Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Stag Trip Ideas: Scottish Distillery Tours

A horny (antler-y) Stag
I don't think I am wrong in the fact that one of the first things a man thinks about when he hears there is to be a wedding is not the dress, flowers, cake, dress, bridesmaids dresses, the top table, who to sit Aunt Ethel next to or the car vs carriage conundrum (car btw), but where and when the stag do is going to be. I am sorry ladies, but us men are primal beings that know what we like, and  veils and train lengths sure aren't on the list.

There are all sorts of stag trip/party ideas out there; Prague, Amsterdam, anywhere in Eastern Europe, London, Newcastle, Manchester, Las Vegas, golf weekends, standard piss-up in fancy dress, poker evenings, there are all sorts of venues and concepts, but my favourite by far is a trip up to Scotland and a tour of whisky distilleries (perhaps with some golf thrown in).

One thing that seriously effects whisky is the location of the distillery - unfortunately they aren't all grouped in one area like an alcoholic's Disneyland. Scotland is on the big side to visit all the different whisky regions in one go, and so I have grouped together some little itineraries and ideas of the different areas, their styles and where is worth visiting.

Most distillery tours comprise a tour of the malting floors (if they have them), the kilns, stills and then a tasting in the visitor centre. You sometimes are given a discount for buying bottles from their shop if you've been on a tour as well!


Edinburgh and Glasgow are great to visit; they have history, culture, nightlife and are easily accessible. The distilleries in the area are known as Lowland distilleries - this area used to be teeming with large distilleries filling the cities with cheap booze for the industrial workforce, back when people stopped farming and steam engines became a thing. Lowland malts are generally lighter bodied in style than their Highland counterparts and are often triple distilled for extra smoothnessity.

Three stills at Auchentoshan
These drams are light, dry and unpeated coming from only one of very few distilleries left in the region. Auchentoshan is conveniently located close to Glasgow, only 25minutes from the centre by car, or 45 by bus. Distillery tours range from £6 per person up to £200, for £200 you get to visit the distillery out of hours and be the only group in the distillery. The tours are decent, but you pay extra for tasting that allow you to taste from the cask (£50) or bottle your own whisky (£100).

Auchentoshan ask you to book ahead and most tours require at least three people, but we're planning stag weekends here, not a romantic getaway for two!

Spirit safe at Glenkinchie
Glenkinchie is much like Auchentoshan in style; light, floral, slightly honeyed and sweet. The distillery is only 20 miles east of Edinburgh and bus routes run there, although there is a two mile walk to the distillery (taxis are available).

 Glenkinchie offer tours starting at £4 just to see their museum, £8 to tour and taste a dram or £12 for the tour, but with an extended tasting, however, more personalised tours are available on request if you go on a tour then you get a £3 voucher towards purchase of a bottle.

As well as the distilleries be sure to visit The Scotch Whisky Experience for tutored tasting and to see the world's largest collection of whisky and Royal Mile Whiskies to pick up some bottles from their excellent selection.


Speyside is technically an area within the Highlands, but is generally considered a whisky region in its own right due to the different style of the malts with many distilleries using sherry butts to flavour their whiskies.

This region has the largest amount of distilleries with loads all in a realatively small area. Speyside is a 3 hour drive north of Edinburgh, but can also be reached by train (into Aviemore) or by air to Inverness.

Aberlour warehouse doors
Aberlour is a distillery that I have only recently started to try due to their 12yr non cill-filtered bottling which is fantastic. This distillery produces fantastic sherried malts, A'budnah for example and they have a tour that matches their reputation.

For £30 for the Founders Tour you'll be taken on a two and a half hour tour of the distillery with some of the most amiable tour guides in the biz. There are around six different whiskies to try and you can bottle and label your own straight from the cask.
Book ahead as spaces are limited.

Balvenie distillery
Anyone who bas read my pieces over the last year will know that I'm a bit of a fan of Balvenie and as such I don't think that any trip to Speyside would be complete without dropping in on this distillery. This is one of the best distillery tours in Scotland and due to Balvenie doing their own malting and coopering (barrel making) you get to see all stages of the process.

You will be given the opportunity to taste whisky straight from the cask on your three hour tour and for an additional fee bottle your own whisky before having a whisky tasting of their fantastic range!

The Balvenie distillery tour is around 3 hours long and costs £35 (worth every penny) - be sure to book ahead.

Casks at Glenfarclas
Pretty much everyone I know associates Scotland with a certain historically inaccurate Mel Gibson film and as such has an affiliation with screaming "Freeeeedooooom!"

 Most distilleries these days are owned by big corporations, but one of the big dogs remains decidedly independent.

