Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Flipside 'Russian Rouble' Stout

So here we are, my new blog, and of course the logical thing to write about having decided to retire my beer-specific blog is... Beer! I think now my WSET Diploma is finished my drinking will be a little more focussed on things that I know I like rather than necessarily ticking obscure spirits and the like. So expect a lots of waffling about IPA, malt whisky and Imperial Stout.

This is one I picked up from my local specialist,* the Flipping Good Beer Shop, the other day. It seems that Flipside are far from content to rest on their laurels, and while there are a quite a few Imperial Stouts on the market they're hardly what you'd call mainstream, and so I think it's great that they're prepared to have a go.

Russian Rouble is dark and brooding with a beige head. There is lots of roasted coffee on the nose with dark chocolate and autumnal fruity flavours. It's a really satisfying impy stout that draws you in and lets your mind wallow in the sweet malty warmth. If I were to be hyper critical it's a little rough around the edges, it's not quite the shiny polished article that you'd expect form Thornbridge or the like, but that's not to say that it's bad. Some might even say that it's a good thing that there's a rustic, earthy side to it. I certainly hope they carry on making it, I'm sure it's one I will come back to.

So there we are; a local beer, from a local shop, and as far away from boring brown bitter as you could wish. Result.

7.3% abv. £3.25 from The Flipping Good Beer Shop

* Yes, it still feels good to be able to write that!

Monday, 25 February 2013

A Douglas Laing Brace

Douglas Laing were a new company to me when I started at the Whisky Shop. I'd sold whiskies from the Signatory range in my brief spell helping out at Weavers, and been a customer of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society for a number of years but really that was the sum total of my experience of indy bottlers.

It was therefore quite exciting to get the chance to try a couple from their range. Many of their range are single-cask, never to be repeated whiskies, which are always great for those that are looking for something a bit different and individual without paying the real big bucks for limited distillery releases. I think it's fair to say that these are whiskies for a rather more selective market, something a little more geeky if you will, but not the collectors and hoarders so much as the drinkers. These whiskies are less about big-release fanfares, pouring whisky over Playboy models and kryptonite-encrusted bottles in sabre-toothed tiger skin lined boxes,* than whisky for the pleasure it gives to drink it.

Old Malt Cask Macallan 16

The nose was initially quite grassy, it wasn't til I'd left it to open up that I got more wood, along with a dusting of demerara sugar and juicy sultana. On the palate it really shined, lots of citrus notes and orange pith accompanied by a spicy ginger note. The finish was dry and malty.

Distilled March 1996, bottled July 2012, 189 bottles from a refill butt. Bottled at 50% abv. Not coloured or chill-filtered.

'Clan Scott' Bladnoch 17

In comparison to The Macallan, Bladnoch is a malt I know almost nothing about, especially having tried an 18 year old independent bottling of Macallan only a week or so ago. This was the first whisky I had tried from Bladnoch so I suppose expectations were governed more by regional profile than the distillery itself.

It has a greenish hint to the pale gold colour. On the nose it's grassy, with fresh hay notes. A drop of water allowed the delicate flavours to develop, I got green apple, gooseberry and lemon-meringue pie; a slight creaminess to temper the fruit. There's a slight tannic grip to the finish

Bottled at 46% abv.

Note: I tried these whiskies through work. I'd like to think this review remains free of bias however. If I hadn't enjoyed the whiskies. I wouldn't have felt the need to write about them.

* The worrying thing is that midst my hyperbole there is some truth.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Burns' Night Whisky Tasting

Note: This is a post I wrote for the Whisky Shop's W-Club Blog so it might come across as a bit 'worky.' I thought other readers might find it interesting though so here it is. Also worth mentioning that the Paternoster tasting I mention in the final paragraph has been and gone.

The Whisky Shop Nottingham's Burns' Night tasting was hosted by Colin Dunn of Diageo. Twenty years ago Colin sat the Wine and Spirits Diploma that I have just got through and it doesn't sound like he ever looked back. Before working for Diageo he worked for Suntory/Morrison Bowmore and Van Winkle. His job title may be 'Whisky Ambassador' but having met him and watched him in action that seems a little formal, he's more of a whisky showman, using his own enthusiasm and experience to act as a catalyst for the whiskies to express thaemselves. Diageo have an incomparable portfolio of distilleries; even for someone with Colin's impressive energy there's a lot of whisky to show off.

