Category Archives: What I’ve been drinking

Civilization distilled – Bristol Method Gin

‘Civilization’, said the American novelist, William Faulkner, ‘is distillation’. His own contribution to distillation was the brewing of bathtub gin during Prohibition – raw spirit smuggled in from Cuba cut with juniper essence but we will pass rapidly on from that.


William Faulkner, novelist and gin maker

Although the term gin first came into use in the early eighteenth century in Britain, it had a long antecedent history in the ‘geneva’ (named after juniper rather than the Swiss city) of the Low Countries. As Bernard Mandeville eloquently put it in 1714, gin was:

the infamous Liquor, the name of which derived from juniper berries in Dutch, is now by frequent use and the Laconick spirit of the nation, from a word of middling length shrunk into a Monosyllable.

To reinforce its infamy, Mandeville added a concise but far from cheerful description:

Intoxicating Gin, that charms the unactive, the desperate, and crazy of either Sex […] It is a fiery Lake that sets the Brain in flame, burns up the Entrails, and scorches every Part within; and at the same time a Lethe of Oblivion, in which the Wretch immers’d drowns his most pinching Cares.’

In other words, it was probably pretty similar to Faulkner’s bathtub gin – and to the drink of the ‘Gin Craze’ of eighteenth-century London (as depicted by Hogarth), which was cut with turpentine, vitriol and other noxious substances.

Hogarth gin lane_210318

Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ – courtesy of

In the unprohibited British market, gin started to improve towards the end of the 1830s with Aeneas Coffey’s refinement of the continuous still. This produced a clearer, purer spirit with far fewer impurities. The only problem was that, as William Loftus’s 1850 Mixing and Reducing Book for the Use of Publicans makes abundantly clear, the spirit that came out of the still underwent a fair amount of, shall we say, ‘further work’ in the interests of both customers’ tastes and publicans’ profits.

Though Loftus claimed that ‘purity and wholesomeness have come to be regarded as of high importance’ he also noted that ‘coarse and injurious stuff is still consumed in many quarters’. His survey of 24 London pubs suggested that the alcohol content ranged from 14 to 61 ‘under proof’. Full proof gin we now know as 100% proof. That was the Navy standard, so that if you spilled gin on the gunpowder it would still explode. The sugar content in the gins sampled by Loftus ranged from entirely unsweetened to a sugar content of over 13 ozs per gallon. Those with low alcohol content had, he suggested, almost certainly been cut with the addition of Cayenne pepper to mimic the burn of higher alcohol.

Cayenne pepper was not one of Loftus’ recommended flavourings (though ‘chilies’ were). His taste ran to the classic botanicals, but he also pointed to the considerable differences between the ‘palates’ of the different gins. The difference, he said, ‘between Liverpool and Bristol gin, or between that prepared at Bristol and at Plymouth is as remarkable as the difference between Dublin and London stout, or Scotch and Irish malt whiskey’.

It’s noticeable that Bristol – in both these comparisons – is the odd one out. What was Bristol gin and how did it differ from standard gin?

We now have an answer. And it’s not just a report from an old text but a real drink. Michael Palij MW has turned from wine to gin and recreated Bristol gin from ingredients lists and a recipe found in the Bristol archives. In most gins the botanicals (flavourings such as juniper, orris root, angelica, orange peel and so on) are macerated or distilled together with the consequence that the flavours blend together. In Bristol gin they are not only distilled separately but distilled only when each is in season, giving fresher and more distinctive flavours. The botanicals – including Tuscan juniper and hand-cut Valencia oranges – that go into Smeaton’s Bristol Method Dry Gin are individually distilled in traditional copper pot stills.

Smeatons gin

Smeaton’s Bristol Method Dry Gin

Smeaton's recipe_210318

Smeaton’s – the recipe and the botanicals

Dry Gin, by the way, was the taste of the upper classes. The poorer the district the more sugar in the recipe. In the Victorian view of the world to appreciate dry champagne you had to start early and drink often. Was the same true of gin? Well yes, according to Loftus. Only the ‘respectable and monied classes’ preferred dry gin. Perhaps they too started young and drank often.


