Thursday, 28 August 2014

Grant’s Sherry Cask Edition: An affordable blended scotch

Here you go, another blended scotch at the “affordable” end of the price spectrum. This one is Grant’s Sherry Cask Edition, so it’s your standard Grant’s that has been aged for a further four months in sherry casks. Interesting. Grant’s also produce an ale cask edition in this range, which as the name suggests, has been aged for four months in casks that were used to hold ale (Innis and Gunn, apparently) for a few months previous to that. And that is apparently unique.

If you’re shopping in a standard UK supermarket, you can expect to pick up the usual Grant’s at around £12-15, while the other editions are more around £18-20. I picked up my sherry cask edition on sale at £15. No doubt you can do better, though this was the first time I’d seen it on offer. We picked up a bottle of the ale cask for my brother-in-law at roughly the same time, which I actually got to try before I opened my bottle, but a little more on that later.

All three expressions are bottled at a standard blend ABV of 40%, and are presented in identical triangular bottles with a different coloured label denoting each one. They’ve picked nice shades (red, green and blue) for these. The Sherry Cask is the green one.


I seem to find my initial impression of any whisky is tempered by what I’ve become familiar with of the same genre immediately prior. It is like I want to be blown away every time, and sometimes that just doesn’t happen.

So the previous blend I’d been growing friendly with was Ballantine’s Finest, and I’d been enjoying it very much. Despite having a drop of that left, I decided not to do a comparative tasting immediately so that I might meet Grant’s on its own terms.

First Taste

I opened it then, one Saturday night and what I was left with was a flat disappointment. It seemed to have no nose, and nothing of interest on the palate. I had come to expect a sweet luxuriousness from the Ballantine’s, so while it is usually unfair to expect the same qualities from a different brand… this has been (however briefly) matured in ex-sherry casks, so surely you should be able to expect a more rich sweetness than other basic blends? Perhaps not.

After about 20 minutes of tasting I did notice there developed an impression of fresh apple and a surprisingly long finish, but nothing else came to the fore and I put the Grant’s back into the cupboard that I might enjoy something else.

Second Sampling

The second appearance came the following Thursday night after Mrs Cake and I had returned from a local restaurant. I had already been drinking Peroni as well as what I’m going to call the nicest red wine I can recall sampling and, along with all that rich food I was thinking this might not be the most opportune occasion to enjoy a fine whisky. So I didn’t pull a fine whisky from the cupboard, I went for the Grant’s Sherry Cask.

Most unexpectedly, the experience was far more rounded and fulfilling than previously. Perhaps I had been too quick to judge.


It was time then, to see how it fared alongside the Ballantine’s. Result: fairly well actually. Though I hadn’t managed to enjoy it on its own as much as I had the Ballantine’s, when tasted side by side I didn’t detect that much difference. As far as the Ballantine’s was concerned, I felt that was a sad end to a bargain dram that had delivered consistently over the last few months. I’ll remember it for the good times, rather than this one let down. It was with some sadness that I put that attractive brown bottle in the recycling, but I made a solemn vow that I would pick up another some day.

Further tastings

 As time has progressed the Grant’s Sherry Cask has grown into its role of lead cheap blend. It makes a pleasant, uncomplicated drink for early evening and the over stimulated palate. In later weeks it has been joined in the cupboard by the dregs of the great supermarket blend test, so it has been interesting to see how it has fared alongside such competition, and despite very enjoyable products from Asda and Morrison’s, this Grant’s benefits from a little more depth of flavour than any of the supermarket products can offer. Is it better than McKendrick’s? As time goes on I’m becoming more certain that it is. Once again, it must be the magical effects of oxidation, as this liquid seems to grow sweeter and more interesting by the day.

There was one notable occasion where I had to pour a glass back into the bottle because I realised after tasting it that I simply didn’t want it… but that was severe hangover related, and the Grant’s reasserted its quality a few days later.

How does the Ale Cask edition measure up?

Yes, before I go, I need to address the ale cask edition that Mrs Cake and I bought for her brother. I did get to have a taste one evening over Christmas while helping put some Lego construction together and I can report being fairly impressed. It is of course difficult to compare when several thousand miles and a few weeks separate my experiences, but for the sake of offering a simple conclusion, if you were going to buy only one, I would say you might be missing out if you didn’t return and get the other one in the fullness of time.  Jim Murray places quite a few marks between the two in his 2013 Whisky Bible, but I don’t think there is such a gulf in class as he does, and I suspect I will be returning for that ale cask edition at some point – and I wouldn’t shy away from buying this one again either – at the right price.

Thanks for joining my this week. Next week I’ll be continuing on my one man mission to promote the consumption of grappa throughout the world by looking at La Castellina Squaricalupi – a bottle I picked up nearly a year ago, and finished only this week. See you then.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Sauza Tequila Blanco – It can’t be as bad as all that, can it?

I certainly wasn’t intending to buy tequila that day, but there I was, in the booze aisle at Morrison’s, and it was the first time I’d ever seen a supermarket tequila that wasn’t Jose Cuervo or Sierra. I’ve got twenty quid. I’m out of tequila. I’m on it.

