Thursday, 23 August 2012

The Black Grouse - a whisky to try before you die?

With my (second) stag do approaching [golf weekend], and stocks of the Caol Ila Cask Strength running low, last week I decided it was time to pick up a new special whisky. Having acquired £20 in Sainsburys vouchers, and knowing that I’d be passing a Sainsburys on my way home from a trip to the dentist, I figured I’d call in, and see what they had.

On a previous browsing, I’d noticed the Black Grouse at £17.99. It’s from the Famous Grouse family, and it’s a blend, but my 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die guide marked it out as… a whisky to try before you die. That’s sure to be special, I thought, and after having a cursory browse of Sainsburys’ wares anyway, that was what I opted for.

Could this bottle explain why
brandy isn't seen as cool?

Now, I should have known better, but I let myself get a bit excited. I know, but it had been at least a month since I’d allowed myself to buy any hard liquor – possibly even two (though Brenda had brought me a litre bottle of St Remy brandy back from Paris, and her mother had brought me a 75cl bottle of Windsor Canadian whisky from Canada in that time… and come to think of it, I bought that Grappa Julia Superiore on the eve of my previous stag do…) – but the thought of it certainly brightened up my day.

It was a very hot day, so after I’d stashed the bottle of Black Grouse in my rucksack, I headed for the exit, and decided to take my jacket off and carry it home in one of the straps of the bag – while still wearing the bag, I might add. I really should have been more careful because when it got to the point that I needed to take my arm out of the sleeve, the short tug caused me to drop the bag on the floor – I still hadn’t gotten outside the door.

My immediate thought was, that’ll be all right, but as soon as I picked the bag up, I could see there was whisky leaking out of it – loads of spots like when you get a bad nosebleed.

It’s funny, the thought processes you go through in these situations. Your brain quickly scans the possible courses of action. Obviously though, there weren’t any. There was no way of saving the precious whisky, and there was no way I was going right back inside to buy another one. The only positive aspect of the situation was that, as I’d exited to the back of the store, there was no one around to see my calamity. It even crossed my mind to try and get a taste before it had gone completely – by sucking the wet fabric of the bag or something – but I knew the disaster had taken away any pleasure a sip of whisky could possibly bring, and that bag has seen the floor of a fair few Manchester buses in its time, so I left it alone.

I looked around for a bin, and there wasn’t one so - I’m not proud of it but I had to go to a particularly secluded bit of ground nearby and dump the box containing the broken bottle. I commenced the long walk home, upset and smelling of whisky.

I’d texted my best man Phil beforehand that I was just picking up something special, as he was coming over for part two of my stag later that week. Less than 5 minutes later, and I was texting back that I’d dropped the bastard. I also felt I needed to express my sorrow to Brenda, who I called just as she was about to leave for her step class.

It took me the whole evening to get over it. It was less than £20, and it wasn’t even my money, but for some reason that made it worse. I’d been looking forward to spending that free money, and fate had laughed in my stupid face.

I couldn’t even have a drink that night. Some might drink to drown their sorrows, but I drink for pleasure, and the thought of drinking something just made me sad. [sob]… what might have been, I would have thought.

It was pathetic really, but Brenda indulged me, and bought me a replacement bottle with her own money a couple of days later – despite my protestations, I might add. I had a feeling Phil might be intending to do the same, so I told him, and he said that had been his intention. He bought a new driver for the golf weekend instead – and that was a good move, because he scored pretty well.

All of this brings me to my impressions of the Black Grouse. As I said before, it is included amongst 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die, so expectations were fairly high. It is described as being in the Islay style, so should suit me right down to the ground, and reviews on the Whisky Exchange are mostly favourable, with some comparing it to the single malt, Tallisker.

Plastic bottle - like
mouthwash, only better
Now, I have had a bottle of Tallisker before, back when I was new to whisky, and it didn’t float my boat. Unfortunately the Black Grouse doesn’t strike me as particularly special either. On the Thursday night when Phil came round, I started him with a glass of Windsor Canadian, then a Grant’s and then a Caol Ila before cracking open the Black Grouse. Perhaps it wasn’t the best time to try a new blend (after the smooth sweetness of the Windsor and the peaty richness of the super strength Caol Ila), but I’d say we were both somewhat underwhelmed. Rather than try another glass, Phil actually requested more of the Windsor Canadian.

I decided it would take a few more tastings to appraise the Black Grouse fully, but a few days and a few more appraisals later, and I’m no nearer enjoying it. I can just barely taste the peat, and the flavour isn’t very complex. What lingers is that bitterness that so far seems to me to be what gives a cheap blend away.
One of the reviews on the Whisky Exchange spoke of pouring it over an ice cube and then leaving it for half an hour. That seemed like a good idea to me, and I’d like to say that it opened the whisky up a little, but it still doesn’t have the complexity and richness that my favourite whiskies have. It cost £18, and it tastes like £18 of whisky. What more can you expect, really?

