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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Millie Milliken

The myths and marvels of the Prairie Oyster

Hangover remedy, cocktail, or both, the famous egg yolk-based concoction was once the go-to for the enthusiastic drinker. Millie Milliken looks into the history of the Prairie Oyster and asks…

Hangover remedy, cocktail, or both, the famous egg yolk-based concoction was once the go-to for the enthusiastic drinker. Millie Milliken looks into the history of the Prairie Oyster and asks why we don’t drink/ eat more of them. 

“There wasn’t a week went by but that on at least one day I couldn’t eat anything for breakfast but a couple of aspirins and a prairie oyster.” The words of Ian Fleming’s James Bond in his 1961 novel Thunderball. No doubt silly, suave James had had one too many vodka Martinis the night before and was indulging in the infamous hangover cure, the Prairie Oyster (not to be confused with Rocky Mountain Oysters – I’ll let you Google that one).

When you’ve had an oeuf

In its simplest state, the Prairie Oyster combines a raw egg yolk, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce/vinegar and salt and pepper. The origins of this peculiar remedy are mysterious, although most think it had its origins in the Wild West during the 19th century.  Since then, the down-in-one hangover remedy has featured in countless books, films and TV shows (P.G.Wodehouse’s short story Jeeves Takes Charge, Cabaret, Pillow Talk and – my favourite – Addams Family Values) as a way of nursing the effects of a night on the sauce.

I was introduced to the peculiar joys of the Prairie Oyster after a recent Tasting Online cocktail masterclass, led by bar industry pro and once head of London Academy of Bartenders , Shiv Lal. We had just used egg whites to make a Ramos Gin Fizz and so had yolks left over. 

“My first Prairie Oyster was given to me in the first bar I worked in by a senior member of staff. We used fresh egg white for our sour cocktails, so having leftover egg yolk was best consumed rather than binned,” he explained. And so down the hatch it was and I have to say that it worked wonders on my rather fragile constitution. 

What do the eggsperts think?

Some experts, however, have poo-pooed its revelatory effect on a stinking hangover. In a 2015 BBC Future article, head of Keele University’s Alcohol Research Group, Richard Stephens accredited its apparent easing of the fuzzies to the distracting “unusual and piquant” flavours of its ingredients.

But what about the yolk? According to Healthline, the fact that eggs are rich in cysteine (an amino acid that your body uses to produce the antioxidant glutathione) is its secret hangover-busting weapon. “Drinking alcohol decreases the body’s stores of glutathione. Without it, your body has a hard time breaking down the toxic by-products of alcohol metabolism. Eating cysteine-rich eggs is a great way to increase glutathione in your body and possibly improve hangover symptoms.”

It’s no yolk

The Prairie Oyster, however, isn’t always as virtuous. The addition of alcohol to the mix brings with it an alternative name (Amber Moon), more flavour nuance, a greater appreciation of its peculiarity and the opportunity to elevate it from hangover cure, to hair of the dog and beyond. “I find this cocktail to be quite rare in terms of offerings in cocktail bars,” says Lal, “however you might get lucky if the bartender is willing to make you one having the ingredients to hand.”

If you are lucky, the addition of tomato juice (and almost a riff on a Bloody Mary or a Red Snapper) is a common theme. Lal makes the Bloody Mary comparison too: ‘It’s not too dissimilar to a Bloody Mary which has a mix of savoury, umami and tart flavours, [and is also] often used as a hangover cure.’ 

Prairie Oyster 69 Colebrooke Row style

Prairie Oyster 69 Colebrooke Row style

The Prairie Oyster cult

Star bartender Erik Lorincz (now owner of Kwant) created a Prairie Oyster during his tenure at The Savoy’s award-winning American Bar. It combined 40ml of gin infused with herbs of Provence, 5ml house Bloody Mary mix, a mini jar of tomato ketchup (30ml), 5ml of softer vinegar such as balsamic, a pinch salt, a pinch pepper, all stirred together at room temperature and poured into a coupe. Then, the egg yolk was carefully dropped in.

Other alcoholic renditions include that from Black Cow Vodka using 25ml Black Cow, two dashes of Worcestershire sauce, three dashes of Sriracha sauce, a sliver of slightly melted salted butter and on free range egg yolk served in an eggshell. Over in Islington, 69 Colebrooke Row’s signature serve incorporates tomato yolk, horseradish vodka, Oloroso sherry, shallots, pepper sauce, celery salt and an oyster leaf. It’s tomato yolk replaces that of the egg, using clarified tomato juice, dyed orange, frozen- and dipped in vege-gel. When it’s time to serve (in an oyster shell) it will be solid on the outside and liquid on the inside. The original recipe (from 2007) even included shochu rather than vodka for that extra hit of umami.

Lal suggests adding anything from gin to sherry, vermouth, brandy and Cognac. Personally, I’m partial to the latter, namely a Frapin 1270 for its creamy vanilla, white pepper and tobacco notes, or Remy Martin 1738 if you fancy something a little fruitier. I wouldn’t uncork the special bottles you’ve saved for when the Queen visits though – the folks at Hermitage might not be impressed with you downing a shot of its 1893 Paradis with an egg yolk sitting in it

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Cocktail of the Week: El Presidente

This week we’re celebrating a Cuban Prohibition classic, El Presidente; it’s an enigma in rum, vermouth and bitters. But what have the French got to do with it – or…

This week we’re celebrating a Cuban Prohibition classic, El Presidente; it’s an enigma in rum, vermouth and bitters. But what have the French got to do with it – or Christina Aguilera for that matter?

According to the BBC, the top five most popular lockdown 1.0 buys were Tequila, gym equipment, makeup, luxury bedding and elastic. I’m guilty of four of those items, but I eschewed elastic for something slightly more, as I like to tell myself, educational – MasterClass!

Yep, those Instagram ads finally paid off. No sooner had the well-worn security code of my debit card been tapped in (muscle memory is a wonderful thing), I had some of the best minds in the country teaching me their crafts. My favourite writer David Sedaris on storytelling and humour, Dr Jane Goodall on conservation, and, um, Christina Aguilera on singing.

But perhaps the most natural fit was award-winning bar duo Ryan Chetiyawardana (aka Mr Lyan) and Lynnette Marrero on mixology. And it was through watching the soothing videos of the two making their staple cocktails that I rediscovered the Cuban classic El Presidente – and its rich, nuanced and nostalgia-laden history. 

PresidentMenocal-Cuba

It’s Presidente Menocal, but was El Presidente named after him?

Found and lost

It all started where most good things did – during Prohibition (or so some say) and in Havana. One story goes that it was first created to mark President Mario Menocal coming to power; he was in office from 1913-1921. The drink combined amber rum, vermouth and Angostura bitters. 

Yet according to Esquire cocktail editor David Wondrich, it was really the creation of American bartender Eddie Woelke in the mid 1920s, during his tenure at Havana’s Jockey Club and in honour of President Gerardo Machado (in office from 1925-1933).

However it was invented, the combination of white rum, Chambery vermouth (more on that later), orange Curaçao, grenadine and a garnish of orange peel, became the drink of Cuba’s upper echelons. “It is the aristocrat of cocktail and is the one preferred by the better class of Cuban,” wrote Basil Woon in his 1928 book When It’s Cocktail Time in Cuba (feel free to grab yourself a copy for £3,000).

