Ginger Beer Tasting – 27 (previously 20) Varieties put through their paces.

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This article has been updated for Ginger Beers 21 -27 please scroll to the bottom.

One of my first favourite cocktails was the Moscow Mule; its easy construction and readily available ingredients, as well as my previous fondness for ginger beer (and ale), made it very attractive to me.

A part-time stickler for tradition (see the Vesper post), my choice of vodka has never been in question: I have always used Smirnoff. Limes are also relatively standard (despite there always being some exceptions), but a more considerable question to ask is which ginger beer to use (due to the lack in the UK of the original Moscow Mule ginger beer, Cock ‘N’ Bull). Having recently been encouraged by an experienced individual in the spirit world to conduct a ginger ale tasting (17th Jan 2011, 19:00 @ Graphic) I thought I would take some time over the festive period to explore the options available with regards to ginger beer. (A dedicated Moscow Mule post will follow shortly.)

The ginger beer market seems to be split into four distinct types: mass-market (Britvic, Schweppes, Old Jamaica); boutique brands (smaller, but still readily available, e.g. Fentimans and Fevertree); small batch (Breckland Orchard & Luscombe); and supermarket own-brand.

The ginger beers that we selected to try on this occasion were tasted on their own without ice, but had been chilled beforehand. The panel was made up of four non-industry enthusiasts all ready to put their taste buds to the test and hoping for a non-repeat of Donoghue vs. Stevenson.

#1) Great Uncle Cornelius

Made by James White, this was the only still Ginger Beer we tried and had the look and taste of cloudy apple juice. It was considered by the panel to be very drinkable and very tasty. It lacked a strong ginger flavour and didn’t really taste like a typical ginger beer, although I think that is how it is meant to be.

Simply as a soft drink, this would make a perfect summer cooler and I would heartily recommend it for that. One of the panel summed it up nicely with, “I could drink this all day.”.

#2) Schweppes
A very sweet variety; nice and bubbly. What was unusual about this one was that it had a nose of Terry’s Chocolate Orange; it was reminiscent of orange soda. There was quite a lot of ginger, but overall it was felt that the ginger was too weak and the beer too sweet.

#3) Fentiman’s Regular
A very pleasant flavour, with a good strong ginger presence and a taste that lasts for a long time. This also improved noticeably with ice and the panel thought it would be a good drink to accompany a meal.

Available from Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury & Morrisons 4 x 275ml  for around £4.25 As well as large variety of Independent Retailers, if you have trouble finding some, Fentiman’s offer a personal postcode search service to help you find you nearest stockist; contact them via their website.

#4) Barr’s Original
From the creators of IrnBru, this ginger beer had a smell that the panel didn’t like very much. It rated average on terms of warmth and general flavour, but the initial taste was disliked and its bitter finish divided the group. We much preferred #17, which is also owned by Barr’s.

Available from Tesco £1.45 for 750ml

#5) Bundaburg Regular
This is a ginger beer from Australia. Before the tasting, I would say that this was my favourite, but, upon reflection, I realised that although it a lovely soft drink in its own right, it isn’t really a typical ginger beer and, as such, doesn’t mix like one either.
The rest of the panel felt that it was quite sweet, but lacked a lasting flavour and the gingery fieriness that they were looking for. Great on its own, but not for mixing.

Available in Waitrose £1.19 for 340ml

#6) Fentiman’s Cool (Organic)
A relatively recent addition to the Fentiman’s range, this organic variety was the first of two “cool” Ginger beers that we tried. The notion of a “cool” ginger beer is that it has a more subtle ginger flavour and is aimed at those the may find a typical ginger beer a touch too firey.

Fentiman’s Cool tasted strongly of vanilla and buttercream and reminded one of the panel of custard cream biscuits. Quite a long flavour with a mild fiery kick,it was a little watery on the finish. Quite nice, but the panel felt that it lacked something.

Available at various Independent Retailers, if you have trouble finding some, Fentimans offer a personal postcode search service to help you find you nearest stockist; contact them via their website.

#7) Hartridge’s Celebrated
Made by a family-owned company that has been making soft drinks since 1882, this variety is part of the Francis Hartridge Celebrated Range, named after the founder of the company.
It had one of the best fizzes of all of the ginger beers that we tried and certainly smelt like ginger beer. There was a medium level of ginger on the flavour and it had a strong and long warmth to it. There is also an excellent root beer and a good quality dandelion and burdock in the same range.

