• New booze round-up #5: St Patrick’s Day, Sweden and Ilkley’s finest

    Our latest instalment of the best booze we’ve been sent or stumbled across sees us gearing up for St Patrick’s Day (please note: the photo of Rich swigging whiskey in his Emerald green leprechaun outfit and floppy felt Guinness hat has been deemed unsuitable for this website)

    Glendalough Rose Gin, 37.5%

    Our booze table has been creaking of late, thanks in part to the enormous amount of Irish whiskey samples left over from Nick’s latest iBuys feature, their golden, glassy cylinders bedecking the surface like a kitchen-based Giants Causeway. But it’s not just whiskey that’s been passing our lips this month – we’ve also been busying ourselves sampling other Irish boozes, one of the highlights being this pink gin that made the journey with its malty mates, over the Irish sea and into our grubby, soil-stained mitts.

    It hails from the Glendalough distillery, based on their wild gin recipe, but redistilled with fruit, flowers, spices and no less than three different varieties of rose petal; the Damsak rose, the Heritage rose and wild rose, the latter having been harvested in the Wicklow mountains by expert forager Geraldine Kavanagh http://www.wicklowwildfoods.com/ who advises and provides the distillery with fine local botanicals.

    As you’d expect from a rose-infused booze, it’s wonderfully fragrant with a subtle pink tint.

    It’s a decent neat sipper but it really comes alive with tonic, tasting fresh, sweet and spicy with a subtle hint of turkish delight. A good, alternative Guinness chaser to accompany this years St Patrick’s Day shenanigans, we reckon.

    Get it here from Masters of Malt

    M&S Ilkley Brewery Oatmeal Stout, 4.9%

    Marks and Spencer has been selling decent beer for a long time, which is good news for Nick who counts his local branch as his closest supermarket. And despite the recent addition of two excellent bottle shops in town he still buys most of his beer from M&S. A few weeks ago his wife came home clutching a previously untried bottle of Oatmeal Stout, from one of our favourite breweries, Ilkley, trumpeting “why pay £4.50 for a can when you can get this for £2.50.”

    It’s another excellent member of the M&S own-label range, a thick black brew that has a bit of up front sweetness and drys out with a touch of bitterness and a slightly fruity rasp. A full flavoured beer with a simple, light touch and a wallet-pleasing price. It’s not Irish but if you’re looking for a stout for St Patrick’s Day then give it a go.

    Marks and Spencer oatmeal stout
    The black stuff, Ilkley style

    Spirit of Hven Organic Single Malt 7 Stars No 6:2 Alcor, 45%

    We were recently introduced to the Spirit distillery of Hven by our booze-peddling chums Amathus Drinks while researching for a piece on world whisky. The distillery, based on the Swedish island of Hven, has an impressive line up of spirits with their experimental, limited edition single malt whiskies being of a notably high standard.

    This release was distilled from a mash bill that includes lager malt, peated malt and chocolate malt before being matured in four different American and European oak casks. It has a distinctive peatiness running through the dried fruit flavours, taking in toasty notes of chocolate and coffee, with a sweet oak finish that’s longer than the whisky’s name. A great piece of modern Scandinavian drinks making.

    Get your hands on some at Amathus

    J&B Rare Whisky, 40%

    J&B Rare isn’t exactly a new whisky (it was first produced in the 1930s) but it’s currently going through a marketing push in the UK that will see it pitched at a female audience, with a ‘Mother’s Day Cocktail’ being one of the tricks rolled out this month (see recipe below). We thought this a good enough excuse to reacquaint ourselves with Justerini & Brooks’ classic blend that, apparently, is the fifth best selling blended Scotch in the world and number one in Southern Europe.

    Blended from 42 different whiskies it’s actually quite a classy drink, possessing light touches of sweet fruits, oaky tannins and creamy toffee with a clean and zesty citrus freshness. A great entry level whisky that can be sipped neat and is ideally suited to cocktail making – if you don’t fancy the effort for the Mother’s Day then we would suggest it goes well with coke and ice.

    Cocktail recipe: A Rare Discovery – designed by Drake & Morgan:

    Ingredients
    10ml Kamm and Sons British Aperitif Bitters
    40ml J&B Rare
    20ml Peach Puree
    10ml Elderflower cordial
    15ml Lemon Juice

    Mix them all together, pour into your loveliest glass, add ice and give to your mum with a bunch of flowers.

    J&B Rare: a classy blend

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  • Rum renaissance: five rum facts (and six rums you should try)

    Rum is a spirit on the rise. Far from being a tipple only enjoyed by salty sea dogs and Cuban bartenders, it is now being appreciated by a new generation of drinkers keen to flex their taste buds in new directions. From mature sipping rums, to bright cocktail classics and unique flavours from far flung islands, rum’s diversity is its main strength. To celebrate rum’s renaissance we’ve unearthed five fantastic facts…

    Light & Dark

    As rum is made all over the world, using different raw ingredients, the rules as to what constitutes a rum are varied and confusing. Most are produced in the Caribbean or Central America and broadly fall into three national influences: English-style rums from the English speaking Caribbean islands tend to be dark, molasses based spirits; Spanish-style rums, from Spanish speaking countries, are known as ‘Ron’ and usually lighter in style; while French speaking countries have a ‘French (or ‘Rhum) Agricole’ style which are produced from sugar cane juice.

