Monday, 26 January 2015

Budget Supermarket Showdown: Aldi vs Lidl part 1


Aldi and Lidl – they’re quite similar aren’t they? Though only one of them (Lidl) smells like fish food. Both are budget supermarkets, both European, both have their own branded goods… and to that end, they each have their own [apparently] exclusive brands of alcohol. It makes you wonder; which is best?

I don’t mind telling you, I do most of my shopping at Aldi, and I definitely prefer the atmosphere in [most] Aldis to that of Lidl, though I rarely buy booze there. It doesn’t mean I haven’t. I started out drinking the 8 year old blended scotch, Highland Black as I’ve told you several times before. I’ve also tried the white and dark rum varieties of Old Hopking, the Vinelli vermouth, Oliver Cromwell gin, Tamova vodka, Ballycastle Irish Cream, Clarke’s bourbon… there’s more to try, but what I’ve tended to conclude over the years is that Aldi’s quality is all right – for the price…

But what about Lidl? It’s about time we found out isn’t it?

It would be nice to do direct comparisons and get this out of the way pretty quickly, but there are too many products to choose from, so I think it makes more sense to handle this on more of an ongoing, cumulative basis. Furthermore, there are a number of products that aren’t directly comparable.

I think what I’ll do then, for the time being, is alternate purchases between one and the other and attribute scores – either out of 10 or on some other maniacal, arbitrary scale that I make up as I go along.

Part 1

It’s time then, for part 1. After a very lean month, pay day made its merry way around and the Cakemeister decided he wanted to spend some money and headed out at lunchtime to the nearby Lidl. I think I was in part inspired by a new blog I found, Booze Review in which budget brands of alcohol are consumed and reviewed.

On arrival at the booze aisle, I can’t say I wasn’t tempted by the blended malt, but at £19.99 it was more than I’d planned to relinquish at that point. What I plumped for was the James Cook Premium 3 year old rum (£12.99, 40% ABV). My Mount GayEclipse was on the wane, and I’d been holding back on finishing it for some time, so the need seemed more pressing than for the other spirits, such as the brandy that was also calling me – I was after all, due a holiday in Spain in another month, so it seemed sensible to sort that one there. Being used to budget products being relatively low strength in the main, I figured that at 40% I couldn’t go wrong here.

James Cook has a hue… not unlike urine… in fact, very much so like urine. We won’t let that bother us though, we’ll just hope it isn’t representative of the quality of this particular spirit. The bottle is quite authentic looking, in that it doesn’t at first glance look total shit, though there is a clue in how it is non-specific about where its contents come from – just the Caribbean in general… and presumably blended in Germany.

I opened the bottle early one Saturday evening, and poured a generous measure into a glencairn glass to begin the nosing. I was immediately struck by how unusual the aroma was, light and citrusy. It all led me to expect that this might provide a taste experience more akin to a nice blended scotch than a cheap, bitey gold rum.

How wrong I was. I made some notes on my phone that reveal an accelerating realisation of horror – like in a film where they do that camera shot that zooms in on a face while the backdrop falls away…

It was like that scene in Peep Show where Mark goes jogging for the first time and his first impression of how easy it is rapidly evaporates as he tires and realises jogging is hard work, and what an idiot he was to have gotten the wrong idea a mere matter of seconds before.

Going to my notes, I see I have literally written:

“Weird, spicy, dirty… but not in a good way. Oh, it’s fucking awful. It burns. It’s making me feel a bit ill. I can’t drink it. It’s going in the sink…“

That is literally the first time ever I’ve felt that I have wasted my money on something that I’m not going to be able to drink. I’m serious, I will not be trying this neat again. By my third sip the taste was so offensive that I wouldn’t even try this with ice. I doubt you could even mix the evil out of it. I will try that, mind.

Usually bad spirits make decent hip flask fodder – or so previous experience had suggested… I can see now that there is an underclass of spirits that aren’t just bad, they are probably actually poison. Either that, or what I have thought of as hip flask fodder before aren’t actually bad… they just aren’t particularly good.

The Sauza tequila was pretty bad, but it wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t knock back a few shots to get the party started. Instinctive reactions (and probably the gag reflex) would prevent me from even trying that with this. Any thoughts of sticking it in my hip flask for the following day’s Sounds From the Other City festival were quickly quashed by common sense. That would be a surefire way of taking a hip flask on a night out and still not getting hammered.

All I could think was that this might be a good thing to let friends try, just to demonstrate how bad alcohol can be. But I wouldn’t even subject them to it.

