Monday, 30 August 2010



Kings Cross

Sherry has such a poor reputation that until recently I presumed I hated the stuff despite never having actually tried it. A visit to Spanish bar Camino, with its extensive bar facilities, provided a chance to dispel my prejudices. My first false assumption was that Sherry (or "vino de Jerez", made from white grapes near the Spanish town of the same name) was sickly sweet. Not true. Sure, this fortified wine certainly has a richness to it, but it's not desserty. The dryness ensures it's still more appropriate as a pre-dinner bud-tingler than a postprandial ponderer. From Camino's selection of Sherries (Jerezes?) three of us shared glasses of the following three:

Amontillado, Vina AB, Gonzalez Byass

Nine years old.
Appearance: Golden.
Aroma: Chocolate, raisin, almond.
Taste: Not sweet, almond, vanilla finish.

Oloroso Antique, Fernando de Castilla

Twenty years old.
Appearance: Burnt red.
Aroma: Maraschino cherries, chocolate, caramel, amaretti biscuits, Christmas cake.
Taste: Slightly sweeter than Amontillado; prunes and dates, dried fruits, still dry, richer, long, smooth finish.

Palo Cortado, Fernando de Castilla

Described on menu as "rare and very fine".
Appearance: Darker.
Aroma: Sweet, rich toffee.
Taste: Burnt orange, citrussy, slightly more bitter than Oloroso, still dry.

My favourite was the Amontillado, in part because it reminded me of certain whiskies that finish off their maturation in Amontillado casks, imparting a (surprise!) sherry richness to the malt. For similar reasons, I'm still keen to try Pedro Ximénez, a dessert sherry that has also proven a great friend to whiskies over the years. When I find one, reader, you will hear about it.

Sunday, 29 August 2010


18 Lime Office Court
Hill House
Shoe Lane
London EC4A 3BQ

Taking some days off work recently, but staying in London, I decided to check out a few cocktail bars I've been meaning to visit. The first was a tiki bar (think rum, tropical fruit and kitsch wood carvings, right) located slightly incongruously on the edge of the City. Kanaloa, I must insist, offers one of the best happy hour(s) deals I have ever stumbled upon: half price drinks from 4pm to 9pm every week night, taking the average price of a cocktail down to £4 or £5. Accepted, you're not going to find much of a party at half four on a Tuesday evening, but who really cares? The drink's the thing.

Coconut Cannonball (pictured top)

Filled with Ocho Blanco tequila, coconut water, orange bitters, lime & ginger cordial, and Cholula hot sauce (£3.75 in happy hour!), this was cool but hot - one I'll be trying at home, just as soon as I locate a reliable coconut water supplier. And some indoor fireworks.

Zombie and Burning Spear
Luan Lorelei
Bacardi 8, Thai-style mango lassi, pineapple sorbet, honey cream, passionfruit and lime. This one came blended, frozen, like a thick, fruit-packed booze smoothie.


Over nine different rums, splash of absinthe, spiced liqueurs, maraschino cherry liqueur, pomegranate, passion and grapefruits. "Two of these and you'll be looking [walking and talking] like the undead", claimed the menu. The waited explained that the ceramic gargoyle contained some 75ml of liquor, in turn explaining the higher price (£13 or £6.50 in happy hour). Tasty, but my world was left unrocked.

Burning Spear
Appleton V/X, pimientos, thyme and scotch bonnet syrup shaken with fresh lime juice and served with a burning spear of thyme. Delicious: hot spice, citrus and golden rum working together wonderfully - with the thyme adding a light herbal smokiness.

Nui Nui-Ni (below left)
Cigar-infused Havana Club, Madagascan vanilla, pimiento and cinnamon rolled with Carpano Anitica Formula. Staying with the smoke theme, this one was served in a tumbler with the biggest ice cube I've ever seen. Only slightly sweet, rich, smoky, sultry: a really good cocktail.

