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Puffing Billy Steam Vodka - Review
Vodka's a notoriously difficult drink to assess on its own but with training and practice you can soon sort your grain from your potato. Puffing Billy Steam Vodka is made by the Borders Distillery up in Hawick and the first question I asked was 'what's a steam vodka'?

It turns out that instead of filtering the spirit they steam it through charcoal; filtering if done too aggressively can strip out a lot of the character of vodka which is great for some brands but clearly this distillery wanted to keep an essence of the original distilled ingredient.

This base ingredient is malted barley (what else from a whisky producer?), and you do really get a lovely rounded malt note on the nose, it's far from neutral with a nice light air of melon also apparent.

I tasted this three ways, first on its own,then with tonic (Fever Tree) then with Ginger Beer (Tesco's own). Alone it was a good solid vodka, enough character to see it through, the malt-iness turned into a waft of fresh toffee, very pleasing. It wasn't the least bit harsh on the palate.

With tonic it was a little overwhelmed - I think maybe that Fever Tree is a bit too aromatic a tonic water and the vodka would have stood up better with something more neutral.

The vodka really helped pull out some of the firey spice in the ginger beer, really enhancing the warmth and adding a satisfying body. This makes a wonderful long drink, perfect for a summer's afternoon.

I was really impressed that the malted barley came through in this vodka and I am guessing this might not have been the case if it had been more conventionally filtered so there might be something in the steaming process after all.


I recently spent some time in North Norfolk meeting people who grow barley and then turn it into malt for the production of beer. Farmers in this part of the world find that growing barley as part of a six year crop rotation programme helps in conditioning the soil and keeping the agricultural process as environmentally sustainable as possible while using the natural climate, light and soil to its best advantage. If we were French we’d call this ‘terroir’, but we’re British and call it farming.

The barley is dried and then stored until it is ready to be transformed into malt. The malting process involves steeping the grain in water to encourage germination, this turns the starch in the barley into fermentable sugars, the process is then halted by slowly drying it in a kiln. The grain can them be roasted the intensity of which dictates the darkness of the malt and this then transfers into all the beer styles we know from pale ales through amber bitters to stouts and porters.

Most of the grain from Norfolk is malted by Crisp Malting Group in Fakenham, speaking to Bob King, Commercial Director at Crisp, it’s clear he’s incredibly passionate about this product, “it’s the best in the world,” he says underlying his opinion that it is the unsung hero in beer, “the body is the malt, the hops is only the lips”.

The explosion of the craft beer movement makes me think he’s right. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a beer labelled as craft that has been big on malt. Big on hops, very big on new world aromatic hops yes, big on additives such as banana, passionfruit, chocolate or coffee, but big on malt? I can’t think of a single one. And here’s the problem, for the most part, your regular beer drinker wants balance and the fashion for these big angular overpowering beers I hope will be just that, a fashion.

It’s also evident to me that the subtle malt notes of beer are negatively impacted by the pasteurisation, pressurisation and chilling that you usually get in the delivery of keg beers. So craft brewers tend to raise the flavour profile by aggressive hopping and flavouring.

I hope soon that we’ll return to beers that are balanced and have subtlety, it’s easy to hide flaws with big flavour, let’s try a bit of restraint, a bit of elegance, and dare I say a bit of craft in our brewing?

Windsor Kaltenberg Oktoberfest

I'd never met a Prince before. Let alone one that owned a brewery. So the chance to meet Prinz Liutpold of Bavaria and sup his beer at Windsor races was too good an opportunity to turn down. At the end of the flat season the going was declared as 'good to soft' but the going in our splendid hospitality suite was on the livelier side as we sat down to enjoy a three course lunch paired with a selection of Kaltenberg beers.