You might think I’m exaggerating a bit here, but I am serious: I have never tasted a spirit as bad as this – let alone one that made me feel ill after a couple of sips. I don’t know what that overbearing flavour is, but it is familiar, and it must be from nightmares. It brings to mind celery, but even celery isn’t as bad as all that.

A little searchy-search of the internets suggests that the dark variety of James Cook might not be all that bad, however they do say once bitten, twice shy¸  and therefore there is no way I am staking any of my wages against the quality of another product sold under the James Cook label. It just couldn’t possibly be worth it.

And for that reason I have to determine that Lidl have scored a massive own goal, such that the only way I can figure to give a score for this in my as yet unidentified scoring system is to give it a negative score. So minus 10 for you there, Lidl. I’ve actually been keeping a ranking system for all the various types of spirits, and James Cook is so bad that even though there are only 9 other rums on the list at this point, I have ranked it in 100th place. And if I ever get around to ranking another 90 brands of rum, I’m confident this will still be a lot worse than the worst of them (I only rank based on full bottles experienced, not individual tastes – just so you know).

The good news is that I did go on to try this in a random summer cocktail that I made up, and it didn’t totally ruin it – but there were a lot of strong flavours in there; spiced rum, lemon juice, limoncello, orange juice and dry cider.

As time progressed, the James Cook just sat on top of the cupboard, going nowhere, doing nothing until one day I decided to pour it down the sink. I think there’s a bit of a gleam around the plughole now, though the cheap alcohol smell lingered for longer than I care to remember.

It may be some time before I risk any further Lidl purchases, but I suppose I have to if I’m going to maintain the integrity of this Aldi vs Lidl alcohol comparison. Until I do, let’s assign arbitrary scores out of 10 to the Aldi and Lidl products I’ve tried in the past with some useful notes.

Aldi Recap

Old Hopking White Rum – 6  - a sad 37.5% alcohol and only £10 at time of purchase. Nothing offensive about it that is going to ruin your cocktails. Should you buy it? You may as well.

Old Hopking Dark Rum – 7 – also 37.5% alcohol and sadly, I can’t remember how much it was the last time I bought it. Quality is consistent with its pigmentally challenged brother. In all fairness it is about on par with the Captain Morgan though the alcohol content is lacking.

Ballycastle Irish Cream – 7 – only 14.5% alcohol and a little thin, but if you like Irish Cream, there’s no reason you aren’t going to like this. When I last bought it it was a bargainous £3.99, though I think it has since risen to around £4.29.

Ballycastle Premium Irish Cream – 9 – ah, a budget Irish Cream that matches up to Bailey’s 17% alcohol. That’s more like it. Originally available at £5.99 (though subsequently at an increased cost of £6.49), this has a richness so close to that of Bailey’s that you’d be insane to pass it up.

Tamova vodka (blue) – 6 – an average “premium” supermarket vodka that at least has the decency to chalk up 40 ABVs.

Oliver Cromwell London Dry Gin – 4 – at 37.5% it’s suitable for mixing, but not worth writing more than 4 words about.

Vinelli Dry Vermouth – 6 – my introduction to the world of vermouth and as such I didn’t have anything to compare it to at the time – much less did I know what to do with it. Nonetheless, it’s decent enough.

Notable by their absence:

Highland Black 8 – one of the very first brands of scotch I ever bought and, as such impossible to comment on as I didn’t have anything to compare it to, nor any idea what scotch was even supposed to be like at the time. One day I’ll buy another bottle.

Clarke’s Bourbon – I mentioned that I’ve tried this one, and it also featured in my “review” of Jack Daniel’s but sadly I only got to try a couple of measures, so it wouldn’t be fair to score it here.

Lidl Recap

Putinoff Platinum Vodka (blue) – 6 – an average vodka that is entirely on par with Aldi’s alternative.

James Cook Premium Rum 3 year old - -10 – well, you know about this one now so let’s never speak of it again.

Coming Soon

Since beginning this post and indeed the whole experiment, I’ve been appraising Aldi’s Cocobay Coconut-Flavoured Rum Liqueur, their Glen Orrin 5 year old blended malt and their Specially Selected Irish Cream. You’ll be able to read about those in the coming months. As far as Lidl is concerned, I picked up the Queen Margot blended scotch (though that’s David’s birthday present) and a Romanetti Extra Dry vermouth. So again, check back another time for updates.

