Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Aldi vs Lidl Update: Dundalgan Irish Country Cream

A short update now on our ongoing battle between budget supermarkets Aldi and Lidl. Just one product this time, and the post is quite brief, but anyways; on with the show.

Lidl’s own brand irish cream is packaged very much in the standard style – a darkly coloured, squat bottle with a picture of a meadow – and is a disappointing 15% alcohol.  Bucking the trend of so many of Lidl’s other alcoholic products though, this one is actually made in Ireland – and not then bottled in Germany. It costs £3.99 and is probably built on a base of Dundalgan Irish Whisky, which I haven’t tried.

Any good?

Over ice, this is one of those brands that falls into the category of dirty Irish cream. It’s just thin and watery – little more than alcoholic milk. And the milk is skimmed. There is nothing luxurious about it – nothing overtly unpleasant either, aside from the fact of feeling a bit dirty.

Luckily though, it is absolutely fine in coffee.


Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Musing on Merchant Bottlings: Hepburn's Choice's Fettercairn 2008 (7 year old)

When you’re perusing the online spirits retailers, it often seems that some of the more interesting products are the ones that have been produced by reputable distilleries, but bought, aged and bottled by various merchants. Long ago I decided to build this observation into my whisky procurement matrix, and now it has determined that the time has come to buy a merchant bottling with no age statement, or aged under 10 years.

There actually didn’t seem to be that many that are aged under 10 years – and even less that were also from a region I hadn’t already tried an independent bottling from. I was particularly looking for a Lowland offering, but there were none of suitable youth, and all far outside my price range. So in the end I settled for something from the highland region – a 7 year old Fettercairn, bottled at 46 ABVs by Hepburn’s Choice. I didn’t know anything about either the distillery or the merchant, but frankly I didn’t care at that point. I just wanted to get something based on no recommendation at all. This one came in at just under £40 including P & P. It’s actually possible to get an 11 year old bottled by Douglas Laing for about the same price… but that would be missing the point… as stupid as it probably sounds to you.

Hepburn’s Choice

The theory is that the Laing Brothers sought out the best casks they could find and then filled them with product from well known but “off the beaten path” distilleries. Quite what criteria classify you as both well known and off the beaten path, I don’t know, but I do wonder whether it’s a waste to leave spirit in great casks for only 7 years. We’ll find out.


Based at the foot of the Cairngorms, it appears Fettercairn’s distillery bottlings tend to lean towards the side of older spirit. Aside from the no age statement Fior, the others are 24, 30 and 40 years old – and they ain’t cheap, except Fior, which is an almost reasonable £40. So if you want to try something a bit younger, you have to go to the independents.

I didn’t do any research  before plumping for a Fettercairn on this occasion, though some things I’ve read suggest I might’ve done well to’ve done so. This particular bottling isn’t featured in the edition of the Jim Murray Whisky Bible that I have, but he is positively scathing about all the other expressions – except the 40 year old which sells for in excess of £700, so a little bit outside my comfortable spend zone. I don’t really care what Jim Murray says at this point anyway.

Thankfully a brief squiz at internet reviews suggests many more people have nice things to say about the distillery’s output. Once again, it could go either way, and if it is as bad as Murray would have you believe, it will be interesting to find out just how bad that is. I won’t be happy about having dropped 40 notes on it, but frankly I don’t think there’s any way it can be all that bad.


So this was distilled in 2008 and aged for 7 years in a refill hogshead before being displayed in a basic bottle (itself within an unremarkable but dignified grey tube), showing its pastiness in all it’s glory. The label is suitably old school, there’s no chill-filtration, no colouring (something would have had to have gone wrong if there were), and 432 bottles were produced.


A quick sniff of the mouth of the bottle reveals biscuity tones that remind me of the Grant’sSignature. It immediately started me looking forward to enjoying something a little less rich than the various single malts I’d been trying of late, with their advanced years and sherry cask finishes.

I wasn’t expecting too much by this point, but first impression was that it was surprisingly nice; rough but fresh, soft but definitely on the young side, pleasantly warming. It seems like ages since I’ve tried anything like this, so I’m pleased I decided to include young spirit in my matrix, and this seems way better than anything like it I remember trying before.

You can see how it can go wrong with such immaturity, but my feeling is that any telltale roughness can easily be forgiven when it is accompanied by such depth of flavour and length of finish. It probably won’t be for everyone and it’s hard to know what to say about value. It’s no secret that for £40 you can get some excellent, well known single malts of 10 to 12 years’ maturity (even more sometimes). Is this better than those? Probably not. Is £40 too much for a 7 year old? Probably… but this is a single cask release, non-chill filtered and bottled at 46%. How much does any of that matter? Well I can’t say those factors didn’t influence my decision to buy. As someone who buys whisky fairly frequently, I’m used to dropping 40 notes on a bottle, so I’ve got to the stage now where it doesn’t matter – I was probably going to drop 40 notes anyway, and as long as there is some level of enjoyment to whatever I purchase, I’d say it’s money well spent. You could buy a well renowned bottle and not enjoy it.

