Henry's World of Booze | For the impecunious amateur
I’m Henry Jeffreys. My aim in this blog is to have something interesting to say about booze once a week. I am going to write 500 words or so on a wine-related topic. There will be guest reviewers to keep things lively but mainly it will be me talking about wine or occasionally other drinks.
I’ve been meaning to write about a restaurant that I was going to refer to as a neighbourhood gem but thought that sounded a bit tripadvisor. Now I’ve just learned that Winemakers in Deptford is to close. If only I’d written about then it might have been saved by loyal World of Booze readers hotfooting it down to SE8 to sample the food.
I’m not going to make that mistake with my latest neighbourhood gem. I discovered it after attending a friend’s book launch in a part of London I don’t know very well, Wandsworth. Slightly drunk we left her party at 9pm on a Monday night and almost literally stumbled on a Lebanese restaurant, O Gourmet Libanais, in the glass and steel complex where she lived. As you’d expect at that time on Monday on a (upmarket) Wandsworth housing estate, it was empty, but the manager rather than shooing us away, seemed pleased to see us. He was even more pleased when I expressed a love for arak, the traditional Lebanese spirit which is the perfect accompaniment to mezze.
We just asked him to bring us some dishes and what followed was some of the best mezze I’d had outside Lebanon. Certainly far far superior to anything on the Edgware Road. We had Fattoush, salad with toasted bread, oil and sumac, hummus, moutabal, excellent flatbreads and some sublime chicken livers cooked in pomegranate. Everything tasted so fresh. They also had a decent Lebanese house red from Chateau Heritage but I was far more interested in the arak from Al Kaissar (Caesar, yeah!) What I loved about the Lebanese product is that it tastes like like biting into aniseed rather than having the rather sweet muddy flavour of raki or ouzo. For comparison this week, I tried some arak Brun from Domaine de Tourelles opposite some raki from Turkey and ended pouring the Turkish one down the sink. Did I mention I love arak?
If I lived in Wandsworth I would go to O Gourmet Libanais at least once a month. Make use of your neighbourhood gems or they might go the way of Winemakers in Deptford.
Groundhog Day - sweet vermouth on the rocks with a twist - YouTube
Cocktails are a lot of work, aren’t they? They require precision, in fact making a cocktail is much more like baking than say making a stew. If you don’t get the proportions right, it’ll taste all wrong. If you’re doing this at home, it’s fine for the first one or two and then I just can’t be bothered faffing around with a jigger, a pair of scales and teaspoon. I’d much rather pay someone else to make them so I can spend more time unsettling my friends with outlandish conspiracy theories.
Which is why I love vermouth, a mixture of herbs, spices, wine and brandy, it’s basically a ready mixed cocktail. Vermouth is going through a bit of a moment at the moment with new producers cropping up all over the place. There’s even two brothers making an vermouth in a garage in Forest Hill. Perfect for Londoners trying to cut down on their booze miles. This week I’m going a bit more further afield with the delicious Paso-Vermu from Spain. It’s made by an English couple in Somontano who also produce some very well-regarded wine and being sold by Tanner’s at a very reasonable £15.95. It’s much gentler and more wine-like, you can really taste the wine base, than say Martini Rosso with just a touch of bitterness at the end. It was rather overpowered by the Campari and gin in a negroni but made an excellent Gin and It (equal parts gin and ITalian vermouth with ice and orange.) The best way to drink it, however, is like Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day, “on the rocks with a twist” and don’t care for a moment what the grumpy Bill Murrays of the world might think of it.
I owe my high flying career in publishing to the tie. It was the early 00s and I was a lowly PR assistant at Hodder & Stoughton. I’d been there for three years and I was going nowhere. Senior editors would patronise me, journalists would ignore me and authors would look at me askance wondering what happened to that bright efficient blonde who used to do their publicity. Then one day on whim I decided to wear a tie to the office. The effect was amazing: within a couple of weeks I was invited to meetings because people were interested in my opinion, at parties people would assume that I was in charge and literary editors would seek me out saying that we should have lunch. In an industry as scruffy as publishing wearing a jacket and tie marked me down as someone important even if I wasn’t. Even better, some days I’d wear a suit and tie for no reason at all and then smile mysteriously when people asked if I had a job interview. A year later I was put in charge of the literary imprint. . . . and it was all downhill from there.
