Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Good for you, Glen, good for you.

the new album by new age artist, Glen Scotia: "Aged 16 Years"
The last time I bought a single malt, you may remember I had trouble deciding what to get, and ended up plumping for another Islay. Well, after that I thought it was about time I created a system to help me explore the world of single malt whisky more fully.

What I did was identify a number of categories and then a method of rotating them (ever the geek). So the main categories were the various Scotch whisky producing regions, plus merchant, Japanese and other, after which there would be subsidiary categories, which would be based around the various expressions you can get – no age/under 10, 10-13, 14-17, 18+, cask strength etc. That way, each time I make a purchase I can narrow down my choices and make sure that ultimately I sample a bit of everything.

As my Talisker dwindled and payday came around, it was time to make my first purchase. My system decreed that it would be a Campbeltown malt, aged between 14 and 17 years. I turned to the three prominent whisky retailers The Whisky Exchange, Master of Malt and Single Malts Direct, and selected the Glen Scotia 16. I’ve never had a Campbeltown before, so I had no idea what to expect.

 Let me say first of all, if I was basing my purchase on presentation this would probably be one of the very last bottles I would ever select… what is going on there? It’s more suited to the cover of an album of new age music than to a lower-mid-range bottle of scotch. I didn’t actually know what that animal was, but the description on The Whisky Exchange informs me that it is a highland cow, and it is framed against the backdrop of aurora borealis on a metallic green bottle that is marginally too tall to go in my special cupboard. Instead it must sit on top with the rabble.

This apparently represents something of a rebranding. Yeah, can’t say I’m a fan of that. But it’s what’s in the bottle that matters, right?

Glen Scotia is actually available in 10, 12, 16, 18 and 21 year old expressions which implies to me that they have a lot of product hanging about. So the 16 is right in the middle. All the expressions are non chill-filtered and bottled at a gusset moistening 46% ABV. Good for you Glen, good for you.

This one set me back £49.45 + P&P.

So what’s the verdict? Verdict is: I like it.

To the eye, the spirit is very pale, almost clear – so you can see why the bottle isn’t. The palate brings something unique to my admittedly slim field of experience. Alongside the more gentle and familiar smokiness there is something synthetic, almost unpleasant tasting on entry, but this very quickly gives way to intriguing complexity. There are what I am going to call edges to the flavour – contrasts that keep me coming back for more. There is citrus in there and a bit of peat, but also, as advertised on the tin, a gentle spiciness. The generous alcohol content certainly makes itself felt, and (together with previous experiences) is making me determined to buy stronger spirits wherever possible.

Finally, the finish has a decent and pleasant length – er… I'll just stop there - before I say something inappropriate.

So, in summation, Glen Scotia 16 makes an interesting and enjoyable dram. I can understand that it won’t be to everyone’s taste – in fact I’m fairly confident that some people will abhor it – but I found it made a nice change, not relying too much on sweetness, and instead stimulating certain edgier tasting faculties.

At £50 it probably is a little bit expensive, but you are getting the benefit of 16 years and no chill filtration (and that 46% ABV). You can definitely get better for a similar price or less, but if you’re into your whisky, you’re going to want to expand your horizons a bit and I don’t think you’d be wasting your money here. I had enough confidence in it to make it my special occasion or guest drink for it’s fairly short lifespan (against some admittedly low prestige competition) and while I don’t think it blew anyone away (few of my guests were as into whisky as I am), it garnered at low key approval.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Agave Maria! It's Siete Leguas Reposado.

hint of green? errrrrrrrrr...no.
 Sorry for the dreadful pun in the title of this week's post. I had this all written and hadn't realised I would need to think of one, so you'll just have to make do with that this time. I'll try harder next time. Here we go...

Having dipped my toes into the welcoming waters of 100% agave with my last tequila purchase (el Jimador), it was time to up the ante even further and spend possibly more than anyone has ever spent before on a bottle. Obviously that isn’t true as such, but all of my friends who got to try it were astounded when I told them I had paid fifty quid for a bottle of tequila. We just don’t do that here.