A first course of Salmon en Croute was accompanied by the Kaltenberg Royal Lager, the light touch and crispness of the beer lifting the dense fish and pastry. Next up a piece of slow cooked beef and traditional potato cakes with a beer infused gravy that demanded the deeper and more complex yeasty, hoppy Konig Ludwig Dunkel. Dunkel is a beer style that's really taking off, deep and dark with rich malty goodness.

Lastly we had a good old apple strudel paired with Konig Ludwig Weissbeir. Lovely fruity notes from the creamy wheat beer rose to meet the sweet and sharp apple.

The beers are all widely available in the uk both on draft and bottle distributed by Marstons. Prinz Luitpold told me that his family long tradition of brewing dated back to the fascinatingly named Ludwig The Severe and that his Great-great grandfather invented the Oktoberfest (rather by accident but that's not important when you're sharing a beer). An accomplished horseman and advocate of jousting he was terrific company and at Windsor races he said he was looking forward to presenting the trophies his company had sponsored.

If you're not into this stuff it's just beer. Simple plain old German lager style beer. If you like it, it's pretty much the best in the world, particularly the bottled beer. So I met my prince, I didn't mention the war or do the funny walk and I backed a shed load of winners. Hoppy days at Windsor.

Beer Festivals - a survivor's guide

So it's early August and each year at this time a pilgrimage begins. Beer lovers from across the country descend upon the cavernous exhibition halls at Kensington Olympia to sup in the world's biggest pub that is the Great British Beer Festival. But with over 900 real ales, more than 100 bottled World Beers and dozens of ciders and perries on offer where do you begin? Beer festivals can be daunting for the newcomer, there are strange rituals, too many beers to try and fat blokes with beards to navigate. So this little guide should help you tackle the challenge and get the best from your beer.

Plan ahead.
Most festivals release a beer list well in advance so you can see what will be on offer and devise a plan of attack. I tend to go for beer styles that I love, for me that's mild and porter so I'll aim to taste new brews that I've not tried before. I would discourage you from drinking widely available beers and those that you know well, you can get these any day down your local. In the smaller regional festivals I always go for local ales and will often try several beers from the same brewery.

Don't drink pints and steer away from the head bangers.
Every festival will have its own glass included in the price of entry which will be yours to take away, these are usually offered as pint, half and third of a pint, and the beers on offer will be available in these quantities too. I always go for a pint glass and my cupboards at home are groaning with the weight of them. Despite always taking a pint glass I only ever order halves, this way I get to try a wider range of beers and if I get one not to my taste I don't feel bad about ditching it. A pint glass for a half of beer also allows me to swirl and sniff like a pro in order to enjoy the best of the beery aroma. If you drink in pints you'll sample fewer beers and also if you drink the stronger brews, and there will be a lot of these at a festival, it'll be hard to appreciate the ones you drink later in the session.

It's a beer festival, try something new.
At my last local festival I came across 'key kegs' for the first time, this is a new way of serving beer approved by CAMRA but many members (me included) are sceptical. But despite my doubts I thought it was important for me to try beers served this way so I could more fully engage in the debate. I wasn't disappointed, I thought the beers were crap - but at least I'd given them a go. Same goes for trying new drinks, festivals are great for newcomers to real cider and perry, World Beers, bottled ales and dare I say 'craft'? Many festivals also now offer wines, the GBBF is showcasing ales from Ireland and English wines this year, there's also a selection of gluten free and vegan beer.

Talk to folk.
I know that we're British and typically reserved but I can tell you it is now a scientific fact that talking to people is good for you. Ask your neighbour what they recommend, swap notes and stories, beer is a great way to break the ice, it's made for conviviality.

Drinking for a decent session demands that you get some scran down you and you'll enjoy your beer more with a bit of nosh. All beer festivals come with food, you'll find the range of snacks you'd expect, crisps, nuts and scratchings as well as more hearty fare including sausages and veggie curries. Some festivals even run tasting sessions matching beer to food.

