Wine articles

So. Much. Gin

Samuel Coleridge wouldn’t have stood a chance these days. Every time my wife settles down to write the novel that will lift us out of lower middle-class penury, the doorbell rings. These latter days men from Porlock are couriers bearing gin. We now have so much gin in our kitchen that she has forbidden me from accepting any more.

We are living through a time of gin. Everyday I receive a press release about a new product: there’s Manchester gin, Cotswold gin, Brighton gin and Edinburgh gin, alongside the old classics from London and Plymouth. There’s gin made with tea, cucumber, even chocolate. There’s World Gin Day (which I ignored), gin festivals, gin symposiums, gin tastings, gin and food matching. So persistent are the powerful gin lobby that I was sent two copies of a new book, Ian Buxton’s 101 Gins to Buy Before You Die (of gin presumably) plus a package containing, yes you guessed it, gin! Buxton isn’t entirely sold on the great gin renaissance:

‘While writing this book I lost count of the number of producers, particularly small ones, who assured me of the ‘passion’ of their founders and wanted to tell me of their ‘journey’ and the ‘hand-crafted’ and ‘artisanal’ nature of their brand, evidently in the belief that this made them stand out in some way. It does not.’

That should be above every marketing person’s desk in huge letters. The problem with gin is not only the similarity of the marketing but also the product. A friend in the gin business told me that people get very passionate about their favourite brands but they can never identify them in a blind tasting. I imagine the hit rate for Laphroaig is much higher. So how does Buxton manage to craft such an entertaining book about a repetitive topic? By having his gin and drinking it, of course. His humorous scepticism is part of the fun but he is also at heart, an enthusiast and as a spirits expert is able to explain the varied distillation processes. Some of these gins are indeed very different.

Like Buxton I’m ambivalent about the new gin craze, without sounding like a complete philistine I was happy with Beefeater, but in the past few months I’ve had some gins that have really caught my attention. The Highwaymen gin from the Vestal Vodka people is beautiful perhaps due to the richness of the spirit. It’s almost like a gin made from new-make whisky. Colonel Fox gin is deliciously fiery. Sacred make a Tate gin which is sweetly spicy but completely goes to pieces when confronted with tonic. Gins can be very different.

Despite my wife’s disapproval, I am enjoying having a houseful of gin. Hic! There’s goes the doorbell again. If only the lemon, ice and tonic lobbies were as well-funded.

This is a longer version of an article that appeared in the Guardian

Wine articles

Serendipity and the joys of old rioja

There are days when becoming a wine bore seems the best decision I ever made. One such time was last Saturday. My father had been to the local auction house and bought a job lot of old wine for £50. There were two cases. About half were probably undrinkable, ordinary wines that had been kept too long, but amongst the dross there were some wines with potential. I set aside some Apostoles Palo Cortado sherry, some old Vin Santo and Monbazillac but these were the wines we tried at the weekend:

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There are three riojas and a red burgundy. The 1990 Mercurey was amazingly robust with a great earthy taste, the Riscal Reserva was a disappointment, a ’99 and already on the way down, the Faustino I ’76 Gran Reserva was showing its age but still enjoyable. The highlight however was the Berberana Carta d’ Oro Reserva 1975. Wow, what a wine! It was the most beautiful colour, a vivid red with only  a little browning at the rim. One sniff and the aroma of cigars filled my nose. There was a touch of mushroom but no mustiness or vinegar. What was remarkable, however, was the vigour of the fruit, sweet ripe strawberries and a touch of orange. There was a hint of tannin and then the most gorgeous finish of walnuts and tobacco. This was one of the best wines I’ve had this year. My father described it as like a good red burgundy and there was definitely something burgundian about it though I’ve never tried one this old. Very very few burgundies would last this long.

