Monday, 31 March 2014

Monday Perk Me Up: Espresso Martini in time for London Coffee Festival!

Good grief, I can't believe it's only Monday! I've worked my socks off today and desperately need something to perk me up so I'm ready to face the rest of the week. All that naff instant coffee from work has done nothing to soothe my mood, (well, it did come out of a vending machine) and I want to feel pampered!
No, scrap that, I deserve to feel pampered! And so do you. Let's get caffeinated in style!
Ahem. *steps sheepishly off soap box...*

If you're looking for coffee inspiration, you're in luck this week: Thursday marks the start of the London Coffee Festival! And I've just been told that, as part of this event, the legendary Mexican coffee liqueur Kahlua is teaming up with East London micro-roastery Nude Espresso and The Liquorists to host The Kahlua Coffee House pop-up.

It's going to be pretty spesh, to be honest: coffee cocktails galore, masterclasses in Kahlua's main ingredients and how to make your own coffee house cocktails at home, chats about coffee culture, and unique dried blends to try. Is your mouth watering yet? Mine is.

I can't go to the festival this year (boo!) but they very kindly sent me an espresso martini kit to try it for myself! And oh, it is good stuff. You really should pop along to see them (and check out the joys of the rest of the festival!) if you can - especially if you love your coffee like I do.

Espresso Martini cocktail recipe (serves one)


45ml kahlua coffee liqueur
30ml vodka
30ml fresh brewed Nude espresso (the absolute best you can afford - Nude sent me their East Espresso blend which is £7.50 and SO smooth, rich and chocolatey)

Shake it!

1. Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker.
2. Add plenty of ice cubes, and shake it like coffee beans in a blender!
3. Strain into a martini glass or coupe. Make sure it's been in the freezer for a few minutes if you have time - the colder the glass, the more refreshing the sweet, smooth, dark goodness.

The Mocha dessert cocktail is also a treat - ice cream + chocolate + cherries + kahlua! Sweet.

Happy sipping! Let us know your favourite coffee cocktails (or if you're going to the festival) in the comments...

Monday Moules Marinière & Muscadet

I don't know about you, but March has felt like a very long and expensive month; I'm bloomin' glad it's the end. Not only does that mean that it's the day of dad-jokes and general pranks tomorrow - April Fools - but more importantly, it;s pay day!

No doubt most of you will have been given your pennies on Friday, and I'm sure you spent a good portion of them that evening at the pub, but annoyingly I get paid today, on a bloody Monday. No hefty celebrations for me unless I want to go to work with a hangover, and a Tuesday hangover is really not my friend. So instead, to embrace my replenished bank account, I plan on cooking a slap up dinner with some good booze both in and on the side.

I could go all out - expensive steak, expensive wine - but seeing as I've been feeling frugal over the last week or two, I don't want to be too hasty. I'm proposing a classic; it's a 'special occasion' kinda dish that really should be more of a mid-week-er, because it's actually very cheap and easy to prepare;
Moules Marinière.

It all sounds rather extravagant, but a kilo of mussels, which will happily feed two when you have a crusty baguette or chips on the side (as the Belgian's dictate), will only cost you around £4 - £5. And though you might think they're a lot of work, it's just the initial prep which can be faffy; after that, it's a breeze.

The general rule of thumb is that whatever wine you put into the dish should be the wine that you drink with it too, so don't scrimp and chuck in the dregs of that wine that's been hanging around for well over a week, pick something tasty!

The traditional wine match to mussels is Muscadet; a dry French white from the Loire Valley, which has a crisp acidity with a salty minerality. Winemakers typically bottle the wines straight from the lees (the lees are what is left at the bottom of the tank after fermentation), hence 'sur lie' on the label, and this adds a creamy depth and nuttier character to the wine. Though it's not as popular as your Chardonnays or Sauvignon Blancs, you can still find it in the supermarkets. Try this Sainsbury's Taste The Difference Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine for £7.00.

I’ve tried many variations of Moules Marinière, but this one, from Nigella’s ‘How To Eat’, is by far the best (and booziest). If you’re not slurping or mopping up the winey liquor at the end, then there must be something wrong with you.

Moules Marinière (serves 2)

