Friday, 13 March 2020

What we opened for Open That Bottle Night 2020

As some of you will know, I have been participating in “Open That Bottle Night” for the last few years (I’ve covered the premise extensively in previous articles - such as this one, if you’re not familiar with the concept), but this year I decided to make more of an event out of it. 

Eight wine-lovers assembled, all issued with the challenge of bringing over a bottle (or more) of wine that they were excited to open in the company of other wine-lovers. This motley crew (actually it was quite a well-dressed crew, but that doesn’t read quite as well) was made of up me and my wife, my brother and his wife, along with wine Twitter big hitters James Hubbard (@jameshubbard113), Lee Isaacs (@wineman147) and Peter Dickens (@pietrosd) and his partner Margaret. As we lined up the wines that we had brought with us to sacrifice in tribute to Bacchus on this fated day for the obligatory photo session, there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air - this was going to be a good day!

We started with one of my (I will say my, but they were jointly offered by my wife and I) wines, it felt like a good way to start this epicurean journey would be with some bubbles and if you’re going to do bubbles then you can do a lot worse than a 2009 Dom Perignon. This was everything that you’d want it to be: poised, elegant, fresh, exciting, but also with a real depth and presence to the wine. Equal measures of delicate and powerful. A real delight and the perfect way to get us into the mood for tasting great wine.

 Next up we started with our white wines. The first up was one of Lee’s offerings, a 2012 Weingut Wagner-Stempel Riesling Kabinett (Rheinhessen). Rieslings are always going to be a hit for me, but aged Riesling from a top-notch producer is a recipe for heaven. The additional age on the wine had given it a lovely colour in the glass and really helped with giving it some additional texture and weight. The typical petroleum waft came through, but the steely minerality and lovely fruit notes gave it a brilliant balance.

Time to move to the first of Peter’s offerings, a 2015 Pieropan Calvarino (Soave) - from magnum (everything tastes better from a magnum)! The first thing to notice is what an impressive bottle their magnum was - it looked fantastic, but was quite the challenge to pour from… The wine itself was a wonderful example of how elegant and delightful well-made Soave can be. Lee exclaimed that Soave was Italy’s white Burgundy, quite the claim but on this evdience he was quite right.

I was up again next and we were sticking with our old-world theme, as we moved across to Alsace for one of the region’s premier producers - Domaine Zind Humbrecht with their 2013 Clos Saint Urbain Rangen de Than Grand Cru Gewurtztraminer. This wine was exactly the kind of wine that I wanted to show at this event, it is a complex, beguiling wine that asked more questions than it answered and I was serving it to the perfect group to appreciate it. The colour of the wine in the glass was an almost electric amber, but the nose - oh, the nose! It was fruity, spicy, rich, decadent, exciting all at once. It had a just off-dry presence and was not quite as in-your-face as other Gewürztraminers can be. This was precision wine making as you would expect from a top-notch wine maker and a Grand Cru vineyard! Gewürz can be somewhat of a marmite wine, but the majority decision was that this was a corker of a wine.

James was up next with his first wine of the afternoon and what a wine - he casually pulled out a 1989 Domaine de Pouvray Demi-Sec (Vouvray)! This was like sipping liquid gold, the wine a mere 31 years old retained remarkable freshness and acidity which helped to balance out the sweeter notes. A salient reminder of how elegant Chenin Blanc can be and the ageing potential that it has.

Wow - so that was the whites. By any measure this was already a successful tasting, but we weren’t even half way through!!

We had been slightly remiss in the white wines as we only visited the Old World. We flipped that on the head in the reds, by leaning heavily on the New World. We started with Lee’s second offering, a 2016 Hermandad Malbec (Uco Valley). Lee explained that this wine was from the vineyard nearest to where his wife lived when she was in Argentina and that he drank this wine the night before his wedding; what a wonderful story! The wine was excellent, I am a little sceptical about Argentinian Malbec as there is a lot of pretty nondescript stuff out there, but this was the antithesis of that - cool, precise, elegant, balanced. This was a wonderful wine and really showed how it is worth remembering that just because something is ubiquitous it doesn’t have to be dull (see also NZ Sauvignon Blanc).

Next up my brother and I put on a mini vertical of Cabernets from one of Napa Valley’s most famous producers - Chateau Montelena. Montelena famously beat all of its much-vaunted Burgundian opposition to win the best Chardonnay in the the 1979 “Judgement of Paris” tasting, but their Cabernets are equally good. We compared a young wine (a 2012) against an older wine (1983 - which turned out to be the birth year vintage for three of the attendees, modesty prevents me from identifying them). The older example had matured wonderfully, it had remarkable life and vigour to it, but also possessed those fantastic tertiary characteristics that you expect from an aged Cabernet, more savoury and smoky notes. Still plenty of time on its side, but this was certainly at the peak of its powers. The younger example exuded the cocksure confidence of a banker who’d just been given a rather large bonus - bags of fruit and power, with quite a bit of weight to it. In a way it was quite simple in its offering, although this isn’t to say that it was one-dimensional or boring. There are plenty of people who prefer their wines at this stage of their development, it can be a more pleasurable drinking experience, and indeed some of the group declared it to be their favourite of the two. What a treat to be able to try two wines at different ends of the ageing spectrum in this way.     

