Friday, 27 July 2012

Return of the Devil's Breath

In my previous post about alco-chilli hybrid The Devils Breath I described how I’d been hoping I could pour it into a glass and drink it - before noticing that it came in an atomiser bottle, thus implying that it was for sparing use, not for consumption with wanton abandon. Either that or it was for spraying on your wrists and neck…

It did occur to me though that it might be fun to spray it continuously into a glass until there was enough there to drink – but how would that work? How long would it take? Would it just evaporate before I was able to achieve a drinkable quantity? Would it be too hardcore for a part-time chilli enthusiast like me?

I was going to film it, and post it on here for you all to see, but one of my friends asked why I didn’t just unscrew the bottle and pour a glass. “You can’t unscrew it,” I said, while blissfully unaware that actually you could; I just hadn’t thought to check. So after a few weeks of waiting to get around to it, I finally tried a shot of The Devils Breath. I was making a curry, so I thought this was a good chance where imbibing a strong chilli concoction couldn’t ruin my taste buds for the evening.

I can now report that The Devils Breath is drinkable. The brandy is nice, the gold flecks look appealing, and yes, it is hot, but it wasn’t too hot that it became an unpleasant experience. Clearly the bottle isn’t big enough to facilitate this kind of use on a regular basis, but if you do want to test your chilli credentials, or if you’re a proper hardcore chilli enthusiast and chilli in your food isn’t enough so you need chilli in your drinks as well, you have no excuse for not unscrewing that cap and pouring some down your gullet. It burns a little on the tongue, but not in the throat, so don’t be soft; give it a go!

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Original Cocktail Inventions, part 2: The Witch's Tit

Sexy witch

While I was conducting the experiments that led to the creation of the Yorkshire Guilt, Brenda returned home one day with a tin of gooseberries (in syrup). Immediately forming in my mind was a plan to use them for another cocktail creation. This time though, there was no overriding theme, no direction… I was going to have to start from nothing.

I began by blending the contents of the can, and storing it in the fridge, as I had with the tinned rhubarb. Beyond that, I had nothing. I just knew that I wanted to make something a bit different. I started thinking about multi-layered drinks where the different densities of the different liquids cause them to either sink to the bottom or sit on the top – like in a Tequila Sunrise.

I also thought I should use some ingredients that I have enough of to experiment with – I didn’t want to get close to a eureka moment, only to find that I would have to suspend trials because I’d run out of something.

The Witch's Tit with it's proud parents
A quick glance to the front left corner of my kitchen cupboard provided an answer. There was half a bottle of Tesco Imperial vodka (not considered essential, since I still had most of a bottle of Russian Standard) and a small bottle of Chambord liqueur that I hadn’t found much of a use for.

I put 5 ice cubes in a cocktail shaker, poured over 1 measure of vodka and 100ml of the gooseberry puree. I then shook until a frost formed and strained into a small wine glass. The seeds in the gooseberry puree were blocking the strainer, so I had to stir a little with my finger to make sure enough of the mixture came through. Finally I carefully poured a measure of Chambord into the middle, and it quickly sank to the bottom, leaving me with a green drink that tapered into a red and yellow mixture at the bottom (yellow from the gooseberry seeds).

I tasted it, and it was delicious. That’s it, no more experiments necessary. All that was needed was a name, and that came quickly – The Witch’s Tit – because the glass gave it the shape of a breast (if you use your imagination, see above). The main part of the breast is green (like a witch’s skin, see right), then there was the red of the Chambord like a nipple, and the seeds of the gooseberries like the yellow Montgomery tubercles of a lady’s nipple. Done and dusted.

It does look like a witch's tit, doesn't it?
A witch's skin is known to be green
That recipe in more digestible form:

5-6 ice cubes
1 measure vodka
100ml gooseberry puree (made from the entire contents of a tin of gooseberries)
1 measure Chambord

Shake the vodka and gooseberry puree with the ice until a frost forms. Strain into a small wine glass, stirring inside the strainer with your finger to ensure enough liquid and seeds come through. Quickly but carefully pour the Chambord into the middle of the glass, and let it sink to the bottom. Serve. 

 A bonus photo
Bwah! I said witches are known to be green, not make you turn green!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Cask Strength Scotch

In the bottle... so beautiful, you want to carry it's picture in your wallet

Good afternoon. You catch me in a bit of a state of excitement this week because I have procured and come into possession of my first ever bottle of cask strength scotch. Yes, cask strength. And it’s not just any scotch either; it’s Caol Ila#, one of my absolute favourites.