Ties don’t just look smart and mark the wearer out as someone professional but they say to whoever you are dealing with that they are important. The tie has reigned triumphant since it emerged as distinct from the bowtie and the cravat in the 19th century. Everyone used to wear ties. The only time I saw my grandfather without a tie was when he was on the golf course. Now, however, it looks like the tie might be going the way of the hat or the codpiece, once mighty items of clothing that disappeared almost overnight. Wear a proper hat such as a trilby today and it just looks like an affectation, and try wearing a codpiece to a job interview and see how far you get.
Clothes have been getting less formal since the 60s but I think the two harbingers of the demise of the tie were Tony Blair and hip hop music. Before hip hop, even as recently as the 1980s, pop singers, soul singers and the like used to dress up. I particularly liked the funky stockbroker look worn by Alexander O’ Neal and Robert Palmer. Hip hop stars who emerged in the late 80s, in contrast, wore baggy jeans, track suits and trainers. Young people lost their tie-wearing role models. At the same time Tony Blair, the archetypal trendy vicar, ditched the tie in order to be down with kids. His official portrait unveiled in 2008 was the first of a male British prime minister without a tie. Where Blair led Cameron followed. The Notting Hill set look was suit and white shirt worn without a tie which made them look like they’d always just finished work, apt I suppose. Now John Bercow, the pint size Speaker of the House of Commons, has said that ties and jackets are now no longer mandatory in the chamber.
Businesslike and funky
It’s the end of an era. Now no one wants to look like members of the establishment, especially members of the establishment. People in professions such as advertising would not be seen dead in a suit and tie. You often see them, middle-aged ad men, skateboarding down Charlotte Street in skinny jeans. At hangout for the self-consciously creative, Shoreditch House, they don’t allow ties but they have to allow in the suits to pay the bills for so you have the peculiar sight of dozens of heavy set city types removing their ties as they go in. I fell foul of this rule one night and was told by a doorman to take off my tie. Later the manager came over and apologised, apparently the rule wasn’t meant for me, a trendy type (as I was then), but for the suits.
“You are important”
Some of the last holdouts for ties are not in traditional gentleman’s clubs, many allow you just to wear a jacket, but in service industries. Waiters in smart restaurants wear ties as if to say that your pleasure is a serious business. And a tie is still part of the uniform for professionals such as lawyers and accountants. When I meet with my fund manager, it’s reassuring to know that my money is being slowly lost by an ex-army officer in a suit and tie.
Not all ties, however, are so respectable. In the 70s the enormous kipper ties worn by Noddy Holder from Slade parodied the sobriety one associates with tie-wearing. How you wear your tie says a lot about you. Schoolboys subvert the tie by wearing theirs either very long or very short. And if a tie says trust me then estate agents with their enormous Windsor knots in shiny pink or silver say the opposite. The Duke of Windsor never actually tied his tie in a Windsor knot, his were just made of very thick silk so he had a naturally large knot. In From Russia with Love Bond has his suspicions about a British agent because of his tie: “Bond mistrusted anyone who tied his tie with a Windsor knot. It showed too much vanity. It was often the mark of a cad”. The Windsor wearer turned out to be a Russian spy.
For me a tie should always be tied in a schoolboy knot, it should be silk, not too thick and hang down to the belt, not inches below like George W. Bush. The right tie can lift an outfit. At Hodder most of the time I wore a rather shabby corduroy jacket but with a splendid tie. A tie is one of the few ways that a buttoned-up Englishman can express himself. I have a magnificent blue and red polka dot Chloe tie that belonged to my grandfather. He was a rather forbidding figure but that tie showed that he had a playful side.That’s what I love about ties, they are a way of dressing up, showing off and being a bit of dandy without looking like a ponce.
Ties tell a story. There are old boys ties, regimental ties, livery ties and club ties. I know a few people who would kill to have an MCC tie. They can have sentimental value too. As well as a number of my grandfather’s I have an old Oratory tie that belonged to a favourite uncle. As I didn’t go to the Oratory, I’m probably not supposed to wear it but I haven’t been pulled up on it yet.
