Monday, 4 April 2016

The Best Whisky in the World! (How's that for shameless clickbait?)

One of the more famous Churchillian one-liners concerns whisky. ‘The water was not fit to drink. To make it palatable we had to add whisky. By diligent effort I came to like it.’ Funnily enough, Diligent Effort was what it took for me to like whisky. In fact initially I wasn’t even lukewarm. Part of this can be attributed to my bizarre insistence on throwing back the whole glass in one, followed by a well-rehearsed grimace, just as I had seen scores of steely-eyed, desperate men do in many a Hollywood epic. (To be clear I buried this atrocious habit a long time ago.) Mostly though, I just wasn’t sold on the taste. I forget the name of the whisky (though I suspect it was a blend) that I first discovered in my parents’ liquor cupboard, but I remember its savoury, uncompromising flavour did not sit well upon my youthful palate.

But I persevered. University was looming, and I needed to make changes lest the social Sahara in which I had spent most of my schooldays should spread into what I had been reliably informed ought to be ‘the best years of my life.’ (Of course my schooldays might have been less troublesome if I hadn’t used words like ‘lest’ quite so often.) The point was that a new ‘image’ was needed. All my cunning, guile and preparation would be required if I were to trick people into thinking I was one of the normal ones and not just a younger Mark Corrigan minus the wit and the Jez. Whisky, I convinced myself, would be part of this. Whisky, I contended, was an impressive drink; the sort of drink that made you stand out in a good way; the sort of drink that a person who was a Hell Of A Swell would champion. My passport, I reasoned, to that ever elusive moniker: ‘cool.’

As it turned out people saw straight through the affectation, and - astonishingly - sneering at Jack Daniels, blindly extolling the virtues of ‘the finer things’ and bemoaning the lack of Single Malt behind the bar of an all-student Friday-night Jägerbomb-and-VK Nightclub didn’t make me the men-want-to-be-him-women-want-to-be-with-him social colossus I had envisaged. (Who knew?) But if I never achieved ‘cool,’ I did achieve ‘tolerated’, and at some point in early 2nd year, probably about the time I decided that sipping might actually be the way to drink it, I achieved ‘actually liking whisky’ too. The era of ‘Diligent Effort’ was over. (I also achieved ‘not being a Scotch snob,' came as close as I'll ever get on 'not being a snob generally,' and mastered ‘drinking normal night out drinks.’ Who doesn't have time for a Jägerbomb?)

But this Diligent Effort had mostly been a solo mission. Greeners, who had been lumbered with the room next door to mine during Fresher's Year and earned himself the role of ‘Chief Tolerator,’ which he still performs to this day, would share a glass from time to time. We even briefly installed ‘Scotch Wednesdays’ in 3rd year; an ill-fated experiment in making a joint midweek bottle purchase and then doing our damnedest to prevent it from seeing the light of Thursday. Photos remain of outrageous measures, Starbucks ‘Venti’ mugs used as glasses (shudder) and vanquished bottles brandished like trophies to wild, philistinian grins of triumph. Those were the days... But by and large it was very much Wellsy vs Whisky with
no substitutions, no team-mates and no half time breaks with orange quarters.

That changed when I joined the Majestic Wine workforce and was almost immediately shanghaied from my native Merseyside to the remote and distant capital of the Highlands, Inverness. (Actually, ‘shanghaied’ is nonsense; when I was told I was to move to the heart of Whiskyland I practically needed a trouser change.) Apart from the proximity to distilleries this move introduced me to a new tolerator in the form of my fellow trainee manager Will. He and I very much bonded over a ‘wine isn’t a job, it’s a way of life’ philosophy, which naturally also extended to whisk(e)y. As we made our way through the Advanced Level Wine and Spirits course as well as the local drinkeries I finally had a fellow booze-nerd, with whom no vocal filter was necessary and, most importantly, to whom this stuff mattered.

