Wednesday, 20 February 2013

How do you select wine?

This week’s post comes to you a couple of days early because I won’t be around on Friday evening, when I normally add the finishing touches, and release it into the abyss. That’s right, my birthday treat has arrived, and the missus and I are headed on a road trip to the Isle of Islay, where they make several of my favourite whiskies. I never thought I’d go there, but there you go; Mrs Cake is known to pull out all the stops from time to time. I will tell you all about the trip and all the things I learn at some point in the future, but don’t be expecting it next week; it will probably take me a good couple of months to write it up. For now though, please enjoy this week’s post, which is concerned with how difficult it is for novices like me to go wine shopping.

Last Saturday the wife and I hosted a dinner party at our house for 8 of my friends from work. It was a lot of fun and a lot of work (pretty near a whole day cooking in the kitchen) that the missus organised and coordinated with military precision, and it required a lot of drinking. To facilitate the drinking though, I got to indulge in one of my favourite pastimes; booze shopping.

I’ve been budgeting in a ruthless manner since paying for numerous holidays in 2011 and the wedding in 2012 led to my credit card bill going through the roof, so I rather optimistically planned to get all the booze in for £30. Oddly enough, and thanks to Tesco’s clubcard scheme, I only exceeded that by £5.

It was a case of quantity not quality really, so not the most exciting trip ever, but it did give me chance to explore the possibilities of some budget brands, and I was able to leave feeling only a minimum quantity of guilt.

What was most challenging though, was the purchase of the wine. In case you missed it any of the previous times I said it, I’m just not into wine. I don’t find it interesting, I don’t find it particularly tasty, I don’t find it particularly demands that I drink it – unlike other kinds of booze, and I really don’t enjoy shopping for it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I dislike wine, but let’s say I have a glass of wine: it will take me ages to drink that glass, and then I won’t want another one. So suffice to say; I don’t really see the point, and I don’t see how anyone can be that bothered about it.

But! Sometimes it is necessary to buy wine, like when you’re hosting a party and some of the guests are going to be girls. Sure, I knew everyone would be bringing their own booze, but you do need to provide some basic provisions. To complicate things, two of our guests were Will and Catriona, who actively like wine. A lot. So I felt I needed to get some decent wine, if at all possible, even though it seemed likely we’d end up with it at the end of the night, and there’s no point in us ending up with it, because we just don’t drink wine. I drink beer and spirits and Mrs Cake just doesn’t tend to drink casually at all.

The other purchases were more or less trouble free. I started with vodka from Aldi. Mrs Cake had planned vodka jellies, and I wasn’t sure there was enough Red Square left to do the job. It turned out that there wasn’t – we used half a pint of vodka, half a pint of boiling water and half a pint of cold water to make the jelly, so the purchase of Aldi’s more premium brand proved necessary. I was tempted to get the brand that is just called “Vodka”, but they did have a Tamova Blue Label premium variety (as opposed to the standard red label), and I figured I’d go for that this time. It’s 50cl, 40% ABV, and £9.50 or something like that.

vodka; out with the old...
...and in with the new
I’ve tried it on its own since, and it’s neither better nor worse than any other standard budget vodka, from what I can tell without doing a proper taste test. I think it’s a bit stronger than the red Tamova, and a little bit more expensive, so that’s probably why it’s called ‘premium’.

I overruled Mrs Cake’s insistence that we should get the wine from Aldi. Sure, for us it’s ok, but “bottled exclusively for Aldi” just doesn’t seem right when it’s for other people.

It was off to Tesco then, where I picked up some beers (Tuborg, that only I drank), cider (Magners, that no one drank, but I have been enjoying since), and Sierra Reposado tequila (gold, 38% ABV, 50cl) that I used to make a variety of margarita (Cadillac) that went down quite well. I hadn’t seen the gold variety of Sierra before, and it now holds the record for briefest lifespan (about 3 hours from breaking the seal to placing the empty bottle in the recycling). About 24 measures were required for the cocktail, and we finished the rest off in shots. That’s what I bought it for, and it won’t be missed. My el Jimador, 100% agave has frankly exposed cheaper tequila for what it really is. I kept that under wraps for myself.

