Thursday, 29 July 2010

Ale Almanac

Schiehallion (Cask, 4.8% abv)
This obscenely quaffable ale-style lager, named after a Scottish mountain pronounced "she-hal-i-on", has become a summer mainstay at The Gunmakers in Clerkenwell. Described by brewer Harviestoun as a "cask-conditioned lager beer", it's made with lager malt and lager hops, but is treated in every other way - and tastes like - an ale, with no carbonation. The appearance is golden-orange (pictured top), the aroma, fresh hops, and the mouthfeel creamy. On a previous tasting I claimed it was so pleasant I could happily drink nine pints of the stuff (maybe next summer). Warning: I can't vouch for the bottled version.

(Cask, 3.5%)
A pleasant offering from Bowman, the Hampshire brewery. Made, apparently, with real elderflowers, the taste hinted at its ingredient without overdoing it. Refreshing.

Lakeland Blonde (Bottle, 4.2%)
Another example of a lagery ale, or an aley lager, Lakeland Blonde is produced in Cockermouth by the 
Bitter End Brewing Co, who describe their produce as "beer without compromise". Brewed with lager barley and "pure Cumbrian water" (is there any other kind?), this golden beer was smooth but flavourful and moreish, with a long, sweetish honey finish. The 500ml bottle provided quite a chunky serving, and a decent amount of bubbles. As I say, it struck me as one of those ale/lager hybrids, like the Schiehallion, or Fuller's Honeydew, taking the best of both genres. As Bitter End notes, helpfully, Lakeland is "not to be confused with bland tasteless mass produced beers". Also available casked.

Oak (Cask, 3.8%)
From the Grain Brewery, in Norfolk, comes a series of interesting beers. Of the near-dozen available, I found the Oak on tap at a pub, and it was indeed the "well-balanced session beer" promised. Awarded 1st place Bitter in the 2008 CAMRA Norwich Beer Festival -  and you can't say that about every beer.

Lord Marples (Cask, 4.0%)
Thornbridge is one of those brewers in which ale fans are meant to be well-versed. I confess, I'd never tried one before this half of Lord Marples, their "classic British bitter". I ordered it on my first visit to the Cask Pub and Kitchen, in London's Pimlico, which instantly vaulted into my top ten list of favourite pubs (check out the 30-page beer menu!). As for the Marples, I decided I wanted something a tad homely after a glass of BrewDog's dry & bitter Physics, and the Marples's "light toffee and caramel characteristics" were just the antidote. I will be back for more from this Derbyshire brewer.

Isle of Arran (Cask, 10%)
While we're on BrewDog, a quick note about its Paradox series (which involves adding its Imperial Stout to various ex-whisky barrels for a time). Having enjoyed the Smokehead and the Springbank, I'd been keen to complete the set by tasting the Isle of Arran expression too. Fortunately (obviously?), the Cask pub had it on tap. It was excellent, almost preferable to the Smokehead, with the Arran's vanilla-sweetness providing a delicious counterweight to the usual bitter-black viscosity.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Coffee Frappé

Wells Deli
15 The Quay
Norfolk NR23 1AH

Ice, coffee, milk - blended. Coffee frappés are just the thing on a hot day. This one, £2.30 from Wells Deli, came with almond syrup (just a dash or two, mind - I prefer the flavour rather than the sweetness). Creamy and cold, and light, it was down quickly and woke me up gently. If only someone could invent a self-cleaning blender I'd have one for breakfast every day.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Ola Dubh

