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Spirits

Don’t be snobbish about blended whisky

January 25 is Burns Night, Scotland’s annual feast to celebrate its greatest poet, Robert Burns. Whisky is an integral part of the evening, and Burns, a famous whisky lover, has for years proved a useful ambassador for his national drink. So much so, in fact, that a recently re-launched whisky called Usquaebach uses a quote from the Burns poem Tam O’Shanter in its marketing: “Wi’ usquabae (sic), we’ll face the devil!”

For whisky lovers in North America and Britain, Burns Night is a good excuse to crack open a decent bottle of single malt whisky—which has long been seen as the gold standard for the drink. But Usquaebach, like many other excellent whiskies at the moment, isn’t a single malt—it’s a blend. In fact, this is how most people take their Scotch. Single malts, which come from one distillery and are made entirely from malted barley distilled in a traditional pot still, make up less than 10% of global whisky sales. Blends, which are made of different malts and usually blended with grain whiskies, comprise the rest.

Don’t be snobbish about blended whiskies. The best blends contain a high percentage of quality aged malts. And blending several malts with some lighter grain spirit can enhance a whisky’s depth of flavour. Big brands do not mean bad whisky. In fact, without the big brands, most single malts would not exist—because many Scottish distilleries were founded to provide malt whiskies for blends. The backbone of one of the world’s bestselling whiskies, Johnnie Walker Black Label, comes from three distilleries, Dailuaine, Mortlach and Benrinnes.

Blending together disparate whiskies into a consistent and harmonious whole is an art, especially as the brands are made in huge quantities. (Case in point: Diageo make around 20 million cases of Johnnie Walker whisky a year.) Whiskies vary in flavou

r and availability, so producers have to keep tinkering to keep the taste consistent. And woe betide you if you mess with someone’s favorite. Dr. Nick Morgan, head of whisky outreach at Diageo told me: “We have to get it right every time. If you get it wrong, there’s always an old customer who will pick up on it.”

Blends were created in the 19th century to be an easily enjoyed product for export around the world, and different whiskies sell better in different markets. “When in different cultures, brands takes on a life of their own,” said Morgan. Grand Old Parr, barely available in Scotland, is now so part of the culture in Colombia that there have been folk songs written about it. Another Diageo product, Buchanans, became popular in South America because its creator, James Buchanan, was a regular visitor in the late 19th and early 20 centuries to buy horses. It’s now America’s fastest growing brand—largely thanks to the Latin American market. Last year, Diageo ran a Spanish-language ad for Buchanan’s entitled “Es Nuestro Momento” (it’s our moment) during the World Series. It’s a long way from Tam O’ Shanter.

Blends aren’t just about big brands, however. There are blenders producing whiskies every bit as exclusive as the rarest single malts. The Blended Whisky company produce a Half-Century Blend containing whiskies with a minimum age of 50 years. It’s meant to be a taste of how whisky was before production techniques were modernized in the 70s and 80s, and it retails for around $1000. A snip compared with the Last Drop’s 50 Year Old Blend—which comes in at $4500 a bottle.

More down to earth are Compass Box, a small blender who have taken the whisky world by storm since founded in 2000 by John Glaser, an American. The company sources aged whisky from big boys like Diageo and John Dewar, but they also buy new make, i.e. clear spirit, and age it themselves so that they can control quality of the cask. Jonathan Gibson, their head of marketing, told me: “We’re fanatical about wood. It’s at the heart of what we do.”

Whereas there might be 40 components in a commercial blend, “our blends are much simpler,” Gibson told me. “After more than 10 whiskies, you can’t taste the subtlety. Put too many colors together and you get brown.” Most blends don’t tell you exactly what’s in them, but Compass Box provide as much information as they’re legally allowed to.

There’s no reason why a blend shouldn’t be as complex or stimulating as a single malt. Gibson pointed out to me that a single malt “is also a blend—a blend of different ages, casks, etc., to make a consistent product. The difference is we blend from different distilleries too.”

