Wednesday, 21 December 2016

How much is a bottle of beer?

Beer has become a little more important to me over the last couple of years and now things are getting out of control. It used to be (back in my formative days of drinking) that a pint in a pub was under £2 – yes, you could get 5 pints for under a tenner. Imagine how many nights out I could have on my salary. You could also get 4 cans of cheap lager for £2.
Then things started to change, and I’m not talking about inflation or devaluation or increases in VAT or anything like that. I’m talking about how beer suddenly became… hell, aspirational. I trace it back to when Stella wasn’t the most [reassuringly] expensive beer anymore. All these other premium continental lagers entered the market – Peronis and Staropramens. Then Hoegarden came and it was followed by a shitstorm of expensive Belgian beers.
And then? Craft beer. All manner of breweries making all manner of beers – bitters, ruby ales, stouts, chocolate stouts, imperial stouts, oak aged stouts, milk stouts, porters, smoked porters, fruit beers, wheat beers, lagers, Helles lagers, pilsners, Trappist ales, golden ales, brown ales, IPAs, APAs, Black IPAs, imperial IPAs, Saisons, goses, Koln style beers, Vienna style, pale ales, strong ales, dark ales, spiced beers, bocks, blonde ales, sour beers, winter ales, Hefeweizens, Schwarz beers, roggenbiers… some of those are probably same, but there are also a host of others I haven’t been able to remember off the top of my head – and some fucker’s inventing new ones all the time anyway.
I first noticed the extremes when people like Brewdog started making beers that were 40% alcohol – just for the sake of it. At the time of writing they are selling 3 litre bottles of Double Bastard (11.2%) for £85. Then Manchester’s Port Street Beer House introduced the city to the beer menu (others may have actually done it first), and on it were beers that cost £70 – for just one beer.
Finally I was introduced to two breweries that would become my favourite – Derbyshire’s Thornbridge and Manchester’s Cloudwater, and I started to try and get hold of any beer they made – culminating (or so I thought) in spending nearly £13 on Cloudwater’s Ardbeg Imperial Stout.
Needless to say, it didn’t stop there and it hasn’t stopped yet. I now need my favourite breweries to stop making these expensive beers, so that I don’t feel obliged to buy them. This week’s post actually started by being about Thornbridge’s recent collaboration with Brooklyn Brewery; Serpent. It’s a 750ml bottle, it’s 9.5% and I paid £15 for it, direct from the brewery thanks to a free delivery offer they had on (I actually saw it a few weeks later in our local bottle shop at £14.95, 5p cheaper than direct).
How special could this be? Well, I figured I’d wait for a summer afternoon with a cigar to find out. It’s a Belgian-inspired golden ale that has been aged for over a year with the lees that are used to ferment Oliver’s Cider apples.
Before that summer afternoon arrived, I was out shopping for another recent Thornbridge release,Lukas, and while searching I came across something even more exciting; Love Among The Ruins. This one is a 7% sour red ale that has been aged in Burgundy barrels, with cherries, for over a year. It’s only a 375ml bottle… but I paid £10.80 for it. That makes it more expensive by volume than the Serpent.

When I returned to Mrs Cake, who had been waiting in the car, she said, “we could’ve bought little Sylvie a new pair of shoes for that”. Which made me feel great.
So how did these beers do?
I didn’t manage to save my cigar for the opening of this one. I had promised I would share it with Mrs Cake, then she went out one evening, so I decided to have the cigar and save the beer for when she was around.
Thornbridge have thoughtfully sealed this beer (and indeed Love Among the Ruins) with a cork so that you get a special opening experience. And it’s very tasty. I likened it to a white wine, with the apple flavour (that I didn’t know whether to expect from the lees or not) appearing in the sort of proportion that you might get from a white wine. It was crisp and elegant.
As you’d expect from a 9.5% beer (stronger than Special Brew), you get a nice buzz from this. One bottle, by rights, ought to last you an evening. I couldn’t really imagine drinking one of these all by myself. Belligerance would be right around the corner, I think. Fifteen quid does seem a lot for a single beer, but I would argue that you probably are getting fiteen quid’s worth of booze. 4.5/5
Love Among the Ruins
Sour beer isn’t really my thing, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed one or two examples of this phenomenon in the past – Thornbridge’s Tart was one that I previously awarded 4 stars to. This one is probably a little bit better than that, though I didn’t see fit to award it any more stars at the time. It certainly isn’t too sour for me, but Mrs Cake recoiled in horror at it’s tanginess. 4/5.
I think I’m going to have to be a bit more careful about buying beers that exceed £10 in future. Not that I regret getting these, it’s just that there seem to be so many of them. I don’t really want to encourage breweries in this kind of thing, even though I appreciate the effort they are going to in making new and special beers, and indeed the increased production costs it entails. Is it wise or sustainable? It sure is coming at an interesting time… but, I suppose, it means I must be able to afford it. It’ll be time to worry when I need it but can’t afford it anymore. But then there’s always supermarket own brand premium lager – as you’ll discover in a later post.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Drinks of Christmas: M&S Christmas Cocktail

 A mystery shopper assignment accepted by Mrs Cake led us to the small Marks and Spencer at Lymm services one Saturday. The mission: buy two products and ask two questions. Sounded like an opportunity to pick up some distinct beers to me. However, when we got there, Mrs Cake found this; M&S Christmas Cocktail (20% ABV), a rum and dairy based drink at half price (£6 for 50cl, given that Christmas was more than two months past, and the use by date was May), that I immediately thought might make an ideal replacement for my Irish Cream du jour that I don’t currently recall.
Now, as with all M&S products, the ingredients are listed right there on the bottle, and these include lemon and vanilla. And none of that made me think this drink would be all that different from Irish Cream. Let me tell you now: it is. I found out as soon as I poured it into my coffee cup the following day, and noticed that the “dairy” element is somewhat minimal. Undeterred, I continued making my coffee with the outcome being… unusual. It was a bit tangy and not at all creamy, but in all fairness, not unpleasant. Perhaps it wasn’t a combination I’d be keen to try to frequently, but given its appearance, surprisingly acceptable.
Next it was time to try in the recommended manner; over ice. Irish Cream excels in this manner, so how the M&S Christmas Cocktail fared here, would make it or break it. Aaaaaand… break it it is. This just isn’t pleasant. Someone has made a mistake with this one. For a start, I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to combine dairy and citrus… something about curdling. Not to mention the unpleasant taste.
In the glass, it looks like what can only be described as… spunk.
It isn’t sweet enough, it isn’t creamy and what on earth has it got to do with Christmas? I’d be gutted if I’d paid full price for this. In the end I had to tip it into a big glass of ice, and pretty much chug it, just to clear a bit of space in the fridge.
How about you? Have you ever bought a dubious Christmas themed drink that doesn’t really seem to have any reason to exist? Let me know in the comments. 
Now, I might have overestimated how many Christmas-themed posts I've got this year, so unless I tap out something else real quick, next week might be something completely un-Christmassy. Anyway, come back and find out then, and the week after that I'll have my annual Spirits of the Year post, which I always look forward to, at least. Laters!

