The Whisky Tasting Club

By the book…


I originally intended to post this blog at the start of the month and I’ve been trying to write it for two weeks now. Tony – or The Boss as we now call him – says that he reckons once I’ve got in to the flow of it Ill look forward to doing them, but he’s missed the point. It’s not that i haven’t wanted to – it’s just simply been a case of not having the time.

So here we are, mid way through May, already. I was going to say where has the year gone, but in my case I know exactly where it’s gone. I’ve spent pretty much every day of it working on my new book The World’s Best Whiskies – 750 Essential Drams from Tennessee to Tokyo, due for publication in October.

This week we finally finished work on the proofs so it’s done and dusted and in to the system. It’s been an amazingly intensive few weeks. The contract for it was only signed in December and with Christmas and my commitments to the Whisky Shop I didn’t sit down to write the first word until the morning of December 27.

Golly since that seems a long time ago.  During that long snowy British winter I was getting up before 6am to write and tasting and note-taking until midnight to meet the writing deadline, which was March 31. I take deadlines very seriously so I was determined to meet it – and I wrote the last of the 100,000 plus words on April 1, the same day as our updated version of the Michael Jackson Malt Whisky Companion came out. That’s a bit like finishing a college course and your wife having a baby on the same day.

I loved every moment of writing the new book, though there were still some lows during the process. I remember one particularly cold and snowy Sunday shivering my way through a selection of very average Canadian samples, desperately trying to find enough to fill that section of the book. Although the book includes tastings for 750 whiskies, i still rejected a fair number. And on this particular occasion I was struggling with one after another anemic winey whisky, to the point where I concluded that my tastebuds were having a day off.

This can happen. Jim Murray kicks off a tasting session by road-testing his taste buds with two of his favourite blends – a Ballantine’s and a Grants. If he doesn’t pick up what he ought to, he takes the morning off, tries again at lunch time, and if still nothing, he gives up for the day.

I can understand why –  down days do happen. On this occasion, though, a double whammy from Kittling Ridge saved the session and the day. I’ll be honest, though:  I struggle a bit with Canadian whisky and found that the most difficult section of the book to write, though funnily enough, reading the proofs back that doesn’t come across at all.

The highlights were many but the best bits were discovering new distilleries such as Kittling Ridge, Belgian Owl, Millstone in the Netherlands and Santis from Switzerland. I’ve long been an enthusiastic backer of distilleries such as Lark, Bakery Hill, Mackmyra in Sweden, Glann ar Mor and Armorik in France, and Slyrs in Germany. But it’s exciting to discover that there are even more to unearth.

One weekend we went to Center Parcs and I took 12 samples from Blaue Maus in Germany. Every one of them – under various names such as Black Pirate and Green Dog – was stunning. Nothing like conventional whisky but beautiful and unique. I’m determined to get to Germany, France and the Netherlands this year if time permits.

The end result is a book I’m immensely proud of. It’s a 288 page coffee table style book, beautifully designed and very modern and stylish. It’s also opinionated, full of personal anecdotes and with lots of musical references.

Whether it’s any good or not is another matter, and no doubt a lot of people will hate it. But I do know it’s different to anything else that has been published, and that it’s original work, which is more than you can say for a big chunk of the other whisky books which have come out in the last couple of years.

I was reading one world whisky book last year and got a real sense that I’d read the material before. and sure enough, it was a regurgitated version of material which had appeared in  a previous whisky book, written by the same writer and published by the same publisher.

That’s disgraceful. How can you ask someone to shell out twenty pounds or more to buy a book which the reader has already had? I feel the same way about magazines which publish features on closed distilleries or some such and are clearly copied from another book or web source and which tell the reader nothing new. Why would an editor pay a freelance writer to copy material from another already-published book?

So now it’s a case of waiting. Incidentally, Dave Broom has a book coming out about the same time as mine. I contacted him to see if our books were compatible or if we were set for an Oasis v Blur pre-Christmas battle, with me cast in the loutish Liam role, and him the more sophisticated Damian. He reckons they’re compatible but we shall see. In my favour I’ve got the better cover and his book contains tastings for only about half the number of mine. But then again, in his favour he’s David Broom.

Anyway, I’ve given him an affectionate dedication in my book just to embarrass him, because he won’t have reciprocated.

So the book’s out of the way and I can get back to doing what I really enjoy -visiting distilleries. In addition to the European ones mentioned earlier i have trips to Islay, Arran, Glenlivet, Glen Grant and possibly Benromach to look forward to. And then there’s the football.

`So much to do, so little time… no wonder the year’s shooting past.

Johnnie Walker Blue    40%

The journalist and presenter Piers Morgan annoys a lot of people but I love him. He’s opinionated, brave, and an outstanding journalist, prepared to stand up for his principles and with the uncanny knack of being able to get people to open up to him and not only tolerate awkward and difficult questions but answer them.

A few years ago he was approached by Johnnie Walker Blue’s marketing people to do some work for them, which was, as he said in one of his books, a bit of a a no brainer – why wouldn’t you take money (and no doubt some whisky) to say nice things about a blend he drinks anyway?

As part of his ambassadorial duties he interviewed the world famous Italian referee Pierluigi Collina ( you know, bald with bulging eyes) in front of an invited audience, the idea being that if you take different components and bring them together, you create something new – geddit?

Halfway through the interview Morgan asked Collina what it was like to send off a world renowned foroballing superstar. The Italian gave  a lengthy answer about the regret at ending the performance of an artist and depriving the crowd of a craftsman…all very Italian and dramatic.

“Oh come on,” interrupted Morgan after a minute or so, “when you’ve got that red card in your hand, and you’re waving it in his face…well it must be better than sex isn’t it?”

Priceless Piers.

Beforehand the guests were invited to numb their mouths with chilled water, then put Johnnie Walker in to the mouth. As the whisky warmed the mouth, its flavours took over. Sublime stuff.

The most expensive of all the Johnnie Walker range doesn’t have an age statement because the age on the label must refer to the youngest whisky in the mix. Here there is a proportion of very young whisky but it’s there to pep up some very old grand malts indeed. This is an oral kaleidoscope, with peat giving way to pear and melon, sherbet dip and liquorice and some oak notes. Not cheap, but sublime.

(Taken from Thbe World’s Best Whiskies, published by Jacqui Small/Aurum, October 2010

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