There is of course, still much tasting and experimenting to go, with over half a bottle remaining – I’ll definitely try adding a couple of drops of water, but can’t really see the point when it’s only 40% ABV anyway. Sadly, it hasn’t filled the position of ‘special whisky’ that it was intended for, but I still have a bit of the Caol Ila left, and I’ll be able to hit the Duty Free in Ibiza in less than four weeks, so hopefully that will turn up a gem.

Well, that may be all from me for a few weeks. I have got a few posts that are ready to go, but I’m not sure I’m going to have time to post them. I’ll be busy finishing up wedding arrangements, getting married and then going on honeymoon. I think all that should give me enough material to last the rest of the year, so I promise I’ll be back in September and I’ll at least try to get one more post in before then. I suppose summer will be over by that time (the leaves are already falling off the trees in Levenshulme), so make sure you eke as much pleasure as you can out of what’s left of it. It’ll be Christmas before you know it.

Friday, 10 August 2012

What can I do with this bottle of... Tequila!

No Paul, I haven’t forgotten about the challenge you set me a few weeks ago, I just had other things I was excited about, and wanted to write about them first - and I was exploring that cask strength Caol Ila. Thanks for the request though.

For those readers who don’t remember, Paul has come into possession of a big bottle of tequila, and wondered if there are any simple drinks that he could use it for. He likes the Tequila Sunrise and Margarita, but feels they are just a bit too much trouble sometimes. I know what he means. Tequila Sunrise isn’t that difficult, but sometimes you just don’t want to get the cocktail shaker and the measuring cup out. You just want to stick some booze and a mixer over ice, and sit there enjoying it.

The thing about tequila is that it doesn’t come with a standard companion – you know, with the other strong liquors you have something that goes with it, almost to the extent that it’s a drink in its own right. You have rum and coke, gin and tonic, vodka and orange, even whisky and coke. But what do you have for tequila? Everyone seems to think you have to go through that whole rigmarole of biting a lemon wedge and licking salt, but why can’t we just enjoy tequila in a simple way, instead of having to act like you’re at a student party?

Well, we can, and there is one combination that comes to mind straight away that will do the job; tequila and lime. I’m a big fan of lime, and just adding the juice of half a lime (or 1 measure of lime juice) to a glass of tequila should produce the desired effect. Paul was unlikely to be satisfied with that alone though, so a little experimentation was called for. Until my Jose Cuervo Gold ran out - or longer if my financial situation improved, and there was sufficient spare funds to buy another bottle of tequila (along with all my other booze requirements) - I would be adding every soft drink I could find to a glass of tequila, and trying to determine if they were natural partners. Ay, ay, ay!

I did start by having a look in my various cocktail books to see if there was any singular ingredient that marries with tequila on a frequent basis, but that wasn’t leading me anywhere fast, and I decided it was time for some visceral experience. The only soft drink we had at home was a carton of pineapple juice that I’d had for a couple of months. I hadn’t opened it yet, but it was good until some time next year, so we may as well start there…

Tequila and pineapple juice – No! It doesn’t work. It’s just confusing, like if you brush your teeth and then immediately drink a glass of orange juice.

Tequila and lemon juice – a decent combination, but you don’t want to overdo the lemon juice. I did (adding a whole measure, to two measures of tequila), but I was able to rescue it by adding half a teaspoon of sugar syrup. Since lemon juice is such a powerful flavour, you’re not going to get a very big drink, but it’s a good fall back if you need it.

Tequila and cranberry juice – strong flavours battling it out here. It doesn’t taste bad, it’s just confusing. The taste of the tequila just about comes out on top, and overall it suggests that tequila doesn’t tend to mix too well – which is probably why it doesn’t have a natural partner.

Tequila and lemonade – I used the bottled, fizzy kind here and there isn’t really anything to report. The search continues.

Tequila and orange – it should really have been obvious that this one would work. It’s most of a Tequila Sunrise. The only thing missing is the grenadine, and in the Tequila Sunrise, that just sits at the bottom, so you’re drinking a lot of tequila and orange juice along the way. I’m going to stick out my neck a bit here, and say this is actually quite a complex (but complementary) flavour combination. Also, I don’t know if I’m just being daft, but there were elements of the taste that reminded me of a nice single malt.

Tequila and apple – it’s not that this tastes bad, it just doesn’t work. There’s something odd about it.

Tequila and tonic – not as successful as the vodka and tonic or gin and tonic, but if you did ever find yourself in an unlikely situation where all you had was a bottle of tequila and a bottle of Indian Tonic Water (like maybe if you’re stranded in deep space, and you’ve already drunk all the Pimms), you can rest easy knowing that you can mix these together. (I don’t even know what Pimms is, but I’m sure there will be a post on it sooner or later.)

Tequila and coke – not complementary of each other, I’m afraid.


