When it comes to whisky, I’m a total novice. I drink it most frequently on nights out, after I’ve decided my stomach’s nearing capacity and another pint of lager will probably make me puke. The places I tend to end up in don’t sell the ‘good stuff’ – and I doubt I’d be in any fit state to appreciate it anyway – so typically it’ll be Bells or Jack Daniels. Ice may be involved, depending on my drunken whim.
This is the sort of whisky I’m used to.
Occasionally I’ll indulge in a nice short if I’m in a fine restaurant and I’ve just had a very satisfying meal; it can be the perfect way to cap off a wonderful evening. But it’s rare I’ll actually choose what I order. I’ll generally just describe the taste I’m after and allow the barman/sommelier/clueless waiter to work their magic.
This approach has led to me being served some brilliant whiskies down the years, and not being able to remember the name of a single one.
I looked on this month’s Manchester Whisky Festival, part of the Manchester Food and Drink Festival and organised by The Whisky Lounge, as an opportunity for exploration. A learning experience, if you will. For £20, the price of a cheap bottle, I hoped it would give me the chance to try a wide range of whiskies and allow me to decide – and recall – what I actually like.
Underpinning it all was the desire to find a high-class bottle to stand on my living room shelf; one capable of residing alongside the Hennessy XO cognac that’s on there and not looking an inch out of place. A bottle to be reserved for special treats and pick-me-ups; to remind me once in a while of all that is right with the world.
That bottle might well have been the first that I tried.
I wasn’t in the best of moods when I turned up to the The Lowry Hotel for the 11am festival session. If it wasn’t bad enough that I’d made the schoolboy error of picking the sesh that meant I was going to miss the 12 o’clock match between Manchester United and Liverpool, like a right nobhead I’d also left the tickets at home.
The hour my wife and I had set aside beforehand to have a relaxing cup of tea with my mother in the Marks & Spencer cafe was instead spent on a hectic and expensive taxi round-trip to pick the tickets up. And the worst thing was, it was completely my fault.
I was livid as I queued up to enter the conference room; furious as I quickly glanced around at the busy stands and picked an empty one to start off with. Even as the good people from Glenglassaugh told me their history and took me through their whisky manufacturing process sip by sip, I was still seething at my own stupidity.
But when I was given the opportunity to try the Glenglassaugh Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky 26-Year-Old that had pride of place in the centre of the table, all the feelings of annoyance drifted away.
The picture I’ve included here does scant justice to how attractive the bottle was, with the simply curved lines of the mostly-plain bell-shaped vessel allowing the gorgeous honey-coloured whisky to shine through. It was hypnotically beautiful – I couldn’t stop staring at it – and clearly very expensive. I figured it was just a showpiece. Not for one moment did I ever expect that they’d open it up and allow me try it.
I’m not a one for tasting notes*, but let’s just say that it easily lived up to its £149.99 price tag, both on the nose and the palate. As I savoured it, and the anger subsided, I thought to myself: “You’re a lucky bugger getting to drink this. I think it’s going to be a good day after all.”
“I reckon you’re right,” I thought back. “Just one problem though – I think we’ve made the error of drinking the best whisky in the room first.”
Based on what we sampled in the following three hours**, I think my initial assessment was correct. Nothing came close to matching the majesty of the Glenglassaugh. The second best whisky I had was probably King Car, the latest release from the distillery of the same name based in Taiwan.
The company was apparently making its debut at a European whisky festival and they proudly told me how their Kavalan whiskies have been wiping the floor with scotch at a bunch of major awards shows in recent years. It was pretty clear to see why. There was a uniqueness to their flavours, and a freshness and vibrancy that really set them apart.
I wouldn’t be surprised at all if when they finally launch in Europe next year, they end up being a huge hit. I certainly know I’ll be buying a bottle (as long as it’s not too expensive).
The only other whisky that really stood out to me was the Ardberg Uigeadail, a highly revered drop from Islay. It stood out mostly because I didn’t really like it. I could appreciate that it was a very fine drink, perhaps the second best in terms of quality that I had all day. It just wasn’t to my taste, which I found really surprising. Given its reputation, I’d thought Ardberg might be the brand for me.