Yeah whatever, Neil; what about the wine? I’m getting to that: how do you choose wine? There’s so fricking much of it! Why is there so much? The prices vary greatly, and experts tell you that the more you pay, the better variety of grape you’re getting, but wine ‘experts’ on TV tell you that cheaper ones can be just as good… It’s difficult, and I don’t even care that much, but I did want my wine-appreciating friends to enjoy it.

Nevertheless, I didn’t want to go overboard, and figured a bottle of white and a bottle of red would do. From what I’ve heard, pink (or rose) seems to have fallen somewhat out of general favour of late, and it seems we’ve already got two bottles of that in our cupboard.

So the first stop was the special offers section. If it said ‘half price’ and half price was £5 or less, it had a chance. I was struggling, because I have an unspoken rule that you shouldn’t buy Blossom Hill, Jacob’s Creek or Kumala (amongst others). I’m not sure why, but they just seem ordinary. Everyone’s had them before, they’re always on offer, and while I’m far from qualified enough to be a wine snob, I just don’t think they’re going to impress anyone when they see the bottle.

Mrs Cake offered, “look for ones that have got badges”. She meant of course, wines that have won awards – which is nearly all the ones in Aldi, but surprisingly few of the ones in Tesco. In one or two instances there were bottles that looked like they’d got badges, but we couldn’t be sure, and figured they were a cunning ploy to trick amateurs like us into buying them.

 Finally, after what seemed like forever, we chose two bottles. I have no idea what they were, where they were from, what grape variety they were made from or anything like that because, as I say, wine just isn’t interesting to me, so if you were hoping for some detail, I’m sorry to disappoint you.

At the party I made a point of asking people who cared about wine, how they went about selecting it. They said go to the special offer section, and look for badges. It seems we’d done the right thing. A lot of the awards are based on blind taste tests (IWSC or example), so you’d think they must be all right if they’ve got a badge. It doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily agree, though.

We managed to foist the bottle of red on our guests, but the white remained untouched, and has been added to the wine graveyard that takes up one half of my Special Spirits Cabinet. We also managed to acquire two further bottles from guests. Ass! And some cider – yay

I tried a glass of red a couple of days later, and I didn’t like it at all. Then, later in the week I stuck a half finished bottle of pink in the fridge and tried a glass – and that was really nice. Perhaps it’s too early to write pink wine off? I don’t know what brand it was, but it was pink so you probably don’t care anyway.

The vodka jellies went down very well, the cocktails went down very well, and the only thing that didn’t was my aguardiente de orujo (RuaVieja). I couldn’t believe it, but no one liked it AT ALL. I mean, that’s fine; more for me, but no one could believe I would enjoy drinking it; they looked at me like I was crazy or something. Well, I like it, I don’t care what anyone else thinks. Sadly it is now finished, but that just means I can start thinking about replacing it.

So, I’d like to know if you have any suggestions for making the chore of selecting wine easier. Don’t be shy. Be warned though, I don’t want recommendations, I want methods. Thanks in advance.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Book review; Ian Buxton's 101 Whiskies To Try Before You Die

got, got, got, got, NEED! Got, got, NEED! NEED!

Time for something a bit different on Drink It How You Like it this week – it’s my first book review – not ever - you know, I had to do one for my degree once, and I may have wasted some hours at work in the past posting reviews on Amazon, but it’s certainly the first booze related one, and the first on this blog. Mrs Cake actually bought me the book that is the subject of this review over a year ago now, so I’ve had plenty of chance to become acquainted with it, and now here’s the review.

Ian Buxton’s 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die tries to be an unpretentious reference book for the new whisky enthusiast. Why there are 101 instead of 100, I don’t know.

 “What’s so special about 100?” you might ask.

To which I might retort, “Why not stop at 99? Or go up to 114?”

“You’re just being silly”, you would conclude.

Well, we live in a decimal world, and in that world 100 is logical while 101 doesn’t make any more sense than 99 or 114.  Such is the way of things: there are 101 whiskies in this book, and they are filed alphabetically, without prejudice – though The Glenlivet is filed under ‘T’ instead of ‘G’…which is surely wrong. Virgin Megastore used to file its artists in that way, too. Look where they are now. Mind you, HMV have gone same way, and they tended to alphabetise correctly. I think that’s more to do with changes in electronic media than filing systems, though. There’s a Business Studies PhD thesis for you; The effects of alphabetisation on solvency in modern media retail. You can have that one.

