Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The 'Golden Pint' Awards 2013

Here we are again, the end of another year! Beer blogging has really had to take a back seat this year but I still manage to squeeze the odd half in here and there so hopefully I've had enough to put together some worthy candidates. Usual credit to Andy and Mark.
  1. Best UK Cask Beer: Dark Star Green Hopped IPA.
  2. Best UK Keg Beer: Summer Wine Teleporter was particularly good.
  3. Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer: Wild Beer Co. Ninkasi. Stunning stuff, must get myself some more and do a proper write-up.
  4. Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer: Sierra Nevada 'Northern Hemisphere Harvest' 2012.
  5. Best collaboration brew: I think the only one I've had was Thornbridge/Mountain Goat 'Thorny Goat' which, since it was excellent, I'm sure is a worthy winner!
  6. Best Overall Beer: Has to be the Ninkasi.
  7. Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label: Black Iris pumpclips, still some great work going into those.
  8. Best UK Brewery: Wild Beer Co.
  9. Best Overseas Brewery: De Molen.
  10. Best New Brewery Opening 2013: Not sure I've even had anything from a brewery that's only opened this year!
  11. Pub/Bar of the Year: Pivni in York.
  12. Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013: See point 10!
  13. Best city for beer in the UK: York
  14. Beer Festival of the Year: Failed to get to any unless you count an inaugural 'craft beer' shindig at the Kean's Head, which was home to some excellent beer!
  15. Supermarket of the Year: I'm yet to be convinced this isn't a complete oxymoron.
  16. Independent Retailer of the Year: Trembling Madness, York.
  17. Online Retailer of the Year: Not used many but I think Beer Ritz wins again. Good beer, good service, what more can you ask for?
  18. Best Beer Book or Magazine: Tim Webb and Stephen Beaumont's Pocket Beer Book 2014 has been quite a good read.
  19. Best Beer Blog or Website: Toss up between Steve and B&B for different reasons, but Beers I've Known I think. 
  20. Best Beer App: Untappd, again if only because I don't use any others, but I think it's a good bit of fun.
  21. Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer: Wow, hard merkin to fill, I've only ever given this to Simon. Might have to plead too little time spent on Twitter.
  22. Best Brewery Website/Social media: I like Harviestoun's shiny new site, and at the risk of being considered open to (more) bribery, it was nice to be quoted on there!
Cheers, all the best beverages for 2014. My resolution is to get more beer up on the blog. (Don't expect the whisky not to keep coming though!)

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask

It's a bitter-sweet moment waving goodbye to a bottle of whisky. Having a bit of a tendency to horde these things it's great to think I can grab myself another bottle (although I probably already have) to replace it, but also sad to bid farewell to a whisky I've really enjoyed.

Balvenie is a whisky that seems to take really well to the more unusual barrel finishes, I was lucky enough to try the 21 year old Portwood at the Kean's Head a while back and it's sublime, and this is great too.There's almonds and marzipan on the nose, then it's all about that luscious sweetness on the palate, although there's just enough bite to remind you that you are drinking a pretty serious whisky in amongst all the comforting barley sugar. There's a sweet spiciness to the finish - like honeyed ginger if such a thing exists. Much as I love a sherried dram this was great to have just as a bit of a change.

Distillers are rather protective of the wood they use for their precious spirit. Apparently these casks are seasoned with rum they've tankered in to make sure they can keep an eye on what it's doing to the wood, rather than buying wood that has previously had rum contact. The care taken really shows.

Next up for the cupboard is the 17 year old doublewood. Yes, I've already filled the gap. The king is dead and all that.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Balcones Brimstone

I was childishly excited about trying this one. It's always been a slight disappointment to me that peatier styles of whisky don't whisk me off my feet. I love smoked flavours in food; smoked paprika, chipotles, (admittedly not that authentic) applewood cheddar but, while I keep a bottle of something peaty on the go and occasionally dip into it if the mood takes me, peaty scotch is not really my go-to dram. I think it's the phenolic, medicinal notes that I find generally a bit overpowering. This promised something different, essentially a wood-smoked bourbon, so all of the corn sweetness and with smoke, but of an entirely different sort.

On the nose there's a load of maple-cured bacon and Frazzles (since I don't eat meat these are my occasional veggie salt/bacon overload/fix). I think the best thing about it is that fact that you expect the smoke etc. but actually it's not the whole show, there's plenty of proper serious whisky flavours in there too; vanilla, muscovado sugar and coarse-ground pepper all wrapped up in wisps of beguiling smokiness. A little water (it weighs in at a hefty 53% abv) allowed some of the more subtle, bourbon-like aspects to show through but it certainly wasn't a prerequisite.

Back in my pub-running days we used to sell Schlenkerla Rauchbier, and while it was never something I drank a lot of it was really great to have it there for when I wanted something a little different. This can proudly take its place as a whisky equivalent; dismiss it as a novelty or a gimmick at your peril, this is a proper whisky. I might even be tempted to team it up with a smoky beer for a half and half combination sometime, especially since I spied a Schlenkerla Weizen (which I've never tried) in the pub the other night!

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Douglas of Drumlanrig Clynelish 15

This is one of two independent bottlings of Clynelish that I've got at the moment, both at 15 years old. I've always thought that Clynelish is one of the most under-rated whiskies from Diageo's stable, despite its 'Classic Malt' status. It's strange that Dalwhinnie overshadows it when Clynelish seems so much more of a genuine Highlander (at least in terms of flavour profile, I guess there's no competition in terms of altitude!) Still, if it being under-rated means that the indy bottlers get more of it then that's fine by me.

Apologies for my photo which surprisingly manages to be even worse than my usual efforts. Despite appearances I hadn't drank half the bottle when I took it though, me and a mate are doing a whisky-share, going halves on bottles after a somewhat protracted decision-making process. It means that two of us contribute to the tasting note - more of a text-tasting than a tweet-tasting.

On to the whisky... On the nose there's almond/marzipan and candied citrus peel. On the palate it's fresh and grassy and there's woody spice (ginger) and tobacco. Additional notes (via SMS) suggested marmalade, lemon, wood, cherries and burnt citrus. With a drop of water (this is a 50% abv whisky and I thought it came across a bit spirity on the nose because of that) the sweeter spice notes came more to the fore. This is a good, proper Highland dram; not shy, but certainly not too shouty - long may Clynelish's profile remain firmly at the level it is!

Monday, 23 September 2013

Pulteney Pair

Old Pulteney 12 is a whisky I've never been that bothered about. A former colleague of mine used to like it so I did give it a try years ago through work but it didn't leave much of an impression. When I tried it again more recently I have to say the earth once again resolutely failed to move for me. Nothing wrong with it, just not particularly my thing... Then I got to try the Old Pulteney 21. This is one that Jim Murray gave Scotch of the year to in his 2012 bible, and while I often disagree entirely with his assessments, this time he and I were on the same wavelength - it's great; subtle yet superbly complex. So that left me with the 17 of the (affordable) core range to have a go at, the casting vote. I wasn't really bold enough to leap in and buy the 17 though, after all it might be more like its younger sibling than its older, and so I've bagged a set of two halves, which gives me a chance to re-assess the 12 year old that's also rated highly by Jim Murray, putting him in the illustrious company of at least one ex-Oddbins manager (I'm sure he's honoured). The other consideration was that while a quick tasting sample is a great way of introduction to a whisky, unless you get to spend time with it in comfort and quiet contemplation I think you can never really get to know it. Maybe the introductory expression would reward some care and attention.

