A Bombay Martini


I was picking up some supplies in the supermarket when this gin caught my eye. Bombay London Dry Gin: more muted in appearance than its bright blue Sapphire  sister, it has a simple, almost stringently-coloured branding.

I am not a fan of floral or overly botanical gins in my martini so I though that this one with only 8 botanicals (to Sapphire’s 10) might provide a basic, clean, high street option so I took it home and chucked it in the freezer to find out.


A day later when the gin was thoroughly chilled, I made a simple martini, garnished with lemon peel and accompanied by the obvious snack of Bombay Mix.


The gin was less citrusy and floral than Bombay Sapphire. I love citrus notes, but I prefer them firstly in the aroma of the drink, ideally from the lemon peel I’ve just squeezed into it, then finally as a slow melting aftertaste which follows what I prefer to be a strong, leading juniper flavour. The Bombay Dry leads with juniper which was a nice surprise. It was overall less citrusy than I like, but this gives you the option of squeezing extra lemon peel into the drink if you want it, or leaving it out if you don’t. I know several martini fans who prefer less lemon in their martini so this one would make a good option. Otherwise, the botanicals were understated, much like the branding of the bottle.


There was a heat in the aftertaste of the gin which I don’t particularly welcome, especially in a martini which should be ice cold and ideally smooth. It reminded me somewhat of the warmth of the Botanist gin, a sensation which I think is more suited to a whisky than a gin. Nonetheless, for a high street brand I thought it was good value for money with a suitable clean and juniper taste.


As chance would have it my flatmate brought back a bottle of Bombay Sapphire the very next day. Absolutely perfect for a bare-faced comparison test. As you can see, the branding is far more exuberant. The blue-coloured glass is iconic, while the black and gold detail is positively regal, enhanced not least by the image of HM Queen Victoria.


I threw it in the freezer next to the Bombay Dry and whipped up another quick classic the next day.


Bombay Sapphire is lovely for a gin and tonic, especially for people who are otherwise put off by the strong juniper taste of standard gins. It has a smooth taste with complex spicy notes that dominate, followed by an almost sweet citrus aftertaste.


As expected, for me, Bombay Sapphire is not my gin of choice because I expect a strong, leading juniper flavour in my martini. It bolsters the almost surgical cleanliness of the drink while adding a sharp freshness evocative of a cold, winter pine forest.


However, the bold and admirable botanicals of the Bombay Sapphire were nonetheless pleasant and interesting. I love coriander and cardamom and while they might dominate my coveted martinis they were more like a temporary house guest. It’s a slight inconvenience and not as quiet as normal but it’s interesting to catch up. Furthermore, if gin isn’t normally your thing, or if you’re not especially keen on juniper, give this one a try in a gin and tonic or a martini. It has been described as a ‘gateway gin’ luring innocents into the sophisticated but Hogarthian danger of the gin world so for that I must salute it!


In summary, Bombay Dry is largely juniper, with a slight heat in the aftertaste, but good value for money. Bombay Sapphire is sweet and spicy and a good choice if you’re new to gin or not overly keen on juniper.

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The Sun Tavern in Bethnal Green

This post isn’t about martinis but I wanted to tell you about a cool bar I visited in East London, as well as the wonder that is Irish Poitín.


I nipped into an Irish bar in Bethnal Green for a quick drink with some friends from Latvia and Lithuania. (Take that Brexit, we’ve got no place for your xenophobia on this blog).

Apart from a drunk, ignorant stag party from Liverpool chanting OutOutOut (a braying but ominously tinged with racism call of the Brexiteers), and a response chant of InInIn by the assembled London drinkers (our own Les Marseillaise scene from Casablanca) it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

The bar caught my eye from the outside. I hadn’t pre-planned the trip or scouted it out on Foursquare or anything. It just looked visually appealing, with lots of nice, rough-hewn wooden and metal furnishings.

The staff were very knowledgeable and attentive; hipsterish/trendy but not twatty. We sat at the bar so we could chat, interact and admire their extremely wide drink selection.

It was then that we stumbled upon their Poitín menu.


Poitín is an Irish spirit that I have heard a lot about, but had never tried. So we jumped right in.

