Thursday, 25 February 2016

Booze Tourism: More from Lake Garda

Wine in the process of ageing at Tenuta San Leonardo

A bit later than intended, let’s return now to my tale of booze-related adventures around Lake Garda. We begin where we left off last time, on our way from the grappa village of Santa Massenza, up to Trento, for a winery tour.

Mezzacorona tour

We continued our drive north from Santa Massenza, and before long came to the town of Trento – just north of which lies the sprawling and modern Mezzacorona plant. After our satnav had sent us to the tradesman’s entrance and we were redirected round to the front, we were able to find the shop where you can buy multiple cases of wine, and the reception, where they were expecting me.

We were greeted by Veronica (not our friend of the same [pseudo] name), with whom I had arranged the visit in advance. It was nice to be expected after the day’s earlier activities – it meant I could relax while Veronica escorted us and an Italian couple around in two languages.

This tour was 5 euros each, and was focused specifically on the sparkling wine that Mezzacorona produces. I hadn’t planned for it to be that way, but it turns out we really didn’t know anything about how sparkling wine is made, so it was very informative in that sense.

Mezzacorona is a collective organisation, utilising the produce of 1500 growers to make [something like] 40 million bottles of still wine per year, and [something else like] 3 million bottles of sparkling wine. You’ll have to forgive my innacurracy around the numbers there; it was something like that, but I don’t recall exactly what we were told. It was a lot.

The modern technology employed allows the winery to control the temperature at every stage, and has even enabled them to automate the rotation process necessary in the production of sparkling wine, using a number of mechanised crates to each rotate 504 bottles at a time for a period of 12 days, where by hand it would take 40*.

It was a decent tour and we learned a lot. I don’t want to tell you any more as it might ruin it for a trip of your own. That, and my memory doesn’t permit me to write about it with too much clarity. I’ll just say, it’s worth a trip if you’re in the area. The scale of production here is staggering and, of course, you’ll get to try some wine at the end.

And that concluded our Tuesday grappa and wine excursion. A great time was had by all, I reckon. The drive back wasn’t as relaxing or pleasant as the drive up, as the satnav chose to take us on the motorway, so there was no scenery and it cost us around 10 euros in tolls, but presumably it saved us a lot of time and we were getting hungry.

*once again, please allow for my poor memory in terms of actual numbers.

Tenuta San Leonardo

lovely views at San Leonardo
The same source that led us to visiting Mezzacorona was also the one responsible for sending us over the mountains on Garda’s eastern side on the Friday for a visit to Tenuta San Leonardo. I remembered the source as saying that if you get a chance to visit, then you should. Though it doesn’t actually say that. I am saying it to you now though.

I think by the Friday morning, Mrs Cake and I were feeling a bit worn out after a stretch of protracted stressing over whether we’d be able to print out our return flight boarding passes, so I have to admit that when we awoke that morning, we weren’t even sure as to whether we would bother making the journey to Borghetto. I had made the necessary arrangements for a tour and packaged some literature up as part of Mrs Cake’s birthday present, but I made her aware that this one was optional. I hadn’t paid a deposit or anything, so if she didn’t feel up to it, that was fine. I’d just buy her something else.

That would have been a bit lame, so I went to the car to have the satnav tell me how long it would take that morning, and it was only going to be an hour and a half. The weather wasn’t great, so we thought we’d go for it.

What I didn’t realise when booking our tour, was that when they refer to San Leonardo as an estate, that’s exactly what they mean – in the noble sense. I won’t go into all the history, as I simply wouldn’t be able to do it justice, but believe me; there is a lot of it, and you can read a little more on their website.

