Puppies are cuter than dogs, lambs more 'aah' than sheep, and continuing this logic, someone clearly thought that mini-hamburgers are therefore more obviously appetising than hamburgers. And given the fact that 'mini-hamburger', linguistically if not otherwise, is a bit of a mouthful, a catchy name seems in order, but I have to say, god I hate the term 'slider'. So what then am I doing in a slider bar?
Well, first of all The Player is principally an underground cocktail bar in Soho, though I usually try to avoid heading down poorly lit staircases in Soho also. But here, I've done some research and Lucky Chip are running the food so I'm guessing it's not too dodgy and we've been told many times, sometimes by people we even trust, that the Lucky Chip burger is potentially the best burger in London. This is of course a mighty claim and needs to be sampled.
Now, The Player isn't the only place where Lucky Chip burgers are available, but of the other two places, one is a 'cosy boozer in East London' between 6-10pm so no lunch service, and the other is 'a burger van double parked in Netil Market' on a Saturday between 12:30pm - 6pm. The Player's offering seems to win on many fronts - apart from the fact that they serve sliders, not burgers. Oh well, compromises sometimes need to be made.
The Player itself is brilliant and I love it not for the vintage Chuck Norris film playing on cathode ray TVs, possibly made in the same year as the film, or for the cocktails, which are brilliant, but rather for the friendly relaxed staff. Being late in the afternoon, I still had near on a full drink as closing time arrived but instead of shooing me out the door as so many uptight drinking places do, they invited me to stay indefinitely as long as I didn't mind if they carried on with a bit of work: of course not.
The menu, in card format, is pretty simple here, though the lunch menu may be a touch more simple than the simple evening menu which is hinted at on a notice board. The deal then: two sliders with fries for £10, a choice of four sides, a couple of home made dips (ketchup is freely available also) and then two dessert options. The slider choices mostly mix up cheese (yellow or blue), bacon (yes or no) and pickles/jalapenos/onions. There's a veggie burger option also.
One of the side orders arrives first: popcorn chicken with garlic aioli. Ironically for a place that sells mini-burgers, the popcorn chicken is bloody massive, the size of ping pong balls. It is however very nice and at '£4.5' it's pretty good value given how much chicken you get. If ordered with a side of fries (which would total £7) it would make an excellent meal in its own right.
popcorn chicken with garlic aioli
When the sliders come, they do look kind of cute, so maybe the rule of smallness does hold for burgers too. Obviously I had to go for the classic cheeseburger as one of my two: american cheese, ketchup, mustard and pickles. It is very good indeed and the burger is beautifully pink inside, something which is probably harder on a small patty but these have been cooked as they should be (quickly), and the cheese is nicely melting through: so inviting. It's a delight.
The second burger, the El Chappo sees the blue cheese completely melted and comes additionally with smoked bacon, roasted jalapenos and aioli. The bacon for me makes this too salty, especially with salty chips and I can't help but feel this would be better without it, but this is a personal preference only, never really understood the need to put bacon on a burger. They may be mini burgers but I in fact struggled to finish, it all adds up to a lot of food.
These were without doubt great mini-burgers, the best I've had, but for me the format doesn't add anything to getting a full sized burger and that would have been my preference, but again, this is personal taste and the opportunity to try two styles of burger will appeal to those who struggle with menu decisions.
The dessert is a 'sundae of the week' or the 'brownie of the week' but since the sundae came with broken up brownie, it seemed the obvious choice. It also came with a chocolate-bourbon sauce and was as deliciously gooey as it looks.
I finished up with a Martinez, an inverse Martini where the vermouth leads and the gin plays second fiddle, add a touch of orange bitters and yum! This was a very well made cocktail.
The Player then offered two discoveries, a great place to eat (assuming you want a burger) and a great place to drink (assuming that you want a cocktail). As someone who likes both, my return is a matter of when, not if. In fact, I like it so much, I'll even live with the fact that they only do sliders.Return to homepage
If you Google The Player you'll get lots of links to a silent movie so instead, follow the links below:The PlayerLucky Chip
It was only a short time ago that we associated the grand auction houses exclusively with the artwork of old masters (and matching price tags) and would have been incredulous had we been told that we could source good wine there cheaper than Majestic. The reality is you can, but it's worth knowing a few things about how wine auctions operate before you take part, just so you get the best out of the event.
Our usual auction house of choice is Sotheby's on New Bond Street though most will follow a similar format. What's more, you don't even have to be present to bid, you can do it by telephone or even live on-line, and with a monthly event, there's always another auction just round the corner if you lose out on lots or are on holiday and miss it.
Before we consider the mechanism of how to buy, it is worth considering two questions: why buy at auction and who exactly are the sellers?
There are two reasons for buying at auction. First, through careful buying you can get things cheaper, it's a simple as that, and second, you can get some rare and/or wine with a decent bottle age. We often find that in shops, even with good wine retailers, there's few vintages available for sale before 2003/04 so if you like wine with a bit of bottle age, auctions are a good place to buy.
As for sellers, they tend to be high net worth wine collectors (Andrew Lloyd Webber recently sold a large part of his collection at auction) as well as sales from the estates of the deceased when the offspring prefer assets that are even more liquid than wine. There's a certain reliance of the auction house to check the provenance of items they sell and while one or two mistakes have been made and publicised in the past, the big name auction houses do have reputations to maintain and offer as much protection as you reasonably expect from any wine retailer.
So, armed with the desire to take part, the first thing to do is see what they're selling and to know what you want. At Sotheby's, it is largely Bordeaux, red and white Burgundy and some champagne and Port. There's some Spanish, some Italian and a few cases of new world wines but here at least, it is predominantly old world with a bias to France. Most wine is also sold by the case so the usual lot size is a case of 12 bottles. Some lots are 6 bottles while in a few instances, they will sell individual bottles so pay attention to what you're buying. There's also a range of prices from £100 a case, up to (in a few instances) £50,000 a case for rare vintage top Burgundy with any one auction offering the full spectrum.
To find out what's on sale, you can look at a catalogue on line (which can be downloaded as a pdf) or walk through the door of their Bond Street premises and buy a glossy colour catalogue for £10 which is also handy for making notes in on prices etc.
