Christmas Booze Roundup 2009

Christmas is traditionally a time of over indulgence and I am far from being someone who wants to buck tradition (any excuse). There may have been turkey, pies, bologneses and casseroles over the festive period, but much more importantly there has been booze. Here’s what I’ve been drinking:

Beer

My friend Mr Utobeer came through for me again, after an unplanned drop-in while wandering around Borough Market with Mondoagogo a few days before Christmas, and added to my bottle of Orkney Dark Island Special Reserve (left until after Christmas so as to be shared with people who love nice beer more than my family). Other than some bottles grabbed as a present for someone (as my order from Brewdog hasn’t been sent yet as they haven’t yet brewed one part of it – a bottle of the second batch of Tactical Nuclear Penguin) I also grabbed, and have since drunk:

Harviestoun Ola Dubh Special 40 Reserve: I tried the 16 a few weeks back and discovered at the same time that they now did a beer matured in a 30 year old Highland Park cask. Then I went to the SMWS last week and was informed that they also do a 40, which they had a couple of bottles of at obscene prices. Then I found one at Utobeer for the scary price of £7.60. The verdict – much like with the 16 year old it wasn’t all that impressive. It was a marked difference from the younger barrelled beers, with more of a woody whiskiness than before, but still not worth the cost in my opinion. A really nice heavy dark beer still.

Brewdog Paradox: Isle of Arran: They may not have sent me my beer yet, but I still like the Brewdog chaps. And their beer. This, to continue a theme, is another whisky cask matured beer (Innis & Gunn have a lot to answer for) and one that I’ve tried before. I rather like the Arran distillery, producing some of my favourite SMWS whiskies as they have, and I really liked my last bottle of this that I tried. This one was slightly disappointing – not so influenced by the wood as the last one, but still a really good dark ale with more fruit and less vanilla than the Ola Dubh.

Home BrewMy Mate Nick’s Homebrew: Mr Martin, cow-orker and ginger bearded buddy extraordinaire, has recently started brewing and after discussing what he was doing to make his beer presented me with one of his first batch of bottles. I left it to settle for a while and then cracked it open on Christmas Eve. It was rather lively, needing several glasses to pour out into without overflowing with meringue-like head, and in true bottle conditioned fashion was quite sedimenty at the bottom, requiring some care in the pouring. It was very very dark and quite sweet – a definite hint of black treacle without quite so much of its burnt taste. I suffered none of the ill effects that homebrew is famed for and I also rather enjoyed it. The fluffiness and sweetness suggests that maybe it was bottled a bit early but it wasn’t the worse for it. I look forward to brew number 2. Hopefully I’ll get some more…please?

Wine

Realising a few days before Christmas that you have visiting wine loving parents and no suitable bottles on the shelf was a mild concern, as I’m a very lazy man who doesn’t like carrying things back from the supermarket. The nice folks at Naked Wines jumped in to save me with guaranteed Christmas Eve delivery if I ordered by 5pm the day before – I ordered at 4:45. The next afternoon the slightly harassed looking delivery man turned up, dumped my wine and ran away quickly – I think there were a few people who had the same idea as me. Anyways, combined with a few bottles contributed by my visitors I definitely have enough wine now, although still only 3 spare slots on the wine rack.

Milani Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (Naked Wine, Italy): My first out of the box and grabbed to match a spaghetti bolognese. I quite like Montepulciano and this was slightly disappointing – quite rough, although it did soften as it aired, without as much fruit as I hoped. However, a couple of glasses went in to the bolognese sauce and the rest of it went down quite nicely with dinner.

Vicien Syrah 2007 (Naked Wine, Argentina): Rolled into service when the first bottle from my case ran out prematurely, this was really quite good. A nice full Syrah with a good amount of fruit that got better as it breathed. I stoppered it and finished it the next day and it was still very drinkable.

Howcroft Estate Limestone Coast Merlot 2006 (Tesco, Australia): Grabbed from my step-dad’s wine rack due to the word ‘turkey’ being in the ‘goes with’ list on the back, this was a nice light Merlot, full enough to battle with the dark turkey meat as well as not being too strong as to drown out the (admittedly dry) white meat.

Hardy’s Varietal Range Shiraz 2008 (Sainsbury?, Australia): Another donation from the visitors, this one isn’t quite done yet, opened to provide some lubrication for dinner part 2 – the christmas pud (delayed until evening to allow some digestion of lunch to occur). It definitely needed some time to breathe, having a harsh edge, but it quickly softened (especially when poured through my newly acquired wine aerater [thankyou Dave’nLet] which worked much better than we had imagined) and was a nice, spicy, fruity wine, complimenting the pud better than expected.

