(Part 1 here)

So, having settled on October 18th for the brewday, I had to actually think about boring things like recipes and how, exactly, we were going to add fruit, spice, sack and dead bird to the resultant ferment.

Recreating the beer exactly as it would have existed a few centuries ago would be, if not impossible, beyond my capabilities here. The varieties of barley grown, how they were malted, the qualities and freshness of the hops, the yeast cultures used, receptacles for fermentation and maturation – all would be different to some degree. Not to mention variance over time and between regions. From reading old copies of the Protz/La Pensée CAMRA Homebrew Classics range won at various beer festivals in my youth and the ongoing excavations of Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell‘s blogs, I was happy to draw a line through “historically accurate” and instead list hopefully towards “vaguely traditional-feeling”.

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So, back in March 2021 a friend threw a message my way asking if I was au fait with the works of Sir Kenelm Digby? Given that Richard (that’s my friend – I haven’t slipped into referring to myself in the third-person quite yet) likes himself a bit of pre-industrial history, weird folklore and the grotesque, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect him to follow this with, but it certainly wasn’t a request to try and brew a batch of, uh, “cock ale”. After a certain amount of to-and-fro to work out what he was on about, Wikipedia reassured me that it wasn’t just a practical joke. Admittedly, that the source book was called The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened did seem of a piece with the general innuendo.

As far as I could work out, cock ale was a strong ale fortified with dried fruit, spices, fortified wine and the obligatory cockerel. The latter was boiled well, then smushed up – bones and all – and added to the non-beer ingredients to soak, before the lot was pitched into the ale as it finished fermenting. Have a look, courtesy of the Gutenberg Project‘s copy:

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In the midst of that general stress that always seems to gather just before Christmas as a strange parallel to the holiday anticipation, it was a great pleasure to see this bottle slip through the letterbox. The Portobello Road Distillery Special Reserve 101, to give it its full name, is an interesting bundle of ideas smoothed out and executed as a celebration of Portobello Road Distillery’s first decade, and an object lesson in what they’ve learnt.

The concept behind the bottle is that, while strictly adhering to the regulations that define what spirits can be called “London Dry Gin”, this anniversary edition tweaks, subverts or otherwise toys with the drinker’s expectations of the style. The distillers have switched from their usual wheat base spirit to a potato-derived one. Where aging the gin in wood is disallowed as it would add colour or flavour, nothing is said about the preceding base spirit, so onto some oak it goes. The botanicals are both larger in quantity and infused for longer. A narrower section of the distillate is kept than for their standard gin. Finally and – for me – most unexpectedly, they’ve taken the stipulation that only spirit and water can be added post-distillation rather laterally, going with the famously mineralised Vichy Catalan water to cut it down to 50.5% abv (your “101 proof” in the USA, hence the name). Given how critical water composition is in brewing, I really wanted to see what would carry through here.

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It must have been five years ago that I became aware of Vecchia Romagna, when a bottle of their Etichetta Nera (Black Label) found its way to our flat. As much as I love and respect Cognac and Armagnac, I’m conscious that good brandy can come from parts of the world other than France, so a storied Italian brand falling into my lap like so was very welcome. The Etichetta Nera is and was a very decent pick, especially given the price. Enjoyably full as a sipper, with tropical fruit and spice notes, it was an excellent go-to for cocktails as well. That it came in a striking three-faced bottle didn’t hurt, and guests noticing that in the cocktail bar hastened an already swift rate of depletion.

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So, here we are, December rolling into the last fortnight before Christmas rears its be-tinselled head. We (Miriam and I) thought we’d knock together a quick series of videos with pointers of nice things to drinks, from mocktails to whiskies. This is a little landing page to give all those crucially important links, so you can find whatever it is we’ve been elucidating/wittering about. All those precious details after the fold…

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