In all then, this has been a good purchase for me. It has provided a refreshing alternative to types of whisky I’ve been trying lately and I’ve been enjoying the experience. So; good.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Upping the Blended Scotch Ante: Ballantine's 12

I’ll start this week’s post with a bit of confusion. I looked up the 12 year old Ballantine’s in JimMurray’s 2013 Whisky Bible, and found two products. One called “Aged 12 Years” and scoring 84.5 – “attractive but odd” – and the other called “12 Years Old” and scoring 87 – “too good for a quirt of soda”. Which one did I have?!

Try as I might online, I can’t find anything to distinguish them. They all say “aged 12 years” on the bottle whether tagged that way or as “12 years old”. Why would there be two 12 year old products anyway?

I’m putting this down as another failing for Jim Murray’s 2013 Whisky Bible, and if he dunt like it, he can damn well sort it out and make his self bloody clear. [I’ve since learned that there is a pure malt -  - but you would expect Murray would have made that plain, since after looking it up online, the pure malt is clearly labelled as such on the bottle, and would therefore have been included in a different section in Murray’s book. For the record, there is a 12 year old pure malt in Murray’s book, and that scores 88.5].

Enough. Who cares anyway? It’s what I think that matters.

The presentation is along the same lines as the Finest, except this time you get a flimsy blue box to keep your bottle in. The bottle itself is the same shape as the Finest, but the intriguing brown tint has been eschewed in favour of clear glass. While the label is similar, it doesn’t quite have the same class. In spite of all that, you do get one step up in terms of cap quality.

The day following another pub crawl in Stockport was not the best time to get a first impression a blend I consider to be in the next price bracket up from all your various standards. 41 euros for a litre in Duty Free suggests a price of around £30 for 70cl in the UK. I’m not all that comfortable with spending that much for a blend, but presumably there must be some that are worth it, and therefore directly comparable with single malt. That will have to be a study for another time.

I was surprised to find I was feeling ropey. I didn’t feel I’d drank that much and I’d remembered to drink two large beakers of water before I’d gone to sleep. As a result, the opening of the Ballantine’s 12 represented the only alcoholic drink I would have that Saturday. That’s unusual.

Evaluation would always hinge on how I felt the Ballantine’s upgrade compared with the entry level Finest which I have been forthcoming about thinking very highly of. That, after all, was what had inspired me to invest my 41 euros in this in the first place – that and my decision to try a more expensive blend next time round.

So, as often seems to be the case, one night of mildly heavy drinking ruined my drinking on the next night. I actually gave up on my glass halfway through, only finishing it off after a pause of about an hour, after which I thought I might be ready. No.

There seemed to be more body and indeed more flavour than its everyday value cousin, but that didn’t make it immediately better.

It is always better to open a new bottle on consecutive drinking days though, and that’s what I did by returning on the Sunday when I felt much better. I was immediately able to appreciate the 12 year old better as a result and, while I’m still not entirely sure I’d prefer this over Finest, I did enjoy the glass very much. I’m starting to think I should treat my whiskies a bit more cavalierly (should that be a word), and just enjoy them instead of over-analysing them. Maybe though, this one’s just a bit too expensive to treat that way – I do have a litre of it mind. That should be plenty.

It is a bit silkier and, given the right circumstances a hugely enjoyable dram that makes it good value whether you compare it to its younger brother or not. Nor is it too snooty to be above being a Saturday afternoon drink.

In terms of 12 year old blends in general, sadly the only other experience I’ve had was with Dewar’s (accidentally twice). Nevertheless, I can confidently declare the Ballantine’s is a lot better than that. Dewar’s was basically a cheap blend with an age statement on it – it seems a shame for all the spirit to have to be at least 12 years old when you could make a  roughly comparable (even improved) blend with much younger whisky.

I’ve actually come to enjoy it very much, and I can’t think back now to whether the Finest is actually better. The 12 is no doubt richer, even silkier… but it’s also more expensive and it comes down to value once again. I suppose, if I was going to give you a good idea of where we stand now, I could try to imagine how much I’d be happy to pay for each one. The Finest, I think, I would happily pay £15 for (against its more standard price of £20), and the 12 year old… I’d probably happily pay £20. It may look bad that I’m saying I’d be unwilling to go up to full price, but there’s all kinds of considerations gone into these assertions. First, the Finest only cost me £15 in the first place, and I’ve seen it again for that price in the UK since. There are also a whole smorgasbord of other blends at around this price range that I haven’t tried yet, and £20, while it is better than all the other blends of my experience at that price point and below, is still a bit too much for a no age statement blend.
As far as the 12 year old is concerned, £30 is just a bit too much for a blend. You’re only a step or so away from getting a very decent single malt at that point, so you may as well get a Talisker or a Highland Park, or stump up a few extra pounds and get an Ardbeg or a Bowmore.