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Monday, 23 February 2015

Come Fly With Me: The Redbreast Mano a Lamh, Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey



As we speed away from Burn’s night and head towards St Patrick’s Day, it’s time to start cracking open some Irish whiskey.

Once long forgotten, the rise of Irish whiskey has seen a plethora of new distilleries opening up, with plenty more in the pipeline. In our recent visits to Ireland to see either brand-spanking new facilities or those out in the market drumming up support, one thing has made itself very clear: Ireland will become more serious about Pot Still than any other style of whiskey.

Scotland is a fairly simple place when it comes to whisky-making. You’ve got your single malts, with only one distillery fully triple distilling (nb: Springbank occasionally utilising their three still to triple distil, and Mortlach using bamboozing marketing terminology to say they distilled more than twice).

Then you’ve got your grain whisky, mainly matured in bourbon casks. Add them together and you’ve got your third type, blends. Simple, hey?!

Over in Ireland, it isn’t quite so simple. With a much smaller pool of distilleries, the fame of Irish whiskey grew up around their main ideal of triple distillation. But there is so much more to Irish whiskey than the third still, for across this tiny network of distilleries they make single malt twice distilled (peated and unpeated), single malt thrice distilled, grain whisky, pot still whiskey (from a malted and unmalted barley mix), and of course blends... but blends not just of grain and malt whiskeys, but blends of all of these. Jameson Black Barrel even takes some whiskey from a pot still and runs it through the column still before maturation... I mean, what kind of voodoo is that?!

Currently the fastest growing category of dark spirit in the world, Irish whiskey is on a roll (driven by the popularity of Jameson in markets such as the USA) and with each new release from across the countries different distilleries, clarity is beginning to fall on the various production styles and flavour profiles.

One of the most sought-after releases, and a real favourite of ours here at Caskstrength HQ, is Redbreast. A wonderfully well matured whiskey, we have always been a fan of the 12 Year Old. When the 15 Years Old appeared, fleetingly, at the start of the last decade, we got very excited indeed (in fact I seem to remember nearly an entire bottle being consumed at one of the Toucan pubs in London with a group of writers and employees of some of London’s finest whisky shops) and even more so when it came back as part of the permanent range. 

With the addition of a Cask Strength 12 Year Old and then the fantastic 21 Year Old, the range seemed to be taking shape with a real personality and DNA of its own. And now the folk at Irish Distillers, producers of Redbreast, have just launched a limited edition version. A No Age Statement, although in answering questions on their social media outlets had it pegged at carrying an age statement of 13 years old, if it were to have one) the whiskey has been solely matured in ex-Oloroso sherry butts. This one sounds right up my street.

When I heard that this whiskey was available, but only 2000 bottles were being released, I headed over to the Redbreast website to buy a bottle. And the verdict?



Redbreast – Mano a Lamh – Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey – All Sherry Limited Edition – 2000 bottles only – 46% abv – 65 euro here

Nose: Marzipan and Battenburg Cake rise from the glass with a surprisingly large amount of vanilla for an ‘all-oloroso’ offering. This has some spirituous notes but this is one of those occasions where this is a positive as it provides a platform for the lovely, sweet flavours to play. Light and airy but with hidden depth.

Palate: This is a smooth whiskey with a sweet back palate, some frozen red berries and hot vanilla sauce on top. It is terribly easy to drink, as you would expect from a Redbreast, but a block of ice really takes this up a level to a longer, more sipping whiskey. The flavours from the nose deliver on the palate too.

Finish: Sweetened vanilla custard, almonds and some milk chocolate praline.

Overall: Well, there we have it folk... the rise of Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey doesn’t seem fleeting, or limited to core expressions. It seems to be strong, and rising.


Saturday, 21 February 2015

Great Odin's Ravin'



The history of 'Truly Great Limited Edition Whiskies' is few and far between really. 

