Monday, 26 August 2013

Budget brands: Ballycastle Premium

It had gotten to be quite a while between first laying eyes upon Aldi’s premium Ballycastle Irish Cream and actually getting around to buying it. The only problem was that I’d been so skint that whenever I’ve been in Aldi I hadn’t been able to justify even the paltry £5.99 it costs to indulge my curiosity.
there must be a scientific reason ALL Irish Cream bottles are this shape
 Well, I finally seized my chance. We were doing a snack run, prior to our marathon jaunt to Vietnam, and it was just after pay day – the only time to make willy-nilly booze purchases these days. I took it home, then went on holiday and promptly forgot all about it. It was a nice surprise to see it sitting atop the booze cupboard on my return home, and it certainly made the discovery that we had no cold water in the kitchen easier to take.

We’d already been awake thirty odd hours, and it was only 8 in the morning, so we figured we’d need to stay up at least another 12 hours if we were going to get all compus mentus-like in time for going back to work. Fresh coffee with a drop of Ballycastle was on the cards.


A few days later I went back to it, to try it over ice. I can’t really fault Irish Cream. You like booze? You like ice cream? There’s a good chance you’re going to like Irish Cream. I have tried to find a place for it in my regular drink itinerary, and at the moment, that place is early on a Sunday afternoon, when you’ve got nowhere to go, you’ve already decided you aren’t doing any jobs, and the car can damn well stay where it is.

Now, the good thing about Ballycastle is that it is cheap, but it’s still good. If you go back in time a little, you’ll see that I did a comparative tasting of your standard Ballycastle with the undisputed (and original) Irish Cream king, Baileys way back at the beginning of this blog, and while Baileys was richer, and the Ballycastle somewhat watery by comparison, you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t drinking them side by side. Even if you were… you could still enjoy the Ballycastle which back then was retailing at a tramp friendly £3.99 – not that I’d ever expect to see a tramp drinking Irish cream. I think it’s gone up about 30p since then, and it’s only 14.5% ABV, compared to Baileys’ 17%, but with Baileys costing £12 or more, you have to wonder whether it’s worth the additional outlay.

Well, when it comes to the verdict on the Ballycastle Premium edition, I’ll have you know; you are getting your money’s worth for that extra £1.70 or so. It’s thicker, richer, more luxurious [than the normal Ballycastle] – I just want to be able to compare it alongside Baileys now, but I can’t imagine wanting to spend £12 on a bottle when I can get this for £5.99. It’s that good.

There must be plenty more brands of Irish Cream on the market, and frankly, it’s time I tried them all so we can see who really is the king. Perhaps then I can issue a really prestigious award.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Hot Toddies Part 2

Good evening. Thanks for joining me again. I hope you enjoyed last week’s Vietnamese adventure. If you missed that, you can see it here.

This week will be a very much more shortlived affair, as I return to the subject of Hot Toddies. If you saw part one, you would know that after a few unsuccessful experiments there was one more I wanted to try. It was some time before I felt unwell enough to try it, and a few days more before I could be bothered to make it, but make it I did, and here’s the resulting post. Enjoy.

Months after beginning my hot toddy investigation, I finally got ill again. It culminated on Saturday when the missus and I both awoke gasping for breath at 4 in the morning. Wide awake, we soon gave up any forlorn hope of sleep and got up to see the dawn in by watching back to back episodes of Columbo. It was actually quite fun, but we felt like shit.

It wasn’t until Tuesday night however, when I was well on the way to recovery, that I got around to trying the remaining hot toddy that I had wanted to try since Part 1. I figured it would be my last chance before I was completely well again.

The drink was Hot Buttered Rum. I can’t really remember where I found this recipe, but here it is:

1 tsp unsalted butter
1 tsp maple syrup
½ tsp ground allspice
50ml gold rum (Bacardi Gold, in my case)
Apple juice to top up
Cinnamon stick and freshly grated nutmeg to garnish

I had to substitute the unsalted butter for salted butter (I’ve often wondered how much difference these things make, but never noticed), the allspice for ‘mixed’ spice (I suspect these are the same under different names – I wasn’t stupid enough to use the Chinese 5 Spice…) and the freshly grated nutmeg for long previously ground nutmeg. I can’t imagine any of those things made too much difference to the outcome.