It was also enjoyed by visiting booze-deprived Americans. Though apparently, US President Calvin Coolidge declined an El Presidente from el presidente Machado for fear of drinking during Prohibition and being cancelled. Post-prohibition, Pan Am served a version of it called the Clipper Cocktail made with gold rum, vermouth and grenadine. But by this stage, El Presidente itself was going out of fashion and stopped being ordered by the beautiful people.

New discoveries

It’s fall from grace may have had something to do with vermouth. As Wondrich points out, when bartenders started making the cocktail, most bars would have been stocking French dry vermouth – but the original recipe calls for a Chambery Blanc. This is, in fact, a sweeter style of vermouth – more specifically Dolin Blanc which was created in France in 1821. This seemingly small change is where the El Presidente can win or fail, and many a drinks lover and expert has been undone by it. Making one at home? Make sure it’s Dolin Blanc not Dry.

When it comes to the Curaçao, dear lord make sure it’s orange and not blue. And the choice of rum is important too. The 1915 tome Manual del Cantinero by John Escalentecalls for a light rum and while white expressions are the classic choice, bartenders aren’t shy of veering towards those with a light amber hue.

el Presidente

El Presidente, Distill & Fill style

Bitters and twists

As for bitters, here bartenders can really get creative. Rum-specialist London bar Trailer Happiness has its El Presidente on home delivery site The Drinks Drop. It combines Santiago de Cuba 11 Year Old, Lillet Blanc, strawberry liqueur, falernum, passionfruit, with Supasawa and Angostura bitters.

Meanwhile in Wales, 2021-born drinks company Distill & Fill run by Jenny Griffiths and Philip David has just unleashed The Presidential Suite on its website. This version mixes Plantation Isle of Fiji, Sacred English Spiced Vermouth, Monin Acerola Syrup, with a touch of both Ferdinand’s Vineyard Peach and Peychaud’s Bitters.

So what are you waiting for? Surely, our own pre-Roaring Twenties, post-lockdown world is the perfect time for an El Presidente revival. In the words of Christina’s What a Girl Wants: ‘It’s for keeps, yeah, it’s for sure’. Now that’s philosophy.

How to make an El Presidente

45ml Plantation 3 stars white rum (or any light rum)
22ml Dolin Blanc
22ml orange Curacao
1 dash grenadine
Orange peel twist

Chill a coupe or Martini glass. Fill a mixing glass with ice cubes. Add white rum, Dolin Blanc, Curacao and grenadine and stir with a bar spoon. Strain  into your chilled cocktail glass and garnish with an orange peel.

Recipe from Ryan Chetiyawardana and Lynette Marrero on MasterClass.

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Mixto Tequila: time for a reappraisal?

As the UK starts to see a slew of new mixto Tequila brands entering the market, we examine the perception of mixtos, speak to the people making them and ask…

As the UK starts to see a slew of new mixto Tequila brands entering the market, we examine the perception of mixtos, speak to the people making them and ask the experts if it’s time to reevaulate this maligned category. 

In her book, Spirits of Latin America, New York-based agave spirit expert and bar owner Ivy Mix categorically tells her readers not to drink mixto Tequilas. It’s no secret that this style of Tequila has its haters (so much so one Tequila and mezcal expert declined to be interviewed for this piece).

Yet as new and previously unavailable brands start to make their way into the market, it’s time to take another you at this oft-slated style of the Tequila category.

Hacha agave bar in London

Hacha agave bar in London

What is mixto Tequila?

Since the 1970s, when the rules changed, Tequila only has to be distilled with 51% agave. The rest of the alcohol can be derived from any type of sugar, most commonly piloncillo, a type of unrefined Mexican sugar. Mixto is a term, often used disparagingly, for Tequila that isn’t made from 100% agave. Its reputation has plummeted as consumers become more knowledgeable and move away from drinking Tequila in shots.

“When I started my career the majority of house Tequilas were mixtos because people didn’t really have that understanding of luxury agave spirits,” explains owner of agave-focused bar Hacha, Deano Moncrieffe. How times have changed – sales of premium tequilas have rocketed in recent years and many customers can now tell their añejos from their reposados. So, what will it take to put mixtos back on the map?

Quality control

“I think we need to reframe them as regular Tequila – the term ‘mixto’ is one we’re moving away from,” says Hannah Lanfear, spirits educator and director of The Mixing Class. For Lanfear, what is more important is quality. And what’s the most important factor in a Tequila’s quality? The maturity of the agave. “You can make a proper shitty 100% agave Tequila if you’re using bad-quality agave,” Lanfear says.

It was this very point that got Paul Hayes, co-founder and CEO of premium Tequila brand Vivir, and a new mixto brand called El Sueño, into Tequila 16 years ago. Having spent years believing an allergy to Tequila was a reaction to certain, cheaper styles (ie. mixtos), it was only after further investigation that he was in fact allergic to underaged agave. “Tequilas that came from diffusers were my main problem. They don’t cook the agave but can extract sugars from much younger agaves – that’s the allergy I had. So I can drink cheaper Tequilas as long as they’ve gone through the proper process.”

To make El Sueño, 70% agave and 30% locally-grown cane sugar is used. The latter is an important factor for Hayes as it carries a slight flavour, is sustainably grown and representative of the local community and environment. The agave is cooked in hornos and autoclaves, while he uses natural volcanic water (which is also used to clean the equipment). Hayes says he and co-founder Navindh Grewal like to know where every single part of their Tequila comes from.

VIVIR Tequila

The Blue Weber Agave used in VIVIR Tequila 

Good basic Tequila

Bringing a mixto to market was actually not what Hayes and Grewel had in mind. “When we were creating Vivir, we went through the same process of developing a quality mixto, more for selfish reasons as I live in Somerset and I thought it would be great if we could produce a high quality, entry level Tequila.” When pub buyers tried Vivir, they loved it, but wanted to have a more accessible Tequila in order to upsell to their customers. After winning blind taste tests, El Sueño became part of the range.

Lanfear namechecks El Tequileño as another brand going to “extreme lengths to get good quality, sourcing top quality, slow-grown agave.” 2021 saw El Tequileño enter the UK market, bringing its 70-year-old history as well as one of Mexico’s most famous mixtos with it.

For Becky Davies, owner of Ten Locks which imports the brand, bringing in high quality mixtos is important for the Tequila category as a whole. “There’s a risk that an influx of poorly made mixtos and diffuser Tequilas, made to deliver at a price point some grocers demand, will undermine the true, high quality nature of the spirits. This is not good news for Tequila, where producers have spent such a long time trying to re-establish how wonderful the category is.”

EL Tequileño

El Tequileño line-up

Mixing with mixtos

During a tasting with bartenders and journalists on Margarita Day, Steffin Oghene, vice president of global marketing and business development at El Tequileño, was keen to impress that mixtos have a place in the Tequila market.

The brand dates back to 1959 when it was founded by Don Jorge Salles Cuervo. It is the Tequila of choice at the famous World’s Top 50 La Capilla Cantina. The bar’s signature La Batanga cocktail uses El Tequileño.

Mixto’s place as a cocktail ingredient has been its primary use compared to more sippable 100% agave liquids. There are some cocktails that can carry a mixto – larger formats like big batch Margaritas – while others need more body or flavour. “To make a Tequila Manhattan or Martini, then you may not have the body of flavour you’d need with a mixto,” admits Lanfear, but she sees ABV rather than the style of Tequila as a more important factor when it comes to cocktail structure. To use a lower ABV Tequila in a cocktail, she says, is “like using your finishing salt to season your pasta water.”