 Glenfarclas is one of the big names in Speyside due to the strength of its sherried drams, a key flavour and marker for Speyside. Glenfarclas is family owned and as such is a bit more chilled in respect to the feel of their tours, but they are no slouches - they were one of the first distilleries to open a visitor's centres back in the early 70s.

Glenfarclas offer three different tour levels ranging from £5 up to £85 based on how anorak-y you are and how in depth you want to go.


The whiskies of Islay are some of the most interesting and distinctive in style, typically having heavy peat (smoke or/and medicinal) influences which can be fantastically complex. Islay itself, whilst remote, is not too difficult to get to with flights twice daily from Glasgow starting at £30.

Laphroaig distillery painted in the typical Islay fashion
This is famously the distillery of choice for Prince Charles and is probably the most distinctive of the Islay malts due to the extremity of the medicinal nose and flavours it imparts. The tours here are fantastic, if you are a Friend of Laphroaig (have registered a bottle you bought online) you get to visit the square foot of land you have been allocated as part of your tour. You get to plant a flag representing your country and claim the rent owed you in the form of a dram. The staff are hugely knowledgeable and you get to see the whole process.

The standard tour is £6, lasts around an hour and you get to taste a dram and take away a commemorative glass. There are other options that allow you to taste from casks and bottle your own, however the most impressive is the Water to Whisky Tour. This takes you to the water source of Laphroaig where you have a picnic and a dram cut with the source water. From here you go to cut peat that is used in the flavouring and drying process followed by another dram. Then you tour the distillery, turning malt, stoking the kiln and taste from some casks before bottling your own whisky from the cask, all for £82, it sounds a lot, but is a real experience.

More info can be found here.

A wall of Ardbeg
Ardbeg for me is the whisky with the biggest flavour of Islay and with the best marketing machine with their yearly Feis Ile release (coming out end of May). The flavours are hugely smoke ridden, but in some cases the use of wood finishes just make the flavours bigger, brasher and so damn tasty.

Ardbeg's offer a range of tours allowing you to sample all their drams, some back to the 70s, visit and cut the peat, all sorts and at a slightly cheaper price than might be expected of such a powerhouse. Be sure to keep your eyes out for Shortie throughout your tour of the distillery, he will pop up in surprising places.
Information on the different tours can be found here.

We have only scratched the surface here - there are hundreds of distilleries most of which allow visitors, all with different tours and styles, but this should provide a cross section of the different styles and feature some of the more famous and interesting tours available.

The joy for me is trying different whiskies, seeing the process in action and getting to meet the people with the craftsmanship and passion to create the drink that I and so many others enjoy so deeply - it allows you to get up close and personal with a hero and makes for great experiences to share with friends and family.

All photos are used under the Creative Commons Licence

Seasonal Weddings. What Drinks Should You Choose?

Taken from The Falcondale under CCL
'Aww a wedding in *insert month here*' seems to be the stock response to the announcement of the date of a wedding. Most of the time the actual date of a wedding and the details rarely coincide. Sure the colour scheme might reflect the season, so bright colours for spring/summer and cosy colours for autumn/winter, but if you really want your wedding to ooze the style of the season in which your matrimonial celebration is taking place, here are a few drinks ideas to make sure your bash is brimming with seasonal goodness.


Photo: Rob Ireton
Spring is a time of rebirth and of new beginnings. Perfect ideology for a wedding wouldn't you say? It evokes feelings of freshness and light. However, spring weather can be a bit unpredictable, so a nice middle ground is always good.
For beer, try something fruity but still full bodied. A decent IPA will have lots of juicy fruit but still carry some spice and full bodied bitterness in case the cold comes creeping in.
A similar approach should be taken with the wine. For the whites, something like a white Rioja or anything predominantly Verdejo will have lots of fruit and some delicate, floral touches reminiscent of the season. Try the Marques de Riscal Rueda Blanco for £7.49 on a multi buy from Majestic. For the reds, a Corbieres or Cotes Du Rhone will be bursting with flavours of red berries and sweet spice. Again from Majestic, the Leon Perdigal Cotes Du Rhone is only £7.49 on multi-buy.

If you're serving cocktails, try anything gin-based. Good gins are packed with aromatic botanicals providing a refreshing crispness like no other. Martinis are always great but why not try the White Lady (a perfect bridal theme) - click for the recipe!


Taken from Muha.. under CCL
Summer is all about being outside and doing things in a little more relaxed manner. If your wedding is taking place in summer, keep things simple, laid back and fun. All of the drinks that follow can be served chilled, even the red wine! I know right?

For the beer, a decent lager will go down a treat. Something light, that leads with a lot of citrus is going to quench a lot of thirsts perfectly.