Similarly I had to adapt the method slightly. I didn’t have a heat proof coffee glass, so I wasn’t able to heat the butter, syrup, allspice and rum in one. Instead I just used a saucepan. Nor could I ‘top up the glass with warmed apple juice’ because I didn’t see the point in heating the apple juice separately, and thus causing more washing up! I just poured the apple juice in with everything else and stirred. I did warm the cinnamon stick though, on the hob – you’re supposed to add it to the drink as a stirrer.

dangerously close to cooking, this is
The instructions said to stir until the butter had emulsified, but I didn’t really know what that meant, so I just stirred until the mixture appeared smooth, and was hot enough to drink. A little internet research I’ve just done defines emulsified as “to turn into an emulsion” and emulsion as ‘a suspension of small globules of one liquid in a second liquid with which the first will not mix’ – like oil and vinegar. If that’s the case, the mixture was surely already emulsified. Eeh, ah dunt know.

The drinking of this mixture pretty much confirmed the way I already feel about hot toddies. On first test, my reaction was, ‘that’s quite nice’, but it didn’t last. The flavour is very much a case of sweet and sour, and for me, that gets old very quickly. When was the last time you had sweet and sour chicken from the Chinese? Yeh (assuming it was ages ago). The further down the mug I got, the harder work it became, and the less pleasant. In fact, I would go so far as to say the drink made me feel worse than I did already. But that’s probably just me.

Of all the drinks of this genre I’ve tried, this was the most complicated but also most successful. I still don’t buy into this whole warm alcoholic drinks thing, though. If that’s just that I haven’t found one for me yet, I don’t know. Nevertheless, I still favour my strong alcohol on its own.

If you think you can suggest a warm alcoholic remedy that might just change my mind, go for it. I’m still willing to experiment, though it could be some time before I’m unwell again.

And that’s it for this week. I know, uncharacteristically brief, but you know, sometimes there isn’t that much to say, and it’s not like anyone ever reads more than a couple of paragraphs of a blog anyway. Just a quick word about this coming weekend then; it’s an exciting time because it’s the start of the football season. Mrs Cake will feel like she’s The Old Widow Cake from time to time over the next 9 months as I go to a friend’s house to watch Liverpool matches and stay up late watching matches I’ve recorded on TV. Spare a thought for her, won’t you? And... make sure you have a great weekend. 

Friday, 9 August 2013

Booze Tourism: Vietnam... Part 2

Bottles and cans, just clap your hands, just clap your ha-ands…

So now I’ve covered the journey to and from Vietnam with an emphasis on booze that you can get nearly anywhere in the world, let’s get down to the subject of actual Vietnamese booze, starting with beer.

They do make nice lager in Vietnam. I tried a number of varieties, including Saigon (which comes in green (4.3% ABV) and red (4.9% ABV) varieties), Bia 333 (5.3%), Hanoi (4.2% I think) and Phong Dinh (check). It can be quite hard to find a cold beer, and what starts as cold doesn’t stay that way for long, but nevertheless, it’s readily available (in all kinds of shops, restaurants, bars, hotels and on the street) and when you’re used to Manchester prices, it’s also cheap. Prices vary between 9000 Vietnamese Dong (that was for a bottle of Phong Dinh in Can Tho) at one end of the spectrum and 30000 VND for a 330ml can of Tiger or Heineken at the other. Really, there’s no need to be paying ‘premium’ prices for brands you’ve heard of when you can get a bottle of Saigon for 12000. Bear in mind, £1 was about 32000 dong.
just enough for a brew
beer is cheaper than juice
beer in Can Tho
All those zeros get confusing after a while, and you’ll find yourself rejecting the chance to eat in a particular restaurant because Saigon is 30000 dong, and you’re used to paying only 12000. It’s still less than a pound.

From here on in I’m going to move to a system that my friend Paul invented for coping with all those zeroes – replacing ‘thousand’ with ‘kilo’ and ‘million’ with ‘mega’ (Paul works in programming), so for our purposes a pound is now 32 kilodong. Got it? Let’s move on.

It’s all bottles and cans in Vietnam. Apparently you don’t buy anything on draught because they water it down and the water’s not safe to drink. It’s not a problem though, because the problem never came up. And anyway, if I got a problem, a problem got a problem till it’s gone. An added bonus is that because it’s all cheap, you can even justify drinking stuff out of the minibar. I don’t think I’ve ever used a minibar before for anything other than keeping my own drinks cold, but at 60p for a can of Bia 333, well, you might as well, because when you get back to your hotel after a couple of hours pounding the concrete in 35 degree heat, you’re ready for the refreshing rasp of an ice cold beer.