So what will the catalogue tell you? We show a sample lot to the right from today's auction - lot 325. First, obviously the name of the wine and the vintage, here, Chateau Margaux 1994. We can also see that the lot is for 12 bottles (bts), worth checking for both quantity and type for they also sell magnum formats and more. The (owc) means original wooden case suggesting this case has been stored intact since bottling.
There's also a description of the wine's appearance: excellent levels means high fill levels with wine well into the neck of the bottle, one label has a small stain but otherwise the bottles are of pristine appearance. This is important because low fill levels might mean the wine has evaporated or leaked, and damaged labels might suggest the wine has had a rough life, clearly not the case here. There has also been some tasting notes added and signed SS - Serena Sutcliffe MW, Head of Wine at Sotheby's.
Finally, we have the all important price. What they provide here is a range of where this lot might reasonably sell. In their own words, 'any bid between the high and the low pre-sale estimates would in our opinion offer a chance for success. However, all lots can realise prices above or below pre-sale estimates'. Through the auction, the auctioneer will tell you what the current bid price is and where the next increment is, and it is this price that forms your bid. What the lot finally goes for is the 'hammer price' and this is the price that forms the basis for what comes next.
This is where things get a little tricky because the price you bid is not the price you pay (sorry). You'll need to think about the buyer's premium and taxation and this is the most complex part of the transaction; let's consider both. The buyers premium is simple, this is a commission paid to the auction house on sale. At Sotheby's, it runs at 15% and therefore if you buy a case of wine for £500, you need to add on £75 commission. Next you have taxes which generally means alcohol duty and VAT. Which needs to be applied? It depends on what has already been levied during the wine's lifetime. Wine can be stored 'in bond' with no tax paid on them - duty is currently £20.25 a case. VAT tends to be the painful part because that could add more than 20% to the hammer price. There are three scenarios:
- 'In bond' means no taxes will have been paid so you will need to add duty and VAT to the hammer price and buyers premium
- 'Duty paid but VAT on hammer' means that you will need to add VAT to the hammer price and buyers premium
- 'Offered duty paid' means VAT on buyer's premium only
It sounds complex but let's look at that in practice. The catalogue tells me that lot 325 above is 'offered duty paid' so no duty and VAT on the buyers premium only. If you secure this lot at the minimum bid, £1,900, what's the price you pay?
The buyer's premium is 15% of £1,900 which is £285, and VAT on the buyer's premium is 20% of that so £57. The total cost is therefore £2,242 or £187 a bottle. So did you get a bargain?
To compare, I use wine-searcher
. Putting Margaux 1994 into wine-searcher tells me that the cheapest vendor in the UK on their database retails Margaux 1994 at £237 before VAT and £285 after VAT. In other words, if you bought the wine at auction for the minimum bid price, you have saved £100 a bottle, or a stunning £1,200 on a case! For those that like percentages, it's a 34% discount. What's more, wine-searcher shows other places charging up to £350 a bottle so revealing even bigger savings.
What if you won at the top end of the bid, £2,400 a case? Now you're paying £2,976 a case or £248 a bottle, in other words, you're paying a price at the level of the keenest retail price.
This demonstrates the bargains to be had. So what should your wine buying strategy be? First, decide what you want from the catalogue. Second, see what the best retail price is for the wine. Third, knowing what tax is due, work backwards to translate the best retail price into a 'hammer price'; I use an excel spreadsheet to do the sums for me and then I make a note of this in the catalogue. Then it's simple, simply decide what price, up to the this you are prepared to pay. I usually look for at least a 10% discount to make it worthwhile (if I really want the wine) or a 30% discount if I'm more ambivalent.
Three things though are worth remembering. First, discipline is important. If you go over the 'keenest retail hammer price' you haven't got a bargain and would be better off buying it on-line. Second, be prepared to lose. There's often over 800 lots, so 800 cases of wine on sale per auction, something of what you fancy will be available at a bargain and you should be prepared to walk away from that which is not. Third, even if you end up with nothing by the end of the auction, there's another auction next month, and another the month after. Be patient and know that those that did win the lots overpaid. Who knows what bargains the next auction will bring. Don't get carried away and don't buy for the sake of it.
And that's it! Almost. While clearly I can't cover every point in this one blog post, hopefully this will be enough to show the value available at auctions and how to extract that value. With that said, next month, please don't bid against me and drive prices higher. Enjoy! Return to homepage
This is a guest post written by friend and wine professional Very Top Shoulder. VTS has over a decade of experience in the wine trade and is currently studying for his Master of Wine qualification.
What’s the difference between a good and a great wine? While the enjoyment of wine is in many ways a subjective experience, there are nevertheless firm criteria used by MWs to establish greatness in a wine. The institute of Masters of Wine is a qualification that dates back to 1955 and is universally recognised as the ‘highest achievement in the global wine community’ with currently 289 members in total. This article will discuss those criteria as a meaningful way of assessing wine.
The world of wine is a fascinating place and part of that fascination is the diversity: the multiple styles that exist, the constant changing of vintages – perhaps more important in the Old world where wine is made in a marginal climate – and the various philosophies that are espoused as part of the recipe to make great wine. In this piece I will look at whether it is possible to be objective about what is essentially a subjective experience: tasting and enjoying wine.
The tasting experience is a subjective one. We all have preferences and prejudices and we all taste differently. We all have different thresholds with some of us are more sensitive to component parts of wine than others such as tannin and acidity. How then can we really separate great wine from really good wine? Is it possible to make objective statements in analysing a wine whether it is great or merely just good? In the Master of Wine qualification the way of assessing the quality of a wine is based on four factors that when combine, determine a wine’s quality. These are balance, length, concentration and complexity.
Balance this is perhaps hardest to quantify and difficult to explain without actually tasting a wine. Essentially though, the structure of the wine, that is to say the acids, alcohol, tannin and fruit of the wine, should have no rough edges – it should be seamless in its composition. When you taste the wine, the overriding feeling that you should be with is one of harmony with no alcohol, acid, oak or any other part of the wine ‘sticking out’. A truly balanced wine is effortless. Balance is an important indicator in determining whether a wine can age; a wine that is balanced to start with will always be balanced over time, but if a wine is not balanced to start with it never becomes balanced over time. In my early days in the wine trade this is what I was taught and I stand by it now having tasted thousands of wines.
