This Week I’m Drinking. . . . Chalkdown Sparkling Cider

This is the cider I’ve been waiting for. I’ve been interested in cider (or cyder perhaps) since 2010 when I started reading about how high quality high strength sparkling ciders were made in the 17th century by men such as Sir Kenelm Digby and Lord Scudamore. These ciders achieved such high repute that the French ambassador pronounced one Vin de Scudamore. You can see how prestigious they were by visiting the museum of London where there’s an exquisite glass that belonged to Scudamore engraved with apples which was used specifically for cider. You wouldn’t use such a glass for farmhouse scrumpy. Indeed cyder spelt with a Y, was considered quite distinct from the sort of thing drunk by farm hands. I wrote more about this cyder heyday here.

It was a brief flowering, these noble cyders, but they have never entirely gone away. According to Pete Brown & Bill Bradshaw’s cider book, Bulmers used to make a bottle fermented cider that was marketed like champagne in the 1920s. Today you can buy quite a few bottle-fermented ciders from Burrow Hill in Somerset, Ashridge in Devon, Tom Oliver in Herefordshire, and Gospel Green in Sussex. The first three are made from cider apples so they have a bittersweet taste, some tannin and a certain funkiness. They’re West Country ciders but the Gospel Green is made from sweet apples on the South Downs, an area which is now famous for its sparkling wines. Gospel Green is made in tiny quantities – about 8,000 bottle a year – but I thought that if someone could make something as good but in supermarket size quantities they would be on to a winner.

Well it’s here.

The Chalkdown 2013 Cider is made from apples grown on the South Downs though it doesn’t say which varieties. It costs costs £10 from Waitrose (though annoyingly they seem to be out of stock on their website at the moment) or £11 direct and I can’t think of a sparkling wine I’ve had that beats it for the money. It combines the green apple deliciousness of a cider like Aspall’s with honeyed yeasty notes like you might get in an English sparkling wine. I drank the whole bottle to myself and because it’s only 8% felt fine the next day.

This is what we should be drinking instead of prosecco or cava. In fact if I was getting married again, I would serve it my wedding.

 

 

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This week I’m drinking. . . . Jeffrey’s tonic water

I was toying with calling it “This Week I’ll be Mostly Drinking”. . . but it felt a bit 90s student party to steal jokes from the Fast Show. I’ve been rather neglecting this blog for some time; I’ve now got to the stage where if I have any interesting point to make, I’d rather save it and turn it into a proper article rather than put it up here. But I get to try hundreds of interesting drinks every month and it seems a shame not to write about some of them. 

Recently I’ve been trying to lose a little weight which involves walking as much as possible, skipping breakfast and cutting out drink (except professional drinks of course which don’t count) on week days. I was down to nearly 13 stone – and was thinking of launching my own diet book – but it does seem to be creeping up again.

But drinking a bit less anyway isn’t such a bad thing, especially since I was sent some Jeffrey’s (no relation) tonic syrup. This you mix with soda to make your own tonic water, I found 1 part syrup to 6 parts water worked best. With lots of ice, a slice of lime and some angostura bitter it is delicious and much much nicer than Schweppes. It comes in four flavours, though I’ve been mostly (sorry!) just drinking the Original Recipe. This is what they say about:

“Our first recipe was based around some long time spent in the Far East, where we developed a taste for the warm spices of Malaysia.

Cassia, clove and allspice all come together in what would be a warm, enfolding, almost Christmas, experience – were it not for the fact that it is brilliant with ice and soda!”

I agree, in fact rather than think of it as a tonic, I’ve come to think of it as a sort of non-alcoholic vermouth. It makes those long boozeless nights seem a bit more bearable.

I like it so much and it’s been so useful at keeping me on my soon to be patented Jeffreys/ Jeffrey’s diet that I feel bad for pointing out the problem, the price. A bottle costs £18.  Now prepare for some primary school maths. It contains 47.5cl which diluted equals around 285cl of tonic. Fever Tree tonic water from Waitrose costs £3.99 for 8 x 15cl cans

A 15cl serving of Fever Tree therefore costs about 50p*

Whilst a 15cl serving of Jeffrey’s costs just under £1

Furthermore £18 per 47.5cl works out at about £26.5 per bottle**. Think what you could buy with that! Jeffrey’s tonic is the price of a good blended whisky despite the fact you’re not paying duty on it.

Jeffrey’s is as far as I can aware made in tiny quantities, from only the best ingredients and it is delicious but unless they can produce something at half that price then I’m going to have to go back on the sauce.