“Cask strength? What’s so special about that?” you might ask. Well, at the very least, the idea of cask strength whisky is potentially awesome because I often let alcohol content determine what I’m going to buy. If it comes down to a choice between two products, and I can’t decide which to buy: both. Or, more commonly: which is the strongest? You are my winner – even if I’m buying hair conditioner.

This bottle of cask strength Caol Ila tips the scale at… more than 60% ABV – 61.3%, to be precise. That’s probably higher than that bottle of absinthe I bought from an advert in Viz back in 2000. I’d been planning to buy the cask strength Laphroaig previously, but that only scores around 55% ABV, so… Caol Ila it was.

A bottle of cask strength scotch is about as close as you can get to drinking it straight out of the barrel. Whisky is typically distilled to between 60 and 70%, and then aged for however long, and then it is most often mixed with water to reach the preferred bottling strength – typically 40-43%. Many whiskies are also chill filtered to remove the impurities that can make it appear cloudy. Some people obviously believe that as well as improving the aesthetic look of the whisky, this also removes some of the things that can make whisky so tasty.

So with cask strength whisky you should be getting something akin to straight out of the cask. I understand that it is filtered only to remove, I don’t know, lumps and things. Cask strength whisky tends to be released in batches, and the strength (and presumably the flavour) can vary from one batch to another.

2 parts water, 1 part whisky?!?
What I would like to know, and what this Caol Ila bottling doesn’t tell me is how long it has been aged and whether it has been bottled from one cask, or whether it has been blended from a number of casks. It’s not vitally important, as long as the whisky is good, but it would be nice to know, and would certainly make an interesting talking point if any of this lasts long enough to let any of my friends try it. They better get in fast.

 What the packaging does tell me is that it is recommended you should mix one part whisky with two parts still water at room temperature.

Two parts water?! I may be well out with the maths here, but doesn’t that reduce the alcohol content of the drink to 20.43%?* What’s the point in that? That’s considerably more than the couple of drops most people recommend you add to whisky – even relative to the vast increase in alcohol content. But that’s what it says on the box, and it should know, shouldn’t it? (Or is that just for the government?)

You can, of course drink cask strength whisky as it is, and if you’ve read this blog before, I’m sure you would be in absolutely no doubt that I would start off by doing just that. You will also be aware that I’m curious and I like to experiment, so you should have been able to predict that the next thing I would do would be to drink it as recommended, before experimenting with my own scotch to water ratios and then finally just drinking it at full strength. Hopefully by the end of the bottle I will feel satisfied, and not be concerned that I had wasted any of the precious liquid by drinking it at anything other than optimal strength.

The bottle arrived in the post on Monday morning (before work, which is highly unusual), and I was of course very excited… and a little tempted to call in sick that day. I determined though, that I would wait until Wednesday night, after the Regina Spektor show at the Apollo to sample the delights it contains. A few loving holds, and lascivious glances at the bottle would be all I would be allowed. Seriously, I couldn’t wait, but sometimes in life anticipation is part of the enjoyment. I was hoping I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Everything I couldn’t resist allowing myself to read about it before the magical moment of opening suggested disappointment was not an option. One of my favourite reviews from thewhiskyexchange said,

“Very strong stuff!The oils seep out of the whiskey when you add a drop of water to your glass. It’s medicinal, carbolic, salty fume fills the room and scares my wife into the next room. It’s beyond comprehension that this whiskey was crafted by man.”

Does that sound good or what? I particularly like the bit about the wife - I figured Brenda would be able to smell this from two rooms away, and the smell would probably make me dribble like I was teething – and I originally read the part about being ‘crafted by man’ as it was obviously crafted by man… so it’s a bit disappointing on reading it again, that the reviewer is expressing incredulity that man would be able to craft this, rather than exclaiming that only a man would dream of crafting this. But it’s still quite good – and promising. It does make you sceptical though. I remember all those times when I read a review of a record by one of my favourite bands, and expected it to be amazing, only to find that the experience of actually listening to it in no way matched up to what had been promised by an over-zealous fan.

Straight out the bottle - it burns so good!
Well, Wednesday night came, and finally it was time to crack open the Ila. The tension was palpable in the kitchen of the Levenshulme mid-terrace, and Brenda gave an encouraging little cheer when the cork went “squeeeeak, pop!” for the first time. Christ, I love that sound.

I poured a small dose into a glass, and marvelled at how wonderful it looked; the pale liquid seemed to shimmer seductively. I paused to take a picture, then carried the glass, the bottle and a bottle of spring water I’d bought earlier that day into the living room.

