This week I’m drinking. . . . whisky & soda

It’s been a while since I did one of these and probably will be  a while before I do another one because I have been hard at work on a book which is due to come out in October this year (!) I’ll tell you more about it soon but it’s going to be a coffee table book about drinking and entertaining at home.

To fortify myself I’ve been drinking highballs. Well I’m not sure mine are quite highballs.  I was introduced to the joy of the highball by a semi-Japanese friend last month. Before then I’ve always tended to drink whisky neat or very lightly watered but the Japanese drink it heavily diluted with lots of ice to make a drink that’s as refreshing as a gin and tonic. In fact more refreshing because it’s much less sweet.

A proper high ball should be served in a tall glass with lots of ice and soda water. Mine are I suppose closer to an old whisky and soda like my nanny (my grandmother, not a lady in a starched outfit who was paid to look after me) used to drink. Mine are about 1 part whisky to 4 parts sparkling water with 3 or 4 standard size ice cubes.

But which whisky? I tend to use whatever comes to hand. There’s my heretical house blend which is tasting particularly fine at the moment thanks to an influx of Xmas whisky samples. Also the smoky Compass Box No Name whisky worked a treat as did Four Roses Small Batch bourbon. Whichever whisky goes in, a dash off orange bitters and a piece of orange or satsuma peel lifts the whole drink and gives it a liquid marmalade type quality.

You can drink them very weak indeed and they still taste marvelous. When I grow old and deaf, I’m going to be like nanny and answer every question after 12 noon with the word ‘whisky.’

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Legends in their own lunchtime

The literary world lost some legendary figures in the past couple of years. One was Jeremy Lewis, the chronicler of the golden age of British publishing who died in April. I spoke to him in January about how publishing has changed since his heyday. “Publishers used to be household names” he told me “Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape and Carmen Callil founder of Virago were regulars in the gossip columns”. When Allen Lane, founder of Penguin books died in 1970 it was front page news. Towering figures such as George Weidenfeld, Andre Deutsch and Peter Owen, emigre Jews from Central Europe who transformed British publishing, were often better-known than their authors. Deutsch died in 2000 and both Owen and Weidenfeld died last year.

Lewis wrote a series of memoirs about his time in publishing. I was surprised by the sheer amount of drinking that went on. It was an industry lubricated with alcohol. At editorial meetings at Andre Deutsch there would be wine. Lewis writes of working with Kingsley Amis on the New Oxford Book of Light Verse where they would start on the white wine at 11am on the dot. Deals were done over long liquid lunches at  L’Etoile on Charlotte Street, the Garrick Club or the Groucho Club in Soho.

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Writer, editor and luncher Jeremy Lewis

Editors could make instant decisions over a boozy lunch because they wielded tremendous power. Sales, marketing and publicity were junior professions with no say over acquisitions. It was entirely up to the editor what was published. The industry began to change in the 90s. The ending of the ending of the Net Book Agreement in 1997 meant that supermarkets began selling discounted books which paved the way for Amazon. Bestselling author and journalist, Francis Wheen, however, thinks the rot was setting in as early as the 1980s. He told me:

“I proposed to Gail (Rebuck of newly-formed publishing house Century) that we should discuss a new travel book over lunch at the Reform Club, saying that this would be most auspicious since the Reform was where Around The World in Eighty Days started. I even offered to pay – but no, Gail said we would have the meeting at their office over bought-in sandwiches and mineral water, thank you very much. I abandoned my travel book there and then.”

I caught the tail end of the long lunch culture when I started in publishing in the early 00s. We were told quite firmly not to let one author, a well-known cricket writer, to get hold of the wine list. Another writer I worked with used to attack lunch as if he hadn’t eaten or drunk for weeks. He’d have a cocktail to start, a bottle with the meal and then order a brandy afterwards. It seems like a long time ago now.

In the 80s publishers began to merge into corporations. The largest was created in 2013 when Penguin merged with Random House. Editors now have to build a consensus with sales often having the final word. I remember the soul-destroying corporate speak of editorial meetings: ‘going forward’ ‘KPI – key performance indicator’ and, oddest of all, ‘pre-mortems’ – a budget sheet that editors filled out before acquiring a book. It’s what Jeremy Lewis refers to as the “Perrier Culture. “

You have to be sober to deal with all that.  One can hardly blame publishers for becoming risk averse though when sales are often so poor. Nielsen, the company that track book sales, published data that showed in 2001 the average novel sold 1152 copies, now it’s 263. No wonder publishers are so cagey about  releasing figures. The writer Roger Lewis (a relative of Jeremy Lewis’s) told me: “The point really is that ever since sparkling water came in and boozy publishers’ lunches got the heave-ho there has been no actual improvement in English literature. No discernible improvement whatsoever.

