Wednesday, 31 August 2016

"Dubh Be Good To Me"... Ola Dubh by Harviestoun Brewery, that is.

Having been so blown away by Harviestoun Brewery’s Ola Dubh 18, that I created an award for it – 2015’s inaugural Beer ofthe Year, I decided to delve a little deeper into a range that includes a 12 and also a 16 – all bottled at an unashamed 8%.
You may be wondering what these numbers are, so I’ll enlighten you. This is a range of imperial double porters that have been aged in casks that had previously been used to mature Highland Park’s excellent range of whiskies – the 12, 16 and 18 year old expressions.
I’m already a massive fan of the 12 year old Highland Park, which I always laud as the best value single malt there is, while the 18 year old is an acknowledged classic – by people more knowledgeable than me. As for the 16 year old – well they don’t do a standard 16 year old expression, which suggests these casks either housed the super expensive Odin from the Valhalla collection, date back to some earlier date when there might have been one, or perhaps housed spirit that was removed to be finished in different casks.
Either way, if you’re a beer drinking whisky enthusiast, these are enough to set your mouth watering.
I don’t think I’ve related the story of how I came to try the Ola Dubh 18, but it was in Manchester’s Sand Bar at the beginning of December. They had three or four beers on cask around the corner from their normal bar, and of the four, the Ola Dubh was the one that my friend and I opted to try. We both pretty much agreed it was the best beer we’d ever tasted on the spot.
So as I said, I made it my beer of the year, and while informing the brewery of the good news, I asked where I might be able to find some in my local area. Timperley’s Corks Out turned out to be the nearest place so, taking advantage of a day off around my birthday, I headed over there and picked up two of each (amounting to £28.90 for the six) – one set for me and one for Pablo, who I was sure would appreciate them. I wasn’t wrong. He immediately scored all three the maximum five stars our of five on Untappd, and said that they were everything he always hoped a dark beer would be.
I have to admit, I couldn’t really tell any difference between them, but that’s ok because they are all pretty special. The 18 though, was better when I had it in cask in Sand Bar than it was from the bottle. That’s probably to be expected.
I actually returned to Corks Out, Timperley recently with a view to trying these again and procuring a set for my administrator’s leaving gift at the same time(with a bonus of further informing this post), but when I got there, I found they didn’t have it. They didn’t have much in the way of beer, in all honesty – it is a wine shop, after all, but there wasn’t even anywhere near as much as the last time I’d been in.
There was on display at least, another beer by Harviestoun, a 4.8% lager going by the name Schiehallion. Picking up two bottles, I asked at the counter whether they had any other Harviestoun beers. The proprietor said they had another in the fridge, but on pulling one out, found its expiry date was October 2015. However, he told me he was certain the ones I’d picked up were fresh. I took his word for it as I couldn’t see the date on the bottles – until I got home and found they were to expire the following month. Hardly a fresh order, but within acceptable bounds, I suppose. Ultimately, I drank one and it was excellent, so I added the other to my administrator’s leaving gift, which otherwise was made up of Thornbridge and Cloudwater beers.
I don’t know where else I’ll ever get Harviestoun, and specifically Ola Dubh beers from, but it doesn’t seem worth my while heading back to Corks Out, Timperley.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Glenfiddich Family Album

A rare chance now to evaluate three of Glenfiddich’s core range side by side. This was another whisky-themed Christmas present from my father-in-law, and it is comprised of three 20cl sample bottles. Not enough to get a full impression, but enough to spend a couple of pleasant evenings. We have the standard 12 year old, the 15 year old Solera Vat expression (both of which I’ve tried before), and the jewel in the standard Glenfiddich crown, the 18 year old.
I drank most of the 12 year old at various points, then saved the last bit for a suitable weekend when I could pour measures of all three together.
A few words on presentation first. The box these are presented in is very nice. It’s sturdy and precise, fitting each of the bottles side by side. The bottles themselves are smaller representations of your standard Glenfiddich bottle, adjusted for the particular vagaries of each expression. Also, they are all 40%.
The method this time went thusly; I tried the 12 first, and compared it with the 15. Then tried the 18, comparing that with the 15, before finally trying the 12 again and comparing it with the 18. Then I pretty much alternated two sips of each, making notes when I could think of anything. For context: I was watching the World Snooker Championship, having a nice time on my own.