Now, I don’t know any particular brand of tequila that is any better than any other so I looked for a recommendation, and the one I decided to take was from proof66.com. So at the time of purchase the top rated tequila was Siete Leguas Reposado – that’s Seven Leagues, named after the horse of legendary revolutionary Pancho Villa. It’s aged for 8 months and is bottled at 40%.

This is the first tequila I’ve ever owned that came in its own box, and the bottle is quite ornate with a horse embossed on the base, little agave plants embossed onto the sides and a big wooden hat on the cap. It certainly looks the part.

Now the problem with tequila is that people just don’t think of it as a sipping spirit. The 7 Leguas website suggests that tequila should be held in the mouth for 20 seconds (and then a little air admitted) in order to allow its full flavour to come out, yet most people, when they hear you’ve got tequila want to do shots, or stick in in a tequila sunrise, or do body shots… No! Not with my expensive bottle you don’t!

Actually, yes you do. Body shots was the first thing Mrs Cake and I tried when the bottle arrived in the post. Obviously, this is not the best way to appraise what your tequila has to offer. But there would be plenty of time for that. Or so I thought. I ended up taking it to parties rather more than sitting at home going, “hmmm…”, so I got through it quite quickly. It proved a hit wherever it went.

It’s a very light golden colour, with (according to the producer’s website) hints of green, though I can’t say I noticed that. Yeh, it looks nice. Nose? Don’t know. Palate? Well, it has a nice texture and mellow flavour but I’m struggling to give you any more than that.

I have to say I am surprised that this ranks as among the very best tequilas (still number 2 on proof66) because… it isn’t amazing. I was actually more impressed with the el Jimador because that –being unaged - had a rough edge that I appreciated. The 7 Leagues was smooth and mellow, but there just wasn’t enough going on in terms of flavour. When I’m drinking whisky I’m looking for a lot to be going on in there, so with this tequila I’m disappointed and left wondering whether the people that have rated this so highly are the kind of people who don’t really like the flavour of tequila anyway. That’s not something I can really know the answer to. It was a pleasant tequila, but for £50 I’d be hoping for more. I probably won’t be buying it again – not at that price.

I have since moved on to purchase El Jimador’s Reposado expression, so in the fullness of time we’ll see how that pans out. In the meantime, I'll leave you to explore booze on your own for a week, after which I'll return with a post about something else.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Spirit log:Strathisla 12

bottle and box
This week I think we’ll just have a very quick and basic whisky review. Perhaps it would be a bit unfair to call anything I do an actual review come to think of it… so how about, I don’t know, an account?

Whatever it is, this week I’m looking at a 12 year old Strathisla that I received as a Christmas present. It was a nice surprise because it’s one I hadn’t heard of before.

A bit of internet research revealed that this is something of a new bottling, in which the bottle itself has changed to what I call the Bruichladdich style, the label has become white, minimalist and shows pagodas and, more importantly, the strength has been reduced from a healthly 43 to a disappointing 40% ABV – why, Lord, why?!

in a Lagavulin glass...
You can pick up the Strathisla 12 in various supermarkets and the like for around £35, so it falls into the low average pricing category of single malts.

Strathisla, I found, is the oldest highland distillery, and the spirit it produces forms the core of internationally famous blend, Chivas Regal – so you might say it is to Chivas Regal what Caol Ila is to Johnnie Walker.

Now, I have tried the Chivas, and I wasn’t all that bothered, so what will I think of the Strathisla?

In terms of colour, it has a reddy tinge, which is quite attractive and it proves to be easy-drinking; not one that leaps out and slaps you round the chops, but there’s definitely nothing bad about it, and that can only be good. There’s a sweet silkiness on entry, pursued by a rough and contrasting bite – a contrast that I’ve been enjoying as it is an interesting juxtaposition.

While it reminds me of Glenmorangie in flavour profile, as time passed it became evident that the Strathisla doesn’t have the same allure that the Glenmorangie did – I was constantly choosing to drink something else from my collection instead; the Glen Scotia 16, for example which for all its flaws (as you’ll see in a future post), had something interesting and beguiling about it, or the Highland Park 12 that hooked me as a puzzle does, and made me want to figure it out.