Give generously.
At the end of a session you may feel all warm and fuzzy, inclined to think the best of your fellow man and this may be why most festivals adopt a charity or local good cause. This year the GBBF has chosen the MS Society to help raise funds for the charity and awareness of the condition. Most beer festivals use a system of tokens that you buy in advance and you'll always have some left over at the end of a session which you can donate, the organisers will convert them into cash for their chosen charity.

Use your vote.
Pretty much all of the local festivals will encourage you to vote for your favourite beers and dish out prizes to the brewers. So do take the time out to fill in the form and stick it in the ballot box. The GBBF announce the Champion Beers of Britain on day one of the festival and I encourage you to fight for a sample of the winners but be warned they will be in short supply.

Go to the early sessions.
All beer festivals are run on tight finances, all of the staff will be volunteers and beers are bought in limited amounts so as not to have any wastage and keep costs low. The downside of this is that in the latter stages of a festival many beers may run out so it's wise practice to go to the earlier sessions and not leave it to the popular Saturday night slot where there will be a lot of people after a limited amount of beer.

Lastly drink responsibly, know your limits, take your time and enjoy your beer.

Rosé Roundup It's a Mug's Game

What are you looking for in your perfect rosé? I'm guessing a pretty looking bottle with condensation running invitingly down the side, a lovely light pink, refreshing and easy -a wine to enjoy with friends on a hot summer's day, yes? Possibly not something serious and complex, deep and intriguing to be considered and mulled over. So we're after a cheerful pink, probably quite dry with a bit of red berry character and above all, cheap.

In short wine makers and wine buyers don't take rosé seriously and so why should we? Just about a year ago I went to a big supermarket tasting where they had no fewer than 28 rosés to try, and what did I learn? Not a great deal, the main difference between them all was a matter of sweetness, there were some lovely dry light wines, pale and beautiful from Provence and there were some sweeter, but equally acceptable wines, pink and confected from Portugal but all in all they were much of a muchness, the only real difference was in price. There's some very fine rosé out there but who in their right mind would spend upwards of £15 a bottle. In my opinion, if you're paying more than £9 for pink you're a mug.

Here is my list of great value rosés for this summer, please don't take them too seriously, chill them well and enjoy with friends outdoors...

Amalthée Provence Rosé £9.00
Super sexy looking Provence style bottle, dry, crisp, hint of raspberry
Bellmente Pinot Grigio Blush £4.50
Amazing wine at the price, fresh cranberry and blossom, bargain

Syrah Grenach Rosé £4.99
Red berry and zippy acidity, simple and easy
Vinha do Rosario Rosado £4.99
Nice touch of sweetness - toward medium, fruity and pleasing, confected

Exquisite Collection Cotes de Provence Rosé £5.99 - £12.99 magnum
Light fresh, great looking bottle, smashing price, magnum is a showstopper
Exquisite Collection Pinot Noir Rosé £6.99
Lovely zippy Kiwi pink, good red berry notes, easy drinking

La Cerisa Rosa Pinot Grigio Rosé £7.99
Very pink looking pink, lots of fruit on the nose, dry, classy
Ten Mile Bridge, Portugal £6.99
Workaday rosé, as it should be, nice fruit/acidity balance, well priced

Extra Special Sangiovese Rosé £8.98
Lovely pale pink, good cherry palate, red berry character, smashing
Fillipo Pinot Grigio Rosé £5.00
Dry and summery, good raspberry and strawberry palate, value

Marks and Spencer
House Rosé £5.00
Party wine, bubble-gum and a hint of white pepper, good price
Reserve du Boulas Cotes du Rhone Rosé £9.00
Classy looking bottle, fresh red berries, creamy finish

Majestic Loves Rosé £5.99
Very pink looking, forward cherry nose, rosé that tastes of something!
Cuvee de Richard Rosé Pays d'Herault £6.49
Subtle wine, strawberry with a dash of fresh grape, interesting