Pina Colada (below right)

Eldorado 3yo rum blended with Goslings Black Seal, Koko Kanu, fresh lime and pineapple. Presented in a hollowed-out fresh pineapple, it was lovely and creamy. This bar is awesome.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

The Wine Society

Wine clubs failed to interest me for a long time. If I can't work out what I want after browsing the supermarket aisles for 20 minutes, how on earth am I supposed to conjure an order of 12 from an internet list? Then I was bought membership to The Wine Society ("the world's oldest wine club") for my birthday. The Society is a co-operative, and as a member I am apparently a shareholder too. The £40 joining fee not only lasts for life, but after life, since the membership may be transferred to a surviving family member.

Most of the trade is presumably done by internet or mail order, but for those so inclined the warehouse (or "cellar showroom") is in Stevenage, and open to members to visit. We made the trip for a "bin-end" sale but were disappointed - not enough ends on offer, frankly. From now on, I'm sticking to the website.

The deal is a good one: 800 wines on offer at any one time, with new offerings being made available as and when. The prices are decent - equivalent to Majestic, except with the Society you don't have to buy two of the same bottles to secure the 'discount'. Delivery is free when you order £75 of product, or 12 bottles. The Society also sources some wines directly from wineries, and badges them as their own Society expressions at reasonable prices. For a little more, you can try their "exhibition" series.

My favourite find so far is the Society's basic Rioja Crianza (2006), which at £6.95 is the best budget(ish) bottle I've discovered for a long while. It's produced for the Society by Bodegas Palacio, which ironically we tried to visit on a trip to Rioja last year, only to find that no-one was turning up to open the winery that day. I was primed to dislike it, then, but was prevented by its sheer quaffability (think leather, vanilla and tobacco on the nose, with blackcurrant and cherries on the palate, perhaps a little chocolate, refined by that lovely dry-oaky thing that Riojas do).

I plan to use the Society's wine list to sample some of the many different styles and regions that I've hitherto failed to try properly, in an attempt to elevate my wine knowledge from mediocre to patchy. We'll see how that goes.

Friday, 27 August 2010


Learning how to make a Margarita is as easy as 1, 2, 3. One part lime, two parts orange liqueur and three parts tequila - shaken with ice and served straight up in a fancy glass or on the rocks in a tumbler - with or without a rim of coarse-grained salt.

Those are the basic variations. Some prefer different proportions (more tequila, say, or more lime juice), some add simple syrup, some replace the orange liqueur with fresh orange juice; others throw the whole lot in a blender for a frozen drink. But never mind about anyone else: here's my personal favourite, at least for now:


15ml (0.5oz) fresh lime juice.
30ml (1oz) Cointreau
45ml (1.5oz) tequila

Throw the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake well. Strain into a tumbler with fresh ice.

When it comes to the tequila, look for something made from 100% agave (which rules out that Jose Cuervo mixto nonsense you find in most British bars). A silver/blanco tequila might taste more refreshing, if that's what you're after on a sunny day, while a reposado will provide a richer flavour. I'm ambivalent about salt: as long as it doesn't run down the inside of the glass it can make a nice addition, but generally I don't bother. As for the glass, I used to like those fiddly martini vessels (pictured top) without ice. Recently I've preferred a tumbler with rocks.

Another dilemma (not all dilemmas are bad, see) is what to pick for the orange element. I tried a little taste test, constructing three margaritas with standard triple sec, Cointreau and brandy-based Grand Marnier (read more about the liqueurs here).

* With the triple sec, the margarita was thin, but the tequila came through. This was the tartest of the three, and might make for a good aperitif.

* Cointreau produced my favourite of the trio: very orangey, with a strong orange aroma, slightly sweeter than the first, and well-balanced with the tequila.

* Grand Marnier stepped up the orange even further. This was more of an orange drink than a tequila/lime one. It tasted altogether different than the others - heavy, thick, sweet: orange brandy with a tequila kick - better as a digestif.