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Winter, Christmas and Festively-Themed Beers Challenge

It's December! And despite not really being the biggest fan of Christmas, this is usually about the time I find some Christmas-themed things to write about. Then the month culminates with my highlight of the year; my actual highlights of the year, in the guise of the Spirits of the Year post. Last year I even added a Beer of the Year award, so that's something else to look forward to. I'm starting off this festive season with a challenge I - and a few others - undertook last Christmas...
You don’t just complete a year long slog like the Distinct BeersChallenge without replacing it. But what do you replace it with? Well, do you remember how I followed up two posts about the Distinct Beers Challenge with a post about Christmas themed beers? That’s right, a Christmas Beers Challenge. That is, drink as many beers that have some connection to Christmas as possible. Not just winter ales. No, there definitely has to be something Christmas-related about it – a punny name like Yule Love It,a cartoon reindeer on the label, the specific notice that said beer is a Christmas beer…
It got complicated early on because I received an early Christmas present of three festive ales from Staffordshire Brewery. One was a Christmas Day ale, one Boxing Day, and one New Year. I asked for a ruling from the other competitors, and the scope had to be widened to include anything that could be identified as a winter ale and any beer of an obviously festive or wintery nature, drunk between the start date of 27 November and 31 December 2015.
Normal Stella Artois with holly on the label wouldn’t count, but should Fosters rebrand themselves Frosters for the period, that would. Pumpkin beers were also allowed, though I can’t say I was in agreement with that. So as a direct result of Untappd and more specifically, the Distinct Beers Challenge, I had gone from deliberately avoiding these kinds of beers, to actually looking forward to being able to get them. It’s strange where your life will take you.
I started my campaign with Had Enough Brewery’s Grumpy Santa Beer, which is a classic of the genre – playing on the bah humbug theme and featuring a comic image of a grumpy (and probably alcoholic) santa on the label. It was listed on Untappd as a golden ale. I scored it a 4.
After the three Staffordshire Brewery ales (the Christmas Day and Boxing Day ones each scored 4, while the New Year one scored 3.5), I called at Aldi, picking up Sadler’s Reigndeer, a misspelled winter ale with a reindeer on the label (which scored 3), then at Asda where there were no Christmas themed beers and finally Tesco, where Mrs Cake pointed one out that I had had already, but eschewing that one, I did manage to find Oakleaf’s Christmas Ale, packaged in its own tube, and worthy of only 2.5 out of 5.
I would be travelling to Canada on 11 December, so I was hoping that Christmas themed beers would be a thing over there, that would give me the edge on everyone else. I found a few more on a night out before heading across the atlantic, including Osset Brewery’s Nervous Turkey, which managed 3.5. I decided not to count Treacle Stout as, when I thought about it, what is explicitly festive about treacle on its own? Then there was Boggart Hole Clough Brewery’s Winter Sunset (-0.5/5 - it must have been really bad) and Caledonian Brewing Company’s Winterbrau (also 0.5/5).
So while everyone else was left to contend with a very wet December and quite possibly flooding, I headed to the Great White North and got stuck into the Canadian (and sometimes American) brews. Now, I can’t remember much detail, but here’s what I found:
Granville Island’s Lions Winter Ale – 4/5.
Yukon’s Longest Night – 3.5/5. A black IPA – not specifically identified as a winter ale, but when is the longest night? In the winter. QED.
H. Egerer’s Winter Weisse – 3.5/5. A Dunkelweizen, but it has ‘winter’ in its name.
Fernie Brewing Company’s Black Mammoth – 3/5. A bona fide winter ale, and the first of a few massive bottles that I picked up at Calgary’s finest liquor store, Willow Park.
Postmark’s Winter Red – 3/5.
Grizzly Paw Brewing Company’s Alpenglow – 3.5/5
Rogue Ales’ Santa’s Private Reserve Ale – 3.5/5. That last of the Willow Park haul isn’t labelled ‘winter’ or anything, but there’s a definite santa theme.
Village Brewery’s Monk Chai Winter Porter – 2/5, was a leaving gift from my brother-in-law.
I carded 16 when the deadline came, though Phil claimed it was only 14. This was still one better than his tally, and that being the case, I couldn’t be bothered to check. It was only when I came to write this article that I realised it was actually 17. So I win another beer challenge. Some competitors didn’t even try this time. I hadn’t been monitoring them while I was away, so I hadn’t any idea how they’d been doing. Given the overall sorry state of affairs though, I think I’ll have to invite other people next time. Friend me on Untappd (I’m neilcake), and I’ll figure something out.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Spirit Log: Auchentoshan 15 Year Old 1999 Signatory

I embarked on a bit of an odyssey in selecting this purchase. I hope you won’t find what follows boring, but it all forms part of the narrative.
It had come to my attention that a re-stocking was long overdue, though it’s not that I’ve been drinking more of late. You see, I like to keep lots of things in stock, so when I start to approach the bottom of a bottle, I have a tendancy to move on to something more volumous. Inevitably this eventually leads to a situation where nearly all your bottles are approaching their end, and you seem to be finishing something every time you have a drink. So with pay day in the very recent past, it was time to go shopping.
Before reaching my decision I had to forego some very tempting offers at Costco – a single cask Jack Daniels, because I’m saving potential US whisky purchases for an upcoming visit to Duty Free; a Hakushu because I wasn’t in the market for it; the Lapgroaig 10 that I’ve wanted to revisit for pure time, because I have had it before and Islay isn’t on my procurement matrix for a while yet; a Lagavulin 16 for the same reason; and a Tullibardine because I wasn’t looking for a Highland malt. Because, yes, I had already determined that this time around I was looking for a vintage Lowland malt.
Just for the record, I also had to forego decent offers on various Glenmorangies and Glenfiddichs in Sainburys because, if you let yourself, you could easily end up buying these all time time as they are in every supermarket, always on offer, and there always seems to be a new expression – there was even a Midwinter Night’s Dram from Glenmorangie, which struck me as odd on the hottest day of the year at the end of May.
Anyway, when it came to drawing up a shortlist it was all Auchentoshans and Glenkinchies. I can’t say I was finding the prospect of them all that exciting, but it’s all part of the whisky education and it means I’ll’ve completed the Lowland region before too long.
So the cheapest malt to consider was Auchentoshan’s Valinch 2012 at £40.45 (at The Whisky Exchange). I didn’t want to go that cheap, though it is worth mentioning that this was selling at £60 at Master of Malt and a massive £70 at Amazon. Then you had various Glenkinchie distillery editions, dated between 1996 and 2003 and all retailing from £48.95 to £55.95 (all prices exclusive of P&P btw). I wasn’t drawn to these because, despite looking the part, they’ve all been finished in sherry casks, and I’m a bit tired of that.
What it boiled down to then, was a choice between three or four merchant bottlings of Auchentoshan – each blended from two casks. I couldn’t find any indication as to which of these bottlings might be the best to get, so I just took a decision based on economics, having compared prices across a number of suppliers.Just within, but veering towards, the outside of my price range was an 18 year old Signatory from 1997. That was just under £80. When I saw a (more or less) identical 1998 17 year old though, at just under £60, I figured that seemed like better value for money. Finally though, I made one last compromise because I found the 1999 15 year old at just under £50. That would leave a bit of cash to get some tequila too.
In terms of the Lowland region, most of my experience has been with the now defunct Bladnoch distillery. You might remember I was delighted by a ten year old, and disappointed with a cask strength 12 year old. Other than that, I have tried a single glass of the standard Auchentoshan once before. I remember not being impressed, but that’s the way it goes sometimes – it was a single glass so there’s really no way of knowing what I really thought of it.
Auchentoshan triple distils all its whisky, and this sets them apart from all other Scottish distilleries. Signatory, on the other hand, is an independent bottler supplying three types of product – 86 proof, cask strength and un-chillfiltered (this one belongs to the latter collection) – representing all of the distilling areas of Scotland. The Cask Strength ones have a particularly intriguing bottle, but this isn’t one of those. It’s a fairly standard bottle with a no fuss label and gothic lettering, and it comes in a silvery tin-cardboard hybrid tube. It is bottled at 46%.
It is very pale in colour, and very light in body. I haven’t really had anything as light bodied as this before, and while I tend to prefer my whiskies full and oily, that isn’t a mark against the Auchentoshan. It’s just different is all. The nose is a little tangy, while on the tongue it almost feels like a gentle wash of wood that’s going to float up from your tongue and evaporate.
It has slipped out of the bottle and down my throat very easily, so easily in fact that I don’t remember drinking so much of it. I must be pouring larger measures.
Anyway, it looks like I’ve only fully evaluated three merchant bottlings previously, and this one is going into 2nd place behind the Bunnahabhain 1979 and ahead of the Fettercairn 7 with Scapa 2001 bringing up the rear. As for comparisons with the single malt genre in general… I’m struggling to place it. Probably just outside the top 10 though.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

