Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Getting Better Acquainted with... RuaVieja Aguardiente de Orujo

What’s that, mater and pater? You’re going on holiday to Spain? Excellent. Could you pick up some aguardiente de orujo for me? I’ll write it down for you. Spend up to 20 euros. Don’t worry what brand, I’ve only had a couple before, so you’re almost certain to get something new. Don’t go to too much trouble either though, eh?
Those were the instructions I gave my parents on hearing of their upcoming jaunt. What transpired was that my mum went to considerable lengths that culminated in her getting the exact same brand I’d had before. I knew it as soon as she called on her return, told me it was in a brown bottle, and began giving me a blow by blow account of how she had completed the task. I just knew it and the disappointment was so strong that I couldn’t let her finish her story. It was difficult apparently, she tried everywhere, no one had even heard of it, and she finally found some in Duty Free on the way home.
Worse than getting the first brand of aguardiente I’d ever tried, she paid 4 times more for it as well. Oh well. I’ll be able to give it a bit of a reappraisal at least.
What is aguardiente de orujo? Well, it’s pomace brandy – like the grappa that I keep banging on about, although this originates from Spain rather than from Italy. This one is full-bodied, but not as refined as my favourite varieties of white grappa. There’s something weird about it though, that I didn’t notice last time; it has for example, an aroma that is very reminiscent of baiju. Mrs Cake says it smells like wee. I have to disagree with that, it smells much nicer than that, but it is something I’d expect the casual drinker would find objectionable.
It is nicely sweet at the tip of the tongue, but further back, that funky baiju quality comes through and dominates. The, just as you’re deciding it has crossed the line into the area marked “unpleasant”, that extra 2% alcohol kicks in to give you a sweet and reassuring burn.
I think you can really learn to love it though because, on return visits my appreciation deepened and I’ve been enjoying it very much – not chilled or over ice though, like I’ve read suggested at classicspirits.co.uk and again on RuaVieja’s website.. I like it as is and, having tried it chilled, room temperature is the way I’ll continue. That has the added bonus of freeing up fridge space, and not having to plan ahead every time I want a glass.
If you’re an alcothusiast like I am, aguardiente de orujo adds another dimension to trips to Spain. It makes a nice change, and it’s a spirit that isn’t currently (at the time of writing) available via your online retailers in the UK, so it’s something exotic but close to home.
Perhaps we can even say this is a benchmark – how much of an alcothusiast you are depends on what you think of aguardiente, and whether, having tried it, you’d buy another bottle. I would. Maybe you could start by buying your first bottle.

Ok. Thanks for stopping by again (assuming you did). I’m off to Northern Italy again tomorrow – for a holiday, but also to stock up on grappa for the year. Hopefully I’ll get to visit some distilleries, too. So there won’t be a post next week, but I will be back the week after. Enjoy your week and keep your booze strong.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

More Adventures With Glenmorangie Original

More Adventures with Glenmorangie Original
There are some brands of spirit that, for whatever reason, have more than a walk-on part in your spiritual journey. Glenmorangie Original is one of those. You can understand it really; it’s reasonably priced, well known, well regarded and popular. It is also a favourite of my father-in-law. It’s his only favourite actually.

This time around Glenmorangie Original enters the play in Act One. Mr and Mrs Cake are holding a housewarming party and all their friends are there. All have brought booze. Some have brought booze as gifts. One such gift from one of Mr Cake’s golf friends is a bottle of Glenmorangie Original. Mr Cake decides to keep it until he has something that he wants to compare it with.

More stuff happens that isn’t related to Glenmorangie Original, but then at the beginning of Act Two, Mr Cake hears that his father-in-law (and wife) is about to come over for a visit, and knowing that this was his favourite, decides to open it when he arrives.

The father-in-law arrives and Mr Cake directs him to the Glenmorangie Original and says “help yourself to top-ups”.

Let me just break the fourth wall here and make sure you’re aware that the play being described here isn’t a play at all. It’s what really happened and I’m just trying to tell the story in a slightly more interesting way. Here’s what happened next.

My father-in-law proceeded to help himself to top-ups with alarming regularity over the next day and a half, until he’d actually drank about half the bottle. What the actual fuck? I’m not saying I didn’t actually mean “help yourself”, but I thought there was a kind of unspoken agreement that you’re supposed to hold yourself back a little bit. Obviously not. The good thing about this is that I can up my daily drinking game quite significantly and still come out looking conservative (small c) compared to my wife’s dad.

