“The Spirit of Christmas“
Posted: 4th December 2017
I flew briefly to Dublin and back last month, and I while I hung around in Stansted Airport I looked to buy a suitable present for someone over there. I thought a bottle of spirits might be appropriate. That meant buying in one of those places that used to be called ‘duty-free shops’ in the old days and which is now a hundred-yard stretch of branded goods with a row of tills at the end which call out siren-like from the left and right as you beetle towards your gate. Just a casual glance assured me that there was no price advantage at all, just that they have you over a barrel because you are not allowed to take more than 100 cls of liquid through immigration.
CORK DRY GIN
Most of what was on offer was actually cheaper at my local Co-op: buyers of drink in airports are plucked with a ruthlessness that would make the most notorious oriental souk appear like a place of charity. On the way back to London I fancied a bottle of Cork Dry Gin, as it somehow sums up a certain sort of genteel Irish lady (and the odd Irish gent) who likes a pink gin or G & T at sundown as opposed to the more usual rough diamonds who drink a pint of stout or glass of the Paddy. It too came with a hefty price-tag, so much so that I was almost tempted to buy one of the multitudinous new-fangled Irish gins that were also on sale, but then again, you need to sample them first. Cork Dry is tried and tested as far as I’m concerned: there are no strange new botanicals there – one man’s bog myrtle can turn out be another man’s dog violet.
Spirits are an area of huge growth, and for anyone outside the business it would be nigh impossible to keep up with the number of new brands. I have a had a few of these Johnny-come-lately gins, and generally liked them, the reason why many have emerged is because they make it possible for a whisky distillery, say, to sell spirits under three years old, which means generating profits earlier. Other new gins are the fruit of a more liberal policy in granting distilling licenses. Another area that seems to be growing is grain whiskies.
I have yet to see the future Duke of Beckham’s advertisements for Haig Club on the television. The whisky comes in a blue bottle that looks a little like some oil or ointment from an old-fashioned hairdresser’s saloon. I have to admit I quite like its sweet, Turkish delight-style and quite often pour myself a little noggin at bedtime. A few days ago I had the good fortune to be introduced to another grain whisky: Bain’s from the Cape. It is the baby of Yorkshire-born former county cricketer Andy Watts and is only now being projected to various points in the greater world. Unlike the wheaten Haig Club, it is made from maize, which is something of a staple in the Cape, and then matured in two sets of secondhand Bourbon casks. So that means more maize than is used in Bourbon, but also a big nod to Bourbon from the casks. It is hot in the Cape, and things age quickly. The whisky is sold at a respectable five years giving it a sweet taste again, and an aroma of bananas and honey.
Andy made an interesting parting comment (I was parting) when he referred to the corn used in British grain whiskies. These days, he said it was wheat, or whatever was surplus to requirements; but going back to the time before we joined the EU, he thought that they might have used as much Imperial maize. Anyone with a very old bottle of Invergordon or North British might see if they can recognize the taste. The oldest commercial age statements out there seem to be twenty-five years, so that would already mean the whisky was made from wheat.
WANDERLAST WINE CLUB
It has not been all gin and whisky this month by any means. I discovered, among other things, the Wanderlust Wine Club which will deliver wines by courier to most parts of London. I was particularly struck by the champagnes from Roger Barnier (£23.40) which seemed to offer good quality for money given the fantastic prices of champagne this year that have come about as a result of the weakness of our currency. There were also a number of very good wines from Wanderlust’s Rhone supplier Fontaine du Clos, including an excellent Vacqueyras at £13.67.
DOMAINE BOYARS NEW PREMIUM WINE-BOLGARE
It was also a great pleasure to meet up once again with my old friend Margo Todorov, the man who brought Bulgarian wine to England in the early eighties.
When Margo started out, he was an emissary of a communist government trying to offload Bulgarian production in Britain after a puritanical wave cut off supplies to the previously thirsty market in the Soviet Union. The eighties were the boom-years, and that was when I first came across Margo in his HQ off the Caledonian Road. Ironically it was the demise of communism which put an end to ‘Uncle Bulgaria’ as some people persisted in calling Bulgarian wine. The land reverted to its former owners after communism was abandoned, but they had to pay for any ‘improvements’ made by the state. Rather than do that, they let the vines rot to avoid having to compensate the government. Many of the state-owned wineries closed as they too reverted to private ownership. Margo, however, was able to salvage a couple of wineries from the general rubble and carried on crushing and selling Bulgarian wine under the brand name Domaine Boyar and based at the Blueridge Winery in Sliven.
The main range is now called ‘Bolgaré’. I was quite pleased with the Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot varietal wines (£7.50) and even more so with the Merlot/Mavrud blend (£9.50). I was reminded of a number of trips to Bulgaria in the old days, and the many adventures I had there.
I wish Margo luck in relaunching his Bulgarian wines in Britain. He told me that he was writing his memoirs and said it was an idea I had suggested to him once as we drank beer together at a café in Shumen in eastern Bulgaria. Suddenly I remembered the occasion, and the stories he told about the different agencies trying to get him to spy on the British and how if you were smart you could fob one off against the other. He also brought to life the atmosphere in Sofia at the time of perestroika when it became increasingly clear that Zhivkov’s regime had only a very short time to run. I am looking forward to the book. I think it could be a gripping read.