Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Spirit Log: Grant's Signature Blended Scotch

Released in June 2014, exclusively to Tesco in the first instance, Grant’s Signature was an attempt to give the young people what they want in the spirits market. Aren’t enough people drinking whisky already, without encouraging the young to take their share of the depleting stocks? Let’s wait for some of the old duffers to die off first, eh? Anyway, from what I remember about being young, what they want is something cheap they can knock back before going out, or enjoy with ice since they won’t have figured out how to enjoy whisky yet… so is that what this is for?

I’m not sure how long the exclusivity lasted, but I picked it up in Sainsburys for £16, which represents a few quid off, but still places it comfortably above the price of your standard supermarket blends.

I’ve been reasonably impressed with Grant’s’ affordable output so far – the Family Reserve, Ale Cask and Sherry Cask editions all provide value for money and fill that gap in your drinks cabinet that requires an uncomplicated whisky for drinking early in the evening, or cheekily adding to your uninspiring lager. I’m hoping it turns out to be a completely different product to the three mentioned above, and not just a re-branding (it isn’t) – a scam I’ve fallen for before – looking at you, Dewar’s

The Signature is presented in the usual triangular type bottle, but also has a flimsy blue box that it doesn’t quite fit in snugly. It is bottled at a standard 40% and is said to be malty and offer biscuity tones. Can a whisky aimed at the inexperienced drinker’s market also satisfy a more fussy drinker? Let’s find out.

The first thing you’re going to notice about the Signature is that it is very pale. I actually consider that to be a good thing in cheap blends, since it suggests a minimal amount of artificial colouration has been employed, and it makes a change from that brown whisky that just seems to be standard for blended scotch. So far so good.

On the palate, as you’d expect for a sub £20 blend, there’s a hefty whack of grain so, keeping the youth market in mind, you wonder, how is this going to appeal to that market? I hear a lot of inexperienced drinkers complaining that whisky is too harsh or it burns, so how is this supposed to convince anyone differently?

Ok, so moving on; what happens when you drink it properly (as I call it)? You know, you hold it in your mouth, swish it around, and swallow it bit by bit – thus effectively mixing your saliva in with it and reducing the potential burning and choking effects… well, it turns out to be pretty good – better than that even. There’s a mouthwatering sweetness overriding any roughness that a whisky lover on a low budget could really get on board with. And therein lies the problem: you have to treat it with the respect you’d afford a fine single malt to get the best out of it, so I find it hard to believe Grant’s are going to be able to win over any of the young generation they’re supposedly aiming for.

The overall conclusion then, is that this is a quality low-priced gem. It’s name, Signature, makes it sound less special and sought after than Family Reserve, but I think this is actually the better of the two expressions and a worthy choice to be considered the signature Grant’s expression. Really well done, Grant’s. I’ll keep coming back as long as you keep producing some quality low priced blends. Now though, I think it’s time I spent a bit more on a blend to see where that can take us…

And so ends my 200th post. I know! 200! Next week I'll be beginning my third century with a post about 10 year old Armagnac, Baron de Signognac. Join me then.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

A Thornbridge a Day

I don’t tend to write that much about beer as, much as I like to drink it, I don’t find it that interesting to think about. Nor do I tend to get that excited about its various forms or the many thousands of breweries there are around the world. However, if there is one brewery I’m a fan of, it’s Derbyshire’s Thornbridge. Ever since sampling their wares at the Bearded Theory festival a couple of years ago, I’ve almost become a devotee, seeking them out and happily handing over more than the cost of the average roasting joint for their generally outstanding product.

So as part of my birthday celebrations for this year, Mrs Cake planned a trip to their shop, which is located at the back of an industrial estate on the edge of the town of Bakewell – that wasn’t all we did! It wasn’t a shit birthday! I spent more than £50 on a selection of bottles and a keg, so it seems only fair that we should give them the respect they deserve with their own post.

