Tuesday, 21 June 2016

5 Days of Summer - and the Whisky to drink during them

Today, I am reliably informed, is summer. I know it is, because Facebook has put up one of those sickening ‘let your friends know how this particular non-event is affecting you’ whatsits at the top of their home page. Where will these end? 'Having a bowel movement? Share it with your friends.' 'The missiles have been launched. Take a selfie to let your friends know which bunker you're cowering in.' I’m also half-convinced that Facebook is looking to taunt its British user-base, because I can currently see all of five metres out of the window, and a bleak, grey, rain-blattered five metres they are too. I’m half tempted to blame the Brexit campaign. Nigel Farage strikes me as just the sort of rubber-brained semi-hominoid to demand that the weather conform to British stereotype irrespective of season. ‘We don’t want your Union, and we don’t want your bloody sunshine either.’

Yes, it’s a grim, foreboding old curmudgeon of a Monday, this, with devil a prospect of cheery solar activity this week, either literal or politically metaphorical. But come Friday morning, when we may well be dealing with the aftershock of Generation Baby Boomer’s crowning act of future-buggery, summer (such as it is) will still be upon us and my need of a stiff drink, if anything, will have become more pronounced. 

(That’s my ‘going political’ quota met for the year by the way. No more, I promise.)

Whisky’s not what you’d necessarily call a typical summer tipple. I reckon if I polled my friends and family on their annual dram habits their answers, by and large, would be ‘Christmas, and whenever you’re around.’ And fair enough, a glass of rich, strong, smoky, sherried scotch is about as refreshing as a pair of thermal undercrackers. My own views on drinking habits tend in a ‘match the glass to the time and place’ direction; pints at pubs, wine with food and anything nameless, sticky and lethal when out after 11. (Sadly less frequent these days.) I don’t really see any need or point in shoehorning whisk(e)y into every imbibing opportunity that presents itself. Still, drink and let drink.

All that being said, I’m hardly putting my bottles into summer hibernation. And whilst I’ll reach for the ciders, G&Ts, white wine and inevitable Pimms more often than not, there are still several droplets of matured grain juice with which my summer cup runneth over – and rightly so. Inspired slightly by a piece by Johanne McInnis (@Whiskylassie) in which she names a bottle of The Deveron 12yo as her seasonal sailing dram I thought I’d consider my own summer whiskies for your consideration and delectation. (Her piece also inspired a degree of envy that she has a boat - until adolescent memories came rushing back of flopping about in a cold, itchy wetsuit that stank of fish, getting whacked on the head by self-determining booms and being called ‘lofty’ by assorted pitiless ex-Navy brine-swallowers, despite being half a foot shorter than anyone else. No, a comfy chair in a ferry bar – that’s my sort when it comes to salty sea-doggery.)

How to drink whisky in the summer without feeling like a psychopath.

1. Highballs
Ok, bit of a cheat, in that it’s not a specific whisky, but that’s going to pop up again in this article I’m afraid, so don’t start spitting your teeth out. If, for reasons of supreme tastelessness, you aren’t too enamoured of a G&T now and again, you can do a lot worse than mixing a good measure of whisky with some sparkling water, a few cubes of ice and, if you fancy it, whichever citrus fruit floats your boat. (I find orange often works quite nicely, and you can eat the rest of it without looking like a masochist.) 

Soda has a long history of diluting spirits; when Scotch was still seen as haggis-fancier’s mouth-rot, Brandy and Soda was the poison of choice for the English middle class upwards. So don’t go bleating about whisky dilution – and don’t be afraid to slosh in a Single Malt either, and to hell with the fun-sucking snobbos. (Though if you do use a Single Malt, or indeed any pricey whisk(e)y, my polite recommendation, as ever, would be to at least give it a try neat first, just so you know where it’s coming from.) 

The whisk(e)y you use in your highball’s entirely up to you, and limited only by your own adventurousness and the size of your stash. My top tip though is to go Japanese. They love a highball in the land of the rising sun – they even sell it in cans – and many of their whiskies are put together with this in mind. Probably the one I’ve enjoyed most featured Nikka From the Barrel (which, amidst rocketing Japanese whisky prices, remains one of the whisky world’s most spectacular bargains incidentally.)

Sparkling water isn’t essential either – ginger ale’s a popular choice too. To be honest, use whatever you like, but do bear in mind that the more flavour in the mixer, the less the whisk(e)y will have to say for itself. Oh, and for Christ’s sake and yours, don’t be a bore about the soda water brand. You all know that served blind you wouldn’t have the foggiest which one was which, so don’t pretend otherwise.

