Мастика Пещера

Mastika

I don’t travel much, being afraid of places were I don’t speak the language as I am, but my comfort zone was well and truly kicked in 2008 when I ended up in Bulgaria for a friend’s wedding. In standard fashion I used the opportunity to sample the local booze and other than some fairly average beer (I probably didn’t find any of the good stuff due to staying in a posh hotel and keeping away from random bars due to the aforementioned not speaking the language issue) and rather good Rakia my only exposure was the Mastika that I picked up in the airport – Mastika Peshtera.

I’d not encountered the stuff before and even had to look up on Wikipedia what it was before I grabbed a couple of bottles to bring back. After some wrangling with customs in Zurich (during which both bottles were confiscated, due to the Bulgarian airport staff not putting the right date on their tills and thus my receipt, and then carried through the terminal to where I was waiting once the customs guy had, unasked by me, pursued my case for keeping them with his superior. I like Zurich) I finally cracked a bottle when I got home and got my first taste.

It’s a strong, oily, aniseed spirit which is quite overpowering neat, fading quickly from an initial sweetness to a pleasantly bitter aftertaste. Over ice it opens up nicely and tastes like a bitter anise. However, the addition of water in any form leads to a strange reaction – it goes cloudy (expected) and a white solid precipitates out, sticking to the sides of the glass (not quite so expected). This grainy solid is quite worrying at first, but the effects of the drink are quick and your vision soon fades…

Other than the white gunk the most disturbing thing about this Mastika is the hangover it produces. It reminded me somewhat of an absinthe hangover, with everything seeming slightly more real, including the functioning of every organ in your body. Along with that, however, it adds all of the hallmarks of a regular hangover, making the day after significantly more painful than it might have been otherwise.

While doing some firkling on the internet to find out how a) to write Пещера in roman characters and b) anything more about the stuff, I found some of its advertising on YouTube. I’m not sure if this is standard Bulgarian advertising (I was too busy wandering around trying to find military museums to sit and watch TV), but it’s certainly a step on from our usual XXXX ads here in the UK. Warning: Contains sexual themes, a very tiny pair of bikini bottoms, music played on a Casio keyboard and men hiding erections.

I’ve now run out, having finished the second bottle last week (the bottle that I had given to a friend as a present and that he had left behind in his flat when he became my landlord) and I suspect I won’t be going out of my way to get any more. However, if a bottle crosses my path again I may still be tempted to pick it up. I suspect the memory of the hangovers will have faded by then…

Glenmorangie Tasting @ The Whisky Exchange with Annabel Meikle

I don’t make many new year’s resolutions, but I decided this year that I needed to go to more booze tastings. After last week’s Talisker evening I managed to pick up a couple of tickets to The Whisky Exchange‘s first tasting of the year – a celebration of Glenmorangie, with Annabel Meikle, their inhouse sensory expert. It was held above TWE’s shop in Vinopolis and after a swiftie (of Schlenkerla Weizen) in The Rake I met up with Anna, whisky buddy extraordinaire, and repaired to the venue.

Whisky1We were confronted with 6 glasses laid out before us and before we dug into them a bottle of Glenmorangie new spirit was passed around – whisky that was too young to be called whisky yet. I’ve only tried new spirit once before, having grabbed a couple of miniatures of Kilchoman which had been in wood for a week, and this was notably different. I’ve described the Kilchoman as tasting like a cross between cattle feed and death, with a creamy silage taste and peaty kick – I rather like it, although not more than a tiny dribble at a time.  The Glenmorangie barely resembled it – barely peated and never in wood, it had a clean crisp taste with a very light hint of peachy fruit. It tasted like a nice aquavit, drying and cooling on the tongue with a slightly malty aftertaste. Straight out of the freezer I suspect it would cause me great injury and from the large slugs that some of the other attendees were pouring the note I made of ‘MANY DEAD. SEND AMBULANCES’ was not that much of a jump in imagination.

