Tuesday, 30 July 2013

A couple of budget vodkas

“All vodka”, said my friend Paul on the eve of his trip to Russia, “is much of a muchness really”. He would be riding the Trans-Siberian Railway for something like three weeks, so  I had remarked on how I’d be looking forward to drinking vodka all day and trying some bizarre Russian varieries - because that’s what you do on these train journeys (presumably).  I was a little disappointed then, to hear that he wasn’t all that bothered about that.

Is he right, though about all vodkas being much of a muchness? I haven’t tried all the vodkas in the world. I haven’t even tried all the ones in the local supermarket, but I have made it my mission to do so… at some point.

Back before I embarked on this alcothusiastic voyage of discovery, before I had tried any single malt scotch, before I knew that spirits could be enjoyed for their flavours rather than for how quickly and how extremely they could get you drunk or how hard it made you look to be drinking them, I used to say I liked vodka. Not that I dislike it now, it’s just that it doesn’t seem to be the most interesting spirit in the world, does it? But… much of a muchness?

I’ve read that generally, the better a vodka is, the less flavour it has, which to me seems perverse. It suggests vodka is simply for achieving inebriation, rather than for enjoying. I don’t have a problem with people drinking to achieve inebriation as such, but I am confused that the best vodka I’ve ever tasted, which you’ll know if you’ve ever glanced at this blog before because I keep banging on about it… is Stolichnaya. And that’s damn tasty… so does that mean it’s bad?

Stolichnaya is an awesome vodka – it is equally tasty, whether you’ve stuck it in your freezer for a few hours, or are just drinking it at room temperature. It is very reasonably priced, and frequently on special offer – the last bottle I got was £14, which is almost criminal value. In fact, the only problem with it is that it’s so good I can’t let Mrs Cake use it to mix with. I have to buy another brand for that, but you know, I’m not complaining because that means I can try some more. And that brings me smoothly to the actual topic of this week’s post – a couple of budget vodka brands.

First up is Putinoff Platinum (40% ABV, 50cl, £9.49), a Lidl brand. I don’t normally shop at Lidl, but with a store just up the road from where I work, there wasn’t much chance of me staying away for long.

The variety and scope of booze on offer at Lidl was somewhat disappointing, but it is cheap. You have far more options at Aldi (that gives me an idea for a future post… Aldi vs Lidl… watch this space…), but there were two varieties of Putinoff to choose from – one was a standard red variety (under 40% and triple distilled) and the other, the blue or platinum variety, which is stronger, five times distilled and even ‘oxygenated’, whatever that means. Whatever it is, it is supposed to open up certain aromatic elements.

I did a little internet research on my return to the office, and found that Putinoff has been making quite a name for itself, scoring 10 out of 10 in the Daily Mirror, who also say it is better than the significantly pricier Grey Goose. I haven’t gotten around to that one yet, so that’s a verdict for another day. Quite how seriously you should take the Daily Mirror as an authority though is up for debate.

Well, I can only give you my verdict, so I will, but let’s simplify this as much as possible and score in terms of:

Much of a muchness?

Yes. This vodka doesn’t really taste of anything, and I didn’t even need to put it in the freezer to achieve that – low temperatures famously mask flavours in alcohol, giving the appearance of a better spirit than you actually have. So in theory, it is good, but I don’t judge vodka in that way, and with so many other brands to try it’s safe to say I won’t be buying it again, but if you need something to make your cocktails with, this’ll do.

Moving on to our second budget brand then, this one is Morrison’s Imperial Vodka. Yes, a triple distilled, own brand vodka, weighing in at a libido-dampening 37.5% ABV. This one was only a 35cl bottle because it was purchased for Mrs Cake to drink with a mixer at a recent barbeque. Again, Morrison’s isn’t a shop we get into very often, and this brand won out because it was only £5.30 or something like that. Mrs Cake drank the whole thing that afternoon/evening with the exception of a couple of swigs that I managed to snaffle for research purposes.