You’ll need:
  • 1kg – 2kg mussels (the recipe dictates 2kg, but I find 1kg more than enough)
  • 50g butter
  • 1 small onion or 2 shallots, chopped very fine
  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • A good handful of fresh parsley, chopped (about 5 tbsp)
  • 300ml white wine
  1. Wash the mussels in plenty of cold water. Scrape away any barnacles, pull off all the beards and wash the mussels again. Discard any that are cracked and those that are open and do not close when tapped sharply. (Likewise, when cooked, throw away those which have stayed closed.)
  2. On a medium heat, in a very large pan which will take all the mussels later and which has a lid, put the butter in with the onion (or shallot), garlic and about 1 tablespoon of the parsley. Stir for a minute until the smell of garlic wafts out of the pan, and then add the wine. Cook for another minute or so on a low heat, with the lid on.
  3. Turn the heat up up up, throw in the mussels and clamp the lid back on. Give the pan a shake occasionally. After 3 minutes, take a look and remove all the open mussels you see, then put the lid back on and give them another 2 minutes.
  4. When the rest of the mussels have steamed open, remove them to your bowls (you’ll need huge ones). Take the pan off the heat; let the juices settle for a moment so any grit that may have been in the mussels sits at the bottom. Then, pour the juices carefully over each bowl of waiting, gaping shells, leaving any gritty bits at the bottom.
  5. Sprinkle over the remaining parsley, and serve with some decent bread, or chips and mayo, you decide. (It’s also handy to have a couple of plates or bowls for the empty shells on the table.)
Easy, huh? And if you so happen to be more of a beer drinker, then witbier/bière blanche is a cracking alternative to the wine; again drink the same beer with them. Hoegaarden is a good choice, but any blonde Belgian will do. (Hoegaarden is available in all the supermarkets, but Asda has it cheapest, £2.50 for a 750ml bottle, or a pack of 4x330ml for £3.)

Legend has it that mussels are best eaten in the months containing an R, which doesn’t give us long, though in reality you will find them at the fishmongers all year round. Even so, I’m sticking to tradition and making sure I have 'Payday Moules & Muscadet' before the R-less summer is upon us.

... Junember’s a month right?

Top image taken from Alex Brown's photostream under the CCL.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Friday Cocktail: The Bermudian With Gosling's Rum.

Rum's come and go, but Gosling's have been producing fine spirits for over 200 years. The oldest surviving business in Bermuda, it's stayed within the family and stuck to its guns, producing gorgeous rums for sipping and mixing.
Most of my ramblings on Vinspire usually concern beer, but today I've been let loose on the spirit world (spirits as in drinks, not the underworld...though that would be cool) as the marvellous folk over at Gosling's have sent me some samples to try and give you good looking people the low down on one of the oldest rum producers in the world.
First up is the signature, Gosling's Black Seal Dark Rum. Named after the black wax that was used to seal it in the old days, its sweetness comes through instantly with whiffs of toffee and burnt sugar. It's ridiculously smooth and sippable with a well tamed burn.
Next we have Gosling's Gold Bermuda. A very pale straw colour, the nose is filed with vanilla and Demerera sugar. It's vibrant and it fills the mouth with sweetness. This would be an excellent mixing rum but is so smooth it can be drunk neat.
This one I am slightly wary about, having had very bad experiences involving over proof rum, four lawnmowers and a national television broadcast, but I'm a professional (sort of) so I will soldier on! Gosling's 151 Over Proof Rum. What strikes me first is the lack of alcoholic smell. It smells more like Madeira than anything else, with a nuttiness and hints of dried fruit. These themes continue on the palate with a strong alcoholic presence. The burn is there, but it's well integrated into the flavours. I like it!
Finally is the crown jewel of the range, Gosling's Family Reserve. Much darker in colour, this has strong smells of toffee and raisins. The dried fruit character comes through on the palate with chocolatey notes and a sweet spice. A gem of a rum with bags of character.
Now it simply wouldn't be enough to say that these are good mixing rums without giving you something to do with them. This is a cocktail piece after all! May I present, The Bermudian.

You Will Need:

  • 50ml Gosling's Gold Bermuda Rum
  • 70ml Pineapple Juice
  • 20ml Grand Marnier
  • Couple of sprigs of mint
  • 5ml Fresh Lime Juice

Mix It:

  • Give a sprig of mint a good muddling in the shaker. 
  • Whack all the ingredients in the shaker and give it a good shake. 
  • Strain into a martini glass and garnish with a lime twist. 

It's not often I find a rum that really does impress. I think I may have found a new favourite in Gosling's.
The whole Gosling's range is available from The Whisky Exchange.

BRAND NEW BEER: Hillside Brewery

This week, the kind folk up at the brand new Hillside Brewery in Gloucester have kindly sent us (me) some beers to sample. They really are fresh out of the brewery - they only announced their first beer LAST WEEK! - but the talented team's previous credentials means they are seen as ones to watch in the brewing scene. And we're bringing it to you first...

The two beers that I will be reviewing today are Centurion & Over the Hill. So here is what I thought!

Centurion- American IPA

From those that have read my beer reviews in the past, I have not spoken particularly highly of a number of IPAs that I have reviewed. However, just from the nose of the Centurion I can tell that it is a well-crafted, trained and battle-ready beer that is certainly worth its salt.

The nose is strong with instant kicks of wheat, beautifully fresh hops and an underlying note of citrus. In the glass is it bright copper with plenty of fizz and a nice thick head. Even though I followed the note on the bottle 'pour gently' you're still getting plenty of froth. Something I like to refer to as a 'tash-tickler' with my current face fluff. So far so good.

On the palate the first thing I notice is the body and weight of this beer. There is plenty of substance which isn't particularly surprising given the strength  (7%). The second is the hops. Jam packed full of them giving it a really smooth almost savoury taste that is followed up with that tangy citrus fruit found on the nose. Sharp, bitter, dry and full. Just what you want in a hearty IPA.