Finally there’s a secret about the tie which the tieless hoards are missing out on, far from making you look stuffy and pompous, women love them. Very few women pick up on an expensive watch but I’ve lost count of the number of compliments that Chloe tie has received. If she plays with your tie, you’re probably in luck and a tie is custom designed for pulling you in for a kiss. Ties are sexy, dammit. We’d be mad to let them go without a fight. So wear a tie, even in fact especially when it’s not necessary. You’ll be happier, wealthier and sexier.
It’s been a while since I did one of these and probably will be a while before I do another one because I have been hard at work on a book which is due to come out in October this year (!) I’ll tell you more about it soon but it’s going to be a coffee table book about drinking and entertaining at home.
To fortify myself I’ve been drinking highballs. Well I’m not sure mine are quite highballs. I was introduced to the joy of the highball by a semi-Japanese friend last month. Before then I’ve always tended to drink whisky neat or very lightly watered but the Japanese drink it heavily diluted with lots of ice to make a drink that’s as refreshing as a gin and tonic. In fact more refreshing because it’s much less sweet.
A proper high ball should be served in a tall glass with lots of ice and soda water. Mine are I suppose closer to an old whisky and soda like my nanny (my grandmother, not a lady in a starched outfit who was paid to look after me) used to drink. Mine are about 1 part whisky to 4 parts sparkling water with 3 or 4 standard size ice cubes.
But which whisky? I tend to use whatever comes to hand. There’s my heretical house blend which is tasting particularly fine at the moment thanks to an influx of Xmas whisky samples. Also the smoky Compass Box No Name whisky worked a treat as did Four Roses Small Batch bourbon. Whichever whisky goes in, a dash off orange bitters and a piece of orange or satsuma peel lifts the whole drink and gives it a liquid marmalade type quality.
You can drink them very weak indeed and they still taste marvelous. When I grow old and deaf, I’m going to be like nanny and answer every question after 12 noon with the word ‘whisky.’
The literary world lost some legendary figures in the past couple of years. One was Jeremy Lewis, the chronicler of the golden age of British publishing who died in April. I spoke to him in January about how publishing has changed since his heyday. “Publishers used to be household names” he told me “Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape and Carmen Callil founder of Virago were regulars in the gossip columns”. When Allen Lane, founder of Penguin books died in 1970 it was front page news. Towering figures such as George Weidenfeld, Andre Deutsch and Peter Owen, emigre Jews from Central Europe who transformed British publishing, were often better-known than their authors. Deutsch died in 2000 and both Owen and Weidenfeld died last year.
Lewis wrote a series of memoirs about his time in publishing. I was surprised by the sheer amount of drinking that went on. It was an industry lubricated with alcohol. At editorial meetings at Andre Deutsch there would be wine. Lewis writes of working with Kingsley Amis on the New Oxford Book of Light Verse where they would start on the white wine at 11am on the dot. Deals were done over long liquid lunches at L’Etoile on Charlotte Street, the Garrick Club or the Groucho Club in Soho.
Writer, editor and luncher Jeremy Lewis
Editors could make instant decisions over a boozy lunch because they wielded tremendous power. Sales, marketing and publicity were junior professions with no say over acquisitions. It was entirely up to the editor what was published. The industry began to change in the 90s. The ending of the ending of the Net Book Agreement in 1997 meant that supermarkets began selling discounted books which paved the way for Amazon. Bestselling author and journalist, Francis Wheen, however, thinks the rot was setting in as early as the 1980s. He told me:
“I proposed to Gail (Rebuck of newly-formed publishing house Century) that we should discuss a new travel book over lunch at the Reform Club, saying that this would be most auspicious since the Reform was where Around The World in Eighty Days started. I even offered to pay – but no, Gail said we would have the meeting at their office over bought-in sandwiches and mineral water, thank you very much. I abandoned my travel book there and then.”
I caught the tail end of the long lunch culture when I started in publishing in the early 00s. We were told quite firmly not to let one author, a well-known cricket writer, to get hold of the wine list. Another writer I worked with used to attack lunch as if he hadn’t eaten or drunk for weeks. He’d have a cocktail to start, a bottle with the meal and then order a brandy afterwards. It seems like a long time ago now.
