London bitters

Make your Negroni using only spirits made in the capital

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London has long been home to distilleries of all sizes. There are plenty making gin, of course. Lately homegrown whisky and rum have started to appear in the capital. And that’s fine… but if we’re being honest it can seem a little bit samey at times.

What’s caught my eye are the people making vermouths and amari. These bitter liqueurs, more often associated with Italy, France or Spain. With their reliance on local botanicals, they have a deep connection to where they are made. To see them spring up in The Smoke promises something worth checking out.

It strikes me that there are so many in London now that it’s perfectly possible to make a Negroni using only spirits made right here in the capital. So that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

GIN

Gin has a long association with London. So much so that I’m sure you know the drill already: London Dry being the world’s most common style of gin. Hogarth’s Gin Lane. Producers like Sipsmith kicking off a craft gin boom. Yeah, that stuff.

© East London Liquor Co

It’s not at all surprising to find gin being made here in the capital, so I won’t dwell on it too long. For our Big Smoke Negroni I chose a gin from the East London Liquor Company. Their London Dry Gin is a classic style that combines citrus and juniper notes with a spicy finish. A 70cl bottle costs about £20. This brings its price much closer to the likes of Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray than gin from other small producers. It’s a great illustration of their business model, which is to make “decent booze for decent people at decent prices.”

BITTERS

Next it’s the bitters, a role usually played by Campari, a bright red giant in the spirits world. Campari comes from Novara, a few miles west of Milan in northwestern Italy. It’s bitter, spicy and sweet. The homegrown contender I’ve chosen to take its place is Dispense, an amaro made by Asterley Bros in South East London.

“We love Campari but it can be quite two dimensional,” says Director and co-founder Rob Berry. “You get that big sugar bomb at the front with loads of citrus and a little bit of delicate spicing and then it transitions quite quickly into a really lean direct bitterness, and there isn’t a lot between those two places.”

The recipe for Dispense has its roots in Sicily, where Rob’s wife comes from. Rob inherited the family recipe — “a very classic Sicilian amaro using nine botanicals,” he tells me — and spent two years developing it to suit a modern British palate. Along the way he took inspiration from the 17th-century English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, famous for writing the London Dispensatory. “It was the first ever medical textbook that was translated from Latin into English so the common man on the street could read about his ailments and try to heal himself.”

© Asterley Bros

The final recipe for Dispense has less sugar, so is drier on the palate, and has a higher bitterness that comes from classic British hops. “We did some experiments with Citra and Saaz and a few others,” says Rob. “Their flavour can really dominate, but Fuggles and Goldings are relatively mild and gentle and quite well rounded. They integrated much better than the others.”

The recipe Rob and his brother Jim settled on has 24 botanicals and three base liquids: one English wine and two spirits. “Because it has less sugar, it leaves a bit more space for the complexity and the nuance and the spicing and all the herbal notes to push through.

We really like the way that it adds complexity in that way,” says Rob.

About half of the ingredients are home grown, with the rest being imported. Rob tells me this has become markedly more difficult since Brexit. “Sourcing anything these days is really problematic,” he says. “Anything you want to bring into this country or export has become ten times harder and slower and much more expensive.”

Exporting has become difficult too. Rob says trade with Europe has descended into chaos. “Shipments that would have taken a matter of days were taking three months to reach their destination, assuming they got through customs at all.”

VERMOUTH

The final element for our Negroni is vermouth, which adds depth and rounds the drink out. Brexit has made its impact felt here too, particularly as so many vermouths come from southern Europe.

Greta Inglis is the co-founder of El Vermut, a vermouth bar also in South East London that models itself on a Spanish vermuteria. “Nobody knows what they’re dealing with, it’s a nightmare,” she says. Orders from suppliers in Spain that took weeks now take months, and the requirements for paperwork change from one week to another.

But there could be a silver lining for English vermouths. Greta says drinkers have embraced these aromatised wines over the last couple of years, and falling imports could leave a gap in the market for English producers to fill. “Hopefully they can move up to become a bit more well known,” she says.

Lockdown may have been good for vermouth too. Greta says it gave people more time to experiment with their drink choices. Before COVID, staff at El Vermut would often spend time educating customers, explaining what vermouth is and how to drink it. Greta says that her customers now already know exactly what they want, and how they want to enjoy it.

© Vault Vermouth

The UK vermouth scene has completely transformed over the last three years. “It’s been quite exciting to watch,” Greta says. When she first opened El Vermut in 2018, Bolney Estate Rosso was the only English red vermouth available for her to stock. Now there are options from makers like Asterley Bros, Londinio, Sacred and Ostara. “It’s really changed. Now on a monthly basis we get contacted by different UK based companies asking if we’d be interested in stocking their vermouth. That would never have happened three years ago because there was no one making it.”

British vermouth makers aren’t content just aping the better-known examples from Italy and Spain. They are adapting the drink to its surroundings. They are developing recipes that use local field and hedgerow botanicals. And they are building on English wines, which are also improving all the time. Greta says English vermouths tend to be softer and smoother than Spanish or Italian ones, which have a more herbal, bittersweet style.

For our London Negroni I chose Vault Vermouth Rosso, a handmade example from a small distillery based in Brentford. This is a classically bittersweet vermouth which the makers describe as light, fresh and complex. Its recipe contains 11 botanicals, including wormwood, rosemary, orange and tonka bean. I’m confident it will hold up well mixed into a cocktail but I’m also keen to try it neat over ice, which is the classic way to enjoy these drinks on the continent

PUTTING IT TOGETHER

Building the cocktail itself is — as I suspect you know already — a cinch: just combine equal measures of all three over ice, give it a little stir and plop in a slice of orange to make it fancy.

I wanted to get an orange grown in London for the garnish but that proved a step too far. You’re not surprised, but citrus can grow down here so I thought it was worth a shot. There were none to be had though, not even in Kew Gardens.

I’ll admit to a little trepidation when I first mixed the ingredients together. What if it’s horrible? I have to write an article about this! Turns out I needn’t have worried.

The gin is bright and herbal with robust citrus. The Vault Vermouth is quite a light and delicate red, not at all like the fiery robust carmine of Campari, and it pales in the glass when you pour it over ice. It tastes of summer fruits, rosemary, vanilla and citrus. The Dispense bitters from Asterley Bros are a rich brown, which lend the whole drink a deep tawny colour that I find very appealing.

The whole thing is smoother and lighter than my usual Negroni (Campari, Martini Rosso, whatever gin I have to hand) and with a spicier finish. I taste burnt orange in there and orris root with its hint of violet. It’s a very pleasing drink overall and a touch more complex than usual.

What’s interesting is how different this drink could have been. Even restricting myself to producers in the capital, I have plenty of choice. I could have used Victory Bitters, a vermouth from Sacred and Little Bird gin. I could have used bitters from Stellacallo, vermouth from Asterley Bros and a Cabby’s Gin made in Hackney. I began wondering if I could make one London Negroni but now know I could make at least three, and probably more.

Brexit and COVID are casting clouds over anything fun at the moment, but at least there’s some comfort to be had. Vermouth and amari may be quintessentially continental, but we have our own English versions to enjoy — and they’re good.

Cover photo: Sebastian Coman / Header photo: Matheus Frade

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