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Monday 31 December 2012

That's All Folks

Hello readers and a hearty 'harumph' in this, the twilight of the festive season.  We trust that you've over-indulged accordingly and hopefully taken the time to seek out a few new additions to your drinks cabinet.  Perhaps even from our recent 18 Under 30 list, which branched out from just whisky into the wonderful world of fortified wines, beers cocktails and other interesting gluggables- we certainly have!

Anyway, to mark the passing of a great year we'd like to mark down our particular highlights (and a few lows),  not just from a liquid perspective either - making a few predictions for 2013 as well.

The Highs: 

1: The spankingly rude health of Scotch whisky...
As 2012 proved to be a golden year for our Olympians, the same can be said for the whole of the Scotch whisky industry. With new markets such as Brazil, Taiwan, Mexico and South Korea flying high for blended whisky, the stats are looking ridiculously good. Scotch whisky contributes £134 EVERY SECOND to the UK balance of trade and currently supports 36,000 jobs in Scotland. Next year will see new markets turn to the brown side  including Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia.

Bakery Hill
2: The inexorable rise of the Craft Distiller...
Balcones, Corsair, Tuthilltown, Koval, Chichibu, Sullivans Cove, Bakery Hill, Adnams and the soon-to-distil London Distillery Company and Wolfburn in Thurso are all turning heads with some superbly made spirit, innovative practices or potential to change the landscape of distilling. Let's hope that 2013 brings us more sensational products along the lines of our BiG Award-winning Texas Single Malt.

3:Whisky companies playing outside the envelope with their launches...
Last year saw a few bright sparks reaching beyond the traditional route of whisky festivals and magazine spreads to bring us their new wares and this year has continued the upward trajectory in creativity.  Highlights this year were the superbly fun launch of Jim Beam Devil's Cut,  Highland Park Thor (the first whisky with a personality of its own?) Ballantine's Tshirt OS and Ardbeg Galileo's wonderfully 'flawed' video.  The same can be said for Aberfeldy's approach to partnering up with the creative arts in Scotland- see Unravel, Bits Of Strange and their very wall-friendly single cask releases complete with screen prints.  Next year is going to be even better... we've got a funny feeling in our tummies that some very unusual projects will be occurring... watch this space.  Also, let's not forget the importance of getting out 'in the field'.  Whereas most brands have an ambassador, working tirelessly to bring their whiskies to a wider audience, the best new ambassadors are the ones created by simple introductions to the liquid itself.  The Whisky Lounge, Whisky Live and the other open and inclusive whisky festivals are helping to bring new drinkers to the category, so three cheers chaps.

...Oh and we didn't all fall into a blazing brimstone-fuelled hell when the Mayan calendar ended.  Wondering if anyone out there decided to open that special occasion bottle, just in case... Good on you if you did!

A Few Lows:

1: Whisky writers feeling the need to have a 'pop' at each other...
Gentlefolk, let's play nicely in 2013. We're all adults and there's more than enough fun for everyone to have a taste. is supposed to bring everyone 'together', maaan... or something lovely-dovey like that.  Just a thought, eh.

2: Bizarre pricing strategies of Limited Edition whiskies... 
Clearly this is a contentious issue, but at some point, retailers and distillery groups should understand that everyone has their limits.  Making enthusiasts shell out for a whisky they don't want, just to get the one they really do smacks of blatant commercialism...but that's just our opinion.

3: RIP Alan Lodge... 
In February, drinks writer and all-round gentleman Alan Lodge tragically passed away aged just 29. Alan was a wonderfully colourful character never afraid to speak his mind and his writing style and wicked sense of humour will truly be missed by all who knew him.  

Now a few predictions.  Agree/disagree? Let us know...

1: Counterfeiting of whisky in Asia to become more of a headline issue... 
The bigger the markets grow for Scotch whisky, the greater the likelihood the black market will respond with inferior and, in some cases, potentially fatal copies.

2: The continued push in mature markets towards No Age Statement whisky releases...
With heightened demand for aged stock rising internationally, its not like distilleries can just turn on the whisky tap and make some more.  We have no problem at all with NAS whisky. In fact, in many cases, the art of putting a great whisky together is often hampered by having an age statement in the first place.  Just keep 'em interesting, flavoursome and affordable and everyone will be happy.