The finish is long and flavoursome. Although you can taste the alcohol, the weight of flavour and mouth-feel far outweigh it which is very impressive. A real standard bearer.

Cracking drop. But more than 2 and you'd be a bit like Russell Crowe at the end of Gladiator. Pretty ****ed.

Can be purchased in Favourite Beers- Cheltenham 

Over the Hill

Now for something slightly lighter with this 'Single hopped, malty dark mild'. Now people always say you should never judge a book by its cover but this looks right up my street. Although I love big, hoppy buggers like the Centurion; smooth, dark malty hugs is what I always crave.

In the glass it is a deep, rich-looking brown with a short foam. The nose doesn't leap out of the glass, you have to search for it a bit but once you do you're welcomed in with hints of brown sugar, dark chocolaty malts, coffee beans and a touch of molasses.

The palate is smooth and rounded with just a tickle on the tongue from the light pettiance. Lightly hopped, most of the flavour is coming from the malt as you would expect. Lighter in body (3.5%) it is still flavour forward with those roasted coffee, cocoa and almost charred notes that really put a smile on my face.

Hillside are really onto something good here. Two well structured, flavour focused and enjoyable beers that really put into context how exciting craft beer and up and coming brewers in general are in this country.

It's not quite veni, vidi, vici yet but I am sure we will be hearing more from Hillside in the future.

To find out where to buy these beers first, we recommend checking out the shiny new Hillside Brewery Facebook page.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Creating a Drink Part 1: Party Drinks at Home...

As I find myself in the wonderful situation of still working within bars and restaurants every day I get asked quite often for advice with organizing food and drinks for parties and special occasions.

This week I answer the most common question I get asked from friends and family in other professions, (aside from 'When are you going to get a real job?...") - I'll try and explain the creative process behind making a drink.  This week I'm focusing on drinks designed for parties and at home.


This is the boring bit, I'm sorry but taking a few minutes to think about a few key factors could save a huge amount of stress later on. The first thing I do no matter how vague the parameters is create a brief.  It could be as simple as 'a simple sparkling drink for the guests on arrival.'  Already you have direction.

Logistics can also play a big part.  Making a drink to go with food for a dinner party of twelve people has very few time or logistical constraints, however creating a drink for 250 guests at a wedding, all of whom are due to arrive at the same time, is a very different story.  Almost anyone who has worked in hotel bars will have a horror story or two of trying to make a few hundred mojitos in ten minutes, inevitably running out of mint and crushed ice.

Knowing how much time and resources you will have should allow you to plan something that is comfortably achievable.

Power of the Punch

Punches are great party drinks.  Vintage punch bowls are pretty easy to come across online, and they have the added bonus of allowing the guests to serve themselves!  The classic proportions can be found in this wonderful little rhyme from an 1908 edition of the New York Times describing a Planters Punch...

 Taken from Ryan Ganon1 photostream under the CC
This recipe I give to thee,

Dear brother in the heat.
Take two of sour (lime let it be)
To one and a half of sweet,
Of Old Jamaica pour three strong,
And add four parts of weak.
Then mix and drink. I do no wrong —
I know whereof I speak.

The 'sweet' could refer to grenadine, cane syrup, falernum or any other sugar heavy ingredient you may want to substitute in.  Similarly the weak is often best a fruit juice, although champagne or sparkling water can work equally as well.

Punches are great because it's in their nature to be tweaked, changed and have ingredients substituted through necessity.  My favourite punch to serve is the Fish House Punch, a delicious pre-prohibition drink that hails from Philadelphia. Although you will find many versions, this is my favorite specification.

Fish House Punch recipe (serves four)

Taken from Farther Along photostream under the CC
  • 100ml Cognac
  • 100ml Dark Rum (El dorado 5 works really well) 
  • 80ml Peach Liquor
  • 100ml Fresh Lemon Juice
  • 4 teaspoons castor sugar
  • 150ml Strong cold Earl Grey Tea (optional)
For smaller numbers, combine in a shaker with ice and shake briefly, before serving over shaved ice with orange and lemon slices.

If scaling up, simply combine ingredients with ice cubes in a punch bowl and garnish with orange, lemon and mint.

Working Backwards

If you want to try something more elaborate involving a built or shaken drink try working backwards and imagine the taste, texture, aroma, colour of your finished article.  For example, for arguments sake, if I was trying to create a refreshing drink with few ingredients, I most likely would try and think of something similar to a classic daiquiri.  I know that I would want some acidity and bite, most than likely from citrus, I would be thinking of a light, un-aged base spirit and probably a floral and simple sweetener to balance.

Some combinations are fairly straight forward: lime and ginger, elder flower and apple, for example.

For inspiration with rarer ingredients I often look to cookery books and restaurant menus.  If your drink is running with a theme, or designed to match certain food, this should be fun and relatively straightforward.
For example, if you are serving Thai food you most likely already have lime, lemongrass, chilli, ginger, coriander that could all be incorporated  easily into a drink.

If all this seems a bit daunting, try adding extra components to drinks you are already familiar with.  For example, muddling some lemongrass into your mojito and topping with ginger beer instead of soda is a really easy twist.

