Single malt whisky is a bit of an obsession for me, not in the way that books are, but not so very far behind either and it’s very much on my mind at the moment. I have one, perhaps two, maybe even three whisky tastings to organise over the next few weeks which might get interesting in terms of crowd control. I have also started, or at least I’m trying to start a collection of Malts, this development is partly a holiday hangover when for the first time I bought more than I could drink (or arguably afford) but also because after more than a decade of telling people what Whisky to buy for investment purposes I think I actually know what I’m talking about at last so am finally willing to chance my own money on the venture.
The reason I find it hard to collect is because once I’ve managed to get my hands on something rare and special the temptation to break into it is overwhelming. What after all is the point of getting your hands on a little bit of liquid history if you can’t taste it, share it with friends, and generally bore the socks off of those who don’t give a damn about it by analysing your drink to the last drop? Sure it may increase in value by hundreds of percent in a very quick time, but again what’s the point of having something in your hands that you can never hope to afford again and not know what it tastes like? This time though, and with heroic self restraint I’ve put everything in the bottom of the wardrobe and wedged the door shut so until I need a winter coat it should be safe. (Yes that’s right, the warming spirits are safely hidden away until the weather gets cold –is this plan flawed?)
The reasons Whisky, specifically Scotch whisky (I don’t doubt they make good spirit elsewhere - but they can keep it) fascinates me so much has changed over the years. When I started out working in Oddbins I wanted some area that was mine, happily the more complicated wine stuff was covered by people far more knowledgeable than I had the energy or liver to compete with but my vaguely Scottish roots made Whisky feel like a good fit. Initially I didn’t much like drinking it, but the romance of the marketers caught my imagination and the tipping point came on a tasting day organised by Bowmore. There was a moment’s trepidation as I sat on a train to Manchester at 7 in the morning when I really realised that by 9.30am I would be hitting the first drink of the day. It turned out to be less daunting than I feared (we spat a lot).
In the beginning I was very much in love with the idea of Whisky as an expression of place, each malt born of its own particular bit of the landscape and I liked the idea of something not only home grown but with a long and distinguished heritage. Some of that turned out to be off the mark. Malt Whisky as we know it has only been around for roughly my lifetime, before which it was all about the blends with odd exceptions (it’s blended, branded, Whisky they rescue from ‘The Cabinet Minister’ in Whisky Galore). It was Glenfiddich who invented our concept of a ‘single malt’ – meaning a whisky from a specific distillery. There are just over a hundred distilleries in operation at the moment and plenty of spirit sloshing around from mothballed, bulldozed, or burnt out ones but even so you might think it would be a simple enough matter to try most of them and know what made each one unique.
The difficulty and the magic is that each ‘single malt’ is actually a carefully married together selection of different casks each one of which is discernibly different. It’s someone’s job to put them altogether until you get the drink they feel best expresses that distillery and then to go on making something that tastes the same year after year. It’s the wood that causes the variation and it seems you can’t ever predict quite what it will do. There are a myriad of other decisions regarding peat, shape of the stills, length of fermentation and distillation, where you take the cuts in the spirit... all of which affect the kind of whisky you can make, but it’s the 10 to 20 years in wood that really seems to matter (or so I believe at the moment).
Gone are my ideas of the pure essence of a place captured effortlessly in a bottle, but I think in this case the reality is better. A good whisky is the result of craft and time, it’s endlessly complex, there are an infinite variety to choose from, and things are always changing. The Whisky I’m sipping tonight went into cask about the time I fell into the wine trade. When he was 18 I gave my brother a bottle distilled the year he was born (his parents drank it which impressed neither of us). The essence of the place is still in the bottle, but I realise now that it only gets in there after a great deal of effort and patience.