Friday, 11 May 2012

Bank Holiday Weekend

Hey! How was your bank holiday weekend? Mine was pretty good, and I feel like I’ve got a lot to tell you about so, while I don’t normally tell you that much about what I’ve gotten up to (perhaps because I don’t tend to get up to much), I’m going to indulge myself today. Don’t worry, it’s all booze related, and I’ll get back to more of the usual type of stuff next week.

Brenda’s been having a hard time of late. It all culminated last week when she had to complete an assignment for her degree, give an assessed group presentation, and oversee the (hopeful and eventual) revalidation of the educational courses that her employer provides. You can imagine it was a very stressful time for her, but she handled it very well. Having learned that ladies like simple but romantic gestures I bought her flowers (the first of three bunches she would receive last week – not from other men, mind!) and asked her out on a date for Friday night. On the recommendation of a drinking colleague from work I decided to take her to Southern Eleven in Manchester’s Spinningfields area.

Spinningfields is still a bit of a ghost town – lots of restaurants and bars, but no customers – but despite the property crash and ensuing (double) financial crisis it actually looks like it is starting to catch on (a little) – thanks in part perhaps, to Southern Eleven because that place was buzzing… in stark contrast to Giraffe and Zizzi, where a couple of embarrassed diners were wondering when The Restaurant Inspector was going to walk in.

Southern Eleven serves American style food (burgers, ribs, steaks, pulled pork and the like), but with a style and quality that is sadly lacking from every other UK-based-US-style bar/restaurant I’ve ever been in. What’s that you say? Food? Yes, I’m talking a little bit about food, but only to set the context for what’s coming next. Be patient. The food’s good enough that it deserves a mention, if not a more thorough description. Perhaps Clare will indulge us with a proper investigation at some point.

What I really came here to tell you about though, is the cocktails. I don’t normally drink cocktails when I go out, but it is a bit more fun when you’re on a date, and they don’t make me feel sluggish and tired like beer can. That’s a good thing, because it probably makes it less likely that Brenda and I will have a daft falling out.

I do make a lot of cocktails, and have been trying my hand at inventing some, but Southern Eleven’s cocktails were the best I’ve ever tasted, and I could only dream of inventing cocktails as complex but wonderfully balanced as these.

a fancy cup-holder contraption - mine's the one on the right
We started out by taking advantage of the special offer – two cocktails (from a small selection – between 4 and 6, I think) for £10.95, so that’s £2-3 cheaper than what I would call standard cocktail price in Manchester.

I’m afraid I can’t tell you exactly what was in those cocktails since I’m not (yet) that type of blogger who takes notes or photos of everything no matter what, or where it is, just to show one or two readers. Brenda said I should take a photo of the cocktail menu, but I said, “no, it’ll be online”. It isn’t. Here’s a photo though, of the weird contraption our cocktails came in – with a bowl of olives (bleugh) and strawberries (why?).

What I can tell you is that my cocktail was based on bourbon and combined cherry and chocolate flavours – there may have been some amaretto in there, too. It was perfectly balanced; I just loved it. I like bourbon, I like chocolate, put ‘em together, do a bit of magic – fantastic. Brenda’s was something fruity (I think it was called a Sidecar). It was awesome also, but I can’t remember anything specific about it. We basically had a sip of each other’s, and both agreed that they were excellent, but our own was the best, and that was all we wanted.

The food arrived quickly, and we weren’t there very long, but we did have time for another cocktail. I had a fancy variation on a Mint Julep, which was also excellent, and Brenda had a Hillbilly, which she amusingly called a Hilly-billy. Again, it was something fruity.

In all, both food and drink were very good, so I can recommend you give it a try. You can find a voucher (2 courses and a cocktail for £15) here. We didn’t order a starter, so we weren’t eligible for that particular discount. It’s not the greatest discount in the world, since you can only use one per party, but it’s better than nothing, and it’s good till September.