The market has become polarised between the authors who sell in large quantities and those who sell next to nothing and advances reflect this. Philip Gwyn Jones, one of London’s most experienced publishers with stints at Harpercollins, Granta and now Scribe, told me about “the evaporation of midlist, nowadays advances are either under £25k or over £100k.” Paying large amounts is a way to get attention both in house and without. It’s a sign of a lack of confidence. Big books are hyped up by literary agents who “skew the market” according to Ros Porter from Granta magazine. Agents have become increasingly influential as most publishers now don’t take unsolicited manuscripts.

There are still some larger than life personalities stalking the corridors of publishing houses, however. Figures such as Alexandra Pringle at Bloomsbury and Jamie Byng at Canongate function as ambassadors for their firms, their authors and for literature in general. When Canongate won the Booker Prize with Yann Martel’s the Life of Pi in 2001, many newspapers were more interested in Byng than the author.  Byng with his trademark poodle hair is probably the nearest thing we have today to a publishing celebrity but I doubt even he is widely known outside the industry.

Ravi Mirchandani at Picador is more low key but he has a formidable reputation within the industry for, as agent Charlie Campbell puts it, ‘swimming against Nielsen.’ “Spending too much time paying attention to what previous books sold is not particularly helpful when acquiring literary fiction. A publisher’s job is, in part, predicting what the public might think” Mirchandani told me. He points out that pre-Corrections, Jonathan Franzen had woeful figures.

As the publishing conglomerates get bigger and less nimble, it presents an opportunity for small presses. In private most publishers curse Amazon because it eats into their profits and author royalties, and puts the traditional bookseller out of business. But it can be a boon for the small boys: Humfrey Hunter from Silvertail press, a one man publishing house, is “very very pro-Amazon, I wouldn’t have a business without them. They open up the world for company like mine.” He was the only British publisher brave enough to publish Lawrence Wright’s American bestseller on Scientology and scandalously also penned an article in the Bookseller in favour of leaving the European Union.

Despite all the changes, one of the reassuring things about publishing is that even in the vast super companies, everyone reads. The heads are usually from a publishing background rather than outside corporate types. “It’s still a business governed by instinct and charisma. That hasn’t changed” Philip Gwyn Jones told me. And most publishing deals are still done over lunch, they just tend not to be terribly long or boozy.  Me, I left publishing in 2015 to pursue a career as a drink writer. Now, there’s an industry that still knows how to lunch.

This is a version of something I wrote for a website called Heat Street which has now disappeared. You can read something of its rather tortured genesis here.

 

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An evening at Pied à Terre

Regular readers will know that blind wine tasting is not one of my fortes. You can read about my misadventures at the Oxford vs Cambridge annual wine competition here. But I think when the pressures off, I might actually be getting better at it.

My wife and I were invited down to Pied à Terre – a Michelin starred restaurant in Fitzrovia – for a meal. I’ve noticed that other wine bloggers such as The Wine Loon have also been down so it seems that Pied à Terre are doing some of PR push with London’s influential wine blogging community.

We sat in the front of the restaurant in a cosy little room. In fact cosy would be a good way to describe the whole experience, there was none of the starchy formality you usually get in Michelin-starred places; nobody interrupted our conversation to explain the food. Just to give you some idea of how non intimidating this place is, one of the sommeliers looked just like cuddly comedian Michael McIntyre.

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I won’t go too much into the food but it was also nicely unfussy: a huge octopus tentacle with romesco sauce and squid ink tasting much like it might in a good restaurant in Barcelona despite the Jackson Pollock presentation, and the partridge breast cooked rare and served with a confit leg and red cabbage was almost like something you might get at Rules.

Rather than Mcintyre man, we had an avuncular Frenchman, Emanuel Hardonniere, as our sommelier and in a non-competitive he way brought out wines and asked me to guess what they were. I started badly thinking a white Tokay was Burgundy, I got better with a Cape wine guessing, sorry deducing, correctly that it was a Muscat.