What is post-fatherhood drinking really like? Part 2

generic picture depicting the drinking of grappa
I was just reading What is Post-Fatherhood Drinking Really Like?Part 1, and I realised just how long ago I must have written that piece. I mention somewhere in there that it was still the first month of little Sylvie’s life, and I haven’t really thought about all that I wrote and all that has happened since. Little Sylvie is approaching 10 months old now, so I thought it might be worthy of a part 2. Even though I promised not to talk about kids again. I think it’ll be worthwhile though, and as it’s part 2, it’s kind of the same post anyway.
So what’s been going on? What’s the 411? What are the cool jams?
Well, I wrote back in that first post about getting into a routine, and that has proved vital. Little Sylvie now has bath and bed starting at 18.45, and is usually asleep by 19.30. Then she sleeps all the way through to somewhere between 06.00 and 07.00. Mrs Cake and I are usually knackered by 22.00, so we’re in bed soon after that and sleeping better than ever. We have so little free time, and for some reason that’s ok. Back before the little girl enriched our lives we had something like 6 or more hours of free time in the evening, and it wasn’t enough. Now we get 2 and a half hours, and it’s plenty.
I suppose the thing is, when you don’t have kids and you look at parents, you don’t see time they spend with their kids as free time. You see the kids as a burden, and it’s not like that. Time with your kids is free time. It’s something that you want to do. It’s like when my golf friends (see Golfageddon) asked me if I’d be going on their annual golf holiday next year, I couldn’t really see it and I wasn’t bothered. I was a bit gutted to have had to miss the last one at first, because there was a chance Mrs Cake might be going into labour, but now I don’t really want to spend a week away from my family.
Similarly, I’ve changed the way I go out. When I go on pub crawls now, I start early and I usually aim to be heading home around 9pm. Which is good, because I’m smashed and heading home before all the pubs get too busy and too full of nobheads. Then I can be in bed around my normal time and minimise my lie in the next morning. Even though the lie in has been sanctioned, I still don’t want to spend too much time in bed, missing hanging out with my little girl.
The point is that all these things you might see as negatives – fewer lie-ins (I say fewer because they do happen), less “free time” – are not negatives.
If Mrs Cake and I got out now, we go out in the afternoon and we take the little girl with us. Mrs Cake can’t have much to drink just yet because she is still breastfeeding, but that’s down to only four times a day (that may sound like a lot, but in the first few months it could be as many as 20 times!), and that means that if she wants to, once little Sylvie’s gone to bed, she can go a bit nuts. Currently the mother-in-law is visiting, and we’ve been taking advantage of that by heading out into Urmston after little Sylvie’s bed time for a few drinks. There’s also the option of staying over somewhere and taking little Sylvie with us, like when our friends Pablo and Veronica hired a narrow boat. We just took a small inflatable bath along and Sylvie had her bath in there. Then she slept on the bed at the front of the boat.
The beer thing I talked about is still an issue from time to time – you know, where you want to enjoy a beer, but your little one requires attention meaning you can’t always drink it while it’s still cold. These days the specific reason is that little Sylvie wants to be walked around everywhere. She reaches out for your hands and groans until you take them, help her up, and then walk her around from the front of the house to the back and back again until it’s a meal time or bath time.
Occasionally you might pass within arm’s reach of your beer and you might be able to have a sip, but most times both your hands are occupied and you’ll just have to pass by. Also occasionally the little girl might stoop to pick something up and end up sitting for a bit. That’s your chance. Sadly none of this facilitates actually enjoying your beer. It’s just a collection of stolen moments, and they aren’t like forbidden fruit, it’s more like eating a rich and expensive desert too quickly.
There’s still no such thing as a nice quite sit down while she’s awake. Mrs Cake and I can’t wait till she starts crawling and playing by herself, but that no doubt will be a whole new ball game, where we need eyes in the backs of our heads. Still, as long as we can do that while sitting down…
Have there been any mishaps? Not really. There was one time I was playing with Sylvie while drinking a glass of grappa, and she jabbed out with her hand, causing me to spill it, and a drop to land in her eye. She didn’t like that very much.
Then there was one time in the middle of a beer when I had sat her on the sofa and we were playing, and she was having a lot of fun – so much fun that I got my camera out. I forgot how much she loves cameras, and was so busy trying to get some decent film that I failed to react when she leaned towards the camera to grab it and went head first on to the floor. She does this thing when she’s really upset where she does a little cry, then she stops breathing, turns pink, while you go, “breathe… breathe…”and she builds up a massive cry that she unleashes with demonic fury. Anyway, she did that.
Not long after writing this post, little Sylvie suddenly became more self-sufficient, and will now play on her own, sometimes for as much as 40 minutes, and thus allowing her dad to sit on a comfy sofa and enjoy a beer slowly, as god intended. Happy days.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Spirit Log: Old Ballantruan

