Some Thoughts on Domaines Ott

In a former life, back when I was the producer of The British Independent Film Awards, I was invited by one of our sponsors to attend their annual lunch in Cannes. Held at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, it was an elaborately swanky buffet for film financiers, served with lashings of wine from Domaines Ott.

 

Back then, Domaines Ott was the kind of wine you only encountered at this sort of event, or at a certain kind of restaurant. The kind that’s more interested in famous people than in the rest of its customers.

Because Domaines Ott is expensive. It is designed to look expensive. It is the wine equivalent of bling.

I did not encounter it again until I left film to return to the on-trade, and the Ott people were desperate for the place I worked to stock their product. My bosses were not convinced. They didn’t take it on, not because it’s a bad wine — it isn’t — but because it’s just not that special. Because it didn’t represent the kind of bang for your buck they wanted for each bottle in the shop. And because there are far better wines available from that part of Provence at much better prices.

They stock it now.

Which makes perfect sense.

Their customers demand it. They want its supposed cachet.

And nobody ever made any money by telling their customers that they’re fucking idiots.

And let us be in no doubt: if you buy Domaines Ott, you are a fucking idiot. Not because it tastes especially bad but because you can have a better time drinking a better wine that costs less and using the money you have left over as tinder for the barbecue.

Buying Domaines Ott states that you have money to burn.

It is an oenological truism that cheap wine served in a Château Pétrus bottle will win a tasting. The context of the wine from said bottle plays havoc with our sense of expectation. But it goes a step further with the Domaines Ott buyer — I could fill the bottle with my dog’s fresh piss and they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Because buying Domaines Ott also states that you are incurious. You justify its quality to yourself by the very amount you’re prepared to pay for it. You think the bottle looks different so the wine must be different. And you really aren’t thinking at all. You are led to spend a stupid amount of money because all your braying friends did too.

Harry-Enfield-I-saw-you-coming-sketch

Domaines Ott is not a wine so much as a red trouser wearing lifestyle. When you walk into the shop and ask for it, we know who you are. We know you have no taste, that you’re uninterested in trying something different, that frankly you have no appetite for life as it should be lived.

We also know that you’ll be back for some Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc before too long.

In Defence Of Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial

This last weekend, a good friend of mine went to lunch.

This is perhaps the least exciting opening sentence I have ever written. But wait: there is conflict to come.

Asked what she’d like to drink, she said: “I’d like a soda and lime please. With lime cordial.”

“We use fresh lime,” said the waiter.

“That’s a totally different drink,” said my friend.

“Yes, but we use fresh lime. Would you like fresh lime?” Which amounts to a refusal to serve what was asked for, for one thing. And a dismissal of lime cordial. Which shows a disregarding ignorance for all matters Bar.

Fresh lime has its place. And it’s an important place. There is no Margarita without fresh lime. But lime cordial, and by “lime cordial” we mean Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial, has an important place too, and no bar should be without it.

For one thing, if you don’t have it and someone orders a Gimlet, you’re fucked. A Gimlet doesn’t just require a slug of Rose’s, the recipe demands it. By name.

Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial was first produced by Lauchlan Rose in 1867. It was the world’s first fruit concentrate, and within a year of its launch it became a key part of the Royal Navy’s Vitamin C delivery system. Though lime juice consumption had been advocated since the middle of the 18th Century, its preservation was not always reliable. So…

… Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial is why yanks call us limeys.

And adding to the Gimlet’s naval heritage, it is said to be named after Rear-Admiral Desmond Gimlette, who was a key advocate of the lime ration, and of the mixing of lime with gin.

As to the drink itself, Harry Craddock’s recipe in The Savoy Cocktail Book lists the Gimlet’s ingredients as 1 part Plymouth Gin to 1 part Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial. “And nothing else,” Raymond Chandler adds in The Long Goodbye. Which makes it one of the very few cocktails made without ice. Which is hardly surprising given ice’s scarcity on the high seas.

These days, Gimlet’s are often stirred over the cold stuff or served on the rocks, and the ratio of lime cordial in the drink tends to be much lower, as low as one part in five in some versions. But even at this lower quantity, its sweet-tang flavour has a role to play in the overall cocktail.

