Olly Smith sings fulsome praises to the grandfather of all gentlemanly drinks, Whisky
In John Landis’ 1983 comedy Trading Places, the villainous duo of Mortimer and Randolph Duke attempt to lure Eddie Murphy into their limousine by proffering a small bottle with the words “whisky – all you want!”. As a child, this always struck me as an intriguing gambit. Could any drink possibly be so good that one could be irresistibly drawn to it like a magnet tugging on the very metal of a robot’s brain? Some years later, I was taught never to resist the dram’s allure by my ferocious grandparents who lived in Scotland. Jay and Mary-Pat, both priests, were fastidious in their mysterious devotion to various eccentric codes: occasional formal attire for driving the car (hats included), toasting their long-dead dog every time a drink passed their lips to loud bellows of “THE DOG!” and sporting false noses whenever and wherever it was least expected. But perhaps the most splendidly consistent quirk of theirs was their daily dip into the deliciousness of whisky.
They lived in Falkirk, which is more or less parked between Glasgow and Edinburgh and, while Burns Night has already set sail on clouds of hairy haggis as you read this, I reckon my dear grandparents’ daily devotion to a drop serves as the natural riposte to the ludicrously limiting concept of celebrating liquid fire just once a year. While some of us muttered a few lines of Burns’ poetry on the 25th January, the great poet’s ‘Selkirk Grace’ was emblazoned on my grandparents’ kitchen table and they sank heroic quantities of scotch on a daily basis. I think this should form the core of our plan. The plan that you may not have even been aware we are working on, but which we are now very much committed to delivering. You and I can speak idly of Whisky Galore, share our admiration for James Bond’s penchant for expensive iterations of The Macallan, or even live by the irrefutable logic of Anchorman’s toast “Scotchy, scotch, scotch. Here it goes down. Down into my belly”. But we must, surely, agree that the wonder of whisky cascades from its diverse – and frankly perverse – font of ever changing flavour.
Mark Twain was bang on: “too much of anything is bad, but too much whisky is barely enough”. Thankfully, the lexicon of whisky is an ever-receding frontier. You simply cannot reach the end of its roaring rainbow. Whether the purity of a Speyside malt is your top tipple, or the smoky power of Islay ignites your inner firework, getting to know the impact of origin, tradition and age are as unexpectedly thrilling as hang-gliding into a valley of speaking marmosets. And these particular marmosets, it transpires, are masters of distillation. Across the world, marmosets – and even people – are translating the flavours of malted barley through fire, evaporation and slow maturation delivering their own iterations of this moreish marvel. Barrels are what gives whisky colour as well as guiding it towards its final flavour – if the barrel has previously contained, for instance, Port or Sherry, so the whisky will be funneled via those echoing influences. And whether it’s a single malt from one distillery, or a particular blend or brand to which you may have an affinity, there is truly a whisky – and a way of drinking whisky – to suit all moods and moments.
It goes without saying that a dreamy dram can serve to warm on a frosty morning, or comfort and even restore tranquility after dealing out a thrashing to an insolent invisible adversary – we’ve all done it. But should you find yourself in a social situation involving whisky and someone trots out the inevitable garbage about drinking whisky unadulterated, read this aloud: “Silence, insect. You are hereby relieved of your conversational command and from this day your thirst may only be quenched with the imaginary drivel secreted from your empty head.” Keep reading this statement until they have left the building, or preferably the neighbourhood, and be sure never to engage with them ever again. Quite aside from the sheer impertinence of telling you how to drink, the very idea of only drinking whisky as it comes is nothing more than a small song whose words have been forgotten by a long-dead ant buried at the very pinnacle of Mount Balderdash itself. And Balderdash, it turns out, is tiny. Every master distiller I have ever met has a unique take on how to drink, and I’ve yet to meet one who insists on one single way of drinking anything, let alone whisky. Of course it all depends on the whisky’s characteristics, the moment you are faced with and indeed your mood. I’ve heard a range of seemingly heretical ways to savour some of the very choicest drams, including from the creator of one highly prestigious single malt who gleefully insisted that the best way to enjoy his particular 12-year-old drop was direct from the freezer while simultaneously nibbling a square of dark chocolate. And that’s before we have even started discussing the varying potencies of whisky’s wonderful power.
When you consider that some whisky is cask strength, often with heroically high alcohol, where others have been diluted back towards 40%, it becomes easier to engage with the uniqueness of every instance you pop a bottle. I recently tasted Nikka Days, a bright, light and refreshing whisky from Japan that’s packaged in a modern shroud and delivers a spirit of enviable purity. It is superbly scrumptious. Now, I’ve sipped this whisky neat, I’ve tasted it with a splash of water and even over ice. But the other night when I tottered home from the pub locked in conversation with two of my greatest friends, this Nikka Days whisky was beyond scrumptious laced with soda, lemon slice and miniature icebergs glistening up through the glass. It was precisely the level of refreshment required at precisely the correct moment, which led us to the luminous first flashes of dawn deciding to join us for a drink. Who cares if someone else doesn’t want you to drink it that way? Take it how the devil you like and let the devil take the hindmost. And if all else fails, remember the gem that always hides in plain sight whether you’re in an airport, embassy or already under the table: you can almost always seize the reliably sweet smokey glory of Johnnie Walker Black Label and you should almost always apply the logic of Withnail: “A pair of quadruple whiskies and another pair of pints, please.” And if you remember to wear your false nose, my grandparents may even descend for a dram themselves. Just hide the bottle after toasting the dog – spirits and spirits rarely mix well.
Read more by Olly Smith on drink in Chap Summer 20, out now