Odd ones pop up getting consumers frothy and excited, then every other brand decides to follow suit in some way, before we all end up gazing forlornly at an overpriced Whisky Auction Site: either regretting missing out on a sold-out purchase, or regretting drinking and finishing a matured investment. Sad really.  

It's like the words 'Landfill Indie', a phrase that we bring with us from our time in the music business. One band would spring out of nowhere, redefining a stagnant music scene.

Then every company would rush out something that sounded similar and looked vaguely the same.  Arctic Monkeys?  True Game Changers.  Milburn... Hmmm maybe not so much.  


But when it comes to a limited edition series, the search for excellence becomes even more difficult.  

The difficulty faced by whisky companies is keeping the attention of the whisky consumer.  Balvenie and the Tun 1401 series started off rather splendidly, before a few fans and collectors began to trail away, disappointed they either couldn't afford or find the editions they wanted, as they were spread across the global network of off-trade and Global Travel retailers.   

Magnus Series. Pic courtesy of The Whisky Exchange
Conversely, when Highland Park released the Magnus Trilogy, they got everything right:  The liquid was excellent, the price points spot on and the outturn, not too outlandish to make fans feel like they were being taken for a limited edition ride.  

Then came the Valhalla Collection: Four whiskies, over four years, each one representing a different norse god -  the liquid being tailored to the supposed personality and character of the god or goddess.  

The initial release, Thor, was quite a stunner. Bold, powerful, smoky and muscular, it was a whisky that had everything you could want in a bottle of HP. 

Next up was Loki: the trickster, the shapeshifter. Unusually fruity and fragrant upfront, with a totally different profile on the palate, which lived up to the unhinged genius of its namesake.

The fairer, more gentle side of the brand was explored with Freya:  Etherial, light and floral. It perhaps didn't have the same impact as the first two releases from a liquid perspective and in our opinion, was the least likely Highland Park to be recognised as a true HP.  Still, it adhered perfectly to the character profile.

This week saw the release of Odin, the conclusion of the series. As the leader of the gods, Odin demands respect -  especially given that he supposedly fathered the mighty Thor. Will this be a reflection of his namesake whisky?  

Highland Park - Odin -  16 Year Old - 55.8% - £180

Nose: Initially a little closed and quite one sided, but given a few minutes in the glass, you're immediately in HP territory:  Fragrant fruity smoke, honeyed malt, some citrus notes and a little waft of dry sherry wood.  So far, so good.  It's powerful and the you can definitely tell that the palate will be quite a challenging experience.  

Palate: Super lively and spirity -  in fact as fiery as they get at this strength.  But then it dies down and you're into lemon and lime zest, a wonderful malty backbone, a little rubber note (not that off-putting though) and a huge swathe of smoke.  Not perhaps as smoky as the last Hp release, Dark Origins, but certainly bolder than any of the regular expressions.  

Finish:  The finish sees lingering notes of sherry, some very dry sherry cask wood and a little sweet honey, but a surprising absence of the smoke... as if the great god himself has disappeared in a majestical puff of the stuff.  

Overall: A solid conclusion to the series.  In our opinion, the bar was set stupendously high with Thor and as a result, it's hard to outshine that particular expression purely from a liquid perspective, but what this proves is that once again, Highland Park are the real thought leaders in presenting innovative, creative bottlings. A fond hurrah to a great, consistent series.  

Mere mortal companies would have fallen hard and fast after the first two, but HP?  Well, they must have Valhalla on speed dial, with Gerry Tosh and whisky maker Max McFarlane sitting in a car with the engine running, waiting to kidnap another unsuspecting member of the Underworld. We look forward with excitement to the next series.  

Monday, 26 January 2015

The First of The Last Great Malts: Craigellachie Single Malt Scotch Whisky



The relationship between beauty and functionality is one I struggle with. I'm Scandinavian and subscribe to the ideal that, as far as you can make it, everything should be "both beautiful and functional".

