Whisky Business

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Both sublime and ridiculous, whisky, its rich history, and its cashed-up connoisseurs deserve your full attention. Tim Warrington took a dram or two for this report.

When next you shop at Harrods Department Store, continue past the Château Latour 1982, take a hard right at the Jeroboam of Krug Grande Cuvée and you’ll find one of London’s great sites: The Dalmore Paterson Collection. Unlike the palace that Buckingham built, Nelson’s Column or that arch of marble, this landmark is for sale – if you’ve got a spare £987,500. It’s whisky, you see – twelve 700ml crystal decanters of brown wetness.

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The Dalmore Paterson Collection

Curious what kind of thirsty patron would pay nigh on a million pounds for a dozen bottles of whisky? Perhaps the same person who shelled out $94,000 for one bottle of 1955 Glenfiddich Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve in 2011, or $460,000 for a 64-year-old Macallan in 2010. Granted, the latter did come in a one-of-a-kind Lalique cire perdue decanter.

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1955 Glenfiddich Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve (granddaughter of Glenfiddich founder William Grant)

It gets worse – or better – depending on your views on luxuriant alcohol excesses. It’s generally accepted that the most decadent (and expensive) whisky in the world is Isabella’s Islay.

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Isabella’s Islay

It’ll set you back $US6.2 million per bottle. “To discuss an order, kindly contact us,” quoth the distillery’s website. I did. They were not available for comment. Neither did they respond to my request to try before buying – maybe because it’s about a quarter of a mill for a shot. True, the decanter is made of white gold, diamonds, rubies and the finest hand-cut crystal but if we’re spade calling, the bottle is kinda eighties-ugly; the type of beverage that should be consumed while wearing parachute pants or anything with shoulder pads. So, why not save the six mill and buy yourself a small country.

Journalism is thirsty work – poring over dusty, dry volumes and LED-backlit glossy wide screens, so I thought why not quench my thirst for knowledge and whisky by writing about whisky and drinking some (lots)?

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Whisky stones

According to Business Insider Australia, “Some whiskeys contain chemicals that only some people are genetically capable of tasting. If you can taste it, they taste like burnt arse.” Armed with this knowledge, I started with some trepidation toward my local wine and spirit merchant, cautiously curious about the elixir of smouldering bum.

First of all, what’s the difference between single malt and blended whisky? To avoid getting bogged down in tedious nomenclature, we’ll approach this informally as there are reams of legal guidelines governing whisky content and naming conventions.

A malt whisky contains only barley – no other grains. Grain whisky contains grains such as corn, wheat or rye (proudly brought to you by Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, et al). It may also contain barley. A blended whisky is a mixture of grain whisky (about 40 per cent) and malt whisky (about 60 per cent). Vatted malt whisky is a blend of different malt whiskys from more than one distillery.

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Monkey Shoulder is a sublime example of a vatted malt whisky (a mix of Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Kininvie). The crème de la crème is a single cask single malt: one distillery, one barrel.

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Single malt whisky is a confusing term, because it essentially means whisky from one distillery, not made in one cask or in one year. Take the Dalmore Trinitas: it is a single malt even though it contains spirits from 1868, 1878, 1926 and 1939. According to self-proclaimed malt fanatic, Michael Dietsch, there is a “misconception that single malt scotch is not a blended whisky, but this is a myth. Single malt scotch is a blend, but it’s a very specific type of blend.”

I bought Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch Whisky. Why? Because I recognised the label and the narrative thereon assured me it was “a genuine pleasure to have in my glass.” And it was. I raced home, grabbed a big fat tumbler of heavy crystal and poured. Huge sniff. I myself could not detect arse, burnt or otherwise, but it had a strapping aroma and was smoother than I expected. I would rhapsodise about “hints of gunpowder” or shades of “fleshy Doyenne du Comice pears” but I’m a novice and my palate is still somewhat unsophisticated. As such, I’m unable to detect subtle nuances in the spirit… and, well, I’m not a wanker.

It was love at first sip. Actually, it was a greedy, glass-emptying gulp. Instantly I felt all Dean Martin and Humphrey Bogart, with a twist of Diehard’s John Mclean. There was noticeable swelling in my tighty-whities: drinking whisky gives you bigger balls. Okay so I made this up. But seriously, draining a tumbler of whisky is James-Dean-cool-as-fuck.

That was a week ago and since then I’ve tried Sullivans Cove Single Cask French Oak Whisky and Glenfiddich 18-Year-Old Ancient Reserve Scotch Whisky. They too, were a pleasure to have in my glass and my tummy. I should point out that whisky is an acquired taste, but a taste well worth acquiring.

To e or not to e

Is there an e in whisky? Yes and no. Where is the spirit made? In the United States and Ireland it’s Whiskey, but in Scotland, Canada, England, New Zealand, Australia, Japan and pretty much the rest of the world, lose the e – it’s whisky.

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Nant Pinot Noir Single Cask – try it – it would be rude not to.

Go to Nant.

What’s in a name?

Everything. The word “whiskey” is an anglicised version of the phrase uisce beatha, which means the “water of life” in Gaelic – coined by Irish monks as they distilled their alcohol before vespers. From the mispronunciation of uisce came whiskey/ whisky.