Is mixto more sustainable?

Conversations around sustainability also bring mixtos into the mix. Agave takes a minimum of seven years to mature – if mixtos use less agave, surely that makes them more sustainable? While Ivy Mix doesn’t see the need to make mixtos due to the sheer abundance of blue agave in Mexico, Hayes thinks the growing agave crisis is an important factor to take into account when we think about the future of the category. Lanfear agrees – anything to slow down the industrialisation of Tequila – but Moncrieffe isn’t so convinced. “It is maybe more sustainable, but what if you’re using twice the amount? It depends on the size of your operation. I understand the argument, I’m not 100% sure it’s legitimate.”

Mix instead is far more interested in hybrid Tequilas that use less agave. “I think there could be ways for sure to make a product that was interesting. Imagine if I took some sort of ideally Mexican product, for instance some of the amazing rums coming out of Mexico, and made a 51% lowland tahona-milled excellent Tequila then made the other bit an amazing Mexican rum. As far as I know nobody is doing that.”

Changing perceptions

When it comes to looking at the future of mixtos, Hayes is not unaware of the challenges his brand faces, but early interest is quelling some of those fears. “We’ve been inundated, two or three request a week, with people wanting to import El Sueño. They’ve just taken on ex-bartender and mixto cynic Jo Wilde on board as an ambassador (“he used to be that guy, – I think he actually had a T-shirt saying ‘No mixto’ on it), while a NYC distributor of Vivir recently took on El Sueño too. It’s just launched in 1,000 venues in Australia as well.

Mixtos may still have a way to go to change its image – but it looks like the tides might (slowly) be turning. Pass me a lime juicer.

El Sueno

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The evolution of drinks advertising

It’s one of the most highly regulated forms of advertising in the world. So, how did alcohol adverts begin – and what do they look like now? Millie Milliken tracks…

It’s one of the most highly regulated forms of advertising in the world. So, how did alcohol adverts begin and what do they look like now? Millie Milliken tracks the evolution of the drinks advert

When Canadian Club became Don Draper’s drink of choice in Mad Men in 2007, the whiskey brand turned a 17-consecutive-year decline in sales into a 4.3% growth. Anyone who has seen the show will know that Draper and his fellow advertising execs drank both regularly and copiously – plenty of opportunities for a brand to get its name in front of the show’s many million viewers.

And it was, in fact, me stumbling across a double-page spread advert for Canadian Club in my July 1979 issue of an American Playboy (I bought it for the articles, promise) that got me thinking about the evolution of the drinks advert. In this particular ad, the marketing team has concocted a tale the somewhere in Chicago is a hidden case of the good stuff – and the reader has been given the clues to find it. Ingenious stuff.

Drinks adverts come in many forms. While the 20th century saw more traditional types of media magazines, newspapers, billboards and, in time, television act as conduits for drinks brands, now, you’re just as likely to see your tipple of choice in the hands of a celebrity or on an influencer’s Instagram reel. All effective, sometimes controversial and increasingly elaborate. So, where did it begin?

Grace Jones Wine Cooler

If Grace is selling, we’re buying

Hard copy sell

Despite having worked on the editorial teams of print magazines for the last decade, I struggle to recall a drinks ad in print that made an impression during that time. Looking back to the 20th century, however, and there are plenty that spring to mind (for good reasons, and for bad).

Taschen’s 20th Century Alcohol & Tobacco Ads: 100 Years of Stimulating Ads is a who’s who of brands. Smirnoff’s strapline ‘Haven’t tried Smirnoff? Where in the world have you been?’ is accompanied by a female model dressed as an astronaut; Grace Jones is the face of Sun Cooler wine coolers (me neither); while Tanqueray’s ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ ad can be purchased as a poster for a mere $5.

I’d be lying if I didn’t find most of them utterly charming, none more so than the chintzy Babycham adverts (I still pick up a case on the occasional trip to Lidl) with its signature cartoon fawn and timelessly retro iconography. Incidentally, it was also one of the first drinks advertised directly to women.

But, as has been well documented, many have not dated well. In my Playboy issue alone, I can count at least four adverts that would not be allowed to run today. Metaxa’s ad includes the line ‘While more and more women are enjoying it, Metaxa is still considered a man’s drink’, while ads for Chivas Regal and Jameson are unambiguous that both should only be bought for ‘dad’. Google ‘burning bra Smirnoff’ and get your head around that one. I wonder which current adverts will look as ridiculous in 60 years time. Efforts have even been made by some brands to address such sexism: in 2019, Budweiser reimagined three of its 1950s and 60s ads for its #SeeHer campaign.

Babycham advert

They don’t make ’em like this anymore

On the air

It’s important to note that between the years of 1936 (radio), 1948 (television) and 1996, television adverts of spirits – not beer or wine – were banned by agreement of the industry in the USA. When Prohibition ended in 1933, spirits brands self-imposed the ban in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of a second one. Nearly 50 years later and Seagram Company broke the spell.

In his 1996 article for The New York Times, ‘Liquor Industry Ends its Ban in Broadcasting’, Stuart Elliot wrote: ‘The decision by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the liquor trade association also known as Discus, comes six months after the Seagram Company, the nation’s second-largest seller of distilled spirits, began defying the ban…. by running commercials for several brands in scattered markets around the country.’ Not long after, Seagram ran a Chivas Regal Scotch ad during a sports TV programme. Anti-alcohol groups were up in arms – even President Clinton urged Seagram to reconsider.

On this side of the pond, TV ads for alcohol were enjoying their time in the sun in the 1980s, most notably, beer adverts (Master of Malt has rounded up five of its favourites here). Guinness’ 1999 ‘Surfer’ advert, where a black and white film of men out-surfing horses (the horses aren’t surfing, of course) is particularly nostalgic for me as a 90s child, and its 1994 Anticipation advert appeared in print, TV and cinema – and won the advertising agency Arks numerous awards.

And they’ve only got better: Black Cow’s launch advert, made by award-winning agency The Romans recreated the 1989 Accrington Stanley milk advert (although it was later banned by the ASA for promoting excessive drinking); and Glenmorangie’s recent ‘It’s Kind of Delicious and Wonderful’ (produced by DDB Paris) both spring to mind. Hendrick’s Gin even launched its first-ever TV advert in November 2020.

 

The future of drinks advertising

So, what’s to come? Tik Tok may be ruling the social media kingdom in 2021, but there is one thing that is glaringly absent – drinks adverts. Why? Because most of its users can’t legally drink, and until the platform can prove that the majority of its users can, that is how it will stay. According to Dave Infante of VinePair in his article ‘Gazing into the Foggy Future of Alcohol Advertising on TikTok’, that won’t be changing any time soon – although it may do some day.

The team at Tik Tok also most likely took their stance after a fallout on Snapchat, where a misjudged alcohol ad was deemed to breach the rules related to advertising to children.

According to social media marketing company, Social Bakers, Instagram is in fact leading the way when it comes to drinks advertising – especially on Instagram Stories. It names Jameson Irish Whiskey, Jack Daniel’s and Bud Light as being the most successful.

