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A Trophy Cabinet: Assembling Whisky United

The depleted whisky shelf.

The depleted whisky shelf.

Putting together a satisfactory whisky cabinet is much like building a successful football team. A collection of individuals it may be, but only as a cohesive unit can they hope to secure long-term glory. Likening whisky to a team sport may sound odd, but my relationship with it is such that I can only conceive of it in this way.

For me, whisky is precisely like a game football: the malt I happen to be drinking is simply the one in control of the ball while round about it are many others engineering its direction, providing supporting angles and ensuring collective success. One whisky is never consumed in isolation for it evokes so many elements in my whisky explorations, not just of places, people and processes, but of flavours and possibilities, too. The inclination to have a dram stems from all of these considerations and betrays not a craving just to consume alcohol but a need to savour again the past successes and delights associated with drinking whisky. It is therefore a polymorphous, composite inclination in its own right and highly complex. The challenge which it lays down is never the same and requires an elite assemblage of malts whose qualities enable them to engage in the contest dynamically and inspirationally.

This does not mean, however, that the brashest, showiest and above all most expensive whiskies make it into the team. I have learnt that my Whisky United, while expected to perform on the most glamorous nights of the Champions League, must chiefly earn their bread and butter in the quotidien grind of the Premiership. As I have already described here, my very favourite moment for a malt whisky and therefore by far and away the period of time in which most is consumed, is before dinner and this calls for a relatively light, fruity dram with ideally a strong citrussy and vanilla-accented ex-Bourbon influence. Peat is not unwelcome either. This, therefore, is the spine of my team from the centre halves to the holding midfield players. Of these latter, I have recently recognised that the Compass Box Asyla is my Iniesta: a player whose merit far outweighs his initial asking price. The likes of Linkwood and Caol Ila are the star strikers.

As I alluded to above, however, there are some late evening kick offs where a dram must possess the requisite power and artistry to shine on the biggest stage. It is not often that I call upon a whisky to serve as a digestif, but when I do there had better be one ambitious enough to seize the opportunity and make the moment. My Adelphi can do this tremendously well. It is the Didier Drogba or Cristiano Ronaldo of my drinks cabinet.

However, with the new season imminent, I have a problem with personnel. Many of my try-outs from the youth academy did not impress (Tomintoul Peaty Tang, Tormore 12yo, Glenmorangie LaSanta) and my old stagers have retired (Longmorn 15yo, Old Pulteney 12yo). The team needs rebuilding and I’m putting my limited budget towards quality players perhaps overlooked by many. They must be distinctive, individual and roar with eloquence about how fantastic unadulterated whisky can be. Presently I have my Adelphi (which qualifies handsomely), the Ardmore Traditional, Auchentoshan 1978 and tiny amounts of Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve and Compass Box. Not a collection guaranteed to best the hurly-burly of forthcoming opposition. I need additional vibrancy, delicacy and long-term commitment.

I’m struggling to channel Sir Alex Ferguson on this one, though. I’m due in Benromach for a Manager’s Tour next month and cannot overcome the temptation to take them up on their offer of £15 off the bottle-your-own single cask. The excellent 10yo may be more consistently amenable, and there is much to be said for drinking a whisky at 43% abv when there is still much academic work to be done over a cask strength brute. But the ‘cask strength brute’ is precisely what interests me about whisky right now: in its raw state, pure, simple and unique. There is a similar conundrum associated with the Aberlour bottle-your-own. It is a lot of money (although I would drink it) and despite the ex-Bourbon genesis, is it simply too rich to serve as an aperitif whisky?

My response has been and continues to be: wait and see. The Benromach single cask may be first-fill sherry, in which case it is a big no-no; the Aberlour may underwhelm so impossibly high are my expectations for this next single cask. Or, I may elect to trust in my holding midfielder (the Compass Box Asyla) and maybe a G&M Longmorn 12yo, while investing in the promises made at the time by whichever luminous malts I succumbed to that they can and will set the pitch on fire when necessary. Perhaps it is not for me yet to dictate where and when a malt is allowed to be extraordinary.

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‘A Taste of Speyside’ – My Second Helping

This pagoda could just be glimpsed from Braehead Terrace over the three days I stayed there. For me, the distillery shall always recall Dufftown; the whisky Sandy at 'A Taste of Speyside'.

This pagoda could just be glimpsed from Braehead Terrace over the three days I stayed there. For me, Mortlach shall always recall Dufftown, and particularly Sandy at 'A Taste of Speyside'.

Without a shadow of a doubt, it was a good birthday. While certain social pressures preside over turning 21-years-of-age, and may lead to some degree of short-term memory loss next September, the location and the company which my birthday of 2010 embraced were sufficiently distinctive to preserve them in my mind, hopefully forever.

In the style of one who is especially hard to please (although I’m not, really), my gift to myself comprised a return to Dufftown. With my parents driving, of course. I had booked the family (my aunt – saviour of the Odyssey’s first week – had joined us) into ‘A Taste of Speyside’ for dinner, and we chugged into Dufftown, past the gargantuan Glenfiddich on the left and the symbolic still neck on the right, tickled by weak sunshine. A box of Northumbrian goodies sat beside me on the back seat - my Hamper of Limitless Gratitude.

