Thursday, 30 April 2015

Business of Booze: Naked Beer


Got a passion for all things hoppy? Think you’d made a master brewer? Well, in this week’s Business Of Booze (our new series written by Becky from Social and Cocktail), we talk to Rob and Dan, founders of Naked Beer, which was set up in September 2013 and started trading in February 2014.

Here's what it's like to set up your own brewery from scratch...


Why Naked?


So we went with Naked for two reasons - the first being that we wanted to make honest, unpretentious beers that would stand out through their quality, and secondly because we liked the name! It's simple, easy to remember, and essentially who we are. You don't get any bullshit with us.


What was the catalyst for setting up your own brewery? Had you been home brewing for a while?

Rob set up the brewery after spending 5 years working as first an assistant brewer for Bristol Beer Factory and then Ascot Ales. He was making home brews all throughout that time. He then took a job with a brewery down in Sussex which didn't go to plan. Seemingly without a job prospect, he made the decision to strike out on his own. 

Funnily enough, a day after he'd put down the deposit for the brew kit, he was offered a head brewer job in India! Needless to say we're glad that one didn't come through earlier.


What kind of research did you do?

To be honest, we didn't really do a whole lot into how to set up. We're still learning as we go! We just knew that the right time was as soon as possible, as craft beer is currently ballooning in popularity the world over. 

In terms of inspiration, you only have to look at the wealth of other awesome breweries from in and around Rob's home city of Bristol - Bristol Beer Factory, Arbour Ales, Wiper and True and Wild Beer Co, to name but a few.


What was the most daunting part?

Putting down a £20,000 deposit down on a brew kit! Up until then, there was always the choice to walk away.


How long until you got a batch you were 100% pleased with?

We have an ethos here of making sure we have something perfect on a home brew scale before we're ready to adapt it to the big kit. After that, if a beer needs it, it will receive further tweaking. 

With our first two beers, one was absolutely perfect from the get go and made a perfect transition onto the big kit, whereas the second has since gone through several adjustments to get it where it is today.


How about the branding - how long did that take?


Our bottle and keg branding was a little more complicated - that involved sitting down with a designer and drawing up some ideas. 

We settled on the hop leaf turned upside down, which is a nod towards the fig leaf of biblical infamy... you know, the ones that Adam and Eve used to cover their naked bodies after the original sin. Take from that what you will!


What's the best piece of advice you were given?

The best piece of advice we ever had was actually pretty simple - brew your own beers. Don't try and copy what's trendy or popular or what other people are doing, stick to your convictions and make something that you'd want to drink. 

That way, you can always be proud of what you make, and even more so if other people love it as well!


What advice would you give to people setting up their own brewery?

Preparation is everything. If you rush at the start, you're going to cut things short before they've begun. Also, don't be afraid of making mistakes. Mistakes are stepping stones on the path to greatness. 

It's much more about how you handle your mistakes - if you're good to people and you hold yourself to a standard of integrity, you'll find that most customers will give you a bit of leeway when you start out.


What's been your favourite part of the journey so far?


I think it would have to be taking on our first employee in January. Our assistant brewer, Ian, is an absolute brewing prodigy and he's been absolutely fantastic so far. He has a bright future ahead of him. I'm personally hoping we have a lot more favourite parts yet to come!


What are your plans for 2015/16?

We're focusing on moving forwards with a bunch of new beers throughout the summer. Amongst those planned, we've got a couple of new pales, an american red, then some pretty left field beers like a Berlinnerweisse and a saison. 

We've also (finally) got our keg gear, so expect to see new keg beers rolling out soon, including a keg re-release of an old summer favourite, our mighty peach Hefeweisen - Depeach Mode. Finally, the long awaited Imperial Stout will be getting brewed this summer, and then aged for at least 6 months so it's ready in time for Christmas. Needless to say, we're seriously pumped.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

ABC - Awesome Bloomin' Chardonnays...


Some grapes seem to divide opinions more than others. Chardonnay is certainly one of them.

One of the most widely planted grapes in the world, it has travelled from its Old World home all around the globe and finds itself growing in all sorts of different climates and temperatures. It is responsible for some of the most famous (and expensive) white wines in the world. 

I would say that I am a fan of Chardonnay (although it will never take Riesling's place in my heart as the greatest white grape), however like a lot of people I have had some some fairly mixed experiences. I have come to learn that Chardonnay can produce some truly exceptional wines... and some truly ropey ones.

You can imagine then how keen I was to attend an all Chardonnay wine tasting being hosted at my favourite wine shop, Theatre of Wine; this would be the perfect opportunity to learn about this grape and try some exciting wines from around the world.

Why Chardonnay Stopped Being Cool

In the relatively recent past Chardonnay became somewhat of a figure of fun. This was due in part to the mass production of cheap, heavily-oaked wines that were sold in supermarkets for the incredible price of £3 - £4; astonishing as these wines were often shipped from the other side of the world and considering that the tax on a bottle of wine in the UK is £2.

During the 90s the "ABC" ('anything but Chardonnay') movement emerged, with John Major coming out as one of its members. As Jason from Theatre of Wine noted, "when John Major tells you that you are not cool, then you are in serious trouble..."

The metaphorical hangover from this movement continues. There are still people who when you ask them if they would like a glass of white will say "Okay, as long as it's not Chardonnay". I have been known to somewhat mischievously respond "Alright, how about I buy you a nice glass of Chablis then...?"  A little naughty, I know...

Why Do People Think They Don't Like Chardonnay?

I think that a lot of Chardonnay's difficulties/misunderstandings come from three main different areas:
  1. The fact that it is so versatile, and different in flavour profiles, from lean, steely Chablis to lush, tropical Aussie versions. There isn't really one flavour profile for Chardonnay and as such it is unlikely that people will like every single style produced.
  2. Chardonnay's most celebrated examples come from Burgundy, yet nowhere on the label for these wines will they even mention that they contain this illustrious grape. People may have heard people waxing lyrical about Corton-Charlemagnes or Puligny-Montrachets but they would potentially have no idea that they were drinking Chardonnay!
  3. Oak. This is probably the biggest single factor - in my experience, there is a fairly stark divide between people's approaches to oak. Even in my family my mother will avoid wines that have had some oak at all costs, whereas my brother recently declared that he was in the "no wood, no good" camp.
So, with all of the above noted, what treasures did Jason and the team serve up for us to tackle some of the above?

