Sunday, 26 January 2014

Spirit Log: Sagatiba Cachaca

Sagatiba Cachaca
What’s this? It’s cachaca, a spirit from Brazil that forms the core of the famous (and delectable) caipirinha cocktail. If you wanted a rough idea of what it’s like, it’s kind of like a mid point between rum and tequila, and like rum (at least) it can come in white, gold and dark varieties, informed by a process of ageing – sometimes up to as many as 15 years.

The variety you’re looking at here is Sagatiba. It’s 38% ABV, and is presented in a fancy bottle that has a print on the inside, producing a psychedelic-type effect. It’s what you’d call entry level really, retailing at around £18 and primarily for mixing. Being produced from sugar cane, it is quite sweet and while you can drink it straight of course, it isn’t as interesting as you might hope.

the legendary caiprinha - ignore the apples
Sagatiba is the first brand I’ve tried, so I don’t have any terms of reference to compare it against other than rum and tequila, both of which I have a little more experience… of. However, it is intriguing enough to delve a little deeper into and it’s certainly worthwhile for those caipirinhas. No, you don’t need it in your booze collection, since rum can ably replace it in any cocktails (and vice versa), but if you’re interested in strong liquors from around the world like I am, your education won’t be complete before you’ve given it a try. And even then, you best try a few more as I intend to.

I finished my bottle by taking it to last year’s Sounds From the Other City festival in Salford in a hip flask, and that was definitely a good idea. The screaming row Mrs Cake and I had for three hours later that night obviously had nothing to do with the cachaca. No, nothing at all.

Before I go, here's the basic caiprinha recipe for you, so you can go forth and get hammered. Enjoy.

caipirinha in close up
50ml cachaca
Half a fresh lime, cut into wedges
2 teaspoons white sugar
Sqeeze and drop lime into a rocks glass, add sugar, muddle, add cachaca, top up with ice cubes, stir

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Poker Night... Part 3

Happy Sunday, everybody! You join me today as I reminisce on another poker night that I really should have told you about earlier, but life got in the way. So without further prevarication, I give you... poker night part 3.

Another Saturday, another poker event, another haze of drunken tomfoolery, and very good it was too – and not just because I won two of the rounds and finished second in the other. To be fair, I should have won that one too, but I got a bit carried away on the penultimate hand and betted when I should have gotten out.

Poker sure is fun, and we had a great old laugh, but one of the things I look forward to at least as much as the poker and the laughter… is the booze. I almost said there that it is an unwritten rule that you need to bring some special hard liquor with you, but frankly not everyone does. David brought a bottle of champagne to celebrate his new job appointment and a bottle of RuaVieja – which oddly enough has featured on these pages before (twice in fact) while Chris and Dave just took care of cider for themselves. I decided on a few bottles of whisky for everyone to try – Jim McEwan’s Symphony No 1, a blend which continues to go down very nicely, a Glenmorangie Original that I hadn’t opened yet, and… the one I’d been waiting to open for about a month… the Suntory Hakushu 12.

I’d also requested that Dave collect a few bottles of Double Maxim from his local Morrison’s, which he was kind enough to do.

So it was straight in with a beer, and the beginning of the poker.

The first game always seems to be a bit cagey, as the various players try to feel out the parameters – how cautious should you be? What effect are the specific blinds going to have? What are the playing styles of each player?

I won the first two or three hands, and it was looking good. We all betted cautiously, but I started to grow bolder as I saw that I seemed to be the only one getting decent hands. Chris was folding almost straight away every time, and Dave was bluffing when he had absolutely nothing. He won one or two like that though, and in the end it came down to me and him.

I’d almost finished my second beer by this point, had started a glass of the Symphony (no 1! 46% ABV), and was alternating sips of that with gulps of David’s champagne. So as we reached the closing stages of the first game, I realised I was on the way to being drunk – this was before dinner, of course. Three to four pints of water were in order.

That worked a treat, but not quick enough to prevent me betting big on the penultimate hand when I had nothing. A minute or two after that it was all over, and I knew it had all been my fault.