Within said hamper (it was a cardboard box, in truth, although it had once been appropriated by the Doddington Dairy, makers of superb ice cream) were Piperfield Pork bacon, a selection of homemade preserves and an array of products from the Northumbrian Cheese Co. Northumbria’s are distinctive cheeses, and some of the loveliest I have ever tasted. I had hoped these would appeal to Sandy’s passionate interest in local produce, and whilst the topic of many of our conversations in April had been whisky-flavoured, he could acquire plenty of this himself. It would – as indeed it had for us – require quite a commute to purloin these note-worthy, delicious items (Piperfield supply Heston Blumenthal at ‘The Fat Duck’).

One of my very favourite restaurants, as I may have mentioned. Whisky might have brought you to Dufftown - this eaterie will bring you back.

One of my very favourite restaurants, as I may have mentioned. Whisky might have brought you to Dufftown - this eaterie will bring you back.

Our dinner was not as alchemical or psychedelic as one might find in Bray, but just as lauded. Having nipped down the hill to Mortlach for the purposes of yet more distillery photography – I had neglected to capture its eclectic visage when I was last in the area, and indeed my comparative lack of pictorial variety preserved on my SD card is one of my bigger regrets of the tour - I hiked back along Fife Street, passed the Co-op where I had purchased so many highly-calorific morsels to the Clock Tower and Balvenie Street.

Ducking through the front door of No. 10 to witness Sandy holding court before my relatives was tremendous. I had hoped to introduce The Mother to him, but he came to appreciate what I had alluded to in April of his own accord. My dear Mum has enroled herself in an exclusion diet to mitigate symptoms of early-onset osteo-arthritis in the right elbow, an important joint for a chef. Sandy’s menu is fabulously rich in places, celebrating the apparent unpretentiousness of natural Scottish ingredients. The consequences of indulging in flour and dairy my mother agonised over extensively. “I can’t have potatoes, either,” said Mum. “Well don’t have them,” replied Sandy.

Following my Gordon & MacPhail Linkwood 15-year-old (not my wisest choice as an aperitif but they hadn’t any Tomintoul 14-year-old) I had the Cullen Skink – a creamy, potato-laden fish soup – to start, and then the Speyside Platter which amalgamated many of the finest foods from the Spey valley and the Moray coast. As it turned out, they hadn’t any of the rabbit casserole on this occasion, either. Both were extraordinarily delicious: the Skink pure comfort food and the Platter an insight into the diveristy of produce from the area. Smoked salmon, chicken liver paté, smoked venison, herring, oatcakes and cheeses – my designs on rounding off my meal with the cranahan cheesecake had to be redrafted! I haven’t any photos, by the way, because each course vanished too quickly.

As a digestif I indulged in the 21-year-old PortWood from the distillery whose namesake is the street I was dining on. This was wonderfully spicy and rich, with marzipan sweetness and creaminess. The oaking was assertive but deliciously so and the tannic fruitiness mingled with the textures of the crème brûlée I had managed to despatch. Once again, superlative Scottish hospitality had put the world to rights.

So unexpected and plentiful had Sandy’s support and generosity been at the time I first encountered him - a juncture of huge significance and precariousness - that to dine in his restaurant under entirely different circumstances and yet to discover him unchanged, baffled me no end. This man had made self-belief possible at a time when I had lost my way, badly. What I now accredit as my most treasured achievement to date had at one stage been in serious, ignominious jeopardy. Circumstance and despondency had coalesced on the morning of April 27th, but the potentially debilitating and restricting legacy of each had been banished by a simple demonstration of humanity. A change of mentality was desperately required, and duly arrived as a surprise side dish at ‘A Taste of Speyside’. The man himself, of course, continually dismisses his own pivotal role. Be assured, Sandy, it was not ”nothing.”

For the account of my first encounter with the folk at ‘A Taste of Speyside’, please view my original blog post, typed on his computer. For further information about the restaurant, please visit Dufftown’s website. You can also “add them” on Facebook.

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Moments for Malt

Some of my favourite pre-dinner malts: perfect delicacy but also full-on flavour.

Some of my favourite pre-dinner malts: perfect delicacy but also full-on flavour.

You wouldn’t take a howler monkey to Wimbledon. You wouldn’t show up at work on Monday morning wearing only your swimming trunks (or would you?). You wouldn’t eat beef bourguignon for breakfast. Time and Place is the discrepancy in operation here, and particularly in our Western society the failure to observe what is appropriate in any given circumstance is liable to invite ridicule upon oneself. There are things which are simply not done and if you are unfortunate enough to be caught doing them you are castigated as tactless, benighted - even a savage.

Equally, there are pairings which share an indestructible complimentary tie, combinations which are both wholesome and pleasing: Stephen Fry and any television programme with a cultured or intellectual subject; Emma Watson and Chanel; English football on the international stage and crushing, embarrassing disappointment. These work.

