An exclusive taste of the golden drop
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 thetelegraphwhiskyexperience.co.uk
The dram busters: author and specialist Charles MacLean will elucidate the secrets of scotch at a special tasting event for readers in December