We stayed in Napa with our next wine, which was James’ second offering, a 2008 “Relentless” Shafer, which was made from Syrah. This was an absolute blockbuster of a wine. James explained that this had been voted Wine Spectator’s wine of the year in 2012, which is a pretty impressive title. This wine had all the power and structure that you would expect, but with a good waft of finesse to it too. Think of a rugby player wearing a tuxedo. The finish on this wine went on for minutes. In truth this wine could have been cellared for another 10 years or so, but it was an absolute privilege to be able to try this wine - by this point we were grateful to the cheese and charcuterie that my wife had presented so nicely, as we needed some vittels to soak up the wines consumed thusfar.

 If we thought we were going to have a break from the heavy-hitting reds then it was not to be! Peter pulled out another magnum (it seems he only deals in magnums!), this time for something truly unexpected. A 2009 “Two Worlds” wine, which is a fascinating concept of a wine that I hadn’t come across before. The wine is made 50% from Shiraz sourced from Two Hands Wine vineyard in Barossa Valley, which is then sent to Napa Valley where 50% of Cabernet Sauvignon is added from Egelhoff Wines in Napa Valley, which is where the name of the wine comes from - two hands reaching together across the world. A totally unique experience. The result was a wine that left you in absolutely no-doubt that you were drinking it - so much weight, so much texture, so much fruit. This really was a Goliath of a wine, probably too much for us by this point in proceedings if I’m being honest! This was had with some nice, posh chocolate that we’d put out and went down far too well...  

Well. Time for a break! Only joking, time for Lee to pull out a 2016 Corte Sant’Alda Campa Magri Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore. This wine had lovely rich notes of black cherries and strawberries, with a slightly smoky hint from the nicely integrated oak. On the palate there was a great concentration of pretty red fruits and dried raisins, bright acidity and supple tannins which gave rise to a long finish. Actually quite a bit more sophisticated and refined than some Valpolicella that I have tried.

By this point in the evening, it was time to move to something sticky. We did this by going with the “king of wines“ (Rex Vinorum, if you’re into your Latin…), a 2008 6 Puttonyos Tokaji Aszu. Drinking top level Tojaki is one of wine drinking’s greatest and most hedonistic experiences. This had a bit of age to it, so the wine had that familiar marmalade colour to it, as well as also having that marmalade like profile to its tasting experience coming from the botrytis. We’d saved some blue cheese (Stilton) for this wine, which went wonderfully with the wine due to its slightly saltiness which contrasted against the decadent fruit / honey notes that the wine was giving off by the bucketload. 

There’s no point mincing my words here. By this point in the proceedings we were fairly well lubricated. This probably explains why at this point I ran down to my cellar and decided that we couldn’t finish the evening without breaking out a sherry. To this end I pulled out a Bodegas Tradicion 30 year old VORS Amontillado which I picked up when I visited the Bodegas a couple of years ago. This wine was an absolute delight, it is fresh and elegant with some slightly off-dry notes, which are accompanied by really pleasing savoury, nutty and saline notes. The finish on this wine was exquisite - it went on for minutes and minutes.

So there you have it. 13 wines tried over the space of one extremely fun afternoon (and evening!). The wines were beautiful, memorable and everything that you would want them to be - but even better, they brought a group of people together who had a damn good time with each other. A salient reminder that perhaps instead of leaving that special bottle you’ve got lying around for some mythical special occasion; invite some friends around and open that bottle with them!

Now to start planning on 2021’s Open That Bottle Night!

Friday, 3 January 2020

Discovering cognac with the Drinks by the Dram cognac advent calendar

Advent calendars have become big business these days, haven’t they? Gone are the days when you could buy a simple chocolate-based advent calendar for your significant other.

This year I was treated to one of Drinks By the Dram’s excellent calendars by my better half - I had mentioned to her that I was interested in learning more about cognac and their cognac-based Advent calendar was the perfect way to learn about it. 24 individual offerings that came in nice wax-sealed 35ml bottle, what better way to treat yourself on those long December evenings then through sampling a lovely cognac?

The educational bit...

Map taken from Wikipedia under CCL
So, before I start taking you through some of the highlights - what is cognac? Cognac is a type of brandy (i.e. a spirit that has been made from the distillation of grapes), it is important to note that all cognac is brandy - but not all brandies are cognac! Cognac production is protected under the French “appellation d'origine contrôlée” system that is used to designate wine production areas like Champagne (see map to the right).

Cognac must be double-distilled in copper pots and aged for at least two years in French oak barrels in order to meet the criteria. Furthermore, to be known as a true “cru” cognac, 90% of the spirit must have been produced using the Ugni Blanc grape. 

