They can be found in every bar across the land, and yet pouring brands are rarely the subject of any serious analysis. Imbibe decided it was high time to reassess the speed rail
They’re the workhorses of the bar world, the brands that keep businesses afloat and the majority of punters refreshed. They offer bigger profit margins and reassuringly recognisable names. They even, god forbid, include some really outstanding specimens at astonishingly reasonable prices – something that’s more essential than ever now we’re all tightening our belts.
So why do ‘pouring spirits’ so often get such short shrift? You’ve no doubt done some swanky super-premium tastings recently – but when was the last time you surveyed your speed rail? Even if you’ve got a pouring deal, do you know if it’s really the best one for you?
Having kicked these questions around with a few of you bartenders out there, we decided it was high time to re-visit the house pours (we all think) we know and love – or hate – to find out which brands give you the best bang for your buck. And whaddya know – there were more than a few surprises…
HOW THE TASTING WORKED
Brands qualified for the tasting by having an RRP of £20 or less. Two panels of five blind tasted two categories each, giving scores out of 20, based on nose, palate, finish and suitability as a pouring brand (versatile, approachable, a good example of the style). Tasters didn’t know prices. Scores were added up to give a single score out of 100.
Chris Bray, The Hide; Marcis Dzelzainis, Quo Vadis; Stuart Fritz, LAB; Alejandro Lara, Gilgamesh; Alice Lascelles, Imbibe; Matthew Marshall, Raoul’s Bar; Tiziano Tasso, The Club at The Ivy; Roberto De Vivo, One Aldwych; Lewis Wilkinson, Met Bar; Phil Yates, Planet Hollywood & Fifty Below
73 Stolichnaya Red BEST VODKA UNDER £20
A consistently popular vodka across the board, for its medium body and spicy palate that mellowed to a smooth finish. ‘Good character,’ said one judge. ‘Well balanced, a quality vodka,’ said another.
40% abv. RRP £17.70. Maxxium, 01786 430500
CHRIS BRAY – BAR MANAGER, THE HIDE
PANELS: VODKA & WHITE RUM
‘It’s a bit unfair, because the pouring market is very hard market to get into if you’re a little brand. But just because a bar has got a pouring deal, that doesn’t mean it’s not using good-quality brands. I like to go into a bar, see a brand that I know that is really good value for money, and have that – and as the knowledge moves from bartenders outwards I think we’ll see a change.’
Popular all round, praised for a flavourful palate that showed spice, fruitiness and a healthy bit of Eastern European punch, followed by good length. ‘Nice balance between alcohol and flavour,’ said one.
40% abv. RRP £15.40. Pernod Ricard, 020 8538 4501
Absolut caused a few surprises and gained several new converts in this tasting, with its smooth, rich and slightly sweet palate. ‘Gentle but lots of character,’ said one. ‘Creamy, subtle finish, excellent,’ said another.
40% abv. RRP £14.89. Pernod Ricard, 020 8538 4501
ALICE LASCELLES – SPIRITS & BARS EDITOR, IMBIBE
PANELS: GIN & SCOTCH
‘As the trend for ostentatious luxury spirits brands abates, I will be interested to see whether it will be replaced by a trend similar to the one we’ve seen emerging in fashion – where it’s now cool to say that your designer look came from Top Shop; where the really savvy people are getting the best quality for the least amount of money, rather than the most.’
While some regarded this vodka as a little bit too neutral, others described it as clean, with pleasant, subtly sweet elderflower and herb notes, and a rounded, slightly oily character at the finish that added smoothness.
40% abv. RRP £11.99. Marblehead, 0141 955 9091
A very divisive vodka that some praised for having an aromatic, citrusy character – ‘candied orange,’ said one – and a surge of hot spice in the mid-palate, but others marked down for a lack of body.
40% abv. RRP £11.99. Russian Vodka House, 020 8591 8825
51 Smirnoff Red
The brand’s famed neutrality proved its downfall with this panel, with most tasters struggling to detect much character apart from a dry finish. One scored it highly, however, as ‘a very nice vodka to drink by itself’.
