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.