Restaurants Spirits

I wish I lived nearer O Gourmet Libanais

Gourmet Lebanese Food in Wandsworth

I’ve been meaning to write about a restaurant that I was going to refer to as a neighbourhood gem but thought that sounded a bit tripadvisor.  Now I’ve just learned that Winemakers in Deptford is to close. If only I’d written about then it might have been saved by loyal World of Booze readers hotfooting it down to SE8 to sample the food.

I’m not going to make that mistake with my latest “neighbourhood gem”. I discovered it after attending a friend’s book launch in a part of London I don’t know very well, Wandsworth. Slightly drunk we left her party at 9pm on a Monday night and almost literally stumbled on a Lebanese restaurant, O Gourmet Libanais, in the glass and steel complex where she lived. As you’d expect at that time on Monday on a (upmarket) Wandsworth housing estate, it was empty, but the manager rather than shooing us away, seemed pleased to see us. He was even more pleased when I expressed a love for arak, the traditional Lebanese spirit which is the perfect accompaniment to mezze.

We just asked him to bring us some dishes and what followed was some of the best mezze I’d had outside Lebanon. Certainly far far superior to anything on the Edgware Road. We had Fattoush, salad with toasted bread, oil and sumac, hummus, moutabal, excellent flatbreads and some sublime chicken livers cooked in pomegranate. Everything tasted so fresh. They also had a decent Lebanese house red from Chateau Heritage but I was far more interested in the arak from Al Kaissar (Caesar, yeah!) What I loved about the Lebanese product is that it tastes like like biting into aniseed rather than having the rather sweet muddy flavour of raki or ouzo. For comparison this week, I tried some arak Brun from Domaine de Tourelles opposite some raki from Turkey and ended pouring the Turkish one down the sink. Did I mention I love arak?

Lebanese Arak Kaissar

If I lived in Wandsworth I would go to O Gourmet Libanais at least once a month. Make use of your neighbourhood gems or they might go the way of Winemakers in Deptford.

Spirits This Week I'm Drinking

This week I’m drinking. . . . whisky & soda

It’s been a while since I did one of these and probably will be  a while before I do another one because I have been hard at work on a book which is due to come out in October this year (!) I’ll tell you more about it soon but it’s going to be a coffee table book about drinking and entertaining at home.

To fortify myself I’ve been drinking highballs. Well I’m not sure mine are quite highballs.  I was introduced to the joy of the highball by a semi-Japanese friend last month. Before then I’ve always tended to drink whisky neat or very lightly watered but the Japanese drink it heavily diluted with lots of ice to make a drink that’s as refreshing as a gin and tonic. In fact more refreshing because it’s much less sweet.

A proper high ball should be served in a tall glass with lots of ice and soda water. Mine are I suppose closer to an old whisky and soda like my nanny (my grandmother, not a lady in a starched outfit who was paid to look after me) used to drink. Mine are about 1 part whisky to 4 parts sparkling water with 3 or 4 standard size ice cubes.

But which whisky? I tend to use whatever comes to hand. There’s my heretical house blend which is tasting particularly fine at the moment thanks to an influx of Xmas whisky samples. Also the smoky Compass Box No Name whisky worked a treat as did Four Roses Small Batch bourbon. Whichever whisky goes in, a dash off orange bitters and a piece of orange or satsuma peel lifts the whole drink and gives it a liquid marmalade type quality.

You can drink them very weak indeed and they still taste marvelous. When I grow old and deaf, I’m going to be like nanny and answer every question after 12 noon with the word ‘whisky.’