To dismiss lime cordial in favour of fresh lime juice is not just snobbery. It is stupidity. But beware: some Rose’s Lime Juice Cordials are more Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial than others. Rose’s was acquired by Schweppes in the late ’50s, which in turn merged with Cadbury’s, with the beverage holdings being off-loaded in 2008. This has resulted in different versions of the cordial in different territories. The UK and Canadian versions remain close to the original recipe, using real sugar as a sweetener and no artificial preservatives. The US version uses high fructose corn syrup and sodium metabisulfite, while the New Zealand version bins out the corn syrup for sugar but keeps the preservatives.

As with so many things, the original recipe is the best.

Review: Château Kefraya Arak

I have a question: why is pastis cool, but ouzo… very much not?

Is it because the former bestows a certain Gallic chic, like Alain Delon in a fedora smoking Gauloise, while the latter has airs of Tom Conti in Shirley Valentine?

If so, that’s a shame. Because ouzo’s just a stop on the road to the tipple of the Paris of the East: Arak.

Arak (not to be confused with arrack, which is another beverage altogether) is the traditional spirit of the Levant. It’s made with with grapes and flavoured with aniseed on its second distillation, out of a typical total of three. It throws a white suspension when mixed with water (the so-called ouzo effect), ideally at a ratio of two parts water to one arak. And the very best of it is aged in clay amphorae.

I first tasted Arak over 20 years ago on an archaeological trip to Syria, long before the horrific civil war which destroyed pretty much everything worth visiting and continues  without end, its death toll now uncountable. Each evening would end with a couple of araks, served in a small glass over a cube of ice with water on the side, the most memorable of which was served in the bar of The Baron Hotel in Aleppo, which apparently still stands even though it’s currently not open for business. (How can you not enjoy a drink in a place that has hosted Agatha Christie and Laurence of Arabia?) I was hooked.

Because there’s something ancient and romantic about arak. There’s something about its anise-y smell that seems to conjure other scents that are not there, of sun-baked stone and cypress trees, of hot winds and desert sands. Which is surprising because arak is not subtle. If you don’t like aniseed, this is not for you.

If anything, it’s closer to old fashioned absinthe than to its cousin pastis. It, too, is made with green aniseed. Unlike pastis, it is not bottled with sugar. And like absinthe, it sometimes comes in at quite a high ABV. In the case, we’re talking 53.1%.

Château Kefraya’s is the arak I keep coming back to. As with vodka, there’s not an awful lot of serious distinctions to be made between araks—they’re clear spirit, after all. Except for the fact that there is. Château Musar, for example, makes their distillation from the Lebanese white grape varieties Obaideh and Merwah. Kefraya favours Cinsault, a red grape. Mussar also distills four times, and brings in the finished spirit at a 53%ABV. I can’t believe that 0.1% really makes that much of a difference, so I guess it’s down to the grape.

As to the drinking itself, Kefraya’s arak offers a solid, mid-palate punch of aniseed with tingly notes akin to Szechuan pepper on the finish. It is really most beguiling.

So, if you’ve been at the Ottolenghi books, and you fancy making his roast chicken with clementines and arak, or his buttered prawns with tomato and… arak, you can of course just buy the 20ml miniature you need for the recipe and be done with out.

But you’d be missing out.

Review: Pike Creek 10 Year Old Whisky

So here’s something I didn’t know until comparatively recently: the vast majority of Canadian whisky is rye whisky. Which is nice. I like a little rye. So you can imagine my excitement when the Pike Creek 10 Year Old popped up in the local supermarket. Not least because it gives us the chance to talk about barrels.

As any fule kno, all brown spirits are aged in oak barrels. As are all sherries and quite a few wines. The next thing that most people know is that, through the aging process, a certain amount of spirit is lost as alcohol evaporates from the barrels. This ranges from as little as 2% in Scotland to between 6–8% for rum in the Caribbean.

It’s known as the angels’ share.

(And here, since I’ve just mentioned rum, we need a little point of order: it has only ever been known as the angels’ share; it has never been known as the duppies’ share (or ghosts’ share, for that is what duppy means)—the Duppy Share Rum people can’t even get the grammar right. Furthermore, they are bottling an inferior product, sourced from two different islands, and wrapping it up in some marketing bullshit and hoping no one will notice. And it is as abominable as what we used to call “British wine” back in the day, a product vinified in the UK from grapes grown wherever, and named as such to distinguish it from English or Welsh wine, which has to be grown and made where it says it is.)

This matters if you’re making a whisky in Canada because your barrels are going to be exposed to a vast range of temperatures.

If you’re barrel aging in Scotland, you’re look at a spread of about 25–27°C in average temperatures from winter to summer. You can expect some solid but broadly infrequent minus degrees in the winter, maybe –5°C, and you know it’s not going to be insanely hot in the summer, the low 20s, or thereabouts.