‘Bringing happiness, one glass at a time’: Digby Fine English Sparkling Wine

‘Bringing happiness, one glass at a time’ is the unofficial mission statement of Digby Fine English – or so suggests their co-founder. The brand is named after Sir Kenelm Digby and portraits of the seventeenth-century courtier, cookbook author and pirate (hardly the life of the blessed Delia) suggest he was a man who appreciated happiness – and pleasure.

Sir Kenelm Digby, from an 18th C folio on Knights of the Realm.

Sir Kenelm Digby (courtesty of

And a lot of people owe him rather a lot in the way of hedonistic joie de vivre. The weight of the evidence suggests that he was the man who made English glass the strongest in Europe and in so doing kickstarted the champagne industry. Without bottles that can withstand pressure sparkling wine can never get beyond mere ‘creaming’. Full-blooded sparkling wine generates a pressure of around 6 atmospheres (think the tyres of a London bus).

So, it’s perhaps fitting that Sir Kenelm’s name (and currently modest fame) has been appropriated by a resolutely English brand of sparkling wine. At the Oxford Foodies Festival last weekend I had the pleasure of tasting Digby Sparkling wine in the company of co-founder Trevor Clough. Trevor, with the support of husband Jason Humphrey (the co-founder) and wine-maker Dermot Sugrue (ex-Nyetimber and now making his own wine), has created a wine with considerable personality and considerable sophistication.

... , Trevor Clough, Jason Humphries, and new chairman Ewen Cameron

The Digby Fine English team (courtesy of

The Reserve Brut of 2009 has a French term on its label (rather to Digby’s founders’ regret) but apart from grapes (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay) and soil (the chalk arc that spreads from norther France to southern England) it owes little to France. The taste – to my palate – is dry, precise, refined and vivid. More Laurent-Perrier Extra Dry than Bollinger.

It’s also a quite ‘vinous’ taste – an annoyingly common and ill-defined word that pops up all the time in nineteenth-century descriptions of wine. In essence it means that it tastes like wine – which is not quite so common in these days of fruity ferments and over-yeasted and (arguably) over-carbonated sparkling wines. For the Digby wine guys it’s important not to be a champagne ‘me-too’. English sparkling wine must in their view (and mine too) stand on its own feet and find its own style.

The style, dressing and personality of the brand is English – with a lion on the label, houndstooth foil with a purple lining and a Fortnum & Mason’s scotch egg in the background. English-ness has always been a challenge for luxury brands. How do you steer a course between Aston Martins and warm bitter? It will be fascinating to see how Digby deal with this challenge.

Digby Fine English

The Digby Fine English range

One of the key business (if not stylistic) influences on the brand is the Napa Valley sparkling wine industry. A tour of the area convinced Jason and Trevor that a négociant model made more sense than a grower / producer model. Better to buy in grapes than grow your own. That enables each player in the value chain to focus on their own set of skills rather than trying to master them all – a lesson straight out of the business consultancy playbook.

A couple of Harpers interviews ( speak to the quality of the liquid – as do a clutch of awards including Gold for the Reserve Brut 2009 at the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships 2014 – and the recent deal with the Leander Club to become the official supplier of pink fizz testifies to the marketing nous of the Digby pair and their advisers.

Digby Leander Pink NV

Out with the lion, in with the Leander Club hippo

Champagne was always a recommended drink on the nineteenth-century for athletes and jockeys (and horses – though that’s another story) so I look forward to a generation of Olympic oarsmen fuelled by fizz. And, I hope, a successful future for Digby (

Champagne versus sparkling wine: the Bothy Vineyard challenge

The Bothy Vineyard ( is Oxford’s nearest vineyard. Run with imagination and dedication by Richard and Sian Liwicki, it produces award-winning white, rosé and red wines. New from Bothy this year is their sparkling brut rosé, Halcyon Days. But this piece is not a plug for Bothy but an opportunity to write about a remarkable tasting last month.

Bothy vineyard

The Bothy Vineyard

Richard is, to put it politely, a bit of a sceptic about champagne. He reckons that there are sparkling wines in the market which are not only preferred by tasters but considerably better value than the real stuff. So, he challenged a group of the Bothy’s friends (we all put in a few days’ work a year in the vineyard in return for a bottle or two and some of Sian’s top-notch cooking) to produce their best bottle of champagne or sparkling wine for a taste-off.