Strathisla was pleasant but ultimately uninteresting. Nor was it one that I would bring out to impress guests and sadly that means it doesn’t rank very highly in the malt hierarchy. I would be interested in trying the earlier 43% bottling, as I hear that is excellent but it doesn’t appear to be available anymore. Shame.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Booze and Chocolate

Cast your mind back - go on - to February 2012. Anything? Yes, John Terry was relieved of the England captaincy in relation to allegations of racist abuse, but it’s not that. What? The world record for the number of water skiers pulled by a single boat was broken? That’s amazing! How did you know that? And also, no, that is not what I’m referring to. Think a bit closer to home. No, not Zsa Zsa Gabor’s 95th birthday. What is she even famous for anyway?

I could go scanning the Wikipedia entry for February 2012 in order to create an entertaining introduction to this post all day, but I’m not going to. So I’ll just tell you. I’m referring to a post from this blog’s infancy where I referenced the gift industry. This next post is related to that somehow. How? Because it is all about the dubious marriage between booze and chocolate. You know the kind of thing; liqueur chocolates, whisky “flavoured” chocolate etc.

I mention it now because I got some for Christmas. Ooh, chocolate! Nice! Oh, whisky chocolate… ok…

What’s it for? I like chocolate, I like whisky (or other kinds of booze), but there has never been an occasion when I’ve thought, you know what? I wish there were more opportunities for me to enjoy these two things together. It’s just not necessary. In fact, I’d just prefer to keep the two separate. It’s almost as if… these products exist [stick with me here…] purely to provide a possible gift for someone you know who likes whisky and chocolate. Whisky might be too expensive to give as a gift, chocolate perhaps too uninteresting, but both together? Now you’re talking. Except… you’re never going to get that alcohol buzz from eating chocolate. I know I always say this blog is about enjoying alcohol, not getting drunk but… the buzz is sometimes part of the enjoyment.

So without wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, let’s have a look at a couple of specific examples of presents I received last Christmas from Mrs Cake’s [and now by marriage, my] very generous family.

This first one is a box of forty-eight chocolate liqueurs. There were four varieties – Stolichnaya Orange, Jim Beam, Grand Marnier and Remy Martin – and they were all bottle-shaped, individually wrapped in foil, and then elaborately stacked in a large box with too many layers of plastic.

We were only in Canada a little over two weeks, and had only 5 days left when I received these. I figured I could probably just eat them all in a few days, so that I wouldn’t have to take them back to the UK with me. It turns out that 48 chocolate liqueurs is quite a lot – especially when you’re routinely overindulging in all the various meals of the day; burgers, chicken wings, poutine, pizza etc, etc.

I tried my best, I really did, but in the end I had to leave five or six at the mother-in-law’s. No one else was helping me either.

So how were they? Well, they were all right. To be fair, they all tasted the same unless you were to bite the top off and suck out the alcohol. Unfortunately that proved impractical and frequently led to a sticky substance dripping down the chin. Also it makes you look a bit stupid.

My ability to enjoy them to their fullest was further marred by all that individual wrapping. They were fiddly, and often a thin layer of chocolate had melted to the last bit of foil, which meant tiny but highly melt-prone shards of chocolate would be ejected over clothing and furniture on opening.

I know, you probably think I’m being finicky, but it’s hard to enjoy something when you find it so damn frustrating. Were the chocolates tasty? Yes. Were they ultimately more trouble than they were worth? Yes – especially considering there were 48 of them. Even without all that faffing, I think I would have been sick of them before I could eat all 48. Why not just… not wrap them all individually?

I’ve just worked out the answer to that question. It’s so that the different sprits can be represented in visual form on the foil wrappings. Damn. To be fair though, this isn’t absolutely necessary.

The other gift then, was a small pack of chocolates labelled, “Heather’s Pick”. These were chocolates that were apparently made with whisky. There were 4 in a pack, and I shared them with Mrs Cake. And they were nice, but neither of us could taste the whisky. They were like chocolate with caramel in the middle and just made us wonder, why bother? The only possible reason could be that someone might be tempted to buy these for a relative who likes whisky. Otherwise, you could just make them without whisky. Presumably though, there would be no reason then for anyone to buy them.