Since purchases have clearly been weighted in favour of Aldi so far, a simple totting up doesn’t suffice here, so instead I’ll take an average score. That means Aldi currently stands on an encouraging 6.43 out of 10, while Lidl racks up a confusing -2 out of 10. It is clear that I need to be visiting Lidl a few more times in the coming months to see if any of their products can raise that score out of the gutter. I’ll see you then, next week when I think I’m going to be talking about Rosso vermouth, a budget brand I picked up from Tesco. 

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Pub Crawling in Stockport

Seven miles east of popular party destination Manchester lies the altogether different town of Stockport. Built on a couple of hills, next to a big blue pyramid, Stockport is like a traditional English market town that suffers perhaps because the MCR’s sprawling metropolis is so close at hand and so accessible – lots of buses and trains each hour that bring the clubs, venues, restaurants and bars (and indeed, the 21st century) easily within reach.

What does that leave you with for a night out in Stockport? It’s time to find out. In fact, it’s time to find out anew since I’ve already done a Stockport pub crawl. A good few years ago my friend moved there, and we decided to try it out – it’s only 3 miles up the road from my house. It was something of a failure by all accounts. We were pretty much the only people who had chosen to go out in Stockport on that particular Saturday night – with the singular exception of the scary man who hit us up for 2 quid in the second pub we called in. He had tears tattooed on his face, and none of us felt we were on familiar enough terms to ask any questions as to whether they represented the number of people he’d killed, years he’d spent in prison or times he’d been raped... Everyone pretended not to be scared while Phil gave him 2 quid.

With the atmosphere of that pub ruined, we left pretty sharpish and ended up between pubs in a pissing rain storm. At this point paranoia was setting in, and we were expecting to run into a gang of Nazis at any moment.

Surely it couldn’t be as bad as that again?

Before setting out this time, something on Twitter suggested I should download a beer app (Untappd), so I thought I could try it out during our excursion. I decided to try the find good beer nearby function first, entered my post code, and waited for it to suggest that the nearest good beer was… in town, 3 miles away at the Port Street Beer House. FFS. There has to be some good beer nearer than that! Ok, so maybe it’s one to try sometime later.

After a couple of warm up drinks, Mrs Cake and I set out to The Magnet on Wellington Road. We’d never been there before, and I’d never even considered it – it’s location isn’t the most inviting (outside of town, round the corner from a retail park)… but it is surprisingly good. It’s nicely decked out, plush, friendly and with a good selection of beer. They also sell pouches and cartons that you can have filled with beer to take home with you. Pretty frickin’ awesome. In fact, Mrs Cake suggested this could be the place we come to when we fancy popping out for “a quick pint”. Our usual haunt, The Fiddler’s Green is friendly enough (and easily within walking distance), but the selection of drinks is blackly depressing. On our last visit I spotted a new bottle in the fridge and asked what it was, only to be told by the barmaid: “No idea. I couldn’t  tell you”. So… do you want to have a look at the bottle, or what? I’m sure it’ll tell you on there… if you’ll just look. Nope.

The Magnet has all tons of real ales and fancy foreign beers, and for the sake of 5 minutes on a bus, totally worth it.
Beer list at The Magnet
I tried Bitburger Premium Pils, since I tend to opt for those type of beers these days, but I was disappointed with a bitter aftertaste, scoring it 3 out of 5, which I can’t help with the benefit of hindsight, thinking should have been a 2 or 2.5.

Next we headed back a little further from Stockport to The Railway, where a teddy boy night was in full swing. The atmosphere was a bit weird in there, but no cause for concern. In the main room everyone was dressed for the 50s, while the other room was where everyone else went. It’s one of those pubs that’s nice enough, but the d├ęcor and sparse furnishings give it a shabby working men’s club feel.

This time I went for “Warrior” (4.6%) by Goldmark Craft Beers, which confounded my new beer app. Honestly, only my second beer and I’ve already found a new one. No need to worry though, there is a feature that allows you to enter your discovery on to the app. I unlocked the “Night Out” achievement for that one, though it was actually for being on a night out rather than discovering a new beer. You’ll see I came to earn four achievements on this first excursion.

Next up was The Swan With Two Necks, which is down in Stockport town. This was a weird one an’all… it was nearly empty and they were playing cheesy 80s pop music really loud, and I’m talking Kylie’s I Should Be So Lucky and even Stefan Dennis. We didn’t know what to make of that. Also, the gents toilet is outside so, you know, while I made that quip about the 21st century earlier, I’m not actually trying to imply that Stockport is backward but… it’s not like there aren’t er… things that hark back to a simpler time… 80s music and outside toilets? Not of the same era, but even so.