AM:PM, 4.5%
“All day IPA”, this is called, which reminds me of a far unhappier time, when I used to work at a 24 hour call answering service called “AlldayPA”. This is much better than that. It’s got what I think of as the signature Thornbridge flavour, but it’s a bit lighter than most of their fare and makes a nice beer for chugging when you’re really thirsty. 4/5

Lord Marples, 4%
Described as a “classic British bitter”, I have to say it’s a bit more than that. Not quite delivering all I want from me Thornbridge, but outstanding if you put it up against all else the “classic British bitter” genre has to offer. 3.5/5

Chiron 5%
Chiron is a veritable taste explosion. Marketed as an American Pale Ale, this one literally blossoms in your mouth after about half a second. One to really savour. 4.5/5

Kipling, 5.2%
I appreciate the extra strength and the idea of a South Pacific Pale Ale, but sadly it doesn’t quite reach the heights I think it should. 3/5

Tzara, 4.8%
Tzara is billed as a Koln style beer, which I hadn’t realised was a thing before. That, I suppose, is why these special breweries exist. So anyway, all that means is that it has been fermented like ale and then aged (or conditioned) like lager. What you get here are fruity and bready notes, according to the bottle. I agree. It is light and dangerously drinkable, proving just right for my thirsty self’s return from an energetic band rehearsal. Very nice. 4/5

Jehanne, 7.4%

A biere de garde or keeping beer. It’s nice and strong and I enjoyed it, but can’t remember any further impressions. 4/5

Wild Raven, 6.6%
I gave this 5/5 the last time I tried it, so that’s quite high praise. A black IPA, it is smooth and dark and has a long, but not overpoweringly bitter finish. I suspect my palate was more receptive last time though, as this time I’m giving it… 4.5/5

Beadeca’s Well, 5.3%
A smoked porter, made with peated malts. I like anything smoked and this is no exception. 4/5

Eroica Britannia, 4.3%
A pale ale to celebrate Bakewell’s cycling festival – which frankly sounds fabulous in its own right, and well worth creating a beer for. This is actually one of the least interesting Thonrbridge offerings that I’ve come across so far. It’s quite light and tangy, but doesn’t quite push my pedals… so to speak. 3.5/5

Jaipur, 5.9%
This one elicited particular excitement because it is already a personal favourite of mine. You’ll certainly have read about it on these pages before. And this time… it’s a keg. I’ve never bought a keg before, and at 9 pints for around £24, I think this IPA represents pretty good value. I was informed that it needed to be consumed by mid February (so within about 3 weeks), and once opened, within 3 days.  We made arrangements for Pablo and Veronica to come round so that Pablo could help out.

Now, I don’t know what the cause might be, but it just seemed like something was missing in the product here. Perhaps we waited a little bit too long, or maybe it just doesn’t taste the same out of a keg as it does from a bottle or cask – or maybe it was just my tastebuds playing up. Whatever it was, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d been expecting. I did get smashed though, since Pablo and I consumed the whole thing between us and chased it with rum and a hefty chunk of mezcal. 4/5, though it would normally be a 5. I’ve tried IPAs religiously since discovering this gem, and of 75 other varieties sampled, Jaipur is better than them all, and twice as good as most.

Versa, 5%
I’m quite a fan of the weisse beer style that this offering represents, but I feel this, combined with my high expectations for Thornbridge products made this one seem  a little disappointing. 3.5/5

Colorado Red, 5.9%

A hopped red ale made kind of in partnership with Sierra Nevada. Another superb, full of flavour offering with a lightly bitter finish.  4/5

St. Petersburg, 7.4%
There’s a little bit of peat coming through in this Imperial Russian Stout, which is very pleasant. Another solid expression. 3.5/5

Black Harry, 3.9%
A dark, fruity ale that doesn’t quite hit the spot for me. Mellower than a lot of the other Thornbridge fare and lacking that awe-inspiring tang. 2.5/5

Bear State, 7%
A “West Coast IPA”.  High in alcohol, big in flavour, and at £4.20 from Font, this was even decent value. 4.5/5

Kill Your Darlings, 5%
Described as Vienna style, this one has been lagered for er… I forget; either 5 weeks or 5 months. It was very nice though. 4/5
Charlie Brown, 6.2%
A brown ale – along the lines of Newcastle Brown, but better – that, if I remember correctly, is actually made with peanut butter. I can’t stand peanut butter, so I’d saved this one to share with Mrs Cake, who loves it. It’s very tangy, and I can confirm that I couldn’t taste peanut butter. 4/5