Whisk(e)y

I’ve had a Christmas uncharacteristically light on whisky, despite a trip to Milroy’s a couple of days beforehand. I stopped by to try and pick up a bottle of rye to make the Manhattans that my mum had demanded via SMS (she had already bought cocktail cherries specially) and found that they were out of everything but a £180 per bottle Rittenhouse. I turned that down and got upsold when I tried to buy a 70cl bottle of Buffalo Trace, coming away with a 1.75l bottle (with free julep cup). I also grabbed a bottle of 15 year old Glencadam, having liked the SMWS bottling I picked up a couple of weeks back. The Trace is a solid bourbon, smooth enough to go either in cocktails or be drunk on the rocks (something that I’ve done a bit too much of since picking it up). The Glencadam is interesting – similar to the production Arran whisky in a way that I didn’t expect, with a fizzy icing sugar start, but also with a thick wedge of rubbery niceness running through the middle. It seems that I subconsciously do know my taste in whisky and Arran and Glencadam slot into it.

I used Glenfiddich instead of brandy to ignite the Christmas pud – the fact that I consider Glenfiddich to be cooking whisky when not too long ago it was one of the best whiskies that you could expect someone to have on their shelf has been commented on. It is cooking whisky…


Anyways, a vaguely restrained christmas that should continue to be restrained through new year – I’m on call on New Year’s Eve and don’t feel like lugging multiple bottles of whisky down to Shoreham-by-Sea (where I’m going for a party), but I’m sure someone else will look after my boozey needs…

Slim Jim’s Liquor Store

Slim Jim's

While wandering in the wilds of Islington the other week, trying to find things to fill the time between work and a gig (by the mighty A, supported by some people I don’t remember and the rather good Stars of the Search Party) I did a quick search on the Randomness Guide to London and decided to try out Slim Jim’s Liquor Store.

One of the things I really like about the US is the overwhelming feeling that bartender is a respected profession. Over here, for the most part, working in a bar is merely a stop gap or work considered to be almost unskilled, but on the other side of the pond they consider the job almost a calling and often work to make themselves great bartenders. We get professional barmen over here (my brother is one, even if he is currently splitting his time between standing behind a bar with the standing on the other side that we call ‘being a student’), but it’s a lot less common and this makes me a sad panda.

Anyways, this being an american styled dive bar I thought I might be in with a chance, and I was pleasantly surprised. The barman was obviously in for the long haul and the light smattering of customers at 7pm leant it a vibe that I’ve felt in some of my favourite dingy drinking dens in the US – a businessman with a Martini, a couple of beardy guys with a brace of beers each and a couple of people chatting conspiratorially in a booth: it was what I was looking for. I propped myself up at the bar and had a riffle through the drinks menu – other than the beer taps, bottles of spirits on the back bar and a seemingly random array of empty beer and soda bottles on a high shelf (which I’m sure they can’t have had all of, but they may have) there are no drinks on display as they have rather brutal looking metal fronted fridges. With a quick run down the cocktail menu I settled for my cocktail of choice at home – the Manhattan, at about £6.50. It was at this point that the cracks started to show. I will admit that it was not a bad Manhattan, for one where the bartender forgets to add bitters, one of the only three ingredients and slightly disappointing after the menu specifically mentions Peychaud’s being used rather than the usual Angostura. It was quite pleasant but missed that very slight spiciness that the bitters bring to the mix.

I decided to move on to whiskey, as they had a fairly good selection. I’ve recently discovered that I quite like the different taste of rye whiskey, so after having some of the standard Rittenhouse Rye in my Manhattan I decided to go for the Rittenhouse 100. It was nice – quite smooth and quite definitely a rye. It came in at £3.60 a shot as well, so not too bad.

While I sipped I had a look over the rest of the menu and started to become dismayed. Their scotch selection was quite good, although their spelling of the whisky names wasn’t, with 5 of the 17 choices in the ‘Single Malt and Scotch’ section spelled incorrectly. I can understand “Bow More”, but “Ruichladdich” and “Johnnie Walker Balck”? It got even worse with the american whisky section – titled ‘Bourbons’. I know I’m slightly pedantic on such things, but for a whisky bar to lump Rye, Tenessee and Bourbon whisky all under the heading of Bourbons seems more than slightly careless and doesn’t inspire confidence in the knowledge of the bar staff or owners. The cocktail section does seem to be fairly traditional though, with simple old versions of most of the recipes, rather than reworkings claiming to be ‘the original’ as I’ve found in a bunch of places.

As I sat there shaking my head in slightly pretentious shame the next bout of customers walked in and I understood why the barman, and his newly arrived buddy, looked so down. 3 or 4 couples walked in over the next 15 minutes and all asked the same question – “What wine do you have?”. Each time the barman explained that as a whisky and cocktail bar they didn’t have much of a selection, but that didn’t stop each new punter asking if he had specific wine that he obviously didn’t. Each time someone harrumphed and ‘made do’ with whatever wine he actually had I could see him die a little inside. I settled up and while I finished up my drink both barmen disappeared downstairs into what I assume is the kitchen and didn’t come out until I was leaving. Poor boys.