Laurent Tribut Chablis 2011 (Burgundy, France), £21.10/bottle: classic Chablis: green apple, crunchy pear and a touch of peach on the nose; on the mouth, rather austere, bright with lemon. Unmistakably Chablis, but a little uninspiring for me. 5.0

Guillaume Chardonnay 2013 (Franche-Comté, France), £11.50/bottle: more luxuriant on the nose with candied pineapple and pear drops; on the mouth creamy, rich and juicy with notes of ripe peach. 6.0

Contat Grange Maranges Blanc 2013 (Burgundy, France), £21.80/bottle: subtle, slightly timid nose with a touch of peach; subtle oaky notes of vanilla. 6.0

Meunier Puligny-Montrachet 2012 (Burgungy, France), £32.00/bottle (or £30.60 from The Sampler if you want to buy online): really interesting nose with floral notes as well as ripe apricots, on the mouth it was truly elegant - complex yet understated, decent body yet bright with acidity, rich but balanced. A truly lovely wine. 8.0

Wiston Estate Blanc de Blancs NV (England), £28.00/bottle (or £26.95 direct from Wiston Estate if you want to buy online): a lovely classical English sparkler, zesty, vibrant and racy, on the mouth it was notably high in acidity with clean, bright lemon notes to it. Excellent. 8.0

Clos des Fous Locura I Chardonnay 2013 (Chile), £14.40/bottle (or £9.95 from The Wine Society if you want to buy online): funky barnyard smell, not great on the mouth; certainly not my favourite of the evening. 3.0

Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara Chardonnay 2012 (California, USA), £20.70/bottle (or £20 each if you buy two at Majestic if you want to order online): slightly toasty and a little waxy on the nose, with a touch of peach coming through. On the palate it was rather decadent with ripe fruit mixed in with toasty, buttery notes. "Au Bon Climat" is the only way that I would want to use the acronym "ABC" for in terms of Chardonnay. 8.5.

Dexter Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay 2010 (Australia), £15/bottle: decadent mix of truffles, kaffir lime and hot butter on the nose. Beautifully balanced on the mouth with nectarines and peach coming through. 8.5 (I bought two bottles of this!)

Amares Chardonnay 2012 (Stellenbosch, South Africa), £14.20/bottle: somewhat subtle on the nose, which puts you off-guard for what happens when you taste - a big, bold, brazen smash with rich, buttery butterscotch notes. Won't be everyone's cup of tea, but I LOVED it - another one that I bought a bottle of. 7.5

Jean Milan Brut Nature Transparence 2007 (Champagne, France), £42.00/bottle: a bit of Blanc de Blancs Vintage Champagne to finish, lots of funky Chardonnay notes going on. Thoroughly pleasant, not sure it represented the best value, however, particularly how much I liked the English sparkler. 6.5

There you have it - a stellar line-up demonstrating the variety and breadth of Chardonnay as a grape. It really can take on a huge number of styles dependent on both climate and the winemaker's preferences.

If you think you don't like Chardonnay then I would urge you to spend a bit of time experimenting with different styles and regions - I'm certain that you'll find something that you like!

What are your Chardonnay experiences? Are you a Chardo-phile* or a Chardo-phobe*?

* not real words...

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

A Beginners Guide To Hops - with Best of British Beer

Photo: Danielle Simone (CCL)

I've spent quite a long time recently talking about different styles of beer. Admittedly, there has been a lot of IPA but in my defence, it's massive at the minute! It got me thinking, I've never gone into much detail about what actually gives a beer it's characteristics.

We know the key ingredients for beer are water, malt, yeast and hops, but how do they influence it? While each and every component adds to the final product, it's the hops that offer most in the way of flavour and more importantly, bitterness to balance out the sweetness of the malt.

Much like the grapes used in the production of wine, the ingredients used in the production of beer come in various varieties, all of which affect the final taste.

So what's a hop?
A hop is the small conical flower of the hop plant. Now, without getting too science-y, inside the hop are glands containing resins and essential oils which are extracted in the boil. The resin is made up of Alpha and Beta acids which contribute to aroma, bitterness and flavour.

Each different hop variety will have different levels of these acids and therefore impart different flavours. Regional hops will have a broad 'style' to them. American hops for instance will generally have higher levels of Alpha acids resulting in higher bitterness and aroma levels.

OK! That's the educational bit out the way, let's drink some beer!

Thanks again go to Best of British Beer for providing me with their 'Top of the Hops' case (£33.15 for 12 brilliant hoppy bottles) to illustrate my point about the different characteristics you get from different types of hops:

Wiper and True, Winter Oats Amber Ale
Hops - Simcoe, Admiral, Bramling Cross
From one of my favourite brewers, using two English hops and one American. The American Simcoe brings a wealth of bitterness with strong citrus flavour and fresh, almost woody finish. The Bramling Cross rounds it off with smooth tropical notes.

Signature Brew, Backstage IPA
Hops - Centennial Summit, Chinook
This uses exclusively American hops and has an almost mouthwatering bitterness. The Centennial hop is often referred to as 'Super Cascade' due to the high levels of citrus flavour it imparts. Couple this with Summit and Chinook and you're left with a refreshing beer with lots of citrus, notes of pine and a bitter lemon finish.

Oakham Ales, Green Devil IPA
Hops - Citra
Single hop varietal are increasingly popular, with most breweries boasting the fact. Citra, as you might imagine from the name,  gives a very citrus led brew with notes of pine but not so heavy on the bitter. It's worth mentioning that this beer has won several awards and it's easy to see why! Very refreshing but still letting some of that malt sweetness shine through.

Thwaites Crafty Dan, Triple C
Hops - Citra, Centennial, Chinook
All varieties that have been mentioned before. The Citra offers bold citrus while the Chinook gives a bitter edge with fresh tropical notes. The Centennial really beefs it up with lashings of citrus fruit such as orange and grapefruit. Still with a hint of sweetness, this is a well balanced summer time brew.