Much of a muchness? Well, yes, but less so than that of the Putinoff Platinum, so if we were talking winners, Morrison’s comes out on top in this one despite its lower ABV. I would buy this again if say, I was on a tight budget, I just needed something to mix, and there was nothing else. To its credit itmanages to avoid that slight bitterness that many cheap vodkas (including the Putinoff) have.

I have compiled an ongoing vodka ranking system, but there are too many omissions to give it value at the moment, and so far I’ve only tried a variety of cheap ones really. I’ll see about splashing out a bit next time to see if there is actually any scope for any vodkas being particularly good. I’ll just say for now, on the question of all vodka being much of a muchness, Stolichnaya is way out in front with frankly little to choose between the others. So you might say Stoli is the exception that proves the rule, except that would be wrong because that would be a misuse of that commonly misused phrase. See this link for what I’m talking about there. Hmm… interesting.

Well, I think that’s all I wanted to say on this subject for the time being. No doubt I’ll be trying more vodkas and doing other drink related experiments in the future, so if you’d care to join me again, you’d be very welcome.

Before I go, please accept my apologies for making you wait 4 days for this post. I was away camping from Friday afternoon, and might have something to post about that in the coming weeks. While I’m on it, I think this week’s post might be late also… or early, I’ll keep you posted.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Booze Battle: Dewar's 12 vs Jim McEwan's Symphony

In a slight change to this week’s scheduled post, we have a comparative tasting of two kinds of blended scotch. On the one hand we have Dewar’s 12 year old, “double aged” while on the other it’s Jim McEwan’s Symphony No. 1.

If you’ve been to this blog before, you might be aware that I’ve had the Dewar’s for some time now, having picked up a litre bottle in Duty Free last September. It’s been a bit of a grower. I wouldn’t call it special, but it ain’t bad at all. I’d almost completely finished it, but I decided to hang on to the last dram until I’d procured another blend to compare it with and, thanks to my recent distilgrimage to Islay, I had a contender.

 Jim McEwan’s Symphony No 1 was available in the Bruichladdich distillery shop. Jim is Bruichladdich’s master distiller and is highly respected having worked for 38 years at Bowmore from the age of 15 before moving to Bruichladdich in 2001. I’ve mentioned him on this blog before, way back in the beginning when I was professing a liking for the Bruichladdich Rocks expression. He is probably the first individual I ever heard of in the industry, so I was chomping at the bit to find out what this blend, which is comprised of Islay, Speyside, Highland and Lowland malts, was like. It doesn’t say anything about containing grain whisky in the mix, so I’m not sure what that might mean – because it doesn’t say anything about being a blended malt or vatted malt either.

the symphony
I’ve decided to do things a little differently this time and compare each whisky across a number of categories, just for the sake of variety. In spite of all this, there is only one statistic that really counts, and that is how tasty the whisky is.

The first thing I suppose we should discuss is price. These blends are not equally matched in that respect. The Dewar’s was a Duty Free purchase, and that showed up on my credit card bill at £28.53 for a litre. That’s roughly what you’d be looking to pay in a supermarket for 70cl generally, so it isn’t a cheap blend. I can’t say that it strikes me as much better than your standard Whyte and MacKay Special, but it sure costs about £10+ more.

Jim McEwan’s Symphony no 1 on the other hand comes in at a stunningly wallet-friendly £13 for 70cl. You’ve got to give it a go at that price. In comparison then, you’re getting 5.38cl to the pound with Symphony and only 3.51cl to the pound with the Dewar’s – and that one’s at Duty Free prices.

