Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Spirit Log: Pisoni Grappa Trentina Schweizer

Italy. Ah, I love Italy. The weather, the food, the people, but mostly… (not really mostly, but let’s not actually quantify how much I love it and whether I love it more than other things) the grappa. It is almost reason enough alone to engineer Italian holidays. Luckily for me, even when I can’t engineer such holidays, my parents might be going, as was the case earlier this year when I asked if they could find me a bottle to bring home. Naturally they worried about whether it would break in their luggage and… well, all kinds of things that didn’t matter, but they only went and bloody did it.

And here it is. It’s Pisoni Grappa Trentina Schweitzer. If  I’m honest, I’m not entirely sure I’ve got all the words in its name in the right order, but from what I can gather, Pisoni is the distillery and Trentino (Trentina? Trento?)  is the region. It has 40 ABVs and cost 15 euros (and me 12 pounds, though I only had a tenner and I’m sure they’ll have forgotten about the other 2 by now). My mum told me she actually tried a couple of grappas at a restaurant (or winery or something) that they went to, and liked this particular one that had also been recommended to her. She didn’t know where to start, and that’s just fine because it’s still one I haven’t tried before.

What was immediately apparent was that the box is intended for another product because it’s too big for the bottle and has some interesting map-style artwork that doesn’t match to the modern art depiction of an opera (apparently – I don’t see it) that is on the label of the bottle. It’s nice enough though.

Let’s start with a direct comparison against my incumbent grappa, Poli Museo del Grappa… or something…


Pisoni – the label contains the kind of modern art smorgasbord that makes me think of cheap upholstery. The Poli, on the other hand, looks like something you’d buy in a gift shop near a popular tourist attraction. Pisoni is sealed with a stopper while the Poli has one of those clasp-stopper jobs. Anyone know what they’re called?


There’s a world of difference between the scent and flavour profiles though it can’t really be said that one is better than the other. The Pisoni has an odour reminiscent of tequila – earthy and more savoury, while the Poli is more floral and… I don’t want to say sweet because in actuality it isn’t more sweet though its flavour has more characteristics of something sweet than the Pisoni does. Does that make sense? Probably not. Nevertheless, the two brands and expressions are eminently comparable as they are essentially the same style – unaged, basic, classic.

Head to Head Conclusion

In terms of quality I just can’t pick between them. I can’t even say I prefer the taste of one over the other. What I can say is that neither quite offer the pinnacle of what unaged grappa can deliver – though in spite of this, their quality is comfortably acceptable and, while I’m placing them both very low down on my current grappa ratings chart, that is more a reflection on the particular quality of the other brands I’ve been fortunate enough to try so far – so it’s relative rather than absolute. Relative to each other, this represents the first time I’ve conducted a head-to-head where I’ve concluded both products are exactly equal.

Back to the Pisoni, as and of itself

I’ve continued dipping into this, little and often, and I can safely say it has represented it’s spirit genre with a reliable ease. I haven’t once had to ask myself, do I actually like grappa?- unlike the odd occasion when I’m not blown away by a renowned and sometimes expensive whisky - because it is obvious that I do and I still haven’t found one that has disappointed. If I could find grappa here in the UK for the kinds of prices you can pick it up in Italy, I think it might be all I would buy. Luckily for Italy, they have this as a huge draw to their tourism. In actuality, very few people probably go to Italy excited about the grappa they can collect, but I certainly do and I hope to be able to do so for many years to come.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Things to do on Pay Day: Bushmills Original and Thornton's Chocolate Liqueur

We have two very different alcoholic products vying for your attention this week as I take you on a lunchtime supermarket visit and spend a bit of my hard-earned cash. Are you ready?

What can I say? It was pay day, and I felt like celebrating. Cue bringabottle.co.uk and a quick perusal as to whether the supermarkets near to my work had any offers I could happily throw £10 to £25 away on. I’d budgeted (incorrectly) you see, and found that I’d got more spare cash this month than I’d thought (but actually hadn’t because I’d forgotten to include something in my budget). As Mrs Cake will tell you, I like to get a purchase in at the start of the month, before the money disappears, as it always does. Asda came up trumps on this occasion, so off I went after I’d eaten my lunch.

