Brewdog Hardcore IPA

Some background – I like Brewdog1. I like them enough that I’ve even invested in them (closes 19th February) and not only because of the lifetime 20% off I now get on their website. I’ve yet to find one of their beers that I didn’t actively like and am, so far, very much enjoying the search. I’ve even ordered a bottle of Tactical Nuclear Penguin, although it hasn’t turned up yet as they haven’t made their second batch, which is one of the most expensive drinks I have ever bought. You might say I’m mildly obsessed.

Brewdog Hardcore IPA

This is the final bottle from the small stash that was meant to go to my stepbrother for Christmas – there is now a new stash for him sitting at work, a much safer place for beer to be kept and not drunk than next to my fridge. Anyways, I’m a fan of their Punk IPA (the beer that introduced me to the brewery, as given away at the first London Twestival) and grabbed this expecting more of the same – a super hoppy, crisp IPA. However, the ratcheting of the ABV up to 9% made me expect a bit more of a kick. Half of this assumption was correct. It has the kick that you expect, but instead of being accompanied by a crisp hoppiness it instead has the sweet tang of strong beer (hints of Special Brew) which almost obscures the bitterness of the hops.

The back of the bottle lists some figures about the making of the beer, ending with a “2 humans and 1 canine companion are relatively happy with the results”. I wasn’t. I really like hoppy beer and have enjoyed many strong IPAs but this one just comes across as a generic strong beer. It may be the most hoppy beer brewed in the UK, but it really doesn’t taste it.

My search for a Brewdog beer that I don’t like is complete, however they have still more for me to test and based on this one anomaly it would be churlish of me not to keep trying. I’d better get the new beer selection to my step-brother soon as I only have one bottle of Paradox left in the fridge…

Brewdog Hardcore IPA
Brewed in Scotland, 9%
One of their rarer brews, I got mine from (you guessed it) Utobeer

1: This is a vague reference to the William Gibson board that I posted to for a very short while before I became overwhelmed by the activity and promptly forgot of its existence. We all like Fuldog. This will make sense to 12 people, only 1 of whom may ever read this.

Pre-Burns Night Talisker Tasting @ The Salt Bar

I can date the beginning of my love of good whisky fairly accurately to December 1997. I’d been working in my student Union bar for about 6 months and had recently tried single malt whisky, rather than my usual foray into the spirits world of Bells and Coke, and found that It Was Good. To keep me going through Christmas I decided to splash out in rather a large way for a student and grab two bottles of good whisky. I picked up a bottle of regular Lagavulin (16 year old?) and a bottle of Talisker 10.

These days I can’t really remember the Lagavulin, other than it was fairly ballsy and I enjoyed it, but I have been a fan of Talisker ever since. So, when I saw that Chris Osburn had lined up, through Qype, a whisky tasting event with the Diageo’s chosen PR company for Talisker at a whisky bar in London that I’d not been to I may have been slightly heavy handed in my claiming to be an excellent potential invitee. It seemed to work and on Wednesday evening I found myself at Salt Bar on Edgware Road for some whisky.

I’ll write in greater length about the Salt Bar at sometime in the future, I’m on their mailing list now and it looks like they have some interesting tastings coming up soon (including a night of Bowmore and Suntory whiskies in February), so I’ll keep my general description of the bar short – it’s pretty good. They have a good whisky selection, containing the complete set of the varied Good whisky that you find in pubs as well as some interesting extras and a shelf of eye-watering expensive bottles (some bought at auction, including the £100 a shot Dalmore, which the bar manager I spoke to happily blamed Richard Paterson for), and do cocktails, tastings and an interesting selection of food. It’s well worth a look in, although I hear that the average clientele all need to be taken outside and shot for crimes against drinking.

I rounded the corner at the bottom of Edgware Road and kept an eye out for the bar, not having been there before. I thought I saw it ahead and removed my headphones only to be hit by the sound of bagpipes – it certainly was the right place, there was a piper standing outside the front door, tooting away. Rather than the small informal tasting that I’d been expecting the PR folks had decided to put on a bit of an event, with a piper, a Burns Night MC and one of Diageo’s whisky ambassadors on hand to roll the evening along.

IMGP3569 We started with an opening cocktail described as a Skye Manhattan. I’m wary of using as peaty a whisky as Talisker in a cocktail, as it’s quite an overpowering flavour, but was surprised at first how well this worked. It was made as a sweet Manhattan using a double shot of Talisker 10 and (according to the recipe I was given) 15ml of Antica Vermouth (which I’ve not seen before and is sweet, according to a quick google and a quicker chat with the very busy barman) along with the traditional dash of Angostura bitters and a pile of ice to stir it with. I wasn’t that big a fan of the drink, preferring my Manhattan’s dry and with bourbon (probably sacrilege to someone, but meh), but the orangey note from the peel garnish worked quite well with the peat from the whisky. However, peaty whisky, sweet vermouth and bitters are all strong flavours which didn’t marry well in the glass and by the time I’d reached the end of mine I was not a fan.

