An ex­clu­sive taste of the golden drop

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

If ever a word was mis­lead­ing, it’s “whisky”. At first hear­ing, it sounds like the kind of name you might give to a drowsy do­mes­tic cat. In fact, the term “whisky” is de­rived from the rugged Scot­tish Gaelic phrase “uisge beatha”. An earthy pair­ing of words, full of wild High­land gales and aro­matic peati­ness, which, when com­bined, means sim­ply “wa­ter of life”.

And the power con­tained within that wa­ter is not that of a slug­gish tabby but of a fiery tiger. Who bet­ter, then, to re­veal the se­crets of this mighty liq­uid than Charles Ma­cLean, a man so steeped in his sub­ject that he is work­ing on his 17th book about scotch whisky?

On De­cem­ber 1, he will host a spe­cial whisky tast­ing event in London, ex­clu­sively for Tele­graph read­ers. En­ti­tled The Tele­graph Whisky Tast­ing Ex­pe­ri­ence, it’s a pre­lude to the launch of our own Tele­graph Whisky Club next April.

The event will be held at One White­hall Place, the his­toric ad­dress that was once home to the Na­tional Lib­eral Club (it’s not too dif­fi­cult to pic­ture Glad­stone and Co sink­ing a few dou­bles here after a long ses­sion in the Com­mons).

What will be on of­fer is not so much a dry, dusty whisky lec­ture as an ex­clu­sive, try-it-your­self whisky fair. Hav­ing in­tro­duced his au­di­ence to the sub­ject, Ma­cLean will hand them over to be­tween 10 and 15 mak­ers of the finest scotch malt whisky, and give them the chance to put his tast­ing tips into prac­tice.

In ad­di­tion, there will be mas­ter­classes, spon­sored by Wil­liam Grant and Sons (brands Glen­fid­dich and Gir­van), and John De­war, who will be un­veil­ing their malt whiskies Aber­feldy and Craigel­lachie.

“The sin­gle malt cat­e­gory is one of our in­dus­try’s great growth op­por­tu­ni­ties,” says John Burke, the firm’s dark spir­its cat­e­gory di­rec­tor. “And we are blessed with five of Scot­land’s finest high-qual­ity whiskies, two of which we will be bring­ing with us.”

In ad­di­tion, food will be served that forms a per­fect mar­riage with the scotch. As well as tak­ing home ex­tra whisky knowl­edge, guests will be given a spe­cial Glen­cairn crys­tal whisky glass and will have the chance to buy their drop of choice at pop-up Whisky Shop (22 UK branches – make that 23 for this day only).

It’s hard to imag­ine those car­ry­ing whisky L-plates be­ing in the hands of a more ex­pe­ri­enced in­struc­tor than Ma­cLean. Far from re­main­ing shut up in his north-ofthe-bor­der lair, he trav­els the world spread­ing the gospel of scotch whisky, even to places where they make their own brands (Ja­pan, Ire­land, Canada and the US).

Which coun­try makes the best whisky? He smiles. “Well, I think it’s sig­nif­i­cant, don’t you, that scotch sells three times more than any other kind?”

A good point. At the same time, though, there ex­ists among many of us the idea that some peo­ple are bet­ter equipped to en­joy whisky than oth­ers. Per­haps due to some kind of in­built nasal or taste­bud bril­liance.

Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth, says Ma­cLean. “Pretty much all of us are sim­i­larly equipped in terms of our abil­ity to smell and taste,” he says. “On the whole, it’s only very el­derly peo­ple who lose their sense of smell. Like any other abil­ity, though, it is def­i­nitely one you can de­velop and nur­ture. After I’d done some train­ing in my early days [a course in “the sen­sory eval­u­a­tion of potable spir­its” at the Scotch Whisky As­so­ci­a­tion], I’d go out, sniff the air, and it felt as if I’d grown an ex­tra limb.”

Speak­ing of which, is there a time of day one’s senses are at their most ac­tive? At lunchtime, per­haps, or as the sun sinks down be­hind the glen? The an­swer comes as a sur­prise. “In my ex­pe­ri­ence, your sense of smell is more acute in the early morn­ing, which is why I rec­om­mend tast­ings be­fore lunch. That said, it re­cov­ers in the dead pe­riod be­tween lunchtime and four o’clock, and perks up in the early evening. By and large, though, after you’ve tried six whiskies, your palate be­comes a bit jaded. I tend to try three, have a bit of a break, and then come back.”

