HARRY SHUKMAN steps up in one of his toughest assignments yet to taste high-value whisky at the Union.
“Give this one a try. It makes an excellent breakfast whisky.”
Whisky expert Mark is explaining how the subtle hints of peat and smoke in Ardbeg Blasda beat espresso when it comes to starting your day.
I’m at a whisky festival at the Union, put on by Cambridge Wine Merchants. My last experience of whisky ended in tears for all concerned, so I’m childishly naïve when it comes to figuring out what makes a good bottle.
As far as I’m concerned, I’m in an alcoholic’s playground: there are 50 bottles of high value whisky waiting to be drunk, and it’s 4.30pm. Life is looking pretty good.
My whisky innocence soon changes as I’m whisked into a world of iso-tasting glasses, palate calibration, and how not to blow out my olfactory bulb.
Behind each table is a helpful rep explaining why their peaty-smoky flavours beat the peaty-smoky flavours of their rivals. With low whisky experience points, I can tell the difference between ‘a lot’ and ‘a bit less’.
First we’re introduced to carefully-explained and absurdly-named whiskies. There’s Auchentoshan, Ardbeg Uigeadail, and for hard bastards only, The Laddie Ten.
Second we found out that whisky is not a drink exclusively for aged eccentrics, or Baltimore homicide cops. Each bottle has a story and a technicality to it. The effects of the cask’s wood, the maturing time, even sea level all make a big difference to the flavour. And all these are explained with descriptions that would make a sommelier cringe. I’m told the Hazelburn is like liquid liquorice, the Linkwood is a cascading waterfall of taste, and the Glengoyne has a bouquet of flavours. Of course it does.
And of course no whisky tasting festival is complete without young professionals lapping up the booze and making arsey comments. The select group of discerning tasters in attendance responded with their own ideas: “it’s almost, sort of, nutty.” Well observed.
Cretins aside, we move onto the impressive range of bottles on show. Next to the scotches are unreleased brands, Japanese blends, and the one English. How does he compare to his Scottish neighbours? The server responds with a wee lilt of the auld country: “can you compare a Mini to a Rolls-Royce?” Apparently not.
Working our way through the list, we spot a £200, 30-year-old bottle of Port Askaig. It’s our mission to try out the ruddy-faced father of all these bottles. Apparently its 30 years make for the perfect flavour combination of salt, sweet, smoke, and medicine. But in the world of whisky one-up-man-ship, this is still nothing. A bottle of Glenlivet that has been maturing since 1940 sells for £13,000. It’s enough to bring a tear to the eye of even the sternest glen-dwelling Scot.
The closest to a bad whisky was a brand named Blackart, yet to be released. I’d be pulling a Johann Hari if I could claim to recall the exact flavours and subtle hints of peat. Reeling back from its burn, the single word we decide to write down on our tasting sheets is “aggressive”.
I’m ashamed to say we fell short of even the halfway mark in getting through all 50 bottles. Aggressive bottles aside, it was agreed as we left the Union that any bad blood whisky and I shared before had been swept under the carpet.