In the 80s publishers began to merge into corporations. The largest was created in 2013 when Penguin merged with Random House. Editors now have to build a consensus with sales often having the final word. I remember the soul-destroying corporate speak of editorial meetings: ‘going forward’ ‘KPI – key performance indicator’ and, oddest of all, ‘pre-mortems’ – a budget sheet that editors filled out before acquiring a book. It’s what Jeremy Lewis refers to as the “Perrier Culture. “
You have to be sober to deal with all that. One can hardly blame publishers for becoming risk averse though when sales are often so poor. Nielsen, the company that track book sales, published data that showed in 2001 the average novel sold 1152 copies, now it’s 263. No wonder publishers are so cagey about releasing figures. The writer Roger Lewis (a relative of Jeremy Lewis’s) told me: “The point really is that ever since sparkling water came in and boozy publishers’ lunches got the heave-ho there has been no actual improvement in English literature. No discernible improvement whatsoever.”
The market has become polarised between the authors who sell in large quantities and those who sell next to nothing and advances reflect this. Philip Gwyn Jones, one of London’s most experienced publishers with stints at Harpercollins, Granta and now Scribe, told me about “the evaporation of midlist, nowadays advances are either under £25k or over £100k.” Paying large amounts is a way to get attention both in house and without. It’s a sign of a lack of confidence. Big books are hyped up by literary agents who “skew the market” according to Ros Porter from Granta magazine. Agents have become increasingly influential as most publishers now don’t take unsolicited manuscripts.
There are still some larger than life personalities stalking the corridors of publishing houses, however. Figures such as Alexandra Pringle at Bloomsbury and Jamie Byng at Canongate function as ambassadors for their firms, their authors and for literature in general. When Canongate won the Booker Prize with Yann Martel’s the Life of Pi in 2001, many newspapers were more interested in Byng than the author. Byng with his trademark poodle hair is probably the nearest thing we have today to a publishing celebrity but I doubt even he is widely known outside the industry.
Ravi Mirchandani at Picador is more low key but he has a formidable reputation within the industry for, as agent Charlie Campbell puts it, ‘swimming against Nielsen.’ “Spending too much time paying attention to what previous books sold is not particularly helpful when acquiring literary fiction. A publisher’s job is, in part, predicting what the public might think” Mirchandani told me. He points out that pre-Corrections, Jonathan Franzen had woeful figures.
As the publishing conglomerates get bigger and less nimble, it presents an opportunity for small presses. In private most publishers curse Amazon because it eats into their profits and author royalties, and puts the traditional bookseller out of business. But it can be a boon for the small boys: Humfrey Hunter from Silvertail press, a one man publishing house, is “very very pro-Amazon, I wouldn’t have a business without them. They open up the world for company like mine.” He was the only British publisher brave enough to publish Lawrence Wright’s American bestseller on Scientology and scandalously also penned an article in the Bookseller in favour of leaving the European Union.
Despite all the changes, one of the reassuring things about publishing is that even in the vast super companies, everyone reads. The heads are usually from a publishing background rather than outside corporate types. “It’s still a business governed by instinct and charisma. That hasn’t changed” Philip Gwyn Jones told me. And most publishing deals are still done over lunch, they just tend not to be terribly long or boozy. Me, I left publishing in 2015 to pursue a career as a drink writer. Now, there’s an industry that still knows how to lunch.
This is a version of something I wrote for a website called Heat Street which has now disappeared. You can read something of its rather tortured genesis here.
Regular readers will know that blind wine tasting is not one of my fortes. You can read about my misadventures at the Oxford vs Cambridge annual wine competition here. But I think when the pressures off, I might actually be getting better at it.
My wife and I were invited down to Pied à Terre – a Michelin starred restaurant in Fitzrovia – for a meal. I’ve noticed that other wine bloggers such as The Wine Loon have also been down so it seems that Pied à Terre are doing some of PR push with London’s influential wine blogging community.
We sat in the front of the restaurant in a cosy little room. In fact cosy would be a good way to describe the whole experience, there was none of the starchy formality you usually get in Michelin-starred places; nobody interrupted our conversation to explain the food. Just to give you some idea of how non intimidating this place is, one of the sommeliers looked just like cuddly comedian Michael McIntyre.