There is a grading system that is used in the production of cognac to denote quality, this will hopefully demystify some of the acronyms that you see on the label and provide a bit of context:

  • Very Special (V.S.), which indicates that the youngest spirit in the blend has been aged in wood for at least two years.
  • Very Superior Old Pale (V.S.O.P.), which indicates that the youngest spirit in the blend has been aged in wood for at least four years.
  • Extra Old (X.O.), which as of 2018 indicates that the youngest spirit in the blend has been aged in wood for at least 10 years (before 2018 this was only six years). They are going to introduce a new designation “Napoleon” to indicate drinks that meet the previous six year ageing requirement.

As with wine, the general consideration is that extra ageing in barrel allows the spirit to develop more complexity and more depth.

The selection from the calendar allowed me plenty of opportunities to try different cognacs from across the ageing spectrum, which was exactly what I wanted as my knowledge of cognac was limited and I wanted to try a variety of cognacs to help figure out where my preferences were.

Here were some of the highlights (grouped by producer) for me, for brevity’s sake I have not reviewed all 24! All prices quoted below (unless I note otherwise are taken from Master of Malt):

Ragnaud Sabourin

This was a producer that I didn’t know about at all, but I really enjoyed their cognacs. Their No. 4 V.S. was a revelation, it had a rather exotic nose with sweet spices and a little perfume. On the palate it was nice and light, pretty and delicate. When I found a bottle of this online for £37 on a website called Premiers Grand Crus I ordered it immediately!

I also tried their V.S.O.P. which had a red apple nose with a little sweet spice. Quite complex and decent mouth-feel, which featured a bit of heat - despite this it still possessed a certain elegance. 


Another new producer for me. Their X.O. had a really beautiful and classical nose featuring slightly sweet, caramel-like notes. I could barely detect any heat on it at all. On tasting you could feel the extra quality, there was definite heat there, but it was really refined and poised with touches of caramel to it. You could get this on Master of Malt for £70/bottle, which is expensive but I think given the prices of other X.O.s which are usually north of £100 this represents a good option if you’re looking to splash out! 

The Naud V.S. was quite a gentle drink, refined on the nose and on the palate - rather elegant. Not a particularly showy cognac, but decent (available on Master of Malt for £31/bottle).


More of a household name this time!

We started the calendar off with Hine’s “Homage to Thomas Hine”, which had a very pretty and delicate nose. Notably low on heat. Nice sweet notes on the mouth. A very enjoyable drinking experience. However, at £105/bottle, this is certainly on the more expensive end of things!

Later on, we had “H by Hine”, a V.S.O.P., which had aromas of apple, as well as slightly sweet spice notes of cinnamon. I found this to be a beautiful drink, really elegant and refined with nice sweet notes. Priced at £37/bottle, this represents fantastic value and is certainly one that I’ll be looking to buy.

Towards the end of the month we had Hine’s Antique X.O., a beautiful nose full of apple and butterscotch, with accompanying notes of cinnamon and clove. Possessed an exceptional mouth feel with definite heat to it but really refined. At £120/bottle, this is a wonderful drink but certainly at the “special occasion” end of the cognac spectrum.


The name of this brand alone exudes class and quality. We finished the calendar with two corkers from this producer, starting with their 20yo Grand Champagne Cognac which had a really elegant and perfumed nose that was very inviting, but not overtly powerful. There was some heat to it, but very subtle. On tasting, it was quite warming with a really long and pronounced finish featuring a little bit of butterscotch. A punchy cognac, with a price of £100/bottle - I think this is warranted though.

The last cognac on the calendar was Hermitage’s 45yo Segonzac Grande Champagne Cognac. The first thing that I noted was that this was very dark in the glass - sitting a nice mahogany brown. This smelt considerably more powerful than the 20yo and featured caramel notes and dark chocolate. On the palate there was a lot of structure and power, with darker notes and a front palate burn of alcohol, which surprised me, before softening into a long, pronounced finish. This is a box-office drink and comes with a price tag to match: £375/bottle, if I’m honest I actually preferred the 20yo so I’ll be more than happy to not purchase this one!


There you have it a guide through some of the cognacs that I enjoyed during December. This is just the start of my cognac adventure as I want to learn a lot more about this beautiful drink over the next few years.

Thank you to Drinks By the Dram for putting together such an excellent selection and, most importantly, thank you to my wife for treating me to this!

Monday, 9 December 2019

Wines to be thankful for with the Theatre of Wine

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know that over the last eight years (!) I have been taking a small group of people from my amateur orchestra (the Camden Symphony Orchestra - we're pretty good, you should check us out...) who form the Camden Symphony Orchestra Wine Society and we make a pilgrimage our favourite wine store - the Theatre of Wine in Tufnell Park. Over the last few years we have had some very interesting tasting themes and for our latest tasting, I tried my best to stump the folk at Theatre of Wine by selecting our most esoteric theme yet: wines that celebrate Thanksgiving. Given our tasting was taking place the day after Thanksgiving, I thought it was possible, but I was intrigued to see what they were going to pull out of the hat. Annoyingly (but also thankfully), they put together a really wonderful line-up and somehow managed to give us a thought-provoking series of wines.

