The BeerStash Chronicles 2: Fresh thinking

A blog by John Porter from www.apieandapint.com

Beer is best drunk when it’s freshly brewed*. There, I’ve said it. It may not be the most sensible contention to make at the outset of an article which sets out to assess the merits of a beer that’s been knocking around for years, but it’s probably worth setting out my stall.

It is, I’d suggest, fundamental to the success of homo sapiens as a species that we’ve found ways to eke out the nutritional benefits of food and drink beyond the point where it would naturally go off, in order to see us through the lean times.

Fat, sugar and, yes, alcohol have all played their part as effective means of preservation, and so it’s worth noting the irony that, as medical science explores the limits of human longevity, they’ve also been identified as contributing to our inevitable decline. Back in the day when outrunning a dire wolf or sabre toothed tiger was more of a consideration, the longer term implications, compared to the advantage of being able to eat preserved grain or fruit whatever the season, were less important.

The human capacity for self-delusion, as well as our willingness to fall for a well-targeted PR campaign, means that over the course of time we’ve come to believe that the mouldy blue veins in an aged stilton or the cloying, musty flavours of an old wine are a badge of quality rather than a by-product of preservation. And let’s not even get started on the implications of aging meat and game to the point of putrefaction, then charging a premium for it.

Focusing on beer, at some point quite soon after our ancestors discovered the joys of beer, possibly even the next morning as they surveyed the empty crude stone vessels that had until recently held the unexpected elixir of the harvest, they decided it would be a good idea to try and make the next batch last a bit longer.

Knock it on a few dozen millennia, and there’s no shortage of people ready to tell you that beer that’s been barrel aged, bottle conditioned, cellar stored, highly hopped or any of the many other methods that human ingenuity has come up with to keep beer drinkable, is better than a cool, fresh pint straight out of the brewing vessel. It’s not*. Aged beer has its joys, of course, but the compromises of preservation have contributed to the myths, I’d suggest.

Imperial Russian Stout is a case in point. Surely it’s the emperor’s new clothes in a bottle? Even the most cursory examination of the various wars, pogroms, sieges and massacres undertaken by the imperial Russian family, never mind their laissez-faire attitude to intimate relations with livestock and mad monks, would suggest that their opinion on what constitutes a decent pint shouldn’t carry much credibility.

Having said all that, we are where we are, and I’m certainly not saying aged beers don’t have their charm. So, in my stash is a bottle of Courage Imperial Russian Stout dating back to 2012. At that point, Bedford brewer Charles Wells had recently acquired the rights to the Courage brand and beers, and revived this famous strong beer.

Avoiding any tasting notes or information other than what’s on the label, the beer was bottled at 10% ABV and “enjoys a rich, espresso body with pear overtones and an intriguing fresh, smokey, fruity finish.” The best before date is 16/08/25, suggesting that eight years could actually be a bit young for this one, but, hey ho:

Appearance: There’s a reassuring puff of carbon dioxide as the bottle opens. The beer pours clear, but its dense, ebony colour means no light gets through. The head lingers on the side of the glass, showing a rich, oily viscosity as it slips back into the beer. It shouts “luxury”, and the appearance alone helps to explain why this beer was a valued commodity seen as worth the cost of a 1700 mile journey from Britain to Moscow.

Aroma: The aroma is dominated by bitter coffee and dry sherry, with a mature sweetness underneath – for me, it’s the richness of dates and toffee apples rather than the freshness of pear mentioned on the label.

Taste: The beer is noticeably bitter, but it’s the rich coffee bitterness of roasted malt that dominates, rather than any strong hop character. In the mouth, my tastebuds keep searching for the sweet notes that the aroma promised. They’re there, but it takes the third or fourth sip to find them behind the dominant bitterness.

verall, it’s easy to understand why Imperial Russian Stout was a valued commodity. I still believe there’s plenty of smoke and mirrors around the myths of aged beer, just as there are with whisky, smoked salmon, strong cheese, iberico ham and many other products that prize preservation over freshness. However, the sheer class of Courage Imperial Russian Stout is unarguable.

So, that’s two beers from the stash and two winners. I’m still expecting to find a stinker or two, but not so far. The Courage brand and the Eagle Brewery in Bedford are now owned by Marston’s, although it’s unclear whether any further brews of Courage Imperial Russian are planned.

verall, it’s easy to understand why Imperial Russian Stout was a valued commodity. I still believe there’s plenty of smoke and mirrors around the myths of aged beer, just as there are with whisky, smoked salmon, strong cheese, iberico ham and many other products that prize preservation over freshness. However, the sheer class of Courage Imperial Russian Stout is unarguable.