White wines need to be crisp and refreshing so try a decent Loire Sauvignon Blanc or an unoaked Chardonnay like Chablis. While Chablis can be a bit on the pricey side, it's sibling Petit Chablis still has all the great mineral hallmarks but at a fraction of the cost. Sainsburys Taste the Difference Petit Chablis is £8.99 a bottle and has an abundance of green apple and citrus flavours.

Beaujolais is the perfect summer red. Made exclusively from Gamay, it has flavours of cherry, strawberry and banana. It can even be served straight from the fridge! Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages is currently on offer in Tesco for only £7.99.

To keep things relaxed, why not try using pitchers of things rather than individual cocktails? Pimms is a summer staple but why not try making a huge bowl of punch? A bottle of something like white rum and a few fresh juices can go a long way. Plus it means people can serve themselves and get as hammered as they want. Have a look at our cocktails pinterest board for some seriously classy, pretty ideas.


Photo: Parker Knight
Autumn is a time of winding down and of immense beauty as winter starts to poke it's head round the corner like a curious child. Much like Spring, the weather can be horrendously unpredictable.

Golden ale is always a lovely autumnal beer choice. Toasty malt flavours but still maintaining a fresh citrus feel make for a perfectly balanced beer that's perfect for these occasions.

Viognier is the perfect Autumn white. Lots of stone fruit flavours and carrying some lovely spice, it's rich, robust texture makes it perfect should the evening turn a little chilly. The Alain Grignon Viognier from Majestic is currently on offer at £6.79. Red wine choosing can be a bit tricky for this time. Go for something Spanish. More often than not, it's medium bodied and will be leading with flavours of plum, blackberry and cassis. The Society's Southern Spanish Red from The Wine Society is a prime example. And it's only £5.50. Bargain!

Golden Rum is ideal for Autumn conditions. Try mixing it with simple things like ginger beer or even apple juice to create sweet and spicy shorts.


Taken from Kenn Wilson under CCL
So winter is here and all you want to do is curl up in front of the fire with whisky. But wait, you've got to go get hitched to some bird/bloke you presented a ring to a year or so ago.
 Celebrate your love for one another in cosy fashion with some hearty booze.

Ruby ale is a fire monster among beers. Richly textured, lots of warming spice and some lovely red fruits make for a warming brew to celebrate with.

Chardonnay that's been heavily oaked makes for an awesome winter white. European Chardys will display more flavours of citrus and apple whereas as New World efforts will have tropical flavours a plenty.

Full bodied reds are a must for any winter event. Grand Ardeche Chardonnay by Louis Latour is an oaky beaut from Majestic at £9.99 when you buy two. Heavy Aussie Shiraz or a bold American Cabernet keep the chills at bay and will go well with whatever hearty food you'll be serving. The Society's Australian Shiraz is just the thing at £6.95.

Whisky. Whisky Whisky and more Whisky. Why not try serving hot toddies as actual drinks? Aside from their medicinal qualities, they're delicious!We have other hot, boozy creations here, and also recommend our Spiced Apple Sloe Cooker cocktail.

These are just a few suggestions to help you with your wedding booze choices. There are so many things to be discovered so get creative with your choices! And of course, congratulations! I bought you some spoons.

A Guide to Choosing Your Wedding Wines

Photo: Patrick Brosset (CCL)

With your wedding probably being the biggest day of your life, getting the wine right is a pretty important task. If you are on to wedding number 4, then you are already well practised in choosing the wines so this post probably isn't for you. If you are on Wedding number 1, see this as a practice run. By your 3rd/4th go you will have totally nailed the food and wine matching I'm sure.

As someone who has never been married (not to the best of my knowledge anyway), I have never had to choose wines for my own wedding but at this time of year I am often found tearing my hair out, trying to help people sort out their weddings booze despite their totally unrealistic hopes and ideas.

First of all, money. If your wedding wine matters to you, spend as much as you can afford. If you are even reading this then you clearly care about the wine that you will be serving. Spending as much as you can afford doesn't necessarily mean spending a fortune but if you decide that the maximum you can afford is £7 a bottle then try and spend £7 a bottle - don't get fed up of trying to decide and just spend £5. At the lower-end, a couple of pounds makes a huge difference on the quality of the wine.
Photo: Andrea Rose (CCL)

Next, the food. It's so much easier to choose your wedding wine when you know what your menu is going to be. You obviously want wines that are going to compliment the food that you are serving and vice-versa. The Wine Society has a great food and wine matcher on their website, which you can use but clicking the handy link that I have positioned riiiiight...      HERE.