It sure is weird, this whole gift industry. You’re probably not supposed to ask these questions. I don’t know. Whatever, man. Thanks to my in-laws for all the generous gifts – on top of the chocolates, I actually got two bottles of whisky, so that was pretty awesome – and thanks for providing another topic for the Drink it How You Like it blog.

That’s it for this week. Next week; something equally pointless and uninteresting. Actually, next week is probably going to be about the 12 year old Strathisla single malt. Laters.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Spirit log: Jack Daniel's Old no. 7

do you know who I am?
Jack Daniel’s Old No 7 must be one of the most recognisable whisky brands in the world. Seen on t-shirts, on taxis, in the movies, with such legends as Lemmy and Slash… and yet… it is somewhat disparaged among those who profess to be connoisseurs of whisky – of scotch in particular. Perhaps it’s the too cool for school image, perhaps it’s that it can so often be seen being mixed with coke… I don’t know. I do know that at its normal UK price of £26-28, it was never going to be top of my shopping list, but at £15? You know what was going to happen next.

I’ve never actually owned a bottle of Old No 7 before, but yes, of course I’ve tried it. I still didn’t know where I stood on my opinion of it though – I’d often thought it was a little on the sweet side, and even once or twice might have said it is for people who want to play at drinking whisky, tantamount to a soft drink. What a snob.

It’s fine to play though, isn’t it? I’m not above drinking JD…

Previous Experiences of Note

I guess I haven’t tried it that many times, but I do have one or two conflicting impressions informed by these rare occasions. First, I remember my friend Adam bringing a bottle to a poker game where a number of different spirits were on offer (Maker’s Mark, Highland Park, Jameson’s, el Jimador…) and when tasting JD later on in the evening I was mostly getting banana hints – more like banana flavoured sweets than the fruit itself.

That impression stuck with me for a while until a tasting with the Manchester Whisky Club where we were presented with three unidentified samples at the beginning of the evening. One was Irish, one scotch and the other - no doubt included in order to compare unfavourably with the Jameson’s, which was the focus of the evening - was Jack Daniel’s. When the host asked the room which of the three samples they preferred, it was just me who liked the one with the silky-smooth mouthfeel. It was revealed that this one was Jack Daniel’s, and the room sneered smugly. I hadn’t identified it as Jack Daniel’s, nor could I detect any hints of banana this time, but I know when I like something… in comparison to something else at least.

So finally I have a bottle of my own, and it is time to really get to know it. Fulfilment came one Friday night, shortly after the passing of the DYC8. Despite my previous experiences, and failure to identify it that one time, there is something distinctive about Jack Daniel’s, a dark, charred flavour that it is easy to assume is a result of the charcoal filtering that goes on prior to ageing. Whether that is the cause…  I have no idea – I certainly don’t notice a charred flavour in any of the various brands of vodka that are filtered that way.

What we really want to know

I didn’t have any plans for this, but fate decreed that while I was appraising Jack Daniel’s Old No 7, I would also get the chance to carry out a direct comparison with a budget equivalent – Aldi’s finest, Clarke’s bourbon.

I’ve never even considered buying this before, but it all came about because Mrs Cake decided to make me my very own irish cream for Christmas. Yes, she knows I love irish cream, so one day when she told me she couldn’t think of anything to get me for Christmas, and I flippantly replied “get creative”, she actually did and made me some.

Mrs Cake’s decision meant she needed to get some whisky, and she heard that bourbon would do just fine so she just picked something up at Aldi – Clarke’s. And lucky me, after my gift had been presented, I was also given what had been left over – essentially four shots.

Just because I’d never considered buying it didn’t mean I didn’t want to find out what it tasted like, so after trying the homemade irish ceam, I tried a glass of the bourbon too – making sure to reserve enough for a direct comparison with the JD a few days later.

So before we see how it stacks up, let’s take a quick look at the bottle… I see it doesn’t state “bottled for Aldi” on it anywhere, which is something of a surprise, and that it fulfils the minimum requirement of being 40% ABV. So there’s no particular reason to think this might be bad.

I emptied the Clarke’s into a glass, and poured a couple of measures of the JD into another, then went through to the lounge for a bit of Important Things with Demetri Martin.

