Monday, 23 February 2015

National Lampoon's Family Vacation

It’s been 6 months since Mrs Cake and I went on holiday. That may not seem a long time to some of you (not least my sister and brother-in-law who hadn’t done it for 6 years – had a holiday, I mean), but it sure seems a long time to us.

Well, the end of May came around, and it was time to be off to Spain, this time for a family holiday with my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, and my two nephews – something I had suggested a good few years ago, but had never been followed through to realisation. Everyone had wanted to, it was just that Mrs Cake and I always had other things on. One day you just have to do it.

My brother-in-law had taken on the bulk of the arrangements, and by some strange quirk of fate, it resulted in us renting a villa near the Murcian town of Los Alcazares – the place I’d been twice before on golf holidays (see Golfageddon). It was a different resort though. Usually we stay at the Roda resort, while this one was the slightly more upmarket Mar Menor Golf Resort.

Well, I think you know what to expect from me: we’re talking holiday drinking, souvenir booze shopping and duty free. The targets I had identified were:

-          Spanish brandy; I was planning a visit to the nearby town of Cartagena, where they make Licor 43 and what I assume is a type of brandy called Galileo 7-70, so I was intending to go for that… more later.

-          Aguardiente de Orujo; pomace brandy to you. Since discovering grappa and the various non-Italian alternatives, this is always on my shopping list, so a new brand was definitely the order of the day.

-          Absinthe; you know, for parties.

-          Duty Free; I’ve been coveting the Highland Park Einar for some time, so I was hoping this would be my chance to pick one up.

Strap yerself in, the post’s about to start.

When visiting Spain it is usually essential to make sure you get where you’re going well before 2 o clock in the afternoon – because that’s when everything shuts for about 4 hours. I have no idea how Spain continues to observe the siesta ritual and be a modern nation, but there you go.

As a British person, it’s so easy to forget, and rely on a trip to the supermarket only to find you’re too late and henceforth fucked. So we landed in Alicante and picked up our respective hire cars. Myself, Mrs Cake and my parents headed off in one, planning to meet the others at the central supermarket in Alcazares.

I hadn’t really planned how we were actually going to meet up, but it didn’t really seem important. What I’d learned about Los Alcazares from my previous visits was that it wasn’t very big, they’d be sure to be able to find the square, and if they did that, we would find them. What I would learn this trip though, was that there’s a lot more to the town, and indeed the area, than a lads’ holiday where you play golf every day and drink on the strip every evening is ever likely to reveal.

I called my sister and found that they’d been diverted down back roads by my dad’s satnav which was set to “avoid toll roads”. It was 1pm by this point, and knowing the supermarkets would be closing in an hour, I suggested we pick up enough stuff for at least the first night, and asked for orders. My brother-in-law said tequila.

It later turned out that the supermarkets in Los Alcazares don’t close for siesta, though they definitely used to. I suspect it’s something to do with the large British expat community. In the town of Murcia however, they do observe the siesta tradtion, so just be warned if you go for the day and want to get some booze shopping in – not that I even saw a booze shop in Murcia…

So we went to the central Mercadona for supplies. Being mostly concerned with booze, I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of groceries and the like, and start with the part where I actually reached the booze aisle.


Of course, any self-catering holiday requires the purchase of beers – something to give the fridge a reason to exist. It was the local brew Estrella Levante (4.8%) to begin with then, a decent enough Spanish cerveza. Later my brother-in-law would buy bottles of San Miguel and I would add Cruzcampo before finally purchasing some cans of a beer I’d never seen before, Adlerbrau Tipo Pilsen, which I am assuming is a Spanish take on the German pilsner style… though I see there is actually a range of German beers called Adlerbrau, while the website of brewer Alhambra doesn’t list Adlerbrau as one of its products at all. What’s going on?

I’ve also found thisreview site that has some interesting comments to make. For me, the Adlerbrau is fairly nice. Let’s face it, you’re going to put it in the fridge and drink it ice cold. Nearly any lager/pilsner tastes good under those conditions, and to boot, this one is 5% so, I ain’t complainin’. Some of these reviews though:

“Watery and quite mediocre pale lager”. What are you expecting?

“Usual boring lager beer”. What were you expecting? Seriously. I could tell it was going to be a lager-style beer before I bought it.

Even the one that says, “Quite alright to be honest”, scores it a paltry 8 out of 20.

“Aromas of boiled vegetables.” What are you doing sniffing the fucking beer? Don’t sniff the beer!