Ola Dubh (pronounced oh-la doo) means "black oil", in Gaelic, and the beer - a collaboration between Harviestoun brewery and Highland Park whisky distillery - does a pretty good impression of the stuff. The beer takes something similar to Harviestoun's Old Engine Oil, which I once described as a "tar-black, stout-like beer", and allows it to spend some quality time in ex-Highland Park whisky barrels. The effect - remarkable and life-enhancing - is similar to that produced by BrewDog's Paradoxes (see here and here). This particular expression was Ola Dubh 12, which means the casks previously contained HP 12-year-old, and not (I hope) that the beer was matured for more than a decade. The other variants of OD are the 16 and 30 (watch spaces). But back to the 12, which was 8% abv, viscous-rich and dark/oily/smoky/bitter, perfectly balanced by flavours of sweet treacle and chocolate, and concluding with a gloriously whiskyish finish. Here, more than usual, one bottle was plenty. Joyfully, cheese experts have recommended pairing Ola Dubh with one of my favourite fromages, Comté; an aged French gruyereColston Basset stilton is also mentioned as a potential suitor, and just the thought of combining beer, whisky and cheese in one sitting is enough to leave me quite dribbly.

Monday, 26 July 2010

WKD Blue

I realise, by featuring WKD Blue, I risk destroying my already fragile reputation as a drinker of good taste, but credibility - unlike, for example, WKD Blue - is overrated. A sweet, vodka-based blueberry-flavoured alcopop (4% abv), it is not, in the true meaning of the phrase, a Good Drink. But when I bought a bottle towards the end of a marathon post-wedding pub session, to celebrate a spiritual union of love, people began passing it around, tasting it and giggling, as if it were something from outer space. It's not from outer space - it's made in Torquay - but it was appreciated all the same.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Islay Ales

On the ferry to Islay we were tempted to try some of the local brew, and shared a triumvirate of bottles from Islay Ales. By the end of our weekend on the island, we'd worked our way through a couple more, yielding the following notes...

Finlaggan (3.7% vol): A gentle, hoppy beer.
Light, thin, clean, no aftertaste, inoffensive, berries, cinnamon, fruity, watery hops. Easy drinking ale with a citrus zing up front that quickly fades to nothing, a bit like the sun in the west of Scotland.

Dun Hogs Head (4.4%): Dark, dry stout.
Blackcurrant on the nose. Medium bodied. Slight taste of lemon, coffee and liquorice, with wood smoke in the finish, like a burning fruit bush.

Black Rock (4.2%): With unmalted roasted barley.
Like dropping a Werther's Original into a glass of water. Toffee, but not enough of it. A little Islay smoke in the finish? Banana, rich hops with more carbonation than the Finlaggan.

Nerabus (4.8%): Described as a winter warmer.
Malty, chocolatey ale, with chocolate malt!

Single Malt (5.0%): We assumed this involved whisky casks but we were wrong. The single malt in question was simply the single variety of malt (Pale) used to brew the beer. Cheeky.
Lighter, sweeter, hoppier.

It must be hard, sometimes, being the only brewery on an island of eight whisky distilleries. But Islay Ales are doing it anyway. My favourite of the crop was the Dun Hogs Head, illustrating my growing preference for stouts and porters. Some of the others were less exciting, but overall the beer was a bonus addition to an already remarkable island.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Vodka Watermelon

A vodka watermelon sounds like something you'd find at a frat party, which is partly why I wanted to bring one to a friend's barbecue. Because frat parties are fun, right? Here's how it's done...

Vodka Watermelon

Take a large watermelon, use a knife to cut a hole in the side and scoop out some of the innards. Stick an open bottle of half-full vodka into the hole and leave for a few hours until the booze has drained into the fruit. Remove the empty bottle, cover the hole in cling film and place the watermelon in the fridge for at least 24 hours to allow the vodka to soak in. Remove from fridge and cut into slices. Eat warily.

The result, pictured top, was interesting. Luckily it was a scorcher of an afternoon, so cold fruit was in demand. The end of the watermelon, which we got to first, tasted only faintly of vodka, with the alcohol increasingly making its presence felt the further we got to the centre of the fruit. Perhaps leaving it a little longer before eating may have allowed the vodka to osmose more effectively. Nevertheless, a fine party trick, if not a greatest hit.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

La Perla (Again)

11 Charlotte Street

Having already enjoyed La Perla in Covent Garden (best happy hour ever) it was only a matter of time and tequila cravings before I sampled their sister bar in Charlotte Street.

Visiting late at night on a quiet Monday - when the staff in the basement bar had nothing better to do than give us their undistracted attention - we got through three delightful drinks.

