Saturday, 30 September 2017

Book review: Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker – One woman's journey from enthusiastic wine amateur to oenophile

'After blood, wine is the most complex matrix there is.'

As you may know, I love wine, but there’s still so much more to learn, and often I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.

So I was thrilled to recently get a copy of Bianca Bosker’s debut book, ‘Cork Dork’ – a term given to obsessive oenophiles.

Bianca is an absolutely badass woman who quit her job as the executive technology editor at the Huffington Post in New York, in a quest to become a sommelier, in just 18 months.

I don’t want to sound gushy, but I feel like Bianca has basically lived my dream, and documented the whole thing with humour, passion, and enthusiasm, but also critically, with no time for bullshit.

The book offers a totally refreshing look at wine, the wine industry, and teaches readers so much along the way. It doesn’t matter whether you know nothing more about wine than Blue Nun and Echo Falls (well…), or whether you’re the most knowledgeable Master Sommelier, everybody will get different things from the book.

‘Cork Dork’ covers everything from the baffling secrets of mass-market wines, to the insane and crazy world of master sommeliers and big bottle hunters, via a smattering of science, lessons in what makes a wine objectively good, and whether you can train yourself to taste and smell better.

For people who really don’t know their wine, ‘Cork Dork’ offers a totally unpretentious and humorous look at wine education, and for those that do already know their stuff, it might make them take a step back and look at their industry in a different light.

I feel like I studied ‘Cork Dork’. I’ve highlighted so many bits: facts I didn’t know, interesting people to look up, bars to visit next time I’m in New York, other books to imbibe, and exciting bottles of wine I will probably never get the chance to drink.

And I’ve already taken lessons from the book on board. I’ve found myself smelling everything around me, driving with the window down (unless it’s really, really raining), trying to work out specific scents in restaurants, and confused my housemate when she caught me working my way through sniffing the spice cabinet.

Genuinely, ‘Cork Dork’ has made me excited for the next step in my own wine education, and given me a bit of a push in the right direction. I’ve already convinced several people they NEED to read this book: one for the science; one for the crazy stories (I really want to go to a wine orgy…); one for the look at New York’s restaurant scene; and another for Bianca’s inspirational personal journey.

There’s so much in ‘Cork Dork’ to uncover, whether you want to know how to go about gaining more knowledge about wine and becoming a sommelier yourself, or whether you just want to look at wine in a slightly different way.

‘Cork Dork’ is now available in the UK, for £8.99.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

What to drink, see and do at London Cocktail Week 2017

This may be bad timing for those of you trying to go Sober for October, but you’re going to have to delay it a while, as it’s London Cocktail Week next week (2-8 October), and there is so much to drink, see, and do.

This is the seventh year of the boozy week, and of course it’s even bigger and better this year. There are now more than 250 bars taking part, loads of events going on, as well as pop-ups, tastings, and masterclasses.

You’re going to need to get yourself a digital pass for £10, which will get you £6 cocktails all over the city. From there, London is your booze-covered oyster (I think I saw that they’re doing those somewhere?). Or there are various places offering money passes off i.e. Time Out have them for £5.

As ever, Old Spitalfields Market will be the hub for #LCW17, but this year you will have to buy a ticket to get in (£5 in advance, a few for £10 on the door). In there you'll find a host of vendors offering signature £6 cocktails, with loads of food stalls too.

Apart from that, and the more than 250 bars offering a £6 cocktail, there are bar takeovers, masterclasses, distillery tours, food and drink pairing sessions, and plenty of other exciting stuff.

We managed to bag tickets to a special Gin Journey hosted by the Gin Boss himself, Leon Dalloway. We'll let you know how that is next week as tickets sold out pretty swiftly...

However, that does mean we're missing out on Jillian Vose of NYC's Dead Rabbit bar heading to The Sun Tavern in Bethnal Green. Get there on Wednesday October 4, especially if you like Slane Irish whiskey.

Or how about: blend your own whisky with Chivas Regallearn the art of bottling bubbles with Schweppes; a Japanese whisky tasting with legend Dave Broom; learn the history of gin cocktails with Fords, a pop-up of #LCW17 waste cocktails by Trash Tiki; subterranean games and cocktails with Ableforth's; or finish the whole week off with an entire Tequila and Mezcal festival.

It is going to be a fabulous week!

Friday, 22 September 2017

Demijohn cordials – a tasty alternative to alcohol

It looks like quite a few people are going Sober for October this year. As a drinks blog, you may think that might be a tricky one for us to work around, but no…!