But in fact, I didn’t really like any of the Islay whiskies, or anything from anywhere else that was advertised as ‘peaty’. They just tasted of decay; like whisky that had been infused with the rotting lung of a chain-smoking cancer victim. I’m not quite sure what there is to enjoy about that.
On the whole, the day was extremely interesting. I felt like I learned a lot and moved a good few steps closer to working out what sort of whisky is right for me.*** The event was very well-organised and welcoming and the perfect place for a novice to begin a journey into this world.
I didn’t buy a bottle in the end. The Glenglassaugh’s a bit too expensive for me and I’ll need to do some research to come up with a suitable alternative. But the Manchester Whisky Festival certainly got me thinking. And that’s all I ever wanted it to do.
*If you’re interested, the Glenglassaugh website calls it “a complex whisky with rich sherry notes, combined with a medley of boiled fruits”. Seems fair enough.
**Four hours might seem like a long time, but it’s definitely needed. An event like this is nothing like the Big Indie Wine Fest, where you can go hell for leather at the booze from start to finish. You need to take your time with this one, or else you’ll probably die. Our strategy was to try out a couple of stands, sit down for 15 minutes or so until we stopped feeling wobbly, then move on to another two. Once we’d done eight or so it was time to leave.
***Highland and Speyside seemed to be up my street, and the milder whiskies, with notes of fruit and sherry. The harsher ones that tasted of emphysema and death didn’t do much for me, but it’s possible as I get older and my tastebuds change, I might grow to like them.
I received an email through today from the fine people at hangingditch wine merchants, revealing that I, along with around 200 others, had done spectacularly badly in the blind taste test they were running at Manchester Food and Drink Festival’s Big Indie Wine Fest over the weekend.
My excuse for only getting two out of the six wines right and therefore not winning whatever the hell the prize was (was there one? Things got a little bit hazy around that point of the afternoon…) is that I’d probably consumed well over 50 wines in the preceding three hours of constant drinking and as such my tastebuds were well and truly buggered.
If my ability to discern flavours beyond alcohol is not a strong enough justification for my complete and utter failure, then prepare to be shocked when I reveal that I was also a little bit drunk.
You see, I firmly believe – and I hope you all agree with me here – that spittoons are for the weak.
Despite being a budding oenophile, I’ve never been to a wine tasting or any other wine-related event before. The Big Indie Wine Fest at the People’s History Museum was my first bash at it, and it was absolutely fantastic.
For £10 entry, my three companions and I were able to try dozens and dozens of wonderful and interesting wines and meet several wonderful and interesting vendors (plus the odd dickhead). While there were inevitably quite a few mediocre bottles knocking around, the standard was mostly very high and with plenty of the typically £10-£12 wines living up to or exceeding their price bracket, there’s no doubt that I got my money’s worth in booze.
We were given a tasting glass and a tasting guide as we walked into the hall where the wine festival was taking place. There were more than a dozen different stalls set up around the sides of the room, each with anything from two to 12 different wines to try. All of them had a spittoon next to them (for the WEAK! I said) and the good ones had water available as well.*
Anybody thinking they would never go to an event like this because they’d expect it to be intimidating, whether it’s a fear of not knowing enough about wine or some misplaced feeling of class inferiority, should think again. All four of us rocked up scruffy as you like and nobody batted an eyelid. The most knowledgeable member of our group (me) would fit quite firmly into the category of ‘wine novice’, while the least knowledgeable would come under ‘I don’t like wine, I think it’s rubbish’.
Yet, to a man, we had a brilliant time. Even the wine-hater found plenty to enjoy after I suggested red might be a little more to his tastes. Once we got over the initial few minutes of “I don’t have a clue what we’re meant to be doing”, it was pure gold.
Without a doubt, I’ll be going to more of these things in the future and I’ll be recommending this event in particular to anybody who’ll listen. Seriously, you should give it a try – I doubt I’ll spend many better tenners this year.
Three vendors stood out above all the rest, so I’ll give them a bit of attention here:
Origin Wines (Taste Buddies) – All the wines on this stall were from small producers based in Italy, France and Spain and you could taste the care that went into each and every one. Several were brilliant, those that weren’t were at least interesting, and along with every single one the charming scouse bloke behind the stall was able to give us stories and jokes that helped to bring them alive.** Particularly memorable was just about everything made by Luigi Giusti, or “my mate Giavanni”, who also did a wonderful extra virgin olive oil. I plan to buy a lot.