So now that you have decided on your maximum spend per bottle and narrowed it down to a handful of ideas, depending on the food that you are serving, there are a few other things to keep in mind:

Keep it simple, stupid. Don't choose some incredibly bizarre, massive, spicy, biodynamic red wine that no-one has ever heard of before (same applies for white). You may love the stuff because you are a god-damn wine prick who likes things that are far too complicated for non-wine folk to understand but you need to remember that the whole point of the day is ensuring your guests have a great time. Remember, not everyone likes fine wines and if the majority of your guests don't like the stuff, then you may as well have not bothered at all... This doesn't mean you have to be boring though, there are still plenty of lovely wines that are worth considering, which are very palatable indeed - Beaujolais goes down a treat.

The percentage of alcohol is always worth looking at too, when catering for big numbers of people. Best to stick to 13% or below (totally in my opinion), purely because you risk half of the guests being on their arses before they have even sat down to eat. Thats all well and good but not ideal when you haven't used half of the wine that you have bought because everyone is asleep.

TOP TIP ALERT - tell the father-in-law to do one... he probably suggested serving Claret. This is not only a bloody boring idea but if you have set a budget of £7 per bottle, the chances of finding a Claret that is of any sort of value at this price, is very slim indeed. If your budget is £25 a bottle, this is a different story however.

Photo: Shehan
Finally, quantities. It's best to get your wedding wine from a wine-merchant who will do sale or return, that way you don't risk being sat on a lot of left-overs that you wish you hadn't spent the money on.

A lot of people go way over on quantities because they seem to forget that not everyone invited will be drinking. You may have included children, drivers or aunty-pat (who isn't allowed to drink anymore, since the incident with the pool-boy in Butlins 3 years ago) in your numbers. Forget about these guys while you think about quantities and you will find that you need much less than originally thought. If you aren't sure though, make sure you get more than you will need because you can always send it back... Or see how the marriage goes, you may need to drink it yourself.

So go out and do your searching, brides and grooms to be! There is a reason why I haven't suggested any specific wines here and that is because when you find a wine yourself and serve it at your wedding, you will fall in love with it and that is something that you have to do yourself.

If you have any questions about buying your wedding wines, leave us a comment below, or get us on facebook or twitter - we would love to help!

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Wedding Toast Wines: Better Value Alternatives to Champagne

Photo: Juan Antonio Capo (CCL)
As part of the planning for your special day, one of the most enjoyable aspects is deciding on the food and drink that is going to be served. This inevitably leads to some very pleasing tastings with caterers who are, understandably, keen for you to spend a small fortune on their wares. There are a lot of decisions to make here and one of them is, "What wine should be used for the toasts?" 

Now, there is an obvious answer. Champagne. It is classically used for toasts and formal situations and is considered a rather safe bet. However, there are all sorts of reasons that may lead to one considering alternatives to good old champers.

For instance, Champagne does come with a price tag - are there better wines for the same, or less, money? How about supporting local businesses/industry? I thought that it would be useful to provide you with some alternatives to think about and test your caterers!

English Sparkling Wines

The English sparkling wine industry is in the midst of a real boom at the moment. In blind wine tastings undertaken, some experts are saying that the quality of English sparkling wines is often comparable to that of Champagnes.

Why is this? Well, for a start the same chalk soil that is found under the Champagne area continues under the Channel and into the South East of England.

Added to that, you have the effects of climate change, which is meaning that the summers in France are getting progressively warmer, making it more difficult to get the delicate balance of ripeness and acidity that is needed in Champagnes.  

There are definite benefits of buying English wines: firstly they don't (as yet) have the names or prestige of Champagnes which means that you tend to get much better value for money; furthermore you are supporting local businesses that employ people in the UK - very patriotic!

Here are some wines that I've tried and can certainly recommend to add some glamour to your toast:

2009 Hush Heath Balfour Brut Rosé (the 2010 is available from Wine Pantry for £39). This is a traditional mixture of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, which comes as a Rosé.

The nose was subtle; I detected slight fragrances of herbs and spices and the taste was exquisite – bags of big, juicy raspberries. What was also pleasing was the length of the finish – a good minute had gone past after swallowing and I could still taste the wine in my mouth.

I can also recommend taking a tour of the vineyard, they are very welcoming - I did this last year and you can read my review here.

Another fantastic producer is Nyetimber in West Sussex/Hampshire. They state that their ambition is to produce the very best wines and to challenge Champagne's preeminence in the sparkling wine industry.

I have tried two of their wines, firstly their 2009 Classic Cuvee (available from Jeroboams for £28.25) which is their traditional Brut Champagne blend, Chardonnay-driven with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in too. It is a very stylish wine with a slight mousse to it and slight toasty hints.