I had decided just to have a taste at full strength, then add water as I felt it necessary, but the problem was I couldn’t really decide that it was necessary, so I happily drank the whole of the first glass as it came. It didn’t really taste of anything at first, but the experience developed as the end neared. My god, did it burn when I rolled it around my mouth, and pressed it between tongue and roof – but in a good way. It hurts so good!
In terms of effects, I don’t know if there were mitigating factors such as it being quite late, but even after a couple of sips I felt some definite distortion. In fact, when I went to the toilet before going to bed, the little lights in the ceiling of our bathroom seemed to be dancing like fire. I haven’t heard of the possibility of hallucinogenic reactions, so I have to put this down to tiredness and the usual distortions your eyes can be prone to, combined with the pleasant alcoholic buzz I was feeling from the scotch.

I enjoyed the first glass, but I was looking forward to trying it as recommended, and experiencing some of the trademark Caol Ila peatiness that I like so much, and that should develop with the addition of water. I went to get my measuring cup, and measured out one measure of whisky and two measures of water, as directed on the box. A cloudy liquid was the result, which is perfectly normal for cask strength whiskies.

I mentioned earlier that I thought it seemed odd to mix in quantities of 2:1 in favour of water, and I have to report that the result left me dissatisfied. It was nice, but I could actually taste the spring water more than I could taste the Caol Ila – you know that spring water taste. It was more like one of those lightly flavoured waters that you can buy, than a glass of whisky.

I decided next that I would reverse the ratio, in order to weight it in favour of the whisky, and if I could still taste the spring water, I would try tap water instead. If still dissatisfied, it would be a case of adding drops of water instead, and if that didn’t work, I would just have to drink it straight. Is it possible to damage your tongue/taste buds by drinking strong alcohol? It sure does burn! There’s no definitive information on that on the internet. I suspect it can, but taste buds also have the capacity to heal, so… be reight!

The concern of course for me, was ensuring all those flavours that are in there would be able to develop, and this is sure to be the greatest problem with cask strength whiskies. Whiskies at normal bottle strength are fine because it is what it is. The flavours are all there, just drink it. You can add a little water if you want (some develop further, supposedly), but there is no compulsion to. Cask strength whiskies add a whole element of trial and error that makes the whole thing so much more complicated, since the alcohol content is so high that it overpowers the subtle scents and flavours that can make a whisky great. That doesn’t mean there’s no value in it. It’s certainly a talking point, and something to bring out for guests, but would I be happier with a bottle of 12 year old Caol Ila, that I can just pour and drink?

2 parts whisky, 1 part water. That's better.
So I tried pouring two parts whisky to one part water, and that seemed to me to be the perfect solution. It was a real treat. I’m not sure it’s as well defined as the standard 12 year old, but there sure is something special about it. I couldn’t taste the spring water this time, and I could taste the pepperiness that is described on the box. Also, the alcohol isn’t totally overwhelmed by the water, so there is still a bit of burn (but not too much), especially when I press my tongue to the roof of my mouth. Fair enough if you don’t like the burn, add more water, but my feeling is that there should be some burning – that’s what lets you know you’re alive, and that you’re drinking some special strong alcohol.

As ever, it’s personal preference and while buying a bottle of cask strength whisky opens up a whole new layer of exploration that you may or may not be daunted by, it’s the ultimate facilitator of drinking it how you like it. If the whisky’s good, you can’t go too far wrong.

In general I think cask strength expressions are more for when you’re very familiar with a brand, and very fond of it. I do love Caol Ila, but I’ve only ever had two bottles of the 12 year old, and have never tried any of the other expressions. I will be making that a priority, and I’d recommend you do so with whatever whisky you like before going for the cask strength. Buying cask strength is probably comparable to getting a band’s bootlegs and demo recordings – if you’re already familiar with the albums, these things can be illuminating and provide an extra depth of understanding, but if you get the bootleg or demo stuff first, you might find it confusing, more raw, harder to get inside. But, you know, as long as the music’s good, you can’t go too far wrong.

Oh, and here's a proper review, if you want such a thing.

# An interesting fact about Caol Ila is that the different expressions are bottled in glass of different hues, which represent the light at different times of the day on the Isle of Islay. That’s nice. Here in Manchester we have the McVities factory. Maybe they could release different expressions of their chocolate biscuits to represent the light at different times of day in Manchester, and they could all be equally grey.

*If 61.3% of a 25ml measure is 15.325ml, then if you add 50ml of water, 15.325ml as a proportion of the resulting 75ml of liquid is 20.43%. So that should be the alcohol content, shouldn’t it? Is that how you work out alcohol contents, or is it more complicated than that? Because that was pretty complicated.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Drinks for Classy People Part 3: The Lambrini

In previous posts on Drink it How You Like it we’ve had features on two drinks that perhaps struggle under the weight of the preconceptions people have about them; Carlsberg Special Brew and BabyCham.

