Thursday, 21 June 2012

Potato Vodka

At first glance vodka has something of a paradoxical nature. How can you objectively evaluate, which generally implies looking for character, a spirit which is distilled to a strength that guarantees it will have very little character of whatever it is distilled from?

It is argued that vodka simply doesn't taste of very much, which is why it just gets mixed in with something else to disguise the 'flavour' of the alcohol. Will the years of experience of the Cognac master-distiller who was brought in to distill the latest vodka shine through a couple of hundred millilitres of Irn-Bru and ice? I'd say probably not. It's also easy to be cynical about the rise of 'premium' and 'super-premium' vodkas. I think it would be naive to suggest that some brands are anything more than a constructed product that rely more on advertising and creating the 'next big thing' than actual authenticity. Sidney Frank, the creator of Grey Goose vodka, once famously said that vodka was 'just alcohol and water,' and his entire business idea seemed to be creating a brand that he could sell for 50% more than the market leader at the time which was, and still is, Absolut (owned by Pernod Ricard). Frank's plan clearly worked; Bacardi paid $2 billion for it when they bought the company, still the largest drinks brand acquisition in history.

So where does that leave the flavour enthusiast? Should vodka be dismissed out of hand? Well, no, and I think potato vodka provides a good illustration of why. Despite popular preconception, potato vodka is a bit different to the norm. Potatoes are not as efficient a source of fermentable sugars compared to other sources, and as such most vodkas are based on grains; or indeed whatever is to hand where it is made. These base products do have an effect of the eventual quality - the best vodkas are considered to come from wheat, barley, rye and potatoes. In a similar way to the grain character of the Snow Queen vodka I reviewed here, I would expect potato vodkas to have certain characteristics of their own along with the purity you'd expect from a quality vodka. In particular I'd be looking for a rich, creamy texture - like properly done mash, and more body than other vodkas. This character is quite an important distinction. Although the two vodkas I have to sample are from different parts of the world they are first and foremost potato vodkas, it is that that will define their style rather than geographical origin.

The two I've got to taste are the British distilled Chase and Cold River, from the USA. Reviews to follow since I've rambled on a bit here.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Viñas Del Vero 'Secastilla' 2003

I raided the cellar for this one since it was our wedding anniversary on Monday. I was a bit late on the celebration but Tuesday's dinner was far more appropriate to celebrate with than Monday's, and what's a day after three years? Appropriately enough this one's actually from the year we got together.

The Secastilla is made by Viñas Del Vero and it's a single-estate Garnacha from Somontano, a DO in Aragón, northern Spain, almost directly to the East of Rioja. This is at the forefront of something of a Grenache turnaround in the region. Whereas before it had faded into use for rosado production Viñas Del Vero resurrected this particular vineyard in order to take advantage of the old Garnacha vines.

As you'd expect at this age the ruby colour's started to fade and there's a definite brick-red colour to the rim. There's still lots of fruit on the nose; plums and cherries, all backed up with vanilla oak.

On the palate again there's still plenty of fruit; more red and autumnal notes. The tannins are a little dry and dusty from the age but I think that's counterbalanced by dark chocolate and olive flavours coming through. There's an almost Australian finish with uplifting eucalyptus and cherry notes. It's very much a wine still in its prime, and its big Mediterranean flavours brilliantly accompanyied the aubergine lasagne with ciabatta, salad and balsamic dressing.

I've no idea where I bought it but I paid £12.99 back at the end of 2005. I might be wrong but this could well have been from the first vintage under this particular label. I can't see any information about earlier wines, and certainly the prices seem to climb in subsequent years. 14% abv.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Luxardo 'Maraschino Originale'

The reason for spirits appearing on this blog is because of an impending exam I've got coming up in November. It is supposed to be just about spirits but since I got given this as a blind tasting I though it might be interesting to review it anyway. From the outset I was struggling; cherry spirit in the form of kirsch is something I'm not really familiar with, and doing an objective review of its sweeter cousin was going to be even more tricky! I've simply not tried enough examples to be able to compare it. However, at the time I tried it completely blind - so I had no idea at all what the liquid was in the glass. These notes are 'in the raw' so to speak (when I thought it was a spirit) and I'll comment a little more below.

It pours clear and bright, water-white with noticeable legs/viscosity. Oils are obvious on the addition of water but there is no louching. On the nose I thought it was floral, lots of blossom aromas, and quite 'spirity.' On the palate it is medium-sweet and very smooth, with well-integrated alcohol. The main flavour is of candied fruit; glacé cherries and syrup, with hints of marzipan. The finish is short, with the sweetness becoming more dominant. In terms of quality there's no harshness to the spirit, but I'm not sure that it really exhibits a lot of character from the base fruit (for reasons I now realise - see below).

As I mentioned above, this isn't really something I know much about. It was certainly interesting to try, and maybe next time I'll know what I'm looking for! Apparently the marzipan flavour comes from the cherry stones, which are crushed to form the original distillate. Cakes from the cherry pulp (once the juice is removed) are macerated in the original, stone, distillate. This produces the liquid for the second distillation. After ageing in ash sugar syrup is added then allowed to marry (again in ash barrels so no colour comes out) before being bottled.

32% abv. £20.75 (50cl) from The Drinks Shop.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Snow Queen Vodka

Snow Queen is an organic vodka from Kazakhstan, and if memory serves me correctly it's the first time I've drank anything from Kazakhstan - it's certainly not the first country I think of as being a major drinks exporter to the UK, but of course that's not to say that they don't know how to make vodka.

