Thursday, January 29, 2009

The great mineral water rip-off

Despite the reaction against bottled mineral water I still drink it in preference to tap. (Long explanation that could take up the whole of this post but basically I worry about the residues of drugs and other chemicals that it's carrying)

But there doesn't seem much justification for the discrepancy in prices between the heavily promoted brands and the supermarket own brands. I'm not saying they don't taste different - they do - simply that I'm not prepared to pay five or six times as much for a water I like than a water that is maybe a little more bland but perfectly refreshing.

Take San Pellegrino, for instance. A sparkling water which currently sells for 87p for a 750ml bottle in Tesco - or 11.6p per 100ml. You can buy 2 litres of Tesco's own Ashbeck Mountain Spring water at the moment for 33p or 1.7p per 100ml. If you put ice (made with still mineral water) and a slice of lemon or lime in it, it's delicious and a fraction of the price.

I will buy a branded mineral water I like when it's on special offer. Tesco currently has Evian for example at 60p for 2 litres which works out at 3p per 100ml, again, more expensive than an own brand equivalent but much, much cheaper than the £2 odd that you will pay for a medium-sized bottle at garages, stations and sandwich shops. (It's well worth buying a pack of six small individual bottles from the supermarket then keep on filling them from a large one once you've drunk the contents. And I always try and carry a bottle with me so that I don't have to pay the outrageous amount they charge in hotel mini-bars)

Interestingly there's a report in Le Figaro today saying that even the French have cut down the amount they're spending on mineral water and I'm sure the same is true of the UK. So where do you stand? Has the credit crunch made you give up your mineral water habit or change the type you buy or have you always drunk tap?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A good weekend to buy whisky

One of the new rules of supermarket shopping is to buy what everyone else wants - or what the supermarkets think they want. Those are the things on which there are the best deals.

In case it's escaped your notice tomorrow night is Burns' Night so the special offers this weekend are on on haggis, swedes and whisky of which the latter is by far the most appealing.

I've just spotted Grants, a perfectly decent brand on sale at Somerfield* for £10.49. Tesco, according to has got Bells for £11.92 instead of £13.97 (surprisingly undercut by Ocado which is only charging £11.20 for it) and Talisker for £21.93 instead of £26.93. And Sainsbury's has got Famouse Grouse for £11.

All these brands of course are quite a bit dearer than the supermarket own brand whiskies which cost as little as £7.83 for Asda Smartprice whisky. I haven't got an ASDA nearby so can't tell you if it's any good but Martin Isark of gives it 9/10. My view would be that's great for a cocktail or a toddy but if you're drinking it neat go for the Grouse - or the Talisker if the budget will run to it.

*Have just spotted on the Somerfield site that they also have Glenmorangie for £17.99 instead of £27.99, a whopping £10 discount which beats the Talisker deal. Probably not in all branches though.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A great sherry bargain

Amid the shelves of identikit bottles that now fill the average supermarket wine aisle it's incredibly exciting to come across a genuinely interesting drink: an authentic Spanish cream sherry made by the very respectable Lustau company for Sainsbury's Taste the Difference range.

Of course it's not selling otherwise why would they reduce it from £9.99 to £4.99, quite amazing for a sherry of this class and a full size bottle at that. You may, of course, be put off by the words 'cream sherry' but don't be - this is on the edge of being dry but with all that yummy squishy raisiny flavour that makes sweet sherry so delicious. It's almost like liquid fruit cake.

When to drink it? Well towards the end of or after dinner, I suggest - with blue cheese or dark chocolate or even with vanilla ice cream. There don't seem to be that many bottles left so snap it up while you can. RATING: *****

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Two under £4 reds

Just as the average spend on a bottle of wine was creeping up, the credit crunch has brought it crashing down to earth with a bump again and the sub £4 price point seems more important than ever. I've seen a lot of wines over the last few weeks discounted 'by 50%' to £3.99 but would take that with a pinch of salt. They may be good value at £3.99 but they weren't worth £7.99 in the first place.

My eye was caught the other day by a Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon in Tesco at just £3.32. Now that's a blast from the past. When I first start drinking wine, long before the days of New World supremacy, Bulgaria was the source of some of the best cheap and cheerful drinking. So how does it compare now? See below:

Tesco Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon, Reka Valley £3.32
There's no vintage on this bottle which is always a bad sign (unless it's a bottle of fizz) though not half as bad a sign as the lurid Borat-like scene on the label. And those who have got used to the intense blackcurrant flavours of Chilean Cab, for example, are going to be in for a disappointment. It's drinkable - just - but frankly is more useful as a cooking or mulling wine. There's far better value drinking in Aldi and Lidl. Give it a miss. NO RATING.

