The Scotch and the Singleton: Adventures in Whisky Tasting

I won a whisky tasting.

Normally, I don’t have the sort of luck that wins things. I generally have the sort of luck that involves finding 2p or 5p coins on the ground, or that allows me to be one of the last people to be able to squeeze onto a packed tube or bus, or the luck that happens when a cashier forgets to charge me extra for the soy milk in my latte–the kind of luck that is pretty unexceptional. I’ve entered in a number of contests online and on Facebook, even retweeted a few things on Twitter, and the only thing I’ve gotten to show for it has been a bear hood from The Other Side Magazine, won before I started writing for them.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my bear hood.

But when I enter contests to win things, I don’t really expect to win.

So I was surprised and thrilled to get an e-mail that I had won one of the five spaces up for grabs for a whisky tasting at The Avalon in Clapham in a contest run by Great British Chefs. After the Chocolate Seminar, I saw the e-mail pop up on my phone, and I reacted probably in a similar way that people react if, say, they won the lottery or if they won an amazing award. Or maybe not–I think a few fist-pumps in the air were involved, and I seemed to beam my way to the bus stop in Russell Square, itching to call friends to tell them of my profoundly good fortune.

I settled for shouting about it on Twitter and Facebook instead, along with the words (at least in Facebook) ‘MY LIFE IS GLORIOUS!!!’

After having a look at the entries, I was quite surprised that only sixteen people entered the contest, considering how awesomely popular Great British Chefs’s Facebook page and site are (and their app). Are there that many people having a dry January after the holiday festivities? Either way, I’m pleased as punch that I won, because I quite love a good glass of good whisky, and as much as I’d like to develop my palette for other brands outside of my favoured single malt, Laphroaig, I don’t have the bank roll to allow me to splash on trying new whiskies.

Which is why winning this whisky tasting was so phenomenally glorious for me. It was like getting the thing for Christmas you’ve wanted the whole year. In fact, winning the whisky tasting was like a belated Christmas gift. It’s that great. It’s so great I went all the way to Clapham. I was even on time, which is a rarity.

Arriving in a timely manner for the whisky tasting, I was one of the first people who were led through a big dining room and through a sneaky door and up stairs into a private room in The Avalon. In this room, two tables were set at either end displaying bottles of different varieties of whisky.

I started on the end that was furthest from the door, as did most of us who had arrived promptly for the evening. The table we gathered around was laden with bottles and helmed by a man in a flat-cap who knew a lot about what was on his table, particularly the Japanese whisky residing on one corner of the table.

Japanese whisky was an intriguing item for many of us who were at the whisky tasting, as Japan isn’t a country one would commonly associate with the beverage. The Japanese style of distilling whisky is akin to scotch, hence the lack of an ‘e’ in Japanese whisky as opposed to American whiskey. Japan imports its grains used for distilling from Great Britain, which is why the whisky commands a higher price than the homegrown scotches from the north–not only is the product itself imported, but its ingredients were imported into Japan. This might not appeal to those of you considering your ‘alcohol miles.’ However, Japanese whisky has a respected pedigree, and there are around ten whisky distilleries around Japan, according to Wikipedia.

The Japanese whisky on offer to taste was made by Suntory–yes, the brand known ‘for refreshing times’ popularised by Bill Murray’s character in Lost in Translation. The first whisky I tried was the Yamazaki Single Malt 12 Year Old, that was quite honey-butterscotch on the nose and had a nice taste to it. It wasn’t peaty, and it did have a bit of that alcohol fire to it, but it wasn’t overly sharp or strong, and it was perfectly fine to drink on its own.

As this was a whisky tasting, there were no mixers available such as Coke or ginger ale, aside from the carafes of water that were used to clean our glasses, to drink and to add to our whisky should we wish.

I moved next to the Hakushu Single Malt, which was also aged for 12 years. It had a bouquet that lacked the toffee tones of the Yamazaki, but rather imparted a scent of light woods mingled with honey. The Hakushu was sweet with a light peatiness, with a taste that transformed on the tongue. It had a lovely warm flavour, the sort that evokes ideas of cosy curl-ups on sofas and thick woolen blankets and a happy sort of snugness. The Hakushu was very smooth as well, more so than the Yamazaki, and I enjoyed the contents of my glass with excited glee.

After I finished the rest of the Hakushu, I was given a sample of the Hibiki, which was the more premium of the three Japanese whiskies on offer. However, I didn’t particularly find it more enjoyable than the Hakushu, as the Hibiki, to me, barely had a trace of a scent on it, and I didn’t find it as complex as the Hakushu. Instead, it was light, slightly herbal, sweet but not really smooth, in my opinion.

The room was starting to fill up now with more people who arrived for the evening, and the Burns Night ‘Scottish canapés’ promised in the contest posting had begun to be carried around by the lovely staff of The Avalon. Being vegetarian, I had to abstain from the Scotch eggs and the haggis samosas that were being passed around, which put me and my liver at a bit of a disadvantage. Still, despite a stomach fed only on baked beans and toast over an hour earlier, I soldiered on and drifted towards the other table in search of more whisky to whet my whistle.

I approached the other table keenly. Laphroaig–the smokey, peaty single malt standard I normally pick–was absent from the table, and considering my (at times, disasterous) familiarity with it, it wouldn’t have done me any good had it been available.

I spoke with the guy behind this table, who asked me if I would like to try something different from my normal whisky. Of course I said yes, and he quickly popped open the bottle of The Singleton of Dufftown, a single malt from Speyside. The whisky guide explained that unlike the heavily peaty Laphroaig, The Singleton of Dufftown was more rich in taste and less smokey. He showed me where it was on the handy chart, which actually was a flavour map with different single malts placed like plots on a graph. Like so:

The Singleton, despite being quite different from my usual peaty whisky, was actually my favourite whisky of the evening. It had a remarkable crisp, fresh sweetness to it that reminded me of sugar cane stalks I used to chew on when I lived in Okinawa as a youngster, and it was deliciously light, yet still retained a bit of substance to it. It was warm, smooth and gave me tones of vanilla and apples.

The other whiskies I tried were nice as well, and although I enjoyed them–Talisker, Dalwhinnie and Glenkinchie–I far preferred The Singleton. It’s just so lovely.

All in all, I tried seven different types of whisky, and somehow managed to hold my own, thanks to the vegetarian canapés and the special tart The Avalon’s kitchen made for me completely unprompted (thanks, guys!). I had a wonderful time, and feel that my nerdish tendencies towards alcohol have been further nourished by this event. A huge thanks to Great British Chefs for letting me be one of the five lucky people who got to go to this event for free.

It was, indeed, glorious.

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2 thoughts on “The Scotch and the Singleton: Adventures in Whisky Tasting

  1. Bravo! Great write up, and those taste buds must run in the family. Your father visit you site also you know. We are very proud of your taking in all the world has to offer. Don’t stop.
    Pop

  2. Hey,

    I noticed you embedded the Scotch Malt Whisky flavour map on this page, I’ve actually created a SVG (Scalable Vector Graphic) replica of it which links to the relevant bottles on Master of Malt/Whisky Exchange etc. which you can see here: http://uiscebeatha.co.uk/whisky-flavour-map/

    You’re welcome to use it you thinks it’s of any use – As it’s XML you just embed the code straight into your HTML. The code’s here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1tuxHZVBuT-5rjPeJTDIIfZYtxChDoBhMel9SafTcUC8/edit?usp=sharing

    Let me know if you have any queries feedback etc.

    best regards

    John

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