First impressions of the 12 were that after a break of a few weeks, it was excellent – reliable, and enjoyable. On the nose I thought maybe there was a bit of cherry. I sniffed the 15 and, in contrast to the previous time I’d had a bottle, where there had been a strong impression of blood oranges, this time it was a more subtle aroma of apple juice. The 18, on the other hand, gave an impression of white wine.
On the palate, I noticed that the 15 is far more full-bodied than the 12; it is almost like a paste [not really, but that was the direct impression]. The 18 just struck me as a bit disappointing, though it did start to grow in the mouth.
Ultimately I don’t think there is enough in these bottles for me to fully appraise the product. I know that I like the 12 already; it’s a decent go-to, entry level malt and it’s good value. Similarly, I also know already that I like the 15. It offers something a bit different (though it didn’t strike me so much that way this time), and it too, is good value for those extra 3 years. What I can’t ultimately decide is what I think of the 18. It doesn’t strike me as that different from the 12, and at more than double the price, I fail to see the value or the attraction.
I returned to try the 18 alongside the 15, and again, I just couldn’t detect enough of a difference. You can’t deny that they are good and consistent quality across the range, but why you’d want to part with more than £60 for the 18 when you can get the 15 for around £30 and the 12 for less than £30, I just can’t fathom from this selection of 20cl tasters.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Spirit Log: The Crown Royal Family

Having already covered the story of how these came into my possession, it is time now to give them both a thorough going over. Would it be a case of The Crown Jewels? Or er... Monarch Airlines?
I’m pleased to have a chance to try the regular Crown Royal again, as last time I had a bottle, I hadn’t started writing the blog yet, and my wealth of experience with whisky was probably more a pittance of experience. Even more pleasing is that this time I get to try it alongside the legendary Jim Murray’s 2016 World Whisky of the Year – the Northern Harvest Rye. Now, I’ve already tried this one (briefly) also, and it was pretty impressive, so let’s see how they compare, and how the new king stands up to more rigorous examination.
These are both very reasonably priced Canadian whiskies – particularly if you’re visiting Canada and are used to UK type prices. I didn’t buy them, but from memory, I think over in Canada you’d be looking at around $25 for the standard, and somewhere around $30-35 for the NHR. Over here, the standard will be around the same price in pounds, but the NHR could exceed £50.
The standard Crown Royal is 40% ABV, while the Northern Harvest has been beefed up to an enticing 45%. They are presented in quirky crown shaped bottles and sealed with screw caps.
We already know how highly Jim Murray rates the NHR, but now that the rest of the world has had chance to try it, what does everyone else think?
Reviews on The Whisky Exchange are overwhelmingly favourable – a lot of 5 star reviews there, a lot. There are a couple of nay sayers, one calling it “raunchy armpit juice” while others merely call out the hype. There’s talk of “great whisky… for the price” - which really strikes me as people getting carried away with the fact that they like it and it’s affordable.
Meanwhile, the internet’s journalists and bloggers keep their feet on the ground and one butt cheek firmly either side of the fence. Not the best whisky in the world, they say, but a worthy effort. It doesn’t take expertise and a lifetime of experience to say that.
I started with a head to head tasting, and was not immediately impressed. I was mostly recovered from a recent cold, so I was tempted to attribute any negative impressions to the tail end of that. The Northern Harvest Rye, nevertheless, was much fuller on the nose than the standard bottling.
When I’m struggling to get inside a bottle, I am frequently compelled to return to it often – leaving aside other bottles I’ve been delving into and concentrating on the newcomer. So it was here. I stopped feeling curious about the Talisker Skye, and instead kept pouring glasses of the two Crown Royals. I’m sorry to say this continued. I just wasn’t getting the results that I’d come to expect from the standard, or that I’d first experienced in Canada with the Northern Harvest Rye, so I ended up endlessly returning to them, hoping something would be revealed or a part of the puzzle would click into place.
While the NHR nicely followed a tea of fish and chips once, I was mostly getting mixed emotions. A pleasant sweet leather impression was tempered by the smell of poppers. And, I haven’t mentioned it yet, but menthol is pervasive throughout – note though, that this isn’t an impression I’ve read in any other review, anywhere. I hadn’t detected any of that whilst in Canada, but now, that’s almost all there is. That just seems to be the way that the wood is manifesting itself, and while it’s not exactly bad, I’m just not a fan of menthol and I don’t want it in my whisky – at least, not so prevalently. Where were the banana and nuts that I’d tasted? On top of all that, there’s a lot of burn. Normally I like a bit of burn, but this was not particularly pleasant.
