Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Ale Assemblage

Ales I have been imbibin'...

Smoked Porter
(5.4%). Cask.
A one-off collaboration between Dark Star, Sussex's finest, and Colorado brewer Odell, which recently entertained me with a Malteser-like wheat beer. Imbibed at the Cask in Pimlico, this was "a deep red porter with a hint of smoked malt"; really tasty, some coffee flavours, a bit of smoke and plenty of malt, with a slightly sweet finish.

Agave Wheat (4.2%). Bottle.
A real interesting one, this one, from the Breckenridge Brewery in (where else?) Colorado - a wheat ale brewed with agave nectar, from which tequila is made. It pours a dark gold colour, with plenty of bubbles, and has that clean, wheaty aroma. It tastes of cereal, with a honeyed, almost caramel sweetness, while remaining smooth, light(ish) and refreshing.

Nightlight Mild
(5.7%). Bottle.

A brilliant bottle-conditioned dessert beer from Elmtree Beers, in Norfolk: black as the night, fractionally on the sweet side with a balancing liquorice thing going on. I've always been a little mystified by the various categories of ales, but I gather mild - which once denoted a beer's unaged character - now suggests a malty rather than hoppy personality. "Suitable for vegans and vegetarians", this one, and 500ml long.

Sneck Lifter (5.1%). Cask.
A beer I'd never heard of, nor seen, prior to taking a punt on it in a Birmingham pub. Glad I did - this dark beer, from Jennings Brewery in Cumbria, was packed with flavour, like a creamy pint of coffee.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Aloe Vera

Continuing my foray into odd soft beverages (see here, here and here), I'd like you to meet Aloe Vera. Aloe, lest you don't know, is a fleshy water-storing plant known as a succulent, and a member of the lily family. As a drink, it's supposed to be great for the skin, and digestion, and it's big in parts of Asia and South America. The bottle above, branded Aloe Vera King, was manufactured by OKF Corp, imported by Korea Foods Co, and bought at a branch of top sushi shack Wasabi. It poured almost clear, with bits of jelly-like fruit pulp floating about in it. The aroma was brilliantly weird - perfumed, fruity, and, er, shampoo-ish. The taste reminded me of lychee, pear and cucumber - slightly sweet, but not sugary, and very quenching.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

WS#7: Berry Bros & Rudd

Berry Bros & Rudd is the oldest family-owned wine and spirit merchant in the world, having operated a shop in London's St James's Street since 1698 (bet the rent's gone up a little since then). Usefully, the premises includes around two acres of cellar space, enough to hold 30,000 bottles - with another 6.5m bottles (don't count 'em) stored in an out-of-town warehouse. While wine might be the money spinner, BB&R is evidently quite serious about its whisky, and as well as selling the usual array of big-name spirits, it also offers an acclaimed series of "Own Selection" bottlings too.

Whisky Squad's (very) rough guide to BB&R's bottling process:
 [1] Buy a cask from a distillery, often without having tasted its contents first.
[2] Age the whisky, tasting every few years until it is "ready" (an elusive state of near-perfection that can take decades to reach).
[3] Bottle the cask naturally (no chill filtering - just a sieve to catch the splinters).
[4] A cask-strength bottling generally provides a crop of no more than 600 bottles (making them quite special in their rarity alone).
[5] Sell for between £30 and £165 a bottle.

For Whisky Squad #7, we were joined by BB&R's spirits expert Rob Whitehead, who introduced us to a few special samples of the company's own bottlings.

Tasted blind with the help of Rob's whisky socks
BB&R Aberlour
14yo (distilled 1994, bottled 2008), 46% abv. £35.20.
An almost colourless "breakfast malt", good for beginners.
Nose: Apple, sweet fruit.
Taste: Sherbert fizz, with mint, nutty biscuits and honey; nice'n'smooth.

BB&R Bunnahabhain
12yo (distilled 1997, bottled 2009), 55.3%. £46.85.
Again, barely no colour, but plenty going on.
Nose: Peat with medicinal notes.
Taste: Briney smoke, acetone, dry with a beautifully long finish.
In a blind tasting, this tricked us all, since the usually barely-peated Bunna was so heavily peated here (part of the stuff they make for Islay's Black Bottle blend) there was little chance of any of us guessing its identity. That said, once its provenance was revealed, my next sip did suggest a distinctly Bunnahabhainish quality, in common with the 18-year-old we Squadded a few months back at WS#4. This one was well received.

BB&R Glen Mhor
26yo (distilled 1982, bottled 2009), 46%. £71.50.
From a "silent still" - a closed distillery - in the Highlands. Glen Mhor shut down in 1983 and is now, somewhat tragically, a Co-Op supermarket.
Nose: Apples (again), peach, vanilla.
Taste: A tiny measure of peat, creamy, oily mouthfeel, dry, fruity, spicy.
This lovely whisky was aged in a sherry cask. Whatever the cask imparts into the spirit, we learned, comes from the wood (a particular type of European oak, Quercus Roburin this case) - and not its previous contents. Any traces of actual sherry would have had only a minimal effect on its flavour.

BB&R Invergordon
39yo (distilled 1971, bottled 2009), 47%. £95. More here.
A single grain whisky of dark-reddish intensity, made with unmalted barley.
Nose: Cherries, cola bottles, milk chocolate, coconut.
Taste: Dry, oaky, sweet vanilla. Like a savoury, more refined bourbon.
Interestingly, since grain whisky is distilled at 95% abv, it has basically no character as a new make spirit, which means where flavour is concerned the wood is everything. This one was aged in a fresh bourbon barrel (used to hold bourbon just the once, before being emptied and shipped over from Kentucky) and was heavenly. While plenty of Squaddies were taken by the Bunna, this one was my favourite of the evening. Doing a bit of research later, I realised I've tried it before, at the Whisky Lounge in Brighton earlier this year. Alas, at £100, it's a little out of my budget - maybe I'll wait for the Boxing Day sales.

