The following is excerpted from That’s the Spirit! by Jonathan Ray.
We spirits-lovers have never had it so good. We are in the midst of an apparently unstoppable gin revolution and on the cusp of what I predict to be a similarly irresistible rum revival. Sales of fine whiskey, cognac, tequila and vodka are also soaring, craft distilleries are popping up all over the place and our collective thirst for classic and quirky cocktails shows no sign at all of abating.
I’ve been tucking into top quality hooch for over 40 merry years, first as a wine merchant and latterly as a constantly thirsty journalist. Happily, I’ve discovered some delectably tasty gems along the way. The 100 examples I feature in That’s the Spirit! are my absolute favorites.
Many, such as Cointreau, say, Courvoisier and Grand Marnier, will be familiar to you; many, such as the King’s Ginger Liqueur (created especially for King Edward VII), the digestion-settling Mentzendorff Kummel and the exquisite almond-flavored grappa ideal for augmenting your morning expresso, might not be.
I’ve tasted them all and drink many of them rather too regularly. I hope you seek out and try as many as you can and that you come to love them as I do. Here’s my top seven recommendations, to get you started. Cheers!
Balcones, Brimstone Texas Scrub Oak Smoked Corn Whisky
BALCONES BRIMSTONE TEXAS SCRUB OAK SMOKED CORN WHISKY (USA) Quadrille
USA; 53% vol.
When I worked at Berry Bros & Rudd in St. James’s Street, London, all those years ago, scores of tourists would visit us. They loved the fact the company had been founded in 1698 and was still family-owned, and that the wood-paneled shop (which had no bottles on display even though it was, erm, a wine shop) had barely changed over the centuries. They would stare at us as we sat in our pin-stripes at vast desks writing orders out in long-hand. No, we didn’t have quills, but might just as well have. If they were lucky, they might catch us playing cricket on the shop’s famously sloping floor or find us engaging in our favourite pastime: ignore-the-customer-by pretending-to-be-on-the-phone-and-see-who-cracks-first.
Americans loved it, of course. Texans more than anyone because—as a plaque on the wall outside recorded—the first floor of the building had been home to the Texas Legation from 1842-45. I remember once being bearded by a vast Stetson-sporting Texan who wanted his photo taken next to the plaque. He explained that they didn’t make wine back where he was from but if they ever got round to it, it would undoubtedly be the best in the world. I didn’t really feel I could argue with that.
I believe they do make wine in Texas these days although I’ve not tried any. What they do make is whisky—really, really good whisky. None make it better than Balcones in Waco, founded in 2008 by craft distilling genius Chip Tate. Sadly Chip had a spat with his investors and has since left the company. His legacy remains though and the whiskies are exceptional. They’re not bourbons, but proudly Texan whiskies. This big, brash, beast of a whisky is the quirkiest in an already quirky range. Made from roasted blue corn, the whisky itself is then smoked (I know, nor me) and tastes like no other spirit I’ve ever had. If whisky–or just Texas–is your thing, you have to try it.
Säntis Malt Whisky, Edition Himmelberg
APPENZELLER SINGLE MALT SÄNTIS SWISS ALPINE WHISKY EDITION HIMMELBERG (SWITZERLAND) Quadrille
Switzerland; 43% vol.
So there I was in Appenzell in northeast Switzerland. I had just arrived and was sitting quietly in the sunshine enjoying some excellent local beer from the Locher Brauerei. And then I saw it. I thought I’d had too much to drink and was imagining it. But I hadn’t and I wasn’t.
The chocolate-box-pretty buildings around me were bedecked with flags. There was the familiar Swiss flag and the unfamiliar (to me) Appenzell flag, which I could now see displayed the canton’s coat of arms, that of a large black bear on its hind legs with red claws and – I don’t know how else to put this – a monstrous red erection. It was impossible to miss.
Appenzell is the smallest, most traditional and most old-fashioned of all the Swiss cantons, with elections and matters of import still decided by a show of hands in the town square. Hitherto, it’s been best known for the Appenzeller mountain dog, the tangy Appenzeller cheese and for the fact that women only won the right to vote here as recently as 1991. To this list I would like to add the proudly priapic bear (do Google it if you don’t believe me), the extremely toothsome Appenzeller beer and the very fine Appenzeller Single Malt, both made by the Locher family.
I had come across the beer before. The Hanfblüte (hemp) beer is particularly fine in a heady, cannabis sort of way, as is the Vollmond beer, brewed only during a full moon. The whisky, though, was new to me (it only launched in 2002) and I was instantly smitten.
There’s the smoky, earthy, spicy Edition Dreifaltigkeit; the vanilla-laden Edition Sigel, aged in small beer casks; and a wonderful apricot malt liqueur. My favourite though, is this, the Edition Himmelberg, aged in a mix of beer and wine casks. It’s soft and smooth with an elegant and seductive fruitiness to it and it was a worthy winner of a silver medal at the 2016 International Wine & Spirit Competition.