Typically ranging in strength from 40-90% (yes you read that right – God bless you Ireland) it was illegal for centuries, not because of its strength, but because it couldn’t be regulated – and taxed. When farmers harvested crops such as cereals or beets the produce would be checked or removed so those pesky peasants couldn’t brew up their own illicit booze. Damn you big government! Apparently it was therefore often made from milk, because despite the confiscation of harvested vegetables, even the poorest families had cows to milk on a regular basis. So they would ferment and distill the milk to create this clear and absolutely intoxicating liquid wonderment and get absolutely shit-faced in defiance of the authorities, for hundreds of years.


Served as a chaser with some light lager or a pale ale (I preferred the lager) I was amazed at the smooth, fruity and refined text and texture of the drink. It was like a super-charged sake, or shochu in its purity but with a more complex interplay of taste and texture sensations that moved through the whole mouth. I didn’t mix it with water or ice. It was quite fiery but the follow-up sensation was one of extreme warmth moving down my tongue the way phosphorescence glides down the body of a squid in tropical water at night. It was quite the experience. My friends and I tried several different varieties. Even the 90% version, while having the potential to blow our heads off, was quite smooth and gently warming. It was a lovely treat.


Although I didn’t try anything else, the bar also does a range of cocktails, including bloody Mary’s and even one of my favourite drinks: The Michelada.

I was also a fan of the overall vibe and decor. So if you’re in Bethnal Green, give it a go. And if you’re not, get yourself over there for a good night! Just don’t plan too many activities for the next morning…

Martini Porn for World Gin Day

Happy World Gin Day everyone. To whet your appetites I’ve put together a selection of some martini images from the last few months. If you fancy making your own tonight, here is my guide.

Enjoy!

 
Lemon Drop Martini during a London Spring sunset. 

  

  
A classic martini, the most elegant of drinks.

 

Channeling Danish hygge at my aunty’s house.

  
A selection of classics with plenty of nibbles.

  
A classic with many olives. 

  
A lychee martini.

  
Classic martinis.

  

“No lace. No lace, Mrs. Bennet, I beg you!” – a classic Pride and Prejudice quote that had to go with this martini and doily at home.

  
As you may have noticed, martinis go well with candlelight.

  
A classic with Japanese peanut snacks.

  
A Gibson martini.

  
More candlelight, this time with a hot and dirty martini, complete with ice still attached to the glass from the freezer.


And finally, an optimistic classic on a London summer evening.

Have a good weekend and enjoy World Gin Day responsibly!

A Martini with Crushed Oyster Shell


I drifted into borough market the other day and found myself standing in front of a fishmonger’s counter staring at all the produce. I couldn’t leave empty handed and suddenly felt a craving for salty, briny oysters so I bought a handful.I’ve made a martini with oysters before (you can see the blog post here).

This time, though, I was inspired by a story I’d heard about a martini made with gin shaken up with crushed oyster shells.


There’s something anciently pleasing about oyster shells. We always have a pile of discarded ones in the garden by our kitchen door. It’s like a primordial mark of civility, like our Roman and prehistoric Hebridean forebears.

From a taste perspective, I like the ground, salty and metallic/chalky flavour.


So I got to work. I opened the oysters and ground one of the flat, detached shells with a pestle and mortar.

I poured some chilled gin into a jug with the pulverised shell and stirred I vigorously for about 30 seconds.


I then strained the gin and added it to vermouth in a glass to make a martini.

As with a classic martini, I had rubbed some lemon peel into the glass first as this little citrus touch goes nicely with the oyster flavour.


I then served the martini with the opened oysters on the side.

I liked the sharp, metallic taste that the process gave the martini, although I was really craving something saltier and ended up pouring some of the brine in as well.

In sum total, I would say that crushing the oyster shell was a bit of a faff and ultimately the best part of the flavour simply came from the oyster brine I added at the end.


So I concluded that’s unless you have a lot of time, I would keep it simple. If you’re craving an oyster-themed martini simply serve them on the side of a simple classic martini and pour in some of the brine to taste. You could even tip the whole body of one in for a striking (and tasty) aperitif.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier… Drunk

Who would serve a jug or pitcher of martini at a party?

Oh wait, only Kim Philby, one of Britain’s most notorious traitors.

  
I’ve just read a book entitled “a spy among friends” by Ben MacIntyre. It was the first book I’ve read in a long time that I struggled to put down. It documents the story of Harold ‘Kim’ Philby as he worked his way into the inner sanctums of British intelligence.