Spirits This Week I'm Drinking

This week I’m drinking . . . . the Christmas Negroni


I’ve been sent these rather lovely looking bottles from Martini. They are Martini Rubino Vermouth, Ambrato Vermouth and Martini Bitters. There’s something of a vermouth revival going on at the moment with delicious new products from South Africa (Badenhorst), Australia (Regal Rogue) and England (Asterley Bros). Perhaps in response to this competition, the old guard, Martini, have raised their game with new premium releases. I’m a big fan of the standard Martini Rosso which is hard to beat in a Negroni so I was keen to see how this drinks measured up. Furthermore Martini have also launched the 1872 Bitter to compete with Campari head on. I’ve been playing around with these bottles for a few weeks now and have come to some conclusions:

  1. Both the Rubino and the Ambrato totally rock either on their own or with tonic water. The Ambrato is a bit like Noilly Brat Ambré with nutty vanilla notes. The Rubino is quite delicate with sour cherry fruit and a light bitterness, a bit like a northern Italian red wine. They also work great mixed with white wine or prosecco.
  2. The Ambrato was superb in a very dry martini adding a subtle fruity and nutty note to the drink.
  3. The Martini Bitter is less thick and bitter than Campari. It’s very orangey like a halfway point between Aperol and Campari. Just with soda, I prefer Campari but mixed with grapefruit, orange juice and soda the Martini Bitter wins.

Of course this is all pissing about to the real point which is how do they fare in a Negroni. Here the results were interesting. The Rubino worked really well in a sort of lightweight Negroni using Aperol but it was rather overpowered by the Martini Bitter.

My favourite vermouth for a Negroni is the mighty Cinzano 1757 Rosso which is powerful, complex and has something of the port about it. This gave me an idea, why not use port to boost the vermouth? So I mixed half a shot of Martini Rubino with half a shot of Bleasdale The Wise One ten year old tawny (I know it’s not strictly a port, I’ll come on to that later). The result after a bit of playing about was absolutely outstanding. The extra sweetness, richness and nuttiness of the port lifted the whole drink and seemed to accentuate the herbal quality of the vermouth:

1/2 measure of tawny port or similar

1/2 measure of Martini Rubino

1 measure of gin and a little bit extra – I used my special house gin

1 measure of Martini 1872 Bitter

1 piece of orange peel

Combine ingredients with lots of ice cubes.

Australian “port” is sweeter than proper Portuguese stuff so I added just a splash extra of gin to counteract it. I think it needs to be a tawny port because you wanted that wood-aged nuttiness on the end. In fact what this reminded me of more than anything was an aged negroni I had at Bar Termini last year.

I am going to call my new creation the Christmas Negroni and I intend to drink a lot of them over the festive season.

Interviews Spirits

Booze interview with Ian Buxton

I am delighted and honoured to have Ian Buxton as guest on my blog. His new book, Whiskies Galore: A Tour of Scotland’s Island Distilleries, comes out this month. It’s an idiosyncratic and often very funny stroll around some of Scotland’s most romantic distilleries. There’s some autobiography, some history and a whole lot of whisky but what I like the most about it is Buxton’s constant questioning of the sheer amount of bullshit that surrounds Scotch. And yet for all the iconoclasm not for a moment do you doubt Buxton’s deep love for Scotland’s greatest export.


When did you first realise that whisky was something special and can you remember the whisky that triggered this feeling?

Many of my fellow whisky writers appear to be able to recall this with blinding clarity as some sort of Damascene moment.  I fear I cannot offer any such startling revelation, though it was a happy day when working in the whisky industry paid the mortgage and put food on the table.

What was your first job in the whisky business?

It was in the late 1980s for Robertson & Baxter the blenders, now more or less subsumed into the Edrington Group.  They were, though I didn’t realise it at the time, whisky royalty and behaved accordingly.  I thought it all rather stuffy. As they had come to the conclusion that food was the way forward they had an ill-starred project to buy food companies and, to my chagrin, I was involved in that side of the business more than whisky. It was not a happy time, and I left after a couple of years to join Glenmorangie as their Group Marketing Director.

That offered more whisky but even less happiness.

Do you have a favourite whisky?

Would it be too optimistic to suggest it’s the one you’re about to buy me?

I am a great fan of Highland Park and older Glenfarclas.  But I have taken a great partiality recently to better American rye whiskies, such as that from Michter’s.

Do you have a least favourite whisky?

Can’t say I do.  But I completely fail to see the point of vodka.  Will that do?