I’ve never really thought about it before, but ice cold beer hits the spot in hot weather in a way that other ice cold drinks can’t. Sure, coke is fricking awesome when it’s ice cold, but there’s something about it that doesn’t match up to a beer. What it is, is that coke (and other soft drinks) are sweet, so once the initial refreshment has subsided, your mouth feels all sticky and you want another drink. Beer on the other hand, is sharp tasting, but not sweet at all. This means the liquid leaves your mouth feeling refreshed and satisfied – with the added bonus of ‘buzz’. Though you may still want another one. And that’s my scientific explanation for the day.

A bit of advice here (should you be in Vietnam), for if you are offered a drink, say on a tour or something. It works like this: if they put it in your hand, it’s free. If it is offered to you on a tray, you’ll be asked to pay – but later. That almost rhymes. I’ll see if I can work on that. If handed to me, then free this drink be. If offered on a tray, I should expect to pay. There you go.

We drank a lot of beer in Vietnam – every day, except I think, two days when we were on a cruise around Halong Bay. I’m pretty sure beers were 60000 dong on that boat, so we weren’t having any of that. We had a couple of cocktails in happy hour, when it was two for one, but you had to have two of the same cocktail. Mrs Cake pointed out that this didn’t make sense since all the cocktails were the same price, but them’s the rules, so don’t go breaking em.

ah, sweet Glenfarclas
I think we overpriced ourselves a little on that trip, booking one of the more expensive cruises, because when we got there we were surrounded by lawyers and people who were clearly more affluent than us, people who weren’t concerned to be paying a premium on their drinks. We’d be there at dinner, drinking our free water, saying no whenever the waiter asked if we wanted to order drinks, while they’d be buying cocktails and bottles of wine. It made me feel a bit cheap. At least I had my Glenfarclas downstairs in the cabin.

When it came time to embark on the cruise, I started to think that maybe I ought to have bought a full size bottle of something in Duty Free at Manchester, instead of the half bottle. I was having little fantasies about turning our deck into the party deck – like it was a teen movie from the 80s. Everyone would be hanging out with us, and I’d be the centre of attention, wearing shades even though it was night time and divvying out generous measures of scotch. We’d all be wearing Hawaiian shirts and passing doobies around, while a conga line weaves in and out of the cabins. At least part of that fantasy is Teen Wolf, I think.

Things didn’t quite work out that way. It was a pretty sedate cruise, and our neighbours were a polite family from Germany and a really annoying, noisy family that we assumed was from the US. One of them was a camp little lad who sang tunelessly to himself (you could hear it through the walls), and said everything five times:

“Dad, this is wet. This is wet, Dad. Dad, this is wet. This is wet. Dad, this is wet. Dad; it’s wet”.

The teenage daughter could be heard to be losing the cabin keys every single time it was time for them to leave the cabin. The mother was ok, but the dad was a bit of a dick who wouldn’t set a good example for his kids by wearing a life jacket during the canoeing excursion.

So no partying on deck two, then. That was ok. I find socialising with strangers tiring, and all I wanted to do was lounge around with the missus and a glass of the good stuff.

Yes, I am hardcore

Ok, what else should you be looking for when you go booze touring in Vietnam? Well, they have a much wider selection of alcohols than I expected, and it’s cheaper and more readily available than in Malaysia, which was the last [and only other] place we [have] visited in Southeast Asia. I remember paying the equivalent of £10 for three 330ml cans of Jaz lager there, on the island of Tioman. You could get twenty bottles of Saigon for that price in Vietnam.

They don’t encourage drinking in Malaysia, being that it is largely a muslim country. That’s actually a good thing since health and safety is pretty much non-existent – with all the holes in the pavement and rubble around there’s a good chance you’d break your leg if you went out and got shit-faced. Not so in Vietnam; there’s plenty of cheap booze and all you need do is make sure you look out for mopeds. Crossing the road takes a bit of practice, but the general rule is just keep going.

On our first full day we met our friends Paul and Victoria in HCMC. They happened to be there at the same time as us, so it was great to be able to meet up and go drinking.

Vietnamese vodka
They were staying in the backpacker district on Bui Vien, where it’s all happening. Street bars overflow into the road, people go up and down selling all kinds of crazy stuff (I was offered weed twice, sex once, my fortune and a neck massage… this last one from a guy. Who’s this? I asked Paul as I felt some hands on my neck – because when people do that, you just assume it’s someone you know. I dunno, he said. Oh! It’s a guy.)