Price category winner: Jim McEwan’s Symphony No 1

I suppose that while we’re talking price, we should also talk availability. Dewar’s is pretty widely available but as far as I can tell so far, Symphony is only available from the Bruichladdich distillery shop. So while that would potentially make it more sought after, it means you’re looking at a trip to Islay to get hold of a bottle. Not that you would, but if you did go to Islay for the express purpose of buying a bottle of Symphony No 1, that could potentially increase the cost of your purchase from £13 to… well, let’s take the cost of my trip:

Diesel £70
Ferry £80 (for two people and a car – you don’t want to go on your own, do you?)
Accommodation £90

So not including incidental expenses and assuming you live in Manchester, or somewhere £70 in fuel away… you’d be looking at £253. Not such a bargain now, eh? But I’m not going to look at it like that, because my trip was a nice weekend away, and I bought a couple of other bottles anyway – it was more a case of, well, while I’m here, I may as well pick up a bottle of that also…

Since making my purchase, and seeking Symphony out on the internet, I’ve found two auction sites; one where a bottle was sold for £25, and another where the bottle was expected to sell for £75 to £100. Quite astounding, really. It all combines to give Symphony an air of mystique that I hoped it could live up to.

Make your own mind up who wins the availability category. Do you prefer exclusive or readily available? I think it depends. The rarity of Symphony makes me happy because I chose to buy a bottle without knowing anything about it, but if I was you reading this, and I wanted one, I’d find it annoying.

Ok, let’s look at aesthetic considerations:

Does it come in a box? Dewar’s does – 1 point. Yes, bottles are cooler than boxes, but it’s going to come in a bottle anyway, and if your booze cupboard is full, a box gives you further storage options.

Which is the cooler shaped bottle? A tough one, this. Neither is particularly special, but I’m going to award the point to Dewar’s for being a bit stubbier and more robust looking.

Screw-top or cork? Dewar’s is a screw top, but Symphony has a cork, and I think as such, is the first blend I’ve ever owned that has a cork. It definitely gets a point for that.

What about the label? I can’t say I’m a massive fan of that Dewar’s label that has like a cutout section. I’m thinking it would be more at home on a bottle of ale. However, the Symphony label is probably the worst I’ve ever seen. It looks like the cover of one of those £1.99 compilation CDs that you get in Tesco or Wilkinsons. Holy shit; who thought that was a good idea? So… I was tempted not to give any points here, but I suppose it will have to go to Dewar’s.

Aesthetic considerations winner: Dewar’s by 3 points to 1.

Next we have the very important consideration of alcohol content. Dewar’s is a very standard 40%, nothing remarkable there but, wait a minute, what’s this? Symphony is a groin-stirring 46%! I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a blend greater than 43% before. A quick look on The Whisky Exchange confirms that 40% is far more common, though you do get a few blended malts at 46%. Does this suggest Jim McEwan’s Symphony no 1 is a blended malt? Seems highly unlikely at £13 a bottle, but perhaps that’s a reward for making the trip out to Islay. Let’s hope so. I’d like to mention at this point that I did e-mail Bruichladdich to ask for clarification on this issue, and they haven’t replied as yet. I know they must be very busy.

Strength winner: It has to be the Symphony.

So that brings us to the important stuff. Cost and therefore value for money might have some effect on the overall rating but really, it’s all about how good does the whisky taste?

I’m not going to repeat myself too much in regard to the Dewar’s. It was decent, but the presence of grain was as self evident as any of the cheaper blends I’ve tried so far. I doubt I’d spend £25 on a bottle in future. I won’t shy away from trying some of their other expressions though – the Signature is supposed to be excellent I hear, however at £195 at The Whisky Exchange, it must figure way down my list of priorities.

Mostly then, I intend to talk about Jim McEwan’s Symphony No 1.

Ok, to my relatively inexperienced palate, this is quite a unique blend. I’ve tried all the normal ones and one or two of the more obscure ones, but I haven’t tasted a blend like this before. It’s light, playful and well-balanced. I suspect there is some grain in there, but it isn’t as obvious as I have come to expect.