Finally, don't forget your garnish - simple aromatic herbs such as mint or rosemary, fresh citrus or even berries adds aroma and finesse to your final serve.

Image from Tim Lucas via CCL

Now, doing a take on a Bellini has been done a million times over, so I regard this as a bit of a cheat. However, making a simple glass of cheap fizz more exciting with the addition of fruit is a quick, stress-free way to provide your guests with a tasty drink on arrival.  If you do choose this just remember a few key points;

  • Sugar - Our pre-disposition is to associate many flavours, particularly fruits, with sugar.  How often as a child did you eat something fruit-flavoured rather than the fresh fruit itself e.g. sweets, milkshakes ice cream.  What this means is that without certain levels of sugar we find it hard to pick up certain flavours.  Bear this in mind, particularly when pairing with dry sparkling wine.
  • Texture  - if you make a homemade fruit puree make sure you get all seeds, pulp and pips etc out.  A drink can easily be ruined with an unpleasant texture 
  • Booze - Sparkling wine has a tendency to go straight to people's heads anyway! If considering a classic champagne cocktail or Kir Royale with the addition of extra liquor, take it easy if you want your guests to make it to dinner!

Head image taken from My Chef photo stream under the creative commons.

Baa Baa Black Sheep Have You Any Ale?

So the other half came home with a couple of beers on the weekend.

"They're English ales" he said.
"You can write about them for Vinspire" he said.
 I suspect his intentions we not entirely focused on the 'tasting' of beer for journalistic purposes, but nonetheless he did stumble across a couple of beauties, I'll grant him that. So Sunday became beer day and these two ales from Black Sheep Brewery in the Yorkshire Dales - a delightful corner of the country - went down a treat. And yes, I did get a look in.

Since 1992, the Black Sheep Brewery have been producing beers from their home in North Yorkshire through traditional brewing processes, time-honoured methods and what they call their special ingredients:

"Crystal clear Yorkshire Dales water from our own well
Maris Otter malted barley for extra flavour
Some wheat to fortify our Beer’s natural head
A little roasted malt for colour and flavour
Generous amounts of whole English hops which make our beer so refreshing"

Apart from a few batches of home-brew, I don't really know a lot about beer brewing, so best check out their website for a little bit more info on the processes they use. What I can tell you is that the result is high-quality - that's clear even for a relative beer novice like me.

With a nice little portfolio of bottled beers, special brews, seasonal beers and cask ales, there's something from Black Sheep to tickle even the most discerning beer monster. Having only scratched the surface with just two from their range, Black Sheep will be pleased to know I'll be going back for more. Here's the verdict...

Golden Sheep, Premium Golden Ale, 4.7% abv

Light and dry, this golden ale is refreshing, and abundant with citrussy hops. It's lovely and light in the glass, with just enough head when poured and erring towards lager like qualities. Best served chilled (of course!), I'm thinking it would go down quite a treat with a juicy burger - the clean amber cutting through the beef. That, or cheese. Beer is lovely with cheese.

Wanna know a secret? The Golden Sheep was first brewed in 2005 as a Tesco's Finest* product so you may well have tried it in disguise!

All Creatures, Bright & Beautiful, Yorkshire Pale Ale, 4% abv

The newbie to their bottled beer range, but much-loved in the cask version for the last two years, this is another Yorkshire pale ale. The pretty green label stands out on the shelf, and the contents do not disappoint. A little more hoppy than the Golden Sheep, the flavours here are fuller, more complex and perhaps closer to what you might expect of an IPA with a dry bitterness. Easy to drink on its own, it might also make a good match for fish and chips (who needs Champagne!).

So far so good, and Black Sheep Brewery gets two thumbs up. The better news? These two are both available on supermarket shelves and are currently included in a 4 for £6.00 beer promotion at Tesco (until 8th April), or can be purchased individually for £1.97 for a 500ml bottle.

There's only one thing left to say..."To the baa....r!"

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Boozy Mother's Day Gift Ideas

So pay attention folks, Mother's Day is this Sunday, that's 30/03/14! Don't be a crappy child, please remember your mum this weekend, go out and get her a card and possibly a little gift to show how much she means to you and that you appreciate her and all she's done for you. (Of course if you had a horrid mother and you hate her then disregard this. Buy yourself booze.)

Women can be a bit more difficult to shop for than men at times I find, and I can find myself a little bereft of ideas every now and again. You can go for the standard flowers or truffles, and if you're feeling flash some earrings or a Volkswagen Beetle, however a middle ground can definitely be found. Everyone knows that all mums are the same, and yours has been subjected to great physical, mental and emotional torment by you, you bastard. As such, a nice little boozy gift might be just the ticket.

What better gift for a hard-working or sit-about mum could there be than a lovely bottle of bubbles? We all know that mummy loves the stuff and being female always go for the rose. Moet & Chandon Rose is £10 off at Sainsbuys for £29.99 and Lanson Rose is also £10 for £27.99 at Tesco.