What’s the big deal about doing things before you die anyway? Obviously you can’t do much after you die, but the simple fact of death suggests it doesn’t really matter what you do beforehand, while these lists suggest you haven’t lived unless you’ve ticked all the boxes. I suppose that depends on your religious standpoint. Most religions suppose it is important to do good things while you’re alive. That probably doesn’t include making sure you’ve tried 101 interesting whiskies. Should the cliché of rocking up at the Pearly Gates be true, I hardly think St Peter is going to say, “Oh! What did you think of Glenfiddich 30 year old?”

“What? I er… didn’t get to that one”.

“I see. Just how many of the 101 whiskies did you try?”

“Eight. I didn’t realise there was going to be a test…”

On the surface 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die looks like one man’s opportunity to flaunt his familiarity with his subject, and the opportunities he’s had to try far more (and far more great) whiskies than you (or at least I) have. It’s a little sickening when he says things like, “I’ve decided not to include any bottles that cost more than £1000” , simultaneously endearing himself to the part of you that knows you’re never going to try anything that expensive while making sure you know that he has.

However, not all great whisky is a rich man’s game, he points out (especially if you compare it to ‘great’ wine – does such a thing exist?), but some of it is, and some of us are destined to miss out – but only a little. Aware that some people might bristle at being made aware of their shortcomings in life, he points out that two thirds of the whiskies in the book can be bought for £70 or less, and that to buy all 101 would cost around £7100 – less if you got them all at once and negotiated a discount. If you take the three most expensive ones out of the equation, it adds up to an average of £56 per bottle, while some are available for as little as £18.

£7100 doesn’t seem that much does it, for a one time payout? For 101 bottles of whisky? You wouldn’t be able to buy anymore bottles for a good long time though (or indeed, anything else), would you? Your wife would be all, “you’re not buying another bottle are you? There’s still 96 bottles in the kitchen, unopened! And when are we going to be able to go on that holiday? I can’t believe you spent 8 grand on whisky!”

“It was 7 grand!”

“Yeah, well we still haven’t got a dishwasher…”

101 whiskies; it would take me about 8 years to drink all those. That would be quite disappointing. I wonder how much money I’ll spend on whisky over the next 8 years..? I’ll start counting, but I’ll tell you now: it won’t be just under a grand a year.

Buying a new bottle is probably the most exciting part, so buying 101 in one go would be really exciting, but the excitement would all be over really quickly, and I’d probably lose interest before I opened the 20th bottle. I’m just like that. I’d want to keep buying more bottles, and I’d amass more bottles than I could drink in a decade, so I’d start trying to drink them faster, and then I probably just wouldn’t want them anymore.

All gripes concerning financial obstacles and whisky snobbery aside, this book is proving useful and interesting. Let’s assume I came into a small sum of money, and thought to myself, “I’m going to buy an expensive bottle of whisky with that”, where would I even start? If you walk into a specialist off licence it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all those attractive bottles – it’s generally much easier to only have the option of the one or two you can afford or the ones with the greatest discount. Well, if you have this book, it will give you a useful starting point that indecisive people like me might need. Buxton makes a number of them sound interesting enough to part with your money for, and he has been thoughtful enough as to include a price guide so that you can see how far your little windfall should get you. The only trouble you’ve got now is making your shortlist – and finding some spare cash. And then making sure you don’t get carried away and spend all your money on whisky.

Naturally, you will find some of the selections controversial – he chooses the Laphroiag Quarter Cask ahead of the 10 year old (and indeed, all of the other ‘expressions’), and doesn’t mention Ledaig at all – but this isn’t, as Buxton is at pains to express, intended to be a definitive list. It is intended to be a list of whiskies that, love them or hate them, will help complete your whisky education – which frankly makes the fact that he excluded the Laphroaig 10 year old even more preposterous. Mind you, if you’re going to go that far, I hardly think you could call your whisky education complete if you hadn’t tried Bell’s or Jack Daniels, but it would be a waste to include them here. I think you have to make the assumption that everyone will have tried those already, before getting to this stage.