So how should you drink your blended whisky? Morgan told me that lighter whiskies such as J&B or Cutty Sark are designed to be drunk with mixers: “Look at old ads. When you see whisky, there is always a soda siphon in the shot. Many people miss the point and complain that blends aren’t that good on their own.” The best blends, though, can be drunk neat as you would a single malt, but their strong flavours also work really well in cocktails. At Duke’s Hotel in London, the legendary barman Alessandro Palazzi made me a special negroni with Grand Old Parr in place of gin. It tasted sensational—though perhaps not one to give to Scotch traditionalists on Burns night.

Click on the Food & Wine website for some recommendations:

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Wine articles

The ultimate Bouef Bourgignon

How good does a wine have to be to cook with? I remember talking to a wine writer a few years ago and he went to a very posh restaurant in Paris. He ordered a dish that came with a reduction of Hermitage, the only problem was that the cook had used a corked bottle. I think he ended up sending the dish back. My schoolboy French would not have been up to”Waiter, my gravy is corked!”

The story illustrates the point that the most important thing when choosing a wine to cook with is that there aren’t any odd flavours, corked for example, or those strange rubbery taste you sometimes get in cheap wine. Or not so cheap wine. Avoid Pinotage at all costs! If your wine is a little stinky or rubbery or has clumsy oak flavouring, then that will come out in your dish. You don’t want anything too sweet either as that will make your dish taste weird.What you need is a reasonable quality wine, one that will provide a good winey flavour and plenty of acidity. Things like Cotes du Rhones, Barbera d’Astis, beefier Beaujolais are perfect for this. Nothing too fancy though subtleties will be lost in the cooking process.

Far more important than the quality of the wine, is the quality of the meat. I made one earlier in the year with meat from Tesco and then one at the weekend with meat from the butcher in Blackheath. The difference was startling. Not just richer tasting meat but a much deeper flavour throughout the dish. It was like the different between eating in a caff compared with a fancy Paris restaurant.

This is the recipe I used, it is based on Elizabeth David’s. It’s absurdly easy to do. You cannot fail as long as you use top quality meat. The wine can be a little more humdrum.

Ingredients:

2 kg of stewing steak cut into thumb-sized chunks

1 large onion quartered

Stick of celery

2 bay leafs

Fresh parsley and thyme (and rosemary)

1 bottle of wine. I used Ultima Edizione Quatto Uve – a blend of grapes from all over Italy – lots of guts, fruit and flavour, no weird smells.

400g button mushrooms

400g shallots or baby onions

8 rashes of unsmoked streaky bacon

4 cloves of garlic

Small glass of port or other sweet wine (optional)

Brandy (optional)

Two carrots (optional)

plain flour

salt and pepper

Serves six or eight at a push

Put the beef in a large saucepan with the quartered onion, 2 cloves of garlic, one bay leaf, a sprig of thyme, some parsley stalks and a little rosemary if you have it. I find rosemary can be a bit overpowering so would rather leave it out rather than put in too much. Season, cover pan and leave overnight to marinade or for at least four hours.

Drain, keeping the marinade and beef but discarding the vegetables, herbs etc. Dust beef lightly with flour. Cut bacon into lardons and fry until crisp and the fat has come out.Leave lardons to one side. Now brown the beef in the bacon fat in batches and place in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan. When all the beef is browned put the heat on low, add a splash of brandy and set alight (not essential but great fun.) Now add the marinade wine, a sprig of thyme, a bay leaf and two peeled cloves of garlic. Don’t add any salt at this stage. Bring to a slow simmer, cover and leave for two hours. Check occasionally that it is not sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Peel the baby onions/ shallots and quickly fry them in bacon fat, olive oil, butter or a combination of the three. Add to the beef. Quickly fry the mushrooms and add to the beef. Add the chopped cooked bacon. (If you want the stew to go further you could add some roughly chopped carrot at this point.)

