Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Spirit Log: Aberlour 12

While my procurement matrix suggested I should be getting a Highland malt of 18 years or older, my first thought was that I’d be looking at spending 80 pounds plus, and only a small selection would be within reach before the prices passed out of my grasp.
In the end I didn’t have to agonise over it for long as I was in Sainsburys, on the cusp of pay day, and they had an Aberlour 12 Double Cask for £25 – that’s a healthy £10 off. I immediately thought, “well that’s an easy choice; decent discount, under budget, means I can splash out a bit more some time in the future”. So that’s what I thought I’d do. There’s nothing wrong with taking these offers from time to time.
Now, it looks like this Speysider replaces the Aberlour 10 that I’ve tried in the past (and was going to link to, though it seems I haven't written about that in anything other than passing...) and, in comparison to that, this one is obviously 2 years older, and billed as double cask matured – aged in traditional oak and sherry casks. I wouldn’t be surprised if this means it was matured in oak casks for 10 years, then sherry casks for 2, though the website implies that spirit is matured in both casks and then blended – which is probably better. I see there’s also a 12 year old that is aged only in Oloroso sherry casks, but that one is only available on the international travel market. It seems likely that there’s some of that in this.
From elsewhere on the internet – write ups, reviews and such – I’m led to expect Christmas cake flavours. That puts me off a bit really, but it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it– it’s weird how I like whisky but I’m not keen on so many of the constituent flavours that are supposed to be in there . Perhaps I’ll enjoy this over Christmas in order to eke all the benefit out of that that I can. It certainly isn’t a product that’s short of reviews, and they all tend to agree that it’s great and great value. I hardly think it’s worth adding my voice to the clamour that’s already there, but maybe I’ll just have something different to say.
Time passes
Well, I did open it over Christmas, and at first I was mightily disappointed. It wasn’t as sweet as I was expecting, but it was quite buttery with what I would term a standard scotch nose. Luckily, a few days later, which I’d been waiting out because my sinuses had suddenly clogged and kept me away from spirits for a while, I was surprised to find the Aberlour had already opened up. There was far more complexity and class. It was a joy to hold it on the tongue, and it started to remind me of the Arran expressions I’ve written about previously. The good news here of course, is that at £25, this is significantly cheaper than those. It’s not as strong, but even at normal price you’re saving a few pounds over the Arran.
Overall, the Aberlour 12 is preferable to the 10, but not up to snuff with the A’bunadh, but they are all good value for what they are. In terms of 12 year olds in general though, I’m saying it’s not as good as:
Suntory Hakushu 12, Bladnoch 12 (sheep label), Bunnahabhain 12, Highland Park 12 or Caol Ila 12.
But it’s better than:
Balvenie 12 Double Wood, Strathisla 12, Glenfiddich 12 and Glenlivet 12.
Of those I mention above, the Aberlour is closer in style to the ones it’s better than, than it is to the others. That clearly reflects on my personal taste preference, but also shows that this is a good example of its style for its age – and especially for its price.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Spirit Log: Wild Geese Classic Blend Irish whiskey

I was trying not to spend all my booze budget this month, but couldn’t resist a little look at Bring a Bottle anyway. What I came across was this; Wild Geese blended Irish whiskey. It’s 40%, and with P&P it was £24.52 at The Drink Shop. The clincher was that this was for a 70cl bottle while all the other online suppliers were selling a 50cl bottle for around £23, so it seemed like a good deal. I have to say though, I was surprised when it arrived, to find that it is presented in an uninteresting, standard shaped bottle, when I was expecting something morein the Bruichladdich mould. I haven’t found any information online as yet, but it looks once again like there may have been a rebranding (though not a particularly drastic one) or even a product change.
Well, I can’t comment on all of that, not without definite information, so let’s just find out what this bottle is like, on its own merits.
Sadly I’ve made very few notes on this, but I can tell you that I enjoyed it. I drank it early in the evening in general, but it was also one that I chose when I didn’t want to be stuck making a decision for a long time – so a go-to, if you will. The go-to is an important role. For me it generally has to be good value (to assuage feelings of guilt) and reliably pleasing (to make it worthwhile drinking at the expense of something else). And Wild Geese performed that role well – like an efficient holding midfielder in a robust football team.
Literally, all I’ve written, now that I look at my notes is, “strong, but nice citrus”. What I meant by that when I said it I couldn’t rightly say now. Obviously at 40 ABVs it isn’t that strong. Was I referring to the citrus element? And even so, was that on the nose or the palate? Memory tells me it was the palate, so strong citrus perhaps. Nevertheless, I liked that element and I think this is a decent whisky. I feel like I paid about the right amount for it.
I’m still very new to the world of Irish whisky, and will have to pick up something a bit special next time. For now, this is easily comparable – even preferable to the lower end of the world of blended scotch. I’d probably prefer a Ballantine’s Finest, personally, but I know a lot of you will balk at that statement. I’d take a Wild Geese over Grant’s, Dewars and Whyte and Mackay though.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Beero Quest, or Heroic Brew