He does include some of my favourites (Caol Ila 12 year old - though his attempt at spelling the pronunciation is wrong - and Crown Royal are represented), which is heartening, and the rest are culled from all over the world and come in all styles. Naturally, single malt scotch is here in abundance, but you also have some blends, a good number of bourbons, some Japanese malts, some from India – there’s even a grain whisky… essentially the emphasis is on interesting, and in that regard he delivers. I’m not so interested in their histories, or in visiting their distilleries as Buxton seems to suggest you do for nearly every one – how different can they be? - but I do have a lot of questions about whisky, so maybe I will visit one, one of these days…

 You don’t need to let this book guide you entirely, but this is a lively and interesting reference text that is easy to dip into (repeatedly) and contains enough information and suggestions to pique your curiosity without making you feel like a novice or a simpleton.

The problem is that once you have this book, it is easy to allow yourself to be influenced by it too much. I don’t feel I’m buying a special whisky these days unless it’s in the book, and to be fair, a number of the ones I’ve tried on its recommendation so far haven’t really cut the mustard. Case in point: Black Grouse. Severely disappointed. In fact, it appears that it is only the blends that are affordable, while nothing single malt comes in at any reasonable price – except Tallisker and Caol Ila. Mind you, that’s not Buxton’s fault (if you allow him the Laphroaig oversight).

On top of that, there is a chance that it will encourage you to buy more whisky than you should more frequently than you should for more money than you should, but… so? Are you interested in drinking whisky or aren’t you?

Given that I had come to accept this book as an authority over the last year, and that I haven’t been overly impressed with its recommendations so far, I have been left wondering where to turn the next time I want to buy a special whisky. Will I just keep buying all the different expressions of Caol Ila, or will I go for something completely random? Well, I don’t know the answer to that right now, but one or two avenues are opening up to me, and I’m fairly certain it’s going to be a lot of fun finding out.

Since writing that review, Mrs Cake has surprised me by planning a trip to Islay for my birthday, so it looks like I will be visiting a couple of distilleries after all. Keep coming back to find out just how different they are – I’m sure I’ll be telling you all about it at some point.

Now, it occurred to me, after writing the bulk of that review that some consideration ought to be given to the overall purpose of 101 lists. In regard to the whiskies, these aren’t supposed to be the best, as stated earlier, but they are supposed to be somewhat special. Nevertheless, any list of 101 of anything is merely one person’s opinion, and the intention will depend on who that person is – and perhaps who he thinks he is.

So I did a brief search of the internet for a couple of other 101 lists that I might have an opinion of. First, I found this 101 movies to watch before you die list from IMDB. It’s a pretty diverse list, but clearly there are some contentious films on there – Rain Man at number 5 and only three films from before 1970?!? [the 70s were probably the best decade for films, mind].

No intent is specified, but you would think that with something like films, and the fact that you need to see these before you die, it implies that they are particularly important films – for whatever reason. ‘Ang on; Chocolat at number 8?!? Oh wait, the list was made by a girl, so I’m impressed that A Clockwork Orange scored so highly, but not so much that there are three Brad Pitt films (and one with him in), three Johnny Depp films and eight Leonardo DiCaprio films. Eight?!? That means Leonardo DiCaprio is in nearly 1 in 10 of the greatest ever 101 films ever made, if this list is to be believed! I’d like to see if that is a greater proportion than any other actor, but sadly I don’t have time.

This is actually a pretty good list; it has recognised that there are some films that are just givens, like The Godfather, Gone With the Wind etc, that whether or not you personally like them, if you don’t include them you are just proving that you don’t really know anything about films (though ironically, neither of those would appear on my list). Once you’ve included those, that leaves a few spaces that you can fill with your personal favourites – in this case, films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and Ghost.

In case you’re interested, my list would definitely include Anchorman, Zoolander, This is Spinal Tap, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Dazed and Confused. None of those are from before 1970, but that’s only 5 out of a possible 101.

