Return of the Beerstash Chronicles: Hold that thought – Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2020

Fuller's Vintage Ale 2020
Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2020

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Readers will, of course, need no reminding that I maintain a healthy scepticism about the benefits of aging beer deliberately, as opposed to drinking it fresh. LATER EDIT: Apparently, a few forgetful souls did need reminding, so here’s a link. Do try and keep up in future.

Having said that, there’s no denying that beers designed to be put away for drinking down the line often bring out the best in their brewers. Fullers Vintage Ale is a case in point. The 2020 edition marks the 24th year since the Griffin Brewery began producing this limited edition beer.

I’m fortunate enough to have been to a couple of tastings of various vintages. In 2011, John Keeling, then the Fuller’s head brewer and now the brewery’s ambassador at large, hosted a memorable tasting in the Hock Cellar at every vintage to date. Sadly, I seem to have misplaced my own no-doubt incisive notes from that occasion, which is a clear loss to posterity, but thankfully my friend Des de Moor’s careful notes on each beer are available:

Much more recently, I contributed a few bottles when I took part in a tasting organised by fellow beer writer Glynn Davis at the Great Northern Railway Tavern, the proceedings of which are recorded here:

Fuller's Vintage Ale 2020 gift pack
Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2020 gift pack

So when Asahi UK very kindly sent me a bottle of the newly released 2020 Vintage, as well as a gift pack containing the 2018 and 2019 as well, my initial thought was that I should express my thanks by cracking open one of the 2020s and put some tasting note online.

But I’m not going to. For several good reasons. Firstly, anyone who’d like to know what the beer currently tastes like is going to be far better served by the opinion of the great Roger Protz:

There is also an excellent video of a comparison tasting of the 2020 vintage alongside the 2011 featuring the aforementioned John Keeling, as well as Guy Stewart, Fuller’s Brewing Manager and the creator of  this year’s vintage, as well as Richard Simpson of Simpsons Malt and Paul Corbett of hop merchant Charles Faram & Co:

Just as importantly, I’ve decided this is not a beer I want to open and taste as a sad and solitary experience, especially now . We live in difficult times. Around the world, more than a million families are mourning the loss of a loved one to COVID-19. The hospitality sector in the UK is on the brink of the abyss as measures intended to control the spread of the virus, effective or otherwise, hit hard.

Fuller's Vintage Ale 2020 pour
Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2020 pour

So, hold that thought. I’m going to put my bottles of Fuller’s Vintage 2020 away in the hope that, somewhere down the line, I’ll open and share them in happier times, with friends.

All credit to Asahi UK, which acquired the Fuller’s brewery and beer brands at the start of 2019, for continuing the tradition of brewing Vintage Ale, and many thanks for sending me the beers.

Here’s to better times ahead.  Cheers!

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.