Anyway, a few days after he left, I decided to have a glass myself and get reacquainted – just in case he came back and finished the bottle off before I got a chance – so here’s a chance to let the weight of experience settle and see if my thoughts have changed – because, as you know, I like to take a long term view of spirits, considering them over a lifetime instead of over a glass; writing about them anecdotally instead of analytically; allowing a story to evolve instead of setting my thoughts in stone; evaluating them on a deeper (though admittedly less knowledgable or scientific) level than a list of flavours and a score out of 100.

I figured I’d better have a look over things I’ve written about it previously first, just to see what my original thoughts were. I can see there was a disappointing occasion when I drank it alongside a glass of The Famous Grouse and couldn’t tell them apart, describing both as bland and watery. I figured it must have been compromised in some way. This is in no way to suggest that The Famous Grouse is indistinguishable from any single malt or that it is better than the Glenmorangie Original – it was just an impression at the time, perhaps due to the influence of having drunk or eaten something confusing beforehand.

Later I compared it to a Strathisla 12, and concluded that the Glenmorangie had more repeat allure. Then I was drinking it alongside Talisker 10, and enjoying the Glenmorangie more. So I seem to recall that I was prepared for a Kellogs Corn Flakes moment – you know; “Have you forgotten how good they taste?”.

On my first taste this time around, I thought that I might have undervalued it and immediately considered bumping it up from 18th to 7th in my all time single malts list, behind the 32year old Bunnahabhain and ahead of the 14 year old ArranSherry Cask 1997, as I had found it light, fruity and playful – just really enjoyable. But then something strange happened. On succeeding occasions it seemed to have settled into an almost uninteresting blandness. There are no intriguing edges and the overall flavour is far less in your face than I would have my whisky by choice. I reconsidered again, and now it sits at 23rd. That’s lower than it was originally, but this can partly be explained by some new entries being rated better than it in the meantime. Though that doesn’t explain how it is now ranked lower than the Talisker 10 I’d preferred it to previously. What explains that is that this hierarchy is arbitrary and prone to rearrangement at the drop of a hat. In my defence, I bet even Jim Murray looks at his past ratings and goes “23 for balance? I should make that 21”.

Now that that bottle is finished, I can conclude that Glenmorangie Original is still probably the easiest drinking single malt scotch you can get, but I need more from my scotch. And that is why I will try some more Glenmorangies in future, but I won’t be buying the Original again – unless the father-in-law is visiting (we learned long ago not to try getting him anything else). Easy drinking just isn’t on my list of criteria.


Curiously there is a third act to this play. Inbetween starting this post and getting around to posting it, Mr Cake’s father-in-law (and wife) came for another visit. This time Mrs Cake just straight out bought her dad a bottle of Glenmorangie Original and gave it to him as a birthday present. They stayed longer, and drank only a little bit more than last time – ultimately leaving about a quarter of a bottle behind. So I guess I’ll be drinking a bit more of this stuff after all. Mind you, I don’t really think of it as mine, so I’ve only had one glass so far. Don’t worry though; I don’t think I’ll be dedicating any more posts to it.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Flavoured Much of a Muchness: Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka

This was £16 at Asda, advertised on Bringabottle as £9 off, but it wasn’t £25 at any of the other retailers… except Majestic Wine, and I wouldn’t be buying spirits there.
Let me start by saying, I love the bottle – slightly oval shaped but flat at the front and back, and tapering downwards, with a smooth, tall cap, tasteful label and a single blade of bison grass – which I could frankly take or leave, but I appreciate the effort - loitering inside the faintly coloured spirit.
It’s packed full of flavour, but can you really class this alongside other vodkas? It just doesn’t have that vodka taste that all the others do – even Stolichnaya, which has that taste, just better than all the others. This is almost something different entirely and it makes we think that perhaps I don’t know enough about all the different varieties of vodka. I was thinking that gives me a new direction to go in, but when I looked for other varieties online, it turns out there really aren’t that many distinct ones.
It probably should be classed as a flavoured vodka, and as such it is the best excuse for a flavoured vodka I can think of. All the others you don’t really need. If you want your vodka to taste a bit limey, put some lime juice in it – same with all the other fruit flavours – there’s just no need to buy an entire bottle in any particular flavour. Except with bison grass, you can’t just buy bison grass juice can you? Or fresh bison grass, as a rule.
Interestingly (but in no way casting any aspersions on the quality of Zubrowka), on one occasion I followed a glass with a Paganini grappa, and despite that spirit’s known poor quality, I enjoyed it more than I had done in the past.
I had read in numerous online reviews that this is exceptional with apple juice – like apple pie, apparently. I don’t really mix drinks all that much anymore, but I did think this was worth a go, and yes, it was quite nice. Not amazing – maybe the apple juice I used wasn’t quite quality enough – but good. I went on to try with a more premium brand of apple juice – still from Aldi, but more expensive – and it wasn’t much more impressive than before.
From beginning to end, the Zubrowka didn’t last me very long at all. It was a novel and pleasurable way to start an evening of light to medium drinking, a flavoured vodka with more of an appeal to a near spirit drinker like me than your standard fare. It comes recommended.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Spirit Log: Plantation XO Barbados 20th Anniversary