In visual atmosphere it was just right, with a stack of bottles behind the bar, low lights (with a candle moved closer to me by the barman so that I could read my book), a few neon signs, some AC/DC banners, stools at the bar and booths around the edges. On a decent busy night I suspect it’ll be quite a nice place, especially later in the evening, but on a quiet evening with Islington drinkers not entirely getting the place slowly destroying the barman’s will to live it’s not so good. And they need someone who can splel.

Harviestoun Ola Dubh 16 Special Reserve

Being a whisky fan as well as a lover of scottish beer (of which there are increasingly more and more good examples of) this jumped out when I heard it was appearing – a Harviestoun beer matured in casks that had previously held Highland Park whisky. The SMWS got a few bottles in for general consumption, as I missed out on a ticket for their tasting, but they only had the “basic” Special Reserve 12, matured in casks that had held 12 year old whisky. Finally, after hints of the existence of the older casked beers (and an offer to negotiate for the sale of a couple of bottles from one of the lovely barmen at The Draft House) I found some at Utobeer this weekend and grabbed one – the Harviestoun Old Dubh 16 Special Reserve:

Ola Dubh

I may have grinned a lot on the way home as I’d picked it up for only £4, a chunk less than I thought I’d pay for the most exclusive of their releases, and managed to hold off on its sampling for a couple of days. The beer that they mature in the barrels is similar to the Harviestoun Old Engine Oil (Ola Dubh is allegedly scots for Black Oil), a thick black beer that lives up to its name, and it comes out the other end of the process with a definite change. There’s not the big I WAS MATURED IN A WHISKY BARREL kick that you get from Innis & Gunn, but there is definitely a sweetening influence over the flavour of the Old Engine Oil.

The beer is thick and dark with a malty sweetness and slight smokiness. It’s strong, at 8%, but doesn’t taste it, slipping down worryingly easy, but it has that strong bottled beer catch at the back of your throat. The head in the picture is a bit deceptive as the beer is only slightly fizzy, with a stout like bubble, and quite silky in the mouth. Overall though it doesn’t do much more than the 12 year cask matured version, which from memory I think tasted very much like this. It’s quite a tasty beer, but not one that I’d go out of my way for over the 12 year or a regular Old Engine Oil.

However, on checking the round-the-bottle-neck booklet it seems that my guesses on the editions of the beer were wrong – they offer a 12, 16 and 18 (although the website suggests the 18 has been discontinued in favour of a 30, which has been added to the watchlist). The omission of the 14 fooled me into thinking I had the highest cask age beer, but it seems that there is at least one further for me to find. Never mind, it’s quite an enjoyable search.

Harviestoun Ola Dubh 16 Special Reserve
Dark ale matured in Highland Park whisky casks. 8%
Limited availability. I got mine at Utobeer in Borough Market

Rubber Truncheons, Scotch and Eggs

swms-dec-2009

A while back I bumped into Laissez Fare at a wine tasting and I quickly admitted that I didn’t really have much of an idea about wine. However, in an effort to pull back my boozey reputation, I started rambling about the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, my tongue slightly loosened by the magic voodoo wine that we had been tasting, and he mentioned that he wouldn’t mind learning some more about whisky. I promptly forgot about this until last month’s Blaggers’ Banquet, when I both briefly bumped into Mr L-F again as well as going on about my love of scotch at great length at Mark of FoodByMark, who also expressed an interest in learning more.

And thus was a plan formed.

Each month on the first Friday the SMWS release a number of new whiskies, and in order to promote them they do an open tasting on the Wednesday before. Despite having been a member for a couple of years I’ve never made it along to any of their tastings, so with Christmas approaching, my whisky cupboard emptying and two whisky neophytes expressing an interest I thought it was time to change the state of affairs. So, with a friend of L-F, who happens to work with a bunch of my former uni-mates, which was quite random, the four of us assembled at the SMWS for some whisky.

The society open tastings are very informal affairs. Basically, you turn up as usual at the tasting rooms but are given a piece of paper (as seen in the above piccy) on which you write down which whiskies you’d like. You give it to the bar staff and they then give you whisky, and at some point in time a big plate of cheese. This appeals to me on a number of levels. Rather than filling in the list all in one go and letting the bar staff tell us which order we should be drinking things in, we went for the more reactive route of choosing things and then trying to find things less or more strongly flavoured from there on.