Image result for jeffey's original tonic syrup

* 18 / (285 / 15) = 0.95 Always show your working!
** (70/47.5) x 18 = 26.53 

 

 

 

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Booze interview with Ian Buxton

I am delighted and honoured to have Ian Buxton as guest on my blog. His new book, Whiskies Galore: A Tour of Scotland’s Island Distilleries, comes out this month. It’s an idiosyncratic and often very funny stroll around some of Scotland’s most romantic distilleries. There’s some autobiography, some history and a whole lot of whisky but what I like the most about it is Buxton’s constant questioning of the sheer amount of bullshit that surrounds Scotch. And yet for all the iconoclasm not for a moment do you doubt Buxton’s deep love for Scotland’s greatest export.

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When did you first realise that whisky was something special and can you remember the whisky that triggered this feeling?

Many of my fellow whisky writers appear to be able to recall this with blinding clarity as some sort of Damascene moment.  I fear I cannot offer any such startling revelation, though it was a happy day when working in the whisky industry paid the mortgage and put food on the table.

What was your first job in the whisky business?

It was in the late 1980s for Robertson & Baxter the blenders, now more or less subsumed into the Edrington Group.  They were, though I didn’t realise it at the time, whisky royalty and behaved accordingly.  I thought it all rather stuffy. As they had come to the conclusion that food was the way forward they had an ill-starred project to buy food companies and, to my chagrin, I was involved in that side of the business more than whisky. It was not a happy time, and I left after a couple of years to join Glenmorangie as their Group Marketing Director.

That offered more whisky but even less happiness.

Do you have a favourite whisky?

Would it be too optimistic to suggest it’s the one you’re about to buy me?

I am a great fan of Highland Park and older Glenfarclas.  But I have taken a great partiality recently to better American rye whiskies, such as that from Michter’s.

Do you have a least favourite whisky?

Can’t say I do.  But I completely fail to see the point of vodka.  Will that do?

Which whisky country are you most excited about?

Curiously, almost everywhere, but especially the new wave of ‘world whisky’ producers in countries such as Iceland, Finland, Taiwan, France and so on.

And which distillery?

I was an early fan of Kavalan in Taiwan and I’m delighted to see how far and how fast they have developed. Teerenpeli in Finland make whisky which surprises all who try it – and I have very high hopes for the English whisky due any day from the Cotswold Distillery.

What is it about island distilleries that make them so romantic?

I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of this in my new Whiskies Galore book.  There is an inherently romantic appeal to islands, especially the Scottish ones, that seems to draw visitors from all round the world, and the more urban and congested their home environment the more the isolation and open spaces attract them.  But it was not always thus, and in the book I recall a time, not so very long ago, when island distilleries were closed and virtually abandoned and their whisky all but unsaleable.

Does the salt air really affect the taste?

I doubt it, especially as most of the whisky made there spends most of its life far from the sea.  But, then again, Highland Park and many Islay whiskies have an undeniable, indefinable salty tang to them.

You have in the past been quite vocal in your criticisms of the conservatism of Scotch whisky, what do you think they could do to be a bit more innovative?

My consultancy services are available at very reasonable rates.

What’s the most you’ve ever spent on a bottle of whisky?

This information is classified, particularly from Mrs Buxton.  But actually, not a great deal.

What do you think of the prices of say old Macallan? $25,000 for a bottle of 50 year old.  

They are certainly beyond my pocket.  In the near future I doubt they will come down as demand evidently exceeds supply.  But I fear this is a bubble, driven by fashion and spurred on by those with a vested interest, that will eventually end in tears.  And not to pick on The Macallan particularly, but I cannot help notice the vulgarity and excess of the packaging of many so-called ‘luxury’ whiskies and wondering how much of the cost is accounted for by the hand-blown bottle; silver decoration and undeniably lovely oak boxes and so on, and how much by the whisky.  And that is before we mention the percentage margins applied all through the supply chain to the retailer’s shelves.

What’s the most memorable whisky you’ve ever had?

That’s a score draw between a very old Bowmore drawn directly from the cask in the No. 1 Vaults (a most atmospheric space) and a cask-strength Glenfarclas from 1953.  And, thinking about it, the very old expressions Glenglassaugh were quite special.

Which writers do you think write well about drink?

