From time to time, I get a request in my inbox suggesting I have a go at something, and from time to time, that suggestion is really rather tempting. This was an invitation from the folk at Johnnie Walker Red Label whisky to have a go at making my own ginger mixer.
The brief was pretty broad: A big, bold whisky such as Johnnie Walker Red Label demands a mixer to match. So I was to go forth, and make a ginger beer (the real stuff, brewed with a little yeast for lots of natural fizz) and try to craft the flavour to work with a bottle of Johnnie. So…how on earth was this going to work?
First off, I need to fess up that I’ve never made ginger beer before. All I knew before starting was that you need a lot of fresh ginger to get a robust flavour, and there is the ever-present danger that the brewing mixture can get a little too frisky and cause glass bottles to explode, so it is essential to start your brew in plastic bottles, and then only store in glass when everything has settled down. Even then, you need to open the top from time to time to let all that gas escape, which is usually accompanied by what looks like a wisp of white smoke.
So, imagine me, in the kitchen, going mano a mano with a ginger beer kit. It was pretty cool actually – a bottle of Johnnie plus a selection of different types of fresh ginger. Sweet picked ginger, familiar Chinese ginger, fiery galangal and…eh…one that I forget the name of, but I didn’t like it. The idea was to major on the ginger, then use whatever additional flavours I wanted to round out the mixer.
Now, I’m all for the throw-a-bit-of-everything-into-something-and-hope-for-the-best approach when it comes to deploying spices, but I felt the need to adopt a more sophisticated approach. I was a little concerned that if I threw too many spices in there, the result would be more like a loaf of gingerbread laced with whisky. Pretty nice, but probably not what you might think of as a “bold mixer”. Then I had a flash of inspiration – something Caribbean, with notions of juicy limes, hot ginger and fiery pepper. This seemed like a good place to start.
All well and good, but I felt that I had to think a little about the ultimate pairing. No point in making a mixer that didn’t go with that all-important measure of Johnnie Red. Off I went into the living room to retrieve a Glencairn glass, and I poured myself a tot of whisky. I mulled over the flavours that I was getting, then added a tiny dash of water to open up the flavour (not loads, and definitely not on ice – I know on the rocks is a classic, but I prefer to sip my whisky in a way that allows me to taste it properly). There was a clear mellow sweetness coupled with a slight hint of pepper. I had been thinking of using black pepper to provide a bit of zing to my mixer, but it wasn’t quite right. As you can imagine, I was sitting on the sofa, glass in front of me, and then comparing it to an array of spices. Cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, mace, nigella and saffron were all rejected as just not being right. Tonka beans smelled delicious (think tobacco, marzipan and vanilla) but they would have been the flavour equivalent of driving a truck through the whisky, all impact and no subtlety. Then came the red pepper. Almost overlooked, but that warm, aromatic heat seemed to complement the whisky perfectly. Plus, Johnnie Red and red pepper, surely a bit of a good luck sign?
The actual brewing process was great fun – shred loads of ginger, mix it up with lime juice and watch it turn from pale yellow to soft pink. Then I added a good amount of crushed red pepper, and mixed in a bottle with sugar, water and a little yeast. And…that was it. Now a case of watching and waiting. I got quite a thrill when I could watch my little creation fizzing away as the yeast got jiggy in the bottle.
As I had enough time to do this, I let the mixture ferment for 48 hours. By that stage, it was fizzy, but still sweet enough to make for a pleasant drink when chilled. The pepper was there, not slap-in-the-face obvious, but more a deeper warmth when you drank it. When mixed up on ice with a generous shot of Johnnie Red and a slice of lime, I was pretty pleased with how it tasted. More complexity than pure ginger, but not with so many different flavours that it was confused as to what it was trying to be – this was ginger and red pepper, pure and simple, with a twist of lime.
So what happens next? Well, my little bottle of magic was last seen cocooned in bubble wrap as it was whisked off by a courier to be judged by Bompas and Parr (the jellymongers – whatever you’ve dreamed of in jelly form, those men can do it) as well as Ross Purnell, London Brand Ambassador of Johnnie Walker Red Label. Fingers crossed that red pepper will do the trick…
Overall, I’m pretty pleased with how this turned out, and I tested it on a few willing victims to check that I had actually done a decent job. However, there were two characters who had major objections. Those objections came from our cats, Tommy and Persy, who initially scarpered every time I opened the brew to let the gas escape. The loud hisssssssss was not to their liking! By the end of the second day, they had gotten used to this, and instead just cast over a series of withering looks whenever I did this. Here you can see typical “before” and “after” looks, with faces ranging from disdain to indifference…
Now, the big question…will I make this again? Well, the flavour was great when the drink was at its peak, and it was fun to make, but given the random nature of the British weather, I’m not sure I’ll be brewing ginger beer on the off-chance that it might be a nice weekend. I also found this was a fickle drink. A few days later, I found the flavour had gone really flat – clearly the yeast was still fermenting away, and the amount of sugar had dropped.
So I will be making more spiced ginger mixers in the future, but I’ll go for a different method. In fact, I’ve already got a recipe up my sleeve. How will I make it? Well…you’ll have to wait for my next post, but at least it is cat-friendly. Happy guessing!