Finally I did get a slight hint of banana, and it occurred to me that this was the other side of the minty coin. I’m no expert, but one day, just peaking out from under the menthol, was a hint of banana – but not enough to redeem the NHR in my eyes.
All this makes it hard to imagine what could inspire seasoned connoisseur like Jim Murray to name this World Whisky of the Year [all speculation about controversy and marketing aside] – it certainly isn’t mine. I’ve had some strong contenders this year already, and the Northern Harvest Rye isn’t even close. In fact, I found the less complicated, reliable but standard Crown Royal to be preferable on most occasions.
So, sorry Canada, you may have the accolade, but I don’t think you really have the best whisky in the world after all. At least not in my book.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Spirit Log: Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit

Wild Turkey represents one of the catalysts of my ever growing enthusiasm for spirits, and especially whisky. Being a one-time fan of Hunter S. Thompson, a bottle of the Wild Turkey 101 was the one thing I picked up in Duty Free on the return of my first ever trip to Canada. I think it was the first time I’d seen anything exceed 50% ABV, and while I didn’t really know what I was doing when I drank it (with ice, admittedly), I enjoyed feeling cool while I did so. So several years later, I wanted to revisit the Wild Turkey, but maybe get something a bit fancier.
So here you have the single barrel, Kentucky Spirit. I went for this one because it’s another step up from the already premium Rare Breed, and at $63CAN (around £30 at the time – pre-Brexit), an absolute steal – you’d be looking at paying around £70 for this in the UK.
Like the Wild Turkey 101, it is bottled at 50.5%, and like the Rare Breed, it is bottled in a receptacle that could be described as vaguely turkey-shaped. The Rare Breed is like a rotund turkey, while the flat nature of the Kentucky Spirit more brings to mind splayed tail-feathers. It is numbered and the glass is particularly nicely finished. Just before posting this I realised I hadn't found out how old this is, and having looked in all my reliable places, on the Wild Turkey website, and elsewhere... I still don't know. I'm going to guess 6 to 8 years, but that's really no use to you.
I’ve been sharing this one with guests, which probably makes me the subject of some envy, because it sure is good - very soft and full bodied and the extra strength brings out the flavours slowly. There’s a little dark, bourbon banana on entry and a touch of vinegar on the nose, but that vanishes almost as soon as it’s detected. There’s wood, then a sort of mellow sweetness, then the woodiness returns at the end.
It was a while before I could bring myself to add water to it, and when I did, it was the tiniest drop. It took a while for any benefits to show, and even then, you’re left with the quandary of whether you preferred it before or not. Adding water removed some of the edge from that woodiness and some of the burn, but it also reduced the soft luxuriousness that I consider to be a particularly pleasant aspect. However, on this occasion I did enjoy it more than ever. It actually took me well over an hour to drink that one glass, which may have had something to do with the fact that we were watching a particularly angering episode of Making a Murderer, but was more down to the fact that every sip was enough to last a good few minutes. I certainly wouldn’t add more water than that tiny drop though.
I’m not sure I could (in fact, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t justify paying £70 for it, but it is easily worth the 30 or so that favourable rates against the Canadian dollar provided at the time I bought this. When you look at other spirits that cost around £70 though, this probably is at least as good as most. It’s just that, for me, it’s about getting value. It’s hard for me to truly enjoy anything I’ve paid 70 quid for.
Cheaper, here in the UK, is the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, which is a previous winner of one of my Spirits of the Year awards. This Wild Turkey probably isn’t quite as good as that, but you might prefer it, and I don't mean that in a condescending way.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Another Christmas in Canada

the crown jewels... apparently
 Big task ahead of me here; writing about my most recent [at the time of writing, at least] Christmas excursion to Canada. You can read about my earlier adventures here and here. This one will be tough though because there is no overarching theme, just an assortment of disparate elements. Hopefully I’ll figure out how to bring it all together over the next few thousand words…
So a bit of context. We headed over to Canada following the end of 2015’s Distinct Beers Challenge and the start of a new Winter, Christmas and Festively Themed Beers Challenge – I’ll be writing about that last one around Christmas time. I was relying on Canada to provide me with enough variety to triumph once more, and made sure to make a quick visit to a liquor store at my earliest opportunity.
Big Rock, big beers
One of the downsides of Canada is that you can’t pick up booze in a supermarket, so you have to deliberately go to liquor stores. The upside is that there are loads of liquor stores. Sure, they are of varying quality, but you get to learn which the best ones are.