3: World Whiskies to become a lot more accessible and influential...
Mirroring our point in the 'highs', palates are seeking out more variety in whisky and any number of excellent whiskies are being made from Japan, central Europe and Australia -  mostly from smaller operations. But with Indian whisky on a huge upward spiral (the new Paul John operation is a very exciting proposition) and continued excellence from Kavalan, Suntory, Nikka and James Sedgwick, the future of world whisky looks in very safe hands indeed. There may be a few unusual whisky making practices that rub off on the Scotch whisky business too...

4. The 13th Annual Port Ellen release to dip in at just under £1000... 
Any takers, or unlucky for some?

Right. And with that, we're off to uncork a bottle or two of blended whisky to make this evening's festive punch as well as select a few treats from 2012 to toast in the new year.   From both of us at Caskstrength, we wish you all a very happy, successful and peaceful 2013 and look forward to bringing you more drinks-fuelled fun and frolics next year.

Joel & Neil x

Monday 24 December 2012

18 Under 30 Part 18: The Malt Whisky Yearbook

Phew!  Here we are, part 18 of our 18 Under 30.  It's been a long and (very boozy) winding road to some essential purchases this Christmas and we very much hope that you've had an opportunity to try some of the sensational liquids we've featured.

However our final part doesn't concern a liquid at all.  Nor is it edible in any way - unless you happen to be desperately hungry or are an extreme whisky fanatic. No, our final part is arguably the best whisky book out there:  The Malt Whisky Yearbook, which nips the ankles of the whisky world like an enthusiastic Jack Russell.  Packed with the most up to date facts on just about every malt distillery around the globe the Malt Whisky Yearbook is updated annually and has features written especially by some of the best whisky writers around (and one of them there Caskstrength chancers too...)

If you haven't already got a copy of this book and own more than three bottles of whisky in your cabinet, something is seriously wrong.  If you are beginning your journey into malt whisky this Christmas, have some book tokens (can you still get these??)  and fancy some engaging reading about whisky, then look no further.  You'll also have change from £15 quid to buy yourselves a Glencairn glass or two...

Speaking of which... If you have received some sensational liquid wares from Santa this Christmas but don't have any decent glassware, it's perhaps time to grab yourself a six-pack of a different kind.  Hell, you can even invite your mates over to finish off some of that whisky...

You can pick up the Malt Whisky Yearbook here:

And a Glencairn six pack here:

Right, without further ado, we'd like to wish all of you the most merry Christmas, wherever you are... (even those lucky ones who'll probably be on the beach, or eating a tasty barbecue with a dram of something very decent in hand... yes, that means you, Wim ;-) !!)

Happy holidays folks,
Joel & Neil x

Saturday 22 December 2012

18 Under 30 Part 17: Compass Box Asyla

Will someone turn the (Christmas) lights off when they leave?  

It seems that now all of us have survived the so-called Mayan Apocalypse, festive relief has truly set in across the globe and most of us decided to skip off work today, in search of a few last Christmas bargains they can get their hands on before settling back into a week of pure indulgence.

That is certainly the case for the Caskstrength office anyway -  Harrison, decided to clock off last Friday (Bah, Humbug indeed)  and headed for Scotland (alright for some, eh) whilst I ably manned the phones and the company Visa card -  keenly perusing the internet for whisky porn bargains.

And as part of our ongoing 18 Under £30 series, I've sought out another cracker, this time from our pals at Compass Box.

John Glaser and his team have, for over a decade, been putting together some excellent blended whiskies, including sublime grains and essential malt-based bottlings - all under the maxim, 'Above All, Share & Enjoy', which is a sentiment we wholeheartedly second.

So if you fancy something a little bit different over Christmas, remember the versatility of a quality blend: straight up, over ice, with sparkling water or as part of a cocktail, bottlings like Great King Street (£23.99) and the richer, more complex Spice Tree (£37.32) will serve you very well indeed.  However, our 18 Under 30 wouldn't be complete without this little offer: Compass Box Asyla for under £30!

Compass Box - Asyla - Blended Scotch Whisky - 40% 70cl

Nose: Some seriously fruity notes of fresh orchard fruit (red apples, plums) wrestle with some distinct melon freshness, a blast of sweet grain and a waft of subtle smoke.  

Palate: Sweet at first, with plum jam, some sliced apple, sweetened breakfast cereal, vanilla notes and again just a wisp of smoke.  Balanced, yet bold enough to punch through in a long drink or cocktail.

Finish: Lingering notes of vanilla and a little liquorice/anise spice, alongside some malty bread.