The line-up!
We started with a 2017 Marof White (Prekmurje, Slovenia) which had a pretty nose full of peaches and apricots, accompanied by a pleasant lick of butter. On the mouth it was surprisingly weighty without being heavy, as it was offset by bags of acidity. At £15.90/bottle, this represented great value. 
Thanksgiving link: Jason's take here was that this wine was made of a combination of indigenous grape varieties as well as some internationally imported varietals in the blend, which was what Thanksgiving was all about when it was established. Nice!

Next up was one of the wine's of the evening, a 2014 Cornin Pouilly-Fuisse (Burgundy, France) which had a surprisingly quiet nose, but one that danced around a little with life. On the palate though it was decadent and delicious, with tremendous balance between the fresher, fruitier notes and some more buttery, sweet notes. The price tag on this reflected the increased quality, at £34.20/bottle.
Thanksgiving link: Jason stunned us here with the fact that Turkeys take on different shapes depending on where they are reared, which he equated to the properties of Chardonnay which he claimed was the most versatile of all the grapes varieties (I contend that this is Riesling, but I still like the analogy).

We shot across next from France to South Africa next where we had a 2018 Wolf and Woman Chenin Blanc (SA). This bottle featured a rather beautiful label (you can just see it poking out in the image on the left) and is the debut wine from an exciting new producer called Jolandie Fouché. This had a rather delicate nose, featuring pretty stone fruit, with the taste being clean and fresh with a nice, acidic bite to it. At £26/bottle, for me it was a little expensive, but that's probably because this is super small-batch production (only 600 bottles produced). 
Thanksgiving link: This was where we saw the creativity of the team coming to the full fore. Did you know that a version of Thanksgiving was actually a European tradition that was revived by the Americans? Jason explained that this is an example of the "New World" taking an "Old World" tradition and making it their own, just like the South Africans have done with Chenin Blanc! Mind blown...!       

Time to move on to the reds and we started with a classic: 2017 Cline Lodi Zinfandel (California, USA). Had that familiar cherry-cola front to the nose, but with some nice brambly notes to it too. On the palate it was juicy, vibrant and a live, with an interesting herbal twist to it. Brilliant value at £13.50/bottle. 
Thanksgiving link: The facts kept coming here, did you know that whilst people think of Turkeys as being native to the US, they actually aren't? This is exactly the same as Zinfandel, it was thought to be a native wine to the US, but over the last few years vine experts have traced back the origins of Zinfandel through Italy (where it is called Primitivo), to Croatia (where it is called Tribidrag). 

The fine folk at Theatre of Wine like to throw in curve-balls to their tastings and the next wine was a good example of this. A 2016 Castello di Verduno Barbaresco (Piedmont, Italy). Jason contends that this kind of wine benefits from a long decant (c. six hours is ideal) but this had only had an hour. It had a pretty nose with violets, blackcurrants and red cherries coming through. On the mouth it was quite savoury with plenty of acidity, I think it would have been interesting to have seen this wine after a couple more hours in the decanter as it needed to soften up.
Thanksgiving link: Jason explained that for the Piedmontese, their wines of Barolo and Barbaresco are an obsession and that many people outside of this do not "get" what they're trying to do, as the winemakers are rigid in producing what they like. This, according to Jason, can be likened to Thanksgiving in the sense that people outside of the United States are a little confused as to what it is about, but to the people of the US it is incredibly important. Interesting!

Next up was a wine that narrowly was awarded best of the night, a 2014 Dureil-Janthial Rully 1er Cru Vauvry (Burgundy, France). As a more mature Pinot it had those lovely notes of kernel and cherry, whilst on the palate it was soft, luscious and opulent. Frankly a steal at £16.90/bottle, I bought two bottles and only didn't buy more out of politeness to the rest of the group!
Thanksgiving link: Controversially Jason said here that Burgundy and Turkey are both over-priced for what you get - although he did that by showing us that there is good value to be found in Burgundy if you stay outside the most vaunted of communes (e.g. Vosne Romanee, Puligny-Montrachet).

We did try next a 2016 Piombaia Rosso di Montalcino (Tuscany, Italy) which was nice and inky on the nose with a rich, robust and forthright palate to it. Jason put this one on the list for no better reason than he wanted to open it - we were very happy that he did! £22.50/bottle. 

Time to move to the sweets and Jason went for a 2007 Barbeito Single Harvest Tinta Negra (Madeira, Portugal). Now I have been REALLY loving Madeira ever since I visited there a couple of years ago (check out this LINK to see what I got upto), so I was delighted to see this on the list - particularly as I visited Barbeito and they were lovely. This had a lovely, delicious orange nose to it with a slightly oxidative element to it. I describe Madeira as kind of a half-way house between Port and Sherry, and this was the perfect example for this. £30.40/bottle. 
Thanksgiving link: Apparently Madeira was used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence and was a favourite of the founding fathers!

