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Monday, 16 July 2012

King Of Spain

While Neil was given some time off from whisky duties to concentrate on becoming a father for the first time, I decided to take the Caskstrength Creative office away for a week to somewhere dry and hot. They say that 'today's rain is tomorrow's whisky', which is great in the long run, but this current batch of bad weather isn't, in the parlance of the local hostelry in South London, pissing down, but more like Mother Nature has decided to change her colostomy bag over London. Very slowly.

And indeed at this time, 'London Welcomes The World' for the 2012 Olympics. What joy!  But also what better time to leave then when everyone is arriving on our soaked soil (or, defaulting to South London pub parlance again, to 'sod off from our sodden sod') and to head for somewhere where the summer has actually arrived and not got lost in the post.

So it was that last week I found myself in Eastern Spain, somewhere down the coast from Valencia but, thankfully, not as far as Benidorm. A glorious part of the world, it could not have been further from the dour English weather, with blue skies, rolling beaches and warm seas. But the differences don't just stop there...

Spain, and most of Continental Europe, have somehow developed a much more, erm, adult attitude to the UK when it comes to the art of imbibing. Drink has become intrinsically woven to the general pattern and architecture of their cultures, highlighted by the ease of which one can purchase booze, the mythically low-cost of all types of alcoholic beverages but also, importantly, balanced out with a fantastic selection of non-alcoholic drinks such as the excellent San Miguel 0% 'larger', which are neither bland nor carrying the stigma that these drinks have in the UK, where zero percent beers will get you the same look as being a man reading Fifty Shades of Grey on the tube.

But it really is the prices which left me floored when visiting firstly the local supermarket (70cl's of Beefeater for basically £9, anyone?) and more specifically the local bodegas. That's right, in the brilliantly named Vall de Pop, where I was staying, each village seemed to have its own local source of good red wine priced at around 90c a litre, sherry at around 2 euro a litre and the local speciality, Moscatel for a wallet-busting 3 euro a litre. Just don't forget to turn up with an empty bottle, or they'll charge you 90c again for a nice glass bottle to take it home in...

Now, I love sherry. And I love whisky. So, going as I was to the home of sherry, it would have been daft of me to take any along. But I did opt to hit my local whisky shop, The Whisky Exchange, to pick up a bottle of something for the trip and what better option that a bottle of Nikka From The Barrel. 50cl of high strength, top notch whisky for somewhere around £25, which is both perfect for sipping neat after dinner with cigar or, post beach, to turn in to a refreshing mizuwari or highball.

This malt, some Beefeater for the freezer compartment (I took hip flask of Noilly Prat along with me- who doesn't want a mid-afternoon Martini by the pool?) both complimented with a bottle of chilled, local sherry, provided the perfect drinks cabinet for the duration. Each of these drinks has their place, their personality and their own flavour profile for the right time and feeling in the heat of a Spanish afternoon. Pure bliss.

But jump back with me to the England. Home of such great drinks as cider, real ale and gin; wonderful gifts we have given to the world. Gin, heavily influenced by the Dutch, we have taken and lovingly refined before sending out such world-famous brands as Gordon's, Beefeater and Tanqueray for the rest of the planet to enjoy. And real ale: well, thankfully that doesn't travel. So we keep most of it here to drink ourselves.

Recently, however there have been a few English companies having a go at replicating foreign spirits. Chase distillery started making a vodka, and very good it is too. The sparkling wines from producers such as Chapel Down  have been well received and then there are the whisky boys, the leaders being St George's doing malt (peated and unpeated) which have seen some rave reviews.

But, much like Arsen Wenger, taking a team from playing mainly the offside rule through an evolution whereby they now play a silky-smooth passing game, these foreign experiments are  not always a success.

For some reason, someone at St George's distillery in Norfolk has decided to launch  what they are calling simply 'St George's Pedro Ximenez'.  Bottled at 19% abv, they have taken some of the Pedro Ximenez from the sherry casks they use to mature their single malt whisky, added some of the said single malt to it and left it in the casks to continue maturing. According their website "We believe that the resulting drink is a wonderful fortified wine, that makes a superb drink for many occasions"

Well, they're totally wrong:

St George's Distillery - St George's Pedro Ximenez - 19% abv

Nose: This smells terrible; like a jacket left on a train by a soon-to-be-dead alcoholic. The whisky is so out of balance with the sherry tones, it's untrue. The red fruits you would expect are rotting and the malt element ends up smelling sweaty and farty.

Palate: Good job I have a spittoon ready. This oily giant hits the mouth with all the gusto of a badly made jam roly poly covered in the cheapest form of low cocoa dark chocolate. Fatty, oily and thoroughly unappealing. Why?

Finish: A little bit of red summer fruits, but it is soon gone and replaced with Potters Cough Remover, self doubt and disappointment.

Overall: No. Don't even go there. Not even for £18.

This goes to show that not all experiments are good and just because it's gone in to a bottle, doesn't make it drinkable. St George's should stick to making whisky (most of which is fantastic), which they know they're good at, and stop fannying about with European crap. Get back to playing long ball and leave the passing game to the Spanish.