There are plenty of excellent examples of this, from coffee makers through to oyster shucking kits, but every so often in life there is an example of extreme functionality without beauty, and the embodiment of this has to be a certain Mr Dean Windass.


A builder by trade, Dean Windass is what we humble chaps in the pub would call 'an ugly f*cker'. Dean signed as a professional footballer for Hull City (a place itself of questionable beauty...) before moving to Aberdeen where he became somewhat of a legend.

Moving back south to English football, Windass signed in 1998 for Oxford United at a sum that is still counted a club record fee for the University city team, and when he arrived in the City of Dreaming Spires he came with a warning- for Deano, as he was known, had been much loved by the supporters of the football clubs he had played for previously. But a genius on the pitch, he was also dogged by a fierce temper and Oxford United fans received warning of this via our weekly football fanzine (kids- this was like a blog but in paper form, before the Internet existed).

The story goes that Dean, the man with the face of a boxer but the feet of an angel, had once been sent off THREE TIMES in one game, whilst playing for Aberdeen: firstly for some on the pitch footballing offence; secondly for verbally abusing the ref who sent him off and thirdly (and brilliantly in my eyes) for "using the corner flag as a weapon".

Wow. Just wow.

In what would be considered a long career on the pitch, Windass’ final act was a simply amazing goal, which you can watch here, while back at his home town club of Hull City in a match which is still the biggest financial prize in sport- scoring the winning goal to take Hull into the Premier League. At Wembley. It must be noted that Dean Windass was nearly 40 when he performed this piece of utter magic.

As you can see from the footage (if you've bothered to watch it) Dean Windass has cropped bleach/blond hair, looking like a washed up D.J. in a local nightclub, trying to relive his days as a headline act in Ibiza.

But whatever his look, his ability shined through.

Speyside (local club: Aberdeen) is a forest of beauty and functionality. Distilleries such as Aberlour, The Balvenie, and Benromach stand as stunning examples of architecture, churning out some of the best single malt on the market. Top this off with The Macallan, which is about to go under the surgeon’s knife with a £120m new distillery, this should make their site as beautiful as the liquid in its bottles.

But there are some distilleries where function takes over from form. We recently visited a 'new to market' distillery, which has been churning out malt whisky for a long time, but due to its long history is now somewhat of an ugly child of mid-1960’s architecture, but with a result that would grace the grass at Wembley stadium.

Craigallachie Distillery sits in a wonderful location, just down the hill from Dufftown before the banks of the Spey river rise to meet the Macallan, Knockando and Cardhu distilleries. The spawn of mid-century architecture, aside from a quite stunning walk along the top of their worm tub cooling vessels, is a functional production facility, part of the team of distilleries producing whisky for the Dewar’s blend.

The team behind the malt distilleries (owned by Barcadi) have decided to have a go at replicating the umbrella group of malts that Diageo successfully launched under their 'Classic Malts' banner in the 1990s.

Using the term ‘The Last Great Malts’ it covers Craigellachie, GlenDevron (the distillery known as MacDuff), Aberfeldy, Royal Bracklar and Aultmore - all well regarded juice  in their own right.

The Last Great Malts; an odd name. It comes across as something of a final sigh from a collection of excellent distilleries, not a new collection of vibrant malts. It seems almost like an acknowledgement that there is a wave of newer distilleries to take their place, steal their crown and melt it down into cooler jewellery for a new generation- like the Rolling Stones doing a 'last great tour' before giving way to Jack White or the Arctic Monkeys. But instead of £450 a ticket, it is £330.00 for a 23 year old whisky...

But enough about the marketing, let’s look at the distillery itself. A wonderful still room, housing four large pot stills, despite its utilitarian feel has one very unusual aspect: a large window which can be opened to let in the natural Speyside air. If you’ve been to Caol Ila, you would feel very much at home in this still room, save for the view which isn’t of the mist covered Paps of Jura but of the A941.