Baileys is a classic, loved by mums, godmothers and nans around the world, and is present in every drinks cabinet from Skipton to Sierra Leone. Of course it is impossible to leave well-enough alone, and a new creation has been released onto the market - with the added bonus of chocolate! Yeah, that's right, they've taken Baileys and added every woman's favourite thing after alcohol; Belgian chocolate.

I'm sure this will go down a storm and the pretty bottle is a nice addition. Bailey's Chocolat Luxe is on offer at Waitrose for £14.50.

A Classical Touch
Sticking with the chocolate theme for the mummy with the sweet tooth, there is a wonderful option that has had my mum in raptures for decades.

This is Mozart Chocolate Cream Gold. This is a wonderful liqueur that is pretty versatile, it's great on it's own, in cocktails (try Laura's 'stocking filler' cocktail, or make a white chocolate mochatini with the white chocolate Mozart) or poured over ice cream. It's a definite mum-pleaser and available at Waitrose for £15.50.

The Hard Hitters
Some mothers are made of sterner stuff - they've seen some things and lived through some times, and so require a tipple with a bit more edge. If you want to get the abv up but keep that feminine frill then there is no better option than Pinky Vodka, a Swedish creation (like your mum's favourite Abba song) that uses all natural botanicals.
Pinky is available from Asda for £20.

Giving Off Royal Airs
If you refer to your mum as Mama then she may have the same drinking habits as Her Maj, and so a bottle of Dubonnet might be right on the mark.

Dubonnet is a traditional French aperitif flavoured with plants and spices before being aged in oak. It can be bought from Waitrose for £9.

So that's all really, a little selection of gifts to choose from, but if you have any other ideas that are original or very happily received then let us know, we'd love to hear them!

It's Gin Season!

Well, it's always gin season really but when the sun starts to shine, it makes it totally acceptable to drink gin from around 10am, late into the night. It's ok, it's very English you see and that makes it ok, so long as you are wearing a bowler hat.

I have been sent freebies (woop!) and thankfully, it's gin, otherwise my previous sentence and the title would be completely redundant...

I have been sent three little samples from Haymans, who are the oldest gin distilling family in England. Dating back to 1863 when Christopher Hayman’s Great Grandfather, James Burrough, purchased a gin rectifying company in London, which became known as Beefeater (yes, that Beefeater), the family became a successful distiller. in 1980, Beefeater was sold but they carried on making niche, premiums gin in their own name.

"SO! What on earth were these damn gins then Freddy?"
Well hang on Mum, I'll tell you.

First up was Hayman's Old Tom Gin, which they say is the "distinguished Gin of the Victorian era" - a classic style.
I must admit, I haven't drunk gin for a few months and it was as soon as i stuck my nose in the bottle of this that I realised I have been a fool. Immediately I was seriously craving a proper G&T. The smell sent me straight back to sitting outside on a hot summer afternoon with sunglasses on and a Gin and Tonic in hand.
Old Tom (the gin, not a tramp) has a fruit-driven nose. There is mouth watering citrus and also a hint of ginger. The botanicals are absolutely stunning here and it makes you wish you were in a fist-fight in a Victorian pub.

How you should drink it:
Gin Rickey

50ml Hayman’s Old Tom Gin
½ a fresh lime cut into segments
Top with Soda water.

ICE:  Cubed
GARNISH:  Lime Wedge
METHOD:  Squeeze the lime segments into the glass, add ice and build the rest of the ingredients into the glass and stir.

Next, was Hayman's London Dry Gin, the style that we all know and love
best. This is every bit as pleasing as the first one. The London Dry Gin is made up using 10 different botanicals and is jam-packed full of flavour. It isn't punchy or uncool though, this is still an amazingly refined gin and since trying it, it's certainly up there with my favourite London Dry Gins.

How you should drink it:
The Classic - Gin & Tonic

50ml Hayman’s London Dry Gin
Top up with tonic water

GLASS: Collins Glass
ICE: Cubed
GARNISH: Lime Wedge
METHOD: Build in the glass

Finally, when I thought things couldn't get any better, I came to the Sloe Gin. I bloody love Sloe Gin, although I would tend to drink it more in the winter than at this time of year.

The recipe for Hayman's Sloe Gin is apparently from a long standing family recipe, that was previously only available for private use... Sounds a bit suspect but it's really delicious, so we will let them off.

How you should drink it:
The Sloe Royale

25ml Hayman’s Sloe Gin
75ml Champagne (or Prosecco/English sparkling wine)

GLASS: Champagne flute
ICE: None
GARNISH: Summer Berries
METHOD: Pour 25ml of Hayman's Sloe gin into a chilled champagne flute and top up with fresh, chilled champagne.  Settle the sloe at the bottom of the champagne and garnish with summer berries.

All of these Hayman's gins are available online, from Master of Malt, ranging in price from £17.53 up to £20.19 - very reasonable prices especially for the quality. I urge you to give them a try and let us know what you think!