Which whisky country are you most excited about?

Curiously, almost everywhere, but especially the new wave of ‘world whisky’ producers in countries such as Iceland, Finland, Taiwan, France and so on.

And which distillery?

I was an early fan of Kavalan in Taiwan and I’m delighted to see how far and how fast they have developed. Teerenpeli in Finland make whisky which surprises all who try it – and I have very high hopes for the English whisky due any day from the Cotswold Distillery.

What is it about island distilleries that make them so romantic?

I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of this in my new Whiskies Galore book.  There is an inherently romantic appeal to islands, especially the Scottish ones, that seems to draw visitors from all round the world, and the more urban and congested their home environment the more the isolation and open spaces attract them.  But it was not always thus, and in the book I recall a time, not so very long ago, when island distilleries were closed and virtually abandoned and their whisky all but unsaleable.

Does the salt air really affect the taste?

I doubt it, especially as most of the whisky made there spends most of its life far from the sea.  But, then again, Highland Park and many Islay whiskies have an undeniable, indefinable salty tang to them.

You have in the past been quite vocal in your criticisms of the conservatism of Scotch whisky, what do you think they could do to be a bit more innovative?

My consultancy services are available at very reasonable rates.

What’s the most you’ve ever spent on a bottle of whisky?

This information is classified, particularly from Mrs Buxton.  But actually, not a great deal.

What do you think of the prices of say old Macallan? $25,000 for a bottle of 50 year old.  

They are certainly beyond my pocket.  In the near future I doubt they will come down as demand evidently exceeds supply.  But I fear this is a bubble, driven by fashion and spurred on by those with a vested interest, that will eventually end in tears.  And not to pick on The Macallan particularly, but I cannot help notice the vulgarity and excess of the packaging of many so-called ‘luxury’ whiskies and wondering how much of the cost is accounted for by the hand-blown bottle; silver decoration and undeniably lovely oak boxes and so on, and how much by the whisky.  And that is before we mention the percentage margins applied all through the supply chain to the retailer’s shelves.

What’s the most memorable whisky you’ve ever had?

That’s a score draw between a very old Bowmore drawn directly from the cask in the No. 1 Vaults (a most atmospheric space) and a cask-strength Glenfarclas from 1953.  And, thinking about it, the very old expressions Glenglassaugh were quite special.

Which writers do you think write well about drink?

Those who have served a proper apprenticeship in the industry – on whisky, Charles MacLean and Dave Broom come to mind; the late Michael Jackson pioneered writing on both beer and whisky; I enjoy Alice Lascelles’ journalism and the trenchant, cutting commentary of The Whisky Sponge.  Will Lyons happily avoids the pretension that accompanies quite a lot of wine writing and Jonathan Ray’s column in The Spectator offers excellent buying pointers.

And there’s a new Henry Jeffreys fellow who can be quite droll.  I like what he’s doing these days.

Did I mention that I’ve got a new book out?

Ends (tearfully)

Thanks Ian! Buy the book here

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Arak and a hard place

Last November I was fortunate enough to have dinner in one of Beirut’s best restaurants, Em Sherif, with a group of Lebanese winemakers. There was no menu, they just bring you seemingly endless small dishes such as Kibbeh nayyeh, finely chopped raw lamb with onions, or baby aubergines stuffed with walnuts. Each one was more delicious than the last though I made the schoolboy error of filling up on the insanely good hummus and flatbread at the beginning. Mezze really isn’t designed for greedy Englishmen. Along with the food we had some excellent local wines but one of the winemakers admitted to me that the best thing with mezze isn’t wine, it’s Arak. This aniseed spirit drunk diluted with water and ice, cleans the palate and sharpens the appetite so you’re ready for a bite of something different. I looked around the restaurant and most of the fantastically glamorous clientele (everyone in Beirut is very chic) were all drinking Arak.