What’s remarkable about the Berberana is that it was never an expensive wine. This wasn’t a Chambertin-Clos de Bèze or a Musigny. This wasn’t an artisan/ icon/ prestige wine. Berberana Carta d’ Oro Reserva costs about £15 a bottle these days. This producer doesn’t have the best of reputations. It may have been better in 70s but even then it wasn’t in the first rank of rioja producers. This wine would have been made in large quantities mainly from bought in grapes. It was a commercial wine, not the sort of wine that gets wine bores hot under the collar, but this must have been an exceptional wine when young to last this long and improve.

For some the joy of wine is about trying 100 point wines or cult producers but for me serendipity is the most pleasurable part of being a wine bore. I love going to friends houses and seeing if they have any gems lurking in their cellars or kitchen cupboards. From now on I’m going to be scouring the catalogues at provincial auction houses. £50 for a wine of this quality is an a bargain. And there’s still 20 bottles from my father’s haul to try.

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Wine articles

The spirit that united Scotland

None more Scottish

This is a longer (and I think better) version of an article that appeared in Saturday’s Guardian:

In 2008 CEO of Diageo, Paul Walsh, referred disparagingly to how Scotch was marketed through ‘bagpipes, heather and tartan’. His point was that distillers had relied too long on cliched notions of Scottishness to sell their product.

Scotch whisky as we know it was invented in the mid-nineteenth century by blending the characterful Highland malts with cheaper Lowland grain spirits. It was a union of the two very different Scotlands. The Lowlanders spoke Scots, a Germanic tongue like English, the Highlanders spoke Gaelic, the Lowlanders were Presbyterian whereas the Highlanders were mainly Catholic.  Robert Louis Stevenson wrote ‘the division of races is more sharply marked within the borders of Scotland itself than between the countries. . . . ’

The growth of blended Scotch coincided with the birth of Highlandism. This was a  peculiar phenomenon where Scotland, a predominantly settled Lowland mercantile society, took on the trappings of the Highlander as a way of differentiating themselves from the English who they were now yoked to in the Union.  To a large extent this image of Scotland was created by Sir Walter Scott. Scott stage-managed the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822. Sir John Plumb, an historian writing in the 20th century, captured the ridiculousness of George’s visit to Scotland but he also sees its significance:

‘He paraded Edinburgh in the kilt, resplendent in the Royal Stuart tartan and flesh-coloured tights, and yet managed to keep his dignity. The Scots loved it. Quaintly enough George IV had struck the future note of the monarchy . . . be-kilted, be-sporraned, be-tartaned, riding up Princes Street. . . . to the roaring cheers of loyal Scots, he was showing the way that the monarchy would have to go if it were to survive an industrial and democratic society.’

It’s the model for the Royal Family today who never look happier than when pretending to be Scottish. Whisky showed how the two Scotlands could unite to sell themselves to the world. Sales promotion played on romantic Highland imagery of the kind that Paul Walsh was tired of. The London offices of Dewars whisky had enormous electric sign of a Highlander in a tam o’ shanter raising a glass of Dewar’s White Label. As he drank his beard and kilt swayed. Highlandism was particularly effective abroad. Before WWI Dewars had a cart pulled by Shetland Ponies that was driven by a man in full Highland regalia through streets of Berlin.

Last year a new whisky was launched with David Beckham called Haig Club. You’d think that the tattooed bearded Beckham would inject a contemporary feel to the product and yet there they are in the adverts, the salmon, the misty loch and the kilts. And who are Haig owned by? Why Diageo of course. If it ain’t broke. . . .

Wine articles


I’ve just written something for the Spectator on Oporto. I was there to research my book as a guest of Sandeman port. At the time my daughter had chicken pox and I kept on getting messages from my wife saying what a terrible time they were both having. I tried to play down how much fun I was having but these photos will demonstrate that I wasn’t being entirely truthful:


Oporto at night. One of the most beautiful sights in the world.


These barges used to carry port wine down the Douro.I was lucky enough to be there for the annual boat race where the port houses race these boats, extremely slowly, down the Douro. It’s like snail racing. The crews are largely Portuguese but the atmosphere of competitiveness dressed up as jovial amateurishness is pure England.  Some crews take it seriously. We didn’t, came third and drank some spectacular old port, Sandeman 1935.



