The smooth, thick, caramel-coloured liquid trails long, silky tears down the walls of the small, balloon-shaped glass as I give it another swirl. When I stick my nose inside a riot of associations rush up in a giddy charge.
Almonds. Figs. Vanilla. Maple syrup. Cinnamon. A bowl full of Christmas fruit - apples, apricots, oranges- I can almost see the bowl of walnuts by the crackling log fire. Perhaps this is what a really expensive cognac smells like - I wouldn't know.
Because this is not cognac.
I take a sip, allowing the liquid to glaze my tongue.
I'm expecting the fiery whack of distilled spirits, but while there is a lively buzz - this stuff definitely has alcohol in it - it's rich and warm rather than hot and harsh. And here comes a second course of Christmas flavours - caramel, buttery toffee, brown sugar, prunes, sultanas and cloves.
The sweetness gives way to a lingering, satisfying, dry finish. This is an extraordinarily complex beverage.
Hardly surprising, then, that many of the top food and drink critics who have sampled it flatly refuse to believe they are tasting a beer. And once you get over the shock that this is indeed beer, there's an even bigger surprise.
Because this is not an arcane Belgian speciality or an eccentric English real ale. This is an American beer.
The country that produces the blandest, most corporate lager on the planet is increasingly also the home of the world's most interesting beers. And they don't come any more interesting than Utopias from the Samuel Adams brewery, part of the Boston Beer Company. At 25 per cent ABV, Utopias is officially the strongest beer in the world. No one else even knows how to make beer this strong. At a suggested retail price of [pounds sterling]60, it's also the most expensive.
Only 8,000 bottles were released in 2005 (the first release in two years), so it trades hands on eBay for at least double that price.
Jim Koch, founder and CEO of Samuel Adams, is understandably proud of his creation and its ability to confound the senses. After Wine Enthusiast magazine reviewed Utopias and put it in the 96-100 per cent range, their highest possible rating, Koch asked the writer, Paul Pacult, to conduct a blind tasting of the beer alongside other drinks with comparable ratings.
They chose Sandeman Royal Corregidor Rich Old
Oloroso Sherry, the best Pacult had ever tasted, and Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port 1994, [pounds sterling]160 a bottle (which had received a maximum 100 score in Wine Spectator magazine). Pacult told an audience composed largely of food and wine critics that these were three truly great drinks, each the pinnacle of its maker's art. Sixty per cent of people preferred Utopias over the competition.
The taste test has been run 12 times since, always with a discerning audience, and Utopias has never lost. 'When we reveal that the one they prefer is a beer, some people simply refuse to believe it,' says Koch.
'We say to them, "Your preconceptions about beer are wrong. Trust the authority of your own senses." And people won't! They turn round and say, "Hmm- well maybe this was a bad bottle of port."' Koch founded the Boston Beer Company in 1984 amid the explosion of America's 'craft beer' movement.
Just as the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) was attempting to save traditional, crafted beer in the UK, in the US a legion of small brewers were seeking to provide an alternative to the bland, mass-produced megabrands we normally think of when American beer is mentioned. The company's flagship brand, Samuel Adams Boston Lager, is brewed to a pre-prohibition recipe, packed full of flavour and character.
While it still achieves only a fraction of Budweiser's sales, it's now one of the top ten brands in the US and is freely available over here.
Unlike in Britain, where Camra fought to preserve a …