Pacta Connect – Regretfully we only came to this lot right at the end, but the lady behind the stand was fantastic and made sure we got to taste all the Croatian wine they were offering before we got kicked out. I’m sure I’ve never had Croatian wine before, but even to my then knackered tastebuds, there was something new, exciting and refreshingly different about the bottles on this stall. I’m eager to try more.
Porto Vino – Not everything on this stand worked – I summed one up as tasting like “wet dog” – but when the wines did it screamed value for money. I promised my wife I’d buy her a bottle of the magnificent Moscatel de Setubal Sivipa dessert wine and we’re seriously considering foregoing the usual bottle of Champagne on Christmas morning and quaffing a sparkling Quinta da Romeira instead. At £15, it was a third of the price of the cheapest Laurent Perrier being poured on the other side of the room and it wiped the floor with it.
*Water is a must for this type of event. The tasting glass will get pretty dirty once a few different wines have been poured into it and if you don’t want to spoil the drinks coming up with remnants of those already consumed, you’ll want to be able to wash it out regularly over a spittoon (for the SMART!).
**The Origin Wines man was doing a masterclass that evening, which you had to pay extra to get into. I’m pretty sure we got a good dose of it for free at the stand.
I’ve been having a great time at Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2011 since it started on Friday. Out of everything I’ve tried so far there have been two main standouts: the Big Indie Wine Fest, which I’ll cover in another post, and the cheese on sale in St Anne’s Square.
The market they’ve got there is dominated by cheese vendors, who must make up at least a quarter of all the stalls. The quality of some of their produce is ridiculous and has comfortably outshone everything else I’ve got around to tasting in the last few days.*
The easiest stall to be drawn to is that run by the Saddleworth Cheese Company, which is owned by Sean Wilson, who played Martin Platt in Coronation Street. His celebrity is clearly a major selling point – a huge picture of him decorates the stand – and I’m sure they get a lot of business solely because people want to be served by the male nurse off Corrie. But try their cheese, speak to them and you’ll soon see the business is much more than just a gimmick.
Sean’s partner in fromagerie, who has something of the Johnny Rotten about him, is brilliant.** Dashing around the stand making sure all the potential customers try all of the cheeses, he’s extremely passionate and charming; someone who clearly loves his cheese and just wants everybody else to love it as much as he does. He explained to us how all the different varieties were made, where their individual flavours came from and generally did a bloody good job of convincing us we needed to buy some.
With a friend, I purchased all four of their products: Muldoons Picnic (crumbly Lancashire), Hows yer father (creamy Lancashire), Mouth Almighty (tasty Lancashire) and Smelly Apeth (blue). They were all very good, but the award-winning blue was clearly in a different class from the rest.
Four big blocks of cheese – Mr Rotten went out of his way to make sure we got the four biggest slices as part of the four for £10 deal – would normally be enough to keep me going for a while and I had no intention of buying any more. But on a second visit to St Anne’s I ended up getting sucked back in by the fine folks from the Cheshire Cheese Company, who sell some very interesting cheese indeed.
Alongside your traditional mature cheddars and creamy Lancashires, they make some very weird and wonderful truckles, flavoured with ingredients such as toffee, curry and jerk spice. They’ve got a relatively large number of cheeses to try and that they’re able to pull all the strange ones off without making anything truly disgusting is extremely impressive – although I’d imagine Taste of the Raj and Sticky Toffee Heaven probably get a bit much once the novelty wears off.
I bought three rounds off them for £10: Robinsons Old Tom Ale & Mustard Cheddar, Bowland Mature Lancashire, Apple, Sultana & Cinnamon and Traditional Cheshire. All are pretty great, but I think the Old Tom is my favourite.
The final cheese I bought was from the French cheese stand, the name of which escapes me. Looking around at it and struggling to keep the slobber in my mouth, I wanted to kick myself for spending so much on cheese from other stalls when I could’ve got some from there instead. I was looking for a non-dairy cheese for my wife and picked up a beautiful gooey, unpasteurised goat’s cheese, which I think was £3. It’s easily the best cheese I’ve had from the festival so far and I feel I need to go back.
