The seriously annoying call centres that constantly peddle cheaper gas or electricity have an unerring tendency to up their call rate on Friday afternoons. A few weeks ago, on a Friday during which we had already seen off five of these jokers, a late shout from an unknown number had me flexing my trigger finger. In the event a charming chap called Nigel very skillfully de-fused me by talking about gin-and-tonic which seemed like a belting idea at this stage. It turns out that he was calling from a fairly new craft distillery called Two Birds Spirits in Market Harborough, where they make small batches of different flavoured spirits which have their exceptionally smooth vodka as a base.
Now, Williamson and I are both purists in the world of alcoholic beverages, indeed as buyers for our business it could be argued that we have to be. We don’t like novelty alcopops that glow in the dark or cider that tastes of tinned fruit salad; we don’t like gloopy cream liqueurs that look like baby sick and we don’t like wine that has been buggered about with flavours of chocolate. After the G & T conversation Nigel slowly revealed their full range which led through the aforementioned vodka to four different gins. So far, so good. Then there followed some fruit-infused vodkas which, on the face of it, seemed less our thing, though raspberry, blackberry and blackcurrant were logical - I have made my own home-made versions of blackberry and raspberry and most enjoyable they were too. Passion fruit struck us as a little odd - they hardly grow rampant in the hedgerows of Leicestershire after all.
Then it got weird. “Guess what our current best seller is,” he challenged genially. I’d no idea, telepathy being a weak point in my arsenal, “Salted caramel! Oh and also going strong is After Dinner Mint!” And it had all been going so well. The disappointment in my voice must have been obvious; I explained the purism angle and that we don’t do novelty drinks and thanks for trying but…. Nigel pointed out quietly that we hadn’t tasted any of them yet and suggested that perhaps we should reserve judgment until we had and gamely offered to send us some samples. Hard to argue with that really; if he was prepared to back his confidence with currency, the least we could do was try them.
Twelve little bottles arrived which evoked, variously, delight, vague interest, doubt and abject horror. Every now and again we all need a reminder about the danger of preconceptions; we knew which ones we would like and which we would reject with a weary sniff of disdain. We knew that the gins would be nice enough, the fruity ones would be more or less OK and that the weird pair would be confected, sweet and disgusting.
Boy, were we wrong.
English Vodka is as smooth and pure as any I have tasted. Put up against the trendy and more expensive Grey Goose my family unanimously preferred it.
London Dry Gin is an award winner with a top Gold Medal at the 2013 Craft Distillers Association and a Silver Outstanding at the International Wine and Spirit Awards, however a different version marketed as Speciality Cocktail Gin because it has a double hit of juniper actually trumps the former in our view. Not only does it retain its juniper character in a cocktail, but it also makes a wonderfully punchy G & T. It was awarded a Double Gold medallion at the 2014 San Francisco World Spirit Competition. We have chosen this one to stock for its deliciously intense juniper character and versatility.
Old Tom Gin harks back to the rotgut produced in the 18th and 19th centuries when much of the gin was pretty filthy and distinctly dodgy, frequently illegal distillers disregarded the first volatile elements to come off the still as well as the final heavy ones - the “heads and tails” - which are toxic and must be discarded. The resulting coarse spirit was sweetened up to disguise its rough flavours and it was a style that found favour with the masses. Even though it killed some of them. Fast forward to today to a beautifully refined, modern interpretation which is impeccably smooth and retains the less dry feel of the past. This too makes a banging G & T and a brilliant Tom Collins.
The berry-based fruit variants are made with fresh English fruit and the same beautifully pure Vodka described above. These are not a variation of the French crème de cassis et al, they are far less sweet and not remotely syrupy. The Raspberry Vodka holds its pretty colour and its crisp summer fruit is captured in the vodka without detracting from the delicacy of the fruit itself. It is medium and not at all jammy. Finished at 26% abv it mixes well with good tonic - my trials show Fevertree low sugar is great - while Fentimans Rose lemonade offers a different option. Plop a couple of fresh raspberries in and make a long summer refresher.
The Blackcurrant Vodka is intense and juicy with rich, concentrated blackcurrant flavours. It is similarly clean and un-sticky, made from the same variety as Ribena apparently, with the berry’s refreshing acidity balancing a natural note of sweetness. I have no idea whether blackcurrants’ famous vitamin C content makes it this far via the maceration process, but I will be pleased to take the risk - it is delicious! It registers 32% abv and is certainly not kids’ stuff; pour over ice with a sprig of mint for a solo reviver, serve a tot with summer pudding, or trickle over a suitable sorbet or ice-cream.
Passion Fruit Vodka although clearly not from English fruit is nonetheless made with organic fruit, continuing the company’s attention to detail. Its passion fruit definition is pin-sharp with plenty of clean, tropical zing. Medium or a shade drier and bottled at 29% abv, this will also work well with the same mixers as the raspberry. At its best, pour a modest dollop into a wine glass and serve with a crisp dry sparkling white, though you will have to have a couple to find out how much passion fruit suits you!
We approached the pair that, in conversation at least, nearly killed the deal. I had heard of toffee vodka products before and the sticky, sickly reputation of some made us sneak up on our sample to try and catch it unawares. Our fears were entirely misplaced; suddenly we swung from instinctive dislike to amazed fans and with the zeal of a religious convert would recommend it to anyone who is a lover of high-grade toffee. The Salted Caramel Vodka is pale and fresh looking, first smelling, then tasting, precisely like very good salted caramel, neither insistently salty nor, vitally, as sweet as the solid stuff which leaves it clean and not in the least sticky or sickly. We were sure we wouldn’t like it, indeed not sure that we even wanted to like it but just couldn’t help it. It packs a punch at 37.5% abv and would work with any toffee-ish, caramel-ish pud but makes a great post-prandial drink poured over ice.
The final line on the tasting was After Dinner Mint Vodka. How unlikely does that sound? I remember from early years in the trade a number of strikingly nasty liqueurs to be found on the “liqueur trolley” in restaurants all over the country. I haven’t seen one for years, thank God. Some of these purported to be chocolate and/or mint based and were universally horrid. Williamson was a posh sommelier in a previous incarnation and remembers all this with exactly the same revulsion as he had to push the trolley! This however is forensically accurate in its flavour and it reproduces the taste sensation in every respect but one: it is not as sweet. This is a seriously skilful recipe; it would be so easy to overdo one or other of the key ingredients yet it is not overly rich, nor too sweet, nor obviously sticky. Do not bother with a box of minty chocs just give them a glass of this, served cold. If you make yourself a hot chocolate drink, liven it up a bit with a shot of this, but be aware that it is 29% abv.
This is a very different direction for Wines of Interest and we appreciate that despite our enthusiasm for an unexpected range of spirits some of you will think some of them are just not WoI and not for you either. Straight gin and vodka aside, so did we. The only way around this is to taste them before you make your mind up and they will be available to try at our Summer Tasting on Thursday June 9th2016. If you are not going to be there we will try and make them available to taste in the shop and you can see for yourselves. Click here to buy a ticket for the tasting.
Usefully, all these come in two sizes. There are standard 70cl bottles and 20cl bottles which are ideal for running trials at home or when you just need a little for cocktails and flavouring. Clearly they cannot be exactly cheap, but they are top notch and offer some deliciously different alternatives to your drinks table or fridge. Click here for full details.