Personally, a return to the print and TV adverts of yore (minus the prejudice) would be a welcome reprieve. I’ve never tried a wine cooler – but if anyone could persuade me, it would be Grace Jones.

Rules and regs

The rules behind UK alcohol TV ads you probably didn’t know (sourced from the ASA):

– Ever seen a group of drinkers buying rounds? Probably not – because references to, or suggestion of, buying repeat rounds of alcoholic drinks are not acceptable.

– Puppets, cartoons and even rhyming are to be avoided so as not to attract the attention of children who might be watching. Oh, and slang language associated with teens is frowned upon too. I stan that.

– Music used in alcohol adverts must not be that considered popular with young audiences. Saying that, if the music consequently becomes popular among young people, then it is allowed.

Showing people drinking in their workplace is prohibited, unless it is a celebratory drink when the working day has clearly finished. (But what about working from home?!)

– Even the pour of a drink has its rules: Champagne cork pop and overflow, fine. Soaking partygoers in Champagne, no. The pouring panache of a bartender should be OK, but an amateur, probably not. In my humble opinion, this should apply in real-life too.

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Mother Root, the drink bringing the switchel back

New to MoM, the fiery Mother Root Ginger Switchel combines a 17th century recipe with the 21st century rise of delicious zero ABV drinks. We chat to founder Bethan Higson…

New to MoM, the fiery Mother Root Ginger Switchel combines a 17th century recipe with the 21st century rise of delicious zero ABV drinks. We chat to founder Bethan Higson about how becoming a mother inspired her, the health benefits of a switchel and taking her creation worldwide.

I usually only reserve the term ‘mouthfeel’ for describing drinks. However, on this occasion I’d also argue that saying the word ‘switchel’ feels good on the lips, tongue and teeth. It certainly beats ‘ginger-water’, ‘switchy’ and ‘haymaker’s punch’, three other terms that this – until recently – long-forgotten vinegar-based drink went by in the American colonies during the late 17th century.

I say until recently because in 2019, Bethan Higson released Mother Root, an elixir made up of organic apple cider vinegar, blossom honey, ginger juice, ginger extract and capsicum extract. When she was pregnant with her first child in 2015, Higson became very aware, very quickly, of the lack of non-alcoholic liquid on the market (this was pre-Seedlip). On a quest to find ways of bringing acidity into her drinks, she stumbled across an article in The New York Times, ‘Dropping Acid’, that explored the world of drinking vinegars – and the switchel came into her consciousness.

“I started to research and came across these old shrub recipes,” she explains. “They had the complex flavour profiles that I love in Champagne and Riesling, that balance between sweet and sour characters. I tried them and they were amazing, so I just started making them for my own benefit.”

It wasn’t until she became pregnant with her second child however that she decided to turn her homemade shrubs into a brand. She booked a spot at the Peckham Christmas Market (Pexmas, love it) to give herself a goal and made 180 bottles – they sold out in less than two days. Now, Higson makes around 3,500 bottles every few months. Not too shabby for a drink that’s been out of the spotlight for four centuries.

Beth Higson from Mother Root

Mixing in her kitchen, it’s Beth Higson from Mother Root

Old world meets new

This isn’t Higsons’ first rodeo in the world of drinks. “I studied languages at university, French and Italian, and I really wanted to work in an industry where I could use them. An opportunity came up where I could work for a wine PR brand and they needed a French speaker. I knew I liked wine, but I didn’t know anything about the trade. I fell in love with the business straight away because it’s all about the stories behind the products, the people. With wine and craft beverages in general, it’s the care and attention of the people, their love of the land, and the simple ingredients that you take for granted but people obsess over. That romanticism was amazing.”

She stayed in the industry working for the likes of Sopexa, LVMH and Champagne Devaux and then she fell pregnant and her sights turned to the no-ABV space. “I love ginger for a start and ginger beers are never gingery enough for me, so when I heard about the switchel I was fascinated.”

The origins of the switchel are largely unknown (the American Colonies, the Caribbean and ancient China are all mooted), but its existence in the USA is well documented in literature. Carrie takes a glass to Laura and Pa in one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, The Long Winter set in Wisconsin. While Herman Melville (best known for Moby Dick) writes about it in I and My Chimney: “I will give a traveler a cup of switchel, if he want it.”

What we do know is that it was often consumed by farmers in the long hot summers due to its thirst-quenching and refreshing powers – and tales of those farmers carrying them in the fields in mason jars and keeping them chilled in cold streams abound. Variations emerged in various regions with the likes of molasses being used in the south, and maple syrup in the east, and then they fell out of fashion when refrigeration and access to refined sugars became possible.

When Higson discovered them during her research, it quenched her thirst for an alternative to booze: “Alcohol is not the prerequisite to quality – I liked having that problem to solve.”

Mother Root PeNOcillin

Mother Root PeNOcillin, see what they did there?

Ginger spice

The choice of a ginger switchel was two-fold: “I love ginger for a start – ginger beers are never gingery enough for me – and I thought that ginger had the added benefit of having a warming finish which you miss when you’re not having a drink. It makes you sip it more slowly.”

There are also the numerous health benefits associated with both apple cider vinegar and ginger. Oh, and there’s one more benefit: I’ve found that it works a treat on a hangover. Higson laughs when I make my confession: “My sister says that too! Apple cider vinegar is actually said to balance your blood sugar, because alcohol really messes with your blood glucose levels.” It’s also good for settling the stomach, making Mother Root a great choice for an aperitif.

When it comes to making it, Higson develops the recipe in her kitchen, while production takes place at a small husband and wife-run manufacturer just outside London. Apple cider vinegar is macerated with the ginger before being sweetened with blossom honey, lightly filtered and then bottled, all in small batches. It’s a simple recipe but one that requires the use of high-quality ingredients. “It’s a relatively simple drink to make, but the complexity comes in with choosing the right ingredients. When I was going through the process we went through 20 different iterations of tiny differences – ‘should we us this honey, that honey’. Even if you just go into a supermarket you have about 12 different styles of honey and there is the minutiae of the aromas. That’s where you get the differences in quality and balance.”

Mother Root Switchel and soda landscape

Mother Root Switchel and soda

Hot take

When it comes to drinking Mother Root, Higson’s signature serve couldn’t be easier. Her Mother Root & Soda mixes one part Mother Root with four parts of soda water, garnish with a slice of orange and a sprig of rosemary. She explains that although the garnishes look good, they also help to build the flavour profile, with the addition of the savoury, herbal notes of the rosemary and the orange’s essential oils.

Other non-alcoholic and some alcoholic recipes on her site include the likes of a Hot Not Toddy, a Dry White that gives drinkers the option of adding Riesling wine, a Switch Cobbler using sherry and an Old Kyoto. Higson also likes it in her no-ABV riff on a Penicillin (a Pe-No-cillin). “I’m a huge whisky fan, so I mix lapsang souchong tea with Mother Root, lemon and honey – it makes a smoky, peaty and warming cocktail.”

Come summer, she’ll have more flavours to play with as she teases a new launch that will add a new string to Mother Root’s already popular bow. Until then, Higson is focusing on the constant growth of the original. “As we’re growing, I’m looking to offset my carbon emissions and then going forward, that sustainability piece will be more of an anchor.” She also has her sights on going international. Perhaps one day, Mother Root will find its way into the hands of a 21st century, Wisconsin farmer.