In terms of production, Craigellachie is one of the few distilleries left in Scotland to use Worm Tubs as their method of condensing, something to applaud. And it makes for a wonderful spirit (show me a distillery using worm tubs, that doesn’t...).

Their new range encompasses Craigellachie bottled at 13, 17, (a sneaky 19 year old for Duty Free) and 23 years old the maths geeks among you will notice that these are all prime numbers. Aside from that one fact, all these releases are quite excellent, with the real stand out being the 23 year old.



Craigellachie - 23 Year Old – Single Malt Scotch Whisky – 46% abv –  £330.00 here

Nose: A real depth of complexity with large dose of oak spiciness, some candied orange zest and just a hint of blood orange. There are red apples and pear drops too. Very inviting. Not over oaked but a wonderful balance of spice and meaty, oily tones.

Taste: Blood orange develops on the palate with an addition of toasted marshmallows and a hint of lime pickle. Big and unctuous, this has the age to give it good body, but still maintain as vibrant and energetic flavour profile.

Finish: Long and oaky, but without being too dry, this has a great balance of wood in it.

Overall: An excellent dram which has seemingly lasted well in cask given the meaty nature of the spirit. It’s a shame it can’t all be at this age, but with a lower price point...!

All round, this is a great start to The Last Great Malts which, I think, should be given a far more positive name if they are all this good...

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Party Like It's 1985

An Orville PiƱata, shortly before his celebratory new year thrashing 

Hello one and all. We're back from our relaxed Christmas breaks now, heading into all manner of excitement in the new year. 

We look back fondly on 2014. It was a year that bought some truly exceptional spirits, many many journeys and friendships:  From Baijiu in China, Cachaca in Brazil, Armagnac in France and some wondrous drinks in-between, both of us can definitely say it was an enlightening year.  

2014 also saw us bring out Distilled, our first book together which is shaping up really nicely for 2015. Expect to see us popping up in a few unusual locations next year, as we travel around, hopefully continuing our spirits exploration around the globe. 




However, there is a new year and a new dawn coming (keep your eyes peeled here folks...) so let’s kick off with our predictions for 2015: 

Joel:

The Continued Growth of Grain 

We already tipped grain as a new category in its own right back in 2012 and 2014 saw the launch of Haig Club, a single grain Scotch whisky developed in partnership with major drinks producer Diageo and megastar ex-footballer David Beckham. There aren’t many other single grain whiskies on the market, with just one other official global release, three expressions from the Girvan distillery in the Lowlands of Scotland. However, grain whisky has always been highly sought after by connoisseurs and experts, who know that the lightness of the spirit gives excellent flavours of vanilla and lemongrass, making it ideal for mixing or sipping with acouple of blocks of ice. With only Haig Club and Girvan available around the world at the moment, and the considerable weight that a celebrity such as David Beckham adds to this category, expect to see others jumping in and wanting to be part of the grain whisky party. 

High Value Brands Offering Experiences:
 
As we see more and more highly valued single malts and blends, such as The Macallan and Johnnie Walker pushing their prices up with rarer, older and more extravagantly packaged items, the focus will shift onto 'experiences'. They could be high-end, exclusive trips to the distilleries, more branded ‘houses’ (like The House of Johnnie Walker) or shops. Either way, we think the immersive experience of taking consumers on a literal journey will become more of a focus in 2015. Look out for more bespoke blends from big whisky companies too, for those who can afford it. 


My Top Tipple From 2014: The Glenlivet Nadurra Oloroso

We haven’t got around to reviewing this one, yet but the new Nadurra Oloroso offering from The Glenlivet at 60.7% is stunning and priced at a bonkers £45. Take Aberlour’s A'bunadh and soften it slightly and you’ve got this. It packs a punch and is worth every penny.  




Neil: 

Craft: This Party Is Getting A Little Crowded... 

The term ‘craft’ has taken over in the world of spirits, particularly in whisky. In the USA, ‘craft’ distilling is a huge movement with small producers making tiny amounts of their own rye, bourbon and single malt. As these distillers gain more sales, they’ll be able to afford to export their products and see them (if they are good) take hold in markets far from where they are made. 