Feels like I’ve tasted this 1000 times before. Boring.

So er… yeh. I thought it was all right. And for 2 euros 30 for a pack of 12 330ml cans… what have you got to complain about? It looks like my fellow Untappd brethren have been scoring it poorly too…

Something else that caught my attention was, on the plane home, a guy in the aisle adjacent to me bought a can of Budweiser, and after the first taste, said in a thick Bolton accent, “this Budweiser tastes lovely!”

His wife replied, “Why? Is it because it isn’t San Miguel?

Sorry, but who in their right mind can prefer Budweiser to San Miguel?!? I couldn’t believe it, but there you go.

I like beer, but I suppose I drink it more for the buzz than for the nuances and complexity of flavour. If the beer’s delicious, so much the better, but if it’s cold, wet and 4% alcohol or stronger, I’m happy. Spirits is different of course. I drink those for the flavour and experience rather than for their strong alcoholic effects (most of the time). I suppose that’s why I mostly blog about spirits and not beer. Speaking of which…


No first visit to a foreign supermarket is complete without making one or two spirits purchases – for drinking during the holiday, and potentially for taking home. At this stage I was thinking to just get something fairly cheap that could be squandered casually over the course of the week – I always like to take longer (2 or 3 months) over the more special stuff – so I ended up with two products of the same brand. Regio Tequila Blanco (38%) and Regio Aguardiente de Orujo (a more satisfying 40%). They were an encouraging 6 euros 90 each for 70cl. These were in fact the only examples of these spirit genres available at this supermarket, with the exception of Jose Cuervo Gold, and I wasn’t getting that on holiday.

They are modestly packaged, the tequila most notably displaying a lame drawing of a sombrero on its label.

I wasn’t sure at this stage whether I’d find a more special orujo to take home, so I figured I’d save this one for the timebeing. I didn’t really want my parents seeing me polishing off two full bottles of spirits in a week either for that matter, so we just opened the tequila on the first night. Mrs Cake and I did the old tequila and lime combo to get the party started, then I made cocktails with lemonade and white wine and things for other partaking adults. That left me with a little over half a bottle to finish on my own throughout the rest of the week.

So what’s the verdict? Regio is a Spanish company, but the bottle assures us that the tequila is made in Mexico “from agave”.  How much agave… is, I’m thinking ‘not much’. You certainly can’t expect much for 6 euros 90, and no, there isn’t much agave to taste. Where this brand has done well though, is in not making the product taste like dog shit. I suspect its other main ingredient must be sugar cane, as the resulting spirit is pleasingly sweet. It is actually a pleasure to drink neat, and to me, that is unprecedented at this kind of price point. It makes me optimistic for the day I open the orujo, which sadly for you will come much later.

Brandy Search

Previous Spanish brandy raids have resulted in purchases of Solera gran riservas Cardenal Mendoza (nice enough) and Gran Duque D’Alba (not sure it’s really any different to the Cardenal), so I was hoping to find something a bit more special, even exclusive, this time.

I did my pre-trip research as usual, looking for distilleries and the like in Murcia, and came across Roniwesk who are based outside the town of Cartagena, which was something like 30km from our base. They seem to mostly specialise in liqueurs, though their website did reveal a product called Galileo 7-70. Now, it doesn’t actually say it is brandy, though it does give the impression it is a solera, which means it has been aged in the particular method I have discussed before –  the product is stored in barrels according to age then, at some point the oldest barrels are tapped and a quantity bottled, then topped up using the next oldest barrels, which in turn are topped up from the next oldest, right down (or up) to the newest barrels which are topped up with new product. This all means that the bottled product contains liquid of a mixture of ages, a proportion of which is theoretically as old as the beginning of the process.

It is for this that Galilieo 7-70 is named – it is made up of product as young as 7 and as old as 70 years. Now, I get the impression from the internet that they aren’t making this product anymore, so presumably, as they continue to bottle the remaining stocks, the name should change to 8-71, 9-72 etc… perhaps we’ll see.

All that seemed fairly interesting, so I made it one of my targets. I didn’t see it anywhere in Los Alcazares, nor on a day trip to Murcia, but I did finally locate a bottle in Cartagena itself… it was 5 euros 15. It seemed pretty cheap, and was displayed next to a more upmarket bottle at just under 7 euros, which Mrs Cake suggested I get instead. It was at this point that I noticed both bottles were a disappointing 20% ABV… well that’s not what I wanted at all.