Me sporting Sandeman crew T-shirt looking totally nautical and drinking port.


Where the grapes are grown. It’s only 100 miles from the city but feels like a different world. Oporto is cool and foggy, here it’s baking hot.


Finally our host George Sandeman, descendant of the original George Sandeman who founded the company in 1790. That thing round his neck is a polished silver port dish that was traditionally used by merchants to assess the colour and therefore the quality of the port wine they were buying.

All photos courtesy of Sérgio Ferreira. 

Wine articles

Miles Morland’s World of Booze

I am delighted to have Miles Morland as a guest on World of Booze. Miles has led at least five different lives: privileged child of empire, banker, bestselling writer, adventurer, and philanthropist. Yet despite all this experience, he doesn’t seem to have learnt anything. I’ve just ordered a copy of his memoir Cobra in the Bath and I know it will make me laugh like a fool.


Rare picture of the M. Morland with drink and beautiful woman. 

What are you drinking at the moment?

Wild Turkey Bourbon on the rocks with a twist of orange. Can’t stand Scotch. Too grown-up for me, but Bourbon, mmmm , except for that awful Jack Daniel’s which is not of course genuine Bourbon. Bourbon must be made in Kentucky. Jack D is a Tennessee sour-mash. Ugh.

What’s the worst drink you’ve ever had?

Anyone can buy good wines. Just takes a cheque book and Robert Parker. Thanks to advances in wine-making it is hard  these days to find truly awful wines. That is my quest. I have a little competition going. No 1 worst wine in the world is a Kenyan Lake Naivasha Red, followed in order by a Nile Delta rosé, a Bolivian sauvignon, and a Vietnamese Central Highlands Chablis. It is the last that may have accounted for the speed with which the Americans left the country.

And the best?

I was just married, in the Dordogne, there were candles on the table in an ancient restaurant, we had eaten coq au vin and were on to the Roquefort. With that we finished our bottle of 1964 La Gaffeliere, one of the great but most under-rated St Emilions. I can still remember it, round, voluptuous, full, fragrant, and feminine. 1964 was a funny year. The rains came halfway through the harvest. The Medocs were terrible but some of the St Emilions and Pomerols, who had picked earlier, were sublime.

Where do you buy your wine from?

Lea and Sandeman

Do you have a favourite bar or pub?

The Dun Cow in Salthouse on the north Norfolk coast and the downstairs bar in Lou-Lou’s. My just published book, “Cobra in the Bath,” a book of absurd and lunatic adventures, describes a session drinking whisky with the good ol’ boys in the bar of the Alwiyah Club in Baghdad in 2010. We were interrupted by my over-testosteroned bodyguard charging in with a sub-machine gun and disturbing the ancient Iraqis sipping their Black Label and dreaming of 1956.

Do you have a favourite wine region or country, or indeed favourite drink?

Favourite wine region is the southern Rhone. Bottled sunshine. Favourite drink, a Gay Piranha, my enhanced version of a caipirinha (add a small shot of Triple Sec . . . )

Are there any wines/ regions/ countries that you avoid and if so why?

England (absurdly over-priced), New England (weird foxy grapes)

What is the most that you have ever spent on a bottle of wine/ drink, what was the wine and was it worth it?

Can’t remember the exact price but it was several thousand pounds for a six bottle lot of Quinta do Noval Nacional 1963, the only port made with pre-phylloxera grapes. I drank it in the 1990s. It did have a magic about it but I’ve had better ports.

Which writers in your opinion write well about drink or drunkenness?

Auberon Waugh used to be the best. His Dad was too much of a wine snob but could be funny about drunkenness.

Finally at the moment what is the current Morland house wine?

Red is Domaine de la Mordorée, cuvee Reine des Bois, 2010. It’s twenty quid a bottle and has everything a southern Rhone should have. It’s a Lirac. And for white I drink its white Mordorée sister. I get them from Lea and Sandeman.

Buy Cobra in the Bath here.