A quick word about the SMWS – they select individual casks from the various distilleries (not all in Scotland – I need to return shortly and try a couple of drams from Yamazaki and Hakushu in Japan. The Hakushu looked especially interesting, coming out of the bottle almost black and with a stickiness that intrigued me) and then bottle and sell them at cask strength. They don’t attach a distillery name to their bottles, instead using a numbering scheme of distillery.caskNumber – for example the 125.29 that I started the evening on. While they don’t officially provide a list of which distillery matches up with which number the staff know and there are a few places on the web where you can grab a list (including my own rather simple page that I Instapaper‘d onto my iPhone). The official reason is that the distilleries don’t want their names to be directly associated with these potentially very different expressions which might change expectations of their stock whiskies. The real reason seems to be that it adds a layer of mystery and exclusivity. I like mystery and exclusivity.

As mentioned, I started off with a 125.29 – a Glenmorangie. There are only 126 malt distilleries on the societies list, so Glenmorangie is a fairly recent addition. I’ve seen a few since I joined, including the bottle I received when I did, but haven’t tried any of them. Being a fan of standard production Glenmorangie (and a satisfied visitor to their distillery), I thought I’d kick off the evening with it. It was pretty much what I expected – a straight down the line, medium-full bodied highland whisky. From my notes: Spicy sweet, but with a distiinct burnt sour finish. Vanilla and wood. Water calms the burn, reveals boiled sweets. It was a nice start to the evening – not heavy enough to break my palate so early, but also not overly light. A good solid dram.

I then moved on to a probably ill advised choice, but with my preference generally being towards the heavier whiskies one that made sense – 14.17, a Talisker. As can be seen by the low distillery number and low cask number (they are both assigned in order) the society doesn’t get many whiskies from Talisker and being a fan I’ve been waiting for one since I joined. From my notes: Sea and smoke. Honey, vanilla and lavender with water. Short and to the point – this is very much a Talisker, with the hints of the sea and slab of smoke that implies. It had a chunk of smooth sweetness behind that as well, with honey joining the normal woody vanilla. A very tasty dram. I chatted with one of the barman about it and he expressed his disappointment, a sentiment I can understand – with so few whiskies appearing from Talisker he had expected something very special. As it was he, and I, just got a very good whisky – nothing different or special, just a tasty dram. Disappointing but in a good way.

Ham Hock Scotch Egg

With the whiskies clocking in at full cask strength, 57.2% for each of my first drams, it was decided that maybe a break for some dinner would be a good plan. The SMWS London rooms get their food from The Bleeding Heart, which they conveniently sit above. The Bleeding Heart is known for being a rather good restaurant and the SMWS bar food satisfies their reputation. My companions had fish & chips and burgers but I decided to go for one of the smaller dishes – a ham hock scotch egg with homemade piccalilli. I’m only a recent convert to the joys of piccalilli but am a bit of a scotch egg obsessive, eating them as a standard snack as well as seeking out special ones (such as the excellent ones produced by Andy of EatMyPies that I grab on a weekly basis from Whitecross Street market). This was up with the best – a tasty ham hock coating, with firmly adhered breading (my only complaint about Andy’s) and a slightly runny egg. The piccalilli was an excellent accompaniment, just sharp enough to cut through the egg as well as being tasty to eat on its own with a spoon…

On to dram 3 – 3.150, a Bowmore. Bowmore are one of my favourite distillers – they know what they do well and keep doing it well. They do big smoky, sweet whiskies with a fairly big kick to the teeth. However, the description on this one suggested it was non-typical so I though it deserved a try. From my notes: Smoke and rubber with salt and seaweed. Water brings out sweetness and lemons. The big difference here was the saltiness – there was a distinct slab of the sea-saltiness that I really love in whiskies and this ticked all the boxes. A touch of water opened it up, adding a citrusy flavour that I hadn’t expected and that worked rather well.

Swiftly on to my next – 19.43, Glen Garioch. I tried the standard production Glen Garioch (pronounced ‘Glen Geery’ according to the website) a few years back when I picked it up on offer while passing through Heathrow (the presence of a branch of World of Whiskies in the terminal may influence my choice of airline…) and it was a fairly boring but tasty highland whisky. The description of this one intrigued me and it was definitely not what I expected. From my notes: Sweet and spicy with linseed oil, salt and a touch of smoke. Rather than the normal spicy sweetness I expected I got a rather complicated whisky with distinct layers of flavour – normal sweet and spicy leading into a spicy oily centre taste and trailing off with a whiff of smoke. Not my favourite of the night, but definitely interesting and one that I may have to try again.

Cheese Plate 2 (Compressed)
Picture by Laissez-Fare

At this point our cheese appeared. The society does branch out a bit from whisky, with bourbon, port, sherry, brandy and wine all appearing on the menu, but they also know how to choose a cheese. We had a cheddar, a heavily smoked, a goat, a runny sheep and a blue cheese. Being a cheese wuss I avoided the blue and tried and disliked the goat, but the other three were quite excellent and definitely a good thing to protect us from further whisky consumption.

