When it comes to whisky, I’m a total novice. I drink it most frequently on nights out, after I’ve decided my stomach’s nearing capacity and another pint of lager will probably make me puke. The places I tend to end up in don’t sell the ‘good stuff’ – and I doubt I’d be in any fit state to appreciate it anyway – so typically it’ll be Bells or Jack Daniels. Ice may be involved, depending on my drunken whim.
This is the sort of whisky I’m used to.
Occasionally I’ll indulge in a nice short if I’m in a fine restaurant and I’ve just had a very satisfying meal; it can be the perfect way to cap off a wonderful evening. But it’s rare I’ll actually choose what I order. I’ll generally just describe the taste I’m after and allow the barman/sommelier/clueless waiter to work their magic.
This approach has led to me being served some brilliant whiskies down the years, and not being able to remember the name of a single one.
I looked on this month’s Manchester Whisky Festival, part of the Manchester Food and Drink Festival and organised by The Whisky Lounge, as an opportunity for exploration. A learning experience, if you will. For £20, the price of a cheap bottle, I hoped it would give me the chance to try a wide range of whiskies and allow me to decide – and recall – what I actually like.
Underpinning it all was the desire to find a high-class bottle to stand on my living room shelf; one capable of residing alongside the Hennessy XO cognac that’s on there and not looking an inch out of place. A bottle to be reserved for special treats and pick-me-ups; to remind me once in a while of all that is right with the world.
That bottle might well have been the first that I tried.
I wasn’t in the best of moods when I turned up to the The Lowry Hotel for the 11am festival session. If it wasn’t bad enough that I’d made the schoolboy error of picking the sesh that meant I was going to miss the 12 o’clock match between Manchester United and Liverpool, like a right nobhead I’d also left the tickets at home.
The hour my wife and I had set aside beforehand to have a relaxing cup of tea with my mother in the Marks & Spencer cafe was instead spent on a hectic and expensive taxi round-trip to pick the tickets up. And the worst thing was, it was completely my fault.
I was livid as I queued up to enter the conference room; furious as I quickly glanced around at the busy stands and picked an empty one to start off with. Even as the good people from Glenglassaugh told me their history and took me through their whisky manufacturing process sip by sip, I was still seething at my own stupidity.
But when I was given the opportunity to try the Glenglassaugh Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky 26-Year-Old that had pride of place in the centre of the table, all the feelings of annoyance drifted away.
The picture I’ve included here does scant justice to how attractive the bottle was, with the simply curved lines of the mostly-plain bell-shaped vessel allowing the gorgeous honey-coloured whisky to shine through. It was hypnotically beautiful – I couldn’t stop staring at it – and clearly very expensive. I figured it was just a showpiece. Not for one moment did I ever expect that they’d open it up and allow me try it.
I’m not a one for tasting notes*, but let’s just say that it easily lived up to its £149.99 price tag, both on the nose and the palate. As I savoured it, and the anger subsided, I thought to myself: “You’re a lucky bugger getting to drink this. I think it’s going to be a good day after all.”
“I reckon you’re right,” I thought back. “Just one problem though – I think we’ve made the error of drinking the best whisky in the room first.”
Based on what we sampled in the following three hours**, I think my initial assessment was correct. Nothing came close to matching the majesty of the Glenglassaugh. The second best whisky I had was probably King Car, the latest release from the distillery of the same name based in Taiwan.
The company was apparently making its debut at a European whisky festival and they proudly told me how their Kavalan whiskies have been wiping the floor with scotch at a bunch of major awards shows in recent years. It was pretty clear to see why. There was a uniqueness to their flavours, and a freshness and vibrancy that really set them apart.
I wouldn’t be surprised at all if when they finally launch in Europe next year, they end up being a huge hit. I certainly know I’ll be buying a bottle (as long as it’s not too expensive).
