What is the difference between a coupé and a hatchback? I realised I didn’t know when the lid of the boot closed on me. This wasn’t what I expected when I had volunteered to “take the sixth seat” to get to The Sign Cocktail Lounge, Vienna.
It’s harder to get out of a small boot than into it, so it wasn’t an elegant entrance I made past the smokers and into the bar, picking dog hairs off my best t-shirt. The menu was the next challenge; long and involved and in German, of course. I took the easy way out and pointed to what someone at the next table was drinking. It came in a jar before drinks came in a jar. A cinnamon stick smouldered on top and a sprig of thyme jutted out of the side. The liquid was complex and deep. The whole made sense but the ingredients – other than those I could see – were difficult to identify. The next cocktail was just as good, just as puzzling. I took a business card from the bar on the way out – some time I would have to find my way back here.
I later got to know the owner of The Sign, Chinese-born Kan Zuo, at a tasting Batch’s director Phil Whitwell and I arranged at a Scottish Pub in Vienna. We had biked round the top bars handing out fliers, a bit deflated to find that most owners were going to be at a big industry event that night. Kan was giving that a wide berth as the sponsor was knocking out cheap copies of his signature “Fish and Tonic” cocktail which is served in a fish bowl, complete with a clockwork fish. Bad move. He’s passionate about this drink and about fish. He’s a pisces and has koi carp tattooed up his arm as all over the label of The Sign’s own gin. He came to our tasting instead and loved the spicy Eastern flavours of Batch and offered to promote it at a regular Sunday event in which he tailors four cocktails around one spirit.
Kan returned from a competition in Istanbul on the day of the promotion, full of inspiration from flavours from the intersection of Europe and Asia, occident and orient, spice bazaars and cool bars. Perfect for our gin. His first creation is a Turkish take on the classic French 75:
4.5 cl Batch Gin
3 cl Ayran (yogurt, water, pinch of salt)
2 cl Lemon juice
2 cl Simple syrup
1 tsp of fennel seeds
Top up with prosecco or champagne in a cocktail glass, and scatter the muddled fennel seeds on top.
The second is pure spring:
5 cl Batch Gin
3 cl Wheatgrass birch juice*
1 cl Lemon juice
1 cl Lime juice
1.5 cl Simple syrup
1 tsp Mascarpone
1 Slice of ginger
2 Pinches of salt
A few blades of fresh wheat grass to decorate
* take a handful of wheat grass and blend with birch juice (sap from birch trees, available from your local health food shop), then strain twice through a coffee filter
What I have learned since is that there is no end to Kan’s creativity, and that’s got a special value in a city which changes as slowly as Vienna, where you can leave for ten years and come back to find your neighbourhood baker still offering the same three sandwiches. Proposing another Sunday promotion, I brought him a sample of Batch Chinese gin, Buddha’s Hand. Had he got any ideas for cocktails based around this? His glass had barely hit the table when sprinted off round the bar and brought back some fresh Sichuan pepper flowers he’d had delivered from Switzerland.