As the bottle circulated Annabel introduced us to the distillery, including the work to increase capacity that has gone on there since my visit in 2004, and moved us quickly to the first whisky of the night – the Glenmorangie 10yr old. This used to be one of my favourite whiskies in the days before I discovered a love of peat, but I’ve not tried it for a while. Annabel explained how the flavour has been changed over the last few years, gradually altering the proportions of whiskies from new and second fill barrels until they got to the second fill heavy mix they have today. On the nose it was quite dry and biscuity, with soft fruit and caramel. This continued in the mouth with some nuttiness appearing, leading to short finish. Water brought out wood on the nose and sweetened the flavour, adding more woody vanilla and, after some prompting from our host, some coconut. It was quite a pleasant whisky, with some of the thick sweetness that I like, although quite restrained.

The second whisky was the Astar, the beginning of their range of more modern whiskies. Matured in designer casks, made from specially selected slow dried trees, after they’d been used to produce Jack Daniels (that last part, at least, a common theme in whisky making). I was quite interested to taste this one, as I’m quite sceptical when I hear of what seems to me to be too much attention to detail. It was similar on the nose to the 10yr old, but with less caramel, more wood and a peary fruitiness. It tasted interesting –  a dose of caramel and hint of banana, cooling on the tongue and fading to a mild bitterness. Water opened up the nose, bringing out more soft fruit and adding a creamy richness to the flavour and mouth feel. It was quite a delicate whisky compared to what I expected and I wasn’t too shocked by its unstated age of 8-9 years – a nice whisky, but not one that I’ll be seeking out.

Next up we had La Santa, the latest incarnation of the sherry finished Glenmorangie that I remember very much enjoying in the past – I think it may have been the first sherried whisky that I knowingly tried, and thus might be considered the beginning of my downfall. The original range of wood finishes was discontinued a few years back (I know of several people who are hoarding the last remnants of bottles of the port wood) and I’ve not had the chance to taste this new version as yet. This was a light gold whisky, richer in colour than the first two, and came from 10 years in regular oak and 2 finishing in oloroso casks. On the nose it was heavy and rich with caramel, although Anna reckoned it was crisp and green. It was quite sweet to taste with a hint of hazelnut and almonds, and a slightly creamy mouth feel leading to a fast fading flavour. With water the nose showed more fruit and a dash of vanilla essence and the taste became more citrusy with orange notes and a hint of tiger balm. The overall flavour for me though was hazelnut, which I didn’t particularly think went all that well with the other flavours. Annabel advised us to keep a little bit for later to compare against the more heavily sherried casks we were going to try, but I’d finished mine and didn’t feel much like revisiting it anyway.

We moved on to the second row and, from my initial sniffing, the ones that were more to my taste – darker more sherried drams. The first was The Sonnalta – the reason for the tasting evening and newest addition to the Glenmorangie range. This was the last whisky I’d known in advance that we’d be tasting and the one that I was most looking forward to – it’s finished in Pedro Ximinez casks, one of my favourite drinks of all time. I’d tried a few PX finished whiskies and been universally unimpressed with them, finding them to be uninspiring sherry finished whiskies, so I didn’t have much hope for this. Following the standard 10+2 first fill/wood finish maturation ratio this was a bronze whisky with a richly perfumed nose – vanilla and menthol that Anna likened to ancient Chanel No 5. To taste it was quite different – thick and spicy, with cinnamon, raisins and fruit cake. I noted down that it was meaty – a chewy whisky that had definite hints of PX to it. Adding water softened the nose, moving it more towards the fruit and caramel of the 10yr old, and opened the taste to more fruit without knocking out much of the richness. I rather liked this, tickling my sherry loving self as well as actually bringing some of the characteristics of PX. One of the ‘keep an eye out’ list. Annabel suggested that it would work well with food, suggesting the (by her own admission) obvious of choice of tapas. The flavour that jumped out to me was Morcilla, spanish black pudding. Umami-laden spicy rich blood sausage in spreadable form to match up with the spices, chewiness and meaty punch of the whisky. I may have to experiment…