Another list I found lies at the other end of the spectrum; 101 places to have sex before you die. Presumably this list has more flippant intentions, because there’s a very real possibility that anyone who is really interested in films could watch 101 of them, or that someone with a bit of money and an interest in whisky could try 101 of those. When it comes to having sex in places though, what’s the likelihood of you (yes, you) having sex in any of these places: confessional booth, zoo, marriage counsellor’s office, ski lift, house under construction, house of mirrors, safari, the grotto at the Playboy mansion, pilates studio, museum, motorcycle, hot air balloon, rollercoaster, horse drawn carriage in Central Park, box at the opera and carousel? “On camera” isn’t even a place, and ‘in a car‘ isnt’ on the list – presumably that one’s too obvious… which only makes it’s absence more conspicuous – especially when the kitchen floor and washing machine are included.

I bet the author of the list hasn’t done all of these, and that I think should be a prerequisite. How can you provide a definitive list of anything without personal experience? Sure, most are possible, but to achieve a good number of them requires a willing partner who either wants to complete the list with you, or is ready to go at the drop of a hat.

For the record, I think I’ve managed 14 [wait, treehouse – 15], but frankly, some of these I don’t even want to cross off – a greenhouse? I mean, I would, but I wouldn’t be going out of my way. What’s interesting about that anyway? Unless you start using vegetables…

I am assuming that in this instance ‘sex’ means with another person, because it’s much easier and less impressive if you can do it on your own. I mean, I’d still be impressed, but less… envious if you managed a good number of these. There’s nothing particularly cool about having a wank in a playground, is there? You’ll probably end up in jail and on a register. Wanking anywhere is frowned upon, really. Sure, it’s completely natural and everyone does it (except me), but imagine doing it in all the places on the list, and then wanting to tell everyone about it, because frankly, if you did have a wank in most of those places, there would be something wrong with you – at the office Christmas party? Perverted. In front of a fire? Weirdo.  Look, you’re just a sex fiend ok, and you should be locked away. You probably will be, and even if you’re not there’s probably a video of you wanking on Youtube (maybe that should be Youporn).

So what have we learned from all this? I suppose in the main, 101 lists are either a flippant waste of time or a badge for demonstrating expertise. I think the items they contain should represent important things really, since selecting 101 out of a whole category of thing suggests anything in it has achieved greatness or essentiality. I suppose it also helps if you explain what your intention is in making such a list, but your duty nonetheless should be to give a nod to general consensus, then try and add your own stamp.

To get back to Ian Buxton’s 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die, he provides his intention, and then he sticks to his brief and delivers – interesting and diverse whiskies. I don’t think I’m quite experienced enough in whisky just yet to determine just how much he has stuck with consensus and how much he has veered towards his own preferences, but that seems unimportant when there’s a list of 101 places to have sex. I’m just finding it endlessly amusing to imagine someone ticking all those places off on their own… hehe, on your boss’s desk… you reprobate.

Well, that’s it from me for another week. Mrs Cake has gone to see friends in Brighton this weekend, so I’m fending off loneliness with another poker night, where I’m sure a shit-ton of hardcore booze will be consumed. This time I’ll be trying to remember to re-hydrate though – I don’t want a repeat of last Sunday’s hangover…

All that remains then, is to wish you a fun-filled weekend. I’ll hope to see you back here next week, when I’ll be banging on about something else. Cheers!

Friday, 8 February 2013

Mad things people taste in liquor - it's like a clips show, but written down

Inspired by recently attending the first meeting of the new Manchester Whisky Club (which you can read about on other blogs here and here), I’d like to revisit a theme from my Whatis it with whisky reviews? feature. The club is basically an [admittedly excellent] excuse to mix with other people that have an interest in drinking whisky, and taste some different drams. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever used the word ‘dram’, not really feeling qualified to do so generally. There were five to try at this first meeting – one from each of the whisky producing regions of Scotland – and they were all of excellent quality, being selected as they were by club founder, Andy.

Andy allocated us five glasses each, and poured a generous quantity into each one. Each whisky and region was then introduced, and we commenced with the nosing and tasting, pausing to share our impressions.

Now, I don’t want to get into too much detail about the club itself (that’s for another time), but what is important is that none of the impressions any of us had of the various scents and flavours in those five glasses were particularly outlandish, but as you’ll see in the rest of this article, sometimes they really can be. I’m more of a wide-eyed enthusiast than an expert, so it’s not for me to say whether any of these flavours are actually in the drams in question, and there are no right or wrong answers anyway, apparently. So no judging, please. Just have a look at some of these examples, and marvel at the ingenuity and realms of possibility within human experience.