So, that’s two beers from the stash and two winners. I’m still expecting to find a stinker or two, but not so far. The Courage brand and the Eagle Brewery in Bedford are now owned by Marston’s, although it’s unclear whether any further brews of Courage Imperial Russian are planned.

verall, it’s easy to understand why Imperial Russian Stout was a valued commodity. I still believe there’s plenty of smoke and mirrors around the myths of aged beer, just as there are with whisky, smoked salmon, strong cheese, iberico ham and many other products that prize preservation over freshness. However, the sheer class of Courage Imperial Russian Stout is unarguable.

So, that’s two beers from the stash and two winners. I’m still expecting to find a stinker or two, but not so far. The Courage brand and the Eagle Brewery in Bedford are now owned by Marston’s, although it’s unclear whether any further brews of Courage Imperial Russian are planned.

For a detailed look at the history of both Imperial Stout in general and the Courage version in particular, there are links below to articles by my good friend Martyn Cornell, whose attention to detail and historical accuracy when it comes to beer history more than makes up for my ramblings and conjecture:

*As always, all views expressed are those of the author and other, equally valid opinions are available. Just not here.

More of John’s BeerStash Chronicles from lockdown can be found at www.apieandapint.com/blog

Guest blog: Rupert Thompson, managing director and owner, Hogs Back Brewery

At the time of writing, we have no firm idea of when the Covid-19 lockdown might be lifted, for the nation in general or for pubs – though it looks as though hospitality will be one of the last industries to reopen.

Planning for reopening is therefore challenging to say the least. We will need to make a number of fundamental changes to the way we run pubs, at least in the short term, and the sooner we can come up with some creative solutions, the better prepared we’ll be when we can finally reopen the doors to crowds of thirsty customers.

And I think we can be confident of an early rush back to the pub; according to a recent Kantar poll, 56% of people are looking forward to visiting a pub or restaurant, putting it third after seeing family and friends again. The real question is what happens after that post-pandemic euphoria, and I think we have to be prepared for a significant drop in pub trade.

People’s drinking habits have changed already and will change further as we remain in lockdown. Everyone’s enjoying Friday night drinks with friends via Zoom, or pub quizzes on Facebook Live, and who’s to say they’ll replace all these virtual activities with real ones the minute pubs reopen? New habits develop, and some may stick.

Partly, it’s about money: many people have experienced drops in income, or are feeling nervous about their financial future, so discretionary spending like pub trips will be under pressure. There’s also going to be nervousness about going out, particularly among older people or those with health problems. Will they really fancy a pint enough to put their health on the line? 

Put these factors together, and I think we are looking at a much-reduced pub market in the short term.  Every year, the on-trade cedes a percentage or two to the off-trade and the pandemic will accelerate this. A 5% shift towards off-sales wouldn’t be surprising – and once lost, it won’t be recovered.

Of course, some pubs will be impacted more than others. Large, city centre pubs who rely on crowds of drinkers will suffer, and some small pubs who were barely viable will have been tipped over the edge.  However, some pubs in tourist destinations could do well as people choose to ‘staycation’ rather than risk travel abroad.

Changes in working patterns will also affect pub visits. With more homeworking, pubs in city centres will lose their after-work drinkers, but suburban or rural pubs should gain custom from stir-crazy homeworkers enjoying a pint or a pie in their local. Pubs who have geared up to offer takeaways or home deliveries should be able to continue this in the long term, as a percentage of customers will have discovered they prefer their Sunday pub roast at home. 

Despite silver linings for some, there’s no doubt that pubs are going to have a hard time and to survive, they’ll need to push down on their overheads – particularly rent and rates. The Government’s Covid-19 rates holiday is a tacit admission that rates are a heavy burden, and will hopefully lead to an overhaul of the current unfair system.  At the same time, commercial landlords will have to accept much lower yields – possibly as much as 50% of what they have been receiving – for the next 2-3 years.  

If social distancing measures are imposed, it will change the very nature of the pub, as a place where people gather to socialise with friends, family, or fellow sports fans.  Whether British pubgoers will adapt to drinking at in their own marked-out area at the bar or an isolated table remains to be seen.