Demijohn, the liquid deli based in Edinburgh (it's a bit like Vom Fass if you've seen those around) has six handmade cordials that might make Sober October – or any night you’re not on the booze – a bit more tasty.

You’ve got a choice of Nettle, Elderflower, Raspberry, Lemon and Mint, Rhubarb and Ginger, and Lime and Chilli. Yum.

I’ve been working my way through the Lime and Chilli. It’s a nice combination of sweet and sour, with a bit of lingering chilli heat. My only problem is that I’m a bit of a cordial/squash addict, so I’m getting through it a bit quicker than I'd like to.

Demijohn suggests using 25ml of cordial with 250ml of still or sparkling water, or tonic. Add ice and slices of fruit and you've got yourself a mocktail of sorts.

The cordials are all made by Charlotte Grant, a micro producer in Suffolk. She’s been making her cordials from hedgerow ingredients found around her home. Because the ingredients are British grown or foraged, most of the cordials are seasonal – be quick if you want that elderflower one; it’s only around for a few weeks in June.

The cordials are priced at £6.45 for 100ml (so you'll get around four servings out of that), £9.95 for 375ml and £12.75 for 500ml, and are available in the Demijohn shop in Edinburgh’s old town – if you’re up that way – and via their website.

They’re not the cheapest, but if you don’t down it by the pint like a Summer Fruits supermarket squash, you’ll be able to make it last.

The cordials come in cute sealed glass bottles, and you can add handwritten messages, so they’ll also make very nice stocking fillers (Christmas is closer than you think!!). Just be careful you don’t get a bit lost in a buying spree on the Demijohn website… they’ve got everything from liqueurs, to oils and vinegars, and sauces.

Disclaimer: I was sent a 100ml bottle of the Lime and Chilli cordial for review. All opinions are my own, and not influenced by slightly spicy cordial.

Monday, 18 September 2017

A cure for the common cold? The Hot Toddy

With the mercury dropping faster than we can say “what-the-hell-happened-to-summer”, the lurgy is dead set ready to catch us all one-by-one. Luckily for us 21st century inhabitants, to every problem there is a centuries-old resolution, and its now common knowledge that the only sensible way to fight the common cold is to dull your senses with hot toddies.

In truth, medicinally speaking, there is nothing soothing at all about whisky-based cocktails, other than that if you drink enough of them, all knowledge of any physical discomfort will be obliterated. Nevertheless, with my first sore throat of autumn 2017, I’m game for trying a little home brewed cure.

Traditionally-speaking, the recipe for a hot toddy in its most basic and true form is this: whisky, hot water, sugar or honey. I believe the quantities are 'to taste'... some of us have more whisky than others.

But now, as we’re all sophisticated and trendy these days and not sitting around a cauldron in the weather-beaten Scottish Highlands, we can start adding all sorts of fancy accoutrements to make the cure for reduced olfactory sensibilities just a little more enjoyable.

Suggestions for exciting additions to the standard hot toddy that I have found during my extensive research include: cloves, lemon rind, cinnamon, stem ginger, root ginger, ginger ale, black tea, lemon and ginger tea, apple juice, black pepper, cardamom, nutmeg, a slice of apple, swapping the whisky for rum, gin or even tequila.

Essentially, it seems as though you can virtually concoct anything you like and still call it a hot toddy, just as long as its thoroughly cockle-warming.

Real Hot-Toddy geeks go one step further and get all intertwined in the delicacy of mixing your whisky flavours with your seasonings: no point putting an elegant, smoky, salty island whisky with ginger ale and black pepper, as all the flavours clash and swamp one another.

Similarly, a rich American bourbon will totally override a delicate sliver of apple. But I'll stop there as it is all getting a little geeky and this sore throat will hold out no longer.

My Hot Toddy Recipe

For me today I will be opting for a simple equation:

A measure (or two) of whisky, a teaspoon of honey, and dash of lemon juice in a small mug or brandy glass, topped up with boiling water and all swizzled with a stick of cinnamon.

Mmmm, I'm feeling better already. Roll on the next cold, I'm pretty keen to try the tequila version...

Any Hot-Toddy recipes to recommend? We'd love to hear your tried and tested recipes.

Images taken from tienvijftien, trophy geek and Timothy Krause's photostreams under the Creative Commons License.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

An Introduction to Whisky Tasting

This photo taken from Neil Wilkie (bugmonkey)
Many people find tasting whisky, much like wine, to be a daunting task that can be intimidating and complex.

I've been there when I was first starting out tasting wine: people were swirling and snorting at their wine, and in my imitation I ended up inhaling wine and collapsing into a coughing, spluttering mess.

Luckily tasting whisky doesn't have the swirling aspect, but it can be a minefield that I should hopefully be able to clear, at least partially.

Choosing a whisky

The first thing you are going to need for your tasting is of course... a whisky. I recommend something of quality, but that doesn't have any crazy, overbearing flavours. This rules out anything peaty from Islay really, but I would also say to give any odd wood finishes a miss too when starting out. The Balvenie 12yr Doublewood is a great starting point, being nicely accessible with good complexity as well.

Photo by Mike Bitzenhofer


Glassware is important for tasting whisky: plastic cups are a no-no, and although swigging from the bottle is fun in a Johhny Depp, buccaneering sort of way, it doesn't allow you to experience all the finer nuances of a whisky.

 Glencairns are the generally accepted tasting vessel: they're wide at the bottom, allowing lots of air contact with the whisky, but they have a tighter neck concentrating the aromas.


The subject of water is a very divisive one and while people may not erupt into gang war, there can be minor hissy fits.

Some say adding water allows the whisky to open up and for the more scents and flavours to be released, others contend this dilutes the whisky, that it doesn't represent the distillery's work, and so on.

I firmly believe in trying both. Not only do you drink more beautiful whisky (YES!), but you get to experience the differences between the two. You need to decide how you prefer yours somehow.

Personally, I've found that some drams benefit from added water, but it really takes away from others.

Breathing Time

Contact with air isn't as dramatic as with decantng wine, but can be a fun thing to look at. Breathing time is not really essential to tasting whisky, however it adds another dimension to a whisky that you think you know already.

Now those issues are sorted we need to look at the process of actual tasting:


By Dr John Bullas
When tasting it can be helpful to take in the colour of the whisky.

Whiskies cover a huge range of browns, ambers, golds, and also much paler hay to almost transparent hues.

Be sure however not to let the colour influence you too much: these days, distilleries love adding caramel colouring to make a whisky look more appealing. Many of the uninformed believe that a darker colour equals quality, but we won't be fooled will we?


This for me is one of the most important and also enjoyable parts of tasting whisky (bizzare that, eh?). You'll want to give only a slight swirl, (don't give it the mad whirling dervish treatment you might with one of those austere Bordeauxs) and have a little smell. One thing to be wary of is the alcohol content of the whisky: those up in the 46% and above can numb your sense of smell, so tread lightly. Other than this there's not much to be said, sniff it and see what you smell.

If you need to 'reset' your nose, smell the skin on the back of your hand.


When tasting I find it most useful to take small mouthfuls and simply hold them still without any of the gurgling malarkey, perhaps stirring every few seconds or so before swallowing.

Think about the flavours on the tip of your tongue, what you can taste and feel towards the back of your mouth, and then seeing what develops over time.

Once swallowed, consider what flavours develop on the finish, the whisky's length, and if it's smooth and silky or a harsh, gasp-inducing ethanol bomb.

Lastly, there's the mouthfeel: if the whisky feels thick and oily or thinner and watery, this can give some indication of manufacture techniques used in the distillery (we don't need to worry too much at this stage), but the difference can be most striking between different whiskies.

That's pretty much all that can be said about tasting whisky from my perspective other than to say to try tasting around others: the imparting of different ideas is always fun, and will always make you see something you might have missed or not have considered.

Most importantly, have fun and don't feel under pressure or stupid. If you taste rubber then damn well say so and don't let anyone come along and say that you're drinking your whisky wrong. We are all different and people's palates, preferences, memories and experiences vary, and all of these impact on tasting. There really is no right or wrong answer, despite what the snobs might say.

Happy drinking!

Friday, 8 September 2017

Friday Cocktail: Che Bello! Limoncello, raspberry & basil martini

Some Fridays, you just need a huge hard dollop of booze to ease you into the weekend. If you've had a hectic, catastrophic, or otherwise horrible week, you need to schedule in a little bit of 'you' time with a cocktail that's so flavoursome it's basically going to be my dessert. My dessert to lunch, because it's been THAT kind of Friday.

Limoncello is popping up in a lot of cocktails at the moment, and I really think it's a must for your drinks cupboard. There's a reason basically everyone on the Amalfi coast drinks the stuff: it's super good and a highly refreshing little liqueur with a decent hit of sauce.

Lemon and raspberry are also made for each other, and the basil just makes it that much more complex, flavoursome, and... well, pretty wonderful.