We had called in the Slug and Lettuce on Deansgate beforehand where it was 2 for 1 on cocktails (so that was good), but the quality was vastly inferior. Well, not that bad; just standard cocktails.

So Friday night was a success in regard to having a nice evening out. We had also called into Trailfinders to see about setting up a honeymoon fund. That was less successful, and raised more questions than it answered, as everything wedding-related seems to be doing at the moment. That little story isn’t booze-related though, so you’ll have to visit my arranging a wedding blog instead…

Saturday would involve a trip out to Whaley Bridge in Cheshire to attend John and Mandy’s party and watch the FA Cup Final. Sadly Liverpool didn’t win, but I drank a lot of beer and Brenda developed a taste for gin and tonic. John and Mandy seem very keen on that, so Brenda didn’t need to dip into the vodka I’d took along for her.

I’d faced a tough choice at Tesco earlier in the day where I was searching just for a vodka for mixing since (as far as I knew) Brenda would be finishing off my Russian Standard at the party later. There was a decent looking brandy on sale and Stolichnaya was only £14, but I had to resist since I’ve already spent a lot of money this month, the credit card debt is racking up, and it’s not like I’ve got nothing to drink at home.

I love Stolichnaya, but it isn’t a mixing vodka, so I decided to try Red Square. I’m not sure whether I’ve tried that one before, but it appears to be British… I’ve stuck it in the freezer for trying later in the week. 

This was the first time I’d had chance to actually use one of those ‘£3 off £20 spend’ vouchers that you get with your receipt when you shop at Tesco. I never seem to have one with me when I actually shop, but earlier in the week something had told me it might prove useful at the weekend if I kept it in my wallet. That brought the £11 vodka down to £8, so as long as it’s good enough for mixing, it’s a bargain.

Sunday was the day of Salford’s Sounds From the Other City Festival, that I mentioned last Friday. I’ve been to this event for at least the last 5 years, and on every one of them I’ve been hungover. It must be something about this particular weekend – this year was no different, and both Brenda and I showed up at the Islington Mill just after 3pm, not really wanting to be there, and not sure how long we’d be able to stick it out.

We met Paul and Victoria at a favourite starting point – The New Oxford – and the first pint (Bohemia Regent, was one of those that just goes right down your gullet – you know when you’ve got a proper thirst on, and you go for a beer? Just like that. It can go either way when you’re already hungover, but I drank my first pint in about 5 minutes. Fantastic; game on. 

The New Oxford sells all kinds of fancy Belgian (and other) beers, and they’re very enthusiastic about them. For the occasion all Belgian lagers were £3.60. That’s very good in this day and age. At Kro Piccadilly a couple of weeks ago, I’d paid £5 for a pint of Bohemia Regent and well, it’s nice, but it’s not that nice – what is?!

Once again, it was a fairly successful festival (for those of us who attended), though the number of attendees was clearly down on previous years – so potentially not so successful for the festival organisers. The pubs seemed to be doing a roaring trade though, and even with numbers down on previous years, they’d be selling a ton more pints than on a usual Sunday afternoon.

Inspired by how much fun we tended to have in Salford pubs at Sounds From the Other City, I had arranged to visit them all on a pub crawl one Saturday last year, only to find a very different atmosphere. Most of the pubs were shut, and the ones that were open had about three people in them – except the New Oxford, which was pleasant and friendly as usual.

The highlight of this year’s festival for me was Wode providing the soundtrack to a silent Japanese film that depicted scenes from a madhouse – you might call it Wode Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Sorry. 

Wode have been described (I think in the festival literature) as black metal, but I wouldn’t say they were as dark as that. I would fit it under the broader umbrella of thrash. Using my (admittedly limited) frame of reference, I heard shades of Sepultura, Alice in Chains, Helmet and Slint (if that’s any use to you). The film seemed very rhythmic to me, which fitted in well with what I consider to be a mostly rhythmic kind of music. Wode really were excellent, and we all emerged from the venue buzzing. Until then it had seemed like our £18 had been paid to listen to mostly amateurish screeching and self-indulgent posturing, but now we were ready to believe it had been worth it.