But there won't be room for everyone. It feels like 'Craft' is a term that is thrown around without prejudice now, with some distillers -  be it big or small, exhibiting little or no craft. There are some genuinely brilliant well-crafted products out there: be it well-known Scotch blends (hey -  blending is the original craft, when you really start to think about it) or tiny distillers with equally small spirit batches. But when corporate boardroom decisions interfere with the distillation process (i'm looking at you, Balcones) you kind of get the feeling that the money-making-machine and the sound of the cash registers are the predominant sounds echoing around a few distilleries, whose reputations are now damaged as a result.  In 2015 and beyond, we think craft will become less about being handmade, more about using technology in new and innovative ways to create or 'craft' new products.  Think less wicker chair, more MacLaren F1.  

Other Spirits Stealing Whisky Drinkers:

The idea of ‘occasion’ is going to be focused on more and more in 2015. Why drink a fairly boring vodka, when you can enjoy a grain whisky before the party really kicks off?  Similarly, do you really need to be paying  through the nose for super premium aged single malts, when you could be getting the same after dinner experience with an extraordinary Armagnac, vintage Tequila or rum for a fraction of the price? Whisky still has an enormous cache internationally, but there are signs that other spirits -  particularly Armagnac and Mezcal are beginning to draw a few connoisseurs away from whisky.  

My Top Tipple from 2014:  Chateau Laubade 1983 Vintage Armagnac

As I mentioned above, Armagnac is perhaps the most underrated and unexplored spirits category in the world at the moment, (aside to that of Cachaca and mezcal) with some exceptional expressions available for a fraction of their equivalent Scotch vintages. Having explored the Gers region in November during La Flamme De l'Armagnac (an amazing experience when all the distillers light their stills to mark the start of the distillation season) it reminded me of the Feis Ile experience on Islay, before it became a too overcrowded and commercialised. It was here at the Laubade estate where I discovered their 1983 bottling: a rich, resinous and spicy beast-of-an-Armagnac, full of tannic oak, liquorice and anise, alongside some sweeter vanilla notes and juicy citrus fruit.  All this complexity for around £75.  

We're very much looking forward to tackling 2015 and all the intriguing spirits on offer.  Expect to see a fair few changes here over the coming months-  we'll be focusing on a much broader scale of drinks, rather than just whisky, so here's to a cracking vintage year! 

Don't forget to follow us at @WorldOfSpirits on Twitter.

Neil & Joel


Thursday, 4 December 2014

Guest Post: The Science of Drinking and Shopping this Christmas by Tim Ridley

Hello festive friends. This week, our good friend Tim Ridley (no relation) has penned this superbly constructed discussion on the science of flavour and the psychology of choosing the right thing to buy this Christmas. Tim has made considerable waves in the artisanal coffee world is a founder of Department of Coffee and Social Affairs.  If you have yet to explore the world of coffee like you have your spirits,  Tim is your sherpa through the world of beans, blends and single estates.  

QUALITY AND ALL THAT CARRY ON: A GUIDE TO CHOOSING YOUR CHRISTMAS DRINKS

As the festive season arrives we’re preparing to eat, drink and be merry. Regular readers of Caskstrength quite possibly pride themselves on choosing their whiskies on the basis of ‘quality’. While this is potentially true, I doubt it. I think something else is driving our decision-making. Here’s why - as well as my ideas to help you be merry this Christmas.

Before presenting some attributes that I think are now shaping our beverages choices, I want to start by dissuading you from the notion that quality is the driving factor in your drinks decision-making. It’s become so commonplace to say that it’s the sole criterion, it’s now offensive or a risk to one’s reputation to voice otherwise. I can already hear the sound of sharpening knives from people who are going to question my commitment to quality! Read on before you judge...