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Cheap Shot? Good Tequila, And Where To Find It

- Andrew Slowe

Tequila. “Tequila gives you hangovers…” “Tequila makes you angry…” “Tequila renders you largely incapable of proper speech”. But I (and a lot more respected and respectable Tequila-loving bodies) are here to absolve your fears and dispel the notion that Tequila is simply the ‘or’ to Sambucca on a night out in a dodgy club… when you’ve drunk too many beers… and Jägerbombs, and you’re at the bar on your own… and there’s a £10 limit to use your card... and that girl’s boyfriend will not let you buy her a drink…

A little of the background. To be a real Tequila the drink must be made from at least 51% Blue Agave (or ‘Mixto’). To make the drink, the heart of the Agave Tequilana is removed and heated to produce a sap ,which is then fermented by those wiley Mexicans to make you forget why you got up in the morning.

Most of the Tequilas worthy of your attention and time (whether you remember or not) will be 100% Blue Agave and some of these are not only interesting, they are exciting, displaying true characteristics of their terroir. And helping these Tequilas to make a lasting impression on the hearts and minds of discerning drinkers are places like Cafe Pacifico in Covent Garden, Crazy Homies in West London and Navajo Joe’s; places that are bringing proper examples of this delightful spirit to our humble shores. 

As are the producers that are realising that Britain is a venerable and actually viable market for Tequila. Couple that with the spirit of exploration and you have a match made in heaven (or hell, depending how this reads).

And what better way to begin this love affair than with a tasting. Namely – and importantly one of my favourite Mexican restaurants - Wahaca’s ‘Tequila Experience’ which consists of Calle 23’s ‘Blanco’, ‘Reposado’ and ‘Anejo’ which is an absolute bargain at £10.65 and is designed to complement a three-course experience to be had before, during and after your meal respectively. Or, if you’re like me, you taste one and then smash two more glasses of Anejo before your refried beans have turned up. But I returned. In sobriety. On your behalf readers. To be objective.

So… Blanco is typically a young and fresh expression and is not usually aged but can be, up to a maximum of 59 days. My first test is no exception to the general rule and is bottled straight after distillation. It is crystal clear with subtle pepper and spice and pronounced Agave flavour but also offering hints of green apple. The finish is not long but it’s smooth and very clean; a short, sharp jab at the taste buds.

Reposado or ‘rested’ has spent time in oak; a minimum of two months but can be up to a year and this ageing is unrestricted and so can occur in larger barrels. In this case the double-distilled spirit has an 8 month sojourn before bottling and the oak produces a smooth, light amber spirit with notes of wood that however don’t detract from the distinctive Agave flavour. Again, the spirit doesn’t have a long lasting finish but it is smooth and rich on the palate before hinting at a touch of sweetness.

Finally, Anejo must be aged for at least one year (but can be up to three) and in smaller oak barrels which increases the surface area of booze in contact with the oak. This particular Tequila is aged for 16 months in old Bourbon casks, which is a favourite tool of the premium Tequila producers, and gives a nutty, toasty warmth to the spirit. This one is a little longer-lasting and my initial thought on the palate was of a well rounded Islay Whisky. It’s wonderfully smooth, with definite notes of caramel, butterscotch; hints of spice and chilli and white pepper - it’s superbly rounded, clean and vibrant.

Fortunately this is less about picking a favourite, because each Tequila has its own exceptions to offer, but I did enjoy the aged quality and superior smoothness of the Anejo. It was clean and fresh with a supple mouth feel without being cloying. But as an experience and as an introduction or investigation into something that we’re familiar yet truly unfamiliar with it was a joy. 

I’d recommend approaching this variable spirit with an open mind, free of the preconceptions that have dogged our opinions and experiences of Tequila. And I think there is a growing reputation for the venues offering these spirits exclusively, or as part of an excellent range, and there is a growing strength in top quality Tequilas and Mezcals - and a definite exoticism to the great ones.

Top image: Allan Donque. Agave plant: Raul Macias. Barrels: Mickou. All taken using Flickr's Creative Commons License.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Celebrity Beer?.. Adam Henson's Rare Breed

At 25, I am starting to feel a little old; I have a mortgage and I'm in a full time job where I live for the weekends. However, my weekends no longer consist of clubbing; I'd much prefer a night wining and dining in the comfort of my own home, or curled up on the sofa, watching a film with a decent bottle. Another tell-tale sign of age is that I've discovered a love for Countryfile, and I find myself seriously disappointed if I miss it on a Sunday evening.

Luckily, my local (The Beehive in Cheltenham for those who are interested) offered me the chance to make up for that missed episode the other week. (It was one in Somerset, and they had horse hair weaving, and 'the woman of Exmoor', and farmers tackling the floods, and it looked really good.. Sigh.) But a night with Adam Henson - sounds like a porno, I know - showcasing his 'Rare Breed' beer, made for excellent midweek entertainment.

Collaborating with Bristol’s Butcombe Brewery in 2011, the Cotswold Farmer and TV presenter brought together both his passion for local produce and his love of beer, to create a new brew. Initially, it was called ‘Muddy Puddle – I’m pretty glad that name didn’t stick – but after a bit of work in the branding, and attaching his recognisable name on the label, ‘Adam Henson’s Rare Breed’ became one of Butcombe’s three permanent beers, and even won a Gold Medal in the International Beer Challenge.