Food service in pubs is likely to change from table service to collection at a counter, to remove the interaction – and cost – of a waiter. Table ordering apps will become more widely used, along with booking systems with tight windows, while simplified menus could be introduced to allow kitchen teams to keep within defined work areas. Pub gardens will be very popular and licensees should make the most of these assets with more seating – subject to social distancing – lighting and weather-proofing for year-round use.

Like everyone who works in, and loves, the pub industry, I will of course be hoping that much of my more pessimistic crystal ball gazing proves to be just that, and that the great British pub does what it’s done for centuries and evolves to stay firmly at the heart of people’s lives, while providing a rewarding livelihood for thousands of licensees and their teams.  We should all raise a pint to that!

Rupert Thompson is managing director and owner of Hogs Back Brewery in Surrey, brewers of TEA, or Traditional English Ale, one of the leading cask ales in the south east. He previously worked for Bass and Morland, and set up Refresh which brewed Ushers, Lowenbrau, Wychwood, Brakspear and Duchy Original beers. A CAMRA member for more than 20 years, Rupert was one of the original founders of both Cask Marque and the Beer Academy.  This column first appeared in the June 2020 issue of What’s Brewing.

There’s a Starman waiting in the Brewery!

Professor Brian Cox discovers the world of brewing as he launches 'Cosmic Brew' at The Union Club on September 25, 2018 in London, England.
Professor Brian Cox discovers the world of brewing as he launches ‘Cosmic Brew’.

Some years ago, my then-small son came home from primary school and, unexpectedly, asked me “what do you do for a job?” Delighted that he was taking an interest, I explained about journalism and dug out some copies of a number of newspapers and magazines containing articles which bore my byline.

He regarded these with a combination of confusion and disappointment more-or-less guaranteed to break a parent’s heart, and simply said: “Oh. I thought you might have been a spaceman.” The clear subtext was that he had already informed his classmates that his dad was, indeed, an astronaut, and probably also confidently invited them round after school to take a quick spin around Jupiter in my rocket. His whole demeanour said that frankly, I’d let him down, I’d let his friends down, I’d let the field of space exploration down, but most of all I’d let myself down.

Poor career choices and disillusioned offspring aside, with my own childhood shaped by the Apollo moon landings and the original Star Trek, the wonders of the cosmos have always fascinated me. So, I was very pleased to accept an invitation to the launch of Cosmic Brew, a beer created by Britain’s best-known physicist, Professor Brian Cox, in partnership with iconic Manchester brewery JW Lees.

Well, I say Manchester. Brian insists the Greengate Brewery is actually in his native Oldham. “The car park’s definitely in Oldham,” he assured me. With his granddad having lived a minute or two’s walk from the brewery, Brian clearly has a proprietorial feeling about JW Lees that predates his appointment as professor of particle physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester, and even his stint with ‘The Only Way is Up’ pop icons D:Ream.

William Lees-Jones Brian Cox Michael Lees-Jones
William Lees-Jones, Brian Cox and Michael Lees-Jones

He said: “When I started going to pubs at whatever age that was in the 1980s – probably about 15 – then the (JW Lees pub) Horton Arms was my local. My parents lived about a mile from the brewery and my granddad lived very close, at Middleton Junction. The brewery was something that I saw from the first moment I remember walking around.”

Between broadcasting and lecturing commitments, Brian, with the help of JW Lees head brewer Michael Lees-Jones, a sixth generation member of the family to be involved on the business, have come up with the recipe for Cosmic Brew, a zesty amber ale made with British grown Admiral, Jester and Cascade hops.

After a trial on cask in selected pubs, bottled and draught Cosmic Brew will be on sale to consumers generally in January, coinciding with Brian’s UK and Ireland arena tour, which will be followed by a planned worldwide tour.

Brian told me: “ I never get involved in products, or endorse anything, I just don’t think it’s my thing. However, I really like the idea of taking a piece of Oldham to New Zealand or Antarctica on my tour.”

The science of brewing is, of course, not Brian’s core discipline, but he and Michael bonded over the hopsack. Brian said: “We talked a lot about the precise nature of the brewing process, and also had a tasting, which I loved. I know what kind of beer I like, but to be taught how to identify those different tastes and aspects of the beer was instructive. I found it interesting in particular that Michael wanted to use British hops.”

Michael added: “Normally if I do a brewery tour, it’s about 20 minutes. With Brian, it was about an hour and half. It was really good fun talking about the science side – brewing is definitely both an art and a science. I like supporting British hop growers; a lot of brewers now use imported hops, but we got some fantastic ones, with the same characteristics, but which are more rounded. What we ended up with was an amber ale that tastes like a pale ale, and it’s a style that’s not already in our portfolio.”