To finish we had a 2008 Signatory Linkwood Scotch (Scotland, UK). This was a rather pleasant scotch to finish, but lacked a little weight / power for me. £47/bottle.
Thanksgiving link: Did you know that Abraham Lincoln was a licenced bartender before he became a politician?!

So there you have it. From the most obtuse theme that we have had, Jason and the team not only managed to show us some excellent wine, they managed to tie them to the Thanksgiving theme and help us all to learn a thing or two. What am I thankful for the this year? The continued existence of fine, independent wine shops and the wonderful friendships that wine can bring people together for.          

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Drinks by the Dram boozy advent calendars – the beautiful, the bold, and the bloody expensive

We’ve hit November, which means it’s officially ok for me to start talking about Christmas

And Christmas time means boozy present talk.

I almost feel that these near legendary calendars don’t need an introduction most people I know have already got one on their Santa list. Yes that’s right, it’s Drinks by the Dram advent calendar time

For those of you who don't know... For the 24 days leading up to Christmas, instead of a tiny chocolate treat, you get a delicious 30ml dram of delicious booze to enjoy.

These babies just keep getting better every year. For 2019, there are around 40 different calendars available – one for every kind of booze lover. Although some have already sold out, so you'd better get in quick.

For the fourth year, those crazy folk at Drinks by the Dram have a Very Old & Rare whisky advent calendar for, wait for it, £9,999.95. While that may be beyond the reach of most of us, boy does it sound incredible. Highlights include a Glenfarclas 60 year old (cask 1672), Yamazaki Sherry 2012, and a Glenrothes 1968 (bottled 2018). If you’re not a fan of surprises, you can have a look at the full list here, and be incredibly envious. I was assured it sells out every year...

And it won't look out of place on your mantlepiece. Each calendar comes in a bespoke wooden box handcrafted by a cabinet-maker. It's available in a walnut or Macassar ebony finish. 

If your budget doesn’t stretch quite that far, there’s the Old & Rare Whisky Advent calendar for £999.95.

More realistic still, there's the universally loved Gin advent calendar for £124.95, or Whisky advent calendar for £149.95. Or a whole host of whisk(e)y, bourbon, tequila, rum, vodka, cognac, absinthe, mezcal and armagnac options, depending on your tipple of choice.

Indecisive or just love everything? Build your own.

There’s even an escalating heat naga chilli vodka calendar, £99.95, for those brave/stupid souls out there. Did someone say 240,000 Scovilles? Yummy...

That Boutique-y Whisky Company

And in great mash-up news, the folks from That Boutique-y Whisky Company have teamed up with the folks from Drinks by the Dram to bring joy to the world, in calendar form. You get a different 30ml wax-sealed dram of independently bottled whisky from That Boutique-y Whisky Company's collection to open every day. This calendar features the likes of a Cambus 28 year old, Ben Nevis 21 year old and mystery Islay #3 13 year old.

I've got our hands on the That Boutique-y Whisky Company 2019 calendar, so expect a dram a day update from me with reviews of what I'm drinking... I'll probably save it for the evening though. As great as a December breakfast dram sounds, it probably won't make for a particularly productive day.

Friday, 25 October 2019

Introducing Nc’Nean Distillery

In my day job I find myself working in a rather traditional, male-dominated industry that is trying to figure out how it can become more sustainable and reduce its carbon draw on the environment. I was intrigued then to be invited to the launch event of a new spirit which was spearheaded by a woman who left her job in the city with a dream of making her mark in a traditional, male-dominated industry and launch a product that would be both sustainable and carbon neutral.

Step forward, Annabel Thomas of Nc’Nean Distillery.


It is at this point that I probably need to explain about the name of the distillery: Nc'Nean. This was truly fascinating to learn about. Annabel was keen to find a name that summed up the figurative spirit that she wanted her literal spirit to exhibit. In doing her research she came upon the Celtic goddess Neachneohain, who was a fierce protector of nature who focussed now on what we would term “sustainability”. What greater exemplar for the new brand, a strong, rebellious Pictish goddess, who defended nature whilst standing up to the patriarchy?! In order to make it somewhat easier to pronounce (and thus market), the team decided to shorten Neachneohain’s name to Nc'Nean. I like it - there’s a kind of symmetry to it - which accords with the sustainability message.

The Nc'Nean team (taken from their website)
The challenges that Annabel faced in getting her distillery of the ground were extreme. In order to get the distillery off the ground she had to raise significant sums of money, but how can you sell this to investors when you can't show them any product? Yes, she had a vision for the distillery - the spirit she wanted to make and the spirit she wanted it to invoke - but she couldn’t offer any of the product to sample and could only rely on the strength of this vision. Annabel told us that in her lobbying she encountered a very traditional (albeit friendly), rather patriarchal industry, but undeterred she set about raising the funds and pulling together an impressive team, including their master distiller, Jim Swan, who worked with them between 2012 and his untimely death in 2017.