The golden ale is made using ingredients solely from the West Country - Maris Otter malting barley, Hereford hops and Mendip spring water – so if you’re eco-concious, then this is a good beverage for you. Tasting wise, as the Butcombe guide spells out, is all very middle of the road; it smells of hops and citrus, it tastes a little malty and a little fruity; not too sweet or bitter in style, just clean and refreshing. They encourage you to "enjoy a 'rare' moment of pleasure with this exceptional beer"; cheesy puns - right up my street.

Although it is like the finest pedigree rare breed, full of the best of the best components, this doesn't really have any unusual defining characters; it's simply an easy drinking, good breed of beer. Now let's stick Countryfile on catch-up.

Obligatory photo with a famous.
You can purchase 'Adam Henson's Rare Breed' from the Brewery's online shop, or from selected stores.
Like beer? Fancy the chance to win a case of British Beers, or many other prizes? Why not check out Vinspire's First Birthday Charity Raffle! You only need to donate a minimum of £1 to enter via our JustGiving page, and all the money goes to One Difference water project, just don't GiftAid your donation, or it won't count (legalities etc). The draw closes at 3pm on Friday 28th March, and winners will be announced shortly after.

Monday Morning Mugs: Death by Tea

Oh good grief, it's Monday again. Someone get me some biscuits, stat. And a cup of tea the size of my face.

Failing that, get me a cuppa in a mug that makes me smile all morning, until suddenly I don't mind it's Monday any more.

The Monday Morning Mugs series aims to do just that - not just for me, but for all your fellow Monday haters. This week, I'm sharing Death by Tea, a gorgeous little design shop run by Holly Betton, who describes herself as a 'professional colour-in-er'. I like her already.

As you can see from the Dinosaurs Are Cool mug above, she has a knack for pretty mugs that do something quite miraculous: make you glad you've finished your brew. I mean, what self-respecting human person could get to the end of a cup of tea drunk from a mug with a cute dinosaur on it, see that it says 'RAWWR!' in the bottom, and not smile?

And then there's the My Thinking Cup mug. I love the idea of - mid-stress - sitting down, having a cup of tea, and finding a lightbulb moment at the end of it.

Ah, a bear hugs mug. Everyone loves bear hugs. Except for bears. Don't try to hug bears.

There's others in her range, but these are my favourites. They're all £13.50 each from Not On the High Street, with a very reasonable postage charge.

Which would you choose?

Friday, 21 March 2014

Cornish Pastis and Tarquin's Gin

So the charming people at Southwestern Distillery decided to send me a half bottle of their gin and their Cornish Pastis.  Now I have always found it strange trying to impartially judge a spirit’s merits based on a nip in my lounge.  So, David Attenborough style, I decided I would study these products in their natural environment.

Joining me in this little study at the excellent Epernay Manchester are friends and venue managers Barry Van Goethem & Marc Farrell and queen of the northern cocktail scene (and Barry’s much better half) Susie Wong. 

As first impressions go, the branding gets an all-round seal of approval.  Classic and clear, it sets the tone well.  The only point that raised a few eyebrows is the waxed dipped bottle necks, perhaps a little unnecessary, although I imagine the effect to be much better on the full size 70cl bottle.

We decided to start with the Cornish Pastis.  Wonderfully named, but the charming pun aside, a really nice way to subtly introduce the idea of locality, a very strong trend in modern British cuisine.  As Marc put it;

MF - “Straight away I'm thinking of childhood trips to St Ives and aniseed penny sweets.  There’s a slight sea saltiness and strong floral finish, possibly the locally sourced violets?”

Susie was equally impressed.

SW – “Slight hint of saparilla sweetness, long anise on the finish but sweet and delicate, not too dry.”

We diluted the pastis with chilled water, in the traditional manner, and found it opened up wonderfully.  Complex layers of anise coloured with orange and citrus with a really nice floral finish.  Personally I could have drunk it all day in this way, maybe complemented with some apple or cucumber as a garnish, though it really had so much flavour going on this was hardly necessary.

On to the gin.  Claiming to use ten ‘traditional botanicals’ plus orange zest and Devon violets this really is a small craft product.  Using a flame fired still, and producing only 600 bottles in a batch, this is pretty much home distilling quantities.  The violet comes through strongly on the nose as does the orange peel, both lovely.  On the palate it's soft, sweet and delicate, perhaps more akin to Plymouth though than the claimed London Dry Style.  Not by any means a bad thing, though with its ABV of 42% and hints of spice on the nose, maybe I expected a little bit more body. 

MF – “The flavour and balance are excellent but it is very sweet and soft for a London dry style.  It lacks a bit of punch and being juniper light I wonder how it would stand up in the more spirit heavy classics.”
Happily the guys decided it was time to get behind the bar.  Susie dived straight off with the pastis and came up with this lovely number;

  • 50ml Cornish Pastis
  • 15ml White Crème de cacao
  • 15ml Passionfruit Syrup
  • 20ml Lemon Juice
  • 1 egg white

Shaken hard and fine strained into a chilled cocktail glass.  The crème de cacao is a stroke of genius, the soft creamy flavours helping to mellow the tangy passion fruit and allowing the softer aromas of the pastis to shine.

