Downing the Down Under

West Winds The Cutlass Martini

In case you’re wondering, the photos are taken on a five year old iPhone 3, and I prefer to describe them as “painterly” rather than “inept” but your mileage may vary. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…

Of course I was at Little Jumbo. When I’m in Victoria, which is a cosy, old-fashioned, comfortable city I do cosy, old-fashioned, comfortable things like stay with friends, go for long walks in the park, and visit my favorite bars and restaurants. Thanks to the exceptional foodie culture on Vancouver Island, you’re spoiled for choice here looking for high-quality, original places with reasonable pricing. Forget buck a shuck oysters; the Docks restaurant, in the perfect tourist trap location right at the docks, has 50 cents a shuck on Fridays.

Fifty. Cents. A. Shuck. Think about that, and that Vancouver Island is where oysters come from, and then book your next flight.

Where was I? Oh yes, listing my favorite restaurants and bars in Victoria. Well, I haven’t made it to the Docks yet on a Friday, but I’ll try, on behalf of my loyal readership. Yes, I will force myself.

At the top of my list of Favorite Places in Victoria is the teeny-tiny Little Jumbo. God knows, I’m no size queen, but if I were fonder of cliché than vérité I’d describe it as a jewel box. In fact, it’s much more like a cigar box, with very macho pillars of hewn wood as big around as Queen Victoria in full regalia, and twice as solid. More useful, too, as they hold up the building and all she ever did was breed, nag Albert, and reign over half the inhabited world. The pillars, by the way, look to be in rough shape; they’re all chewed up around knee level, not from knees, but from the wheels and axles of carriages, as this used to be a livery back in Ye Olde Dayes.

Now it’s a restaurant devoted to locally-sourced ingredients (I believe the ingredient that travels the farthest comes from a farm in Chilliwack, just east of Vancouver) creatively prepared. What kind of cuisine? Ad hoc with a classical French slant. Whatever the ingredients dictate. But frankly, everyone orders the duck.

Everyone.

I order the cocktails, because, deep in startup mode as I am, I cannot afford the duck. Well, I could afford the duck or the cocktail, but not both, so I eat at Burger King and drink like a Queen, although not Victoria because she liked cheap Scotch. And what I had this time was…a Martini.

Trio of Beverages

from left: Little Jumbo iced tea, sparkling water, the most expensive Martini of my life

Daring choice, I know, but read on.

I had an Australian Martini.

Looking over the gin list (longer than some places’ wine lists) I spotted something I’d never seen before, and when it’s something I’ve never seen before on a gin list, it really is esoteric. It was The Cutlass gin, from West Winds distillery in the wild west of Aus. They do The Cutlass and the more classic London Dry style The Sabre. Naturally I went for the oddball (story of my life, eh?) and ordered a Cutlass Martini. In my haste I neglected to note the 50% ABV. And the price.

The Cutlass is not only boozier than The Sabre: it is botanicalier as well. It is SO a word.

The botanicals in this are not just sourced with an eye to the local (who knew Australia even got enough rain to grow juniper?), but they are sourced with an eye to the unique. This gin features the very tasty-sounding wattle as well as bush tomato (which sounds like a painful gynecological condition), lemon myrtle (perhaps a hipster band), cinnamon myrtle (a folk hipster band), and local coriander (an artisanal gastro-pub). There is a LOT of coriander in this, and along with the other botanicals and the souped-up alcohol level, this gives it a lingering, smooth, and slightly vegetal aftertaste. That’s why the West Winds site (and every single blog post I could find on the gin) recommends garnishing it with a slice of green pepper instead of a twist or olives. While that would work, it wouldn’t be especially exciting, at least if you eat as much green pepper as I do. I expect this would have had a harsher approach if it hadn’t been stirred over ice first; as it was, the Martini was well-balanced and savory in line with The Botanist; it was in the aftertaste that this gin distinguished itself, as the aldehydes rolled around in all that glorious alcohol and blossomed like shy party-goers after their first Martinis. The aldehydes were definitely up all night to get lucky.

You may think that makes no sense, but you haven’t tasted this gin. Another blog described it as a beefy Australian all cleaned up in a tux. 007 with an Antipodean accent. That’s about right. NB: at $22 it was by far the most expensive Martini of my life. Yet.

Instead, if you’re going to mix this (and there is no need; it has plenty of flavour just straight up, and it would take a chewy vermouth to stand up to it) you should try a Red Snapper, otherwise known as A-Bloody-Mary-But-With-Gin-Instead-Of-Vodka. If you feel bad putting an $80 gin into a mixed drink – and you should – then go back to having it as a bone dry Martini and garnish it either with aforesaid green pepper or with a very mild, fresh-tasting olive like a Cerignola.

DIGRESSION: I’m a big fan of using a variety of olives in your Martini, varying it according to gin and vermouth. I make what I call a Spanish Martini with Bombay Sapphire, Alvear’s Fino Sherry, and Calamata olives, and it is glorious, especially when the first nip of autumn is in the air and you want a Martini, but something with a bit more bottom to it. END DIGRESSION

Little Jumbo used to make their Martinis with liquid nitrogen. As with pretty much every single one of Shawn Soole‘s ideas, this sounds gimmicky, impossible, and deranged until you taste the results, when you are forced to admit that it is not only delicious, but elegant and refined. Yes, even the grilled cheese washed rum. For the Martinis, they were mixed with Little Jumbo distilled water and stirred in a metal cocktail shaker submerged in a bath of liquid nitrogen for exactly thirty-two seconds. The Martini was poured into a pre-chilled glass (otherwise the damn thing would have shattered) and the remaining dry ice was nonchalantly tossed over the bartender’s shoulder, landing on the top shelf of the bar and cascading down in a misty waterfall effect. It was glorious.

Sadly, according to bartender Nate Caudle, it was also a method that caused the moisture in the Martini to form slush at the bottom of the glass if the tippler delayed tippling for a few moments, so it’s out. Here’s hoping Shawn comes up with something else that’s as showy; knowing him, it won’t be long.

ADDENDUM: If you can’t make it to Victoria and know which end of a mixing glass goes up, you can still enjoy cocktails from Little Jumbo, because Shawn and Nate have collaborated on the book Cocktail Culture: Recipes & Techniques from Behind the Bar. This is not your typical “how to make an old fashioned” bar book. These are not recipes you will find anywhere else, except of course at one little cigar box of a place in a small city on the west coast of Canada.

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