Saturday, 23 July 2016

The Whisky Bar Hunt. Part 1, The Purple Turtle, Reading

My move to Reading back in January brought with it many positives. A new job that didn’t require me to phone the elderly at 9am to bother them about claret. A house-share with people who didn’t try to defraud me (twice!) and in which my roles didn’t include ‘chief Husky toilet executive.’ I even have off-road parking now, which by the standards of my last 3 years is practically gentrification.

Thing is though, I wasn't sold on the new city. In Bristol I had been utterly spoiled when it came to opportunities for gastronomic exploration and general bibularity. A five minute saunter from either my work or my house had yielded dozens of affordable and exciting eateries – and twice as many drinkeries. Of particular allure had been ‘The Woods,’ whose hundred-strong whisk(e)y selection and prime location on the end-of-the-day trudge homewards had made it a favourite everything-but-water-ing hole.

Reading, by contrast, has a reputation as a ‘city of convenience.’ A place to live or set up your business if you don’t fancy London prices. And I’m ashamed to say I bought into that initially. It’s only a short train journey to the Capital, and whilst as a Northerner I’ve an instinctive mistrust of all things Londinium it is, nonetheless, where the majority of my friends have made their fiscally reckless abode. And you can’t argue with its food and drink scene.

Which meant that, other than a courtesy whistle-stop during which I established that Reading didn’t have a whisk(e)y bar worth the name, my new home went rather overlooked for the first half a year. That all changed a couple of months ago, when circumstances reduced the number of trips I was making to ‘the Smoke’, and I came across the utterly superb Edible Reading blog, which has been my culinary compass ever since. Fiercely championing the off-high-street hideaways and attacking the notion of Reading as another ‘London-satellite clone town,’ the anonymous writer made me feel rather shamefaced about my former attitude. I resolved to give the city another shot at standing me my fix of highbrow hooch, and see whether I couldn’t find a half-decent whisky joint after all.

Initial forays met with limited success. Sure there were a few cocktail bars, and of course that branch of Brown’s to whom I will always owe my Lagavulin and coke epiphany. Most memorable was a pie shop whose token bar featured 3 whiskies – Grouse, JD and ‘90s bottled Macallan! (It also featured rubbish pies – this is the South, after all.) But my search yielded nowhere whose range I couldn’t have made at least a decent stab at completely bagging in a single innings. Which doesn’t a ‘whisky bar’ make, really.

I had all but given up, when a free weekend brought friend and drinking companions RMJ and Ben for a night or two of staving off maturity. I think we can spare the gory details, but Glenfarclas 21yo may or may not have been poured into the communal Ring of Fire cup at one point, and it may or may not have been partially my fault. At any rate, the natural course of events took us to Reading’s foremost revelling centre; a place by the name of the Purple Turtle, much favoured amongst more youthful practitioners of imbibery. (Yes, that includes me.) After dominating the table football for a spell (there’s no state of inebriation at which I wouldn’t back myself at this game) it was my turn to procure a round of high-caffeine energy beverages garnished with herbal-based digestif liqueurs. Elbow-forward, in the approved manner, I picked my way through the throng and ordered the drinks. And as they were being rustled up, my eye was caught by something over the barman’s head.

Surely not?

Not here. Not in this temple to Jägerbomb mixology?

But yes, unquestionably. Indubitably. Incontrovertibly. There, in the Purple Turtle – a Michter’s label. And next to that, a Willett’s. And next to that – and surely I’m just looking through Ring of Fire goggles now – surely I cannot be looking at E.H. Taylor?

American plonk by the row. A handful of Scotches too, and a solitary Penderyn, but mostly shelves full of what the good old boys were drinking when the levee was dry. (Whatever a levee is.) In short, a whiskey bar, by thunder, and if the selection isn’t quite Woods-calibre, it’s not a million bottles short either. I’m still gawping when I realise that my more location-typical refreshment has arrived, and the barman is looking at me impatiently.