Vineyard X Garnacha 2007, Borja (£3.98 a bottle or 3 bottles for £10, Threshers, Wine Rack)
Snap up this offer before the nanny state decrees that we can no longer have our 3 for a tenner deals. (Do they intend to ban offers on crisps and chocolate, I wonder, to prevent obesity?) It's a marvellous example of a modern Spanish red - exuberant, soft and juicy - at a terrific price, even at the one bottle rate. Knock back with any robust pub-style grub or a plate of tomatoey pasta or pizza. RATING: ****

Monday, January 12, 2009

A lovely, pure perry

We had supper with a food writer friend, Andrea Leeman, on Saturday night who’s researching a book on food and drink in Gloucestershire. To kick off the meal she produced a bottle of Day’s Cottage Perry which is made from such romantic sounding pears as Brown Bess and Blakeney Red.

I like perry in theory but am often disappointed by it. Either it’s too sweet, too weak and wimpy or too funky and farmyardy, but this was just essence of pears - pure and unadulterated. You could easily drink it instead of a white wine. In fact I’d infinitely prefer it to most wines of that price (£4 a full size (75cl) bottle).

The great thing about drinks like cider, perry and beer - along with foods such as bread, pasta and rice - is that most of us can afford, even if only occasionally, to buy the best there is - something that doesn’t apply to wine, whisky or meat, for example. Life’s little luxuries, I call them.

You can buy Day’s Cottage products in Bristol and Stroud’s weekly farmers’ markets or direct from the website at

Friday, January 9, 2009

Save money. Drink beer!

Even those people who profess to love beer, I've noticed, hesitate to drink it in a restaurant but it is one of the most effective ways of cutting the cost of eating out. True, not every restaurant has a decent beer list but they never will unless we beer-lovers press them to stock our favourite brews.

One of my new year's resolutions is to order beer rather than wine at every opportunity so I was pleased to get off to a good start with a bottle of Samuel Smith's Organic Best with the very tasty beef, carrot and pickled walnut pie I ordered at our local cafĂ©. OK, a pie and a pint (or half a pint) is a predictable pairing but it was a deliciously fresh, hoppy brew - even at £3.50 a 350ml bottle, better value than the £3.75 they charge for a 175ml glass of wine. And, of course, twice the amount. You can buy it online for £1.55 a bottle from Vintage Roots.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Ginger wine - the perfect cold weather comforter

If there's one bottle I always want in my kitchen after Christmas it's Stone's Ginger Wine. Oddly, because I don't particularly like the taste of preserved ginger. But it makes two great cold weather drinks - a whisky Mac and a very good hot toddy.

A Whisky Mac is simply a whisky with a dash - or more - of ginger wine. Most mixologists seem to favour about two thirds whisky to one third Stone's but it's one of those drinks that depends on your own taste and the quality of whisky that you're using. (No point in using a malt, obviously)

For a really great hot toddy put 1 shot (2 tbsp) blended whisky in a mug or a strong glass with a shot of Stone's, 1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice and a teaspoon of clear honey, pour over 200-225ml boiling water and stir. If you have any cinnamon sticks you could use one for garnish but you don't really need it.

There are also much fancier cocktails and other recipes you can make if you visit the Stone's website some of which sound vaguely repellent (Pork Sausages Whisky Mac, anyone?) but you could add a dash to a chicken stir-fry if you have a bottle handy and I suspect it would be a rather good addition to a fruit cake or gingerbread.

Stone's costs roughly the same as a bottle of inexpensive table wine (usually around ££4.59 but both Sainsbury's and Tesco currently have it on offer for £3.99) and it will last a lot longer which makes it a bargain in my book. RATING: ***

Friday, January 2, 2009

Why Malbec is a good buy on a wine list

Credit crunch drinking isn't just a question of snapping up good value bottles to drink at home. You need to be able to fillet a wine list for bargains and by and large those are the wines you - or the winedrinking public in general - don't know so well.

Take Malbec, for example. Not a hugely familiar grape variety just as Argentina, from which most of it comes these days, is a less well-known wine producing country. Result? Malbecs tend to be fairly priced on most wine lists.

I've just enjoyed a very nicely balanced one at a local restaurant The Clifton Sausage - an unlikely venue, you might think to drink anything half way decent but they have a perfectly respectable list of wines by the glass. The wine was called Polo Amateur and comes from a winery called La Chamiza. It was selling at the restaurant for a well-priced £18 a bottle but you should be able to find it for around £5.95 from independent wine shops according to importer Though inexplicably is selling it for roughly twice that at £139.24 a case.