There is little to choose between the two in terms of nose, and in flavour there is no obvious difference in terms of quality. Clarke’s is a little more sour and the JD did reveal that ghostly banana note, but on this one it’s all a matter of personal preference and value. I’d like to say they are actually equally good, though I do marginally prefer the JD. Having said that, at £12.97 Clarke’s costs less than half what you would generally expect to pay for JD’s image and reputation [read: marketing]. I think I still lack sufficient experience with American whiskies to be an authority on this but if we were to use JD as a benchmark, Clarke’s measures up quite well. In fact, if bourbon was something you had to have in your liquor cabinet, and you were struggling for funds one month, Clarke’s would do just nicely.
Clarke's - all by its self

Whatever your opinion of Jack Daniel’s, I think it’s good stuff. With so much whisky out there to try though, I wouldn’t be paying full price for it, but I won’t be shy if I see an offer like this again.

As for the Clarke’s? Aldi’s spirits are never on offer and bourbon isn’t currently one of my essential spirits so while it’s a steal at under £15, it’s unlikely I’ll be plumping for it any time soon.

Now, the proof they say, is in the pudding. In this instance, what I mean by appropriating that clich̩, is that we can infer something about the quality of the JD by my use of it. I always have several whiskies on the go at the same time, so if one of them is the one I bring out when I have guests over, or that I save for when the time is just right, we can conclude that it must be of some quality Рat the very least better than the others.

If it’s the one I bring out early in the evening, it is probably cheap but fairly enjoyable. If I swig it out of the bottle before I go out drinking or use it to fill my hipflask, you can be fairly sure I don’t think much of it.

Over it’s lifespan, my use of the JD sadly falls into the last category. I used it in my hipflask, I experimented with it (as you will learn on this blog in the coming weeks) and yes, I may have swigged a little out of the bottle from time to time. So I think we can conclude that for me at least, the JD doesn’t tick all my boxes. I prefer a nice single malt, and probably a decent blend and I don’t feel I’m wasting the JD by experimenting with it. Is that a bad thing? We don’t have to take it that way, but it does say something.

One last thing before I draw a line under this investigation; my recent trip to Canada turned up something that I have been wondering about of late –ever since research on Talisker 10 led to the idea that oxidation can actually be a good thing for whisky, rather than universally a bad thing, as I had understood up to that point.

I arrived at my mother-in-law’s to find that she had two JD miniatures that she would like me to drink. One had already been opened, and a small amount had been consumed, but nevertheless I drank both on the same evening, and found that the one that had already been opened… tasted better. It was sweeter with softer edges and was generally a more pleasant experience. I actually asked how long ago it had been opened, but unsurprisingly my mother-in-law didn’t have a clue. It had probably been opened by someone else and frankly, it could have been a couple of years ago or more. There wouldn’t have been much air in that little bottle but nevertheless, it pointed me in the direction of a realisation that appears to be becoming more self-evident; whisky is actually improved to an extent by oxidation. I’m sure there is a point at which it goes too far, but it certainly seems you’re safe for a good few months – unless in this case the contents were from two different batches, one of which was far better than the other.

Some people suggest you should open a new bottle and then leave it for 15 minutes before pouring to allow the spirit to open up. Frankly, I don’t massively see the point in that. Why not pour it into your glass, then leave that for 15 minutes?

Some also say that you should leave your dram for as many minutes as years it is old… which seems like an odd sentence. I’ve been trying that on and off, and to be honest, it takes me half an hour to drink a whisky anyway, so even if I don’t leave it for 10, 12, 15 minutes, some of the spirit will have been sitting in my glass that long.

Oh well, it’s all things to think about. Where was I?

At the end, that’s where. This week’s post comes to you a little late as Mrs Cake and I have been soaking up the sun in Gloucestershire and Glastonbury. You’ll be able to read all about those at some point in the indefinite future. Next week I’ll probably be looking at the endosymbiotic relationship that has been known to exist between booze and chocolate. Join me for that. For now though, it’s back to everyday life where people get arsey at work, dogs shit on the high street and someone has to make the fricking dinner. And I was all refreshed, too.