We’ve had the Standard Supermarket Blended Scotch Test and now we return with a test of supermarket own brand beers. And why not combine it with a Hero Quest night?
It all started with being sent a mysterious video about how great the board game Hero Quest is, and my admission that I probably still had the game at my parents’ house. I’d begged for it one Christmas, and surprisingly received it among my booty that year. I say surprisingly because the year before I’d begged for Dingbats, and received Blockbusters. Only a few weeks ago I saw Dingbats in a local charity shop for £2, “certified complete”. I bought it, and when it came time to play, it turned out it wasn’t complete. The original board had been replaced with a Scrabble board. Having no idea what the board was supposed to be like, we had to make up our own rules. And it turned out to be shit.
Anyway, back to Hero Quest; I never actually got to play it. All I really did was photocopy the blank level template and create hundreds (artistic licence applied for) of my own solid quests. I was hoping they would still be in the box when my parents got it down from the loft (which is where it was sure to be), but alas there was only one; “The Treasure of Shortakan”. Perhaps we would get around to playing that one.
Also missing from the box were the four combat dice, but that was quickly remedied because I spotted it early and got my parents to find them well before the date of the game. They called to say they’d found it. At which point I told them there were supposed to be four. They found the other three.
Also missing were three standard dice, but that was quickly remedied by raiding three other games from the spare room. You may be wondering why it was necessary to raid three games when, given that most games come with two dice, I should have been able to get a third from a second game… well, that’s how I roll. Oh dear.
Being that David from the Standard Supermarket Blended Scotch Test would be one of the participants, I invited him to share the burden of seeking out beers from the various supermarkets. I took Sainsburys, Aldi, Lidl and Morrisons while he took Asda, Tesco, Co-op and M&S. We set out some rules which were:
  1. They have to be own-brand beers.
That’s pretty self-explanatory. Ideally the name of the supermarket needs to be on the packaging, whether it is front and centre on the label, or just states “brewed and bottled for…” in tiny writing on the back. Nevertheless certain representatives of the budget supermarkets don’t quite adhere to this rule. Galahad Export for example, states nothing of the kind, but it is available exclusively through Aldi and everyone knows it’s an Aldi beer. So you’re not getting out of this one so easily, Galahad.
  1. They ideally should be cans that are available as 4-packs.
The thinking behind this one was that I was skint and needed to pick up some cheap beers that I could dip into in the weeks leading up to the challenge, such that there would be a can or two left over with which to carry out the test. It also seemed the most utilitarian way of making sure we bought beers that were roughly in the same category. There are so many own brand beers these days that it nevertheless seemed likely some leeway would have to be allowed here. As you’ll see, Co-op and M&S couldn’t fulfil the can criteria, so David took an executive decision and got some bottles – M&S’ Italian lager came in a 4-pack of bottles, while [I think] Co-Op’s Czech lager were individuals. You’ll see in the next point how these Czech ones were acceptable.
  1. Don’t get anything below 4%.
It’s a personal rule of mine (only occasionally broken – say, for output from a favourite brewery, or sheer desperation for something distinct) that I never buy beer that clocks up less than 4 ABVs. The reason for that goes back to the time at the Bearded Theory festival that I drank Carlsberg all day, from breakfast, and didn’t even register a slight buzz. I concluded at that point that there’s no point in drinking sub-four-percent beers. They’re basically the equivalent of celery, which is famously the food that takes more energy to eat than you get from eating it. Beers that are weaker than 4 percent make you lose in urine more alcohol than you can possibly absorb by drinking them.
Another reason for this rule was to make sure David didn’t buy the super shit 2% beers that so many supermarkets include in their range. He likes to take things to extremes and would happily have done so – perhaps so that he would have been able to drive home afterwards.
On my first visit to Morrison’s I actually found that, while they do a standard 4% lager, they also do a “premium” 4.8% lager. That’s more akin to the Holsten Pils and various other “premium” lagers I’ve been known to drink from time to time anyway, so I decided we should get those wherever possible. It also turned out that when I went back to Sainsburys, expecting to pick up their standard 4% lager, they did a premium one too, that was also 4.8%.
Going back to that Czech lager from Co-op then, the point is that Czech lagers are precisely representative of the type of beer that we’re trying to test the supermarkets on here. And that’s why it was acceptable.
Right, shall we see who our contenders are and what we thought of them? David left me his notes, so I’ll quote directly from those if necessary…
Tesco Premium Lager (4.8%) – Pilsner style, no brewer specified, £2.85 for 4 440ml cans.
Uninspired packaging, in keeping with supermarket beers in general .This one comprises a plain grey can with an unobtrusive design that is reminiscent of barley and presumably hops.
David says: refreshing, flat and sweet.
I say: unremarkable. I failed to make any notes, so I’m working from memory and re-tastes of beers that were left over. While unremarkable, you have to admit that most branded beers of this genre are unremarkable also – Kronenbourg, Stella etc. So all you have to do is refrigerate it sufficiently… and get it down yer neck.
Aldi’s St Etienne Premium Lager (4.8%) – Euro lager style, £2.49 for 4 440ml cans.
A red and silver can, worked into a kind of rosette shape and capped off with a fleur de lys.
David says: soda water with a mellow fruit flavour; sweet but not nice.
I say: while there are subtle but definite differences between this and the previous beer, and indeed between this and the next, one’s perception of that difference fades after the second sip so, if it’s cold enough, you can just get it down you and you’re well on your way.
Aldi’s Galahad Export (4%) – Euro lager style, £2.09 for 4 440ml cans.
Low effort packaging finished in blue and silver with a little crest.
David says: has a dull flavour which it soon loses, leaving only fizz.
I say: David has provided a fair assessment. At 4% it is disadvantaged next to the others in the test (with the exception of the next one), but at this price – and at the right temperature, of course – there’s no reason you can’t enjoy this, guilt-free.
Lidl’s Excelsior Lager (4%) – Euro lager style, brewed by Brasserie Champigneulles, £1.99 for 4 440ml cans.
A blue and white can with red and silver trim and a silver action shot of a knight.
David says: very fizzy and retains its head. He also says something about summer pubs and wasps, but I can’t fathom what he means by that. We were inside at night time and there definitely weren’t any wasps… perhaps he is alluding to a turn the conversation took at this point.
I say: Excelsior is perfectly acceptable. Again, a great price and meets the minimum 4%. Easily preferable to Fosters, Carling or Carlsberg as well as various others.
Sainsburys Crown Premium Lager (4.8%) – Pilsner style, brewed by Carlsberg, £3.25 for 4 440ml cans.
Red, silver and gold dominate the presentation of this one, finising with a crown and, like Tesco’s effort a representation of barley and hops.
David says: totally flavourless.
I say: I’m fairly sure I fully concurred with David on this one, but I would add; if you want something refreshing to get smashed with, better this than something with an awful flavour.
M&S Italian Lager (5%) – Euro lager style, brewed by G. Menabrea & Figli, price?
A different approach to graphic design marks out this one. You have a mountain image and the bold claim that it is made with pure Italian Alps mountain water.
David says: nice, bitter, smells like wine.
I say: I distinctly remember almost being appalled by this one. It does have a bitterness, but that is soon superceded by a cloying sweetness that I found abhorrent. It’s a bit of a shame because I can see from my Untappd log that I’ve tried two beers from this brewery before – the 150 Anniversario Ambrara and 150 Anniversario Bionda, both of which I awarded 4 stars. For my personal taste, every one of the other contestants in this experiment are preferable to this one.
Co-op Czech Imported Lager (5%) – Pilsner style, brewed by Pivovary Staropramen, price?
The design of this label literally bores the shit out of me, so the only way I could write anything about it was to say something dismissive and crass. It is notable that, besides the varieties of Staropramen (which include Premium, Dark, Granat, Unfiltered, Svetly, 3.5%, Selection, Decko and Jedenactka), this brewery also makes Sainsburys Czech Pilsner lager.
David says: rich, fizzy, too eggy, dry.
I say: This is probably one of the very best on offer here. It is a standard premium, Czech-type lager, but what is particularly remarkable about it is that, despite it being brewed by Staropramen, I strongly prefer this to Staropramen itself. I used to like that brand when it first hit these shores, but I soon noticed an unwelcome bitterness which is thankfully notable by its absence in Co-op’s offering.
So is there an overall winner? Well, there isn’t really. As long as you’re openminded enough to rise above your ingrained beer snobbery (as you well should be by now), you have to accept that in every case (except the M&S one, in my personal opinion), these beers are perfectly acceptable for the price. Generally I do say the stronger the better, but even the 4% ones are sufficient to give you that buzz and, in spite of the price and volume variations between these, they are all cheaper and better value than the brands they emulate (or are cast off by) and really, in this genre of beer, the heights to be reached aren’t that high anyway. Save yourself some money and give them a go.
Thanks to David for attending and keeping some notes – and providing some of the beers, of course (and leaving some behind) – and to the others for playing Hero Quest with us and providing some laughs. I’ll try to think of another genre of drinking to investigate the next time something like this happens and, as ever, I’ll keep you fully informed.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Stretford and Urmston Pub Crawl