I also recently tried their 2007 Prestige Cuvee Blanc de Blancs (available from Jereboams for £35), which is a very special wine. Made from 100% Chardonnay, it's bursting with fine bubbles and has a nose which is zesty, fresh and lemony. On the palate it has a slightly creamy and moussey feel with a bright and acidic finish. This is utterly elegant and will impress even the most discerning wedding guest!

You can also currently get the 2009 for £23.98 if you're buying two bottles or more from Majestic - absolute bargain!


So, where else could you look? The relative attractions of Cava from Spain and Prosecco from Italy are fairly well known, but there are other sparkling wines from France that could be looked at.

These wines are known as Crémant and are often made in precisely the same way as Champagne - they just don't come from those hallowed soils. Crémant was featured recently as part of the Twitter #NWTW selection and I chose to try a NV Crémant du Jura Brut, Domaine de Montbourgeau (available from The Wine Society for £12.50). 

Made from 100% Chardonnay, this was green-yellow to look at with intensely effervescent bubbles. On the nose it was sharp and fruity with aromas of crisp, green apples and a slightly yeasty note. To taste it had a slightly creamy texture which was followed by an acidic, fruity after burst and a medium finish. This is a pleasingly, simple wine at a very good price.

Other Crémants can come from Alsace, Burgundy and Loire - ask your local wine merchant for their selection, and they're creeping into the supermarkets too. There's even an award-winning Cremant de Jura from Aldi for £6.99!

I do hope that these suggestions provide you with some alternative as you seek to find the perfect sparkler to toast your wedding with...


Monday, 28 April 2014

Hip Hunks & Flask Floozies: Hip Flasks for Weddings

It’s Wedding Week here at Vinspire HQ, and there’ll be lots of memorable marital ideas to get those party planners prepping. I, however, do not foresee any proposals; I can’t hear those bells chiming, I have a wedding-less summer schedule ahead, and I’m probably past my bridesmaid’s best.

So, to avoid all the serious stuff – the things that could make or break the big day – I’ve chosen to do more of a covert feature; hip flasks. I’ve scoured the internet for some snazzy flasks that could be given as presents for the bride and groom/best man/bridesmaids/ushers, etc (not your typical plain silver, engraved kinda ones). Or maybe they could be for stag do’s or hen nights; boozing is pretty essential there. Or you might just want to purchase a decent hip flask for your own use; weddings can get bloody expensive, so sneaking your own supply in will help save your wallet/purse from being rinsed.

 Let’s start off with SWIG®. Established in September 2013, British company SWIG® have created a unique 170ml seamless stainless steel hip flask, which is customisable with different coloured leather pouches; you will never get bored! The flask itself is £24, whilst pouches range from £10 for the most basic, to around £60 for limited edition illustrated ones.

Every Flask arrives with the owners unique SWIG® Society membership ID engraved on it's shoulder. A society you say? Yep. Your flask acts as a membership card, and being a member not only makes you super cool, but it entitles you to a free pouch (delivery TBA), an invitation to the annual SWIG® Society party, and there’s a potential promise for monthly SWIG® whisky refills. If that’s not tempting enough, every flask also comes beautifully gift packaged, so if you don’t end up keeping it for yourself, it would make an ACE present.

Next, we have the personalised named hip flasks, which would be ideal for handing out to bridesmaids and ushers, etc. These come from Fantasticum on Etsy, both priced at £11.45. The guy’s bowtie flask is a straightforward, classic, which would no doubt please any gent. And the same goes for the stripy/spotty ladies one; it’s not OTT even with the mint green, candy shop stripes; I’m saying its retro chic.

There are plenty of other options on Fantasticum’s online shop, if these don’t float your boat, and if you buy three, you get the fourth free!

Harris Tweed in hip flask form is an ideal gift ‘For Him’; the Scottish woven beauts available from Ten10Creations are timeless. Finished with quality hand cut real leather trim, and sporting an authentic Harris Tweed label, all you need to top off the look is a hunting jacket, a pair of wellies and the great outdoors. At £25, this flask comes in a black satin lined presentation box and includes a handy little funnel.

‘For Her’, I’ve found this floral flamingo number. Did you know that a group of flamingos are called a flamboyance? Isn’t that the BEST name? Anyway, this comes from Lisa Angel Homeware and Gifts on Not On The High Street priced at £19. Lovely.

Finally, another "bespoke" flask; I’m currently addicted to chevron printed anything, so this caught my eye straight away. Again from Etsy, Rockyart lets you design your own monogrammed hip flask exactly how you’d like it in 6 easy steps...

1// Choose a pattern (there are stripes, spots, checks, animal prints, and more). 2// Choose a pattern colour. 3// Choose a frame to go in the centre. 4// Choose a frame colour. 5// Choose a monogram font style. 6// Input your initials (or whoever’s initials the flask is for).