In terms of nose, I’d say there’s white wine vinegar (but not in a bad way), tobacco, marzipan and citrus, while on the palate it’s quite fruity and suggests there may have been some sherry cask aging in there somewhere. There’s also a herby aroma, but I can’t quite identify which one… could be sage, but I think it will take a bit more tasting to be sure.
the symphony

This is very easy drinking, in fact, let’s not beat around the bush; it’s superb – and I never considered adding water even for a second. Why ruin it? I want to say things like ‘for a blend this is superb’ and ‘for £13, this is superb’, but no matter what you prefix it with, it is superb – which is good because it’s ‘super’ with an extra ‘b’. I wish I’d picked up another couple of bottles because it’s cheap enough to drink every day – not that I’m allowed to drink everyday, but I probably would, if left to my own devices. It’s better than that though. I doubt I’ll ever get to buy another bottle of this, but it is going straight to the head of a new list called “buy on sight”. It is actually special enough to keep in the cupboard and pull out for a treat. So I think I may have found it; that special blend that it’s easy to love. Nice one, Jim McEwan; you’ve done it again.

That’s me done for this week, then. If you’ve been in the UK for the last couple of weeks you’ll be aware that it has been drinking weather for a good long while now. We are actually having a summer. Remember it because the last one was seven years ago, and it could be that long before the next one. What this means in the short term is that it’s the weekend and there’s no excuse (aside from being skint) for not getting out and enjoying it. Whether it’s drinks in the garden or out in town, it’s time to get your drink on. Sadly I’ll be spending most of tomorrow in a hot venue listening to heavy music at Sound Control’s Summerjam festival. Ah, but what about Sunday? Sunday afternoon will be spent in various beer gardens, exercising my pint muscles. It’s going to be a good one all round. I hope yours is too. Laters.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Budget Brands: Bellino Extra Dry

Good evening everybody. Thanks for joining me for another Friday evening blog post about alcohol. This week I’m reminiscing about the time I bought the cheapest “vermouth” in the shop…

Every other Saturday morning the missus and I collect together a few cook books, and plan our meals for the next two weeks. Not only does it help eliminate waste, but it also cuts down on the amount of time spent doing this job one day at a time, straight after work. It’s still not a job either of us enjoys doing (life’s full of those – cleaning, anyone?), but it certainly is better to get it out of the way in one go every fortnight.

The last one was actually slightly more interesting than usual, as I found a recipe that called for the use of dry vermouth. I’d been waiting for an opportunity to try a new bottle for some time, and it had finally presented itself in the form of groceries. Nevertheless, funds have been tight this month, so I figured it would be a good time to add another instalment of the Budget Brands series, and headed to Tesco with the intention of buying their own brand, which I believe is usually priced around £5. Finally I would be able to start on that martini research – once I remembered to get some olives.

On arriving at the small vermouth shelf in Tesco (why so much wine, so little vermouth?), I found I didn’t need to go for the own brand, as there was actually another brand, and it was even cheaper; Bellino Extra Dry (£3, 13% ABV).

‘Bellino’ doesn’t sound like an authentic Italian brand to me. I mean, it could be, but it just sounds like someone in the UK has made up a word that sounds like bellini to make their brand seem more authentic. A look at the bottle reveals that there is nothing Italian about this at all.

A closer look, which in hindsight perhaps I should have done before, reveals that this isn’t actually vermouth – it’s made from grape juice, whereas vermouth should be made from wine, so it looks like that £3 is going to turn out to be something of a false economy. I can’t investigate all the various types of martinis without actual vermouth, can I? I mean, I could, but my research would be refuted, and not worth the electricity used to type it, nor the kilobytes of memory used to store it. This is probably the wine equivalent of White Lightning.

Well, it’s still an alcoholic drink, and I was still interested in trying it. I did a little bit of research on the internet first, and found some reviews that frankly weren’t too encouraging – “smells like wet dog” being the most memorable. They ought to put that on the label. In fact, they should call it, “Cane Bagnato”.