Bushmills Original (40%)

The only other time I’d ever dabbled in Irish whisky was Green Spot (though of course I’ve tried Jameson’s), and while I’d always intended to broaden my horizons a little, I tended to let the opportunity slip away in favour of something else. Not this time.

While it was on offer, in comparison to what I’ve paid for other products of the same class, at £16, this works out quite expensive. Only the Dewar’s 12, Black Grouse and Co-op’s standard blend have been more expensive in terms of price per centilitre, while Ballantine’s, Grant’s (Sherry Cask and Family Reserve), Whyte & MacKay and Cutty Sark were all cheaper (though that may not always be the case).

It’s a blend of grain (aged 5 years) and Irish single malt, and is a brand (and expression) that I’ve always considered to be entry level for Irish whisky so, given my previous inexperience I figure this is a good place to start a wider exploration.

Let’s start with a look at some comments I found online.

“a very friendly whisky” – I let that comment slip for a while, but now I’m thinking I literally have no idea what this means. Perhaps I’m being too literal.

“goes well with rum and raisin ice cream” – least useful comment ever.

Official review – “slightly petrolly” – I probably don’t mind a bit of petrol.

“I can easily polish a bottle off in an evening.” - Less a comment on quality and more a comment on your drinking habits, I think.

“I have enjoyed this all around the world.” - I am wondering what the reviewer is attempting to communicate with this comment.Is it that they are well travelled, but don’t like trying exotic things?

One reviewer calls it “one of my favourites” yet only scores it 79 out 100. Like whisky much?

And now, my first impressions:

In terms of presentation, you can’t have any complaints. It’s distinctive and authentic looking but it isn’t the most attractive package in the world. “Triple distilled; smooth and mellow” it says on the label, no doubt as a way to help you decide whether you might like it. Smooth is all right. Mellow, is a little uninspiring. I don’t really care how many times it’s been distilled.

It’s fairly yellowy in colour and light and grainy both in the nose and on the palate – quite dry but sweet and a little spicy. You can tell it is quite cheap, but that’s no criticism when it is, and there are no unpleasant notes to speak of.

Over time, it fitted the bill of go-to whiskey quite ably but it really found its destiny one day when I decided to add a shot to a glass of Zubr pils. The combination was perfect, with the slightly disappointing beer receiving a generous kick and righteous dose of the Bushmills sweetness. While I can’t try a host of other whiskies with the Zubr, since it isn’t a beer I’m likely to be buying again, I can enthusiastically recommend the Bushmills as a pils/lager enlivener. Maybe try it for yourself with your uninteresting pils/lager of choice.

Moving on…

Thornton’s Chocolate Liqueur (17% ABV, £10)

Thornton’s, the renowned confectioner now make their own chocolate liqueur – in fact, they have been doing so for a few years now, since it was released to celebrate their 100th anniversary, which must have been in 2011 since 1911 was when their first shop opened in Sheffield – yes, Sheffield [Yooooorkshire! Yoooooorkshire!]. I shouldn’t be biased, but that immediately makes me like it more.

It is presented in a minimalistic but modern style bottle in black and pink. Retailing on their site at £13.99, I picked it up on sale at Asda for £10. I haven’t bought a chocolate liqueur before, but I’ve eyeballed them from time to time, and if memory serves they aren’t generally as modestly priced as this. Well [looking at online retailers], I suppose some are and some aren’t.

This is essentially a mix of chocolate, cream and vodka, and it is intended for drinking over ice, adding to hot chocolate, using in a narrow variety of cocktails or as an alcoholic ice cream sauce.

The first thing I tried was as a sauce on a fruity crumble cake – because that was the kind of dessert I had available at the time. Sadly the effect was that the cake was ruined – stick to double cream next time. Mrs Cake just had it over ice and said it was like Baileys, but more on that shortly.

Next I thought I’d try it in coffee in place of the irish cream I like to add from time to time. I didn’t feel this experiment was all that successful either – not that it was bad, it just wasn’t quite as tasty as when I stick to irish cream.