Alas, my Inverness adventure ended six months later. After a stint in Dundee spent unsuccessfully trying to disguise my accent around referendum time I left Scotland (and Majestic Wine) behind and, by way of a year and a bit in Bristol, presently find myself in Reading with 400 miles between me and my partner in tasting crime – Will is a North Lowlander these days. Now I’ll taste solo happily (and often) enough, but whisky’s really a social creature at heart. And the bottom line is – as with anything – if something matters as whisky matters to me, one wants to share it with nearest and dearest. The fact that my nearest and dearest (Will, Pilgrim snr and Greeners notwithstanding) don’t really give a second hand breakfast about whisky was a factor I decided to ignore. A wall, in fact, which I decided was ripe for demolition. ‘This will not stand,’ I decided pompously. ‘I shall hold a tasting, and I shall bring them, like lost sheep, to the fold.’

A date was set. A venue was booked. (Rachel’s flat. Very exclusive.) A Facebook Event was created, which made it official. Guests were bribed, coerced and cajoled into promises of attendance, with assurances that no previous knowledge would be necessary, that there wouldn’t be a test at the end and that chocolate was guaranteed. A theme – There’s no such flavour as ‘Whisk(e)y’ – was settled upon and bottles were duly selected. (I liked that bit, though the bank balance had qualms.) Such was my organisation that I even thought ahead to borrowing glasses and spittoons from work, and invested in a Jigger. (My ‘gentleman’s pour’ is a shade heavy-handed for this sort of event. Buying the Jigger was an interesting one actually – Oddbins didn’t have one, but their sales assistant was convinced a nearby B&Q would. B&Q stared at me like a madman, and when I finally found a likely looking shop I realised I didn’t know what a ‘Jigger’ was called. (Looked it up to write this.) Happily my description of it was both clear and technical, and I emerged from the shop the successful purchaser of an ‘um, you know, bar shot measury thing.’)

I decided six whiskies was the limit of my ambition for the tasting, and after some careful thought, and a bit of plagiarising Dave
Broom’s Whisky Atlas, I came up with six ‘flavour categories’ that I thought would give my whisky-novice friends the broadest snapshot of the spectrum available. Obviously there are categories missing, and subcategories within categories as well as cross-category drams, but you can’t do everything with six whiskies, and these made for a pretty diverse palette. They were, with the whiskies I chose to represent them:

Delicate and Honeyed – Compass Box Asyla
Savoury and Malty – Old Pulteney 12 years old 
Juicy and Fruity – Redbreast 12 years old
Sweet New Oak – Four Roses Small Batch
Smoky/Peaty – Kilchoman Machir Bay
Dried Fruit Richness – Aberlour A’bunadh Batch 53 (Surprise, surprise.)

Greeners and Will being unavailable I knew that the whisky habits of my attending friends ranged from ‘very occasional’ to ‘eurgh, yuck.’ The evening arrived, the table was made to look pretty and I even printed out some sheets with brief notes to accompany my introduction as well as some tasting note space and some recommendations of what to try next should the drinker have enjoyed any particular expression. (Another concept stolen from the Whisky Atlas, though I picked the ‘where next’ whiskies myself without consulting it. Please don’t sue me Mr Broom.)

The guests arrived steadily. After some last-minute dropouts we made nine, and when the last had arrived I cracked on. Promising not to get too technical I made my way through what whisk(e)y was, accompanied by a little bit about how it was made, a couple of different cask types and what they could expect from the six drams
to follow. I also took the opportunity to sermonise a little about my pet peeves concerning tasting notes. One of these days I’ll put these peeves in order and write an article about them, but the crux is that I think many tasting notes are arrogant one-upsmanship, misleading waffle and more likely to cold-shoulder newcomers than to pique their interest. Making sure no one would be worried on the ‘he’s said this flavour but I can’t smell it so I must be an idiot and I’ll keep my mouth shut in case I say a flavour that’s ‘wrong’ and cause myself such acute embarrassment that the sweet release of death will be all I can look forward to’ front I gave a quick ‘how to taste’ guide (WSET approved!) and we stuck our noses into the first glass.