He was considered trustworthy for decades because he was seen as a part of the British ‘establishment’ (he came from a reputable family, went to public school, and attended Cambridge University). 

In stark contrast, however, he was a member of the infamous Cambridge Spy Network who wreaked untold damage on Western Cold War activities.

  

Philby was recruited by Soviet agents shortly after he graduated and provided Moscow with extensive British and American secrets for many years. By the time he defected to the USSR in the 1960s it is estimated that hundreds, if not thousands of people had died because of his actions.

The pressures of intelligence work evidently led to heavy drinking amongst most agents (this might continue today – I am not fully aware, although I’ve been told that consumption is a lot lower than it used to be).

The pressures of being a mole in this already stressful environment evidently took a particularly high toll on Philby – as well as his long-suffering family: his mother and second wife both died alcoholics while he himself was regularly seen in an unconscious state of inebriation. 

Despite his own alcohol intake, however, he managed to survive to the age of 76. In the end, he died in Moscow in 1988, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, ending the ideological regime he had believed in so steadfastly; the way of governance he betrayed so much for.

While reading about his eventful life I noticed the reappearance of martinis on several occasions and made a note of each one. Sir Ian Fleming pops up in the stories here and there, of course famous for his creation of martini fan James Bond.

  
A personal favourite was the story involving the cocktail bar in World War Two Istanbul. The lady who ran the bar mixed up “volcanic martinis” for her British officer clientele, then sat back and listened while they drunkenly spilled our state secrets for her to pass on to the Nazis. In vino veritas indeed, or should that be in martinis veritas?

The noteworthy ‘pitchers’ of martini were recorded at cocktail and dinner parties held at the Philby household in Washington DC. Intense drunkenness ensued with sometimes shocking social results.

Such parties involved an even greater level of risk when Philby allowed for the mixing of British agents, American agents and British spies working for the Soviets. I think it’s a wonder he got away with being a spy for so long without letting slip during one of his drunken binges. Evidently his lips were sealed even when he was at his most intoxicated. Stalin would have been impressed.

  
During later cocktail parties at his home in Beirut he taught his young son how to mix up a “fierce” martini for the guests. Start ’em young I say. I was taught how to pour G&Ts and whiskies with water for the family when I was well below drinking age so I don’t think it’s the worst thing to happen. Indeed I enjoyed being allowed to socialise with the adults at that age. It was a privilege for the well-behaved.

  
Ultimately though, Kim Philby’s life appears to have been one of loneliness and an ultimate lack of fulfilment. No-one ever truly knew him. While sexually intimate with several women, he was never psychologically intimate enough with anyone to truly bond or connect with them.

While I use martinis to bond with others, he used them to lull his potential foes and numb the pains of his own personal transgressions.

In the end he died with few, if any friends. He had betrayed most of them for an ideology soon to fall apart. What a terrible use of martinis.

I’ll tell you what isn’t a waste though: this book! 

The Henri Toulouse Lautrec in Kennington, 3/5

 
The Henri Toulouse Lautrec is no ordinary venue. People travel here from all over the world for its live music performances. It also serves fantastic food.

However – the martinis do not hit the mark just yet, but with a little re-adjustment this place could be a cocktail bar with real punch – a Moulin Rouge of south London.

  

I would struggle to describe the venue accurately: the friendly, strange, shabby-chic, bohemian, French, Anglo-French, theatrical, run-down yet sophisticated Kennington brasserie and jazz bar caters to many tastes.

It’s not gimmicky or faddy, it’s more established and reputable than that. It’s got the staff and the skilled chefs and musicians too. The food is excellent by the way – and they deliver, although you wouldn’t get to experience the atmosphere.

  

The bar doesn’t seem to fit in with its Elephant and Castle environs (this is a good thing). Indeed it seems to have survived much longer than any of the other buildings in this part of the city. 

  
Something about it gives me the impression that we might have to sign petitions in the coming years to save it from ‘gentrification’ and being turned into a soulless block of luxury apartments. Londoners – you know what I’m talking about!

For now though, it enjoys a crammed timetable featuring live acts every night. This three-floor venue can get very busy. However, during the ‘violet hour’ – that precious cocktail moment that lasts somewhere from 5pm until dinner time – the venue is often virtually empty. In-keeping with continental culture, the diners tend to arrive later in the evening to eat.