The label even has a picture of the aforementioned bear, although this time he’s coyly hiding his, erm, excitement behind a well-placed heraldic shield.
Jean-Paul Mette, Eau-de-vie de Poire Williams
JEAN-PAUL METTÉ EAU-DE-VIE DE POIRE WILLIAMS (FRANCE) Quadrille
France; 42% vol.
Alsace is my favourite region in all France. Well, equal favourite with Gascony. The land of castles and eaux-de-vie versus the land of d’Artagnan and armagnac. I guess it’s a tie between the two.
As you know, Alsace lies in the far east of France, between the Vosges Mountains and the mighty River Rhine and it’s had an extraordinary history. Thanks to dust-ups such as the Thirty Years’ War, the French Revolution, the Franco-Prussian War and two world wars, it has switched between German and French control with dizzying regularity. Remarkably, though, its picture postcard-pretty medieval towns and villages such as Beblenheim, Colmar, Obernai, Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr remain intact, complete with twisting cobbled streets and colourful, half-timbered houses.
The climate is benign, the welcome warm, the food excellent and the wines, well, they’re first rate and I could bang on about them indefinitely. There are crisp, dry Rieslings, headily spicy Gewurztraminers, lusciously aromatic Muscats and astonishingly fine sweet wines. Oh and the Pinot Noirs ain’t bad either. What I always forget, though, until I’m in Alsace, is how much I enjoy their spirits too.
They distil all manner of fruit there, producing exceptional, richly scented, colourless spirits that make superb digestifs. If you’ve not had eau-de-vie de mirabelle or quetsch (both plum), coing (quince), framboise (raspberry), fraise (strawberry) or Poire William (pear) you’re in for a real treat.
I discovered Jean-Paul Metté’s Eau-de-Vie de Poire Williams only a few weeks ago when last in Colmar and it knocked my socks off. I’d never had anything as fine. The first time I smelt it, I was whisked straight back to my boyhood, sneaking into my neighbour’s orchard to eat ripe pears straight from the tree. The sticky juice that would run down my chin and my arms smelt just like this.
Jean-Paul Metté (known locally as the Pope of Eaux-de-Vie) founded his small, artisanal distillery in Ribeauvillé in the 1960s and it’s now owned and run by his godson, Philippe Traber and Philippe’s family. Their entire range of eaux-de-vie is a complete delight. Nothing takes me back to Kent, circa 1972, quite like this though.
Domaine Boingneres, Bas Armagnac Cepages Nobles
DOMAINE BOINGNÈRES BAS ARMAGNAC CÉPAGES NOBLES (FRANCE) Quadrille
France; 48% vol.
The last time I drank this was in the company of some very dashing musketeers. Much to my astonishment and delight, I had been invited by the Compagnie des Mousquetaires d’Armagnac – the very jolly fraternity that promotes the delights of armagnac – to join their merry band at a great knees-up in the medieval cloisters of Condom.
We drained glass upon glass of Pousse Rapière (a fabulous cocktail of armagnac, sparkling wine and orange zest) before we inductees were introduced to the body of the hall with flaming torches and a brief biography. A sash of royal blue, complete with enamel cross, was placed around my shoulders; I signed a leather-bound register and received a parchment and a spirity kiss on both cheeks in return. The capitaine d’honneur spoke so fast that I could barely catch a word he was saying but it seemed to be along the lines that I was a good egg, that I could drink as much free Armagnac as I wanted for life and that whenever I was passing through I could have my wicked way with as many of their wives and daughters as I could manage. Or something like that.
Everyone slapped me on the back and, amid loud cheers and much raising of glasses, I was led back to my chair where a bottle of this wonderful stuff was thrust into my hand: it was mine for the evening and I wasn’t to leave until it was empty.
Domaine Boingnères was founded in 1807 and is one of the region’s great names, run by Martine Lafitte, the sixth generation of her family to have the role. The estate concentrates on using the Folle Blanche grape variety grown in vineyards in Bas Armagnac only. The armagnacs are aged in a mix of charred new oak and old oak barrels and they come out big and powerful. At 48% vol, this example is a much higher strength than is usual for the region, which might explain my sorry disarray when I last drank it.
The King's Ginger Liqueur
THE KING’S GINGER LIQUEUR (HOLLAND) Quadrille
Holland; 41% vol.
Produced exclusively for stately St. James’s Street wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd (Est: 1698) by De Kuyper Royal Distillers (Est: 1695) in Holland, The King’s Ginger Liqueur recipe was concocted in 1903 by the then Mr Berry and the then doctor to King Edward VII. The king had recently taken delivery of his new horseless carriage – a Daimler no less – and it was felt that a nip of ginger would be just the thing to keep the poor chap protected from the elements as he pootled about in his motor.
Made from top-quality ginger root and lemon oils, it comes in at a bold 41% vol and is alarmingly moreish, being sweet and gingery in the mouth, oily and unctuous. The sweetness then fades to a wonderfully dry, fiery, spicy finish. It’s spectacular on its own – either neat from a hipflask or in a tumbler on the rocks – and makes an excellent addition to all manner of cocktails. It’s also ridiculously tasty poured over vanilla ice cream.