First up was a store in southern Calgary’s Mackenzie Town. I think it was a Co-op, but I can’t say for sure. It wasn’t too well stocked with winter ales, but I did pick up a selection box of Big Rock bottles – Smoked Roggenbier, Hibernation Strong Ale, Fowl Mouth ESB and Dunkelweizen.
My brother-in-law and I would later visit the local Big Rock brewery to fill a couple of growlers and pick up some other bottles and cans. Sadly none of them were winter or Christmas themed, but they are quite brilliantly branded, as you can see from the photo. Their Traditional Ale is still my favourite of their many varieties, but it’s always worthwhile seeing what they’ve been brewing whenever I visit.
There is a wealth of beer available in Canada, with a number of bars having their own microbreweries – Original Joe’s and Brewster’s were two such that we visited during our stay. We may as well go for a direct comparison on this one. At Brewster’s I tried the Rig Pig Pale Ale (2/5), Hammerhead Red Ale (3/5) and Curly Horse IPA (3/5), while at Original Joe’s I had the Red Ale (3/5) and Haus Frau Euro Pilsner (3/5). Nothing to choose between them really then. I will say though, Brewster’s do what they call a flight which is a tray of 5 beers of your choice, amounting to somewhere over a pint for 8 dollars or something. Mrs Cake went for one of those, but I just wanted to give a few beers a proper try.
Now, my big hope for winterly themed ales was to be the Willow Park liquor store, which is well known to pretty much be the pick of the bunch. This place is huge and has beer fridges all down one wall and shelves opposite of a great many unchilled beers. Elsewhere there’s loads of wine and spirits.
In fact, on the day we went there was a tasting event on, where we were encouraged to try a few things. Well, you probably know me by now, and if you do, you’ll know I don’t like to try too much because I usually don’t buy something when I’ve tried it already. I like to find out what things taste like when I open the bottle – and then over the following few months. Notwithstanding, at a tasting event, you can’t taste things the way they really are after a while because one of the drinks you just had is still sitting on your palate. I always feel like the representatives are expecting you to go, “ooh, that’s lovely!”, but all I can muster is a non-plussed, “yeh, it’s alright, that. Thanks”.
One of the things we tried was brandy infused with lemon, and I have to admit, I don’t really get the point of it. If you want your brandy to taste a bit lemony, you can just squeeze some lemon juice into itI don’t even know how they decided what would be the optimum amount of lemon to use. If it isn’t lemony enough for you, you can put some more in, but if it’s too lemony, they’ve lost your custom. Yeah, sorry, I just don’t understand this one. Clearly it isn’t for me.
Vidal Ice Wine: "Naked"
I don’t really remember trying much else – except some ice wine which both Mrs Cake and I liked, and bought because it was a few dollars off, though I noticed later that it only clocks up 9 ABVs.
As I said, I was really there to seek out winter ales, and I managed to find a few. The assistant told me about one that was $50, but there was no way I was ever considering that one – as I told him, I’d never drink $50 in 30 minutes to an hour, and I could buy a nice bottle of spirits for that.
A good thing about beers over in Canada is that many of them come in oversized bottles, which I found over the duration of my stay to be very conducive of drinking quickly – before it warms up too much. It’s nice feeling like you’re able to chug your beer a bit more.
I did ask, while I was there, whether they had any Canadian pomace brandy. Being a lover of grappa, I wanted to find out what the Canadians had to offer, and figured if one place was going to have any (having looked elsewhere and asked before), this was going to be it. The assistant wandered off for a few minutes, and on his return said they didn’t stock any because it’s more expensive than grappa, and not as good. He couldn’t offer any opinion on why it should be more expensive, when grappa would have to be shipped over from Italy, but there you go.
The last thing on this first visit was to pick up a bottle of spirits for consumption during our stay. As ever, I didn’t want to go for anything fancy because I didn’t want to feel guilty about drinking it too casually, so I kept my focus on Canadian whiskies, and tried to find something inexpensive. J.P. Wiser’s Deluxe rye whisky fit the bill.
It is 40% ABV, and was $20CAD for 75cl. It is presented in a square type bottle like Johnnie Walker or Bushmills, with about as ordinary a label as you could expect. At $20, it was great value – at the time the exchange rate was around $2CAD to the pound, so everything just seemed incredibly cheap, and this one now has the honour of being the cheapest whisky I’ve ever bought – cheaper by volume even than the Cutty Sark I got in Spain. Nevertheless, Wiser’s is a decent enough whisky. Sadly, it was a while ago now, and I don’t have any tasting notes, but I would place it above other Canadian whiskies like Seagram’s 83 and Alberta Springs 10. Probably not above the Crown Royal though.
