Wednesday, 6 April 2016

The World Duty Free Whisky Experience Brunch. 6th April

I am, by nature, a nervous individual. This comes with the territory of being the weight and build of a packet of dried spaghetti and having a selection of anecdotes concerning being chased down the road by nutters. (Funnily enough, one of them actually caught me only to then turn down my phone, which at that time was a cameraless, internetless piece of rubbish that had cost me £3.95. He had the effrontery to demand an explanation for its poor quality. I had the gutlessness to apologise. That's how British I am. I digress.) Anyway, it's 9:15 in the morning, its mizzling with rain, I'm roaming aimlessly up and down a Mayfair backstreet, nursing an outrageously expensive cup of sub-par coffee and nervous as hell.

Let me explain why.

About 3 weeks ago I was working away, and my phone went zing. E-mail zing, not text zing. Astonishingly it's the email account for this blog, which is something of a rarity. Nervous (see!) that it's someone who disagrees with me about the taste of Mackmyra or has taken umbrage with my stance on regionality I
take a look, and discover to my great surprise that it is from a lady called Caroline who works for World Duty Free, and if I'm not busy touring distilleries on April 6th would I like to go to an indulgent whisky brunch hosted by Signe Johansen in Mayfair to celebrate the launch of some new whiskies?

My first reaction was that it was a hoax. Honestly. 'This is some elaborate prank,' I thought, 'played either by a friend who thinks they're terribly funny, or by an internet person with too much time on their hands.' My second thought was that maybe I'd been sent the email by accident, although even I admitted that was probably far fetched. (How the hell would you typo 'thewhiskypilgrim'?) Look, I just didn't credit it, all right? Invitations to take a flying leap, sure. Invitations to keep my damn opinions to myself are par for the course. Invitations to brunches, indulgent or otherwise? That's a new one.

Deciding to go down the 'benefit of the doubt' road I thank Caroline for the invitation and, having squared it with my manager, accept. Out of curiosity I google the venue and, on the strength of the
photos, make a note to pack a jacket. The evening of the 5th finds me in London demanding sanctuary at Rachel's flat in exchange for Chianti.

The morning of the 6th, and there's still a niggle of suspicion in my mind that someone has pulled a prank for reasons unknown, just to see if I turn up at some random Mayfair restaurant and demand an indulgent brunch. Marching in step with the rest of the civilised world the first thing I do on awakening is check my phone, to discover that Signe Johansen has sent me a message on twitter saying looking forward to meeting at the World Duty Free brunch. Ok, if this is a prank then hats off for thoroughness. Signe also compliments the Scandinavian-style jumper in my twitter profile picture, though if she could see the out-of-shot decorative snowman with his maniac grin she'd definitely retract that.

It occurs to me that I probably haven't been singled out for greeting, so like the ill-mannered busybody I am I take the opportunity to see who else might be coming this morning. I instantly regret looking. Sent similar greetings by Signe are the absolute cream of the whiskynet. Quite apart from people whose sites are essentially my
gospel (Whisky Discovery, Whisky For Everyone and Malt Review stand out here) Signe has good-morninged Becky Paskin of, Alexandra Heminsley, Kristiane Sherry, editor of the Spirits Business and other respected and significant food and whisky folk. And then there's me. 

'I can't go to this, Rachel,' I say, 'I'll look like an idiot, they'll know I'm not proper.' She tells me to stop being stupid, and to 'be myself.' Rachel is full of terrible advice like that. I allow myself to be pushed out of the door, and a bus and a tube later sees me roaming the aforementioned Mayfair backstreet (I was shocked to discover that Mayfair had backstreets) disgustingly early, clutching my coffee and muttering to myself like a psychopath.

I go for another coffee - my first has run dry, and having been told kickoff is 9:50 there is no way I'm arriving until the stroke of 9:51.
(I'm forever turning up too early to things, and there's no worse way for my paper-bag level conversational skills to be thrown into sharp relief.) Visions of terrifying whisky colossi pointing at my quivering frame and demanding with booming voice an explanation for my miserable presence are dancing relentlessly through my head. Why have I not shaved? I ask myself. Why have I not cut my hair? Why am I wearing such garish socks? (It's astonishing how garish my socks aren't.) What sort of stupid name is 'The Whisky Pilgrim' anyway? ('Who are you?' 'I'm the Whisky Pilgrim.' 'You sound like an imbecile.' 'I'm sorry, you're absolutely right.') 

Telling myself that I'm being irrational I tread with faltering step over the threshhold of Mews of Mayfair, ready to flee at the first sign of a 'who's this grubby little urchin?' or a well-aimed bottle. (Exactly what I also thought would happen the first time I visited Rachel's family and started a new job.) Well, I'm pleased to say that I'm now three for three on not having bottles flung at me; I was barely through the door when Vicki and Caroline from World Duty Free were greeting me, offering me tea or coffee and introducing me to the already-arrived.

Who were as impressive a gathering as twitter had suggested, but also - as people inevitably are once I've stopped being a paranoid lunatic - enormously friendly and not at all the sorts of people who would hurl bottles, point or boom. Sorry chaps! (Though one day I'll let my guard down whilst meeting a new group of people and all three of those things will happen.) Cocktails were being handed round, and I joined a small group who were listening to Signe explain the inspiration behind them.