I hadn’t really known what might happen when tasting a flight of whiskies with people to whom whisky doesn’t generally register as more than ‘that stuff Adam likes.’ The Asyla, which was aptly put in the ‘delicate and honeyed’ category, is 40%ABV. It’s light, it’s youthful, it’s subtle. And I forgot that, to those of us who don’t pulverise ourselves with Cask Strength goodness, 40% is a hefty whack of grog. So I shouldn’t have been surprised that people were talking about a pronounced burn, but I was. To be fair, first sip of the day, and subsequent sips and tastes resulted in admittances that the booze had stepped back a bit, but it was something I should have anticipated, and an interesting way to kick off. It does also
have a good bit of what I'd call 'youthful poke,' despite its 'modest' ABV.

Segued nicely into whisky + water too. The line of the day was ‘add a couple of drops - and as much as you like after that according to taste - but please try it neat first just to see.’ In fact some didn’t add water at all and some added more than others, but the general consensus was that some whiskies benefited from the addition and others didn’t. Which, by and large, is the received wording of the highly tentative 'Treaty of Water Addition' as drawn up by the war-torn whiskynet. So happy days.

Asyla rather divided opinion – though it ought to be noted that Sophie, who came to the tasting from the ‘don’t like whisky' camp – ‘Don’t waste any on me’ was the text I got beforehand – was a fan. So John Glaser can claim another success. (Albeit not quite on the scale of some of his previous!) Most people agreed ‘vanilla,’ but the feeling of the assembly was that it wasn’t the most complex of beasts. Fair enough – but I remain a fan. See my 40 under £40 article for further notes. (Also on Pulteney 12, Redbreast, A’Bunadh and Four Roses.)

Pulteney went down very well. I actually anticipated it being a little
more polarising than it turned out to be, but people became far noisier in voicing their thoughts at this point. I imagine this is partially related to having a frame of reference, whereas we were going at Asyla from a blank page. All the best tasting is done comparatively – for me that’s one of the few ‘definites’ of an otherwise deeply subjective art. ‘Toffee’ was one comment that was voiced early. I wondered whether that was partially from caramel colouring – and explained to people what caramel colouring was. Colouring or not, it remains a delicious dram from one of my favourite distilleries both to visit and to taste from. Salty was another general consensus, richer in body than Asyla and with more detectable flavours.

I’d privately expected that Redbreast and Four Roses would prove the most popular of the evening, and Redbreast got off to a very quick start. I just can’t get enough of this whiskey and it was certainly one I was keen to share. ‘Sweeter than the last two’ was one comment – in fact someone said it was too sweet for their liking. Everyone agreed on the fruitiness, though actually I seemed to find more spice, particularly ‘pudding spice’ than I remembered from the bar sample I wrote up in the 40. Possibly different batch, possibly different glass, possibly different temperature. Who knows? Still delicious, still one of my favourites and as popular as I expected it to be.

Those first 3 drams are all 40%ABV, and people had more or less ‘acclimatised’ to the alcohol level by this point. Four Roses cranks
it up a notch to 45% and the jump did not go unnoticed either on the nose or the palate. Those looking to introduce people to whisky ought to bear this in mind. I know we always bang on about ‘this would be better at 46%’ or ‘isn’t cask strength great?’ but if this tasting proved anything to me it is that, generally speaking, the level of alcohol is the biggest impediment to people enjoying whisky for the first time. Another reason not to ostracise adding water I guess. 

Still, Four Roses had the most intense aromas of the tasting thus far and some seriously delicious flavour. Toyed with getting the Single Barrel for the tasting, as it remains my favourite Bourbon, but the Small Batch is gorgeous and about £15 cheaper. Rachel’s favourite of the six, and popular with the group, although some found it too sweet, and some simply didn’t enjoy the flavours. As anticipated really – takes all sorts to weave the whiskyfabric. Natural caramel and tropical fruit were the big calls. People disagreed with Rachel’s ‘banoffee.’ I’m with her to be honest, but tellingly Laura, who is a sickeningly talented baker, was the loudest in decrying this suggestion. I barely ever eat puddings anyway, so what do I know?

