Sunday, 17 July 2016

Legalising Coke - the truth will set you free

My hand is shaking. It's 3:45 on a glorious afternoon, and I'm tucked into the furthest corner of the dark top floor of Brown's in Reading, alone and hunched over my glasses. I haven't done this before. Once I do it there will be no going back. What frail resolve sent me out scouting the bars of Reading for an elusive Lagavulin 16 is quivering as convulsively as is my paw. I look around to check that no one is watching. The sea-spray, iodine and old furniture waft from the snifter glass. I inhale deeply through my nose. And I pour the double measure of cola on top of the Islay Single Malt.

A perfect storm took me to this moment of what almost all the whiskynet, indeed almost every Single Malt drinker in the world would condemn as unthinkable heresy. A week or two ago the inestimable Becky Paskin wrote a piece on bemoaning the disinclination of drinkers and bar staff to experiment with Single Malt in cocktails. Not four hours before committing my act of seeming blasphemy, Dave Broom had given me the tip through his excellent Whisky Manual. But it began a few months ago, when I was trawling through articles on a wine website, and I came across a photograph.

The photograph in question was taken in the Gloucester Road branch of KFC - a branch I'm actually rather familiar with, an ex-girlfriend having rented a room nearby at one stage. It depicts a group of thirty-something young men in festive mood, gathered around a mountain of original recipe, and pouring a bottle of wine into one of the Colonel's finest drinking vessels. All very jolly, but so what? Some embellishment: the chap at the back, peering over his foregrounded companions is Neal Martin, who is amongst the most significant and influential wine writers in the world. The wine in question is a Ch√Ęteau Troplong Mondot 1955. I've no idea what such a bottle would cost, should you even manage to track it down, but I'd hazard a guess at four figures. Suffice it to say, it's a fancy
drop of vino.

Mr Martin's article was to introduce himself to the readership of his new employer, The Wine Advocate/ He sets out his stall with the aforementioned photo, cautioning that his style will likely not be to the taste of those who succumb to the apotheosis of wine. Shockingly for an ex-English Student, but as is habitually the case when I read Mr Martin's work, I had to look up what 'apotheosis' meant. In case it hasn't featured on your own Scrabble board in the past, its definition is the elevation of someone, or something, to divine status.

There are very few of us, I suspect, who are not, or have not been, guilty of apotheosis toward Single Malt whisky. I know I have. In fact, when I began this blog, almost a year ago to the day, I still was. When 2015 gasped its last I still was. Pour coke on top of six-months-back-Wellsy's Lagavulin and see what you get for it. It permeates everything, this air of untouchability. You hear it on distillery tours, at festivals, in whisky literature and online. Single Malt must only be consumed neat, or with a tiny slosh of water. More often than not you're told not even to add the water. I made a pretty convincing argument to that point to Pilgrim Snr a few months back, since when he has entirely abandoned his formerly automatic teaspoon's worth of dilution. Father: if you've continued reading past the bit where I added coke to Lagavulin, I apologise whole-heartedly. Drink your whisky however the Hell you please.

With a caveat.

I would be surprised - indeed flabbergasted - if some of the people reading the last few paragraphs weren't spitting with rage by this point, so let me make a vital addendum before proceeding. What I am NOT saying is 'slosh whatever you want into anything willy nilly.' First of all, it might not work. I tried the coke on Lagavulin because Dave Broom recommended it, because he knows rather more than most about whisk(e)y and because I allowed myself the assumption that he wasn't just playing silly buggers with his editors and readers.

Second of all, and most important, I love Lagavulin. I particularly love Lagavulin 16. There are very few whiskies in the world which I know better, and of other Scotch distilleries, only Springbank, Highland Park and Glenfiddich hold such treasured a place in my heart - and only Glenfiddich for such personal reasons. I don't know how many times I've tried that expression, and I wouldn't like to guess. As far as getting to understand the whisky goes, I couldn't have done much more. 