Arak is part of a family of aniseed-flavoured spirits that exist all over the Mediterranean and Middle East. The word comes from the Arabic for sweat: a description of the alcohol dripping off the still. There’s Raki in Turkey, Rakia in Bulgaria and Ouzo in Greece. Further afield there’s Sambuca in Italy, Anis in Spain and Pastis in France. In fact about the only country in Europe that doesn’t do something similar is Britain.

Though Arak is similar to its Greek and Turkish cousins, it’s a generally a far superior product. Michael Karam author of a Arak and Mezze: the taste of Lebanon told me “the Lebanese are very quality driven. There is no industrial Lebanese Arak.” It’s only ever made from a spirit distilled from locally-grown grapes rather than the neutral alcohol more common in Europe. I visited Domaine des Tourelles in the Bekaa valley who make Arak Brun which according to Michael Karam is “considered by the Lebanese to be the gold standard”. It was November and they were still bringing in grapes for Arak production mainly Obaideh and Merwah but also some Cinsault. The grapes are gently pressed and the juice run off for fermentation in enormous concrete tanks. No sulphur can be added or it would be accentuated during distillation and they use wild yeasts for fermentation.


Faouzi Issa from Tourelles with his arak-craving face

The winery is a living museum. They use a 19th century copper alembic that was made in Aleppo in Syria for distillation. The aniseed comes from Syria too, a village called Hina.. There are sacks of it piled high everywhere like sandbags, insurance in case the war cuts off supply. Damascus is only 40 miles away. The wine is distilled twice to create an eau-de-vie and then once more with aniseed. “We make arak 330 days a year,  making it in small batches like this is very costly” according to Faouzi Issa from the family who own Tourelles.  

They then age Arak Brun for one year and the Special Reserve for five in clay jars similar to classical amphora but with flat bottoms.  Recently they wanted to expand production but nobody knew how to make the jars. Luckily they found a 70 year old man in a remote village who was probably the last person with the requisite knowledge. They have now started a workshop making jars where younger men can learn the necessary skills. It’s a slow labour intensive process so they can only make 30 to 40 jars per year.


Arak ageing at Tourelles

At Clos St Thomas just up the road from Tourelles, they make Arak Touma. Here I tried the pre-aniseed eau-de-vie which tastes a little like an unaged Armagnac crossed with rum. The flavour of this high quality spirit doesn’t need disguising with sugar which explains why good Arak is so refreshing.  Said Touma, the patriarch of the family, showed me how to add water from a height into the arak so that it goes cloudy, “louching” is the technical term. You generally drink it in a ratio of two parts water to one Arak with ice. I was gently reprimanded by Michael Karam for adding too much water – “your Arak looks a little weak” he told me.

The ageing and care at every stage of production makes Lebanese Arak so much smoother than Ouzo or Raki. In fact for a drink so strong, usually around 50%, it’s dangerously drinkable. Once you’ve acquired a taste for it you’ll be like Faouzi Issa who said that when he is away from Lebanon: “I crave Arak” .  Michael Karam told me “as one drinks sake with sushi, I dream of the day when people will eat Lebanese food and drink arak.” With the growth of Middle Eastern food across America and Europe, Michael’s dream might just come true.


A version of this article appeared in Food & Wine magazine.





Don’t be snobbish about blended whisky

January 25 is Burns Night, Scotland’s annual feast to celebrate its greatest poet, Robert Burns. Whisky is an integral part of the evening, and Burns, a famous whisky lover, has for years proved a useful ambassador for his national drink. So much so, in fact, that a recently re-launched whisky called Usquaebach uses a quote from the Burns poem Tam O’Shanter in its marketing: “Wi’ usquabae (sic), we’ll face the devil!”

For whisky lovers in North America and Britain, Burns Night is a good excuse to crack open a decent bottle of single malt whisky—which has long been seen as the gold standard for the drink. But Usquaebach, like many other excellent whiskies at the moment, isn’t a single malt—it’s a blend. In fact, this is how most people take their Scotch. Single malts, which come from one distillery and are made entirely from malted barley distilled in a traditional pot still, make up less than 10% of global whisky sales. Blends, which are made of different malts and usually blended with grain whiskies, comprise the rest.