Those who have served a proper apprenticeship in the industry – on whisky, Charles MacLean and Dave Broom come to mind; the late Michael Jackson pioneered writing on both beer and whisky; I enjoy Alice Lascelles’ journalism and the trenchant, cutting commentary of The Whisky Sponge.  Will Lyons happily avoids the pretension that accompanies quite a lot of wine writing and Jonathan Ray’s column in The Spectator offers excellent buying pointers.

And there’s a new Henry Jeffreys fellow who can be quite droll.  I like what he’s doing these days.

Did I mention that I’ve got a new book out?

Ends (tearfully)

Thanks Ian! Buy the book here

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Fortified wine masterclass at the Restaurant Show

I’m giving what’s being very grandly billed as a fortified wine masterclass at the Restaurant Show at Olympia (London) on Tuesday 3rd October at 12 noon which is the perfect time for your first glass of something over 17%.

It’s really an excuse to talk about some of the more obscure fortified wines that I love and wish more people did as some are very much on the endangered species list. Everyone knows about port and sherry but similar wines are made all over the world. I’ve picked a few from the south of France, Australia, Sicily and near Lisbon. The great thing about these wines is that for the quality, the prices are absurdly low. Look at the age of some of these wines! This is what I’ll be talking about:

Marsala vergine 2001, Terre Arse, Cantina Florio – regular readers will know about my deep affection for this Sicilian wine and my never ending amusement at the name. This is one of the very few unsweetened marsalas available in Britain, though saying this it’s actually becoming quite hard to get hold of.

Rivesaltes 1998, Frères Parcé – think of this as a sort of southern French tawny port though made from white grapes, grenache gris/ blanc and macabeu. It’s aged in old casks that are left out in the heat and the rain so that it gently cooks and takes on nutty dried fruit flavours. It’s a real crowdpleaser.

Maury 2005,Cuvée Aurelie Pereira de Abreu, a Préceptorie de Centernach – if the wine above is a tawny then this is a southern French vintage port. I mean that it’s immensely fruity, quite tannic and needs time in the bottle to soften, though it is drier and lower in alcohol than its Portuguese cousin. It’s mainly made from grenache noir and despite being 12 years old still has tonnes of primary fruit.

Bleasdale, The Wise One Tawny, 10 Year Old, Langhorne Creek – the Australian wine industry was built on wines such as this which were until quite recently called ‘ports’. Nowadays they are very much a minority interest and all those old vines, mainly grenache, shiraz and mouvedre, now go into excellent dry wines. But you must try an Australian ‘port’ because they are like nothing else on earth.

Moscatel de Setubal, Adega de Pegões – made near Lisbon this is made from ultra sweet late harvest muscat grapes (muscat of Alexandria and moscatel roxo) which are fermented briefly and then fortified with spirit to stop fermentation leaving masses of unfermented sugar. The grape skins are then left in the wine for about six months which gives this particular wine a unique richness and bite. I had a bottle from 1980 recently which was superb.

Stanton and Killeen Rutherglen Muscat, 12 Years Old – an Australian classic from Victoria. This is made a little like the muscat from Setubal but then the wine is left to age in a solera system in hot sheds where the flavours concentrate.  It’s one of the sweetest wines in the world with about 282g of residual sugar – most Sauternes has about 100. Despite being as sweet as molasses it still has acidity and a haunting floral taste, I find it immensely drinkable.

Please come along, try some unique wines and listen to me prattle on. If you can’t make it most of these wines are available from the Wine Society except the marsala which I had great trouble tracking down and the Maury which is from my own cellar.

Here’s a picture of an old barrel from the Baglio Florio in Marsala:

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Miracle Brew is brilliant!

This is a review of Pete Brown’s latest book, Miracle Brew, that appeared in the TLS. Rereading my words now, I realise that I have not communicated by enthusiasm for the book strongly enough. It’s really a wonderful book. Every page contained something I didn’t know. It’s a strong year for booze books but Miracle Brew is definitely a candidate for booze book of the year. Also amazed that the TLS left in my joke about the Burton Snatch.

Image result for paul whitehouse brilliant

I like beer. I like reading about it, I write about it, I sometimes even drink the stuff but when I heard about Pete Brown’s latest, a detailed examination of beer’s constituent parts: barley, water, hops and yeast, I thought it sounded a bit technical. Perhaps aware that the book might be not be an easy sell, Brown ramps up the enthusiasm level from the first page. At times he writes like a cross between Brian Cox and Paul Whitehouse in the Fast Show, brilliant!!