Photo taken from the Nc'Nean website of the distillery in its beautiful surroundings


What to do when you have a distillery and are waiting for the whisky to be ready?

The distillery started distilling for real in March 2017. In order to sell scotch whisky it has to be aged for at least three years and as such the first outputs in terms of scotch will hit the market next year. So, what were Annabel and the Nc'Nean team going to do with themselves between 2017 and 2020? After all they had a lot of distiller’s spirit (unaged whisky) made from barley and they thought perhaps they could make something with this. Perhaps some kind of gin? Rightly, the concluded that this was quite a crowded marketplace at the moment. Instead, they infused the distiller's spirit with some locally-foraged botanicals such as the wonderfully-named Bog Myrtle (as well as heather and sorrel) and established their Botanical Spirit (which you can buy on Master of Malt for £24.95/bottle). This is a very nice drink that works very nicely when served with tonic, or simply on the rocks. It exists as neither a gin, nor a whisky, but something half way in-between and is very fine for it.

With this under their belts the team asked themselves how they could develop this product further. They came up with the idea of taking the spirit and ageing it in a number of different barrels to see what effect this had on the spirit. They settled on experimenting with bourbon, vermouth and Mondino (a type of German-aperol apparently) barrels. At our event I attended we were lucky enough to be served the results of this experiment and they were stunning. 

The Vermouth-aged spirit was served with tonic as an aperitif and was garnished with olive, thyme and orange, which made for an excellent way to start the evening.

After this we tried their Bourbon-aged spirit in the style of a Julep served with mint and grapefruit zest. The sweetness of the bourbon cask really came through and was well balanced with the mint freshness to give a delicious drink.

My favourite was the last of the drinks, the Mondino-aged spirit, which had a real Campari-style bitterness to it that I absolutely loved! This was served with grapefruit juice, honey and soda, which gave a lovely balance of bitter and sweet flavours.

These aged botanical spirits could also be drunk neat over ice but are a lot of fun in cocktails. There are all sorts of recipes on their website for you to check out and they are currently selling a set of their aged botanical spirits (200ml each) for £50. This is a limited edition set of 1,000 - so definitely get your hands on this if you can.

Now that I have tried their aged botanical spirits and understand more of the ethos of the Nc'Nean distillery, I am super-excited to try their whisky next year when they start releasing it!
Disclaimer: I was invited as a guest to this launch event.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

International Coffee Day: How to make barista-style coffee at home

It’s International Coffee Day! Are you someone who needs five cups before you’re out the door in the morning? I’m a one-cup-a-day kinda gal… any more and it sends me properly loopy. But I do very much enjoy that one cup.

In the UK we drink an average of 95 million cups of coffee a day, with 65% of that being drunk at home. We spoke to Irene Ippolito, marketing manager for Illy about how you can get barista-style coffee at home.

1. Get freshly roasted coffee beans

There are two main types of coffee beans – the Arabica (sweeter, softer taste) and Robusta (strong, full-bodied). Finding the right coffee bean for you is essential to prepare the perfect beverage every time.

2. It’s all in the grind

The grind of your coffee will greatly influence the end result, as it impacts the amount of contact time between the hot water and the beans. Grind it too fine and you will have a bitter coffee, while grinding it too coarsely will give you a watery blend. Invest in a quality coffee grinder or machine to ensure every cup tastes like it was made by a professional barista.

3. Storage wars

Many underestimate the importance of proper coffee storage and its effect on taste. It must be stored in a cool, dry place but never in the fridge or freezer, as the defrosting process can damage the coffee beans, making them lose their original flavour. Keep coffee in an airtight container where you’d normally store your other cool dry goods.

4. Use a filter

Water hugely affects the taste of your cup of coffee, as it makes up 90% of the drink. Tap water can contain impurities such as minerals, metals and salts that can alter the taste, so the best thing to do is to use filtered water to give your coffee the best flavour.

5. Keep it fresh

Don’t forget that coffee goes stale. Ideally you want to drink it within a month of being roasted to savour that fresh taste. If you buy your beans whole you can choose to only grind what you need, when you need them.

Monday, 30 September 2019

Everything you need to know about London Restaurant Festival 2019

October is a good month to be in London. Not only is London Cocktail Week on the way, London Restaurant Festival LRF) launches today.

For the whole of October, there are a huge number of events, competitions and exclusive festival menus being served at restaurants across the capital.

This year, there are around 250 restaurants taking part.

