Thursday, 31 March 2016

Mi Casca Viejo, su Casca Viejo...

I realised in a dramatic moment, similar to that in a film thriller where an unexpected plot twist is revealed to the protagonist, that I had faked my own death, had my face reconstructed to look like myself, and have been cheating on myself with my own wife since long before the whole death faking, face reconstructing incident… and also that I didn’t have any tequila… so I decided to buy some. It would be useful for the impending poker night, for which I’d been struggling to decide which spirits would have the honour of accompanying me.

Tequila presents an ideal solution; it’s the kind of thing you can drink a lot of and, as it’s a new bottle I wouldn’t be too bothered about making a dent in it.

Bring a Bottle combined with my short term Amazon Prime account to point me in the direction of this 100% agave tequila, Casco Viejo,  which is sadly only 38% alcohol. I’ve seen it hailed online as the 3rd best selling tequila brand in the world – probably due to its apparent good value – 70cl for £19 on this occasion. There does seem to be a 70% agave version of this one (perhaps an older expression), but the one I purchased on Amazon definitely appeared to say 100% on the bottle and, when it arrived, that was still the case.

I always buy 100% agave these days because, once you’ve tried it, there’s no reason to accept anything less. There are enough affordable brands available in enough outlets, so once you’ve learned that there is a distinction, you’ve no excuse. Nevertheless, tequila is a spirit that I’ve only managed to wade into about calf high at this point, and it doesn’t matter to me if it’s cheap.

A bit of quality research into this one (not too much), revealed that, according to Master of Malt: “it’s definitely suitable for cocktails”.  Well that’s a ringing endorsement if ever I saw one. I wasn’t worried though; I haven’t found a bad full agave tequila yet. Would this be the first?

Well, I can’t say I’m too impressed with the presentation; a stubby bottle with a silvery label and a cheap-ass screw cap. Still, at least that suggests that very few of my nineteen pounds have been spent on aesthetics.

On first taste it seemed decent enough, though I have to admit to being a little disappointed, and convinced that it wouldn’t be troubling el Jimador for top spot in my tequila league table. Things were different on the second tasting however. This time I was washing down some fish and chips, as it revealed a grainy but pleasing texture and a nice dry finish.

A week after the poker night, I was due to attend another, similar event for which tequila would be a useful addition. Phil hadn’t gotten any spirits in for the video games party – an oversight I compared to bringing a bus pass to a gun fight (which seemed to be quite humourous at the time…) – but Gary had also bought tequila; and it was only my reigning favourite, el Jimador – whose bottle looks to have undergone a bit of a refurb since the last time I bought it (last summer). So I’m pleased to be able to say that I was able to conduct a direct comparison.

Both products come in at around £20 for 70cl, so they are the epitome of affordable 100% agave tequilas and as comparable as it is possible for any two products to be. Having gotten used to the Casco Viejo over the last week or so, I decided to reacquaint myself with el Jimador first. Yep, that was pretty much how I remembered it; sharp with a pleasing agave bite. Still definitely worth your 20 notes.

When it came to the Casco Viejo, I was surprised to discover that I liked it even better. There isn’t a massive amount of difference, but with the Casco you’re getting a slightly oilier texture that will make your brain think, “mm, luxurious”. The citrus element is possibly a little more prevalent, while the agave is more muted and has less sting. Overall the flavour is more rounded and it actually reminds me of the Chichicapa mezcal, but a lot cheaper. For the timebeing it has convinced me there’ll be no need to be remortgaging my house to fund further  purchases of expensive, artisanal Mexican spirits. Good tequila can still be had for a fraction of the price.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Spirit Log: del Maguey Chichicapa Mezcal

First a bit of an introduction to Mezcal

As I was nearing the end of my latest tequila brand – elJimador Reposado – I began contemplating its replacement. I felt I’d almost exhausted the decent affordable brands, and the last time I spent a significant amount on tequila (Siete Leguas) , I hadn’t felt it represented good value for money so… what to do? How about spend even more money on something a bit different? Yes, I came to the conclusion that it was about time I tried Mezcal.

