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.