Cover and leave on a low heat for one more hour. Now taste, add salt if needed. The meat should be melty. If it isn’t then the stew might need longer. At this stage a small glass of port or similar really lift the whole dish and brings out the winey flavours.

Ideally you’ll now leave it overnight somewhere cold. Any excess fat can be removed when it has solidified. When it’s time to eat, gently bring the stew to a simmer. Add a handful of roughly chopped parsley,  black pepper and serve with mashed potatoes and something green, cabbage is nice.

You’ll want to eat this with something far better than you used for cooking: Bordeaux, Rhone and Burgundy all go well though I had this recently with a bottle of Chateau St. Thomas 2001 from Lebanon. They were spectacular together.

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Wine articles

Tokaji – the wine that nearly died

Tokaji is the legendary wine that nearly passed into myth. It was once so highly prized that the Czar of Russia kept a detachments of soldiers in Hungary purely to bring the latest vintage safely back to St Petersburg. But by the time the British wine writer Hugh Johnson visited in the 1970s the wines had become in his words “dilute, merely sweet without character.”

Tokaji should be made from grapes affected by a fungus called Botrytis or noble rot. This form of fungus dries the grapes and concentrates the sugar. These grapes are known in Hungary as Aszu meaning dry. They are  crushed into a super sweet paste and then added to a base wine which is then refermented. This time-consuming method was invented in the 16th century. The rarest form of Tokaji, Essencia, was made from the syrup that drips off the Aszu grapes before they are pressed. It was rumoured to have miraculous restorative qualities.

The 20th century was a disaster for Tokaji. It lost its best customers after World War One, the Romanovs and the Habsburgs. Then after the World War Two all production was collectivised. Istvan Szepsy was manager of the Borkombinat, the state wine monopoly. His job was to make as much wine as possible for the undiscerning Soviet market. The resulting wines were oxidised, pasteurised, sweetened with sugar and sold as an imitation Tokaji. The knowledge of how to make the real thing nearly died out. But in secret Szepsy tended a small plot of his own vines and carried on using the time-consuming old methods to create minute quantities of intensely sweet wine.

On his visits to communist Hungary, Hugh Johnson has been fortunate enough to try some 19th century Tokaji which affected him deeply. He described the flavour as like “celestial butterscotch”. So in the 1989 when Hungary was opening up, he started the Royal Tokaji Company with Danish winemaker Peter Vinding in conjunction with a group of farmers from the village of Mád. And who did they turn to manage the operation? Istvan Szepsy of course, the man who carried in his brain the nearly lost techniques of how to make authentic Tokaji.

Some vital information had been lost though. At one time Tokaji had been as thoroughly mapped as  Bordeaux or Burgundy but following the upheavals of the 20th century, nobody knew exactly where the best vineyards were. The final piece of the jigsaw came in a moment of startling serendipity: whilst browsing in in a secondhand bookshop in Budapest, Vinding found an old book written in Latin charting the great vineyards of Tokaji.

This year Royal Tokaji will release the 2008 of their Essencia. This is only made in exceptional vintages. The syrup from the Aszu berries is left to ferment for years but because of its intense sweetness never gains more than about 3% alcohol. Price is as yet to be confirmed but likely to be around £500 a bottle. Tokaji is firmly back on the fine wine map and once again aficionados are willing to pay for the very best.

This article originally appeared in Quintessentially magazine. 

 

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Books Film and TV

Why writers love booze (and it’s not just because they’re often drunks.)

So closely are some of the giants of 20th century literature associated with alcohol that modern readers might think that a serious booze habit was once the equivalent of a degree in creative writing from Iowa or UEA. It’s not surprising, therefore, that alcohol permeates the work of writers such as Kingsley Amis, Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker. They were writing about what they knew. Alcohol, however, in fiction doesn’t just reflect the lifestyle and times of the writer, its role is more complex and interesting than that.

