Monday, 29 October 2012

Thornbridge 'Wild Swan'

So there's me getting myself ready for winter; I have seductive visions of viscous imperial stouts and single malts that have the bonfire reek my clothes used to pick up from helping my grandad with fires in his back garden when I was little. Then what happens? Well, the small Waitrose in Nottingham starts to stock, and discount, Thornbridge Jaipur and White Swan - the latter being one I don't remember having tried previously. This served as a timely reminder that there are no rules; good beer can be enjoyed at any time of year, and, well, it had to be done really - so here's to the summer?

It pours very pale. It's described on the bottle as a 'white-gold pale ale' which I'm not about to argue with. The head was fluffy, light and long-lasting. On the nose it's all grassy hops. There's none of the tropical fruit you get in Jaipur or Punk. Using a wine analogy it's a lot more like a Sancerre to Jaipur's Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc; it has a mineral, flinty edge while retaining the clean citrus fruit from the hops. Once past the initial hop-hit the malt comes through with crystal clarity, it took me right back to getting my nose into a handful at the brewery in the summer.

This was a beer I expected I'd be indifferent about but it really does pack an immense amount of flavour into a low-ish alcohol beer. It's well worth picking up if you want something you can enjoy without getting your head into a fog that's perhaps more appropriate for a weekend!

3.5% abv. £2.09 for 50cl in Waitrose. It's also on a four for three deal at the moment.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Arran & Arran

Well if you're going to enjoy a whisky with a beer, is there an easier way to come up with a combination than picking a brewery and a distillery that are neighbours?

I've done a stand-alone tasting note for the Arran whisky over on my wines and spirits blog. The beer pours a deep mahogany colour but the head disappears really quickly. On the nose it's all about the luxurious malt, with hints of burnt toffee. On the palate it has impressive body for such a low abv (3.9%) which I think is helped by a  backbone of yeasty umami and hazelnut flavours which holds everything together. If there is a shortcoming (and it's entirely a matter of opinion if it is one) in the whisky it's that it's a bit underpowered in the malt delivery, and as part of a combination the beer probably highlighted that, but it's certainly a pleasant enough combination.

It strikes me from the two beers I've tried so far that Arran are a brewery that are stringent in their attention to detail. They may not be producing the sort of beers that are going to cause shock waves on ratings websites but they are really good, solid beers nonetheless.

£3.50 from The Whisky Shop*, and you're saving a red squirrel if you buy it!

* The usual disclaimer, I work at the Whisky Shop so I bought this at work.

Isle of Arran 10 Year Old

I tried this as both as a follow-up to my not-too-successful blended whisky tasting, and as an accompaniment to a beer from Arran brewery. There's a post to come over on my beer blog about the beer and whisky combination, but this was just a quick systematic tasting I did beforehand.

It's clear (prior to the addition of water) bright and pale gold in colour. On the nose there's toffee and caramel, along with some gentle dried fig notes. On the palate the alcohol is really well-integrated despite its 46% abv. It's a fresh and uplifting dram, with a touch of citrus and light dried fruit; there's a bit of lemon and sultana in there. Occasionally I got a waft of something a little more polishy but it wasn't enough to be off-putting. The malt complements the vanilla nicely giving it good balance, and the finish is smooth and clean.

I have to say I'm very glad it's not chill-filtered, as a delicate malt it's easy to see how it could be ruined by chill-filtering. This is the sort of whisky that The Famous Grouse hints at being, and I still don't quite see why, if you want a light, approachable whisky, this wouldn't be your first choice over something like a light blend, it's just got so much more going for it without being overpowering or harsh in any way. I guess the price of malt whisky is prohibitive to some, but for me they're certainly worth the extra outlay.