Bamberg, 6%

A smoked “bock”. It was nice to have something this light, but so complex. 4/5

Bracia, 10%
A “rich, dark ale” from the Thornbridge Hall collection. Brewed only four times  a year in limited quantities, you need to shell out £8.50 for one of these. Can any beer ever be worth £8.50? Not really, but I was curious and very much looked forward to opening it. It had a very long finish and the extreme strength isn’t overbearing, and while I’m convinced I didn’t allow the price to affect my score, it doesn’t rate among my favourites. 3.5/5

Cocoa Wonderland, 6.8%
A porter that incorporates real chocolate into the maturation process. 4/5

Wild Swan, 3.5%
Described as a white gold pale ale, this is intended for the summertime. It is light and, in my opinion, a little alcoholically weak, but it manages to be tasty in spite of that and certainly delivers in terms of refreshment. 4.5/5

Jaipur X, 10%
What better way to end this list with this celebratory edition of Jaipur that clocks up a massive 10 ABVs? I’d been tempted to buy one of these at £8.50 in Sheffield’s Bath Hotel, but declined, only to return home and find that Mrs Cake had bought one for me in my absence. True love, that is.

Can it live up to expectations? Well: yes. It has that superb, distinctive Jaipur flavour, but on top of that, you can taste the extra strength and that extra strength is actually manifested as extra flavour. You have to remember with this one, you’re getting 500ml, and it is stronger than Carlsberg Special Brew, so if you drink too fast you might get smashed. The pregnant Mrs Cake had the smallest sip and said she could already feel the welcoming beer hug.

Why are they so damn good?

Seems a fair question. And if that’s a fair question, it begs the further  query, why are so many other breweries making beer that doesn’t even approach this quality? Well, I don’t know. I do know that Thornbridge remains my favourite brewery and one that I’ll be delighted to continue promoting on these pages for the foreseeable future. Maybe it’s that they have two breweries – the old one at Thornbridge Hall where they use a traditional infusion mash ale system and barrel-ageing, and the new one in Bakewell where the emphasis is on utilisation of technology. You can learn a bit more about this on their website, or even take a tour, but as far as we’re concerned for now, all you need to know is it means they’re serious about the quality and variety of their product and there’s always something new and interesting emerging. Long may it last.

 two I forgot to write about...

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Spirit Log: Havana Club Anejo Especial

Rum. You like rum? Yeah, it’s all right isn’t it? I’ve never found it to be something to get particularly excited about myself. I always used to keep one each of the three types in stock for making cocktails but then I stopped making cocktails so much and I just never felt inspired enough to replace the outgoing bottles of rum. Well now I have, and this is the Havana Club Anejo Especial (40%) that I picked up with a few pounds off (not many) at Tesco.

I have to admit, I haven’t bought a Havana Club before, though I believe I’ve tried the 3 year old and remember enjoying it, despite what I would classify as a lack of the kind of complexity I look for in spirits. That’s endemic of the whole genre of rum, in my opinion. I could just enjoy it over ice I suppose, but that is no longer a particular drinking habit of mine.

Let’s start with the fruits of a little preliminary research, shall we? I had stupidly researched the Havana Club AƱejo Reserva instead of the Anejo Especial, which has led to this post being a bit late. It's fair to say, I think, that we can only blame Havana Club for making the names of their rums too similar. The Anejo Reserva was originally reserved for the personal consumption of master distiller Don Navarro, but all that is irrelevant as this one, which tends to be around £10 cheaper, was not.

So what is there to learn about it? Well, going to the master distiller himself, it "whispers the hidden secrets of premium dark rums." No idea what that means. Sounds like bullshit. The website, havana-club.co.uk says it is finished in young white oak barrels, though it doesn't seem to mention how it is aged up until that point - unless it is the 3 year old, and that is aged "in Cuba". So, as ever, not a lot to go on.

On top of all that, it looks like the producer has tweaked the look of the bottle a bit, and also changed the recipe since I bought mine, so all that research above is probably redundant.