Onto my final dram of the night – 82.18, a Glencadam. I chose this one based on a sniff of one of my companions’ drams and the description, and I’m happy I did. I’ve not tried anything from Glencadam before and only knew the name as one on the list of distilleries that the SMWS bottles from. From my notes: Thick caramel sweetness with a centrepiece of rubber. Water dulls the intensity but leaves the flavours almost intact. This was good. For a fan of sweet whiskies as well as rubbery ones this came in as almost my perfect whisky. Only my already very heavy bag stopped me from grabbing a bottle on the spot (the cheapest of all the ones I’d tried, at £40) and I suspect that I will be returning to the society soon to grab a bottle, hoping that the Talisker and Glenmorangie will distract everyone long enough that it won’t sell out.

Anyway, a successful trip and something that I may have to repeat. All I need is drinking buddies…

SMWS New List December 2009 Open tasting – members tickets £25, non-members £35. Includes five 25ml drams of whisky from the new list (2 days before everyone else gets to try them) and a plate of cheese.

The Whiskies:
125.29 – “A Garden Breakfast Dram”
12 years. 57.2%. 280 bottles.
Glenmorangie

14.17 – “Earth-shaking and Eye Watering”
20 years. 57.2%. 202 bottles.
Talisker

3.150 – “Air Freshener in a Parrot’s Eye”
18 years. 55%. 260 bottles.
Bowmore

19.43 – “Morning Dew in a Pine Grove”
19 years. 53%. 244 bottles.
Glen Garioch

82.178 – “Rubber Truncheons and Bargepoles”
11 years. 59%. 771 bottles.
Glencadam

My drinking buddies are all, of course, on twitter: @foodbymark, @laissezfare, @iron_mart

Cantillon Gueuze

I seem to have a habit of being introduced to beers by other people and this one is no different – Cantillon Gueuze.

Cantillon Gueuze

I had a large bottle of this brought back for me by former flatmates (and now landlords…) Dave’n’Let, who listed the brewery tour and Gueuze museum as one of the highlights of their relatively highlight free weekend break to Brussels. Despite not being the biggest of beer drinkers pretty much every one of the good things about their holiday involved beer in some way, which has moved Brussels slightly further up my ‘European Cities To Visit’ list.

Cantillon is a spontaneously fermented beer, as proper Lambics are, meaning that instead of using a nice yeast culture it just sits around in vats waiting to be infected by the wild yeasts of the area. The gueuze is made up of a blend of beers of various ages, combined and then left for a secondary fermentation in the bottle, giving quite a different taste.

Flavourwise it is sour. Very sour. The trademark of gueuzes is this citrusy sourness and this is an excellent example. It’s almost entirely unlike what you generally think of as a beer flavour, with a strong lemony citrus and no sweetness at all, but there is a hint of the white beer floweriness behind it all, reminding you that it really is a beer. It’s not as dry as some gueuzes I’ve had and while not sweet it does have lots of fruit, with lemon, sour orange and grapes all in the mix. It’s still my favourite gueuze and while there are less extreme examples that might be better to start on, it’s a good one for those wanting to see what gueuze is about.

Cantillon Gueuze
From Brussels, Belgium. 5%
Limited availability as the brewery is quite small – this one came from Utobeer in Borough Market

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier

There are certain beers that I have quite serious troubles describing. “It’s like a regular Fuller’s beer but with porridge in” (Fuller’s Red Fox), “It’s like a glass of really hard water, Soda Streamed with the finest bubbles ever created and then magically turned into a lightly flavoured lager” (Kasteel Cru), “It’s like someone has shoved a spike up your arse, tied your lips together and then punched you in the stomach” (Dogfish Head 120minute IPA), “It’s like someone has dipped an apron string in some shit and drawn it across the back of your tongue” (A pint of very off £1 a pint beer at a Wetherspoons in Hexham) – these are beers I have successfully described, to some extent. However, I still have troubles with this one – Schlenkerla Rauchbier:

Schlenkerla Rauchbier

As with many of the random mainland European beers that I’ve tried, I first found this at a beer festival, with it being jammed into my hands by a very enthusiastic chap at the Ealing Beer on Broadway festival a few years back. I’d heard of rauchbier from some of my more continentally versed compatriots and was keen to try the mystical ‘bacon beer’ that they described.

The beer is brewed in Bamberg in Germany by the Brauerei Heller, although my looking online suggests that most people simply refer to them as the Schlenkerla brewery after their brewpub in the centre of town. The beer’s distinctly smoky flavour comes from the smoked malt, dried over open fires burning beech logs. They have three varieties of smoked beer, also serving a weizen and a bock, as well as an unsmoked helles (which I tried by accident this year at the GBBF – it was rather nice, with a hint of smokiness to it that Wikipedia informs me is due to the brewing process happening in a building surrounded by smoky malt), although the Aecht Rauchbier is the only one that I’ve found in the UK with any regularity. The smoking of the malt used to be a side-effect of the drying process, before kiln drying took over in those places where drying the malt in the sun was not quite as regularly possible as needed, and Bamberg is one of the last places that use the flavour as the distinguishing mark of the local beers.