Whatever you choose, choose a Margarita. Did I mention how amazing this drink can be? One of the best.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Great British Beer Festival 2010

Just like Glastonbury, the Great British Beer Festival is one of those great British occasions I'd always meant to experience but had never got around to. Unlike the lure of mud and repetitive beats, however, the pull of real ale* is still as strong as ever, and I swiftly recruited a couple of ale-keen accomplices to join me on my mission. Before we went, I checked out a neat feature on the Festival's website that showed the best rated beers on offer, and printed off a list of targets. Perhaps recklessly, we'd chosen to ignore the standard advice about avoiding the fifth and final day of the festival - and went on the Saturday anyway. This meant a good many of the ales and ciders, particularly the international ones, were all gone. Interestingly, a separate concern - that Saturday would be overcrowded - was off the mark. Perhaps most of the serious beerheads had got their fill by then. Or maybe the hype about the crowds kept the crowds away. In any case, we waited no more than a minute for a beer all afternoon.

As we entered the giant hall in Earls Court, the sheer scale of things took me by surprise: the GBBF is truly a big deal. Tons of bars and food outlets stretched out before us, with scores of beer pumps and hundreds (thousands?) of good natured drinkers. Below are some of the beers we tried - some recommended, others random punts - with an exclamation [!] marking my favourites.

O'Hanlon's Yellow Hammer
 (4.2% abv)
Pleasant, easy, not bitter, fruity.

O'Hanlon's Port Stout (4.8%)
Roasted coffee, smoky.

Thornbridge Hopton (4.3%) [!]
English pale ale.Slightly sweet, mild, biscuity, malty.

Fuller's Brewer's Reserve Oak Aged Ale (8.2%) 

This one (finished in Cognac casks!) we queued up for - only one cask released each day - and our one-third pints (the maximum each person was allowed) offered a curious diversion from the more conventional ales.
Aroma: Cognac, fruity, raisins.
Taste: Smooth, syrupy, thick, brandy richness, not too sweet: luxury.

Castle Rock Harvest Pale (3.8%) [!]
Winner of the GBBF's champion beer of Britain award. Hailing from Nottingham, one of the most chuggable we found.
Blonde, honey, hops with sweetness, refreshing, delicate.

Thornbridge Craven Silk (4%)
Hoppy, golden, sharp, elderflower bitter.

Emelisse Imperial Russian Stout Bowmore
Dark, sweet.

Gregg's Pit Thorn SV
The only perry we tried, from Herefordshire.
Sharp, thin, light.

Harveys Olympia (4.3%)
Citrussy, whiteish, like Hoegaarden.

Liberation Ale (4%)
Smooth, chuggable.

Rosie's Rampant Ram Blend [!]
A cider from Denbighshire
Wonderful, thick, tiny carbonation, brandy essence, appley, sweet, desserty.

* REAL ALE (as defined by the Campaign for Real Ale) is top fermented beer that, following fermentation, is put into a cask with yeast and some residual fermentable sugars from the malted barley. The beer undergoes a slow secondary fermentation in the cask to produce a gentle carbonation. By contrast, keg beer, or "brewery conditioned beer" is chilled, filtered and pasteurised following primary fermentation. It's then put into kegs and served with added gas - usually a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen - which results in harsher carbonation and, sometimes, compromised flavours.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

WS#5: Summer Whiskies

For August's Whisky Squad, we wanted to focus on summer favourites - malts for lighter evenings. To help things along we were privileged to be joined by Colin Dunn, from Diageo (pictured above with the Squad), who led the session with tons of whisky knowledge and bags of pizzazz. The six whiskies we tasted (two more than usual) were specially selected by Colin as examples of bottles he liked to pull off the shelf on summer evenings. The drinking was interspersed with enlightening anecdotes, practical wisdom, and life-affirming quotations from Hunter S Thompson.

Dimple 1890
40%. A rare edition of an old blend, including some Glenkinchie and Linkwood.
Nose: Oak, honey.
Taste: Sweet vanilla, spicy with a long finish.