Some of these excerpts are from what we’ll call ‘expert’ reviews, and are therefore examples perhaps of someone letting their imagination run away with them a little. Conversely, some are ‘customer’ reviews, and therefore borne out of boredom and naïve fascination, so some of them may be explained by error, lack of experience or even facetiousness (much like this blog) – you know what people on the internet are like. I think they’re all worth looking at and even celebrating to some extent.


A common practice I’ve noticed is that of mentioning what I’m going to call combination flavours. By that, I mean where someone doesn’t just mention a flavour, but that flavour in a particular state, so for example, instead of vanilla, they will say vanilla ice cream, instead of grass, they’ll say wet grass etc. Grass? No, wet grass. You get the point. You can see real examples in these next few entries:

Gibson’s 12 year old – “on the nose; canned fruits.”

Here’s a good one: canned fruits. So generic fruit in a can? Does that seriously sound like a good thing, notwithstanding that the smell of the canned fruit should differ, depending on what fruit is actually in the can? I don’t think canned fruits was supplied as a value judgement in this instance, more an observation. It is an interesting one though. To me it begs the question: if you’re going to analyse flavours, how specific do you need to be? Is ‘canned fruits’ good enough? Is it in juice or syrup?

The Glenlivet 12 year old – ‘dark toast’ from The Whisky Exchange

Dark toast. Again, I’m just not sure whether some things people get an impression of are supposed to be good or not – does it matter? Let’s imagine you’re considering purchasing the whisky in question; are you supposed to ask yourself, do I like dark toast? If you don’t, I don’t think that necessarily means you can’t enjoy a whisky that someone has tasted dark toast in, so it’s not particularly useful, but it is a real impression someone had, so there.

Perhaps you should ask, whether or not I like dark toast, would I like it in whisky?

The book I’m currently reading (but skipping through most of), Peat Smoke and Spirit by Andrew Jefford also mentioned dark toast in a description of a whisky recently, and in that instance it was a bad thing, so that at least clears that up. To some extent.

Poetic Licence

Then of course, you’ve got the people who take the whole thing a little too far. Like this guy:

Jura Superstition – “I immediately noticed rich scents and aromas climbing out of the glass to greet my nose. If I closed my eyes and held the glencairn under my nose I could imagine I was in an evergreen forest with damp moss covering the ground. A boggy meadow must be nearby as I smell the damp peat under the meadow grass, with lush ferns and willow bushes clinging to its edges. Saw grass and timothy are growing in the meadow with summer flowers just beginning to bloom. Sweet malted barley smells have wafted in from beyond the forest and light scents of marmalade, vanilla and baking spices have drifted in. I find the overall effect to be marvellous.”
From therumhowlerblog

Now I don’t want to ridicule that one (too much), but if I hold a glass under my nose, I can imagine literally anything. The mind is a powerful thing – sometimes I don’t even need to hold a glass under my nose. I can imagine for example, that an otter is playing the trombone. Get that into a glass of whisky.

I might try that at the next club meeting; [sniff…] I’m getting a sense of… an otter… playing a trombone…

But seriously; that’s got to be some fricking good whisky, in order to transport you to the Land of Narnia, just by sniffing it. Alas, no; it’s just Jura Superstition, which didn’t impress me much at all when I had a bottle of it. Maybe if I’d been putting the washing away in the wardrobe, as Mrs Cake reminded me this morning that I never do, things might have been different.

Maybe that’s a good excuse, I just thought to myself before common sense intervened and reminded me that fear of Narnia is never a good excuse for getting out of anything.

The Whisky Magazine’s review of Glenrothes Select Reserve also indulges in this flowery opulence:

TasteTasting Notes:

Nose: Lots of zesty rich fruit on the nose. Thick Seville marmalade, bubbling on a hot stove with notes of toasted cereals. 

Palate: Silky smooth and utterly supple. Gentle barley whispers sweet nothings to the/its honey. A little vanilla and malt with toasted cereal and sumptuous oak.

Finish: Long with mocchaccino and barley sweetness. 
(Tasting Notes by Whisky Magazine.)