Now, at £19.99 for 50cl this is poor value for a tequila that isn’t even 100% agave – especially when it’s from a supermarket. 70cl of el Jimador was only just over £20 from Carrington’s, and soon after this purchase of Sauza I happened to be looking online, and saw that Waitrose were selling the el Jimador Reposado (gold) for £20… it just gets worse.

I’m not even kidding because then, I started looking for reviews of Sauza (38% ABV) and it looks like it is probably the worst tequila ever. Here’s some direct quotations:

Skip this one. It's not even passable as a mixer.”

“Cheap, but really they should be paying you to drink it.” Frankly, the page this one is culled from is negative about all tequila, so perhaps take with a pinch of salt… and lime.

“Sauza is what the parents of other tequila brands use as a boogeyman to scare their children into being tasty. Sauza's a salty mix of hot garbage and all of your nightmares. If hate was a liquid that you could drink, you would use it as a chaser for Sauza.Someone thinks they’re funny.

“Sauza Tequila doesn't go through the traditional distillation process that most brands go through. Instead, the bottlers wait for someone to get drunk on different Tequila, and then simply bottle that person's vomit and slap a Sauza label on it.”

It’s not all bad actually:
From Amazon
“The finest tequila I have ever found -- I have purchased only this one for decades.” So how do you know it’s the finest?

The general consensus though is that this is bad. But can anything actually be as bad as that? Let’s find out.

Firsly, let’s just be sensible ok? Nothing can be as bad as all that. This is the internet, and if you want people to read your work and enjoy it, you are maybe going to exaggerate a little. The point is that this is supposed to be particularly bad tequila. I suppose I’m saying that as a reminder to myself  - to maintain some perspective before I start over-analysing.

So what happened at fulfilment time?

I opened the bottle, poured a little and went to the next room to get my camera. A few seconds later when I returned, the smell of alcohol had escaped, and I found that pleasing. Off to the living room, bottle and all where I think we were watching a documentary about former chess champion Bobby Fischer.

I followed the procedure of sip one, neck a couple, sip one to get a full impression of what it’s like neat and what I found was that, while it’s not that bad, it certainly isn’t good and it doesn’t even taste like tequila. I can’t detect any agave in there and there is little to enjoy – perhaps a slight citrus element, but mostly aniseed. It’s grainy and watery, and it’s certainly not something that is likely to replace my Stoli Blue (which, at time of writing was sadly on its way out and is now long gone) as an early evening mood enhancer.

Since it’s not a sipper (or even a shooter), that meant I would have to try two more tests – with lime and tequila sunrise. This would be something Mrs Cake could get involved in.

With lime

Yes, I can find a use for Sauza if I squeeze a little lime juice into it, but that’s not what I buy tequila for. You can squeeze lime juice into pretty much any bad spirit and make it palatable. What I’m looking for is something I can sip on its own and marvel at how horrible but how great it is at the same time. Sauza just tastes… dirty.

True enough, I do need something I can just throw down my throat before I head out the door in the morning… just kidding, I mean before I go on a heavy night out sometimes, but even then, there are so many more and better alternatives than this one.

Tequila Sunrise

Sorry, I didn’t even get around to trying it with the old orange juice and grenadine. That’s not really the point though, is it? If it was the cheapest tequila, and you wanted to mix it, then fine, but this isn’t even the cheapest tequila. There’s better, there’s better for drinking straight and there’s cheaper for if you just want to mix it.

Is it as bad as all that?

No. Not quite. But it’s not that much better than all that. Some people don’t like tequila anyway, but I do and this almost makes me forget why. So there you have it. If you’ve got £20 to spend on tequila, you can get the 100% agave Jose Cuervo Tradicional (which I’ll be looking at another time) or el Jimador. If you don’t even have that much, maybe just don’t bother. Eh? There’s a good lad.

Now, I’m off to Florida this weekend (don’t rob my house while I’m gone, will you?) where I’ll be visiting NASA, swimming with manatees and then feigning extreme enthusiasm (hopefully while suitably “merry”) all the way around Disney World. More importantly, I’ll be using the experience to pick up some bourbon brands that I might not be able to get at home. It does mean that there won’t be a post next week, but don’t worry. I’ll be back the week after that, and at the moment it looks like I’ll be looking at the Grant’s Sherry Cask Edition. Join me then. See you later.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Whisky Stones

Do you like your whisky cold, but find the way ice melts and dilutes your drink inconvenient? No, me neither, but if you do, there is another product on the market that aims to alleviate this problem, leaving your whisky’s strength and flavours intact – whisky stones.

Do you like how I just assumed everyone feels the same way as me in that opening paragraph? Yeh, I know, some people probably do have that problem, whereas I don’t really see the need – I like whisky, and room temperature suits me just fine. In fact, significantly warmer than room temperature – say 35 degrees Celsius – was very nice when I was drinking the Glenfarclas in Ho Chi Minh City.

Nevertheless, shall we see what all the fuss is about? Will these prove to be any better than the ice balls that I featured a couple of years ago?