Port Dundas, Duncan Taylor bottling

59.3%. Single grain whisky from the recently closed Glasgow distillery. 32-year-old (distilled Jan 1973, bottled Feb 2005). Single barrel, sherry cask.
Nose: Sweet, bourbon, sherry, milk chocolate, maple syrup, glue.
Taste: Chewy cola bottles (the ones dipped in sugar), a little tart. Rich and bourbon-like. Pairs well with Crunchie bar.

Johnnie Walker Double Black
40%. A new blend - released only three months ago - but not yet available in the UK. Contains more Islay whisky (Lagavulin, Caol Ila) than the standard expression. Matured in deep-charred old oak casks.
Nose: Peanut butter, slight smoke.
Taste: Smooth, slightly peaty.

62.3%. From the Lowland distillery closed in 1983, and since replaced by a block of flats and a Beefeater restaurant. 20-year-old, distilled in 1981.
Nose: Honey, lemony, perfumed, floral.
Taste: Pepper, nuttiness.

Dalwhinnie Distillers Edition
Dalwhinnie, which means "meeting place" in Gaelic, is the highest distillery in Scotland. The standard 15-year-old was the first single malt I ever tried, some years ago. This one, at 43%, and 17 years old, having spent an additional couple of years in Oloroso sherry casks.
Nose: Fudge.
Tatse: Oily, spicy raisin, sweet.

Glenkinchie Distillers Edition
43%. 15-year-old, with time spent in Amontillado sherry casks.
Nose: Honey, coconut, vanilla.
Taste: Nutty, sherry-style, Ferrero Rocher.

Those were the whiskies, in brief. For a fuller explanation, head over to the increasingly learn-ed Billy's Booze Blog, where all will become clearer. Among many whisky insights shared by Colin over the course of the evening, the most exciting revelation, for me, was that it's ok to drink whisky with ice and water. Having been told persistently in the past that ice dulls the flavours and water dilutes the essence, I was persuaded to try a couple of the above drams with both, and was pleasantly surprised by the effects. Yes, of course some of the intensity was lost, but what was gained was a cooler, longer and more refreshing drink; more aromatic and still unmistakably whisky. Apparently that's how the Japanese like it and, in summer, why not?

Not all Colin's suggestions worked for me. Holding a swig of whisky in my mouth for 10, 15, even 20 seconds, in an attempt to maximise the flavour, seemed to me the equivalent of injecting heroin into one's eyeball. But others seemed to take to it.

We weren't sure what to expect when we chose summer whiskies as our theme, but I'm glad we did, and I predict future sessions - once we've gone through the main whisky-producing regions, at least - may try to recapture such off-piste unorthodoxy. Special and extended thanks to Colin Dunn, whose legend lives on.

Colin whisky fact: In 2000, 98% of whisky went into blends. In 2010, the proportion is now down to 92% - and shrinking - as single malts march onwards.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Triple Secs

Plenty of cocktails call for orange liqueur of various manifestations. It would seem that triple sec is a generic term for a dry, colourless, orange-based liqueur, Curaçao describes sweeter liqueurs distilled from the peel of Caribbean Curaçao oranges in particular, and Cointreau and Grand Marnier are specific brands of orangey booze, which depending on the authority consulted either fall into one of the two previous categories or demand their own. It's enough to drive one to orange-flavoured drink (tasting notes below).

Iseo Triple Sec
An Italian triple sec, weighing in at just 15% abv.
Appearance: Clear.
Nose: Orange peel, lemony citrus, soap, astringent.
Taste: Slightly sweet, dryness, violet, floral, orange flower water.
Verdict: Cheap and uncheerful.

40% abv. Produced in Angers, France, from European and South American bitter oranges.
Appearance: Clear.
Nose: Richer, orange, sweeter, zingy.
Taste: Sweet, boozy, orange liqueur.
Verdict: A whole different class to the bog-standard triple sec, but still too sweet by itself.