It was back to the whisky procurement matrix for the focus of this week’s post. The target: a Speyside malt with no age statement or under 10 years old. I had a bit of a search, then made a list of targets and started comparing prices.
At the lowest end of the pricing spectrum, and very tempting, was the Glen Grant Major’s Reserve. That was going for as little as £22 at one of the major supermarkets, but the handy price comparison on Bring a Bottle showed that it frequently dipped as low as £18. I thought I’d wait for that to happen before dipping my toe in that particular bucket.
The range then extended from an uninspiring Benromach 5, through an ugly but positively reviewed Cu Dhub, a Gordon and MacPhail bottling of an 8 year old Tamdhu and finished at the top of the price range with a classy looking Spey Tenne (which I always read as “spray tan”), tawny port finish.
My heart had already been won though, by this 50% ABV, unchillfiltered Old Ballantruan. It isn’t a typical Speyside in that it is peated, but what can I say? I’m a sucker for peat, and it’s rare that I’ll pass up on those extra ABVs.
I made a note on my matrix that the next Speysider (and indeed, scotch) I buy absolutely must not be peated.
Now, Old Ballantruan is from the Tomintoul distillery, and it receives pretty much universal acclaim from the users on the main UK retailers. Let’s just have a little look then, at what Tomintoul is all about.
Presenting its product as “the gentle dram” (so you can assume this whisky will whisper tenderly in your ear and penetrate you slowly with plenty of foreplay and lubrication), the Tomintoul distillery is located close to the highest village in the highlands of Scotland (groovy), in the prestigious Glenlivet estate, though it is apparently only the second highest distillery. So is the highest distillery nowhere near a village, or is there a really steep incline between Tomintoul and the highest village? I never realised Glenlivet was an estate and not merely a distillery, so I found it confusing when I read Old Ballantruan was a Tomintoul malt, but the bottle stated “Glenlivet” on it. I’m not a fan of the standard Glenlivet, but that shouldn’t matter here.
The Tomintoul website (at the time of writing) doesn’t make mention of the Old Ballantruan expression – similarly to how the Old Ballantruan bottle (and box) doesn’t mention anything about Tomintoul. What it does say is that they use the pure spring water from the Ballantruan Spring, and that Tomintoul whiskies are not peated – except the Tomintoul Peaty Tang. It looks, after digging around some of the internets, that Old Ballantruan has actually been discontinued, and the Peaty Tang is what stands in its place. I wonder whether I should focus my energies from time to time on finding discontinued expressions, since they will represent the last chances I have to try them. That’s something to think about. Of course it will also mean it is harder to buy them again if I like them.
Now, when you get peated malts it’s nice to find out about phenol content. Phenols are measured in parts per million and particularly renowned peaty whiskies like Ardbeg are known to have a content of around 55ppm – which doesn’t seem very much, but if you’re familiar with Ardbeg, you’ll know that packs quite a punch. Bruichladdich’s Octomore range regularly exceeds 160ppm, sometimes more than 200, but they also exceed £140 for spirit aged only a few years, so you’d have to be particularly adventurous (or lucky (or extravagant)) to find out what that’s like.
All this leads me to saying that the phenol content of Old Ballantruan is unclear. One source suggested 55ppm, so matching Ardbeg, but another claimed it is only 30ppm. As ever, you just can’t trust the internet.
So how’s it looking? As far as presentation is concerned you get a dull but sturdy tube depicting some gents digging up a bit of peat and a dark bottle that matches the design of the tube. The neck is fairly long and rounds out at the shoulders before tapering slightly to a sturdy bottom.
According to Royal Mile, the finish contains “cold haggis, bitumen [and a] touch of thick cardboard”.
While from from, we have; “The smell of a big damp warehouse or cricket store at the end of winter...”
My initial impressions are favourable. Definite peaty sweetness on the nose, and some toffee on the palate. None of those other things present for me though. You only have to say “damp cricket store” to me, and I can smell it, so it definitely isn’t in this whisky. As for haggis, I doubt it is even possible for whisky to taste of that, and it just smacks of someone trying to reference something patently Scottish. Just give it up.
Some other tastings
I’ve been enjoying the Old Ballantruan so much neat that I found it hard to finally take the step toward adding a drop of water. Considering it’s an impressive 50%, there isn’t any burn to speak of. In fact, the only hint of the high strength is a very slight bitterness on the finish. Nevertheless, one day I did add water, and when I say it was only a drop, it really was only a drop. The immediate effect was wonderful; highlighting the sweet tones. As that paricular tasting progressed, for some reason the stunted taste of bottled spring water became more apparent. This wasn’t a problem on succeeding occasions though, and I took to adding a tiny drop of water every time I had a glass. It had grown to be very enjoyable, and probably the best spirit I had available at that point.
I was going to try it in a three-way tasting with Kilchoman Sanaig and an Ardbeg miniature, but for some reason my booze collection seemed to be in constant danger of disappearing, so I decided to be more frugal and just enjoy each on their own terms.
I finished the Kilchoman, enjoying its distinct earthiness for its own sake, and then decided I would do a direct Ballantruan-Ardbeg comparison one Friday night anyway.
In terms of colour, Ardbeg is much paler, while on the nose I made notes that the Old Ballantruan was “custardy” with a pleasant hint of ginger and the Ardbeg “sweet and peachy” (how I like my women – though I probably wouldn’t mind if they were custardy, too – or indeed ginger, for that matter).
I added water to the Old Ballantruan, to help bring out some of its sweetness, but I didn’t do the same to the Ardbeg, since I only had a miniature and I wouldn’t dare to disrespect it in this way – not that I’m disrespecting the Ballantruan, it’s just that the Old Ballantruan is 50% alcohol, while Ardbeg is only 46%. I don’t think you should ever add water to your whisky if it’s 46% or less. But that’s just me.
Anyways, on the tongue, Ardbeg is earthy, appley, and shows traces of Indian spices when held. It remains one of my favourites. In spite of this, I can’t find much to separate these two malts. They are both excellent, and excellent value. Ardbeg of course continues to be available, so the Old Ballantruan might be worth a punt while you can still get a hold of it.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Spirit Log: Appleton Estate Signature Blend

This week I am revisiting a rum brand that first made my acquaintance some time before my blog began. I can’t compare now and then, but I can do some vague comparisons with other spirits of the genre. That won’t be the primary focus of this post though. We’ll judge it on its own merits for the most part.
This one was £16 from Tesco, who claimed it was £8 off. That it was the biggest discount over another product I was looking at, swung the balance in Appleton Estate’s favour. It carries 40 ABVs and is identified as a dark rum, the flagship of the Appleton Estate range, blended from 15 rums, with an average age of 4 years.
That’s interesting; average age. Nothing further to say, I just find that interesting. I don’t think I’ve come across a spirit with an average age statement before – not that it is declared on the bottle. That’s just from The Whisky Exchange’s product description, so it must be fairly casual, easy to obtain information.
Appleton Estate is the oldest sugar estate and distillery in Jamaica apparently, and in Joy Spence boasts the first appointed female master blender. How enlightened.
Presentation is in a bulbous and stubby bottle that is oddly pleasing to hold, and sealed with a crappy screw cap. My brother-in-law spied it on a recent visit, and thought it looked interesting. He can’t drink whisky and, looking for something to fill that void in his drinking habits, thought rum might be the answer. I opened it and he was very impressed. He didn’t seem interested in trying the PlantationBarbados XO, for some reason, but as long as he was happy, that’s fine with me. I tried the Appleton the next night, and my immediate impression was a cheap alcohol nose and heavy dose of ketchup. Not good. It looks the part in the glass; glossy, but more orangey than the red shade you might expect. It’s quite rough on entry to the mouth, but it does develop quite nicely.
A week or two later I got around to trying a three way rum taste test, against the Plantation Barbados XO (of which less than a measure remained), and the Havana Club Anejo Especial. Against the Havana Club, something very odd about the Appleton Estate reveals itself. This is very, very rough spirit. It makes me wonder why they didn’t choose to make it a little better. That would surely reflect well on the brand as a whole. As it is, it is appearing over priced. The Havana Club Anejo Especial is generally priced around the same, and that comes off a little better. You do at least get the impression that you’re drinking something a rung or two above supermarket basic with that.
I tasted the Plantation Barbados last of the three, knowing it was likely to stand head and shoulders above, and it really did. So refined, full-bodied, and such sublime sweet vanilla. In general it is too sweet for my personal taste, but you can’t help but appreciate its quality.
Against competition then, the Appleton Estate didn’t fare too well. There was plenty of time though, for it to ingratiate itself with me over the coming months, though it never did. I rarely pulled it off the shelf, still less frequently pouring it into a glass. In fact, as I post this, there are still a few measures left in the bottle. I wouldn’t normally post a “review” of a spirit before finishing the bottle, though in all honesty, that isn’t so much a rule as an indicator of how far behind my drinking my writing is. Nevertheless, that’s still very telling.
I’ll finish with some recommendations then. First and foremost, I’d avoid this unless you’re intending to use it purely for cocktails and you’re getting a hefty discount. Even then, you may as well get a comparable supermarket brand. If you’re looking for a sipper, stay well away. In fact, you may as well stump up a few extra pounds and get the excellent Plantation 3 Stars. It may be a white rum (of some description), but it’s superb and easily overcomes any problems caused by difference in genre.
Thanks for stopping by once again. If you come back next week, I’ll be back on the peaty single malt trail with the Old Ballantruan. They don’t make it anymore, but that doesn’t mean you can’t read about it! Well, does it?!