I chose the 8.5% Old Tom, which I actually enjoyed very much. Dark of flavour, it reminded me very much of the 32 year old Bunnahabain I’d been drinking around that time. Soon after I read a blog about pairing beer with whisky, and I can’t help thinking that these two would probably complement each other perfectly. 4 out of 5 for this one.

So, onward to The Arden Arms, another bizarre experiment in publicanism – on the surface. No, outside it looks like a pub, but inside it’s like a betting shop from the 19th century. You order your pint from like, a window – or rather a counter, more than a bar. Here I think I had Hoptimus Prime, which I also scored a 3.

We finished up this time at The Boar’s Head, which is by the market place and is a Samuel Smith pub. It’s very cheap, which is nice, and they have their own branded spirits – another aspect I enjoy. I decided to have a chaser this time, so it was Sovereign Best Bitter (4.1%, 3.5 out of 5), with the irish whisky.

We went home after that, picking up some fried chicken on the way. It was a far more successful pub crawl than my last attempt then, and definitely one I’d repeat/recommend.

The next day I was perusing our tv recordings library, and wondering why the new episode of How I Met Your Mother hadn’t recorded. Later, while catching up on my tweets from the previous night, I found one that said, “watching How I Met Your Mother; why is Marshall so thin?” So clearly the reason it wasn’t in the library was that we’d been watching it drunk. Ought not to’ve deleted it really.

So, I’ll just finish off with a few words about that beer app. It’s a shame really that I’ve explored so much beer already, as this means I pretty much have to start again. The flip side of that is that I am newly encouraged to try different beers, where recently I had been content to stick with beer that I know I like. The app encourages you by giving you achievement badges – I got four just from that night alone, and we only went in 5 pubs – talk about enabling. A week or so later I got a badge for drinking 10 different beers in a row. What the app doesn’t realise of course, is that I wasn’t logging a beer if I’d already had it, there didn’t seem to be any point in logging multiple cans of my staple Holsten Pils, and especially not the 18 cans of Carling my dad had brought over – nor even the second pint of Jever… if you have to start logging everything you do, where does it stop?

I haven’t tried it out fully yet, having only one friend on there, and having chosen not to allow it to speak to the internet through Facebook or Twitter because I don’t want people being told about what I’m doing or where I am until I’m ready to tell them. Nevertheless, I’ve noticed one drawback to its functionality, and that is that it doesn’t appear to log where you drank the beers you check in, even when you add your location. I could be missing where it does that, but I had to resort to the internet to find the name of the Samuel Smith pub, when I should have just been able to check my beer log on my app.

It does seem that the app gets in the way a little since you pretty much have to take your phone out and log your beer as soon as you get back to your table – otherwise you might forget what you’re drinking. I know Mrs Cake finds that very annoying when she’s trying to have a conversation. It’s like when people first got mobile phones and you’d be in a pub, playing pool with someone when they get a text. Then they stop playing and answer the text (which used to take so much longer), leaving you standing there waiting. Luckily people eventually got used to ignoring their texts until opportune times. Some did anyway.

It was a most successful excursion, then. Sure, some of it is down to the company you keep, but it helps if you can find interesting and friendly pubs, which we did.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Sloe me the money

Apologies for the dreadful pun in the title, but it was the best I could do at short notice, and anyway; this week's post is about Glenglassaugh Sloeberry Liqueur so, yeh, now you see. All right, enjoy.

A few months ago I introduced Mrs Cake to sloe gin. I didn’t really know what it was like at the time, but there we were, in a bar in West Didsbury, and Mrs Cake asked me to get her something to surprise her. I asked if they had anything “a bit different” that my wife would like. I barely gave the barmaid time to think before continuing, “have you got any sloe gin?

Mrs Cake loved it, and proceeded to buy herself a bottle (which was savagely and repeatedly purloined by another guest) the next time we needed to take some booze to a friend’s house.

In the meantime, I’d been doing some online research, trying to find a special bottle to get her for Christmas or, as it turned out, her next birthday. And that’s when I found this – Glenglassaugh Sloe Liqueur. It’s not gin, it’s actually new make spirit – the stuff they normally age in oak barrels for at least three years in order for it to become whisky – that has been infused with sloeberries in the same way that gin is when they make sloe gin.

It caught my eye straight away, because I recalled seeing Glenglassaugh’s The Spirit That Dare Not Speak Its Name in the 101 Whiskies book – that being a bottling of their new make spirit (you can’t call new make spirit whisky).

Being intrigued, and having had the opportunity to taste some new make spirit at a couple of the distilleries on Islay (which I’d enjoyed and compared to grappa), I thought this would be cool.