Grand Marnier

40% abv. Also French, made from a blend of cognacs, pairs well with crêpes.
Appearance: Golden/orange.
Nose: Sweet and rich, brandy, honey.
Taste: Sweet, burnt orange, caramelised, rich, long finish.
Verdict: The grandaddy of orange liqueurs.

If I had to drink any of them straight, with ice, I'd go for Grand Marnier. But that would be missing the point of orange liqueurs, which is to assist in the production of a certain tequila cocktail. More here...

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


I'd been wanting to do a stout tasting for some time, because I like stout. Eventually, after weeks of discussion and laying of ground rules (tastings would be blind, porters disallowed) Tim and I picked a few each and assembled for a session on the dark stuff. It was a multinational affair, with England, Ireland and America represented. (I was happily surprised by the number of US stouts out there, given that I've rarely seen any for sale in American bars - maybe I just need to look harder.) The ones reviewed here were all bottled, and some were "bottle conditioned" (still alive, and engaged in secondary fermentation) for extra... something.

We kicked things off with a couple of bottles I picked up from a great little ale shop in Norfolk earlier this summer.

Fox Brewery: Cerberus
4.5% ABV. Bottle conditioned.
Nose: Liquorice, sweet/salt.
Taste: Liquorice, sweet/savory. Flat, faded, little finish.

Wagtail Brewery: Black Shuck

4.5%. Bottle conditioned, suitable for vegans.
Nose: Slight coffee.
Taste: More depth, bitter, wood smoke, coffee.

Next up, a couple of Yank beers, followed by a stout from one of my favourite Sussex breweries.

Left Hand Brewing Co: Milk Stout

5.2%. The Colorado brewery makes this beer with "milk sugar".
Nose: Nothing!
Taste: Cloyingly sweet, thick, oily, fizzy, roasted, like a brownie.

Sierra Nevada: Stout

5.8%. From California.
Nose: Sharp, fresh.
Taste: Lemon, chocolate sweetness, longer and richer finish, with bite. Same style as Harviestoun's Old Engine Oil.

Dark Star: Espresso Rich Coffee Beer.
4.2%. With added ground Arabica coffee beans.
Nose: Vegetal, nettles, chocolate.

Taste: Dark chocolate-covered coffee beans. Nice taste but hard work.

Shifting our sights to Ireland, we snubbed the conventional Guinness, that consistently tasty session stout, and opted for a more exotic variety.

Guinness: Foreign Extra

7.5%. Brewed with extra hops, apparently, and blended with a small amount of intentionally soured beer.
Nose: Sweet.
Taste: Very bitter coffee, long finish, difficult.

With the 'lighter' stouts out the way, it was time to move on to the really heavy beers.

Harveys: Imperial Extra Double Stout
9%. I love Harveys Sussex Best. Hard to believe this clenched fist of-a-stout hails from the same brewery.
Nose: Whisky, cider apple orchard.
Taste: Thick treacle, rich, 
creamy, intense, sharp.

Brooklyn Brewery: Black Chocolate Stout
10%. Strong, but disturbingly not as strong as others I can think of. Said to "age beautifully for years", it's only brewed for the winter season.
Nose: Rich, chocolate.
Taste: Cereal, malty, rich, bitter. May have enjoyed more if it wasn't my eighth stout of the evening.

By the end of the session, I have to admit I was stouted, and couldn't touch the stuff for a couple of weeks afterwards. Looking back, I'm not sure whether stout makes for a particularly wise tasting session. It's hard work. Still, we learnt a fair bit, and we even agreed on our top choice of the evening: the Sierra Nevada, which was all the things a good stout should be: powerful, bittersweet with rich roasted malts, and packed with character. Special mentions also to Wagtail's Black Shuck and Brooklyn's Black Chocolate. Black is the new black. 

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Sweet Tea

Sweet tea is a favourite of the American South, and this ice cold pint (above) did things I can't even describe. A truly great drink.

Sweet Tea

3 tea bags

1 litre of water
Simple syrup

Put 3 tea bags in 1 litre of water (or thereabouts) and leave it in the fridge overnight to brew cold. To serve, pour tea over ice and add simple syrup to taste.