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Five minutes with… Colin Gordon, distillery manager at Ardbeg

We spoke to the new Ardbeg distillery manager, Colin Gordon, about being a whisky romantic, the future of the category, and what the distillery and its new stillhouse have in…

We spoke to the new Ardbeg distillery manager, Colin Gordon, about being a whisky romantic, the future of the category, and what the distillery and its new stillhouse have in store for visitors when it reopens. Oh, and a mosh pit restaurant…

Arbeg means ‘small promontory’ in Scots Gaelic, but you’d have to work hard not to spot it perched proudly off the south coast of Islay. The distillery has been producing whisky originally for blends but now bottled as single malts for over 200 years (on and off). The range goes from the youthful Wee Beastie 5 year old, to its newly released 25 year old. Its long-running distillery manager Michael ‘Mickey’ Heads stepped down from his 13-year tenure in late 2020 and now, Colin Gordon (who has held the similar roles at neighbouring Port Ellen Maltings and Lagavulin Distillery) holds the keys to the growing site. So, what has he got in store for us?

Colin Gordon from Ardbeg

It’s Colin Gordon from Ardbeg!

Master of Malt: How have the first few months of running Ardbeg been since you started in October 2020?

Colin Gordon: It’s been brilliant! I already knew the site quite well just from already being on Islay and there is always a buzz here. There’s a close-knit team [about 30 people in the summer] which has been great since coming in – it doesn’t feel like I’ve only been here a few months. It’s been really busy and although Covid has brought its challenges, we’ve been making some fine new make spirits.

MoM: What made you make the move from Lagavulin to Ardbeg?

CG: It’s funny, I really wouldn’t have moved for many jobs to be honest. I already knew quite a few people who worked for Glenmorangie, so when the role came up myself and my family were really settled on Islay and we want to stay here. The Ardbeg brand is alive and well, it is such a funky brand, there’s a great team where you’re really involved and I just felt like it was the right opportunity.

MoM: What was your relationship with Ardbeg before you began the job?

CG: Islay is a close-knit place. Where I used to work in Port Ellen is probably the only place in the world where you get told how your malt is going when you’re standing in the queue buying a loaf of bread. I’d already dealt with Mickey quite closely, so I knew quite a lot about Ardbeg, and it was always a great place to visit and get lunch at the cafe. During Islay Fèis Ìle, the last day is always at Ardbeg, and it was always a really great mix between locals and visitors. Of course it’s also a great whisky – Ardbeg as a liquid is a grand dram.

Ardbeg Distillery on Islay

Ardbeg looking all dark and moody

MoM: What’s the best thing about running a distillery?

CG: I love whisky. It’s funny because there are so many people who work in the industry who don’t love it, but I genuinely do, and single malt especially, so I love what we’re doing day to day. Distilleries are so intertwined with the place as well and we’ve still got people working here related to people who worked here before them and as the 21st distillery manager, you’ve just got to come in and keep that going because we have passionate fans all over the world. No day is the same, and Islay often has unique challenges. As an industry though, we collaborate: I think that’s stronger on Islay – it’s like you’re one brand.

MoM: What does it take to be a distillery manager?

CG: I would say you need to be quite calm under pressure because things do go wrong and you will always have challenges, from poorer crop for your malt to process issues, day-to-day managing, customs – you know, all that good stuff. You need to be passionate about what you do and be open to change and innovation which is huge at Ardbeg: you need that mindset. Distillation and making whisky or new make spirit is a process we’ve been doing for a long time, so you need to try things and have an open mind for that. You’ve got to like people too because ultimately you’re a people manager.

MoM: Did Mickey Heads give you any advice on taking over?

CG: Mickey and I didn’t have a long handover because of Covid and everything was delayed. Mickey finished on 1 October which was pretty much the day I started. We went for a walk around the site and in a very calm manner he said: “This is a great site. Use the team and you’ll be absolutely fine.” He didn’t give me anything too worrying, but he did recommend a few things he’d like to see done. 

Ardbeg distillery (Credit: Phil Wilkinson)

Ardbeg distillery (Credit: Phil Wilkinson)

MoM: Are there any changes you’re looking to implement?

CG: I think the biggest thing for us is really around volume as the demand continues to grow. We have built a new stillhouse and doubled up with two wash stills and two spirit stills. We will hopefully finish at the end of this month and that will be key to help us maintain the brand. Everything [from the original stills] has been replicated, so they’re identical and we need to make sure they run the same, and the spirit we’re running off is the best quality. There will be other bits and pieces, too. 

MoM: What are the nuances of the Ardbeg distillery that are different to what you’ve experienced before?

CG: We’re still quite manual in a lot of respects. A lot of the places I’ve worked before have been automated, but I’m a bit of a whisky romantic at heart so I like that the mash is still very manual. The operators are the sequence, with valves being opened by hand, so that’s one of the biggest differences. We’ve still got a lot of people interacting with the process.

MoM: What do you think will be the challenges for whisky distilleries in Islay in the coming years?

CG: I think there are a number of things that will pose challenges. There are a number of distilleries on Islay that will hit a spate of retirements and we need to make sure we have the right people coming through. There is a fine balance in rural Scotland (and rural UK) in that we need to make sure we keep our young population so that we have the next generation working here. That is a real issue – we need to make sure we have the right people to grow. Long term, it’s all about sustainability. The Scotch Whisky Association has set ambitious targets and we support that 100% as a business. They are good challenges.

MoM: What’s on the horizon for Ardbeg in 2021?

CG: Nothing but exciting times. In terms of the distillery side, we have the new stillhouse and there are some more exciting bottlings and special releases. The visitor centre also plays a large role and when we can welcome people back, one of the things we’ve looked at since Covid is our restaurant. It’s one of the great things people loved here, it was like organised chaos (like a mosh pit sometimes), so we’re looking at how we can develop that and restructure nicely so we have an outdoor eatery. It will be like a big American-style trailer with smoked foods and we’re really looking at what we can do with that. We’re a brand that doesn’t sit still.

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IWD 2021 interview: Nicole Sykes from Maker’s Mark

Kicking off our coverage for International Women’s Day 2021, Millie Milliken talks to Nicole Sykes, who has worked in some of the UK’s most revered bars. Now, she takes on…

Kicking off our coverage for International Women’s Day 2021, Millie Milliken talks to Nicole Sykes, who has worked in some of the UK’s most revered bars. Now, she takes on the challenge of representing one of Kentucky’s most famous bourbons, Maker’s Mark.

Nicole Sykes was aware of whisky from a very young age. Having spent many of her childhood summers with her grandparents in her hometown of Lanark, Scotland, she was surrounded by people who were proud of their Scotch whisky heritage.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and Sykes, as of January 2021, is the UK Diplomat for Maker’s Mark. It’s her first role brand-side, having spent her career so far behind the bar of some of the UK’s best-known cocktail bars: from Edinburgh’s Voodoo Rooms, to London’s Lyaness and most recently east London’s Satan’s Whiskers as its general manager.

And while Sykes has enjoyed success in both Tequila and rum competitions (Patron Perfectionists and Bacardi Legacy), it seems whisky has ultimately stolen her heart. “When I got into bartending, bourbon, Scotch, any kind of whisky was my spirit of choice,” she tells me. “I started bartending during the gin boom, so consumers weren’t asking about it as much and I think that really drove my love for it.”

