Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Homemade Limoncello

This was another gift from Mrs Cake at Christmas. It’s an Italian liqueur made from the zest of lemons, and as such is sweet rather than sour. The zest is steeped in grain alcohol until the oil is released, and the liquid is then mixed with syrup. Mrs Cake tells me she put the zest in a bottle of vodka and then added sugar, which to my mind is tantamount to the same thing.

If you’ve ever been to Italy, you might have been tempted to spend a few euros on a bottle of this at the airport. If you’re like me, you didn’t and promptly forgot all about it.

I’m glad then, that Mrs Cake came up with this idea, because it means I can find out what it’s like without having to part with any funds for it. And what I have found out is that I’m glad I never bothered buying it. I’m not saying it’s horrible, but… it isn’t very nice.

I tried first of all, drinking it over ice but it isn’t pleasant enough for that, so it looked like I’d have to get back into making cocktails for a bit. Luckily I have become fairly adept at just throwing things together, and while I don’t have too much time for the science of mixology these days, it’s useful to be able to create drinks from time to time.

If there is one thing to say in favour of limoncello, it is that it has the versatility to mix with numerous different spirits. I consulted my various cocktail books for ideas, but they were surprisingly bereft of recipes, so I had to take it upon myself to fly blind. I found it goes well with pomegranate juice, pineapple juice, the various types of rum and even tequila and gin.

It is somewhat ironic though, that one particular thing I have found is that, whatever you make with your limoncello, it is essential that you add lemon juice to the final concoction. Limoncello just lacks that citrus bite that makes cocktails so enjoyable. It seems a shame to use lemons for creating a liqueur that doesn’t have the essential character of a lemon in it, such that you have to put it back in yourself but… hey-ho.

So I did have one or two notable successes with my creations, and the details are as follows…

Limoncello and Pomegranate

This has become a particular favourite of Mrs Cake. I wouldn’t be surprised it she made another batch of the sticky, lemony substance so that she can drink it through the summer. The dry bitterness of the pomegranate is an ideal accompaniment. Just add a dash of lemon juice or squeeze a wedge of lime into it to top it off.

Lemon Curd Coctail (tm)
Lemon Curd Cocktail – 2x rum, 2x limoncello, 3x pineapple juice, lemon juice to taste.

I have named this after the famous variety of tart because it is uncannily similar.

Scotch and Limoncello – 2x blended scotch whisky, 2x limoncello

This discovery came when I decided I’d best see how limoncello mixes with all the spirits for the purpose of this post. In theory it can’t be that far away from a whisky sour, really. I still have to admit being surprised at how good it is. I used the Waitrose brand scotch that was left over from the supermarket blend battle and decided to start with equal measures. That proved just right – as long as a little lemon juice was added.

One to try in the future…

Wikipedia helpfully signs off with a recipe for a cocktail called Viagroncello, so I may as well do the same. It seems this one has been said to have arousing effects – not that I need any of those. Sounds like bollocks to me, but it’s probably worth a try. For this you need sambuca, chili pepper and mint, though quantities are not specified. I can’t actually imagine myself buying a bottle of Sambuca any time soon, so I’m just going to go straight into the conclusion which is… limoncello is decent for mixing. I wouldn’t buy it, but I can find a use for it. That is all.

Next week it is planned that the post will be a comparison I did between two types of brandy some time ago, but there’s a chance I never actually wrote it, and it’s far too late to do so now – both are long gone. So, join me next week to see if I did write anything about that, or if I find something else to tell you about. 

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Spirit Log: Lot No 40 and Centennial Limited Edition Canadian Rye Whisky

Lot 40 is the highly acclaimed single pot still Canadian rye whisky that I collected back around Christmas time. I was sold on the pretext that it is said to be comparable to scotch whisky… in some ways – though particularly to those who aren’t connoisseurs of scotch whisky. It seems Canadian whisky enthusiasts are jumping up and down about it, since the whisky of their great nation is often disparaged as being mixer fodder. Well, if this represents an outstanding example of what they have to offer, I have to try it, don’t I, if only to see what comparable to scotch means.

Lot 40 is produced in Ontario, and is the rebirth of a brand that, while noted for its quality, wasn’t able to survive on the market the first time around. It seems the prevailing opinion is that people weren’t ready for this kind of Canadian whisky. Far be it from me to comment on long term whisky trends, but I find it hard to believe a quality product could be considered too good to survive – if indeed it is a good quality product.