First up, in an attempt to convert a previously sceptical friend to the joys of proper tequila, I ordered a round of Don Julio Reposado, which I recalled from a trip to Texas as offering a lovely, and unexpected, milk chocolatey flavour.

Afterwards, feeling a little more adventurous, I decided to give mezcal another shot. The rather harsh record of my first taste of this non-tequila agave-based beverage, from the Lajita distillery, read: "Unrefined, with strong smoke followed by a petrol-flavoured finish and a hint of soap".

This time, the barman was kind enough to let me try a couple before buying a round, and I settled on a substance called Ultramarine mezcal (right), which was altogether more satisfying to sip: agave and smoke, without the dirt.

To finish, we switched to an older tequila, the Centenario Anejo, 100% agave (of course), and aged in oak for over 12 months (pictured top). Sadly, my tasting notes did not survive the experience, but I vaguely recall a successful marriage of vanilla-wood and smooth agave spirit.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Porch Swing

M spotted the recipe for this great summer cocktail from the Smitten Kitchen blog. It's a great twist on the usual Pimm's and lemonade, and the cucumber is exceptional.

Porch Swing

45ml (1.5oz) Hendrick's Gin
45ml (1.5oz) Pimm’s No. 1
120ml (4oz) homemade lemonade*
7-Up or bottled lemonade
10 paper-thin half moon slices of cucumber 

Pour gin, Pimm’s and lemonade into tall glass. Add a few ice cubes and a splash of 7-Up. Finish with cucumber slices.

*Homemade Lemonade:
1 part freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 part simple syrup**
2 parts water

**Simple syrup:
1 part sugar
1 part water
Add boiling water to sugar and stir until sugar is dissolved.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Chai Latte

33 Trafalgar Street
East Sussex

I like to keep a box of chai teabags around, for a gentle cuppa of sweet spice in the mornings, as an apperitif to a mug of strong coffee. The paper cup pictured above, from Brighton's hip caffeine hangout coffee@33, was an altogether more pungent version. Chai (or 'masala chai' to use its proper name - chai being the generic Indian word for tea) is said to contain any combination of cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, star anise, peppercorn and cloves, blended with black tea. I can't say for sure what combination of spices coffee@33 used for its secret chai syrup, but even after the addition of hot milk to latte things up it packed a spicy punch and no mistake. M claimed it was making her throat itch, but for me this milky concoction was chai untethered; a force of nature. I hear they make good coffee too.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Bruichladdich Octomore Orpheus

Lochside Hotel
Shore Street

Phenols are not something to which I'd given much thought before I started getting into whisky. Measured in parts per million (ppm), they describe the peatiness of a spirit, or the length of time the malt used to make the whisky is smoked over a peat fire. Octomore, produced by independent Islay distillery Bruichladdich (pronounced Brook-laddie), claims to be the most heavily peated whisky in the world, at a whopping 140 ppm. To illustrate how peaty this is, ponder that the standard Ardbeg 10, which is generally considered to be peatier than peat itself, clocks in at a comparatively benign 50 ppm.

On Islay, in between distillery visits, there was plenty of time to check out a few of the island's incredible whisky bars, and it was in one of these (Bowmore's Lochside Hotel) that we came across the Octomore Orpheus (edition 02.2, five-year old, 61% vol) - which takes the conventional Octomore and finishes it in red wine casks from Chateau Petrus, Bordeaux. We ordered a dram from the bar, between the three of us (for £11!), and braced
 ourselves for a peat explosion. It was certainly peaty, but while we were expecting to be physically assaulted by phenols, we were not. Maybe the wine finish took the edge off, but this left us feeling rather underwhelmed, and poorer with it.