So let me start with this challenge. If you benefit from exquisitely developed whisky taste (buds), the quality criterion forces you to apply the same stringent criteria to other spirits, for example, tequila shots or Irish cream. Or other beverages, such as tea and coffee. And what about food? How was that lamb kebab you enjoyed on the way home at the weekend? Or that High Street sandwich you had for lunch? The reality is that even the best tasters I know don’t apply their skill set far beyond their area of expertise. I’ve eaten greasy chicken wings with winners after spirits awards ceremonies, know brilliant sommeliers who drink instant coffee, baristas who drink builders tea, and chefs that heat ready meals at home.

Some of you will be prickling already. But calm done laddie, there’s no criticism here, it’s just an observation. However, it seems to me that we actually understand these choices to be inconsistent if we pay creed to the idea of ‘quality’ being the driving criterion, so we sweep the crumbs of our takeout dinners under the mat or worse, us foodie types go out of our way to be outright condescending of mass-market food and drink. Furthermore, all the tasters I know have at least one unrefined food or drink indulgence. Mine is Pringles. Buy me a can, I’m yours.

BUYING THE BEST WE CAN AFFORD?
Moving on, I also need to unpick the notion that people buy the best that they can afford. To do this, I’m going to cantankerously propose that judging beverage quality is actually quite easy. High quality beverages are those that are deemed to have 1) many distinct and clearly identifiable flavours, 2) those flavours have plenty of reach, life or depth and, 3) the flavours and tastes - salty, sweet, acidic, bitter and umami - have ‘balance’. Accepting that the contentious bit is the consistent assessment of these attributes, I’m just going to move on and point out that these attributes have traditionally been the basis of pricing. And here we introduce the concept of ‘value’. It works out nicely that good ingredients (which are costly), made carefully (by skilled people, who are expensive) and left to mature (time is money) typically benefit from the above flavour attributes and command a corresponding price point. This has become so ingrained that even uneducated consumers accept the logic. Just say something like ‘quality ingredients’, ‘skilled craftsmen’ or ‘maturation’ and people nod their heads with an appreciation of the price. Of course, quality and price don’t always match, and where there’s a gap, we blame marketing.

Now many of you have sufficiently good enough palates to taste through marketing. If you can do this (and I’ve kinda made the assumption that most Caskstrength readers can), I’m primarily talking about consumers like you. I’ve got no market data to support my idea but I’m inclined to think that we’re probably not the largest market segment, nor are we probably the highest spending, but my observation is that there are a significant, informed and quickly growing number of us and if you’re like my friends you’re rather vocal about your opinions. Caught between super-premium luxury products and commodity grade, we’re the ‘squeezed middle’ of beverage Britain. I also think that we’re a really interesting demographic because we’re the early and middle stage adopters and our opinions end up shaping the trends that go into the mass market. If you know what I am talking about, then you’ll also know that buying the best you can afford is a desperately disappointing experience. In short, you’re too well informed about what’s out there to be satisfied with the thing that is a pale comparison of the original or the best.

So if quality, price and marketing are not driving our decision-making, what is?

AN EXAMPLE FROM COFFEE
Before I take a stab at answering this, I’m going to shift to a beverage that I know more about: coffee. While I largely select coffees on the basis of the breadth and vitally of the flavours, you might be interested to know that ageing provides no benefit to coffee; in fact, it’s a flavour killer. Once coffee is harvested and processed, everything is in decline. This is true for pretty much every aspect of a coffee post-pick. Few coffees last well more than 12 months; all last just a few days after roasting (or around 16 days for espresso); and just seconds after grinding (despite what those hawkers of ground coffee might tell you). This is depressing news for the coffee professional as well as the enthusiast. I’ve long been jealous of (and inconvenienced by) my spirits friends who crack open a good bottle and fill my glass. It has been necessary to reciprocate their generosity by demonstrating the intricate coffee- making process at a location where I have sufficient equipment to precisely weigh the coffee, measure the water temperature, filter the water and time the extraction. Making coffee is delicate and hard work (oh, and this is all for a cup of coffee that retails between £2.50 - £3.00 compared to pouring a dram at £8 plus. Well done whisky, you have the margins and the ease of service sorted. Coffee has a lot to learn, but that’s another story).