It’s rare these days that I try to squeeze two pub crawls into a month, what with tight budgets and everything, but given the separation between possible attendees, I was determined to follow Shelts’ Nottingham stag experience (which, I’m sorry to admit, despite having a great time and visiting some excellent pubs, I didn’t write anything about) with one a little closer to home. Enter the #StretfordAndUrmstonPubCrawl, which you can follow almost in real time on Twitter by searching that hashtag.
An actual crawl of Urmston was long overdue, and despite some excellent candidates, I felt there weren’t quite enough convenient pubs (by convenient, I mean pubs within a reasonable distance that I could get people to walk to) to spend the whole day there. For that reason I decided to tack on, at the beginning, a trip to Stretford’s Sip Club. From my base in Flixton, that should have meant a 20 minute bus ride, but Mrs Cake offered to drive me, and that was most welcome.
Arriving at 2pm on Barton Road, I missed any sign of the Sip Club at first, opting to stand on the corner and call Pablo, to see if he knew where it was. He said it was signposted, and that you have to go up some inoccuous stairs. Nothing looked likely at this point, so I said I’d wait for him. It was while I was waiting that I saw, painted on the side of the nearest building, a small white sign. I still wasn’t sure, but after I saw Pablo, I walked past it and saw that it did indeed indicate an innocuous staircase next to an estate agent. If you look carefully, there are also various beer signs that I had missed at first.
On cresting the stairs it’s like one of those antique furniture shops – all tatty old furniture and mismatched chairs (and doillies), none of which would look out of place at your Gramma’s in the 80s. Then there’s a wall, around the other side of which is the bar. Layout leaves a little to be desired, but the overall effect is quirky and appealing.
On tap you’ve got about 4 beers, and a blackboard letting you know what’s in bottles or cans.
Heritage Trail Ale by Lymm Brewing Company. A brewery that’s quite local to me, so I was surprised not to have at least tried one of its other beers previously. This is what I’d call a standard golden bitter, and not something I’d tend to be fond of. That much is reflected in my score of 2/5. No ABV is recorded on Untappd (at time of writing) for this one, but I seem to remember it was something half decent like 4.4.
Pablo and Carl both went for Blackedge Brewing Company’s American Pale Ale, but I’d already had that. So when they went for what I’d just had for my first drink, I tried something different entirely…
Equinox Lager by Chorlton Brewing Company. Another local one, but instead of draught this time, it was from a can. I don’t mind that. At 5.7% it’s full flavoured, with a slightly bitter after taste that Untappd rightly classifies as and Indian Pale Lager – though there was no notification of that, as far as I remember, on the can. I scored this 4/5. A little peruse over my history shows that I’ve only tried one of this brewery’s output before, the Citra Brett Pale, which also earned a 4.
Dave joined us at this point (electing for HOP by First Chop), and it was soon off to the Stretford Mall bus stop where a number 15 duly arrived to take us the short jaunt to Urmston. We got off a stop too late and had to walk a few minutes to get to our next port of call, passing a number of scarecrows along the way. I didn’t know at the time, but Urmston has itself a quaint little scarecrow festival at this time of year (September).
David had also joined us of course, but there’s no tidy way of slotting that into the general narrative now.
We arrived then at Urmston’s Hop House, a bar that Mrs Cake and I had had high hopes for when we moved to the area. We’d been concerned about lack of clientele, but have been back a few times since. It remains quiet, but more alarming is the infrequency with which the selection of beers is refreshed. I’m going to hazard a guess that it’s not at all. On top of that, the bar man seemed to be offended that anyone had bothered to show up at all, and put on some Bruce Springsteen songs that seriously lacked bass, and would probably have sounded better coming out of any of our phones.
I opted for Flying Dog Brewery’s Snake Dog IPA (7.1%), the one remaing beer in the bar that I hadn’t already logged. This was in a bottle, of course. The distinctly average 3/5 that I’m scoring this one fits right along with the other beers I’ve previously tried from this brewery; Doggie Style Classic Pale Ale (3/5), Numero Uno Agave Cerveza (3/5) and the current dangling bollocks of this current Flying Dog, K-9 Cruiser Winter Ale (3.5).
We didn’t fancy staying there for long (and there was nothing different to drink anyway), so we headed over the road to The Steamhouse, and out to the platform side tables of Urmston Train Station. We were probably starting along the road to rowdiness at this point, and started discussing Freemasonry, following a comment I made, inspired by the book I am currently reading about the ridiculous secret organisation.
I went for a Memphis Belle (5%) by Cottage Brewing Company. It is described as an American style pale ale, and I think I normally like those, but this one I’ve scored only 2/5. Previous form for the brewery reveals a mixed bag – from the lows of Sunset (1.5/5), and Pacific and Princess Beia (both 2.5/5) up to the heady heights of SS Great Britain (3.5/5 – so not that heady or high, actually).
Next we decided to see what was going on at new sports bar, Champs. It was Saturday afternoon, so sport was what was happening, and we decided not to stay for a drink because it was all standard lagers – I don’t remember the exact brands, but if I suggest Staropramen, San Miguel, Amstel… you get the idea.
So it was on to the Tim Bobbin, another new experience for me. It’s a Wetherspoon’s pub, which I normally try to avoid, and it does tend to look at bit rough from the outside looking in. Nevertheless, Dave had a recommendation for us, and it seems like Wetherspoons offer the same variety across all their premises. And I have to say, the Tim Bobbin was a real surprise package. Much cleaner, brighter and more pleasant than most – not as striking as those ones that are in historic buildings, but pleasant nonetheless.
At Dave’s behest, I went for a can of the 9.1% Resin by Sixpoint Brewery. It was something like £2.99, which isn’t bad for around 300ml at that strength. Nevertheless, I gave it 3/5 and conversation turned to the very recent Labour Leadership Election.
Before we left I had another can from the Sixpoint range, Bengali which was 6.5% and again scored 3 out of 5.
It was here that things went wrong. I’d been saving for our last stop, the jewel in Urmston’s drinking establishment crown, The Prairie Schooner. But it was closed for a private party. That didn’t leave us a lot of options, but we went for The Lord Nelson, a Joseph Holt pub. Threadbare and local-style, it is nevertheless welcoming enough, and contains all the Holt beers that you never really get to try (because you don’t tend to go in Joseph Holt pubs). In spite of that, I had a Black (only 3.8% when “black” things would normally be expected to be stronger) and it turned out I’d had it before, so I didn’t log it. I can see that I gave it 3/5 that time, and I have nothing to suggest I changed my mind about it on this occasion (and indeed no real recollection of what I thought of it).
Some people had already started leaving by this point. I think we’d lost David and Carl, and after the Lord Nelson we lost Dave too. Pablo and I weren’t finished though, so we embarked on the generous walk to the Roebuck Tavern. For me it was a Vinyl Tap by The Bootleg Brewing Company this time (4.1%), and it managed only 2.5/5. The brewery liked my logging of it anyway. This is the company that also makes Urban Fox, which I had tried previously (scoring it 3/5), and that others in the party were drinking at the Steamhouse, earlier in the day.
The whole thing finished perhaps not as drunkenly as I was expecting, though I did have both a kebab and a pizza that evening. And all that only cost me about 40 quid. Not bad. It is a struggle to draw out Urmston into a full length pub crawl, but I suppose I had been counting on having more than one at the Schooner. Even so, I doubt we’ll be seeing this kind of offensive there again. For a few pints in the afternoon or evening though, it’s well worth a visit if you’re local enough.
Beer of the day then, was Chorlton Brewery’s Equinox Lager, while pub of the day was the Tim Bobbin. Well done to those guys. No doubt we’ll be seeing you again sometime.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Spirit Log: Lagavulin 16

I’ve been starting to struggle a bit with my whisky procurement matrix of late. The latest round of difficulty came with trying to step my Islay experience up a notch with the purchase of something aged between 14 and 17 years. The problem is, much as I’m a fan of the produce of the island of Islay, the prices can be a bit prohibitive. Can it be that reputations lead these whiskies to be somewhat overpriced?
So what are we looking at? There isn’t a Caol Ila option in this age category, and I’ve already tried the 18. If there were a Caol Ila 15 or 16 say, it would certainly be in contention… actually, since writing that sentence (and indeed, since making my purchase), it turns out there is now an unpeated 15 year old Caol Ila, and it sells for around £90. That’s probably a bit much, unless I can get a deal on it somewhere.
Bowmore do a 15 year old that goes by the name, Darkest, but I don’t find Bowmore all that inspiring and at £55, it was perhaps a step too far.
Being between the standard ages of 10 to 12 years and 18 plus, the category I was looking for is an awkward one. Most distilleries – Ardbeg, Laphroiag, Bunnahabhain – don’t offer anything in the range (though you can locate a vintage or merchant bottling if you’re feeling flush), Kilchoman don’t have any spirit that old yet, and Bruichladdich, while they make excellent whisky, price themselves a bit above a region I feel comfortable with.
That leaves just one, doesn’t it? Ah yes, Lagavulin. Of course, we’re all well aware of the excellent Lagavulin 16. I’ve tried it and loved it, and bought it as a gift before, but I’ve never bought it for myself. It was an obvious choice and, for that reason, one I did my best to avoid. I just wasn’t getting drawn in by anything else though. There was a Bowmore 17 White Sands, which I skipped over for the same reasons I’d dismissed the Darkest, and a Port Askaig 15. I’m dubious about the Port Askaig releases because they don’t tell you which distillery produced their whisky, and £75 is a bit much for such sleight of hand – though since writing that sentence I heard that Jim Murray had scored a Port Askaig well into the high 90s in his 2016 edition, and indeed made it one of his whiskies of the year. One to try another time, then – in spite of how frequently I disagree with Murray’s appraisals.
Next I was looking at vintage bottlings – a 1998, 15 year old, unpeated Caol Ila… tempting, but £80 again? Maybe not. What about a couple of Lagavulin Distillers Editions? Again, you’re looking at more than £75 when you factor in P&P. In the end, I just couldn’t see anything that seemed better value or a better bet than the classic 16 year old Lagavulin. At £48.46 from Amazon, you can be sure you’re getting quality (though I later learned I could have saved 10 quid by getting it at Costco), and the question of whether you want to push your spends over 70 quid can be deferred until a later date – like next month, when my procurement matrix has suggested I should get an 18 plus year old Highland malt. We’ll see about that. I think I’m clearly reaching my threshold because, frankly, you don’t need to spend that much money to get great whisky. But every now and then, I just might.
Now, you can see from the picture that the ‘vulin 16 (as I think I’ll call it) is beautifully presented. Brown bottle, tasteful labelling, and a classy navy blue box with gold leaf lettering. It certainly looks and feels the part.
Crack that bottle open, and you get the unmistakable whiff of peat that promises a cosy evening. It emerges from the bottle like a genie and makes sure everyone in the room knows it’s there.
In the glass it looks the part too, but that is aided perhaps by the addition of caramel spirit. I really don’t know why they bother doing that – especially since the tinted bottle means you’re not going to turn your nose up at the spirit before you’ve even decided to buy it.
It’s bottled at 43% instead of the preferable 46, but it oozes class all the way – and you don’t have to worry about whether you should be adding water (don’t).
On the tongue it’s sweet and lingering, and it might just come back to visit you the next day… a real bonus taste.
So in all, as long as I don’t think about how much I could have saved at Costco, I got my money’s worth with the ‘vulin 16. I didn’t learn anything I didn’t know before, but at least I’ve bought myself a bottle of this now, which is something any serious whisky drinker should have on their hypothetical bucket list.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Spirit Log: Ocho Blanco Tequila