Whisky2Whisky number 5 was a bit of a mystery – Annabel described it as a bit of a Marmite dram, with there being two camps – loved or hated. A non production cask, hidden at the back of the warehouse with (former chairman) David MacDonald’s name stencilled on it, it’s occasional sampled for tastings. It’s currently at 10 years in regular barrels followed by 10 years in sherry. Legally speaking the length of time that a whisky needs to remain in a wood to be said to be finished by it is unspecified (leading to my profit maximising idea of pouring unfinished whisky through sherry barrels to add a super quick finish), so this whisky can still be claimed to have a sherry finish, although it is very much towards the extreme end. Unreduced it smelled of creme caramel with spicy cherries and tasted surprisingly delicate with dark chocolate and a light fruitiness fading to a slightly bitter end. Watered the nose showed more saltiness and the taste opened up to give more soft fruits and a nice fruit cakiness. An impressive whisky and a nice surprise to be able to get to taste.

The final dram of the night was one that some of the Whisky Exchange employees were glad to get a taste of – the £250 a bottle Quarter Century. A combination of whiskies from 25 years old and upwards, with a touch of oloroso finished spirit in there somewhere, it was a deep gold in colour and surprisingly light on the nose with hints of very dark chocolate and garibaldi biscuits. It tasted somewhat different with a muddled pile of flavours to start and a thick caramel sweetness leading to a strangely astringent aftertaste. With a touch of water the flavour widened, displaying hints of chocolate, berries, and a thick layer of slightly bitter sugar brittle. As refined in flavour as you would expect for the price, it’s not one for me to grab a bottle of but definitely one to sneak a dram of if you can.

Overall it was an interesting evening which has definitely had the effect of bringing Glenmorangie back into my mind. Even if I didn’t really get on with their new range of finishes it has kicked me towards the Sonnalta and shown me that they do have a good selection out there, much more than they used to, and are always looking to expand what they’re doing.


Glenmorangie New Spirit
0 years old, 67%(?)

Glenmorangie 10yr Old
10 years old, 40%

Glenmorangie Astar
Unstated, 8-9 years old, 57.1%

Glenmorangie La Santa
12 years old, 46%
Sherry finished

Glenmorangie Sonnalta PX
12 years old, 46%
PX finished (and sold out at The Whisky Exchange that night. Not to me, unfortunately)

Glenmorangie David MacDonald Cask
20 years old, 51%
Sherry ‘finished’

Glenmorangie Quarter Century
25 years old, 43%

Whither Angostura?

Partly an excuse to post a picture, shot in my ghetto studio mk2 with my new polarising filter, partly a real news story – it seems that there’s an Angostura bitters shortage on.

AngosturaI’ve recently heard tales that the company that makes Angostura had gone out of business and as such there would be no more, however it seems that is not true. At least, that’s what the company are saying. According to The Guardian they had to shut down production for a spell due to issues with finances after the company changed hands. However, it seems that shipments have started up again and there may be Angostura appearing on these fair shores again soon.

However, I was over at Vinopolis last night for a whisky tasting and ended up talking to one of the guys at The Whisky Exchange about bitters. He advised me against the Peychaud’s I’d picked up, as he reckoned it wouldn’t go well with the Rittenhouse 100 I’d grabbed at the same time (initially assuming I was going to make Sazeracs [which Peychaud’s is an ingredient of] and offering me a miniature of Absinthe to use as part of that recipe [experiments to follow when I do buy some absinthe], and then shocked that I might use it in whisky old fashioned. He let me buy some when I explained that I would probably use it in rum and brandy Old Fashioneds as well as just for general drink experimentation. I like the guys at The Whisky Exchange) and offered me Fee Brothers Old Fashioned as an alternative to Angostura, which he seemed to think were dead and gone. The Grauniad article is from last November and there is still a definite lack of Angostura on the shelves, so it may be more serious than was initially thought. The US is the main consumer (although at a measley 950k bottles you can see why most people have never bought more than one) and they seem to have supplies resuming, so hopefully the worst is over.

The bottle above has been in my possession for the last 10 years, having been left in my first post-university flat by a house guest, and despite many years of drinking bitters laden cocktails I am still barely half way through it. Long may it continue.

Update: While in Worcester this weekend for a birthday party I found a row of shiny new bottles of Angostura in Tesco. I’d like to think that this means that the shortage is now over rather than Tesco having a stash due to not selling much in Worcester. I still grabbed a bottle, just in case.

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