I feel that some sort of invigoration of the cocktail bar, maybe the creation of an ‘aperitif happy hour’ could boost this place no-end, increase profits earlier in the evening, while enhancing rather than compromising its French ambience. For instance, they could name their happy hour cinq á sept (which literally means ‘5-7’ and is usually used to refer to a post-work drinks event in Quebec) or l’heure du bonheur (literally ‘the hour of happiness’). I would definitely attend.

  

Of course, the aspect I would focus on most prominently would be the martini. This bar has great potential. The servers ask all the right questions: which gin would you like it made with? Shaken or stirred? Sweet, dry or dirty? Olive or lemon twist?

  

However, neither the glasses nor the gin are cold, while excessive stirring and shaking the drink with ice left it noticeably watered down. The bar was also left unattended for fairly long periods of time. I believe the staff were helping out elsewhere. Perhaps if they had a dedicated cocktail waiter here during the crucial martini o’clock period this place would have a much higher footfall at that time of the day and we wouldn’t be left waiting around for service.

  
 
I liked the lemon garnish – an appealing shape to watch spiralling and contracting as you swirl the drink. I don’t think it was properly squeezed into the glass before pouring but it was long enough for the oil and citrus flavour to permeate the drink quite nicely.

I must also point out that their Negronis are excellent. Bravo.

  

The nibbles we ordered were also delectable. The Henri Toulouse Lautrec really excels at its food. I would otherwise prefer blinis that you can eat with one hand while you hold your glass with the other, but I will forgive this inconvenience purely because of the taste of this smoked salmon dish. It was delicious.

So, in summary:

Pros

  • It’s a great venue with charm and character
  • The food is excellent
  • It has huge cocktail potential

Cons

  • The gin wasn’t cold enough
  • The martini was too watered down
  • The bar was unattended for long periods
  • The place was empty during cocktail hour – perhaps the latter could be fixed by addressing the former three issues.

The Henri Toulouse Lautrec is worth many visits and I am very fond of this venue, so I hope that my criticism is seen as a demonstration of its huge potential from a martini perspective rather than a damnation. I will definitely be calling back for an encore or three.

  

The Foxlow in Balham 4/5

  

My friend invited me out to lunch at the Foxlow Restaurant just around the corner from Balham tube station in south London.
 

The decor has a 1970s Scandinavian feel to it, with lots of wood and chunky fixtures that say practicality as well as style. The staff were also helpful, friendly and knowledgable. 

  

The food menu is unpretentious comfort food – but of very high quality. The chicken sandwich was generous, tasty, comforting and a real treat of contrasting textures. All the meat and fish is carefully chosen from high value and sustainable sources by the way.

  

I don’t normally drink martinis at lunch but when I saw the unusual option at the top of their cocktail menu I had to try it. I was told it involved a honey and Manzanilla olive brine mixture instead of vermouth. If in doubt, I almost always prefer a traditional classic but this sounded like a very individual, striking yet simple variation that I had never seen before so it would have been rude not to order one.

  
I was not disappointed. The oily circle of honey oozed playfully around the surface of the drink until the end while the sweet and briny flavours swirled pleasingly over the stoicism of the dry gin.

If I could recommend any changes I would suggest, as I often do, keeping the gin and glasses in the freezer so that the drink was even colder. I also prefer to drink martinis from a V-shaped martini glass rather than a coupe glass, but these are minor points.

The drink was good value for money for London and I particularly salute the creativity of someone who can take a tried and tested classic, innovate it with a subtle but unique alteration and create something new and pleasing, yet also reassuringly rooted in the classic martini recipe  style.

  
The drink was not served with nibbles (perhaps it could be served with complimentary Manzanilla olives for martini greatness) but the nibbles on offer in the food menu were creative and highly tasty.

We ordered the anchovy, onion and goats cheese served on rounds of crisp bread. They were absolutely delicious, with strong salty and umami punch, finished off with the pungency of the onion.
  
They were a fantastic accompaniment to the martini, although given their strong flavour I would recommend only eating them with someone you are comfortable enough to share anchovy-onion breath with afterwards. If you’re on a date you’d better buy two plates to share – your breaths will hopefully cancel one another’s out if you end  up kissing later – and if you have one or two martinis let’s be honest, there will probably be a fairly good chance of it.