So we went out drinking, and decided to try some of the local stuff. First up was Vietnamese vodka. It came in a surprisingly generous measure, but as soon as I tasted it I understood why; it tasted like vodka but appeared to be watered down. Later (at a different place) I asked if they had anything stronger, explaining that the Vietnamese vodka appeared to be watered down. The waiter looked puzzled and suggested Vietnamese whisky. That was satisfactory. I don’t know which brand it was, but it was fine. At least I remember it that way, which is to say I don’t really remember it at all. I later discovered that the vodka would have been Hanoi vodka. It was available all over the place, and turned out to be only 29% ABV. I wouldn’t be buying that to take home.
Vietnamese whisky

I didn’t really expect that there would be much choice in the way of Vietnamese vodka, but at Hanoi Airport, I found I was wrong. We were due, in a couple of days, to head to the largest island in Vietnam, Phu Quoc and, not knowing how much booze was going to cost, or even how readily available it would be, Mrs Cake and I figured it might be useful to take some with us. The Glenfarclas was on its last legs by this point, and we needed something that Mrs Cake could drink (ie: mix) anyway.

On perusing the various shops in the airport, I passed over the Hanoi vodka, and soon found a brand by the name of Nep Moi, at 77 kilodong and 39% ABV. That’s about £2.41 for 60cl. I was reluctant really because I was aware that asian palates can vary quite significantly from our western ones (see Baiju), and you just never know with vodka, do you? Especially at under £2.50. I reasoned it out though, and figured if it’s shit, I can just pour it down the sink for that price.

So I was on the verge of buying it when Mrs Cake found another variety, Lua Moi at 84 kilodong. At the time, that was £2.61, and it was an impressive 45% ABV. We immediately had a winner.

I waited until the first day in our beach front bungalow on Phu Quoc before breaking the seal on that one, and I was immediately impressed. Yes, it’s strong, which goes in its favour, but in terms of flavour, there is none of that bitterness that so many cheap vodkas seems to have – and that surprised me because when I say “cheap” vodkas, I’m referring to your Red Squares and Smirnoffs, brands that retail from £10 to £18. Lua Moi was really cheap by comparison.

I’ll tell you something else, I’m going to say this vodka was so good that I’m going to rank it 2nd behind Stolichnaya in the all time vodka hierarchy, and to be fair, considering the value factor, it may be even better than that. I can’t say without a direct comparison, and I do love Stolichnaya, but value isn’t the most important consideration anyway. I’d happily place a £100 bottle at number one if I liked it enough.

I relied on the Lua Moi for the entire week that we resided on Phu Quoc. I did start to wonder, would I drink and enjoy this if I were at home, and had all my other bottles to choose from? The answer, I determined, is yes - probably early on Friday evenings, which is when I normally go for the vodka if I want it neat.

Before Phu Quoc though, I unexpectedly got the chance to explore some more unusual Vietnamese drinks, when we did a two day tour of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong Delta is the main agricultural area of Vietnam where they grow millions of tonnes of rice and fruit. It didn’t sound that interesting in the guidebook, but yes, it’s good. You basically tootle up and down the river in various sized boats, occasionally pausing to don one of those comical conical hats. There’s not a lot of wildlife to see, because if it moves, I think they eat it, but you know, they make up for it with houses on stilts, floating markets and the like.

snake wine
The first stop was a factory, where they seem to make everything – sweets, rice paper, snake… related… things… alcohol, and snake-related alcohol. Our guide, Xuan, let me try their banana wine (which was nice) as well as the snake wine. That’s the snake wine you can see there in the big jar with snakes in it. You’ll find this stuff for sale all over Vietnam, and when bottled, in most cases the snake will be arranged with a scorpion in its mouth. Judging by episodes of UK Border Force and… that New Zealand one (is it Nothing to Declare?), I’m thinking it would probably be illegal to bring a bottle into the country, not that you’d want to anyway, despite the fact it is supposed to increase one’s virility (no problems there, thanks). Imagine if the bottle broke in your bag, and you had to get the dead snake out of there… ew.

I certainly didn’t want to buy one, but I was glad to be able to try it. I was only given a little, but I think I’d say it tasted a bit aniseedy. It reminded me a little of Hierbas Ibicencas, but I couldn’t give you much more detail than that. It looks like I was the only tourist prepared to give it a go. You’re not hardcore unless you live hardcore, and yes, I am hardcore.

They call it snake wine, but it’s more like snake spirit really, as its alcohol content is around 45%. So it’s pretty hard with or without the snake. Similarly, the banana wine is also more like spirit in terms of strength. I don’t know why they call it wine.

The next part of the tour involved going to a house to sample some different kinds of fruit, one of which was longan, a small fruit with a large seed that they also use to make liquor. On arrival, our host gave us each a thimble-full, which we were encouraged to neck. I thought it tasted like grappa, and therefore enjoyed it very much. Mrs Cake wasn’t so keen, so I got to finish hers and since I professed a liking for it, I was offered another sample before we left.