Hey presto! For £10.38 (minus shipping) and a wait of 2-3 weeks, you can get your hands on a drinking vessel that is completely tailored to suit you. The idea of a monogram makes this perfect wedding present material for some young newlyweds; it’s personal and no one else would have one the same.

There really are so many options out there, but hopefully these have given you enough flask-spiration. Have you seen any awesome ‘His & Hers Hip Flasks’? Have you given, or been given, gifts like this at a wedding before? We’d love to know!

Friday, 25 April 2014

Friday Cocktail: With Hawkes Alcoholic Ginger Beer

Spring has sprung and I'm told we're supposed to be edging our way into summer... Sure, we've had a few glorious days of sunshine, and we might have even popped the cherry on our first BBQ of 2014, but with the same grey skies and recurring spits of rain, I'm not entirely convinced.

So, whilst it might not be warming up weather-wise, we can still heat things up drinks wise - and no, I'm not talking about cracking out the mulled wine again (though I wouldn't say no*) - say hello to the new Hawkes Alcoholic Ginger Beer. It officially launched this week, so they sent me some to try!

* There's actually a corker of a recipe for Mulled Ginger Beer on the Hawkes website.

You're probably well acquainted with other boozy ginger beers on the market - Crabbie's, Hooper's, etc - and in terms of sweetness, this one is pretty similar; there's no ferocious fiery hit that catches the back of your throat like that Old Jamaica stuff that comes in a can. That said, Hawkes Ginger Beer comes at us at a very different angle.

Firstly, it focuses more on the delicate flavours and aromas of ginger, rather than an all out assault on the senses. It's a combination of natural ginger, mandarin and kiwi, which gives it a much fruitier, smoother finish that lingers and leaves you craving more. Golden amber in colour, evident through the clear glass bottle, it fizzes like a soft drink, but doesn't maintain a heavy amount of carbonation, keeping it light and fresh. It has a wonderful Fruit Salad sweet vibe about it (I do love an old skool reference, don't you?) and at 4%, it's very easy drinking. Difford's Guide currently have it rated as the best alcoholic ginger beer out there.

This leads me to the second point; Hawkes is a drink made to be shared. The folks behind this London independent brewing company came to understand that not only was their ginger beer a perfect serve on its own (maybe with added ice and a wedge of lime) but it also makes a super sidekick to long drinks and cocktails. They've embraced the full potential of their product by placing it in a unique screw cap bottle; straight up, as a mixer, a dash here and there, or save it for later; this is the most social Alcoholic Ginger Beer on the market, and one which doesn't require you to polish it off in one gulp (I wouldn't blame you if you did).

So what drinks should you make? Hawkes have kindly listed a few serving suggestions online, which I eagerly tried out, but they want YOU to go ahead and play with it. “It’s your Hawkes, not ours.”

Hawkes Mule (serves 1)
  • Hawkes Alcoholic Ginger Beer
  • 50ml Vodka
  • ½ Lime
  • Sprig of Mint
  • Ice
  1. Fill a glass with ice.
  2. Add 50ml of Vodka.
  3. Cut the ½ lime in half again, and squeeze the juice in. You can put the lime wedges in the glass too if you wish.
  4. Top with Hawkes Alcoholic Ginger Beer.
  5. Garnish with a sprig of mint.
The Hawkes Mule is a summer stunner; zingy, refreshing, with a peppery ginger finish. This would be a great party starter, whereby you could bump up the quantities to dish out to your pals in a pitcher.

Hawkes & Stormy (serves 1)
  • 150ml Hawkes Alcoholic Ginger Beer
  • 50 ml Dark Rum
  • Juice of ½ Lime
  • A few drops of Angostura Bitters
  • Ice
  1. Fill a glass with ice (preferably a highball glass).
  2. Squeeze in the lime juice.
  3. Add 50ml of Dark Rum.
  4. Add 150ml of Hawkes Alcoholic Ginger Beer.
  5. Splash in a few drops of Angostura bitters and garnish with a slice of lime.
As the name suggests, this is much moodier drink. The rum and bitters bring out the drier side to the ginger beer; therefore it would be a pleasant pre dinner drink, or an easy accompaniment to some smoky sticky BBQ goods.

Sloe Hawkes (serves 1)
  • 100ml Hawkes Alcoholic Ginger Beer
  • 35ml sloe gin
  • Berries of your choice
  • Ice
  1. Fill a tumbler with ice.
  2. Pour in Hawkes Ginger Beer.
  3. Drizzle the sloe gin over the top.
  4. Garnish with berry fruits.
A blushing pink colour (when mixed), this is quite a feminine drink. The sloe gin, being almost syrupy, mutes the heat of the ginger and accentuates the ‘Fruit Salad’ sweetness. I garnished mine with a brandied cherry, but I imagine if you were to whack a few raspberries in instead, it would add an interesting sharpness. This on a Sunday afternoon; post roast... Heaven.