I’m currently reading a collection called “Shaken and Stirred: Intoxicating Stories” (Everyman). In many of the short stories featured, a drunken incident is the motor of the narrative. For example in Alice Munro’s “An Ounce of Cure” a lovestruck teenager gets paralytic whilst babysitting and becomes an outcast at school ‘but there was a positive, a splendidly unexpected, result of this affair: I got completely over Martin Collingwood.’ In Frank O’Connor’s “the Drunkard”, a boy’s disastrous encounter with a pint of porter  prevents his father going on a long-anticipated drinking spree. Both stories pivot on alcohol, the effect in Munro’s is cathartic, she purges herself of her infatuation; in O’ Connor, it’s a reversal of fortune.

Shaken and Stirred features an extract from The Lost Weekend by Charles R. Jackson, another one of literary America’s great boozers. Drink enables Jackson to show us the innermost thoughts of the protagonist, Don Birnam, a failing writer. After a few glasses of rye consumed in a bar, he starts to daydream of literary success. He veers between giddy optimism and neurotic self-doubt. Without the drink, it would seem clunky, but having his thoughts come out in a progression of alcoholic intoxication draws the reader in. ‘Suddenly, sickeningly, the whole thing was so much eyewash’ he thinks after another drink. Something all writers and day dreamers can sympathise with not just drunks.

This use of alcohol to reveal narrative is particularly useful for writers of detective fiction. Fictional detectives spend a lot of time in pubs and bars not just because they like drinking but because that’s where they find information. One of the novelist’s problems is finding something for his characters to do when they are thinking or engaged in conversation. Giving them a drink and a cigarette is makes it appear natural. Drink oils the cogs of the plot.

A good example occurs in The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler. Philip Marlowe, a private investigator, meets one of the principal character, Lennox, in a bar. Lennox explains his problems with his wife and we learn that she is terrified of something. Soon afterwards she is found dead.  If they had this conversation on the street, it would look staged. In a cafe it wouldn’t work either. Alcohol has to be around so that it seems natural when characters open up and tell stories. Drink is a good way for novelists to tell rather than show without the reader noticing.

Part of the reason fictional detectives have drink problems is because it gives them an air of mystery. Think of Rebus in Ian Rankin’s novels or Sam Spade in Dashiell Hammett’s. Cocaine serves a similar purposes in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Detectives solve crimes but they are also trying (and always) failing to solve themselves. Alcohol is an outward symbol of their inner turmoil.

In Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton drink is synonymous with mental illness. Written in the 1930s and set in a grim, smoky Earl’s Court. The hero George Harvey Bone is hopelessly in love with Netta, one of the great monsters of English literature. The more he drinks, the more he is prone to moments where a switch flips in him. In these moments he sees clearly that he must murder her and move to Maidenhead. When these episodes strike, the narrative on the page is disrupted reflecting the Bone’s mental disintegration:

‘He still had the gin bottle in his hand. Watching her carefully, he held it by the neck behind his back. Now! Now! Now! He thought. ‘

The drink of choice in Hangover Square is gin. Gin has a special place in British literature. The very word gin is a byword for particular kind of British frustration. It’s tied up with boarding houses, borrowing money, dead-ends, broken dreams, and unhappy pubs. Think of the works of Graham Greene or Julian Maclaren Ross. The gin-soaked colonial type is a fixture of English literature.  Here is Flory the hapless hero of George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days: ‘I can never get it into my servant’s head that SOME people can exist without gin before breakfast.’ Orwell’s description of the taste of Victory gin in 1984 is a masterclass in squalor:

“He took down from the shelf a bottle of colourless liquid with a plain white label marked VICTORY GIN. It gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese rice-spirit. Winston poured out nearly a teacupful, nerved himself for a shock, and gulped it down like a dose of medicine. Instantly his face turned scarlet and the water ran out of his eyes. The stuff was like nitric acid, and moreover, in swallowing it one had the sensation of being hit on the back of the head with a rubber club. The next moment, however, the burning in his belly died down and the world began to look more cheerful. “

Ahhh the magic of gin.