Old Pulteney 12

On the nose there's a whiff of the fairground, as if you're carrying a great big candy floss and you wander past a toffee apple stand. It really benefited from sitting for a while and opening up, which is something that I'm finding helps as I'm trying to get into more subtle whiskies like this (not all the time though, clearly). On the palate there's lots of fresh, vibrant fruit, pomegranate and banana in particular, at the fore. It's only really the finish that I feel lets it down, there's just not much more than a tease of salt and ginger then it's gone. There's also a certain brackish feel to it along the sides of the tongue that I'm not really too keen on. Other than that I'm really glad I've given the 12 a chance, it's definitely moved on from how I remember it being; all brine and not enough flavour to back it up.

Old Pulteney 17

This expression uses second refill bourbon casks rather than the first refill ones used for the 12, the idea being that that the longer maturation doesn't end up in a spirit that's been overpowered by the wood. Once again there's fruit on the nose but this time it's mellower, like apple crumble, and there's a fuller barley aroma and more secondary notes of vanilla and fudge. On the palate there's still a tangy salty note only this time there's more going on so it doesn't dominate so much as in the 12. It's on the finish that it really leaps ahead of its younger sibling though, the finish is great; complex rich sweetness with none of the brackish notes I've always found with the 12. An altogether more rounded dram.

Just as a final note on the 21. I was asked recently what the best luxury whisky I've tried this year is and despite brilliant indy bottlings of of The Macallan and Imperial which I was really impressed with, I think I'd have to go for the Old Pulteney 21 on the grounds that the sheer complexity of it meant that every mouthful threw a whole new batch of amazing flavours at you. There might be more to come on that one if I feel I can do it justice.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

BrewDog IPA Is Dead 2013

This is the first chance I've had to have a go at one of BrewDog's 'IPA Is Dead' series. I think I'm right in saying that they are an annual release and I've read about them before but it wasn't until I bagged this set in York a few months back that I'd been able to get my hands on some.

I guess the idea is simple. One beer recipe, a hop-forward one, naturally, but with four different hops used to highlight any different character they offer. While I've had a fair few single-hop beers I've not had them alongside one another so I thought I'd line them all up and go for the whole beer-geek feast and compare them - even if I did use wine tasting glasses!

The four different hops used were Dana, El Dorado, Goldings and Waimea. Rather than repeat myself they all had some characteristics in common; a dustiness that I always think of when I have Jaipur or Punk IPA.

Dana: I felt this one lacked a bit of 'zip,' not enough citrus liveliness to excite the palate like a good IPA should always do. Apologies for lurching into wine tasting terms but it felt a bit flabby, like a white wine which is lacking a little refreshing acidity. Still, very drinkable, with lots of mango fruitiness.

El Dorado: More mango, but this time a bit more citrus in the form of pink grapefruit. A bit sweet for my liking but it definitely upped the ante in terms of more IPA 'bite' than the Dana.

Goldings: More malt to the fore and all the better for it (that said, it's all relative!) Sweet blood orange and better grapefruit pithiness add up to a beer of real depth and complexity. For me the best of the bunch.

Waimea: An extra helping of the 'dusty' nose, but with peaches this time on the palate. Possibly the most balanced of the four, but it did make me wonder if balance is really what you look for in an American-style IPA, isn't it all about the hops?

All in all a really enjoyable set of beers and given the chance I'll certainly give the next lot a go. Funnily enough the last single-hopped beer I remember having was an El Dorado but as someone who really knows shamefully little about brewing I could see why the Goldings hops get used so often!

All four were 33cl and 6.7% abv. The pack was around £15 (I think) from Trembling Madness.

If anyone else tried these let me know what you thought -  if you did a blog post on them post a link!

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Mellow Jack?

A few weeks back we had a bit of a staff masterclass at work featuring Jack Daniel's. I managed to miss it because I was on the way to Scotland. I also managed to miss a very similar event for the shops I'd been in all day up in Edinburgh, because I was on the train back down south. Ah well...

Anyway, a couple of samples were left for me to try to demonstrate development of Jack Daniel's whiskey through its famous charcoal mellowing process. Jack Daniel's all goes through '10 feet of hard sugar maple charcoal' before maturing in barrels and becoming whiskey.

These two are not quite new-make JD since it's cut down to 40%, and I'd imagine it's not matured at that strength. In Scotland the industry standard is 63.5% abv. In the USA whiskey is introduced to the cask at no higher than 125 proof (62.5% abv, see here) but as I understand it in practice it does go into casks at a lower strength than that, but not as low as 40%. Buffalo Trace, for example, generally introduce their wheated bourbons to cask at 57%/114 (American) Proof, something they've recently experimented with to make sure it's the optimium level.

I should also add that this is not a commercial release, it's not for sale at all and clearly states so on the bottle. The commercial release of these 'not whisky yet' whiskies is something I struggle to make my mind up about. I'm all in favour of things coming out that help us all to understand what we drink but when I see 50cl (ie. a sizeable amount of spirit) for more than bottles of decent quality single malt then something doesn't quite sit right. But that's for another post I think; there are some interesting thoughts on commercial releases of 'new-make' spirit over at the Edinburgh Whisky Blog.

Now I wouldn't really describe myself as a Jack fan, but in terms of readily available whiskies around the world, I'd say it's up there. I'd certainly take it over a cheap blended Scotch or for that matter an Indian 'whisky' which is, well, nothing of the sort. So what do these two taste like?

Jack Daniel's Unmatured - Before Mellowing.

The first impression is that it's kind of like you've walked into a sweet shop, there's a load of sweet corn there with a dusting of icing sugar and sugared water - you may get the impression I'm going with a sweet theme here on the nose. On the palate there's not much going on, some oily sweetness and some patisserie baked notes,but it comes across a bit like a rather directionless vodka. There's no finish to speak of unless a vague (and not particularly pleasant) lingering of the sweet corn flavours count. I know some people use these sort of raw spirits as a cocktail ingredient and I suppose it could work like that, it's really not meant to be a drink as such so it's unfair to suggest that it should be one - it's certainly not unpleasant just rather forgettable!

Jack Daniel's Unmatured - After Mellowing.

At first on the nose it's not hugely different, and if anything it's even more so, but I've run out of sweet metaphors so feel free to fill in your own. It seemed slightly more viscous in the glass, and once it had opened up the harsher sweet corn notes are not so pronounced as in the first sample. On the palate it's immediately more like whiskey, I think it's a bit of an exaggeration to suggest that  'it is absent the grainy character of the white-labelled before-mellowing whiskey,'* it is Jack Daniels's after all, but it certainly pulls the flavours together more, and comes across as much smoother, even if it does add another layer of sweetness!

All in all it was interesting to try these two samples, you can certainly see that the mellowing does have an effect, although part of me does wonder if that extra sweetness might be at least as appealing as the smoothness.

* The blurb on the side of the bottle.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Glenfarclas 105

A while back I was musing as to why I hadn't ever got round to trying this one. I then got to try it at a tasting and, at the risk of spoiling the surprise, it was every bit as good as I thought it might be, so I went halves with a friend on a half bottle to enjoy at my leisure.*

My photo doesn't do it any justice at all, although it's probably not helped by divvying up half the contents. It's a deeply polished mahogany colour, as intriguing as the oloroso sherry barrels that so heavily influence it. On the nose there's a fair kick from the alcohol but get past that and you're into familiar boozy raisin and sultana territory. On the palate it's almost clichéd 'liquid Christmas cake' but really, who cares when it does it so well? It's like slating Barcelona for 'just scoring more goals than the opposition'. It doesn't half deliver, a sort of 'go direct to sherried whisky, do not pass go, do not collect £200'.  It has plenty of weight, but its youth (it's 10 years old) means it also keeps vibrant rather than wallowing in the sherry. Whilst I'd be intrigued to try the (4 times more expensive) 20 year old version I've no idea if that could carry it off as well.