Carlsberg Special Brew is known as tramp juice, and is generally considered to be drunk by the homeless and hopeless alcoholics you might find on your local park benches and at bus stops (at 8.30am). I think the price is a bit beyond the means of most homeless when you consider there are many cheaper super strength lagers available, but perhaps it’s a special treat when they’ve come into some unexpected money.

BabyCham on the other hand is a massive girly drink. Everyone remembers it from the adverts in the 80s, but no one seems to drink it – presumably because its faux champagne image is a little off-putting.

Continuing in that theme then (I’m not sure what the theme is… Drinks for Classy People? Let’s call it that)… this week we’ll be looking at Lambrini. Why? It’s on Special Buy at Aldi.

in the bottle
At the conception of this post, I didn’t really know what Lambrini was. I assumed it was a kind of fizzy wine, and I knew that it’s target market was er… girls who just want to have fun, aged say 18-30 – like the holiday club, but presumably a little classier, judging by the girls in this advert. Some of them have jobs, some are doing responsible, adult things (like DIY – actually, it looks like they’ve finished the job. Good work!), and they’ve all learned a specific dance, which coincidentally is called The Lambrini. None of them look like scallies, none of them are wearing tracksuits or over-sized hoop ear rings, none of them are sitting at a bus stop with a pram, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of them in episodes of Boozed Up Britain, Ibiza Uncovered or Party Paramedics. These girls might be paramedics – except the ones that are obviously surgeons… dancing… surgeons. And since all they want to do is have fun, presumably they’re not interested in things like commitment or babies.

30 might be pushing it a bit, actually. You’d expect them to have moved on to wine by then. On a side note, one of my line managers buys this for her teenage daughter because “it doesn’t really count as booze” – though it actually does. She was a bit surprised when I told her its ABV. I don’t know why she never thought to look at the bottle.

A bit of internet research shows that Lambrini is actually ‘lightly sparkling perry’ (7% ABV), so very much like BabyCham, but a little less sparkling. BabyCham comes in tiny bottles (200ml), while Lambrini comes in a large bottle (750ml), not unlike those giant bottles of San Miguel that I’m so fond of.

There were two varieties on offer in Aldi, and while I had been intending to buy one of each, the potential for humiliation and the fact that Brenda said she wouldn’t be drinking much of it convinced me just to get one of the original variety. Luckily the guy at the checkout in Burnage’s Aldi store just swiped it through the scanner like a bus driver looks at a bus pass – in that he didn’t look at all. Thousands of pounds worth of merchandise pass through his hands and go beep every single day, and not one item - nor one combination of item and customer - can appear to him as interesting in any way. So thanks for that.

Lam-bree-ni! Do do-do do-do, Lam-bree-ni…

Seven percent. That’s not that weak, is it? It’s half the strength of wine, but it’s stronger than your average beer, so I guess one of these is enough to get a common-or-garden variety teenage girl nicely pissed for the evening. That sounds dodgy. I’m not a sex offender!

I was, of course, stupidly excited about beginning the latest round of research for the blog, so I cracked it open an hour or so in advance of going out to see the Jesca Hoop gig at the Academy 3. Brenda wanted to drive, so I was drinking alone.

Lambrini is looking at you
Well, what can I tell you? It was fine. Not as sweet as I imagined it would be, but when Brenda came to drink hers on our return, she thought it was very sweet. She said she preferred the BabyCham – presumably because it feels a bit more like drinking champagne. It does taste a bit cheap, but certainly nowhere near as offensive as those 3 litre bottles of cheap cider – White Lightning, Carbon White and the like – which for my money are the masculine equivalents of this. Compared to those, Lambrini is positively classy. And it comes in a glass bottle. Not too classy though; on my way home last night I saw two middle aged ladies sitting at the bus stop next to one empty and one mostly empty bottle of Lambrini. They looked to be having a nice time.

I wouldn’t buy Lambrini again (even at £1.99), but there were certainly no ill side effects, and it didn’t taste all bad. I’d just prefer to stump up the extra two quid and buy four cans of Holsten Pills.

So there you have it; certainly not a glowing review, but not a bad one either. It’s all about personal preference really, and I can’t imagine too many people preferring to buy this over a nice Chardonnay (women) or just… beer (men), but you know; it’s cheap and cheerful, and that’s got to stand for something.


Now! This weekend is the weekend of the Chorlton Beer Festival, and I was fully intending to go until I realised it was going to rain all weekend. There isn’t much joy to be had drinking ale with your feet in a puddle, and your hood up, listening to the constant pat, pat of raindrops. We’ll see how many people really like real ale there, won’t we? Except we won’t because presumably no one will be there to see how many people aren’t there. Stupid British summertime.

Well, have fun this weekend. I’ll see you next week with some more… something or other.