First up was the Cardhu 12. This is one of Diageo's best selling single malt whiskies* - something that might be a surprise to many when you consider big hitters like Lagavulin, Dalwhinnie and Talisker are part of their team. The reason is that it's a massive seller in Spain, where almost all of it is sold. Often it's mixed; sold as part of a long drink - it would be well worth trying as a part of the highball recipe featured in the last Whiskeria magazine - at least once we get back to summer. It's grassy, sweet, rich and moreish, with notes of marzipan and cinder toffee. A perfectly smooth dram, and one add to the list of 'whiskies to convert the uninitiated.'

Johnnie Walker Double Black is a new addition to the Johnnie Walker family, only having been released last year. The figures on Johnnie Walker sales are staggering; listening to Colin recite them is kind of like watching Brian Cox talking about the history of the universe on the television - there are some big numbers involved. Colin described the Double Black as 'Black label in HD.' The fruit and the smoke dials are turned up a couple of notches; there's extra lashings of Caol Ila and Lagavulin. Some forty or so different whiskies go into the JW blends, all married together for six months or so at the Cardhu distillery, before rolling out to all corners of the globe. Like them or loathe them blends are what whisky is to many people around the world, and Johnnie Walker is the biggest of them all. Diageo are a blending company that also release single malts, and this is their number one tool to bring whisky, and particularly in the case of the Double Black, peaty whisky, to emerging markets in Brazil, Russia, India and China. Without Johnnie Walker the single malts that we enjoyed in this tasting probably would not have survived; it's a whisky ambassador in a bottle.

Speaking of ambassadors, it's time for chocolate. Not Ferrero Rocher as such, but Green & Black's organic 70% cocoa dark chocolate - an ideal accompaniment to Cragganmore Distiller's Edition. Much of Cragganmore ends up in blends for the South American market. This, though, is the product of an experiment that led to the re-discovery of older, more traditional maturation vessels, in this case port pipes, which is what many whiskies were matured in prior to the lifting of prohibition and the prevalence of bourbon casks. It's a meaty, chewy whisky, with notes of cherry and smoke. It's not as 'porty' as I remember some older vintages being, but that's not a criticism, it really is a lovely drop.

After the turn came the Dalwhinnie Distiller's Edition, another product of cask experimentation, although this time perhaps on more familiar territory in Olorosso sherry. The regular fifteen year expression is all bourbon-cask matured  up in the highest of the highland distilleries. Around a hundred barrels a year are tweaked; given an extra six months or so in sherry casks to add an extra layer of complexity. It's nutty and silky smooth with caramel and barley sugar notes - like liquid fruit cake.

Talisker 57 Degrees North came with a challenge, and some blue cheese. The challenge was to hold it in the mouth for as long as we did with the Cardhu - and it certainly led to some red faces and deep breaths afterwards. It's a big bruiser of a whisky, the ultimate reflection of Skye's rugged landscape. Less of a whisky for dwelling on than one to fight off the winter. After a few seconds in the mouth the characteristic Talisker pepper and chilli heat explodes, and all of a sudden it feels like you are surrounded by a warming cloud of peat. Normally whiskies at (or in this case close to) cask strength are improved with a drop of water, but this is all about the power. One customer described it as 'a liquid fisherman's friend' - what more could you wish for in your hip flask than a drop of this to restore the constitution?

Caol Ila, as a single malt, is a relative newcomer, only having been available for just over ten years, despite the distillery having been around since the 1830s. Again most of Caol Ila's destiny lies in the Johnnie Walker blends, but it has established itself as one of Islay's best selling single malts. It's mainly matured in first fill bourbon casks, the honeyed notes complementing the burnt peat nose and showing off the clean, briny medicinal iodine qualities.

To finish off, Colin broke out the Lagavulin Distiller's Edition. Its secondary maturation is in Pedro Ximénez sweet sherry casks to give it a smooth, fruity quality on top of the tarry leather and thick smoke notes. This has always been a somewhat divisive whisky, but for me it's magnificent, and a perfect dessert to the evening's main courses. I love that almost liqueur quality that it has - Colin described it as having similarities with Grand Marnier.

Many, many thanks to Colin for making the trip up to Nottingham, I think everyone really enjoyed the evening and I hope we'll get a chance to meet up again. Colin is re-appearing next Friday in The Whisky Shop's Paternoster store. For those that are going, it'll be cracking evening, and I am terribly jealous. For those who are not going, if there are tickets left, cancel whatever plans you have and get yourself down there!

* At the time of the 2012 Malt Whisky Yearbook's writing  (p.292) it was the sixth best selling single malt globally and Diageo's biggest selling single.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Revolutions 'Clash' London Porter

If ever there was a beer whose packaging was really going to leap out and sell the beer to me I think this one from Revolutions Brewing Company would be it. Not that I think it's particularly state of the art, because I wouldn't know, or even claim to know, state of the art design if I fell over it in the street, but it just looks great.