Taste the Difference Bordeaux Rosé £7.00
Cranberry and blueberry dominate, lovely fresh drop
Sainsbury's Fairtrade Rosé £7.00
Lovely summer berry palate, great winemaker (Bosman), well priced

Tesco Rosé Vin de Pays de Loire £7.00
Uncomplicated, raspberry palate, fresh acidity, good
Tesco Finest Provence Rosé £8.00
Pale pink, fresh redcurrant, racy acidity, BBQ friendly

Coeur de Cardeline Rosé £8.99
Classy, delicate nectarine palate, elegant, refreshing
Fairtrade Rosé Moscato £3.99
Lovely sweet pink fizz, low alcohol (5.5%) generous fruity sweetness

2016 Party Time Drinks

With the onset of party season it’s time to stock up with a few well chosen drinks, a good variety of liquor to serve to intruders, hangers-on and scroungers or to give them their proper names, friends, family and carol singers this Christmas. Drinks for the run up to Christmas need to be bought in bulk, you’ll be entertaining a lot, and if not you’ll need a good drop of something to warm the cockles and see you through the interminable Eau de Toilette ads. So if buying a decent amount of booze it must firstly be affordable and secondly it must be interesting enough to make it look like you’ve thought about it.

There’s plenty of affordable wine out there, particularly if you can grab one of the supermarkets’ 25% off deals but finding wines that have a bit of character or a story to them takes a bit of doing. For reds I’d start with Lava Aglianico £8.00 from Tesco produced in Campania, arguably the most exciting wine producing region in Italy. This is a big wine with a concentrated stewed fruit palate, the restrained oak gives a smoky vanilla hit and with soft tannin this is an Italian wine to savour with or without food. 

For something a touch lighter in style try Morrisons Pinot Noir a bargain at £4.25, yes, £4.25! This is a fruit driven pinot, easy raspberry and red cherry flavours dominate and it’s a lot classier than either the price or the packaging suggests.

There’s an abundance of choice for party white wines the key is finding one with character. Generally pinot grigio is pretty dull stuff, drinkable but neutral, however Comuna No.3 Pinot Grigio (£7.00 Sainsbury’s) has enough peach, pear and apricot notes to make it a cut above, refreshing and very pleasing. Asda too are working miracles at this level, I’d go for virtually anything in their Extra Special range but the E.S. Viognier is a real belter at only £5.00, it’s orange blossom , grass and melon on the nose, fantastic stuff.

If it’s pink you’re after then get to Marks and Spencer, they have a number of interesting and affordable rosés under £10.00 such as Las Felleras from Spain, dry and fresh with red cherry to the fore. For something a little classier at M&S go for Coteaux Varois Provence Rosé £8.50 which has a really elegant looking bottle, a lovely light pink colour and a beautiful peach scented wine.

Beer lovers needn’t miss out either, again it doesn’t have to be all big label, branded dishwater, there are some really interesting beers out there riding on the back of the ‘craft beer’ craze. I’ve selected two very different ales both classics in their own way. Marks and Spencer’s Yorkshire Bitter £2.40, made by the fantastic folk at Wold Top Brewery is rich and rewarding balanced malt and hop bitterness. The M& S Kent IPA is also excellent and is gluten free, although you wouldn’t know it. My next choice is La Goudale Abbaye Beer (Aldi, £2.49, 750ml) it comes in a wine bottle with a champagne style cork and is satisfyingly malty and yeasty on the palate.

Lastly, no party would be complete without a drop of fizz. Prosecco is hugely fashionable at the moment and as such there’s quite a lot of dross out there so why not opt for its more interesting but lesser known Italian cousin Pignoletto? Tesco Finest Pignoletto £8.00, is from near Modena, it’s beautifully made, elegant and floral with just a hint of tannic structure. Again for something a bit out of the ordinary try another Italian sparkler, this time from northern Italy Franciacorta Brut £8.99 from Lidl is fresh and blossom scented, dry and zippy, providing great value for money.