So, what are they? They are little soap stone cubes that you pop in your freezer for a few hours, before dropping them into a rocks glass (3 should suffice), and pouring your dram of choice over them, until they are almost covered. They are supposed to chill your drink without diluting it, and then maintain the cooler temperature for a sufficient amount of time. Then, when you are done with them you can just rinse them and put them back in the freezer – that’s one advantage over the ice balls; they had to be washed after use.

I’m boring myself talking about these already, but let’s crack on, then it’ll be one more week’s post sorted…

I decided to conduct an experiment, trying the same brand of whisky in four states; neat, on the rocks, chilled (in the fridge) and with the whisky stones. That should give us a happy buzz, but more importantly, tell us all we need to know about whisky stones and their efficacy. Come to think of it now, I could’ve done a direct comparison between the stones and the balls, but I suspect we threw the balls away some time ago.

So! Since you already know that I like my whisky neat and at room temperature, it seemed logical that I shouldn’t be using one of my favourite malts for this experiment. Every drop is sacred, so I would need something that I don’t mind sloshing around a bit. I give you Jack Daniel’s Old No 7. Don’t get me wrong; it’s nice enough but it was either that, the Glen Scotia 16, the Strathisla 12, the Ballantine’s (of which there wasn’t enough left, and that I was saving for a future test) or opening a new bottle. It was decided.

I put the stones in the freezer and a sample of Jack in the fridge. Tempting as it was to try four samples concurrently - it was Saturday - and while I was up for getting slightly smashed at home, I wanted to save some of my drinking capacity for later on – get some of the nice stuff out. The first test then, would be whisky stones vs the refrigerator.

Now, people don’t tend to keep their whisky in the fridge – but why not? You keep your soft drinks in the fridge, and they are cold enough. It’s probably because of the amount of time a bottle of whisky can last… and the number of bottles some whisky enthusiasts like to keep on the go - though with a little forward planning you can just put a few small samples in there.

Whatever, what happened? Well, the packaging on my whisky stones instructed me to use a rocks glass. I actually decided to use the Bruichladdich branded glass that I bought from the distillery (pictured), and haven’t used more than once. It is like a rocks glass, but has more of a tulip shape, supposedly to aid with nosing.

There are no such limitations when it comes to refrigeration. I decided to use a glencairn glass, because I could, and that way we would see how much the chilling had affected the aromas.

One of the first things I noticed was that neither sample was giving off any nose, so that is a definite mark against. The flavour is most important, but the nose is an enjoyable aspect of whisky tasting.

Next, you can’t help but notice how heavy these stones make your glass - I’m sure you would get used to it, so it isn’t important, but they are pretty heavy – and they don’t make your drink as cold as ice does. I’m thinking that, surely if you take your whisky with ice, it’s because you like it ice cold. Maybe not, I don’t know, I don’t know why you can’t just drink it at room temperature, or stick your glass in the fucking fridge for 20 minutes…

Then, the palate… there wasn’t much determinable difference in temperature between the two samples, so that confirms that you can keep your whisky in the fridge as an alternative if you so wish. Or if you currently keep your whisky in the fridge, and are looking for an alternative, you can use the stones.

In terms of tasting though, I detected Jack Daniel’s’ phantom banana notes in both samples, and while this appears less prevalent at room temperature, I did feel ultimately that the chilling masked some of JD’s subtler nuances. I would find out more specifically when I moved onto the neat and on the rocks varieties, which I decided would not have to be carried out in a head-to-head (rock non-stop) fashion.

So! Neat. Yes, that’s the JD, the way I’m coming to know it; dark, charred and woody. And no banana. I’m not really sure how I feel about the banana – I don’t like them generally, though their essence doesn’t ruin the JD. It’s more interesting that there is an essence of them in there than that they have an overt dominance of the spirit’s character.

But what about with ice? Well that’s a different prospect altogether. You can’t get away from the fact that the ice does melt. Yes it makes your whisky cold, but if you like the taste of the whisky, the elements of that flavour that you enjoy so much are diminishing by the minute. If you don’t like the taste, I don’t think you should be drinking it in the first place.

No one can make a cup of tea for you, the way you like it, but yourself. And by the same token, the right way to drink your whisky is your way. My way is neat, at room temperature so no matter what my opinion of rocks vs ice is, I am not the market this product is aimed at. Maybe you need to try them for yourself. I just think that if you do drink your whisky with ice, you do that because that’s how you like it… so why do you need another way?

As a bonus, these particular whisky stones were accompanied by a book… which is fairly interesting but can’t be treated as a whisky guide, as such. In it Jim Murray writes at good length about each of the distilleries in Scotland, Canada and the United States and it is diverting enough if you’re interested. I tend to refer to it from time to time, but it only directly refers to one expression from each distillery, so it isn’t too useful if you already have a basic knowledge and want a bit of advice. Still, if you like whisky, you probably like reading about it to some extent too.

Now, I don’t know whether my lack of enthusiasm for this subject came across (I suspect it did), but if it did, hopefully it was still worth your while reading and hopefully you’ll come back. I’ll be a bit less cynical next week, when I’ll be looking at another tequila brand – Sauza this time. Until then, enjoy your drinking – I know I will.