I've tried a few of the regular Glenfarclas range now, and for me this one and the 2003 Whisky Shop exclusive represent the best of the range in terms of bang for your buck. Highly recommended!

* I admit my enjoyment is not really a surprise, its appearance in this blog doing more than suggest I enjoyed it!

Monday, 19 August 2013

Doug Johnstone - Smokeheads

Not content with selling whisky and drinking whisky I often fill the gaps with reading about whisky, or beer, or wine (you see what I'm getting at here). I tend to dip into the Malt Whisky Yearbook and 1001 whiskies in particular but by the end of the day I usually alternate between sticking my nose in some fiction and a glass. Well I combined the two this week. It's more of a cheeky quarter-bottle of Caol Ila 12 than a weighty Distiller's Edition of Lagavulin, but I still quite enjoyed this whisky-soaked literary trip to Islay from Doug Johnstone.

It's not the sort of book that I can see winning many awards, in the end it's quite a standard 'gritty' (read: graphically violent) thriller and the characters aren't exactly that three-dimensional, but the whisky references certainly got me hooked from the start. The pace is unrelenting too, and serves to keep you engrossed. It would make a good one for summer holiday reading when the constant references to Islay in the winter might not make you feel quite so chilly. I suspect if you're not into whisky then this one would seem a bit hammy and irritating - I'd say the tasting notes are written with more grace and precision than the 'plot twists.' However, if you are into whisky I'd give it a go. I think Smokeheads is one for smokeheads*.

* Islay slang for whisky tourists apparently.

Image from Amazon so apologies for the 'look inside' stuff, I forgot to take my own photo before I passed the book on to a colleague.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Wine & Whisky: Pedro Ximénez Sherry

I'm in the process of putting together a series of posts about whiskies and wine casks. It's a nice little bit of revision for me, particularly since my fortified wine diploma exam seems like a lifetime ago now! Rather than straight tasting notes on whiskies I'm going to talk a little bit about whisky casks' previous inhabitants, the wines whose character will bring about a change in the whisky's personality, and see if I can detect how the wine has affected the whisky in some examples.

The Wine:

Pedro Ximénez sherry is another great example of the vinificational ingenuity that has been shown in the sherry region in terms of making a wine that withstands the effects of time. Rather like the Oloroso I covered previously, oxidation is embraced, despite it being a more conventional winemaker's enemy. Pedro Ximénez is a grape variety that lends its name to a type of wine, although it's far more than a simple varietal wine. Once picked the late-harvested the grapes are laid out on grass mats to dry for 7-15 days in the searing southern Spanish heat; the soleo or pacificación process. This concentrates the grape juice, increases the sugar levels and ups the potential alcohol that the must can achieve once fermented - in practice this means that there will be a lot of sweetness left after the wine is fortified.

Pedro Ximénez is a favourite of mine, something I always pick up for accompanying Christmas pudding - delicious and decadent.
Pedro Ximénez: This dark, ebony coloured wine, with its pronounced tearing, looks stcky and dense. It has [a] very rich sensual bouquet in which sweet dried fruit notes (raisin, figs and dates) predominate, accompanied by aromas of honey, grape syrup, jam and candied fruits, with toasted (coffee, dark chocolate and cocoa) and liquorice notes accentuating as it gets older. Velvety and sticky on the palate, with enough acidity to mitigate its alcoholic glow, it has a very long finish that encourages the drinker to take another sip.15-22% abv, 180-500 g/l sugar.1
The Whiskies:

Lagavulin 16 and Lagavulin Distiller's Edition: Lagavulin is a whisky that stands on its own. The big broad stills, wide cut (72-59%) and lack of copper contact result in a rich, full-bodied whisky, contrasting with the lightness of Diageo's other Islay distillery; Caol Ila, and indeed with its other Islay bretheren. The 16 year old expression is one of Diageo's 'Classic Malts,' and as such has a Distiller's Edition as its companion. Some of the regular (mainly second-fill bourbon) sixteen year old is transferred into a Pedro Ximénez cask for a few months. Don't, however, be fooled into thinking that short extra maturation can't have an effect on quite an old and powerful whisky; this is Pedro Ximénez, and it's rarely shy. On the nose the 16 is classic Islay; peat, iodine and smoke but with more fresh bonfire robustness than others. On the palate it is spicy and mellow, a lovely relaxing armchair of a whisky. The PX influence on the Distiller's Edition possibly makes it even more so. For me Lagavulin is about the mellow smoke and richness, and this is why I think the extra sweetness, coffee and dried fruit flavours make it all the more luxurious and juicy for me, like the difference between a fruit cake and a Christmas cake. Not hugely different, but the difference is crucial, and delicious. The Distiller's Edition is one I've mentioned before when I had it at a Burn's Night Tasting if you want some further musings. It's always interesting to go back to these whiskies, especially to compare them to others in the range.

Glendronach 12: Glendronach is without doubt one of my favourite distilleries. I can see why some wouldn't be such big fans - the use of sherry casks is hardly subtle. That's the great thing about Single Malt whisky though, there's so much room for so much whisky that this sort of thing can be enjoyed, or ignored. Since they're owned by the same folk that own Benriach I think they can cater to all tastes anyway! This expression starts off in Oloroso sherry barrels than moves to PX, so you wouldn't go into it thinking that the sherry's going to be hiding in the background. As Billy Walker, managing director of Glendronach says '...with Pedro Ximénez you've gone to the next sherry level, if you like.'2 Don't say you weren't warned! On the nose the Glendronach 12 has aromas of brandy-soaked sultanas and toffee. On the palate it's seriously smooth, with a marzipan sweetness that moves pleasantly into a drier, nutty finish. This is described as 'The Original' Glendronach and so there's nothing really to compare it too, but it wears its sherry influence across more than just its sleeve. One further note, Glendronach have just brought out a new expression, so maybe one day this particular Glendronach will come my way... I can but dream.

Another PX influenced whisky that's well worth trying is Auchentoshan's 'Three Wood' - another delicious marriage of sherry casks resulting in a glorious dessert whisky. Quite similar to Pedro Ximénez are Moscatel wines. They are made in a similar way to Pedro Ximénez wines but from the Muscat grape variety. Casks that have previously housed Moscatel are used to ace Caol Ila Distiller's edition.

Next post, another fortified wine that's become the victim of going somewhat out of fashion... Port.

Pedro Ximénez sherry image taken from, and reproduced with the permission of, the Consejo Regulador Jerez website all about sherry. Well worth an explore.

1. Various Authors. The Big Book of Sherry. Regional Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Department of Publications and Dissemination. 
2. Roscrow, D (Ed.). 1001 Whiskies You Must Try Before You Die. London: Quintessence, 2012. 

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Caol Ila 2007 Feis Ile Release

This one from Islay's Caol Ila distillery was bottled for the Feis Ile Festival back in 2007 and was available only through the distillery on release. You can still pick it up for around £100 should you so wish but someone I know was kind enough to let me have the last of their bottle to try.

One of the things I like about single malt whisky is that in a way a bit of a leveller. Caol Ila is owned by Diageo, the world's biggest drinks company. Their estate is huge, running to over twenty active malt distilleries, but in the end Caol Ila is still only one distillery. While that number of distilleries sounds like a lot, just to put it into perspective their output of single malts from all of those distilleries combined is a mere 4% of their total whisky released every year.1 So one distillery among many, one year, one release. These behemoth drinks producers are in a way as far removed from 'craft' products as you can get, and are often pigeon-holed and portrayed as one dimensional, the ultimate purveyors of the bland and the mainstream. It is a cliché that so often runs true in the drinks industry, but that makes it all the better to see that the biggest of them can sometimes think it is important to do something on a different level. It's almost impossible to see how it could make a difference to the accounts at the end of the year, but not hard to see how it can make a difference to the whisky drinkers up there at the festival, and to me. Credit where it's due.