Last Friday the time came to try it for myself, and I can now confirm it was indeed a false economy. I didn’t notice any detrimental effects on Nigella’s chicken dinner, but there’s not much reason for drinking this. I wouldn’t say it smells like wet dog exactly, but there isn’t anything particular pleasant about its aroma and, correspondingly the flavour is nothing to write a blog post about either. It’s like drinking a glass of cooking wine that’s been left out all night. And day.

If you’re ever considering buying this; think again. I don’t know if I’m going to end up drinking any more of it, so we’d best have some more vermouth themed recipes in our next meal plan.

I do like investigating budget brands, though the more discerning my tastes get, the less inclined I am to do so (will I ever buy that “Scotch Whisky” or “Vodka” from Aldi? – yeah, I suppose so when I’ve finally got some disposable income), but nevertheless, of all the ones I recall up to this point, for the sake of hyperbole, let’s say Bellino is the worst budget brand yet.

There you go. Just a short one this week. We’ve been having some lovely weather here, and it’s time now to go out and enjoy some more of it. Unusually for a Friday, I won’t be drinking until much later. I have to drive into town to rehearse for a gig on Sunday, so I’m already looking forward to getting back and cracking open something special. Whatever you’re up to, enjoy the weather and enjoy yer drinking. I’ll see you next time.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Hot Toddies: What? It's Medicinal!

Hot toddies: warm alcoholic drinks that are supposed to be beneficial when you’re feeling unwell. That whole concept is a little alien to me. Not so much that alcohol helps with ailments – even my non-drinking dad kept a bottle of vile tasting Indian brandy in the house for those occasions when I was ill growing up – but more the idea of warm alcoholic drinks. I’ve just never had a warm alcoholic drink I thought was particularly nice, or worth the effort.

I maintain that the best remedy for general illness is a joint. It makes you feel all fuzzy, and you can’t tell any longer whether you feel ill, or whether it’s the effects of the drug so you soon forget about it  and enjoy a day off work, watching DVDs. Unfortunately, this blog isn’t about weed (though I’m sure I could write a good one about that), it’s about booze.

So! After waiting what seemed like forever to get ill, I finally did, and I could get to work on investigating the hot toddy. I hoped the ‘hot’ part of any drinks I tried would turn out to be as simple as boiling the kettle. If it’s all about heating pans of milk and adding ingredients after so many minutes, it’s more like cooking. And drinking shouldn’t be like cooking (especially if you’re feeling unwell) – though it can provide a pleasant accompaniment to cooking. As the old adage goes, “I always cook with wine. Sometimes I even put it in the food!” Ha ha. Actually, I quite liked that when I first saw it.

That’s the problem with cocktails. Deciding which one to make is like deciding what to have for dinner. Then you’ve got to make it. And you might find you’ve run out of a vital ingredient. So you have to pick another one. And it turns out you chose badly; you spent 5 minutes making it, and it’s the tiniest drink in the world. Finished. Now what? Have another one? But I can’t be bothered to make another one. That’s probably why I’ve drifted away from cocktail experimentation recently.

Where was I? Oh yes, finally I had gotten ill, and was excited about the opportunity to try some hot alcoholic drinks in the spirit with which they are intended. First though, my mum offered the advice that I should have a brandy and two paracetamol before I went to bed. That’s the kind of doctor’s orders I like!

“Have you got any brandy?” she asked.

“Yeah, but not any particularly nice brandy. Does it have to be brandy, or will anything of that genre do?”

“Whisky doesn’t work.” Though I don’t see why it shouldn’t.


So cheap brandy it was; the Osborne’s 103 brandy de Jerez that I’d been failing to finish off for several years. Did it help? Well, I had an incredibly deep sleep, but that could have been due to the fact that I scarcely got any sleep at all the night before that.

I had a mad dream too, but dreams are supposed to be mad, aren’t they? When people say, “I had a really weird dream…” Of course you did; it was a dream.

So did it help? I suppose it did.