2. Think youthful.
Walnuts, leather, rancio, Christmas cake – not exactly flavours you’ll find yourself craving when your shirt’s sticking to your back, you’re inch-thick with Factor Fifty and Andy Murray’s being taken apart in the fifth by Djokovic. (To anyone who accuses me of pessimism here I point out that at least I had him making five sets of it.) Old whiskies and very heavily sherried whiskies aren’t your friends when the sun comes out. Too rich, too heavy – you’re best off putting them on house arrest. 

It’s not what you’d call a rule of science, but I probably wouldn’t go older than about 15 when it comes to outdoor whiskies. That way you get more freshness, more vibrancy and a little bit more liveliness by and large. I’d also recommend looking in the direction of whiskies with a little more fruit in their flavour profile. The Glens of Fiddich and Kinchie are your friends here. By and large Speyside’s likely to be your happiest hunting ground for Scottish single malts to suit this category, though some East Highlanders are well worth a look too. Glencadam in particular is a personal summertime favourite.

3. Seasoned with salt.
Put your condiments back in the cupboard – that wasn’t what I meant. Really ought to stop coming up with fanciful titles. A few scotch whiskies are noted for having a distinct core of salinity running through them, and if they happen to come with a citrus note or two on the side it makes for a very satisfactorily refreshing sip. Springbank 10 leaps to mind (I nearly wrote ‘springs to mind,’ and felt like a terrible human) as does Pulteney 12. Usually these more maritime tipples have a tiny whiff of smoke – nothing Kildalton level – which I’m sure contributes to the impression of salt. As with the previous entry, if you look on the younger end of the whisky spectrum you’re likely to find the salinity more pronounced and the flavours more seasonally appropriate. Save your older, heavier stuff for when Autumn rolls along in about five minutes’ time.

4. Cocktails
The most summery whisky cocktail I’ve ever had was conceived by Signe Johansen as a riff on a whisky sour. I encountered it in March, which I grant isn’t exactly shorts weather, but I remember thinking it would be just the ticket for a pre-BBQ glass in the garden. (There’s no end to my optimism.) Like me, your mixology skills may not extend further than knowing which end of the tonic/coke/Jäger bottle to unscrew, but there are certainly a few
whisky cocktails every bit as refreshing as their vodka or gin-based opposite numbers. Besides, they always taste better when some other poor sap has had to do the mixing anyway.

Whisky sours are very much my thing in the summer cocktail department (my go-to whisky cocktail, the Old Fashioned, is another that plays its best game indoors) but a mate from my Bristol days swears by the Mint Julep. Probably the most memorable whisky cocktail I’ve ever enjoyed (and yes, ‘enjoy’ is the right word) was the self-explantory Ardbeg Mojito, as mixed by a chap called Rob at the Glenmoriston Town House Hotel in Inverness. Which just goes to show that the sky’s the limit on cocktail creation. 

5. Less is more
There’s a tendency amongst whisky drinkers – and I’ve been guilty of it as anyone – to do a bit of a Jeremy Clarkson when it comes to ABV. By which I mean shout ‘POWER!!’ with unnecessary extra exclamation marks, accuse anything south of cask strength of being feeble and wimpy and tell anyone foolish enough to hang around for more than a minute of the merits of 60%+, all the while choking on fumes, forcing out an ‘ah, that’s the good stuff’ and gasping away like an asthmatic up a chimney.  

Don’t do that in summer.

Ideally, don’t do that at all – it’s one of the reasons you don’t get invited to parties – but particularly don’t do it when it’s hot enough to fry an egg on your car bonnet. Ideal summer drinking is a big game of ‘see how much booze you can ingest without the perception that you’re ingesting any at all.’ Hence the gallons of Prosecco and Pimms and Sangria and lager and cider guzzled in gardens between now and late September. Neat spirits, by contrast, are about as welcome as a wasp in your swimming costume, so if you do go North of 46% I’d refer you to items 1 and 4. But hey – if you can still stick to a ‘Cask Strength or GTFO’ mantra at 30 Celsius then I admire your stubbornness if nothing else.

So there, for what they’re worth, are my top tips for summer whisky drinkers. In all honesty my own glass is more likely to be charged with a cider or a G&T than a drop of aqua vitӕ, (Aspalls for cider and Cotswolds for Gin in case you’re interested) but there’s no doubt highballs will feature, and once the sun goes down the Glencairn usually raises its head. 

Bottom line – drink whatever you want over this summer. Looking out of the office window I only hope we actually get one.


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