JP Wiser's Deluxe... I hadn't figured out how to focus my phone properly yet
Speaking of Crown Royal, we arrived in Canada to find quite a buzz surrounding one of their expressions. It seems their Northern Harvest Rye had been named World Whisky of the Year 2016 by none other than the renowned Jim Murray. This was the first time the accolade had been awarded to a Canadian whisky, and everyone was talking about it.
Of all the people I spoke to, I was the only one familiar with Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible and his particular evaluation methods, but you couldn’t deny the excitement. There was talk of the price increasing from 35 to more than 80 dollars. People were trying all their local liquor stores without success after the news caused a buying frenzy. As you can imagine, everyone wanted to find out what the world’s best whisky tasted like because, for once they could afford it, and might even be able to take a little bit of pride in drinking it. It’s not often you get to own the pinnacle of what the whisky world has to offer.
I’m pleased to be able to announce that my brother-in-law managed to get hold of a bottle for me, for Christmas. I got a bottle of the regular Crown Royal too, and was initially disappointed to see him unwrapping a Northern Harvest Rye, but a few minutes later I unwrapped one of my own.
Mine remains sealed at this point, but my brother-in-law opened his and was good enough to offer me a glass. I can reveal now, in advance of a full appraisal, that it is definitely impressive stuff. I detected a nice banana impression on entry, soon developing into a sweet nuttiness. Such clear distinction of flavours, complementing each other must be the nearest I’ve ever come to experiencing what Murray means by “balance”. More to come on this in the coming months, no doubt.
Haig Pinch
A whisky I probably won’t be able to write more about in the coming months is one that my brother-in-law (who we will now start calling Brian) had been given by some family friends. I think it was one of those things where they were moving house, and came across an old bottle they didn’t need. Brian had already opened it and tried it. It was this: Haig 12 year old Pinch.
I’d never heard of it, but looked it up on Master of Malt, and found it would have been worth around £80 unopened. That price has since gone up to £96 but, you know, it’s better to try it – especially when it’s as good as this turned out to be. I thought it was superb; light and beautiful, sweet and warming, full-bodied with a fresh nose.
I’ll definitely try some more of their stuff in future. The Dimple 15 year old looks to be available for a [potentially] bargainous £35 on Master of Malt (assuming it’s anywhere near as good as the Pinch), then there’s a budget Gold Label at £20 on The Whisky Exchange.
Eeeee… what else did we have? This one is the Alberta Premium – it probably goes without saying that I did finish the Wiser’s with time to spare – and it is apparently one of the few remaining 100% rye grain whiskies produced in North America (says Wikipedia). I bought it because I only wanted a half bottle, and decided the get the cheapest one at the store I happened to be in at the time. This was $14.60CAN, which works out to around £7 (for 375ml). There were occasions when I enjoyed it, and others when I felt it was cheap and bitter.
Perhaps one to look out for in the next few years is the Eau Claire distillery. Located in Turner Valley, they are causing something of a stir by doing everything the old-fashioned way, using locally sourced ingredients and traditional methods – including using horses instead of machinery.
We were supposed to be giving the distillery a proper visit, but what with one thing and another, we didn’t really have enough time for anything other than popping our heads in. They produce vodka, gin and whisky (though at the time, the whisky wasn’t yet ready), packaged in stylish Bruichladdich-style bottles. I have tried the gin, and despite not being gin’s biggest fan, I thought it was good. They have a reputation for being a bit expensive, which they probably are by Canadian standards, but the equivalent of £20 for decent spirit isn’t such a big deal when you’re used to UK pricing.
I didn’t buy anything because I’d already seen Wild Turkey’s Kentucky Spirit back at the Willow Park liquor store for $63CAD. That was just over £30, whereas you’d be paying £70 plus P&P at The Whisky Exchange. I was saving my meagre travel allowance for that. I’ll be writing more about that next week, but I will just say; I have already opened it, and I have seen that it is good.
So coming back with me from the Great White North this year were the Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, standard Crown Royal, Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, and a gift box of 20cl Glenfiddich bottles, incorporating the 12 year old, the 12 year old Solera Vat, and the 18 year old. That should mean some happy drinking for a few months – and a few more posts for you to enjoy. Keep on joining me and I’ll keep on drinking and telling you about it.
one for the future