Length is simply how long the flavour lasts when you taste it. In a simple wine it is over in an instant, in a great wine it is said to be “long” if the flavour lingers on the palate and stays there for a period of time rather than just being simple and one dimensional. Length is strictly speaking a measurement of time in how long the flavour lasts to the taster, but it often overlaps with complexity; complex wines are often long, whereas simple wines are never are. If you compare a simple pinot grigio with that of a grand cru white Burgundy, length should be one of the key differences between the two.
Complexity implies that the wine changes in the glass and that there are levels and layers of flavour changing and improving positively over time. If every time you go back and smell the wine and you pick up different nuances then you know you are tasting a complex wine. Often a wine that changes in the glass over time is a good indication of the wines ability to age – and improve with age. With practice this is something that is easy to detect and with the really great wines it is instantly obvious the moment you smell it. Complexity too can be detected on the palate as there is a panoply of flavours confirming what you have already sniffed.
Concentrated wines have a significant depth of flavour. Concentration is often an indication of the ripeness of the grapes, wines from great vintages are often extremely concentrated, but this should be seen as an overall part of the wine rather than a stated aim. One of the reasons this occurs is that grapes from old vines give less juice, but the juice is more concentrated than that from a young vine. Concentration is an important part of a wines ability to age, as if it is too dilute then it simply falls apart over time whereas wines from ripe grapes have enough stuffing to last for long periods of time and also demonstrate their layers and nuances from year to year.
Invariably great wines have the capacity to age, in fact one could argue this should be another criteria in determining the great from the good. That said, the question of how long to keep the wine for and when best to drink it is a very subjective choice. Young wines can be enjoyed for their upfront fruit, brightness and immediacy of flavour and freshness. Old wines are a completely different experience, tasting and smelling completely different; tertiary aromas such as mushrooms , cigar box, cedar, and leather that appear emphasise more subtle intricacy and delicacy than size, volume and immediacy. These can often be lost to the untuned palate, and more often than not the flavour profile is one that takes time to get used to and even enjoy.
To quote one of the doyens of Napa Valley winemakers Andre Tchelistcheff “tasting old wine is like making love to an old lady; it is possible, it can even be enjoyable, but it requires a little bit of imagination.” Thus the question of when shall I drink X or Y really depends on the individual and how you like them. The best advice I was ever given is to buy a case of something you like when you taste it young, and drink a bottle a year. When it is perfect for you then you know you can enjoy the rest, otherwise wait! It is better to enjoy a wine on the way up then past its best.
The methodology I have just suggested then is hopefully a tool to help us decide the great from the good. When Masters of Wine describe a wine as great they will be judging it on the criteria of concentration, complexity, length and balance. As you become more experienced with tasting wine you will be able to identify these traits and be able to judge a wine more competently. You will know that you are some way to judge objectively when you can appreciate a wines innate quality even whilst not liking the said grape variety or the style. Who said wine tasting was easy?Return to homepage
"the strong silent type: tall, dark and handsome, notably firm bodied, but willing to reveal a sweet side to their nature"; sadly not a description of me but rather the description given to Glenfarclas whisky by Michael Jackson in his Malt Whisky Companion. Glenfarclas - valley of the green grass - nestles in the traditional heart of Speyside with Arbelour, Dufftown and Ballindalloch being the nearest towns, and the distillery is one of a group of producers in the region that form The Malt Whisky Trail along the A95. It would also become the epicentre for the outlandish snowfall that brought even Scotland to a standstill before December had even begun. But with a Glenfarclas in our glass, a real fire blazing in the living room and picture perfect scenery outside, we were thoroughly happy.
If you have read our earlier post on Glenfarclas
you will know that Glenfarclas is one of the few remaining family owned distilleries in the Scotch whisky industry and even more than that, it has been owned and run by one family, the Grants, since 1865. Earlier in the year, here in London, we met George Grant, the sixth generation of the family and were charmed by his passion for life and whisky. When George suggested that we come and visit him at the distillery and enjoy whisky at the source, we jumped at the chance (kids in a sweetshop comes to mind). We should also say at this point that Glenfarclas is, in our view, a truly great whisky so we were super excited to visit the distillery.
Arriving mid afternoon at the distillery, there was just enough time to take the tour with the last gasps of natural light. The buildings at the distillery are for the most part the original 18th/19th century buildings, modified only to comply with the endless codes of Health and Safety legislation that that now seems the universal burden. In fact, no one knows quite how long they've been making whisky on this site as it was likely that illegal distillation was taking place before the Excise Act of 1823 ended the period of wide spread underground distilleries. What's more, a painting dated 1797 seems to show distillation already taking place on the site and who knows how long it was taking place before that.
Glenfarclas operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and later that evening, long after the sun had gone down, we saw a lorry meandering through the tight courtyards to deliver its load of malted barley to the distillery for in common with most distilleries today, malting is no longer done on site.
We wont go into full details of the production process but refer readers who are interested in learning more to www.whisky-distilleries.info which gives an excellent description of how whisky is made. All around the distillery the sweet smell of the whisky process was in the air though for those who work there, they are long since oblivious to it; we loved it, it's like a whisky meadow. It became a full on powerhouse when we thrust our head into a working mash tun and George also suggested that sticking your head into the wash back and inhaling deeply was also an excellent hangover cure; we'll take his word for it as we didn't try this remedy for ourselves. We did though get to try a glass of the 'wash' from the wash backs which was fun, tasting like a strong blonde beer, something from Belgium perhaps, for up till now, the process of making whisky and beer is pretty similar. It's the distillation room where it goes next and 15 years in a barrel that will change things.
