scotchodysseyblog.com

scotchodysseyblog

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.

Posted in Comment | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Glen Garioch – One-Year-Old(meldrum)

A view from the dry warmth of the visitor centre last April.

A view from the dry warmth of the visitor centre last April.

Henceforth, ’one year ago…’ moments shall occur to me on an almost daily basis. They may never have come to pass, however, had it not been for my guardian angels who abstained from supping Scotch whisky vapour long enough to manifest themselves at Glen Garioch, Aberdeenshire. To commemorate this date twelve months ago I thought I would post up a piece which I submitted to John Hansell’s blog for consideration in his guest-blogger season last September. Although I was frustratingly unsuccessful in that particular journalistic bid, I have retained the article so that, today, it may serve as the narrative silver lining to my north-east Highland rain clouds.

I rolled out of Dufftown, making headway into the first of the day’s sixty miles. Snow flurries mutated into persistent rain and little strips of asphalt became the A96. I had chosen to ignore the look my hotelier had given me when I told him I was taking the main road between Aberdeen and Inverness to Oldmeldrum. For ten miles I didn’t so much cycle as self-preserve, hunted by oil industry executives in their BMWs and blasted by the bow waves of air from gargantuan trucks, none of whom were about to touch the brakes for a squidgy cyclist.

Exhausted and petrified I swung off the motorway at the sign for Oldmeldrum, the rain still falling lazily, the rolling arrow-straight roads of Aberdeenshire taunting my cracked, foggy brain. Every last inch of me was dripping and squelching. My bike, on account of the spray, muck and frenzied pedalling of the A96, was disturbing the peace in Hades with its creaking, squeaking and rattling. My personal fuel warning light had been on for the last fifteen miles and I splashed into the distillery car park not entirely alive. I knew, however, and with grim certainty, that if I didn’t get my cycling gear dried somehow, when I came to leave the distillery after my tour for the return leg to Huntly I would depart this mortal coil, as well – long before the trucks could have a second crack at me on the motorway.

Resembling a refugee more than a participant on her next tour, I begged the lady in the visitor’s centre for a hot radiator.

“Go across to the stillroom and say Jane sent you to dry some things,” she said.

The very accommodating stillroom.
The very accommodating stillroom.

I stumbled back out into the rain to the still house where I found the stillman reading his newspaper. I mumbled my message from Jane and he pointed to a clothes rack stationed behind the spirit still. With the last of my strength I wrenched off my saturated clothing and turned the stillroom at Glen Garioch into my own personal launderette.

Back across the road in the visitor’s centre, Jane made me a cup of tea and I was taken round the distillery by tour guide Fiona. As we approached the glowing stills, the point at which my semi-nudity had featured unexpectedly in her previous tour, Fiona joked that she had considered whether or not to inform her two visitors who had also witnessed my disrobing that half-naked cyclists were pivotal to the final Glen Garioch flavour.

After the tour we discussed with Jane my travel ambitions, mishaps and fears, of which there were many at that moment. It was partly the bone-dry clothes, but mostly their encouragement that meant I had a smile on my face when I left Oldmeldrum and still had one when I later arrived in Huntly.

Would my Glen Garioch experience have been drastically different had I undertaken my journey in invigorating spring sunshine? It is, to all intents and purposes, a redundant question – one pretending to a rationality and design entirely absent from the minute-to-minute experience of my Odyssey. It rained, I chose a despicable road, I had a crisis, I was restored. That’s pretty much it.

When will be the 'right time'...?

When will be the 'right time'...?

Except, of course, it isn’t. Not by a long way. As I excavated my bottle of the 1990 Small-batch Release from the drinks cabinet, my entire tour could be appraised in 70 centilitre form. As I had reason to remark to my charming Swedish neighbour on a recent train journey, Scotch whisky has at once assumed positions in the micro and the macro of my life. Nothing is ‘just’ a dram – drinking is not simply consumption but a form of communion with a very particular form of spirit. Glen Garioch will always abide in my memory – like the mircoflora in a wooden washback – because it created a unique, intoxicating blend of circumstance, humanity and history: a sequence of unrepeatable malt moments. Friday, April 23 2010 surpassed all previous expectations for how whisky could inspire me to singular efforts, as well as the extent to which it and the people involved in it could reward them. Therefore, whilst my powers of recollection do not strictly require a material object, my 1990 bottling is as good a manifestation as I can come up with for now of these complex amalgamations of whisky and wonder.

Posted in Comment | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Comment | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments