Sunday, 6 November 2016

Where to go when the whisky mojo is on the wane

It was a few weeks ago and there was a stillness in my breast, a lethargy that had me caught in its languid grip and I wasn't liking it; in short, I was getting bored. Boredom....not an acute experience, it creeps up on you, slowly infecting your enthusiasm, like a sniper firing "dull as fuck" darts into your "get up and go" gene, turning each day into the one before and laying the monochrome template for the coming tomorrows. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't depressed, not even unhappy, but I was slowly being sucked down into that void called "routine" and I needed to break free, to surface....and then there was the email.


We are looking forward to seeing you for our Whisky and Indian Tapas Tasting evening tomorrow. The evening will start at 6.30pm and we aim to finish by 8:30pm. We will be welcoming award winning Paul John Whisky from India to Bath to host our evening, in conjunction with Independent Spirits, and showcase some of their amazing malts. Indian tapas will be prepared on the evening to pair with these whiskies and show how versatile this single malt can be with food.

Having bought the tickets a few weeks before and having slid into my malaise, I had completely forgotten about it! Thank goodness that Demuth's sent the reminder, and thank goodness I'd checked my emails. A day later, a bus ride through the countryside, atop a double-decker bus for the first time in years (with all the childhood memories that go with it), wending a somewhat circuitous route through the South Gloucestershire/Somerset countryside en route to Demuth's in Bath. Anticipation had kicked in as soon as I'd received the reminder and it was now riding high (as was I). What would the tasting be like? What boozer might I venture into for a pre-tasting "palate cleanser"? Who would I meet? How would the evening be structured? Would it be "Here's an excellent dram to pair with a samosa", "How's the peat with the poppadum?" (I hoped that it wouldn't be a "pairing" type tasting). So many unanswered questions but a recognition that all those questions would be answered in the next couple of hours.

The second question was the first to be resolved. The Old Green Tree, a tiny boozer located on one of Bath's side streets about 100 yards from our destination. I write "our" as I was accompanied by my brother-in-law who had spent many years living in Bath and knew the "ale map" well. The pub had the look of the living room and took me back to my early drinking years when most of the pubs had a "snug" section. There were a good selection of ales on offer and a not unreasonable selection of whiskies to boot. We opted for a couple of pints and I added the whisky chaser option, a Connoisseurs Choice Ledaig. After the brief stand-off with the barman in relation to his assertion that they didn't have a Ledaig (Led-Chig) but did have a Ledaig (Le-day-g) we supped up and proceeded to Demuth's.

As we approached the venue we met Shilton Almeida standing outside, composing himself, looking both dapper and thoughtful before the performance. Up a short flight of stairs and into a light, airy room with views of Bath Abbey in the fading early evening light. A lovely setting populated by 20-24 whisky enthusiasts. The aromas from the tapas permeated the room but were in no way intrusive and I certainly didn't get the feeling that they were going to conflict with the experience of the whiskies, indeed, they created a warmth that felt as though it would complement the experience. Rachel Demuth and her able team were hovering attentively, putting final touches to the tapas. Rachel runs Demuth's Cookery school and it has an excellent reputation that stretches well beyond the postcard charms of its location in Bath (check it out here Demuth's).

A few reflections on "tastings"

So what are tastings all about? The easy answers to that would be the most obvious ones...."they are about the whisky", "they are about learning about whiskies" and both of these are true to a greater or lesser extent. However, my belief is that they are about more than that, they are as much about community; they are an opportunity to be around like minded people; they are about sharing an experience in a bespoke environment that is designed to enhance that experience; they are about connecting and sharing. Yes, they involve expanding one's knowledge and experience of whisky and yet learning will only happen if the setting conditions are in place. Those conditions were well catered for on this particular evening; a relatively small group of people (around 22-25), convivial surroundings, a selection of fine looking tapas on one of the tables, and the "orchestra" members i.e. Rachel Demuth (proprietor at Demuth's), Chris Scullion (owner of Independent Spirits Bath Independent Spirits ), and Shilton Almeida (Brand Ambassador for Paul John whisky) attentive and most importantly......good to go.

As a sport psychologist I often say to my trainees that one of the main challenges of working in a team context is the fact that the only thing that unites the people in front of you is their expertise at their sport. They have come to that room from different backgrounds, different cultures, have varying levels of experience and knowledge, varying levels of enthusiasm, in short, they are almost always a very diverse group. The challenge in that situation is how to engage them, how to make what you are presenting meaningful to each and every one of them regardless of what's brought them to this point. Those challenges are not dissimilar to the challenges of conducting a tasting. The use of the word "conducting" is particularly apt in this context. The conductor needs to be aware of the mood of the group, the levels of knowledge present, the attentional demands of the audience, and, having assessed this, he/she needs to "play" the audience to ensure that they feel included. It was clear from some of the comments that there were whisky drinkers with some experience in the audience, enquiries about phenol levels, maturation rates in India, and Paul John marketing strategies. It was also clear that there were others with oodles of enthusiasm but very little experience of whisky.

The tasting.