Overall:  One of the core Compass Box range and easy to see why - Asyla is well blended, stupidly easy to drink and as we mentioned above, extremely versatile.   Blending at its best. 

Compass Box Asyla is available for under £30 here and here.

Friday 21 December 2012

18 Under 30 Part 16: The Glenlivet 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky

And so, the end is near... and you should hopefully by now all be on your seasonal Christmas break. If so, let us wish you a very merry Christmas and we're glad you survived the end of the world, Mayan-style. If, however, you're not yet off and you're still out, nose to the grindstone, working then you have our sympathy. Either way, it sounds like you need a good old dram!

Yesterday we brought you the recommendation of purchasing the Highland Park 12 Year Old, a fantastic whisky which give you a gentle introduction to the world of peated and smoky whiskies.

However, if island-style liquid really isn't you bag and you'd prefer something much more relaxed then can we recommend The Glenlivet 12 Year Old for you.

Often neglected due to it's ubiquity on both the back bar and the supermarket shelf, there is a reason why big brands such as this have (and crucially maintain) their success  because they're good! And for the price (often to be found on discount around this time of year) this is a real winner:

The Glenlivet 12 Years Old – 70cl – 40% ABV

Nose: A full flavoured nose of sweet vanilla and apple pie with a sugared topping. Some elderflower notes and a clean, crisp, Champagne tone with hints of other white flowers.

Palate: Easy to drink at the bottling strength, the apple pie notes develop into a cooked apple with hot custard topping. Aniseed and hint of cinnamon complete this very drinkable package. The vanillas from the oak are notable on the end of the dram.

Finish: Long and warming, this gives more of the green apple and cinnamon. Perfect with a block of ice.

Overall: Just a fantastic example of a great Speyside whisky for well under £30. In fact, at certain times of the year you can pick this up + the 20cl bottle of Lagavulin we reviewed earlier in this series for a pound or so over £30. The perfect way to start your whisky drinking journey.

It is bottles such as this which teach us a valuable lesson: just because the brand is a household name, it does not mean you should turn your nose up to. In fact, quite the opposite.

Under £30 here and here 

Thursday 20 December 2012

18 Under 30 Part 15: Highland Park 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky (Oh! And our mailing list)

Oi! You! At the back! Can you still hear me? Good. We're nearing the end of our series of 18 great booze related products for under £30 and we finish our final four on three bottles of whisky and the obligatory Christmas book.

However, for a moment let me draw your attention to something that is totally, 100% free. And that is our mailout. All you need to do is stick your email address in the box to the right

and whenever we write a tasty little morsel of a post, it'll be emailed to you at 7pm (GMT) each day, fresh for you to read at your leisure; be that with a dram at home or on the way to / from work the following day.

But back to the whisky. The next three days will see us recommend our last three whiskies for under £30 and as we close in on Christmas we bring you two classics in quick succession.

The first is a must have if you're putting together a whisky cabinet for the first time. The Highland Park 12 is your introduction to island whiskies: once you're involved, it'll have you pushing for more and more expensive expressions of HP (the 18 Year Old is sublime and, personally, I have just added a third whisky to my Christmas collection of drinkers, the 21 Year Old at 40% ABV) as well opening you up to the delights of peated whisky. Not as heavy going as some of the booze from Islay, this is the delicate introduction to that world.

Highland Park - 12 Year Old- 40% vol - 70cl

Nose: Immediate wafts of brown sugar, lavender, parma violets, some waxy, cloudy honey and pencil shavings. Depth beyond its relatively young 12 years.

Palate: Something earthy and very woody- definite influence of sherry casks with a slight charcoal note coming through. Next, hints of sweet malty cereal make themselves apparent, and a richer creamy note similar to malted milk biscuits. Something quite moreish about this flavour, that's for sure.

Finish: Back to the wood and some dark lingering bitter coffee notes on the death. quite lengthy, with a hint of dryness.

Overall: The 12 year old represents a fine standard as the entry level HP on the block. It has enough refinement to stand up to some of it's older contemporaries and demonstrates just where the range is heading. Superb.

For a whisky under £30, this bottle is a must. As for the second, well, you'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out what that is...

Under £30 here and here

Wednesday 19 December 2012

18 Under 30 Part 14: Make It A Very Cocchi Christmas

Wow, 14 products in now and after the dreadful experience of the 'whisky wee bag' we reviewed on Monday, we needed something stupendous to take away both the bad taste and the feeling of pouring good money down the drain.  When faced with this situation, we've found that the only thing to do is to simply shrug it off and make a cocktail.