After we’d set out on the boat again, I asked Xuan about the longan wine, whether it was available to buy in the shops, and he said it wasn’t; the man at the house distilled his own, but he could probably get some for me. Another tour from the same company had been just behind us, so he put in a call to the other guide, asking if he could pick some up, and how much it was (150 kilodong/ £4.70).

I thought about it for a bit, and figured this was what I was looking for; a kind of alcohol that is exotic and difficult to find. I asked Xuan whether it was safe – having been to whisky distilleries on Islay, and hearing that they have to discard the high and low alcohols during the distilling process to ensure nothing dangerous gets in, I wondered whether they took the same care with a home still in Vietnam? This could essentially be like moonshine and make me go blind. The guy at the house obviously wasn’t blind, I figured (unless he was like Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli) or dead (unless he was like er… Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense), so I rationalised that it was probably all right, and Xuan said it was safe. Even in Vietnam his company would probably get in trouble for peddling lethal poisons to visitors. Possibly.

longan wine
I decided to go for it, and after lunch the other guide had caught up to us and Xuan presented me with a mineral water bottle filled with longan wine, that didn’t look unlike urine. I opened it and gave it a sniff to make sure. It was the real deal, so I immediately formed a plan to conduct a comparative tasting between it and my £48 bottle of Domenis Blanc e Neri grappa on my return home. You’ll be able to see the results of that in some future post.

I asked Xuan if it were legal to distil your own spirits in Vietnam, and he said it wasn’t, but it turned out he was joking.

Our friends Paul and Victoria had moved on to Laos where, coincidentally they picked up their own bottle of exotic booze in a water bottle. This was supposedly whisky, though you can see from the picture that it is colourless, and therefore unaged – I think we all know what the Scotch Whisky Association would think about that. This bottle actually has a label, and was apparently properly sealed – unlike mine, which was clearly just a re-used water bottle with some cling film and an elastic band over the cap to protect against leakage.
Laotian "whisky"

I did eventually take the longan wine over to Paul’s house for him to try, and I got to try the Laotian whisky in reciprocation. I quite liked it, while Paul said he enjoyed the experience of trying the longan wine rather more than the spirit itself.

So, on to Phu Quoc which was a lovely protracted period of drinking casually and relaxing: Saigon beer for lunch and Lua Moi vodka in the early evenings [and at bedtime] for 7 days.

There was a family run convenience store (open 18 hours a day, 7 days a week) just up the road that sold cold beers at a fraction of the price of our resort, and had a surprisingly eclectic mix of spirits on offer. In fact, I was surprised at the number of shops and stalls in Vietnam that sold beer and spirits. I suspect you don’t need a licence over there. I had been reluctant to buy spirits from any of the shops in HCMC or Hanoi (except the fancy liquor stores that frankly looked expensive), figuring that a country that is so renowned for knock off culture in everything [I bought a Vietnam football shirt in HCMC that says ‘Adidas’ on the outside, and ‘Mr JR Hung’ on the label, like it’s someone’s PE kit] is probably the same when it comes to alcohol – is that genuine Johnnie Walker for sale on that stall, or is it poison? I’m pretty sure some of my online research had mentioned that there are a number of deaths caused by drinking dodgy Vietnamese booze every year, so a policy of caution seemed to be the best bet.

Nevertheless, I was willing to give it a go once I saw our local convenience store. It all looked perfectly above board, and since we were there nearly every day buying beer (there was no fridge in our bungalow) and on one occasion a second hand bottle opener, I had plenty of opportunity to scout out its wares. It was there that I found my purchase. It’s a brand called Wall Street, and it’s a blend of scotch whisky and Vietnamese Spirit. I’m not sure what that means as yet, but you can be sure I’ll tell you about it once I open it.

 In terms of strength, Wall Street is only 39%, which means the Scotch Whisky Association wouldn’t even consider it to be ‘genuine whisky’. In its defence, nowhere on the box or bottle does it claim to be whisky anyway. It was 225 kilodong or £7.05, so quite expensive really. In a restaurant on the beach though, a single shot of it was 100 kilodong, so that makes the bottle at 75cl excellent value.

Since arriving home, I’ve found that there is a ‘Diageo’ label around the top of the bottle, but what that means I have no idea. There is no mention of it among the brands on their website, and I haven’t found anything out about it elsewhere online so far. Maybe it’s got some Caol Ila in it? I suppose I’ll never find out for sure, but I’ll let you know what it’s like somewhere in the fullness of time.