It is bottled at 26% and you get 50cl for £25 or so, it comes nicely presented in a Bruichladdich style bottle with a tasteful label and stopper.

Now, because it’s a gift I can’t really give it a full appraisal because that would mean I needed to drink the whole thing. Instead I can only go on a couple of tastes that Mrs Cake was kind enough to let me have. I have to say, I think this is delicious, and even better than sloe gin. The complexity of the new make spirit is stimulating and challenging, soft and comforting, spicy and warming. You don’t even need to drink it over ice, it’s just lovely as it is. Mrs Cake likes it too, which is nice because she wasn’t that happy when she received it as one of her birthday presents… she’s demanding, that Mrs Cake.

Nevertheless, it isn’t one for everyone. Mrs Cake took it for an evening with her friends, and they seemed to find it confusing. When I went over to pick her up later on I had to explain what it was and how it was made as Mrs Cake was struggling to do so herself. She was actually a little annoyed as she had poured a little for everyone, and they didn’t even finish it.

In the main, liqueurs are made purely for mixing – they are too sweet to be enjoyed neat or over ice – but every now and then you come across one that you could happily enjoy that way. This is one of those. Try it for yourself, or if you’re looking for an unusual booze gift for a friend, stop searching. This is it.

Now, I'm moving house on Friday and the movers are in tomorrow, which means I won't have a computer to blog on. That's why you're getting this now. Also it's because I came home from band practice and Mrs Cake hadn't finished watching The Help. I assure you, normal service will be resumed by next week - as long as the internet connection has been sorted out. Till then, happy drinking.

Friday, 2 January 2015

FA Cup Drinking Game

a typical goalmouth scramble, borrowed from google images.
I don’t tend to like rushing posts out but on conceiving of this idea it occurred to me that if I didn’t get it out in early January it would be almost a whole year before it would be relevant again. So what it is, I’ve devised an FA Cup highlights drinking game; inspired by the monotonous regularity with which certain stock phrases are dusted off and presented during the marathon and legendary early rounds when non-league clubs are still a part of the mix.

If you’re British, you’re going to know exactly what I’m talking about. Also, given the way we’re always told the FA Cup is popular around the world being, as it is the World’s oldest association football competition, you might know what I’m talking about if you’re from elsewhere. If you don’t, here’s a brief description.

The FA Cup is a simple knockout competition where teams are randomly drawn against each other. League and non-league teams are allowed to enter (subject to certain criteria) and a number of preliminary rounds eventually bring us to the First Round Proper around November time when a dizzying array of fixtures take place. The weather can be really bad, there are a variety of different skill levels on show, there’s a whole romance thing where a bunch of nobodies with day jobs can get their 15 minutes of fame and their club a much needed cash injection by being drawn against a league side, big sides can routinely lose to small sides… really, I could probably write a whole post about the FA Cup – but that wouldn’t be booze related.

I’ve had a think then, and I’ve identified some things that seem to happen with predictable regularity. Feel free to add your own, but I think I’ve covered enough bases here.

The upshot of this then is that you should drink any time:

  • the commentator says “not bad for a centre half”.

  • A team is referred to by its nickname (drink twice if it’s Chesterfield being referred to as The Spirewrights).

  • There is a comedy goalmouth scramble (drink twice if it doesn’t result in a goal).

  • A player’s on loan status is referenced.

  • Poor league form is mentioned.

  • The post-match interview involves a scouse manager.

  • A non-league player’s day job is mentioned (unless it’s during the lineups at the beginning, as you’ll probably have to drink 11 all in one go).

  • An unlikely victory is greeted with a pitch invasion.

  • Someone mentions “giant killing”.

  • There’s a match where you can’t see the ball because there is so much fog.

  • Someone refers to whether or not the FA Cup has lost its importance in recent years (drink twice if they refute that supposition).

  • A period of time greater than your age is mentioned eg: “it’s 37 years since Mumbum Town United last qualified for the FA Cup’s third round…”

  • You zone out at the sheer volume of meaningless goals (maybe not that last one; this was always going to happen and will only be more frequent due to the addition of alcohol).

Now, it’s a bit late for the very earliest rounds that get a TV highlights show, but this weekend round 3 starts (that’s when the Premier League clubs enter) and there’s still a big enough fixture schedule to make this worth doing, so get together with some friends and watch the highlights show with some drinks. It might even be worthwhile trying it for one of the live Sunday afternoon matches, or even the draw for the next round – it’ll certainly make that more interesting.

Let me know how you get on.

red hot image, borrowed from