Eden Brewery, Here, Hare, Beer. IPA
Hops - English Golding, Admiral
Brewed to a 'Secret Military Spec', this beer is a classic example of the kick that hops can give to a brew when added later in the brewing stage. The nose focuses on the malt with sweetness and toasty notes. These follow on the palate with the hops giving it a kick of bitterness with red berry and orange flavours.

Off Beat Brewery, Dysfunctional Functional IPA
Hops - 'Everything in the cupboard'
No that's not a single varietal! This gorgeous brew uses Cascade, Summit, Columbus, Chinook and Nelson Sauvin. Bursting with character and an abundance of tropical and citrus flavours. There's subtle grassy hints (from the sauvignon blanc-esque Nelson Sauvin hops), a slight caramel note all finished with a well-balanced beast of a bitter finish. A truly massive IPA in all but alcohol at only 4.8%. Simply stunning!

Backyard Brewhouse, IPA
Hops - Chinook, 1st Gold
Very heavy on the woody notes of cut pine and a slightly cedar-y. The nose has a sherbet sweetness followed by notes of sour citrus. These themes continue on the palate but with a slight hit of stone fruit. The Chinook adds a subtly sweet spicy note to it which leads to a long lasting finish.

Stonehouse Brewery, KPA
Hops - Green Bullet
I've come across Stonehouse before and I was not disappointed! This KPA is made using the Green Bullet hop from New Zealand. It gives off a very distinctive nose of nettle and a slightly medicinal note. The palate is surprisingly biscuit-y but is lifted by a clean bitterness and classic citrus.


Just a heads up, I would love to tell you what hops are in these last four beers, but unfortunately I don't have that information. I mean, I am good, but I'm not that good...yet! Here's what's in the rest of the Top of the Hops case:

Geeves Brewery, Clear Cut Extra Pale Ale
As the name suggests, this is very pale in colour. Fresh on the nose with notes of pine resin and citrus. On the palate the malt is slightly more prominent giving nutty flavours all followed with an uplifting bitter finish of grapefruit and pepper.

Thornbridge Brewery, Wild Swan White Gold Pale Ale
With a colour more akin to young Chardonnay, this beer is superbly fresh with lots of green fruit. Apple, lime and cucumber are all present with a wonderfully herbaceous finish. A bit of a strange one, but still a very good brew.

Panther Brewery, Beast From The East Amber IPA
I did a thing a long time ago about beers from Norfolk, which was pretty much at the start of my beer discovery journey. Well today I've come full circle back to Panther. This has a beautiful caramel nose with notes of red berry and stone fruit. The finish is long and dry with citrus a plenty.

Bragdy Conwy Brewery, Riptide Black IPA
Being a black IPA, this is a little different from the rest. Rich, roasted malt is backed up my notes of banana and toffee on the nose. Delve into the palate and you'll find an intriguing blend of coffee, waxy citrus and spice.

Well, I hope you've learnt something through all of this. The most important thing now is to get exploring! There's a whole world of different hop varieties to discover so see what you can find!

Friday, 24 April 2015

Friday Cocktail: Strawberry and Rhubarb Basil Gin Fizz

Photo: Wicker Paradise (CCL)

Happy Friday, everyone! And especially rhubarb fans...

I've had some fun experimenting with rhubarb cocktails this week. I already made a rhubarb and ginger gin fizz last year, but this year I wanted something lighter and fruitier to play with over the weekend. So I've added some strawberries and aromatic basil to make this really sing.

Rhubarb is brilliantly in season at the moment, but this cocktail can be enjoyed all year round thanks to the usage of Chase's epic Rhubarb Liqueur (£17.35, The Whisky Exchange) which might just be one of my favourite liqueurs of all time.

The best part? This is such an easy cocktail to make, you'll have it prepared in 2 minutes flat. Just don't come crying to me if you end up having one too many...


Strawberry and Rhubarb Basil Gin Fizz recipe (serves one)

Glass: Pretty tumbler
Garnish: 1 strawberry plus a couple of basil leaves

Ingredients:

3-4 strawberries (depending on size!)
25ml gin
25ml rhubarb liqueur
15ml lime juice
soda water, to top

Shake it!

1. Chop the strawberries into tiny little pieces and muddle them well in the bottom of a cocktail shaker.

2. Add the gin, rhubarb liqueur and lime juice and some ice, and give a good shake for 5-10 seconds, until the outside of the shaker is becoming frosty.

3. Strain into a pretty tumbler, add some pretty ice cubes (you could freeze them filled with edible flowers, bits of basil or more strawberry pieces?) and top up with soda.

4. Garnish with a chopped strawberry and a couple of basil leaves for extra aromas!

Thursday, 23 April 2015

The Business of Booze: Hire a Cocktail Bar at Home


In this new series, Becky Milford from Social and Cocktail takes a look at some of the people behind the new alcohol trends that have been emerging over the last year or so. Whether it’s taking a love of home brewing to commercial levels, creating a botanical gin, or deciding to open a fresh take on a bar, we chat to some of the people who have turned an idea into reality.

First up, OBVIOUSLY, we wanted to talk about Social and Cocktail, the website and cocktail service we've been having fun collaborating with over the past few months. We've been wanting to tell you about them properly for ages.

So Becky has asked Damien Higgins - Social and Cocktail's creator - to fill us in on why his cocktail parties are becoming increasingly popular.


* So Damien, what inspired you to feel there was a gap in the market for home cocktail parties?

Well, it’s no breaking news that cocktail culture has exploded all across the UK over the last 5 years. I noticed that there was a change in social habits - people gravitating towards quality house parties, with good company, less hassle and more intimacy. 

I realised that many people, especially the 30 -50 year old crowd, were finding it more and more of a hassle to head out at the weekend into crowded bars, what with the queuing, exorbitant club entrance fees, loud noise and general sense there wasn’t the chance to catch up with friends properly!

They do, however, still expect and enjoy excellent mixed drinks, hence the idea was born to bring a premium bar experience into the home. The idea of their own cocktail bartender and bar means that customers don’t have to worry about the set-up hassle plus it frees them up to mix with their guests and friends as the Social and Cocktail bartender mixes and serves their drinks.