Marc then used the gin to make a play between two classics, the Clover Club and the Maiden’s Blush:

  • 35ml Tarquin's Gin
  • 15ml Pastis
  • 4 raspberries
  • 15ml simple sugar syrup
  • 20ml lemon juice
  • 1 egg white

As mentioned the real strength of this gin is in the mixing and this lovely hybrid that also incorporates the pastis is refreshing and beautifully delicate.

As a modern gin it falls nicely into the trend of local botanicals and gorgeous branding, although we think it might be too soft as a stand alone gin for some tastes.  While great for mixing or with tonic, it is possibly not quite ballsy enough to stand up in a martini.

And the pastis - well, the pastis blew us all away!

BVG – “The sweet finish and balance is exceptional, as good as any pastis I have tried.  When opened up it keeps giving and giving layers of flavour without any bitterness on the finish.  Truly superb.”

If you want to grab a bottle yourself Master of Malt sell the Tarquin's Gin for £35.50 and the Pastis for a very reasonable £34.95 

Any thoughts or to follow any of the guys get in touch @tomhigham2402, @susiewong8, @dutchbaz, @MarcFarrell 

Win with Vinspire's Birthday Charity Raffle!

Happy birthday to us! 

Well, nearly - Vinspire turns one on 25th March, and we're pretty darn excited about it. We realise how lucky we've been - spending a whole year discovering loads of delicious drinks -  and so we've decided to celebrate our birthday by doing something for people who haven't been as fortunate, by raising money for communities that don't even have the luxury of running water.

To that end, we're doing an online charity raffle for the incredible One Difference water project run by the amazing One Foundation charity.

Take a look at our JustGiving page: we have an incredible NINE prizes up for grabs - from wine to gin, from rum to whiskey - and all you have to do to enter is donate a minimum of £1. Just a quid! You can, of course, donate more if you'd like to (we'd like that very much indeed.)*

We're keeping the raffle open for a week - until 3pm on Friday 28th March - and we'll be picking winners at random shortly after then. And we'd love for you to tell all your friends they could win some stonkingly good booze at the same time as helping a wonderful cause - just share the JustGiving page or this blog post on your social media of choice.

Just one thing - please don't GiftAid your donation if you want to enter the raffle. GiftAid can only be used when you're not entering a competition/getting something out of your donation - so if you do add GiftAid then we aren't able to enter you into the raffle. Sorry, guys!

So, let's have a look at the prizes!

1. A Case of British beers from Best of British Beer. These guys have been high on our list of faves for a while, and they've just gone up yet another notch in our estimation by agreeing to give one lucky winner a case of beer - that's right, a whole case! All of their beers are premium-quality, crafted with love, and delicious to drink.

2. A bottle of Bulldog Gin. We reviewed Bulldog last year and thoroughly enjoyed the refreshing, no-nonsense taste of their gin, and now one of you lucky donors gets a bottle of it to try too!

3. A bottle of El Dorado 5yo rum. We are big fans of this deliciously tropical rum, and we're not surprised by its array of awards. You can try it for yourself if you win!

4. Two bottles of wine from Hattie's Wine. We have both the sensuous Honoro Garnacha (which was served at last year's Oscars!) and the Miraval rose - yep, that's the one owned by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie that sold out in about five seconds when it was first released.

5. A bottle of Bulleit Rye Whiskey - the award-winning (a gold medal at San Francisco, no less), small-batch, straight rye whiskey that is rich, smooth and spicy. Yes please.

6. Two bottles of the infamous Birthday Cake vodka from Revolution Bars -  these lovely guys couldn't let us celebrate our birthday without some birthday cake vodka! This stuff is the best.

7. A bottle of Appleton Estate rum - Our Lucienne fell head over heels with this stuff when she used it to make rum butter pancakes a couple of weeks back. You really don't want to miss a chance of winning this.

8. A wine box utility pot made by the amazing Sarah at Baxter and Snow - oh yes! These utter beauts sell out so fast when they become available, and we are absolutely thrilled Sarah has donated one to the cause. Have a look at her Facebook page to see her other incredible creations, and obviously donate to be in with a chance to win this!

9. A signed copy of Richard Bray's brand new book Salt and Old Vines - tales of winemaking in southern France. It's not even out yet (it's released on 17th April) but the lovely Richard has donated a copy for one of you lucky guys to win.

So that's all we've got to tell you - now all that remains is for you to get your quids at the ready and donate to help One Difference and celebrate our birthday!

* Terms and conditions: UK entrants only, must be over 18 to enter, and we may need to verify your age before we send your prize. If you do not come forward to claim your prize within one week then we will give it to someone else, sorry! No one in the Vinspire team is allowed to win, and late entrants will not be counted. Sorry again. We'll pick winners at random and leave a message on the Just Giving page announcing who has won, and what your lucky prize is!