It's bottled at a cask strength of 58.4% abv. The nose is mellow, gentle peat, with a hint of strawberry boiled sweets.* I also got some maritime aromas; seashell and seaweed, but all served with lashings of rich butter. The palate was somewhat surprising - I was expecting peat but it was dominated by tangy Granny-Smith apple and lime. Once this had passed the dry-ash sooty smokiness took over, and there was a peppery finish. From powerful alcohol on the nose I was sure it would need water but it was surprisingly palatable at full strength, although adding water definitely lifted the sweetness, bringing a cinnamon note to the apple.

I also had the chance to try a sample of Ardbeg's latest Feis Ile release, the Ardbog, recently too. It's great, with lovely toffee and bonfire flavours. That said, it seems crazy to me that it's already trading at double the original (last month's) retail price, when something like this is still around from six years ago at around £100 (or even if it's twice that). I guess that's indicative of what's happens with Ardbeg's 'cult' releases at the moment!

* I was told by a colleague that this has spent some time in a port pipe, which would explain any sweet red-fruit, but I couldn't find any evidence of this. It just says European and American oak casks on the bottle. If I find anything more out I'll update.

1. Ronde, I (Ed). The Malt Whisky Yearbook 2012. Shrewsbury: MagDig Media Limited, 2011. 

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Some Summer Wine

Well, some beer from Summer Wine Brewery anyway...

This isn't a fair review. I ordered these beers back in May and they went out of date a couple of weeks ago. It seems that years of pub management has started to remove itself from my subconscious, and basics such as stock rotation are now escaping me. I blame the wine and the whisky... No dates of course, not because I've drank too much of either... Ahem.

Summer Wine Brewery are a brewery I've been chatting to (well, James at least) on Twitter for ages, along with reading their blog, without ever actually getting round to trying their beers. Probably a bit rude of me really but they seem like nice enough guys so hopefully I'll be forgiven!

So here they are, a brace of slightly out of date beers, which like I said means that a proper review isn't really fair, so feel free to ignore it. But of course there's a but...

First up was the lovely looking cherry-red 'Rouge,' described as a Red Hop Ale. There's loads of big hops on the nose, lots of toffee-apple and pine resin. On the palate it is bitter, and if the bitterness has been diminished because it's a couple of weeks out of date then it might well take your head off when it's in its prime! Lots of grapefruit pith but with an elegant finish that doesn't scrape your tongue, rather leaving you wanting more. 5.8%, £2.70 for a 33cl bottle.

The curiously named 'Surfing Monk' was next. A 'South Pacific Belgian IPA.' I was tempted by the sound of Kiwi hops with a Belgian twist... It poured a pale amber, and promised a little less on the nose than the Rouge. It was lighter in body, and more citrussy than the Rouge too, balanced nicely between all that lemon and grapefruit pithyness and the spicy, yeasty 'Belgian' angle. A terrific beer, big hops but with complexity too. 6% abv, £3.15 (33cl)

Funnily enough, the one I had while it was in-date was my least favourite, the Barista Espresso Stout. Don't get me wrong, it was good, but not outstanding like the other two. Next time I'll be checking the dates, because if this is what they're like when they're past their best I can't wait to try them when they're in their prime!

NB: Prices quoted are from Ales by Mail.

Edit: I've just remembered that Ade from Summer Wine is on Twitter too.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Nottingham Kilchoman Tasting with Peter Wills

This is a post I wrote for the Whisky Shop's W-Club blog, but I thought others might be interested in having a read. We had a tasting hosted by Peter Wills from the Kilchoman distillery, Islay's newest distillery.

Kilchoman was set up by Peter’s father Anthony, who had previously worked as an independent bottler. Due to issues trying to get hold of good stock as a bottler Anthony decided that the best route to ensure a supply of good whisky was to make it himself. Peter got involved from the age of fifteen, learning the ropes early when he wasn’t contributing to distillery ‘teething troubles’ by watching the Six Nations instead of making sure the old wood-fired kiln wasn’t burning down six months into the project! Islay was a natural choice because of family roots, and it meant they were already connected with a huge established tradition of whisky from the island. Back when the last Islay distillery prior to Kilchoman was built there would have been over a hundred distilleries on the island, albeit mostly on a tiny scale. All the raw materials were there to make whisky, but it’s peat that defines the industry on the island. After all, since the island is mainly peat bog, there was nothing else there to burn!

Kilchoman goes back to these grass roots of Islay distillation. It’s built in a farm building, and for the first of the whiskies we tried all the barley is taken from the farm too, and the whole lot is matured in warehouses on the island. I think it’s fair to say that Kilchoman’s 100% Islay is the expression that represents the company the best, as pure an expression of Islay as is practically possible. All the farm-grown barley is malted on-site at their own floor malting, and peated to around 25 ppm. It’s all bourbon cask matured giving a whisky that is full of fresh, ripe honeydew melon, light citrus and sweet tropical fruit which all complement the peat beautifully.

The peating levels put the 100% Islay right in the middle of Islay’s whiskies. The other three we tried, because they are distilled from malted barley bought in from the Port Ellen maltings at around 54 ppm, are as peaty as Ardbeg, at least in terms of the raw materials. So moving on to the Machir Bay meant the peat was cranked up a few notches. Like the 100% Islay this was the second edition. It’s a vatting of four and five year old whiskies finished for four weeks in sherry hogsheads. Once again it’s quite a light whisky, but less creamy and malty than the 100% Islay. The sherry finish does give it a bit more weight to support the extra peat, and there’s less of the melon fruit than the 100% Islay.

From the outset, working with whisky consultant Dr James Swan and later with experienced ex. Bunnahabhain manager John MacLellan, a light, fruity dram was what James Wills had in mind. So it was through working with these experts that the Kilchoman recipe came about. It meant that the shape of the built-from-scratch still (tall, with a reflux bulb), cut length (5-55 min) and level (68-72%), along with mainly ex-bourbon maturation were all tweaked and geared towards the lightness that I’ve mentioned before. What wasn’t quite so planned was the expensively made to measure bottles weighing in a little too heavy and pushing any postage up a Post Office weight bracket! The original £1.5 million investment had to be turned into three times that, through a combination of cask and futures sales, generous friends and family, and venture capital from less-likely sources such as Domino’s Pizza.

The last of what is planned to be the core whiskies, the Loch Gorm, is a departure from the bourbon cask norm, in that it is matured in a mixture of hogsheads and butts that have previously contained oloroso sherry. The result is an expression with a lot more nuttiness and dried fruit spice. Kilchoman’s independence means it is free to experiment, hence when the first Loch Gorm was hugely successful they could easily introduce it into the core range. While there are no plans to go to the cask experimentation levels of someone like BenRiach I don’t think they’d ever say never, and there are apparently casks quietly maturing that have previously held Port and Sauternes as well as the ones they’re using for the core range.

This leads us on to the last whisky, a single cask offering selected for The Whisky Shop by Darren Leitch. It’s bottled at cask strength and the cask provided just 260 bottles. I found it quite closed on the nose, its 61% abv meant that the alcohol kept things somewhat under wraps until you got on to the palate, but once you do it explodes with all those lovely fresh tropical fruit wrapped up in sweet peat smoke, which goes right through to a superbly clean, briny finish. 61% alcohol and moreish? While it’s potentially a dangerous combination, it is certainly an enjoyable one. With the addition of a little water the nose opens up and it shows some of the citrus and pear that you get with the first two expressions.