No bourbon was consumed that night. It would have been a waste, and RMJ is stubbornly anti-whisk(e)y anyway. Barbarian. But the seed had been sown, and sown on fertile, if somewhat muddled ground. ‘I shall return,’ thinks this stalwart, ‘and I shall more closely evaluate this locale as a whisk(e)y bar.

The next few days are spent barricading the garden against marauding, Pokémon-greedy infants, with finite success. A splash of internet perusal reveals 30% savings on ‘Whisky Wednesdays’ – as if I needed more tempting. The date set, I inveigle a work-night drinking companion. We grab dinner at the superb Dolce Vita, as recommended by Edible Reading. And to anyone who whines about pre-whisky garlic I say two things. Firstly, I’m not either a master-blender or being paid to provide scores/reviews. Second of all, garlic bread is one of two consumables I’d take to my desert island ahead of whisky. (The other is Salt and Vinegar crisps. They’re the real ‘superfoods.’ There’s nothing ‘super’ about the nonsense every internet diet tries to fob you off with. ‘That quinoa salad was super,’ said no one ever.) An hour or two later, via a palate-cleansing black coffee, and a livening cocktail we make our way to the Purple Turtle for my evening of Americana.

It’s a positive, on our arrival around 8:30, that it’s not totally empty. Obviously the Turtle’s a Friday/Saturday night specialist by inclination, but it’s one of those funny sorts of places that contrives (more or less successfully) to be a bit of a chameleon venue. Certainly if I was stumbling across it for the first time on this eventful Wednesday I wouldn’t necessarily associate it immediately with full-throttle student carousing. Or no more so than anywhere else with a licensed bar. I’m rather glad we’re not the only patrons – schoolnight drinking is one thing, but being the sole midweek customers at a bar and making your way through a selection of spirits would feel like erring a little too heavily on the side of harrowing.

Wanting to start with a mainstream classic, the yard-wide streak of devilment in me is almost tempted to open the account with a splash of Mr Daniels’ finest. But deciding that the indulgence of the whiskynet has its limits, and bearing in mind my Lagavulin experimentation of the other week, I opt for a slightly less risqué bet in the form of Maker’s Mark.

Whether or not you’ve drunk this – or indeed are a bourbon drinker at all – you’ll probably recognise the distinctively red-waxed Maker’s Mark bottle. A bourbon hailing from the Beam-Suntory stable, and with the unusual distinction of spelling ‘whisky’ the Scottish way on its label, this represents one of the safest bets you’ll find for under £30. Wheat-recipe in style, which broadly speaking makes for less spicy bourbon than the more common alternative, rye-recipe. It’s bottled at 45%ABV too, rather than the minimum 40%, so it doesn’t short-change you on stuffing. For my money it’s light-to-medium bodied, rather than overly chunky, which means that the booze does poke through, but there’s enough going on for caramel, honey and butterscotch flavour to prevent it from feeling in any way hot. All in all, a good way for your flight to take off.

Something a little more imaginative for round two, I decide, and peruse the shelf for inspiration. OK, I admit it, I did what I’m always sneering at people for, and picked based on looks. Well, sort of. I knew what it was, and I’d wanted to try it for a long while, but the big selling point as I ummed and ahhed at the selection, whilst the chap behind the bar drummed his fingers and restrained himself from tutting, was that Willett’s Pot Still Reserve Single Barrel came in a funny bottle. And it does. And I’m not apologising for choosing it on that basis.