Pouring Cosmic Brew at the London launch
Pouring Cosmic Brew at the London launch

The distinctive label helpfully tells us that the beer comes from “Manchester, Earth, Observable Universe. Brian says: “I enjoyed being involved in the branding and design. The pattern of the stars on the label is the view of the night sky looking North over the brewery on the day I was born; March 3rd, 1968. It’s what I would have seen had I looked out of the window. There’s a fact for the pub quiz.”

In terms of flavour, Cosmic Brew is said to have a lemon, tropical and sweet aroma, with a crisp citrus and white grape flavour. I won’t argue with my old friend Michael, but to that I’d add some distinct pepper and spice notes from the hops, giving the beer a real depth of flavour. I’d match this with Lancashire’s rich hotpots and tangy cheese – and as Michael says, “beer really goes with all food.”

At 3.9% ABV, Cosmic Brew is also a very sessionable beer. “If it’s on sale at my shows, they’re going to drink it at the interval, and I do the hard stuff in the second half. If it was 6%, the audience wouldn’t understand the general relativity theory,” observes Brian.

John Porter Brian Cox
John Porter and Brian Cox at the Cosmic Brew London launch. For the benefit of readers who are unsure, Prof Cox is the taller, younger, empirically better looking one.

So, has Prof Cox got the brewing bug? Can we expect a Stellar Stout or Lunar Lager to follow? “No, this is the sort of beer that I drink. It’s the perfect expression of what I like. And it’s great to have a beer in the fridge with my name on it.”

Cosmic Brew will launch into retail and to the on-trade in January and will be available in 500ml bottle and 9g cask. A special preview of the beer will be available in selected pubs around Oldham and North Manchester in October.

It’s a Trappist!

As someone very clever once remarked, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. They were almost certainly talking about something even more important than beer, such as building an atomic bomb or holding a referendum, but there are also plenty of breweries who would be well advised to have the saying inscribed over the brewhouse door in big gold letters.

So, I’ll admit it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I accepted – by which I mean blagged – an invitation to the launch of Britain’s very first Trappist beer. The tradition of monastic brewing goes back at least as long as there have been monks, and in fact beer’s links with religious rituals predates Christianity by millennia.

There are eleven Trappist breweries worldwide – six of them Belgian – currently allowed to sell beers with the Authentic Trappist Product seal of approval. The beers are much admired by beer aficionados, so there was considerable interest when the news came out a year or so back that that the Mount St Bernard monastic community in Charnwood Forest, Leicestershire, would become the twelfth accredited Trappist brewer.

We, as in a group of beer writers and a smattering of local media, rocked up at Mount St Bernard on a gloriously warm July day at the invitation of James Clay, the leading craft and specialist beer distributor, which is distributing the beer.

The details – not only the style and flavour of the beer itself, but also the name and branding – had been kept a secret. My niggling worry, I’ll admit, was that we might end up tasting a beer that was trying a little too hard to be an authentic Trappist beer in the Belgian style, and would end up missing an opportunity to celebrate the British monastic brewing tradition. I needn’t have worried – but more of that in a moment.

We were greeted at the implausibly tranquil and scenic Mount St Bernard by the Abbot, Father Erik. He explained that all Trappist communities have a duty to be self-sustaining and, having taken the decision to exit dairy farming five years ago, after some debate the monks voted to have a crack at brewing.

Planning permission was obtained, and buildings that formerly housed the monastery’s kitchen, refectory and laundry now contain a 20 hectolitre brewery, kitted out with modern German-specced brewing equipment, as well as a bottling line.

Before the grand unveiling of the beer itself, I had a chat with Father Michael, the head brewer, who was very clear that they had been determined all along to come up with a Trappist beer that brought something different to the party – and reading between the lines, it also seems clear that other Trappist brewers were keen that their British colleagues complement rather than compete with the existing beers.

Father Michael took his time creating the recipe and comparing it with existing brews, as evidenced by the range of empty bottles in the pilot brewhouse; everything from Belgian classics to premium British ales and beyond. Among those the monks consulted for advice were the great Steve Wellington, former Master Brewer at the William Worthington’s Brewery in Burton-on-Trent, and Dutch master brewer Constant Keinemans, who sits on the quality commission of the International Trappist Association.

