Saturday, 5 December 2015

A Spiritual Revelation: Single Malt Whisky

Comedian Rich Hall
I once saw the comedian Rich Hall addressing an audience. He asked if there were any Scottish people in. Answering roars told him that some people came from Edinburgh
          "Ah, Edinburgh," he said. "I once had a spiritual revelation in Edinburgh. It was called, 'Single Malt Whisky.'"
          I feel much the same, though my spirituous revelation didn't happen anywhere in Scotland - and it happened well before I met my Scottish partner. I was already a faithful drinker of single malts by the time I met the Scot.
          It was another man who, one evening, asked me what I was drinking. "Whisky." I said, and his interest was piqued. Which whisky did I favour? - and he reeled off a few of the single malts.
          "Oh, just get me a whisky," I said, in my ignorance. "Doesn't matter which one - I don't believe in all that marketing hype about single malts."
          He was offended. It was not mere marketing hype, he said. A single malt was vastly superior to the cheap, blended stuff. It was made in the place it was named after, from local water and grain. It was lovingly aged - and ya-da-yah, as I thought then, he spouted all the marketing rubbish about sherry and oak casks.
          "It's just branding," I said. "It's just an excuse to charge more."
          Allow him, he said, to do me a kindness and prove me wrong. Allow him, if I would, to buy me a couple of different single malts. Taste them, and then tell him that there was no difference between them and the likes of Jack Daniels, Bell and Johnnie Walker.
          Well, okay, I said, if you're paying.

          I always liked whisky best, of all spirits, ever since I used to sip from older relatives' glasses as a child. But whenever I drank it, the harshness of the alcohol made me shudder to my toes. That was the price, I thought, of liking whisky. You had to put up with the shudder.
        I can't remember which whiskys the gentleman bought me. Since he knew he was dealing with a beginner, it was probably a couple of the softer ones. Maybe a Glenfiddich or a Glenlivit for one - they are light, pale yellow and have a lemony, citrusy taste. And perhaps a richer, fruit-cakey one, aged in sherry-casks, such as an Aberlour.
          And it was a spiritual revelation. I drank and I didn't shudder. I realised what 'smooth' means, when applied to spirit. The single malts were so well made and aged that they slipped down with nothing more than a warm glow - and a wealth of flavours.

          Once you're converted, there are so many to try! Jura, Auchentosh, Glenmorangie, Talisker, Dalwhinnie, Craganmore...
All of them a little different. When I did meet the Scot, he told me that his father had been a whisky cooper, and in the course of cooping barrels for many different distilleries, had sampled many, many different whiskys. It was his experienced and considered opinion that the best of them all was a 10-year old Macallan. It didn't, to his taste, improve for being 12, 15 or 30 years old. The ten year old Mac: that was the one.
          And it is excellent - as is Bushmills Irish single malt, though the Scots of my acquaintance frown on Irish whiskys (and, for that matter, American and Japanese 'whiskys.' If it's not from Scotland, it's not whisky, is their thinking.)
          Personally, though, after years of trying different single malts, I'm coming to the conclusion that the best of the lot is, as many agree, Islay's Laphroig. (It's pronounced 'La-FROYg.)

          Scots friends have put forward Lagvulan as their favourite. It's very good - I've yet to meet a single malt I didn't like - but good as it is, it's not Laphroig. 

          I didn't think so when I first tasted Laphroig, years ago. I thought it smelled and tasted like burning rubber or kippers. I much preferred the lighter malts, like Glenfiddich or Oban. Or Highland Park from the Orkneys.
          But, gradually, I learned to like it. Peat smoke and honey is one of those poetic tasting descriptions for Laphroig, and the last time I drank some, I could appreciate what that meant. I could taste the sweeter honey notes coming through the harshness of smoke and iodine. I had another spiritual revelation: I realised I loved Laphroig.

