Mists and malts
ON a perfect, early spring day, I once vis- ited the Labrot & Graham distillery, near Louisville in Kentucky. The well-weath- ered buildings — primaeval by American standards — are set among woods, beside a river. The whole atmosphere is old-fash- ioned, with gnarled old distillery workers who look as if they joined the firm shortly after the Civil War. America may be the land of mass production, but here at least quality prevails over mechanisation.
But Labrot & Graham also reminded me of one of the basic rules of whisky- drinking: no two aficionados will ever agree. Every whisky-lover has his own favourite malts and blends; everyone has their own idea as to how the drams should be drunk.
At Labrot & Graham the head distiller went to pour me a glass of his Woodford Reserve into a huge tumbler filled with ice. I demurred gently, and asked to try the stuff neat. He looked astonished; I felt that I was stretching the generous limits of southern hospitality. But I persisted with my iceless whiskey, and blended it with various amounts of water before announc- ing to the bewildered distiller that his product should be drunk at British room
NOW FOR THE GOOD BOOZE
temperature, in the ratio of two measures of whiskey to one of water.
I doubt if the distiller had ever heard anything more bizarre in his entire career. He persisted with his ice; I persist with my view that, unlike bog-standard Bourbon, which needs ice to give it some flavour, Woodford Reserve is a serious whiskey. Anyone who enjoys good scotch should appreciate it, and it deserves to be treated like a good scotch.
That is one of the joys of whisky. 'Free- dom and whisky gang thegither,' said Burns. So do whisky and controversy. For instance, most experts insist that malt whiskies should be mixed with a little water in order to liberate the flavour, I had always been doubtful about this; one would not dream of adulterating Armagnac or Cognac with water, so why treat whisky as an inferior product?
Recently, however, I have been persuad- ed that at least in some cases the experts are right. All cask-strength whiskies cer- tainly do need water. To drink them neat is like consuming liquid fire: exhilarating, but hardly flavoursome. This does not only apply to the cask-strength whiskies. The other day, I sampled the 18-year-old High- land Park. On its own it is an austere, locked-up liquid, with all the warmth of a winter sun reflected on the brass plate of a coffin lid. Drop in a little water and it is transformed into a magnificent whisky, with depth, flavour and force.
Then again, almost every expert would insist that, if the 18-year-old needs water, so does its older brother, the 25-year-old. I dis- agree. I have rarely had a finer malt than the Highland Park 25-year-old, which is worthy to rank with the greatest Armagnacs. I think that it should be sipped and savoured as it is, and that it would be blas- phemy to try to improve on the product which is poured from the bottle. Water is certainly necessary, but not until the last fleeting grace of whisky has evaporated from the palate. Then drink water in quanti- ty to mitigate the after-effects. If you ever experience the joy of a 25-year-old Highland Park, do not let the tap impair the whisky. Yet most of those who are professionally involved with whisky production would counsel you otherwise. So be guided by your own tastes; there is a whisky for everyone.
The island of Islay is about 50 miles from Glasgow and 50 years behind the 21st cen- tury. The population now is fewer than 4,000 in a landscape of moorland, bog, heather, red deer, hill, sea and sea loch. Mist sometimes conceals, but often enhances, the island's magical qualities, and that mist often has a peaty flavour.
So do Islay's whiskies: the island has seven distilleries. You can visit three of them in the course of a nine-mile walk from Port Ellen, Islay's largest town, to the ancient church at Kildalton, which has a Norman door and some interesting 16th- century tombs. It is one of the pleasantest coastal walks in the UK. It takes you past Laphroaig, Lagavuulin and Ardbeg. They will all give you a welcome dram and, if you want, a tour of the distillery. (I try to avoid the tours; technology means little to me and, when it comes to whisky, I am content with the end-product in the glass.) All three whiskies are made from peaty water. This gives them a flavour which is not to everyone's liking. I know Scotsmen who are connoisseurs of the yellow Spey- side malts but insist that the Islay versions are barbarous parodies of decent whisky; I have heard Laphroaig described as tasting like creosote strained through peat.
De gustibus non est disputandum, but I regard that as a nonsensical and philistine judgment. The peaty whiskies are unlike any other form of alcohol that I have encoun- tered, and anyone who relishes strong waters and subtle flavours ought to try them. Of the vintages available at good wine mer- chants — as opposed to hotly contested auc- tions — my favourite is the 15-year-old Laphroaig, but all the Islay distilleries pro- duce whisky of the highest quality; a compa- rable brandy would cost twice as much.
Not many whisky-drinkers could cope with the Islay malts as a daily tipple. There are other delights: Macallan, Longmorn, the Glenlivets, Glenmorangie. The last-named is one of the most accessible of all malts. If you try Glenmorangie and fail to relish it, I have terrible news for you: it may be that you are incapable of enjoying malt whisky.
NOW FOR THE GOOD BOOZE
There is only one malt that I dislike: Glen- fiddich. It has a handsome bottle, it has been cunningly marketed — and it has a cloying, saccharine, caramelly foretaste with a hint of bitterness in the aftertaste. No more palat- able than the cheapest blended whisky, its successful marketing has persuaded large numbers of people to try it. Some of them have, no doubt, been put off drinking malt whisky. Avoid Glenfiddich, unless you have an undiscriminating sweet tooth, but if you are serious about potent flavours which are also delicate and which leave a long savour to linger on the palate, buy a bottle of malt whisky.
Most malts are made in the Highlands amid some of the world's greatest scenery, and — Glenfiddich apart — every glass of malt captures some of that savour, some of that glory and that dream.