We arrived at the gates, not really certain we’d reached our destination. The satnav said that’s where we should be, but there was no sign – just a small wine bar and some closed gates. We pulled in and awkwardly wondered what to do – eventually resulting in Mrs Cake heading into the wine bar to make enquiries. When she emerged, she motioned for me to follow. And that’s when we met the Marchese Carlo Guerrieri Gonzaga. Yes, an actual Marchese, and a very friendly and incredibly well-dressed gentleman he was too. He offered us a coffee and, not realising who we were talking to, I assumed he was visiting too and so, asked him where he’d come from. He said Rome, but I thought he said Norway. At this point Mrs Cake looked over my shoulder to the wall and saw it was covered with pictures and press clippings, in all of which was the gentleman I was speaking to. What an idiot – me, not him. Anyway, it was lovely, and at this point Joseph, with whom I had been corresponding with regard to arranging this visit entered and removed any embarrassment by taking us inside to begin the tour.

I have to admit to being something of a novice when it comes to wine. I may even have been slightly disparaging about it in my youth – you know, way back when the blog started – but by now I’ve built up a bit of curiousity and have definitely been open to learning more. Nevertheless, I briefly felt I might be a bit out of my depth when we met Joseph and he told us that, not only was San Leonardo one of the foremost wine producers in Italy, but the gentleman we had just met was one of the great pioneers in Italian winemaking. In simple terms; this was kind of a big deal. And I had pretty much happened across it in the frenzied internet research I’d tried to squeeze in in the weeks prior to our holiday. Result.

So we went on a walk around the beautiful grounds of the estate, seeing vineyards, getting the history and, since the tour was just for the three of us, the chance to ask as many questions as we liked. Joseph must have clocked that we didn’t know too much early on, but we were having a great time and learning a lot – and not just about wine; also about Italy and the 2nd World War, making for a very rounded experience.

I won’t give you all the details as I think it’s important to retain a certain number of surprises should you choose to make the trip yourself. Among the highlights though, were of course the wine cellars. First was a number of concrete vats that were used during the fermentation phase, then the store of bottles of vintage wines that was complete with a hidden switch granting access to the barrels where the produce was undergoing the maturation process.

Unlike the modern Mezzacorona plant, San Leonardo don’t utilise any modern climate control techniques beyond opening a window if it gets too hot, or shutting the door if it gets too cold. It was truly fascinating to see how scales and practices can vary so significantly, and how important each variation is to the product.

Well, pretty soon it was time to head back to the small wine bar for the tasting. We’d been having such a good time, we were almost sad to have reached the end of the tour. It’s all about the wine though, isn’t it? More or less. And even though I’m no wine connoisseur, I’ve still experienced quite a bit of it, and this stuff was excellent – across the whole range from the entry level white and red (Vette and Terre respectively) up to the vintage bottlings, San Leonardo and Villa Gresti. It is worth noting that, on their website they have a vintage guide letting you know when your bottle is ready for drinking. Mrs Cake opted for a Villa Gresti, so it will be worth keeping an eye on that guide (though I actually can’t find it now). If you want my opinion, while the Gresti was excellent, I do think the San Leonardo was even better, but at over 40 euros, and in spite of it being an investment, the more affordable option was probably the better choice.

Of course, I was also pleased to find that, as  seems to be the case with all Italian wineries, they also make their own grappa – though not on the estate, as such. They actually transport the marc fresh from fermentation to a small scale local producer (Bruno Franceschini) who distils the two expressions Grappa San Leonardo (white) and Grappa Stravecchia San Leonardo (aged 5 years in barrels that had previously aged the San Leonardo wine).

While Mezzacorona also produced a couple of grappas, there I resisted temptation due to already having fulfilled my purchase quota. This time though, Mrs Cake positively insisted I get another one and, after discussing whether we would have room or even weight allowance in our luggage, I just decided to go ahead.

Both varieties are presented in fancy crystal decanter type bottles that, we were told, are based on a bottle the Marchese found in the attic of the manor house. It would certainly look good centre stage on our new liquor cabinet.

I had a couple of good tastes, but couldn’t decide which of the two to buy. The Marchese said he preferred the white, as that is in the traditional style but in the end I went for the Stravecchia because I thought its flavour profile would help me to convert whisky loving friends to the grappa cause – should any of them be lucky enough to be allowed to try it. To be honest, very few are proving themselves worthy.