And so to the reveal: The new beer is called ‘Tynt Meadow’, named after the field on the monastery site where the monks first settled in 1835. The official tasting notes describe the beer as having aromas of dark chocolate, liquorice, and rich fruit flavours; full-bodied, and gently balancing the taste of dark chocolate, pepper, and fig. I’ll go along with that – to my palate, the fruit flavours are on the dark side, with raisin and blackberry prominent. Enjoyed over lunch in in Tynt Meadow itself, the beer matched beautifully with strong blue cheese and spicy gingerbread.

Just as importantly, at its heart, Tynt Meadow is a quintessentially British ale, and as such thankfully adds a welcome new dimension to the Trappist beer landscape. The beer is brewed with English barley and hops, and an English strain of yeast. It is twice-fermented, with a second fermentation in the 330ml bottle.

In style terms, the official guidelines may need to be amended; to my mind Tynt Meadow falls somewhere between a strong brown ale and a barley wine, as well as being reminiscent of a traditional strong porter. It’s definitely a gastronomic beer, at 7.4% ABV one to savour slowly at the dinner table rather than to quaff at the bar.

Mike Watson, head of marketing at James Clay, describes it as “a huge milestone for the UK beer scene,” while Father Erik says “being the first active Trappist brewery in the UK puts us in a really good position to bring something truly special to consumers across the country and we feel honoured to be at the forefront of this.

All proceeds from the beer will go towards the upkeep of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey and towards charitable works – when you have the opportunity, it’s well worth trying.

 

The Treasure of the Sierra Nevada

Sierra Nevada beers served at the White Horse Parson's Green
Sierra Nevada beers served at the White Horse Parson’s Green

There is much talk of consolidation in beer circles at the moment. It seems to received wisdom on both sides of the Atlantic seems to be that the craft beer boom has left us overbreweried, which will inevitably lead to the big global players snapping up bargains by buying out the biggest craft players, while many of the smaller ones will simply fall by the wayside.

I’ve no real idea whether that’s true or not, and no strong opinion on whether or not it’s a bad thing if it is. Anecdotally, I know that a number of smaller brewers in the UK have quietly shut up shop recently, but it’s hard to say if that’s a trend. The nature of business failure is that breweries tend to arrive with a PR fanfare and depart with barely a whisper.

Equally, I know craft purists who vowed that not another drop of Camden Town Brewery beer would pass their lips after the business was sold to AB InBev in 2015, and who have sworn off BrewDog since its founders sold 22% of the company to private equity firm TSG Consumer Partners earlier this year.

Personally, I find that I can enjoy Meantime IPA just as well now that the merry-go-round has stopped and it’s owned by Asahi of Japan, and I have no doubt I’ll continue to enjoy a pint of Young’s Ordinary when Marston’s takes over the brand just as much as I did when Wandsworth’s finest first moved to Bedford under the stewardship of Charles Wells. I’ve worked with at least two entrepreneurs who’ve swanned off with a few mill as a result of flogging the fruits of their labours, and I don’t begrudge them a penny of it – although the fact that I’m still working and they’re not is a good indicator of the extent of my own business acumen. 

Steve Grossman at Sierra Nevada dinner at the White Horse Parson's Green
Steve Grossman at Sierra Nevada dinner at the White Horse Parson’s Green

Nevertheless, it’s also good to know that there are independent breweries out there that stick to their guns. So, I was delighted to accept an invitation recently to a beer and food matching dinner at south west London’s temple of beer, the White Horse at Parson’s Green. The event was hosted by Steve Grossman of California’s Sierra Nevada brewery, one of the true pioneers of the US craft beer movement. The event was part of pub group Mitchells & Butler’s summer craft beer festival, and an opportunity to sample some Sierra Nevada beers we don’t see as often over here as the Pale Ale or Torpedo Extra IPA.

Founded in the 1970s by Steve’s brother Ken, over the years Sierra Nevada has built a repertoire of seasonal and speciality beers, with its passion for hops at the heart of its programme,  that keep it’s loyal customers coming back for more. Sierra Nevada remains resolutely family-owned, with a new generation of Grossmans now coming into the business.  

Steve admitted to me they’d had some “interesting conversations” with bigger players over the years but, in line with the brewery’s commitment to sustainability and long-term investment – Sierra Nevada has won awards for its approach to energy and water use at its two US breweries – there are no plans to change the ownership structure.

Given that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a top 20 US beer brand, the Grossmans seem to be doing a pretty good job without outside funding. In the UK, the beers are distributed by Fuller’s, with the flagship beers now a standard part of the back bar fridge range in Fuller’s pubs. 

