It seems that the next week or so is going to be a bit of a whisky focused one here on my blog (“In what way is this different to usual?” I hear you ask). Part of the excuse I’m using for that is that it’s Burns Night in a couple of weeks time, but the real reasons are twofold:
I seem to have a lot of whisky in the house
I’m off to drink whisky elsewhere a bunch of times in the near future
I’m running a whisky tasting next week
The tasting is to be held on Thursday January 20th at The Alma in Islington as part of their week long run up to Burns Night. I’m going to be running a group through 5 whiskies and talking my normal range of obsessive toot from about 7.30pm. Tickets are available at £15 a head from the pub, although as it’s ‘way over there’ you can drop them a mail or call to book. It’s a general beginner’s tasting so there will be some whisky to drink and discussion to be had. Let me know if you’re coming along so I can work out if I need to wear a disguise or not.
I can date the beginning of my love of good whisky fairly accurately to December 1997. I’d been working in my student Union bar for about 6 months and had recently tried single malt whisky, rather than my usual foray into the spirits world of Bells and Coke, and found that It Was Good. To keep me going through Christmas I decided to splash out in rather a large way for a student and grab two bottles of good whisky. I picked up a bottle of regular Lagavulin (16 year old?) and a bottle of Talisker 10.
These days I can’t really remember the Lagavulin, other than it was fairly ballsy and I enjoyed it, but I have been a fan of Talisker ever since. So, when I saw that Chris Osburn had lined up, through Qype, a whisky tasting event with the Diageo’s chosen PR company for Talisker at a whisky bar in London that I’d not been to I may have been slightly heavy handed in my claiming to be an excellent potential invitee. It seemed to work and on Wednesday evening I found myself at Salt Bar on Edgware Road for some whisky.
I’ll write in greater length about the Salt Bar at sometime in the future, I’m on their mailing list now and it looks like they have some interesting tastings coming up soon (including a night of Bowmore and Suntory whiskies in February), so I’ll keep my general description of the bar short – it’s pretty good. They have a good whisky selection, containing the complete set of the varied Good whisky that you find in pubs as well as some interesting extras and a shelf of eye-watering expensive bottles (some bought at auction, including the £100 a shot Dalmore, which the bar manager I spoke to happily blamed Richard Paterson for), and do cocktails, tastings and an interesting selection of food. It’s well worth a look in, although I hear that the average clientele all need to be taken outside and shot for crimes against drinking.
I rounded the corner at the bottom of Edgware Road and kept an eye out for the bar, not having been there before. I thought I saw it ahead and removed my headphones only to be hit by the sound of bagpipes – it certainly was the right place, there was a piper standing outside the front door, tooting away. Rather than the small informal tasting that I’d been expecting the PR folks had decided to put on a bit of an event, with a piper, a Burns Night MC and one of Diageo’s whisky ambassadors on hand to roll the evening along.
We started with an opening cocktail described as a Skye Manhattan. I’m wary of using as peaty a whisky as Talisker in a cocktail, as it’s quite an overpowering flavour, but was surprised at first how well this worked. It was made as a sweet Manhattan using a double shot of Talisker 10 and (according to the recipe I was given) 15ml of Antica Vermouth (which I’ve not seen before and is sweet, according to a quick google and a quicker chat with the very busy barman) along with the traditional dash of Angostura bitters and a pile of ice to stir it with. I wasn’t that big a fan of the drink, preferring my Manhattan’s dry and with bourbon (probably sacrilege to someone, but meh), but the orangey note from the peel garnish worked quite well with the peat from the whisky. However, peaty whisky, sweet vermouth and bitters are all strong flavours which didn’t marry well in the glass and by the time I’d reached the end of mine I was not a fan.
The event was not all about the booze – with Burns night less than a week away they decided to put on a show. So, we had Clark McGinn giving us the full Burns host bit, with the now traditional talk of Burns as the first blogger (as he stuck his writings up on gorse bushes to see, just like we spray our work onto the internet…there’s some water in it) as well as a an impressive Address to a Haggis, complete with fantastic delivery and some cutting wi’ ready sleight.
Along with Clark we had Colin Dunn, from Diageo, running the tasting of the Taliskers, and as the first burst of Burns based wisdom faded we were presented with our first dram of the night – the Talisker 10. Colin’s approach to running the tasting involve improbably precise numbers, oozing enthusiasm, holding the whisky in your mouth for a long time and a bit of hugging of grinning people.
I know the 10 rather well, but haven’t really bothered to properly taste it for a while. On the nose it’s prickly with alcohol, peat and sweet smokiness, with an undertone of the sea. In the mouth it’s similar – a punchy kick of booze with sweet peat smoke and salt. It’s a long taste and although the claims of it lasting for 4.6 minutes maybe going a bit far, it does linger for a good while. It’s not a subtle whisky, laying its cards most definitely on the table, but it’s a good’un. It was paired with smoked salmon piled crumpets, which worked quite well, although the whisky was quite overpowering compared to the more delicate salmon.
This led on to the aforementioned haggis address, complete with kilt clad piper piping it around the room, before Clark slayed it with poetry and a knife. To accompany the beast we were presented with our second dram of the night – the Talisker Distillers Edition. Matured for 10 years in oak and 2 in Moscatel barrels (although the website contradicts Colin with a claim that it’s Amoroso barrels) it’s part of a series of “Distiller’s Editions” from the distilleries that make up Diageo’s Classic Malts collection. I’ve had the Cragganmore before and for a few years (going through a phase of loving Speyside whiskies) it was my favourite bottle I’d bought, but I’ve not tried the others. It was quite obviously sherried on the nose with a lot less peat than in the 10, but still a noticeable Talisker tang. It tasted much more refined, with lots of fruit coming through from the finishing cask and a lingering smoky aftertaste to ensure you didn’t forget it was a Talisker. It’s much more reined in than the the 10 year old, and hides the 45.8% strength behind a smoothness that the 10 year old (at the same ABV) doesn’t quite achieve. A nicely balanced dram and a nice accompaniment to the haggis, neeps and tatties, happily working with the sweetness in the mash.
This brought us to the last dram of the evening – the Talisker 57°North. Named after the distillery’s latitude it’s bottled at 57% and holds quite a powerful punch. It combines some of the characteristics of the other two whiskies, with the distinctive salty sweet, peaty initial punch of the 10 year old combined with a more refined and smooth finish similar to the Distillers Edition. It was matched up with a good chocolate mousse which don’t go all that well – bitter chocolate dusted, dark chocolate mousse and a powerful whisky didn’t make for a good combination, although both survived the eating and drinking when taken separately. The 57°North was a favourite for many, but I preferred the slightly less over the top flavours of the Distiller’s Edition. I suspect this means I’m getting old…
With the official tasting out of the way the crowd started dispersing and more cocktails appeared – the Cool Walker (that I didn’t try, made with 40ml of Talisker 10, 15ml of Drambuie, 10ml lime juice and 10ml gomme shaken with ice and topped with ginger ale according to my menu) and a Hebrides’ Old Fashioned, made pretty much as I’ve mentioned before but with the now ubiquitous Talisker 10 as the spirit, and a honey and ginger syrup instead of simple. Being an Old Fashioned obsessive I was prepared to dislike the cocktail on principle, but was pleasantly surprised. Again, I don’t think it entirely worked, with the peatiness still coming over as quite overpowering, but the dilution, gingery honeyness and another slice of orange peel took some of the edge off and made it my favourite cocktail of the evening – a bit like a cold hot toddy.
All in all a great night – well put together by the Diageo PR posse, drinks presented well by Vamsi and his team at Salt Bar, and well compered by Colin and Clark. I suspect that some of the effort was slightly wasted on me, as I arrived liking Talisker, left liking Talisker and had a glass of Talisker when I got home while gazing out of the window at the glowing red Diageo sign that shines across the park by my flat from their West London offices, but I did very much enjoy it and it’s great seeing more companies from different industries trying to tap into the blogging market.