    The colour of the rums is down to ageing and filtering. White, light or silver rums will have spent a shorter time in casks and are often charcoal-filtered to remove colour. Some golden rums then have caramel added to give them their colour. Aged rums gain their deeper tones from a longer time spent in the barrels, while dark rums will be produced from caramelised molasses and aged in charred barrels for extra depth of flavour and colour.

    Strong & Stronger

    While most rums are bottled at around 40% ABV, there’s one category of rum that is considerably stronger: Navy Rum. Its bottling strength of 57% ABV is a nod to the minimum alcohol level required of the Royal Navy for sailors to ‘splice the mainbrace.’* Wet gunpowder from booze spillage was a potential problem for naval vessels and 57% was the strength at which the explosive substance would still ignite if it came into contact with rum. The booze was tested by mixing a bit of gunpowder with rum and lighting it – if it went up in flame then it was ‘proof’ of alcohol (hence 57% being referred to as 100% English Proof).

    Rum & Coke

    Rum is, of course, a vital booze for anyone who likes to dabble with the art of cocktail making, and rum & coke is one of the popular cocktails around, due to ease of making and effectiveness. It began in Cuba around a century ago where it’s known as the Cuba Libra and uses the local light rum, served with or without a squirt and slice of lime. From Cuba it spread to America, then the rest of the world, where many variations have sprung that use rums of all distinctions. To make the classic version mix 120ml coca cola (no other coke will do), 50ml white Cuban rum and 10ml fresh lime juice in a highball glass filled with ice. Top with a wedge of lime. Dream of sunshine.

    Dark & Stormy

    Another popular rum-based cocktail is the Dark ‘n’ Stormy which is a combination of dark rum and (stormy) ginger beer, served in a tall glass with ice and a slice of lime. For a proper Dark ‘n’ Stormy the rum should be Gosling Brothers Black Seal – the company lays claim to the creation of the original cocktail in Bermuda and has trademarked the Dark ‘n’ Stormy name. They’ve even packaged up pre-made cocktails in their own Dark ‘n’ Stormy cans.

    Rum & Raisin

    Dark rum is one of the best drinks to have hanging around the kitchen. Not only is it great for a quick cocktail fix but it’s also a useful ingredient for cooking where its sweet, rich and boozy characteristics can pep up a plethora of puddings and sauces. Its most famous partner in recipe books is the raisin, first combined in ice creams by Sicilians, and since used in cakes, fudge, chocolate and other sweet confections.

    Five rums to try

    Aged rum for sipping

    El Dorado 15, 43%
    Country of production: Guyana

    El Dorado produce a range of award winning rich, fruity and spicy aged dark rums. The five year old is a bargain; 15 is exceptional and great value; or for money-no-object options they have even older rums.

    Buy now

    Dark rum for cocktails

    Goslings Black Seal, 40%
    Country of production: Bermuda

    The main player in a Dark ‘n’ Stormy, it’s sweet and treacly with burnt orange and caramel flavours.

    Buy now

    Light rum for cocktails

    Havana Club 3
    Country of production: Cuba

    Smooth and light with traces of vanilla, almond and oak it’s the ideal choice for mojitos and more.

    Buy now

    Navy rum

    Wood’s Old Navy Rum, 57%
    Country of production: Guyana

    For the ultimate winter-chill-buster this is surprisingly smooth with flavours of toffee and cracked pepper.

    Buy now

    Rhum Agricole

    Rhum Clément Vieux Select Barrel, 40%
    Country of production: Martinique

    A very different style from more familiar rums, this comes with grassy, herby notes alongside some light fruit and spices.

    Buy now

    Flavoured Rum

    Tiki Lovers Pineapple Rum, 45%
    Country of production: A blend of various Caribbean rums

    Rums suit flavourings better than most spirits, particularly if they’re enhanced with tropical additions like the sweet, fruity juice of pineapple in the cheerful tipple.

    Buy now

    *This nautical phrase means to partake in an extra ration of rum or grog – splicing (repair) a mainbrace (the rope used to support the mast of a sailing vessel) was a tough task so the successful repairman was rewarded with an extra helping of booze

    This is a sponsored post

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  • How to season wood

    February, eh? What a scorcher! We spent the latter half of the month prancing around in shorts, waving at early emerging butterflies and sniffing the sweet scent of early spring*. As we now creep into March, the weather has gone back to being a bit parky, and our thoughts waft back to this time last year when we had to wade through chest high drifts of snow on the way to the Co-op to fight someone for a pint of semi-skimmed.

    Winter often has a sting in its tail, and a rerun of last year’s ‘Beast from the East’ would certainly curtail our short-flouncing fun, not to mention being rather problematic for my hungry wood burner, should it need to be called back into action. Having coveted Nick’s wood store for the last year or so, I managed to bag my own –courtesy of Bentley Tools – and busied myself during the winter months by stuffing it with choice logs foraged locally**. My wood stash took a bit of a bashing over Christmas due to frivolous burning brought on by the dark evenings and cold, moaning relatives, and as you can see by the photos above, my store is in desperate need of replenishment.

    Anyone with a log burning stove will likely have had the temptation to round up any old bits of timber they can get hold of and chuck them on the flames: from trees lopped in your own garden, to fallen branches from the surrounding land or even tired old bits of furniture, but to get the best out of a wood burner (and to protect your chimney from sooty deposits), you really need to feed it with seasoned wood.