The white grappa was 24 euros and the Stravecchia 41 euros (for 50cl) – so quite a bit more expensive than anything else I’d picked up, but at least now I knew I’d gotten my “special” bottle.

I can’t really come close to doing justice to how special this place was. You can use the word “estate” in any way you want, but this was a real noble style estate with all the relics and exotic memorabilia you can’t even imagine. It was just full of highlights, with surprises around every corner. A real personal experience that you won’t get from any tour companies. 35 euros per person might seem a little steep for a winery visit – especially compared to the 5 euros at Mezzacorona, and I’m sure a number would show you around for free – but this is remarkable value and an excellent opportunity to learn something and try some excellent wine.

Last day

Well those were the main booze-related experiences of our trip to the area around Lake Garda. We did other things too, but there’s no room for them here. What I will tell you, is that with all that booze to get home (four bottles of grappa and five bottles of wine), we had to buy extra hold baggage for the way back. Then there was a whole load of booze to finish off before we went. The Grappa di Pinot Franciacorta went down very well, though somehow I managed to spill two entire glasses along the way.

Also on one of the days we’d been able to call at the ManerbaMicrobrewery and pick up one bottle of each of the brews they made – 9 in total, all big and all strong. I’d like to tell you a bit more about them, but by the time we got there we were tired and I just wanted to get a carry out. The beers were good though, and ideal for your own Distinct Beers Challenge.
the Manerba Microbrewery line-up

I hope all this has proved interesting an useful to you, should you wish to plan your own booze tour of the region. There’s just time now to mention a couple of things that we missed due to lack of time, though I’ll certainly be pencilling these into my itinerary if we ever get the chance to go back.

Things we missed

As I mentioned way back in the introduction to last week’s post, there’s the Museo della Grappa in Bassano del Grappa, which is free to visit and contains five “suggestive” rooms as well as another site in Schiavon which contains the largest known collection of grappa bottles in Italy. No doubt there will also be a few distilleries in the area.

Finally, long after we actually returned from our excursion, I found something else that looks like it would be well worth a visit, the ForumAquavitae, a centre for research on distillates where they do research on spirits. That one is somewhere between Bergamo and Garda.

Next time I think we’ll drive the whole way – it’s only just over 1000 miles, right? Should take about 17 hours, but we’ll be able to bring more home (as long as there’s room next to all the baby stuff, and there hasn’t been a referendum on Europe that decides we’re out and no longer eligible for beneficial alcohol privileges), and we might be able to make some interesting stops along the way.

all present and correct and home at last
Well, it turns out that that bellend David Cameron has decided to appease the eurosceptics within his party and the small minded little Englanders with a euro referendum the day after we go back to the area. I’ll definitely be using a postal vote to keep us in, but what does this mean for next time you visit an interesting destination and want to bring back some special grog? Well, it’ll probably mean you can only bring back a litre of spirits. Luckily for me, I’ll be able to use Mrs Cakes allowance, and since grappa is usually bottled at 50cl, that still means I could bring back four bottles. There’ll be no more booze cruises over to France though. Do people even do that, still?

Anyway, everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and mine is that we’d be better off staying in Europe – it’s the only thing protecting our workers’ rights, and keeping us from slavery to the political elite and greedy corporations. You’re entitled to your opinion too of course, but if you’re going to wade in in the comments, keep it civil, eh?

Until next time, enjoy yer booze.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Booze Tourism: Grappa Trail

picturesque stills at Distilleria di Francesco

Not being the kind of people to be content with moving house, having a new bathroom installed and a first child being well on the way all at once, the Cake family (minus Ruby the cat, who’s a bit of a homebody) decided another trip to Italy was due – before it was impossible for Mrs Cake to travel. It was to be like the Tuscan Adventure we took you on er… year before last, was it? Only this time we (or rather I) would do a bit of planning in advance.

We selected, somewhat arbitrarily, the general area of Lake Garda in Italy’s north. We could fly to the airports of Bergamo or Venice for reasonable prices, and both of these would be within easy driving distance of our final destination.

You don’t really need to know how we arrived at our various decisions, but we flew into Bergamo (to the East), and found a nice mountainside apartment overlooking the bay and town of Salo on Garda’s west shore. If you like what you see and read here, you can book the same property through Roy, here


The Tuscan Adventure sure was fun, but we’d somehow gone with the expectation that everything would just fall into our laps, which it didn’t – at all. We still got to try lots of wine (or Mrs Cake did, at least. I was drivin’), but this time there would be more at stake. For one thing, Mrs Cake’s birthday fell right in the middle of the week in April that we chose to go, so it would be worth ensuring there were one or two special excursions organised to assure success. For the other… this is grappa country. To the west of Garda you have Brescia, where they make grappa. To the east, you have Bassano del Grappa, home of the Grappa Museum, and where grappa was actually invented. Then, to the north you have Trentino where grappa, if not king, is the king’s favourite son. Together it all forms a kind of grappa triangle. Yes, if I was a little disappointed with the focus they seem to place on grappa in Tuscany, there would be no chance of that this time around.

I set about doing as much internet reseach as possible, and found lots of potential places to visit –but we’ll go into a bit more detail about that as we progress. On with the show.

Supermarket – Franciacorta and large beers

The first stop, after collecting our car that Sunday morning and driving the hour or so from Bergamo to our apartment in Peracque, was always going to be finding the local supermarket and stocking up on supplies – most importantly beers and grappa, for drinking during the week.

The beer selection at the Italmark was a bit disappointing. I was hoping there would be a selection from the nearby Manerba Microbrewery, but the only Italian beers I found were the standard (though excellent) Morettis and Peronis. Other than that, it was all German beers. They at least would count to my distinct beers tally, so I opted for 4 or 5 of those, figuring we’d find the microbrewery later in the week. They weren’t spectacular; Dreher, Forst, Ceres and Wuhrer were all average, while Viktor was sub-standard.

The grappa section was an entirely different matter – so many choices, and so cheap… I could have fulfilled my take home quota of three bottles quite happily right there, but I didn’t consider that for a moment. I already knew it was going to be almost impossible to restrain myself as it was. It was only Ryanair’s luggage policy that would be keeping me on track. We had paid to bring only one item of hold luggage, and that entitled us to only 20kg in weight. We’d managed to keep that down to 15kg on the way out, but we’d kept our hand luggage light and were prepared to layer up on clothes if necessary. Considering that Mrs Cake would want to be bringing wine back also, that looked the most likely outcome. Time would tell.

There was no need to worry at that stage however. There was a whole week to enjoy first, starting with my supermarket grappa selection. I wasted no time in selecting the Grappa di Pinot Franciacorta, basing my choice on the fact that it came in a champagne style bottle with 43 ABVs. It turns out it was a fairly local product, being from Gussago, in the north west of the town of Brescia.

It’s been quite hard to find definite information on this one, but it seems that while this is a white grappa, it may have been aged for between 6 and 12 months. It certainly has what I would call a more syrupy mouthfeel than other white varieties of grappa that I’m certain are unaged, and I can confirm that I enjoyed it very much over the ensuing week.At just over 15 euros for 70cl I’d consider this one a definite bargain.

Grappa tour

Tuesday was the day I was most excited about. That was the day I’d arranged to drive up to the Trentino region to try and visit some grappa distilleries, rounding off with a tour of the Mezzacorona winery. Why had I decided upon the Trentino region north of Garda, when our base was actually in the environs of Brescia (to Garda’s south west), and Bassano del Grappa was just north of Verona, to Garda’s east?

Well, the reason are threefold:

First, on searching for grappa distilleries in the Garda area, I immediately came across a website that is devoted to Trentino grappa producers, thus making it very easy to find out which ones were obviously open to visitors, find out exactly where they were, and contact them to see when we might visit them. Nothing of that kind existed for Brescia (as far as I could see – take note, Brescia), while the area around Bassano del Grappa seemed [at least] to have a far lesser concentration of distilleries. In Trentino there were at least 27 within around an hour’s drive of each other.

Second, Google Maps suggested the drive up to the Trentino region would be far more interesting and picturesque – as it hugged the Garda shoreline almost the whole way – than would a drive along the highways and motorways that would take us west or east.

Third was the website I found that suggested visits both to the winery of Mezzacorona and the estate of Tenuta San Leonardo that I had arranged for us to see on the Friday (that we’ll be talking about a little later). Mezzacorona was near the town of Trento, and therefore a mere 40 minute drive further than Distilleria di Francesco, the first distillery on my itinerary, after which, another hour and a quarter’s drive further north would lead us to Distillery Dallavalle Rossi of Anaunia.

That all seemed very doable at the time of planning, but as you’ll see, while that wasn’t so much the case, what actually transpired was much better anyway.

Beyond those initial considerations, my criteria for distillery selection was based upon how interesting the output of each potential distillery appeared to be (based upon a cursory glance at the products on their websites!). I had to rule out Segnana because they told me we could visit their winery, but that the distillery would be closed during the period of our visit. Nevertheless, I was hoping that once we got to the region we would see signs pointing in all directions, leading us to more distilleries than we could possibly take in.

As the holiday approached, the reality of being able to make those three stops began to seem more remote. It would pretty much mean 4 hours of driving in each direction, which might be a bit much for the pregnant Mrs Cake, who was designated driver, to handle. I decided to take one for the team as it was the week of her birthday, and crossed Distillery Dallavalle Rossi of Anaunia off the itinerary.

So away we went, leaving our base at around 11am with a list of Trentino distilleries and addresses, which would hopefully give us time to make our first stop and have lunch before the tour I’d arranged at Mezzacorona began at 1530. I’d tried very hard to schedule actual timings, but beyond responses from distilleries saying, “yes, you can come and visit, just let us know when”… I’d received nothing further, so I didn’t know what time they would like us to arrive. I eventually stopped worrying about it, and figured we’d just rock up when we got there.

We rolled into the village of Frazione Santa Massenza around lunchtime and, despite specifically looking for Distilleria di Francesco, we actually found it was home to five distilleries in total, all situated within YARDS of each other. But it was lunchtime, and we would soon find out that everyone is closed at lunchtime which, you know, is fair enough, but you would have thought that someone at one of the distilleries I had e-mailed about visits and timings would have said, “don’t come at lunchtime”. Again, to be fair, they don’t speak much English and I don’t speak any Italian – a problem I intend to remedy (by learning Italian, not teaching them English) – before the next time I visit, but still.
at the Maxentia distillery
 It wasn’t a massive problem. We pulled into the car park at Maxentia and figured we’d knock on some doors. A guy came down, took us into his showroom and offered a tasting. I asked if we could see the distillery first and he agreed, though seemed surprised that we wanted to. It was basically a small still setup in a garage (kind of), but that made it even more interesting to me. The last stills I’d seen in the flesh were the ones at the distilleries on Islay, stills which are… Christ, I don’t know how many times bigger than this: big.

He didn’t speak any English, but he explained how the process worked and where the grappa came out. We excitedly tried to make out what we could and carry on a conversation. It would have been nice to have been able to ask some questions like, how many bottles does he produce, how often do they run the still, where do they get the marc from, where is the product distributed… oh, all kinds of things. It is also nice to retain a bit of mystery.

We went back to the showroom and were given very generous samples of four, five, maybe even six expressions – all, as ever, reasonably priced. I decided my first purchase would be a standard white variety, the Nosiola, which you will be able to read about in a later post – after I’ve opened it of course.

Before we left, we asked if he knew whereDistilleria di Francesco was, since that was where we were intending to go in the first place, and he pointed us around the corner, but didn’t give any indication that we should maybe wait until 1.30 as Francesco would be likely to be having lunch and might not want disturbing.

Francesco’s distillery was gated, and the gate was closed. We rang a couple of buzzers outside but, receiving no response, thought we’d go and knock on at any other distilleries we could find. At this point we didn’t know quite how many of them were just around the corner, and we hadn’t connected the lack of access to lunchtime yet. We just thought that maybe people weren’t in. They probably didn’t get many visitors, so it wasn’t likely they’d be waiting to greet us.

Just to the other side of Maxentia was another distillery, though I’m afraid I seem to have lost the map that I was relying on to remind me what it was called. It seemed to be at the bottom of an apartment building where the various doors were unlocked, but there was no one around. A few old bottles were on display, and we were able to pick up a leaflet which had mapped out all the distilleries in the village. We headed on to the next one, which was just around the corner, that again, I was relying on the lost map to remind me of. At this one, the radio was on, but there was no one around.

the old still at Casimiro
The final distillery was Casimiro. We knocked once again, and were let in by the owner’s daughter who was able to tell us in good English that it was lunchtime, but it was fine for us to come in, though it wouldn’t be possible for us to see the distillery, as a lady upstairs said so. In the end though, the father, who I am assuming is Bernardino Poli,  came down, and said that would be ok also. Once again, it was a small operation, but as well as the new still, we were able to see the original one which had only recently been replaced.

I opted to purchase the Ritocchi nel Tempo this time, which we were told was aged for 2 years (though it says a minimum of 18 months on the website), and we went back to sit in the car for 10 minutes until it was 1330, which is when we had now been informed that the various distilleries would be open once again.

And so on back to Distilleria di Francesco, where this time the gates were wide open. Mrs Cake urged me to just drive in and park up. Still there appeared to be no one around, so Mrs Cake approached the distillery building, knocked, and then tried the door.

Look at this,” she said. I went over and peered in to see a spacious and tidy display area with two pristine stills in one corner.

This is a bit more encouraging,” I ventured, “though I’d feel more comfortable if there were someone around…”

It was then that a familiar face from the Trentino grappa web page emerged and I offered a greeting. Like at the previous distilleries, he seemed bemused as to why we should be there. Is it that it wasn’t peak season? Do they just not get many visitors? They must do, given the well appointed display room each distillery has for tastings and such, but still… perhaps we just seemed more enthusiastic than your average visitor. I also wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t get so many from the UK.

Well, as you can see, we got a couple of pictures, and I bought a five year old variety this time as well as two grappa glasses. I thought I probably should have gotten more of those, but at that point we were expecting to come across more, branded with the names of various distilleries. We didn’t, but thinking about it, it’s unlikely I’m ever going to need more than two grappa glasses at a time anyway – as I keep saying, I’m the only one in the UK who seems to like it.

Thanks to the friendly and welcoming people at these tiny distilleries, and the generous samples they provided… it was time for Mrs Cake to take over the driving for the next leg. I had a nice grappa glow going on, and any further driving for me would not be smart. Mrs Cake had restricted herself to one or two sips, and thusly it was onto the drive to Mezzacorona. There were two distilleries in Santa Massenza that we didn’t go back to, but by this point I’d already bought three bottles, which was my full allowance, so I didn’t want to go and get free samples from other places and not be able to buy anything – it would seem a little rude. We’ll come to Mezzacorona next time, but I’ll leave you now with some closing remarks.

First, let me urge you once again to give the spirit world of grappa a chance. I really don’t get why it is such an unknown entity among so many people, and an un-liked entity among others, but that’s by the by. If you do get into it, there’s a whole country of it (Italy) out there where it is plentiful and reasonably priced. Yes, it is more expensive in the UK and there isn’t as much variety so, really, you do have to go to Italy, but why aren’t you going to Italy anyway? You should be. And if you do, I recommend you do a bit of a grappa trail of your own. You don’t even need to announce yourself or arrange any tours, just show up – but not at lunchtime.