Well apparently, the time is right and the people are now ready to stump up 40-50 dollars Canadian for this new 43% 2012 edition.

Nicely presented, the bottle comes complete with a cork stopper, which is a nice touch for those of us who appreciate a nice single malt, while the bottle itself shows a diagram depicting the production process which is partially obscured by a modern but tasteful label that has been posited at a jaunty angle. Then there was an extra bit of bumf – another label – looped over the top. So far so good.

In terms of colour, Lot 40 appears to be much darker than you would expect of a single malt scotch – to the extent that I would actually compare it to a blend, though it is perhaps richer and more luxurious looking than that – in fact, it positively shimmers in the glass.

On the nose… yes, that’s the smell I have come to associate with Canadian whisky. Lacking the terms to describe my olfactory senses, I have to say I don’t know what that consists of, but it is what it is. At this stage, I am struggling to see how anyone could mistake this for scotch – other than the people who aren’t aware that not all whisky is scotch.
Lot 40 in the glass

It’s when you get to allowing that luminous liquid to frolic on the pink lawn of your tongue [when the hell did I write that?] that you (or at least I) get some idea of what all the fuss has been about. I’m still not saying it’s anything like scotch, but there is definitely a complexity here, far greater than my admittedly limited experience of Canadian whisky has thus far revealed.

How much is the quality of whisky down to complexity though? I’ve certainly counted lack of complexity as a negative before, but oftentimes something can just be a pleasure to drink… and if there’s complexity but no balance… well, I would expect it wouldn’t be a pleasure to drink – and if it isn’t a pleasure to drink… who’s going to want to drink it?

What I’m getting down to here is that while there is a great deal going on, on first impression Lot 40 lacks the subtletly to be truly great. It doesn’t wear its extra 3% alcohol too well and there is a sour bite that I suspect (though can hardly say for sure) is the result of aging in virgin oak casks – which I’m sure you’re already aware, is quite rare in scotch production as it is felt the virgin oak imparts too strong an influence on the mellow, malted barley. Curiously enough, some scotch distilleries have started releasing virgin oak aged expressions, so that’s one to try in the  future.

Now, I’ve noticed a lot of respectable whisky bloggers like to try their samples with a little water, to see if the spirit opens up any. It is supposed to, and in some cases it is said to improve the spirit, while in others it may not. I’ve made it no secret that this is lost on me (unless you’re talking about cask strength), but in the spirit of professionalism, and given that I felt the Lot 40 struggled a little with it’s strength, I thought I would add a little drop of water one time.

Sadly the result was that, once again, I felt I’d ruined a perfectly acceptable glass of whisky. No, I know my opinion is that the Lot 40 isn’t perfect, but neat is far superior to the watered down shadow of a dram it became with water. I’m just going to say, once and for all, this is the last time I try adding water to my whisky – except in the case of particularly strong cask strength editions. 50% ABV and below remains neat, above that I will [maybe] try a little water – but definitely not the liberal amounts some books suggest. Stop ruining my whisky!

Now, I’m coming to understand that you should never judge a whisky on first impressions. That may make a mockery of all those tasting sessions and festivals, but I have found it to be almost unequivocally true that whisky ‘opens up’ after the bottle has been open for an indeterminate amount of time. It can be months or merely weeks, but whatever it is, it really seems to work.

So while I was able to accept the complexity of Lot 40 at first, it was a few weeks before the sharper edges appeared to mellow out to produce a far more rounded and balanced spirit. All the negative elements I described previously… were still there, but they had actually begun to add to the experience, and make their contribution to Lot 40 deffo being my number one Canadian whisky. But how long would it last?

As the bottle approached the bottom, it was time for a direct comparison with another Canadian rye that I picked up on our last trip there, Highwood Distillers’ Centennial Limited Edition.

So what have we got here then?

The Centennial comes in a really tall bottle with a utilitarian black label. It is bottled at 40% and comes replete with a story about the master distiller being set a challenge and deciding to use only winter wheat or something. I forget now, I found it quite boring. I do wish distillers would give a bit more information about their product, but sometimes it’s like they’re merely pretending to give information like, tell my why? What was it supposed to achieve? Why is it interesting?

It is supposed to be a limited edition, but there’s no information as to why or how many bottles were produced, or anything really. Limited edition, limited information.

Highwood Centennial in the glass
For the appraisal of the Centennial, let me refer you now to some notes that I made.

Lacks any kind of sweetness or sharpness, leaving me with the impression of dust and tissues. Uninteresting on entry, though growing in confidence the longer you hold it on your tongue.

