “damnation without much hope for relief”). My wife inquired on the proximity and exact location of the bar, I decidedly pointed my finger at two lamps, a billboard and a glass door with a logo, “there it is”. As I said it’s not hidden, but very modest. You could just walk past it and never know you’ve passed the doorstep of Bijou. It kind of fits the personality of the bar, I think. Bijou is like the mysterious femme fatale, seductive but taciturn or the tall, dark stranger burning a match to light your cigarette.
We entered and made our way to the bar through a corridor lined with seats and tables, empty now, all occupied within three hours from my visit. I always try to visit bars early in the evening, you know within one or two hours after opening. It’s a special atmosphere, like greeting somebody at the breakfast table or watching a person waking up. You can discover a lot of the bar’s personality at that moment and it’s much easier to have a chat with the bartender.
At the far end of the corridor was the bar. The rather dark room bathed in a golden light, as if a fireplace was burning. And with the cold outside that was a welcome sight. We were welcomed with smiles and polite gestures towards a table. Our coats were taken and we were offered a glass of water. Then there was the menu and with it came a large circular card.
The menu is filled with classics and a few personal inventions like the Lazy Red Cheeks – which actually has become a classic a long while ago – and the Geraldine amongst others. What struck me immediately is that there is a large list of bottle-aged cocktails. Now we all know the small hype a while ago to barrel age everything, which was nice for some cocktails, but in many cases unnecessary or even uncalled for. I remember some very nice barrel-aged Negronis. But bottle-aged is rather uncommon and in these quantities unseen before. One also wonders: how does it taste, what difference does it make?
We decided to ask the bearded drinks wizard who joined us at the table. He answered us that besides the taste, there were several other reasons to go for bottle ageing. Taste wise the cocktail becomes very smooth and has a rounder, more intense taste. Apart from that, it is bottled months ago so you can serve cocktails extremely quick. That’s why there’s two huge freezers besides the backbar. They’re filled with glasses that already have iceballs in them, so basically you just take out a glass, open a bottle of cocktail, pour in the requested quantity, give it a little stir, garnish on top et voila! And finally, in the not too distant future, they think of selling the bottled cocktails commercially.
Sounds like a plan to me. Now we were curious about the taste of course. There was Cuban music playing and since Castro had passed away recently my wife decided to go for the El Presidente. I chose the Geraldine, from the description this looked amazing: Pierre Ferrand Cognac, Sherry, Amaro Montenegro and other ingredients. Perfect for me. The drinks arrived in no time, really immediately. And frankly, they’re excellent! Super smooth, like silk almost. Great and enduring rich taste.
I had to ask Dieter: ” don’t you really become quite bored when you pour everything from one bottle?”
“No, not really. We’re not limited to our menu and can make custom cocktails for our guests too, depending on their likes and taste. So in the quieter moments you can see me shaking and stirring quite often.”
“So, it’s actually the best of both worlds. When it’s busy you can serve extremely fast and when it’s quiet you can freewheel all that you want?”
“What’s with the circular menu card?”
“It’s actually our range of exclusive spirits and wines. As you can see they are sold by the centilitre. This way you can taste a very exclusive whisky, bourbon or rum for example, without burning a hole in your wallet.”
“Or instead of a regular sized one, you can go for several smaller samples.”
There’s also a separate ‘fumoir’ where you can enjoy the finest cigars and they do serve a delicious platter of finger food!
As a final remark about Ben Belmans and Dieter Van Roy’s Bijou Bar – and it summarises everything actually: we didn’t want to leave! It’s cosy, comfortable and timeless, plus the drinks are near to perfection and so is the hospitality!
Four and a half skulls out of five, well done Bijou! Cheers!
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!
Black smoke, pieces of trees and lots of dead animals smouldering!
It sounds like the beginning of a war movie, but it's actually a brand new BBQ restaurant in Belgium. Situated in the old 'De Koninck' brewery, founders Kasper Stuart and Jord Althuizen couldn't have picked a better spot.
Black Smoke is the name and it's all about beef, beer and brimstone!
Read our review below.
Don’t call it a ‘family grill’ or they’ll smoke you! Hell, they smoke anything there! Whether it’s got hooves, wings or tentacles it ends up in the smoker, left there to smoulder for hours and hours until it melts on your tongue and whilst you are enjoying this most ultimate carnivorous ecstasy, they’ll put craft beer after craft beer under your nose. I’m in heaven, sheer beef bliss!