Don’t be snobbish about blended whiskies. The best blends contain a high percentage of quality aged malts. And blending several malts with some lighter grain spirit can enhance a whisky’s depth of flavour. Big brands do not mean bad whisky. In fact, without the big brands, most single malts would not exist—because many Scottish distilleries were founded to provide malt whiskies for blends. The backbone of one of the world’s bestselling whiskies, Johnnie Walker Black Label, comes from three distilleries, Dailuaine, Mortlach and Benrinnes.

Blending together disparate whiskies into a consistent and harmonious whole is an art, especially as the brands are made in huge quantities. (Case in point: Diageo make around 20 million cases of Johnnie Walker whisky a year.) Whiskies vary in flavou

r and availability, so producers have to keep tinkering to keep the taste consistent. And woe betide you if you mess with someone’s favorite. Dr. Nick Morgan, head of whisky outreach at Diageo told me: “We have to get it right every time. If you get it wrong, there’s always an old customer who will pick up on it.”

Blends were created in the 19th century to be an easily enjoyed product for export around the world, and different whiskies sell better in different markets. “When in different cultures, brands takes on a life of their own,” said Morgan. Grand Old Parr, barely available in Scotland, is now so part of the culture in Colombia that there have been folk songs written about it. Another Diageo product, Buchanans, became popular in South America because its creator, James Buchanan, was a regular visitor in the late 19th and early 20 centuries to buy horses. It’s now America’s fastest growing brand—largely thanks to the Latin American market. Last year, Diageo ran a Spanish-language ad for Buchanan’s entitled “Es Nuestro Momento” (it’s our moment) during the World Series. It’s a long way from Tam O’ Shanter.

Blends aren’t just about big brands, however. There are blenders producing whiskies every bit as exclusive as the rarest single malts. The Blended Whisky company produce a Half-Century Blend containing whiskies with a minimum age of 50 years. It’s meant to be a taste of how whisky was before production techniques were modernized in the 70s and 80s, and it retails for around $1000. A snip compared with the Last Drop’s 50 Year Old Blend—which comes in at $4500 a bottle.

More down to earth are Compass Box, a small blender who have taken the whisky world by storm since founded in 2000 by John Glaser, an American. The company sources aged whisky from big boys like Diageo and John Dewar, but they also buy new make, i.e. clear spirit, and age it themselves so that they can control quality of the cask. Jonathan Gibson, their head of marketing, told me: “We’re fanatical about wood. It’s at the heart of what we do.”

Whereas there might be 40 components in a commercial blend, “our blends are much simpler,” Gibson told me. “After more than 10 whiskies, you can’t taste the subtlety. Put too many colors together and you get brown.” Most blends don’t tell you exactly what’s in them, but Compass Box provide as much information as they’re legally allowed to.

There’s no reason why a blend shouldn’t be as complex or stimulating as a single malt. Gibson pointed out to me that a single malt “is also a blend—a blend of different ages, casks, etc., to make a consistent product. The difference is we blend from different distilleries too.”

So how should you drink your blended whisky? Morgan told me that lighter whiskies such as J&B or Cutty Sark are designed to be drunk with mixers: “Look at old ads. When you see whisky, there is always a soda siphon in the shot. Many people miss the point and complain that blends aren’t that good on their own.” The best blends, though, can be drunk neat as you would a single malt, but their strong flavours also work really well in cocktails. At Duke’s Hotel in London, the legendary barman Alessandro Palazzi made me a special negroni with Grand Old Parr in place of gin. It tasted sensational—though perhaps not one to give to Scotch traditionalists on Burns night.

Click on the Food & Wine website for some recommendations:


How to sell Armagnac


WHILE I WAS IN THE Armagnac region in March, a producer (who shall remain nameless) told me: “You British, you used to buy our armagnac, but now not so much.” He shrugged his shoulders as if it was one of life’s great imponderables. This attitude was remarked on by Jerome Delord from the eponymous house: “We have been sleeping on our laurels for too long. We had a great product but didn’t sell it.” Armagnac used to rely on a home market and a few traditional markets, such as Belgium and Britain. Domestic consumption is now in decline so producers need to find new customers. They currently export about half of their annual production of 6m bottles. Compare this with Cognac, which exports 98% of production of 180m bottles a year.