A quick google search put this at around £32 for a 70cl bottle, although that's excluding delivery.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Blended Whisky Tasting

I don't drink, and indeed never really have drunk, blended whiskies. Not really knowing anything at all about whiskies, single malts seemed to me to be a natural starting point; one whisky, from one crop, from one distillery has a certain beautiful simplicity to me. When I worked for Oddbins it was trying different whiskies while trying to learn about the different regions that got me into exploration of the flavours that the distillers could coax from the raw materials. Neither have I tried enough whiskies to feel like I am in danger of running out at any point. I therefore find it intriguing when luminaries such as Jim Murray sing the praises of blends, indeed Ballantine's 17 was his scotch whisky of the year for 2013 in his recently published Whisky Bible. It does make me wonder if I've just missed out a stage in my enjoyment of whisky. After all, even single malts are generally blends of different casks, so blending is all part of the art and creativity of the industry.

I tasted these three different blended whiskies while practising for my WSET Spirits exam but rather than bore anyone with lengthy tasting notes I thought I'd just go through what I see as the stylistic differences.

The Famous Grouse was first up. I picked it more because of a good write up from Jim Murray that its status as one of the UK's best-selling whiskies; to see if I can pick out the qualities that lead to him giving it some 89 points in the Whisky Bible. I have to admit I struggled. I think I'll have to try it alongside another scotch blend, but there seemed to be very little character. The nose was grainy, with the vanilla oak coming through. On the palate there's some grassy freshness, and I suppose if you were dedicated to whisky to the point where you wanted one as an apéritif, this would be one choice.

The Jameson has more toffee and caramel on the nose, and again on the palate. It comes across as sweeter, but it's equally light in body and character, which complements the grassy, grainy palate. Again this gets a massive 95 points in the Whisky Bible but I was struggling to see why; in fact if anything the finish was worse than the Famous Grouse, the caramel leaving something of an artificial taste in the mouth.

Last up, Jack Daniel's ubiquitous No.7. Saviour of supermarket blends? Well, actually I thought it was better than the other two. The nose had more to it, showing multi-faceted rather than one-dimensional oak character; coconut, and maple, rather than simple vanilla. On the palate there's still some grassiness, this is still light if you're used to single malts, but there's more maple and notes of smoke from the char. The finish has almost gone before it starts. It's rough round the edges but it's hard to argue that there's anything unpleasant going on there. 87 points and, for me, the best of the bunch.

I don't think I'll be changing my whisky drinking habits on the back of this particular tasting, but, as ever, the flavour quest continues, and it was certainly interesting to re-visit and re-assess rather than holding to long-held opinions on these whiskies!

Monday, 22 October 2012

Adnams 'Southwold Winter IPA'

I love winter; long evenings staying cosy in the house with a good film, a good beer and a good whisky. Ideally I'd go for an imperial stout with a whisky to match, but Adnams' idea of a Winter IPA sounds like a rather excellent concept too. When I worked in a London Oddbins next to a video shop we used to try and come up with wine and film combinations, asking people what film they'd rented and trying to recommend an ideal wine. I might branch out and try for a triple combination, the ultimate whisky and film accompaniment to a beer - I'm sure I can put the research in for this one.

Back to the beer. It poured cloudy, I'm not sure if that was my fault but I'm rarely particularly picky about clarity. I loved the brilliant orange colour though. There's a slight soapiness on the nose, but it was potentially a bit cold when I first poured it - a good film beer has to last the length of a film after all. There was plenty of rindy-orange flavours, like mixed peel, and a spicy, perfumed finish. All good, but for me a little understated. I'd love to try a more powerfully-hopped version!

There was a bit of a danger of expecting too much from this one, as my little self-indulgent opening paragraph suggests. It is, after all, a beer brewed for a supermarket chain so is it fair to expect something so different as I had in mind? Perhaps, but thinking more objectively this is a great beer for the money, and it might well lead to more adventurous offerings in the future. A beer like this with a more powerful spice kick like the Otley O-Garden would be fantastic. The whisky was a SMWS Glen Moray and the film was Se7en. Good for a starter but as the nights really draw in I'll be looking for my whisky to have more sherry, smoke or even chocolate orange flavours - like the Ben Nevis from the Glenkeir range - Christmas in a glass.*

6.7% abv. Expect to pay around £2 (50cl), sorry, lost the receipt. Marks & Spencer exclusive.