Ocho Blanco and a friend. "Just pretend I'm not here,"- Lagavulin
A month or so ago I was trying to buy some tequila, and for some reason ended up trying the alternative Mexican spirit of Sotol. This time, with 10% off tequilas and mezcals at Drink Supermarket, I decided not to get distracted – a reasonably priced blanco was the brief, and that’s what I would get.
Now, 10% isn’t actually that much of a discount when you still have to add P&P on, but you also get cash back at Drink Supermarket if you’re a member of Quidco. The cash back is only on the product price before VAT, mind, so it’s still not a massive saving, but it was enough to convince me to spend just over 20 quid on 50cl of full agave tequila. I’d be needing something reasonably priced but [hopefully] good to take to Shelts’ pre-wedding get together. This would be it – Ocho Blanco – made from agave plants that are allowed to grow for 8 years before being harvested. It’s also 40%, which is a cut above a good number of other reasonably (and not so reasonably) priced tequilas.
When I mentioned I was bringing this along to Shelts’ do, he effectively turned his nose up. I wasn’t bothered at first, but then I thought that, as he’s the groom I ought to take something he can have, so I took the Lagavulin 16 too – which you can read about here next week. I was eventually able to persuade him to try the Ocho Blanco, but inspite of my insistence that he sip it, he flagrantly ignored my advice and just threw it down his throat and pulled a face, thereby receiving no benefit to trying full agave tequila. When will people learn to enjoy their spirits? Shelts is one of those people who once drank too much tequila and made himself ill, blaming the tequila ever since. Well, I did my best. I’ll let him live in ignorance from now on.
In all fairness, this isn’t the best low price, full agave tequila I’ve come across. There’s more agave flavour in Casco Viejo (my current favourite), and El Jimador, varieties that all retail around the same price or slightly cheaper, but there’s something extra fruity about this one. It doesn’t sting (which is something I expect from good tequila), but it is full flavoured. I want that sting though.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t buy it again, but in all likelihood, I probably won’t. There’s others I’d buy first, and there’s always plenty of other brands to try. But just because it doesn’t perfectly match my pallet, doesn’t mean it won’t be suited to yours – because I’m not saying it’s poor quality. It’s just a personal taste thing, and my personal taste ranks this at the bottom of all the full agave tequilas I’ve tried so far – but that still means it’s better than any mixto you’d care to mention.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Five Points Brewery: A Story of Cans, Apps and Good, New-Fangled Customer Care

One recent trip to West Didsbury’s The Epicurean led me to trying a Five Points Brewery IPA. At just over £2 for one 330ml can and an enviable 7.1% alcohol, I considered this to be decent value. How good value it would turn out to be is yet to be revealed…
Cans have suffered something of a demise over the last few years it seems. I suppose that depends on your perspective, but it does seem there are less cans available in your local supermarket than there used to be, with all craft and specialty ales favouring the bottle format. Personally, I rarely bought bottles until a year or two ago, and the reason for that was originally that cans represented better value in terms of liquid per pound of money, while a requirement to try a different beer every time led to a need for change – there were just more beers available in bottles.
And now – popular with some, less so with others – cans seem to have been making a bit of a comeback. I have no strong feelings either way. It is notable that most of these new cans are of the small, soft drinks can size and, while that would have bothered me as a much younger man, I don’t mind it at all now. There just seems to be something uncouth about a 500ml can these days. 440ml is still just about alright.
These ones by Five Points are nicely presented. There was only one problem. As I was sat outside in the garden one afternoon enjoying the IPA, I realised I wasn’t actually enjoying it at all. There was something oddly metallic about it, and that impression was growing. I scored it 1 out of 5 on Untappd, leaving a little comment and thought nothing more of it.
Naturally, the first thing my friends suggested on mentioning it to them, was that it must be something to do with the can – but how can it be? I’ve drunk a lot of cans of beer in my younger beers and never experienced anything like this. So I had to just put it down to bad beer.
Now, Five Points Brewery themselves stepped in here. No doubt they monitor their social media performance and, more than that, seek to make amends when something goes wrong. First they asked for a little information (bottle, can or keg?) and offered a replacement. Very generous, I thought. Even more so; I’d only bought and failed to enjoy one can, but within two days four brand new cans arrived at my house, free of charge. Result – unless there wasn’t a problem with that original can, and all I had now were four cans of crap beer. It’s not like I wasn’t going to find out though, is it? And even if I didn’t like them, that’s just a matter of personal taste, and you have to give Five Points massive credit for the strength of their convictions. Just don’t go taking advantage now, ok?
So I got two cans of the 7.1% IPA and two of the 4.4% Pale Ale. Let’s see what the verdict is, shall we?

It was a difficult time to be giving Five Points a fair appraisal of their wares because I was in the process of recovering from the shingles. Then I got a nasty stomach bug. Then I got a nasty assed cold. None of this gives you much opportunity for drinking, and if you do, there’s not much chance you’re going to taste it. Anyway, I waited for a time when I felt I had my faculties back, and I can happily report that there was no hint of that metallic impression I’d originally had, and in all, both varieties were sharp and inviting. The Pale Ale was a little bitter on the finish for my personal taste, but they were worthy of a 3.75 out of 5 for the Pale and a 3.5 for the IPA. Not too shabby.
Since that occasion, no other brewery has responded to a poor Untappd review with an offer of free beer. Several have liked my check-ins, even when the star ratings were low, but that’s been the extent of it. I have to reiterate then, that Five Points deserve a bit of credit for their customer service – not just because they offered free replacement beer, but because they responded to the specific nature of my comment. They knew it wasn’t supposed to taste metallic, and that if it did, there was probably something wrong. Good for them.
I’ll just end with a little regret; I’m sorry to say that I haven’t bought any Five Points products since that occasion either – not deliberately, it just hasn’t happened. I’m certainly not avoiding it, and I will be buying some more eventually. I promise Five Points, I’ll make it worth your while.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

An Island Malt With an Unusual Finish...

Over recent months my accounts of procuring and enjoying spirits have almost turned into a kind of buyers’ guide, where I pick some criteria and evaluate what’s available before making a purchasing decision of my own. I’m doing that again this week, but this one was particularly taxing. How taxing? Well, let me tell you (slipping into Donald Trump there for a moment), so taxing that I nearly didn’t bother buying anything.
What are we looking for this week, then? Well, it’s going to be an Island malt and it has to be (at least partly) aged in an unusual kind of cask. So, what Island malts would we generally be looking at? Highland Park, Talisker, Arran, Scapa, Jura, Tobermory and Ledaig seems to cover it.
What do I mean by “unusual cask”? It needs to be something other than ex-bourbon and sherry. I mean, they’re all going to be partly aged in ex-bourbon casks I imagine, but sherry is just so yawn to me at the moment.
Now, on this occasion I’m looking to spend around forty to forty five quid, but I’ll exceed that if I see something that I absolutely have to have. But where do we start? I’m not looking for a Highland Park as I’ve tried quite a few of those, and they’re nearly all sherry cask whiskies. The 12 year old, as I always say is excellent, and the others [in my opinion] less so.
I also wasn’t looking for a Jura, since I haven’t been impressed previously with either the 10 year old or the Superstition. They’ve really done themselves no favours with those two as I can’t ever see myself being tempted to try any others. Had I been tempted (and willing to exceed £70) I might have gone for the 1996 Boutique Barrels which, while aged in ex-bourbon casks, was finished in a ‘Bourbon JN cask’. I don’t know what that is, but it sounds interesting now that it’s too late. It’s cask strength too – but still a bourbon cask.
Then there’s Tastival which has a shit name, but has been matured in ex-sparkling wine casks from Loire Valley’s Bouvet Ladubay. I’ve only just found that out, and if I’d given Jura a chance, I might have gone for that, but I suppose not at that price (80 quid).
Scapa only have one affordable expression, and that seems pretty standard, as does the 10 year old from Tobermory. Ledaig is an brand I’ve been impressed with before, but again, no cask finishes that are out of the ordinary.
Finally we get to a couple of distilleries that are offering options. Arran were offering reasonably priced varieties including Sauternes wine, madeira, port and amarone cask finishes. Master of Malt had a 2007 amarone cask finish at £90, while Amazon had a non-vintage one at £46. I think I found that all too confusing – why would one be well expensive and the other half the price? I didn’t want to wrestle with whether the cheaper one was going to be any good or not. I’ve tried a 14 year old single sherry cask Arran before and that was nice enough, though it hasn’t left a lasting impression.
So then you have Talisker. I like Talisker, having recently enjoyed the Skye expression and long been familiar with the 10 year old. In terms of cask finishes, Talisker were offering a Port Ruighe, so just port cask finish then.
I started looking for candidates a week or two before I was actually going to make a purchase, and those Arran expressions and the Talisker one made me optimistic, but when I started looking at user reviews, I wondered whether I wouldn’t be better directing my money toward something off-plan. So I ended up leaving it – only for a day or two, but finally I searched for independent blogger reviews, and it turned out that they were positive in their opinions of the Arran expressions. I didn’t get around to looking up the Talisker one for some reason, and finally, I went for the Arran Sauternes Cask at Master of Malt for £41.03, which for some reason qualified for free delivery. Why a wine cask finish instead of a port one? Well, I’m not a fan of port in general, and my all time favourite whisky so far has been the muscatel finished Caol IlaDistillers Edition, so I’m looking for something as special as that here.
So that’s what you’re looking at if you want an Island malt with a special cask finish.
So how is it?
At a generous 50 ABVs, I’ve found you need to add a couple of drops of water to soothe the burn on this one. I opened it when our friends Gav and Claire came round, and then accidentally left it outside on the deck all night, leading to an hilarious comedy panic when I went downstairs to feed the cat the following morning, and noticed my new whisky’s absence. I looked outside, but didn’t immediately see it. It was there, but it took a second search, and a few minutes of thinking, “goddamn it, the best part of fifty quid gone, and I can’t even remember what it tasted like”.
A few weeks later I accidentally doled out excessively generous measures to the participants in my Hero Quest night, that you’ll be able to read a bit more about in a few weeks.
Now, in spite of that interesting cask finish it doesn’t strike me as all that different to what I remember of the sherry cask finish that I mentioned earlier, and I’m afraid I don’t have all that much to say about it. It was nice enough, and it was decent value – better value in fact than that sherry cask one. You’d be looking at around £70 for a numbered, single sherry cask bottling, while it’s only around £40 for this one. At that price you’re not doing too badly, but that isn’t to say that you can’t get something more memorable for less – not something from the islands with an unusual finish for less, but what do you want? Do you want something memorable, or do you want to expand your horizons a little bit? I wanted to expand my horizons and I got a decent but not earth-shattering whisky for an acceptable price. Now go out and decide what kind of whisky you want to buy this month. I’ll be back next week to tell a story of a time I received excellent customer service.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Spirit Log: Whyte & Mackay's, The Thirteen