The festival menus are set around six themes:
Flights and Pairings features menus with drinks pairings, signature cocktails and fine wines.
London Legends features the city’s established stars at restaurants including Gordon Ramsay’s Maze Grill Mayfair, and Simon Rogan’s Roganic.
Amazing Spaces spotlights much-loved restaurants with beautiful surroundings, such as The Cinnamon Club in the Old Westminster Library and the grandeur of Holborn Dining Room.
Talk of the Town offers guests the chance to dine in some of London’s most newsworthy restaurants including Frog by Adam Handling, the legendary Otto’s, and new opening Farzi.
London with a View takes diners from the heights of Helix at the Gherkin and the Shard’s Ting Restaurant at the Shangri-La, to the banks of the River Thames at The Waterway.
Avant Garde celebrates the diverse, boundary-pushing cuisine from the likes of Marcus, Black Roe and Lima London.

And if you like a little competition, if you sign up to the LRF newsletter during October, you’ll be in with a chance to win a trip to Bangkok with Thai Airways; a weekend in Galicia with Estrella Galicia; or a trip to Jerusalem for the Open Restaurants festival in November.

LRF founder Simon Davis says, “I’m delighted to be partnering with OpenTable to make it even easier this year for guests to access London’s top dining experiences - we have some fantastic menus available. It’s one of my favourite parts of the festival, and this year I think we’ve got the best line-up yet. We’ve been running the festival for the past 11 years, and during this time we’ve seen other cities around the world emerge as impressive culinary hotspots. I’m delighted we’re able to transport our own guests to these cities to explore for themselves.”

All the information on this year’s LRF can be found at

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Aerolite Lyndsay 10-year whisky: A mystery from Islay

I love a good mystery. I love a mystery even more if it involves whisky… a whistery? Whiskery?

Independent bottler Atom Brands has launched a new range of Islay whiskies, and this is the first release from its Character of Islay Whisky Company. Future releases will be single and blended malts representing the unique characteristics of Islay spirits.

The Aerolite Lyndsay - an anagram of ten-year-old Islay - is a peated single malt bottled at 46% abv, and interestingly, it’s from a mysterious unnamed Islay distillery. It’s been matured for at least 10 years in 70% ex-Bourbon barrels, 25% ex-Sherry Spanish oak quarter casks, and a bonus 5% mystery casks.

Islay whisky

Islay is one of the southernmost islands of the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. Although it’s a very small island, it has nine active distilleries. Islay whisky is known for its smoky, peaty style.

Islay itself has a bit of mystery about it. As well as being tricky to get to, it’s got an interesting, varied and rugged landscape. To the south of the island, you’ve got Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig, which epitomise the Islay style with their salty, peaty, smokiness.

To the north of the island, you’ve got Bunnahabhain and Jura, which have both used and not used peat over the years, as well as Bruichladdich, which is typically unpeated (except for a couple of big hitters in recent times).

And then there’s Caol Ila which mostly produces fragrantly smoky whiskies, but spends part of the year making unpeated whisky, Kilchoman - which only opened in 2005 - and Bowmore, with its typically fruity, smoky whiskies.

Islay is also home to one of the most famous ‘lost’ producers. Port Ellen closed in 1983, but its whiskies are still incredibly sought after today. Which one could it be from?

Less mysterious about the Aerolite Lyndsay is the packaging. It’s quite basic - not in a bad way - and keeps things real, stating ‘believe what you will’, bringing the focus back to the whisky itself.

Filling your nose with this stuff transports you to the Hebrides. It’s rugged, salty, peaty and smoky. Add a few drops of water and you open up some sweeter notes too. On the palate, straightaway you get a burst of rugged coastal smokiness, but there’s some sweetness in there as well. It tastes like a trip to a stormy, dramatic seaside. The finish lingers for a little while with a woody smokiness, and some spice.

Overall, Aerolite Lyndsay covers quite a few aspects of a ‘typical’ Islay peated whisky. It might not be the most complex whisky I’ve ever sampled, but it’s tasty, and incredibly drinkable, with a reasonable price. I just had to keep drinking to see if I could work out where it was from.

It looks like the Aerolite Lyndsay won’t be the only mystery release from the company, with future releases exploring ‘a unique personality based on stories, legends and experiences associated with the island and its people.’

Aerolite Lyndsay costs £44.95 a bottle, so well priced for an exciting Christmas present, and is available from Master of Malt.

Monday, 2 September 2019

Darling House party bar: pillow-filled bath tub, 'push for prosecco' and butterflies in the library

I sometimes miss being a teenager and going to house parties, seeing what interesting concoctions you could try from someone’s parent’s booze cupboard, hanging out in the kitchen…

Well, a new bar in London could see you reliving those days, but in considerably plusher surroundings.

Darling House is the latest work from Darling & Edge, the theatrical set designers behind some of London’s coolest, wildest and most unusual immersive experiences (Alice’s Adventures Underground, Gingerline’s Grand Expedition etc.).

Their latest space is above Hello Darling restaurant in Waterloo, and is definitely not a normal bar. You enter through a painting (perhaps not a particularly new concept in London, but unless you know what’s behind it you genuinely wouldn’t spot it was a secret door), and you’ve got the run of six rooms, featuring a pillow-filled bathtub, library and five-foot tiger head coming out of one of the walls.

