RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT; Some fresh takes on gin; and an opulent Pinot for the first barbecue
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AH, THE POWER of the media. At the beginning of this year Jilly Goolden tasted gin on BBC2's Food and Drink programme and declared that Plymouth gin was the best of the bunch. Sales are now up 500 per cent on where they were last year; and that follows strong growth in the 12 months preceding. The message is that Plymouth seems to be rocking the boat in the gin market.

As a person who thinks that gin achieves its greatest powers of delight in a Martini, I have always been an admirer of the Plymouth style rather than a devotee. In Martinis it has lacked, to my taste, the fine, suave refine- ment of Beefeater. But when a sample arrived recently with a new design both in the bottle and the label, I thought this would be a good opportunity to re-evaluate my old views.

My mind was not changed. But I also took the opportunity to fiddle about with other cocktails for which Plymouth gin is usually specified, and here it came up trumps. It is the first choice, for instance, if you're making pin gin: the bottle frozen (as it should be) and then served with ice and a few splashes of Angostura bitters. The drops of Angostura can also be used to add a touch of astringent oomph to an ordinary G&T, by the way.

Best of all, however, Plymouth proved to be perfect for any gin drink in which the flavour of orange had to play a leading role. And in particular, it made a startlingly good companion for a drink that's completely different from any other I've tasted - Orancio. I would not complain if I went to my grave without another tasting of Cinzano Bianco, but the same company has come up with this value-adding orange-flavoured drink. The oranges in ques- tion are there both on nose and on palate, giving a pleasant astringency and accentuating the subtle, clove-like spiciness of the base vermouth. Mix it with soda water or tonic water over ice; add a slice of lemon; sip.

Or, for a serious cocktail, mix Orancio with Plymouth gin in Martini- esque proportions: around 6:1 or 8:1 gin to vermouth. The drink should be very cold, and garnished with a slice of orange peel. It is exceedingly delicious, especially when the pungent Plymouth is deployed in preference to something a little milder.

Incidentally, if you want something pre-mixed but definitely not an alco- pop, Cinzano is selling little bottles of Cinzano Fresco: the vermouth mixed with various aromatics to an ABV strength of 5 per cent. A useful companion, served ice-cold, for the picnics we will presumably be attempting in the not-too-distant future. Spring is there, right in your glass. And maybe even summer too, if you wait long enough.

And speaking of summer, I've had a couple of more explicitly grapey drinks recently that will fit the bill for al fresco drinking. The one to feature this week is a Pinot Noir 1996, Vin d'Alsace (Majestic, pounds 4.99), which poses the tricky question: when is a rose not a rose? Answer: when it's this sweetly opulent Pinot from the co-operative at Ribeauville. Very light in colour, close to some actual roses, and with the softest, juiciest cherry-laden fruit you could imagine. Not to be confused with Pinot Noir from Burgundy (or anywhere else), and not to be taken very seriously, but chill it lightly and get your spring-time barbecue's off to a flying start. It's a gentler introduction to the al fresco meal than an Orancio Martini (or whatever I should call that delicious drink). Highly commended for those who regard gin, as Hogarth did, as the sure-fire drink for those seeking directions to the road to ruin.