My love affair with single malt whisky

It’s taken me by surprise, but this late-blooming passion is all-consuming

Wine & Food

23 Mar 2017

The hope was that one or two vices might elude me — that fetching up on the wrong side of 60 would be a soft landing. Now I am not so sure. Yes, I have pretty much lost my taste for champagne (Auberon Waugh once told me that Krug is not champagne. ‘So what is it?’ I asked him. ‘Krug,’ he replied) but to my horror I am developing a habit that could have severe consequences for both wallet and wellbeing.

I have discovered single malt whisky. At the moment, it’s like being in the first flush of love. I do not really know the new object of my affection but I am besotted. I think about her far too much and find constant excuses to get in touch by way of a tot here and a tot there during the week and a huge wee dram at weekends.

I blame my barber. Peter (£12 for a short back and sides, with a lengthy lecture about the failings of Arsenal FC thrown in free) operates down a side street near Earl’s Court tube station. A friend recommended him after I complained that my usual snipper was raising his prices and that I could no longer understand a word his East European assistants were saying.

Peter is in his early seventies and comes from Cyprus but has been here since the 1960s. He keeps six bottles of single malt on a shelf above the basin and has plenty more in a nearby cupboard, along with a selection of appropriate tumblers. On my first visit, he offered me a glass of Talisker Sky single malt and it seemed rude to refuse, even though it was only 9.30 a.m. and I was on the way to work. ‘So smooth,’ he said, ‘and so good for you.’

Peter — a great Jeremy Corbyn supporter who thinks Theresa May might still be tempted by an election in the spring and that we will then see some sort of reverse Trump scenario — claims that single malt whisky helps him cope with a residual stiff neck caused by half a century of hair-cutting. It’s the only thing he drinks (although I dare say he has the odd cuppa and a glass or two of water) and it has to come from Scotland, not least because that’s where his wife was born and raised.

Then, out of the blue, I received an email from an old school friend, Ronnie Cox, who is now the head of Berry Bros & Rudd’s spirits division. Before I could say ‘just a touch of ice’, I was shuffling through the creaking doors of 3 St James’s Street for my first single malt tasting.

Ah, the ice conundrum. Peter says adding anything to a single malt amounts to treason. Others hold that a dash of water adds crucial flavour. Ronnie calls it ‘releasing the serpent’ and we tried it out on a 1988 Glen Spey Berry Bros’s Own Selection.

‘Now wait,’ he said, after we had allowed the liquid sunshine to drop down our throats. ‘Let it back, let it back. Are you getting fishing nets on a cruel sea with a hint of smoke and hopes of salvation?’

Then we compared his firm’s Glenrothes 1995 vintage with its peated counterpart. Utterly delicious, I thought, but really I had no idea. Single malts and I are only just getting to know each other. It’s going to be a long and steep learning curve, a new hobby in the way some men of my age take up golf or join Facebook.

‘Which do you prefer, Ronnie, regular or peated?’ I asked.

‘It’s not a question of preference. They are just different.’

And so is Glenfiddich’s ‘IPA experiment’, which I came across shortly before Christmas at a Scottish-themed evening at the Jumeirah Carlton Tower hotel, of all places. It’s a single malt with hoppy notes and plays very nicely as far as I could tell.

Glenfiddich’s ‘brand ambassador’ Mark Thomson was there to add a dash of advice to novices such as me. He said the first mouthful of whisky should not be trusted because your ‘olfactory senses’ won’t have adjusted sufficiently. It’s the second sip that counts.

And then he stressed: ‘There are no rules and anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t live in the real world.’

Ronnie’s best line was: ‘Blends are for drinkers; single malts are for thinkers.’ That got me excited, too.

It means years of lawless brooding awaits. I can do that.


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