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Spirit Log: Kilchoman Sanaig

The procurement of this one was almost a case of the alignment of stars and all that shit. It all starts of course, with my general preference for an Islay malt, and my regret at not being able to visit the Kilchoman distillery on my visit there a couple of years ago. Since then a Kilchoman has always been on my “must buy at some point” list, but I’ve always opted for other things until now, and the reason is that I received one of my regular emails from in which the Kilchoman Sanaig looked to be available for somewhere around £47. They reckoned that was £7 off or something, though it was only a couple of quid cheaper than at Master of Malt.
I had room in my booze budget, so I thought I’d click through and see how much delivery was. Oh. It’s £10.99.
That was that then. Or so I thought, because later in the day I got an automatic email asking if a technical problem had prevented me checking out. I replied informing them that the problem concerned their delivery costs, which made the item more expensive than at their competitors.
At this point, I went home for the weekend and forgot all about it. I don’t check my emails over the weekend, so it was a surprise to find three further emails from Flaviar on Monday morning – one of them offering free delivery. I soon saw though, that the offer only extended to the end of Sunday.
Disappointed, I got on with my work, but a couple of hours later, I thought maybe I’d click the link in the email anyway, and when I did, the order was still showing as free delivery. At this point a little box popped up and told me I could have 8% cashback through Quidco. Then I noticed I still had a £5 credit from ages ago when I’d signed up to Flaviar that I’d figured I’d never get to use. So there you see – not one, not two, but three discounts making this long awaited bottle something of a bargain at £41.99.
Will this work again? I don’t know, but it’s probably worth a try next time. As Flaviar pointed out, shipping costs decrease with every bottle you add to each order, and if you buy 4, your 4th is essentially free. That does mean you’re looking at spending more than £150 on your booze in one go, so it probably rules me out, but I’ll consider them again.
Enough about that, then. What about the product?
I couldn’t find this on the Kilchoman website, and the reason appears to be that it was produced solely for the French market, as the French felt Machir Bay wasn’t sweet enough. It has since spread to other parts of continental Europe. This then, contains more sherry cask content than Machir Bay.
Why would you make something just for the French?!? I don’t know; favourable rates over supplies of garlic, maybe? Advance access to new episodes of Spiral? Baguettes? That’s all I can think of.
So, you get a decent quality blue box, inside of which is a sturdy bottle with matching colour scheme. The stopper is big and tight.
The first thing that hits me is a nice, tangy nose. There’s an element that reminds me of the Glen Scotia 16. The first hit of flavour is unexpected. It’s earthy, but that quickly transforms into being open, sweet and full bodied. That earthiness soon becomes a highlight, but you can only experience it on your first taste each day. It does seem a little young, but it is also well-rounded.
On the second day, the nose was immediate and stunning; vanilla ice cream, then leather and a little bit of mint. Later, tobacco and bacon. There’s lots to admire here.
You may have read some weeks back about how much I was enjoying Talisker’s Skye expression – another no age statement (read: young), peated scotch. At £25 that was an absolute bargain and one I’ll be happy to revisit at some point in the future. To get hold of a bottle of Kilchoman Sanaig, you’re looking at exceeding £50 with your P&P included (unless you’re lucky like I was), but I still think you’d be getting good value. This is another cracking malt, and one that will bring me back to trying Kilchomans more often.
Looking ahead a few weeks, I’ll be posting about another peated malt very soon, that I have actually been enjoying even more than this one. So look out for that.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Very Special Brews

A quick stop into Manchester’s Beermoth bottle shop led me to dropping £12.90 on a single bottle of beer. That was a new record for me, but I had to have it when I saw it was a stout, aged for 6 months in old Ardbeg whisky casks, and brewed by Cloudwater – one of my two favourite breweries. I’d loved everything I’d tried by Cloudwater up to that point, and Ardbeg is a favourite distillery too. I didn’t think about it for too long, so there’d be no chance I’d change my mind.
This then, is Cloudwater Imperial Stout Ardbeg, checking in at 10.7%. It’s a largish bottle (750ml), that should get you smashed like Special Brew, should you drink it all in one go, so I saved this for a time when Pablo came over. He absolutely loved it and, just as with the Ola Dubh, he gave it 5 stars on Untappd straight away.
I was more conservative, opting for 4 out of 5. Imperial Stout probably isn’t my genre, in all honesty, but I definitely enjoyed the influence that the Ardbeg casks exerted. It was kind of a background thing, almost as if you were tasting something from another dimension, that made this beer one of the most complex I’ve ever experienced. Perhaps the elements weren’t married as seamlessly as the aforementioned Ola Dubh, but this was certainly an intriguing experiment.
Soon after, my other favourite brewery, Thornbridge released Eldon, a 7% beer that had been aged in bourbon casks. I added two bottles to my order, which I would have done anyway, regardless of bourbon cask ageing, and eagerly awaited the day I got to open one.
Sadly, any disappointment at the volume of Eldon being only 330ml instead of the usual 500ml is compounded by the beer not quite reaching the standard I have come to expect – not bad beer, just not great, and not as distinctive, either as other Thornbridge fare from beer in general, or as distinctive as the other whisky cask aged beers I’ve been trying have turned out to be. I gave the other bottle to Mrs Cake, and she absolutely loved it.
Almost by mistake I recently bought a bourbon aged sour beer – Bourbon Skyline by Buxton Brewery (7.2%). It was a little overpriced perhaps at £5 for (I think 375ml), but really very good. I could tastethe bourbon early in the experience, though this faded as the sipping progressed. I scored that one 4 out of 5.
In conclusion, ageing stout in old whisky barrels seems to me to really add another dimension to a genre of beer that wouldn’t tend to be a favourite of mine. Sure, it tends to ramp up the cost quite a bit, but you can pay a lot for sub-standard beers too. What I’d be looking for, if I were going to drop a substantial amount on one of these, would tend to be a favourite brewery and a renowned distillery. Then you can look forward to trying your favourite product in a new way, and hopefully a way that channels the qualities of some top class whisky.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Chocolate and Beer; Must We Really Keep Trying?