Update: I tried Hartridge’s Regular Ginger Beer today, in the interests of completion, here are some tasting notes but it has not been included in the already-determined rankings. This much more firey than the Celebrated, it has a lovely lip-tingling feeling and is rather quaffable, if I’d had this found this earlier (for the tasting) it would have definately been a contender.

Available in Morrisons and Waitrose

#8) Fevertree Regular
A familiar face when it comes to premium mixers, this was popular amongst our panel. It had a very strong ginger flavour and was rather fizzy. There were some citrus notes also and it was certainly enjoyed by the panel; just be careful not to get the bubbles up your nose!

Available from Waitrose £1.75 for 500ml

#9) Fevertree Naturally Light
We thought that this was a subdued version of Fevertree’s Original; unless you specifically want a low calorie version, I would stick to the regular. However, if you want a diet ginger beer, this is not a bad option.

Available from Waitrose £1.75 for 500ml

#10) Britvic
A firm favourite in many pubs and bars across the land, I first had this when I was given it accidentally instead of ginger ale; it was a nice surprise, though. It had a savoury nose and was rather sweet; some of the panel found the sweetness rather artificial (checking the bottle later, I found that it does contain aspartame). The flavour is relatively low on the ginger, but light and rather mixable.

#11) Belvoir
Rather perfumed, with some hints of elderflower, Belvoir tasted more herbal than most of the other ginger beers, although it also had some fiery ginger notes. It wasn’t very fizzy at all, which may appeal to some. The panel quite enjoyed this and thought that it had a nice aftertaste, but when considered against the others, it was only upper-middle-of-the-road.

Available from Asda £2.20 for 750ml

#12) Old Jamaica
Extremely bubbly, with a strong sweetness underneath and a fierce fieriness. Very popular with the whole panel; a favourite and generally considered to be what a ginger beer should be.

Available from Asda £2.99 for 6 x 330ml

#13) Luscombe Cool
This had a perfumed nose and a creamy texture. It had a medium amount of ginger and a taste somewhat reminiscent of butter cream. Certain resemblances with the Fentiman’s Cool.

Available Online from Luscombe’s website, Able & Cole, Riverford Organic and The Virtual Farmers Market.

In-store at Harvey Nichols, Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason and Harrods.

#14) Heron Valley
A very refreshing drink with a savoury nose and flavour (but not herbal). We thought that this was quite a simple drink, but you certainly get a lovely flash of fiery flavour. It was a pleasure to drink on its own and mixed well, too.

Available from Heron Valley’s website and selected delicatessens and bars in the Plymouth area (including the Refectory bar at Plymouth Gin distillery)

#15) Breckland Orchard Chilli Ginger Beer
With a citrus nose of orange and lemons, this reminded one of the panel of bonbons. As for the taste, the whole panel loved it; we thought that it had just the right balance of sweetness and fieriness. Both refreshing and warming, the chilli comes through at the end, in a similar way that it does in chilli chocolate, producing a unique twist on a product that, by all accounts, was already pretty good. If you haven’t tried this yet, do. Our highest recommendation.

For further details visit:Breckland Orchard’s Website

#16) Luscombe Hot
Starting with an enticing nose, this had a strong, fiery heart. Some vanilla and butter cream flavours in addition to the ginger. This was also one of the most warming. I know a bartender who forever sings the praises of this product and I can see why.

Available Online from Luscombe’s websiteAble & ColeRiverford Organic and The Virtual Farmers Market.

In-store at Harvey Nichols, Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason and Harrods.


#17) Abbott’s
Also owned by Barr’s (4), this was very popular with the panel. It was quite sweet and had a zing of ginger. From my own experience, this had a taste that was quite close to some of the supermarket own-brands that are available. It was lovely served over ice with a splash of lime cordial.

#18) Gosling’s
Created by Goslings Rum to be the perfect partner for their signature cocktail, the primary purpose of this ginger beer is to be a good mixer.
It was pleasantly fizzy, with small bubbles. There were subtle notes of herbs and savoury, with a good balance of sweetness and warmth and a pleasant aftertaste. There was a good amount of ginger in the flavour, but it wasn’t overpowering; this isn’t too surprising, given that it was designed as a mixer, but, even so, it was a firm favourite of the panel to drink on its own.

Although not yet available in the UK, Gosling’s Ginger beer will hopefully launch later in 2011.

#19) Old Jamaica Diet
Very close to the Original: very bubbly, with a fiery kick; it wasn’t too sweet and any flavour of artificial sweetness is minimal. Quite tasty.