Nicole Sykes Patron Perfectionist winner

Nicole Sykes, Patron Perfectionist

Time to represent

So, what does being the Maker’s Mark UK Diplomat involve? “Sharing the unique, handcrafted story of Maker’s Mark with bartenders and bourbon enthusiasts, being the face of the brand, and supporting people and bartenders through education,” she said.

That story starts in Loretto, Kentucky, 1953, when Bill Samuels Sr recreated a 170-year-old family recipe, creating his own pioneering mash bill (via the method of baking several loaves of bread with different grains) and swapping the traditional rye for Maker’s trademark red winter wheat grain. The bottle shape and design are the work of Margie Samuels. The first woman to be inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame, she was responsible for the name, the recognisable rectangular-bottomed bottle and the signature red-wax seal.

It’s this story, the liquid and Maker’s Marks ethos of working (a lot by hand) that drew Sykes away from the bar. “The decision [to leave Satan’s Whiskers] was based solely on it being Maker’s Mark,” she explains. “It’s a brand I’ve followed and loved in my career and something kind of sparked inside of me… I wanted to continue the work that Amanda has done.”

Maker's Mark label

Each Maker’s Mark bottle is labelled by hand

Women in whisky

Amanda being Amanda Humphrey, who held the position prior to Sykes, before moving to Kentucky to take on the brand’s education and drinks program. It’s encouraging to see the position remain in the hands of a woman – the whisky category continues to grapple with its representation of women, something that has begun to be reported on more widely this side of the pond.

It’s a reflection of our times: The Guardian reported in 2020 that women in the UK now drink 40 million more glasses of whisky a year than in 2010. More female distillers are rising through the ranks too, but the industry still has a way to go to shake off the ‘boys club’ image.

Thankfully, Sykes hasn’t come up against any stigma in her whisky journey so far. “I haven’t had to think about it. We’ve had a really good response and there is a really good representation of women working for EBS [Edrington-Beam Suntory, the brand’s UK importer] and for Maker’s Mark as a company – having their support has been great.”

When it comes to other women championing the industry she cites Georgie Bell (now hat Bacardi and serial whisky ambassador) and Becky Paskin (IWSC Spirits Communicator of the Year) who co-founded the Our Whisky initiative to challenge whisky’s perception as a man’s drink back in 2018. She also vividly recalls meeting EBS’ Terri Botherston and Lucy Morton for the first time when she was bartending. “They were the first women who had ever hosted a whisky tasting for me” – they clearly left an impression.

Nicole Sykes, Maker's Mark bourbon

You need excellent balance to be a bartender

Liquid dreams

When I speak to Sykes, she’s only been in the job for five weeks but she admits that she’s already fallen for the people that surround the whisky industry. She describes a real sense of community, especially in bourbon, from distillery to distillery, something she finds refreshing to see.

She should have also spent her first two weeks of induction at the Star Hill Farm distillery in Kentucky – having never been to an American distillery, once Covid allows, she’ll be on the first plane over.

Until then however, she’s having fun playing with her new toy: “With my classic cocktail background I love putting Maker’s Mark into those kinds of drinks, especially bourbon Espresso Martinis.’ She also likes to bake with it – her bourbon butter pancakes recipe on Instagram brought a tear to my eye.

She’s looking forward to bringing the passion that emanates out of 3350 Burks Spring Road, Loretto, Kentucky, to the people of the UK: “I can’t wait to continue to proudly share the great liquid, the genuine story behind the brand and the passion of the people behind it. It’s in their veins – they grew up with it and are so passionate about it.” Perhaps Loretto and Lanark have more in common than meets the eye.

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Classic bars – The Gibson

In the second part of our occasional series on classic bars, we head to a listed, Edwardian ex-pub in Old Street, that specialises in a certain pickle-adorned cocktail. Welcome to…

In the second part of our occasional series on classic bars, we head to a listed, Edwardian ex-pub in Old Street, that specialises in a certain pickle-adorned cocktail. Welcome to The Gibson.

Head to 44 Old Street and you’d be forgiven for thinking the petite Edwardian building is a natty little boozer, complete with a hanging pub sign and green-tiled exterior walls. Venture inside, however, and you’ll find one of London’s most lauded bars.

The Gibson was opened by bartender Marian Beke in 2016 and won sixth place in the World’s 50 Best Bars soon after. Since then this 1930s-style tribute to the glamour and ceremony of cocktail culture has drawn visitors on the search for Beke’s famous Gibson Martinis (incidentally, my favourite cocktail), cigar collection, stellar service, treasure-trove decor and nightly changing live music.

It’s an industry favourite too, attracting bartenders from around the world wanting to get behind its uplit, copper bar to take advantage of Beke’s many homemade ingredients, house pickles and one-of-a-kind glassware. So, where did it all begin?

The Gibson Bar London

It looks like an ordinary boozer in Old Street

Pickle me this

“I used to work at Nightjar which is a great place, and I think it was just the next step,” explains Beke of his decision to set up shop solo. “In our industry you work 18/19 hours a day and I was thinking, I’m 30/31 now, if I wait until I’m 36 or 37, it might just be too difficult.”

To find the perfect spot, Beke had to have three or four ideas for his bar in the bag to account for the unknowns of location, size and licensing laws of his new venture. And then he found an 1870s listed building off the crossroads of Old Street and Clerkenwell Road, and the rest fell into place.

“When you look at the outside, it looks like a pub, it’s very English and with gin being very British, we asked what drink was the king of gin – the Martini.” Back in 2016, although some bars were championing the famous cocktail, Beke found that there was a distinct lack of Gibson culture (a gin Martini with a pickled onion).

The original cocktail is thought to be named after Charles Dana Gibson, a turn-of-the-20th-century American illustrator. He created the Gibson Girl, a pictorial representation of an independent Euro-American woman which Beke adopted as his logo, hung her image outside his bar, and The Gibson bar was born.

Gibson Girl

It’s a Gibson Girl!

Drinking time

The 50-odd-strong cocktail menu starts, of course with three iterations of the famous Gibson Martini. Its signature, inspired by William Boothby’s 1908 book The World’s Drinks, combines Copperhead Gin, pickling spice, Martini Ambrato Riserva, house double-pickled onion and a twist of lemon. This is followed by the Redistilled Gibson which macerates its ingredients for 72 hours; while the Aged Gibson Martini is aged in ex-balsamic barrels for six months.

The rest of the menu doesn’t escape Charles Gibson’s influence either. “I was looking for something different,” says Beke of what he wanted to create back in 2016. He found inspiration in Gibson’s 1901 Life’s Gibson Calendar. “The calendar concept is interesting, because people do relate to different months,” says Beke. “January has its own flavours, slowly moving through to June, July and August relating to summer with more fruity flavours, and then to December with the likes of whisky cocktails.”

Described as a ‘time machine’ the menu includes cocktails with names such as Gnome Alone, Royal Warrant, Jaffa Cakes and Bread & Butter with each month having four cocktails, one for each week of the month, and drinks comprising up to as many as 10 ingredients. As with his homemade pickles, Beke has also introduced some standout additions into his drinks. The house Red Snapper includes lobster broth and horseradish squid ink; the Shanghai Sling uses a duck fat-washed rum; you’ll find cannabis syrup in your Lindo Gaucho; and if you’ve ever wanted to try preserved salty duck egg Advocaat, do yourself a favour and order The Frying Dutchman.