I think I’ll eschew all the over-detailed prevarication for once, and just jump straight in with this one. This is the next Whyte & Mackay blend up from their standard Special expression. Funny how the scotch industry is always calling the most basic expressions special and signature and reserve… it makes it sound like they are the cream of the distillery’s output, when in fact they’re the worst, and could easily put you off trying anything more expensive from the distillery in question.
Anyway, I got massively soaked footing it hotly over to Asda one lunchtime in order to take advantage of a pretty good deal. It was £17.50 for 70cl, and while the label at Asda didn’t indicate that this was any discount on the normal price, all the standard online retailers were selling it at £17.94 (or, in one case £22.57) before P&P. That makes it at least £5 cheaper for a start. According to Bring a Bottle, the price generally tops out at around £23, and has been as low as £17, so for now, this seems like a decent (if not outstanding) pay day deal.
Now, I have tried the Special before, and I remember thinking it was ok, but I also remember using it to add a bit of a kick to my cans of Holsten Pils on occasion – so a pretty standard but decent cheap brand name blend. All I remember of The Thirteen is that it was part of a blind tweet tasting when I was a member of TheManchester Whisky Club, and that everyone was impressed with it. There’s a possibility that some of us thought it was a single malt. It will be interesting then, to see what I think of it now.
Let’s first have a little look at what the rest of the internet thinks about it. The Whisky Exchange introduces it with, “believed by many to be the best value of the range” which isn’t saying much as, excepting the bottom of the range special, the rest of the range costs £150 and up. So it really just has to be better quality and value than the Special to achieve that particular accolade.
The user reviews on TWE are exclusively favourable, but none say anything interesting enough to repeat here – except one that describes the presentation as “masculine” and a welcome change from “French perfums [sic] like bottlings”.
User reviews at the other most useful online supplier, Master of Malt, veer violently from one side to the other. On the negative side we’ve got “for me is just water… almost no taste”, “worst and cheapest 12 years old or more whisky I ever taste”, “made me shudder… barely drinkable”, and “Richard Paterson should be ashamed!”
You might be wondering who Richard Paterson is. I was. He’s Whyte & Mackay’s master blender, and appears to look like a cross between Allo Allo’s Rene and Des Lynam.
On the other side of the fence though, we have “one big surprise… and I was quick to buy another bottle”, “anyone that says this is a poor whisky doesn’t know what they’re talking about”, “Lovely… a great dram”, and, the best of all, “I am from America and all my gay friends love this whisky.”
I’ve read a couple of amateur blogs that have been to Whyte andMackay’s website, and are making a thing out of a so-called “triple maturation process”. One in particular claims that the whiskies are aged in sherry casks for 12 years, before the grain and malt whiskies are then married for a further year. I’ve got to say though, the detail on the website is a little vague. First off it says they choose “the finest aged single malts and and aged grain whiskies from… Highland and Speyside”. The thing to note there is the use of the word “aged”. So these whiskies have already been aged, but for how long?
Next they age the malt whisky (carefully – whatever that means) and separately age the grain whisky (less carefully, it seems), but they don’t tell us how long for. Then these are married in sherry casks. It’s really not enough information, is it?
Then check this; “we’ll let our master blender tell you a bit about how he blends Whyte & Mackays’s Scotch Whisky to get our award-winning smoother, rich taste”, it says. I can’t wait for that. Go ahead, master blender:
“I believe our triple maturation process gives the blend the key to its success – time. Time to harmonise and time to form a perfect union: an ideal partnership.”
And that’s it. What a load of useless bullshit. Triple maturation. Part of that maturation would seem to have been done by the original distillers! At least it does if you can understand English and use that understanding to interpret the words as presented.
This triple maturation is lauded as being unique, but is it? All it is, is taking some malt whisky and blending it, taking some grain whisky and blending it, aging them for a bit, blending them, and then aging them a bit more.
So is it any good? Well, on first opening I was very impressed. This is a touch above the standard blended scotch fare, I thought to myself, as it should be, given that it’s a touch more expensive, too. But… I came to be less impressed over time. My favourite whiskies tend to improve for a few months after you’ve opened them. Low cost blends probably tend to stay about the same. This one started good, then regressed to the level of a standard blended scotch; a little harsh, a little sweet, fine for drinking early in the evening or following closely on the heels of a beer, but not something I’d recommend you pay that bit extra for on a regular basis – or even more than once. It is probably marginally better than the Whyte & Mackay Special overall.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Festival Story

a piture of barbequed beer can chicken, for no other reason than a picture is needed for this post, and I don't have a relevant one
We went to a festival one Saturday a couple of months ago. A festival that shall remain un-named, in an un-named suburb of an un-named town – just to protect any un-named people involved from embarrassment.
It sounded like a good idea; meet some friends in the afternoon, take the babies, potter around, get something nice to eat, drink some nice beer… because I thought it was fair enough to assume that, the way things are these days, there’d be a craft beer stall, or at least a number of bars. For the record, the food was good. Mrs Cake and I shared a couple of very nice fresh pizzas. But the drink; oh dear, oh dear.
“Is that the bar, over there?” said I to my friend Phil, as we crested a hill with our buggies and sought out something to drink.
The bar was quite large, and well-staffed with 9 or 10 servers. There was no one queuing for service though. I suppose it was only shortly after 2pm, and overall attendance at the festival seemed quite low. I put this down to the fact that it had been absolutely tipping it down for most of the day. As we approached the rope cordon for the bar though, it started to seem weird.
We barrelled on, and I offered a greeting to the 9 or 10 eager faces, willing to exchange alcoholic beverages for money. They explained that they had Amstel and Thatchers, and those didn’t interest me, but I noticed a pump with some artwork I hadn’t seen before and the name of an unfamiliar beer.
“A pint of this one, please” I said.
“Pint of Amstel?” said the barman.
At this point I realised that they had been telling me that all they had was Amstel and Thatchers, and nothing else.
“Oh, I don’t want Amstel,” I said turning to go, “So that’s why there’s no one ‘ere. Thanks anyway”.
Now, the funny thing is: I actually don’t mind Amstel, but I hadn’t come to a festival to drink it. In fact, for no reason other than we had been invited to the event by a beer enthusiastic food blogger, I had gotten it into my head that there would be interesting beers available, and I now realised this was not going to be the case. And rather than have a normal but perfectly acceptable Eurolager, I would have nothing.
Not strictly true, I suppose. Phil and I ended up going to the local Rhythm and Booze, and picking up a selection from there. In all fairness, what I got wasn’t much more interesting than Amstel, but they don’t tend to keep the most interesting beers in the fridge. So I got 4 cans of XJ Premium, which was ok, but at least it was also a Distinct Beer.
I suppose the moral of the story is, if you don’t like what’s on offer, you don’t have to have any. And if you’re putting on a festival, make some more interesting drinks available. It’s possible that I’m being too picky these days, expecting too much, but what’s the harm in that?