Finally we had a bit of a try of the new make spirit; Kichoman before it becomes whisky. At cask-strength rather than how it comes off the still, it has yet to integrate the fruit, although it is still quite noticeable underneath the herbaceous core that mellows as it becomes whisky.

It was fantastic to hear the stories Peter had to tell about the various trials and tribulations of opening Islay’s newest distillery. They certainly had their fair share of growing pains, but now they’re in a position to be commercially sustainable, they look like being here to stay, although you might not want to visit when England are playing Scotland in the rugby.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Wine & Whisky: Oloroso Sherry

I'm in the process of putting together a series of posts about whiskies and wine casks. It's a nice little bit of revision for me, particularly since my fortified wine diploma exam seems like a lifetime ago now! Rather than straight tasting notes on whiskies I'm going to talk a little bit about whisky casks' previous inhabitants, the wines whose character will bring about a change in the whisky's personality, and see if I can detect how the wine has affected the whisky in some examples.

Ex-sherry casks are the most widely used casks in the whisky industry behind those that have previously held bourbon. The Macallan in particular forged a global reputation off the back of some incredible sherry-matured whiskies, but other distilleries such as Aberlour and Dalmore owe a lot to a somewhat unfashionable wine from the south of Spain.

Wine character is generally a product of the viticulture of the region it comes from, it's why wine is said to exhibit a sense of time and place, far more than a less terroir-influenced product like whisky or beer. The climate can drive the vinification process - Champagne as we think of it would probably not exist if everyone had been happy drinking the region's acidic, austere table wine. Marco de Jerez is at the other end of the climate scale from Champagne; it's hot, and the grapes ripen with low acidity and high sugar levels. The most commonly grown grapes are of the white Palomino variety, but don't expect to find this as a varietal wine on the supermarket shelves next to the Chardonnay - these grapes have a very different fate.

The Wine: Oloroso Sherry. The first thing to get your head round with Oloroso sherry is that it is a white wine. In terms of whisky this is a bit odd, one of its most desirable characteristics being the generous colour that ex-Oloroso casks impart (think Aberlour A'bunadh). The reason this 'white wine' is no longer white is simple; it's oxidised. In the same way as the flesh of an apple that's been cut open and exposed to the air will turn brown, the juice of the grapes has turned brown. It is this oxidative ageing process that makes Oloroso sherry so individual a wine.

Vinos Generosos, the dry wines of Jerez, are made from Palomino grapes. The must is fermented, racked and the sobretablas are analysed and earmarked to become one type of sherry or another. They are then fortified to different levels depending on the type of sherry required. The wines selected to become Oloroso sherry are fortified to 17-18% abv in order to kill off the flor, a layer of yeast that forms when the wine settles that would otherwise protect it from oxidising. The 'preferred and most common' wooden cask for the crianza (ageing) process is a 600 litre American Oak 'butt' - oak has been imported on the return journey ever since Spain started exporting wine to the Americas centuries ago. About 3-5% of the wine per year is lost through evaporation - the angels, it seems, like a sherry as an apéritif before their whisky. Sherry's ageing process involves a solera system, which again provides a whisky link, since Glenfiddich use a similar arrangement to age their 15 year old from their core range. It's a slow process, the sobretablas are placed in a row of barrels, where space has been made by removing mature wine out of the row at the bottom, and moving no more than one third per year down at once. Over the years the wine becomes oxidised, and turns into something very different to the white wine it started as.
Dry wines (Vinos Generosos) Oloroso: Amber or mahogany in colour, this has strong nutty (hazelnut, walnut) bouquet with toasted, vegetable, balsamic notes evocative of noble wood, Virginia tobacco and dry fallen leaves, and spicy, animal notes suggestive of truffles and leather. It is full of flavour and very structured in the mouth, the noble wood notes creating an elegant dry finish. 17-22% abv, less than 5g/l sugar.1
I was up in York the other week and I had a glass of Alfonso Oloroso from Gonzalez Byass before my dinner at Ambiente. It's not something I've had very often outside of doing wine exams, but I really enjoyed how different it was, a tremendously complex wine for the price, well worth trying!

The Whiskies: Dalwhinnie 15 & Dalwhinnie 'Distiller's Edition'. Dalwhinnie is one of Diageo's 'Classic Malt' range, all of which have a 'Distiller's Edition' counterpart which are aged in a range of different casks. Dalwhinnie's extra maturation occurs in Oloroso sherry barrels, for an extra year, but the questions I'm trying to answer are 'What difference does it make?' and 'What characteristics of the whisky can be attributed to the sherry?'

The whiskies are noticeably different in colour, the Oloroso finished expression being that much darker than the original. On the nose the 'regular' Dalwhinnie is all creamy vanilla and honey. By way of contrast the Distiller's Edition seemed more complex, with the honey intertwining with golden syrup, and the vanilla giving way to almond notes. Moving on to the palate and the 15 is full of sweet malt, it's phenomenally smooth, like a rich malty drinking chocolate. There's a whiff of smoke on the finish but nothing to rock the boat, everything works in harmony! The Distiller's is an entirely different animal, it still has some of that sweetness but with a harsher mouth-feel. You definitely get the green-apple and balsamic tang from the sherry through the mid-palate. The finish has more sooty smoke, like burnt toffee. Tasting these two in parallel does somewhat highlight a difficulty. Dalwhinnie really is a very good whisky at 15 years so it begs the question as to whether it needs an extra year in a sherry barrel? Obviously that's a moot point, and not really the point of this article, but I personally would stick with the regular 15 year old.

Deanston 12 (distillery bottling) & Deanston 12 from The Whisky Shop's Glenkier Treasures range. Another highland pairing; both the same age but one is entirely bourbon cask and the other sherry finished. There is still plenty of scope for the distillery character to come through even with different maturation methods. On the nose I got hay, cream and porridge, with more wood on the sherry matured version. On the palate I got honey again, spice; ginger, liquorice, herbs and peel on the palate. The sherry cask matured was more spicy (clove), with more of a burnt note and a sweeter almond finish, the extra sherry-oakiness complementing the creaminess nicely in the finish too, while the distillery bottling keeps a depth of character at the same time as maintaining a lighter touch, and a faint whiff of smoke.

Some great whiskies, and a shockingly under-rated wine category, although I do get the impression that Sherry is coming back from the brink. Since the regulations now mean that all sorts of 'sherry' that was really nothing of the sort can't get away with spoiling the wines' reputation, hopefully it will carry on making a come back. Next up, more sherry in the form of a personal favourite; Pedro Ximénez.

Oloroso sherry image taken from, and reproduced with the permission of, the Consejo Regulador Jerez website all about sherry. Well worth an explore.

1. Various Authors. The Big Book of Sherry. Regional Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Department of Publications and Dissemination.

Friday, 5 July 2013

What’s the Big Deal With IPAs?

I've not done a session post for ages but this one hosted by Justin over at Justin's Brew Review appealed! Justin's wondering what the big deal is with IPA?

For me modern hop-forward American-style IPAs bridge a gap. They are a beer you can drink on a hot summer's day that quench like a standard big-brewery lager but actually taste of something (however unsubtle) even when served cold - by which I mean colder than you'd serve a cask beer. They are also a convenient way of getting round 'that' question. The conversation which could go something like:

A: What's 'craft beer' when it's at home then?
B: Well it's kind of micro-brewed beer that's not necessarily governed by things like it having to be served in a certain... Oh, you know what...  Just have a Jaipur.


A: Bloody hell!
B: Yeah, that's the hops...