Read the rest at Drinks International 


Is vodka’s highest calling to be tasteless?

This appeared in Harper’s Wine and Spirits magazine earlier this year.

It seems like not a day goes by without the launch of a new gin. I thought we’d reached peak gin two years ago but it shows no signs of slowing down. People are not only buying these new products but also talking about them when out drinking and on social media.

It’s the kind of genuine engagement that vodka would kill for. Matt Bruhn Global Brand Director for Smirnoff has been quoted as saying that the Britain is a ‘tough market’ for them. Stuart Westwood Product Marketing Manager at Matthew Clark wholesalers said “standard vodka sales are in decline by around 11%”. Absolut in particular have been hit hard. Pernod-Ricard, the parent company, had to write down 652 million euros on global sales.

They haven’t been helped by badly-conceived products such as Absolut Amber, an oak-aged vodka. This used oak chips just like a cheap wine rather than barrels. It picked up some terrible reviews and was quickly withdrawn. Absolut have been particularly affected by the decline of the flavoured spirit market. Stolichnaya have drastically streamlined their flavoured offerings in response. “I think flavoured is on its way out, the big brands have over saturated flavoured vodkas” Nik Koster from Garnish PR, a specialist drinks agency, told me.  

We shouldn’t get too carried away though: “vodka is still the clear number one, with over 32% share of the spirits category compared to gin’s (ever increasing) 9%” says Stuart Westwood. Nik Koster agrees: “Smirnoff is still the biggest selling spirit worldwide and I don’t see that changing soon”. Worldwide Smirnoff sold 9.7 million cases (down 1% on previous year) cases and Absolut 4.6 million cases (down 1.5%).

At the top end of the market. CÎROC a grape-based vodka who have Puff Daddy (or is it P Diddy?) as their brand ambassador is rapidly growing. Guy Dodwell, Sales Director for the Off Trade, Diageo: “our ultra-premium vodka brand, CÎROC, is up by 205%” . According to a 2015 IWSR report the luxury end of the market is still experiencing good growth levels. Beluga, a high end brand with hand finished bottles, is seeing double digit growth according to Katie Warren their Group Marketing Manager.

But there might be uncertain times ahead for the super premium market. The rise of gin, and return of amari, vermouth, bourbon and rye, show that people once again want strong flavours. The cocktails that are popular now, the negroni, the martini, the old-fashioned, reflect this. The fruit-based cocktails that made vodka are out. “We don’t sell a massive amount (of vodka) in our bars, “ said Max Venning operations manager at London bars, Drink Factory, 69 Colebrooke Row & Bar Termini. When I asked Ian Goodman, formerly head barman at the Oxo tower and now with new bar Darkhorse in East London, which cocktails he liked to make with vodka, he replied ‘none really. . .. Vesper at a push.’ This lack of interest is reflected on the high street: a PR representing All Bar One told me that they were concentrating on gin when I asked them for their take on the vodka market.  Vodka is seen as a reliable workhorse rather than something to get excited about.

You can see why barmen might be bored: even the most expensive brands trade to some extent on lack of flavour. All the stuff about filtering and triple, quadruple or in the case of Ciroc, quintuple distillation, are designed to make them as smooth ie. bland as possible. The owner of Bob Bob Ricard, who stock Russian Standard vodka, Leonid Shutov, is quoted as saying: “flavour in vodka indicates you can’t afford a more expensive drink.” The top Russian Standard that they stock is filtered through quartz, for some reason.

They’re a tiny percentage of the market but there are some vodkas out there offering something a different. Some are a side product of the gin explosion: “By default many gin producers also create excellent vodkas” said Liam Cotter Senior Project Manager with events company Heads, Hearts and Tales. Adnams, the Suffolk brewer, produce some vodkas though their gins outsell them by ten to one. Head distiller John McCarthy is doubtful about the UK artisan vodka market ‘you can’t make a fortune selling high end vodka in UK. From our experience majority of British public aren’t willing to pay premium for vodka.’