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Completing a Mexican trilogy; Sotol Blanco from Hacienda de Chihuahua

Back before we Returned to Garda, I’d been pricing up brands of tequila, and had settled for one I wanted to buy at a price I wanted to pay. The only problem was that it was out of stock at the retailer that had it at that price. So I decided to wait. I came back from Italy one pay day richer, and ready to have another quick peruse before deciding one way or another. Arette Blanco was still out of stock at Drink Supermarket, but at Amazon, they had this on offer. It’s like tequila apparently, but it’s made from a different plant (Desert Spoon or sotol instead of agave) and is from the Chihuahua region of Mexico.
So this was £26.91 (including delivery) for 70cl and it’s 38% alcohol. It comes in an impressive (but ugly) mottled and [I don’t know] tombstone shaped bottle, with clear labelling and some nice silver text on the side. There’s a label around the neck and a large stopper that is sealed with a kind of string-wax arrangement. It looks a bit like one of those water containers that you see cowboys drinking out of in old western films.

I saved the moment of fulfilment for a games night with Pablo and Veronica, breaking it out after a couple of beers. That string-wax arrangement I mentioned looks nice enough, but it proved a devilishly difficult obstacle for me to overcome. Seriously; it shouldn’t take more than a few seconds to open a new bottle.
I have to admit, I was disappointed at first, as the Hacienda de Chihuahua sotol doesn’t deliver any of the qualities I look forward to in enjoying tequila. No rough edges, no agave sting, no sharpness. If anything there was something creamy about it. In its favour was that it didn’t just taste like cheap alcohol – but on the flipside of that, it just didn’t really taste like much.Whether or not these are characteristics of sotol in general I couldn't say, but I can't see any harm in finding out by trying another brand one day.
Fortunately the Chihuahua (a frustratingly difficult word to type on this laptop)  proved to be easy drinking and provide a safe option for when I couldn’t decide what to start an evening’s drinking with. I’d still prefer something a bit more bold and demanding of my attention, but this has turned out to be decent value and a worthwhile investment. In the end even Mrs Cake enjoyed drinking it neat, and it was nice to try something a bit different, and look all cultured when friends came round.
I think I will go back to tequila next time – perhaps something of the anejo variety - but if you have more than a passing interest in the wide world of spirits, it’s worthwhile completing a Mexican trilogy that starts with tequila, moves on to mezcal, and finishes with this. I wonder if there are any more to try…

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Slighly more than a passing mention of Cinzano Bianco Extra Dry vermouth

It’s been a long time since I’ve invited vermouth to share these pages with us, and it’s strange that it should be now, so soon after a visit to this brand’s country of origin, Italy. Surely I could have picked up a cheap one over there? Well, I never thought of it. I had a quick look at other products in Duty Free, but I felt rushed and didn’t end up committing to anything. After a couple of days back at home, I was in Sainsburys and saw this 15% ABV brand for £5.50. That seemed reasonable – and it turns out a good couple of quid cheaper than it’s available on TWE and MoM – even before P&P.
The bottle actually sat untouched on my shelf for a good few months before one day I ran out of beer, and needed something to replace it as my Saturday afternoon treat. There had been other opportunities before, but I hadn’t made any ice for a while.
Vermouth in the main is nothing special. I tend to think of it as a decent drink for giving you a bit of a buzz – like having a beer, really; when you don’t want a wine or to mix a cocktail. As such you can’t expect much, but I have to say the Cinzano Bianco has turned out to be something of a disappointment. I’d always assumed this was one of the better brands – for no other reason than it’s one everyone’s heard of (when was that a reliable indicator anyway?), so I was surprised to find it’s not as good as the Martini varieties I’ve tried, and probably on a level with certain unbranded ones from Aldi or Lidl. The enduring impression is of a slight but pervasive bitterness and sadly, I don’t have much to say about it.
 And that's it for this week! Next week I think I'm going to be looking at the obscure Mexican spirit of sotol, so you won't want to miss that.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

A second haul of grappas from Garda

Evening! Last week we had a tumultuous return visit to beautiful Salo by Italy’s Lake Garda. This week I want you to imagine we’ve been back home for a while, and been sampling all those lovely grappas we were able to bring home. There’s four of them in all. Here’s what I thought.
Franzosi’s Grappa di Rebo
The small cork on this modern-style bottle reveals a bizarre insert that does a great job of regulating the pour. It doesn’t restrict it in any way. The label is transparent with the name written sideways in red.
It is savoury in its mightily impressive nose and on the tongue, and not really sweet at all, but actually very good. There was definitely a benefit to using my new grappa glasses here. The wine glass I tried on opening at our friends Phil and Laura’s didn’t do it justice. Phil and Laura love Italy almost as much as we do, though this was their first experience of its special spirit. Laura seemed interested, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d been left with an impression of weird vodka.
Overall the Rebo didn’t quite live up to the taste we had at the showroom. It may be that it is better chilled, but I never chill my grappa, and don’t really want to start doing that.

Il Roccolo Quatra
I’m not sure if this one really is called “Quatra”, as the writing on the label is somewhat ambiguous. It’ll have to do though. It’s a refined little bottle with smart shoulders and a slight taper, adorned at the top with a ribbon and a large, tight stopper. The label is low maintenance and respectful.
Much sweeter than the Rebo, I’ve found the Quatra to be very enjoyable and easy drinking. I really feel that extra 5% alcohol does it a lot of favours as it generates intoxicating fumes and a more intense sweetness.
It’s a no-nonsense grappa that ticks all the boxes and gets the job done.


  Il Turina Invecchiata
Presented in a low-key but classic bottle with what I’m going to call a wedding stationery label, this expression is a model of understatement. It features the same bottle insert as the Rebo, and is 45% ABV. I determined quite quickly that it lacked a certain sweetness that I was hoping for. It was enjoyable enough, but quickly found itself sliding down the pecking order and being the grappa that I would drink most frequently because I wanted to make the Quatra last. And also I opened this…

Grappa di Leali MonteAcuto
It turns out that this immaculately packaged delight is the jewel in the crown. If you visit here fairly regularly you might already be aware that I was so impressed with this that I made it one of my three spirits of the year. It is full-bodied, sweet and complex, and well worth that trip off the beaten track, into the back roads of the region.
And so ends our Italian love affair for another year. It’s well worth discovering and pursuing the delights of grappa, but even if it isn’t up your street, and wine is more your thing, a week or two exploring the various regions of Italy, visiting cantinas and wineries, makes for a relaxing and engaging experience.
That’s it for now then. I’ll be back next week, talking about something else. See you then.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Return to Garda

three grappas from the Garda region
Just over a year and a half ago Mrs Cake and I took our booze tourism adventures to Lake Garda in northern Italy (which you can read about here), and last year we decided to go back – because we were offered a discount to stay in the same apartment. Actually, not just for that reason; also because it was really good.

So we landed at Milan’s Bergamo airport at around 5pm (UK time) on the Wednesday afternoon. We had already chosen to remain in UK time for the purpose of keeping our little girl on her regular schedule of naps and meals. There were certainly no problems there, but this would lead to one or two difficulties and errors along the way that we’ll get to later.

I picked up a couple of take-out beers at an airport outlet (Ceres Strong Ale, 7.7%, 3 out of 5) for when we got back to the apartment.

After picking up the rental car (which always takes ages because queuing is an under-utilised concept in Italy) we had an hour’s drive to the accommodation, by which time it would be 7pm and getting on for little Sylvie’s bed time. We decided Mrs Cake would take care of bed time activities while I drove down the mountain to the Italmark supermarket for supplies (water, wine, beer, bananas – that last item for little Sylvie’s breakfast) and the nearby pizza bar for takeaway.

Both were closed, but I wasn’t about to give up. Otherwise it would be bed with no tea, and in the morning no breakfast and no water for the little girl to drink. You can probably drink the tap water in Italy these days, but not knowing that for sure, it was time to be the provider. I started to drive toward Salo, figuring there would have to be something open, and after one or two dead ends I found a hotel-restaurant-pizzeria and returned home with two pizzas, a bottle of house white wine and a big bottle of water. Result.

Triumph over adversity is a beautiful feeling.

The next day the people back home would be voting on whether we would remain part of the European Union. Mrs Cake and I had already voted by post, and were hoping for a victory for remain. While all that went on we got on with things. First on the agenda, after getting our little girl up and fed, was a trip to the supermarket to get food for the week, overstock on cold drinks, and get some preliminary booze.