Having had the privilege of walking a number of incredible people in the spirits industry through the coffee-making process, my observation is that they’re all bored to tears - until they actually get to drink some coffee. At this point, I have their full attention. The strange thing is that despite having some of the best tasting palates in the world, they can’t definitively say that the coffee is good as it’s typically outside of their reference points (this ties in with my point above about the transferability of tasting skills). However, so far, they’ve universally been won over and I want you to understand that while initially they can’t judge it accurately, they’re sold because the beverage gives them a sense of ‘it’s just right’ or ‘something interesting is going on here’. And this is where I introduce my concept of ’pleasure’. A google search defines pleasure as ‘a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment’.

PLEASURE
To further test my theory and demonstrate my point, I presented the awarded and qualified owners of this site with a modification of the Desert Island Disc conundrum: ‘Which single whisky would you take to a solitary existence on a desert island, of course, along with your eight music tracks, the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare?’
Interestingly, both responded with a shortlist of two and they both had a whisky in common. Neil Ridley (for the sake of clarity, no direct relation of mine) chose a Lagavulin 16 or White Horse blended whisky and Joel Harrison also selected Lagavulin 16 or Balvenie Double Wood. These are whiskies you can pick up at a good bottle shop. If I could only have one coffee for the rest of my life it’d probably be
a high-grade Kenya or high-altitude Colombian coffee. Neither are cheap, but similarly they’re regularly available and far from luxury products.
Now, truth be told, I could have used pretty much anyone with a half-decent palate for the above two examples. I just wanted to bolster the credibility of my argument by referencing your captains of industry and the Caskstrength crew.
My thesis is that despite all the talk amongst us foodie types about quality and how it is achieved, we are more fundamentally hardwired to pursue and choose ‘pleasure’. My theory is that people don’t move from mass-market to quality, they move from commodity and brand, with the help of knowledge, to hedonism. If this is the case, how can we have a clear framework for judging a beverage’s quality, but not its pleasure-inducing attributes.

DEVELOPING A FRAMEWORK TO JUDGE THE PLEASURE-INDUCING ABILITIES OF A BEVERAGE

So, here’s my starting point for developing a framework for what makes beverages pleasurable, and therefore what we should be buying this Christmas to be happy:

They are made for you
I can make better coffee than most, but my favourite coffee of the day is usually the one made for me. The same goes for food and is part of the reason why restaurant dining can be so enjoyable. There is a difficult to define but easy to recognise ‘generosity of spirit’ that has to be at the heart of good hospitality and food and drink, whether that’s in a commercial establishment or at home. Creators of beverages need to make them for others to enjoy, not just for themselves or at the dictates of their production line. If you’re in doubt, go talk to the producer and hear their motivations. Also, you can show generosity of spirit and lift someone else’s enjoyment by serving them a beverage.

A shared experience
Drinking should be a social experience. I like to point out that pretty much all beverages are historically made in volumes to serve a group of people. A one glass wine cask? A Chinese tea ceremony for one? It sounds wrong, and for good reason. Drinks should bring people together. I think that you should choose drinks that the entire table can enjoy.

A true and simple story
Of course, most simple stories are not true, but the point is we need straightforward narratives to be able to grapple with unfamiliar things. The details of the coffee-making process are too intricate for even inquisitive beverage professionals from other sectors. So, I’ve learnt to serve first, pique interest and then explain. I’m still looking for a simple, but true, story on coffee-making.

There are way markers
There is a trend in art galleries for less information to be provided about the artworks because the idea is that people should be free to experience whatever the art speaks to them. I’m all for this, but many of us lack the vocabulary and framework to explain - and therefore meaningfully share or understand - our experience. If you’ve ever felt lost standing in front of a painting, then apply this feeling to how many consumers feel about beverages. We need to provide the right level of information, background, context whilst retaining sufficient room for individual discovery and personal preference.