Looks like someone’s missed their calling as a poet. A few things stand out about that one. First you’ve got a combination flavour – Seville marmalade, rather than just marmalade. You don’t want to give the wrong impression, do you? I don’t know what Seville marmalade tastes like, and how it differs from regular marmalade, but it’s nice to be given something so specific. That’s better than canned fruits, isn’t it?

Then you’ve got that it is supple on the palate. How a liquid can be anything but supple is beyond me. Let’s just look that word up…

sup·ple  (s
adj. sup·plersup·plest
1. Readily bent; pliant.
2. Moving and bending with agility; limber.
3. Yielding or changing readily; compliant or adaptable.

Hmm… looking at that, you could argue that a liquid can’t be supple. Moving on…

Finally you’ve got the bit where gentle barley is whispering sweet nothings to the/its honey. That is so annoying, how he’s chosen to suggest the barley speaks to the honey flavour, and then suggests that perhaps the barley is speaking to its lover [… bleurgh!] with the use of a forward slash to shoehorn both those points into one phrase. I’ll tell you what though; I can imagine a stalk of barley leaning over to some honey and whispering to it. What would it be whispering, I wonder? I’m going to destroy you!


That’s the honey giggling, though there’s nothing about it doing that in the review.


If that wasn’t mad enough, then you have the nutcases. When this next one says ‘pork’, I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt, and assume he means port, though I can’t really see the relevance here – unless he’s describing a meal. Maybe he had pork for dinner, with a glass of wine, then decided to finish off with a whisky. Whatever; he goes on to mention meerkats, and seems to think whisky is made by baking, so whatever he says has already been undermined. I know sometimes sarcasm can be lost in the written word, but I don’t think this one is a joke. I think it’s safe to say; this guy isn’t a pro.

 “After trying Wine and then Pork I thought I would try whisky. The colour is almost like a Meerkat when it is 2 year old. The taste was good to start but not really baked enough. Not recommended by me!” from

The colour of a meerkat? Is he a zookeeper? Perhaps I was misguided when I started comparing the colour of my whiskies to a Dulux colour chart; I should have been comparing them to animals – orangey-yellow animals like lions, hyenas and foxes.

Communicating enthusiasm

Finally you have the reviews to which I give the greatest credence; ones that actually give some semblance of what it is like to experience a whisky, rather than attempt to impress you with a series of flavours. The way so many reviews rely on lists of flavours reminds me of reading a menu in a vegetarian restaurant – that’s not a dish, it’s just a list of vegetables!

Perhaps it helps that this next one is a review of a personal favourite, but nevertheless, I can identify with this one, and I find it amusing.

Caol Ila Cask Strength – “Very strong stuff!The oils seep out of the whiskey when you add a drop of water to your glass.Its 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.” From the whisky exchange

I suppose it takes a particularly interesting whisky to inspire that kind of description, and perhaps that’s the problem; most whiskies aren’t that interesting (to me, at least… yet). They are enjoyable and mildly interesting, but they don’t jump out of the glass and demand attention, so you’re left sticking your nose in there going, “toffee? Caramel? Banana milkshake? Vanilla?...”

I’d like to leave you then, with one more excerpt that I was made aware of by Andy of the Manchester Whisky Club. He said he found this in a review on Twitter:

'I'm back in the playground with bleeding knees after a conker match - I'm getting childhood fruits'

Regardless of what childhood fruits are, that one is just bizarre! How do you get bleeding knees from a conker match? Do I have an impression of what it was like to be at school all those years ago? Yes. Would I ever expect that impression to be reflected in the flavour or aroma of whisky? Again no, but that would be interesting, wouldn’t it?

I’m afraid I don’t know what whisky was being described there, so I may never come across it. I hope I do, just as I would like to understand this one day, and perhaps experience such a vivid impression of my own. I’m going the right away about it - in that I’m trying plenty of whisky – but sadly, I can’t say I’ve come anywhere near yet. Drinking whisky tends to just remind me of another time I was drinking whisky, though they do all smell and taste distinct from each other.

I’m still slightly mystified over what the point is, but since I understand that some whiskies are better than others, and that you can get mad impressions from them, I suppose you should at least share them. Otherwise, what’s the point in experiencing anything? That there are no right or wrong answers almost renders the practice redundant, but I think you should accept that as encouragement to throw your own mad descriptions out there, rather than dwell on what you can’t taste.