But most of all. I just really like them. I don't care if they're 'real' or not. I don't care if they're trendy. In fact I think that's great - it means they're more widely available which means I get the chance to drink them more. I don't care if people who probably get far more opportunities than me to drink them are bored of them, or if the hipsters have moved on to the next big thing. I just really like them. I also like more traditional British IPAs, and pretty much every other sub-style I've tried so far, so long may IPA rule!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Another Day in York

This is a continuation of the last blog post I did which was in danger of getting a bit too long, but since most of the places I went to in York deserved a mention it seemed wrong leaving any of them out entirely!

Pride of place for the day had to go to the magnificent beer selection in Pivni. I could probably have spent the whole afternoon in there but as it was I had to be content with a glass of De Molen Citra. This was a great single-hop IPA, really beautifully light without too much overbearing tropical fruit character, erring more towards the lemon and grapefruit end of the IPA spectrum, which I felt worked well with the lower (4.8%) abv.  If you are a beer fan and find yourself in York, then Pivni is a must visit, although if you come by traing I'm guessing you may find yourself stuck in the station. York Tap or York trap?

More wandering after lunch saw us ending up in the shop part of Trembling Madness, yet another beer paradise, and saw me leaving clutching a couple of carrier bags full of beer, including another El Dorado single hop beer, tying in nicely with the one I had at York brewery. More on those to follow. I also managed to pick up another sample of whisky, this time a spicy 13yo from Braeval, courtesy of Vom Fass. I'll be writing that one up soon too.

We had our evening meal at El Piano, something of a spread out chain - with the others being in Granada and Málaga. Good as the food had been so far this was the best we'd had. The variation in flavours that they managed was fantastic, and I had a meal that was 90% sourced from within 30 miles. Since I was in York I felt I had to revisit an old favourite from back in the lost days of my youth, I had a bottle of Black Sheep with my dinner. It's a beer that's quite common nowadays so probably not worth my input since I'm sure most people have tried it, but have a look at Matt's piece over on his blog, a great story (sort of) about the beer.

So that was York. It had been so long since just the two of us had some time away it was great to make the most of it in a friendly city that really fit the bill for us. Great food, great drink! I'm not sure where the next destination will be but it has a lot to live up to.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

A Day in York

My wife and I had a couple of days up in York last week. Due to the kindness of grandparents being willing to babysit we were well and truly able to indulge ourselves with lots of great food and, of course, drink.

Pretty much the first port of call was Goji café, for a great burger and an Elphin Brook. Even given the wide choice of places to eat and drink in York we ended up going back to Goji the next day too, giving me a chance to try the Mytholm Mist Helen had the day before.

York brewery is well worth a visit, nestling nicely within a few minutes walk of the city centre. I popped down after lunch to do a brewery tour and it wasn't until I walked in that I realised I'd been there before. When I ran a pub for Castle Rock we'd had a day out in York and we called in there since the two breweries had a connection from way back in the set-up days of York brewery. The liquid accompaniment to the tour was a half of York Gold and one of El Dorado. While I was at the brewery I heard a rumour there that Jaipur was on tap at The Old White Swan, which made a post-meal drink location an easy selection. The lack of Jaipur was potentially a disappointment but it was made up for by the presence of Roc Fall, a new Thornbridge beer for me.

Whisky cravings were sorted out courtesy of Demijohn, the 'liquid deli' where I picked up a wee sample of 15 year old Clynelish which I am very much looking forward to trying - more to follow on that one! I also had a nip of an 8yo Caol Ila to ward off York's notorious ghosts.*

We had our evening meal at Ambiente Tapas bar. Ambiente is a modern, fashionable, sort of bar, and I thought the emphasis on sherry to accompany various parts of your meal was a real plus - I opted for an Oloroso as an apéritif, and while I was tempted to indulge in a PX with (or maybe just as) dessert I resisted in favour of the excellent white Rioja we still had on the go.

* My theory of whisky warding off ghosts remains unproven. However, since I wasn't harassed by any, I am going to carry on drinking it, hopefully to continue the protection. You can't be too careful after all.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Brodie's 'Dalston' Black IPA

The colour is as you'd expect although the head was darker than many black IPAs I've had before, with a tan hint that made it look a bit more like an imperial stout. Some black IPAs don't really get off the ground with the 'dark' side of their nature, but this one balances the roasty chocolate and liquorice notes really well with the 'lighter' IPA elements of tropical fruit and citrus pithyness.

Another fantastic introduction to a brewery that's new to me, and another brewery that's on the list of 'must try more' from.

7.0% abv. I got this through Ales By Mail although I'm not sure how much I paid for it since it seems they're out of stock at the moment. 33cl bottle.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

A Couple of Days in Scotland

I had a couple of days up in Scotland this week. Unsurprisingly whisky featured rather heavily. I didn't do in-depth tasting notes, but here's the ones I tried and any thoughts looking back:

Bruichladdich 1990 (20 yo) Chateau Margaux Cask. Not as heavily wine-influenced as I thought it might be but beautifully smooth and you hardly notice its hefty 50.2% abv.
Compass Box 'Great King Street.' A rather good 'aperitif' blend.
A very clean, extremely smoky Ardbeg 17yo from Cadenhead's. I think this one was from the 'Authentic' collection, bottled at 55.7%.
Ardbeg 1976. This was a lot more earthy than the Cadenhead's bottling. I didn't have a lot of information on this one but it was absolutely superb.
Benromach 10. Steady Speysider.
Two Cask-strength Bowmores, one at 12 and one at 17 years old. They were quite different, the second showing a lot more citrus fruit which surprised me since it was the older of the two, but both were lively and fiery.
Longrow 14. I was, somewhat heretically, on Kelburn's excellent Pivo Estivo by the time we got to the Pot Still, home of the whisky drinker's dream come true back bar (pictured above) but I did a have a cheeky sip of a friend's peaty Springbank.
Isle of Jura 21 yo from the Glenkeir Treasures range. Almost ethereal it was so light.
Isle of Arran Sauternes Cask. I enjoyed this one, great sweet lemon sherbet flavours coming through from the wine cask.
Compass Box 'Spice Tree'. I think the best was the '76 Ardbeg but for the money I thought this was brilliant, and it's one I might go for in the future since by budget doesn't stretch to seventies Ardbeg bottlings!

I'd also recommend the Chaophrya Thai restaurant on Buchanan Street in Glasgow. Good food in a really beautiful setting.

Whisky. A LOT of whisky.
My stay up there was all too brief, although a chance meeting meant I did get a quick look at the Claive Vidiz collection at the Whisky Experience in Edinburgh. By way of contrast my journey back was unfortunately far too long because I was sitting on the train for an hour and a half, looking at the Angel of the North, waiting for some points to be fixed. I began to wonder if the Angel was doing it on purpose, maybe wondering where its share of all those whiskies was?

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Glenfarclas 2003 Whisky Shop Exclusive

I don't usually pay that much attention to design and packaging, or at least I don't think I do. Or maybe I just like to think I don't. Maybe the people that do the designing of the packaging know that there are people like me that like to think that they don't pay attention, and they are sitting there (possibly in a large leather-covered swivel chair stroking a cat) feeling pretty smug knowing they entice 'people who don't pay attention to packaging' into buying well-packaged products day after day. These people have degrees in things after all... Mwahahahahahahaha!

What was my point? Well this all goes back to a conversation I had the other week about Glenfarclas 105. It's a cask-strength sherry-monster, rather like the Aberlour Abunad'h - which is one of my personal favourite whiskies from back in my Oddbins days... and I've never tried it. I couldn't really put my finger on why - after all it ticks all the whisky boxes for me, being powerful and rich with oodles of sherry cask influence. I wondered whether it might be the packaging. I've had Glenfarclas 10 on occasions and while it's a perfectly decent whisky it doesn't really grab me by my sherry-loving palate and make me want to try the rest of the range. The it struck me that it might be the labels - they're just not really very... anything. Not bad, in the way that things can get bad, particularly when it comes to beer, just... uninspiring.