And then I literally caught fire correctly identifying a Greek grape variety, a Xinomavro; next he gave me a wine to try which I thought was a St Emilion but turned out to be a Lalande de Pomerol, very close, though I did guess the vintage correctly, a 2010; my last near triumph was with a sweet wines served with the pudding which I thought was a Jurançon but it turned out to be a Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, again very close, both are from South West France and made from Gros and/or Petit Manseng.

The only off note in evening was a natural Gamay from Serbia with a serious dose of hamster or goût de souris as the French call it – some sort of yeast or bacterial infection that you only notice as you swallow. It’s something not uncommon in ‘natural’ wines – come on lads, just use a bit of sulpur!

We finished with one of my favourites, a Rivesaltes served with pear cooked in port and thankfully by this stage of the night M. Hardonniere was no longer playing games with me.

Below are the bottles we tried. All were good in their own way except the Serbian Gamay (top row centre right) though I have heard good things about it when it’s not infected with the stench of rotting rodent.

 

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This week I’m drinking. . . . . port

Me last Christmas: I can’t understand why I’ve put on so much weight. We didn’t do that much feasting.

My wife: yes but after every meal you had cheese and port

My problem with port is that I find it a bit too delicious. If there’s a bottle open in the house then I’ll want a glass every evening and when you’re having a glass of port you’ve got to have some cheese. And then it all starts to add up. So I’m taking  a port break until Christmas proper kicks in when I’m going to go a bit mad.

But before I take my port holiday, I have to tell you about a special offer at Tesco. They are selling Taylor’s 10 Year Old Tawny for only £16 until 11th December. It normally sells for at least £20. This is one of my absolute favourite fortified wines. I love the combination of bright strawberry fruit and then layers of walnut and tobacco. It’s one to give to people who think they don’t like port because it’s much lighter than vintage or vintage style ports – though still 20% so don’t knock it back like claret like I did one year.

I did a talk recently with Slightly Foxed magazine with some Taylor’s tawny for the audience to try and everybody loved it. In fact it completely upstaged me as everyone just wanted to talk about how good the port was.

Perhaps that could be the advertising line for the Port Marketing Board – the trouble is it tastes too good – and then adverts could show the havoc caused by the irresistible port. I don’t think it’s been done before.

Port Foxed

Photo of me sitting on a throne whilst high on tawny port.

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This week I’m drinking . . . . the Christmas Negroni

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I’ve been sent these rather lovely looking bottles from Martini. They are Martini Rubino Vermouth, Ambrato Vermouth and Martini Bitters. There’s something of a vermouth revival going on at the moment with delicious new products from South Africa (Badenhorst), Australia (Regal Rogue) and England (Asterley Bros). Perhaps in response to this competition, the old guard, Martini, have raised their game with new premium releases. I’m a big fan of the standard Martini Rosso which is hard to beat in a Negroni so I was keen to see how this drinks measured up. Furthermore Martini have also launched the 1872 Bitter to compete with Campari head on. I’ve been playing around with these bottles for a few weeks now and have come to some conclusions:

  1. Both the Rubino and the Ambrato totally rock either on their own or with tonic water. The Ambrato is a bit like Noilly Brat Ambré with nutty vanilla notes. The Rubino is quite delicate with sour cherry fruit and a light bitterness, a bit like a northern Italian red wine. They also work great mixed with white wine or prosecco.
  2. The Ambrato was superb in a very dry martini adding a subtle fruity and nutty note to the drink.
  3. The Martini Bitter is less thick and bitter than Campari. It’s very orangey like a halfway point between Aperol and Campari. Just with soda, I prefer Campari but mixed with grapefruit, orange juice and soda the Martini Bitter wins.

Of course this is all pissing about to the real point which is how do they fare in a Negroni. Here the results were interesting. The Rubino worked really well in a sort of lightweight Negroni using Aperol but it was rather overpowered by the Martini Bitter.

My favourite vermouth for a Negroni is the mighty Cinzano 1757 Rosso which is powerful, complex and has something of the port about it. This gave me an idea, why not use port to boost the vermouth? So I mixed half a shot of Martini Rubino with half a shot of Bleasdale The Wise One ten year old tawny (I know it’s not strictly a port, I’ll come on to that later). The result after a bit of playing about was absolutely outstanding. The extra sweetness, richness and nuttiness of the port lifted the whole drink and seemed to accentuate the herbal quality of the vermouth:

1/2 measure of tawny port or similar

1/2 measure of Martini Rubino

1 measure of gin and a little bit extra – I used my special house gin

1 measure of Martini 1872 Bitter

1 piece of orange peel

Combine ingredients with lots of ice cubes.

