Words by Jane Ryan
The team at the Artesian bar, at the Langham Hotel, are world renowned for their experiments in cocktail creation. From barrel, glass and clay pot ageing to gimmicks involving aromas, incense smoke and mirrors, Simone Caporale and Alex Kratena have tried it all. So when they started looking around for the next evolution in cocktails and bartending they were forced to comb the depths of history.
Painted on Greek and Roman pots and jars, unearthed in archaeological digs around the globe and still influencing the shape of bottles today, the leather pouch was one of the easiest and cheapest ways to transport liquid throughout history. Even the Bible has scattered mentions, warning that people never pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined.
Dating back even further the Greek god Dionysus, also known as Bacchus for the Romans, was the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine. He is constantly depicted with Silenus, a centaur who is inseparable from his large wineskin.
"In those days an animal, usually a sheep, was skinned in such a way that all the incisions could be tied and closed off," explains Simone. "The skin was cut around each leg very close to the foot and as high up on the neck as possible then the four foot openings would be knotted, leaving only the neck hole. Smaller personal versions were usually made from the bladder of a goat."
Into this, fresh pressed grape juice would be poured leaving just the right amount of room for Co2 which would stretch the skin to bursting point. Fast forward several thousand years and perched on top of the bar at the Artesian is a giant pig-shaped leather sack which the staff affectionately treat as a hairless pet.
Inside is a mixture of Woodford Reserve, Martini Rosso, bitters and galangal ingeniously named Unfinished Business, as leather ageing is a never-ending process. The drink will subtly change as the months roll on and again when the team tops up the mixture.
But is this all just another bartending gimmick, a quick, albeit unusual sell?
"Not at all," assures Alex. "We see this as the next step, we had so many issues with barrel ageing cocktails, there were so many variables we couldn't control, and problems like fungus. Bottle ageing has little result and after a year and half the product would go bad anyway."
To control the effect of the leather the team ordered the largest wineskin they could; at 40 litres there isn't too much interaction between the cocktail and the leather, allowing a slower process.
"Good things take time," Simone jokes. And it's a mark of how much the management trusts their judgement, it's not every five star hotel that will allow bartenders to purchase a 40 litre €500 wineskin.
As anyone whose leather shoes have been spoiled by puddles will tell you, liquid and leather aren't exactly soulmates. So to prevent wine and other liquids from ruining the inside of the wineskin fat, oil and resin from juniper trees was traditionally been rubbed on the inside, a process still used by the Spanish tanner from where the Artesian's wineskin can from.
"We asked for a higher percentage of juniper over pine, which is far too strong. It's not so much that you can taste the juniper in the cocktail but it means you escape an overpowering flavour of pine liqueur," says Alex.
Trying out different combinations of spirits within the leather they settled on bourbon and other flavours which are rich and aromatic, but can be softened with age. And while the cocktail is a styled as sipping, poured over a large ball of ice, it's incredibly smooth and easy to drink. Served with a large slice of Spanish chorizo and caper berry the rich fatness compliments it perfectly.