In the excellent visitor centre, there are many more nods to the history of Glenfarclas, not least the portraits on the wall of the first four generations of Grants who ran the distillery before George and his father John (the current Chairman). What's most impressive though is the range of whiskies they bottle enabled by the continuity of the production facility over so many generations. There's a 10 year old for easy drinking and then the graduations are 12, 15, 21, 25, 30 and a 40 year old. There's also a 105 Cask Strength that is in fact 60% alcohol. Also on display is the special 40 year old Millenium Edition that Vincent Gasnier describes as 'legendary because of its exquisite quality'.
The Millenium edition is a very special bottle at a very special (read expensive) price, that being the price of perfection. However, you can get quite close to perfection at somewhat cheaper prices within the range and we very much enjoyed the 15 year old as well as being lucky enough to drink quite a lot of the 40 year old.
We enjoyed the 15 year old before dinner each night in front of the fire and it works well with or without a splash of water. Nearly all of the Glenfarclas range has sherry note on the nose and palate as the whisky has spent most of its life in first use sherried casks. Glenfarclas is also not especially peaty and smoky (usually described as hints of) so if you find the Islay malts too much but still like a robust flavoursome whisky, Glenfarclas might be a good choice. We like this whisky in Winter too as it does have some rich notes that is one of the few nice things about cold December days: burnt orange on the nose giving way to zesty Christmas cake. And while it has yet to strike 4pm, to ensure this blog post is correct, I've poured a dram of the 15 year old to taste as I write, and have noted the finish at a whopping 15 seconds. Loved too by those cheeky chappies at the Master of Malt
, they have it for sale at £35.95 which is a great price for a whisky of such complexity. What also put a smile on my face is that the alcohol content of the 15yo is a somewhat unusual 46% because 'my grandfather preferred it at this strength'. You wont hear that at Diageo.
The 40 year old is a dram for when you're feeling flush or just want to get as close to the best of whisky as you can. A deep dark amber whisky, there is background peat on the nose and again, walnuts and raisins. Medium sweet to taste, George notes burnt brown sugar while others note toffee with a touch of spice as well as dates and figs. Another super long finish though sadly, I don't have a glass in front of me right now to time it. The new Glenfarclas 40 year old has been awarded a stunning 95/100 by the Malt Advocate magazine.
Okay, I guess we need to talk price here. Master of Malt sell it at £289 a bottle which seems like a lot until you compare it with other 40 year olds with a distillery name on: Tomatin 40 year old is perhaps the next cheapest at £429, Highland Park 40yo is £764 and Dalmore is £1,339. In that sense it's a relative bargain. The packaging on the 40 has been kept deliberately low key to keep costs down, you don't drink the fancy packaging after all. George is a whisky man and a whisky evangelical and knows that 40 year old whiskies are already budget busters for many. Nevertheless, offering a 40 year old at this price, he hopes that he's put a great whisky slightly closer to the grasp of the serious whisky drinker on a budget.
And finally, we have to mention the weather. Sitting here in London on the last day of November, many of you like me will be looking out of the window at snow right now. In November, in London! It's little surprise therefore that we caught snow in Speyside the week before but having got there under a blue sky on the Tuesday, it was only on when we woke up on the Wednesday to a snowy landscape that the fun started. Certainly not sports car weather, even George's 4x4 had its moments and we saw lorries stuck on hills and some pour souls with their cars in ditches and lamposts by the side of the road.
The house we stayed in on site was the old tax man's house - up until the mid 70s, Customs and Excise would have an assessor permanently stationed at all distilleries and the distillery was required to provide a roof over his head. Glenfarclas were clearly quite nice to their Customs assessor and it was a beautiful house in local stone with a comfortable sitting room and a real fire that we kept alight whenever we were home. The whole area was so beautiful covered in snow that we barely minded having to abandon the car and return to Edinburgh by train (where the weather was just fine); it would take another five days for snow to close Edinburgh airport.
Scotland is wonderful place, George and everyone at Glenfarclas were just superb and Glenfarclas is one of the very best Scotch whiskies out there. If you're up in Speyside, Glenfarclas is a must, and if you've not tried it before, we're sure you'll love it if you're a whisky fan. If you're not up in Speyside anytime soon, maybe swing by the Master of Malt
website and order a bottle or two for Christmas which in turn will lead to a very merry Christmas indeed. Return to homepage
On a slow day in a London publishing house this must have seemed like a good idea, get one of Scotland’s most famous novelists to visit each of the distilleries in Scotland and write it up as a book. As Banks himself points out in the book, the prospect of getting paid a handsome sum of money to go drinking Scotch across the length of the country is an attractive one and so Ian Banks’ first nonfiction book was born (though it has taken me a few years to finally get around to reading it). The idea that a master wordsmith and Scotch lover goes in search of ‘the perfect dram’ is an attractive one if he can pull it off; sadly, he can’t.
He starts with a fair degree of enthusiasm with the Islay malts such as Laphroaig and Lagavulin but something soon becomes very apparent. Writing a book about 100 odd distilieries and keeping it interesting is going to be pretty difficult since i) books of whisky tasting notes are already widely available and make for poor cover to cover reading, ii) the visitor centres/tours of distilleries are pretty generic and iii) whisky itself, while wide ranging in flavour is pretty damn similar in the production process. It would be too much to say that if you’ve seen one distillery you’ve seen them all but once you’re past ten, you can probably stand down.
Accordingly the book veers away from what you think you’re going to be reading – a book on whisky – and becomes a somewhat self indulgent collection of anecdotes of Ian Banks drinking with his mates. We’re introduced to ‘Dave’ and ‘Jim’ and Ian Banks in turn becomes ‘Banksie’ as we are inducted into the group. The trouble is, most tales of things you do with your mates when drunk are funny only to you and your mates and putting it down in even half decent prose for a wider audience is not enough to salvage it unless you’re a drunk with the wit of Dudley Moore’s Arthur.
About half way through the book we get this piece of dialogue;
‘This could be your best book ever, Banksie,’ Dave says.
‘Na,’ I tell him. ‘It could just be rubbish.’
Dave pauses for a moment. ‘Yeah, but it could be your best book ever, Banksie.’
The dialogue ends there, Banksie doesn’t answer because he’s already said what he’s probably come to realise. I wondered why he should have included this piece in the book in the first place but it too is a joke. The joke though is never on him because he’s the one getting paid to write the book and the one getting paid to drink.