It's an unflavoured vodka, and I tried it blind, so I had no idea what it was when I started. Thus in my notes I put that it's a water-white liquid which shows no louching on the addition of water. I got fresh citrus and a slight earthiness on the nose. It's dry, with well-integrated alcohol; light-bodied with no harshness. Although it was, as you'd expect, a neutral spirit I did pick up citrus and brioche flavours and a grainy quality; it's noticeably a wheat vodka. I thought it was good quality, there's certainly nothing to detract from the purity of the spirit - I'd compare it more to Scandinavian/Northern European styles than Polish vodkas.

40% abv. £22.09 (50cl) from Waitrose

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Havana Club 'Añejo Especial'

This is the real Havana Club; Cuban rum that is still fiercely Cuban, although part-owned and distributed by Pernod Ricard. It's a golden rum, aged but not dramatically so, retaining the integrity of style.

It's a clear, bright, pale gold rum. There's lots of fresh mandarin and other citrus fruits on the nose, more than you might expect from an aged spirit. The ageing is noticeable without it being over-oaky or moving towards dried fruit; there are Demerera sugar notes, along with vanilla and coconut. It has a medium sweetness, with a little burn from the alcohol. It's towards the light end of medium bodied, and along with the expected vanilla and coconut (American oak, suggesting ex-bourbon casks) there is slightly more oak and some citrus and honey flavours. The finish is simple, but mellowing to sweetness. All in all a decent enough molasses based light rum, well balanced with well-integrated gentle oak flavours.

40% abv. Widely available. Expect to pay just short of £20 for a bottle - which I think is a decent price in comparison to what you might get for the money with other spirits.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol Reposado

When is tequila not tequila? Well, when it's made outside of the regions of mexico in which tequila is permitted to be made. Tequila is a geographically specific version of mezcal, and is made along stricter rules than its often rougher country cousin.

Hacienda De Chihuahua is different again. It is a sotol, being from Chihuahua in the north of Mexico where local laws dictate that the spirit is distilled from dasilyrion wheeleri or desert spoon plants. These are related, but are not the same species as the blue agave used in tequila production. Both are succulents, as are cacti, but neither tequila nor sotol are made from cacti. Hacienda De Chihuahua Sotol Reposado is apparently fermented using Champagne yeast, and the 'Reposado' of the the title means it has been 'rested' for six months in new Limousin oak to mellow out the flavours. A salt and lemon afterthought to chase up a night of lager it isn't. This is a serious spirit.

So how does it taste? Well it pours a clear, bright, pale gold. The oak is noticeable on the nose and it's earthy, but with citrus fruit coming through too with a pleasant oily lemon aroma. On the palate there are pungent limey flavours, it's clean, and with lots of earthy and leafy vegetal complexity and good length. Overall I thought it was excellent, although never having had sotol before it's difficult to compare it to anything else! Certainly there's lots of complexity for quite a light spirit, and all those different characteristics meld really well together.

38% abv. £35.69 (70cl) from Gauntleys.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Roberts & Speight Spring Wine Tasting: Reds

Yesterday I wrote a post about the whites I enjoyed at Roberts and Speight's Spring Wine Tasting event. Today I thought I'd finish up with a post about what I though were the best of the reds.

Cuvée Guy de la Nine Rouge, Provence,  2006. A Syrah /Cabernet blend with a lovely forest -floor earthiness and spice from the maturing Syrah backed up with good tannic structure from the Cab. Both this and the white were some of the undoubted stars of the evening for me! £21.49
Ch. Coquillas Rouge 2009, Pessac-Léognan. Although this still has a bit of maturing to go I thought it was great. Die-hard Bordeaux fans might find it a bit fruity but I don't see anything wrong with taking some of the better characteristics of new world wines and giving them a French twist. (The white was also good.) £19.99.
Federico Paternina 'Clisos' Rioja Reserva 2005. This is rather modern and fruity but still has big, bruising tannins and almost port-like flavours. Good, but not for the faint hearted. £13.99.
'Il Passo' Nerello Mascalese 2011. For me the best red I tried for the price. Reinforcing my long-held theory that drinking away from the fashionable is where you can get the real bargains, I thought that this was fantastic. Extra concentration is achieved by a viticultural technique similar to that patented by the Grossets in Clare Valley; Cordon Cutting (See Mt Horrocks Riesling). The result of the clipping is a drying of the fruit on the vine, hence the nod towards (if not the DOC rule-infringing use of) 'ripasso' in the wine's name. The fruit concentration is superb, with a lovely perfume and bags of black fruit and dark chocolate flavours and silky ripe tannins. £12.79.
Masard & Brunet 'Humilitat,' Priorat, 2009. A   Cariñena/Garnacha 50/50 blend with lots of red fruit on the nose. The Grenache seems to be the power in the blend, there's lots of juicy, alcoholic fruit in there, it might benefit from a little more bottle age but if you like your wines to be powerful and fruity then this would be ideal. £16.99.
Pago De Los Capelannes, Ribera del Duero, Crianza 2008. Another big, porty, tannic wine - it's still very young! A testament to the amount of ripeness that they're getting in the Duero. Lots of herby spice from the Tempranillo and judicious use of oak. £19.99.
Langlois-Chateau VV Cabernet Franc, Saumur Champigny, 2005. Unfortunately it was a little bit dwarfed by the big Spanish wines I had before it, but still a very good, savoury wine that I thought would go brilliantly with food. Restrained and with a good minerality rather than being fruit dominated. £16.99.

All in all some fantastic wines and a great evening. Most enjoyable and I'd highly recommend it to everyone who can make it next year, I certainly hope to do so.

On a final note, it was great to see that the Wold Top Brewery had a table at the tasting last night, and from what I can see they looked like they were doing great business too. Hopefully this is a sign that beer is gaining the same level of acceptance that wine enjoys in terms of being something with flavours worth exploring rather than being dismissed as less rewarding. Long may the rise and rise of beer continue!