William Borell, founder of Vestal  who make Polish potato vodka, disagrees. He started in 2009 with 2,000 bottles and now produces around 40, 000 bottles a year. Vestal is now stocked in some of the world’s top bars and Michelin-starred restaurants. He has noticed a weariness in the on trade with gin which will at some point percolate down to the consumer. Barmen are looking for something new and weightier, flavourful vodkas might be it. Nik Koster has set up a festival called Vodka Rocks to try to reengage the trade and the public with vodka.

Other brands proving popular with the on-trade are Aylesbury Duck from 86 Company in America and Konik’s Tail from Poland. The key is letting that quality of the raw material shine so there’s no heavy filtering or triple distillation. These are vodkas that you should sip neat and not too cold. They’re more like new make single malt whisky than traditional Russian-style vodka. The line between vodka and whisky is blurring with some distilleries such as Highland Park releasing unaged whisky (though they can’t call it whisky) and Vestal producing a barrel-aged vodka (superb, a far cry from Amber Absolut). They also produce vintage vodka (from a single harvest) and even do varietal vodka (from a single potato variety). Other innovations in the sector include Babicka, a wormwood-infused vodka from the Czech Republic and a botanical-infused London Dry Vodka, produced by gin distiller Sacred.  

The big four, Pernod-Ricard, William Grants, Diageo and Bacardi, are fighting back: “The birth of so many artisanal or craft brands certainly creates a hell of a lot of excitement, but the onus is on the big brands to re-invent their image and demand attention back” said Liam Cotter from Hearts, Heads and Tail. Absolut have just launched Elyx made with wheat from a single estate. The spirit is distilled in a 1920s copper rectifier just as with craft gin. Just to be sure though they’d roped in Chloe Sevigny  and put it in a super glitzy bottle.  “Provenance, ‘craft’ and something with a point of difference will continue to drive any green shoots in the category” Stuart Westwood told me.

Vodka’s success in the 80s and 90s was built on a lack of flavour and history. It was a blank canvas onto which marketers could project their ideas. Brands such as Absolut epitomised this with their brilliant advertising. Now the market has moved on and some brands are looking dated. Vodka today is in a similar position to beer with huge but declining brands dominating sales and a small (in vodka’s case miniscule) though rapidly expanding craft sector. In the next few years, we’ll start to see more and more premium and luxury vodkas taking their marketing and perhaps even production cues from the new challengers. Just as with beer, some of the stronger craft brands will be snapped up by the big boys. Despite sluggish growth overall, it’s an interesting time for vodka. Though there will always be a huge market for something tasteless and alcoholic, competition is likely to push up quality at the top end. Potentially, people could start taking vodka as seriously as they do gin or even whisky.



The mysteries of distillation


The image above is on the distillery door at Delord in Armagnac. It shows the working of an alambic a continuous still used to make the spirit. Continuous in that the wine is constantly pumped in (where it says vin) and spirit comes out where it says ‘60%’ (alcohol that is) rather than made in batches as with a pot still. Most are built from copper to 19th century specification by a firm in Condom. To my eye they look like something from Victorian science fiction. 

Château du Tariquet #basarmagnac #copper #alambic #continousdistillation #woodfired #shiny #authentic

Some producers such as Janneau make some spirit in pot stills. The cellarmaster, Philippe Sourbes told me that the alambic produces a spirit with  ‘more personality’ whereas the pot still makes ‘a lighter spirit that needs less ageing.’ This is the exact opposite of what whisky distillers will tell you. Pot-distilled whisky is highly prized. Many Irish whiskies make much of being pot-distilled. Malt whiskey in Scotland can only be made in pots. The cheaper Lowland whiskies with less personality are made in a continuous still not dissimilar to an alambic