Then, one Sunday afternoon, it was time to try over ice – and that was much better. The product is a sumptuous chocolatey brown (as you would hope/expect), and much thicker than any irish cream I’ve crossed paths with so far. I would expect many a lady to flush with pleasure at the mere sight of this snuggling in a glass with some ice cubes.

When you get to the palate, it tastes about as good as it looks. The alcohol is evident but not overbearing and overall the chocolate element is… chocolatey – it could of course have elements of creaminess or milkiness to round out (or possibly dilute) its chocolatey appeal, but for me it’s all chocolate. I don’t think you can go wrong with this if you like chocolate and you like booze. Even if you don’t like booze, you’ll probably be willing to give it a second chance after this.

A fairly successful pay day treat, all things considered then. The outlay was modest, the quantity ample and the quality fitting of the outlay – perhaps even slightly better than that. It’s nice to indulge in a little extra curricular booze budget activity from time to time, and should you feel the draw, Bring a Bottle will usually provide a good place to start. In fact, I’m going to take a look now.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Poker Night part 4/Sunday Morning Comin' Down

I woke up Sunday morning/With no way to hold my head that… didn’t hurt

And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad/So I had one more… for dessert…

Thus sang Johnny Cash in his memorable cover of Kris Kristofferson song, Sunday Morning Coming Down, perfectly describing the way I felt one Sunday morning recently after an epic poker night. I hadn’t had a hangover this bad in years, but was glad to be avoiding the anxiety and depression I usually get, in spite of the pounding headache that replaced it being debilitating.

I got up when leaning too far to one side of the air mattress led to me being deposited on the floor, and headed straight outside for a beer and a cigar, hoping one would make me feel better, but suspecting the other would probably add a healthy dose of nausea to my fragile state.

In contradiction to the song I quoted earlier, the beer actually tasted awful and I didn’t finish it. In spite of that, John saw me drinking the beer and said, “This is why I like it when you come on the golf holiday; it doesn’t stop.” I took that as a compliment rather than a chilling warning about my drinking habits.

Back to the hangover… how had I let this happen? I remembered that I’d reached a point of being so hammered that I’d just slunk off to bed without telling anyone. It had been a hardcore, booze-laden night. I’d forgotten to take precautions like drinking water – at any point. All manner and quantity of spirits were consumed. Let’s see if I can remember them all…


David was still determined to foist his baiju on everyone he knows because, presumably it’s important that everyone knows how minging it is. I acquiesced, but insisted on being given “just a drop”, since I’d tried it so many times before. I still ended up with more than a double. We all necked it anyway (with the exception of Chris, who was sensible), and pulled a variety of faces and did a variety of reactive dances to express our disgust. Time for the second hardcore minging drink…

John read out a list of poker rules he’d come up with, and I quickly made sure that drinking a shot of absinthe before each game was added to the bottom. Once it’s on the list, it is law.

Instead of my bastardisation of the Bohemian Method, I decided this time we’d set light to a shot, cover the glass with our palms, inhale the fumes and then neck the spirit [known as the Backdraft method because smothering the flame with your palm causes the glass to suck up… for want of a better term]. This has the not insignificant benefit of reducing the amount of time you actually have to taste the spirit for.

In general people seemed to struggle with the palm thing – trust me, it doesn’t burn (unless you wait too long) – and let the vapours escape, but the absinthe went down quite well. This brand has clearly been artificially sweetened, which probably wouldn’t go down too well with absinthe aficionados, but none of the attendees was one of those, and it actually made it fairly pleasant to drink without the addition of sugar. It makes sense really – if adding sugar to absinthe is a normal thing to do, why not just make one that is already sweet?

I was pleasantly surprised then, but next time I’ll try to get a brand that is considered more true to the genre.

I have to say, by the time the poker started we were all well on our way to being smashed. The poker was a bit of a mess really, but we still all had a lot of fun – except John’s brother, who showed up late, was determined not to drink, didn’t join in any conversation or jokes, and took the whole thing too seriously.