Of course, there are plenty of other cheese vendors – including the famous Mrs Kirkham’s – in St Anne’s Square at the moment and I suppose I should probably try them all for, erm, the sake of fairness. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it…
Besides, I’ve opened a bottle of port all special. Can’t let that go to waste now, can I?
*Cheese has even outshone these rather addictive pork scratchings from The Crusty Pie Company, which I’m munching my way through while I write this post. They’re also available in St Anne’s Square.
**Besides the food, getting to meet the producers and vendors is the best part of MFDF or any other food festival. Obviously not all of them are cut out for speaking to members of the public, but when you come across a real character who cares so much about their produce, it’s really cool.
The highlight of this year’s culinary calendar in Manchester, MFDF 2011, gets underway tomorrow. The Manchester Food and Drink Festival has been running since 1998 and for me it’s by far and away the best foodie experience the city has to offer.
Manchester has often been sneered at for its lack of really high-end, Michelin-star standard restaurants and quite rightly so. For a city of this size to offer such little in the way of gastronomic brilliance is a bit of a joke. Edinburgh and Birmingham can do it, so why can’t we?*
But for 11 days every year, the place I call home offers up the MFDF, or as it should be titled, “The Engraved Apology”. A fantastic celebration of food and drink that goes a long way towards making up for the shortage of gourmet treats during the rest of the year.
I’m not going to do a preview, as there are way too many things to cover and half the fun lies in just turning up to the Festival Hub outside Manchester Town Hall and seeing what’s going on. Over the years this unguided approach has rewarded me with dozens of freebies, countless enjoyable cookery demonstrations, an item off my Foods To Try Before I Die list and my first ever three-Michelin-star food.** You really can’t go wrong.
(Besides, the official website will tell you everything you need to know.)
But what I will do is outline my plans for the next few weeks and say how excited I am to get stuck in.
The plan for tomorrow is to head down to Albert Square on my lunchbreak and see what’s on offer. They’re making a big thing about street food this year, so I’m hoping there’ll be lots of things to choose from for a dinnertime gorge. After I’ve finished work, I’m going to go back again with some friends and give the beer tent a thorough examination.
(Like many people, I imagine, I’m going to be trying to walk that delicate line between nicely drunk and too drunk to enjoy the rugby at 6am on Saturday morning.)
After England are done giving France a darn good thrashing in the World Cup quarter-final***, I’m off to the Big Indie Wine Fest at The People’s History Museum. I missed this event last year, so I’m doubly keen to go this time, even if it ends up more hair of the dog than sophisticated wine-tasting (from the sounds of it, it was a bit like that last year anyway…)
I’ve got a table booked at MFDF champion The Mark Addy immediately afterwards and am eager to see if they can deliver me a meal as good as they did last month. The restaurant actually first came to my attention at MFDF a while ago when I saw a great presentation by chef Robert Owen Brown. Not sure if he’s on again this year(?), but if they’ve not invited him back, someone needs shooting with one of those gun cartridges he serves herbs in.
Sunday I’ll probably rest, but I intend to be back again throughout the week to see what else I can treat myself with. I’ll definitely be there on Saturday, when I’ve got tickets to the Manchester Whisky Festival at The Lowry Hotel. I enjoy whisky, but I’m a complete and utter novice, so I’m hoping this will point me in the right direction and send me down the path of the connoisseur.
Can’t wait until tomorrow. Let the consumption commence!
*The new Michelin UK guide came out today, and surprise surprise, Manchester didn’t feature again. You can see the full list, including the three restaurants in Birmingham and five restaurants in Edinburgh to carry a Michelin star, here.
**A note of caution here – I’m pretty sure that it was MFDF that one year had a Heston Blumenthal stand, but I’m not 100% certain. Why he’d be up here for another event I don’t know, but even if that was the case, it’s still a story I like to tell.