If you want to try something new and exciting, something that’s extremely versatile, and something that’s begging to be shared, then look no further; Hawkes Ginger Beer is what you’re after. Being new on the scene, you might not find it in your local stores, but you can purchase the 500ml bottle online via Beer Merchants for £2.90. Out and about, you can stumble across it (literally if you like) in a number of London pubs/bars (see the website for a full list of stockists).

This ginger gent is set for big things, watch it like a HAWK.
What's your verdict on Alcoholic Ginger Beer? Yay? Nay?...

Earth Day: Think Wine, Consider Organic

Photo: Matthew Rogers (CCL)
So, I don’t know if you heard, but Tuesday was “Earth Day”. There seems to be new ‘days’ every year, only this is one that I’m sure most of us will feel something towards: the campaigns to reduce food waste and the amount of meat we eat, energy consumption, and the move to have more traceability and seasonality in the food we eat - and indeed, what we drink.

I completely love the idea of more natural growing and farming even though I know deep down we would not have enough food to eat without some more intensive practices. But I can’t (along with most of us I suspect) say that I buy organic produce as much as I would like, either down to price or availability.

I have, however, found particular things that I ALWAYS buy organic, and it’s purely due to the better taste; garlic is much stronger and thus you use less, and organic milk and dairy produce to me is much fresher tasting somehow. 

Photo at Bonterra Vineyards from my visit in Nov 2013

I am lucky enough to work with organic (and biodynamic) wines in my day to day life, and am often left questioning the value of organic on the product, and in particular on wines... Does it encourage consumers to pick up the bottle, or does it have the opposite affect? Do we intrinsically assume that as it’s organic, the price must be higher and the quality lesser than those at the same price? Or do we naturally assume all grapes for wines are organic anyway?

Well, from my own experience, and drawing on some time spent with Bonterra (USA) winemakers Bob Blue and Dennis Martin (both of whom have pioneered organic growing since the 1980s - WAY before it was ‘cool’) and Adolfo Hurtado from Cono Sur (Chile), organic grapes give wines a true expression of how they should be - the true depth of flavours, the characteristics, the yields, the intensity - its all how it is ‘supposed’ to be.

The flavours are clean and you can dig around a bit and find perhaps the earthy flavour you hoped for in that Pinot Noir, or the fresh, bright citrusy flavours you might expect in that Chardonnay. But, aside from the tasting notes which we all talk about, you can find a true product, crafted from grapes that have been grown with only natural fertilisers, water (Bonterra actually use their own reserves so not to pull from local water sources), soil and natural pesticides (Cono Sur in Chile release geese onto their vines to eat all the bugs).

In addition, the skill of growing grapes good enough to make wine from - and doing it naturally - is a pretty impressive skill in itself, and when this skill and brilliant winemaking comes together? Well, the wines are, in my opinion - awesome. I’m not saying all organic wines are amazing like I would never say all Sauvignon Blanc is amazing…. But you really will feel it when you get a good one.

As consumers, even if it's just once a year, maybe it’s good to reflect on the amazing amounts of natural resources that go into our favourite things; and wines and spirits are no exception. So, as a celebration of ‘Earth Day’, albeit a little late,  try something organic or environmentally friendly this weekend, and see if you can taste the difference.

If you’re thinking of some pretty amazing wines - which happen to be organic - the Bonterra range (made by Bob Blue himself) is available from both Waitrose, Ocado & Tesco - the Chardonnay is my favourite white wine (bold statement I know- but it is SERIOUSLY good), and the Zinfandel is a truly Californian variety which is currently Tesco’s wine of the week. 

Let me know if you try an Organic wine/spirit/beer this weekend, and how it was for you!

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Cocktails in Cans: Matt Does a Taste Test

Recently, now that the weather has been improving slightly, Freddy and I (yes, we live together) have been enjoying the occasional Gin & Tonic, Bourbon and coke; you name it we have been drinking it. Not only has this been a chance to take our minds off of our W.S.E.T Diploma exams but has also made us realise how much we love mixers.

With this in mind, I thought I would review something a little out of my comfort zone. Whenever I have cocktails or mixers I like them prepared fresh, with good quality spirits and mixers and fresh lime, cucumber or whatever goes best with the tipple you're tipping. I have therefore NEVER tried a cocktail in a can. This seems a bit of a shame. I have always just assumed they are a lesser, designed version of their more personal, adjustable brethren. 