          Still, it doesn't matter: mild Glenfiddich or smoky Laphroig, or spicy Aberlour, or any of the others, there is no spirit that has so much warmth and so many layers and variations in flavour as single malt whisky. I love the stuff.
          I tried to repay the gent who convinced me of the worth of single malt a few months ago. I was passing the shelf of whisky in a well known supermarket, and saw a lady looking confused in front of them. So I went over to check out my next purchase (single malts are my only extravagance) and asked her which one she fancied herself.
          She told me she knew nothing about whisky, but had been charged by her friends with the task of buying a bottle for their retiring manager - who it seemed they all liked. He was a whisky drinker, she said, so they thought a bottle of - and she waved vaguely towards the blends. But now she was here, there were so many different kinds and she was confused.
          Buy him a single malt, I said. If he's a whisky drinker, he'll be grateful. I think I steered her to an Oban in the end - a little bit smoky, but with a spicy, citrus sweetness too.

          This blog comes to you with the faint, but very real hope, that a whisky distillery will be overcome with Christmas good cheer and grant me a lifetime's supply of single malt.
          Or even a single bottle. Go on.
          Just one.
          Go on, go on.


Nick Green said...

I too would have said Laphroig! (I call it La Frog). So pale as to be almost invisible... tastes like God's own peat bog. Or (to put it a nicer way) you taste it and you can *feel* the place it came from.

Susan Price said...

I didn't mean to put this post up until Saturday! Never mind, it might as well stay loose now.
God's Own Peat Bog - I can only agree, Nick.

Jenny Alexander said...

I love the peaty island malts - Laphroig for sure, Highland Park and Jura are all firm favourites. But all the single malts are basically heaven in a glass, so I really enjoyed this post!

Susan Price said...

Heaven in a glass! Yes! It seems to bring out the poet in us, doesn't it? Those names help - Jura, Aberlour, Oban...

Joan Lennon said...

I wish you lived closer, Sue, and you could educate me!

Susan Price said...

Joan, you mean, you've lived all that time in Scotland, and no Scot has poured you a single malt? Shame on them.

Anonymous said...

I don't generally drink spirits, except for once a year when I join Scottish friends for a Haggis supper. What is the whisky of choice? - Laphroaig! The husband addresses the Haggis after I have piped it in on my school recorder - not quite the same as bagpipes, and my 'Scotland the Brave' sounds more like 'Scotland the Tentative' - mercifully I do the piping before imbibing, otherwise it would sound more like 'Scotland All Over the Place'!

Wishing you a happy Laphroaig-enhanced Christmas, Sue!
Judith Key

Susan Price said...

Oh thank you for that wish, Judith. Does the whisky drinking and haggis addressing take place in January? On Burns Night? - If so, wishing you all the best for the forthcoming occasion.
I have to say, if you only drink whisky once a year, you're very brave to make it Laphroig! I've come to love it, but it's an acquired taste.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Sue, it is Burns Night! I was always under the impression that the Scots drank their whisky neat, but my friend always adds water, which he says releases the bouquet and enhances the taste. I think he adds extra water in my glass, knowing I'm an amateur in the whisky drinking stakes!

Sue Bursztynski said...

It was a while before I understood the difference. My family drink a toast to my late father on his birthday, because he loved his whisky. I rarely taste the stuff - my own preferences run to liqueurs, especially Cointreau. But I drink to Dad and sometimes at other times and one day I had a cheap and nasty whisky my mother had bought because she also doesn't know the difference - and then I got it. My mother likes to give a Christmas bottle of whisky to the doctor who saved her life in a heart operation and I am charged with buying it. I buy Glenfiddich because he has given me my mother for several more years, and only single malt will do. I am interested to know that it's the single malt you give to new whisky drinkers. ;-)

Susan Price said...

Judith, I find opinions differ widely on whether or not you should add water. Some say yes, but only spring water, NOT tap. My own Scot, recalling his days of drinking, says, no, whisky should only be drunk neat, water ruins it.

Personally, I find a splash of water does bring out the flavours - and I can't see that it makes any difference whether it's 'pure Scottish Spring water' or the stuff from the tap.

Sue B - I hope you have your mother for many more years, whatever the cost in whisky! I wouldn't say Glenfiddich was for beginners at all - it's a fine single malt - but I would say it's one of the less challenging.