What’s sad is that where he could have filled the pages with the stories of the distilleries and the people and the traditions, in this book, Banksie is at the centre of every story but he’s not a comic writer and the stories fall flat. There’s the time when Banksie said ‘lake’ instead of ‘Loch’ and Jim threatened to tell everyone that Banksie had ‘been down South for too long’. We learn too of the time at a hotel where Jim, having ordered a bottle of wine and some glasses from room service, drops them causing a general commotion. Banksie tells us that ‘all of this sounds hilarious from the bathroom; I start laughing quietly to myself and I’m still giggling when the night porter arrives with the brush and pan and replacement glass.’ Yeah, I broke a glass last night too, it was crazy.
What’s more is that even for a major and popular distillery like Talisker, there is less than a page and a half dedicated to the place, and that’s a lot more space than most get. With many getting no air time at all, with 100 distilleries, there can be no more than 70 of the 360 pages of this book actually dedicated to the subject matter. There are commentaries on the Gulf war, most of Scotland’s roads (he doesn’t like the A9 but the B974 is brilliant apparently) and extensive descriptions of his Freelander, BMW M5 and other cars.
I have no doubt that Dave and Jim will love this book, and if you’re a huge Iain Banks fan and want to know what it’s like hanging out with Banksie for a few weeks, this probably comes a close second to the real thing. Personally, I’d rather get car reviews from Top Gear and comedy from Ricky Gervais. As for picking up anything about the whisky industry, if you’re interested enough to even consider reading a 360 page book on whisky then you're probably already pretty clued up on the basics and this book will not deliver much more. I put the book down when two thirds of the way through calling time on this particular road trip for I think I’ll sip my bedtime dram alone tonight having had all I can take of Dave’s, Jim’s and Banksie’s ‘wild and crazy guy’ antics. If only they were that funny.
Bruce, Bruce and Bruce, all professors in the Philosophy Department of the University of Woolloomooloo Australia, were the genius comic creation of Monty Python and in their live shows would, cork hats on head, sing, 'The Philosopher's Song’ which included such great lines as:
Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle.
Hobbes was fond of his dram,
And René Descartes was a drunken fart.
'I drink, therefore I am.'
so introducing the classic line ‘I drink therefore I am’ to a new generation who might not have known that the original is attributed to the great WC Fields (1880-1946).
The line has now moved so conspicuously into the public domain that it borders on cliché and most authors would be foolhardy to even contemplate using it as a title for book on wine. Roger Scruton though is not most authors and the subtitle of the book ‘A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine’ provides the bridge to reclaiming the comment, for as we’ll learn in due course, Scruton sees Descartes as ‘the most overrated philosopher in history’ and he suggests drinking ‘a deep dark Rhône wine’ when you read Descartes since ‘such a wine will compensate for the thinness of the Meditations and give you rather more to talk about’.
While most authors and publishers seek to take the low road – consider The Dummy's Guide to Whatever – Scruton moves in the opposite direction, even calling one of his books An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy where he states in the introduction that he ‘presupposes no knowledge other than that which an intelligent person is likely to possess already,’ simple things we gather like the complete works of Shakespeare, Beethoven and Wagner’s ring cycle. I can only imagine what horror a tutorial with him must have been like.
His guide to wine is more approachable than this but will still leave the average reader lost at times I suspect – I know I was. What to make of sentences like ‘as Kant brilliantly showed, the person who is acquainted with the self, who refers to himself as ‘I’, is inescapably trapped into freedom’? Yet at other times, we can just share the joy of his learning (we’re told that the Ancient Egyptians for example would classify and label wines by their social function e.g. ‘wine for tax collection day’) or sometimes, just warm to a touching story of his own humanity (yes indeed, Scruton is in fact human).
All of these aspects give the book, like a good wine, layers of complexity leaving a lasting impression on the reader long after you’ve put the book down even if you struggle with the form this lasting impression takes.
Before we finally get to the structure of the book itself, it must be pointed out that Scruton equates wine with culture and civilisation, and intoxication is different to drunkenness noting that wine intoxicates like poetry when drunk correctly through ‘measured desire’. He believes that all the problems of the world could be solved by sitting down and talking them through over a glass of good claret. Against this background he has harsh words on Islamic abstinence and notes that in surah xvi verse 7 of the Koran wine is unreservedly praised as one of God’s gifts, but following the prophet’s Medina exile, surah v verses 90-91 are less complimentary and later revelations cancel the earlier.
But nor does the Western culture of drinking to get drunk escape his critical pen as he notes:
The drink problem that we witness in British cities stems from our inability to pay Bacchus his due. Thanks to cultural impoverishment, young people no longer have a repertoire of songs, poems and arguments or ideas with which to entertain one another in their cups. They drink to fill the moral vacuum generated by their culture, and while we are familiar with the adverse effect a drink has on an empty stomach, we are now witnessing the far worse effect of drink on an empty mind.
The book itself can be subdivided in discrete themes. It starts with a youthful Scruton ‘discovering’ good wine during his Cambridge university days as he is introduced by successive mentors to the best of red and white Burgundy and acknowledges Napoleon’s quip that ‘nothing makes life so rosy as to contemplate it through a glass of Chambertin’.
We then go on a tour of the wine regions of the world, though for Scruton, the world of wine is divided into France and everywhere else. We get a tour of both balanced in those proportions and enjoy both a history lesson and comic sketch book and giggle along the way. Sometimes, Scruton has a humorous anecdote to help on the journey (in America there is a journal called The Modern Drunkard which offers ‘useful advice on the forgotten art of staggering’) while at other times the humour is entirely accidental such as when he claims that ‘reading the literature of New Zealand feminists, animal rights activists and multi-culturalists, I long ago decided I could have no place in the intellectual life of Canterbury’.
When the world tour is over (the ‘I Drink’ part), we move to the ‘Therefore I am’ part as he discusses what ‘I’ means. This is by far and away the most difficult chapter and full absorption is not entirely required for the book to be enjoyed as a whole. After that, it’s the meaning of wine – how for example is great wine different from great art or great music and how can we understand taste? Can we describe it? Then we have ‘the meaning of whine’ where he takes a pot shot at prohibitionists and ‘mad mullahs’ who he feels are as addicted to anger as drunks are to alcohol. The last chapter sees Sartre’s Being and Nothingness become Being and Bingeing as he discusses the misuse of pleasure.