So what is it?

Well, without wanting to get too factual and precise, I’ll tell you what I’ve been telling my friends. And that is, Mezcal is like tequila, but it is more of an artisan spirit. While tequila tends to be produced on an industrial scale, Mezcal is handcrafted in villages, following traditional methods that have been passed down the generations. That does mean it is likely that the distributer buys it for peanuts and sells it at an immense profit, which doesn’t make you feel particularly good, but that’s economics and I don’t have any Mexican road trips planned for a while.

Both spirits are made from forms of agave. The pina or heart of the plants are removed and, in tequila production, cooked in ovens. In mezcal production, they are roasted for several days in pit ovens – this can give mezcal a naturally smokey flavour.

Tequila comes from the Jalisco region of Mexico, while most mezcal comes from Oaxaca.

So, I’m sure you’ll agree: mezcal sounds pretty special – and potentially expensive, but we’ll come to that shortly.

So, a leisurely but intense internet search led me here, to the del Maguey brand and specifically the Chichicapa expression. Del Maguey is a brand founded by a certain Ronald Cooper to export ‘previously unavailable certified organic, artisanal, single village mezcal.’ This one is named after the village of Chichicapa, where it is made. The location of the village is described as follows:

“two hours south of Oaxaca, and 2 hours to the west on a dirt road… Chichicapa is separated from the valley of Oaxaca by a mountain range. The valley is broad, about thirty miles deep and ten miles wide”.

Thirty miles deep? Really? I’m not sure I’m understanding all this information; if there’s a mountain range between the village and the valley… why are they telling us about the valley? Presumably something is lost in translation.

All the mezcals offered by del Maguey differ depending on the various topographies of the growing zones, and are presented in cheeky green bottles with ‘beautifully rendered labels’. I read this bit about ‘beautifully rendered labels’, and went, so? But when my bottle arrived I took a look and went, you know? That is quite beautifully rendered… Similarly, nearly everyone I’ve shown it to has commented on it.

Let’s have a look at some of the things I read online that led to me parting ways with something around 70 quid.

What the Internet Says

Well, generally the internet loves the Chichicapa. Proof 66 says it is aged for 14 years prior to bottling – which is certainly not true, though there may be a 14 year old version. It goes on to say:

"Where good tequila is like a museum tour of tradition and excellence [is it?], the Chichicapa hits you like a trip on Space Mountain in Disneyland, shoving all decorum aside in a mad, screaming rush of flavor. A little water in the glass opens up a truly magical trip that we can only describe as a 'symphony of flowers.'” – which is nice.

While researching I came across that appears to specialise in selling tequilas and suchlike, but their prices are ridiculous! The Chichicapa was like £20 more expensive than anywhere else. And they sell single limes for 65p. Who is this aimed at? Someone who can’t buy limes with their normal shopping? You’d have to be nuts to buy from there.

So anyway, I got my mezcal from The Whisky Exchange and I was disappointed to find it arrived without the special case I’d read so much about, and it was only 70cl instead of the advertised 75. Still, credit to The Whisky Exchange who called me up to tell me they’d refund the postage (which worked out to slightly more than the missing 5cl was worth) and have a poke around “downstairs” to see if they had any of the cases lying around. It seems they did because they sent me two. Good lads.

I saved opening for a night with Pablo and Veronica, and here’s what we found.

Smokey with tones of lemon and vinegar on the palate. Sometimes it reminds me of vodka when you’ve added too much lemon, but that’s a good thing because I can enjoy the citrus notes without actually adding any. If I add any to vodka, it just makes me feel guilty – like it’s cheating.

All that extra alcohol provides a really pleasant numbness.


The del Maguey has proved very popular with the various guests we’ve had round at the new gaff. Pablo overindulged royally, Gav and David were impressed, and then Pits enjoyed a few generous measures mightily. All this means I’ve only opened the bottle on 5 occasions, and there’s barely a dribble left. Not great value in terms of longevity for the £70 outlay, but it’s nice to share with friends, and I haven’t been sorry one bit.