* And how long as SoCo been going for?

The website was created in 2011. The events side of the business was set-up in the summer of 2013.


* After speaking to people who hire you, what is their main reason for wanting to have a party at home rather than in a bar?

Customers love the novelty and uniqueness of having their own cocktail bar at home. People are always looking for something new and something better, and the cocktail package from Social and Cocktail Events ticks both these boxes.

From a value point of view, the Social and Cocktail package beats going to a cocktail bar in town hands-down, as the cost of each cocktail on the Popular Menu works out at only £5 per cocktail, plus you get your own bar, bartender, glassware and masterclass on top of all this. The cocktail package creates a much more personal and intimate experience than you would ever get at most cocktail bars.


* How has people’s increased knowledge of cocktail culture been reflected in how you started compared to these days? Did they start by always wanting mojitos and now they want more complicated drinks?

To be honest, the popular cocktails, like the Mojito, French Martini and the Strawberry Daiquiri are still consistently popular, even with seasoned cocktail drinkers. However, we have seen a trend towards people enjoying twists on these popular drinks, such as the Passion Fruit Daiquiri, the Raspberry Mojito and the Red Chilli Old-Fashioned.


* What are your most popular events?

At the moment, Hen Parties are still the most popular event, however, milestone birthdays (such as 21st and 50th), wedding receptions and cocktail master classes designed to improve team-building in the workplace are becoming more and more in-demand.


* Do you get quite a lot of repeat custom/people recommending the service?

About 15% of our business is now repeat custom, which we are delighted with, plus word of mouth is now our second biggest marketing channel, after web advertising.


* Do you have a time of year that is busier than others?

We find that all of the year is now busy, as obviously people’s birthdays etc. can be at any time of the year. The main peaks would be May and June, particularly for Hen Parties, plus the month of December is manic with Christmas Parties requiring cocktails.


* What do people say they enjoy most about the evenings?

People love the fact that they have a cocktail bar in their home. It creates a fantastic centre-piece for any party plus the added theatre that the cocktail bartender brings to the party only lends to this further. The response to the cocktails has been incredible, no doubt helped by the fact that we only hire the very best cocktail bartenders in Scotland, plus we only use the very finest and freshest ingredients.

You can follow Social and Cocktail on @SoCocktail


Well, we can see why it’s a popular service! Let us know if you’re a budding bartender and have had ideas to be an entrepreneur - we’re always interested in new stories so tweet us @VinspireUK. Next time - Becky is talking to the creators of Naked Beer, who turned a love of brewing into growing business in Sussex.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The Smoothie Craze: 10 Epic but Easy Smoothie Recipes


As Vinspire's chief 'pinner' (and proud!) I find myself spending hours a week gleefully adding lots of tasty treats to our Vinspire Pinterest page.

I pin everything from cocktails to boozy bakes, incredible bars and amazing wine travel destinations, but over the last year, the amount of smoothie recipe pins I've seen has absolutely skyrocketed, as this healthy and filling breakfast trend has taken over on both sides of the pond.

Naturally, I started a Smoothies board, and I've become increasingly excited about the recipes I've found.

Of course, Pinterest being Pinterest, not all of the recipes are focussed on being healthy - some are decadent in the extreme, replacing fruit with ingredients like peanut butter, chocolate and whipped cream - so there really is something for everyone.

Here are 10 of the best (but easiest) smoothie recipes I've found, all using ingredients which are easy to find:

1. Avocado Chocolate Peanut Butter Smoothie


YES. You heard right. All of the world's best things (aside from booze, obviously) in a glass. This recipe is from the wonderful A Cookie Named Desire blog - she cleverly blends naughty ingredients like peanut butter and cocoa powder with filling, healthy things like banana, avocado and almond milk. Winner.

2. Skinny Strawberry Shortcake Smoothie


A brilliant, 3-ingredient smoothie that is thick and creamy but doesn't contain anything unhealthy. MAGIC. This recipe is from Amy's Healthy Baking Blog - the post is worth reading to see how excited she gets as she'd just made an appearance on a big American daytime TV show.

3. Gingerbread Smoothie


I think this one definitely wins on cuteness. There are a few more ingredients to the gingerbread smoothie recipe (which comes from the fabulous Peanut Butter and Peppers blog) but they're all readily available and you probably have most of them in your cupboards already.


4. Thin Mint Smoothie


This brilliant and simple PopSugar recipe is based on the popular US Girl Scout cookies (like the ones Monica got addicted to on Friends...) and is a suuuuper refreshing way to start the day. It's got some sneaky spinach in as well.


5. Pina Colada Oat Breakfast Smoothie


All of the fun without the booze. Plus you get two of your five-a-day and plenty of energy-boosting yoghurt and oats. This recipe is from the Cooking Classy blog - Jaclyn (the blog's owner) is pretty good at smoothie recipes so it's worth browsing the rest of her collection...


6. Carrot Cake Smoothie


Another one of those smoothies where you're surprised to already have all the ingredients handy. This recipe sounds a bit naughty but actually has carrot, spinach, banana AND raisins in it - POW! From the super-healthy and delicious Green Forks blog.


7. Raspberry and Coconut Smoothie


Another three-ingredient triumph of a recipe from the A Beautiful Mess blog. What a lovely combination of flavours.


8. Banana and Almond Smoothie


From British-based My Recipe Book, this super-satisfying 4-ingredient recipe is perfect for busy, on-the-go types.

9. Healthy Red Velvet Smoothie


Another cake-inspired smoothie recipe, this is surprisingly chocka with fruit and veg: beetroot, strawberries, banana AND dates. That may sound an odd combination, but it so works. From the Chocolate and Carrots blog.

 10. Espresso Cinnamon Banana Smoothie


If, like me, you can't quite let go of your morning coffee, this is the smoothie recipe for you. It also has a little dash of sneaky maple syrup. From the mega-stylish Coco Jenalle blog.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Mix it Monday: Contratto Bitter & Contratto Aperitif


Last week I introduced you to Contratto and their trio of vermouths that are just hitting the UK market... This week I bring you some more Italian Stallion goods; Contratto Bitter and Contratto Aperitif.

