Monday, 26 January 2015

Budget Supermarket Showdown: Aldi vs Lidl part 1

Intro

Aldi and Lidl – they’re quite similar aren’t they? Though only one of them (Lidl) smells like fish food. Both are budget supermarkets, both European, both have their own branded goods… and to that end, they each have their own [apparently] exclusive brands of alcohol. It makes you wonder; which is best?

I don’t mind telling you, I do most of my shopping at Aldi, and I definitely prefer the atmosphere in [most] Aldis to that of Lidl, though I rarely buy booze there. It doesn’t mean I haven’t. I started out drinking the 8 year old blended scotch, Highland Black as I’ve told you several times before. I’ve also tried the white and dark rum varieties of Old Hopking, the Vinelli vermouth, Oliver Cromwell gin, Tamova vodka, Ballycastle Irish Cream, Clarke’s bourbon… there’s more to try, but what I’ve tended to conclude over the years is that Aldi’s quality is all right – for the price…

But what about Lidl? It’s about time we found out isn’t it?

It would be nice to do direct comparisons and get this out of the way pretty quickly, but there are too many products to choose from, so I think it makes more sense to handle this on more of an ongoing, cumulative basis. Furthermore, there are a number of products that aren’t directly comparable.

I think what I’ll do then, for the time being, is alternate purchases between one and the other and attribute scores – either out of 10 or on some other maniacal, arbitrary scale that I make up as I go along.

Part 1

It’s time then, for part 1. After a very lean month, pay day made its merry way around and the Cakemeister decided he wanted to spend some money and headed out at lunchtime to the nearby Lidl. I think I was in part inspired by a new blog I found, Booze Review in which budget brands of alcohol are consumed and reviewed.

On arrival at the booze aisle, I can’t say I wasn’t tempted by the blended malt, but at £19.99 it was more than I’d planned to relinquish at that point. What I plumped for was the James Cook Premium 3 year old rum (£12.99, 40% ABV). My Mount GayEclipse was on the wane, and I’d been holding back on finishing it for some time, so the need seemed more pressing than for the other spirits, such as the brandy that was also calling me – I was after all, due a holiday in Spain in another month, so it seemed sensible to sort that one there. Being used to budget products being relatively low strength in the main, I figured that at 40% I couldn’t go wrong here.

James Cook has a hue… not unlike urine… in fact, very much so like urine. We won’t let that bother us though, we’ll just hope it isn’t representative of the quality of this particular spirit. The bottle is quite authentic looking, in that it doesn’t at first glance look total shit, though there is a clue in how it is non-specific about where its contents come from – just the Caribbean in general… and presumably blended in Germany.

I opened the bottle early one Saturday evening, and poured a generous measure into a glencairn glass to begin the nosing. I was immediately struck by how unusual the aroma was, light and citrusy. It all led me to expect that this might provide a taste experience more akin to a nice blended scotch than a cheap, bitey gold rum.

How wrong I was. I made some notes on my phone that reveal an accelerating realisation of horror – like in a film where they do that camera shot that zooms in on a face while the backdrop falls away…

It was like that scene in Peep Show where Mark goes jogging for the first time and his first impression of how easy it is rapidly evaporates as he tires and realises jogging is hard work, and what an idiot he was to have gotten the wrong idea a mere matter of seconds before.

Going to my notes, I see I have literally written:

“Weird, spicy, dirty… but not in a good way. Oh, it’s fucking awful. It burns. It’s making me feel a bit ill. I can’t drink it. It’s going in the sink…“

That is literally the first time ever I’ve felt that I have wasted my money on something that I’m not going to be able to drink. I’m serious, I will not be trying this neat again. By my third sip the taste was so offensive that I wouldn’t even try this with ice. I doubt you could even mix the evil out of it. I will try that, mind.

Usually bad spirits make decent hip flask fodder – or so previous experience had suggested… I can see now that there is an underclass of spirits that aren’t just bad, they are probably actually poison. Either that, or what I have thought of as hip flask fodder before aren’t actually bad… they just aren’t particularly good.

The Sauza tequila was pretty bad, but it wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t knock back a few shots to get the party started. Instinctive reactions (and probably the gag reflex) would prevent me from even trying that with this. Any thoughts of sticking it in my hip flask for the following day’s Sounds From the Other City festival were quickly quashed by common sense. That would be a surefire way of taking a hip flask on a night out and still not getting hammered.

All I could think was that this might be a good thing to let friends try, just to demonstrate how bad alcohol can be. But I wouldn’t even subject them to it.

You might think I’m exaggerating a bit here, but I am serious: I have never tasted a spirit as bad as this – let alone one that made me feel ill after a couple of sips. I don’t know what that overbearing flavour is, but it is familiar, and it must be from nightmares. It brings to mind celery, but even celery isn’t as bad as all that.