Flavour-wise it’s quite an eye opener – a dark, lightly carbonated beer that is quickly overwhelmed by flavours of woodsmoke. The smokiness lingers and tends, in my opinion, more to the sweet end of things with hints of sweetcorn in addition to smoked ham and maltiness. It’s definitely more savoury over all, but with a vanilla edge at the back of the tongue. The thing that surprises me most is its lightness – while it’s not a crisp lightly flavoured drink, it’s definitely lighter than the heavily smoked smell and flavour at first suggest. It reminds me of the crispness of Asahi Black and some of the flavour of Budvar Dark with a can of corn (drained) blended in. I suspect that with its strong flavour but lightness it’d compliment food well, adding a distinct extra element to similar flavours in stews and casseroles heavy enough to battle the smokiness. Just the sort of thing they serve in The Schlenkerla in Bamberg…

I found it on tap at this year’s GBBF, after my accidental grabbing of the Helles, and while it wasn’t poured from an oak barrel as it is in Bamberg it was fantastic – less fizzy and thus with a slightly thicker and heavier taste. Both my drinking buddy and his dad took home beermats with my drunkenly scrawled “Schlenkerla” on, promising that it was on their list of things to keep in the fridge. It’s most definitely not for everyone and not one for all night (unless you’re in Bamberg), but as an occasional treat it’s filling, tasty and strangely moreish.

Aecht Shlenkerla Rauchbier
Smoked beer from Bamberg. 5.1%
Available from specialist beer shops and some branches of Tesco – list available on their website
I got mine from Utobeer in Borough Market

Old Fashioned

I never used to be much of a fan of the cocktail, equating them all with “screwdrivers” in my head – booze and some kind of mixer that had ideas above its station. However, over time I started to realise that there was a bit more to it than that, all thanks to one drink – The Old Fashioned. It was the first cocktail that I actually thought through and decided made sense, and while I’d like to be able to claim that I got it from an aged tome on cocktail making that had been passed through the hands of my family it was actually out of the back of one of Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks. It was either written or inspired by Dick Bradsell, who I have heard mentioned many times alongside great cocktail making, so that at least makes me feel slightly better.

Here’s a video of my chubby hands making one:

This is just the most simple version of the drink that I’ve heard of – bitters, sugar syrup, booze, stir with ice. The ice dilutes the booze and the sugar and angostura provide a spicy sweetness to fill in the gap that the watering down process makes. I’ve tried it with various different spirits over the years, but generally stick with whiskey and golden rum – my standard version of this is with Mount Gay rum, although I’m using Buffalo Trace whiskey here (as I had some in the house). After years of having this as the only cocktail that I would drink, and only at home, I ended up in Sosho Match for a friend’s birthday and started chatting with the barman about them – 2 hours later my mate was trashed on Hong Kong Phooey Reloadeds and I was a convert to the way of the cocktail – I had a Manhattan and a Martini in front of me and I wanted to know more.

I’m still quite conservative with my cocktail drinking, sticking to predominantly booze based drinks (such as the aforementioned Manhattans and Martinis, which are really just variations on a theme), but am keen to learn more. My occasional accidental interaction with the staff at cocktail bars (I’m looking at you Match Bar West End – who knew that telling me about Sazeracs could lead to me getting a night bus home on a Sunday..?) continues to aid in this pursuit.

Unfortunately, despite being such a simple drink, and probably in part due to it being so, there are occasional bar tenders who feel the need to spice it up a bit. The addition of an orange peel garnish flamed over the glass is one thing, smashing up some fruit in the glass before mixing is another, but when my drink turns up with a distinctly pinky tone and a shifty looking waiter then finding out that the ‘House Old Fashioned’ includes ‘sweet pomegranate’ make me hang my head. We call that ruining whiskey with grenadine in my house…

Anyways: simple base drink, easy to add things to (orange and cherry seem to the be popular choices, along with tweaking the type of bitters) and good for most sweet-ish booze you have hanging around. My favourite and the start of my cocktail conversion.

Buffalo Trace Straight Kentucky Bourbon
Bottled at 45%. Chill filtered…
Wide availability (I got mine from lovely Mr Waitrose)

I rather like Buffalo Trace. Mainly because it has a buffalo on the bottle, and because they make the finest whiskey in the world (George T Stagg) but also because I quite like the straight bourbon. It takes ice well, which is how I drink my bourbon, unlike JD (which has a rather hollow taste once the boozey hit has been taken away) and Jim Beam (the boozey hit hides the pain of the actual whiskey flavour), and it’s also about the same price as those two supermarket standards. It’s a bit rough for making Manhattans, in my opinion, and probably a bit too rough for making Old Fashioneds, but it’s a good sipping whiskey and I normally have a bottle in my cupboard.