I’m sure you’re all well acquainted with Campari; the distinctive red alcoholic liqueur, most frequently used in cocktails. It’s the one that gives the likes of a Negroni its bitterness. Yes please! And you’ve probably dappled in an Aperol Spritz or two in your time; the Irn-Bru orange aperitif (also produced by the Campari group) that’s less alcoholic, slightly sweeter in taste, and usually topped with prosecco, soda and a slice of orange. Sip it in the sun, over ice, and you’ll never look back.

The Italian powerhouse Contratto has now launched two quite similar products. Based on recipes dating back to 1933 and 1935, Contratto Bitter and Contratto Aperitif are all natural - no artificial colours or flavours - top quality, artisanal alternatives to “the industry standard products of today.” Big brands have got to have some competition haven’t they?

After receiving a bottle of each last month – I must be in the booze god’s good books – it’s time to put them to the test. Though first we should appreciate the label; that same beautiful lady adorning the vermouth bottles has undergone a bit of a fashion update. Retro stripes and bold fonts; personally, I love it.

Contratto Bitter is a heady mix of 24 herbs, spices, roots and seeds combined with Italian Brandy. Its colour comes from vegetable extracts – carrots and beetroot – and it’s ingredients include aloe, wormwood, bitter orange peel, cloves, cardamom, nettle, ginger and many more. A slow, cold maceration process is carried out according to tradition, and the result is this 22% ruby red liqueur.

It’s somewhat sweeter than its famous rival, more fruity though less grapefruity, and there’s a hint of vanilla in there too. Mixing Contratto Bitter in cocktails is the way to go; and it'll always be a Negroni with me. 1 part gin, 1 part Contratto Bitter, 1 part sweet vermouth (Contratto Vermouth Rosso perhaps), stirred over ice, and garnished with orange peel. Negronis can be a bit of a Marmite drink, but made with Contratto instead of Campari, it is slightly less offensive on the bitterness front.

A Bitter Sweet is Contratto’s signature serve: 1 part Contratto Bitter, 1 part Moscato d'Asti, 1 part Soda Water, in a wine glass with ice and a slice of lemon. Crack this out at your next BBQ and you’ll be everyone’s favourite host! *slurp*

Made in the same way as Contratto Bitter, Contratto Aperitif has slightly longer list of ingredients; 28 including aloe, angelica, wormwood, tangerine peel, hawthorn, juniper berries, and many more. At 13.5%, it is less alcoholic than the Bitter, making it perfect mixing material for pre-dinner drinks.

Both sweet and bitter orange peel are prominent tastes and aromas, so its vibrant orange colour certainly matches its flavour. Zesty and herbal, with intriguing woody notes, it has a long lasting bittersweet finish. Although you could drink it on its own, Contratto Aperitif is meant to be mixed, and lengthening it with sparkling wine or soda is probably the best option. Contratto also suggest mixing it with rhubarb juice, as rhubarb is in the list of ingredients, though I’m not sure where you’ll find that. For something a bit more substantial, adding gin and vermouth to make a Aperitif version of a Negroni is really good.

The Contrattino is the suggested serve: 1 part Contratto Aperitif, 1 part Dry Sparkling Wine, served over ice with a lemon twist.

You can buy litre bottles of both Contratto Bitter (£25.50) and Contratto Aperitif (£23.60) from Hedonism Wines... Get them whilst they're hot! 

Friday, 17 April 2015

Malbec World Day 2015: 10 Malbecs from All Over The World

Photo: L C Nottaasen

I can't believe a whole year has rolled around since Jo did a World Malbec Day post last April! In it, she celebrated fun facts about the malbec grape, explained why it's so popular and recommended both a classic Argentine brand (Trivento = <3 ) and a French option, seeing as the grape itself originated in southern France.

As one of the UK's most loved and most-bought grape varieties, you could almost argue we don't need a day to celebrate Malbec World Day, but that's a bit like refusing to celebrate Mother's Day, so I'm jumping on board. Any excuse for a glass of malbec is fine with me...

You've probably seen about 100 wine articles celebrating Argentina's many marvellous malbecs over the last week or so, so I'm not going to do that.

Instead, I'm going to put the WORLD in Malbec World Day!

I'm recommending my all-time favourite Argentine Malbec producer, and then I'm going to branch out and explore how malbec is spreading all over the world, with tasty malbecs reaching us from Chile, Australia, South Africa, the USA and even Romania!

Here's where you can sample malbecs from Argentina... and beyond.

1. ARGENTINA: Catena Malbec, £12.99 at Waitrose

Undoubtedly one of the (and in my opinion... THE) greatest wine producers in Argentina, Catena has won all the awards going, including Nicolas Catena being the first South American man to win Decanter's prestigious Man of the Year Award in 2009.

Their winemaker Alejandro Vigil is an absolute legend of a bloke, a true, eccentric genius, who once confessed to me that he'd got so tipsy when tasting wines with some of the local Catena fans that he went a got a tattoo of the word 'malbec' on his arm.

They have some wonderful vineyards in amazing locations, and drinking a Catena malbec is a bit like having a masterclass in the grape.

Get yourself started with this Catena Malbec at Waitrose - full of soft, plummy richness that lasts and lasts - but if you fancy splashing out then grab some of their more premium bottles. You won't be disappointed.


2. NEW ZEALAND: Nelson Malbec, £10 per bottle, Marks and Spencer

Nelson is one of the country's sunniest areas, making it a perfect spot to experiment with the sun-loving Malbec grape. This is a surprising take on a malbec though - although you do get the rich, dark fruits and a hint of pepperiness, this is only 12.5% and so is a much lighter, juicier version than you might expect. Perfect with duck.


3. USA: Jacktone Ranch Limited Release Malbec, £12 per bottle at Tesco Wines

Look, I'm not sure this is worth £12, but it is frequently on offer at around half that price and that's when to snap it up. Although, if you're a real malbec geek, perhaps it is worthy of a punt just to try a malbec from the USA? You don't see many of them about.