When I worked at Berrys’, I remember that we once had sixties popstar Adam Faith to lunch. We were trying out a new cook and she was anxious to impress and insisted
on producing her signature first course: quails’ eggs in champagne aspic. This was followed by steak and chips, cheese and the aforementioned ice cream drenched in KGL. Mr Faith gave the starter a wide berth, I noticed, and didn’t touch the steak. He picked at a few chips, had a morsel of cheese and wolfed down the pudding. He then made his excuses and left.
I later called his PA to check that all was well since our guest had seemed a little underwhelmed by proceedings. Not to worry, I was told, Adam had had a lovely time. He particularly liked ‘the sweet with the gingery sauce’ and wanted to order a dozen bottles of the liqueur. He was rather surprised, though, by the starter and reckoned that a company such as Berrys’ had no business serving sheeps’ eyes in jelly to guests.
MENTZENDORFF KUMMEL (FRANCE) Quadrille
France; 38% vol.
Kummel, the luscious, caraway seed-based digestif first distilled in Holland in the late sixteenth century by one Lucas Bols, has long been one of my preferred after-dinner or, if the whole day is to be written off, after-lunch tipples.
I simply love it and although the likes of Wolfschmidt, Bols and De Kuyper Royal Distillers make excellent examples, my all-time favourite remains Mentzendorff, produced in the tiny Combier distillery in Saumur in the Loire Valley to the original 1823 recipe, created when the company (currently owned by Champagne Bollinger) was first established near Riga, Latvia.
The ten-strong team at Combier make many fine spirits such as the original triple sec, a fabulous cherry liqueur and several excellent, this’ll-put-hair-on-your-chest absinthes. They’re rather baffled by the kummel, though, since nobody in France appears to drink it.
For those yet to discover its delights, kummel is perhaps best described as grown-ups’ gripe water, that ancient remedy for colic and general indigestion in children. The plant that gives both gripe water and kummel their distinctive aniseed-like flavour is caraway, a well-known carminative noted for easing gastrointestinal discomfort. And that’s the thing: kummel really does help one digest in a way other spirits don’t. Little wonder it’s so popular with elderly, dyspeptic gents in golf clubs across the land, where it’s known as ‘putting mixture’.
Best served straight from the freezer or on the rocks, Mentzendorff Kummel is syrupy sweet at first, after which the spicy aniseed note kicks in, followed by a deliciously pure, dry finish that soothes and comforts all the way down. It’s sublime. It’s excellent in cocktails like the Silver Streak (two parts gin; one part kummel), the Quelle Vie (two parts cognac; one part kummel) and the mock Negroni (one part kummel; one part gin; one part red vermouth; two dashes of Angostura bitters). Oh and you can now also get it in 150cl magnums.
Nardini, Grappa Mandorla
NARDINI GRAPPA MANDORLA (ITALY) Quadrille
Italy; 50% vol.
It was in Bassano del Grappa, a striking medieval town in Vicenza, in the far northeast of Italy, that I saw the light.
The town is best known for its covered wooden bridge, built by Andrea Palladio in 1569. The Ponte Vecchio or Ponte degli Alpini has been damaged several times over the years, most notably during the Napoleonic Wars (during which the town was occupied twice by the French and twice by the Austrians) and in World War Two, when it was all but destroyed by retreating Germans. It was rebuilt in 1947 to Palladio’s plans and is quite a sight.
I was drawn to the bridge not by its dramatic history (you can still see the bullet holes of Napoleon’s soldiers in its walls), but by the allure of the Grapperia Nardini, sited at its eastern end ever since family-owned Bartolo Nardini, the oldest grappa producer in Italy, was founded in 1779. This café/bottle shop opens at 8a.m. every day to serve locals quick sharpeners on their way to work and it was there that I was introduced to the delights of the caffè corretto and the rasentin. My life has never been the same since.
The former is a shot of espresso coffee ‘corrected’ by the addition of some grappa and slips down an absolute treat. The latter is even more tasty, a shot of espresso and sugar that you down before the sugar has dissolved, after which you quickly rinse out the cup with a hearty slug of grappa. It’s astonishingly delicious, the warmth of the cup, the headiness of the spirit, the bitterness of the coffee and the crunchiness of the sugar all combining to give a perfect taste sensation.
The ideal grappa to use is this exquisite almond-flavoured one, my absolute favourite in the excellent Nardini range. Intense and dry with a delicately sweet almond finish, it’s perfect with both serves. And, as I discovered, it’s even better on its own. I should have left it there that day and not had a second just to check. By 9.15a.m. I was completely smashed.
Jonathan Ray is drinks editor at The Spectator. Prior to this, he was drinks editor of British GQ and spent many years as wine editor for the Daily Telegraph. He wrote the Bar Spy column for Imbibe and is the author of several books on wine, including Drink More Fizz!.
His latest, That’s the Spirit! (Quadrille, $24.99), is out now.