It wasn’t long after The Fat Duck had been named the world’s best restaurant, but as Heston was barely on TV at that time, few people knew who he was and as such nobody seemed to care that two of his development chefs were sat in a faux ice cream truck outside G-Mex selling three-star-Michelin food. There was literally nobody there when I went up to sample a red wine slushed ice and millionaire shortbread and I remember thinking how crazy it was that here was food from a world-renowned genius chef and nobody in Manchester gave a shit. Maybe that’s why we have such mediocre restaurants.
Anyway, my first taste of the three-star stuff didn’t exactly blow me away. The millionaire shortbread was perfect, but it was about the size of my thumbnail, so was hardly something you could savour for long. The ice was interesting at first, but was very one note and quickly became boring and sickly. I think I threw some of it away.
***I’m trying to be optimistic. France are terrible. We’ll be alright, won’t we?
You can read further posts on MFDF11 below:
I’ve spent the last two and a half years of my life relentlessly saving money. I squirreled away every penny I could, firstly to buy a house and then to pay for a wedding.
For some people the saving experience can be a positive one. It proves they’ve got the willpower to keep their spending in line; it makes them feel good about how sensible they are.
I’m not one of those people. I wanted to shoot myself in the face.
Going out to restaurants is one of my favourite things to do in the entire world. Dozens of the best evenings of my life have been spent in nice restaurants with good food, company and conversation. When everything is on song, it’s a near peerless way to spend a couple of hours.
But for the last 30 months – big gourmet honeymoon aside – I’ve had to put this part of my life on hold. And it’s been excruciating. I’d get excited about big new openings and places that had picked up rave reviews and then have to stop myself from getting carried away because I knew I couldn’t go.
Since the self-imposed restaurant ban came in to force, several highly-regarded restaurants have opened AND closed. I feel genuine pain at the thought that I never had the chance to try them.
Fortunately now, as a finally married homeowner, I no longer have to live this way. For the next few months at least, the saving shackles are off and I’m going to dive back into Manchester’s restaurant scene head first to find out what I’ve been missing.*
Here are the five restaurants at the top of my hitlist. If I can get to at least four before the year’s out, I’ll be a happy man.**
Anybody know anyone who has been to these? Are there any restaurants that I’m missing?
Stanley Street, Salford, M3 5EJ
0161 832 4080
I’ve been wanting to go ever since seeing chef Robert Owen Brown’s highly informative and piss-myself funny presentation on game birds at the Manchester Food and Drink Festival (MFDF) a while back. Handing out dead birds at the end to anybody who fancied one sealed the deal. This is my kind of chef.
2 Church Lane, Prestwich, Manchester M25 1AJ
0161 798 5841
This came to my attention when it was named Best Restaurant at last year’s MFDF and I spent hours trying to figure out why the hell anybody would open a nice restaurant in Prestwich. I’m still puzzled by that, but the menu looks great. I love that they’ve got the confidence to stick just 12 dishes on there. Classy.
The Lowry Hotel, 50 Dearmans Place, Chapel Wharf, Manchester, M3 5LH
0161 827 4041
You’ve probably guessed by now that I’m drawn to expensive things and this is pretty much as expensive as you’ll get in Manchester, with a typical starter over £10 and a lot of the mains in the mid-£20 range. Reviews are good and it’s got a few accolades, but I really just want to see if it can live up to its price tag.
36 John Dalton Street, Manchester, M2 6LE
0161 839 9907
From what I’ve read about the place and what I can see on the menu, the chef’s got a lot of ambition, which is rare in Manchester. Whether he’s trying too hard and attempting stuff that is beyond him remains to be seen, but I do like a tryer, so I want to give him a chance. Plus, Vertigo’s an awesome film. How can you say no to Hitchcock?
Malmaison, Piccadilly, Manchester, M1 1LZ
0161 278 1000
Two words: Josper Grill. Smoak’s desperate need to be cool, as demonstrated by its vomit-inducing website and we’re-too-hip-to-spell-properly name, makes me want to self-harm. But if it can deliver a top notch steak, as its equipment and menu suggest, all will be forgiven.
*If I’m totally honest, it wasn’t quite as bad as I’ve been making out. Thanks to very generous relatives and the odd lapse, I’ve been able to eat at all these generally well-thought-of places in the last two years. Some of them (mostly the ones which weren’t crushing disappointments) more than once:
The French Restaurant
Michael Caines @ Abode
No.4 Dine & Wine
Sam’s Chop House
Out of all the places, people and events that have led me down the path to rabid foodiedom in the last few years, the sadly defunct Paul Heathcote venture Grado is probably the most significant.