Music and a Peacock

Technology has inexorably moved on since the last time I took the time to run my cd collection through a computer, and with my recent purchase of a shiny new machine I decided that the time has come to start the CD ripping dance again. I’m a couple of weeks into the rather mammoth task and have hit on a pile of singles, something that I generally avoid these days (what with my limited storage space due to having too many CD singles…), and a couple popped up as relevant.

I’ll skip over the currently processing disc, Oasis’s Cigarettes and Alcohol (the opening half of my first band’s first set, accompanied by The Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar), and proceed directly to the slightly more random track – Last of the Big Time Drinkers, by Stereophonics. There was once a time when Kelly Jones didn’t wear a silly hat on stage and the band didn’t strut quite so much, and back then they had a fantastically raw sound with a stage presence that suggested that bigger things were just down the road. The song doesn’t really glorify drinking, more point out the glorious lifestyle of the late night drinker who has pride in his work, but fewer brain cells after the weekend is done. It’s also rather a good tune. The live version on my More Life in a Tramps Vest EP is a top performance, but all I could find online was a bunch of covers and a Glastonbury performance from when hats started appearing. It’s still a good’un though:

Accompanied (responsibly) by:
Arran – The Peacock
Single Malt Scotch Whisky
12 years old (distilled 1996, bottled 2009)
1 of 6000 bottles
Limited availability (I got mine from Royal Mile Whiskies in London)

A fairly light dram compared to some of the more fruitcakey whiskies coming from their SMWS bottlings, but not overly delicate. Icing sugar and fruit to start followed by honey, vanilla and a hint of banana on the finish. There’s also a bit of the malty saltiness that I enjoy in their single casks, although it’s nicely rolled in with the rest of the flavours. A more refined version of their regular 10yr old and worth a try.

Compass Box Hedonism

Compass Box HedonismFor my first proper post I thought I’d start out as I probably will be going on – with a whisky.

Compass Box are a whisky company known for their blending skills. Blends have got a bit of a bad name in recent times, but until the late 70s the concept of single malt whisky was fairly alien to most people. The standard blend that you see hanging from an optic is a load of cheaper grain whisky doctored with some single malts to create a hopefully tasty whisky. While many single malt fans turn their noses up at them there are a few good’uns, but Compass Box’s fare is something quite different. John Glaser, the man behind the blending, is known for his skill at bringing together whiskies to make rather special bottles and I’ve been meaning to pick up one for a while.

They change the available whiskies quite often, making the blends in small batches, but Hedonism is a name that has recurred pretty much constantly since the first bottling. Each batch is different, but as far as I can tell working towards a similar idea. There is normally a conceit behind each whisky family that they put out and Hedonism is no different – it’s made of grain whisky.

Grain is normally considered the poor cousin to the malt whisky that most people drink, mainly used for blending, but, as I’ve discovered recently through the Scotch Malt Whisky Society‘s single grain bottlings, it is not always the case. One of my introductions to non-blended whiskies was with grain when I unknowingly picked up a bottle of Black Barrel as I wandered through duty free shortly after entering the world of work and disposable income – I rather liked it and was quite shocked to find that it was made of ‘inferior’ materials.

According to the website Hedonism is made up of between 8 and 15 different grain whiskies, generally matured for over 20 years, and this definitely shows up in the glass, albeit with a delicate flavour. Colour-wise it’s quite light and yellow, contrasting from my initial preconceptions that it would be a dark and sticky dram. On the nose it’s quite poky, with a hint of the back of the chem-lab, with pear drops and a hefty slug of alcohol. Without water it’s quite strong, feeling more than its bottled strength of 43% and tastes quite different to a regular malt – it’s sweet but with a lingering bitterness and a light rubbery taste creeping around the sides of the tongue. A drop of water definitely helps it in my opinion, knocking off some of the burn and opening up the sweetness into its component parts, but emphasising the quite sour and bitter aftertaste – icing sugar fading to fisherman’s friends, with a hint of woodiness. I didn’t get much of the toffee promised on the website, but such is the problem of small batch bottlings – sometimes you get one that is at the extreme end of the flavour range.

All in all this isn’t really a whisky for me – it’s quite delicately flavoured despite its alcoholic kick, missing out on the big mouth feel that I normally go for, and the finish is definitely on the bitter side for my liking, which the lighter whiskies I enjoy don’t tend to. It’s interesting and I can see similarities between it and the other grains I’ve tried over the years, but in the end they chose the flavours that I’m not all that keen on. If you’re a big fan of rubbery whiskies and are looking for something more delicate then this might be something to look at, although be wary that each bottle you find will probably taste different.