I tried having a whisky the next night, and I don’t actually recall whether it did me any good – I think I forgot to take the paracetomol. What I did notice was that I couldn’t taste anything, so it was a complete waste of one of my better whiskies. So it transpires that it was a good job I didn’t have any decent brandy, since it would have been a waste to drink that, too.

A particular barrier to enjoying your strong alcohol can be that your nasal passages might be completely blocked. Obviously the senses of smell and taste are connected, so you’re only getting half of the package. On top of that, you don’t get the chance to roll your liquor around and hold it in your mouth because at some point you have to take a breath, and you end up inhaling hot alcohol fumes into your fragile oesophagus. It’s just not as enjoyable. Having said that, you can at least enjoy the alcohol buzz that comes with drinking spirits a bit quicker – and that’s why the cheaper ones are so useful. It is always worth keeping something around for these occasions.

Getting a bit off-topic here, but I did get round to trying some hot toddies – pretty simple ones. First I tried an Irish Coffee, in which I used Whyte and MacKay scotch because I didn’t have any Irish whisky. I completely failed at floating the cream on the top. I’m going to have to learn that skill, one of these days. That’s all aesthetic anyway, since I think you tend to stir the cream into the coffee once it’s served.

The recipe I had said to use one and a half ounces of whisky, but for some reason (I must have been ill), I confused half measures with full measures, so I actually added three ounces of whisky by mistake. I have to say; I wasn’t enjoying it. I also had to add a lot more brown sugar than the single teaspoon recommended. I even had to add a couple of teaspoons of white sugar, too. I like my coffee sweet, but I still wasn’t able to finish the drink.

A better alternative that I discovered much later, is just to make an ordinary coffee (from a coffee maker is best), and make it exactly the way you normally like your coffee, but with the milk replaced by Irish Cream – unless you like your coffee black! What’cha gonna do then? I used the Irish Meadow (14.5% ABV), which is Tesco’s (very cheap) alternative to Baileys, and it went down a treat.

My first attempt though, the Irish Coffee, was something of a failure.

For my second hot toddy I tried Soco Spicy Cocoa, found on the Southern Comfort website. You basically make a cup of cocoa, add one and a half ounces of Southern Comfort and top with a pinch of cayenne pepper. Once again, I got my quantities mixed up, and added three measures of Southern Comfort. I think this drink was a little more successful, but I still failed to finish it. This only seems to confirm what I already suspected: hot toddies aren’t for me. I just don’t get hot alcoholic drinks.

I went on to try inventing a hot toddy  – adding a couple of shots of Tesco Value Brandy to a cup of hot Oxo, with garlic powder and salt and pepper – but I don’t think it’s going to catch on. Maybe I need to use less brandy, but then; what’s the point?

I asked Mrs Cake what the big idea was – why people espouse the merits of hot toddies when they’re feeling unwell. She said it was the process of being drunk, but I said you can do that with cold alcoholic drinks. She said the heat makes people feel cosy. But strong alcohol already does that!

So I guess that’s it – alcohol can make you feel a bit better when you’re sick, but drinking a nice spirit is a bit of a waste, so just put something strong in a hot drink. If you don’t like the taste like me, use it as an opportunity to dip into one of your less favoured bottles.

There is one more hot toddy I’d like to try, because it actually sounds nice. If that doesn’t work though, I’m just going to drink some cheap brandy. Then I can replace it and try a different one.

That's it for this week, then. Join me next week, when I might be returning to the theme of hot toddies, or I might be talking about something else. Either way, it's not to be missed.

Summer has hit the M to the C to the R good and proper today (for like, the first time in 7 years), so I'm sure everyone will be out in the beer gardens and barbequeing (sp?) and all that this weekend. I'll be out and about, and hopefully getting to the Chorlton Beer Festival tomorrow. I didn't even realise it was this weekend. Whatever you're up to, have a good un, and try to stay out of trouble. Also, spare a thought for all the people who are out drinking every weekend, whose peace, quiet and beer gardens you're ruining by turning out now it's nice. All right? Cool.