This is a Californian malbec - at 13% it's still a bit lighter than you'd expect, but is a smooth, rounded, drinkable red wine which is a great match for barbecued ribs.

4. SOUTHERN FRANCE: Vignobles Roussellet Malbec, £4.39 at Aldi

Aldi does it again, coming up with a delicious mid-week bottle of wine at a frankly ridiculously good price. This isn't anywhere near the rustic class of a Cahors (if you want one of those, see number ) but it's got a lovely, juicy blueberry and damson character. Great with a simple stew or sausage dish.

5. CHILE: Con Amigos Malbec, currently £6.66 (usually £9.99) at Majestic

Although it's not far (relatively speaking) from the more established Argentina, this Chilean malbec has more in common with a southern French example. More juicy berries and perfume, but this time the wine has a full-bodied mouthfeel and tannins that would pair well with some char-grilled red meat.

6. ROMANIA: Malbec 'Winemaker's Selection' Chateau Vartely, Moldova, £8.99 at Adnams Wine Cellar

This was the wine I was most excited about discovering. Hooray for Romania! For under a tenner, this is excellent value, with robust body and tannins like its Argentine cousin, and plenty of spice from its 12 months ageing in oak barrels. A real wine geek's wine.

7. CAHORS: Cahors, Clos La Coutale, £7.95 at The Wine Society

Of course (as Jo mentioned last year), malbec originated in France, and here it is still often known as 'cot' or 'auxerrois'.

This is an absolute cracker of an example from The Wine Society - as an unoaked wine, it really lets the mouthwatering fruit shine through, and is a perfect match for southern French cuisine like cassoulet or confit duck, as well as being a tasty pairing with soft cheeses.

8. SOUTH AFRICA: Tesco Finest South African Malbec, currently £5.99 (usually £7.99)

Aside from Argentina and Cahors, South African malbec is the next most commonly available malbec in the UK, but I had to highlight this one because of the excellent value for money in this offer!

For under £6, this has bags of intensity and charming complexity, and is a rich, dark, cherry and plum-filled wine with plenty of spice. Definitely pick up a bottle to see what South Africa can achieve with the malbec grape.

9. BORDEAUX: Cuvee George de Puygueraud, Cotes de Francs, 2007, £16 per bottle at The Wine Society

A quick hop back to The Wine Society for a pleasingly rare find. Malbec used to feature a lot more in Bordeaux, but these days it's not very widely used at all, and where it is grown it tends to be only about 5% of the blend.

This Cotes de Francs wine, made by the brilliant Georges Thienpont, has a whopping 45% malbec, with 35% cabernet franc and 20% merlot. Well worth snapping up while you can - it's been ageing nicely for 8 years, and will be best to drink in the next two.

10. AUSTRALIA: Wolf Blass Yellow Label Malbec, currently £6.47 (usually £9.98) at ASDA

Okay, so we don't normally mention brands as big as this, but at this price this is well worth grabbing to get a chance to try an Aussie malbec, as you don't see many of them in the UK at the moment. It might not be the best example ever (I've tried good ones that have been blended with cabernet sauvignon - look out for them) but it's an earthy, wintry red with rounded spice and a pleasing tang.


Happy Malbec World Day everyone! Join in the fun on the Malbec World Day Twitter page.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Drinks Delivered: Best Of British Beer's Craft Beer Club

You know what it's like, you come home from a hard day's work and all you want is a decent pint. But what's this? A parcel on your door step? It's a big brown box! You don't know what it is but it looks interesting. Hang on, what's this on the side? Well if you're parcel looks like the one above then you can be certain of a fabulous evening.

A little while ago I did a little round-up of booze subscription services. I mean the fact that you can get it delivered direct to your door (or even your work if you're that way inclined), is remarkable. It was in this round-up that I mentioned Best Of British Beers wonderful Craft Beer Club.

Well I must say that they have been rather spiffing chaps and have sent me another case to try - this time, a more spring-like case as opposed to the winter warmers of last time! I feel it is not only my privilege but my sworn duty to inform you of the results.

What's In The Case?

What gets me instantly (aside from overwhelming joy at the sight) is the fact that this isn't just any old case of beer. It's a well thought out cross section of some of the nations finest producers. It strikes a fantastic balance between innovation and comfort, with some instantly recognisable labels and some that are just begging to be explored.

The literature that's provided isn't half bad either. There's no pretence or assumption of knowledge, just easy to understand tasting notes that aren't remotely patronising. It gives insightful info on everything from the producer themselves right down to how to pour the perfect pint. Doff of the cap indeed!

The Beers

Instantly I'm greeted by the familiar label of Oakham Ales JHB. Named after Jeffrey Hudson, a three and a half foot tall duellist in the service of King Charles 1st, this bitter offers big citrus flavours and a nice dry finish. Bags of character.

Amongst my old favourites are Woldtop Bitter, Lancaster Red and a delightfully dark beer from Monty's Brewery in Wales.

As I blissfully glugged my way through this case (not all in one sitting, honest!) It felt like an old friend taking me on an adventure as a child. Yes that is a ridiculously corny line but it's true! There's the childish excitement of finding out what behind that fence, or in this case, under that crown cap.

So what did I find behind that fence? Some absolute blinders!

From Windsor And Eton Brewery comes the Knight of the Garter. A 3.8% Golden Ale, the nose is sweet with honey and petals. The palate is light and fragrant with that honey really shining through leading to a lemon led finish.

Next comes a brew from a place more associated with cheese. Cheddar Ales' Crown And Glory, this is a tremendously hoppy number and almost a nod towards the more powerful American IPA style. Huge fruit flavours and slight tropical note nestle in to peppery finish.


Going further south we find ourselves in Cornwall sampling Keltek Brewery and their Even Keel Pale Ale. The malt aroma leaps out the glass followed by a slight treacle note. Very sm\ooth and gently floral on the palate. Well balanced and at only 3.4% it's very chilled out.

Now we go North of the border to Scotland and an absolute belter from the Williams Brothers. Joker IPA packs a tropical punch with a slight biscuity note on the nose. The mouth feel is rich and satisfying with citrus flavours such as pink grapefruit and orange giving way to a long dry finish.