: I belatedly found our tribe's 
tasting notes for the Orpheus, which read as follows...
Nose: Forest fire with burnt tyres, honey roast ham.
Taste: Salt, chorizo and honey, with a very long finish.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Raw Milk

FoodLovers Market

Rupert Street/Winnett Street

*Guest post by Marina*

I've been wanting to try raw milk ever since reading about the controversy over it in the US. Luckily, A and I went to check out a new food market in Soho and there was a stand from Hook & Son serving up half pints of raw milk to try for a quid. I seized the opportunity and received a plastic cup of milk that was much whiter and opaque than the milk I get from the supermarket. To be fair, I usually drink skim milk, which is quite watery when compared to full fat milk, but not only did the raw milk taste creamier, it was also tasted milkier, if that makes any sense. They also had raw milk cream and butter at the stand - I might have to try making my own butter out of their cream some time - I bet it would taste incredible. If you like milk, you should try this stuff - it's concentrated milk goodness.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Burrow Hill Cider

Pass Vale Farm
Burrow Hill
Kingsbury Episcopi 
Somerset TA12 6BU

Burrow Farm Pressed Somerset Cider is the real deal, which is why it's sold in what look like petrol canisters, straight from the barrel. We picked up this blend of "at least" 11 varieties of vintage cider apples from the farm itself, on a trip to the Westcountry. As we were browsing in the farm shop two cars pulled up, separately, their owners walking in with multiple empties demanding refills "for the weekend".

As for the contents, this 6% cider (we went for the medium one) was slightly cloudy, as you'd expect from proper ciders, with a golden hue. The aroma was fresh apple and farmyard spice and it tasted of ripe apples, with the faintest spritz; dry, but balanced.
The farm, in a place called Kinsbury Episcopi
, is also responsible for producing an interesting range of cider brandies (on which more soon), as well as The Somerset Pomona, a delicious blend of cider brandy and apple juice. They is good apples.

Monday, 12 July 2010

WS#4: Islay

Islay whisky is filthy (in the peated sense, you understand). It's hard to believe a pile of mud and yellow-brown water can produce such a fine tasting spirit, but believe it you must (although malted barley is also said to play a part). For Whisky Squad #4, we decided to focus entirely on Islay, whose eight active distilleries made producing a playlist of four a challenge in itself. Eventually, led by Darren the whisky guy, malt's answer to Professor Dumbledore, we fell upon the following spell-binding spirits...

Bunnahabhain 18

43% ABV
Nose: Honey, sherry, cheap chocolate brownies.
Taste: Vanilla fudge, milk chocolate, rich. Not peaty.

Bruichladdich Peat
46% ABV
Nose: Tequila, cheese, unwashed running socks, green sap
Taste: Parma Violets, vanilla, not very peaty (again).

Caol Ila Unpeated 10
65.8% ABV (cask strength)
Colour: Light straw
Nose: Nasally powerful. Fudge.
Taste: Orange zest, honey and coal sacks.

Lagavulin Distillery Only
51.5% ABV. Only 6,000 bottles produced. No age statement. 
This was essentially the classic Distillers Edition (almost 16 years in bourbon before being finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks), further matured in a PX sherry-soaked bourbon cask for an additional three to six months and bottled at cask strength.
Nose: White chocolate and smoke, with dates.
Taste: Vanilla-sweet and richly peaty with a long, sweet finish. Like Christmas Day.

The Lagavulin, procured on a trip to Islay, was a great after-dinner dram, the most popular with the Squad, and finally some peat! Overall, our quartet was distinctly less peatsome than your average Islay session, but for a sweltering hot Thursday evening it may have been just what the whisky doctor ordered.

For a bonus round, courtesy of brilliant booze blogger Billy, we enjoyed a miniature sample of 
Kilchoman "new spirit plus about six months in the barrel", from the island's newest distillery (circa 2005). It gave us aromas of virginal malted barley with a hint of peat, and a palate of peat vodka. Underdeveloped, but moving in the right direction.

Thanks to the Whisky Squaddies for help with the tasting notes, as always.
Next month, we're on summer whiskies, so let's hope the weather stays appropriately uncold.