The event was not all about the booze – with Burns night less than a week away they decided to put on a show. So, we had Clark McGinn giving us the full Burns host bit, with the now traditional talk of Burns as the first blogger (as he stuck his writings up on gorse bushes to see, just like we spray our work onto the internet…there’s some water in it) as well as a an impressive Address to a Haggis, complete with fantastic delivery and some cutting wi’ ready sleight.

Along with Clark we had Colin Dunn, from Diageo, running the tasting of the Taliskers, and as the first burst of Burns based wisdom faded we were presented with our first dram of the night – the Talisker 10. Colin’s approach to running the tasting involve improbably precise numbers, oozing enthusiasm, holding the whisky in your mouth for a long time and a bit of hugging of grinning people.

I know the 10 rather well, but haven’t really bothered to properly taste it for a while. On the nose it’s prickly with alcohol, peat and sweet smokiness, with an undertone of the sea. In the mouth it’s similar – a punchy kick of booze with sweet peat smoke and salt. It’s a long taste and although the claims of it lasting for 4.6 minutes maybe going a bit far, it does linger for a good while. It’s not a subtle whisky, laying its cards most definitely on the table, but it’s a good’un. It was paired with smoked salmon piled crumpets, which worked quite well, although the whisky was quite overpowering compared to the more delicate salmon.

This led on to the aforementioned haggis address, complete with kilt clad piper piping it around the room, before Clark slayed it with poetry and a knife. To accompany the beast we were presented with our second dram of the night – the Talisker Distillers Edition. Matured for 10 years in oak and 2 in Moscatel barrels (although the website contradicts Colin with a claim that it’s Amoroso barrels) it’s part of a series of “Distiller’s Editions” from the distilleries that make up Diageo’s Classic Malts collection. I’ve had the Cragganmore before and for a few years (going through a phase of loving Speyside whiskies) it was my favourite bottle I’d bought, but I’ve not tried the others. It was quite obviously sherried on the nose with a lot less peat than in the 10, but still a noticeable Talisker tang. It tasted much more refined, with lots of fruit coming through from the finishing cask and a lingering smoky aftertaste to ensure you didn’t forget it was a Talisker. It’s much more reined in than the the 10 year old, and hides the 45.8% strength behind a smoothness that the 10 year old (at the same ABV) doesn’t quite achieve. A nicely balanced dram and a nice accompaniment to the haggis, neeps and tatties, happily working with the sweetness in the mash.

IMGP3601This brought us to the last dram of the evening – the Talisker 57°North. Named after the distillery’s latitude it’s bottled at 57% and holds quite a powerful punch. It combines some of the characteristics of the other two whiskies, with the distinctive salty sweet, peaty initial punch of the 10 year old combined with a more refined and smooth finish similar to the Distillers Edition. It was matched up with a good chocolate mousse which don’t go all that well – bitter chocolate dusted, dark chocolate mousse and a powerful whisky didn’t make for a good combination, although both survived the eating and drinking when taken separately. The 57°North was a favourite for many, but I preferred the slightly less over the top flavours of the Distiller’s Edition. I suspect this means I’m getting old…

With the official tasting out of the way the crowd started dispersing and more cocktails appeared – the Cool Walker (that I didn’t try, made with 40ml of Talisker 10, 15ml of Drambuie, 10ml lime juice and 10ml gomme shaken with ice and topped with ginger ale according to my menu) and a Hebrides’ Old Fashioned, made pretty much as I’ve mentioned before but with the now ubiquitous Talisker 10 as the spirit, and a honey and ginger syrup instead of simple. Being an Old Fashioned obsessive I was prepared to dislike the cocktail on principle, but was pleasantly surprised. Again, I don’t think it entirely worked, with the peatiness still coming over as quite overpowering, but the dilution, gingery honeyness and another slice of orange peel took some of the edge off and made it my favourite cocktail of the evening – a bit like a cold hot toddy.

All in all a great night – well put together by the Diageo PR posse, drinks presented well by Vamsi and his team at Salt Bar, and well compered by Colin and Clark. I suspect that some of the effort was slightly wasted on me, as I arrived liking Talisker, left liking Talisker and had a glass of Talisker when I got home while gazing out of the window at the glowing red Diageo sign that shines across the park by my flat from their West London offices, but I did very much enjoy it and it’s great seeing more companies from different industries trying to tap into the blogging market.