It was a fantastic holiday then, full of joy, adventure and alcohol. I love Southeast Asia, and recommend it to anyone, except probably my parents. They wouldn’t know what to do – with the heat, with the food, with the mopeds… but I love all that. I love the sweating, the activity, the buzz, the atmosphere. I wish I could live there. But now it’s over. I don’t mind flying for 16 hours when you’ve got your holiday to look forward to when you arrive, but when it’s the other way around and all you’ve got is 50 shades of grey Manchester weather, jetlag, rain and work to look forward to… it’s hard to feel optimistic. Still, at least I’ve got a couple of new bottles of booze to look forward to opening, and I’ll be ordering that Japanese single malt before too long…

Thanks once again for joining me this week. Hopefully you’ve found it interesting and will feel like coming back sometime soon. I’m going out now for dinner and drinks with some very good friends, but I’ll be back next week with whatever I’ve got planned for then. Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you later.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Booze Tourism: Vietnam, man!

It has been quite some time since I had a booze tourism adventure to tell you about – I suppose the Distilgrimage would have classed as one, but I didn’t make that connection until just now… Nevertheless, this time I’ve got quite an adventure for you – such an adventure in fact, that it will have to be told in two parts. In April, the missus and I embarked on a trip to the South East Asian country of Vietnam in what we were calling Honeymoon Part 2. You can read about Honeymoon Part 1 here.

I always look forward to going away on holiday – for all the obvious reasons – but also because it means I can try lots of new different kinds of alcoholic beverage, hit the Duty Free, make some new acquisitions and all that good stuff. Deciding what to buy and thinking about buying it and then buying it are all fun things for the alcothusiast – probably exceeded only by the actual opening of it - and holidays are a time when I try to forget about cash flow realities, and just think, I am going to buy some interesting booze, and there is nothing you can do to stop me. Try it. Go on. Told you.

Beyond the Duty Free, I hadn’t really expected Vietnam to provide all that much in terms of booze excitement – Malaysia didn’t – but I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact the Duty Free turned out to be the least interesting part, so we may as well start there. There’s lots to tell you about, so let’s get gannin’.

It was hot and noisy and I was definitely sitting in my pants

I began thinking about possible targets a good couple of weeks before departure, so that I might be best prepared when the time came to make the most of the limited purchases a traveller can make. You’re pretty much allowed a litre of spirits, but in my case it’s two litres because I had Mrs Cake’s allowance to supplement my own.

Research began with a quick look in the Rough Guide to Vietnam, where I read about ruou can, which is rice distilled liquor and thought that might be an interesting option. Then I read about Mekong Whisky on the internet, but some reviews suggested it might make you ill. On top of that, it seemed that it was made in Thailand, was more like rum than whisky, and wasn’t even available any more in any case. I’ll put you out of your misery; none of this proved useful since I didn’t see either of those products anywhere.

Since my early forays into research proved so unsuccessful, I started thinking laterally. I figured Vietnam is near Japan, isn’t it? Yes, kind of, so wouldn’t it make sense that Duty Free in Vietnam would be a good place to pick up some Japanese single malts? Stands to reason.

With that in mind, I started some over-geeky, exhaustive research.

Japanese whisky is renowned for its quality. According to Jim Murray’s 2013 Whisky Bible, the atmospheric conditions in Japan are preferable to those in Scotland, to the degree that 42 summers in Japan are equivalent to 70 in Scotland in terms of whisky maturation. I’m not really sure how useful that is; how often do you hear of scotch being aged 70 years? I keep reading that whisky can be over-aged, so if anything is going to be over-aged, surely it’s going to be the 70 year old stuff… why not just say 7 years in Japan is equivalent to 12 in Scotland? Why, Jim?

I had tried Japanese whisky just once previously myself – Suntory Hibiki 17 – and I was duly impressed. I figured this was as good a chance as any to get my hands on a bottle of my own.

I found a few websites that were dedicated to Japanese whisky (linked on the right of this page…), and left them each comments, letting them know I was finding their information useful, and one of them actually replied… to tell me that they had been to Vietnam, and from what they could remember, there wasn’t any Japanese whisky in the Duty Free, but wished me luck anyway. Undeterred, I figured there would surely be something at Dubai airport – where we had to catch connecting flights in both directions, so I wasn’t worried. Just to bring some of the excitement of purchasing booze forward a little, I also decided I’d pick something up from the Duty Free at Manchester Airport for consumption during the holiday… something I suspect I’ll be doing more frequently from now on.