The space takes up two floors to create an ongoing house party:

Lounge: Striped like a Big Top tent, and casually featuring a giant tiger head on the wall.
Library: Lots of books, lots of butterflies
Lounge/bedroom: This is in a ‘30s style, with sofa seating and hand-painted flowers decorating the walls.
Kitchen: As the song goes, you will always find me in the kitchen at parties. This one features chandeliers and marble countertops.
Bedroom: There’s a four-poster bed (feel free to lounge but those sheets are bolted down), and pampas grass all over the walls.
Bathroom: Chill in the pillow-filled tub with a cocktail. Perfect.
Hallway: Sicilian lemons everywhere.

The bar is hidden in a cupboard near where you come in, with a bartender on hand to mix you up a little something. Much more pleasant than trusting your pal to dig out some 80s vermouth from the back of the shelf.

We know everybody loves a ‘push for prosecco’ button, so naturally there’s one hidden in Darling House. Push the brass doorbell in the hallway, and reveal a hidden magnum.

Each room also has its own speaker system, so you can plug in your own music and have a different playlist in each room. Up to 60 people can party the night away in Darling House, and the whole place is available to hire for private parties.

No washing up, and you can go to bed whenever you want!

Find out more.

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Gallo super premium wine dinner at Boisdale

Gallo super premium wine Boisdale dinner

The only thing you might know about Gallo wine is the mass market White Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio, Cab Sav and Merlot you’ve likely drunk with friends or at a barbecue. Or perhaps you know the Barefoot wine brands? That was all I knew about Gallo wines anyway. But oh my, how surprised I was to learn there’s a whole other world out there: Gallo super premium.

It turns out Gallo owns a huge number of wine brands, and even more so after a $1.7bn deal to buy 30 others from Constellation Wines earlier in 2019.

But this is about the premium end of Gallo’s offering. You may be surprised to know you won’t see a Gallo label anywhere near any of these wines. I asked Gallo’s head of fine wine for EMEA, Edouard Baijot, MW (Master of Wine) – and one of only eight French MWs! – if the company had considered labelling the wines as Gallo, but apparently it didn’t resonate from a marketing perspective.

The tasting was part of a US vs Scotland dinner at Boisdale, Mayfair: an intense battle over which country offers the best lobster and the best steak, fought out in rowdy, boys club surroundings. 

Gallo super premium wine Boisdale dinner

We started the evening with several glasses of J Vineyards & Winery Cuvée 20 Brut, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. A classic blend of champagne grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir – this sparkler tastes like the California summer. It’s bright and round and soft, with a delightful citrussy creaminess. As lovely as it is however, I think most UK consumers would baulk at paying champagne prices for a Californian fizz, not taking quality or taste or anything else into account.

Then the battle began. We were presented with two halves of a lobster: native Hebridean vs New Jersey Atlantic, pairing with Orin Swift Mannequin Chardonnay 2014, California. We weren’t allowed to confer and had to vote for our favourites. The Scottish lobster won out, but being the terrible person I am, I preferred the US lobster. It was sweeter, and meatier. The first faux pas of the evening.

The wine matched up to the meatiness of the lobster. It’s certainly a punchy white, at 15% ABV. It’s a beautiful pale gold colour, with so much going on. On the nose you get vanilla, lemon, a light oakiness, with floral notes too. Sharp-sweet lemon on the palate with some grapefruit, and a rich, long finish.

Gallo super premium Boisdale dinner

Two wines for round two, and the food battle intensified: Black Angus USDA prime vs Dry Aged Buccleuch Scottish grass-fed ribeye. As the wine was flowing, so were the strong opinions… 

Another Orin Swift wine. This time, the Abstract 2016. So. Fruity. Cherries, strawberries, raspberries, and a smoky meatiness that was the perfect match with the steak. Smooth and long.

The second red, and absolute favourite wine of the evening (well, until the impromptu second tasting anyway) was the Louis M. Martini Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon 2016. Absolutely my kind of wine. Unsubtle, big, rich, and lip-smackingly delicious. Blackcurrant, dark plum, herbs. So full-bodied, with well-structured tannins, but also balanced, with a finish that just goes on and on. Lovely now, but even lovelier in a few years. I will dream of this wine.

On the steak front, Scotland beat the US hands down, with only one vote for the US.

Gallo super premium Boisdale dinner

The conversation turned to cheese, with Ranald Macdonald, younger of Clanranald, and managing director of Boisdale declaring that Britain makes the best cheese in the world. The look from Edouard Baijot could have melted a vintage cheddar.

The wine we finished the evening with was the MacMurray Estate Vineyards Russian River Valley Pinot Gris 2016, Sonoma County. This wine had some incredibly rich aromas and a fruit forward character, full of baked apple and peach. This tasted great at the dinner, but will likely taste even better in a few years.

The battle was all but forgotten about at this point in the evening, but it looks like the UK won hands down.