And that’s about all I got? Seriously, over the course of a whole bottle, I was left with very little impression at all. If we are talking direct comparison, the Lot 40 comes out well on top. I’m not saying there was anything bad about the Centennial, I just think that, like the “story” of its creation, for a “limited edition” it is singularly uninteresting.

Let us leave the Centennial behind then, and consider the place of Lot 40 in the wider context of whisky in general. There is of course good and… not so good… in all styles and categories, so it is unfair to say single malt is better or blended scotch is worse – nothwithstanding that I haven’t tried them all yet.

Where does it fit though? Well, it is the best Canadian whisky I’ve tried so far and it is probably the most expensive though it is still cheaper than most single malt scotch at the lower end of the price spectrum. Is it better than them? It is obviously dependant on personal taste – it’s better than some, but in my opinion is it is still bested by such entry level products as Glenfiddich 12, Strathisla 12, Balvenie 12 Double Wood, Talisker 10, Glenfarclas 10, Laphroaig 10, Highland Park 12, Glenmorangie Original  and Caol Ila 12. It is preferable to Glenlivet 12, Jura and Jura Superstition and Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve.

If you compare it to blended scotch, it tends to fare a bit better. I would say it is superior to Whyte & MacKay Special, Grant’s Family Reserve, Cutty Sark, Dewar’s 12, Grouses Black and Famous and all the supermarket varieties except Asda’s McKendrick’s. Jim McEwan’s Symphony, Ballantine’s, White Horse, and Grant’s Sherry Cask are all preferable. I only haven’t mentioned Bell’s, Teacher’s and other basic blends here because it has been a long time since I have tried them and don’t know myself where they fit in at present.

It would be nice to be able to give you some idea of how it compares with various brands of bourbon, but I have even fewer terms of reference in that regard at this point. Hopefully that will change soon, pending the results of my recent holiday in Florida… but as ever, that is for another time.

Time for a conclusion I suppose. Lot 40 is reasonably priced for those of us who are accustomed to UK liquor prices, though if you’re in Canada you might be used to getting slightly more for your dollar. That said, I’m going to advise you that it is worth a punt – to us Brits who might be interested in expanding our horizons, to Canadians who might like a homegrown product that gives the impression a little more care has gone into it, and to anyone else that’s curious about whisky. Give it as go and let me know what you think.

And that’s me for this week. The weekend comes early as I have tomorrow booked off for a trip to Alton Towers. That means I might be having a scotch tasting four-way this evening. And then – it’s a good weekend for me, this – there’s a big poker night on Saturday and I’ll be breaking out a couple of bourbons and an absinthe, so if I was to say I wasn't excited, you know I'd be lying.

I'm going to have a good one, I hope you do too. I'll see you next week.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Spirit Log: La Castellina Squarcialupi

Grappa again. Am I the only person in the UK who likes grappa? Come on, what’s wrong with you all? That goes for those of you from elsewhere in the world as well. And the Italians! Put yer wine down, and get on to the hard stuff.

What do we have this week then? This is La Castellina Squarcialupi, from last year’s Tuscan adventure. It was one of two bottles I chose to bring home, and was actually the one I was most excited about because it was a bit more expensive than the other (25 euros as opposed to Mille Lune’s 15), and the bottle is numbered – 394 out of 2000 produced each year.

It is bottled at 42% ABV and comes in a long-necked 50cl bottle with a neat and modern label.

What’s it like, and would you be spending your money wisely on it?
For me, 25 euros is still a snip for 50cl of authentic grappa. If you were buying this in the UK – if you could buy it in the UK – I can’t imagine you’d be paying less than £40, so that’s certainly a consideration.

Put it in context though, and if you scour the towns and villages of Tuscany, you’ll see an enticing smorgasbord of affordable grappas, and until I’ve tried them all, how good they are is anyone’s guess. I’m guessing… good – to great.

So fuck it, how can I describe this for you? It’s hard to do so without referring to its direct rival, Mille Lune. It’s not quite as good as that. For all the Squarcialupi’s colour, that makes me expect a lingering sweetness… there is very little sweetness. Nor is it as oily and texturally pleasing as I had expected.

So while I don’t want to advise you against purchasing this one, should you be in the area… you can do better.

Yes, it’s just a short one this week. Next week though, the word count will be slightly higher when I discuss two Canadian whiskies I picked up earlier in the year – Lot 40 2012 edition and Highwood HighCentennial limited edition. I expect to see you then.