I heartily recommend the Mews of Mayfair if you are ever in that direction and someone generous is paying. The interior is lovely, especially the room in which the brunch was being held, the food is simply fantastic and the bar (I always glance that way) very well provisioned. The gorgeous cocktails, which we sipped as the last of the guests arrived (about 16 or thereabouts in all) had a base of Glenmorangie Tayne and were - as Signe put it - a riff on the whisky sour. We were all given the recipes, and I shall certainly try to make one at some point, which I will get Rachel to drink before I do.

We trooped upstairs into the  beautiful room mentioned previously. An apt one for World Duty Free - the walls were festooned with old-school maps and charts of the world; the sort on which you'd be disappointed if the names weren't written in Latin. We took our seats at the long table and, after a few minutes of chattering, Signe stood up to give the introduction.

As I say, we were all there for 'Whisky Experience,' World Duty Free's annual celebration launch of their whisky lines, one of which was the Glenmorangie used in the cocktail, and three more of which had been incorporated into the menu. After a brief warm welcome Signe talked us through the menu. First course was Chapel and Swan Smoked Salmon on English muffins with poached eggs and Ardmore Tradition-infused hollandaise. This was to be followed by Pancakes with Bacon topped with Maple and Port Charlotte Syrup and finally an Apple-and-Singleton-of-Glendullan Sorbet. I know. Read it and weep. The Ardmore Tradition, Glenmorangie Tayne and Singleton of Glendullan were also open in bottle to taste.

And so the smoked salmon was brought in, and the rigours of the morning began in earnest. I'm not entirely sure quite how to describe it all without sounding a bit smug, so I'll just say that it was bloody fantastic, and massive thanks to the chefs and waiters at Mews of Mayfair as well as Caroline and Vicki.

Best of all though was the chance to sit down with a group of people who seriously, properly love whisky and nerd out to my
heart's content. Unfortunately, due to normal dining table conditions, there were only a few people within 'chatting' distance but over the hour such topics reared their head as the shape of Penderyn's stills, the growth of spirits industries outside of whisky and - as a wine-man by trade I had to force it in somewhere - terroir's existence or lack thereof. I also asked Caroline why duty free bottles are usually litres rather than 700ml, something I've always wondered. Turns out its just to let them offer better value for money to customers. Should probably have guessed that really; don't know why I thought there'd be some special mysterious reason...I'm just a fanciful fellow I suppose.

The three courses were absolutely delicious, but my favourite - perhaps oddly - was the Sorbet. Signe explained that the Springtime fruit flavours she found in the Glendullan made for a good match with the palate-cleansing apple. Worked for me. Another I'll have a crack at and then insist on Rachel guinea-pigging. My culinary skills are below school-canteen-level.

Obviously it was a whisky brunch, so it wouldn't have done not to have tried the three whiskies open, but I found myself short on time so - despite having brought a book in preparation - I wasn't able to make notes of any great value. The Sherry influence really came through on the nose of the Tayne though; lots of nice sweet raisin. Word to the wise - don't sip it straight after Sorbet as I did initially. All I can say is that the second sip was far more pleasant! If you're a fan - as I am - of the Glenmorangie 'house style' allied to a healthy dollop of Sherry oak you'll find lots to love here.

The Glendullan was chewier somehow, and a little meatier. Smidge of sulphur maybe? Certainly heavier than the Glenmorangie, but that's to be expected of the distillery character. I'm with Signe on the fruit - orchard for me: rather pears-and-apples. Also a fair bit of toffee perhaps? Ardmore was my pick though. It's a distillery rapidly shooting up my 'top picks' list and this was a proper salty, medium-peated mouthful. Nice vanilla from the Quarter casks and a bit of sweet almond too. Very much my bag; wish I'd had time for more than a swift sniff-sip.      

Unfortunately wangling a full day off work had been beyond my capabilities, and I had to shoot off on the stroke of 12 to make sure I caught the 12:30 train back to Reading and grape juice. Before I left I thanked Caroline and Vicki and was given the best party bag I've ever had in my life, containing a bottle of Glenlivet Nadurra Peat-Cask-matured (which I'm sipping as I write this) and a couple
of samples of Bruichladdich and Port Charlotte which will require all my patience and self-discipline to leave until the twitter tasting on Thursday 14th.

And that was that. My first ever by-invitation whisky event over, and far too quickly. I still can't help thinking that, considering the incredibly vaulted company, I must have ended up on the invite list through an administrative miscue. I can only hope for a few similar errors in the future! My sole regret - apart from not finishing the whiskies - is that in the 2 hours available I didn't really get any chance to say more than 'hi, my name's Adam' to a fair few people who I wish I could have stayed longer to properly meet. That will have to wait for another time. For now, huge thanks (and good luck with the upcoming book!) to Signe, to Caroline and Vicki and to World Duty Free. Fantastic event, fantastic food and fantastic whisky. A glorious triple-threat, and a wonderful morning spent away from normality! Looking forward to twitter tasting on the 14th.


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