I ended up leaving the shop, only to return about half an hour later, figuring I may as well pick one up after all – at that price.

I used my translator app to read the label when we got back in wi-fi range, and found that it is for use in cooking, but can be drunk on its own or added to coffee. That last option seems likely, but we will treat it with the same dignity afforded to all alcoholic beverages, and see what it’s like… in the fullness of time.

It was getting towards the end of the holiday by this point, and I decided it was time to find my “special” brandy. Not having managed to find an actual booze shop during the week, I decided I’d make my purchase from the “big supermarket”, but I think that might have been a mistake. For one thing, the “big supermarket” wasn’t as big as I had envisioned. For another, they had loads in the way of cheap brandy, but the only solera gran riserva I hadn’t bought already turned out to be Carlos I from the Osborne brandy producer.

Frankly I’m not expecting too much, while at just under 30 euros this one was more expensive than The Cardenal and The Duke were, a quick check on UK prices reveals that here, you can get it for a similar price, while the Cardenal and The Duke are around £10 more expensive.

In Los Alcazares you have to buy your booze from the supermarkets- unless there’s an actual booze shop hidden away somewhere. There’s definitely more to the town than I’d previously learned, with a good portion of the town actually seeming to be Spanish after all.

Cheap is the way in the supermarkets. I saw a blended whisky at 4 euros 30… it can’t be any good at that price, but something makes you curious to find out. You could even get a Ballantine’s for 8 euros, which is fantastic value.

Duty Free

After seven lovely days and nights (and far too soon), the holiday was over, and there was left one final piece of excitement; the Duty Free. It was another early flight, so I’d made it through security still in desperate need of my morning constitutional. I passed swiftly through Duty Free because I didn’t want my shopping to be hindered by gut pains and anxiety.

So a few minutes later, Mrs Cake and I returned. I knew what I wanted, and had spotted it on my first pass. Yes, they had the Highland Park Einar (1 litre, 40% ABV, 50 euros 90, including a 5 euro discount).

There seemed to be some kind of “whisky festival” going on, as there were sales representatives hanging around, one of whom ended up trying to sell me something I already wanted.

Would you like to taste it?

No, I’m alright thanks.

Then she started listing all the flavours that they write in the description on the box… “can you like… go away?

It was very annoying, and come to think of it now, I’m going to blame this for the fact I forgot to look for a bottle of absinthe. I did at least pick up a bargain litre of Stoli for a ridiculous 10 euros or something like that.

Mrs Cake even got in on the act, stocking up on gin for the [then]upcoming Glastonbury Festival. She ended up getting Larios, a Spanish London Dry Gin. I’m not sure how that works…

All that happened a good few months ago now, and I’ve been getting stuck into all those bottles. You might have read one or two words about some already, but I promise there’s more coming in the next few weeks. Stick around for that.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Cask Strength Roundup

Looking at my blog stats gives the impression that a fair few people aren’t sure what to do with cask strength spirits. Since my original, well-visited foray into that world I’ve made it my business to investigate cask strength expressions wherever possible, so I thought now would be a good time to revisit the subject, look at some examples and draw some conclusions. Onward…

Caol Ila 61.3%

This of course was the original cask expression that I got so excited about. I was quite precise about ratios whenever I drank this one, figuring I didn’t want to waste one drop of enjoyment. Enjoy it I did, but not as much as the standard 12 year old which has its optimum strength already worked out for you.

To be fair, the cask strength isn’t just the 12 year old with less water in it – judging by its even paler hue and lighter, less luxurious body, it is also a good deal younger. That is only idle speculation on my part (feel free to correct me if you know better), though if it is fairly young spirit, it does quite well.

Berry Bros and Rudd Bunnahanhain 1979 51.8%

This has probably been the best cask strength expression so far. Dark of colour, fruity and tart of flavour, it never seemed to overstep the mark when it came to the line between strength and flavour. I only have one small taste of a non-cask strength Bunnahabhain to compare it with, but I don’t think we need to go down that route. This was superb – perhaps its 32 years in a cask helped it to mellow somewhat. You can read more of my impressions of this one here.

Glen Garioch Founders Reserve  48%

48% is quite low to be cask strength, and I would also have thought quite low for such a young cask strength expression. Come to that, 48% is just a weird strength. Nevertheless, this was an average to below average expression, and as such it isn’t something to judge cask strength expressions by. You can read more of my impressions of this one here.