After popping out to the local curry house for tea, I went on to win games two and three [bit of poetry there for you]. I can’t recall any details about these, but I know there was a great deal of raucous laughter and smutty humour. I haven’t laughed so much and so heartily in a long time. David tells me that as we were clearing up afterwards, Chris mistook pictures of playing cards on the box of the poker set for real cards, and tried to pick them up. He then put on his glasses and went to sleep on the sofa. Dave and I joked that he had put on his glasses so that he could see his dreams better.

Game two was preceded by the opening of the Glenmorangie Original, which is 40% ABV, and 10 years old . I’d only tried this once before, and hadn’t been impressed, but there was a possibility the contents of that bottle had been compromised over time, since I was told the cork had atrophied. My bottle was an impulse buy when I saw it at £6 off on a trip to Tesco. I was never going to pay full price, and that discount gave me just enough incentive to give it a go. At first taste it seemed thin and uninteresting, but since the poker night in question was some time ago now, I can inform you that it became an example of another single malt that I came to enjoy more thoroughly by the glass.

It is fruity and sweet, and one that I’d encourage you to pick up if you see it on a £25 offer again. I probably will. It scores a remarkable 94 in Jim Murray’s 2013 Whisky Bible, though I wouldn’t quite rate it that highly.

The nose revealed pleasing orange notes while the palate brought sherbet and sweet, sweet barley. Far from being something to write off as an everyday drink, it came to be a treat that I actually preferred most times to the Talisker 10 (read more about that in the coming weeks), that I picked up the next time Tesco had some offers on. It doesn’t place all that highly on the all time single malt rankings, but for a malt at the very lower end of the price spectrum it punches way above its weight.

Back to the poker night, and finally it was the moment I’d been waiting for: the opening of the Suntory Hakushu 12 (43% ABV). I had toyed with the idea of not bringing this along at all, since my bottle of Maker’s Mark had lasted only two poker nights, proving so popular that people just inhaled it. Nevertheless, what’s the point in buying something a bit special if you keep it to yourself? (and anyway, the faster you drink it, the sooner you can buy something else…)

Suntory is the oldest Japanese distiller, and actually owns three distilleries – Yamazaki, Hibiki and Hakushu – each producing their own highly regarded single malts. I’ve tried the Hibiki once before, but this was my first purchase of an actual bottle of Japanese malt, a decision I took based on reviews and scoring from a number of experts and review sites.

The bottle certainly looks the part, but I was a little disappointed to find that it is sealed by a screwcap – a better class of screwcap, I’ll grant you, than the standard one you get with a blended scotch, but still… this is a single malt -  and I was hoping to hear that sound I love so much – you know the one; the squeak and the pop.

Luckily, the contents make up for that one moment of denial. I know Japanese whisky is renowned for its quality, and here I can see why. It reminds me a little of my favourite malt, Caol Ila – though I don’t think it’s quite as good as that. Even so, it reaches a pretty high standard. There’s a lot going on, with a good deal of complexity and drinkability, so was looking forward to getting to know it a little better over the next few months before I come to decide what I’m going to get next.

If you’re looking for some amateurish tasting notes, I’d say it’s soft and fruity on the palate, with a little bit of peat and a slightly bitter finish – which is where it fails against the Caol Ila.

In the end, Suntory Hakushu 12 did not develop into the favourite dram that my over excitable anticipatory gland hoped it might be. Sure, it was fresh, clean and sweet but that bitter finish continued to let it down. It was however my second favourite out of 5 when it made an appearance at the Manchester Whisky Club’s Japanese Whisky Night. It remains to be seen what that says about Japanese whisky in general. I remain keen to try more and, as ever, look forward to the next poker night.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Alternative Bailey's's... Irish Country Cream vs Carolan's

I like Irish Cream, you like Irish Cream… but out of all the brands out there; which is the best? Baileys is the undisputed king – in fact, we always call it “Baileys” even if it’s a completely different brand we’re drinking – but is there a better one? Sadly I can’t get every brand in at once and do a comparative tasting, but I can make it my mission to try them all and arrange them into a hierarchy. That’s the very least I could do.

We’ve already had Aldi’s Ballycastle and Ballycastle Premium, the original Baileys and a budget brand from Tesco going by the name of Irish Meadow, but now I’ve come into possession of a couple more – Irish Country Cream and Carolan’s.

