Thursday, 11 July 2013

What's You're Favourite Whisky?

I drink far less whisky nowadays than I did as a teenager. Before you get visions of me as a Bullingdonian, ordering cigars and double Macallans all round after lobster thermidor at the Ritz, I used to take whisky backpacking, as the most weight (and cost) efficient way of getting stocious in remote bothies. A bottle of Stewarts Cream of the Barley was my tipple of choice, under £10 in the 1990s yet, unlike other cheap blends like White Horse, Bells, Dewars, or Famous Grouse, it didn't taste entirely of paint stripper. (Apparently the best selling whisky in Scotland is Grouse, so don't trust a Scotsman's opinion on whisky - if you want a blend, Black Bottle is hard to beat.)

Stewarts Cream of the Barley, ©

For value though, you can't beat Blair Mhor. It's an 8 year old pure malt (as opposed to the gold standard of single malt) and in those same days, retailed at £14. A bargain for the quality, and occasionally, if money wasn't too tight, I'd treat myself.

As I aged and found a bit more spare change in my pockets, I was able to afford single malt whisky. Two  stood out then, and have stood the test of time since: Glenlivet and Macallan. Macallan is a warming drink, like putting a jersey on your insides; Glenlivet is one of the lightest of malts, and always drinkable, whatever the situation, climate or mood. In the words of James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd:
"If a body could just find oot the exact proportion and quantity that ought to be drunk every day, and keep to that, I verily trow that he might live forever, and doctors and kirk-yards would go oot o'fashion".
Whisky only became popular during the Napoleonic Wars, due to the difficulty in obtaining brandy. Thanks to the quality of the water, the area around Glenlivet became a hive of distilleries. Perhaps surprisingly, most of it was as illicit as French brandy, as the tax on distilling was so high that most was whisky sold was moonshine. When the tax law improved in 1824, Glenlivet became one of the first *legal* distilleries, gaining a huge cachet as a result. The owner, George Smith, took to carrying a pair of pistols to protect his life and property from incensed bootleggers.

Glenlivet distillery:

Tastes change however. I used to dislike Talisker, for example, but since my palate has matured, I now rate it amongst the best. So what's my favourite today? Lagavulin 16 year old blew me away when I first tried it, and it still does when I occasionally try it today, a whisky with a massive amount of body, my dram of choice when I celebrated setting up my music studio in Glasgow (I had plenty time that year to to reflect over a dram as I had almost no punters). But there is one even better than that. It has been a long time since I've last tried it, but Ardbeg 17 year old was my all time favourite several years ago. Plenty other people liked it as well, and it sold out quickly. The distillery must have just come out of mothballs, as they then started selling younger versions of Ardbeg, such as a 10 year old, and un-aged versions with names like nam Beiste and Uigeadail. None, however, match up to the memory of that original 17 year old.

Ardbeg 17 year old, © The Whisky Exchange:

There is just one problem with malt whisky, the main reason I drink so little of it these days. It is so damn expensive. Who can justify spending £40+ on a bottle of booze?


blueskyscotland said...

Luckily I've never cultivated a taste for whisky and it's saved me loads of money over the years. £9 pounds for a full size bottle of 'Shock and Awe' own brand vodka out of a well known cheap discount store round the corner does the job for me. Paint striper probably tastes better but you cant have everything.

Chris said...

Interesting to see you quote Hogg. We were down for a weekend camping at Tibbie Shiels this weekend, and saw his statue and read about him.