It was the place where I fell in love with mushrooms and learned just how breathtaking a good wine can be. It was where I first discovered the joy of scallops a la plancha, and poached duck eggs, and rabbit braised in Rioja. It opened my eyes to exciting Spanish versions of some of my favourite foods – the ‘morcilla’ black pudding; the ‘crema catalana’ crème brûlée.
(It was also the restaurant where I began to stop caring so much about price and my wallet started to hate me.)*
So it was somewhat fitting that just a few weeks before it closed its doors and transformed into the far less interesting Living Ventures property The Grill on New York Street, Grado gave me the first opportunity to tick an item off my list of Foods To Taste Before I Die.It was local restaurant critic Paul Ogden (in a piece for CityLife) who turned me on to Joselito Gran Reserva Ham. Describing it in a review, he managed to make it sound so magical to me I could imagine it was cut from one of Harry Potter’s legs and dry-cured by Merlin inside the Ark of the Covenant – with help from sous chef Mary Poppins.
This “precious”, “magnificent” piece of pig, with its “awesome” depth of flavour capable of evoking thoughts of high-end wine, was simply irresistible. It was one of the first things I put down on The List and I was thrilled to see it on offer as I wandered over to the Grado stand at the Manchester Food & Drink Festival (MFDF) in October last year.
I love the MFDF and, as per usual, I was enjoying a very nice day out at it. I’d watched some chef presentations in one of the tents, I’d sampled a bunch of freebies and I’d just finished my second jar of Robinsons Old Tom.
Even that rare beast, a blazing Manchester sun, had made an appearance in the sky.
All that was needed to cap off a glorious afternoon was a potentially mindblowing eating experience. And there was Grado, ever reliable and exciting Grado, to deliver it. Nothing could go wrong.
But then it did.
Because unfortunately, this landmark moment, this defining chapter of my budding food odyssey (I’m going wildly over the top here, but humour me), failed to materialise.
I managed to buy the ham; that bit went OK. It cost me £10 for something like 30g.
(It felt like rather a lot of money for not very much ham, but when you buy a slice of Harry Potter, that’s what you expect.)
I went back to my seat (that bit also went OK) and I raised the polystyrene dish up to my nose so I could give the two-inch, wafer thin slices of pretty, red flesh a good sniff.**
(This bit turned out to be a bit pointless – you get a better aroma from a pack of supermarket Parma ham.)
And then I put a slither of the Gran Joselito in my mouth and opened up a whole world of disappointment.
I’d expected a taste bang, I got a whimper. This fine wine I’d been promised turned out to be watered down. The depth I’d been told about was nothing but a paddling pool.
Don’t get me wrong, it was nice – far better even than any ham I’d had before. And the flavours Mr Ogden promised (“the texture in turns firm and melty, the taste salty and sweet, then slightly bitter and all the time there is a nuttiness from the acorns”) were all there.
They were just muted. Not subtle, but flat. Pleasant, yet enormously meh.
Now, it might be my palate simply isn’t refined enough for what’s meant to be the world’s best jamón. Or it might be I killed it with the free shot of whisky, the free shot of Benedictine (*shudders*) and the magnificent but very strong dark ale I’d drunk beforehand.
(At the very least, I’m sure it didn’t help.)
Maybe this type of ham just isn’t to my taste.
What I am sure of is that it was a crap way to kick off The List. Sure, my expectations were probably way too high/misguided and I could’ve given my tastebuds a better chance of appreciating it. But it was still a big letdown and left me worrying whether any of the stuff I’d jotted down would live up to the hype.
Verdict: Not recommended
NEXT UP: Steak tartare
*I could go on and on about how much I loved that restaurant and the impact it had on me, but those are words probably best left for a separate post. I found a copy of one its menus on the internet the other week and it made me sad to think that these great dishes are no longer being produced in Manchester. It’s a real shame.
**My wife thinks it’s weird that I give my food a good smell before I eat it. She doesn’t know what she’s missing.