Let’s start then, by looking at some beer selections from the local supermarket.

Peroni varieties

Peroni Nastro Azzurro is a very popular beer here in the UK. It seems to be the lager that is acceptable for drinking when you’re having a meal out. I first came across some of the other varieties of Peroni when we went to Tuscany, but I have noticed one or two of them since on the shelves at local supermarkets. Nevertheless, there are still more varieties available in Italy than there are in the UK.

I picked up the following:

Gran Riserva Puro Malto (5.2%), or pure malt, and I scored it a mere 3 out of 5.

special Peroni?
Gran Riserva Rossa (5.2%), or red pure malt. I was looking forward to this one. I, for some reason, thought it might have been aged in burgundy casks or something, and would be quite special. It doesn’t appear that anything of the sort is the case. I scored it a very disappointing 2 out of 5.

Gran Riserva Doppio Malto (6.6%), or double malt. I have seen this one in UK supermarkets, and would say it’s worth a punt at that nicely elevated ABV. With this one I finally started to deliberately score quarter points on Untappd, awarding it 3.25 out of 5.

For those distinctbeer enthusiasts who are thinking of visiting Italy, other varieties you can look out for are Peroni Gluten (gluten-free), Chill Lemon (a Radler), and Forte which is an impressive 8%. I didn’t see any of those on my travels, but rather on the Peroni website when I got home to do some research for this post.

Moretti varieties

Also available in the local supermarket were a selection of similarly packaged Morettis, representing various regions. I consider Moretti to be a decent quality lager, so I thought I’d get these because they’d also be decent additions to my distinct beers total. The ones I found were:

Lucana (5.8%), an amber ale with a scent of laurel (?) and a slight flavour of eucalyptus and mint (?!). Not things I’d normally be looking for in a beer… I thought it tasted gingery, but that could be my uncultured palate failing to identify eucalyptus. 2 out of 5.

Toscana (5.5%), a dark honey lager with “a chestnut aroma and scents of dry erbs and pine”, according to the website. I had no comment for this, but scored it 3 out of 5.
regional Moretti

Friulana (5.9%), a light yellow lager that tastes of apples. It really does. Fuck knows who wants their beer to taste of apples. I scored it 2.5 out of 5.

Piemontese (5.5%), an amber lager that is supposed to taste of blueberries. I wasn’t able to detect that, and scored it 3 out of 5.

Pugliese (5.6%0, an amber beer, that I actually wrote that I hadn't been able to find. I certainly hadn' logged it. Nevertheless, now that I come to post this, I find a picture, proving that I did find it.

I wasn’t able to get the Pugliese or Siciliana varieties but, as the ones I did try all seemed to be the same lager with an external influence of one kind or another – and as I didn’t enjoy them all that much – I think it’s safe to assume that I didn’t miss out on too much. Anyway, as we’ll find out shortly, there were other beers to be concerned with.


The next job was to pick out a bottle of grappa to drink during the week. It was a mammoth task as, as you can see from the photo, there was a veritable butt-load to choose from. And they were all well within the limit of my budget.

a selection of supermarket grappas
I went for the Nardini because I’d heard of it, it was a full 70cl, and it contained a cosy 50 ABVs. You’d be looking at around £37 plus P&P in the UK, while mine was around 15 euros. That was a large factor in my decision – the fact that I was already interested in trying it, and that I knew I wouldn’t want to buy it at home – why not buy it here, where it’s cheap?

Nardini - and a view
There was a bit of confusion in that the label states “Aquavite”, so I wasn’t sure whether this actually was grappa (once I got it back to the apartment). I looked for it on various websites and alls I could find was an identical bottle that said “grappa” on the label. Finally, I have to conclude that they are the same since fact of the matter is that aquavite is merely a synoynym of distillate. So grappa is an aquavite of grape pomace. It’s not for certain, but it’s the best I can ascertain from the information available.

As far as the drinking is concerned, it tastes like grappa, the extra alcohol gives the spirit a nice, full body and an extra, not un-welcome sweetness. I tried it straight at first, and figured at 50% a bit of water would be in order, but over the course of a couple of evenings I realised I’d been preferring it straight, so that was how I proceeded and then finished it.

What with everything else I drank during our stay (mostly during the evening when the day’s driving was definitely done) 70cl was almost a struggle to get through. One glass was nudged off the corner of a table (and smashed) by Mrs Cake, but nevertheless, I had to drink four large glasses on the last evening of our stay. By this stage, Brexit had cast a gloomy shadow over everything, but the cheap cigar I picked up at the bottom of the hill made everything better – until the next day when we’d have to find out how much Mrs Cake nearly driving us off a cliff would cost us with the rental company, and what returning to a politically divided UK would bring.

Nardini – this bottle at least – is far from the best example of grappa I’ve enjoyed so far. It is perhaps a little too rugged, too utilitarian. I suspect some Italians might tell you that’s how grappa should be, but I’ve been coming across some beautiful, refined examples in the last few years (as you’ll know if you read this blog), and I prefer those.

Wine Tour Part One

phone notes
In my pre-trip research I’d laid the foundations for some potential grappa tours – one such being an excursion to some distilleries in the Brescia region, to the west of our location, and the other being to the east, in the Vicenza area. These are easily accessible from the region around the southern end of Garda – as indeed is the Trento region, as we’d found out last time – but with our little girl still a month shy of a year old, we ultimately decided to err on the side of caution when it came to road trips. So instead of embarking on journeys that would take an hour or more (in the outward direction), we decided to keep our focus within 15 to 30 minutes of our home. Our host’s website showed that there was a world of wine within our grasp and, as had been the case in Tuscany, a lot of these vineyards, wineries and cantinas also produced their own grappas.

For the most part, they are open to the public from Monday to Saturday from 8.30 until 12, and then from 2 until 6 (give or take half an hour, depending on individual preferences). On this first outing we tried to arrive at our first target for afternoon opening. This should allow us to visit two or three places, then get back to the apartment in time for little Sylvie’s afternoon nap.

Now, we couldn’t find every cantina that was on our list of possibilities, but I had some backups (hastily prepared using the wi-fi at the apartment), so here’s what we got.

Monteacutodi Leali Antonio - Just a few minutes out of Salo, on the SS572 that skirts around the south western end of Garda, the satnav instructs you to turn right onto a country lane that leads by vineyards and to the tiny settlement of Puegagno del Garda. I park next to the fields, turning the car around in the expectation that we’ll be heading back to the main road after this.

I go to do a little recce, to make sure we aren’t getting the baby out of her car seat for no good reason, and find a sign directing me into a little courtyard. There’s no one obviously around, but it is just after lunch, so I go back and get Mrs Cake to come exploring with me.

After a minute or two, and with the help of a dog, I get the attention of a lady who comes down to help. She’s friendly and welcoming and doesn’t speak a word of English, but she’s happy to show us her showroom and let us sample some products. As with most Italians, she loves to see little Sylvie.

After a couple of purchases (Mrs Cake selects some pink fizz – Turmalino at 8 euros – and I some artfully packaged grappa, white in a dark glass bottle for 13 euros for 50cl), we head out encouraged, into the heat and back to the car for round 2.

At the Franzosi showroom
Cantina Franzosi – It soon turns out that turning the car around was a waste of effort because our next destination is behind us and only just up the road. I briefly consider walking because the satnav suggests it’s not far, and it seems easier than putting the baby back in the car seat. I don’t act on that, and it turns out that it’s a bit further than I thought – not very, but far enough to drive.

In contrast to Monteacuto, Franzosi is a larger, more industrial operation. I’m thinking that still makes it seem bigger than it is, but it is a more modern building with a car park, a warehouse and a forklift truck. At the back is a large and well-stocked showroom with many varieties of wine and grappa (one particularly fancy looking 3 year old at 43 euros for 50cl) as well as oils and vinegars.

By now little Sylvie is starting to get a little antsy, so I walk her around the building a little, trying not to bother the employees and keep her away from things she maybe shouldn’t be touching. She isn’t wearing shoes and the floor of the warehouse quickly turns her little feet black.

Meanwhile in the showroom Mrs Cake is being plied by the friendly host with four generous glasses of various wine varieties. Every now and then I hoist up little Sylvie and return her to this starting point before she gets herself in trouble. A couple of varieties of grappa are presented also, and we both select Rebo for our purchases – partly on the recommendation of our host. I could afford, and even be open to buying the 3 year old but as I’m already aware that grappa doesn’t tend to survive ageing more than 2 years all that well, I think it’s telling that it isn’t recommended to me. I also decide to pick up four new grappa glasses. I forget how much Mrs Cake’s wine cost, but my grappa was 14.50 for 70cl.