Scotch

Scotch is almost universally acknowledged as the term for Scotch whisky, except, ironically, in Scotland where it’s referred to as whisky.

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Who invented it?

‘Twas the Irish, to be sure, back in medieval times. At least that’s the generally accepted version – for medicinal purposes, of course. From Ireland it spread to Scotland where it was perfected and thence on to places further east, like Japan, India… and Tasmania.

Can you feel the burn?

Whisky must contain at least 40 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV), which is the statutory minimum in most countries. This equates to 80 proof (proof is twice the alcohol level). Bruichladdich X4 is, according to the distillery’s website, the world’s strongest whisky. This blazing ambrosia (which is still maturing and has four years to go) will have an ABV of 92 per cent. According to Master Distiller Jim McEwan, who has sampled the Bruichladdich X4 and lived to pen tasting notes, “It’s brilliantly fresh and fizzy with an extremely pleasant afterburner effect.”

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Double glass wall whisky tumblers

Do you need a penis to drink whisky?

No. Many years ago, my redoubtable, chain-smoking grandmother asked me to pour her a drink. I reached for the Bailey’s Irish Cream. I still remember the sting of her walking stick across the back of my legs. “I said drink, Laddie!” Granny took her Balvenie Single Malt with a splash of water.

Banish the Baileys

When I went to buy my first bottle of whisky. I said to the salesman, “I like Bailey’s so I’m sure it’ll be fine.” He suggested I grab a bottle of advocaat and drink it in my bra and panties. I shit you not. Baileys is like puttering along on a Vespa side-saddle, but with whisky in your tank, you’ll make the same trip at warp speed, on a Harley with 2,000 CC-s of grunt throbbing between your legs.

How old are you?

The age statement on a bottle of blended whisky refers to the youngest. A whisky may be referred to as a 12-year-old, but it may contain spirits that are 14, 15 or even 18 years old.
A glass half full
From what sort of glass should one sip whisky? A whisky tumbler is fine for an evening tipple of Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain or Auchentoshan. But if you’re enjoying a more professional tasting, the tulip-shaped nosing or tasting glass is better to capture the whisky’s aroma. Always thoroughly rinse your glassware to banish any detergents.

Can’t find your glasses?

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Villeroy And Boch Scotch Whisky Single Malt Islands Whisky tumbler 100mm

Go to villeroy-boch.com

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Waterford Crystal Lismore Cobalt DOF Pair

Go to Waterford Crystal.

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IKEA Frasera Whisky glass

Go to Ikea.

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Riedel Vinum Single Malt Whisky

Go to Riedel Glass.

In the mix

Adding a mixer to a fine whisky is like putting a spoiler and mags on a luxury German car: vulgar and unnecessary. Expunge the phrase “scotch and coke” from your speech. Having soundly trounced this notion, there are exceptions: whisky cocktails.

Whisky Cocktails

Purists will wince and should look away now, but cocktail mixologists cluck approvingly over happy hour staples like the Whisky Sour and the Old-Fashioned.

Japan

Sorry sake, but whisky is smashing you. Japan is the third largest producer of whisky behind Scotland and the United States. Yes, the Japanese produce more whisky than the Irish. Nikka’s blended whisky from the barrel has an unpretentious rectangular bottle but the nectar within scores highly on the nom nom scale.

Scotland

Talisker 10-Year-Old from the Isle Of Skye is the malt to accompany haggis (and many other dishes). Sweet and lightly smoky, but watch out for the chilli-pepper hit in the finish. Robert Louis Stevenson regarded Talisker as the “King Of Drinks”.

Frisky whisky

If whisky makes you amorous, break out the McCondom – whisky-flavoured condoms. Rock your Scotch at heritageofscotland.com.
Ice, water or neat?

Ice

If you’re more about temperature than temperament, add ice. Chilling and dilution from melting ice still vary the characteristics. If you favour chilled without water, add whisky stones from the freezer. Wash them and reuse. In general, whisky experts are anti-ice, claiming it bruises the nectar. Some concede that one ice cube is acceptable.

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Balls

Japanese ice balls that is. Basically huge ice cubes, which cool your bevy but don’t dilute it. In Japan they’re
often handcrafted but you can make them at home with a mould if you don’t have a Japanese ice sculptor on hand. Depending on size and meteorological conditions, ice balls can go on chilling through multiple refills.

Water

Experts reckon you only need a drop – just one. (It must be bottled spring water without bubbles as chlorine and fizz are definite no-nos.) By adding H2O you’ll release flavours missing in the undiluted tipple, instantly – without waiting for ice to melt and without chilling. Many whiskey aficionados believe water is the only way to go.
One might add it to cask strength or barrel proof whiskeys because the maker hasn’t added water during the distillation process and they’re a lot stronger, like Glenfarclas 105 Cask Strength (60 per cent ABV). A little diluting can take away the sting of super strong whiskies but as Dalmore’s master distiller Richard Patterson cautions, “Don’t add a lot of water or you will lose the heart of the whisky.”

Neat

Some whiskeys are best enjoyed au naturel. These usually have lower alcohol content. Forty per cent ABV is considered par on Whisky Course. According to John Hansell, Editor of Whisky Advocate. “If you want to capture as many aromas and flavours as possible, try to understand that whisky expresses itself best at room temperature.”

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