Since arriving on the UK whisky scene just a few years ago the Paul John range has gained a reputation as being a really good quality, good value brand. I'd had some of the range at various whisky shows and had a bottle of Brilliance on my shelves so I had no concerns over the quality of what we were to be presented with. Created in the shimmering gold, green and blue coastal Goa climes, another exciting whisky story is being written in India and it's a real privilege to be able to taste the journey (so to speak). What a setting for whisky production......maybe one day......

Shilton guided us through Edited, Peated, Classic, the Brilliance, and two single casks, fielding questions and adding both colour and context to each of the drams. It was a relief that the evening wasn't an attempt to "connect" the drams to particular tapas. Whilst I find food and whisky pairings fun and often interesting, I also find that there is a somewhat arbitrary feel to many of them in that, one is forced into a contrived position and asked to contemplate a particular foodstuff with a particular whisky (e.g. "This peated whisky finished in Oloroso casks goes so well with this salted caramel and pistachio Colombian Yak's milk chocolate")....Now don't shout at me! I know it sounds delicious, and I do like a bit of chocolate with a whisky now and then, but I don't want that experience to be diminished by feeling that I'm somehow "dumbing down". This evening wasn't like that. The delicious food was a sublime middle eight in the music of the evening.

The whiskies were, as expected, both high on quality and value. If asked to opt for a favourite, I confess to being drawn to single cask whiskies, it is what it is. For me, there's something about the fact that each cask holds a limited number of secrets, and that I can hold one of those secrets, taste it, spend time with it and savour it. It was no surprise then that I was particularly keen to try the single cask that Shilton had brought to the table  - Cask 1906 (a full on 59.6% abv beauty). One of the many stand out moments of the evening was experiencing the full blown glory of a whisky "opening up". Unbeknown to me, Shilton had poured me a drop of the two single casks 30-40 mins earlier and so I was able to taste the newly poured drams alongside the opened drams....and what a difference! Most of you will know that whiskies "open up", that is, the flavour profile changes after exposure to the air. These changes can be subtle, dramatic, more often than not positive and very occasionally, detrimental to the taste of the dram. 

It had been years since I'd carried out a side by side of a new pour and a fully opened dram so this was a timely reminder of the magical processes that continue to occur after liquid leaves the bottle. (I realise the whisky geeks will be shouting "It's not's chemistry" but hey.....I never liked chemistry at school and I'm not going to start now. Leave me to my romance and magic). The contrast was remarkable, what was initially pleasantly sharp lime, orange, chocolate and oak, was now a more unified whole, the flavours marrying together, softer, more gentle; what was a brash, arrogant and amusing adolescent had transformed into a subtle, refined individual dram; what was a lovely whisky was now something more, more elegant, richer, warmer, a whisky that had spent the last 30 minutes in finishing school!

The food.

Whilst this blog is primarily a whisky blog, it would be remiss not to dwell a little on the excellent accompaniments that contributed to the experience. You might feel that, due to the spicy nature of the food, Indian cuisine is not well suited to pairing with whisky due to problematic palate conflict (ppc); but that would be to underestimate the subtlety, variety, and refinement of Indian food. Allied to that, this wasn't an attempt to marry a particular whisky to a particular element of the cuisine but more of a demonstration of how a style of cuisine can contribute to the experience of whisky (and vice versa). After sampling three fine drams we took a break to enjoy the food. The buffet style fare consisted of the following:-

Aloo Chat: A Northern Indian street food snack made with fried potatoes.
Date and Tamarind Chutney

Squash Samosas

Khadi: A spicy yoghurt dip
Carrot and Courgette Pakoras

Masal Spice mix

What struck me about the food was the delicacy, subtlety, and richness of the different dishes. Indeed, sipping some of the drams between the tapas was a really pleasant experience - no ppc, no crossover interference, but a high level of complementarity. I'm no expert on vegetarian cooking but I know what I like and this was definitely a treat!

Some of the excellent selection of whiskies 

So, all in all, a great evening and a welcome boost to my whisky mojo. My thanks go out to Rachel Demuth and her team, and to the uber enthusiastic Chris Scullion (@indiespiritsbath), without whom this wouldn't have happened. If you get the chance, give Indie spirits a visit, support they're excellent tasting events and take advantage of a great selection of quality ale and top whisky and knowledgeable staff who are always willing to spend time with you.

Cheers Shilton!

Post script: The bus ride to Bath moved me to reflect on my childhood in Warrington and the ride to school on Winter mornings. Here's an extract.....

An early Monday morning bus journey to school (Warrington, circa 1970)

On that coughing grey, dull, damp, wheezy winter morning, top deck of the bus, ride to school; sat wedge tight next to lazy eyed, nodding unshaven shift workers not yet recovered from a weekend of pints and lost memories and fags and pints and rugby and chips, and pints; two years before Anais Anais, sat in font of Avon scented Susan and her Boots supervisor Chanel Carol; peering over the sodden heavy overcoat shoulders of smokers searching for their day lungs via muffled hacks and packets of baccy, Player's No 6, Woodbine and Park Drive; trying to see "Clarky", "Bradders" and "Elly", my schoolmates from earlier stops; breathing in the adult air, the miasma of cigarette smoke, stale sweat, failed Brut and Old Spice, mingled with last night's sleep in a working class fug that defined the Monday morning ride.