Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Alexander and James - some seriously unusual spirits

I don't talk about alcohol all that much on this blog, although I think I've done one or two posts on cocktails before, and definitely one on whisky which, in my opinion, is the king of spirits. It may not be quite as subtle and elegant as a really good cognac, as drinkable in a beach bar on a warm evening as rum, or as quaffable at all times and in all places as gin, but it has the advantage of both total reliability and endless variety. My old favourites (Balvenie doublewood is high on the list, since you ask) never let me down, but whenever I end up in a decent, specialist, liquor store or in a bar that takes itself seriously (or just about any pub in Scotland) there's the chance to try something different. Whether it's a different expression (that's the industry term apparently. I apologise) of a brand you already enjoy, or something entirely new, there's something exciting about the prospect of exploring a genuinely entirely novel flavour.

Anyway, all of that is by way of an introduction to why I was particularly delighted to end up with a bottle of Caol Ila Distiller's Edition generously provided by Alexander & James. This is, for those who don't know their scotch, an Islay whisky. Islays have arguably the most distinctive regional character, with a smoky, peaty flavour that tends to be a bit of a love it or hate it thing even with whisky-lovers. Personally, I'm not always an enormous fan but I like it occasionally for variety and I particularly like it in Penicillins. Although cocktails probably aren't quite the thing for a Distiller's Edition. 

The reason I chose the DE, in fact, is because Alexander & James recently featured it in an article about pairing wines with cheese - a fairly unusual combination that appeals to me, and not just because it allows one to skip the port and move straight on to hard liquor. The whole article is well worth a read and it suggests there's some real enthusiasm and knowledge of spirits behind the website. Incidentally, they don't only do whisky although that's arguably where their selection is widest. In the rum, gin, vodka and tequila categories they've wisely selected one top brand and offer it in a few different versions at different price points. The whisky selection, on the other hand, is diverse, pleasingly eclectic, and occasionally quite breathtakingly expensive. The collection appears carefully curated and is mixed up an interesting range of gadgets, glassware and other spirits-associated odds and ends. All the bottles come beautifully packaged in custom boxes, which is a nice touch especially if you're buying as a gift.

As far as my own bottle goes, it's not breathtakingly expensive but still definitely better than I would usually buy a whole bottle of for consumption at home, so I was interested to see how it would compare both to my usual favourites and to the Caol Ila 12 year old that is also occupying my drinks cabinet. Distiller's Editions are often (though not always) spectacular, offering something really unusual for only a very slightly higher price. In this case the main difference seems to be an extra couple of years of age to mellow it out slightly (though it's not clear how many years and I suspect it's a blend of different ages, which is no bad thing), and that it is finished in Moscatel casks, which give it a little extra sweetness to further offset the aggressive smokiness that characterises the 12-year old. 

Cask finishings are one of the most interesting factors in whisky selection, and one of the reasons that (as I mentioned) there is so much pleasure to be had from sampling different offerings. In this case, the Moscatel is just about detectable at the finish without being in any way overpowering, or making the drink unpleasantly sweet. The peatiness of the 12-year old is undeniably present, but it takes a slightly more back seat to clean, mild flavours of honey and coffee. Perhaps unusually for a Islay which, as I said, are something of an acquired taste, I'd see this as very much the sort of drink that you could serve to a range of friends not all of whom are enthusiastic whisky drinkers. It's has little fire and, particularly when opened up with a drop of water, is easy-drinking enough to be a crowd-pleaser while interesting enough not to be mistaken for a cheap blend that lesser hosts might fob their uninitiated friends off with. 

Note: The whisky in this article was provided by Alexander & James for review. No payment has been made for this post, and acceptance of items for review does not guarantee positive coverage.