How do you explain this discrepancy? I don’t actually know. So as far as I can surmise, continuous stills used in Armagnac work less efficiently than those used in Scotland and Ireland. Certainly they are much smaller and the Analyzer, the column on the left, has less stages in Armagnac than in whisky production. Also the stills in Armagnac work at a lower temperature so that the spirit that comes out at the end will be lower in alcohol therefore it contains more impurities. Ian Buxton, author of 101 Gins to Try Before you Die, put it more succintly

“Fewer plates = less reflux = more impurity = more flavour. Also they use pretty short columns and don’t distil to a particularly high strength so will retain more character.
Base is wine so more inherent flavour complexity than beer base seen in whisky.”
A bit of a nerdy post but I find this sort of thing fascinating. I’d assumed that pot stills always produced a more flavourful spirit. In fact there’s a chapter in my forthcoming book, Empire of Booze, about the difference between Highland and Lowland whiskies, which looks at the two processes and pronounces confidently that pot spirit has more character. It makes you realise that it’s not the process that matters so much as the intention. In Armagnac they are looking for flavour above all from their traditional stills. Seek and ye shall find!

You can read more about my adventures in Armagnac here



Armagnac trip

My wife and I have just come back from a trip to Armagnac which was organised by Amanda Garnham (most of these photos are courtesy of her) from the Armagnac marketing board (BNIA). I arrived knowing next to nothing about this Gascon brandy and I left, not only full of knowledge, but also full of love (and full of booze.) I’ve taken to having a small glass after meals, ‘to help with my digestion’ just like an old Frenchman. I’ll be writing more about Armagnac soon but meanwhile here are a few photos from the trip:

My wife at the main station in Toulouse. We had arrived in Toulouse during the traditional cabbies’ strike, an annual event that dates back to the time of Charlemagne, so had to take a rather circuitous route to Armagnac country.
Beautiful vines in Armagnac #vines #grapes #wine #armagnac #natural #flowers #newlife #gers
Vines in Armagnac country
Hand stamping at #armagnac_delord #gold #wax #craftspirits #armagnac #artisanal #france #gers
 Hand-waxed bottles at Delord.
I lied about my age.
Hero #bergerallemand #dog #majestic #big #loving #handsome
There are some excellent dogs in Armagnac. This one at Baron de Sigognac.
Château du Tariquet #basarmagnac #copper #alambic #continousdistillation #woodfired #shiny #authentic
At the heart of every Armagnac producer is a still that looks like something out of Jules Verne. This one is at Domaine du Tariquet. They use the most up-to-date technology for their wines, you’ve probably tried their exemplary Cotes de Gascogne, but for their brandies they use a wood-fired copper still.
Baron de Sigognac #armagnac #alambic #serpentine #copper #distillation
Close up of still used by Baron de Sigognac (I think.) It has some plates removed so you can see inside. The process is extremely clever as the wine for distillation cools the distilled spirit making the process very energy efficient.
#Armagnac_delord #alambic #beautifuldrawing #colour full #armagnac #continousdistillation #artisanal #handmade #plan #diagram
What interested me is that most producers in Armagnac use a continuous still like the one above. They say it produces a spirit with more character. This is the exact opposite of what whisky producers in Scotland will tell you. They say pot stills producer a spirit with more flavour. They only way I can explain this is that an Armagnac continuous still has less layers in than one used in whisky, gin and vodka production, hence why the resulting spirit contains more of the character of the wine. The still is also run at a lower temperature which will also preserve more of the non-ethanol compounds. (Probably, I am not certain of this.)
Baron de Sigognac #armagnac #spirit #gers #france #vintage #1924 #age #delicious
Most producers have very old vintages for sale. This one will set you back around £1000 which reflects it’s rarity. More recent vintages, say from 70s and 80s, are much more affordable.
Janneau Armagnac #Armagnac #janneau #condom #oldpublicity #blackandwhite #janneausaitquoi #lovers
Excellent old advert for Janneau. They should revive this. And finally my wife and I after a few old Armagnacs trying to recreate the ad.