Well, all that doesn’t matter. I’d be delighted of course to hear what you think about all this. The important thing I think, is that whisky can be so complex, evocative and enjoyable that it transcends simply being an alcoholic drink. You can get lost in it, and when you get lost in it, getting drunk on it isn’t the main motivation behind drinking it – and that’s got to be a good thing for those of us who are approaching middle age and the onset of all manner of maladies and deterioration. All this evolved because it’s fascinating and enthusiasts want to communicate and share their experiences. So it’s all good.

That was quite fun, then. I think I’ll return to this theme at some time in the future when I’ve come across some more mad reviews, so keep an eye out for it. We can open this up to audience participation if you like. If you see a particularly weird booze review, let me know.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Booze Wars! Tesco's Grappa Julia Superiore vs RuaVieja

Good evening everyone, it sure is nice to welcome you to this week’s blogpost. Just a brief one this week, and while I don’t want to lower your expectations too much, it probably isn’t the best thing I’ve ever written. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy it. You can start now.

Since returning from my honeymoon in Ibiza [now more than] a few months ago, I’d been waiting for an opportunity to conduct another booze wars experiment; pitting the bargain orujo I’d picked up (RuaVieja, 42% ABV) against the cheapest grappa I’ve ever seen in the UK, Tesco’s GrappaJulia Superiore (38% ABV). 

I think this is the first time I’ve ever had two spirits of this type in the house at the same time, so the chance to compare was not one I was going to pass up. Grappa and orujo are both spirits made from distilling pomace, which is the stuff that is left over from wine making – stems, skins etc. It differs from brandy in that brandy is actually distilled wine. From my experiments so far, I have to say I have a preference for pomace spirit.

I took out two glasses as you can see, and poured similar amounts of spirit into each. Both looked identical to me, so I moved straight on to the smell test. I had a good sniff, and detected that the Julia is significantly more fragrant than the RuaVieja. I offered them to Mrs Cake to smell, but she has a cold and can’t smell anything. So, into the lounge I went for some tasting and to finish watching The Taking of Pelham 123 with John Travolta and Denzel Washington (which surprisingly isn’t bad – I know!).

Proper tastings should be conducted without distractions according to whisky expert Jim Murray, but real life is conducted with background noise and entertainment. I was drinking in real life, so getting comfy in front of the telly was the method.

In contrast to the smell test, the RuaVieja performs better than the Julia in terms of flavour. Julia is sweet on entry but bitter at the finish, while RuaVieja appears to me to have greater depth. It’s a pleasure to drink, and an absolute bargain whether you pay the 3 euros 90 that I was lucky enough to get it for (have I mentioned that before?), or the full price of 12 Euros – which is still cheaper than the Julia.

Julia isn’t bad when you think about how much you tend to have to pay for grappa in the UK. It isn’t the best quality, but if you really need a bottle of grappa, you can’t turn your nose up at £13. ‘Who really needs a bottle of grappa?’ you might ask. Well: I do. Perhaps not at the moment; I’ve got the RuaVieja, and I think I’ll be drinking that first.

Another trip to Spain is on the cards this summer, so on top of everything I’m looking forward to hitting the booze shops and the duty free again. I think you can be fairly sure I’ll be picking up some more orujo at some point along the way.

In other news, last night saw the first physical meeting of the Manchester Whisky Club, which went off very successfully. I’ll probably write a bit more about that in the coming weeks. Once again, it is the weekend, and as usual drink features very highly on my agenda – going out, staying in; it doesn’t matter, I’ve got some booze and it’s going in mah belly. Tonight I’m thinking pub, homemade pizza, cans, homemade caipirinhas, cracking open a new bottle of vodka and special spirits to finish. That was quite a poetic sentence. Tomorrow I’m thinking pub sesh and dinner out. Sunday I’m thinking a couple of quiet drinks at home.

Before I take my leave then, I’d like to wish you all a splendid weekend, and I hope you’ll pop back next week when I’ll have something else for you, something better. Hopefully. Till then, you can follow me on Twitter if you like inane comments about booze and stupid thoughts that seem funny when you type them, but actually aren’t. Laters!