Wednesday, 28 July 2010

No. 3 London Dry Gin launch at Berry Bros

I bought a gramophone last week. I'm terribly proud of it. I found it at an antiques fair in Ardingly and it works perfectly. The day after buying it, desperate to get it home, I schlepped it up to London on the train.

That night I had to lug it across town to Berry Bros in St James's as I was keen to attend the launch of No. 3 London Dry Gin. Having been at Decanter three years, I've heard a lot about the Berry Bros HQ - tales of magnificent tastings in their impressive cellars and stories of bottles from the 19th century being dusted off and enjoyed. I was curious to see the cellars for myself.

Rocking up late and limp limbed, I checked in the gramophone. The ticket guy gave me a funny look, which I relished. I love eccentric gestures in deeply traditional haunts – swaggering in and checking in my machine as if it were perfectly normal to bring a gramophone to a cocktail party. I could have handed over a stuffed kitten or a kalashnikov for the look he gave me.

I was ushered down a narrow staircase, past Dead Poets style black and white photos of football teams and ancient Berry Bros alumni. The whole place breathes with the lungs of nostalgia. You can feel the history humming off the walls. A staircase later and I was down in the basement, standing under an arched, bomb-shelter like ceiling.

To my right an enthusiastic jazz band played frantically on their sax, double pass and trombone, giving the place a prohibition era feel. Everything from the underground setting to the abundance of decadent and delicious cocktails screamed of forbidden pleasures and clandestine reverie. With three bars to choose from and two cocktails being shaken at each bar, I didn't know where to begin. After a sensible No. 3 gin and tonic, I got a little more adventurous and opted for the No. 3 Mojito with Chambord (raspberry liqueur) and mint mixed by a guy from Hix. It was divine. I went back to his bar three times.

The jazz continued to be belted out, silenced only for a brief interlude when a Berry Bros rep spoke, apologizing for managing director Simon Berry's absence due to a detached retina, 'not caused by No. 3 London Dry Gin', he quickly added, raising polite laughter from the monocled, moustacheod crowd. Moving on to something slightly stronger, my fellow imbibers and I headed to Alessandro Palazzi of Dukes Hotel's bar. His Martinis are both the best in town, and the most lethal. Rumour has it he only gets six cocktails out of a bottle of gin - they're pretty much pure alcohol furnished with a few drops of angostura bitters.

Like a magician, Alessandro made a few flamboyant hand movements in the direction of the glasses, then poured the gin with military precision, ending his trick by dusting each glass with Amalfi lemon peel. He then proudly presented me the glasses, which I distributed among my group. Taking a sip I soon realised there was no chance I could actually finish the Martini. So as not to look impolite, I resorted to taking bird-like sips every now and then. I'd be on the floor if I drank the whole thing, and I had a gramophone to think about.

My journey home was interesting. The gramophone was so heavy and cumbersome I had to decline a goodie bag, which was deeply disappointing, but I couldn't physically carry it. Limping up the incredibly smart St James's street, passing besuited gents and perfumed ladies, I could no longer support the weight of the gramophone along with the sheer size of the horn and resorted to wearing the horn on my head like a witches hat.

I assure you, dear reader, that this was in no way in a bid to attract attention - which it certainly did, but rather a desperate space saving measure. I looked absurd walking up this most rarefied of streets with a hunk of shell shaped metal on my head, but it got the machine home in one piece. On arriving back at my flat I set up the gramophone, fixed on a fresh needle, wound it up and put on a foxtrot. It crackled as the 78 spun round on the turntable. Soon a mellifluous voice sang out from the horn and for two blissful minutes, time stood still.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Video: Tasting of Katnook Founders Block Cabernet Sauvignon

Wine and the City and Jimmy Smith of the West London Wine School taste Katnook Founders Block Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra, 2007. You can find the wine at Bibendum for £9.99.

Katnook Estate was founded by a Scot, John Riddoch, in 1890. Originally called the Coonawarra Fruit Colony, Riddoch planted 140 acres of vines on the estate. His first vintages were modest affairs – the wines were made in a wool shed.

Today Katnook is one of the most esteemed domains in Coonawarra. Its vineyards are planted in Terra Rossa soil, spanning 330 hectares in the heart of this remote region in South Australia.

Video: Tasting of Vergelegen Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot

Wine and the City and Jimmy Smith of the West London Wine School taste Vergelegen Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, Stellenbosch, 2007, made by outspoken South African winemaker Andre van Rensburg. You can find the wine at Majestic for £10.99.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Video: Tasting of Opi aka Rodolfo Sadler Malbec

Wine and the City and Jimmy Smith from the West London Wine School taste Opi aka Rodolfo Sadler Malbec, Mendoza, 2008, winner of the Red Single Varietal under £10 International Trophy at the 2009 Decanter World Wine Awards.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Video: Tasting of Saint Clair Poineer Block 10 Twin Hills Chardonnay

Wine and the City and Jimmy Smith from the West London Wine School taste Saint Clair Pioneer Block 10 Twin Hills Chardonnay, Marlborough 2008.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Black Moth truffle vodka launch at 33 Portland Place

I'm standing in the hallway of the grand 18th century residence of Lord Edward Davenport – 33 Portland Place. The walls are mint green, and to my left is a sweeping staircase I desperately want to climb, but I'm ushered through to the cocktail room before I get the chance.

I'm here for the launch of Black Moth, the world's first all natural truffle infused vodka. I'm a truffle nut, so the event was a no brainer.

