Is vodka’s highest calling to be tasteless?

Why does no one make vodka this good?, I thought as I tried the sublime colourless liquid. I was at the Glenfarclas distillery on Speyside sampling their new make spirit (it cannot legally be called whisky until it has been aged for a minimum of three years but in Glenfarclas’ case it will be aged for much longer in former sherry casks). I’d assumed that most of the flavour in whisky came from the barrels but this liquid had so much character. There was a bready, beery quality that is hardly discernable in the aged spirit.

Vodka’s highest calling, in contrast, seems to be absolute (or perhaps that should be Absolut) tastelessness.  Russian Standard vodka bills itself as: ‘ultra-clean, smooth & delicious’ and made from ‘pure glacial water from the frozen north.’ The marketing guff for premium vodkas always concentrates on smoothness, purity, and how many times they have been distilled and charcoal-filtered. It’s the adman’s dream, a product with no distinctive flavour to get in the way of the marketing.

Until the mid-19th century most Russian and Polish vodkas would have been made much like whisky. This changed in 1895 when Czar Alexander III made vodka a state monopoly. Distillation switched to the recently invented rectification column which produces a stronger, purer and blander spirit. This neutral industrial spirit, only a whisper away from pure ethanol, became the model for vodka around the world. Happily for the discerning drinker there are a few companies doing things the old way. One is Vestal Vodka from Poland who produce highly-distinctive vodkas from potatoes. You can really taste the potato but also distinct notes of spice, fruit, caramel and pepper with a creamy texture.  You must drink them cool rather than ice cold.  Most of their vodkas are not only vintage, ie from a single potato harvest, but also from a single variety of spud.  These are vodkas that can compete with wine for complexity and sense of place.

It’s interesting to see if whisky might go down the same route. The barley in Scotch can come from anywhere – the only terroir qualities come from the climate and the water – but some distilleries are returning to local raw materials. A new distillery, Ballindalloch  just up the road from Glenfarclas (full disclosure – the master distiller Charles Smith is my uncle), have just started distilling from barley grown on their estate but won’t have anything to sell for a good few years. Perhaps they should sell a little vodka until their spirit matures. Vestal produce a vodka aged in sherry-seasoned barrels which has something of the single malt about it. Soon we won’t be able to tell where vodka ends and whisky begins. These are confusing times for booze traditionalists but with spirits this good, who really cares?

This originally appeared in the Guardian. 

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Apparently they make whisky in Japan!

Whisky traditionalists will be in for a shock when they visit the Highlander Inn at Craigellachie. For, alongside an exhaustive list of whiskies from all over Scotland – some exceedingly rare – there’s a sizeable selection from Japan. This is because the head barman was for many years a certain Tatsuya Minagawa of Kyoto. After a spell abroad, Minagawa returned to the Highlander in January this year but this time as the owner.

This link between Japan and Scotland has an illustrious history. In 1918, Masataka Taketsuru made the journey to learn the secret of distillation. He studied chemistry at Glasgow University and then worked as an apprentice at two distilleries, Hazelburn and Longmorn. While in Scotland he met and married Rita Cowan – much to both families’ disapproval. He returned to Japan with his wife and founded Nikka, a company that, along with Suntory, is one of the pillars of the Japanese whisky industry. He built two distilleries: Yoichi, on Hokkaido, and Myagikyo on Honshu. A fictionalised version of their story was broadcast earlier this year on Japanese television called Massan with Charlotte Kate Fox playing a character based on Rita Cowan and Tetsuji Tamayama as the godfather of Japanese whisky.

It’s a familiar story, the Japanese student coming to Britain to learn how to make a product and then returning home to make it better. A similar thing happened with the British motorcycle industry just after the war when representatives from Kawasaki and others toured Triumph. The nascent Japanese whisky industry was built on Scottish components: Scottish stills, Scottish barley and even, it is alleged, Scottish water, were shipped to Japan. Likewise, the Scotch whisky industry has been complacent about foreign competition. The historian, literary critic and whisky aficionado David Daiches once wrote: “Whether any country will ever be able to produce a Scotch-type whisky that is really comparable to genuine Scotch whisky in nature and quality remains doubtful.”

Well, Daiches, now deceased, would have a pleasant surprise if he could try the Nikka Pure Malt Black, a blend from Taketsuru’s two distilleries. It combines chocolatey richness with fiery pepper and great purity of flavour. He’d probably have fallen out of his chair last November when the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 won theWhisky Bible whisky of the year, the first time this award has been won by a non-Scotch. Jim Murray, the chairmen of the judges, described it as a “wake-up call” for the Scotch industry.