Bladnoch 12 - Sheep Label 55%

In spite of, or possibly because of high expectations, this one never quite achieved the greatness that the 46% 10 year old did. The line between too much and too little water was a little too fine. I took it to a cottage-share with some friends in Gloucestershire and while it was good for demonstrating how addition of water is essential for cask strength whiskies, it was not the excellent example of scotch that I was hoping it was going to be. You'll be able to read more of my impressions of this one in the coming months.

Aberlour A’bunadh 60.7%

A good example – and beautifully presented, but it cemented to an extent my general indifference to Speyside malts. One that would certainly be drinkable at full strength, but for optimum enjoyment a good deal of water was required. In the end, this one just didn’t demand I pull it out of the cupboard often enough. You can read more about this one in the coming months.

Four Roses Single Barrel 50%

Sadly I could never quite get the the flavour to burn ratio correct with this one when adding water – you could reduce the burn, but if you added enough water to take care of the burn properly, the flavour was ruined, and it always made me want to keep adding water until that inevitably happened. I’m no expert on bourbon as yet, but given the big flavours that are out there for reasonable prices, I’d suggest you’d be better going for one of those than you would this. Again, check back over the coming months to read more about this one.

Arran 1997 Single Cask 56.3%

I haven’t quite finished this one yet, but it has been setting a good example so far. A few small drops of water are usually enough. Perhaps not quite as impressive as the Bunnahabain, but gentle and sweet in equal measure. It is also better presented than even the Aberlour A’bunadh – though admittedly about twice the cost. You can read more about this one sometime in the future.

Concluding Remarks

I do like the extra strength, but in general I’d probably rather do without the chaos element that having to add your own water brings. You’re never quite sure you’re getting the most out of it and that blurs the line between the effect your dilution is having on it and the possibility that maybe sometimes the product may not be as good as some others.

You should probably even get cask strength editions at a cheaper rate than others because the distillery hasn’t bothered taking the time to figure out what the right level of dilution is. I suppose you are getting more of the overall product, but every time you pour a glass you have to have one or two tastes before you’re certain you’ve added about the right amount of water – then there’s always that point where you know you’re close, but wonder if you should add a little more, while also being aware that you might end up adding a drop too much and ruining it.

It’s probably only me who worries to this extent, though harking back to that original post, I have seen from looking at my blog stats that a lot of the people who are directed to my first ever post about cask strength scotch, have asked Dr Google, how to drink cask strength scotch, so there’s clearly a lot of uncertainty. They don’t want to waste it by doing it incorrectly either.

All in all, cask strength whisky just seems a bit too much hard work sometimes. So what I find is that a lot of the time I just elect to keep the cask strength stuff in the cupboard. And anyway, shouldn’t I be able to trust the distillery to add the optimum amount of water? And come to that, isn’t it the case that the water they add at the distillery is going to be from the same source as what made the whisky in the first place and therefore better able to complement the spirit than the cheapest bottled water I can buy in a local supermarket? Or does that depend whether the water is added at a bottling plant, potentially far away from the source?

So I suppose, as with all whisky, the cask strength variety is another genre to be explored – there’s going to be good and… less good in it as you would expect with anything. It’s just that there’s something exciting about those extra ABVs, and that may or may not be a good thing – depending on the particular variety you’ve gone for.

Try some out and let me know your thoughts.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Meeting a Legend: the Highland Park 18

This week we’re looking at one of the most anticipated experiences in my drinking life so far; trying the Highland Park 18. A single malt that has been described elsewhere in the following glowing terms:

“the tears of a God.” – Master of Malt

“the only downside of this whiskey is that having tasted it my love of all others has declined. Its rather like meeting cheryl cole.Simply the best.” The Whisky Exchange

Will it – can it – can anything – live up to a billing like that? Let’s find out…

The Highland Park 18 (43% ABV) seems to be a pertinent example of the oft stated recent(ish) rise in scotch prices. I hadn’t noticed it before, but I paid £70.09 + P&P for my bottle from The Drink Shop, and this was significantly cheaper than at the other major online retailers (like £30 cheaper). However, a comparative online review of the HP18 against the Talisker 18 from 2012 revealed that they paid a mere £57.95 for the HP18. While it is possible now, that the HP18 contains a good deal of Highland Park’s older stocks, I feel this is an unreasonable increase – it has almost doubled in two years. But what do I know about economies and market forces?

What I do know is that this is in fact the most I have ever paid for a bottle of spirits, and marks the first time I’ve paid more than £1 per centilitre of product.