There you go, Paul. Hopefully you can find something in amongst all that lot. I could go on, but there are probably more types of juice and soft drink than there are spirits, so I’d have to start a soft drink blog if I was going to try them all. I’m not going to do that – cheaper though it would be, but I am going to leave it open to you lot. Let us know if there is anything you like to mix your tequila with. Keep it simple though.
If you’re not happy to stick with tequila and orange or tequila and lime, I do have some suggestions for other things you can do with that bottle.

  1. Give the bottle to me.
  2. Take it out with you in a hip flask.
  3. Use it just for taking big swigs to warm up before going out in the evening.
  4. Use it for a drinking game – like alcoholic chess
  5. Just hang on to it for when you can be bothered to make a Tequila Sunrise or Margarita. People say that spirits will eventually go stale in the bottle (once it’s been opened and the spirit therefore exposed to air), but I’ve never noticed any evidence of that. I had one bottle of brandy for about four years, and I never noticed any discernible difference in flavour.
  6. Give the bottle to me – it’s the least you can do after I used all of my bottle trying combinations that didn’t work. Actually I didn’t use all of it, and I enjoyed the research, so thanks for that.
If you have any other things you’d like me to try before you waste your own liquor on it, or even if you just have any questions you think I might be able to help with, feel free to let me know.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Budget Brands: Grappa from Tesco

The cost of the four holidays I had last year is catching up with me, and I have some big expenses coming up – home insurance and the like – so the austerity measures are hitting pretty hard around here. Not the government’s austerity measures; my own. There’ll be no spending with reckless abandon for a while – except for the stag do, the second stag do and the honeymoon, where I’m looking forward to hitting the Duty Free - but facilitating those is a large part of what these measures are aimed at, so things aren’t all bad.

Still, a man needs some short term things to look forward to, so I went to work last week with £20 in my wallet, and I told myself, if I had enough left at the end of the week out of that £20, I would allow myself to buy that cheap bottle of grappa that they have at Tesco. So I needed to have £13 left. If you budget for 5 a side at £6.20, that would leave 80p. So there was to be no chocolate and crisps whenever I got hungry, no bacon and sausage barm first thing on Friday morning, and definitely no takeaway pizza for lunch. It was going to be hard, but these travails make us stronger.

Enough about my financial strait jacket, what about the grappa? Well, yes, of course I made sure that I had £13 left at the end of the week. The carrot and stick approach worked very well. How good though, could a bottle of grappa at £13 possibly be? Obviously I wasn’t expecting it to live up to the standard set by the Domenis Storica that I bought in Venice last year, but retailing at £45-50 in the UK, that one is a little beyond my every day means if I want a nice glass of an evening. If Tesco’s product is even half as good it would be a bargain and a potential new favourite.

The budget brand in this case is Grappa Julia Superiore. It’s the only grappa available in Tesco, and I haven’t seen any other grappas in other supermarkets, so I assumed it would be the equivalent of Bells whisky. Nevertheless, my burgeoning interest in grappa is such that I had to try it.

It has an ABV of 38%, so it is budget standard in that area (the Domenis Storica was an impressive 50%), but in the bottle it looks the part - it’s an interesting shape, and it appears to be made in Italy (as opposed to the Italian part of Switzerland or San Marino, which are the only other places that grappa can come from). Nowhere does it say, “bottled for Tesco”, or anything discouraging like that, though there are descriptions on the back in French, English and German – to me that’s not a great sign, but cool yer boots…

It’s also a full size 70cl, whereas the Storica was a conservative 50cl. A bit of geeky maths tells us you’re paying 18.6p per centilitre for the Julia and a massive 90p per centilitre for the Storica. A bit more geeky maths tells us that the equivalent quantity of Storica would cost £63 - drop for drop, that’s 5 times more than the Julia.

The cap is screw top, so there’s no satisfying squeak-pop on opening, but it has the right smell, and it tastes right. It doesn’t have the lovely sweetness of the Storica, but its (slight) bitterness isn’t overpowering or lasting. It makes a very good first drink of the evening, and I have to say, for £13 I’m satisfied. If I’ll ever buy this brand again, only time will tell – I’m not sure what my grappa needs are yet, but if you do get a craving and your funds are limited, or you’re bored of brandy like the checkout assistant at Tesco said he was when I bought this, it would be worth your while to give this a try.

I was explaining to the assistant that grappa is like brandy, but made differently, and come to think of it, if we widen our net of comparison to compare this grappa to brands of brandy, say the Courvoisier VSOP that retails around £30, I think I much prefer the grappa – it’s half the price, and out of all the sipping bottles I have at the moment, it’s proving to be the every day go-to. No, it’s not as special as the Caol Ila cask strength whisky, but it’s precisely because that’s special that I don’t go to it every day.

The Storica was special also, and all the more precious because of its limited quantity, so while Julia doesn’t quite reach the heights that that one scaled, it’s affordable to the wallet and acceptable to the palate. What more can you ask for?