I’ve recently been discovering the joys of putting things in barrels. If you put neutral grain spirit in a barrel and leave it for some time, you get whisky; it’s easy, really, despite all the mystery and romance piled around the subject. I suppose that’s the Celtic way. Now, neutral grain spirit isn’t very nice, while whisky, of course, is. It follows, then (I suppose), that if you put something nice in a barrel and leave it for some time, you get something better than whisky. To really test this theory, I guess I’d have to leave the something in the barrel for a good ten years; I don’t know about you, but I don’t really have the patience. However, putting things in smaller barrels sort-of speeds the ageing process, or at least some aspects of it (surface area, don’t you know); to cut a long story short, I’ve put a bottle of Morris Gin in a small oak barrel. It’s been in there for two months now, and is starting to get some colour and good whiskiness from the wood. I’m going to leave it a couple more months, I think. My next project is to barrel-age two litres of mixed Negroni; I can only imagine that this will be extremely delicious.
None of this is very useful unless you intend to fill your house with barrels. It reminded me, though, that flavours can leak from unlikely places, and that alcohol is very good at capturing them. If you read a recipe requiring you to macerate oak twigs in wine, you would be surprised, though that is essentially what happens when you age the stuff in barrels. I have, in fact, a recipe somewhere for an oak-branch aquavit; “this sounds disgusting”, I thought, before the penny dropped. I’ve never actually tried this sort of reverse barrel-ageing, though. Silly, really, when we’ve got an oak right outside the kitchen. One reason alcohol is such a good medium for capturing these flavours is that unlike, say, water, it is capable of dissolving flavours from fats and oils; this is the principle behind ‘washed’ spirits, which have become a thing recently. This basically involves mixing a fat with booze and leaving it for a few days, then skimming the fat off. Easy! The first I heard of it was with bacon-fat bourbon (tastes like bourbon with bacon in it) but I was reminded of the technique recently by the olive oil-washed gin in Sardine’s dirty martini – a very fine aperitif cocktail. It so happened that at the same time I was looking for something to do with the cynar I had made. Cynar, if you’ve never had it, is an Italian bitter made chiefly of artichoke; it is truly, horrendously bitter – and I say this as a lover of Fernet Branca. Artichoke and olive oil, I thought – and so this drink was born. You may have heard it mentioned in passing on this Radio Four programme – I know the fig leaf wine was the star, but you can get the recipe there, so I thought I’d give you this.
This takes ages and has several steps. Sorry!
about 20 artichoke leaves
a few angelica stalks
a bottle of vodka
Put everything in a jar and leave for at least a month, preferably two. Strain and bottle. Or buy some Cynar.
OLIVE OIL-WASHED GIN
a bottle of gin (I used Plymouth)
350g extra virgin olive oil
Whisk together in a big jar or bowl – something you can cover tightly. Leave for three days, whisking and re-covering every day, then put in the freezer overnight. Scoop off the solidified oil and strain the gin into a bottle.
equal weights of sugar and water
Boil together for five minutes, cool and bottle. Or buy some gomme.
Juice some lemons. Or, yes, buy some pasteurised lemon juice in a squeezy lemon. You’ve got this far, though…
When you’d like to actually drink this, just mix equal quantities of everything. I assume you keep all of your booze in the freezer; if not, stir over ice. Enjoy! You’ve earned it.