This blog is quite good for getting me invited to slightly random events that aren’t just plain drinks tastings and when I was asked along to a combination practise whisky dinner and book launch at a Michelin starred Indian restaurant, I couldn’t really say no. The book in question is Dominic Roskrow’s latest, The World’s Best Whiskies and the restaurant Quilon.
Dominic has been writing about whisky for years, having been editor of Whisky Magazine amongst other writing poitions, and was made a Keeper of the Quaich in 2007 and a Kentucky Colonel in 2010. He now edits The Whisky Shop‘s inhouse magazine, Whiskeria, writes all over the place and runs whisky tastings around the country. It was more in this latter capacity that he we met him, as the plan was to taste some whisky rather than listen to a reading of tasting notes from the new book.
Quilon, specialising in food from the south west of India, wasn’t an entirely random pairing, as this was a test run of a whisky dinner that Dominic will be hosting at the restaurant at the beginning of next year. The fact that they also have a 50 strong whisky menu and a head chef who likes the odd dram, as we discovered when he came out to have a rest and a drink at the end of the night, didn’t hinder things either.
We started the evening with a cocktail of Johnny Walker Black Label and Créme de Mûre, topped up with champagne, which I was not that great a fan of – the champage overpowered the whisky and the liqueur didn’t help that. As I’m not a fan of fizzy wine it wasn’t my kind of thing, but the assembled journalists, with a couple of us bloggers for good measure, seemed to enjoy it well enough. While we sipped at these Dominic described his approach to writing the book, basically drinking a lot of whisky. He went through and tried all of the whiskies himself (bar one that I can’t remember) and wrote up fresh tasting notes for all of them in his own rather irreverant style, focusing on drinking whisky and having a good time rather than the more regimented tasting notes side of things.
Dominic is very much a lover of whisk(e)y from all over the world, as his Kentucky Colonel-dom (-ship? -ity? who knows…) attests, and we started the whisky tasting with the Amrut Double Cask. Amrut have been making drinks for many years, but their foray into the single malt whisky market was described by Dominic as a ‘Newcastle university student experiment’. One of the family who own the operation was studying in Newcastle and wondered whether it was possible to sell an Indian single malt whisky in the British market. The initial answer to the question was ‘no’, but they’ve persevered and over time the quality of product and the eagerness of reception has grown, leading to the current state where it’s no longer considered quite as strange that you can buy Indian whisky in the UK and their products are getting good critical attention. Due to the environment in Bangalore the maturation of the whisky is rather different to in Scotland, with 2-5 years of maturation being usual and 7 years the oldest that they’ve produced as yet. This speed of turnaround has allowed them to do a lot of experimentation, with various different barley types (both local Indian grain as well as imports from Scotland) and barrels as well as other fiddling. This bottling is a vatting of two old casks (from 2002 and 2003 – two of their oldest) demonstrating the main problem with maturing for so long in the tropics – the whisky lost 59% of its volume in evaporation over the 7 years. Rather than being alcohol evaporating, as you get in cooler climates, this was mainly water, with the alcohol content of the spirit rising from the filling proof of 62.5% to 69.8% before reducing for bottling. This is now pretty much sold out, as you’d expect from a total availability of 306 bottles. On the nose it had vanilla, a beefy maltiness, apples and chilli. To taste it was buttery, with sweet vanilla, black pepper, green peppers, a bit of chilli spice and long bitter wood finish. As it sat in the glass it opened up a bit more and I got a hint of aniseed – not the sweet heat of an aniseed ball but the seedy aniseed of the speck at the centre. Water softened the wood, bringing out more vanilla and calming the spiciness.
Next we tried out our one Scottish whisky of the evening, the Glenkeir Treasures 17 year old Macallan. The Glenkeir Treasures are a range of The Whisky Shop’s own bottlings and this one was a single cask which had produced 144 bottles. It was matured in bourbon and finished in sherry casks (I think that’s what Dominic said), showing Macallan’s increased use of bourbon casks in their production, something that was very much not the norm for them in the past. On the nose it was vegetal with some horseradish and mustard. There was also dark chocolate, a rich maltiness and a smell that my brain resolved to be “off limes” – a pleasant soured citrus. To taste there was sweet woody spice with salt and pepper, but these were overshadowed by a dry tannic wood that stepped in and dominated. Water rolled away a lot of the dryness, revealing vanilla ice cream which quickly faded through dried fruits to a long woody finish.