Update: This one’s been wearing at me for a while, as I’ve changed my mind a number of times – I don’t quite agree with my final thoughts any more. Firstly, I’ve tried Hedonism in a few other places now and it’s always been the same, the differing batches isn’t something that I’ve heard from the rather solid production line of Compass Box, however it seems my tastes are not – from day to day my opinion on the whisky changes, with the flavours I don’t like one day being my favourite the next. It’s still not one that is definitely for me all the time, although the Hedonism Maximus is definitely something I need to try more often, but when I’m in the mood it’s really very nice.

Compass Box Hedonism
Blended scottish grain whisky
No age statement (generally over 20 years)
Bottled at 43%
Widely available – I got mine in Waitrose.

Blaggers’ Banquet – The Drinks

Blaggers' Banquet

I’ve already written about the inaugural Blaggers’ Banquet over on my other blog, but as I was a barman I thought I’d post something here about the cocktails we banged out during the evening.

Firstly, due to the donation of a case of Sipsmith Vodka and Gin, we acquired a bottle of vermouth (later complimented by the bottle on the bar at Hawksmoor when we ran out), some lemons and olives, and made Martinis. All the bar staff had, as is tradition, a different idea of what made a good Martini, and after some customer interaction most people seemed to slide under the table, pleased.

Gin/Vodka and tonic doesn’t really count as cocktails in my head (along with ‘Screwdrivers’ – just because you give it a fancy name doesn’t jazz up the fact that it’s vodka and orange) but as we were using Fever Tree tonic they were slightly different to normal. I’m a big fan of tonic water – I’ve got 3 litres of it in the fridge at the moment, the only carbonated drink therein, and I drink it on its own, untouched by alcoholic beverage. When I’m not drinking booze when out, tonic or orange and tonic is my drink of choice, and for years the only one I’ve been able to drink is Schweppes. I think it must be baked bean syndrome – if it’s not Heinz then they don’t taste right – as while I rather liked Fever Tree it wasn’t Right. Schweppes made be full of aspartame (a substance that makes me feel ill in any other drink than tonic or, randomly, Lilt Zero) but it has a certain bite to it that was softened out in the Fever Tree tonic, relegating it to a worthy second place in my heathen brain. It did make an excellent gin and tonic though, especially when combined with my OCD wiping of lime on the glass and other ritualistic G&T construction. A special thanks goes to @degs123, who later in the evening announced to all and sundry that I made the best gin and tonic in the world. Even when we ran out of gin and switched over to vodka…

Next up were our three cocktails:


Picture by Mark of FoodByMark

Cornish ‘Champagne’ Cocktail

What:
1 cube sugar
1 teaspoon of quince liqueur
1 glass of Chapel Down sparkling british wine

How:
Combine in the order above. Serve. Simple…

I didn’t get a chance to try one of these, but having tasted the ingredients separately (including popping a sugar cube) I’m suspecting they combined together to form a very sweet Kir Royale. I don’t really drink fizzy wine (formerly due to it giving me headaches, these days due to me being an unappreciative heathen who it’s wasted on) but the few people who braved the cornishness seemed pleased.

Black Velvet

What:
1/2 a glass of Chapel Down sparkling British wine
1/2 a glass of Curious Brew Admiral Porter

How:
Combine, trying not to make it explode everywhere. Wine then porter should help, if the porter’s cold, but it generally exploded everywhere.

A take on the Guinness and champagne black velvet and another I didn’t get a chance to try. I did manage to blag a few bottles of the porter on the way out and it was a rather nice dark malty porter that I think would have gone well with the wine. However, it was very lively and if it’s not very chilled then there is distinct potential for porter detonation, as happened to me as I cracked a bottle on the way home after the banquet.


Photo by Carmen Valino

Blagger-tini

What:
2 shots Chegworth Valley Apple and Raspberry juice
2 shots vodka
1 shot Galliano Balsamico
Lemon wedge and basil to garnish

How:
Put ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake. Strain into a champagne coupe (or whatever vaguely fancy glass you can find in the fridge of the nice bar who are hosting you), garnish with basil and a lemon slice.

Invented just before the doors opened by Mel Seasons, this was the success of the night, polishing off the whole bottle of Galliano Balsamico (which was weird but nice and blagged by Huw Gott, Hawksmoor bossman. There may be some more up for grabs in the auctions soon…) and most of the vodka. It took several iterations to iron out the alcoholic punch to the face (ably assisted by official drink guinea pig and 1/2 of the music for the night, Julian of Georgia Wonder) and in the end it was an interestingly sweet and savoury drink, nicely complimented by the flavours of the garnish.

Anyways, the Blaggers’ Banquet fund raising machine continues, adding to the nice pot already netted for Action Against Hunger, with a set of eBay auctions for some more blagged stuff. There may be some booze appearing on there, depending on eBay rules and whether we had anything auctionable left, but as of now there’s tea at the Ritz, a visit from a chocolate van and a REALLY BIG PIE amongst other things. Bid on the shiny, you know you want to.

The bar team were me, Mel Seasons, Dan, Ben Bush, Tim Hayward and Elly