But the book also has a strong narrative thread. It’s nothing less than a history of beer from a primitive drink made by chewing grain to release sugar, to the introduction of hops from the Low Countries, Pasteur’s work on yeasts, and the present day craft beer boom. Brown’s argument is that despite its humble image, beer is one of the pinnacles of civilisation. Extracting fermentable sugar from barley is a process so complicated that it could not have been invented accidentally but nobody knows when it was discovered. In contrast wine is simply crushed grapes.

Water, yeast and barley have just as much effect on the taste of the beer as the more glamorous hops.  “Hops are just lipstick on beer. Barley is its soul” as one brewer says. We learn that water from the Liffey has never been used for brewing Guinness and a ‘Burton snatch’ refers to the  sulphurous taste from Burton water not something that you go looking for after too many pints of Bass.

The book is full of facts to amaze your friends at the pub: the common fruit fly drinks alcohol to poison the larvae of parasitic wasps that would otherwise eat it from the inside. My favourite chapter is the one on yeast not least because I learned that lager yeasts cannot survive in the human stomach therefore have a less volatile reaction on your digestive system than ale yeasts. Bitter makes you fart, lager does not. For this we have to thank Emil Christian Hansen who isolated the lager yeast, Saccharomyces pastorianus, at the Carlsberg Brewery in Denmark.

This is the joy of Brown’s book, he manages to make you appreciate the magic of beer even in its most everyday form. Anyone who has ever drunk homebrew knows how hard it is to get right. That bottle of Pilsner Urquell is a miracle of human ingenuity. Isn’t beer brilliant?

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Waiter, these carrots are corked!

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Checking a wine for faults using the Plumpton-prescribed one nostril technique.

Whenever wine professionals get together rather than enjoy the wine, they are thrown into a state of anxiety that there may be something wrong with it that they haven’t spotted. The bottle will be opened, noses will go in and you’ll hear “mmmm the fruit’s just not there, I think a little TCA” or “yes very reductive, it’s those screw caps they insist on using.”

Every day it seem like I hear about a new wine fault. So in order not to fall behind, I went on a training day put on by CSWWC (|Champagne and Sparkling Wine Championships) and Plumpton College (like UC Davis but smaller and a lot more English.)  I was surprised by the sheer number of things that can go wrong at every stage of the winemaking process from fermentation to  bottling and even after. I am sure most readers will know about a corked wine (if not there’s more information below) but what about light struck? And what the hell is goût de souris? Stick your nose into a glass and you might find baby sick, mould or even rotting flesh aromas.

Here for your delectation are just some of the things that might be wrong with your wine so that you can impress your friends or thoroughly ruin dinner parties. Just to confuse matters, things that some people might think of as a fault can actually be considered an intrinsic part of particular wines. It’s enough to make you turn to hard liquor.
Brettanomyces aka Brett

The most common descriptor for this is sweaty saddles but as so few of us go around sniffing saddles these days an easier aide memoire is wet dog. You might also get barnyard aromas or even old socks! It’s caused by a yeast called Brettanomyces. It normally comes from infected barrels but according to Tom Stevenson from the CSWWC, it can also lurk in the vineyard. It is very very common, Tom estimated that nearly ⅔ of French wine has some. It used to be endemic in Australia but they have cleaned up their act in recent years. The funny thing about Brett is that in small quantities, it’s quite nice adding a savoury quality and crops up in some prestigious reds from the Rhone and, though less than before, in Bordeaux. I’m actually fairly Brett tolerant but in larger quantities it obliterates the fruit and can smell like a horse has just crapped in your wine.

Volatile Acidity:

Usually acetic acid, in other words vinegar. Most wines will have a tiny bit but if you can smell vinegar then there’s probably some sort of bacterial infection. Certain wines such as Château Musar from the Lebanon, old-fashioned rioja, and some Australian shiraz including the greatest of all, Penfold’s Grange, have high levels of volatile acidity. Madeira is pickled in volatile acidity. But you shouldn’t be getting it in an everyday red or white. Other volatile acids you don’t want include lactic acid which smells like baby sick. Lovely!

Oxidation:

Meaning that oxygen has got to the wine. Characteristic smells are cider (I’m talking farmhouse hard cider), nuts or sherry. Certain wines owe their character to controlled oxidation such as madeira, tawny port, amontillado and oloroso sherry. Then there are certain wines that flirt with oxidation such as certain Chenin Blancs from the Loire or Marc Sorrel’s famous Hermitage Blanc. But most everyday wine should not have oxidative notes. If you’re drinking wine by the glass and it smells raisiny then the bottle may have been open to long.