I think the Scots relish the competition with the Japanese. There’s a mutual respect between the two industries. What must have really stung was that the top-placed European whisky was the Chapter 14 Not Peated, which is from England! You’d be a brave man to order that at the Highlander.

This originally appeared in the Guardian. I stumbled on the story whilst researching my book. This involved tasting lots of whisky and grilling my Uncle, Charles Smith, who is a big cheese in the whisky world. The photo below was taken at the Ballindaloch a new distillery where he is master distiller.  

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Seedy late-night drinking dens

“She’s a bit out of your league, if you don’t mind me saying.” This was a few years ago at the New Evaristo Club, aka Trisha’s, a basement drinking club in Soho. The man at the bar was commenting on my companion. I used to spend a lot of time in such places. Another favourite was Gerry’s in Dean Street, where I would ring the bell late at night and pretend to be a friend of a well-known crime writer. They’d reply that everyone is a friend of hers but let me in anyway. It was always full of unemployed actors who’ll tell you their stories in return for a drink, or in other words, bore you senseless and then try to ponce a drink off you.

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I was watching a program about Irish rock music on BBC 4 the other night. The problem with these compilation shows is that in order to get to the Pogues you have to sit through the Boomtown Rats. Sure enough up popped Bob Geldof retelling the story of how he stuck it to the Man by tearing up a photo of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John on Top of the Pops. And this got me thinking about natural wine.

I’d been looking for a good explanation for the anger that the natural wine debate creates because surely it can’t be about sulphur levels? Watching Bob, I noticed the striking similarities between natural wine and punk rock. Punk was a reaction against bloated prog rock or packaged pop like Olivia and John. It promised to return to the true spirit rock n’roll. Natural wines are a reaction to over-manipulated wines made to impress rather than to drink. They hark back to some sort of prelapsarian past where wine was pure. Long guitar solos = lots of new oak.

The more I thought about it the more it made sense. Robert Parker is Fleetwood Mac. Marcel Lapierre has the role of the Ramones. The Ramones gave the impetus to youth in Britain to form stripped down rock and roll bands. Lapierre inspired wine makers to make simpler, fresher wines. The rest of the Gang of Four in Beaujolais can be represented by American proto-punk rock bands: the New York Dolls, the Stooges and MC5 who proved so influential. Can it be a coincidence that there was later a New Wave band from Leeds called Gang of Four?

There’s now even a fanzine for wine, Noble Rot though they should have called it Sniffin’ Wine. The old prog-rock loving music press finds its twin with the dinosaurs at Decanter. I wonder who the hip young gunslingers, the Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons of wine are? Surely Isabelle Legeron and Jamie Goode. It explains why some people approach natural wines with such venom. It’s just how the old timers at the NME and Melody Maker saw punk. They saw the bands with their two chords and non-flared trousers and thought this is everything we hate about music. Just so with natural wines: the classicists are put off by the volatile acidity, the tannic whites and the tolerance of Brett. But as with punk it’s the attitude as much as the end product that annoys the old-timers.

Back to Bob on Top of the Pops. He may have seemed rebellious at the time but now he just appears ridiculous. Who listens to the Boomtown Rats today? Posterity has been much kinder to the Grease soundtrack. Very little punk music now stands up now.  Andrew Nixon from culture website the Dabbler nails this point rather well: ‘Is it me or is that conventional narrative about the importance of punk, so often told by middle-aged music journalists and critics, starting to look a bit frayed? . . . . . If punk really did ‘change everything’ it was only temporarily.’ Nixon goes on to say that disco and indeed Fleetwood Mac have proved far more influential.

Punk was popular amongst a very small clique of influential people (many of whom would go on to have highly-paid media jobs.)I hope I’m not labouring my comparison too much by pointing out that it’s a similar story with natural wines. Simon Woods, one of the few influential wine writers not based in or around London, in his recent newsletter recounts a meeting with a sommelier who was incredulous ‘that there were several people in other parts of the country who were very regular, enthusiastic and well-heeled wine drinkers but had never heard of natural wine.’ This is exactly my experience from attending my father’s wine club based just thirty miles outside London. Many of the members are extremely knowledgeable wine enthusiasts and yet in all my visits I’ve never heard the N word. I don’t think I’ve even heard anyone say biodynamics. Most of the members are just interested in good wine. The others just go to get drunk and gossip. Woods goes on to say:

‘A typical wine selection in a small English town will not be all that different from what you’d have found 15 years ago, mainly because the customers themselves are not all that different from those you’d have found 15 years ago.’