The only other whisky that really stood out to me was the Ardberg Uigeadail, a highly revered drop from Islay. It stood out mostly because I didn’t really like it. I could appreciate that it was a very fine drink, perhaps the second best in terms of quality that I had all day. It just wasn’t to my taste, which I found really surprising. Given its reputation, I’d thought Ardberg might be the brand for me.
But in fact, I didn’t really like any of the Islay whiskies, or anything from anywhere else that was advertised as ‘peaty’. They just tasted of decay; like whisky that had been infused with the rotting lung of a chain-smoking cancer victim. I’m not quite sure what there is to enjoy about that.
On the whole, the day was extremely interesting. I felt like I learned a lot and moved a good few steps closer to working out what sort of whisky is right for me.*** The event was very well-organised and welcoming and the perfect place for a novice to begin a journey into this world.
I didn’t buy a bottle in the end. The Glenglassaugh’s a bit too expensive for me and I’ll need to do some research to come up with a suitable alternative. But the Manchester Whisky Festival certainly got me thinking. And that’s all I ever wanted it to do.
*If you’re interested, the Glenglassaugh website calls it “a complex whisky with rich sherry notes, combined with a medley of boiled fruits”. Seems fair enough.
**Four hours might seem like a long time, but it’s definitely needed. An event like this is nothing like the Big Indie Wine Fest, where you can go hell for leather at the booze from start to finish. You need to take your time with this one, or else you’ll probably die. Our strategy was to try out a couple of stands, sit down for 15 minutes or so until we stopped feeling wobbly, then move on to another two. Once we’d done eight or so it was time to leave.
***Highland and Speyside seemed to be up my street, and the milder whiskies, with notes of fruit and sherry. The harsher ones that tasted of emphysema and death didn’t do much for me, but it’s possible as I get older and my tastebuds change, I might grow to like them.
The highlight of this year’s culinary calendar in Manchester, MFDF 2011, gets underway tomorrow. The Manchester Food and Drink Festival has been running since 1998 and for me it’s by far and away the best foodie experience the city has to offer.
Manchester has often been sneered at for its lack of really high-end, Michelin-star standard restaurants and quite rightly so. For a city of this size to offer such little in the way of gastronomic brilliance is a bit of a joke. Edinburgh and Birmingham can do it, so why can’t we?*
But for 11 days every year, the place I call home offers up the MFDF, or as it should be titled, “The Engraved Apology”. A fantastic celebration of food and drink that goes a long way towards making up for the shortage of gourmet treats during the rest of the year.
I’m not going to do a preview, as there are way too many things to cover and half the fun lies in just turning up to the Festival Hub outside Manchester Town Hall and seeing what’s going on. Over the years this unguided approach has rewarded me with dozens of freebies, countless enjoyable cookery demonstrations, an item off my Foods To Try Before I Die list and my first ever three-Michelin-star food.** You really can’t go wrong.
(Besides, the official website will tell you everything you need to know.)
But what I will do is outline my plans for the next few weeks and say how excited I am to get stuck in.
The plan for tomorrow is to head down to Albert Square on my lunchbreak and see what’s on offer. They’re making a big thing about street food this year, so I’m hoping there’ll be lots of things to choose from for a dinnertime gorge. After I’ve finished work, I’m going to go back again with some friends and give the beer tent a thorough examination.
(Like many people, I imagine, I’m going to be trying to walk that delicate line between nicely drunk and too drunk to enjoy the rugby at 6am on Saturday morning.)
After England are done giving France a darn good thrashing in the World Cup quarter-final***, I’m off to the Big Indie Wine Fest at The People’s History Museum. I missed this event last year, so I’m doubly keen to go this time, even if it ends up more hair of the dog than sophisticated wine-tasting (from the sounds of it, it was a bit like that last year anyway…)
I’ve got a table booked at MFDF champion The Mark Addy immediately afterwards and am eager to see if they can deliver me a meal as good as they did last month. The restaurant actually first came to my attention at MFDF a while ago when I saw a great presentation by chef Robert Owen Brown. Not sure if he’s on again this year(?), but if they’ve not invited him back, someone needs shooting with one of those gun cartridges he serves herbs in.