Heading back into England we're confronted by The Leveller from Springhead Brewery in Nottinghamshire. If this wasn't from a company called Best of BRITISH Beer, I would assume this is a Trappist beer from Belgium. Dark in colour and smoky on the nose, the slightly lighter than expected but with bags of coffee and caramel flavour.


This is just what one month of beers has to offer! Imagine what it would be like if you got it every month? So much beer! So much good beer! Never again will you be disappointed with the sight of a mass-produced can being the only sustenance in the fridge. Even if you don't have it every month, this is the kind of beers case it is well worth treating yourself with.

Boozy Travel: The Best Beer & Bars in Edinburgh



If you're a regular reader of Vinspire (and you damn well should be!) then you'll know that back in September I went on a self professed 'pilgrimage' to Bruges; essentially my 'Beer Mecca'.

For my next trip, I really wanted an all expenses paid trip to the US of A, to document a 'Craft Beer Pilgrimage'. Laura decided that this wasn't in the Vinspire budget this month and that she'd send me in the Autumn instead...

So, I decided to head north of the border, to bonnie wee Scotland, to sample the local brews, bars, whisky and haggis (note: I don't like haggis). Me and Adele have been meaning to go for a while, so it was a win-win!

We chose a beautiful, sunny weekend in April - my birthday weekend to be precise, and booked first class on the train in advance for £100 return each, and a room at the Radisson Blu, slap bang in the middle of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh Old Town.

This city is beautiful, and the architecture is stunning. We were graced with blue skies, warm weather, and very friendly locals. So, here's what we found Edinburgh had to offer those of us who like to imbibe!

Bars

The Hanging Bat

A great selection of craft beers from guest breweries and their own on-site brewery, impressively encased behind glass for all to see in all its glory.

I was particularly happy to see New Zealand brewery Tuatara represented on keg as they are truly spectacular.

I was spoilt for choice, so went for a flight of craft beers, which included a glass to keep. I could've allowed that to be honest, but it's a nice gimmick for some people. The food here ain't bad either!


The Three Sisters

If anyone has been here, they'll be thinking 'what the hell has he mentioned this place for'? True, it is a bit of a slosh-house, but they have beers from local brewery Drygate on draught, and the place had a great atmosphere, despite it being FULL of stag and hen parties, all adorned in sashes and fancy dress, parading their bits around in kilts and hitting each other with inflatable willies.

The other reason I mention this place is the brilliant outdoor area, really made great use of here; with a massive outside bar, street food stalls and a big screen for sport. I really enjoyed it, but I was pretty 'sloshed'. Don't worry, I wasn't wearing a kilt...

Brewdog

Obviously no trip to Scotland would be complete without a visit to a Brewdog bar, to drink some Brewdog beer. Very friendly, 20 year old security guards three times my size greeted us, and sang me Happy Birthday. A bit weird.

The bar is a Brewdog bar. It's got Brewdog beer, but most importantly, its got Brewdog training. I had an Electric India (kinda a Saison), and Adele opted for a trusty Punk IPA. Pretty standard. Still good.

The Scotch Whisky Experience

When in Rome, as they say. It's a given that a trip to Scotland will at some point involve drinking whisky. Luckily, Adele's parents bought us tickets to the Whisky Experience, so naturally we did the Gold tour which included 5 tasters, and a glass to keep (theme emerging?).

The tour started with a little trip through how whisky is made, including the ingredients, mash, fermentation, distillation and ageing. An interesting little introduction that wastes no time, nor does it dumb things down too much.

Swiftly moving on to a guided part of the experience, we were crowded into a room and introduced to our guide. A master of knowledge, and the spirit he advocates, he was friendly, funny and informative.

We were guided on which regions create which styles of whisky, and I favoured the Highlands - caramel, citrus, vanilla etc. Mmmmm... Adele, strangely, went for Islay. I knew this was wrong for her, but hey, I ain't arguing with the woman...

We walked through the collection of malts Diageo have acquired, an incredibly impressive collection of every rare whisky I can imagine, and then thousands I can't. A beautiful room. We learnt how to smell and taste our Whisky, and there were the obvious mixed reactions from around the room.

We then went on to the bar, and we were poured our other 4 with a little water on the side.

The Whisky Experience was just that... an experience. Personally, whisky just isn't for me... or Adele; we just don't get it, but were far too polite so sat and tried to drink as much as we could. Give me Gin any day... Sorry Hugo... ;-)

Craft Beer

There were plenty of beers to sample in Scotland, although most you've already heard of. Here are 3 I particularly remember:

Innis & Gunn Lager - I'm not a fan of the Innis & Gunn range really, but their Lager is something else. Really crisp and floral, it's not like any lager I've ever had, and I really enjoyed it.

Drygate Gladeye IPA - A slightly flat-yet-drinkable IPA, probably the fault of dispense or glassware than beer. It didn't really have the hop character I'd expect from a keg craft IPA, but had some pleasant fruit and malt.

Alechemy Rye O' Rye Pale Ale - Warming, rich Rye with a smooth palate. This cask was crystal clear and really very very good! Spicy, rich and warm!


Overall, Edinburgh has a lot to offer those of us who enjoy our drink. There's some cracking nightlife, and enough going on to get you through the day. I was a little disappointed there wasn't more Craft Beer, or Gin... I bloody love Gin.

Anyways, great city, great company, great birthday. Oh, and my horse won the Grand National! 

Slàinte Mhath! (Cheers!)

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Wine Wednesday: BOOM, Bobal!

On this fine, sunny Wine Wednesday I have decided to bring you a mega-hot Spanish wine I tried for the first time a few months ago - it's a wine you'll probably want to know more about in time for barbecue season. Introducing...

The Bobal Grape

Bobal is a red grape which is native to the Valencia region in south-east Spain - specifically to the smaller Utiel-Requena region which is part of Valencia - and although you may not have heard of it, it is one of the country's most planted grape varieties alongside the better-known tempranillo.

It was for a long time used in blends, but it is finally starting to get a bit of the limelight for itself, and is being made into single-varietal red wines.