At the end of the book, we get a section on what to drink with what and here Scruton is not going anywhere near ‘pinot with lamb’, rather, one should drink Tuscan wine with Hegel and a New Zealand Chardonnay with Schopenhauer, philosophy’s unrelenting pessimist. Most philosophers you could name and many you couldn’t are briefly discussed here in the contexts of their work and the corresponding pairing.
However, a special mention goes to Sam the Horse with whom Scruton clearly enjoyed a close relationship. We learn by the middle of the book that ‘in my duties as a wine critic, I try out a full bottle on Sam the Horse, stirring a glass-full into his oats and studying his reaction, I can make no distinction between his relishing the wine and his merely enjoying it’. By the back though we learn that despite what has just been said, ‘Sam has his preferences’. We are told that Sam the Horse most eagerly gobbles his oats when laced with rosé, with Scruton suggesting that Sam’s firm favourite is Amethystos from Greece, ‘available at Oddbins’; I can only wonder to know how the producers of the wine and Oddbins feel about that fact.
Overall, this is a satisfying and challenging read and a book that should appeal to wine lovers and wine thinkers. One feels from the book that Scruton himself is a fascinating individual though not without his own issues, painting a picture of a man nursing a bottle of Bordeaux alone in a backwater French farm with only Sam the Horse for company. His sheer intelligence though and scope of learning together with an often brilliant turn of phrase and a gentle but tickling wit ensure a good read. One can only smile at his ‘first principle’ of drinking that despite his rants against spirits, beer and cocktails (i.e. anything that’s not wine) states that ‘you should drink what you like, in the quantities you like. It may hasten your death, but this small cost will be offset by the benefits to everyone around you’. That is most certainly my kind of philosophy.
Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.
Othello Act III, William Shakespeare
Why is Mark Hix, a man with a most excellent CV and reputation, allowing this to be so tarnished by these London institutions that now bare his name? He needs to know what sins are being perpetrated under his banner: we're sure it's not what he stands for.
Heralded as the best bar in London in Time Out magazine, Hix Bar was clearly somewhere we had to try. Having spotted the Hix neon sign through Soho’s clutter, the imposing and closed oak door left us wondering if they were in fact open for business today but pushing through, we found yes, they were, and passing the restaurant on the left, we headed down to ‘Mark’s’, the basement bar.
First, on the decor, this was a confused place, like a twenty something’s bedroom that has yet to clear the adolescent junk of the previous decade (a bar billiards table for example) while showing pretensions to sophistication (a scattering of deep recline leather sofas). Bad enough, but elsewhere, the Ikea stock of wooden back chairs gave the whole thing a factory canteen style air. While the chairs may have given it the flavour, the roster of staff eating at the bar put the flesh on the bones. True, it was 4:30 in the afternoon and the staff were no doubt snacking between the lunch and the dinner service but despite being the only paying customers in the bar, they couldn’t have been less interested in us than if we entered the bar wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan ‘we’ve got Herpes, kiss me’. Worse was to come.
After five to ten minutes of sitting there staring around the place playing with each other a game of ‘who’s the loudest member of staff’ versus ‘who’s the rudest’, someone finally came over to take our drinks order. Now, this is the place that claims to make a cocktail. As such, in a way that we might at a restaurant take the tasting menu or chef’s recommendation, we invited them to give us the best of the cocktails, what’s the house speciality, what does the barman ‘own’? Your choice we said, give us the best the house has to offer. We we’re met with the bland reply, ‘90% of the cocktail list is our speciality’. Should we leave now?
We asked for something in the sour family, open to whatever base spirit; our waiter seemed slightly lost though suggested a gin with lemon twist and when pushed for a second drink, a rum based cocktail. Knock us out.
When we were at the Connaught Bar (see our previous post), Erik made us two incredible cocktails when we said surprise us; he did, we sat, we drank; in short, we were in awe. Here alas, we were only in awe of how bad their ‘speciality’ was. Both cocktails suffered from an extreme degree, indeed eye watering degree, of sourness; neither had any sense of balance at all. Wrong, wrong, wrong. And in the time spent there, I never saw the bar tender tasting the output even once. The gin/lemon cocktail was like a sour highball lemonade and the rum base was little more than a neighbour’s BBQ rum punch with lemon and bitters; both were totally one dimensional.
We asked for the bill and left with three quarters of each cocktail still sitting in the glass. The ‘shocking’ thing is, given the choice between paying for a single cocktail at full price at the Connaught Bar or having five free cocktails at Hix, the Connaught wins every time, life’s too short to waste on inconsequential drinking; if I’m going to die of cirrhosis of the liver, I want it to count and at Hix, it simply doesn’t.
Wine is often an adventure in time travel and we recently acquired a magnum of 1949 Chateau Lagrange, a vintage that pre-dates both of us by a wide margin and brought a new order of romance to the mystical ceremony that is the opening a grand bottle. While a new breed of disgruntled wine hacks like Malcolm Gluck demand that even your Mouton be equipped with a screw top, the ever entertaining Cambridge philosopher and errant wine buff Roger Scruton in his book 'I drink therefore I am' notes:
To the naive observer the cork is there to keep the wine in the bottle and the air out of it, with the result that a small - actually a very small - proportion of vintage wines are 'corked', meaning spoiled by a defective stopper. To such an observer, the screw cap is the answer. I would respectfully retort that the risk of corking is essential to the ritual. Drinking precious wine is preceded by an elaborate process of preparation, which has much in common with the ablutions that preceded ancient religious sacrifices. The bottle is retrieved from some secret place where the gods have guarded it; it is brought reverentially to the table, dusted off and uncorked with a slow and graceful movement while the guests watch in awed silence. The sudden 'pop' that then occurs is like a sacramental bell, marking a great division in the scheme of things, between a still life bottle, and the same still life with wine.