40% abv. RRP £12.79. Diageo, 020 7927 5200
MATTHEW MARSHALL – BARTENDER, RAOUL’S BAR, OXFORD
PANELS: VODKA & WHITE RUM
‘People will often slate brands just because they’re familiar with them. But how you use them is a big part of how good they are. And having a good pouring spirit, with a good profit margin, allows you to sell your more expensive spirits at a cheaper price, with a smaller profit, which increases your product circulation.’
The Finnish vodka lost points for a lack of aroma, but fared better on the palate. ‘Lovely warming finish,’ said one taster. ‘A good mixer,’ said another. Some, however, found it a little on the thin side.
40% abv. RRP £14.99. Bacardi Brown -Forman Brands, 01962 762100
49 Russian Standard
Another vodka that hung back on the nose, losing it points. A good mouthfeel was praised by several, although some found it lacking in the flavour department. A smooth build to a piquant finish impressed one judge.
40% abv. RRP £11.99. Cellar Trends, 01283 217703
44 42 Below
Every judge commented on this vodka’s unusually sweet palate, and almost all noted a domineering earthy/spicy turmeric note. A creamy mid-palate made this vodka a real curate’s egg.
40% abv. RRP £13.64. Bacardi Brown -Forman Brands, 01962 762100
TIZIANO TASSO – ASSISTANT BAR MANAGER, THE CLUB AT THE IVY
PANELS: GIN & SCOTCH
‘The prices are a bit higher than average in our bar, and we’re lucky because people don’t complain – they’re quite wealthy. But you have to find a balance between what you want to sell and what you want to make a profit from. However, it is possible to make your clientele happy with a good product at a nice price.’
Light-bodied and lacking texture, this vodka struggled to stand out, with most judging it clean to the point of plainness, although one liked a slight burn.
40% abv. RRP £14.99. Cellar Trends, 01283 217703
BANG FOR YOUR BUCK CHARTS
Having established which sub-£20 brands tasted the best, we then decided to do a second calculation to find out which brand gave the best bang for your buck. In other words, which brands performed best when you took taste and price into account. We calculated this by dividing each brand’s score by its price. And hey presto – Imbibe’s patent BFYB score…
BANG FOR YOUR BUCK – VODKA
82 Beefeater BEST GIN UNDER £20
Beefeater’s assertive botanicals, distinctive citrus character and excellent balance scored highly across the board and its classic style was judged ideal for a pouring gin. ‘Good all-rounder with many applications,’ said one judge.
40% abv. RRP £14.19. Pernod Ricard, 020 8538 4501
76 Hayman’s London Dry
Invigorating and bright on the nose, with juniper and orange/lemon aromas, plus a blowsier floral note that intrigued the panel. Hints of chocolate and pepper on the palate were judged more atypical, but nonetheless it was considered to be a highly versatile gin.
40% abv. RRP £14.99. Love Drinks, 020 7501 9630
ALEJANDRO LARA – BAR MANAGER, GILGAMESH
PANELS: VODKA & SCOTCH
‘Being aware of the profit margin a brand can give you is even more important in the UK than markets like the US, where lower taxation and the tipping culture make it easier to make a drink profitable. But there are a lot of people who don’t give a monkey’s what they are drinking and it’s up to bartenders to help spread the knowledge.’
The shock of the day, scoring highly all round for delicate juniper characters and a clean, crisp palate with a subtle liquorice sweetness and pleasing, if slightly short, dry finish. The low abv, perhaps, just left it a little underpowered.
37.5% abv. RRP £12.75. Diageo, 020 7927 5200
73 Bombay Sapphire
A more low-key gin, distinguished by an earthier note likened to almond, musk, hazelnuts and orris, and a hint of celery, that was popular with all but one. Its subtlety would be best showcased in martinis, said one, while another described it as ‘gentlemanly in structure’.
40% abv. RRP £16.95. Bacardi-Martini, 01962 762100
Some found the high-alcohol nose fresh and outdoorsy, others found it a little harsh. The hot palate had something of the pleasure/pain about it, with some loving the coriander and juniper hit, others missing citrus.