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Back to the terroir – Lambrusco re-booted

I went a week or so ago to the inaugural Oxford Wine Festival (

Among a range of interesting stands (and an excellent bar with some fascinating wines run by 1855 – I came across the range of Lambrusco wines imported by Kilgariff & Kahan and could not resist the opportunity write about red fizz for once.

Lambrusco is one of those wines that, rather like Beaujolais Nouveau, lost itself to easy drinking marketing in the 1970s and 1980s and has been painfully trying to regain lost ground ever since. Continue reading

Sovetskoye Shampanskoye – Stalin’s ‘plebeian luxury’

On 28 July 1936, Stalin signed Resolution no 1366 setting up three wine trusts that were tasked with making Soviet champagne. This was something of a challenge to Soviet vine-growers since until 1935 champagne or sparkling wine was seen as a ‘bourgeois luxury’ and they had been encouraged to root up the noble grapes planted in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in regions such as Abrau-Durso (on the Black Sea shores of the Crimea). These noble grapes had been the basis of a small production of Russian sparkling wine by the traditional method (what we now know as méthode champenoise) but official Soviet policy was to replace them with more prolific varieties.

Stalin (perhaps under the impulse given by Anastas Mikoyan, the People’s Commissar for External and Internal Trade), decided that champagne was ‘an important sign of material well-being, of the good life’. The pressure was on to show that under Communism goods such as champagne and caviar that were once the preserve of the wealthy were now available to Soviet workers.


Mikoyan, Stalin and Ordzhonikidze – the ‘Caucasus trio’ – with acknowledgments to Wikipedia

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Pedro Ximenez, 1911-2010: wine legend come to life

It was the year that saw the first non-stop flight from London to Paris, the year that saw the launch of the Titanic – and the end of the last Chinese Imperial Dynasty. It was 1911 and now I can say I’ve drunk wine over 100 years old.

A little fragile perhaps but still vivid on the nose with aromas of ginger, citrus and burnt sugar. A little less length than its younger siblings but still a force to be reckoned with. And there’s still stock available should you want to buy a bottle of this rare and remarkable wine.

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‘Harvested to the sound of gunfire, but drunk to the sound of trumpets’: tasting Champagne Pol Roger

1914 was one of the finest of all champagne vintages. Harvested by women, children and old men in the absence of the men of fighting age, it became Winston Churchill’s favourite wine (and favourite vintage).

Cassidy Dart, of Pol Roger UK, who presented the company’s range of 7 wines at the Bridge Street Wine Bar in Cambridge last week, has tasted this wine twice (lucky man). He describes it as still having a few bubbles, though the colour is slowly shifting towards orange / brown (as happens with almost all old white wines).


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Sherry cobbler comes to Cambridge | Drinking the 1840s with Charles Astor Bristed

Just over 150 years ago, Charles Astor Bristed was doubtless contemplating the start of term at Cambridge University. I’m doing the same, which is a reason for this blog, on the day the Freshers’ Week appears to begin for Graduates.

 There are differences, though. Charles Astor Bristed was a very wealthy American (the clue is in that middle name). His grandfather was THE Astor, the one who put ‘Astor’ into the Waldorf Astoria. That meant that, at Cambridge, he could be a ‘Fellow Commoner’. This were the aristos who shared the considerable privileges of the College Fellows (and were, usually, a good deal wealthier than the academics).

Waldorf Astoria

 Charles Astor Bristed was at Trinity College where, after a first degree at Yale, he had hopes of the highest academic honours. He didn’t quite make that grade but he did write a richly detailed book about the life of Cambridge students at that time. His book ‘Five Years in an English University’ covers the period from 1840-1845.

C A Bristed_160913

 As usual it’s the drink bits that interest me. His general take on Cambridge drinking habits was that the wine was, mostly, “villainously doctored”; that the students tended to over-indulge (though he does qualify this by noting how intellectually and physically fit they mostly were); and that it was the punches and mixes of various kinds that did the damage – along with ‘strong wines’.

 He recalls drinking bishop (at its most innocuous a spiced red wine), ‘silky’, “the component parts of which … appeared to be made of rum and madeira” and, of course, sherry cobbler. His claim to fame, indeed, was that he introduced it to Cambridge (and perhaps to England).