In the interest of regaining my faith in myself for looking beyond the packaging I tried the Whisky Shop's exclusive Glenfarclas 2003 vintage. It's similarly labelled to other Glenfarclas, but if it's not in disguise it's definitely a plain clothes operation because, wow, what a whisky! It's got a sugared almond/marzipan nose, the sherry influence coming through much more than the ten year old expression. It still retains its youthful exuberance though, and on the palate the venerable sherry dances with the speyside fruit, sultanas, demerara sugar and a touch of vanilla spice.

Next stop I think will have to be the 105, now I know the packaging is just a cunning ruse from the nice guy in that chair over there. Wait, that's not a cat... Argh, my throat, get it off me!

Note: Although I got to try this whisky through work, I'm only writing about it because I really enjoyed it rather than some sort of work promotion!

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The Wild Beer Co. 'Madness' IPA

Twitter drove me to drink! Well, this one in particular. With the huge number of new breweries that are springing up in the UK at the moment many must get lost in the white noise of the internet. The Wild Beer Co. seemed to have no such problem, I had heard about these guys on Twitter and various blogs a long time before I had a chance to try the beer... and I really wanted to try the beer. There's always the danger that breweries can't live up to the expectations that you might have of them, and of course the greater the expectation, the greater the chances. Wild Beer Co's beers certainly look the business; simple, powerfully eye-catching design urging you to get drinking, but what about the beer?

On popping open the bottle you're assailed by mouth (and almost eye) watering pine and pith hop aroma, which is I'm sure what gave that deer that expression on the bottle. It's just what you want from a summery American style IPA. It runs the full gambit of citrus fruit, they're all in there; lime, clementine, grapefruit. The finish is superbly clean, the dry bitterness cleansing the palate of all that citrus-sherbert goodness and throwing you into the next mouthful.

I could probably go on... Did I enjoy it? Well, I put in a well-overdue beer order this morning and I ordered pretty much everything else Ales by Mail had from Wild Beer. I suppose they lived up to the expectation.

6.8% abv. £2.88 (33cl) from Beer Ritz.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Compass 'Torp'

I had a brief discussion on Untappd about this one from Compass. It went along the lines of 'I didn't like it' and me saying that I did. I can see why it might divide opinion. I was persuaded to buy the last two in the shop since it wouldn't be replaced.

In fact I think it even divided my own opinion, if that's at all possible. When I first started it I definitely wasn't sure, the sour 'off' notes were almost too much, but when they dissipated into a pleasantly moreish, sherberty finish I was convinced. There's a herbal, metallic edge to it, and I picked up coffee in amongst the sour, pithy orange. All in all it's quite a flavour clash, and even looking back at my notes I'm not sure how it works, but for me, it did - which is why I ended up with the last two.

7% abv, £2.95 (33cl) from The Flipping Good Beer Shop.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Adnams Broadside & 'Spirit of Broadside'

My latest half-and-half expedition featured Adnams Broadside and 'Spirit of Broadside', which  is a beer eau-de-vie rather than a whisky.

Just to explain the technicality a little. This isn't just a whisky that is at a very young stage, although at one year old it hasn't aged as long as a new make spirit would have to be in order to be legally classified as whisky. In addition it is made from distilled beer rather than distilled ale. A key word here is ale, which is technically not flavoured with hops (ale flavoured with hops is beer) and although nobody would claim that Broadside is the hoppiest of beers on the market it is very much a beer,* and hops being an ingredient means that even at an older age it still won't become whisky.

So what we've got here is a bit of a different animal, it's not whisky for the reasons I've outlined above, but if you're going to put it into a broader spirit church then it's got to be whisky's cousin rather than gin, vodka or rum for example. In terms of assessing the quality (as opposed to saying whether I enjoy it) I think it's fair to look for similar quality indicators as you'd look for in a whisky - complexity and a smooth texture which continues on to a finish. At such a young age that might be unfair but you would expect smoothness and a pleasant finish from any quality spirit, and at the price it's got to be thought of as being in that bracket.

As for the original beer? I think it's fair to say that 'English Strong Ale' is a style that I don't generally go for, I often find the sweet malt a bit too much and prefer something with more of a hoppy bite. That said, Broadside is one that I do enjoy, a ready alternative to a big stout as a winter (or, as seems to be the case, late spring) warmer. It's a comforting beer, dense, ruby coloured and brooding. There's lots of rich fruit cake in there; it's a brandy-soaked Christmas pudding of a beer. Its sweetness means it's one to linger over rather than quaff, which is probably a good thing since it weighs in at 6.3% abv. Its distilled brother is a beautiful burnished copper colour, perhaps reflecting the stills it was created in. It genuinely reflects the flavours of the beer, but with a real lightness that makes it really fresh. Its relative youth works in its favour - it's no big, menacing sherry-monster. There's a sharpness on the nose, fresh green apple and some stewed pear. Unsurprisingly on the palate there's a lot of sweet malt, and Bourbon-like vanilla, but it's generous and smooth without that feeling of it needing a few more years in cask that I've had with some new release/young whiskies. I'm not going to claim that it has the long finish that you pay good money for with a decent malt, but it is genuinely different and it's perhaps not even fair to mention that since it stands up as a spirit on its own - or in this case to accompany its namesake.

Given earlier that evening, after being lulled into thinking warmer weather was finally upon us, I'd got caught in a hailstorm and soaked to the skin, this was a great warming combination.

Broadside and Spirit of Broadside are both available from the Adnams website for £19.99 (for 12) and £32.99 (70cl) respectively, although I picked up a couple of Broadsides for £3 on a Waitrose deal.

* Unless it's served on hand-pull, then it's a 'Real Ale' but I'm not even touching that debate with a very very long barge pole.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Arbor Ales 'Single Hop Series: Motueka'

I saw this one on Beer Ritz's list last time I did an order and had to go for it. Despite the only other beer I'd had from Arbor to date not being that successful I had heard great things about them and thought they warranted a second chance at least. The other reason was that Motueka (near Nelson on the south island of New Zealand) is a place with good memories for me; it's where I filled an ambition of mine to learn to skydive. I wasn't very good at it (although, clearly, not fatally bad) and skydiving is something I'm sure my wife is pretty glad I got out of my system. Along with the whole 'overdid watching Point Break as a kid' thing the holiday in New Zealand revolved a fair bit around wine and wineries. I'd not long started work at Oddbins and the bright, gooseberry fruit of NZ Sauvignon had grabbed me (and in my wine classes many novices since) and got me realising that there is no mysticism to describing flavours in wine (or beer or anything else) it's far more about practise, and enjoying the process. I started to learn the different flavours that come even within one grape variety, and learned that all NZ Sauvignon Blanc isn't just about super-ripeness and tropical fruit, indeed I preferred some with more restraint, with a citrus tang. So, Motueka the hop. Biased? Most probably, but there's nothing wrong with going into something hopeful of a good experience.

It's light, with an elderflower note on the nose. On the palate I got a touch of flour but lots of grapefruit and lime with a grassy finish. All in all a great quencher, and great to get all those lovely fresh hop flavours out of a beer at properly sessionable strength. Much as I love those moreish American style IPAs at 6%+ I think I could drink more of this without it hating me! It's got that old 'sunshine in a glass' thing that New World wines are so good at (even if in part they are trying to shake it off as an image). More citrussy than tropical; just as I like 'em.