Speaking with Paul and Victoria earlier in the day, I learned they had attended a wine tasting so Paul and I were able to discuss the reservations we have about these kinds of things. It brought to mind for me, the idea of whisky tastings. Brenda’s been toying with the idea of taking me to one for a while (I’d certainly be very interested), but I am quite sceptical. It’s not just that these kinds of things are geared towards encouraging you to buy, when perhaps all you want to do is taste. If you’re a wine novice and you go to a wine tasting, the last thing you’re thinking about is buying a whole case of wine.

I don’t know if that would be the same at a whisky tasting – I suppose buying one bottle would be acceptable, and I might allow myself to do that if it was soon enough after pay day…

My main problem though, is that having a little taste of a whisky wouldn’t be that useful to me. It’s not enough; I do all the proper tasting methods and that, but I maintain that it takes around half a bottle before I actually start to appreciate a whisky – with the possible exception of the Ledaig 10 year old that Brenda took to Canada for her dad, and then brought back almost entirely full because it wasn’t to his taste. That one was right up my street, straight away.

No, in most cases it takes a great deal more. A case in point is the bottle of Highland Park 12 year old that I bought recently. I understand Highland Park is supposed to be thought of quite highly, and I decided to try a bottle of the ‘standard expression’ (as I’ve heard it called), when I saw it on special offer in Sainsburys.

in the bottle
close up, in the glass - nice

I found it severely underwhelming… at first. I’d just finished my bottle of 46% Bruichladdich Rocks, which was very full-bodied, and that I had been enjoying very much. In contrast, Highland Park seemed a great deal lighter, and I couldn’t see what the fuss was about. 

Well, I reached the magical half a bottle mark on Friday night when Brenda and I returned from our date, and for some reason the whisky just revealed itself – not in a creepy old-man-in-a-raincoat kind of way, more in a sexy-lady-slipping-out-of-her-dress-with-a-wiggle kind of way. It tingled and played on every part of my tongue that it came into contact with. It caused my saliva glands to dribble like Thames Water’s leaking pipes. Fantastic.

I don’t know why it always seems to be the case, but that is my experience. I’d read that it’s possible the whisky needs a certain amount of exposure to air to open itself up – since it’s sealed in the bottle for however long it is before you open it. Equally though, I’ve heard that over-exposure to air causes it to stagnate, and that over 2-3 months it will even do this in the bottle. Is it just a fine line between perfect aeration and stagnation?

In terms of my own observations, I don’t think it is a matter of allowing the whisky time to breathe a little since once I’ve already decided I like a certain whisky, the first taste of a new bottle always hits those highs that you remember having experienced before. I think it’s more of a matter of your taste buds becoming receptive to the new (and different) flavours that each individual whisky imparts. And usually, by about halfway down the bottle, I’m fully receptive.

And that’s why I’m sceptical about whisky tastings – as well as being another reason I’ll never be invited to sit on a judging panel.

It doesn’t represent my favourite kind of whisky – that remains the smoky Islay contingent – but Highland Park really revealed its class on Friday night, and has become one I’d be glad to share with a whisky-loving friend. I’m thinking this will be a good one to get in when Brenda’s dad visits for our wedding in August. He’s into the single malt, but not the strong flavours of Islay like I am. This will be a good one to keep on hand.

If you have any thoughts on the issues we’ve discussed today, feel free to get in touch in the comments, and once again, let me just encourage you to visit the various websites I’ve included links to today. It’s been an eclectic post for me, covering restaurants, cocktails, pubs, festivals and music. We’re not likely to see anything like that again for a good long time, so make the most of it. I’ll be back next week with something a bit more specific, and potentially less rambling. I developed a bit of a cold the other night, so this weekend might be the perfect opportunity to start the research into hot toddies that I’ve been planning for some time. I’ll let you know how that turns out at a later date.

Whatever you’re doing, have a good one and enjoy your drinks.

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