* A bit of a work plug but it's a delicious whisky!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

SMWS '35.58' Glen Moray

When I've had Glen Moray whisky in the past (admittedly a more 'standard' bottling) I've found it a bit weak, almost too light, even allowing for the fact that it is hardly distilled as a heavyweight. This one is an ex-bourbon and refill hogshead expression, matured over 26 years, and so it promises to be a little more complex!

It's pale for such an old whisky, pouring a delicate gold colour, but I'm guessing it would have been all too easy for such a lighter style, whisky to get overpowered by the oak so that's no bad thing.

The nose is all butterscotch and toffee, backed up with exotic spices and honeyed notes reminiscent of a good Sauternes, perhaps with a touch of fino sherry. On the palate it is sensually smooth and malty, showing its 26 years in a cask in the form of a mellow warming rather than a spirity burn. The sweet dairy flavours echo the nose, there's lots of fudge there, but the grassy, floral flavours and the dry, oaky, vanilla-spice keep it form becoming too sweet. In the finish the whisky finally succumbs to the oak, the finish is drying and more-ish.

Even at cask strength this is only 41% abv. I hope the angels enjoyed it. I like a little more weight to my whisky, but that is entirely personal taste rather than a reflection on this, because it really is excellent.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Williams Brothers 'Prodigal Son'

Sainsbury's Great British Beer Hunt seemed to me to come and go with barely a whimper. I'm not sure if there were simply far too many exciting things happening for it to register, in the form of IndyMan and DeMolen, or whether it was a lack of quality entrants, lack of publicity or maybe I've just been too busy with other things to 'catch the vibe' so to speak.

It's something that I still think is worth supporting but it might not carry on that way. Tucking the new beers in a seasonal aisle along with Halloween hats and Christmas crackers seems crazy to me - OK the beers might not be part of the permanent range but they're neither are they naturally associated with a holiday. The stock also has to be there; there's no point in allowing an entrant if they don't have the beers to go where they're required and you end up with some of last year's beer coming back into the competition.

On the positive side, beers like the Prodigal Son from Williams and the Harviestoun Wild Hop Gold are bold, experimental, and really make the competition. Even aside from skunked clear bottles and re-entries, too many were, for me, indicative of a section of the beer market that is content to put 'traditional' on their labels and hope the beer sells, possibly as a 'genuine local' product - lots of soapiness and very little thought. Prodigal Son is nothing like this, it's the best I've had although I've not tried everything I got hold of - I've yet to try the winner so maybe there is time for redemption yet. Prodigal Son is a lovely, juicy, mouth-watering drop, the aroma reminded me of leafy blackcurrant and it's got a herbal, medicinal quality with a lovely ginger spiciness in the finish. There's character right across the nose, palate and finish; always a sign of quality.

Nottingham CAMRA's beer festival is on at Nottingham Castle this weekend. Due to having to commit myself to other things I'm not able to go, which is disappointing because it is a great all-round festival; but with over 1000 different beers there it seems that even for someone with an interest there is a lot of mediocre beer out there to get past before you get to the really stellar performers. My list out of the 500 or so breweries that I was really keen to sample something from only ran to a dozen or so that I'd not tried before. In an ideal world it would be great to try everything once , but with so much choice (and a limited supply of cash and 'constitution') you have to be picky, and not all 'real ales' are are created equal, any more than all beers are.

Prodigal Son is 4.1% abv and was in a 3 for £4 deal in Sainsbury's.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Otley 'O-Garden'

I'm not really a massive wheat beer fan. Schneider-weisse is an old favourite but too many I've had have had too little flavour to really capture my interest. However, I've wanted to try some of Otley's beers for ages, and so I picked this up when I saw it, the choice being this or the porter. Well, or isn't strictly true, as I'm sure most beer geeks can appreciate. I took both.