4.0% abv. £2.75 (50cl) from Beer Ritz.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

A Mystery Whisky (That Wasn't)

A woman came into the shop where I work looking for a particular bottle of whisky the other day. She didn't know the name although she had the empty* bottle in her handbag. Since it wasn't something I was familiar with and I don't read Japanese either I couldn't really help her very much. She said she really wanted to get hold of some more but didn't even know what to put into a Google search to start trying to find it since everything on the label was in Japanese.

So I offered to attempt to use the magic of the internet to help, and there was a race. Twitter and its randomness versus email, which kind of seems a little bit old fashioned now!

After half a dozen re-tweets Twitter, in the shape of Bob French, came back with an answer:

Further information came from Adam Matheson in the form of a blog post on the Shōchū in question.

Maybe it's a case of 'it's not what you know, but who you can tweet'? Many thanks to all the people that re-tweeted and to those that took the time to have a look and solve the mystery. In terms of old vs. new, Twitter was quicker but Tatsuya, the Suntory whisky ambassador, also came up with the same answer - one shot, one goal - it might be old fashioned but it still works.

* If there had been some left in the bottle this whole thing might well not have happened, given it looks like a clear liquid!

Friday, 15 March 2013

Hegarty Chamans 'Cuvée 1' Minervois 2004

Back in early 2005 I started working for Oddbins, the once mighty high street wine retailer.* Remember high street wine retailers? They used to exist before the supermarkets took an interest in wine and squeezed them out, and were a great way for people like me with no castle/expansive cellar/butler to learn about wine. Anyway, plenty has been written on the subject and I'm not here to gripe about the unfairness of it all.

Hegarty Chamans, as I've mentioned before, was a favourite of the then assistant manager of the first Oddbins I worked in, a guy who taught me an awful lot about wine in the best way possible - drinking it with me. All this time later and I'm through four levels of wine qualifications, and I'm now officially allowed to put letters after my name to, as my mate put it, 'tell people I know things about alcohol.' This seemed an ideal wine to celebrate going from being a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed wine adviser (sort of) who knew absolutely nothing about wine to bagging myself a WSET diploma; which means I now know how little I really know.

Apart from all the sentimentality this is a lovely wine, I really like the rustic, herby Southern French style, they're a real demonstration of how you can get depth of flavour without over-ripening or a reliance on pure power. On the nose there's lots of red and black currant, and on the palate it's got a lovely herbal olive tapenade flavour.. Velvet-smooth nearly a decade after the vintage.

I paid £9.99 for this one back in 2005, which really was a bargain at the time. A more recent vintage is currently available in the UK through Adnams for £15.99.

* To give them their dues, Oddbins seem to be doing all right for themselves down south, albeiit on a smaller scale from when I started. Beer selection to be applauded too, according to London types on Twitter (Matt, drinking Rocky Head Pale Ale and London Fields Brewery Black Frost Stout to be precise).

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Sierra Nevada 'Northern Hemisphere Harvest' 2012

The other day I got a little paranoid about freshness of hops, probably ably assisted (if that's the right word) by the lovely folks over at Aleheads.  I have a tendency to end up with lots of IPA knocking about and really ought to get them drunk. I know, it's such a chore. The paranoia is not helped by codes rather than 'born on' or 'best before' dates. Although at least with this one you know roughly when it was made I guess, what with it being the name of the beer.

Anyway, to stop myself lying awake at night worrying about the ticking away of the glorious hop flavours in my cellar I thought I'd get this down me.

As if to reassure me from the off, it pours a beautiful burnt orange colour, and rather than the attacking hoppy nose I was half expecting from an American IPA at this strength (6.7%) it was actually quite restrained, more fruit (mango and passion fruit) than pine and pot. On the palate? Well if the name 'Sierra Nevada Northern Hemisphere Harvest Wet Hop Ale 2012' is a mouthful then I suppose that reflects the beer. The tropical fruit aromas don't sink into a fug of sweetness; there's a crisp grapefruit pith note to balance the sweeter fruit in there, allowing the malt to come to the party and give the beer some weight. The finish is clean, bitter-sweet and suitably moreish. For me this is really a great beer, nothing too overdone, allowing complex rather than shouty flavours. Try it young and fresh. I think.

But hang on, what if I actually quite like the hops to be a bit more mellowed with age? I won't sleep easy until the next IPA fix now, wondering if my next bottle might not be quite mature enough.

6.7% abv. £5.88 (71cl) from Beer Ritz.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Tasting, Objectivity & Edradour

It used to happen all the time back in my Oddbins days; people used to come in asking if we stocked the amazing [insert wine X] that they had on holiday. The chances are we wouldn't stock it, but every now and again we did, although people would occasionally come back having drank the bottle they bought from us suggesting something had been lost from the wine. All of a sudden on a grim day back in the UK some of the lustre just wasn't there.

The photo on the right is of the wine estate where my wife and I got married. I've not tried the wine since, but I'm reasonably sure it won't taste as good in Nottingham as it did in the Tuscan sun.

In my current role 'Wine X' has been replaced by Edradour in that it seems to be the holiday maker's whisky. If you do a quick Google image search it's not hard to see why paying the distillery a visit would leave you with some fond memories. A look at the reviews on The Whisky Exchange and you'll understand what I mean; many of them are about the distillery rather than the whisky. It's interesting that what sticks in people's minds when I ask them about it is that it is Scotland's smallest distillery, especially since it isn't any more!* I remember having tried Edradour a few years ago, having had quite a few customers at the shop I was working in at the time say how much they'd enjoyed it (and the distillery visit) and I wasn't overly excited about it. Not good, not bad (in my experience single malt rarely is) but just... OK.

As I've suggested before, I think that taste is always affected by the circumstances of the tasting. Given a different situation a 'real ale' reviewer can find himself extolling the virtues of a beer most Camra stalwarts would avoid as being one of the very beers they exist to campaign against, were it on tap at their local instead of Heineken etc. It's probably stating the obvious, but objectivity is a really difficult thing. Think about whether you'd prefer good beer in a truly horrible pub, or average beer in a pleasant pub atmosphere? While the beer's quality is not intrinsically affected by the surroundings it sure as hell affects you, the drinker. Even if you are reviewing a bottle from in front of your monitor at home, the type of day you've had has to affect how you feel about whatever it is you are drinking.

If all this sounds a little superior then I apologise, it's just a few thoughts as to why I am re-trying a whisky I've had before and not been that fussed about. I don't live my life in a bubble any more than the next person, and so I am not claiming to be any closer to objectivity than the next person. Indeed, the very fact that I've written several paragraphs of pre-amble before getting stuck into the stuff suggests I'm not, but I'm going to have a try anyway! If you've lasted this long then I hope you'll bear with me.

The Whisky: Edradour 10

This is their 'entry level' malt. On the nose there's a honey note and a waft of something more floral. The palate is creamy and it flirts with a nutty sherry note but doesn't really come through, almost announcing itself then disappearing. The finish is ashy and bitter, almost astringent. It's definitely not my cup of tea, but even aside from my not finding it particularly to my taste I don't really understand why it is such a sought after whisky. I'm not a huge fan of Ardbeg and Laphroaig, but I can see their appeal, this, I'm not so sure. That said, they're a small enough operation to be flexible, and if some of the other expressions are different I can see why visitors might well be seduced.

Maybe what I really need to appreciate this is a trip up to the Highlands? If anyone wants to help a donation (or a volunteer to drive) would be gratefully accepted. However don't be surprised if a slight diversion leads to some Blair Athol 12yo Flora & Fauna being picked up while I'm in the area - rumour has it that it might not be around for much longer.

Sample bottles are available from Master of Malt for £3.91.

* Both Dallas Dhu and Abhain Dearg are smaller, at 65 000l and 20 000l capacity respectively. Edradour is listed at 90 000l capacity. Statisitcs are from the Malt Whisky Yearbook 2013.