So that is just what we did and in keeping with our festive good cheer, we've decided to leaf through some unusual, but absolutely delightful vermouths, that deserve a place in any discerning drinker's cocktail cabinet.

Christmas is a chance to show one's siblings and parents that hanging out in bars isn't really such a bad career choice.  On the contrary, if you can whip them up something superb in a chilled, zested coupe glass, then they've fallen headlong into your trap and soon, even your granny will want a tour of the Shoreditch or Edinburgh speakeasies, eager to track down the best cask-aged Martinez known to man.
With all this in mind, there's a wheely case steadily being prepared in the Caskstrength office, doubling as a portable bar, which includes many of the great bottlings we've reviewed over the past 2 weeks -  and its newest addition is three different fortified wines from the wonderfully named Cocchi.

Giulio Cocchi founded his wine and spirits business in the late 19th century in Florence, famously exporting Asti Spumante sparkling wine across the globe and establishing a flourishing number of cafe-bars.  Alongside his passion for the fizzy stuff, Cocchi produced some wonderfully aromatic fortified wines, including his Barolo Chinato, Vermouth di Torino and Cocchi Americano, the latter two purportedly having recipes dating back to around 1891. These vermouths became immensely popular as aperitif drinks, but later as key ingredients in cocktails and fortunately, after a lengthy absence, Cocchi vermouths are now back on the menus in some of the world's most prestigious bars... and fortunately for us, to take home too.

Cocchi Barolo Chinato has been relaunched, using a recipe that brings together some of the best wines from the Nebbiolo grape variety, alongside Chinese Calissaja bark, gentian, cardamom seeds and rhubarb root to create a very uniquely flavoured fortified wine indeed.  On its own as an aperitif or poured over ice, it gives off a hugely complex aroma of dark chocolate, bitter cinnamon bark and and citrus notes, alongside a bold, plummy and fruit laden palate. In fact, it's possibly the most essential Christmas flavour that you never knew you needed! Couple this with a bar of wonderfully rich chocolate covered Niederegger Marzipan (the finest available IMHO) and your in festive heaven.

Cocchi Barolo Chinato is available for £29.95 here

Being that we like a cocktail or two, we found time to 'Cocchify' three of our favourites:  The whisk(e)y based Manhattan and the gin-based Martinez and Vesper. Here, Cocchi's vermouths come into their own, the rich notes in the Vermouth di Torino coming from a recipe harking back to the its original introduction back in 1891, rereleased to coincide with the 120 birthday of the House of Cocchi.

In a Manhattan, using 50ml Pikesville rye whiskey as the base, 25ml Cocchi VdT and a dash of Bitter Truth's Jerry Thomas Bitters, the Cocchi highlights the more robust, peppery notes found in the rye and the smooth well-rounded fruitiness gives the drink a real sumptuousness.  In fact, it might just have pipped our previously favourite vermouth, Antica Formula, to the punch.

Our Martinez, used the rather intriguing creation of Master Of Malt's Cream Gin, made in conjunction with our great friend and colleague, Ryan Chetiyawardana, for a really authentic, late 19th Century feel. Using 60ml of Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, 30ml of Cream Gin, a bar spoon of Maraschino liqueur and 2 dashes of Bokers bitters.

Oh my...  The aromatic botanical notes in the gin really start to come alive with the bitterness of the vermouth, but the cocktail has a rich sweetness too, dark chocolate, cinnamon and anise all jumping out.  As Martinez cocktails go, this one is our favourite recipes by a long way.

Cocchi Vermouth di Torino is available for £17.75 here

Our final cocktail uses Cocchi's Americano Aperitivo.  It has a very citrus'y feel, with grapefruit juice, orange zests and an intense bitterness (from the cinchona bark, which is where quinine comes from)

With a Vesper, to be frank, you know you're drinking a  f**king powerful cocktail: the classic recipe, as created by the master of espionage himself, Ian Fleming, calls for three measures of Gordon's gin, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet (a sweet, aromatic, gold-coloured vermouth) and a lemon peel as a garnish.  Here, we decided to plump for the superlative experience of Berry's No.3 gin,  Ketel One vodka and a, shall we say, gentleman's pour of the Cocchi Americano in place of the Lillet.

The result is a fabulously clean, sophisticated drink, with a wonderful citrus balance and dry/aromatic botanical hit, which lingers for ages on the palate. An outstanding drink in every stretch of the imagination.