Drinks can provide the opposite function, however.  In Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms  the constant listing of drinks such as Marsala, Cinzano, Asti Spumante, and Martini, serves as a reminder that there was a normal life before the war and will be afterwards. For Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, “this Burgundy seemed to me, then, serene and triumphant reminder that the world was an older and better place …” A sip of good wine can take you away from the horrors of war.

In the same novel, alcohol plays a less benevolent role, as a weapon in the snob’s arsenal during a scene where Charles Ryder has dinner in Paris with Rex Mottram, an arriviste Canadian businessman and his love rival. Ryder orders a cognac which is dismissed by Mottram as “the sort of stuff he puts soda in at home. So, shamefacedly, they (the waiters) wheeled out of its hiding place the vast and mouldy bottle they kept for people of Rex’s sort. ’That’s the stuff,’ he said, tilting the treacly concoction till it left dark rings round the sides of his glass.” Evelyn Waugh wants us to see Mottram as a vulgarian and Ryder as a man of taste but also reveals his own prejudices.

The ultimate boozy status seeker is James Bond. This is from Casino Royale:

Bond insisted on ordering Leiter’s Haig-and-Haig ‘on the rocks’ and then he looked carefully at the barman. “A dry martini,” he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

Here’s a man who knows what he wants and knows how to get it. We’re meant to admire Bond, I think, for his discernment but you could just see him as a bit of bore. It’s only a short leap from Bond to horrendous characters in Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho:

“Van Patten,” I say. “Did you see the comp bottle of champagne Montgomery sent over?”

“Really?” Van Patten asks, leaning over McDermott.

“Let me guess. Perrier-Jouët?”

Bingo,” Price says. “Non Vintage.”

“Fucking weasel,” Van Patten says.

Wine connoisseurship plays a narrative role in two stories in the Shaken and Stirred.  In Edgar Allen Poe’s 1846 story “A Cask of Amontillado”, Montresor lures a rival Fortunato down to a deep cellar with the promise of old amontillado sherry which was much-prized in the 19th century. Many sherries were sold as amontillado but they weren’t the real thing. To have the genuine article was unusual. Along the way Montresor gets Fortunato drunk and bricks him up alive in a wall. The mystery which is never solved is why he does this.

The plot of Roald Dahl’s short story “Taste” hinges on identifying a rare Bordeaux but the real amusement comes from the pretensions of the wine taster: ‘a prudent wine. . .  rather diffident and evasive but quite prudent’ he says at one point. Waugh too in Brideshead Revisited has enormous fun with wine connoisseurship. In a famous scene Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte try to outdo each with their descriptions of a wine:

: ‘…It is a little, shy wine like a gazelle.’

‘Like a leprechaun.’

‘Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.’

‘Like a flute by still water.’

‘…And this is a wise old wine.’

‘A prophet in a cave.’

‘…And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck.’

‘Like a swan.’

‘Like the last unicorn.’

The miseries of the morning after are even richer ground for comedy. PG Wodehouse’s descriptions of the aural misery of the hangover will surely never be bettered: ‘the Cat Stamped into the Room’ and ‘the roaring of the butterflies.’ It’s no surprise to find in Shaken and Stirred probably the best hangover description in literature from Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim:

“The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad”

With a hangover there’s that awful sickening moment when you wake up and then start to have an inkling of how badly you behaved the night before. Dorothy Parker skewers the paranoia expertly in the short story “You were perfectly fine.”  In it a young man, Peter, wakes up in a the flat of a lady friend and she recounts what happened the night before: “she thought you were awfully amusing. . . . she only got a tiny little bit annoyed just once, when you poured the clam juice down her back.”

Whatever you want to do in fiction, alcohol can help. It can move the plot forward, it provides comedy, tragedy, explication, it’s a window into a character’s soul and a signifier of turmoil and mental illness. Raymond Chandler wrote that if you’re stuck writing a novel, “have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand” but a drink might work even better. If only real life was as simple.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Guardian