Fortunately it tasted good enough to justify my arbitrary selection process – but we’ll come to that in a moment. Because what happened next was the first in a string of somewhat bizarre asides that characterised the evening. I’d made my selection, gone through the ‘no, not that, the one on the, left...bit far...yeah, that one’ routine and the barman had taken the bottle down. What he then proceeded to do was produce a pint glass from behind the bar, pour the double measure into it, and then wait for payment as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

I’m not a glass snob when I’m out – I’m certainly not one of those who start coughing ‘Glencairn’ behind their hand when they’re given a tumbler – but I looked at this 50 ml sample sloshing about in the bottom of a pint glass, and it was just odd. I look back at the barman. Nope, hasn’t done it as a joke. Back at the glass. Yep, definitely still a pint glass. Back at the barman. Is it really going to be me that says something? I hate doing this – I once cheerfully ate a meal with a large lump of plastic in it, and then said that everything was perfect when asked how it was. But this is ridiculous.

‘Really sorry (!) is there any chance of a smaller glass?’

‘What mate?’

‘Sorry, do you have a smaller glass at all?’

The chap looks at me as if I’ve asked whether he has any nude photos of his relatives to hand. Eventually, with – I kid you not – a perceptible sigh and a shake of his head, he reaches down, finds a tumbler, and pours the whiskey into that. I apologise profusely for my ridiculous over-particularity on the glassware front and shuffle away, restraining myself from shooting a backwards glance.

A round of table football distracts slightly from this episode, and gives the Willett’s a moment to open up – though it was already a pretty heady nose to begin with. This is a Fruity bourbon, with a deliberate capital ‘F’. Rye recipe, though the spices hold fire until they’re in your mouth. The whole thing’s bigger than the Maker’s Mark – body and intensity of flavour – so even though it’s a shade boozier, the alcohol’s more wrapped up. Certainly no dissolving nostril hairs here. Still very fruity on the palate, but this is where a few of the more mature nuances make themselves felt, so there’s more overt woodiness (not too much though) a bit of drier spice and even a suggestion of something more musty. Booze still kept well in check – very well balanced all round, in fact, and my fellow drinker’s favourite of the night.

We’ve been in the covered area outside for table football – it’s a balmy evening, and the table inside is broken anyway. So I’ve to go back into the bar for selection number three, where I discover that a local band is setting up on the small stage at the back. A few people have started to mill around, so it’s fairly quick to the front of the bar. The pint glass enthusiast isn’t to be seen, and I’m instead seen to by a very friendly lady probably a few years North of me, who clearly knows her stuff, and chats to me a bit about the range.

Eventually I go for Michter’s Rye (US*1 Single Barrel). I’m not 100% what I think of Michter’s ‘house’ bourbon – I need to do a retaste at some point to come to a more settled conclusion, but it’s not one of my favourites. The rye, however, had passed me by until this point, so I thought it’d be worth a punt. The lady pulls a face – ‘it’s not as good as the bourbon,’ she says, ‘you should try that instead.’ I explain that I’ve had the bourbon before, and that we’ve already tried two that evening, and that I feel it’s time for a rye. She raises her eyebrows a little and pours me a glass. ‘You’re not going to like it.’

She’s wrong – I like it very much. Rye, for those who perhaps haven’t fully embraced American whiskey (or Canadian/anywhere else that does rye) is a tasty prospect indeed. It’s a ‘flavour grain,’ and for ‘flavour,’ here read ‘spice.’ It also creates whiskey which often has a ‘leaner’ mouthfeel, and the best way I can explain that is to say that it has a structure similar to wines you’d describe as being ‘mineral.’ Less voluptuous in body and less overtly sweet than bourbon by and large. To be described as a ‘rye whiskey’ the mash bill has to contain at least 51% rye grains, though my guess is that Michter’s percentage is a good whack higher than that. It has a beautifully ‘clean’ nose, this one – clearly from an excellent barrel. The wood’s brought a rich, oaky vanilla to the fore, whilst the rye acts as a skewer, providing spice and structure. Not really a ‘slump
into a comfy armchair’ style of whiskey – it’s rather more serious and cerebral than that. Wish it came under £50 a bottle, but it’s not far off – and in its home market it’d be well beneath.