So a brewery I'd heard many great things about making a style of beer that usually leaves me pretty non-plussed - which would win out? This was a beer of two halves really, on first pouring it was clear, and the aromas gently came out, caressing the nose rather than delivering a full on assault. On the palate? Well, earlier on in the day I'd had a sample of a fifteen year old Ben Nevis whisky, which had a beautiful tangy yet sweet orange flavour. When I tried this, it was like the whisky had come back to haunt me. When I poured the second half of the beer the sediment came out more, and as it warmed those initially subtle aromas really came to the fore. The fruit provides enough character to keep the beer interesting, without it ending up like some sort of sickly fruit beer. The whole package is deliciously mouth-watering, and the touch of spice in the finish invites you back for more. It was a revelation, the best wheat beer I remember having tried. If this is what Otley can do with a beer style I'm not particularly a fan of, I'm definitely going to have to get hold of some more!

4.8% abv. £2.60 from wherever it was in Pembrokeshire I picked it up!

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Lajita Mezcal Reposado

One of the more amusing aspects of working in the drinks industry for so long is the number of stories that you get to hear that have been passed around, often I'm sure while the passers were under the influence. These stories are told, forgotten, exaggerated and manipulated, and sometimes take on a momentum that is way beyond stopping. Drinks themselves are often the victims of all kinds of myths; you name a drink and someone will tell you something 'everyone knows' about it that is generally far more exotic than the truth.

'Have you ever eaten the worm from a bottle of tequila? It's hallucinogenic!' Given that university students are back in university student union bars up and down the country this week, I'm sure this is one that'll get some vociferous airing. Like the best of them, it's not true on more than one account. The worm is actually a moth larva, it doesn't have any hallucinogenic properties, and if you find one in a bottle of tequila then you've been had - it's mezcal - and not even mezcal has to have the larva in there. Tequila is a sort of mezcal that is distilled under much tighter laws governing area of production and agave variety. Only sotol, another form of mezcal, is as tightly controlled in terms of raw ingredients.

Despite this being a 'reposado' rather than an 'anejo' version of the spirit it has had five years of ageing, a lot more than the rather more delicate Patrón Tequila I reviewed in my last blog entry. I suppose the theory is that the more robust country cousin of tequila can cope with the oak a little better. Let's see.

It's bright, pale gold in colour, with wee floaty bits that I wasn't too keen on getting in my glass - I'm assuming they're bits of moth larva. It's noticeably matured, with loads of barbecue smoke on the nose. There's a little earthiness a and some sweet oak too. On the palate it's dry, with well-integrated alcohol, and the smoke returns with a vengeance, it's a bit like I'd imagine licking a piece of charcoal to be! There's more oak in the form of tobacco and cigar-box flavours, but it's hard to detect any agave character in there. In what is hardly a radical departure, the finish is long and, err, smoky. So therein lies the problem in assessing the quality. They've done a good job in integrating the alcohol and making a smooth spirit but tn the process it's become too one dimensional. Islay whiskies can have as much smoky character, but they always have something to back it up, to counterbalance and add complexity; this unfortunately doesn't. Five years maturation seems too long for this one!

40% abv. £23.45 (70cl) from Master of Malt.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Patrón Tequila

I've got three different expressions of tequila to try, all from Patrón, the self-styled super-premium tequila producers.

First up was the Patrón silver, the un-aged version. There are gentle earthy aromas but these are swiftly overtaken by fresh and vibrant citrus; tangerine, and I got a hint of sweetness, perhaps butterscotch aroma. On the palate it's dry, with only a very slight alcohol burn. The agave flavours are noticeable but they are really fresh, backed up with lemon and a touch of almond. Overall a good, light, pure spirit without  any harshness or feinty notes.

Next, the reposado, or rested version (aged for a couple of months). It pours a pale gold colour with green hints. On the nose there's citrus again; lemon, with a hint of woodsmoke and vegetal agave aromas. It's dry on the palate but the agave flavours are backed up with vanilla sweetness, lime and a lifted orange blossom finish. The short ageing process has allowed the alcohol to integrate into the spirit, giving it a superb balance of sweet oak and savoury vegetal flavours.

Finally the anejo, fully aged over a year. I didn't get much oak on the nose, but it has contributed in a toffee hint, with the vanilla and smoke that I found in the reposado. On the palate it is very dry from the oak influence, the alcohol is well-integrated but I found it to be a little too drying - there's lots of sawdust and oak flavour and the coconut and smokiness dominates the fruit a little, although it does make for a very mellow spirit.

