When I was asked to write about some of my favourite malt whiskies I began to consider which one should be given pride of place and very soon encountered the problem that all namers of favourites have; be it films, books, foods or women, there is rarely only one. A new approach was required and, given that this may be read by seasoned connoisseurs or earnest novices, I decided that a reflection on the development of my own whisky tastes and experiences would perhaps provoke nostalgia in the former group, point members of the latter in new directions and also assist my own reflections on personal favourites.
The Scots like a tipple and despite early experimentation with beer, white spirits and exotic cocktails we all have a visceral need to be whisky drinkers. However, like all self- evident truths, it’s never that straightforward. Whisky is an acquired taste and in the late 1970s there were many factors influencing a young man embarking on a life long journey of delightful discovery.
I had listened to my father and I knew that Grouse was making serious inroads into Bells’ domination of the market and that the English were total philistines who liked something named after the tyrants who dominated the schools that we had recently left behind. To this day, I doubt whether I have ever sampled a Teachers as that condemnation, unjust as it was, has lingered in my consciousness for over three decades.
Armed with my youthful knowledge I well remember my first purchase of a Grouse and lemonade. I’ll touch upon my long and continuing road to the discovery of the merits of a “wee drop of water” in a later review but I did start at a low point. However, from there I discovered the delights of the deluxe whiskies, dominated at the time by Johnny Walker. I am certain that many a wizened barman was mightily amused by my “Not too much lemonade now, I don’t want to ruin the flavour”. Thankfully this state of affairs did not last for too long as I heard of the mysteries of single malts and was assured that adulterating them with anything but the aforementioned “wee drop of water” was not acceptable. However, the malt whisky market of the seventies was much removed from that which we know now. There were any number of malts available but asking for a single malt in any but the smartest of lounge bars would result in the question “Glenfiddich or Glenmorangie?” as they dominated the market. Today both distilleries supply a wide variety of styles and ages of product but they retain their own underlying characteristics and these, particularly to a young man, were so different as to raise questions as to their common classification.
Glenfiddich 12 year old was my first taste of a single malt whisky and it is as gentle an introduction to usquabae as a man could ever wish for. At this stage, I’d like to digress and mention a particularly personal opinion on enjoying fine whisky. I like to take mine with air. By that I mean that whisky should be served in small quantities in wide mouthed glasses that allow the taste and aroma to be savoured. Quite honestly—and this will delight those who comment on our national parsimony—I believe that the bottom of the glass should just be slightly more than “dirty” with the malt of my choice and never the real “half full” glass that one associates with a whisky drinker’s demeanour. I am not advocating any limit on the number of dirty glasses.
Glenfiddich, I believe, is an ideal beginning for anyone new to the delights of single malts. If an encounter with some of Scotland’s more muscled malts can be akin to the pummelling of a Swedish massage, sampling this delightful spirit engenders all the quiet and comfort of a gentle temple rubbing received while relaxing on a favourite armchair and invites the drinker to light a cigar and contemplate life’s munificence. However, it would be doing Glenfiddich a huge injustice to label it solely as a beginner’s malt. It invites a lifelong association and indeed in fiction, it was the enduring favourite of Endeavour Morse, the Oxford-educated detective. Glenmorangie in Ross-shire distil perhaps the most instantly recognizable of single malts and it is definitely a whisky that is more likely to be found in the cabinet of a seasoned connoisseur, as its unique flavour is delightful in a much more forceful manner. It doesn’t as much launch a frontal assault as linger long after the palate has declared a premature victory. In today’s introduction, I do not have the space to do justice to these two giants of malt whisky but they shall be given the dedicated review that they deserve in a future edition. I hope that you will join me next time as we head west to Islay. - J.B.
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