Available from Asda £2.99 for 6 x 330ml

#20) Bundaburg Diet
This ginger beer was quite dark in comparison to many others: it was almost ochre in colour. It started off in a similar fashion to the Bundaburg Regular, with a little burst of ginger, but the finish was full of artificial sweetness, which spoilt the whole experience.

Available in Waitrose £1.19 for 340ml

In conclusion, there does seem to be different flavour camps of ginger beers and, from our experience, different people will be attracted to different camps. For a lighter, more buttery drink with hints of vanilla, the two “cool” (Luscombe and Fentiman’s) ginger beers and the Bundaburg would be worth a look.

We thought that the best diet variety was Fevertree, followed closely by Old Jamaica.*

* None of the “Diet” versions that we tried contained Aspartame; however, it’s worth noting that Britvic (Regular) does.

UPDATE

I have since come across a further 7 ginger beers. These were not part of the original tasting and so are not included in the rankings. Nonetheless here are some tasting notes.

THE NEW ONES (L:R) Hartridges, M&S Fiery, Crabbie’s Fiery, M&S Extremely Fiery, M&S Gastropub, Stoney (CocaCola from SA)

#21 Marks & Spencer Ltd. – Extremely Fiery Ginger Beer

This is certainly fiery and, frankly, blows everything else out of the water. The fieriness comes at the cost of most of the other flavours, although I can say that sweetness levels are just right. If you like ginger beer REALLY fiery, then give this a go.

Available from Marks & Spencer £1.49 for 750ml.

#22 Hartridges

With a hint of chocolate orange creams on the nose, Mrs. B found this ginger beer particularly tasty. There was a nice amount of fizz and a good amount of fire, with hints of orange in the flavour, too.

#23 Crabbie’s Fiery Ginger Beer

This ginger beer had a raw fieriness that is most definitely not for the faint-hearted. It was also quite fizzy and not too sweet, but, as the ginger leaves your lips tingling after a single sip, this is one for the hardened ginger beer drinker.

#24 Marks & Spencer Fiery Ginger Beer

This is pleasant enough: quite gingery and unusually dry for a ginger beer. The flavour profile is nicely balanced, if not a little underwhelming. This worked as a mixer, but if you want a soft drink on its own, I’d opt for one of the other two varieties from M&S.

Available from Marks & Spencer £0.99 for One Litre.

#25 Stoney (from Coca Cola)

This is made by the Coca Cola Corporation and was kindly sent to me all the way from South Africa. Initially, it had a slight floral taste and was a little reminiscent of violet lemonade. This is halfway between a cool and a hot ginger beer (it has a reasonable fiery kick) and, curiously, the mid-notes are somewhat akin to Mountain Dew.

#26 Marks & Spencer Gastropub Authentic Ginger Beer

Typical sweet ginger nose, quite lemony with a medium amount of ginger and warmth. There’s a little muskiness, but over ice or served ice cold this was quite refreshing.

Available from Marks & Spencer £0.80 for 500ml.

#27 John Crabbies Traditional Cloudy Ginger Beer
I quite like the new Crabbie’s it has a good amount of fieriness and is pleasantly effervescence, neither too fizzy nor to flat. The balance of sweetness is about right and it’s popular with a few folks I’ve shared a sample with.

Available from Waitrose £1.99 for 70cl.

Many thanks to: Love Drinks, Luscombe, Breckland Orchard, Fentiman’s, Heron Valley, Great Uncle Cornelius (James White drinks) for your kind support for this article.

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Tonic Tasting

Tonic Tasting

A Bitter Sweet Truth

The Gin & Tonic is one of, if not the most popular way to consume this juniper spirit. Much has been written by prolific authors (at least in the drinks world) of the relative merits of various Gins within this context, and in fact some Gins have been specifically designed to make a great Gin and tonic. But what about the other key ingredient? No, I’m not talking about ice, as crucial as it is, nor will I dare to breach the world of garnish and lemon vs. lime; today, I’m talking about tonic water.I found critique of tonic to be sparse and, with an increasing market of premium mixers, I thought it was time to discover whether I was fond of Fevertree, barmy over Britvic, smitten with Schwepps or fanatical about Fentimans.

This was a blind taste test, as all the best tests are. For each drink, I used two blocks of our “regulation” ice and a mix of, just over, two parts tonic to one part Gin. The gin we used was Plymouth.