Cocchi Americano Aperitivo is available for £15.75 here

Monday 17 December 2012

18 Under 30 Part 13: Drinks By The Dram (Not Optimum Spirits Blended Whisky)

In this series of our top picks for items under £30, we have looked at some excellent offerings which give you fantastic 'bang for your buck'. However, it can be a total minefield out there, and you have to be very careful when treading the boards at the lower end of the marketplace.

Okay, this is also true at the top end of the whisky world, too. But it seems to be a truism that at the higher end, you're much more likely to get a bottle of excellent booze than you are the bottom end of the scale. It's just that at the very high end, the big question tends to be around 'value for money', because if something has an extreme price tag attached, the key element is 'just how good is the hooch'?

Hopefully this selection of short posts will acts as some sort of a guide when it comes to the cheaper bottles around; your pillars of fire in the night and cloud in the day, to guide you to the best purchases in town. But on this one occasion, we're not just going to give you some advice on what to spend your 'hard earned' on, but also something to studiously avoid...

So our first DON'T EVEN GO THERE EVEN FOR UNDER £30 comes in the form of this hideous monstrosity:

"Optimum Spirits Blended Whisky"

Sitting comfortably on the shelf of my local Tesco store, in the Scotch Malt Whisky section, (you naughty, nautghy people, Tesco, you) the label doesn't mention the word 'Scotch' at all. In fact, one quick glance at the rear of this 'eco refill pack' shows it's actually from a Dutch distillery, the Toorank Distillery (I guess with a name like this, at least there's a modicum of honesty...) to be precise... which most certainly makes this NOT a Scotch whisky.

It's not often that we sing the praises of the Scotch Whisky Association (who can be seen to tie the creative hands of the whisky-making community in Scotland a little). However, it is situations such as this where you'd hope they'd flex some of the muscle of which they so often talk and at least have a word with Tesco to make sure this item is not simply stuck in the middle of the 'Scotch' bottles on the shelf. 

How about some sort of stickering to make the average consumer aware of the authenticity of the 'whisky' inside this pouch? And I've not even begun to describe the giant '14' on the front label. 14 Years Old? Nope, '14 servings of whisky inside'... I think Michael Caine put it perfectly, here, when it comes to this product.

In the interests of good journalism, I decided to purchase a packet for the princely sum of £8. Yes, that's £8 Shall we see what we get for our money:

Optimum Spirits Blended Whisky – 14 Servings – 30% abv - 35cl - £8

Nose: There are the typical notes of heavy grain whisky, with a huge amount of spirit and acetone. This whisky is YOUNG! As a result, some tinned peaches in syrup and a hint of fresh pine are about all you're going to get.

Palate: Ugh, this is simply one of the worst whiskies I've ever tasted. It's like a bad Frankie Boyle joke: bitter, horrible and leaves an awful taste in your mouth. It's like someone has tried to glue my mouth shut using a fixer made not from the whole of a horse, but just from the genitalia.

Finish: If I'm being polite: very young, spirit tones and a hint of bright banana. If I'm being honest: salty and synthetic... utterly awful.

Overview: “Dear Tesco: what the f- do you think you're playing at?! Seriously. With this stuff, I might have to get all Malcolm Tucker on your ass...”

So, what do you buy for your £8 which might be better than this total liquid let down, this purgatory in a pouch? 

Well, not a lot to be honest. 

Yesterday's £10-ish 20cl of Lagavulin 16 doesn't so much as play both Emperor and King over this Jester of an offering, but also plays God to something which tastes like Satan's house whisky from the bowels of hell.

But if £8 is your limit, your absolute maximum for a purchase, then head over to Master of Malt, who do their wonderful 'Drinks By The Dram' selection. Here, you may only get 10% of the size of the pouch above, but you won't feel like you've had Dutch squatters in your mouth, using your tongue for a mattress and your molars as toilets.

Sunday 16 December 2012

18 Under 30 Part 12: Lagavulin 16 Year Old

Each year I choose a bottle (okay, sometimes two) to be my whisky wingman for the festive season.

Last year my choice was a fantastic heavily sherried Glendronach from 1995. A winner of a dram, it really was the perfect accompaniment to Christmas, with its Xmas pudding flavours and rich fruity tones.

However, the one thing I felt was lacking in my selection last year was the presence of peat; that wonderful aroma which, for me, encompasses everything great about relaxing with a dram in front of an open fire at this time of year.