43.1% abv. RRP £17.29. Diageo, 020 7927 5200
LEWIS WILKINSON – BARTENDER, MET BAR
PANELS: VODKA & SCOTCH
‘As we’re a five-star hotel bar we get asked for Grey Goose or Belvedere about 10 times a night – and we don’t stock either of them. But if you suggest something else customers are really afraid of it. I’ve had customers who actually walk out because we don’t have Belvedere. But the quality of service makes a massive difference to a product – whether there’s enough ice, what the garnish is like…’
A popular one on the nose, with the judges picking out elderflower, coriander and lemon balm-style notes, but almost fruity and a little too sweet on the palate for some. It was approachable, but perhaps failed to put itself out there enough in this line-up.
41.2% abv. RRP £15.19. Pernod Ricard, 020 8538 4501
57 Whitley Neill
This gin’s earthier style, lower on juniper a
nd citrus, put it at a disadvantage in this pouring tasting. Some found it a little ‘brusque’, but tasting notes abounded – camphor, almonds, liquorice, smoke and coriander suggested it would reward further investigation.
42% abv. RRP £17.39. Mangrove, 020 8551 4966
Not entered: Greenall’s London Dry
BANG FOR YOUR BUCK – GIN
77 Havana Club 3yo BEST WHITE RUM UNDER £20
An all-round popular rum, with a mix of light-bodied grassy characters on the nose and sweeter cane/pineapple/burnt toffee flavours on the palate, lifted by warming nutmeg spice on the finish. ‘This rum would mix well,’ said one.
40% abv. RRP £15.85. Pernod Ricard, 020 8538 4501
71 Santa Teresa Claro
All but one loved the pudding-y notes in this rum – apple and cinnamon, caramel, vanilla and a touch of chocolate – which were kept from becoming flabby by a medium-bodied spirit with a smoky/spicy finish.
40% abv. RRP £13.99. Mangrove, 020 8551 4966
PHIL YATES – BAR MANAGER, PLANET HOLLYWOOD & CONSULTANT FOR FIFTY BELOW
PANELS: GIN & WHITE RUM
‘I think a pouring brand should have a good, middle-of-the-road flavour. But it very much depends on what clientele you have – at Fifty our clientele are still very high rolling. But at Planet Hollywood you can tell people are cutting back. If you’re a small bar serving super-premium spirits and there’s another place undercutting your prices just down the road, you’ll struggle.’
68 La Mauny
Something of the bonfire about this one on the nose – burnt hay, grass and smoke– with softer coconut and caramel notes. Quite heavy on the palate, with creamy, possibly slightly cheesy flavours which some enjoyed, but others found overbearing.
40% abv. RRP £17.99. Emporia, 01483 458700
64 Flor de Cana 4yo
All noted this rum for a dry, slightly sweet (one even noted raspberry) nose with a creamier chocolate/vanilla undertow. The smooth, soft palate proved a little too plain for several, although others detected hints of pleasant spice.
40% abv. RRP £13.99. Amathus, 020 8808 4181
60 El Dorado 3yo
Full-bodied and typically Guyanan on the nose, this rum won points for luscious chocolate, toffee and caramel aromas. It fell down on the palate, which several found disappointing on the finish – a little oily.
40% abv. RRP £18. Inspirit, 020 7739 1333
STUART FRITZ – BARTENDER, LAB
PANELS: GIN & WHITE RUM
‘We should be getting people to try new things, so I think a pouring brand should not be so extreme that it offends people trying something new for the first time. Anyway, house spirit doesn’t mean ‘sub-standard’– it means it’s the best we can give you at the best possible price. And you shouldn’t be serving what you wouldn’t drink yourself.’
57 Angostura Reserva
‘Good solid rum’ was the verdict of one taster, although the rest of the panel found this rum to be somewhat lacking in character. They thought it had a clean but rather underwhelming nose and a palate that offered little more than quite generalised caramel flavours.
37.5% abv. RRP £13.99. CL World Brands, 01355 270328
56 Bacardi Superior
The old blue cheese aroma was a difficult one for several of the judges to get past, although others likened it to a pungent floral/coconut smell. The palate tended towards a short, grassy character, with one of the tasters citing ‘petrol’, but another ‘lovely spice’.