Irish Country Cream - yellowy
Let’s take a look at Irish Country Cream first. This is another budget brand you can pick up from Tesco (£5.45 for 70cl at 14.5%). It comes in a typical Irish cream style bottle (the dark, squat spirit kind) with an uninteresting label. Everything about this murmurs ‘low quality’. But we’re not going to just make that assumption without trying it.

My suspicions were confirmed when I poured my first measure. The liqueur looks yellowy and unappetising. Worse than that, it tastes bitter on the palate. It’s not so bad in strong coffee, but for drinking over ice I’m going to need something a bit better. Luckily I drink a fair amount of coffee with Irish cream in it.

This is the worst Irish Cream yet.

At the other end of the spectrum (though not as far along as Baileys) you have Carolan’s, which at £14.50 (also for 70cl of 14.5 ABV) has to be considered a premium brand. Again, the bottle shape is fairly typical (and dark glass), but the label is very much classier, evoking the aesthetic of a decent Irish pub.

In the glass, the colour conforms to regulations but there is something very much more unique when you get to the tasting. There is something a bit caramelly about it. I don’t know if any of the various other Baileys flavours would be similar (one to try in the future), but that’s definitely what I’m getting. It really is quite pleasant.

There is a drawback however with Carolan’s, and that is that it doesn’t work so well in coffee – you get used to it after a while, but I’d opt for the Premium Ballycastle for that purpose.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with the Premium Ballycastle still being my favourite brand for both my regular uses. I doubt I’ll buy the Carolan’s again with that upper echelon price tag, and I won’t be buying the Country Cream again inspite of its budget tag. Every penny of that saving can be tasted, and better spent on a Ballycastle – premium or standard.

All that remains now is to get an original Bailey’s and a premium Ballycastle, and see who is the champion once and for all. Join me for that... some time in the future.

This round's winner; Carolan's

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Spirits of the Year... 2013

No, I don’t believe in doing an annual review post or anything like that. If you want to know what happened in the year, look back over the blog. Nor do I think I try enough of everything to be able to make sweeping generalisations about such and such being the year’s best single malt or whatever. I would though, just very quickly, like to pay tribute to what I’m going to call my Spirits of the Year. Without getting too formal or anything, these are bottles that I enjoyed massively over the course of 2013. There’s only three, and you’ll notice that there isn’t a single malt amongst them. Single malt is probably what I drink most of, but the reason there isn’t one here – despite some excellent drams this year – is that nothing came out of nowhere and surprised me. Yep, Ardbeg 10 is great, yes, I definitely enjoyed the Caol Ila Distiller’s Edition and the Glenfarclas 10… but I kind of expected all that. So just put that aside and let's pay tribute to the unexpected… in no particular order, other than that in which I thought of it.

Vodka: Stolichnaya 100 Proof

You know that I love Stolichnaya, right? Course you do. I’ve been singing the praises of the 40% ABV red variety for years now, so it is undeniably to the blue variety’s credit that it absolutely rocked my world when I finally got around to buying a bottle. You’ll be able to read more about it in the coming weeks, but let’s just say for now that it is all the red variety is and more – with an extra 10% of ABV thrown on top. Awesome.

lended Scotch: Jim McEwan’s Symphony No 1

You might remember this from my Distilgrimage adventure. This one makes the cut because it was an absolute bargain (£13) and whether you factor in the price or not, it was a delight; the first time I’ve enjoyed a blend so fully – though not the last in2013 (shout outs but no awards, to Ballantine’s Finest and White Horse).

Grappa: Mille Lune

Another spirit that delighted and amazed in equal measure, and that you will be able to read about in more detail in the coming weeks. Despite trying it at the vineyard prior to purchase, it still surprised me on opening at home. Clean and beautifully balanced, this rocketed right to the top of my grappa league table.

So, here’s looking forward to another fun year of fine spirits and heavy drinking. I’ve already got some single malts, blends, and Canadian whiskies to open, and have just broken the seal on another grappa… Then there’s plans for trips to Florida, as well as to various countries within the EU that should yield some interesting purchases.

All of the above were so good that for me, they represent the best that their spirit genre has to offer so let’s hope 2014 brings some examples that challenge their supremacy. I don’t know what the year will bring yet, but you can be sure I’ll be telling you all about it. See you soon for the first proper post of the year and, in the meantime, you can tell me about your favourite spirits of 2013 in the comments.