Reduction:

If you get a burnt sort of smell, it could be that you are drinking pinotage in which case stop immediately, or that your wine is reduced. Reduction is the opposite of oxidation, it’s caused by a lack of oxygen. Other smells that point to this include sulphur, garlic, struck match or rubber. Some varieties especially syrah are particularly prone to it and you are more likely to get it from screw caps than natural corks because they provide a less permeable seal. In small quantities especially in modern lean Chardonnays from Australia or Burgundy a touch is considered desirable. A lot of reductive smells will dissipate after time in the glass but if it smells like Hades then you might want to complain.

Lightstruck:

This is my new favorite one. Tom Stevenson gave us a champagne which smelled strongly of burnt cabbage. At its worst it can smell of rotting flesh. This is caused by the action of light on the wine. It can even happen in the glass if the sun is hot enough. It’s particularly common on rosés because they usually come in clear bottles. Dark green bottles help prevent it but dark amber is even better. Don’t buy any wine that you know has been sitting in a shop window especially in a clear bottle, it will almost certainly be ruined.

Corked:

Known in the trade as TCA, an abbreviation of the compound lurking in the cork that causes it. According to Tom Stevenson roughly around 3% of wines have TCA.  In most cases you will notice a strong smell of mould or wet cardboard. Some wines have TCA in such small quantities that you can only detect it by a lack of fruit rather than an overt taste of mould. I find if I’m not sure the best thing to do is get the waiter to try it. He should be familiar with how the wine is meant to taste. Though it’s usually caused by an infected cork, you can have TCA without a cork. In fact I’ve had garlic and carrots that smelt of TCA though I’ve never had the nerve to say, “waiter, take these carrots away, they’re corked!”

Mousiness

A few years ago I began to notice a new problem.  The wine would smell normal and to begin with it would taste fine even delicious but then at the back of the throat I would get a stale yeasty flavour or in the worst cases a feral animal sort of taste. This is mousiness aka hamster cages or in French, goût de souris. It is caused by an infection of lactobacillus. The reason it’s become so common recently is the trend for low sulfur wine making. It’s the most frustrating fault because it could so easily be cured by using tiny quantities of sulfur. It’s the main reason that I am wary of natural wine especially as some people, including some winemakers and sommeliers, can’t detect it. The worst mousiness I’ve ever had was in Armenia which actually tasted like a rodent was rotting at the back of my mouth when I swallowed. The winemaker smiled at me and said, “good isn’t it? No chemicals.”

Anyway happy drinking!

This is a longer version of an article that appeared in Food & Wine magazine.

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Whatever happened to the boozy publishing lunches?

Not that people ever ask me for writerly advice but a bit of advice I would offer to any budding hack is that an article is never dead. Even if it has been spiked some of what you put into it will at some point resurface elsewhere. You must never give up.

Last year an editor at the Spectator asked me to write something on literary mavericks tied to the death of publisher Peter Owen. I duly did lots of research, probably too much, spoke to everyone I knew in publishing and produced a thoughtful article that to be honest was a bit worthy It would have worked in the Bookseller but not the Spectator so I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t run it. The editor then left the Spectator and the article was finished.

Or so I thought. I spoke with Alexander Chancellor at the Oldie earlier this year and he liked the sound of something about publishing and suggested I talk to his deputy Jeremy Lewis who used to work in publishing in the 70s and 80s. After a long and amusing chat with Jeremy, I rewrote the article to make it a lot more gossipy. It was slated to run earlier this year when Alexander Chancellor died. I felt like Lena Dunham in that episode of Girls where her editor dies and all she can say at the funeral is “but what about my book?” Then Jeremy Lewis died. There was now no chance of my article appearing.

In April I had a boozy lunch with an old journalism crony in New York and I told him about my article. He asked to take a look and said that it might work for his website. I thought he was just being nice but I sent it to him last month and he liked it but said it needed to be even more gossipy and anecdotal. So rather than ask serious questions to serious publishers, I called up some gossipy journalist cronies and they all said the same thing: read Jeremy Lewis’s memoirs, Playing for Time, Kindred Spirits and Grub Street Irregular. They are perhaps the best books about publishing ever written. If I’d read them back in June last year then this article would not have had such a long gestation.

Anyway click below to read the article. I’ll put it up on my site in its entirety in a couple of weeks:

Mad Pen! Publishing Was a Better Business When it Was Fueled by Alcohol and Long Lunches

 

 

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