The band is in full voice when we go for the fourth (and last) of the evening. And by ‘full voice,’ I mean that it’s a heavy metal band and they’re doing a stern test of the building’s structural foundations. What I know about music can be written on the back side of half a stamp, so I can’t really add much beyond saying that you probably wouldn’t want to live next to wherever they rehearse. Always nice to have live music in a bar though, especially in the middle of a week. Anyway, back at the bar I comment to the lady that funnily enough I preferred the Rye, expecting a chuckle, and possibly even a brief debate.

That wasn’t what happened.

‘What? You’re not serious. What’s wrong with you?’ I thought she might have been joking, so I laughed. With hindsight, not sure this was the best idea. ‘How can you like that more?’ she snapped. She fixed me with what was pretty nearly a glare, and demanded to know how old I was.


‘How old are you?’


‘Well your palate’s too young then. That’s why. Your palate isn’t developed. You won’t like this in a few years.’

I had no idea what to say at this point. Even if I did, I’d have struggled to argue the toss in the cacophony of music and against such vociferous opposition. After a moment’s pause I spinelessly decide to go with ‘haha, you’re probably right.’ I know. I’m too English. I hate myself.

I wonder whether she’ll even let me try another after such a damning indictment of my tasting capabilities, but I ask for an E. H. Taylor and she (grudgingly or otherwise) fishes it off the shelf. All things considered I’m feeling more miserable than I could be at this point, though it does cheer me up when she accidentally charges me for a single having poured a double. (With the 30% off I was already getting, this worked out better value than cost price!)

It’s the E. H. Taylor small batch as it turns out – having been at the back of the shelf I couldn’t see anything beyond the brand name beforehand, but since all things E. H. Taylor are out of my normal price range I fancied ending the night on a treat. And E. H. Taylor small batch is indeed a treat – albeit it isn’t double the quality of the Michter’s or the Willett’s, which is roughly how the price works out. But it is a beautifully judged rye recipe Bourbon – bottled more or less perfectly on the ‘sweet spot’ at which the mature notes and the younger, fruitier notes were level. It’s also 50%ABV, which I know to whisky novices sounds like a lot, and to many whisky obsessives sounds like a few degrees South of ‘proper’, but to my palate has always been more or less bang on the money. The nose is a thing of utterly exquisite balance – the palate not quite as beautiful, but still a very impressive whiskey.

One last thrash of the table football, and then it’s out into the lamp-lit Wednesday night streets of Reading, where as it transpired we ended up meeting a few other friends. (Though I called it quits soon after.) So what are my thoughts of Purple Turtle as a whisk(e)y bar?

Well, on the one hand, it probably does have the best range in Reading. Some very tasty kit indeed – and it’s nice to find places that focus on US, rather than Scotch. I like that they have things going on midweek – it’s not a two-night-wonder club, and I like that the feel is different each night. Most of all I like that they have Table Football.

On the other hand, the pint glass moment was weird. And however you spin it, it’s rude to have a go at customers over their thoughts on a drink – especially given I wasn’t forcing my opinions on her, and had been in no way confrontational beforehand. They were two very strange episodes, and I’m afraid they coloured what would otherwise have been an excellent evening.

On balance, I’ll go back. Very regularly I expect, as it’s not only the best whisk(e)y range in Reading, but it more or less owns the Friday/Saturday night slot. And aged 25, those slots are still important. Besides, I don’t know many other places in the UK where you can chase £100+ per bottle bourbon with Jägerbombs whilst having your ears smashed by a live band and hammering an angry couple at table football. So yeah, I’ll probably go back and do all those things. But measured purely as a whiskey bar? Well I couldn’t help but think as I left of The Woods back in Bristol, of Fiddlers in Drumnadrochit, of Milroy’s in Soho and of all the other places I’ve known and drunk in and loved. And I’m afraid Purple Turtle doesn’t stack up. So I guess I’ll have to keep searching and hoping. But I’m not writing Reading off yet.


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