IlRoccolo – we fail to find the next cantina on our list, so we abort that one and instead come to il Roccolo in Polpenazze del Garda. Once again we are greeted warmly and treated to fresh wine samples, grappa samples and even finger foods for the baby. Mrs Cake selects a bottle of red for herself and a bargain white for our neighbour who is looking after Ruby the cat while we’re away. I also plump for another grappa, making it three for three. We’re already most of the way to achieving our take home target of four bottles each (and one for the neighbour).

It’s time to head home and relax while the little lady sleeps.

Rarrw! Manerba brews

Now, this is a place we went to last year to pick up one of each of their various beers. It’s a short drive from where we were staying, and indeed, close to many of the cantinas we visited during our stay. There was no one else there the first time we went, so we just picked up a box of 8 or 9 beers and went on our merry way. This time – after an occasion where we tried to go before they’d opened – we figured we might be able to get an early evening dinner while we picked up our beers.

It was probably about 17.30 when we got there this time, and it was thriving. We were sat outside with an Italian couple who were interested to know about the Brexit thing (though there was a great language barrier, so we talked a little bit about football instead), where we could listen to the rock n’ roll soundtrack and see a procession of people call in either for their own dinners or to pick up a box of beers.

In terms of food, they’ve gone for a kind of American roadhouse type menu – burgers, wings and that, so it probably doesn’t provide the authentic Italian dining experience that many tourists would be looking for, but it was decent enough food.

And the beer…

The branding has been changed somewhat; shifting from a simple but classic look with plain labels and a small follow the bear style emblem to stark black and electric, ZX Spectrum-type colours with a simple image representative of a snarling bear. I prefer the old style, but Mrs Cake saw the merits of the new one.

Luppulula, 5.2% – this one hadn’t been available last time, and it was the one I chose to drink on draught with my meal (it wasn’t available in a bottle). It’s classed as a pilsner, but it’s very light in body and in colour. 3/5

Fiordalisa, 4.8% - this is a wheat bear, which is usually a favourite genre of mine. That is reflected in the score, and that, at this point I’d given up relying on the fridge to get my beers cold, and had started sticking them in the freezer for 40 minutes prior to opening. 4/5

La Bionda, 5.2% - a Helles style lager, I scored this quite low. I must have been a little disappointed. 2.75/5

La Rocca, 6.8% - a Belgian Tripel that comes in one of those oversized bottles, topped with a cork. 4/5

Cucunera, 7% - a good strong bock, and a favourite of the range for me. 4.5/5

Weizen, 5.2% - a Hefeweizen and, again, a very good one. 4.5/5

Hop ‘n’ Roll, 4.7% - a pale ale, another favourite. 4.5/5

Rebuffone, 6.7% - also presented in an oversized bottle, this Belgian Dubbel didn’t quite reach the heights of the last three, but still; 4/5.

Wine tour part 2

You may not believe it, but a good smattering of months has passed since I last wrote anything on this post. I don’t know what happened, but suddenly I just couldn’t be bothered to write it anymore. Luckily, that’s all over with now and I feel like I can proceed again, though I have to warn you, my memory has faded somewhat and I might not be able to recall all the details. At least that means it won’t take as long to write – or read – right?

So anyway, our second wine tour was a chance to mop up some of the cantinas that were either a little too out of the way, or that we didn’t have time for on our previous excursion. We didn’t plan a big one though, as having already purchased 3 bottles of grappa and 4 bottles of wine, we simply didn’t have the luggage capacity to buy any more. I figured then that we could visit two cantinas, buying a bottle of wine at one and a bottle of grappa at the other – you don’t have to, but you kind of would prefer to be able to buy something everywhere you visit to make the effort the proprietor has put in worthwhile.

Our first stop, LeChiusure, turned out to be something of an unpleasant experience. Let’s make no bones about it. It was quite hard to find, with roadworks blocking the route the satnav wanted to take, and when we got there we ended up going through the wrong entrance, which meant strolling across some beautiful grounds that really ought to have been reserved for the family. They didn’t seem to mind, but we did feel we were imposing on their privacy.

In the showroom Allessandro Luzzago was already concluding business with a couple of visitors from the UK – visitors who were casually buying a couple of cases of his wine. Through this, a couple of sample bottles were already open, though one of the customers recommended we try the Portese. We requested to do so, and the proprietor opened a new bottle for us. Mrs Cake decided to buy that, and the annoyance on the proprietor’s face at opening a new sample bottle to secure a purchase of only one bottle was unmistakable. He quickly tried to make out it didn’t matter, but we knew that really it did. Really, I could understand this, but everywhere else we went the proprietors opened fresh bottles at the drop of a hat, and were delighted no matter how little we wanted to buy. I suppose it’s possible that most other cantinas can put these open bottles to good use later the same day, while perhaps Le Chiusure doesn’t have that kind of set up. Nevertheless, it left a bad taste in our mouths and left us apprehensive about continuing our adventure.

Was the wine any good? Well, as you know, I don’t tend to comment on wine. It seemed fine to me.

We had been late leaving the apartment that day – a result of keeping our clocks on UK time, to facilitate little Sylvie’s naps, remember - so when this first visit was concluded it was nearing lunch time, and all the cantinas would be closing. We decided to head into the nearby town of San Felice del Benaco and grab some lunch, then see how we felt after that.

After that we felt like maybe calling at Turina, which we’d spotted was on the main road through the industrial state at Manerba. It can be tough to pad out two hours though, even with lunch in southern mainland Europe, so we arrived at the site a good 20 minutes before it was due to open. The car park was bathed in direct sunlight, and little Sylvie was uncomfortable and upset, so we ended up parking under the only shade, which was actually in the middle of the road around the building.

It wasn’t a very happy time, but eventually someone arrived to open up, and they actually let me in early. He seemed confused by my presence, and my clumsy attempts at conversation got me nowhere, so I ended up just purchasing a bottle of Invecchiata, the aged grappa for 14 euros (I think). Finally we could head back to the apartment, and spend the rest of the afternoon drinking and relaxing by the pool.

Final Days

Brexit did cast a gloomy air over proceedings (and did pretty much ruin our holiday – and indeed, much of my waking life since. I wonder if anyone else is as worried about all this as I am?), but that didn’t stop us trying to get our party on for the last couple of days. The Manerba beers were dwindling, and it was time to revisit the supermarket and see what I could add to my distinct beers for the week.

Bad Brewer, but, presumably they mean bad in a good way
What I picked up this time were three varieties of Bad Brewer, an Italian brand described as street food beers – so they’re small bottles, and funkily branded – presumably intended for drinking with fancy burgers.

Now, as I said a little earlier, all this happened a while ago now, and I can’t remember much detail. Untappd tells me though that the Pale Ale scored 3.5/5 and the California Common and Amber Ale both scored 3/5.

Finally I picked up a super strength Dutch lager, whose cans had caught my eye – all shiny and gold, like. Even more importantly, this 8.6 Gold by Bavaria Brouwerij was 6.5% ABV. But it only scored 2/5.

Duty Free

Finally it was time to head home and find out what life in a fractured and divided Britain was now like. I’d been reading articles about increases in racism and hate crime, Corbyn’s shadow cabinet had resigned – which at first seemed likea good thing – and it all seemed like a great big shitstorm. I actually wished I’d been home the whole time, so that I could at least see things from my own perspective. The distance of a bit of a continent was distorting.

First though, there was the prospect of Duty Free. I’m sorry to say, that once we sorted out the damage to the rental car and got through security and all that, I had no enthusiasm for extra purchases left in me. I also felt a little rushed and didn’t have the luxury of time to adequately evaluate what was on offer. I did have a quick peruse, but all the grappa looked to be around twice the price it would have been in the supermarket. I should perhaps have looked at vermouth or even an Italian chocolate liqueur I’d heard about, but like I say, my mind just wasn’t in the right place.

We went home. Life, for us at least, was pretty much the same as it had been when we left, it was just hard to feel upbeat about the future. I think I’m used to that feeling now. Shit happens, we’ll deal with it. It doesn’t necessarily stop you feeling low, but you deal with it, don’t you?

There will be no trip back to Italy in 2017 unfortunately, and probably no trip to France either – which was something we’d been planning – because redecorating the hallway and carpeting the upstairs bedrooms is looking likely to cost £2k. But that’s life, isn’t it? There’s always next year, and this year’s going to be good anyway. Little Sylvie continues to develop, and there are loads of beers and spirits to try. Let’s get on it.

And if you come back next week, I’ll be looking at the grappas I picked up that week in a little more detail.