I once saw the comedian Rich Hall addressing an audience. He asked if there were any Scottish people in. Answering roars told him that some people came from
"Ah, Edinburgh," he said. "I once had a spiritual revelation in Edinburgh. It was called, 'Single Malt Whisky.'"
I feel much the same, though my spirituous revelation didn't happen anywhere in Scotland -- and it happened well before I met my Scottish partner. I was already a faithful drinker of single malts by the time I met the Scot.
It was another man who, one evening, asked me what I was drinking. "Whisky." I said, and his interest was piqued. Which whisky did I favour? -- and he reeled off a few of the single malts.
"Oh, just get me a whisky," I said, in my ignorance. "Doesn't matter which one -- I don't believe in all that marketing hype about single malts."
He was offended. It was not mere marketing hype, he said. A single malt was vastly superior to the cheap, blended stuff. It was made in the place it was named after, from local water and grain. It was lovingly aged -- and ya-da-yah, as I thought then, he spouted all the marketing rubbish about sherry and oak casks.
"It's just branding," I said. "It's just an excuse to charge more."
Allow him, he said, to do me a kindness and prove me wrong. Allow him, if I would, to buy me a couple of different single malts. Taste them, and then tell him that there was no difference between them and the likes of Jack Daniels, Bell and Johnnie Walker.
Well, okay, I said, if you're paying.
I always liked whisky best, of all spirits, ever since I used to sip from older relatives' glasses as a child. But whenever I drank it, the harshness of the alcohol made me shudder to my toes. That was the price, I thought, of liking whisky. You had to put up with the shudder.
I can't remember which whisky the gentleman bought me. Since he knew he was dealing with a
beginner, it was probably a couple of the softer ones. Maybe a Glenfiddich or a Glenlivit for one -- they are light, pale yellow and have a lemony, citrusy taste. And perhaps a richer,
fruit-cakey one, aged in sherry-casks, such as an Aberlour.
And it was a spiritual revelation. I drank and I didn't shudder. I realised what 'smooth' means, when applied to spirit. The single malts were so well made and aged that they slipped down with nothing more than a warm glow -- and a wealth of flavours.
Once you're converted, there are so many to try! Jura, Auchentosh, Glenmorangie, Talisker, Dalwhinnie, Craganmore...
All of them a little different. When I did meet the Scot, he told me that his father had been a whisky cooper, and in the course of cooping barrels for many different distilleries, had sampled many, many different whiskys. It was his experienced and considered opinion that the best of them all was a 10-year old Macallan. It didn't, to his taste, improve for being 12, 15 or 30 years old. The ten year old Mac: that was the one.
And it is excellent -- as is Bushmills Irish single malt, though the Scots of my acquaintance frown on Irish whiskys (and, for that matter, American and Japanese 'whiskys.' If it's not from Scotland, it's not whisky, is their thinking.)
Personally, though, after years of trying different single malts, I'm coming to the conclusion that the best of the lot is, as many agree, Islay's Laphroig. (It's pronounced 'La-FROYg.)
Scots friends have put forward Lagvulan as their favourite. It's very good -- I've yet to meet a single
malt I didn't like -- but good as it is, it's not Laphroig.
I didn't think so when I first tasted Laphroig, years ago. I thought it smelled and tasted like burning rubber or kippers. I much preferred the lighter malts, like Glenfiddich or Oban. Or Highland Park from the Orkneys.
But, gradually, I learned to like it. Peat smoke and honey is one of those poetic tasting descriptions for Laphroig, and the last time I drank some, I could appreciate what that meant. I could taste the sweeter honey notes coming through the harshness of smoke and iodine. I had another spiritual revelation: I realised I loved Laphroig.
Still, it doesn't matter: mild Glenfiddich or smoky Laphroig, or spicy Aberlour, or any of the others, there is no spirit that has so much warmth and so many layers and variations in flavour as single malt whisky. I love the stuff.
I tried to repay the gent who convinced me of the worth of single malt a few months ago. I was passing the shelf of whisky in a well known supermarket, and saw a lady looking confused in front of them. So I went over to check out my next purchase (single malts are my only extravagance) and asked her which one she fancied herself.
She told me she knew nothing about whisky, but had been charged by her friends with the task of buying a bottle for their retiring manager -- who it seemed they all liked. He was a whisky drinker, she said, so they thought a bottle of -- and she waved vaguely towards the blends. But now she was here, there were so many different kinds and she was confused.
Buy him a single malt, I said. If he's a whisky drinker, he'll be grateful. I think I steered her to an Oban in the end -- a little bit smoky, but with a spicy, citrus sweetness too.
This blog comes to you with the faint, but very real hope, that a whisky distillery will be overcome with Christmas good cheer and grant me a lifetime's supply of single malt.
Or even a single bottle. Go on.
Go on, go on.