Australian “port” is sweeter than proper Portuguese stuff so I added just a splash extra of gin to counteract it. I think it needs to be a tawny port because you wanted that wood-aged nuttiness on the end. In fact what this reminded me of more than anything was an aged negroni I had at Bar Termini last year.

I am going to call my new creation the Christmas Negroni and I intend to drink a lot of them over the festive season.

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This week I’m drinking . . . . Viña Majestica 2010

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Note uninspiring label 

I almost didn’t try this wine because the label is a bit dull, it’s part of Majestic’s Definition Range. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by the cover and all that but when there are 200 wines to try you have to make entirely arbitrary decisions. Then I noticed from the embossed bottle that it was made at the Torre de Oña estate which is owned by La Rioja Alta, one of my favourite rioja producers so I had a small glass with my lunch (I would also recommend the sausage rolls at Lord’s cricket ground where the tasting was held) and I was extremely impressed. It has the classic tobacco, ripe strawberries and melty tannins that you’d expect in a far more expensive rioja reserva but it’s only £10.99 when you buy a case. I’m going to serve it in my 19th century claret jug which holds two bottles and my guests will think I am really spoiling them.

I was at La Rioja Alta recently and though I can’t make a direct comparison, from memory this wine could compare with far more expensive offerings from this producer. I thought it better than Viña Alberdi Reserva 11 – currently £18.25 at Oddbins – and more enjoyable than the Viña Ardanza 08 – £22 at Majestic. Though the Ardanza should improve with a couple of years in the bottle, if you want a rioja for drinking now the Majestic own label one is unbeatable. So unbeatable in fact that it seems rather foolish of La Rioja Alta to release a wine of such quality for such a low price. On my tasting note on cellartracker, someone called Slimes (an assumed name, I assume) wrote:

“I thought I’d let you know that the next vintage will be made by a different producer. When I first tasted the 2009 at the winery, the staff at RA seemed to be a bit miffed that this was going for £10.99, so it’s no surprise that Majestic will have to source this from someone else over the next few years. I’m sure if you speak to your local store, they’ll happily give you a call when there’s sign of a vintage-change.”

My advice would be to hurry down to Majestic and load up on the 2010 while you still can. Then all you need is a 19th century claret jug.

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Behold! The mighty claret jug. Doesn’t it look very Tyrion Lannister?

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This week I’m drinking. . . . a very nice South African Chenin

In Blackheath there are two clothes shops: one caters for Richard Hammond, all expensive jeans and mid life crisis leather jackets, and the other for James May. I often wondered who is buying all the paisley, surely even millionaire former Top Gear presenters can’t buy that many shirts. . . . . and then I went to the New Wave South Africa tasting earlier this month.

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It took place in a warehouse/ nightclub type venue in Shoreditch, the PA was playing Led Zeppelin at deafening volume and everywhere you looked there were middle-aged men in floral shirts like the one above.

Never mind the wines where good. South Africa has long been my least favourite large wine-producing country but the new wave Rhoney blends from Swartland have a verve to them (and not a single stinky red at the whole tasting, hurrah!) that makes me want another sip and then another. They’re real drinkers wines. One producer described his Cinsault as “smashable” which seems about right to me though whether the general public is happy to spend £17 on a wine for knocking back is another matter.

As good as the reds were, and some were very good indeed, it was the whites however that stole the show: vivid appley Chenins with magical acidity and textured Cape blends of Chenin, Viognier, Grenache Blanc etc and a couple of Palominos that were like flor-free Manzanillas if you can imagine such a thing.

I noticed that The Wine Society is doing one of my favourites for only £11.95:

Tania & Vincent Careme Chenin Blanc Terre Brûlée 2015

This is made by a Loire producer so you’d expect they know their way around Chenin. It smells sweet, like cooked apples and cake, it’s very ripe but balanced by a bracing acidity – it’s a made to make your mouth water.

I left the tasting with my ears ringing and my eyes assaulted by paisley but my palate thoroughly refreshed.

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