Hotel Chocolate Pale Cocoa Beer - the colour isn't what you'd expect
Someone keeps deciding to try mixing chocolate with alcohol. And so, here am I, every now and then, writing about it. I don’t mind when it’s harmonious marriages like Thornton’s Chocolate Liqueur or The Secret chocolate wine, but there are other things where I just don’t see the point, and can only assume it’s part of some attempt to part a fool and my money, because, as I'm sure I've said before, beer and chocolate don't really go together - unless both are Belgian. And this obsession with constantly trying to put them together is akin to they way people keep putting chilli and chocolate together, and it just isn't necessary. In my opinion.
This week’s initial focus is Hotel Chocolat’s Pale Cocoa Beer. It’s 4.9% and brewed by Brewshed Brewery in Bury St Edmunds. I was given this as part of a birthday present, all of the items of which were from Hotel Chocolat. You’ll be able to read about some of the other items elsewhere on the blog.
Anyway, this particular product is obviously aimed at providing a gift to someone who likes beer. I can’t imagine a beer drinker actually buying this for themselves. Can you? I would actually be prepared to bet that at least 9 out of 10 people who have logged this beer on Untappd, received this as a gift.
I don’t have a problem with that. Were you getting the idea that I did? At the very least, it’s a distinct beer to add to my log, and to a geek like me, something fairly exciting to receive. So what am I whittering on about? Is it no good?
Well, let me tell you; on the absolute contrary, it’s very good indeed. I really enjoyed it, and scored it a much better than average 4 out of 5. Right? Ok, so here’s the thing; it doesn’t taste of chocolate. So… was the chocolate necessary? Does it make it better than say, if the same beer was made without chocolate?
I haven’t logged any other beers from the Brewshed Brewery, but a quick look at Untappd suggests their output is interesting. One in particular I’d like to get my hands on is the Rioja Porter, which is matured in old Lan rioja oak casks.
As for the Pale Cocoa beer; it is brewed with cocoa pulp, so presumably that does have some influence. It could be a while before I’m able to determine the effects one way or the other. This is a nice beer though.
While we’re on it, we may as well have a shuft at a couple more.
Cocoa Hops
Cocoa Hops is a 4.4% porter from The Chocolate Café in Ramsbottom. A loose pun on the popular child’s breakfast cereal, it is brewed by the local Irwell Works Brewery – a fine example of local business collaboration. I scored it only 2.5 out of 5 as I felt it was a bit thin, and I could barely detect any chocolate influence. It was nice to try though.
Young’s Double Chocolate Stout
Double chocolate. Two words that in combination will make a lady’s seat moisten. That’s all very well for ice cream. And cookies. But what about beer? Well this is right up Mrs Cake’s street, and she absolutely loved it. I found it merely average, in spite of a generous 5.2% ABV, scoring it 3 out of 5.
Did it taste of chocolate? Well, probably, in a slightly bitter way.
Finally, I’ve had a quick look at Untappd and found three other chocolate beers that I’ve tried. These came up when I typed “chocolate” into the search field. Here’s how I scored them:
Chocolate Snap (4.9%) by Offbeat Brewery – 3.5/5
Old Tom Chocolate (6%) by Robinsons Brewery – 3/5
Triple Chocoholic (4.8%) by Saltaire Brewery – 3.5/5
Then, when I typed “cocoa”, the two beers that started this post came up, along with Thornbridge’s Cocoa Wonderland (6.8%), which I scored 4/5.
That leaves Thornbridge and Hotel Chocolat topping the chocolate beer league table, so well done to them. And that’s going to have to do for now, I’m afraid. Usually if I see a chocolate beer, I buy it for Mrs Cake, cos she absolutely loves that shit. She lets me have a taste, but given how little I manage to write about a full glass, can you imagine how little I’d have to say about a sip? Yeh, not very much. I will try to glean further impressions as time goes on, with a view to a follow up post at some time in the future, but in the meantime there are all kinds of other things to be getting on with drinking. So join me next week, when I’ll be telling you about some more of that.
And for now; must we really keep trying to combine chocolate and beer? Ok; if you must.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Spirit Log: New Amsterdam, Same Old Cheapo Vodka?

Another pay day browse of /Bring a Bottle led me to Asda looking for then cheapest vodka, New Amsterdam. I have to say though, I was a little disappointed to find that my internet research had deceived me into thinking it was bottled at 40%. Perhaps in other countries in the world, but here it’s a standard and pointless 37.5. I got it anyway. It was £12 for 70cl.
It’s an American brand, and is named (presumably) after the 17th century Dutch settlement that later became New York. I saw a tv advert for it a few weeks later, which was disappointingly generic. It was just a bunch of young people who looked like they might be friends with Bruno Mars, out having a good time.
The product itself is bottled in a chunky, rectangular bottle, bearing an image of a skyscraper that the branding describes as iconic. It is distilled five times and filtered three times.
Whether or not all that distilling and filtering does any good I couldn’t say, but the overall result is a thin and salty spirit, though there was one occasion where it sat very nicely indeed. Online reviews, for the most part, suggested it was excellent, and the word “smooth” was bandied about profligately. In all honesty, I’m not really getting on board with that. It’s a perfectly acceptable, predictably uninteresting cheap vodka.
One Friday night I tried this in a direct comparison test with Russian Standard and, no doubt to Pablo’s delight, I had to admit that they both tasted like vodka, and there wasn’t much to choose between them, so I have to accept that these are much of a muchness.
If I had to pick, I’d say the New Amsterdam tastes marginally better, but the Russian Standard is stronger. In terms of price, they tend to work out about the same, so just do what you want. And that's all I have to say about that! I'll be back next week to talk about another booze-related topic that's close to my heart.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

A Little Look at Some Miniatures

For some reason I’ve started coming into possession of miniatures. It’s quite nice really. It means people can give me alcohol without having to spend too much money. There’s far too little in those bottles for me to give each product its own post, but it doesn’t mean I can’t group them together. So I thought I’d look at miniatures this week.
Grant’s The Family Reserve (40%)
One of four old miniatures that were delivered to my work one day. When I say “old”, I mean the branding suggests these were bottled in the 90s and had been sitting in someone’s booze cupboard ever since… until the day the owner passed on and their son decided to put them in a jiffy bag and send them to me. Many thanks. I would be interested to find out how the contents might be different from the current incarnation, but I didn’t have the resources or inclination to buy a bottle for this.
I actually decided to try this one alongside Aldi’s Highland Black8, as I was conducting a blend test at the time. For the record, I have decided to include the results of this particular matching here and not in the earlier post because I’d already written the bulk of that one, and didn’t want to have to deconstruct and reconfigure it just for the sake of 5cl of cheap blended scotch.
My notes state that the Grant’s is lacking immediate sweetness, and is quite savoury. I concluded that the product must have improved since then, as I consider Grant’s Family Reserve to be half decent, low cost, entry level blended scotch. In comparison with the Highland Black, this miniature didn’t match up.

Macallan Gold (40%)
I’ve never bought a Macallan (except in a restaurant once), as it always strikes me as being more expensive than it should be – not that I based that conclusion on evidence of quality, more on comparable categories. A no age statement, entry level expression for example, shouldn’t be £37 to £42, while a 12 year old sherry cask finish shouldn’t be £60+ - unless it’s cask strength.
Perhaps I’ll change my mind if I do ever buy a bottle, but for now, this miniature is going to have to form my lasting impression. And in all fairness, it was a good impression.

Mortlach 15 (Gordon & MacPhail) (43%)
Impressing me more than the Macallan Gold however, was a miniature Mortlach 15, bottled by Gordon and MacPhail. A standard size bottle of this might be even more expensive, but I’d be more inclined to find out at this point.

Ardbeg 10 (46%)
I’m already a massive fan of this one, so it was lovely to receive it from a colleague who is from the magical island of Islay. I used it to help in my evaluation of Old Ballantruan, though I won’t ruin that upcoming post by revealing anything here – other than that Ardbeg remains a true gent among peaty malts – in fact, among any malts.
Bushmills 10 (40%)
The first of the remaining three miniatures from the 90s. I’ve tried the standard Bushmills Original before, finding it average but acceptable, so single malt offering was intriguing, and I’m pleased to say it’s good. It has an inviting nose, and while it’s light-bodied, making it reminiscent of its blended cousin, there’s a lot to recommend it.