It’s difficult, but not too difficult
I’m sure you all know the story about Betty Crocker’s failed introduction of instant cake mix and subsequent success once the formula and marketing was amended to require “women” (sorry, their story not mine) add an egg to the box mix before baking the cake. Adding effort is rewarding. We need to find ways to get involved. Start with something basic like serving your drinks at the right temperature.

Knowing when to serve clarity, comfort or complexity
I have an idea that people default to one of three camps when tasting for pleasure. Some people like clarity, which I define as a clear expression of flavours, ideally showing a correlation between production and palate. Some people default for beverages that provide a sense of reassurance and comfort. And some people lean towards drinks that emotionally energise and excite them. I can think of malts in each of these categories. A slightly more nuanced approach is to say that it depends on the occasion, but my experience suggests people have deep-seated defaults. I generally prefer complexity and clarity. I ideally want to be inspired by what I drink and if it’s less than inspirational I at lease want to be drinking a clear expression of the style. Know yourself, know the room and serve accordingly.

It’s of quality
I’m not trying to reduce the importance of quality, rather I’m saying that it’s not enough and nor is it the sole driving factor in the selection of beverages for an important and growing section of the population. Not everything I enjoy is technically brilliant, and neither is everything that scores high points enjoyable for me. I can already hear a debate about whether Scotch or Japanese whiskies are more enjoyable.

Is good for you
I have all sorts of ideas about various forms of production, the use of pesticides and chemicals and how beverages are stored. This is not the place to impose my ideals, but it is fair to point out that food and drink should nurture, not damage, our bodies. Do your own research, get your own ideas and choose things that your body responds well to.

Think that it’s expensive
You’ve probably seen Benjamin Wallace’s TED talk on super-premium items and how our bodies actually register greater pleasure from items we believe to be expensive. It’s yet more evidence of just how fickle we are as a species, but it’s good news if you turn the logic on its head. Just thinking it’s good can lift your enjoyment. You could even do the Christmas dining table a service by giving them the impression that the beverages are more expensive than they really are. Just be wary of using the ‘was’ price at the wine merchant or supermarket as your reference point over the festive season.

The retention of context
This is tricky in a globalised world both because of the variety of what’s available and we are quickly losing our reference points for traditional and seasonal pairings. Living in London, I drink coffee from the Americas, wine from France, tea from Japan and whisky from Scotland on a regular basis. However, something magic happens when food and drink that evolved together are paired together. That said, I’m not against fusion, but throwing things together - no matter how good they individually are - never works.

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A SEMI-SCIENTIFIC FORMULA FOR CHOOSING A DRINK
With a framework in development, we now need a formula to help us rank and choose the most pleasure-inducing drinks. I propose:



Where:
P = Pleasure. Scores between 1 and 100 are possible. You should aim to be higher than 5 and things get really interesting over 10.
Calculate P by giving values to:
Ip = Individual pleasure. Estimate the pleasure you’d get from a particular drink, using the above framework on a scale of 0 to 10. (e.g. a bit below average is a 4 and above average is a 7)
Gp = Group pleasure estimate. Estimate the pleasure the group would get from a particular drink, using the above framework on a scale of 0 to 10. (e.g. above average is a 7 and below average is a 4)
Pr = Rank the beverage’s price on a scale of 0 - 10, where 0 is free and 10 is expensive* (e.g. an average price is 5 and slightly expensive is 7)
* Obviously, free drinks are off the scale! 

Using the examples:



So, you’re better to buy a drink that the group moderately enjoys that you don’t like so much at a middling pricing than buy something you really like that the group doesn’t like (unless it’s cheaper).
But if this theory is any good, then you already knew that right? And that’s my point, there’s definitely something going on here - and we all know it. May you have a very Merry Christmas.