Says M: "Lemons, limes, and fruit juices are all nice additions if you want to jazz it up, but I like sweet tea in its most basic form."

I like to keep a bottle of pre-made simple syrup in the fridge (one part sugar, one part water, add boiling water to sugar and stir until dissolved). Helpfully, once the jug's empty you can refill it with water, using the same teabags. Just make sure it has long enough to steep. Tastes better when the sun's shining.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Blue Nimbus

I've decided to consolidate my drinks cupboard. Out will go all the idiosyncratic bottles whose reasons for purchase were never clear enough, freeing up more space for the good stuff (whisky, gin, bourbon, wine, beer, maybe tequila). As part of this process, I've started looking for ways of using up the stranger stuff, and into this category firmly falls Smirnoff Nordic Berries vodka. There ain't nothing wrong with it - it's smooth, certainly, and served over ice can provide an interesting blue-flavoured twist to the ordinary spirit. But it's appeal is nevertheless limited, so it has to go. For a party of seven, I came up with a cocktail using the Smirnoff and a couple of other bits I had lying around. Note that the mixture can be prepared in advance, before being topped off with soda water for drinking on demand. The recipe is for a single serving.
Pre-prepared mixture

Blue Nimbus

60ml (2oz) Smirnoff Nordic Berries vodka
22.5ml (0.75oz) creme de mure (blackberry liqueur)
22.5ml (0.75oz) lime juice
1 tbls apple and blueberry puree
Soda water

Add the vodka, creme de mure, lime juice and puree into a cocktail shaker with a couple of ice cubes and shake to mix thoroughly. Pour into a highball glass. When ready to serve, drop in a few ice cubes and stir again before topping off with chilled soda water.

I can't say I was familiar with the concept of Nordic berries, but a quick search turned up cloudberries, hence the Nimbus in this drink's name. Never mind that said berries are actually yellow. The cocktail was fruity and refreshing, with the puree and creme de mure adding structure. The Nordic berry flavour was much diluted, but the overall impression of blue fruit was unmistakable.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Talisker Oyster

The Whitstable Oyster Festival was occurring, and so to Whitstable we went. Deliciously fresh oysters -50p each, £6 for a dozen - plucked from the seas, shucked right in front of us and served on a bed of ice with a wedge of lemon. Standing outside, with a fine view of the harbour, I realised it was time to pull out my magic ingredient - a phial of Talisker 10-year-old. I know - odd idea - but it came strongly recommended from a guy who knows about these things. Drizzling a few drops of whisky onto an oyster, before knocking the whole lot back, added a strangely tasty peatiness. The alcohol was barely noticeable, but the flavour penetrated. I tried it once with the whisky and a few drops of lemon juice, which also worked out quite nicely too. Next year I'm heading back with a few more samples.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Kamehameha Rum Punch

The K-Rum Punch, hailing from Hawaii circa 1960, was taken from drinks blog A Mountain of Crushed Ice, and one would do well to prepare at least a hillock of said ice to make a batch of four. I don't usually bother with fiddly drinks like this, but it was a hot Friday evening, and my friend J had been kind enough to bring us a bottle of rum to play with. And so...

Kamehameha Rum Punch

30ml (1oz) light rum
60ml (2oz) unsweetened pineapple juice
15ml (0.5oz) lemon juice
1tsp blackberry brandy
1tsp grenadine
1tsp sugar syrup
30ml (1oz) dark rum

Shake everything but the dark rum with ice and strain into a tall glass filled with crushed ice. Float dark rum on top and garnish with a pineapple chunk speared to a cherry.

This was great. I don't tend to go nuts for fruity drinks, but this one went down just right. The rum float was a funny thing: I had only golden rum, rather than properly dark stuff, so perhaps that explained why it wasn't floating as well as it might have. But it definitely gave the cocktail a nicely layered look (see right) and the crushed ice kept things very cold all the way down. Next time I'm going to procure some cocktail umbrellas and the like.