On first taste

Not immediately superior to the 12, nor does it go all out to impress – which you might feel entitled to expect when you’ve dropped 75 (or potentially 100+) notes on its purchase, however… being a bit more experienced now, I expect to have to wait a couple of weeks for a whisky’s true quality to be revealed, and with the HP18… there are encouraging signs. Such as, while I may not be smacking my lips, going “mmmmmmm!”, it is obviously dangerously drinkable – though its extravagant price tag is likely to discourage any temptation to go back for a second glass. I may not be bowled over by an obvious complexity, but I am hopeful as regards its pleasant subtlety.

No, for £75 I won’t be satisfied with “pleasant” and “subtle”, but I am confident this is going to turn out to be so much more.

Further visits

A few days later the HP18 seemed more ready to show itself, but what it shows is not perhaps what I’m looking for. I am interested to recall at this point that Jim Murray’s 2013Whisky Bible appraisal includes a comment to the extent that he often uses HP18 to introduce ladies to the world of whisky … because what strikes me at this point is that ladies might like this whisky. To use a word that I often mock in describing spirits… this one is very smooth, very smooth. In fact, there are no rough edges at all. And therein lies the cause of my – albeit very slight – disappointment. I like rough edges. I want my senses to be challenged. Could it be… that this whisky is too nice ­– both physically and figuratively?

As the weeks passed, and I delved deeper into the bottle, my opinions weren’t changing too much, though I was starting to notice a slightly sour,  woody note coming through. It is easy to put that down to the extra 6 years aging, but not so easy to accept that the spirit is better as a result.

It always smells great when I uncork that chunky bottle though, and I think the body is superior to the 12, but my thoughts on the palate are mixed. On certain parts of the tongue, the pleasant mouthfeel is all you get – there’s none of those explosions of delight that the HP12 brings and indeed that all my favourite whiskies do – but there is one area, when I press the liquid between my tongue and the rear of the upper part of my mouth, that produces a unique and beguiling reaction as the sweetness spreads its love outwards. What am I talking about? I don’t know; how are you supposed to describe this shit?


The ultimate verdict for this one can only rest on whether it is better than the HP12, and by how much.  At 3 times the price, you’ve got to hope it delivers but really… is it even possible that something could be three times better than the HP12? I don’t think so.

Well, the results are in, and my feelings are mixed. On the one hand I’m disappointed that it wasn’t the all-consuming, life changing pinnacle of whisky experience that I was hoping for, while on the other I’m pleased I don’t have to pay £70-100 for the absolute best – I can still get that for £25 to £45. It did show some high levels of class by the time I came to finishing the bottle, but not the complexity that I was both hoping for and expecting.

I think if anything, I’ve learned where my fiscal boundaries are in relation to whisky; in my world I don’t think it is possible for a whisky to be actually worth £70 and up, so while I might gamble on buying a pricey bottle again, it won’t be the HP18.  I fully expect I’ll come to try the other HP expressions – but I’ll definitely continue buying the HP12 and espousing its particular virtues.

Expectations can confound and then ruin an experience merely by their weight, but when you have a cheaper, younger mistress whose company you can enjoy more and even more frequently… I think it’s fair to say that expectations are not the whole story.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

The Magnet, Stockport

I don’t do this very often (in fact I don’t think I’ve ever done it before), but following on from the recent Stockport Pub Crawl adventure, I would like to pay tribute to an awesome pub, the Cake household’s new favourite. It’s The Magnet on Wellington Road, just about 100 yards outside of Stockport town centre. You might not expect much, based on its location, but The Magnet is my ideal of what a pub should be.

It’s friendly, comfortable, has an ever changing roster of beers – that you can even take home – and even bases its prices on the alcoholic content, as you can see from the board (pictured). Another board lists all the guest beers, which are colour coded to help you make your choice between pale, medium and dark. Really, it is probably the best pub for ale that I have found in the whole of Greater Manchester (and possibly even further afield).

It’s very convenient for Mrs Cake and I, being a mere 5 minute 192 bus ride away from our house. The 192 runs so mind bogglingly regularly that, even though the Magnet is three miles away, you can easily pop out for an hour, get two pints and come home without feeling you’ve been any further than just around the corner. The bus stop for the return journey is even right outside, and someone has written “The Magnet” on the sign as an unofficial bus stop name [since removed].

So if you live in the area, and are keen on trying some different and obscure beers, I urge you to check it out.