I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention the tiki-esque glassware. Think cocktails served in a golden foot, an open hippo mouth, as a lightbulb, swimming in a paper hat and hanging from a monkey’s tail. Of course, what’s inside the glass is most important for Beke, but he’s been clever to recognise the role that social media can play in a bar’s success. He also saw first-hand guests’ reactions when he took those visuals away: “For the first time after five years, we decided to do something simple, seasonal and served in the likes of Champagne flutes with 30% off. So many people were like ‘no, no where is the proper glass?’ – it was so funny to see what happens when you take the glass or garnish away.”

Inside the Gibson

Inside the Gibson

Gibson on wheels

Thankfully, Covid hasn’t stopped Beke turning out his creations and the Gibson Boutique is a one-stop shop for all of our home drinking needs. Cigars, cocktail art and even pieces from the back bar (Gibson Lager, Electric Bitters, The Gibson’s Del Professore Pickled Vermouth) can be purchased, as well as a selection of garnishes – beer lego jellies, porcupine quills *add to cart*.

Drinks include Gibson Martini sets, all three signature Gibsons, Buttered Old Fashioneds, a Pink Death in the Afternoon and the three-pepper Kiss of a Scorpion.

It goes without saying though that I and the bars many other fans can’t wait to get back inside (or outside) the building. Beke’s focus on service is one of The Gibson’s most defining features, with seated only service, side pickles to nibble on, live music, and digestif shots and chocolate arriving with the bill, the whole experience of drinking at 44 Old Street is a memorable and unexpected one. “I always prefer it when people don’t know us and are passing by and imagine they’re walking into a pub,” explains Beke of what he hopes guests feel when they visit, “I want them to think this is the best experience they’ve had in a long time.”

The Gibson bar

I just popped in for a pint, and now this…

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Cocktail of the Week: The Diamondback

This week’s cocktail is a post-Prohibition heavyweight, that plays with rye whiskey, Chartreuse and apple-based spirits. We owe it all to an unassuming, Maryland turtle… it’s the Diamondback. I have…

This week’s cocktail is a post-Prohibition heavyweight, that plays with rye whiskey, Chartreuse and apple-based spirits. We owe it all to an unassuming, Maryland turtle… it’s the Diamondback.

I have quite a few things in common with terrapins: we like to feed on shrimps, crabs, clams and mussels; we are known to hibernate in the winter; and we like to catch raindrops in our mouths. We also share the Diamondback cocktail – for the terrapins, it’s their namesake and for me, well, I just like to drink them.

The diamondback terrapin (so called because of the pattern on its shell) was the inspiration for the Diamondback Lounge at the Lord Baltimore Hotel where the cocktail was invented. This aquatic turtle which thrives in the mangroves and marshes of North America, is Maryland’s official state reptile, and University football fans will recognise the Maryland Terrapins’ jaunty, beshelled mascot with an ‘M’ emblazoned on its proud chest.

Dianondback

This is a Diamondback

The Lord Baltimore Hotel (which still stands today) was one of the tallest structures in Baltimore when it was built in 1928. The Diamondback Lounge no longer exists at the hotel, and the bartender responsible for the eponymous cocktail remains a mystery, but the most well-documented record of the recipe can be found in Ted Saucier’s Bottoms Up, published in 1951.

It calls for 1.5oz (40ml) rye whiskey, 0.75oz (20ml) applejack, and 0.75oz (20ml) yellow Chartreuse, shaken with ice, strained over ice in a rocks glass and garnished with mint. History buffs among you will note the post-Prohibition date on Saucier’s tome – and considering the 100 proof strength of each ingredient, the Diamondback would have been a pretty powerful reintroduction to drinking for the native Baltimorian.

But the contemporary Diamondback comes in a slightly different guise. How has the cocktail changed its geometry for the modern-day drinker?

The great Chartreuse debate

Saucier’s recipe calls for the use of yellow Chartreause, but in 2005, Seattle bartender Murray Stenson put his version of a Diamondback on the Zig Zag Café’s menu, swapping yellow Chartreuse for green. A bold move – with the green variant coming in at an even higher ABV than the original yellow, making this cocktail even more potent. But with the rye whiskey threatening to dominate the flavour profile, the more herbal and pronounced green Chartreuse was perhaps chosen by Stenson to stand up for itself. Fast-forward to 2011 and Jim Meehan adopts the green method too in his landmark PDT Cocktail Book.

Stenson is also responsible for a change in method and serve style. His recipe calls for the three ingredients to be stirred over ice, rather than shaken, strained into a chilled cocktail class and garnished with a cherry. Meehan eschews the cherry but it isn’t rare to see a Diamondback garnished with a lemon peel.

Bottoms Up

Bottoms Up!

Which rye when?

The choice of whiskey is also left up to interpretation. While Saucier’s recipe (and most since) simply call for ‘rye whiskey’, Stenson’s choice of Rittenhouse Straight Rye 100 proof (50% ABV) has been adopted by Diamondback fans as their favourite pour. Its notes of dried fruit, spices and caramel are the perfect companion for the herbal green Chartreuse and complements the applejack component (more on that soon).

Interestingly, Meehan reverts to Saucier’s loose prescription of rye whiskey, but raises its measure from 1.5 oz (40ml) to 2 oz (50ml). With that in mind, we can confirm that slightly lighter Woodford Reserve Kentucky Rye or Wild Turkey Straight Rye sit beautifully in a Diamondback. As does Finalnd’s Kyro Distillery’s Malt Rye for something slightly less conventional, but no less delicious.

What on earth is applejack?

Saucier’s recipe calls for the addition of applejack. UK drinkers probably won’t be familiar with this apple brandy spirit. So-called for its production method of ‘jacking’ (freezing fermented cider and then removing the ice) it originated in New Jersey in 1698 and is attributed to the Laird family. During the 19th and 20th centuries, it declined in popularity, but post-Prohibition, The Laird family were granted permission to make it again for ‘medicinal purposes’ and its popularity rose again.

Stenson honoured the Laird family in his reinvention of the Diamondback, citing the use of Laird’s Straight Applejack (Laird’s standard applejack bottling contains neutral alcohol along with apple brandy), while Meehan simply states the use of apple brandy in his recipe. It isn’t uncommon to see the use of Calvados in the place of applejack – spirits in kind, but using different apples. 

Diamondback Cocktail

Diamondback Cocktail, courtesy of the Bar with No Name

And the riffs keep coming. New east London bar from Remy Savage, A Bar With Shapes For A Name, has bottled its version of a Diamondback for delivery. It combines Knobb Creek (at 50% ABV, a nod to the original recipe), cider eau-de-vie (a tribute to applejack), Chartreuse MOF (neither green nor yellow, a diplomatic choice), raspberry eau-de-vie and manuka honey. “This drink from the 1950´s is « big » both aromatically and in terms of ABV,” the team writes on its Instagram post. “We made a few changes to try and soften it up and give it a crisp yet delicate fruity finish.”

My favourite version, below, uses Saucier’s ratios and ingredients but stirred and with an added cherry as per Stenson’s recipe. It’s enough to get me, and the terrapins, out of hibernation.