    How to season wood

    Seasoning wood is the process of leaving chopped bits of timber to naturally reduce their moisture content until they’re ready to burn. Most wood has between 30% to 45% moisture which should be reduced to 20% to 25%. If you’re chopping a tree for seasoning then winter is the best time to do this as it’ll be in its dormant period with no sap rising, giving you a better starting point to begin.

    Chop the wood into fire-ready pieces (smaller lumps dry quicker than big lumps) and make sure it’s stacked in a way that air can circulate throughout. Hence, the open, slatted sides of a wood store. If you’re lucky, depending on tree time and drying conditions, your winter-chopped wood could be ready for the fire in the following winter, but in most conditions it’s worth leaving it for at least 18 to 24 months if you can.

    If you can’t get your hands on seasoned wood, then look for fir – it’s a wood that burns better than most while still green. Fir has a high resin content which will cause spitting and crackling when flung on a fire, but it will generate an instant, high level of heat. For this reason, it’s an excellent choice to use as kindling.

    But what kind of wood would a wood burner burn if a wood burner could burn wood? Here’s six of the best to feed your fire.

    The best wood to burn

    Ash
    Ash is considered one of the best woods to fling on your fire. It’s one of the few woods that can be burnt green (unseasoned) and produces a strong, steady flame with excellent heat output.

    Beech
    Seasoned beech is another popular flaming beauty. It gives off a nice feisty flame and churns out decent heat. If you can, give it at least two years seasoning before burning.

    Apple
    Keep hold of those apple tree prunings – when dry apple wood it burns nice and slowly and gives off a pleasant aroma.

    Hawthorn
    Another good burning wood that is well suited to stoves. We also like hawthorn berries...

    Oak
    Oak takes the longest to season – ideally it should be left for a minimum of two years – but if you’re after a nice, slow burn, oak is the one to go for.

    Birch
    Gives off great heat and a pleasant aroma, but it burns relatively quickly, so mix it with slower burning wood. It can be burnt unseasoned if you choose to do so, but be aware that birch wood can be quite sappy which will cause sooty deposits in your flue. For a birch-ey bonus, peel off the barch and use it as a firelighter.

    And three to avoid…

    Laburnum
    Burning laburnum will create toxic gas. See also: Yew. Avoid.

    Willow
    Smells like dog shite when burning – an aroma guaranteed to spoil the cosiest of fireside gatherings.

    Driftwood
    A beachcombers stash of salt saturated wood can release toxic chemicals when burnt. Best save this timber for making rustic signs and flogging on Etsy for £££s

    ≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠

    Charles Bentley wood store available from BuyDirect4U for £99

    ≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠

    * Whilst try to ignore the elephant in the room – the elephant being irreversible climate change and impending global catastrophe.

    ** Taken from my neighbours supply, under the cover of darkness.

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  • New Booze Round-up #4: Dry January, Burns Night and Valentine’s Day

    We’ve been bombarded with press releases piggybacking Dry January, Burns Night and Valentine’s Day. Here’s a selection of the boozes we guzzled for the occasions…

    Alcohol Free Beers

    At the back end of last year we put together a list of the best alcohol free beers for the Independent following a mammoth, week-long tasting session.* Since then we’ve been inundated with breweries and PR companies asking if we’ve tried their products. In most cases the answer was ‘yes’, but they weren’t good enough to topple the winner, vandeStreek Playground. Of those that failed to get a mention but deserve some credit were alcohol-free versions of Adnam’s Ghost Ship and Green King’s Old Speckled Hen (both 0.5% ABV). Each one tasted remarkably similar to their booze-backed namesakes with the only obvious tell tale signs of difference being a slightly thin finish to Ghost Ship and a touch of raw malt Speckling the Hen’s flavour. We would both gladly drink them in place of alcohol in future.

    Rum Punch

    Joining the alcohol-free party was a new rum punch called ‘Punchy’. As with our beers, the producers have created two versions – one with alcohol (at 4% ABV) and one without. They were both similar tasting and very decent drinks, with tropical fruit flavours and a touch of ginger coming through at the finish. They managed to avoid the over-sweet, syruppy taste of similar drinks with some dry fizz giving them a bit of sophistication. The rum in the alcohol added an extra layer of smooth warmth and some richness to the flavours – and although the alcohol-free version was perfectly drinkable, the dab of rum reminded us why alcohol is so great: it’s not just about its intoxicating effects, it simply makes perfectly good drinks taste and feel even better.

    Find out more about Punchy’s drinks at punchydrinks.com

    Glenfairn Highland Single Malt Whisky, 40%

    Supermarket giant Tesco recently unveiled a new range of single malt whiskies at bargain prices, each representing a different whisky making region of Scotland: Speyside, Highland and Islay. With the press release arriving just a few weeks short of Burns Night our eyes were drawn to the tactically smart food matching notes of the Highland offering: “Pair with a veggie or traditional haggis supper.” Nick got himself a bottle and performed haggis and whisky scoffing duties, mixing his glass of Highland malt with soda water to make it a more meal-friendly drink. His gravy-stained, scribbled tasting notes read thus: “Enough oaky depth to cope with the peppery haggis and mustard, and there were also accents of floral honey riding the fizz, adding a refreshing touch to the meal.”