1949 is certainly the oldest-furthest we've travelled back thus far and is considered one of the three great post war vintages (1945 and 1947 being the other two). It was also the year that George Orwell published 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' while more obliquely, clothes rationing ended in Britain.
As for Lagrange itself (Bordeaux of course), we had the St Julien variety (for there is also a Lagrange within Pomerol) with the chateau classified as a third growth in the 1855 classifications. Parker, who now rates Lagrange as second growth quality, nevertheless says that 'prior to 1983, Lagrange has suffered numerous blows to its reputation as a result of a pathetic track record of quality in the sixties and seventies'. Fortunately we can dismiss such youthful pretenders (the wines that is, not Parker) but with Parker's ratings for Lagrange going back no further than 1961, we're sailing blind but in the spirit of adventure, we little care.
How though should we approach such a wine? One hears of old wines 'collapsing' within minutes of the bottle being opened and decanting seems a no-no. A friend though pointed out a Wine Reader article by French wine collector Francois Audouze where he describes the 'slow oxygenation method' for very old wine. Under this method, one opens the wine four to five hours before the intended drinking time and checks whether it is alive (in which case an inert stopper is placed in the bottle and left till drinking time) or if the wine is feared dead, in which case the cork remains out in the hope that 'slow oxygenation' will bring it back to life.This therefore would be our plan and the countdown began. I must confess that I was a little nervous since the fill level in the bottle was middle-low shoulder. That said, as Sotheby's point out in their wine catalogues, top shoulder is the 'usual level for wines over 15 years old' so while I would like a higher fill, at 61 years old I can broadly accept that it might reasonably be at this level without undue concern.
As I use the corkscrew knife to cut through the capsule, the first observation is that the bottle is filthy around the cork top though this again is not unduly worrying since I've experienced enough bottles even 30 years old in this condition where the wine has been just perfect - after all, if you didn't wash for 61 years, it wouldn't make you a bad person, just a dirty-smelly one right? There is worse to come though, and try not to squirm here, but on closer examination there are near on microscopic creatures partying on top of the cork. This is surely not a good sign.
Wiping over the top of the cork to scrub off the worst of the dirt, I attempt to push the cork screw tip into the top of the cork but this being rock hard, the corkscrew makes no impression but rather pushes the cork deeper into the neck of the bottle. I then try every trick I know (which admittedly is not many) to get the tip of the corkscrew into the already dislodged cork so I can avoid pushing this dirt ridden cork completely into the bottle but all to no avail. Facing up to the inevitable, I know the cork is going in and now need a back up plan.
While the aforementioned Francois Audouze will walk hot coals rather than decant, there are never hot coals around when you need them and here, decanting was now the only option. Using an old trick I vaguely remember once hearing about, I take a couple of coffee filters from the kitchen and place one in the open top of the decanter and pour. The wine dribbles through nicely to the decanter below while the filter is visibly coated in muck giving us much relief that that's not now in our glass.
Three very dirty filters later but with the dregs still in the bottom of the magnum, the wine does look attractively pale in the decanter with a nice red brick rim. For the first time I feel a pang of hope - always a portent of disaster. I stick my nose to the decanter and while there is little aroma, there was not the 'wet cardboard' smell of a corked wine. Hope rises further; fool.
By now I want to believe and go get a tasting glass. Pouring a small drop into the bottom, I undertake an obligatory swirl, a sniff and then raise the glass to my lips to go 'face to face' with the wine as Scrutton would have it. It's not corked but it's not right either. Someone once said that the story of wine is a journey of a grape from fruit juice to vinegar with something magical called wine in between. Sadly, most of the magic had now gone from this bottle and while there was a modest front note of fruit, this was rapidly overcome by the acidity of the vinegar that this wine had now mostly become.
My spirits of course sank but I'm not defeated yet. Francois has more to say on the matter,
even if a wine stinks awfully, the probability that the wine comes back to life without any bad aspect is largely greater than what one thinks. I have saved wines that people wanted to throw away. Just because oxygen is able to cure many many wounds. And if the stinking signs show that the wine is dead, why would we kill the wine now ? We have time until the dinner to see if a miracle happens. And many miracles happen.
Maybe five hours of oxygenation will provide the miracle I'm looking for. Sadly, it was not to be, no weeping madonnas, no water to wine and for that matter, no vinegar to wine; this was not to be a day of miracles. I knew we were taking a chance buying the wine in the first place and as Michael Broadbent recently commented of the 1949 vintage, 'the best are still superb but living precariously; storage and provenance are vital'. Hoping for the best but anticipating the worst, earlier that day I had already pulled two bottles of Pichon Lalande 1990 from the Eurocave so all was not lost and an embarrassment of dry glasses was avoided.
Nevertheless, it was a shame in our first (but assuredly not last) time travelling adventure to the world of the 1940s that we encountered such disappontment. While bought from a reputable supplier, I don't know how the first 61 years of this wine's life were but I'm guessing somewhere along the way it was perhaps all too much for it, the low shoulder hinted as much. That said, when we're 61, I don't think that we're going to be 'all that' either given the gastronomic life we're leading, so who am I to quibble?
But I'm not upset we tried. In life generally, when you have the objects, the car, the flat screen TV and the other toys, what's left is experience and while enjoying an unblemished Lagrange '49 would have been an experience indeed, the anticipation, the ritual and the sorrowful sink pour that followed was without doubt an appropriately worthy experience in itself. Undeterred therefore, our next real time travelling adventure will be from the greatest of the post war vintages, a 1945 Talbot in a half bottle format. We look forward to reporting back.
The world of real cocktail bars seems so often to try to make the client feel small or marginalised. Milk & Honey for example is so so trendy that they don’t even have their name over the door and as they say on their website ‘Access to non-members is by reservation only until 11pm (and in practice restricted to the early part of the week)’. Could they be any more up their own backside?
It is so refreshing therefore to find a bar like The Connaught Bar where not only are the best cocktails in the world made everyday but where Head Mixologist Agostino Perrone and his team treated us even on our first visit there as if we were long standing friends and cherished customers. In short, they completely won us over.