A little searchy-search of the internets suggests that the dark variety of James Cook might not be all that bad, however they do say once bitten, twice shy¸  and therefore there is no way I am staking any of my wages against the quality of another product sold under the James Cook label. It just couldn’t possibly be worth it.

And for that reason I have to determine that Lidl have scored a massive own goal, such that the only way I can figure to give a score for this in my as yet unidentified scoring system is to give it a negative score. So minus 10 for you there, Lidl. I’ve actually been keeping a ranking system for all the various types of spirits, and James Cook is so bad that even though there are only 9 other rums on the list at this point, I have ranked it in 100th place. And if I ever get around to ranking another 90 brands of rum, I’m confident this will still be a lot worse than the worst of them (I only rank based on full bottles experienced, not individual tastes – just so you know).

The good news is that I did go on to try this in a random summer cocktail that I made up, and it didn’t totally ruin it – but there were a lot of strong flavours in there; spiced rum, lemon juice, limoncello, orange juice and dry cider.

As time progressed, the James Cook just sat on top of the cupboard, going nowhere, doing nothing until one day I decided to pour it down the sink. I think there’s a bit of a gleam around the plughole now, though the cheap alcohol smell lingered for longer than I care to remember.

It may be some time before I risk any further Lidl purchases, but I suppose I have to if I’m going to maintain the integrity of this Aldi vs Lidl alcohol comparison. Until I do, let’s assign arbitrary scores out of 10 to the Aldi and Lidl products I’ve tried in the past with some useful notes.

Aldi Recap

Old Hopking White Rum – 6  - a sad 37.5% alcohol and only £10 at time of purchase. Nothing offensive about it that is going to ruin your cocktails. Should you buy it? You may as well.

Old Hopking Dark Rum – 7 – also 37.5% alcohol and sadly, I can’t remember how much it was the last time I bought it. Quality is consistent with its pigmentally challenged brother. In all fairness it is about on par with the Captain Morgan though the alcohol content is lacking.

Ballycastle Irish Cream – 7 – only 14.5% alcohol and a little thin, but if you like Irish Cream, there’s no reason you aren’t going to like this. When I last bought it it was a bargainous £3.99, though I think it has since risen to around £4.29.

Ballycastle Premium Irish Cream – 9 – ah, a budget Irish Cream that matches up to Bailey’s 17% alcohol. That’s more like it. Originally available at £5.99 (though subsequently at an increased cost of £6.49), this has a richness so close to that of Bailey’s that you’d be insane to pass it up.

Tamova vodka (blue) – 6 – an average “premium” supermarket vodka that at least has the decency to chalk up 40 ABVs.

Oliver Cromwell London Dry Gin – 4 – at 37.5% it’s suitable for mixing, but not worth writing more than 4 words about.

Vinelli Dry Vermouth – 6 – my introduction to the world of vermouth and as such I didn’t have anything to compare it to at the time – much less did I know what to do with it. Nonetheless, it’s decent enough.

Notable by their absence:

Highland Black 8 – one of the very first brands of scotch I ever bought and, as such impossible to comment on as I didn’t have anything to compare it to, nor any idea what scotch was even supposed to be like at the time. One day I’ll buy another bottle.

Clarke’s Bourbon – I mentioned that I’ve tried this one, and it also featured in my “review” of Jack Daniel’s but sadly I only got to try a couple of measures, so it wouldn’t be fair to score it here.

Lidl Recap

Putinoff Platinum Vodka (blue) – 6 – an average vodka that is entirely on par with Aldi’s alternative.

James Cook Premium Rum 3 year old - -10 – well, you know about this one now so let’s never speak of it again.

Coming Soon

Since beginning this post and indeed the whole experiment, I’ve been appraising Aldi’s Cocobay Coconut-Flavoured Rum Liqueur, their Glen Orrin 5 year old blended malt and their Specially Selected Irish Cream. You’ll be able to read about those in the coming months. As far as Lidl is concerned, I picked up the Queen Margot blended scotch (though that’s David’s birthday present) and a Romanetti Extra Dry vermouth. So again, check back another time for updates.


Since purchases have clearly been weighted in favour of Aldi so far, a simple totting up doesn’t suffice here, so instead I’ll take an average score. That means Aldi currently stands on an encouraging 6.43 out of 10, while Lidl racks up a confusing -2 out of 10. It is clear that I need to be visiting Lidl a few more times in the coming months to see if any of their products can raise that score out of the gutter. I’ll see you then, next week when I think I’m going to be talking about Rosso vermouth, a budget brand I picked up from Tesco.