    Tesco’s new Glenfairn single malt whiskies, including our Highland edition, are all priced at £20 per 700ml bottle and are available from the Tesco website

    Tesco’s Highland whisky and a scruffy plate of haggis

    Nelson’s Gin, 41%

    With Valentine’s Day looming we were at the end of a flurry of marketing emails promoting romantically themed boozes (and some limited edition Marmite). One such notification that caught our attention came from Nelson’s Gin, who released a limited edition rose and raspberry gin that was promoted by Master Distiller Neil Harrison with this line: “The combination of the dopamine-boosting alcohol, aphrodisiacal rose petals and libido-enhancing raspberries is the perfect way to get things going this February.” We prefer to focus on flavour rather than other potential fruity shenanigans and can report that it’s a floral delight with subtle hints of fruitiness from the raspberries.

    The gin is available on its own (at £40 per 700ml bottle) or in a gift set with chocolates (priced £58.82) from the Nelson’s Gin shop.

    *No hangovers. Hurrah!

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  • Interview: the company growing mushrooms on used coffee grounds and whisky grains

    Green Grow is an innovative new business that has developed sustainable techniques for growing mushrooms on used coffee grounds and whisky grains, which are then used to produce ready-to-cook meals. We caught up with Business Development Manager Dr Isabella Guerrini de Claire (pictured with Director Iain Findlay) to find out more about the project and how mushrooms can play a key role in creating a more eco-friendly future…

    You grow mushrooms using coffee and whisky grains. How did the idea for this come about?
    The idea is originally from the Blue Economy work of Gunter Pauli but in our case, we wanted a showcase to help companies understand the principles of the circular economy which we mentor start-ups in, and promote to other organisations, both private and public. Re-using bio-resources like coffee and grains is a necessary step to make better use of resources without depleting natural systems. The mushrooms grown on coffee seems to be an effective way to demonstrate these principles so that people quickly grasp the idea more generally. I was cycling past a distillery one day and just watched as all that heat went to waste. I thought it would be a perfect match-up and we approached the distillery who were happy to let us try.

    What are the techniques you use to grow the mushrooms and what are the advantages of growing them this way?
    We use fairly standard mushroom growing techniques but have adapted some parts. For example, we’re re-using  captured waste heat from a distillery as well as growing on the grains. The low grade heat in the water is normally allowed to disipate into the atmosphere before the water is released into the environment. We re-channeled the water into shipping containers to create the necessary warmth and humidity to make the mushrooms grow. The advantages are that we save on fossil fuels and make better use of the used bio-resources to create at least two more products, mushrooms and mushroom compost.

    We collect sawdust from a local sawmill to use as a fuel source. We also re-use plastic containers thrown out by a local bakery as our growing containers. These can be re-used multiple times, rather than the single use plastic bags that are used in oyster mushroom production. Our new system uses some pretty fancy engineering to create good growing conditions and we can control this remotely using feedback from the system. And finally, the ready-to-cook meals are plant based so that encourages people to eat a healthy diet. The mushroom compost is then added to the soil to re-build natural capital, a prime goal of the Circular Economy.

    Does the growing medium affect the flavour of the mushrooms?
    Ha. If only that were true. No, the mushrooms digest the lignin in the growing medium and all they taste of is really lovely mushrooms.

    What type of mushrooms do you grow?
    We grow oyster mushrooms on the bio-resources. Mushrooms inhabit an enormous variety of niches in nature as decomposers and are adapted to those materials only. We will likely start to grow other kinds, but on the coffee and distillery/brewery grains we stick to grey oysters.

    Where do you get your whisky grains from? 
    We get them from a Speyside distillery. We have signed a non-disclosure agreement and can’t tell you their name. We also use coffee grounds collected from a local Costa cafe, but also sawdust from a local sawmill at Logie Estates near Forres, who power their machhinery using renewable energy sources. 

    Where do your mushrooms get used?
    We are using them to add to our vegan ready-to-cook meals, but we also sell some locally through a vegetable box scheme. 

    You’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign. How can people get involved in the business?
    Yes, the crowd-funding campaign is aimed at helping us to understand potential customers but also to fund raise for the equipment we need to develop some of the really interesting aspects of mushrooms. We want to use the roots, the mycelium, to develop bio-degradeable packaging for our products – mushroom meals wrapped in their own roots. People can visit our website www.greengrowfoods.shop.

    They can also follow us on twitter @GreenGrowFood or on Facebook for updates and fascinating fungi facts. We need to get access to some machinery and also fund the R and D. Most perople are now aware of the danger we are in because of plastic packaging. Mushroom based technology can play a part in develping alternatives that are bio-degradeable, compostable and even nutritious if a passing turtle or fish comes across a piece.

    How do you see your business developing over the next few years and are there any plans to try other sustainable growing mediums?
    We want to expand the number of people growing mushrooms using our system. They can then sell the product themselves or sell them back to us for inclusion in the ready-to-cook meal boxes. This allows them to focus on growing the mushrooms without having to put in lots of effort to sell them. Our system, developed with a renewable energy company, allows for the growing conditions to be monitored and controlled making it easier for people to be successful, but it also allows for product traceability which is important for some of the higher end applications we want to explore, like medicines and packaging materials. We are working with some very cool groups in Belgium, including a PhD, to develop the mycelium packaging. If we can do it for ourselves, then we can develop transformative solutions for other companies who need eco-friendly packaging.