That sounds like good ad­vice. And apart from avoid­ing fac­ul­ty­im­pair­ment through too many big swigs, is there one sim­ple tip he can pass on to novice tasters?

“The key thing to re­mem­ber,” he says, “is that a smell is ob­jec­tive, but your re­sponse to that smell is sub­jec­tive. And what­ever whisky you are drink­ing, you have to bear in mind that flavour is ac­tu­ally a com­bi­na­tion of three things: smell, taste and tex­ture.”

From a dis­tance, too, it can ap­pear to the fledg­ling whisky drinker that the same kind of snob­bery ex­ists as can some­times be dis­cerned in the wine world. Is it true that there are ter­ri­ble faux pas that you must avoid? Like putting wa­ter in whisky?

“Not at all,” says Ma­cLean. “If you want to add wa­ter, you should; it doesn’t mat­ter. Whereas ice closes down the aroma, wa­ter opens it up, and re­leases the full flavour. Another fre­quent mis­con­cep­tion is that blended scotch is in some way an in­fe­rior prod­uct. That’s not true. What is true, though, is that malt whisky tends to be older, and, by virtue of that, more wor­thy of ap­pre­ci­a­tion and con­sid­er­a­tion. It’s more aro­matic, too, and has a greater com­plex­ity to it. The im­por­tant thing, though, is not to be in­tim­i­dated by other peo­ple’s opin­ions, but to de­velop your own, and find the style of scotch that most ap­peals to you. After all, there are plenty of dif­fer­ent types.”

Ma­cLean is not kid­ding. When you visit the up­stairs Quaich Bar at the Craigel­lachie Ho­tel, in Spey­side, you gaze upon shelf after tow­er­ing shelf of dif­fer­ent whiskies, start­ing at Aber­lour and pro­ceed­ing via Is­lay and Laphroaig to Tamdhu, Tom­intoul and Tullibar­dine, with flavours rang­ing from heavy-duty peat to goose­ber­ries and heather.

There are so many dif­fer­ent bot­tles that the bar­maid, a trainedup whisky tour guide, has to climb a steplad­der to reach the two top tiers. As for price, a small 25ml mea­sure starts at £2.70 and goes up to £295 for the re­ally ex­pen­sive stuff – which works out at about £50 per sip.

What you have to re­mem­ber, though, is that you are in Dufftown, the small town that is the in­for­mal cap­i­tal of Scot­tish whisky, with 50 dis­til­leries within an hour’s drive. It is said that while Rome was built on seven hills, Dufftown was built on seven stills. At the cen­tre of the town stands the Glen­fid­dich Dis­tillery, which is all very grand and vis­i­tor-cen­tred to­day but be­gan life more humbly back in 1886, when Wil­liam Grant and his nine chil­dren built a shel­ter for the company’s first still, us­ing rocks and their bare hands.

To­day, of course, the Scot­tish in­dus­try is no longer a muddy High­land raga­muf­fin but a pol­ished, cos­mopoli­tan gi­ant, with cus­tomers in 200 dif­fer­ent coun­tries and prices to match – a six-litre bot­tle of Ma­callan M was auc­tioned for £383,195 ear­lier this year.

It’s no se­cret, ei­ther, where that auc­tion took place: in Hong Kong, where Asian mul­ti­mil­lion­aires ap­pre­ci­ate not only the taste of a fine scotch but also its value as an in­vest­ment.

Orig­i­nally, then, whisky be­gan as a small and of­ten il­licit stream, flow­ing through se­cret stills in the Scot­tish glens. But even though the river of scotch has carved new cour­ses in for­eign lands, its smaller, many-flavoured trib­u­taries are now within reach of ev­ery­one in the UK, just wait­ing to be ex­plored. One White­hall Place, London Mon­day, De­cem­ber 1 2014 1pm-5pm or 6pm-10pm

Prices start from £70 for the Whisky Ex­pe­ri­ence and range be­tween £85-£95 to in­clude the Master­class Ex­pe­ri­ences.

How to book: 0800 316 6222 (lines are open Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm, Sat, 9am-1pm) or book on­line at thetele­graph­whisky­ex­pe­ri­

The dram busters: au­thor and spe­cial­ist Charles Ma­cLean will elu­ci­date the se­crets of scotch at a spe­cial tast­ing event for read­ers in De­cem­ber

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