Enough research then, I may as well just tell you what I think of the rum. Well, the most telling thing I can say about this is that it mostly serves as an early afternoon warm-up on the weekend – you know, when it’s too early to enjoy a scotch, but you want something to give you a warm embrace in anticipation of a boozy evening. Another telling thing is that I've now had this bottle for a year, and it still isn't finished. Yes, part of that is that I've been holding it back in case I need it to make a cocktail for a guest, but the other part is that it has never called me over and said, "drink me". Which it would have done had it been a little better.

It is very sweet on entry and very sour towards the end of the mouthful, with lots of citrus. The finish is of decent enough duration and, in the end, I was surprised to find that I enjoyed it. The only problem is that I don’t think I generally have need for anything this sweet.

I’ll be looking at some more varieties of rum later in the year, so feel free to come back if that’s something you’re interested in.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Spirits of the Year 2015

Good evening! And welcome to the new year, 2016. You know what that means, don’t you? It means that it’s time for one of my favourite blog-related tasks (besides the drinking), and that’s announcing the three spirits I drank in the previous year that I deem to be worthy of special attention (so to speak). It was quite a good year for special spirits, but I won’t be mentioning those that didn’t quite make the cut. As ever, there’s no overall winner, and these are in no particular order.

Rum: Plantation 3 Stars (41.2%, £22 for 70cl)

This is the first time a rum has made it into the top 3 – sure, there’s only been two other years so far, but that’s still two years without recognition for rum. Rum has just never struck me as a particularly interesting spirit – too easy drinking, you might say. Nevertheless, the discovery of this excellent value, excellent quality white rum  was a revelation and one that has since encouraged me to delve a little deeper into the rum world. Apparently it’s aged, but the colour then filtered out, or some such thing. I have no idea why anyone would want to do that, but you can’t deny this is a wonderfully tasty rum. It’s a couple of percent stronger than your average and certainly worth the extra pounds it costs compared to lesser and cheaper alternatives. If I had enough money to keep favourite spirits in stock as well as trying new ones, this would have a permanent place in my cabinet. I’ll be posting more about it in the coming months.

Brandy: Asbach Urbrand (40%, E9.30 for 50cl)
Another first for Spirits of the Year here, as brandy makes its first ever appearance. Yes, finally a brandy that looks delicious, and tastes as good as it looks – soft and luxurious, with just the right balance between sweet and savoury. Slutty with just the right amount of class, if you will. Or should that be classy with just the right amount of sluttiness? Whether you do or you don’t, I just like saying that. You can read more about this one here.

Grappa: Casimiro Rittochi Nel Tempo (42%, 18 euros for 70cl)

The final place in this year’s hall of fame is reserved for an example of my favourite spirit genre, grappa. It was a difficult choice between this one and two, perhaps even three others, but in the end this soft two year old just oozed class and emerged as the pick of the bunch. You’ll be able to read more about this one later in the year.

So there you go, a mixed bag this year, and no place for a whisky this time. I look forward to trying a whole new slew of spirits throughout 2016 and seeing who makes the grade this time next year. In the meantime I’ll contact the various producers of this year’s winners and announce the good news.

Finally, I haven’t done it before, but since I’ve been drinking so much beer of late, and also since there was one absolute standout of the genre last year, I thought I might do a 2015 Beer of the Year. And that accolade goes to Harviestoun Brewery’s Ola Dubh 18. This is Old Engine Oil  that has been aged in casks that were previously used to age the 18 year old Highland Park whisky. It is even better than it sounds. So congratulations to Harviestoun Brewery also.

And what about 2016? What do we have in the pipeline? Well, in all honesty, it could be a more modest affair this year, as I might not have quite as much money for fancy booze, but I’ll do my best. I’ll let you into a little secret though; it’s only a few days into the new year and I’ve already found some contenders. On a more positive note, we’re already planning a return to the area around Lake Garda, which means even more top quality grappa! Whatever happens, I promise I’ll keep doing my best for you, so please come back and see what I’ve been getting up to. Feel free to give me some feedback an’all. I’d love to hear what your favourite spirits were in 2015.