    We’re looking into other sustainable growing mediums but need to focus on what we know works for the moment. There are a lot of grains and coffee out there that can be re-valorised and turned into healthy food, exceptional soil conditioner or new packaging materials.

    Finally, can you recommend a mushroom-based dish and a whisky to have with it.
    I would have to go with our mushroom lentil meal. The lentils are grown at 1,000m in Italian co-operative farms and are really delicious. If I was drinking whisky with that meal I would probably have to go with a Bowmore 12 year old. And yes, I would add a wee dash of water too.

    For more information on Green Grow visit their website at www.greengrow.club

    You can donate to Green Grow (and receive mushroom meal boxes as a reward) on their crowdfunding page at www.crowdfunder.co.uk/green-grow

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  • Asahi vs Fullers: tasting the range before the takeover kicks in

    On Friday 25 January 2019 the beer world was ROCKED by the announcement that Japanese booze giant Asahi had bought Fuller’s brewing business for £250 million. Social Media frothed like a pint of London Pride forced through a sprinkler, while beer experts scurried to keyboards and radio stations to deliver their verdicts on the takeover.

    Exactly one week later were due to meet up on a working trip to London. Should we use this opportunity to delve deeper into the story? What would be our take on the takeover? Who would be the winners and losers? After pondering these questions for a few seconds we decided to simply drink the beer instead, so planned a hunt for six products from Asahi’s new portfolio to see how they all compared before the businesses were properly integrated.

    When the day arrived, the South West was buried under a foamy white head of snow. While I was able to battle the blizzards and safely get to Frome train station, Rich was less fortunate in his Alpine dwelling on the edge of Bath and remained trapped in his house like a wasp in a glass of cider – angrily thrashing at the walls trying to escape while everyone else is shouting “you’re better off where you are.” So I went on a frosty beer hunt alone…

    Frome train station
    Snow in Somerset

    Pilsner Urquel, 4.4%

    Many of those who are unconcerned about Asahi’s ownership of Fuller’s point to the fact that Pilsner Urquel, the world’s first lager, has been produced to the same high standards for years. I cannily arranged a mid-afternoon meeting in the Argyll Arms, opposite Oxford Circus tube station, where the Czech lager was on tap and ordered the first glass of it I’ve had for years.

    The beer had loads of flavour, with the light grain of the malt and the moreish pepper of the hops working perfectly in tandem. You can pick any classic lager descriptor and put a tick by it: Clean? Yes. Fresh? Definitely. Crisp? Absolutely. A well rounded glass of refined refreshment with enough of a bitter finish to induce a satisfying ‘ahhhh…’

    Meantime, London Pale, 4.3%

    We’ve always liked Meantime’s beers yet are rarely drawn towards them in a pub, so on the occasions we order one of their brews it feels like we’re rediscovering them all over again. After my meeting at the Argyll Arms I stayed around for one more drink and was joined by a Finnish chap* nursing a pint of Siren’s Broken Dream. If I wasn’t on this specific beer drinking mission I would’ve ordered this rather than anything by Meantime, but I diligently stuck to the task and opted for a London Pale instead.

    This was another deliciously refreshing beer. But whereas Urquel’s Pilsner had the crisp, clean flavours of a beer that has been lagered to perfection, this pale ale had the fresh vibrancy of youth: bright and breezy with the citrussy zest of American hops, a little bit sweet and sticky, and an earthier bite of bitterness at the finish. Perfectly enjoyable for a late afternoon drink (although I still hankered after that Broken Dream).

    Asahi Super Dry, 5.0%

    Rich’s research led me to the Bloomsbury Tavern near Tottenham Court Road for an Asahi Super Dry, but the pub had none. Not wanting to waste a trip to a decent pub I had a swift glass of Angelo Poretti Originale – a rather lifeless lager with bread and peach flavours that did little more than emphasise how good the earlier beers were. On the way to my next pub I passed an All Bar One which did boast Super Dry among its line-up. This turned out to be my least favourite pub of the day; the least favourite beer on my hit list; and the most expensive beer.

    It’s easy to be a beer snob about mass produced lagers like Asahi’s, but they’re hugely popular and, in many ways, it takes more brewing skill to get them to the same standard all over the world than it does to produce a one-off porter stuffed with cocoa nibs in a railway arch. However, the high fizz and low flavour isn’t my thing and, although it was easily drinkable, without any off-notes to grumble about (and even a hint of grass and lemon-pith flavour at the finish) I can’t imagine ordering it again on many occasions.

    Fuller’s London Pride, 4.1%

    Back in the early 1990s London Pride was a rare beast at our favourite Somerset pubs, so when it showed up as a guest ale it was something of an event. Over the years it started appearing more regularly – and in a few pubs as a permanent addition – although the quality seemed a little less consistent, which could’ve been due to it being less well kept in some of the crustier boozers we frequented.

    More recently, getting a decent pint of beer is a lot less challenging than it was so we don’t have to rely on the likes of Fuller’s for quality, although we still drink it fairly regularly, particularly when we’re in London, and reckon it tastes as good as now it has ever has.