Glenfiddich Special Reserve (40%)
This one came in a little cardboard tube, which was a nice touch. I hadn’t seen this before, but a little internet research revealed that this expression preceded the 12 year old that we’re all so familiar with today. I drank it alongside a glass of today’s standard 12 year old, and my conclusion was that the Special Reserve was marginally better. It was lighter in colour and smelled younger and less rounded, while the 12 year old exhibited more sherry notes on the nose. In terms of flavour though, the Special Reserve tastes better than it smells – sweet and syrupy. The 12 year old brought to mind rubber and pears.
St Michael Lowland (40%)
St Michael – you don’t see that anymore, do you? Do you remember? Yes, this used to be Marks and Spencer’s own brand – we used to get their crisps. And this is their version of a lowland single malt. Very interesting, and in fact, very enjoyable. I found it light, fresh and playful, though perhaps with an unfortunate finish.
Smirnoff (37.5%)
Everyone knows the Smirnoff. This one came as a free gift with a bottle of Crown Royal I received at Christmas. I saved it for sipping in the car during our lift to the airport and, as such, it was very enjoyable.
Hotel Chocolat Salted Caramel Cocoa Vodka (26.5%)
What is it with salted caramel? It is so hot right now. This bottle formed part of a package that my sister sent over for my birthday. It was a nice idea to add one or two miniatures (and a beer) to the order, and one that gives me a chance to try something I wouldn’t normally bother going near.
Best served chilled over ice, says the website, so I popped this in the fridge for my Tuesday evening drinking session. I have to admit, I don’t like the smell. There’s just something dirty about it. The flavours are good though. It’s still not something I’ll be inclined to return to, but if you are a fan of salted caramel, I don’t think you could go wrong with this. Mrs Cake had a sip, and was suitably impressed.
I finished the evening with a slice of cake and a glass of Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, which I’m afraid was a mistake. The sweetness of the vodka and cake hijacked the bourbon, dispersing its normally beautiful construction and making me consider tipping it back in the bottle for later. There was also an odd meaty smell hanging around, which I put down to the vodka… but equally, I suppose it could have been my clothes.
Hotel Chocolat Special Reserve Tawny Port (20%)
Another component of my birthday package, I looked this one up on the Hotel Chocolat site, and found that it is recommended to be taken with milk chocolate. I’ve often had a problem mixing chocolate and various other sweet things with alcohol, so this seemed a surefire way to get what all the fuss is about – an alcoholic beverage, sold by a chocolate producer for the express purpose of consuming with chocolate.
What can I say? It’s fine, like, but I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I enjoyed the port more when I drank it on its own. This whole combination thing just strikes me as another attempt to get consumers to engage with products. I like chocolate, I don’t normally like port – in fact, I think this is the first time I’ve ever mentioned it on this blog – but I did like this one, and it doesn’t need to be combined with the chocolate in order to impress. It is actually a little lighter in the body than other ports I’ve tried and, while I’ve been very impressed with the Hotel Chocolat chocolate I’ve had in the past, I felt this one, which was half white, half milk with like, a reindeer on it or something, was a little bland. Perhaps it is the fillings which normally make this chocolate so enjoyable.
So in conclusion, I didn’t feel these items complemented each other in the way they were supposed to. The port though: very nice.
Grey Goose Vodka Cherry Noir (40%)
You have to wonder how much of the money you’re spending on a bottle of Grey Goose is paying for the packaging, because the bottles are always impressive – frosted glass with a clear centre that serves to distort and enhance a colourful image that has been placed on the back of the bottle. I ask because Grey Goose is one of the well known premium brands here in the UK – you’re generally looking at £35 for the standard, unflavoured variety – and I can’t see anything special about its flavour.
Mrs Cake got this miniature when she purchased a bottle of the standard in Canada, probably around 2 years ago. Finally I got to snaffle it. I thought it was nice and sweet at first, but that impression quickly changed to one of childhood medicine. Sure, that might be nice enough to persuade a sick child to drink it, but it’s not something I want reflected in my spirits. I also got a bit of a bready taste somewhere in there, that served to ultimately make this a fairly unpleasant experience. Sure, it’s probably intended for use in cocktails, but if that is the case, that just makes it worse – you shouldn’t be paying £30 plus for something to make a slight difference to your cocktails.
Now, I see Grey Goose also produce a “VX” expression, which includes a “hint of precious cognac”. Sounds interesting, but inevitably over-priced to me… I’ll just have a look… yes, £90 for a litre. Fuck off.
That’s my recent batch of miniatures finished. I’ll start a new post as time goes on, and return to this theme some time in the future. Thanks for having a little read, and see you next week.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Moving House - and Guides to Drinking in the Manchester Suburbs of Levenshulme and Urmston