 Sherry cobbler, basically a mix of sherry, fresh fruit and ice drunk through a reed (straws as we know them weren’t invented until the 1890s) was almost certainly created in America. There’s a reference in Washington Irving’s 1809 ‘Knickerbocker’s History of New York’ which credits it to the Marylanders. But it didn’t get much other notice until it took England by storm in the 1840s.

 Charles Dickens gave the sherry cobbler a big endorsement in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit (serialised in the mid-1840s). Here’s his description of the American reviver prescribed for Martin by his friend Mark Tapley – one of the rather few aspects of American life that appealed to Dickens:

“He produced a very large tumbler, piled up to the brim with little blocks of clear transparent ice, through which one or two thin slices of lemon, and a golden liquid of delicious appearance, appealed from the still depths below, to the loving eye of the spectator.

‘What do you call this?’ said Martin.

But Mr. Tapley made no answer; merely plunging a reed into the mixture — which caused a pleasant commotion among the pieces of ice — and signifying by an expressive gesture that it was to be pumped up through that agency by the enraptured drinker.

Martin took the glass with an astonished look; applied his lips to the reed; and cast up his eyes once in ecstasy. He paused no more until the goblet was drained to the last drop.

‘This wonderful invention, sir,’ said Mark, tenderly patting the empty glass, ‘is called a cobbler. Sherry cobbler when you name it long; cobbler, when you name it short.

By the 1860s, cobblers were hugely popular. The Lake Wenham Ice company (“a party of speculating gentlemen”), which first shipped to England in 1844, promoted the drink. According to the 1871 edition of Oxford Night Caps, their ‘vertigo’ inducing recipe was as follows:

Pound a small quantity of ice quite fine by wrapping it in a coarse cloth and beating it with a mallet or rolling pin. Half fill a large tumbler with this powdered ice, add a teaspoon and a half of pounded sugar, two or three pieces of the outer rind of a lemon, and a wine glass and a half of sherry. (Throw in half a dozen strawberries, if in season.) Fill up with pounded ice. Mix by pouring rapidly from one tumbler to another several times. Drink through a straw.

Sherry cobbler

Charles Astor Bristed did not give a recipe in his original book (though there is a version in his 1852 ‘The Upper Ten Thousand; sketches of American Society, by a New Yorker’.  He too stressed the importance of lemon peel (than slices of lemon, “nothing could be more destructive”, so perhaps Dickens got it wrong).

 Cocktail experts credit the cobbler as “the force that propelled cocktail shakers into every bar of any size” and the three piece shaker is still known as the ‘cobbler shaker’.

 I followed the ‘Esquire’ recipe which sticks to slices of orange and a raspberry or two on top. It was delicious, though with a Fino sherry more sugar was needed. It would have been even better if the temperature outside was not rather below the seasonal average. Oh well, something for next summer.

One last Bristed observation which I find very encouraging (even empowering):

 “Young ladies sometimes picture to themselves students as delicate pale youths who live on toast and tea. Never was there a great mistake, Men who study in earnest eat in earnest.” What more justification is required…

Ratafia and Cuvée de l’Ecusson | a German-Luxembourg aperitif that hits the spot

Kay brought back for me  from Berlin a bottle of ratafia. What’s that you may say? Well, ratafia is a generic name for grape brandy mixed with grape (or apple) juice and flavoured with spices, fruits or herbs. There are versions in Burgundy, Armagnac, Spain, Italy and elsewhere. Not excepting Germany. This particular ratafia is infused with flowers (dahlias in fact) grown in the garden of Expressionist painter Emil Nolde’s garden and transformed into an aromatic liqueur by Martina Kabitzsc of Manufaktur von Blythen in Berlin.


Possibly the right colour…


Emil Nolde Stiftung, Berlin

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Wonderful Cabernet Franc

Let’s hear it for Cabernet Franc

One of France’s most under-rated wine areas is the Loire; one of the most under-rated of all grapes – particularly for summer drinking – is Cabernet Franc. I love its cool, raspberry-accented, red fruit character and its leafy, even tobacco notes on the finish.

The other night I drank the Domaine de la Croix de Chaintres Saumur-Champigny made by Fredrik Filliatreau and his sister Christina on a ‘biologically oriented’ 18 hectare Loire estate very close to the river and just south of Saumur.

Fred Filliatreau

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