I won’t go too much into the food but it was also nicely unfussy: a huge octopus tentacle with romesco sauce and squid ink tasting much like it might in a good restaurant in Barcelona despite the Jackson Pollock presentation, and the partridge breast cooked rare and served with a confit leg and red cabbage was almost like something you might get at Rules.
Rather than Mcintyre man, we had an avuncular Frenchman, Emanuel Hardonniere, as our sommelier and in a non-competitive he way brought out wines and asked me to guess what they were. I started badly thinking a white Tokay was Burgundy, I got better with a Cape wine guessing, sorry deducing, correctly that it was a Muscat.
And then I literally caught fire correctly identifying a Greek grape variety, a Xinomavro; next he gave me a wine to try which I thought was a St Emilion but turned out to be a Lalande de Pomerol, very close, though I did guess the vintage correctly, a 2010; my last near triumph was with a sweet wines served with the pudding which I thought was a Jurançon but it turned out to be a Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, again very close, both are from South West France and made from Gros and/or Petit Manseng.
The only off note in evening was a natural Gamay from Serbia with a serious dose of hamster or goût de souris as the French call it – some sort of yeast or bacterial infection that you only notice as you swallow. It’s something not uncommon in ‘natural’ wines – come on lads, just use a bit of sulpur!
We finished with one of my favourites, a Rivesaltes served with pear cooked in port and thankfully by this stage of the night M. Hardonniere was no longer playing games with me.
Below are the bottles we tried. All were good in their own way except the Serbian Gamay (top row centre right) though I have heard good things about it when it’s not infected with the stench of rotting rodent.
Me last Christmas: I can’t understand why I’ve put on so much weight. We didn’t do that much feasting.
My wife: yes but after every meal you had cheese and port
My problem with port is that I find it a bit too delicious. If there’s a bottle open in the house then I’ll want a glass every evening and when you’re having a glass of port you’ve got to have some cheese. And then it all starts to add up. So I’m taking a port break until Christmas proper kicks in when I’m going to go a bit mad.
But before I take my port holiday, I have to tell you about a special offer at Tesco. They are selling Taylor’s 10 Year Old Tawny for only £16 until 11th December. It normally sells for at least £20. This is one of my absolute favourite fortified wines. I love the combination of bright strawberry fruit and then layers of walnut and tobacco. It’s one to give to people who think they don’t like port because it’s much lighter than vintage or vintage style ports – though still 20% so don’t knock it back like claret like I did one year.
I did a talk recently with Slightly Foxed magazine with some Taylor’s tawny for the audience to try and everybody loved it. In fact it completely upstaged me as everyone just wanted to talk about how good the port was.
Perhaps that could be the advertising line for the Port Marketing Board – the trouble is it tastes too good – and then adverts could show the havoc caused by the irresistible port. I don’t think it’s been done before.
Photo of me sitting on a throne whilst high on tawny port.
I’ve been sent these rather lovely looking bottles from Martini. They are Martini Rubino Vermouth, Ambrato Vermouth and Martini Bitters. There’s something of a vermouth revival going on at the moment with delicious new products from South Africa (Badenhorst), Australia (Regal Rogue) and England (Asterley Bros). Perhaps in response to this competition, the old guard, Martini, have raised their game with new premium releases. I’m a big fan of the standard Martini Rosso which is hard to beat in a Negroni so I was keen to see how this drinks measured up. Furthermore Martini have also launched the 1872 Bitter to compete with Campari head on. I’ve been playing around with these bottles for a few weeks now and have come to some conclusions:
Both the Rubino and the Ambrato totally rock either on their own or with tonic water. The Ambrato is a bit like Noilly Brat Ambré with nutty vanilla notes. The Rubino is quite delicate with sour cherry fruit and a light bitterness, a bit like a northern Italian red wine. They also work great mixed with white wine or prosecco.
The Ambrato was superb in a very dry martini adding a subtle fruity and nutty note to the drink.
The Martini Bitter is less thick and bitter than Campari. It’s very orangey like a halfway point between Aperol and Campari. Just with soda, I prefer Campari but mixed with grapefruit, orange juice and soda the Martini Bitter wins.
Of course this is all pissing about to the real point which is how do they fare in a Negroni. Here the results were interesting. The Rubino worked really well in a sort of lightweight Negroni using Aperol but it was rather overpowered by the Martini Bitter.