The menu at the White Horse was:

*Asparagus salad with Sierra Nevada Summerfest

*Palate cleanser – Sierra Nevada Peach IPA sorbet

* Lamb rump with Sierra Nevada River Ryed

* Rhubarb crumble with Sierra Nevada Tropical Torpedo

*Cheese board – Stinking Bishop, Colston Basset blue, Keen’s Cheddar and Innes goats cheese log with Torpedo.

Cheeseboard at Sierra Nevada dinner at the White Horse Parson's Green
Cheeseboard at Sierra Nevada dinner at the White Horse Parson’s Green

Of the beers themselves, the Sierra Nevada Torpedo Tropical IPA  is definitely one I’ll seek out again. Made with Amarillo, Mosaic, Citra, El Dorado and Comet hops, it has wonderful flavours of mango, papaya, and passionfruit to counter the intense hop character. River Ryed has real pepper/spice notes that would, I suspect, make it a beer that would go sublimely with a vindaloo.

Of the food matches, the kitchen team at the White Horse produced superb food, with Sierra Nevada Peach IPA sorbet a real highlight. However, they saved the best for last. The cheeseboard, especially the Colston Basset blue cheese, was an inspired match with Torpedo Extra IPA, with the intensely bitter Magnum, Crystal and Citra hops a true contrast to the rich, sticky sweet/savoury cheese.

So, long may Sierra Nevada stay independent.  Unless they don’t. In which case, f*** it, I’m still having a Torpedo with my Stilton at Christmas.

Spice up your life! The art (and science) of whisky blending.

Grants Family Reserve cocktail
Grants Family Reserve cocktail

In my defence, I wasn’t the only invitee who read “blind tasting” on the email and briefly thought “blindfold tasting”. It wasn’t, however, a 50 Shades of Grey style sensory encounter that bought us to Islington on a wet Wednesday evening, but rather an event organised by the Grant’s Family Reserve whisky brand.

As regular readers know, Scotch is not my top tipple, but I know enough about the whisky market to appreciate that blended scotch has been on a bit of a roller coaster ride in reputation terms over recent years.

Traditionally, the art of the blender was key to the success of a Scotch brand. Take a number of whiskies with distinctive characteristics and put them together to create a blend that delivered the best elements of them all without going to extremes in flavour terms.

The Cult of the Single Malt has turned that view arse-about-face, with today’s whisky connoisseur actively seeking out the boundaries of flavour profile, looking for those extremes of peatiness, spice and other flavour characters.

In a quote the appropriately Scottish Miss Jean Brodie, “for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.” In the process, though, it has become fashionable to look down on blended whisky.

However successful the Scotch Whisky industry has been in building its appeal to the Single Malt purists, I’d argue that it has sacrificed some of the accessibility that gave blended brands its broad appeal in the process. That, in turn has created an opportunity for American whisky in particular to strongly build share in the UK market.

Rob Allanson whisky writer
Rob Allanson

As part of the fightback, the team from Grants kicked off with whisky cocktails, which in itself would have some Scotch purists reaching for their heart pills. Once we were suitably mellowed – and reassured that no blindfolds would be required –  the assembled group of around 10 people was taken through a blind tasting by acclaimed whisky writer Rob Allanson.

We tried three whiskies without being given any details. Drawing on all the experience of my Beer Sommelier training, I carefully appraised the whiskies for clarity, aroma and taste before skilfully picking the wrong one – at least as far as my hosts were concerned. We’d tasted three blends, and while the majority of the group had diplomatically picked Grant’s Family Reserve, my finely tuned palate preferred Famous Grouse.

Blending whisky
Blending whisky

The second stage of the evening, again under Rob’s expert tutelage, required us to blend our own whisky. Armed with jars, bottle, test tubes and pipettes, as well as five different styles of base spirit, we set about enthusiastically blending different percentages of peaty, spicy, sweet and fruity to come up with a winning blend.

On the night I was, I’ll admit, very happy with my spice-forward blend, which I called ‘Spice Trade’, and went away armed with a couple of 100ml bottles. However, when I broke these out for some friends at a dinner party a few days later, it has to be said that the response wasn’t as universally enthusiastic as I’d hoped. ‘Cleaning fluid’ and ‘antiseptic’ were two of the kinder tasting notes.

Fair enough. I have a newfound respect for the art of the master blender. I’ll leave it to the experts.