Having been mightily impressed by the Plantation 3 Stars (which actually became one of my 2015 Spirits of the Year), I did a bit of research on the brand and found some really interesting (to me at least) expressions. The most expensive of these (excepting the 1998 Jamaican Tokaji Finish) was the 20th Anniversary XO Barbados rum, so that’s what we have here.

It’s a disappointing 40% alcohol, but it’s beautifully presented and, while at £46 (+ P&P) it’s expensive for rum, it looks the part and is blended from Plantation’s oldest stocks – though how old these are is not specified. So it is aged for a number of years in the tropical climate of the Caribbean first, in ex-bourbon casks, then transposed in to French oak casks and aged a little further in a French cellar. Rumratings.com reckon the first ageing is 12-20 years, and the second 12-18 months.

These Plantation products sure are interesting – enough to make me want to spend more money on rum than I ever have before - so let’s see what it’s all about.

Rum has always been a little uninteresting and easy in my admittedly under-educated opinion – it just doesn’t seem complicated enough, so I was certainly hoping to discover some hidden depths on this excursion. I don’t want to end up spending too much when I buy rum, but it would be nice if this were exceptional at this price point – the 3 Stars certainly was at its.

The packaging on this one, is just gorgeous – too beautiful to open, as a friend I Whatsappd an image of it to said. I love bottles like this that have a clear base like that, though I can’t say I’m a fan of the straw webbing that has been added to represent the way bottles of rum used to be transported in days of yore. Elsewhere there’s an oversized stopper (the oversized part and the stopper part of which separated themselves long before the contents were depleted – which is a mark against) and it is all housed in a tasteful cardboard box (that, given my colourblindness, I finally had to concede was brown, rather than red).

I told my friend (coincidentally another recent father) that I’d save opening it until he could be there – as long as he came to the Picadilly Mile brewery crawl that would mark the end of the year long Distinct Beers Challenge in November. I did, but we were all so hammered by the time we got home that his glass and another friend’s were left unfinished.

So, this is very sweet. Too sweet for me, in fact. It’s almost like a soft drink. If I wasn’t so busy trying to taste the fuck out of it and find some depth and complexity, I could actually imagine chugging this like a cold glass of coke on a hot day. You know what this really needs? A little extra alcohol kick. Despite a whole swath of excellent reviews all across the the internet, for my money, the XO is not as complex or interesting as the 3 Stars. It is actually far more like brandy than I was expecting it to be – which shouldn’t be all that surprising when you consider its pedigree. It is however, good for early drinking – not so complex as to confuse your tastebuds when they aren’t fully awake yet in the afternoon.

A real bonus with this one, is that it is the ideal spirit to be enjoyed alongside or just after deserts. I can’t tell you the glasses of whisky I’ve wasted by trying to drink them alongside chocolate or cake – or soon afterwards. Or indeed the number of nights I’ve had to decide which I want more – fancy desert or fancy spirits (fancy spirits always wins out, and deserts are useful commiserations on the nights I’m not drinking). The Plantation XO though, is so sweet that it doesn’t react with such rich fare as Krispy Kreme donuts or white chocolate cheesecake. And that’s good to know.

I’m glad then, to have found something with such a wide range of uses and, while I haven’t found it as interesting as I’d hoped, I have to admit that I have enjoyed drinking it more casually than I would the spirits I consider special. Not considering it special has enabled me to treat it more liberally and not hold it to such stringent testing. So in the end, it deserves a lot of credit – not least because on one night I drank it in a direct comparison with the Havana Club Anejo Especial and the Appleton Estate Signature Blend, and the XO absolutely blitzed them. Yes, you would expect that at more than twice the price of each of those products, but how much better it was is astounding.No, it won’t be troubling for a Spirits of the Year place, but seriously well played, Plantation XO. I think this will appeal to a lot of people but at around £45 it might seem a bit expensive to them. Nevertheless I’d urge them to give it a go. Whoever they are.