The Pyromantic Duo
As we said, they didn’t want a family grill, they wanted the true American BBQ experience with a Belgian twist. So they grabbed the proverbial beef by the horns and embarked upon a road trip to the States of no less than 4500 miles, visiting more than 42 of America’s best BBQ joints. Who are ‘they’, you say? Kasper Stuart is a well known rock ‘n’ roll horeca (short for hotel-restaurant and café) guru based in Antwerp who created an insane number of successful bars and restaurants in the city. Amongst them, The Dirty Rabbit, where Dries Botty is behind the stick. Next to Kasper stands the Sultan of Low and Slow, the Csar of Charcoal, the Emperor of Grill, the Grand Vizier of Smoke, the World Champion of BBQ’ing: Jord Althuizen. We thank this man’s pyromantic passion to his girlfriend, who happens to be American and took him to a small mountain village where he experienced his first American BBQ.
A grill too far
After 42 BBQ joints, you’ve probably seen one grill too many, I asked Kasper.
’42? After 10 I was craving for a salad!’ ‘I don’t know where he puts it, but Jord can eat like ten times his own body weight or something while I was running marathons trying to burn some calories!’
What impressed you back there?
‘Lots of things. The food and everything, but maybe more the people there and how passionate they are about bbq’ing!’ ‘You know there are places where people stand cueing the line from 06:00 AM to make sure they have a seat at 11:00!’
‘It was an epic ride. People were very friendly and openhearted, everywhere we went we could take a look at the kitchen, the grills and the smokers. Never a problem. And they’re very enthusiastic, we literally got stuffed with smoked meat.’
So after the trip Kasper and Jord took everything they learned back to Belgium and started to put together his dream team . The team is experienced and know one another very well. In the kitchen – aka the pit – stand the pitmasters: Vadim Vesters and Matthias Jacobs. They have two different styles of cooking: low & slow in the smokers and hot & fast on a custom Argentinian Parrilla grill. And the pit spews forth the loveliest dishes!
We started the day with grilled octopus served with fire roasted bell pepper hummus, Argentinian chimichurri en roasted quinoa. So you see it’s not always meat too and it tasted delicious.
Followed immediately by a bruschetta with Saint-Maurin goat cheese smoked on cherrywood with a micro salad and orange-apple-parsley dressing. A vegetarian dish and very tasty indeed. So it’s definitely not meat only, it’s meat focussed and even the vegetarian dishes are thought through. You know, it’s not just a portobello…
Next was the BBQ Bonanza. A large platter filled with, well…everything! Half a smoked chicken, full slab Memphis dry rub style ribs, a whole beer sausage, a royal serving of pulled pork and brisket. I had never heard of brisket before, in our language it’s called ‘puntborst’, and was very curious to taste it. Apparently it’s a kind of chest muscle of the cow and when standing almost the entire weight of the cow is weighing on this muscle. So it’s a very tough muscle, but with a particular taste. To dominate the brisket into tenderness the pit masters put in the smoker for no less than 18hrs! As I said before: sheer beef bliss!
The dessert was called The Heart Stopper. It’s an eclair filled with bourbon-creme suisse, glazed with dulce de leche and bacon-pecan nuts crumble.
We recommend Black Smoke as a must visit for anybody and rate it a whopping 4 skulls! Info on: www.blacksmoke.be
And with this final comment we leave you to your grill:
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!
If somebody offered us a vermouth and asked: "Italian or French?" We would probably answer: "A Savoyan". Because that's where they come from, the former Duchy of Savoy. Or was it Germany? And more importantly where are they now? Italy, France? Yes and Spain and a little bit everywhere actually, even Belgium has one. Vermouth is fantastic, but instead of the countless classic cocktails you can make with it or mix it with tonic, you can also drink it differently.
In most cases, years ago, when you asked somebody what vermouth is, you got the following common knowledge: ” Oh well, erm… let’s see. It’s an Italian fortified wine with lots of herbs and stuff, very nice. Oeh! And the French have a drier, white version of it. Excellent in fish sauces.” Fast forward a couple of years and the more savvy, suave and sartorial bartenders twisted their waxed moustaches and added passionately – with twinkling eyes – the following facts: it all started in the thriving city of Turin in the late 17OO’s with a gentleman called Antonio Benedetto Carpano who made it into the wonderful aperitif which we all know today. The name comes from the German word “wermut” which means ‘wormwood’ in English and is one of the defining ingredients of the drink. Etc, etc, …
This is all true and you’re somehow fine with it, until after a while you realise something is gnawing at you. Why would an Italian spirit vendor name his invention after the French pronunciation of the German word for one of the herbal ingredients in it. He could have called it “Assenzio”, no? Or “Vino Assenzio”. He didn’t, this later came to be the name for absinthe, you know the drink made of… yes, wormwood (officially called ‘artemisia absinthium’). Still with me?