This was a real thrill for me, and a bit of a surprise that these distilleries were very small scale, artisan operations. There are companies producing grappa on a grander scale in Italy, but if like me, you’re always on the lookout for something unusual that you probably can’t get in a supermarket and definitely can’t get back home, these are the kind of places you owe it to yourself to go to.

I did have a good look around everywhere we went, at the grappa in the boutique liquor stores and in the supermarkets, and there was a dizzying array of interesting varieties, but I never saw any of the ones I picked up in Santa Massenza. I suspect distribution is limited and, in all honesty, that was the only day we spent in the Trentino region. Perhaps the more immediate environs of Lake Garda tends to stick to varieties more local to itself. That’s something to find out next time – I fully intend for there to be a next time.

So if they’re reading this, to the producers we met on this trip, thanks for your hospitality and keep up the good work. To the ones we missed, hopefully we’ll see you next time.

As for you, readers, if you join me next week, you can read part two, where we’ll be visiting a couple of wineries, summing up, and commiserating over things we missed. I’ll hope to see you then.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Actual Quality: Plantation 3 Stars Rum

sadly I think I used my decent picture in an earlier post
We might have stumbled across something of a gem here. There I was, just calling into the Trafford Centre to collect my sister’s birthday present, with a trip to Asda for party wine and beer to follow, when I realised I had an uncertain quantity of M&S vouchers in my wallet… that I was sure I could use to buy  a bottle of tequila or a bottle of rum…

And so here we are, with Plantation 3 Stars rum. It’s white (or silver), a pleasing 41.2%, and blended by Cognac producer Pierre Ferrand from rums distilled in Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. The Plantation range consists of 12 expressions, ranging from this one at the bottom of the scale, through rums of various vintages, ages and cask finishes that sound pretty special and very tempting. It all began because Maison Ferrand would sell casks that had contained Cognac to Caribbean rum producers for ageing their products, and one day  happened to discover some very old batches that they decided to bottle.

According to the producer’s website, this one begins with a 3-year aged Trinidad rum, which is “carbon filtered to maintain its white colour and remove the heavier tannins while preserving the aromatics developed and refined by aging”. Un-aged rums from Barbados and Jamaica are then blended, along with a more expensive 12 year old rum from Jamaica, which is said to be the key to the whole blend. “Trinidad brings elegance and refinement, Barbados brings character and aromatics with fruit notes without being too heavy and Jamaica brings the funk, the touch that makes it a complete product.” 

And that’s the most marketing blurb you’re going to get out of me. I just thought it was quite interesting, and that the producer said it better than I could.

Onto the evaluation; I’ve never found rum particularly interesting before, but this brand has made me think again. It helps that its strength exceeds 40%, but most importantly, this is really tastey.

Even before I realised a reputable cognac producer was behind this product, I could tell it was going to be a little bit special from the presentation. The bottle looks the part and is tastefully sealed. There’s maybe a little bit too much to read on the label, but at least you know it has something to tell you. You probably are surprised when you read that it was blended in France, but you also start to think that this will turn out to be a good thing – after all, this wasn’t a  Lidl product, blended in Germany – I’d just been to M&S, after all. Then you look on the internet and realise it isn’t even a made for M&S product. It’s actually all that stuff that I mentioned earlier in the article.

Sure, the £15 in M&S vouchers and another £3 off helped make my mind up in regard to the purchase – it was intended mostly for mojitos, in actual fact – but it represents one of those watershed moments where I’ll resolve to get something like this in future, instead of settling for something shit. It’s like tequila in that respect; as soon as I tasted 100% agave and found that I could get it fairly reliably for £20, I could see no sense in buying anything inferior ever again – even for gratuitous mixing (a practice that takes place less and less in my house these days). And I never did make any mojitos with it.