The 'Che Bello!' or Limoncello, Raspberry and Basil Martini recipe (serves one)


  • About 8-10 raspberries
  • 2 dashes vanilla syrup or basil-infused simple syrup if you have time to make it
  • 40ml limoncello
  • 60ml vodka (or 40ml vodka and 20ml citrus vodka if you have it)
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 2 basil leaves, plus another two to garnish

Shake it!

1. Muddle the raspberries and basil leaves together in a bowl with one of the dashes of syrup. If you're a bit inexperienced, that basically means smooshing it all with the back of a spoon to release the juices and flavours.
2. Extract the basil leaves, and push the raspberries through a sieve (so you get all the juice and none of the seeds.
3. In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, mix together the vodka, limoncello and lemon juice, and the second dash of syrup. Shake it like a polaroid picture for about 10 seconds, then strain into a martini glass or champagne saucer.
4. Pour the raspberry puree on top, and stir gently (or leave it if you prefer the 'oh look! There's blobs of pink stuff in my drink!' thing).
5. Garnish with a couple of basil leaves (to intensify the aromas) and a swirl of lemon zest.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Boozy Bakes: Orange & Cinnamon Madeleines

Ahh, madeleines... those stunning little French sponge cakes shaped like shells (try saying that quickly!)

They have that certain je ne sais quoi about them; other than their beautiful scalloped edges, they're pretty plain, yet somehow they still manage to ooze class and that Parisian sophistication we all seem to lust after.

Looks aside, Madeleines taste flippin' amazing too. Pillows of butter, almond and vanilla (and in this case zest and spice); I can just imagine myself nibbling one while sipping a cup of tea in a cafe along the Seine. THE perfect afternoon treat! 

But wait, this is a drinks blog right? "Don't give us a classic recipe", I hear you cry, "Vinspire's all about boozy bakes!"

So, to add a bit of Va Va Voom to these Frenchies, I've gone down the Cointreau route. Madeleines infused with orange zest and cinnamon, brushed with a Cointreau (or any other orange based liqueur) glaze. Yu-um. 

AND like those Cookies 4 Gin that I featured years ago, these make the best accompaniment to a little alcoholic beverage, particularly a Cointreau-based tipple like one of my personal faves - a White Lady

I think madeleines have been given a bit of a bad rep in terms of being tricky to make, but I've found no problem whatsoever with this recipe (adapted from Harry Eastwood's Skinny French Kitchen - like the Kir Royale Macarons).

For those of you who care, it's actually a low calorie version - more calories saved for cocktails, yay - cutting out a lot of the butter you'd find in traditional recipes. By doing this I guess it doesn't give you the crisp crust you'd typically get, but it still gives you the springiest (is that a word?!) sponges.

If you don't have a Madeleine tin - they're not exactly essential kitchen cookware - then you could use a well greased cupcake tin instead. They'll taste the same, just won't have "the look".

Restrain yourself, madeleines are best eaten cooled, and if you've managed to not eat them all at once, they will keep for up to three days in an airtight container. That said, they are at their best on the day they're made, so certainly don't feel guilty for eating more than your fair share!

Now get yourself a Cointreau, read the recipe, and get baking!

Orange & Cinnamon Madeleines recipe
(makes 24)

  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil, for brushing
  • 4 medium free range eggs
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 100g plain flour, sieved
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 80g ground almonds
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon 
  • zest of 1 orange
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1/2 tsp almond extract 
  • 50g butter, melted

For the glaze:

  • 2 tbsp Cointreau (or other orange liqueur)
  • 3 tbsp icing sugar, sieved


  1. Preheat the oven to 210 C and brush a little oil inside the madeleine moulds.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, salt and sugar until pale and bubbly. Next, add the remaining ingredients and mix until fully combined. 
  3. Spoon the mixture into the madeleine moulds, filling them only three-quarters of the way up (you'll have to do two batches, so don't use it all!) 
  4. Put the filled madeleine tray in the freezer for 10 minutes (or in the fridge for 30) and refrigerate the remaining mixture for the next batch. It's important to chill the cake mixture at this stage, since it's the contrast between hot and cold that gives you the characteristic little bump. 
  5. Once chilled, cook in the middle of the oven for 10 minutes. 
  6. Remove the cooked madeleines from the oven, unmould and wash the mould before repeating the process of greasing and refilling, freezing and cooking. 
  7. Once cooled, make the glaze by mixing the Cointreau and icing sugar together. Liberally brush onto the top of each madeleine. 
  8. Dust with additional icing sugar if desired. Enjoy! 

Cocktail image taken from Farther Along's photostream under the CCL.