I'm told its name comes from the latin bovale, meaning 'bull' - apparently, this is because the grape bunches look like a bull's head, but this is also fitting because the grape tends to produce big, meaty wines of lovely intensity and power.

That said, it can also produce wines with features in common with lighter, juicy, easy-drinking monastrell wines, with alcohol content as low as 12%, but you do still tend to find a kind of earthy, rustic character to it.

There's not tons of single-varietal Bobal on the UK market at the moment, but here's three varied Bobal wines to tickle your tastebuds:

Vox Populi Bobal, currently £8.99 (usually £11.99) at Majestic

It's 14%, its muscular, and I certainly wouldn't want to make this wine angry. Big, beefy tannins and dark, concentrated black fruit - but like all good movie villains, this wine does have a slightly gentler side, with a floral whiff about it that adds yet another dimension. Give this beast some smoky meats to play with and you won't be disappointed.


Pasion de Bobal, £11.99 at Virgin Wines

This is the movie villain's slightly softer (but still menacing) brother, with a nice six-month stint in oak rounded some of the edges and adding a silky spiciness. It still packs full flavours, despite it's slightly lighter 13.5% alcohol, and is a match for a hearty lamb dish.


Red Boar Bobal, £6.75 at Oddbins

A boar is pretty much the perfect image for the bobal grape - rustic, meaty and broad, a lover of berries and with a whiff of forest floor. This example is much lighter at 12%, but still has a little brawn about it, and is a less complex but still tasty midweek treat at a very pleasing price.


Tuesday, 14 April 2015

3 Valiant Vermouths from Italy: Contratto Vermouth

Without sounding like a broken record; vermouth is BIG business.

Slowly but surely it has climbed out of that outdated pigeonhole it was once placed in, and rather than just picking up any old bottle at the supermarket to make our manhattans and martinis, we’re now paying more attention to what different brands are out there, and more importantly, what the different brands taste like.

Although it’s still seen as being more of a cocktail ingredient, as opposed to a decent drink in its own right, this seems to be changing (see Laura’s Belsazar review). Tom Higham wrote a piece about it early last year, so are we still undergoing a vermouth revival? I’m pretty certain it’s a 2015 trend, but after seeing a number of high-end bars concocting their own vermouths, is it now not just a trend, but trendy? Who knows? All I do know is that it gets the big thumbs up from me.

On my hunt to find new booze to share with you all, I came across some rather lovely looking bottles, with a beautiful lady adorning each label. Contratto is its name, Italian alcoholic goods are its nature, and (rather generously) they’ve sent me their vermouth range to review.

I won’t go into all the ins and outs of vermouth - we know what it is - but to recap; it’s a wine, fortified with spirit, aromatised and flavoured with various botanicals, such as herbs, seeds, roots, flowers, tree barks and spices... Capiche?

Now, Contratto Vermouth actually comes from a winery – from that fact alone, you know it’s going to be good stuff – and not just any old winery either; one that focuses on the production of high end sparkling wine (Champagne Method). Contratto is Italy's oldest sparkling wine house - founded in 1867 - and it has always produced spirits alongside wine; however they have only recently been re-launched, and are currently finding their way onto the back bars at our fave watering holes.

The three vermouths – Vermouth Bianco, Vermouth Rosso, Americano Rosso – are artisanally produced following original recipes dating back to the 1890’s, where herbs and spices were used to cover up any unpleasant, oxidised wines. Though all the traditional processes are still used, there’s no such masking these days; Contratto vermouths are sophisticated elixirs that are complex, fresh, and well balanced. (They also make a Fernet, Aperitif and Bitter, but we’ll look at those another time.)


Vermouth Bianco is probably the most familiar of the three varieties, but this one is quite the complex beast. It contains over 50 aromatics, which among many include: mint, ginger, nettle, wormwood, rhubarb, bitter orange peel, hibiscus flower, sage, and so on and so forth. Sweet and silky, and overall quite warming, it is vastly different from your extra dry vermouths like Noilly Prat. 

On its own, over ice, this sweet-citrus number would make a wonderful aperitif, particularly on a sunny day, but Contratto also suggest an "Acqua di Neive"; 1 part Contratto Vermouth Bianco, 2 parts Fever Tree Tonic Water, on the rocks, garnished with lemon and sage leaves. Give me a herby fish/chicken/pasta dish and this would be PERFECT... On another note, if you like the idea of a Martini, but tend to find them a bit too dry and strong, then perhaps using Contratto might be your answer. It's sweetness is pared down by the crisp gin (I always tend to go for gin in my Martini), and it gives you a much wetter, fuller flavoured drink, that is a bit more user friendly.


This copper coloured vermouth is based on at least 31 aromatics: coriander seeds, bay laurel leaves, yellow sweet clover, cinnamon, nutmeg, sweet orange peel, licorice and sandal wood, to name a few. It has a sweet, musky nose, and there's something that reminds me of bitter chocolate/almonds lingering there too. On the palate, Vermouth Rosso entices you with a sultry tartness, highlighting those citrus ingredients and letting the herbs and spices carry on the party on the finish. I could easily see me sipping this neat with dessert, as opposed to a dessert wine or port, but Contratto recommend it as an aperitif in a "Roma" cocktail; 1 part Contratto Vermouth Rosso, 3 parts Asti Spumante (or other sparkling wine), garnished with a strawberry.


Americano is another version of a vermouth; also based on white wine it draws from much the same pool of botanicals. There are less in comparison to the Bianco and Rosso, though still 25, and include ginger, mint, hawthorn flower, nettle leaves, angelica root and bitter orange peel. The mint is quite prominent in this one, and its fresh menthol taste marries wonderfully with the other herbs and spices. It's sweet, viscous and bitter orange flavours pop in the mouth on the finish. Again, you could drink it neat, or get creative on the cocktail front. Contratto boast the "Napoli"; 2 parts Contratto Americano Rosso, 2 parts orange juice, 3 parts Contratto For England (a rosé sparkling wine). A grand Bucks Fizz!

I'd totally recommend you scout out these "Boutique Aperitifs"; my vermouth eyes have been opened! And keep your eyes peeled for other Contratto reviews coming soon.