What’s more, while our casual use of the phrase ‘the best cocktails in the world’ in the last paragraph was, well, casual, there is in fact more truth than hyperbole in that statement because Senior Mixologist there Erik Lorincz this July won the Diageo Reserve World Class Bartender of the Year 2010 award. In short, he’s a world champ cocktail maker who beat a global field of 9,000 mixologists to take the title.
With such pedigree, the bar will of course do the classics if you want them but so much more fun is to let them decide your drink for you. We had two of Erik’s competition winning cocktails including Reach for the Sky and a Green Lady. Now, these drinks are a long way away from vodka, cranberry, triple sec and lime, rather, these are really clever drinks with extensive use of herbs and botanicals and other ingredients that are totally original in drink construction. The Green Lady for example comprises Green Tea infused Tanqueray Ten, lemon juice, lime juice, rosemary sugar, green Chartreuse and egg white, shaken and double strained and garnished with a shiso leaf and dry lemon. It looked beautiful and tasted beautiful and in my sheer excitement, I had already drank half the glass before it occurred to me to take a picture. The photo of my half empty glass does it little justice so I wont disrespect them by posting it here but I’ll collect another picture next time.
The Martinis too are imprinted with their own twist on the taste with original bitter infusions and in theatre with a Martini trolley that’s wheeled to your table so that you're ringside for the show. Agostino mixes the drink right there in front of you after you have chosen which of the bitter infusions you might enjoy for a new twist on a classic. Bitters here include vanilla, grapefruit, cardamom, liquorice, lavender, ginger or coriander. I chose liquorice and it was delightful.
All the cocktails served had just the right balance between sweet and sour and fruit/flavour and alcohol and all were a visual treat.The herb backing in many imparted hitherto unknown drinking flavours that you just have to try for yourself if want something properly original. Cocktail legend Dale DeGroff (of Rainbow Room fame) who was a judge at the Bartender of the Year competition said of the event that ‘these 21st century bartenders are the pioneers of a new golden age of the craft’; given that Erik won, I guess that makes him THE pioneer and drinking at The Connaught Bar therefore opens up a new frontier of cocktail drinking. There's so few places that could ever offer that.
To drink drinks of this quality, it might be worth having to make a reservation, it might be worth having to queue behind a red rope manned by surly door attendants, it might even be worth joining a private members club that doesn’t have a name above the door. Instead though, at The Connaught Bar, you have to do none of this, turning up is enough; from the moment you step through the door, Agostino and his team with a natural warmth will make you feel special from the very start. And even more guaranteed, after a few Tanqueray Ten Martinis, you’ll feel more than just special by the time you get up to leave a few hours later. We had the best time there and will certainly go back in the very near future.
Second wines continue to be where it’s at in the CC household with a 1990 Carruades de Lafite representing the Rothschilds yesterday and a 1996 Pavillon Rouge fronting for Chateau Margaux today. Both I should say up front were great drinking, but while it was the Carruades de Lafite that was the better wine of the two, that's not the same as being the best value. Like the grand vin, even the Carruades de Lafite is now stratospherically expensive making the idea of value a vexing question. Let’s taste first before we attempt to answer.
First to the Carruades de Lafite, it was exquisite. In the first place, 1990 was a good vintage overall with Michael Broadbent rating the year as a 5 star vintage – a promising start then. With 20 years of bottle age, the wine is now ripe for drinking with the tannins having mellowed into the background allowing the fruit flavours to fully come through. A good nose of blackcurrant, mocha and a touch of pepper follow through on the palate but what is most impressive is the complexity and the depth of flavour. The wine keeps on giving in the mouth and the finish too and really points to the idea that this, despite being a second wine, outclasses almost anything else bottled helping the amateur drinker (like us) understand what quality really means and helps demonstrate what a truly great claret should taste like. Certainly this wine is better than other rated growths (including we think the super seconds) and gives many first growths a good run for the money.
Therein of course lies the problem, quality always costs and the Lafite name is now the benchmark for quality and price of the 1855 classifications. We were lucky to pick up the Carruades de Lafite during the recession giving us a relatively ‘cheap’ case. With the market having now recovered, the 1990 is currently retailing at over £300 a bottle! By comparison, the Lafite grand vin is now a budget busting £700+ a bottle but get this, Mouton Rothschild 1990 retails at around £250. In other words, the Carruades is now trading at first growth prices and is more expensive than cousin Mouton on a like for like basis. The conclusion then is the quality is undeniably there but this is no bargain (but damn it’s good).
With the Pavillon Rouge (1996), you just have to get excited. Of the grand vin Chateau Margaux, Robert Parker describes it as ‘a modern day legend’ and goes on to say that the 1996 vintage of Margaux ‘continues to give every indication of being one of the all time great clarets’. Rated 98-100 Parker points, Chateau Margaux carries a price tag of £500+ so is out the range of most. But in the year when the grand vin is so good, the second wine must surely follow n’est-ce-pas? What’s more, the Pavillon Rouge retails at around £80 a bottle so is somewhat more affordable. Writing this, I still have a glass of it in front of me and it is delightful. A couple of hours after opening the nose is still quite closed and being 6 years younger than the Lafite, modest tannins are still present but the overwhelming sensation that you’ll get on this wine is the big fruit flavours in the mouth, the blackcurrants, blackberries and raspberries. Parker describes the grand vin as ‘massive, but not heavy’, and so it is with the Pavillon - massive. It’s an utter joy to drink.
So which is it, the Carruades de Lafite 1990 or the Pavillon Rouge 1996? As always it depends (and not least on your budget). The Lafite is out of the range of most and perhaps needs to be rated versus the other first growth wines given its price point which is quite remarkable. As for the Pavillon Rouge, it’s not as complex as the Lafite and the finish is good but not as extensive (in this sense it is typical of a second wine), but this is a serious fun wine or a fun serious wine whichever way you like. The Lafite meanwhile is a serious serious wine. Both are great but money has to be a consideration. We might if a good deal comes along stock up on Pavillon Rouge and anticipate the joy of drinking but sadly, when the current case of Carruades de Lafite is exhausted, we’ll have to move on and merely relish the memories. But oh happy memories, oh happy drinking.