Read Billy's nasally challenged but peerless account here and Darren's part-finished but learned effort right here.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Dalmore Mackenzie

The Dalmore Mackenzie was released earlier this year - just 3,000 bottles of the stuff - in part to raise funds to refurbish a castle owned by the distillery's former owners (the Mackenzies). With such important history involved it seemed apt to try this sample bottle, from the company's PR team, in Scotland. And so, in a room in the Holiday Inn next to Glasgow Airport, waiting for our flight to Islay, we cracked it open.


Colour: Reddish
Nose: Rich Xmas cake, marzipan, Fisherman's Friend, sweetness
Taste: Toffee, orange peel explosion, tangerine peel, with a second wave leaving pepper on the tongue. Dry finish.

The spirit was distilled in 1992, held in American oak casks for 11 years, then finished in fresh port pipes, before being bottled at 46%. The red tinge from the port is said to link the whisky to the blood of the injured stag, Dalmore's logo. And? We thought it a terrific whisky, and a perfect aperitif to a peaty weekend in Islay. But we wouldn't have paid the £100 asking price.

Thursday, 8 July 2010


The Jägerbomb is Jägermeister and Red Bull. If you look carefully at the picture above you can see a smaller shot glass sitting inside a larger tumbler. That's the J-bomb primed to go off.

How To:

Fill a shot glass with Jägermeister and half-fill a tumbler with Red Bull.
Drop the shot glass into the tumbler and sink the lot.

It's actually not as bad as it sounds, and it made a change from the usual sambuca or mixto tequila shots. I want to write more about 
Jägermeister, a 35% abv digestif made with herbs and spices, but I'll leave that for another post, since its 'complex flavours' are probably wasted here.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010


*Guest post by Tim*

It is rare to find 'the one' meant for you. Someone who stands out from the crowd, has a bit of an attitude, plenty of personality and who is exciting to be around. So when you do find her, you should cherish her, treat her properly and remain faithful.

I thought I had that with Ardbeg Ten, the punchy little malt from the Inner Hebrides. She offers a brilliant mix of a toffee, creamy and salty nose with plenty of iodine. The taste is sweet before a rush of peat hits your tongue followed by a waft of tobacco smoke which lingers on the palate. The problem is that curiosity so often gets the better of us. Bluntly, if she is tasty, then what are her sisters like?

A visit to Ardbeg’s home on the island of Islay, and a distillery tour (left), provided just the opportunity for a little, um, experimentation. But then came a classic male mistake. The tour guide laid out all the malts and I went for the one with the promise of immediate gratification. The latest expression of Ardbeg Supernova boasts phenolic levels of 100 ppm, around twice the level of the Ardbeg Ten. This is irresistible to any lover of peaty malts. The nose was surprisingly underwhelming. In the mouth the smoky peat was there and a little pepper too. But there was little more. At £80 a bottle, she’s an expensive date but doesn’t offer up as much as you might hope.

Then came the real treat: Ardbeg Uigeadailnamed after the loch that provides the distillery’s water. It includes some spirit aged in sherry butts as well as bourbon casks. The nose was Christmas cake and wood smoke. The flavours in the mouth were rich and luscious but all of the fantastic peaty flavours were still there. The tastes lingered long after the liquid was gone.
So it was time to look at one of the younger sisters. We were offered up Still Young, a perky little nine-year old and part of a series charting the development of the classic Ardbeg Ten. The toffee, the salt, the peat were all there. At 56.2% ABV she should have packed a few more flavours, but in the end there was little to make her stand out from her 10 year-old sibling.

By comparison, Ardbeg Corryvreckan, which included spirit aged in French oak casks, lacked a certain pizazz. She gave little away on the nose aside from a hint of cut grass. In the mouth the whisky tasted summery and somewhat dry with a white wine feel. Perhaps trying the Corryvreckan after the Uigeadail is akin to sipping gaspacho after chocolate pudding. She just wasn’t right for the mood. Likewise Rollercoaster, a bit of a gimmick of a whisky incorporating ten casks, one from each year from 1997. She was pleasant but tasted thinner than the ten-year and, in the end, was nothing special.