crammed in under the boiler
All the major events and phases in a person’s life can have some relevance to alcohol, you know. In the past I’ve talked about getting married, procreating, goingcamping, generally just going on holiday, stagdos, Christmas, New Year, musicfestivals, works dos, so… this week I want to talk about moving house, something I should have done some months ago, but for some reason talked myself out of. Well now I’ve talked myself back into it. Here it is.
They say that moving house is one of the most stressful things a person can do – along with starting a new job and… I forget the third one, it must be trying to fix the internet or changing an insurance policy or something, but nevertheless, all of these things can be alleviated to some extent by having a nice drink. The reason moving house is so stressful is things like the fact you’re spending tens of thousands of pounds of money you haven’t earned yet on something that you don’t really know for sure is going to turn out ok. For the privilege of spending this money, it’s actually going to cost you about the same amount of money again.
You have to employ a solicitor and get a bunch of surveys done (one if you’re lucky, three if you’re not, like us). You have to get insurance for the property and arrange removals. You have to wrangle and negotiate with the vendor though a useless third party at every turn (estate agents, I’m looking at you). You have to switch over all your utilities and change your address with every organisation that is aware you exist. You have to figure out how you’re going to get to work… think about furnishings (because items you bought for one home just don’t fit in another)… fix things that you know need fixing… find new things that you didn’t know needed fixing (sometimes even things you didn’t know existed that need fixing)… decorate… spend more time in B&Q than you think you can bear… try to figure out how to stop the toilet seat from falling of its own accord without taking the toilet out altogether…
Repeatedly, during and after all this, a drink would very much come in handy but oh, it doesn’t stop there. It’s not all sink into your seat and relax. Now you’ve got to be thinking where are the local pubs? Are they any good? Is there somewhere I can pick up some decent beers on my way home from work? Where am I going to keep all my bottles and glasses? What’s the local supermarket like for beers and spirits? Why didn’t I think of all these things before?
So that’s what I’m going to be looking at this week. To be fair, most of it is fun. The point is, for the alcothusiast, moving house has implications concerning your drinking.
moving day drinks
In January this year, Mrs Cake and I moved from Levenshulme, where we’d been living for 7 years around the M60 a bit, to Flixton and this is how we have been finding things – with a very specific booze-related focus.
Very important; where can I get me booze from? Well, let’s face it, both our old home and our new home are in suburbs of Manchester, so you’re never going to be far from an offie or a supermarket.
Levenshulme is situated on the busy A6, halfway between Manchester and Stockport and is a very blue collar to no collar area – by which I mean it’s working class or whatever is below that – not-working class. Demographically, it is composed of a fairly sizeable Irish community along with more recent immigrants from all over Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. To top it off there are the young professionals and young families looking to get a cheap foothold in the housing market.
What all that means is that you have lots of ethnic grocery stores, newsagents and various takeaways as well as one or two small sized supermarkets like Tesco Metro, Iceland and a little Asda. Unless you have access to a car and can make it further afield to the big Tesco in Burnage, then your choice of booze is the small varieties the kind of stores mentioned earlier tend to carry. So you can get some mass produced cans, some uninteresting spirits and a token selection of wine but if you want craft beers or special spirits you need to be looking elsewhere. A little further up the road there is also a small Morrison’s and an Aldi, so you’ve got the bottled for Aldi stuff within reach also.
Flixton is officially a part of Urmston, but it’s just on the edge – almost the countryside. If you don’t know Urmston, it’s actually like a small town in itself. It has a town centre and all that, so on top of the local newsagents and mini markets on your various street corners, at the Eden Square precinct you’ve also got a small to medium sized Sainsburys (which tends to be better for spirits offers, though this one has a depressingly small selection of beers), an Aldi which is so inadequately sized that is is almost impossible to shop in at the weekend – unless you go first thing on a Sunday, but that can be a problem for the alcothusiast, for obvious reasons, and a Home Bargains where you can pick up some low price, low quality ales. There are a couple of beer shops, too.
The Urmston Beer and Wine Shop and Bargain Booze turned out to be little more than crap newsagents with a bit more booze than your average. Bargain Booze even appears to be the kind of place that kids hang out outside of – though not in a threatening way; the ones I saw had a middle class goth vibe about them.
The Prairie Schooner is a bit more worthwhile though. Doubling up as a pub and beer shop, they have a selection of guest ales to drink on the premises and a selection of craft beers that you can also buy to take home with you. You’re not going to go in there to get a crate for a party, but with 6 for £10 offers, you can pick up something you haven’t had before for your Distinct Beers Challenge.
There’s also a small market where a guy sells a selection of beers from a stall.
For the fairly short stretch of road that Levy covers, there are a veritable shit-ton of pubs, though they are typically of low quality. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a good night out drinking there, it’s just – shall we say – distinctive.
I have to admit to not having been in all of them. I’m sure they’re fine for the most part, but they do look dodgy and unwelcoming from the outside. The best (while I still lived there) were The Bluebell (a former winner of Pub of the Year), which is a large Samuel Smiths pub, purveying all the ales and spirits they are known for, and the Fiddler’s Green, which is a friendly and tidy Irish pub that’s good for watching football matches. Sadly the selection of beer here doesn’t rise above standard fare like Guinness, Foster’s and Heineken and the beer garden is just a concrete yard. They do have Powers whisky though, which is a nice authentic Irish touch.
Elsewhere you’ve got The Levenshulme which is a proper “local” pub with its regulars, and that I’m told is known for lock-ins, though I’ve never been to one. Shabby on the inside, beer varieties are similarly limited, though you can get one or two brands of premium lager.
In the centre there are two sectarian pubs – The Union and The Horsehoe. They are round the corner from one another. One flies the Loyalist flag, the other the Republican flag. I’ve only been in one (I think it was The Horseshoe) and again, beer choice was poor, it was shabby, and the layout was weird.
The M19 is a sports-type bar with irregular opening hours that has been known to host comedy nights. I went to a free one with Mrs Cake where we saw a guy completely die on his arse. It was very embarrassing.
Other Levy pubs such as Hennigan’s Sports Bar and The Sidings I sadly can’t claim to have been to.
Finally, there’s the Klondyke Club which is up a back road, friendly, very old school, and featuring an untended bowling green and lots of outdoor space. We went once for a beer festival that turned out to be taking place on a different weekend. They serve a selection of ales and also have full size snooker tables that you can play on without being a member for something amazing like £2 an hour as long as members don’t want to play.
Oh, I nearly forgot POD, a café that serves continental beers like Kozel and Kaltenberg. It’s small, and quite continental in style.
Levy isn’t the sort of place you’re going to attract your friends to from other areas to for a pub crawl, but if you want to grab a few pints on the way home or go out for some drinks in the afternoon or evening, you can have a really good time. For the most part, the people of Levy are friendly and welcoming. Don’t worry if you’re better dressed than the majority of them. That sounds a bit snobby; honestly, who do I think I’m talking to? I can only relate my perceptions, anyway.
On Saturdays there is now a hipster craft market, and that’s good because it has an outside bar. Sadly I never got round to trying it. Same with the new craft beer bar and art gallery, Fred’s Ale House. That was just on the verge of opening when we left, so that remains unexplored also.
If that’s not good enough for you, and as I’ve said a few times before, you can hop on a bus to The Magnet on the edge of Stockport.
Bringing our roundup to the Urmston area now, The Hop House is a new hipster type place with continental service (meaning you can sit down and wait to be served) and a variety of plates (such as cheese boards) on offer. Here you can get a small selection of fancy continental lagers, ales and IPAs for a reasonable price.
The Church Inn is the nearest pub to my house, in the villagiest looking part of Flixton which is ruined only by what should be another quaint pub actually being a Thai restaurant and pub. Nothing against Thai restaurants, but I would just prefer another pub. The Church Inn has tables for sitting out in the summer and numerous evening activities like open mic, pub quiz and darts but the beer selection is disappointing. You have to give them credit for offering Moretti on tap, but from what I’ve seen so far, the “four guest ales” tends to be er… three (I’m not sure now whether they ever did advertise them as four…) and fairly standard when you’ve been round the block a few times – Tribute, Abbot Ale and the like. Still, for convenience and friendly local atmosphere, it looks good. They do food, too. There were actually people in there having dessert the first time we went in. The layout is a bit country pub – alcoves and the like.
Halfway between our house and Urmston town centre is The Bird I’Th Hand, which is about as Lancashire a pub name as you can get. If you continue into Urmston (up Flixton Road) you get a bit of a run of pubs but, coming from ours, this is where it starts. It’s a friendly, local-type pub with a decent selection of lagers and ales (two house, two guest), a beer garden and a licence to show the footy. In contrast to the Church Inn, the layout is quite spacious and open with two main drinking areas.
There’s also The Garrick’s Head, which is towards the Trafford General Hospital. That’s a large but pretty standard pub that serves food and shows the footy.
The Chadwick is a scruffy looking pub in spite of fairly recently having had a facelift. Inside it’s still old school with a very disappointing selection of beers, but a friendly staff and clientele. It’s a United pub though, so not somewhere you want to go if you support Liverpool (like me) or City – not that it would be dangerous (in general), just that you won’t be wanting to be surrounded by United fans.
The Steamhouse sits on the platform of Urmston train station, so it’s handy for when your train is delayed, though I can’t really think of any journey from Urmston that would benefit starting with a pint. It’s nice to get off here on the way home though, grab a few pints and then jump on a later train to Flixton – or do the walk. It’s cosy and friendly enough, and it has a wide range of reasonably priced beers – lagers, ales, German pilsners and the like. I’d advise that you stay away from their own brews though – I’ve tried two, and they were awful. One tasted like that liquid they give you to rinse with at the dentist. In all fairness, they did offer me an opportunity to try it before I bought it and, as ever I figured there’s no beer bad enough that I couldn’t drink a pint of it. I was right on that score, but it was awful.
Then there’s the Roebuck, which is away from Urmston town centre itself, near to the Chassen Road train station. This one has gone for a gastro-pub aesthetic with decent pub food and a selection of Joseph Holt beers.
Bevano is a café-bar type place, open long hours, serving decent food and serving an unchanging selection of four or five beers. I would go here a lot more often if they would have a new beer in from time to time.
I still need to try some of the other pubs, so I can’t really comment on them yet. Nevertheless, there has to be an exhaustive Urmston pub crawl at some point, so don’t think this is the last you’ve heard of it.
new booe shelf!
Storing your booze and glasses
Finally, some reflections on sorting out the booze in your new house. Where does it go? It might not be a problem for you if you’ve bought a house with more storage space than you had before, but sadly we haven’t. The house is bigger, but it isn’t until you actually move in of course, and try putting all your kitchen utensils away (or until your wife does, should I say), that you realise you have fewer and smaller kitchen cabinets than you had in your last place. And with no wall cabinets, there’s nothing to sit your bottles on.
For the first few months then, my bottles were sitting in a huddle underneath the boiler. It had been frustrating because I couldn’t see what I’d got, and it made it harder to decide what to have. Luckily though, Mrs Cake made finding a home for the family one of our top priorities, so there is now a bar-type cabinet in one corner of the dining room. That will be followed by finding a home for my bar optics – that I’m super excited about getting on the wall; absinthe at the push of a… tap? You bet your ass.
So there you go. I think that about covers it. It may not be useful to the vast majority of the world, but you can just think of this post as another piece of the puzzle that is my drinking saga.