We then skipped continents again, this time to the USA and Hancock’s Reserve Single Barrel. Produced by Buffalo Trace (there are a lot more whiskey brands than there are distilleries in the US, with most companies producing a variety of different products) it’s a single cask with individual bottlings often coming in at 8-10 years, although the age is not stated on the bottle. This one had a lovely nose, with sweet varnish, pencil rubbers, bubblegum, dried apples, pastry, bananas and a rich caramel. To taste it was much lighter, with the apples returning along with some grapes, sultanas and sweet wood spice, finishing with light woodiness. It was the groups favourite of the evening and I can see why – very smooth and easy to drink in comparison with the rather spiky whiskies that preceded it. I found it slightly disappointing that the promise of the nose wasn’t quite borne out in the body, but still rather enjoyed it.
The last in our round the world tasting session was the most interesting for me – Karuizawa 1982 from The Whisky Exchange. Appropriately Tim from TWE (and writer of their rather good blog) was there to represent the bottlers, who had put this whisky out as part of their 10th anniversary celebrations. I tried it a week earlier at their official celebratory tasting (that I might one day get round to writing up here) and had to check carefully to make sure it was the same whisky. We tried it very soon after pouring at Quilon, whereas it was the penultimate whisky at the TWE tasting and had sat in the glass for about 2 hours, and it seems that it is very much a whisky that changes with exposure to the air. This time the nose was rich with truffles, struck matches, raisins, grapes and sherried wood. To taste it had sherry fruit and peppery spice, followed by a burst of wood that led into a rich, spicy, meaty finish. An impressive and very different whisky from the rest, and one that lost a lot of the ‘forest notes’ as it sat in the glass (which it didn’t do very long this time).
We then followed this with some excellent food from the Quilon menu, matched with a red and white wine rather than with the whisky, with the curry leaf and lentil crusted fish starter (as south west India has a whole load of coastline to obtain fish from), the lamb roast main course (which reminded me a lot of the excellent ‘dry meat’ at Tayyabs) and the rather special pepper ice cream (which I suspect had a chunk more than pepper in – I assumed it was cardamon until I read the menu) all standing out. With dinner finished we were joined by head chef Sriram Aylur who tucked into a pair of drams (with a spot of ice, as room temperature whisky after an evening in a hot and spicy kitchen wasn’t something he was a fan of) while we chatted with Dominic about the joys of whisky.
All in all a rather nice evening and encouraging to see the whisky industry outside of the core distilling reaching out to bloggers (something that Dominic himself mentioned in the latest Whiskeria – November 2010, page 50). I think that the restaurant need to have a chat with Dominic before next year to best work out how to set up the tasting though, as wine glasses aren’t great for nosing and chilled water isn’t the best for adding to a dram. That said, the food was very good and they’ve gone on my list of places to try and have a proper meal at.
I’d already occasionally spoken to Dominic on Twitter, so it was nice to meet him in person. I’d even signed up to his online whisky tasting club earlier that week, receiving shipping confirmation of my first box of samples while I was talking to him that evening. In a stroke of duplication it seems that in addition to the copy of the book that I was given after this tasting I’ll have another one arriving sometime early in the new year, as The Whisky Tasting Club are giving each of their regular members a copy after their second tasting. I’ll have a spare soon so I might even have to do a competition giveaway or something – while the book is (from my current browsing) rather good and beautifully designed (the front cover alone has given me both photographic and glassware envy) my house is too full of books and booze to allow any duplicates in. Worryingly, that even counts for booze…
Amrut Double Cask
7 year old Indian single malt whisky. 46%. ~£80 from Whiskys.co.uk
Glenkeir Treasures Macallan 17
17 year old Speyside single cask single malt Scotch whisky. 57.7%. Sold out, but was ~£70 per bottle
Hancock’s Reserve Single Barrel
Single cask bourbon aged approx 8-10 years. 44.45%. ~£70 from Royal Mile Whiskies
Karuizawa 1982, Whisky Exchange 10th Anniversary Bottling
17 year old single cask Japanese single malt whisky. Sold out, but was available from The Whisky Exchange.
Many thanks to Su Lin Ong of SLO London for inviting me, the staff at Quilon for feeding me and to Dominic for the whisky and whisky talk. I didn’t pay for the evening and did receive a copy of Dominic’s book to take home with me. And a copy of Whiskeria, but I think you can get those for free at The Whisky Shop if you buy something and ask nicely. I think that’s what I did last time.
Tickets are now available for the February 1st 2011 dinner. Details in this PDF.
Dominic is another person who is being foolish and growing a ‘tache for Movember. While it pains me to advertise a ‘rival’ (doubly so, as he’s a member of The Edinburgh Whisky Blog‘s team rather than infinitely superior Whisky4Movember posse) as it’s a rival for sponsorship cash and it all goes to the same place it’d be churlish of me not to link to his fundraising page. His moustache is also better than mine.