Oban 14 (43% ABV) /JackDaniel’s Old No 7 (43% ABV)

Adam brought both of these. I didn’t have the JD, though you can read a general post about it here. The Oban was the last of the bottle, but there was enough to go around. I was surprised by how many people took it with ice. I don’t think I’d had it before, and I’m afraid I can’t give it a full appraisal now as the baiju and absinthe were still exerting their considerable influences over my palate. I had a beer playing its part there also.

Jim Beam Black 8 year old (43% ABV)

The second of my contributions, and despite Adam pining for the opening of the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, I was determined to start with this one – there was a litre of it and it was significantly the cheaper of the two so I wanted to make sure it took a hit.

I liked it, and as far as I can remember, more so than the standard Jim Beam. I’ll have to give you a full appraisal another time though.

Woodford Reserve Double Oaked (45.2% ABV)

I only recall having one glass of this, but clearly it was very popular with someone – the liquid was depleted all the way to below the bottom of the label when I picked it up the next day. From what I remember, it was superb and I’m looking forward to delving much deeper into that bottle.

Aultmore (That Boutique-y Whisky Company 53.2% ABV)

This was David’s other (and much more welcome) contribution. He’d been raving about this since a Manchester Whisky Club tweet tasting it had been part of. I remember enjoying it during that tasting also, but I was unable to enjoy the event to its full extent at the time as I was trying to prepare for a dinner party at the same time, and just ended up having a massive barney with Mrs Cake.

At well in excess of 50% alcohol, it might benefit from a couple of drops of water but seriously; this is a remarkable malt. Easily the best of the night.

Laphroiag Quarter Cask (48% ABV)

Way back when my experience of whisky was a primordial soup, I received a bottle of this as a gift and was disappointed that it appeared to lack all the qualities I had enjoyed so much in the 10 year old. I hadn’t tried it since, and given that my whisky education has evolved a couple of billion years since then, I was clamouring to try it again – without having to buy a bottle. So here we are, and this time I enjoyed it and it actually tasted the way Laphroiag should… though it must be noted that it has been a long, long time since I’ve even tried the 10 year old. I’m just going to have to buy a bottle of both.

Jim Beam

I’m not sure I actually drank any of this, so er… moving on.

The poker was fun, as it usually is, and it was great to imbibe all those spirits. I think though that we all got far too smashed far too quickly, and the poker suffered as a result. I was out quite early in the first game and the final three players for some reason all agreed to a draw… which made me livid. I know it’s allowed, but I just don’t see the point when you’re playing with friends for fun and insignificant amounts of money. Sure, if the game was looking like going on all night, but it wouldn’t – the whole system of increasing the blinds every 15 minutes means that can’t happen.

Whatever. I finished third in the second (and final) game, and that meant I got my £10 back, which meant I was happy enough. My poker skill did seem to have deserted me in the main though.

Well, back to that Sunday morning… I was glad I’d excused myself from the round of golf that had been scheduled for later that day although, to be fair I felt great once I’d popped to the shop to pick up breakfast items for everyone. I actually had one of those hangover highs that I’m going to assume you are also familiar with – when you’re knackered and ropey but full of good cheer and joy. I heard later that those who had elected to play golf only managed about four holes before giving up.

I’d been drunkenly flirting with Mrs Cake by text the night before, so I headed home, happily proceeding towards a little playtime…

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Spirit Log: Grande Absente 69 absinthe

Decided to use my booze budget on something a little different this month. Having stocked up on bourbon on my Florida trip and with two poker nights coming up, it seemed like a good idea to invest in a fancy bottle of absinthe. You might not see the logic there, but it made sense to me.

There are way more available (and readily so) than the first time I ever bought a bottle (15 years ago), and there is even an online store that specialises in absinthe, though sadly I didn’t find that one until I had already made my purchase. Nevertheless, this one- Grande Absente 69 - is quite interesting as it claims to be the nearest product to the absinthe that was banned throughout Europe and America in 1914. I’m not going to go into a history lesson.

