One of Birmingham’s top hotels has signed a deal to bring exclusive single-cask Scotch whisky to the city. Tom Scotney drops in for a dram.
Now there’s a very particular way to drink Scotch. The Scottish are fastidious about this sort of thing.
For example, take the sentence above. I was once cornered by a Scottish chap at a bar, who informed me, in a disarmingly belligerent manner, that “Scotch” was to be used only ever for the whisky, and Scottish at all other times.
I couldn’t quite agree – he’d forgotten the other things Scotch, like the egg, the tape and the corner – but I decided to accept the lesson in the spirit in which it was intended and the point stands: the Scottish are keen to get things right – never more so than with whisky.
Which is why I was standing here, in a crowded hall at Hotel du Vin, with several dozen local members of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
The society was celebrating the 25th anniversary of its foundation by a group of friends sharing a single cask of malt whisky. It now bottles more than 200 casks a year from a range of 125 distilleries.
All the whiskies are single cask – the next step up from a single malt whisky. Single malts – which come from just one distillery – are considered better quality than blended whisky from a number of different sources, but are made from mixing a number of different barrels so all the bottles taste the same. But by taking whisky from just one cask, you get a unique drink that, once it’s gone, will never exist again.
The society has signed a deal with Hotel du Vin (HdV) to use its former cigar room – a sad victim of legislation – in the downstairs pub at the city hotel. The shelves that used to hold the Cohibas are now packed to the gunnels with bottles, all labelled only with the five-digit code that identifies the distillery and cask number the bottle came from. It’s meant to keep the drink a secret until you taste it, although some of the society’s experts have managed to break the code.
One of these is Mark van der Vijver, a Scottish-Dutch expert lured to Leith, and the Malt Whisky Society, by the promise of the golden stuff.
Having considered myself an enthusiastic amateur in the world of drinking, the level of knowledge displayed by Mark and his colleagues is a bit unsettling. It’s all “hints of petrol,” “after notes of TCP” and suchlike. And the weird thing is, once you’ve been told about them, the tastes are all right there.
I ask Mark how he feels about people mixing a splash of ginger ale or – god forbid – coke into a dram. He’s stoic on the surface, but I’m not sure that there isn’t a wee flash of panic in the corner of his eye.
So that’s a no-no. And I’m not sure I would have dared anyway, under the disapproving gaze of a room full of the society’s best.
And so back to the tasting. This is very important to get right. The correct approach, we’re told, is to look, smell, feel, taste.
First, to pick up the glass, look at it in the light, tip it and look for the “legs,” the little lines of liquid that run down the side of the glass. The slower they run, the better the whisky.
Next, give it a bit of a sniff – not too much or you’ll end up coughing. There are different levels of smell to it, with different notes at the top, middle and bottom of the glass. The nose, the society says, is capable of identifying scents diluted to just one part in a million, so there’s plenty to take in.
Scientists have identified some 400 different aromas in malt whisky. For mere mortals, it’s enough to be able to distinguish the eight aromatic groups: esters, phenols, aldehydes, sweet-associated, cereals, oils, woods and wines.
If the next bit sounds like I’m making it up, bear with me. You dip your finger in (hopefully you washed your hands before tea) and rub some between your hands to see how it feels. Dabbing it behind your ears is optional.
Finally, it’s time to taste. The single-caskers are fearsomely strong – 60-70 per cent alcohol – so take a small sip. It’s okay to mix in a bit of water later on, but the first taste has to be neat.
Mark says it’s acceptable to spit out the drink after you’ve had a proper taste of it. Strangely, no one around the room seemed to be doing this.
Since being founded in 1980, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society has grown around the world and now has more than 26,000 members. It picks out top casks from across Scotland, as well as America, Ireland and Japan among other countries.
The society’s tasting panel of whisky experts, writers and scientists picks out the best casks to recommend to its members. The opening of a branch in HdV Birmingham – which focuses solely on Scotch at the moment – was the brainchild of manager Mark Davies, who describes himself as a newcomer to Scotch, but has promised to drink more with the opening of the “snuggle.”
* For more on the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, including how to join, go to www.smws.co.uk