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.