In short (no pun intended), if you think tequila is a rough spirit that only deserves to be fired down with salt and lemon this is the tequila to try to disavow you of that impression. For me the reposado was the best of the three, getting the right balance without allowing the oak to provide character without dominating what is quite a light spirit - although it might just be because I'm not a massive fan of oak flavours in the raw.

All three are 40% abv. Patrón silver is selling for £43.49 at The Whisky Exchange, the reposado for just a pound more and the anejo for £49.49.

Arran Brewery 'Sunset' Ale

I got this from the new(ish) Whisky Shop in Nottingham, where I've just started working.* I assumed at the time that the Brewery had a tie-in with the distillery (hence its arrival at a whisky shop) but that doesn't seem to be the case.

The Sunset pours a light amber colour. It's a little perfumed and soapy on the nose, and generally quite restrained. When you dive in though it's like a comforting malty blanket. It's biscuity, but there is just enough bite from the hops to tease you and keep it interesting. It's one of the smoothest beers I've had in a a long time, impeccably balanced with s lightly spicy finish. Many of the more traditional style lowish alcohol micro-brewed beers I've had recently have been a little rough around the edges, sometimes the malt seems to jar a bit rather than being integrated, but the Sunset has none of these issues. Arran have recently won awards with SIBA, the International Beer Challenge and at the World Beer Awards. On the evidence of this they are well deserved, and I look forward to trying the rest of the range.

Arran look like being a brewery we'll be hearing a lot form in the future, they've got big expansion plans which will be funded off the back of a share offer (see this article from the Scottish Herald in June c/o the SIBA website). It'll be interesting to see how they market that in the light of BrewDog's similar scheme. Here's wishing them luck.

4.4% abv. The only downside to the beer is that at £3.50 for a 50cl bottle it does seem a bit pricy, although it's easy to see where your money goes!

* Hopefully this doesn't make me any less objective about the beer!

Friday, 5 October 2012

Fuller's 'Bengal Lancer' IPA

Big breweries are much maligned in beer blogs and the like, but just because a brewery is big doesn't mean it can't make interesting beer, even if far too often they don't. White Shield; 'from the makers of Carling' as the advertising slogan doesn't run,  is perhaps the most extreme example of this, but Fuller's seem to me to be one of the bigger British breweries that offer something special. Having lived most of my life north of Watford Gap it's not a brewery I'm actually that familiar with, but what beers of theirs I have tried have put many operations that espouse the virtues of their small size and flexibility as as asset to shame.

It seems to be a recurring theme of mine that when I try new IPAs I'm actually looking more for how the malt supports the hops flavours and gives the beer structure and backbone. For me far too many beers use hops rather too indiscriminately, almost forgetting that beer is a complex drink, not just a sort of one-dimensional strong hop cordial. There's plenty of leafy hop aroma, all backed up with smoky spices and that all-important biscuity malt spine. If I were to be critical, I found that there was a little too much sweetness, but I realise that's just my taste rather than a fault with the beer, some people will like it more because of that.

Celebrity endorsed, and (rather curiously) made for the Swedish market, but don't let that put you off. 5.3% abv. £1.99 from Ocado.

PS: Apparently it's vegan too, no nasty fish bits required!

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Brecon 'Special Reserve' Gin

This is the other sample of Penderyn's 'other spirits' that I picked up form Wales over the summer. With more distilleries springing up over the UK seemingly every week there is a huge number of new gins hitting the market. With whisky taking such a long time to reach a level where it can even be called whisky, gin and vodka allow a faster return on an investment. Of course there is the danger that they become a route to a quick buck, an afterthought rather than something to be proud of. This is definitely not the case with Penderyn, but I am getting ahead of myself.

The gin! It's bright, clear and water-white, as you would expect. It's really fresh and floral on the nose, beautifully clean-smelling. Along with the juniper there is a citrus sweetness - tangerine aromas abound. With the addition of a touch of water the sweet fruit comes through all the more.