Moving on to what I knew would be the most divisive whisky of the evening. The peaty/smoky category. At this point Lauren G remained the only group member not to have found a whisky to like – principally down to the booze level I think. My expectations of her opinion of Kilchoman’s Machir Bay weren’t high, and I didn’t warn people what to expect when I gave them the glasses, so it was a very pleasant surprise to hear her expressions of admiration for the ‘like a bonfire’ nose. She didn’t like it when she put it in her mouth mind you, but can’t have everything. Horses for courses etc. So far as the rest of the group went, opinion differed greatly. Rach can’t stand peat, nor can Ben – who was my Guinea Pig for the NAS article I wrote a few months back. Laura hated it and others weren’t keen. I despaired of this superb whisky finding favour with any of my friends until – joy of joys – one of the Davids
pronounced his approval. In fact it ended as his favourite of the evening. Success!

Finally the A’Bunadh. My feelings on this whisky have been well documented throughout my pieces, so I was going to shoehorn it into the tasting one way or another. I was slightly downbeat about pouring it when the time came, given the reactions to booze levels from the 40%ABV expressions, and it did indeed prove too hot for many. In fact the whisky I love more than any other was the only one that no one else picked as their favourite of the night. Oh well, it’s still mine – all the more for me, and their loss I say!

We took a quick tally of what everyone’s favourite was – Pulteney, Redbreast and Four Roses each got two votes, but I’d say Redbreast just edged it on overall enthusiasm! Asyla and Kilchoman got a vote each, and I stood by A’bunadh. They’ll come round! That concluded our tasting, at which point we broke out the cake Laura had generously brought, as well as the beer and the vino (a few people were ‘whiskied out’ by this point) and I’m going to draw a line there so far as relating the evening’s proceedings goes. Circle of Trust and so on...

But back, if I may, to the somewhat sensationalist title of this
article. I don’t believe a single expression of whisky can be pinpointed as ‘Best in the World.’ Now that’s just a personal opinion and it goes against the beliefs of many people who know far more about such things than I do. But the best whisky in the world, so far as I believe the concept to exist, is the one from which the most pleasure is derived. It occurred to me that there have been three occasions in my life when I have drunk a whisky knowing that an Awards Panel or Bible Writer has labelled it ‘Number One.’ Each was delicious; a moment of whisky stupendousness. A thing of beauty and thus, as Keats has it, a joy forever.

Yet none of those three remarkable drams gave me anything like the pleasure of drinking Highland Park 12 in situ. Of sharing an Islay Malt on Islay with my father. In this case, of talking to some of my closest friends on the subject nearest to my heart. There is a time and a place for forensic analysis of a dram, and an importance too. In spending an hour simply taking a glass apart and examining what it is saying to you and why. But so much more important, and so much more pleasurable, is sitting with friends, having a chat and a laugh and not worrying what shade of petunia you think you can smell, or whether that note of mango is cubed or rough cut. (Both notes I’ve read in the past. Argh.) Not sitting on your own, hunched over a sample, closed off to the world and paranoid that someone a few doors down the road might start cooking a Bolognese and somehow cause ripples in the aromasphere that will compromise the ‘sterile integrity’ of your room and result in your unforgivable noting of ‘clementine,’ when clearly it should be ‘mandarin.’

The best whisk(e)y in the world is the right pour at the right time in the right place. Most crucially of all it is with the right people. That evening provided just such a whisk(e)y six times. Alongside the week I spent on Islay and the dram I shared with Greeners for his 25th birthday it is the most profound conviction I have ever felt that my Diligent Effort was truly worth it. I can’t ask more of a whisky than that.

Huge thanks to Rachel, Lauren C-H, Laura, Dave O, Ben, Dave M, Sophie and Lauren G for making the tasting possible. And guys - sorry for the upturned collar. Sincerely. It was a one-off experiment. It won't happen again.

As I'm sure the Greeners and I of frivolous yesteryear are saying below (bloody hell...): 


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