How to make a Diamondback:

30ml Rittenhouse Straight Rye whiskey
15ml Laird’s Straight Applejack
15ml Yellow Chartreuse

 Stir over ice and strain into a chilled Nick & Nora glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.

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The new faces of absinthe

As London gets its first absinthe distillery, Millie Milliken arms herself with an absinthe spoon and discovers the elixirs that are giving the spirit a new lease of life, and…

As London gets its first absinthe distillery, Millie Milliken arms herself with an absinthe spoon and discovers the elixirs that are giving the spirit a new lease of life, and why the category might just surprise you.

Among my taxidermy collection are a mouse with a Jacobean collar (Blackadder), a Victorian menagerie of hummingbirds (The Jackson Five) and a sleeping mouse (Cheese). None of them, however, come close to the specimens that inhabit absinthe parlour, The Last Tuesday Society, in Hackney. One of my last visits to the curio-stuffed absinthe bar saw me take a perch next to a stuffed lion called Leonora (see header) sitting upright and wearing a red top hat. Directors Allison Crawbuck and Rhys Everett sure know how to do whimsy.

They also know how to make absinthe, having just opened London’s first absinthe distillery. It’s where they make Devil’s Botany from a small base in Leyton, using British wheat base spirit and 14 botanicals, including grand wormwood, green anise, devil’s claw root, meadowsweet and elderflower.

It’s part of a new wave of absinthes that includes Hendrick’s version, launched in 2019, which join more established brands such as St George and, of course, La Fée in changing people’s perceptions of this misunderstood, historically demonised and enigmatic spirit.

Yet, there’s still plenty of work to do. Those stories of hallucinations, green fairies and setting sugar cubes on fire still abound, and it’s ban for nearly a century, in the US in 1912, France in 1915 and the rest of Europe, hasn’t done its reputation many favours. But a world-wide repeal throughout the early noughties led to its re-emergence.

With so much history, ritual and romance, not to mention famous drinkers including Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway, it’s a category that home drinkers are starting to rediscover. So fix yourself a Death in the Afternoon, pop some Piaf on the record player and settle in.

Alison Crawbuck & Rhys Everett Devil's Botany Absinthe

Rhys Everett & Alison Crawbuck enjoying a glass of absinthe

A new horizon

“It’s always been the dream,” explains Crawbuck when I ask her why she and Everett decided to make their own absinthe. “We opened the bar in 2016, importing our absinthes from other artisanal distillers in Switzerland and France, sharing their stories, learning from their history, and seeing where we could make our own mark.”

It was important for them to highlight the complexity of absinthe, converting the naysayers who voice their dislike of aniseed and showing that there is so much more beyond it. “Our research found lots of 18th century recipes for herbal elixirs, so it was a mixture of finding out what went into the absinthe and making sure that we’re using botanicals used pre-ban and creating our own twist on it,” says Everett. “We chose herbs that grow around Hackney Marshes, but also those that make a difference to the absinthe to give it a more unique flavour. That’s how we landed on elderflower and meadowsweet.”

They also wanted to highlight the ‘bleue’ (clear) style of absinthe, as opposed to the more famous ‘verte’, which originated in Switzerland and was perfected during absinthe’s ban to cleverly trick officials looking for the giveaway green liquid. The absinthe also ‘louches’, turning a beautifully milky white on impact with water, a mark of a high-quality absinthe.

Someone else who has a keen eye on absinthe is Lesley Gracie. She may be better known for being the master distiller for Hendrick’s Gin, but 2019 saw the bar world in a frenzy when she presented them with the brand’s very first absinthe. 

From her lab up in Girvan, she set herself the challenge of creating one that showed the best of star anise, but also made it approachable – not to mention giving people a lower ABV.

“The way that we produce gin is very similar to how you make absinthe,” she explained. After all, absinthe is also a botanical spirit. “I really like absinthe, but some of them that are out there are so strong: if you have something at 70% ABV, you drink it and your ears melt and fall off. We pulled the strength down to 48% abv which means that when somebody makes a cocktail with it, they can pour a proper measure and really allow that flavour to shine through.”

The La Fee absinthe green room

The La Fee green room

The great re-awakening

None of this would have been possible without the help of a chap called George Rowley. The brand owner of La Fée, which was launched in 2000, also helped kickstart the repeal of absinthe’s ban in Europe. I (virtually) meet him in The Green Room, the very square footage where it all happened.

In the late 1990s, he set about making his own absinthe. He travelled to France to meet Marie-Claude Delahaye, owner of Musée de l’Absinthe to discuss how to go about it. It didn’t go well. “A week later I decided to write her a letter that said, ‘I understand where you’re coming from and we know absinthe is legally banned in France, but if we could find a distillery that used to make absinthe would you be the source of the recipe from the museum so we could guarantee that what we were selling was real absinthe?’ She agreed.”

And so La Fée was born. It was launched at The Groucho Club, helmed by none other than legendary bartender Dick Bradsell who chose Bohemian Sours to showcase it. Fast-forward 21 years and Rowley has just added a new 20cl version of his Parisienne bottling to the collection. It comes complete with an autopourer (for a fuss-free serve) and a menu including cocktails such as the French Mojito, Spider Highball and the La Fee Sour. Drinks that bring absinthe into the 21st century.

The French Mojito made with La Fee absinthe

The French Mojito made with La Fee

Expect the unexpected

Crawbuck too suggests simpler drier serves a world away from the traditional ritual of resting a slotted spoon with a sugar cube on top of an absinthe-filled glass and slow-pouring water over the top. “For the home bartender, absinthe as a Spritz is a great afternoon pick me up,” suggests Crawbuck. “It’s a time and setting most people don’t think to have absinthe, sitting in the sun, but it works, especially with our recipe being floral and herbaceous.”

Jenny Griffiths, previously manager at absinthe-bar Croque Monsieur, champions Spritzes too, switching vermouth or amaro with absinthe and adding a dry wine and some fruit. She also found a myriad of other ways to transform classic recipes into something a bit different with the help of absinthe. The Absinthe Grasshopper was popular “despite how boozy that drink should have been”, while a twist on the traditional fountain brought with it some refreshment: “We filled the water part with cucumber and the smallest bit of sugar and rose liqueur. That always went down really well,” she said.

Strawberry and vanilla are flavours that Kelley Hill of The Distillery London picks out as unlikely bedfellows of absinthe. She’s created the Lady Claire, 40ml Chase Rhubarb, 10ml absinthe, 10ml Byrrh, 10ml crème de cassis, 1 bar spoon strawberry jam, shaken and double-strained into a coupe as well as the Pulp Fiction, a mix of Portobello 171, absinthe, cloudy apple, lemon juice, black grapes and mint, designed to share Pimm’s-style in a jug.

Bar manager at FAM, Tatjana Sendzimir

Bar manager at FAM, Tatjana Sendzimir

For bar manager of FAM, Tatjana Sendzimir, creating a frozen absinthe cocktail is an intriguing idea. That or a Daisy: “something quite light that if you found the right gin, you could play around with something bright and zingy. Like grapefruit, which would work with the floral notes in absinthe in quite a pronounced way,” she said.

If there’s a cardinal rule for Rowley though, absinthe should be drunk with ice, and lots of it.

“The activator within any drink with absinthe is the ice, the water acts as a catalyst for all the flavours.” He should know; he’s drunk absinthe every week for the last 21 years. I doff my drinking partner’s red top hat to him.

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