Many of the prime movers in the natural wine movement such as Doug Wregg from Cave de Pyrene deny that there is a movement at all. They just say it is a reaction against over-manipulated wines. It’s the approach that matters. And in punk the attitude is as important as the music. In my opinion, punk’s influence is best heard in bands that took the spirit but not the music such as Dexy’s Midnight Runners and the Pogues. But natural wine is surely also, like punk, clever marketing no matter how much the organisers of the various natural wine fairs try to deny it. They’ve managed to create a lot of interest in wines that might otherwise have struggled to be noticed. Time will tell which producers turn out to be the Boomtown Rats and which the Pogues.

The RAW wine fair will take place on 17/18 May at the Old Truman Brewery London E1 

This article originally appeared on Tim Atkin’s website

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Two wines kept too long

A very quick post today as a sort of addendum to my article on cellaring ordinary wines. I  bought a few bottles of Qupe syrah 11 from Majestic last year. This is their basic syrah from the Central Coast of California. It wasn’t cheap – £18 I think – and it wasn’t very good. I found it jammy with a not terribly nice whiff of oak about it. I think I gave a few bottles away or left them on tables at parties. Yesterday I found one in the cupboard that I call my cellar. It has been there for about a year.

My wife and I drank a bottle of it fairly quickly with homemade pizzas. After a year in the cellar it had lost the oaky smell and had lost the jam too. Instead it was spicy and fresh. It had a real purity about it. I’ve always thought that a dull wine won’t get any better if you keep it but in this case the extra year worked wonders. I wish I had more.

Soon it was all gone so I dug out something else to have for the nail-biting last minutes of the England France match. It was a cinsault from the Languedoc (Domaine Combe Blanche L’ Incompris 2011.) When I first tried it, it reminded be of a simple New World pinot noir. It was one of my favourite wines of 2013. Now two years later, it had gone all muddy and sweet with an unpleasant leathery smell. It tastes how I imagine Burgundy used to taste when it was cooked up in a warehouse in Ipswich from Beaujolais and Algerian plonk.

Horrid, though maybe if I’d kept it another year it would emerge as something beautiful. Probably not but then I never thought that Qupe syrah would get any better.

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My favourite pub: The Hare in Bethnal Green

Before moving to Lewisham (or Blackheath as I sometimes say when in polite company) a couple of years ago, I spent twelve years living in the East End of London. The thing I miss most about my old neighbourhood is not the secondhand clothes shops or the trendy restaurants but an old boozer on Cambridge Heath Road called The Hare.

It’s not the most immediately charming of places. The carpet is worn and some of the seats have repaired with gaffer tape. Some of the clientele look a little insalubrious. On a Saturday afternoon there will be football shirts and shaven-headed men shouting at the telly, things I normally hate.

London pubs tend staffed by itinerant Poles and Australians who are here to make money and, for all their friendliness, are not committed to the place at which they work. They seem to change every week. Not so at the Hare. The landlord’s, Julian, presence permeates this place. The beer is excellent because Julian is interested in real ale. He used to work at Young’s brewery when they were in Wandsworth. He is a jazz fan so they have jazz on a Sunday. The Cockney girls who work there know what you drink and will serve it with a saucy smile. Once when my brother ordered me a pint, the barmaid, Tanya, sharply corrected him: ‘he doesn’t drink that one, he drinks Landlord!’

Whereas most pubs in London especially in the fashionable East End attract tribes, the Hare is a real focus for the community. You get old people, young people, black people, white people, middle-aged mods, trendy girls with silly haircuts, the beautiful people and the local builders. I follow the Hare on Facebook and intermingled with rants about Arsenal’s decline, Julian reflects on how quickly East London is changing. Rather than bemoan gentrification, he seems delighted to have such a genuinely diverse clientele.

Best of all the Hare makes no pretence towards gastronomy, food means crisps or they sometimes let you eat a kebab from next door with your pint. There aren’t many places like this left but the Hare is thriving. Oh and did I mention that it’s cheap.

The Hare, 505 Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, London. E2 9BU

If anyone knows any pubs like it preferably in South East London, please let me know. 

This originally appeared on the Dabbler.

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How I stopped being a snob and learned to love Australian wine

Extremely proud to have made the front cover of the Australian‘s Life section (click on image for full article.)


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