Therefore, my quest for Christmas crackers to have over the next few weeks has taken a turn towards smoke with one small nod, and one very big nod, in the direction of the peat fire.

As a result, my two whiskies which will take up vital space on my travels between now and the new year are the Highland Park 21 Year Old (the 40% abv version) and Lagavulin 16 Year Old. But in order to conserve room for the generous gifts at Chez Harrison this year, the Lagavulin 16 will be the smaller, more compact 20cl version.

Not only handy for throwing in the wash bag (if you've got a generously sized leather companion) but perfect for slipping in to your partners handbag (or manbag) for that overnight visit to the austere relatives who think a pint of mild ale is 'too much fun'...

And, in keeping with our current theme, this tasty little bottle will (in some retailers) weigh in at only just over a tenner. Which means for under £30 you can take two of these pocket-rockets with you on your Yuletide tour...

Lagavulin 16 Year Old - 43% - 20cl 

Nose: The peat in this dram is up front, yet soft with freshly turned earth, carbolic soap, cereals, rich dark brown sugar and a surprising hint of Play-Doh. This current release also has hints of the “old bowmore style” exotic fruits, 5Alive and pinapple juice. A timelessly classic dram.

Palate: The smoke and peat manifest themselves as fresh wholemeal bread. Wisps of burnt brown sugar, some green herbs and dark chocolate covered Turkish Delight. Some crème brulee notes.

Finish: This current edition has a creamy finish which brings salty notes and chopped chillies, still all wrapped up in that delicate peat smoke and lingering fudge.

Overall: Is this the finest whisky in the sub-£40 bracket? (or here for sub-£15 for 20cl) Answers on a Christmas card please...

Available for under £30 here (for the exceptional price of £10.95!!

Saturday 15 December 2012

18 Under 30 Part 11: The Ultimate Snowball Kit...

Right then.  I'll throw something out there right at the start of this post.  Some of our regular readers might not like where this series of 18 drinks under £30 is heading. In fact, we've actually only featured a handful of whiskies- but for good reason, honestly.  Of course, there are some absolutely drop-dead-sensational whiskies out there for well under 30 quid and rest assured, we've got them waiting in the aisles. But come on!  As the great be-sidedburned one decreed in his festive 1970's  hit single:  IT'S CHRISTMASSSSSS! Let's mix things up over the next few weeks and aim to try a few new liquid gems, whilst rediscovering some long-since-brushed-under-the-carpet festive classics.

And if we're going to go 'Large' on the jingle bells, let's dive in feet first...

Last night I slapped on the traditional Phil Spector Christmas Gift long player, bought in the Nordman Fir from the garden and cracked out the trimmings:  Christmas has officially begun in the Ridley household.  But something was missing. After a little sharpener of a light Nikka Coffey Grain to enliven the palate, it was time to break out my (not so) guilty pleasure: a bottle of the finest Royal Dutch advocaat known to humanity, from the House of Cooymans.

Imagine triple world champion Sebastian Vettel spraying
Lewis Hamilton with this little lot... 
For me, there is nothing which evokes the Christmas spirit quite like breaking the seal on a fresh bottle of advocaat.  Let me quantify this. There is no known reason on god's earth to EVER drink advocaat at any other point during the year. Sticking to the palate like a lurid custardy limpet, it would be unimaginable to ever see the likes of Bradley Wiggins (despite his penchant for yellow jerseys) Usain Bolt or even good old Daley Thompson reaching for the sweet refreshing and revitalising taste of advocaat, to celebrate another glorious summer Olympian-sized victory.

In fact, in a slightly perverse way, should Formula One ever be reinstated at the notoriously tricky Zandzoort racing circuit in Holland, I would be the first person to petition Bernie Ecclestone for Royal Dutch advocaat to be the celebratory national drink on the winners podium.

But until advocaat gets the international sporting platform it deserves, i'm happy to be its unlikely champion.  And what better way than scoring a festive home run than with a light and fluffy Snowball cocktail.  The classic recipe is to take a coupe glass and add a simple mixture of two measures (50ml) of advocaat, 1/4 measure (12.5ml) lime cordial, topped up with lemonade.  But given a couple of twists, this already delightfully tasty drink can be made into the ULTIMATE version...

Caskstrength's Snow(Ballsy)   

If you happen to be making a round of Snowballs (or should that be a 'pile'?) add the ingredients to a mixing glass, but omit the lime juice until diluting with the ginger ale in each glass, as it can curdle the advocaat.  Using a mini electric hand-frother raise a firm creamy head in the glass, but be careful -  it will overflow in no time at all!!  Garnish with a thin piece of lime peel and serve.