I figured a 35cl bottle would do, since I didn’t want to be discouraged from picking up and opening extra things along the way.

I’d like to note at this point that there were three or four Japanese single malts available in Manchester Airport’s Duty Free – Suntory Hibiki, Yamazaki and the like. I’d already decided though, that I wanted to spend less than £15 and get a single malt scotch. They had various expressions of Glenfiddich in 20cl form, as well as the blend Johnnie Walker Blue in 35cl format, but none fitted my idea of what I wanted to get for my money. I opted for a 35cl bottle of Glenfarclas 10 year old. I’d never had this one before. It’s a Speyside single malt, and is a pretty standard 40%. Next stop; Dubai.
Glenfarclas 10 
Dubai Airport is like the hub of the whole world. It’s like the cantina in Star Wars; people from all over the universe passing through on their way elsewhere… It’s great seeing such a diverse range of people peacefully coexisting and going about their business. Our schedule didn’t afford us much time to hang out there this time, but there was ample opportunity to scout out possible purchases for the return leg. As you might expect, there was a lot of scotch, but once again, there were no Japanese malts, so I would have to pin my hopes on Duty Free at Ho Chi Minh City, which would be our departure point on the return leg.

On arriving at our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, a good 15 hours or more (without sleep) after our 8pm departure from Manchester, I considered postponing the opening of the Glenfarclas, to build up a bit of anticipation, but then I thought… phuckit, I may as well try it now, on our balcony, in the searing evening heat, in me pants.

Here’s a picture of it out on the balcony. Unfortunately you can’t feel the heat, hear the noise, or see me sitting in my pants, but take it from me, it was hot and noisy and I was definitely sitting in my pants – photo evidence of that exists, though if you saw it, you might think there were no pants…

I was a bit disappointed to find that the bottle had a screwcap. I think that’s the first time I’ve seen a single malt without a cork – even on a 35cl bottle. Mind you, this was only the first 35cl bottle I’d ever bought, and I think I’ve only ever owned one other, so it might be more common than I think. You can let me know in the comments if you like.

If there was ever any doubt over my geek credentials, let me just dispel the rumours by saying, yes, I did consider taking a Glencairn glass with me, so that I might be able to give my purchase a proper nosing and tasting. Common sense prevailed though, and I settled on using whatever type of glass was provided in each hotel room. As a result perhaps, my tasting notes are somewhat lacking. I’ve got nothing under ‘nose’, and under ‘palate’ all I have is ‘soft, light and pleasingly oily – a little bit of sherry in there, I think’.

That impression was gleaned progressively throughout tastings in HCMC, Hanoi, Halong Bay and finally, Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, where I polished it off while watching week old Premier League action on the TV. My moment of maximum appreciation (which is now going to be a ‘thing’ that will henceforth be abbreviated to MOMA – every bottle has one) came one night previously in our honeymoon suite in Hanoi. Sweet and delicate. Nice. I think I’ll buy this again some time. I wonder whether it benefited to some extent from the hot and humid climate.
at Halong Bay

So how did I get on with procuring some Japanese single malt? Well, I’ll tell you: I didn’t. On the whole trip – which took in several destinations and airports – I only saw one bottle of Japanese single malt whisky. It was in a fancy looking liquor store in Hanoi, and it didn’t have a price on it. I didn’t bother asking as there seemed to be a family in there having their evening meal. As I was flying back to HCMC the next day, and still had some Glenfarclas, I didn’t want two glass bottles in my bag, pushing the weight allowance and potentially causing breakage.

By this point I had decided that, should Duty Free in HCMC be disappointing, I’d save my allowance (like I’m a teenager in a film from the 80s) until returning to Dubai, at which point I’d get a very reasonably priced bottle of Wild Turkey 101 (50.5% ABV), like the first time I went to Canada. I didn’t realise back then that whiskies were produced in different expressions, so when Mrs Cake bought me a bottle of Wild Turkey a couple of years later, I couldn’t figure out why it was only 40%, and wondered whether I had imagined the stronger version.

Ultimately HCMC Airport did turn out to be disappointing, the only highlight being a free sample of Camus Ile de Re Cliffside Cellar Cognac, which I’d never heard of before, but saw throughout the airports of Vietnam. They gave me a little dribble, and I wished I’d just poured my own without asking. A full bottle was something like $110, but I could have had away with a full plastic cup, and just wandered the airport sipping it if I’d been a bit more daring. I don’t know if I could say a bottle would be worth as much as that, but I did enjoy that little dribble.