The thing is, and it is an important thing, however wonderful a Single Malt or high end Bourbon, or any other whisky might be - it's still just a drink. And in the arsenal of the mixologist, it's still just an ingredient. There's such zealous fanaticism regarding Single Malt, to which I have been thoroughly a party, that with the benefit of hindsight, it almost beggars belief. One of the first myths that is 'busted' when you get into wine is the idea of using crappy old plonk or gone-off bottles for cooking with. It's simple - if you wouldn't drink it, don't cook with it. And where cocktails or mixed drinks are concerned, if you wouldn't drink them solo, don't drink them in harmony. Lagavulin, to my palate, is delicious. So, for that matter, is coke. I was informed by one of whisky's most reliable sources that they worked astonishingly well mixed half and half and at room temperature. Why would I not give it a try?

Don't get me wrong - I still drink, and plan on drinking, most of my whisk(e)y neat. I don't tend to add water (more from laziness than anything else - my chair is very comfy and far from the kitchen) and I don't imagine that changing terribly often. But what I am saying, is use an open mind. Not only is the practice of drinking whisk(e)y neat, and only neat, a recent phenomenon, but it's a rather restrictive one. And consider this: if you try something in a bar, and it doesn't work, you haven't burned too much cash and you can always buy another drink. If you're making something at home, you've the whole rest of the bottle to enjoy in whatever way takes your fancy. So take the time to get to know your whisky, to understand where it's coming from, and what its characteristics, properties and flavours are. And once that's done - experiment once in a while. Soda, ginger ale, cola, cocktails - whatever takes your fancy. Open your mind, and your palate, and you may be astonished by the new stories your favourite dram has to tell you.

Which takes us back to yesterday afternoon, and my furtive corner of the top floor of Browns, where I've hidden in case the nice barmaid who pressed a snifter-style glass upon me instead of a tumbler spots my mixological 'misdoings' and hollers 'fraud!' (I'd ordered the whisky and coke as two separate drinks.) Because there's an obvious question: was Lagavulin and cola any good after all? And the answer is yes. Astonishing. Revelatory. Delicious. My fears of character loss were confounded by new layers of flavour, the texture more unctuous, the burn replaced by the lightest petillance. It was - and I would never previously have said this of a coke-and-mixer - elegant, sophisticated, classy. With it I could convert legions hitherto undreamed-of to whisky. It was, in short, a bloody tasty drop. It's as if Dave Broom knows what he's talking about.

God knows what the staff thought, as I sniggered my way through the experience, laughing at the joy of what I had done and how it had turned out, but if it had been a little later than 4:15 when I finished it I'd probably have made another. As it was, when I burst out of Brown's onto the sunlit canalside there was a spring in my step and a smile on my face that had nothing to do with the paltry two units warming my cockles. Fetters had been shed, liberation had been achieved.

The Roman philosopher Seneca once opined that to truly own something, one must throw it away. Guided by Neal Martin, by Becky Paskin and by Dave Broom I cast away my notions of what whisk(e)y should be, especially single malt. In exchange for which, apotheosis has been replaced by opportunity and promise. I'm not abandoning neat whisk(e)y - of course I'm not. Not everything will work with every whisky - of course it won't; I anticipate many failed experiments ahead. And, as ever, whisk(e)y cannot be all things to all folk. But it'll be a damn sight more to me now than it ever could have been before.

So if Mr Martin and friends ever find themselves in need of 11 secret herbs and spices to pair with their wine, they know where to find me. Claret mixed with Springbank? Sounds ominous. But I guess now I'll try anything once...



  1. Your writing style is very enjoyable, and this article has intrigued me no end. I have a bottle of Lagavulin16 in my small collection and I'll be picking up a bottle of full fat Coke so I can try this witchcraft of which you write, and join you in eternal damnation. Or appreciation...

    1. Hi Iain. Sorry for the delayed response - not checked in with the site in months!

      Yes, definitely join the 'dark side'. If this is damnation then salvation has missed a trick.

      And thanks so much for reading - thrilled you enjoyed it!