Just don't forget your festive soundtrack...

Friday 14 December 2012

18 Under 30 Part 10: Johnnie Walker Spice Road

Ok then... continuing our odyssey into the reasonably priced tipples you should consider trying this Christmas, we bring you a new little ditty from the world of Travel Retail.  As more people head homewards this weekend for family festivities, the number of folks passing through our airports escalates - meaning that there's usually plenty of offers on and interesting drams to try at the friendly neighbourhood 'duty free' whisky retailers the other side of the security gates.

As we fly fairly regularly from either Gatwick or Heathrow airport, we're no strangers to the World Of Whiskies shop. In fact, as whisky retailers go, they're fairly hard to resist.  Last month we bought you news and tasting notes of a brand new peated Glenfiddich, which was released as a World Of Whiskies exclusive.  Next up, as part of our 18 Under 30, it seems that Johnnie Walker have entered the fray of Travel Retail exclusives with the launch of their new Spice Road blend.

Part one (The Explorers' Club Collection) of three different blends, Spice Road, has (unsurprisingly) aimed to draw together an altogether spicier blend, paying homage to the Walker family's travels across the globe, including the Spice Road of Europe and Asia, the Royal Route between Europe and Persia and the Gold Route of the Americas and the Caribbean.   Expect the latter two 'routes' to be released later next year, with varying price points. But for now, Spice Road is available here for £29.99 

Johnnie Walker - Spice Road - Blended Whisky - 40%  - 1 Litre

Nose: Classic Walker notes of waxy floral aromas, some furniture polish, swathes of smoke, but something altogether spicier. Dried mixed citrus peel, a hint of anise, a some cinnamon and a rich dark demerara sugar.  Inviting, rich and very seasonal. 

Palate:  The smoke is very pronounced and up front, with a burnt bonfire note mixing smoothly with a dry, oaky mouthfeel.  The anise, liquorice and cinnamon all present themselves alongside some tart green apple peel.   An extremely bold palate and perhaps one of the darkest, woodiest Walker blends we've tried.  

Finish:  Lingering sherry steeped oak, malt extract, charcoal/soot and dry cassia bark coat the palate.  Very lengthy indeed.

Overall: For a premium blend coming in under £30, this is almost certainly extremely good value, considering you get a litre for your money.  The balance is drier and richer than other Walker blends and as a result we can see this being ideally suited for sinking over ice next to a roaring open fire. And if it happens to snow wherever your are, even better...

Thursday 13 December 2012

Best In Glass Award 2012 : The Winning Whisky

The world of whisky is littered with awards, medals and trophies. As professionals in the drinks industry, we are honoured and privileged to be judges on a few of these excellent ventures. Indeed, as we type there is an ominously large box of samples waiting for us to ready our noses and palates for the judgement which awaits.

Scoring whisky is not something which we have every felt fully comfortable with. When we started this website, our ethos was (and indeed still is) about bringing you, our readers, entertaining and informative articles with tasting notes woven into the general fabric and architecture of the piece. These tasting notes provide guidance as to the flavour profile of the liquid, with some advice as to the quality of those elements. Thus helping you to make a decision if you'll like it or not. Ergo, not simply telling you if we like it. For example, you may love the light, youthful, peat smoke which is found in the Ardbeg Still Young. If so, then buy that whisky from the tasting notes we provide. If, however, you find that "young", "youthful", "spirit" turns you off and you like "heavy, rich, sherried, peat" then simply don't buy the whisky described.

Within these tasting notes, we'll add an overall section with our thoughts in it which is where we allow ourselves a little more freedom to place the liquid against others in the same category or price point. It's all pretty simple, really.

And keeping things simple really is our motto; we're all about keeping whisky inclusive, not making it exclusive, ring-fencing it for the geek and the wealthy.  If we were were a club, we  wouldn't have a dress code. You're as welcome here in a pair of Nike Air Stabs as you are in a pair of Church's Brogues.

The idea of inclusivity and simplicity was the driver for our yearly Best in Glass Award. Bored of the idea that a whisky, which sold out nine months ago could win a gold medal, or that a trophy was awarded to a whisky issued in a run of just 45 bottles, exclusively for the  ('Insert-typically-cryptic-but-predictably-gaelic-named') Whisky Club and something which the average man in the street will never even see, let alone have a chance to purchase, seemed totally ludicrous and alien to us. Worse still, it seems to enhance the alienation which can preclude so many new, young drinkers in to the category.