Not being one for detailed tasting notes, I’ll just tell you, this is very sweet. Sweet, but full of flavour. Cast your mind back to the last time you tried drinking Bacardi or one of those supermarket white rums straight. Even though they are only 37.5% or something like that, there’s little in the way of flavour there, it’s just alcohol, for adding weight to your fruit juice or getting you hammered. This is white rum you can actually sip. I didn’t think such a thing existed. But I’m here to tell you, it does, and it’s worth your £25 if you’re in the market for a new bottle that might surprise you.

And you don’t just have to take my word for it. “Buy clever not expensive” says one user reviewer on The Whisky Exchange, and never has a user review been more on the money. Yes, it’s twice as expensive as your standard supermarket own brands and nearly £10 more expensive than standard white rum brands such as Bacardi, but for £25, you’re getting something that you can confidently call actual quality, and that’s probably a first for me in the genre of rum – especially white rum.

Meanwhile, a user review on Master of Malt says that there are only two white rums that can be called amazing, and this is one of them. Even if there is only one other amazing white rum out there (J Wray, apparently), I won’t be so quick to write this genre off in future.

For my part, I took this along with me to a party in Sheffield where it went down a treat with everyone that tried it. They pretty much all said it was the best straight rum they’d tried and that they would definitely buy it at £25 from M&S for themselves. Now, some months later, whether they have done I don’t know. But I do know I’ll be investing in another bottle soon. If you’re still not convinced, remember I have already recognised this product in my 2015 Spirits of theYear. High praise indeed.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The Search for a Great Brandy: Armagnac, Baron de Sigognac 10

A story printed on the box of this 10 year old Armagnac (bottled at 40%) describes how the Baron of legend replaced regular clocks in his distillery with one that measured decades – the minute hand counted years and the hour hand decades. The print on the box tells it way better than I’ve been able to, but nevertheless, it goes on to say that he soon gave up on this method, instead determining for himself – by taste - when his precious spirit was of sufficient age. That’s all very well, but if you’re going to put “10 years old” on the bottle, presumably there needs to be some level of certification beyond, “it tastes 10 years old to me”. Maybe not in the old days, but now certainly – France is in the EU after all – with its straight bananas and all…

That certainly wouldn’t work in my line of work, so I’m not about to tell the auditors that we made a hundred million pounds, and I know because I was here and it seemed about right. What do you mean fraud?

At £35.99, this is the most expensive brandy I’ve bought so far – if you’re not counting pomace brandy, which I’m not. It is modestly presented in a utilitarian bottle and box with a simple but classy label.

Before I go on to give you my impressions, I’d like to give a little respect to a user of Master of Malt, going by the name of Peter Lockwood, who offers the following review that is a glowing picture of simplicity:

“I suffer from tinnitus and this lovely drink helps me get to sleep,apart from that it is the best ever alcoholic drink I have ever tasted.”

I don’t suffer from tinnitus (much), but I do have a bad back, and this brandy represents the most savoury brandy I’ve tried so far – not being sweet at all really, though there is a hint of parma violets. You’d think that would be good, since I’ve often desired a little less sweetness from my brandies, but when it’s absent… it’s just not right for some reason. And it hasn’t done anything for my sore back.

I ended up at this destination because I had £30 of Amazon vouchers to use, and this product was receiving universally great reviews but sadly, there’s nothing here that convinces me it is possible to get great brandy at a reasonable price – outside of the Asbach I picked up in Duty Free, that you can read about here.

I’m still struggling to get excited about brandy as a spirit. It just doesn’t seem to deliver the kind of thrills I want for the price I want to pay – in general. So what next? I’m thinking I’m going to have to go all or nothing, and shell out a decent amount (I’m thinking around £60) and see where that gets me. And if I’m not impressed, I’m just going to get cheap things, drink them occasionally, and not expect too much.