Of course it could all be a ruse, a cunning trap to lure innocent people like me who think 'The Clash: must be good!' into buying a sub-standard beer. I can never keep the cynical me far from the forefront. Well, actually, maybe I can. One way to do it would be to drink beer; this one in particular, because once you get to the point where you've poured it out and the cool packaging is forgotten, it really is marvellous. Powdery cocoa-heavy chocolate, smoke and a lovely soft bitterness.

London calling? Well, it might well be, but if it is calling, Yorkshire is not only calling, it's shouting. And with beers like this, it has a lot to shout about, probably with some singing and dancing along to old vinyl, naturally.

4.5% abv. £2.84 (50cl) from Beer Ritz.

What's in an age?

I've not long started working for The Whisky Shop. I don't consider myself an expert in whisky; while I do have qualifications in wines and spirits through the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, wine is the dominant part of the syllabuses and whisky is only a part of the spirits components. Much of what I have learnt about whisky prior to working in the Whisky Shop is through working in wine retail, reading around and, of course, drinking it! So my new line of work is very much a continuation of that learning process, and it's one reason I enjoy it; I get to learn every day.

A gentleman came in a while ago asking about Jura Superstition. It's a whisky that's obviously highly regarded by Whisky Shop customers, having just won the whisky of the year award, but because it didn't carry an age statement he had his doubts. I offered a sample but it was a bit early and he declined, and so the 'proof of the pudding' adage couldn't be applied.

In that gentleman's opinion the age statement on a whisky is a vital thing. Even as a fan of Jura he wasn't prepared to buy a version that didn't carry that all important statement. This raises an interesting question about whisky in general, but to use a specific example; does a heavily peated whisky such as Ardbeg need to be ten years old before becoming a fantastic drop? Well, if a scientific sample of the rate of how quickly a bottle of their Still Young got drank round at my house a few years back is anything to go by, then it's a resounding no! It's a whisky that's all about the peat, and I would argue that a much older version, while being more expensive, may well lose that freshness and vitality that makes Ardbeg the purest expression of what Islay is all about. However, an expression that could mix that freshness with older cask character? Well, that would be a different animal indeed.

As was pointed out in a comment after a post I wrote back in October about blended whiskies, even single malts are blended, even if they're not referred to as 'blended whiskies' per se. It's becoming conventional wisdom that whiskies can be great at younger ages than ever before, and so it follows that younger whiskies can contribute an important character and complexity to a single malt. The flip side, and this is why it's interesting that sherry barrel advocates Macallan have come out and rejected age statements in their younger (below 18 yo) whiskies, is that if much of the whisky's character does come from the cask, then that point of maturity becomes crucial, because I sure as hell don't want my whisky to have 'character' that comes from caramel colouring.

The problem is one of reassurance. How can consumers be convinced that age statements aren't being removed as a short-cut, a way of getting the same money out of a customer whilst reducing costs? Well, I'd say take the time to pop into your friendly local whisky specialist and they'll let you try some to prove it one way or the other, and I'm not even going to attempt to claim a lack of bias with that one.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Otley '06' Porter

I had a bit of a rummage round in the cellar the other day, checking on what beers I had that needed drinking before I let myself loose on a new beer order. This is one from Otley that I picked up back in the 'summer' and I thought I'd better drink it since it went out of date at the end of January. I wasn't that worried about it being off - I've always liked HardKnott's attitude on that front: 'Best before - see neck... but probably even better after.' I have no experience of ageing beers, but some certainly seem far more robust than others!

It pours a deep, dark, almost black, ruby red. The head didn't stay around for long but there were lovely mocha coffee aromas. On the palate it's rich and chocolatey, with dark damson fruit, black cherry and vanilla giving way to a smoky finish. If this beer was better last week, before the 'best before' date, then it must have been truly spectacular!

Not quite so successful was the Penlon Heather & Honey beer, another I got while I was down in Wales last year. I had the bright idea of comparing it to Williams' Fraoch, but never got round to it. I'm not sure if it was because it was just past the best before date (it didn't taste off) or if it's because I struggled with the very floral tastes. There's certainly plenty of honey in the finish and it's probably worth trying if you're a fan of honeyed beers.

Otley 06 Porter. 6.6% abv. £2.94 (50cl) from the Real Beer Box - although I bought it somewhere in Narberth for a penny more! The Penlon Heather & Honey is 4.2% abv, and a 50cl bottle again, but I can't remember what I paid for it.