6 O’Clock
This is made by Bramley & Gage, a fruit liqueur company from South Devon. This was developed to compliment their new 6 O’clock gin. I know that other companies make their own tonics to combine with their gin in canned premixes, but this is first time that I have seen such a tonic sold separately.

Anyway, back to something more important: the taste. 6 O’Clock was very pleasant on its own; lighter than most tonics and with more citrus flavours. The quinine character is still there, but in a more balanced way than some of the others.

It made a refreshing gin & tonic, with a hint of citrus and wasn’t too sweet. It was quite moreish and was easy to finish.

Britivic Regular
This makes a refreshing, sweet and juicy concoction. It is very easy to finish and leaves you wanting more, but still has the bitterness that you would expect from tonic water. On its own, this is quite nice to drink; it’s not too bitter, but still has the quinine character. This came out high in our final rankings and we were very surprised; if you would have told me beforehand, I wouldn’t have believed you. Oh, the perils of drink-snobbery!

Britvic Diet
This had a nice bitterness and wasn’t absolutely awful, but it did have a nasty tendency to cling to the mouth more than most of the other tonics and produced a drink that was rather flat. Not a patch on its yellow brother.

On its own, this was actually quite drinkable – it tasted a bit like a flat lemonade – and although nice, didn’t taste like tonic.

Fentimans Regular*
This gin & tonic was full of citrus flavour from the start, but it still had the bitter character of quinine. This is a gin & tonic that really improves with time, making a lovely drink with a little bit of ice-melt. The higher citrus flavour comes from the addition of lemongrass, which is a common component of home-made tonic and, I believe, from reading The Chap, that Fentimans is closer to the type of tonic drunk in the late colonial-era. The citrus quality almost makes a garnish unnecessary… almost.

Drinking this on its own is almost like supping lemonade, what with its strong citrus flavour, but the slight bitterness means that the quinine isn’t lost.

* Fentimans Diet is not yet (July 2010) available, but it is anticipated for the future.

Schweppes Regular
The old familiar, this produces a cool and refreshing compliment to the tonic with a delightful twang on the finish, although it was not as refreshing as some of its counterparts. We both enjoyed this tonic and it did very well in the rankings, finishing in at a close number four.

On its own, this tasted like a pleasant and good standard of tonic water but was not really refreshing.

Schweppes Diet
In a Gin & tonic, this had a flat flavour and was too bitter, which provided little in the way of a compliment to the drink; a mere shadow of its regular partner. When tasted on its own, it was very dry and very fizzy: it was somewhat reminiscent of Alka Seltzer or highly effervescent soda water.

Fevertree Regular
With Gin, this makes a cooling drink and is initially pleasant and refreshing. However, although flavourful, it has a sharp, bitter, and somewhat unpleasant, aftertaste. On its own, this was not too fizzy, nor did it cling to your mouth; it had a good strong flavour, with a bitter kick at the end.

Fevertree Diet
This was overly bitter and really masked the flavour of the Gin, so its definitely not one for a moderately delicate spirit. This did not refresh, and at the end I was left searching my gin & tonic for any flavour beyond the bitterness. On its own, this was very anonymous and very clingy.

Carters
This is okay, but not great. Nonetheless, it does represent reasonable value. This was fizzier than the others, a little clingy, and quite bitter, but after a couple of minutes it started to improve.

The extreme fizziness and the way it clings to the mouth does not make this a great option for drinking on its own.

Q Tonic
Produced in New York, USA, Q Tonic contains; Triple Distilled Water, Organic Agave, Handpicked Quinine, Lemon Juice Extract, Natural Bitters and it gets its fizz from champagne carbonation. The concept behind this tonic was that the creators went back to the drawing board to create a tonic from scratch that would “taste like tonic water should”.

So to the taste: Q Tonic certainly was different to everything else and so, in that respect, Q have achieved their goal. But in a Gin & tonic it doesn’t have much flavour beyond soda water; a little juniper does get through, but this drink is unrecognizable as a gin & tonic. The drink is unsubstantial and underwhelming, with a very short finish.

On its own, the tonic tastes predominantly like soda water, with a real lack of flavour.

As I said, it is different and maybe some people will love it, but it simply isn’t for me. With all the hype surrounding Q and its high price point, I was left bitterly disappointed.



And finally, this is only a matter of personal preference, but, by request, here is our top five ranking:

#1 – Britivic Regular

#2 – Fentimans Regular

#3 – 6 O’Clock Tonic

#4 – Schweppes Regular

#5 – Fevertree Regular