So, why did he call it ‘vermut’? Well, we’ll never know, but the following is how we like to see it. Mister Carpano didn’t invent his drink, but rather made a personalised version of an old drink, which stopped being popular 100 years earlier: wormwood wine. More specific: German wormwood wine (from the Habsburgian Holy Roman Empire).
Now, we all know that people have been putting stuff in their wine ever since the first man accidentally squished a grape, but apparently wormwood is something particular. This goes as far as Ancient Egypt if you please (probably to try to revive erroneously mummified persons or something), then centuries later the Greeks almost made a sport out of it and left us with a couple of dozens of recipes. Then the Romans put a “made in the Roman Empire” stamp on it, mainly by conquering Greece. After that everything becomes a little hazy in the Dark Ages only for it to come back as a perfect medicine against the plague and all sorts of intestinal parasites (“worms”) and stomach aches in general. This vaguely reminds us of the origin of genever, which was also conceived as a cure against the plague in a similar fashion, only instead of wormwood you’d put in juniper berries.
Anyways, fast forward a couple of centuries and we arrive at the pinnacle of popularity of German wormwood wine (16th – 17th Century) and of course the Holy Roman Empire by then was stretched to its outmost borders. Guess what was part of it then? Yes, the Duchy of Savoy, including Turin and Chambéry (home of Dolin).
Wormwood wine spread widely in those days. Of course, we had our own version in Belgium and the Netherlands called “Alsem wine“. ‘Alsem‘ being the Dutch word for wormwood. Now alsem wine made his introduction into the British Isles thanks to… yes, William III, the Dutch-born king who gave the English people gin, because they couldn’t pronounce genever. Now, funny fact, they also seemed to have trouble with something as simple as the word ‘alsem’ and quickly dubbed it ‘wholesome wine‘ (which is almost the pronunciation of the Dutch word ‘alsem’). Mind you, the British already knew wormwood wine long before William III and produced it under the name of “eisel”, but they must have liked and imported alsem wine too.
In short we can conclude that practically everybody made his version of wine aromatised with wormwood and by the 16th-17th Century people started fortifying it. Until the hype died in 1700. Upon which Carpano decided to relaunch it in 1786. And with great success! By the 19th century vermouth was all over the place and the aperitif of choice. But how did they drink it?
Well apparently a lot like they drink their coffee, in small amounts and standing up. On the go, as it were. We don’t really know the measurements, I think it must have been something between 3 and 6 cl, a Piedmont glass maybe (4,5cl). Later in bigger glasses when they started to add soda water. Actually I still like it this way, it is delicious on a hot summer afternoon. Soon they added drops of bitters to their vermouth and the Milano Torino was created when using Campari. Later the Americano arrived. No one really knows why they called it like that, but there are of course several theories.
it has nothing to do with Americans, but refers to the Italian word for bitter “amaro”. Personally I don’t think that this one is correct, because they would have called it “amaricato” and not Americano.
They called it so, because it was very popular with American tourists of those days. We doubt this one too, otherwise a lot of things would have been called “americano”, like an americano with extra cheese and olives or an americano bolognese, etc…
It refers to the style of the drink, “American style“, drink. The theory goes that it being a ‘mixed drink’, a cocktail, they called it an American style drink. We like this idea better, although we don’t believe it refers to the “mixed drink” part.
So we want to add a fourth theory: it is called Americano, referring to American style drink, because it was probably served in larger than usual quantities, adding soda and -more importantly- had ice (cubes) in it. Suppose they drank the first Milano Torinos like they drank their vermouth, meaning in small quantities, the amaro added literally in drops and later they would prefer their Milano Torino made the American way and ordered: “Milano Torino, Americano.”Which could later have been abbreviated to just “Americano”.
It also makes more sense when you consider the origin of the Negroni as being told by the inventor himself: Fosco Scarselli, in an 1962 interview. Fosco tells us that Count Negroni liked to drink Americanos and preferred them a bit stronger, “so I added a few drops (!) of unsweetened gin to his drink.” Then he continues: “the Count’s habit of adding a few drops of bitter (amaro) to his cocktail started to spread among the other customers and soon they were ordering ‘Negronis’.” Considering the ingredients of a Negroni we must conclude that his Americano must have been vermouth over ice perhaps with a splash of soda.
Anyway, ordering your “Savoyan vermouth, American style” in this day and age will get you nowhere, but you can say: “vermouth on the rocks with a splash of soda, please and an orange wheel.” And that’s how we prefer to drink it, sometimes even omitting the soda. You know vermouth isn’t just there as a mixing ingredient, it can very well carry its own. Do try it!
If you want to learn more about vermouth, be sure to read the excellent ‘Mixellany Guide To Vermouth‘ by Jared Brown & Anistatia Miller. More about the Negroni in ‘Negroni Cocktail, An Italian Legend‘ by Luca Picchi.
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.