My favourite vermouth for a Negroni is the mighty Cinzano 1757 Rosso which is powerful, complex and has something of the port about it. This gave me an idea, why not use port to boost the vermouth? So I mixed half a shot of Martini Rubino with half a shot of Bleasdale The Wise One ten year old tawny (I know it’s not strictly a port, I’ll come on to that later). The result after a bit of playing about was absolutely outstanding. The extra sweetness, richness and nuttiness of the port lifted the whole drink and seemed to accentuate the herbal quality of the vermouth:
Australian “port” is sweeter than proper Portuguese stuff so I added just a splash extra of gin to counteract it. I think it needs to be a tawny port because you wanted that wood-aged nuttiness on the end. In fact what this reminded me of more than anything was an aged negroni I had at Bar Termini last year.
I am going to call my new creation the Christmas Negroni and I intend to drink a lot of them over the festive season.
I almost didn’t try this wine because the label is a bit dull, it’s part of Majestic’s Definition Range. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by the cover and all that but when there are 200 wines to try you have to make entirely arbitrary decisions. Then I noticed from the embossed bottle that it was made at the Torre de Oña estate which is owned by La Rioja Alta, one of my favourite rioja producers so I had a small glass with my lunch (I would also recommend the sausage rolls at Lord’s cricket ground where the tasting was held) and I was extremely impressed. It has the classic tobacco, ripe strawberries and melty tannins that you’d expect in a far more expensive rioja reserva but it’s only £10.99 when you buy a case. I’m going to serve it in my 19th century claret jug which holds two bottles and my guests will think I am really spoiling them.
I was at La Rioja Alta recently and though I can’t make a direct comparison, from memory this wine could compare with far more expensive offerings from this producer. I thought it better than Viña Alberdi Reserva 11 – currently £18.25 at Oddbins – and more enjoyable than the Viña Ardanza 08 – £22 at Majestic. Though the Ardanza should improve with a couple of years in the bottle, if you want a rioja for drinking now the Majestic own label one is unbeatable. So unbeatable in fact that it seems rather foolish of La Rioja Alta to release a wine of such quality for such a low price. On my tasting note on cellartracker, someone called Slimes (an assumed name, I assume) wrote:
“I thought I’d let you know that the next vintage will be made by a different producer. When I first tasted the 2009 at the winery, the staff at RA seemed to be a bit miffed that this was going for £10.99, so it’s no surprise that Majestic will have to source this from someone else over the next few years. I’m sure if you speak to your local store, they’ll happily give you a call when there’s sign of a vintage-change.”
My advice would be to hurry down to Majestic and load up on the 2010 while you still can. Then all you need is a 19th century claret jug.
Behold! The mighty claret jug. Doesn’t it look very Tyrion Lannister?
In Blackheath there are two clothes shops: one caters for Richard Hammond, all expensive jeans and mid life crisis leather jackets, and the other for James May. I often wondered who is buying all the paisley, surely even millionaire former Top Gear presenters can’t buy that many shirts. . . . . and then I went to the New Wave South Africa tasting earlier this month.
It took place in a warehouse/ nightclub type venue in Shoreditch, the PA was playing Led Zeppelin at deafening volume and everywhere you looked there were middle-aged men in floral shirts like the one above.
Never mind the wines where good. South Africa has long been my least favourite large wine-producing country but the new wave Rhoney blends from Swartland have a verve to them (and not a single stinky red at the whole tasting, hurrah!) that makes me want another sip and then another. They’re real drinkers wines. One producer described his Cinsault as “smashable” which seems about right to me though whether the general public is happy to spend £17 on a wine for knocking back is another matter.
As good as the reds were, and some were very good indeed, it was the whites however that stole the show: vivid appley Chenins with magical acidity and textured Cape blends of Chenin, Viognier, Grenache Blanc etc and a couple of Palominos that were like flor-free Manzanillas if you can imagine such a thing.
Tania & Vincent Careme Chenin Blanc Terre Brûlée 2015
This is made by a Loire producer so you’d expect they know their way around Chenin. It smells sweet, like cooked apples and cake, it’s very ripe but balanced by a bracing acidity – it’s a made to make your mouth water.
I left the tasting with my ears ringing and my eyes assaulted by paisley but my palate thoroughly refreshed.
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