My camera was not being my friend, so not many photos from me, but there’s a bunch up from Chris Osburn and Kelsie Mortimer
There’s also some other write-ups from Chris and IanVisits


Talisker 10 Year Old
45.8%

Talisker Distiller’s Edition
45.8%, 12 years old

Talisker 57°North
57%, No age statement.

The first two are widely available and the latter pops up in supermarkets as well as being a mainstay of duty free.

Cantillon Kriek

It’s snowy outside, I’m home from work early as I left at lunchtime to avoid London’s broken trains, a case of beer has arrived at work containing the selection of beverages I chose for my step-brother’s Christmas present and the backup Christmas pressie beers were sitting on the side at home looking at me. What was I meant to do?

Cantillon Kriek

I quite like Cantillon, having already gushed about their gueuze on here and also (I now hazily recall) tried one of their other beers that also involved grapes after an Ealing beer festival a few years back, but haven’t got round to trying their kriek. Brewed in a similar manner to the rest of their beers in the proper Lambic fashion (left in vats without added yeast until the local yeasts jump in and make with the brewing magic) they also add fresh morello cherries. Like the gueuze this is not a sweet beer, morello are sour cherries after all, but you can definitely tell its fruity additions (and not only from the scary redness).

It smells quite fruity, with the normal krieky cherry undercurrent and the chunk of citrus that I’ve come to expect from Cantillon. When poured it’s not particularly fizzy, with a layer of sediment in the bottle to avoid, and it quickly calms down into something resembling flat, slightly cloudy cherryade. To taste it’s sour, not quite as sour as the gueuze but still quite mouth puckering, with a good taste of cherry, especially in the aftertaste. It’s very refreshing and probably more suited to a warm summer evening than a slightly pathetic London snowpocalypse, but is definitely going on my list to try and keep in the cupboard.

Reading the back of the bottle there is advice to “…drink it better in the year after purchase”. I was going to leave it in the cupboard for a year before noticing the Bottled On date – 24th October 2008. Hopefully that means I have drunk it at a correct time. That will not stop me buying more for some further ‘experimentation’.

Cantillon Kriek
From Brussels, Belgium. 5%
Limited availability as the brewery is quite small. As usual, mine came from Utobeer.

Dogfish Head 90 Minute Imperial IPA

It is common knowledge that the Americans cannot make beer, producing nothing but Bud, Coors Lite and other assorted sex-in-a-canoe fizzy yellow beverages. It is also common knowledge that all Brits have bad teeth, bowler hats and say ‘Cheers!’ at every opportunity.

I really like a lot of american beer. Outside of the mass-market brews, just as with the UK, there is a great selection of interesting things of which some are now getting big enough to get regular exports to the UK. Sierra Nevada now appears on tap in a few London pubs and bottles of Brooklyn lager have been popping up on restaurant menus for a few years. However, my mates at Utobeer (and the lovely folks at The Draft House) assist me in obtaining things when I’m not visiting the fair ‘isle’ on the other side of the sea.

Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA

I’ve tried a few Dogfish Head beers over the years, especially since my work’s US office moved to Norwalk, Connecticut, home of The Brewhouse and a branch of The Ginger Man (and not the Norwalk Virus), and they’ve all been quite pleasant. However, their X minute IPAs are the ones that have stuck in my head ever since a Great British Beer Festival that managed to get a few barrels of beer over from the US for a New England Beer festival offshoot stand. They were selling the 120 minute IPA from the barrel, something that you don’t get pretty much ever, even in the US, and it was a scary beast – it caused your entire head to turn inside out with hoppiness, something that I rather enjoyed.

Anyways, after a foiled attempt at getting a selection of tasty beers to my step-brother for Christmas (I forgot to put them in my bag…sorry Peter, there are more on the way) I decided to try one of them, so that it wouldn’t go off. Or something. The 90 Minute Imperial IPA just fell into my fridge and then into a glass. It’s nowhere near as astringent as the other hoppy IPAs I’ve tried, with a a load of caramelly sweetness sitting behind the lip curling hoppy bitterness. At 9% and 90 IBU it’s not a session beer (one is enough for now) but it is really very nice. It is very hoppy though – from the moment you open the bottle your room will be filled with a floral hoppy aroma and it lingers after you’ve finished a bottle. I like hops though, so it’s one that remains on my list.

Dogfish Head 90 Minute Imperial IPA
Dogfish Head brewery, Delaware, USA
9%, 90 IBU, 12 fl. oz. bottle
Available from specialist beer shops, I got mine, as usual, from Utobeer

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