    My Pride at the Jack Horner’s pub on Tottenham Court Road was spot on, with caramelised orange just sweetening up the malty backbone while wafts of Fuller’s yeast make it, to me at least, smell like the quintessential English bitter. I could’ve easily sunk into this for a long session but there were more beers to find…

    Dark Star, Hophead, 3.8%

    Whenever we’re in London we aim to get back to Paddington in plenty of time for the journey home. At least half an hour gives us the opportunity to load up on train snacks and ride the escalator to Fuller’s station pub, the Mad Bishop and Bear. The beers are always in top condition and more often than not it’s Dark Star’s Hophead we make a beeline for (which transferred production to Fuller’s Chiswick brewery last year) and is one of the best contemporary cask ales around.

    To maintain that tradition I ordered a Hophead, along with a plate of curry, to see me on my way and it was as good as ever. As you would expect from the name it has a lot of hoppy character, with Cascade’s grapefruit bitter tones enough to kill off any other lingering flavours of London that might be loitering around the taste buds. It’s not particularly strong and the malt is light, but it’s much more than a hop showcase: a quaffing, glugging, swigging triumph that always makes me want to squeeze another in before legging it to the train.

    Gales Ales

    In the late 1990s and early 2000s we made regular trips down to Portsmouth, doing little more there than watch football and drink beer (with the occasional round of pitch and putt). Our most frequently visited pub was The Fifth Hants Volunteer Arms where we would drink almost exclusively Gales HSB**, a unique, old fashioned type of fruity, nutty English bitter that gave us equally unique hangovers. By the time Gales business was bought by Fuller’s in 2005 our Pompey trips became less frequent and, when we were in town, the pubs we visited became more varied – not least because many of our local friends grumbled that HSB wasn’t the same since the buyout. When Gales ales did show up at the bar we usually downgraded to Seafarer to avoid those hangovers.

    Unfortunately I didn’t encounter any Gales pump clips on the trip to London so we’ll have to revisit those beers at a future date, hopefully before the Asahi effect kicks in, to get a proper taste for how the beer has been faring under Fuller’s stewardship. And we look forward to revisiting Fuller’s other beers, praying that their new owners brew them to equally impressive standards as I found them this time around.

    These beers are soon to appear in the same photo

    *He wanted to know if I knew anywhere that sold galoshes. I didn’t.

    **Horndean Special Bitter, named after Gales Horndean brewery which closed not long after Fuller’s bought the business

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  • New booze round-up #3: Stouts, porters and tonka beans

    It’s winter and breweries have been working on their roastiest, toastiest beers for maximum contentment during the colder months. We’ve managed to get our hands on a few extra special seasonal ales so this latest ‘new booze round-up’ is a stout and porter special edition…

    Fourpure Snowblind, 5.9%

    Fourpure have gone bonkers for tonka in their latest canned offering. It’s a white stout containing tonka beans, a rather interesting adjunct that comes from the Kuaran Tree, native to central and south America. These black, wrinkly seeds are often used as a vanilla substitute in foods and perfume, and the tobacco industry have been known to grind them into tobaccos to make their cigarettes extra tasty. Mmmm…. tasty cigarettes….

    Anyway, Rich reckons Snowblind is a “smooth, complex and very more-ish booze.” He goes on to describe it as “pale golden and full-bodied, it has a distinct almondy twang, with caramel, liquorice and and a slight hint of cinnamon.” Nick, who has guzzled a few white stouts recently, proclaims it as “one of the best I’ve had.” High praise indeed.

    Salcombe Brewery, Island Street Porter, 5.9%

    Salcombe is rapidly becoming South Devon’s booze capital, with an excellent distillery and brewery each bearing the town’s name. We first tried the brewery’s summery beers at a festival last year and were mightily impressed and we’ve now had a chance to try their new winter offering, a delicious dark porter. We felt it had the touch of wild, dark fruits about it – with rich and slightly tart juice, hints of sweetness and a fruit-skin bitterness. The roasted malt flavours have been smoothed out with a spoonful of creamy cocoa making it an easy sipper that’s simply done but full of flavour. Impressive stuff.

    Clown Shoes, Chocolate Sombrero, 9%

    We regularly dip our hop-stained fingers into beer subscription boxes – they’re one of the best ways to get hold of new beers, particularly from far flung places. The latest cardboard-encased collection of cans and bottles from Beer 52 was a Massachusetts special and it was all new to our taste buds. The pick of the crop was an Imperial Stout, described as “Mexican-style”, from a brewery called Clown Shoes. The beer is full of adjuncts including ancho chilli, cinnamon and vanilla and they’ve done well to even them all out, making a subtly spiced beer with loads of depth. The trace of chilli rides the light fizz for an extra tingle; the touches of spice help it linger longer in the mouth; and the boozy, chocolatey malt gives it a decadent sippability.

    Hawkshead, Tonka Shake, 10%

    We’ve been keen drinkers of Hawkshead’s beers for several years now – they’re great at simple, hoppy beers but also know how to get creative with more unusual ingredients. This new release, an “Imperial Milkshake Stout”, is another to feature the in vogue tonka bean and it’s a real treat. Its many flavours brought to mind fancy continental breakfasts: a posh muesli loaded with flakes of coconut and covered in creamy milk, with a fresh pain au chocolate on the side and an accompanying cup of black coffee that has a rich, plummy edge and wake-you-up bitterness. The one element that doesn’t belong in our breakfast picture is the whisky-ish dash of booze.