It is the same with malt whisky, only the time and place for a dram is not prescribed by social stigma but by deep personal discoveries. As I’m sure a lot of malt lovers can appreciate, after a certain point some brands and expressions become mainstays of a special hour in the day or location in the world. Treating them like Steven Gerrard and playing them out of position simply comes over all wrong.

Very recently I reached this juncture myself. In his Malt Whisky Companion, Micheal Jackson speaks of the “particular” pleasure of the stuff: “the restorative after a walk in the country or a game of golf; the aperitif; even, occasionally, the malt with a meal; the digestif; the malt with a cigar, or with a book at bedtime.” I have sampled whisky in all of the above situations (although stroke out golf and cigars) at some point and can now declaim that, for me, a dram pre-dinner is my absolute favourite ‘Moment for a Malt’. The exploration of flavour in liquid form is a marvellous prelude to the more substantial main event. The olfactory and digestive mechanisms, in moist anticipation, make to intensify the properties of whichever whisky I’m sipping. This is especially true on Sunday evenings when my malt has medicinal qualities, too (even when it is not an Islay), remedying the fever symptomatic of the atrocities endured over the course of a Sunday Lunch shift at the pub where I work. At such a time, the delicate, smooth, captivating sweetness of youthful Speysiders is highly prized. The Glenlivet 12-year-old and Tomintoul 16-year-old used to do the job in the past. These now long empty, I look to my bottle of the superb Longmorn 15-year-old and the majestic Linkwood 12-year-old. Vanilla, oak, flowers and fruit, and a touch of peat compose an irresistible flavour profile.

Perhaps still more extraordinary, however, is Caol Ila. Although memories of cycling around the gorgeous distilleried stretch between Rothes and Elgin endows these two malts made on the Lossie with more favourable significance, I rate Caol Ila an unbeatable aperitif. The balance of soft fruity sweetness, crisp, deep peat and supreme malty delicacy is wonderful. At present, I find the Distillers’ Edition with little or no water a joy to drink.

Of course I shall continue to experiment. I suspect my dearth of support for a post-prandial malt is because I have so few bottles whose contents fit the bill. I haven’t many aged, Sherry-matured bruisers. Dark and bewitching cannot be readily applied to the inductess of my drinks cabinet. Mortlach 16-year-old works well with music after a meal but less so with television; Ardbeg Uigeadail demands commitment and certainty to be poured and savoured; the Auchentoshan 1978 is very powerful indeed at 59% ABV. All are complex malts, but haven’t yet seemed to marry with my after dinner moods. The 30-year-old Glenfarclas, however, could without a doubt address matters, and the Gordon & MacPhail Strathisla 49-year-old Sandy poured me in Dufftown to round off my fillet steak and clootie dumpling was revelatory. This last is of course a ‘Malt Moment’ in its own right.

As for whisky with a meal, testing has proven inconclusive. Glenfarclas 15-year-old with dark chocolate? Not a winner. Oban 14-year-old with salmon? Well, I’ll try almost anything once. Auchentoshan 3Wood with Christmas cake? Scoreless draw. Whisky and food pairing is an avenue many are keenly striding down, and there are some persuasive articles around to tempt me, but I feel that, for the time being, I won’t risk spoiling the impact of my whiskies when the inclination to have one arises.

The Dalmore 15-year-old: a Twilight Whisky.

The Dalmore 15-year-old: a Twilight Whisky.

If the evening is wearing on, however, now may well be the time for another malt. Though not as appealing as aperitifs, “Twilight Whiskies” can be fantastic. The Dalmore 15-year-old is an astonishingly lovely and easy-drinking dram. I adore its opulent, richness, firmness, nuttiness, fruitiness and light dab of ground coffee-esque peat. For a late-night malt, it is without equal and indeed I polished off my bottle, with regret but with friends, earlier this week. Highland Park 12-year-old is a steely competitor, though, as the light dies from the sky. I sipped some as Iniesta secured the World Cup for Spain and delighted in the echoes of my drizzly Orkney causeways which slid out of my glass.

Of course, these are no more than hunches, and most likely are all subject to change. I welcome modification, in fact, because there are few simpler joys than a blissful half-hour with just the right-tasting malt – whenever and with whichever style of whisky that happens to be. If tomorrow I discover that my precious Longmorn actually works rather splendidly immediately after a mid-morning chocolate croissant then for such future occasions shall I reserve and savour it. Although maybe I ought not to make a habit of doing so, and definitely it should be out of sight of disapproving parents. When are your favourite Moments for Malt? Have they evolved over the years? I’m made dizzy by future possibilites for my whisky-drinking: Ardbeg Corryvreckan with Power Bar energy gels post half-marathon? You never know how mood and malt may conspire to create sensory wonderment.

So then, for means of reflection, conversation, restoration or an endless list of other purposes, at any time find an excuse for a wee dram. Even if it is in the manner of those monkeys slapping at typewriters, you may hit upon the perfect marriage of whisky and circumstance. It is so very rewarding. Houseman wrote: “and malt does more than Milton can. To justify God’s ways to man.” Meditating on that aphorism alone would be apt inspiration to root around in the cupboard for something tasty.

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