But if it just has to be Champagne then my go-to affordable wine is always Sainsbury’s Blanc de Blanc a bargain at £20, lots of crisp red apple and a good dose of yeasty freshly baked bread. And if you want even better value get down to Aldi and grab their Veuve Monsigny Champagne Brut at £10.99 as good a pary fizz as you’ll find and what a price.

Autumn Drinks 2016

As our bit of the world slowly tilts away from the sun the leaves change colour, the mists descend, we lose precious daylight and we begin to retreat indoors in search of warmth and comfort. Autumn, the most sensuous of all the seasons has arrived. For the thoughtful drinker this the most interesting time of the year and it marks the changing of the guard from white wines, cider and rosé to spirits, fuller bodied wines and ales providing warmth and fireside comfort.

I always associate pinot noir with autumn, there’s something about the combination of red berry flavour and forest floor aroma which is evocative of this time of year. Younger pinot tends to err toward bright red fruit, raspberry and red currant, whereas with age the wines can develop wonderfully earthy savoury notes of leather and mushroom. Asda’s Extra Special New Zealand Pinot Noir is the fruity version, at only £7.98 it has a lovely light red cherry nose and enough tannic structure to balance.

For those of you heading outside for bonfires you could do a lot worse than this spicy, smoky number from Waitrose, Anda Tempranillo/Syrah £7.99. Spanish wine is providing some great quality and value right now and this medium bodied Andalucian lovely is rich with ripe damson and has just the right amount of warming alcohol and oak.

White wine lovers aren’t forgotten at this time of year, but trends show that folk really go for the fuller bodied styles which are richer and more generous. One such white that meets this brief is Aldi’s Exquisite Collection Limoux Chardonnay £6.99. The full body comes from barrel fermentation, the oak giving a lovely buttery edge to a fresh apple peel and lime chardonnay.

I was in two minds about recommending Waitrose Duchy Organic Old Ruby Ale (4 for £6 until 08/11/16) as I’m not all that keen to put money into Prince Charles’ wallet, but I was reassured by the lovely Waitrose staff that the profits all go to his charities. But my word he does make a good beer (it’s actually made by Wychwood Brewery), a perfect old fashioned ruby ale malt and hops in balance with a big fruity palate.

At this time of year the hops have been harvested for beer and the apples picked for cider so what could be more redolent of the season than a hopped cider - no I’d never heard of such a thing either. Pure Hopped Cider (Tesco £1.99 330ml can) is a collaboration between Purity brewery and Westons Cider and has a really interesting combination of herbaceous hop and solid apple cider, not too sweet, naturally hazy in appearance and simply delicious.

Lastly and reluctantly as autumn matures we look forward to Christmas and what could be better to celebrate the oncoming festive season than a grown up advent calendar? Why let the kids have all the fun when you can buy a dram of whisky, gin, rum, tequila, vodka or bourbon for each day of advent all packaged into a neat calendar? Master of Malt ( <>) sells these inventive treats from only £99.95, or if you really want to push the boat out how about their Very Old and Rare Whisky Advent Calendar for only £9999.95?

La Vie en Rosé (14/06/16)

So the summer’s officially here and with it comes the annual changing of the guard for drinkers. Out go the heavier reds and dark spirits and in comes cider, gin and of course rosé. Sainsbury’s have just released a wonderfully revealing report called Rosé Uncorked which outlines some national trends when it comes to drinking pink. Sales of rosé increased by over 12% from 2104 to 2015 and there’s no reason to think this trend will slow any time soon, as a nation we drink well over 800 million bottles of the stuff each year.  The report also states that 18 to 24 year olds are twice as likely to opt for rosé than those aged 45 plus, men are buying more and there is a growing preference for the lighter, pale salmon coloured pinks rather than the deeper cherry shaded wines. It may be that the darker rosés are perceived as being slightly sweeter and there is a definite trend toward the dry, also the paler pinks just look classier.
Here are my selections from the big retailers for this season, Sainsbury’s show exceptionally well but also look out for a surprising frizzante from M&S.