Before we sit down for a truffle-filled dinner, a selection of Black Moth cocktails await. First up I try the Black Moth with Tio Pepe Fino Sherry. It sounds like a strange combination, but somehow it worked. I bypass the Black Moth Martini and go straight for the stronger poison – Black Moth and Absinthe, with a few drops of Sauternes for good measure, expertly mixed by Panu, the Finnish mixologist.

Cocktail in hand, I get talking to truffle aficionado and self confessed 'forager' Paul Thomas, a young blond with corkscrew curls in a cream suit. 'You'll have to excuse me, I'm a complete truffle geek', he warns me, before explaining how the vodka is made, from sourcing the highly sought after black Périgord winter truffles from Périgord in South West France, chosen for their rich, earthy flavour, to the vodka's vigorous distillations process – each batch is distilled five times and triple filtered for a soft, velvety mouthfeel. 'It took two years to refine the flavour', admits Paul. 'It's been a labour of love'.

The vodka is 100% British, made from grain. A bell tinkles and we're summoned to dine. We move into a wonderfully shabby chic conservatory with a domed glass ceiling and paint peeling off the walls. In keeping with the theme, everything is black, from the chandeliers to the table cloths. Silver platters piled high with black truffles are decadently dotted about the room. It's all very gothic chic - like a scene from Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho.

We begin with a Black Moth shot. It's interesting to taste it naked. I think I prefer it straight; more of the flavours come through. The nose is incredibly potent – earthy and slightly oily, it smells remarkably like the Périgord truffles it's infused with. I wasn't sure if they'd be able to pull it off, but they have. The palate is surprisingly smooth for a vodka.

Dinner begins with a palate cleanser – Black Moth sorbet, swiftly moving on to a starter of Lobster Cornish crab salad with truffle beluga caviar jelly and soft poached quail egg. It's a work of art, finished off with three big slithers of Périgord truffle. I'm in heaven. On to the main: Welsh Salt Marsh lamb stuffed with truffle, with a pistachio crust in a wild mushroom sherry jus. I deviate from the Black Moth and move to the Rioja on offer – an excellent wine match for the juicy, tender lamb.

Desert is an exciting affair – white chocolate pannacotta and truffle vanilla sorbet served with a trio of Beatrix Potterish blackberries in an exquisitely crafted golden sugar cage. The truffle sorbet is subtle and delicious. I can't quite believe, after three courses and numerous cocktails, that I'm not truffled out, but I clearly can't get enough. To round off the evening we're presented with a pretty pink Moth Flower cocktail in tiny egg cup glasses. It tastes of Palmer Violets and takes me straight back to the playground.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Semillons rise again

My eyes are on stalks and my mouth wide open. In front of me are eight middle-aged men in double-stringed red thongs. Their powder white skin paired with the red G-strings makes them look like Santa's little helpers.

With cocky, come-hither expressions, they begin thrusting and gyrating in their thongs, and 300 excited women scramble to the stage to catch a glimpse of The Semillons in action. I've never seen so much flesh.

The hotly anticipated strip tease has been five years in the making. In 2005, Decanter's Tasting Director Christelle Guibert rounded up the original Semillons troupe, made up of such wine world luminaries as The Times wine critic Tim Atkin, importer Michael Palij, the aptly-named Wines of Chile head Michael Cox and Waitrose wine buyer Andrew Shaw, who stripped down to their birthday suits to raise money for Everyman, Europe's only male cancer research centre.

Five years on, Christelle treated us to some fresh blood in the form of the (even more) aptly named Barry Dick, wine buyer for Sainsbury's, bright young sommelier Gearoid Devany, Vinopolis MD Rupert Ellwood and The Independent's wine critic Anthony Rose. As soon as the guys hit the stage, high-pitched screams bounce around the room like ping pong balls. It's a full on oestrogen fest, like some large scale, slightly terrifying hen night. The troupe, who clearly think they are gods by this point, react positively to their warm reception, throwing themselves into the routine with brio.

Michael Cox and Anthony Rose are my side of the stage. Cox is in his element, flexing his muscles and gyrating his hips like his life depended on it. A Chippendales contract surely beckons. Rose however, seems slightly more aware of his semi-naked state. Tim is a natural, and throws some impressive shapes. His facial expressions veer between agony and ecstasy. Barry Dick, with his buff, sporty body, gets the loudest screams and the most bottom pinches.

Aside from the excitement of the main event, all manner of other treats await. Ex French rugby international turned Languedoc winemaker Gerard Bertrand is auctioned off at half time. I'd interviewed design and restaurant mogul Sir Terence Conran earlier that day and told him about the auction. He responded with a raised eyebrow. 'So what do you get for your money then?' He asked. 'I'm not sure yet', I replied. Looking dashing in a charcoal grey suit, Bertrand is sent up on stage and made to wait while the auction takes place. He went for £120 to a lucky blonde. I later spotted her glued to him next to the Comte wheel.

The Semillons were the talk of the Decanter office the next morning. I don't think I can ever look at Anthony Rose and co in quite the same light again. The phone rings. It's Sir Terence Conran. 'So how did your auction go then?', he asks me. 'He went for £120', I tell him. 'And what did the winning bidder get for that then?', he asks, intrigued. 'A dance and a quick chat afterwards', I say, 'For £120 I would have wanted a lot more than that', he says, laughing, and puts the phone down.