    For more information…

    Fourpure Snowblind is available from the Fourpure website, £4.50 per 500ml can

    Salcombe Island Street Porter is available from the brewery’s website, £30 for 12 x 330ml bottles

    Clown Shoes, Chocolate Sombrero can be found over at Beer52 HQ

    Hawkshead Tonka Shake is available from Hawkshead’s website

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  • Wolfburn Aurora: a delicate, warming whisky for a 5pm chill

    I’ve been writing a lot about whisky lately and right now my office is scattered with 30ml miniature bottles of golden booze. Lots of Scottish whisky, Japanese whisky and all kinds of American bourbons and ryes, along with miniatures from more unlikely countries such as France and South Africa. I’m pretty good at avoiding the temptation to sip my way through them while working during the day, although the current cold snap is pushing that temptation to the limit.

    As I write it’s approaching 5pm and the heater under my desk is failing to fight off the chill, so I’m shivering. I reckon right now is a perfectly acceptable time to twist off a whisky bottle seal and take a warming swig, so I’m diving in to a dram that I’ve previously overlooked to consider how it shapes up against the global gathering of spirits around me.

    Introducing Wolfburn Distillery

    The Wolfburn Distillery is located in Thurso, the most northerly town on British mainland. The current distillery began life in 2012, but Wolfburn whisky first emerged from the same site in 1821 and kept going for around 20 to 30 years before closing down. After 150 years the first new whisky was released in 2016, reviving Wolfburn and putting to good use the local supply of natural water from where it gets its name (‘burn’ means ‘stream’ or ‘small river’). Aurora is a single malt whisky created from a combination of bourbon and sherry casks and is the first of the distillery’s output that I’m getting my chops around.

    Wolfburn Aurora, 46%: Tasting Notes

    Of the small clutch of bottles that Wolfburn Aurora sits among, it is by far the lightest. A bright straw colour that would probably twinkle beautifully in the sunlight if the sunlight ever managed to enter my office on a grey winter day. On the nose the straw freshens, becoming meadow-like and there’s lots of sweet sherry too: it smells clean, light and immediately approachable.

    That sherry sweetness has a sticky honey coating to it and is the first thing that hits the palate. With a 46%, young looking whisky that has some bourbon cask ageing behind it, I might’ve expected more of an immediate hit of alcohol, and maybe even some rough edges, but the sweetness neatly smooths everything out so when the nuttier, spicier flavours do come through they’re perfectly balanced with the overall lightness of the whisky. Vanilla flavours are evident throughout, marrying well with the upfront sweetness, accentuating some almond notes in the middle and drying out a touch at the finish to lend the whisky warmth I was looking for.

    As a 5pm whisky, Aurora has hit the spot: it’s delicate, easy to drink, sweetly delicious and gently warming. The heavier hitting whisky miniatures will be steadily consumed in front of the fire during cold evenings but the half-dram-bottle of Aurora I’m left with stays on the office desk – I’m sure it will come in handy the next time the heater fails to do its job.

    Wolfburn Aurora Single Malt Whisky

    Wolfburn Aurora is available from Master of Malt, £48.80 for a 700ml bottle

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  • How to make a rhubarb and ginger shrub: an easy alcohol-free cocktail recipe

    This January I’ve been having a few weeks without alcohol. Not the full Dry January but limiting booze to just a couple of days all month to make up for December’s excesses. At the top of my list of boozeless beverages is the Shrub: a fruity cocktail made from vinegar syrup and soda. To the uninitiated, drinking vinegar might sound strange, but although it’s very diluted it provides enough of an acidic snap to jolt you into life in much the same way as alcohol does.

    I’ve previously bought ready made shrubs but they’re easy enough to make, so this time around I raided the freezer for some home grown rhubarb to set about making my own. The results are astonishingly good and I’m now itching to pickle more flavour combinations in further Shurb experimentation. But, until then, here’s the rhubarb and ginger recipe I settled on…

    Rhubarb & Ginger Shrub Recipe

    To make a Shrub you first need to make the vinegar syrup, which acts as a concentrate (much like a bottle of squash concentrate) to be diluted with soda water.

    For this I used a 3:3:2 ratio of vinegar, fruit and sugar:
    300g cider vinegar
    300g rhubarb
    200g white sugar
    A small thumb sized piece of fresh ginger

    Infusing

    Method

    1 First up, I sterilised a glass preserving jar. Vinegar should see off most bacteria but it’s still worth keeping your storage vessel sterilised for other nasties that vinegar might be less fearful of its acidic vengeance. To do this I washed the container in hot, soapy water then dried it in the oven on a low heat for 20 minutes – this also means the jar is hot when it’s time to add the hot vinegar, which will prevent the glass from cracking.

    2 While the jar is in the oven put the cider vinegar in a pan and heat until it just reaches boiling point. Tip in the sugar and stir to dissolve before adding chopped rhubarb and ginger diced into tiny pieces.

    3 Pour everything into the sterilised jar, seal the lid and set aside. I left mine for four days which seemed long enough to get most of the flavour from the ingredients and allow them to start mellowing with the cider vinegar.

    4 Strain the vinegary liquid into a sterilised bottle, gently squeezing out the goodness, and store in the fridge.* It’s probably best to use it within a couple of weeks.