On the palate it's just off-dry, with smoothly integrated alcohol. The botanicals give it a bit of body, it's not so light as the vodka. There are spices as well as the citrus popping up again, from reading up on it after tasting they use orange and lemon peel, cinnamon and nutmeg, which lends it a subtle sweetness to back up the fragrant spice. I think this is a cracking gin for the price if you're a fan of a lighter style. It's not a big bruiser like some of the super-premium ones can be, there is a gentle subtlety to the use of the botanicals, and I think it's all the better for it.

40% abv. £19.80 (70cl) direct from Penderyn.

If you are a gin drinker and would like to know more about the new releases as they come out I'd highly recommend a read of The Gin Blog - no prizes for guessing what that's about.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Brecon Five Vodka

I picked this one up when I was down in Wales over the summer, knowing I'd have to stock up on the weird and wonderful before my spirits exam in November. I'm a big fan of Pendreryn whisky, so it was interesting to find out what they do with a couple of different spirits (I got the gin too).

Vodka's always a difficult one to pin down for me, but this was an excellent example of a light, delicate vodka. On the nose there's a faint whiff of smoke from somewhere, along with pleasant grainy and flour notes. It's dry, with well-integrated alcohol; which for me is always crucial, any burn and they've not done their job properly. The light to medium body complements the delicate floral and grain flavours. Everything being light means everything balances out rather nicely, right up to the clean cereal-textured finish.

If it were me I'd have allowed a little more character to come through, but then I'm not particularly a vodka drinker - it's very good, but as a recreational drink I'll stick to its big brother I think.

40% abv. £29.03 direct from Penderynn, although I picked up the miniature from Celtic Vision in Narberth, which is to all outward appearances a camera shop - see here for a bit of an explanation.

Harviestoun 'Wild Hop Gold'

This wasn't quite the first of the Sainsbury's 2012 Great British Beer Hunt beers that I tried but it was the first one that was both drinkable and not simply one of last year's entries that had been put back in the competition. Normally I wouldn't usually buy beer in clear glass for obvious reasons, but I fell foul of the 3 for £4 deal and the first bottle I had from the collection was light-struck; serves me right really.

Moving on to more positive things; Harviestoun's Wild Hop IPA was one of the highlights of last year's competition for me, and so I was looking forward to this one. On the nose it's really floral, bursting with elderflower and orange blossom aromas. What it really reminded me of was an Alsace Gewürztraminer; fruity and dry, but with loads of aromatic floral character with pink grapefruit and spices on the palate. I think this is a well-made beer but it's so different I found it a bit overpowering - I really think it would have been much better with food. Having said that this competition should be about trying different things, and just because it's not necessarily to my tastes doesn't mean it's not a good beer. I would definitely encourage people to give it a try, it's that bold in favour that might just be that it's one of those love it/hate it kind of beers.

I was at a wedding over the weekend and I got talking to someone about bold fruit flavours in new world wines popping up in some beers, and making people realise that beer really can be more interesting than just a bland commercial lager. The disappointing thing was I'd had Thai curry for dinner earlier; I should have had it with that, it would have been a brilliant match.

4.4% abv. It's part of Sainsbury's Great British Beer Hunt range for 2012. I found it in the seasonal food rather than the beer section, priced at 3 for £4 or (I think) £1.89.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Nils Oscar 'Kalasöl'

Due to life being rather busy at the moment this isn't so much a blog post as a quick tasting note - I had this bottle from Nils Oscar the other day and really enjoyed it - so here it is!

It pours a dark, burnt red. On the nose there's a touch of malt, and a metallic, almost ferrous aroma, which sounds unpleasant but actually works. There's an oiliness to the texture and the whole brew feels satisfyingly weighty, as befits the name; Kalasöl apparently means 'feast beer' which makes perfect sense in the abundance of rich malts. On the palate there's caramel and chocolate, counterbalanced with dried peel, toasty notes and nuttiness. Overall it's a really complex beer; difficult to pin down but very drinkable. This is one that's go down great with fresh pretzels and a heart-attack inducing cheese dip; it's that time of year.

5.2% abv. £2.16 from Beer Ritz. (33cl)