37.5% abv. RRP £11.28. Bacardi-Martini, 01962 762100
Not entered: Appleton White
BANG FOR YOUR BUCK – RUM
|Santa Teresa Claro||5.08||BANG|
|Flor de Cana||4.57|
77 J&B BEST BLEND UNDER £20
Great complexity for the price, with earth, smoke and restrained oak, possibly even a hint of agave, offset by toffee apple, dried fruits and a subtle tanginess. Sweeter spice and a touch of vanilla added interest to a medium-length finish that was popular with all the tasters.
40% abv. RRP £17.30. Diageo, 020 7927 5200
64 Grant’s Family Reserve
This blend was very sweet and fruity, with lots of vanilla, sponge and more nutty marzipan characters along with baked apples, apricots, raisins and a whiff of smoke. If it was a little sweet for some, it was saved by quite a dry finish.
40% abv. RRP £12.99. William Grant & Sons, 020 8332 1188
ROBERTO DE VIVO – BAR MANAGER, ONE ALDWYCH
PANELS: VODKA & WHITE RUM
‘We’ve got the same number of people coming in as ever, but they are spending less. For me, a good speed rail product is all about finding a balance between quality and value for money. Now more than ever it’s important to have a good-quality cocktail with cost-effective ingredients. Sometimes the only difference between a small brand and a big brand is the amount they have spent on marketing.’
62 Cutty Sark
Full of comforting malty/steamed pud flavours, this whisky was singled out by several as a very easy-drinking number, although some detected a slightly bitter finish somewhere in the big whisky hug. Friendly, but lacking complexity.
40% abv. RRP £16.99. Berry Bros & Rudd, 0800 280 2440
This stalwart put in a good perfomance with a light maltiness, appealing sweet ginger, peach and orange flavours, and possibly a touch of peat on the finish. ‘A crowd pleaser,’ said one judge, although others marked it down for lack of subtlety.
40% abv. RRP £14.13. Diageo, 020 7927 5200
MARCIS DZELZAINIS – HEAD BARTENDER, QUO VADIS
PANELS: GIN & SCOTCH
‘Our motto at Quo is there’s nothing you can justify spending more than £50 on – so that’s our upper price limit. You don’t want to spend £30 on a shot if you can buy a whole bottle in the off-licence round the corner for £60. Making a cocktail bar profitable is extremely hard – so an appreciation of this price bracket is particularly important.’
An extremely divisive entry. ‘Distinct dodgy rubber note, agricultural,’ said one judge, while others erred more on the side of ‘rustic’ overripe fruit notes. All, however, were agreed on its power, with several seeing this as a factor in good length.
40% abv. RRP £13.49. Maxxium, 01786 430500
56 Famous Grouse
A disappointing showing for the Grouse. It stood out in the line-up thanks to some rather ‘high’ estery fruit top notes, which gave an impression of thinness on the nose. Sweet date/raisin flavours on the palate also lacked a counterbalance.
40% abv. RRP £14.32. Maxxium, 01786 430500
Not entered: Bailie Nichol Jarvie, Johnnie Walker Red, Dewar’s White Label
BANG FOR YOUR BUCK – SCOTCH
|Grant’s Family Reserve||4.93||BANG|
- In the gin category, classic London Dry styles were always going to fare best in a house pour taste test, but the category as a whole must be commended for showing excellent quality that would stand up next to competition at any price – a category that still offers great value under £20.
- The stylistic range in the vodka category was comparatively limited, with punchier Eastern European vodkas having the edge. But it was generally felt that since vodka is often drunk more for effect than flavour, flavour was less important in this category than it might be in others.
- The white rum class tended more towards character and approachability than flawless finesse – with the panel rewarding personality that would shine through both with mixers and in cocktails.
- The choice of scotch under £20 was pretty limited, with few outstanding examples – perhaps there’s a gap in the market for another mixing brand here?
Thank you to The Black Door @ The Fellow for hosting the tasting.
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – September / October 2009