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Home again, home again, jiggity-jig

London (and Hampton Court), Kempton, (Upper) Hengoed, Ludlow, Shrewsbury, Bishops Castle, Paris, Barcelona.  Not a bad batch of towns for two weeks.

Then 23-1/2 hours of door-to-door travel (including fifteen hours on planes, ugh), lost luggage, found and late-delivered luggage and the joys of jet lag — I was completely loopy yesterday, and this morning I sat bolt upright and wide awake at 4:30am.  Ah, it was all worth it.  It was a supremely fantastic trip, full of great food, great drink, great friends and great sights.  There should be a number of travelogue posts, featuring food and drink, coming over the next few weeks.

Best news of all coming home … all the booze arrived intact!  Hooray!  Here’s the haul:

Plymouth Navy Strength Gin, relaunched in 2007, is a higher proof version of the original Plymouth with a richer and more intense flavor.  It’s also unavailable in the U.S., hence my burning desire to possess and drink it.  Weighing in at a hefty 100 proof — and that’s English proof, which is actually 57% alcohol — it should be quite the tipple and should make one hell of a Martini.  This high-proof version was approved by the British Royal Navy for distribution aboard ship as it “would not prevent gunpowder from igniting, should it be compromised by spilled spirit,” according to its producers, who supplied the Royal Navy with this gin from the early days of the 19th Century.  Plymouth Navy Strength supposedly made its first inroads into cocktail history during those days as well.  As the story goes, Royal Navy surgeon Sir Thomas Gimlette tried to think of a more palatable way for his sailors to take lime juice as a scurvy preventative, squeezed some into Plymouth Navy Strengh, and thus was born the Gimlet.  (Good story, whether or not it’s even close to being true … never let that stop a good story, though.)  I’ve got 2 bottles of this stuff.

Chase Rhubarb LiqueurRhubarb Liqueur from Chase Distillery in Herefordshire.  It all began with crisps, too.  Potato chips, that is.  A gentleman named William Chase (to whom the Birmingham [U.K.] Post referred as “the Willy Wonka of British potato vodka”) bought a potato farm and bet everything he had that the British public wanted a better potato crisp.  He won.  His brand, Tyrrells Potato Chips, launched in 2001 and swept the country because they were so damned good.  I, of course, being The Potato Chip Monster, fell hopelessly in love with Tyrrells Chips and will soon commence a heated campaign to find them in the States.  (More on this in a later post.)  Chase sold 70% of his interest in Tyrrells for a cool £40 million, so I’m hoping that whatever larger company got them will make them more widely available.  From those proceeds Chase opened a distillery and wanted to make the first British potato vodka, which has been very successful and is apparently good stuff, if you’re a vodka drinker. (“Almondy and buttery” are the tasting notes I’ve read. Incidentally, Chase now makes a clear spirit he calls a vodka but which is distilled from local cider as well — now that I’d be really interested in.)  From vodka Chase moved on to liqueurs based on his vodka, and there’s quite a range of them — blackberry, blackcurrant, elderflower, white peach and rhubarb, the latter of which I brought home.  I’d have gotten them all if there had been room.  Sigh.  (Actually, The Whiskey Exchange in London, where I bought my gin, carries them all and mail-orders to the States, which is actually almost worth it if you order enough bottles. They’ll be getting more of my business – great selection and really nice folks.)

Seville Orange Gin from Tipsage Farms in Worcestershire, which is actually a gin-based liqueur into which peels and a touch of juice from the bitter oranges has been macerated, with a touch of sugar added.  It’s delicious, bracingly bitter in the finish, and great on its own, chilled or on the rocks.  I’m going to see how it mixes too — the problem, of course, being that I only have 500ml to play with and I don’t want to waste it on trying to make cocktails I won’t be able to reproduce easily.  I think it’d be lovely tall with some soda and a bit more gin to oomph it up, for starters.  I’d also swap it out for the Rose’s Lime Cordial for something like a Bitter Orange Gimlet.  Tipsage also make several other flavors, including lime, Damson, blackberry and sloe, but this one piqued my interest the most, especially after our friends John and Fiona gave us a taste at their house … mmm!

Élixir Végetal de la Grande ChartreuseElixir Végetal de la Grande Chartreuse, a concentrated, more potent (at 71% alcohol) version of Chartreuse liqueur, as yet unavailable in the U.S.  Its flavor has been described as a more intense version of Chartreuse V.E.P. (the barrel-aged version).  I’ve been after this stuff for a while, and it seems as if every bartender I know who’s travelled to Europe ends up bringing some of this stuff back.  In France it’s generally taken as a tonic or digestif, and dispensed by the drop — a couple of drops on a sugar cube, or in a little sugared water, is the usual dose.  It comes in 100ml bottles with a dasher top, stored in a lathed wooden case to protect it from light.  I suspect I’ll be dashing this into cocktails left and right! You’ll get a concentrated bit of Chartreuse essence and flavor with less sweetness than you would from the liqueur. (The sugar cube after dinner sounds very nice, too … it seems as if it’d certainly cure what ails ya.)

Metté Eaux-de-VieMetté Eaux-de-Vie, copper pot-distilled clear brandies that come in an astonishing 87 varieties.  Some of the ones I saw at Lavinia in Paris included fruits of every description — quince, Poire Williams, raspberry, rarer fruits like fraises de bois, the small wild strawberries, plus spices like anise, vanilla, even cumin. They also make a black Périgord truffle variety! There were many at Lavinia but some that they didn’t carry, including cumin, woodruff, asparagus and garlic. (Hmm, I don’t know about those.)   Sadly, I was only able to bring home two — Cacao and Pêche (peach), both described by the lady at Lavinia as “fantastic.” They do have an American distributor, and I know I’m going to want more.

SuzeSuze, the bitter French apéritif based on gentian root, and pretty much impossible to find in the States these days.  (I’ve only got dregs left of a bottle I found at Wally’s years ago.)  It’s a flavor that takes some getting used to, but if you’re a fan of Campari or other bitters, you’re already well on your way.  Its sunny yellow color belies a musky, somewhat floral, almost horseradish-like flavor (on the bitter rather than hot/pungent side).  It’s really terrific stuff, and all the more frustrating in that it’s so hard to get now.  There’s always mail-order from Europe, where the shipping costs more than the bottle, but if you order at least four bottles from places who ship then the costs even out a bit.  Suze is definitely worth getting.  Sadly, our bottle had to stay behind at Dule’s place, as it wouldn’t fit into the shipping container we’d brought!  (Danged tall 1-liter bottles.)  We’ll make arrangements later.  Once it gets here, I think I’ll try this cocktail, served at The Pegu Club in New York when they have Suze on hand:


1-1/2 ounces Plymouth gin.
1 ounce Lillet blanc.
3/4 ounce Suze.
1 dash orange bitters (optional).

Combine ingredients with ice in a mixing glass, and stir for 20 seconds. Strain into chilled cocktail glass. No garnish.

I’d say it’s worth mail-ordering, but without a doubt you should go in with friends on several various bottles of stuff to make the shipping charges less painful.

Nikka Whisky from the BarrelNikka Whisky from the Barrel, a Japanese blended whiskey to which we were introduced by Arthur, one of our two favorite bartenders of the trip, at Curio Parlor in Paris (more on him, the bar, and the other bars and bartenders later).  This is absolutely wonderful stuff, full-flavored, citrusy, woody and with lots of character.  I have very little experience with Japanese whiskies, but this one was more like a big brassy Bourbon to me than the few others I’ve tasted.  Arthur made me an Old Fashioned and Wesly a Manhattan, the two tests of mettle of a bartender for us, and both drinks were pure perfection.  Indeed, they were entirely new experiences for us, as they used this wonderful whiskey. Unfortunately I think this one’s going to be hard to find as well, meaning more expensive mail-ordering. Next time I’m at Seven Grand, we’re going to be talking about this one.  🙂

Patxaran Ordoki, from Navarre, Spain.  While we were in Barcelona Wes and I fell in love with patxaran (which is the Catalan and Basque spelling; it’s pacharán in Spanish). It’s a liqueur based on the sloe berry, just like sloe gin, and is frequently made at home as many folks in the U.K. made sloe gin when the blackthorn bushes are heavy with sloes.  However, patxaran is soaked in an anisette base rather than a gin base, and is often flavored with a few coffee beans and a vanilla pod in its homemade version as well as some of the commercial ones.  The first one we tried was a brand called Baines (pronounced bah-ee-ness), which was really good but proved difficult to find in spirits shops.  The other we had was Etxeco, which was good, but not as good as Baines.  We didn’t manage to make it to the Barcelona branch of Lavinia (we took a half-hour Metro ride there one evening, forgetting that most businesses in Barcelona are closed on Sundays … d’oh), but we did make it to a shop closer to our hotel, La Cava de los Faros, better known to pre-legalization absintheurs as The Fine Spirits Corner.  It’s a fairly small shop actually, stuffed with liquor, and the nattily dressed older gentleman in charge assured us that of the brands he carried, Ordoki was the best.  Tonight we’ll see how it stands up to Baines and Etxeco.  If you’re intrigued by this very tasty liqueur too, you can mail-order it without too much trouble.  Spirits Corner has it, but the shipping charges may stop your heart.  Another company called Products From Spain.net have a whole patxaran/pacharán page, but they’re based in Madrid and their shipping will more than double the cost of your $49 bottle.  However, Beltramo’s Wine and Spirits in the San Francisco Bay Area carry Ordoki for $21.99 a bottle, with much more reasonable domestic shipping charges.  We also picked up a couple of miniatures of the oldest and most widely distributed brand of pacharán, called Zoco, now owned by Pernod-Ricard.

So … all in all, not a bad haul!

Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster

The ultimate answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe and Everything. That’s me! Today, November 11, 2003, I am 42.

It was very nice of them to design the Earth-sized and -shaped computer Deep Thought and have it work on me for billions of years. I only wish I knew what the question was.

Given the significance of today’s birthday, there really can be only one drink with which I can celebrate. Robb was thoughtful enough in another comments thread to suggest Sazeracs — a splendid suggestion, no doubt — but today only this will do.

The best drink in existence, according to Douglas Adams, is the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster. The effect of drinking one of these is rather like having your brains smashed out with a slice of lemon, wrapped around a large gold brick. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will tell you on which planets the best ones are brewed, how much you can expect to pay for one, and which voluntary organizations exist to help you recover afterwards.

Fortunately, the Guide also tells you how you can make one yourself. (And, of course, it’s gin-based.)

Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster

1 bottle Ol’ Janx Spirit.
1 measure Santraginean seawater.
3 cubes frozen Arcturan MegaGin.
4 liters Fallian marsh gas.
1 measure Qualactin Hypermint Extract.
1 Algolian Suntiger tooth.
Zamphour to taste.
Olive garnish.

Take the juice from one bottle of the Ol’ Janx Spirit (see page 15 of the actual Guide).

Pour into it one measure of water from the seas of Santraginus V — Oh, that Santraginean seawater, it says. Oh, those Santraginean fish!

Allow three cubes of Arcturan MegaGin to melt into the mixture (it must be properly iced or the benzene is lost).

Allow four liters of Fallian marsh gas to bubble through it, in memory of all those happy hikers who have died of pleasure in the marshes of Fallia.

Over the back of a silver spoon float a measure of Qualactin Hypermint Extract, redolent of all the heady odors of the dark Qualactin Zones, subtle, sweet and mystic.

Drop in the tooth of an Algolan Suntiger. Watch it dissolve, spreading the fires of the Algolan suns deep into the heart of the drink.

Sprinkle Zamphour.

Add an olive.

Drink… but… very… carefully.

If my brains are bashed out, I’ll just get a second head.