So I have purchased a selection of known brands from the local supermarket (Asda and Tesco must make a fortune from my drinking habits) to see if they can have the Ronseal stamp of approval. Just for the record, I am not adding anything to these drinks. 

Picture taken from Quimby under the C.C. Act
Pimm's has always been a tricky one for me. Perfect Summer drinking. Light, fruity and tasty. Yet every time I drink it I get far too drunk. For this reason I tend to stay away from it. Tonight however, #YOLO.
On the whole, it is pretty bloomin' similar. Sweet, a bit of spice, you can taste the Pimm's over the lemonade and it tastes just how it would if you have bought a bottle and mixed it yourself.

However, to me it tastes a bit flat. Like the Pimm's has rather nullified the lemonade. And I don't know about you but when I make Pimm's and lemonade, I want a good 35-40% of the drink to be Pimm's (maybe that's why I'm always so clattered), so at 5.4% it does taste a bit weak.
Also, £1.90 for 250ml of Pimm's? Get a hold of yourself, man! At 2 for £3 it is reasonable I guess. 

The big one for me. One of my favorite drinks. Again, it tastes great. Crisp, refreshing with typical hints of juniper and a touch of bitter pepper from the tonic. But yet again it tastes weak and flat. That being said, as with the Pimm's, if you're going to a garden party and don't want to be drinking a whole bottle of gin, this is a brilliant option. Its easy, its alcoholic and it tastes great. And at £1.90 a can you can forgive it a bit more for being a tad dear. 

To be honest, I have never really liked Southern Comfort. To me it is about as comfortable as a bed of nails balanced over a cliff. I will soldier on however.

To me the tinned version tastes incredibly sweet, far sweeter than the normal one was. It's almost like orange sherbet once it has dissolved in your mouth. It's also extremely pale and anemic which isn't too attractive.
However, I am sure for those that like this particular beverage (mainly teenagers and sweet-toothed singletons) it is a dream come true. 

Picture taken from Flickr under the C.C. Act
Now the biggie, and at 330ml I mean 'biggie'. Although it is only 5% you do feel a bit more bang for your buck.

Jack Daniels Tennessee Bourbon is probably the most overtly flavourful of our choice of mixers this evening so right off the bat you feel you're not only getting the best value for money but also the closest alternative to what you would get in a bar. 

So all in all I have been pretty impressed with the mainstream selection I have chosen. They are brilliant for what they are - convenience drinks. If you went to a bar and asked for a G&T or a JD and coke and they pulled out a can from the fridge, poured it into a glass and asked for £6, you would probably punch them in the face. But if you were at a friends house and they were having a BBQ and said 'help yourself to something from the fridge', they would probably be the first thing you would grab. 

But what about more 'indie', premium alternatives? Watch this space...

All Aboard! Why The Wine Tube Map is Our New Best Friend

From the classic blue of the Piccadilly line known to all as it brushes the tourist hot spots, to the vibrant yellow of the more lumbering Circle line, there's no doubting that the London Underground, better known as the 'tube' is famous worldwide.

From bored and fed up commuters to excited tourists, the tube carries thousands of people in all directions; from favourite old haunts to surprising new places (granted I am yet to venture as far as Upminster or Uxbridge at the very ends). Whether you're an Underground regular or a tube dabbler, I'm sure you'll agree it's easy to navigate and if you go too far, you can always get off at the next stop and get your bearings.

Applying the same simplicity to wine, Nikki Welch, with her team at Convivium Wine, developed an easy way to travel the wine world by grouping wine styles together to create 'lines' and allowing us to move along the lines to discover new wines. Introducing the Wine Tube Map.

This. Is. Genius. If you are looking for a simple way to explain wine to let's just say, less informed friends, then this tool is your new BFF. For even the most non-discerning wine drinkers it's simple to explore new wines in keeping with their comfort zone of say, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (yawn!).

Each line is themed with a flavour profile and each station is a grape, region, appellation or collective group. As the lines and stations are simply labelled it removes stigma and prejudices about certain styles or regions for those who haven't flipped through the WSET textbooks.

With seven lines; Aromatic, White Central, Red Central, Easy Loop, Fizz, Rediscovery and Revelation, there is plenty to explore and if you're anything like me, you'll need an unlimited Oyster Card - I'd like to travel to all of the stations thank you! If you fancy changing direction, but not straying too far, look out for the interchanges - stations which fit onto more than one line, like Chardonnay and New World Pinot Noir.

The key is pretty handy too. If you're looking at a label on a supermarket shelf, it can be difficult to know whether what you're reading is the name of the grape variety, the style of the wine, or the name of the geographical region the wine is from. The key shows which is which, meaning you also learn something along the way!

Where will your journey take you?