Unfortunately I didn’t even get chance to pop back in to Duty Free in Dubai, as our plane was boarding by the time we got to the gate. Nevermind. I’d spent a bit more money than expected, and figured I’d just save my budget and buy a bottle of Japanese single malt when I got home – I’d got over £40 in Amazon vouchers to use, and that seems like a good way to spend them. Once again, watch this space.

You can’t get drunk on three whiskies in 8 hours. You just can’t.

I have a bit of a problem when it comes to flying long distances – I’m one of those people who can’t sleep on a plane. I have to be able to lay flat on my side, and that just ain’t happening. There is no lying on your side in an airplane seat. I wonder why they don’t just do rows of bunks on aircraft instead of seats. That would work a treat. Sure, it would make the meals a little tricky, but I it would be totally worth the sacrifice.

No, no matter how tired I get, the most I can manage is a fitful 20 minutes here and there. It does make you feel a little better, but generally exacerbates the feeling that you are waking up in purgatory. In fact, on a flight back from Canada some time ago, someone told me there was a product I could buy in a pharmacy that would just put me out for the duration. Sounds great, right? Fall asleep, wake up at your destination. No. It just made me even more tired than I already was, but still unable to catch any zeds.

The only time I have been able to sleep for anything like a decent amount of time on a plane was on our return from Malaysia, where we were upgraded to Business Class. It was nice having all that room, and chairs that recline almost (but not near enough) to flat, but even this was annoying because they had three types of scotch in business class, of varying ages, that I would have liked to have tried if I’d been awake on the rare occasions they came round.

So, how was I going to deal with two consecutive flights of around 8 hours each, starting at 8 in the evening, this time? Well, the benefit of flying with airlines like Emirates is… that the alcohol is free. So I was just going to drink whisky the whole way – and I was looking forward to that.

It’s surprising though, how challenging this can be. First you have to wait for take off, after which it can take an age for the drinks trolley to reach your seat. Then you have no idea how long it’s going to be until next time. Maybe there will be a meal first, maybe not. You could just keep calling the stewardess over, but you don’t want to be a dick demanding drinks for 8 hours. They’re probably told to monitor alcohol intake. Then you can’t just lose yourself in your book, or in listening to music or watching films because you have to be on a constant state of alertness. If you’re not, they just slink past, assuming you’re not going to want anything. We were also in a kind of stewardess no-man’s land where it appeared they were about to start every run with our row, but then they’d just fuck off and start right at the back or right at the front and get to us last.

On the first flight (Manchester to Dubai), I managed a paltry three drinks. That’s piss poor. In fact, I’m pretty sure I had to get up and ask for one of them. I ask you.

The scotch in question was Johnnie Walker Red, which I always profess to not being very fond of. I have to say though, I thoroughly enjoyed it (at first). It was light and smooth, and I swear I could taste a bit of the Caol Ila that is famously in there, though obviously it didn’t come anywhere near the complexity of the Islay malt. It also lacked the sweetness. By my third though, I had started to feel I was immune to its flavour, and needed something else.

Mrs Cake asked me if I was getting drunk. I said you can’t get drunk on three whiskies in 8 hours. You just can’t.

Luckily on the second leg of the trip (Dubai to HCMC), I learned that they also had Dewar’s White Label, which I hadn’t had before, and was glad to be able to give it a try. It contains an element of the sweetness that the JW Red lacks. I managed about 5 of these, which I thought was fairly good going. At one point the steward actually gave me two at once (just in case). I had started to order ‘whisky and coke’ so that I could knock back the coke for refreshment before sipping the whisky at leisure for prolonged periods.

Except for the demoralising tiredness, tension over when I could next request a drink, and strain of maintaining the degree of alertness that facilitating consistent plane-drinking requires, it was a fairly enjoyable flight. They need to get those drinks out a bit quicker and more frequently, though.

I was hoping to have a nice booze buzz when I we arrived at HCMC, but I was still sober as a judge.

On the way back I was a little less in the mood for drinking, but there’s always some part of me that says, ‘you may as well’, so I decided to see what kind of brandy they had, and it was Hennessey VSOP, another I hadn’t tried previously. It was pretty good, and though I had only the one, I’m fairly sure I enjoyed it more than the Courvoisier VSOP that I had a bottle of some time ago. It’s smoother on the palate, and a bit less bitter on the finish.

That then, concludes part 1 of Vietnamese booze tourism. Join me next week for part two when I’ll be getting a bit more ensconced in things that are actually Vietnamese and talking about beer, vodka and unusual Vietnamese drinks – amongst other things.