I’ll just tell thee nah, I don’t actually like absinthe as such (it’s generally far too bitter to actually enjoy the way I’d enjoy my favourite genres of spirit), but I do love bringing it out at parties, impressing the guests by preparing it in the bohemian method, and then getting everyone smashed. There are loads of ways you can have it, but I’ve always used this one:

Pour a shot in a glass, pour a little more onto a teaspoon of sugar, light the contents of the spoon, wait a bit while it caramelises, tip the contents into the glass, stir until the sugar is dissolved, then pour a shot of water into the glass to douse the flames before too much alcohol is burned off. Neck it. And thusly you are changed (for the evening). Best cleanse your palate with something if you want to follow it up with something a little finer.

Apparently, though dependent upon which source you use, that isn’t even the correct way of doing the Bohemian method, so with this bottle I be trying a couple of different methods gleaned from here.

As the name suggests, this brand tips the scale at a liver-melting 69 ABVs. Absinthe can be found at a variety of strengths, and this one is approaching the pinnacle, though the strongest I’ve seen so far is 89.9 ABVs. The more I read into absinthe though, the more factors there are to be concerned with when selecting a bottle. Apparently brands at 89.9% aren’t the genuine article and sadly, the more I read about Grande Absente 69, the more I’m getting the impression it isn’t a particularly good brand in spite of its profession to adhere to traditional French distillation methods and follow traditional recipes. That’s a fucking shame considering it cost me more than 40 notes. I probably should’ve looked at this site first.

I never realised so many people were so serious about absinthe.

I’m not going to get too down about it though because, to be fair, it is just for getting smashed at parties, and none of my guests are going to know the first thing about absinthe. Getting them hammered will be enough this time.  I’ll worry about quality next time I look for an absinthe. The Germans make it well apparently, and with a trip to Berlin coming up it looks like I’ve finally found an alcoholic souvenir to look for.

Absinthe reviews all seem to talk about the ‘louche’ which is supposed to be a sign of quality, though apparently they don’t have to louche and sometimes bad ones do… so make of that what you will. The last one I bought certainly louched, and presumably this will be something I am more concerned about in future.

So, as I said,  I thought I’d try a couple of new methods with this one. Read about the Backdraft method next week, when I talk about actually opening the bottle at a poker night. For now though, here’s something I did after that, that for some reason I am including outside of synchronicity. Think of it as Pulp Fiction without the violence or dialogue.

Glass in a glass

The results then, of the little experiment you can watch in the half-assed video above were… that it was fucking awful. All the sweetness I had originally found (that will probably make more sense when you read next week’s post) was replaced by a bitterness that felt like drinking liquid plague. Perhaps I should have put some ice in it, I don’t know. What I do know was that it made me gag. I just had to neck it, but sadly, because I’d put so much water in it, there was too much and it took 3 big, entirely unpleasant gulps before I could call it job done and think about booking a hypnotherapy session that would wipe all memory of it from my mind.

Do people really drink this for pleasure?

I told Mrs Cake of the experience the next day, and she asked why I’d bothered with the whole method – could I not have just poured some water in it? And you know what? I don’t have any answer to that. It’s not going to be any different to just adding water, is it? Sure it’s a little bit more interesting to look at but… yeah! Nevermind.

With Ice

Yeah well, that absinthe sat around in the kitchen for a good while (after the poker night that you can read about next week) with no parties to go to and no one clamouring to drink it, so one Friday night when I was already fairly smashed from some post work drinks, I thought I’d give it a go with ice. And most surprisingly… it was all right. The deep cold clearly helps to suppress the overriding bitterness – and that’s apparent because after a while, when a large proportion of the ice has melted and the solution is working its way back to room temperature, those bitter flavours return. So my advice to you is to finish it while it’s still cold.

My knowledge and experience of absinthe is still in the newborn stage at this point – so I’m not able to focus on things and haven’t recognised who are the important people in my life yet. It wouldn’t be fair or even very illuminating then to draw any conclusions for you on whether you should buy this product. I won’t be buying again, but by the same token I haven’t found any brand I would confidently buy again yet. Keep joining me as the adventure continues, as you know it will. In the meantime, keep enjoying your booze and join me next week when I'll be writing a little bit more about absinthe and drinking in general.