In Corbyville, Ontario, home of Pike Creek, we’re looking at a much bigger temperature spread. You only need to think back to your school chemistry class to remember how heat acts as a catalyst in many reactions to realise that this temperature spread will inevitably affect the whisky in the barrel.

To see the effect of relative temperature on barrel aging in a comparable product, you need only look at the difference between a rum aged in the Caribbean and one aged in Europe. The latter will tend to be lighter in both colour and flavour.

In a Canadian whisky, then, we are seeing a stop-start process happening to the barrel aging reactions throughout the year. Which is interesting. What this does to flavour, I can’t tell you. But I intend to find out.

The other thing going on here is the “finishing”. In Pike Creek’s case, the whisky is aged for a second time in a barrel that contained rum.

Secondary finishing, double wooding, call it what you will, is not new. And it does some very exciting things to whisky. Balvenie Double Wood is finished in sherry cases, and is lovely stuff. Glenmorangie offer a wide range of different barrel finishes.

Pike Creek offers just the one. This one. In rum. Which is odd, because it used to be in port. I’ve never tried the port finished version, but having asking around it seems that people liked it.

Still, bye-bye port finish, hello rum finish. And enough of the rabbiting on about temperature, barrels and finishes, what does the damned stuff taste like?

Disappointing.

There are some dark molasses on the nose, an aroma I’d associate with a dark rum, some hints of fruit, mainly dried plums, and some elusive hints of pepper and of rye’s tell-tale spice. All good things. But it is very caramelly, so much so that it’s reminiscent of those cheap spirits that used to be dyed brown with extra caramel to convince you that they were almost bearable. It’s very abrasive in the mouth, especially for a product with 10 years barrel age — this is about as smooth as Clint Eastwood’s chin in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. And the over-riding flavour is one of burnt butterscotch. Which is fine if you like that sort of thing. But I don’t. So I was rather relieved that it had no length to speak of in the mouth.

All in all, it tastes like a drink that is confused. The subtlety of the whisky is beaten into submission by the barrel’s previous owner, as though the rum elements want to take over the spirit, screaming “let me be rum!” But it isn’t. In fact, it ends up tasting of both and neither, a product far less than the sum of its parts.

I had high hopes for Pike Creek. Really I did. But as Belloq says to Marian, just after she’s been thrown down into the Well Of Souls to join Indy: “It was not to be, chérie…”

The Single Most Important Fact You Need To Know About Drinks

“Fact” is such a contentious word in our post-modern world. After all, what is a fact?

When you actually start to interrogate that question, it turns out to be not as simple as it seems. After all, a dog may be a dog to me, but it’s a chien to my Francophone downstairs neighbour.

How about this one? Queen Elizabeth I died on 24th March 1603. Or did she? Thanks to Pope Gregory XIII, the whole calendar changed in October 1582. But not for everyone because, you know, the Reformation and all that. Britain didn’t go his way, calendar-wise, for another 200 years. But that’s how we figure all dates now, historical or otherwise. So as far as Elizabeth was concerned, she died on 6th April.

Facts can be tricky buggers at the best of times.

To make matters moderately easier, here is my go-to definition of the world fact, courtesy of my old university supervisor, the late Thomas Wiedemann: a fact is that thing upon which we choose to agree so that we may have an argument.

To see this in action, one need only think about climate change.

It’s a big and complicated thing, and pretty much every scientist who has ever studied it in any detail at all will tell you it’s real and it’s happening. That this is a contentious issue comes down to one thing: those who don’t want to believe it, down to their vested interests in fossil fuels, chemical processing, you name it, do not accept the scientists’ facts. They have their own facts to support their case. Because they do not have facts in common, they cannot argue. So the problem remains, festering and unaddressed.

What has this to do with drinks, you ask.

Well… taste is subjective. When we speak of taste, we have to define what we mean. Are we talking about the sense of taste, or the experience of tasting?

In the case of the former, we understand the five key tastes our taste-buds detect: sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness and savouriness. But the latter involves our sense of smell as well. We process this combination of taste and smell to create the idea of flavour. And how we perceive flavour is unique to each of us. It is also an abstract concept which we only have language to describe. This is limiting. How many times, after  all, have you heard strange meats described as tasting “like chicken”?

When we describe flavour, we reach for simile and metaphor to try to put the idea of our experience into someone else’s mind. It is a form of telepathy limited by the constraints of our imaginations, our vocabulary and the language we speak.