Would I buy this again, or even spend this much on mezcal again? Should you? It’s certainly an easy way to impress your friends. Everyone wants to know what it is and give it a try, and if you can remember how to describe how it differs from tequila, you can look all cultured and interesting. Claims that it is as complex as good scotch though, are in my opinion unfounded. Perhaps if I had ever added water I would have understood that assertion, but it’s only 46%... adding water just never seemed appropriate.

it should say this on all spirits. Even the bad ones.
It isn’t really £70 worth of spirit in my opinion, but you live and learn, and I’ll be going back to trying tequilas for a bit. This is the kind of purchase you need to build up to if you’re ever going to repeat it. So yes, I enjoyed it and I enjoyed sharing it and appearing generous and cultured, and I suppose all that is included in the price.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Berlinsterdam Booty part 5: Grappa Paganini

Though I procured and opened this one before the various Garda Grappas that you read about the other week, my impressions of the Paganini were influenced by the delights of that region, so it made sense to blog about those first. Here then, is what I think now:

Purchased for under 5 euros in a Berlin supermarket, this 40% white grappa (of undisclosed geographical origin) is presented in an intriguing and impressive 50cl bulb-shaped bottle with a long neck and rubbery stopper – which would count for something, but that’s pretty standard with grappa; the only grappa I’ve come across so far that has had a screwcap was the Julia Superiore.

I decided to try the hand rub test on this one, that had been suggested to me by our guide at the SanLeonardo estate. He said it was a good way to evaluate the quality of grappa – if you rub it on your hands and smell only alcohol, it’s poor. If you can smell the marc, then you have something good. Next, slap yourself for wasting it on your hands instead of drinking it (another good way of evaluating quality). Anyway, the hand rub test revealed just alcohol – so it seemed likely to remain as a sub-standard last resort until all my good grappas had gone.

Returning to more traditional tasting methods, I found on the nose that the Paganini was rough and minty. On the palate I thought it was burny and dry, evoking liquorice and a hint of rubber.

 In a surprise twist though, it performed particularly well when I had a cold, and was drinking it because I didn’t want to waste anything good. There was lots of initial flavour on this occasion that made me open to a re-evaluation, though ultimately I have to stand by my original impressions.


The aromas of the fermenting vats that have proved so prevalent in the products reviewed in last week’s post are notable here by an almost complete absence. If there is anything of that ilk, it is the barest trace elements only. It makes you wonder what could have been done differently to produce this gulf in quality; poor grapes? the marc not fresh enough? something on the distilling end? I probably don’t know enough at this stage, but the overall effect is not unlike that of drinking an inexpensive (but inoffensive) vodka.

At  5 euros for 50cl then, you have to say it’s excellent value, but at £14.50 in the UK, it’s a different story. This isn’t one to give your friends as an introduction to the delights of grappa. They are liable to be left with an impression of weird vodka. So just keep this one for when money’s tight and you’re not heading to Italy any time soon. Even then, you should probably wait till money’s a bit less tight and get something else. And then just head to Italy anyway.

Apologies for the lateness of this post. We've been having a new kitchen installed, and a lot of the paraphernalia was blocking access to the computer, so I'm afraid it's just had to wait. We're about done now though, and on the verge of installing the bar optics that I'm very excited about. Posting should be more regular from now on. 

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Grappa from Garda - Lake Garda, that is.

Following on from my two posts about visiting the area surrounding Italy’s Lake Garda, let’s find out in more detail what I thought of the various grappas that I picked up.

Each of these does deserve its own post, but since we’ll be able to look at grappa in pretty much all its forms – unaged, 2 years old and 5 years old – in one go, it makes sense to group them together here. And it will also stop me falling farther behind in my posting.

As I’d recently opened the white Grappa Paganini, I decided the sensible approach would be to open the one white grappa that I brought back first, and then move onwards in terms of age… which coincidentally is also the order I bought them in.

Maxentia Grappa di Nosiola (42%)

Nosiola is a variety of wine grape, and is the only variety used in the making of this grappa – hence the use of the word monovitigno on the bottle, like single malt in the scotch world.