Exquisite Collection Provence Rosé (Aldi £5.99)
I’d buy this beautiful wine simply for the classic Provence style bottle. It’s light, peachy fresh and salmon pink in colour. Very stylish and a touch under six quid.

Chateau de Berne Rosé 2015 (Majestic £9.99 to £13.99 depending on offers)
This is a very classy wine, with another great looking bottle, this one is square, apparently designed so it won’t roll around the deck of your yacht! Another light pink with a honeysuckle and tropical fruit lift.

Luis Felipe Edwards Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot Rosé (Waitrose £6.99)
A darker pink from Chile with hint of onion skin in the colour. Using two classic Bordeaux grapes it has a pleasing tannic structure, the arome is all redcurrant and raspberry. Very good at the price.

Vignale Pinot Grigio Blush (Waitrose £5.99)
Pinot Grigio Blush is a very fashionable wine, it’s not widely known that the grape variety isn’t white at all but has a natural hint of pink about it so can make lovely easy drinking rosés. This has all the fruit and refreshing acidity you’ll need to make it a great BBQ wine.

Taste The Difference Bordeaux Rosé (Sainsbury’s £8.00)
A lovely aromatic wine with a good white blossom nose. Again it’s dry with a good dollop of red fruit to balance a zippy acidity.

Winemaker’s Selection Californian Zinfandel Ros
é (Sainsbury’s £5.00)
This is for you if you like a hint of sweetness in your ros
é. This has oodles of ripe red strawberry and raspberry flavour. Generous and light, just the kind of thing to sip on a sunny day sitting in the shade under a tree.

Pinot Grigio Blush Frizzante (Marks and Spencer £7.00)
This is a frizzante, not the full on fizz of spumante, but light and fresh with a less aggressive froth. Again it has a little hint of sweetness but it’s still zippy and light with good acidity. A real fun wine, great for a party.

Las Falleras Rosado (Marks and Spencer £5.00)
The best BBQ wine I tasted this season. Simple but wonderfully light, a good hit of raspberry and peach blossom. What a bargain.

Craft Beer 07/10/14
So, craft beer is it? Hmmm. The biggest problem with craft beer is that there is no real definition, it can be all things to everyone but there are a few pointers to pin it down. First and foremost we are not talking about real ale, this is not a living breathing product like the good stuff. Second, it is usually produced in modest amounts, and this has to be a good thing - although many of the bigger brewers are now jumping on the craft bandwagon and are producing beer that they label up as craft. Lastly, craft brewers like to make beer in interesting styles, there are an awful lot of American IPAs, porters and fruit beers in this new breed, so the variety is great.
But, and this is a very big but, draft craft beer is on the whole pasturised and pressurised and I feel that these processes knock all the character out of a beer. Carbonation of any drink makes it less easy to taste, the bubbles simply get in the way, which is why the process so readily suits big brand, bland lagers and ciders. I would go as far as saying I have yet to taste a decent draft craft beer.
I've had some very good bottled craft beers, and these aren't usually bottle conditioned, but good beer has always suited bottles and it suits my taste as there is less aggressive carbonation. My search for good craft beer continues, in fact the main picture on the homepage of my website shows me with four craft style beers brewed by Jacobsen House in Copenhagen, recently I visited Germany, Scotland and the USA and came across many similar beers, all of which failed to impress. It might be me, but I am really not seeing much good in these beers.

Evidently I am in the minority as these beers are incredibly popular at the moment, you can't move in London for men in trendy bars, with trendy beards, tattoos and piercings falling over themselves for this stuff. I am hoping that as with the ‘Magners effect’ this fashion will lead drinkers to seek out the real stuff and there will be an upsurge in real ale drinkers in the coming years. In the meantime I will try to get to like the craft, but it is a bit of a graft.