As a result, five years ago, we developed our own system. Paying homage the highly successful Mercury Music Prize in the UK, we chose our top ten drams from the year, got a bunch of like-minded drinks professionals together and chose one overall winner. 
The criteria for entry is simple:

-the whisky must be a new release in the calendar year

- the whisky must be commercially available to buy from a retailer (no festival bottlings, no one-off club bottles etc)

- the final ten whiskies are chosen by us at Caskstrength from reviews we've done and other whisky features we've penned, then judged by an independent panel. There is no entry fee as we chose the finalists from the whiskies we've had throughout the year. Often the liquid is provided free by the distilleries for the judging, but often we purchase many of the bottles used.

Once the ten nominations have been chosen by us, we sit in a room, have some lunch and then start the judging, with all the drams tried blind. Every year there is a mix of old and young whisky; peated and unpeated; single malts and blends; world whiskeys and Scotch. If we thought it hit our top ten and meets the criteria above, then it's in.

So this this year, our fifth awards ceremony rolled into town and it turned out to be the most surprising yet. Gathering at the London home of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, the 2012 panel was made up of the following:

Lucy Britner - Freelance Drinks Journalist
Ryan Chetiyawardana - Cocktail and Bar Consultant 
Ben Ellefsen - Director, Master of Malt
John Glaser - Compass Box Whisky Company
Alex Huskinson - Manager, The Whisky Exchange Shop, London
Alice Lascelles - Spirits Editor of Imbibe and The Sunday Times Drinks Columnist
Simone Sacco - Bar Manager, Hakkasan
Cat Spencer - Marketing Manager, Master of Malt
Marcin Miller - Number One Drinks Co.
Joe McGirr - Manager, SMWS London
Richard Woodard - Freelance Drinks Journalist and former Editor of The Spirits Business

The ten whiskies which made our finals this year were the following:

Balcones Texas Single Malt

The Balvenie Doublewood 17 Year Old Single Malt 

Cutty Sark Tam 'o Shanter Blended Whisky

Glenmorangie Artein Single Malt 

Johnnie Walker Platinum 18 Year Old Blended Whisky

Kilchoman Machir Bay Single Malt 

The Macallan Gold Single Malt
Nikka Coffey Grain Japanese Whisky

Springbank Rundlets & Kilderkins Single Malt
Teelings Hybrid Blended Irish / Scotch Whiskey

After much discussion, the panel whittled down the shortlist to three. From these those, an overall Best in Glass winner was chosen.

The two 'Highly Commended' whiskies were:

  • Teelings Hybrid Blended Irish / Scotch Whiskey
  • Cutty Sark Tam 'o Shanter Blended Whisky

So without further ado, it gives us great pleasure to announce that the overall winner - and this year's Best in Glass goes to:

Balcones Texas Single Malt - 53% - 75cl

Nose: Light orchard fruit notes, with apricot, stewed pears, plums and vanilla and a touch of dessert wine.  With water, the aromas start to really intensify, with more floral notes coming to the fore with a deliciously sweet red apple and hint of anise.  

Palate: Sweet and light, with vanilla, more dried apricot, chopped green apples, a hint of lightly toasted oak and milk chocolate.  The small casks used to mature this (mostly yard seasoned 20 litre American oak casks) have had a huge, but appealing influence to the palate. 

Finish: Short, with lighter fruit notes and a touch of liquorice. 

Overall: A mighty whisky and a triumph for independent distilling.  One thing's for sure, we very much look forward to trying the next few batches of this unique single malt in the years to come. 

So congratulations to the good people at Balcones for their excellent liquid, which the panel agreed stood up very well against some seriously stiff opposition. The panel were surprised and delighted by the Balcones bold flavour profile and balance of maturity.

Join us this time next year for the 6th annual Best in Glass award... who knows what will take the top prize...!


Barley & Water & Yeast & Time.

Just an additional note to mention that our new sister site,, is now up selling our own designs of whisky-related t-shirts, bags and... baby grows. Yes, that's right, Daddy's Wee Dram can enjoy whisky too! With international shipping, these items are all woven from high quality cotton with the chosen design in deep flock print.

The most popular tee so far has been our Barley & Water & Yeast & Time edition (as seen above), echoing the three ingredients which go into single malt whisky and the magical final piece of the jigsaw: time. 

Check it out here: