The British weather is such an attention seeking hog and early spring sees it at its most narcissistic; constantly drawing attention to itself with its vicissitudes. There are days where you require cocoa butter for the face, chilled Pimms for the throat and a picnic rug for the derrière. There are days when the howling winds of Siberia seems hell bent on getting through the crack under the front door and cutting straight through your many, many layers.
So it’s a slightly schizophrenic column this month, featuring new drinks releases suited to both balmy climes and Baltic winds. The trick, as always, is to be well stocked. After all, nobody likes a companion who believes that, no matter what the time of year, a four pack of supermarket lager in the fridge will suffice.
It’s taken many a year for me to reverse-ferret my natural instinct to loathe all ciders, based on nothing more than some distressing early teenage experiences in urban playgrounds on the Wirral with four friends and a two litre bottle of White Lightning. But times (and the Wirral) have changed, thank goodness, and this range, from England’s oldest working cider mill in Crediton, Devon, is made with locally-sourced apples and matured for between six months and a year. Taste-wise, it’s an atavistic treat, more akin (I imagine) to the cider my grandparents would have drunk on their Cornish holidays. There’s 14 different ciders in the range but the Devon Dry is the pick of the bunch, not especially sugary and with a dry, tangy rasp of beehives, orchards, hay barns and sunshine.
There’s something hardy and impressive about bespoke producers who ply their craft in the most remote locations. For many years, I had an irrational devotion to a beer that was brewed on Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland Islands even though, to be honest, it was only average at best. Higher accolades are deserved for Penzance Gin, the creation of two best friends from the village of Gulval in the furthest south western corner of Britain. Using a plethora of locally grown botanicals, such as gorse and juniper, the result is an uncommonly smooth gin with a gentle gold colour and a taste redolent of scudding clouds and swooping seagulls. The label is a corker too; an Art-Deco style depiction of the Penzance Jubilee swimming pool. This is, without doubt, an early contender for gin of the year. Very highly recommended.
Lyme Bay Winery Brut Reserve NV
The third drink in a row in this month’s column from the South West of England (they’ve clearly been using lockdown wisely in these parts), this is the latest release from the Lyme Bay Winery. Better known for its ciders and fruit wines, this is an English sparkling wine made from a blend of Pinot Blanc, Seyval Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay and Reichensteiner grapes. That’s a very complex blend indeed but the melange works sublimely. Crisp and dry with a modicum of lemon, citrus and lime, it goes fantastically with the more aristocratic sea foods like turbot and oysters. Although, that could well be because I’m greedy.
A cotton gin was actually a machine used in the US plantations of the 19th century to separate cotton fibres from their seeds. Which has nothing to do with this new gin from Skipton, Yorkshire, unless the makers are intending to use it as a means to insurrection; the rise of the cotton gin is said to be one of the contributing factors to the onset of the American Civil War. A few of G&T’s made with this small batch creation is more likely to lead to an afternoon kip than years of combat, however. Made with Yorkshire watercress, coriander, hand-foraged local spruce, rowan berries, nettle leaves and mint, this is a fragrant number with an extremely clean tasting finish. It’s another impressive addition to the ever growing number of ‘pandemic gins’ launched last year between the first and second waves of The Bad Thing.
Cocktails by post are, along with dogs and cats who now get to spend 24 hours a day with their owners, one of the big winners of Covid. Stir-Up only launched last month so already has a lot of competition from the likes of Cocktail Man, which currently leads the field in terms of sales and profile. However, you can’t fault the simplicity of the offering here which, very thoughtfully, comes with a playlist to stream while you create your cocktail. Delivered via subscription on the last Wednesday of every month, the nifty box contains four different drinks along with instructions which even I, whose cocktail making skills usually extend no further than putting a pickled egg in a pint of bitter, could achieve. The menu includes Mai-Tais, Cosmopolitans, Picantes, Espresso Martinis, Juleps, Negronis and a particularly potent Old Fashioned. The price point is fantastic, with the cocktails working out at barely £7 each. It’s like Happy Hour at your local bar but without the Lou Bega and whiff of Lynx Africa coming from the men’s toilets.
Outdoor Guide Gin
Ah, the evergreen Julia Bradbury, she of consumer rights television and endless, hearty walking books that have taken her everywhere from South Africa to the Greek Islands. During the pandemic, she seems to have made a pit stop back on her home turf of Derbyshire where, along with her sister Gina, she’s launched a gin called The Outdoor Guide Gin. Frankly, I’m never impressed by celebrity drink tie-ins as, usually, the links between said celeb and the booze in question is tenuous at best. Why, exactly, has football pundit Chris Sutton put his name to a gin this year for example? Are BBC Radio 5 Live really not paying him enough? But the Bradbury gin does feel like a more natural fit; chiefly because the gin itself smells and taste like the great outdoors. Blackberry, raspberry, heather and lavender with hints of nettles and mint waft around the nose and there’s even a picture of a place called Noe Stool in the heart of Derbyshire on the label. If ever a gin could be called ‘wholesome’ this is it.
Belaire Luxe Rosé
Ah, the soft stirrings of summer: the sound of sprinklers on lawns, ice cream vans emitting wonky 1920’s nursery rhyme ditties and sun cream bottles exploding in your handbag. Grown and produced in the sun-drenched Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of the South of France, this Luxe Rosé is made with Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault grapes. It’s the kind of gentle pink colour which Ru Paul would consider to be far too subtle and the taste delivers strawberry and raspberry notes as slow and soporific as a ceiling fan during a gradual power outage. It’s all a little dreamy and wistful. One to drink with a Roy Ayers soundtrack and a holiday brochure for Aruba on your lap.
Rutas de Cafayate
I’ve complained about Sainsbury’s alcohol section before in this column – especially the absence of any kind of interesting wine in its ‘Local’ branches. And, much as I’d love to think the boardroom read these missives and changed tack in a suitably panic driven state, the reality is that this new arrival is probably just a happy accident. Rutas de Cafayate is an Argentinian Malbec from one of the highest altitude wine regions in the world, whose conditions give it a dry, smooth yet characterful flavour. Obviously, we’ve all been schooled to believe that Malbecs only go with the charred back end of a cow, but this one is interesting enough to pass muster with less carnivorous pairings. It doesn’t overwhelm some hard, tangy cheeses and actually goes wonderfully with a dish of aubergines and peppers.
Somebody has been taking a leaf out of the Peter Saville school of album design here. The legendary creator of New Order sleeves has been aped in the very Factory Records-esque technique of using the small print as a selling point. These canned cocktails have a distinctly utilitarian look to them and the can is predominantly covered with the list of ingredients. Look closer, however, and you’ll see little snippets of advice like ‘talk forever’ or ‘dance’. All very Monocle magazine-friendly but they do, thankfully, taste very decent indeed. There’s four in the range at the moment, with the Negroni and the Espresso Martini being my picks; the latter in particular has just the right amount of taut bitterness to balance out the creaminess.
Long Shot Seltzers
Just how deep is your drinking love affair with America? Do you seek out craft ales from derelict former shoe factories in Bushwick so obscure that they come with tracking devices? Or do you grudgingly drink a Bud during the Superbowl and proclaim it to be, quite rightly, ‘filthy’? If you’re in either of these camps then this could be of interest. Hard seltzers are barely known in the UK, but Stateside, these are hugely popular boozy concoctions that sit halfway between a full blown cocktail and a sugary, canned and boozed up fruit juice. Essentially we’re talking alcoholic, flavoured sparkling water and this new creation, founded by two twenty-somethings in Hertfordshire, is so good it’s almost dangerous. The three flavours (grapefruit, raspberry and blackcurrant and strawberry and rhubarb) are all exceptionally thirst quenching and light. The thing is, you can’t taste the alcohol at all and each can is less than 70 calories making for some guilt-free alchemy when it comes to a boozy spring picnic. Rarely have I tasted something for this column which was so difficult to refrain from drinking all at once.