The nose is very sweet, revealing berries but is also a bit creamy with that suggestion of white chocolate I enjoy so much. It definitely has the intoxicating smell of the fermenting vats that I remember from our visit to Tenuta San Leonardo.

Once you get it in your mouth it gives great fumes like a good single malt, and is overall very pleasant. In fact, it’s so good that it makes me worry that I can’t get stuff as good as this without going to Italy. Time will tell.

In terms of comparison with the other white grappas I’ve known, this has to be among the best. I’d like to get hold of another bottle of Domenis Storica, so that I can work out how it stands against that one (that was the first I ever tried), but compared against my current favourite, Castello San Donato inPerano’s Grappa Mille Lune, this is definitely at least as good.

Casimiro Ritocchi nel Tempo (42%)

I elected to buy this grappa without tasting it beforehand, and was finally able to get inside its metaphorical pants at a video games night at Phil’s.

Aged between 18 months and 2 years, this particular distillery doesn’t do an older expression than that, as it is felt that the grappa flavours don’t survive such ageing. Here it seems the wood has exerted a mellowness over the end results that brings the spirit closer to the taste of brandy (how brandy should be – but isn’t).

There’s a bit of citrus on the nose, then on the palate, a strong and curious impression of Turkish delight. It is very, very soft and entirely pleasant – especially the fumes, if you let them get all up in your nasal passages.

Distilleria di Francesco Vino Santo Riserva

At 50% alcohol, this one is a little bit too strong to be enjoyed on its own. Mind you, my mum enjoyed it that way. I prefer to add a tiny dash of water however – it helps to bring out the sweetness and mutes the dried fruit flavours that are otherwise pervasive. There’s a little vanilla there also. Sweet on the tip of the tongue, woody further back.

It is made from the marc of the Vino Santo grape, which is used to make sweet wines to accompany desserts and has been aged for 5 years.

San Leonardo Grappa Stravecchia

The piece of resistance that I was saving for the birth of our first child. It is bottled at 45% and is made from the marc of grapes that were used to make San Leonardo’s flagship red wine. The marc is taken to the local distiller immediately after the formenting vats are emptied to ensure it is still fresh enough to contain great flavour. Then, after distillation, it is aged for 5 years in barrels that previously aged that great red wine, so you’re getting a great product here: fresh marc, superior grapes, long ageing, barrels that contained award winning, even amazing red wine. Let me just remind you at this point, that if you didn’t read my recent posts on the

Garda adventure, they contain quite a lot more about the San Leonardo estate, and are totally worth checking out.

The packaging is really special, but does the product really justify the inflated price tag? Is it any better than the other aged examples we’ve been looking at here?

Well, in direct comparison, the nose of the Stravecchia is definitely the most faithful representation of fresh marc. It is also delicious… but then, so are the other two. I am veering though towards agreeing with the young girl at Casimiro who said grappa doesn’t age so well after two years. The Ritocchi nel Tempo is just so mellow and refined and doesn’t stray too far in any direction, whereas you have just too much of an edge about the other two aged grappas we have here. The Stravecchia in particular has a very woody character that reminds me of a well aged single malt, it’s just perhaps that malt liquor benefits more from oak ageing than distilled marc does.

At 41 euros for the Stravecchia, I probably should have stuck with the [cheaper] unaged variety, but I ultimately made my decision because I thought I could turn malt drinkers on to grappa with the Stravecchia. For the record, I was wrong about that. More for me.

Time for a definitive ranking.

1= Maxentia Grappa di Nosiola and Casimiro Ritocchi nel Tempo. I just can’t separate these at this point. The Casimiro in particular seems to improve each time I open  the bottle, while the Maxentia is just sublime.

3 I have to go with the Stravecchia. Yes, it’s a little too expensive, but it looks the part and it has great pedigree.

4 Distilleria di Francesco needn’t feel downhearted about finishing 4th with its Vino Santo because it still represents terrific grappa. The dried fruit is just a little too pronounced for my personal taste.

Ok, don’t despair, but next week I’ll be talking about grappa again. I promise though that that will be the last time for a while. So if you would join me then, I would be delighted.