    5 To make a shrub simply pour some syrup into a glass (as you would with squash – a tablespoon or two should do the trick) and top with cold soda water. Sup slowly and wonder what the fuss with alcohol** is all about…

    The finished rhubarb and ginger shrub (in a wonky glass)

    *You could probably use the left over solid rhubarb and ginger in a chutney

    **Although the syrup would probably work well in a few alcohol-based cocktails too. Suggestions please.

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  • Hayter Osprey 46 Autodrive Lawnmower Review

    Last year we had a Hayter Osprey 46 Autodrive Mower on a long term test and spent the summer months beasting grass on a variety of lawns. With its tour of duty now over, it currently lies dormant at the back of our brewing shed, enjoying a well earned winter rest between a broken cider press and a crate of Nick’s quarantined pea pod wine. Here’s our thoughts from a summer of use.

    Unboxing and Assembly

    The Hayter Osprey 46 arrived in a MASSIVE box that unfortunately had no handle holes to aid in its transportation. Cursing the uncooperative cardboard, I just about managed to manoeuvre the weighty package into an area I had earmarked for disembarkment without enraging my old hernia operation. Ideally you’ll want want to enlist help from a strong pal* for this task. On opening, the box revealed a packing masterclass, with every mower part carefully packed and wrapped and all potential finger slicing edges thoroughly sheathed. In most situations where self assembly is required, I tend to bypass the instructions and wade straight in and gues-emble the product in question, then get cross when nothing fits or works. In an unexpected change of habit, I decided on actually reading the instructions. Good job I did – the instructions pull no punches, stating that there is a strong chance of losing a limb if you don’t follow the safety advice. Thoroughly forewarned, I tentatively began to assemble the mower, counting and recounting my vulnerable digits as I went. As it turned out, assembly from the box was a straightforward affair, with just the simple task of fitting the handle using the bolts provided. All good.

    Build Quality

    The Hayter Osprey 46 is a solidly built machine, all shiny, slick and resplendent in dark racing green, with the engine housed in tough plastic casing. Flipping the unit reveals a seriously sharp cutting blade that affords a 46cm cutting width. The blade has seven levels of adjustment, allowing for a minimum grass height of 25mm up to a positively unkept 70 mm. It’s a weighty old bird, tipping the scales at 29 kg which I found made it just on the cusp of being too heavy to lift it into the boot of a car. If you are after a mower that you intend to take out for trips to mow your granny’s lawn, or planning to invest in a mower for your own small gardening business, this is certainly something to consider.**

    Handling and Performance

    Petrol-heads will appreciate the throaty rasp you can coax from the Briggs & Stratton 500 series engine. Pump the accelerator bar! Hear it roar! Clasp the auto drive bar and the Osprey will lurch forward like one of Nick’s recalcitrant greyhounds, straining on its leash on a post breakfast / pre-poo walk. The advantages of the auto drive are subtle when mowing a level lawn, but take your hand off the assist bar – especially when mowing on an incline – and you’ll soon notice the benefits. The auto assist also comes in handy when manoeuvring the mower in awkward spaces. With a bit of practice a few gentle tweaks on the bar can help turn the mower in tight circles when you need to.

    Most of our testing was conducted on long-ish, damp grass, which, in some mowers, can cause clogging, especially in the channel where the grass passes from mower to grass box. The Osprey did clog on one of the earlier test runs, but we forgivingly put this down to a particularly dense patch of moss we had just ploughed through. The grass box itself has good capacity. As a guide, a full load of grass, when emptied, will half fill a standard bin bag.

    Storage

    The Osprey folds down neatly. The handle can be folded in two and doubles over itself with a few twists on the handle knobs, whilst the semi-rigid grass box is an added space-saving bonus. Before bedding down your mower for the night, it’s always wise to give it a good clean. Understandably, the undersides of mowers get particularly filthy, and if left unattended, wet grass detritus can prove to be particularly bothersome to shift. The Osprey has this covered, and comes equipped with a wash port. Attach a hose to the built in nozzle, turn on the tap and then turn on the engine. Whilst this helps shift the caked clippings, it doesn’t do an immaculate job (we’d advise giving it a couple of runs through, with a bit of scrubbing in between) but certainly makes the cleanup process less painful. Oh, and make sure the mower is dry before storage. Steel mowers are rust magnets, especially around the wheel axles and areas chipped by flying stones. Run the engine for a few minutes after washing, and this will dry out the machine nicely.

    Verdict

    The Osprey 46 Autodrive Lawnmower is a compact, punchy petrol mower, perfect for tackling a medium to large sized garden. The auto assist is a welcome addition, effective without feeling like you have handed over control. It’s a mower that actually managed to make mowing an enjoyable experience, which is no mean feat.

    ★★★★

    Spec box
    Model: Osprey 46 (HA 611)
    Weight: 29kg
    Drive: Single speed 2mph
    Cutting Width: 18″ / 46 cm
    Engine: Briggs & Stratton 500 Series
    Engine Displacement: 140cc
    Fuel: Petrol
    Engine Oil: 4-Stroke (0.6l bottle included)
    Cutting Height: 25 – 70 mm
    Grass Bag Capacity: 55L

    ——————

    *None of my strong friends were available at the time of mower delivery. And Nick was also busy.

    ** The fear of knacking my back when hoisting heavy weights such as this has led me to purchase a weightlifters belt. It’s not exactly stylish, but does the job. Lift with the legs! Keep the back straight!

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