So after these dalliances, did I return back to Ardbeg Ten, a little shamefaced but with renewed loyalty? Yes and no. Ardbeg is still at the front of my drinks cupboard but sitting next to her in filial harmony is a bottle of Ardbeg Uigeadail for those occasions when only something a little spicier will do.

Sunday, 4 July 2010


A trip to
Islay, for a whisky lover, is a pilgrimage of religious proportions. My four-day trip, with drinking buddies T and J, took in seven of the eight distilleries on the island - and many more whiskies besides.

We started off, almost by accident, at Laphroig (above), while waiting for an appointment at Lagavulin. A 'quick peek' turned into a distillery tour, and a dram, and we got to see the floor maltings (right), where the barley grains are laid out to germinate in the early stage of the production process. The other distilleries in Islay - with the exception of newbie Kilchoman - all use Diageo's maltings facility, and even Laphroig only produces about 15% of its malt on site. But it gave us a good sense of how it used to be done in the olden days. As for the dram, I believe it was their Quarter Cask, which I preferred to the slightly rougher, and medicinally pungent, 10-year-old standard.

Then on to Lagavulin, where we went on another tour and I began to appreciate the process: soak the barley, turn it, dry it over a peat fire, grind it, ferment it with yeast and water, distill the mixture twice (in pot stills, pictured left), mature it, drink it. Here we were fortunate enough to sample some terrific whiskies, as follows:

Lagavulin Distillery Only
Only 6,000 bottles produced. No age statement. 51.5% ABV.
This was essentially the classic Distillers Edition (almost 16 years in bourbon before being finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks), further matured in a PX sherry-soaked bourbon cask for an additional three to six months and bottled at cask strength.
Note: White chocolate and smoke on the nose. Vanilla-sweet and rich on the palate with a long, sweet finish. A great after-dinner dram.

Port Ellen 30-year-old

The distillery ceased production in 1983, and Lagavulin are looking after the remaining stock, and looking after it well by the evidence of this whisky (right).
Note: Slightly minty aroma, with pepper. On the palate, tangy lemon, like sherbert; slightly medicinal with a sweet nuttiness at the end.

From Lagavulin, we caught a cab (public transport not being what it might be) to Bruichladdich, the island's renegade independent distillery. An enjoyable tour finished with a generous tasting session, where I tried a few of the 30-odd expressions, a rather bewildering array of options that left me intrigued but not buying.

Sunday was Ardbeg day, and a chance to try a few of theirs too, including my favourite, the sherry-finished Uigeadail, a bottle of fruity, sweetish peat so beguiling I had to take one home with me. (Full Ardbeg write-up to follow).

Then, on Monday, we visited Caol Ila, which I confess I knew little about before our visit. A further tour was rewarded with one of the tastiest drams of the trip, a Caol Ila 25-year-old (left), which I recall hazily as offering creamy caramel fudge side-by-side with gentle peat.

Caol Ila enjoys the most beautiful setting of all the island's distilleries, looking out across the sea and beyond to the island of Jura (below right). They need to set up a cafe down there. Or a bar, at least.

Then to Bunnahabhain, whose wares are the least peaty of the Islay malts. Not that this was a problem, having had just about my fill of peaty potions and phenolic tonics: Bunnahab's fudgy 18-year-old was just the dessert drink I'd been craving for.

Finally, and just as our taste buds were giving way, we popped into Bowmore, whose visitor centre was the most obviously impressive. As we shared a couple of drams on the balcony, overlooking the sea, we felt decidedly well whiskied.

Kilchoman was the only distillery we failed to visit. Established in 2005, it's also the newest - and the first to be built on Islay for 124 years. Being so young, its only product so far is a three-year-old, which we sampled at a pub one evening and found to be showing much promise.

The biggest surprise of the trip was the state of the water used to make the whisky. For some reason, having read distilleries' tributes to their magical lochs and springs, I'd always imagined the liquid itself would look cleanish, if not crystal clear. Then I was shown a mug of the stuff (left - that's Ardbeg's finest, from Loch Uigeadail, yellow-brown from the peat). Still, as Woody Allen says, whatever works.