BB&R St Magdalene
26yo (distilled 1982, bottled 2008), from another silent still (this one closed in 1983, and is now an apartment complex). Triple distilled, as lowland malts are wont to be, and aged in an old, fourth-fill sherry butt (meaning this is the fourth lot of whisky it's held since its sherry days were done).
Nose: Vanilla.
Taste: Dry, wood, chalky, fizz, cucumber, grass.

Special thanks to Rob from BB&R for leading an engaging and informative session. I have a feeling we'll be dragging him back to The Gunmakers for another before too long.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Blood & Sand

I don't generally go for sweet cocktails, but just occasionally they're so well constructed that the sweetness seems appropriate. Even more occasionally, they involve Scotch whisky too - fetch me my cocktail shaker!

The Blood & Sand, which I tasted for the first time at The Player a few months back, was created for the premiere of the 1922 movie of the same name - a bullfighter-romance starring Rudolf Valentino. That's the story, now the recipe.

Blood & Sand

22.5ml (0.75oz) Scotch whisky
22.5ml (0.75oz) orange juice
22.5ml (0.75oz) sweet vermouth
22.5ml (0.75oz) cherry brandy liqueur

Pour ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice and shake well. Double strain into a chilled martini glass.

For the Scotch, I picked Bailie Nicol Jarvie, a fine blend and perfect for cocktails, while for the cherry brandy-based liqueur I used De Kuyper (24% abv), although I keep reading that the slightly dearer Cherry Heering is best. I've also heard it suggested, repeatedly, that modern tastes might prefer less of the sweet stuff, with an ounce each of the whisky and orange and 3/4 ounces each of vermouth and cherry. I tried this and, sure, it's slightly Scotchier, and maybe more refined. But I still like the original - sublimely sweet and quite moreish.

Buy Bailie Nicol Jarvie from The Drink Shop here. Don't forget the sweet vermouth and the cherry brandy. I'll leave you to figure out the oranges.

Monday, 4 October 2010


I like sake
, but some recipes for sake-based martinis appear to be designed for those who are indifferent to the life-enriching rice drink. It's delicate, you see, and you can't tell me that drowning a teaspoon of the stuff in a giant slug of gin, as proposed here, is going to do it justice. Forget about using sake as you would dry vermouth in a trad martini - give it the starring role.


60ml (2oz) sake
30ml (1oz) gin

Pour ingredients into a mixing glass with ice and stir well. Strain into a martini glass and garnish with a cucumber slice.

I used Hendrick's for my gin and Sawanotsuru (from Waitrose) for my sake. So
me have suggested using vodka instead of gin. Don't.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Belgian Beers

Belgo Centraal
50 Earlham Street
Covent Garden
London WC2H 9LJ

If you thought Oktoberfest was a German thing, disabuse yourself - the Belgians are in on it too. At a special fest tasting at Belgo, London's most reliable purveyors of moules frites, I discovered that pairing beers with food actually works - improving both. While Belgian beer in particular can be a little demanding as a session drink, it makes a fine alternative to wine with dinner.

Food highlights here. Drink highlights here:

Belgo White/Witbier
, 5% (pictured top)

Paired with: Moules Mariniรจre (steamed mussels)
Said to be based on a 500-year-old recipe for a traditional Belgian wheat beer, Belgo's house white is made with raw wheat and seasoned with coriander and dried Curacao oranges. Produced by the people who bring other people (but not me) Hoegaarden.
A light, wheaty beer with a slightly malty finish. A little bland - but good with seafood.

De Koninck Blonde
, 6%
Paired with: Champagne, duck and truffle terrine
Another light-wheat beer, slightly sweet, with a fruity tang. Doesn't taste like a 6% beer, even though it is one.

Witcap Stimulo
, 6%
Paired with: Beef Carbonnade (braised beef cooked in beer)
Fruity, malty, wheaty.

Bruges Zot Blonde
, 6%
Paired with: Moules Portugaises (mussels & roast chorizo in a tomato sauce)
One of my favourites, a lovely balance of wheat and fruit, quite full-bodied with a longer finish.

Floris Apple
, 3.6%
Paired with: Poached Pear
Completely different.
A light, crisp, fruity beer, not too sweet, with a Granny Smith aroma.

Westmalle Dubbel, 7% (left)
Paired with: Belgian Chocolate Pudding
From one of Belgium's six Trappist breweries, whose beer - to be authentically Trappist - must be made within a monastry's walls, overseen by a genuine monk.
Darker, like cola, in mouthfeel. An aroma of banana with a mild liquorice taste.

Mort Subite Gueuze
, 4.5%
Paired with: Belgian Waffle
A lambic beer, meaning a blend of newly brewed and aged (2-3 years) beer.
A little sour - the closest one to a cider. Not my cup of tea.

Tripel Karmeliet, 8.4%
A bonus beer towards the end of the evening.
Caramel sweetness with a long finish. Nice.

: Out of respect to Oktoberfest, Belgo's five London locations are offering a special meal deal every Wednesday in Oktober - t
hree courses paired with three of the above beers for £33, in a pilgrimage-cum-masterclass hosted by one of the mini-chain's venerable Beer Masters.