It is as far removed from the concept of “fact” as it is possible to get. It is all, in fact, opinion.

Which brings us neatly back to the title. The Single Most Important Fact You Need To Know About Drinks is this: if you like it, it’s good.

That’s it.

You are the arbiter of your own mouth. It doesn’t matter if you’re tasting vintage Krug, Mateus rosé, bathtub gin or Louis XIII. Do not let some pontificating bastard (like me) sway you from your own judgement.

On this, I think we can agree.

Review: Wiston Brut NV

So here’s something off-topic: I am a big fan of Alsace Pinot Noirs. They are delicate, interesting, occasionally austere, and sometimes they’re not very good. But when they’re great… well…

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This is because of the weather. They have great terroir in the Alsace. But the weather is, in wine terms, somewhat unreliable. And this makes the production of a truly great Pinot Noir round that way …

[Sporting Metaphors Alert]

… akin to a Usain Bolt world record, going through Eau Rouge flat out on full tanks, hitting an ace on your second serve to win a fourth set tie-break at the Wimbledon finals when a double fault will lose you the game.

It takes commitment and nerve and an absolute precision confidence in what you’re doing.

So… what has this to do with English wine, you ask.

I will tell you.

It is often said that England’s South Downs have terroir that is geologically similar to Champagne, and that thanks to global warming, our French cousins “better watch out” because with better weather comes riper grapes blah blah.

This is an argument that doesn’t hold water. Or wine. For two reasons. 1/ Alsace shares a geologically similar terroir to Pfalz in Germany, where a sexy little micro-climate gives the Pinot a banging ripeness that Alsace, in most years, can only dream of. And 2/ England’s “hotter summers” seem to bring us a washed out ripening season, which is no friend to the grape.

I bring all this up because I have long been enthusiastic about English wine. I see it as a quixotic endeavour, and I love the passion behind it. But, at every English wine tasting I have ever attended — and we’re going back to the 80s here, when I did the vendage for a couple of autumns at a vineyard not far west of Oxford — there’s always that sensation that you’re saying nice things as you would to a backward child. You know, you want to be supportive. Unless it was about that Pinot Noir I tried at Denbigh’s in the late 90s, which reminded me of the old joke about what Budweiser and getting it on in a canoe have in common.

All of this slightly apologetic, “oh, jolly well done” feeling evaporated when I tasted Wiston’s NV Brut sparking English wine. For the first time, no apology was necessary. In fact, if you change “cleared” for “made”, I felt rather like Christian Slater at the end of this little scene here:

The Wiston itself is complex, zingy and fresh, with the yeasty, bready notes you would expect from a sparkling made with the three main Champagne grapes and in the Champagne style.

But there’s another thing going on here. This is a wine that is not trying to be something else.

Most of the other English sparklings I’ve tried, like Nyetimber and Chapel Down and so on, taste like ersatz champagne. And they carry a price tag that means the wine in the bottle does not live up to the positioning.

Wiston walks with confidence, greets you warmly with a firm handshake and a steady gaze, and is resolutely itself.

It doesn’t hurt that their winemaker, Dermot Sugrue, is obscenely talented and supported by a team with a clear vision, from the owners down, to help him deliver time and again.

But what he and the Goring family have achieved at Wiston is the creating of a genuinely English wine from great terroir and frequently unreliable weather.

That puts me in mind of a great Alsace Pinot Noir. And that makes me very happy.

Rules To Avoid A Hangover

I am hung over.

I know, I know. It’s not clever. I have taken Alka Seltzer. The prospect of a fry up, frankly, turns my stomach. Thai food could help. But the prognosis is grim.

I am hung over because I broke The Rules.

The Rules are many. They exist for a reason: to keep you safe. And they are largely undocumented. So, to assist you, the drinking public, here are some of them:—

  1. Don’t drink with Australians.
  2. When someone says “how about tequila/mezcal shots?”, it is not a good idea.
  3. Don’t drink with chefs.
  4. A fifth martini is never a smart choice. Dorothy Parker stopped her little poem at four for a reason.
  5. Don’t stay for a lock-in on St. Patrick’s Day.
  6. Have I mentioned the thing about the tequila?
  7. Don’t drink with Scandinavians, especially if there’s vodka involved.
  8. When someone says, “Have you tried…?”, just don’t go there, it will only end in suffering.
  9. Don’t drink with actors.
  10. Don’t drink.