Sunday I’ll probably rest, but I intend to be back again throughout the week to see what else I can treat myself with. I’ll definitely be there on Saturday, when I’ve got tickets to the Manchester Whisky Festival at The Lowry Hotel. I enjoy whisky, but I’m a complete and utter novice, so I’m hoping this will point me in the right direction and send me down the path of the connoisseur.
Can’t wait until tomorrow. Let the consumption commence!
*The new Michelin UK guide came out today, and surprise surprise, Manchester didn’t feature again. You can see the full list, including the three restaurants in Birmingham and five restaurants in Edinburgh to carry a Michelin star, here.
**A note of caution here – I’m pretty sure that it was MFDF that one year had a Heston Blumenthal stand, but I’m not 100% certain. Why he’d be up here for another event I don’t know, but even if that was the case, it’s still a story I like to tell.
It wasn’t long after The Fat Duck had been named the world’s best restaurant, but as Heston was barely on TV at that time, few people knew who he was and as such nobody seemed to care that two of his development chefs were sat in a faux ice cream truck outside G-Mex selling three-star-Michelin food. There was literally nobody there when I went up to sample a red wine slushed ice and millionaire shortbread and I remember thinking how crazy it was that here was food from a world-renowned genius chef and nobody in Manchester gave a shit. Maybe that’s why we have such mediocre restaurants.
Anyway, my first taste of the three-star stuff didn’t exactly blow me away. The millionaire shortbread was perfect, but it was about the size of my thumbnail, so was hardly something you could savour for long. The ice was interesting at first, but was very one note and quickly became boring and sickly. I think I threw some of it away.
***I’m trying to be optimistic. France are terrible. We’ll be alright, won’t we?
You can read further posts on MFDF11 below:
I don’t wear aftershave. It’s just another name for perfume, isn’t it? If I splash some on myself, I might as well start wearing eyeliner and waxing my chest. It’s just not something real men do.
I feel the same way about cocktails. Besides a relatively brief dabble in Black and White Russians as an impressionable student in love with The Big Lebowski, the only cocktail I’d ever really had until five weeks ago was a Friar Tuck at the Sherwood Forest Center Parcs. I was six years old.
Cocktails are, without question, for women. Men drink beer instead. During the one year I spent doing physics at high school, I’m pretty sure I was told it was one of the primary laws of the universe. To mess with it could be disastrous. Imagine if men started to spend as much on a single drink as women do. The banks would collapse all over again.
And so, as a real man who didn’t wish to contribute to yet another global economic bust, I stayed away. When I drew up my list of Foods To Try Before I Die last year, I stayed away.
Then I started watching Mad Men and it all went horribly wrong.
There’s no doubting the masculinity of Don Draper. He’s what Gary Cooper would be if he drank too much and had an overactive libido. Women want him, men want to be him. He’s seriously cool and screams testosterone.
And he drinks Old Fashioneds.
Remember before when I mentioned being impressionable? Well, that didn’t stop when I left university. If Don Draper was going to drink Old Fashioneds, then I was going to at least give them a try.
It went on The List.*
The Kensington Hotel in South Kensington is a very fine place to stay should you ever be down in London. It has a very serious-looking, award-winning cocktail bar called the Aubrey (pictured above) and my wife and I found it a fantastic place to relax during the four days we spent there.
It also seemed to me to be the ideal location to try an Old Fashioned.
Now here’s a lesson for anyone in a good cocktail bar who is after a drink that isn’t on the menu – ask for it anyway. These guys have spent years training to be mixologists and they’ve trained on the classics. Unless you’re after something really obscure, they’ll be able to make it.
There’s also a chance they’ll care a good deal more about the drink they make for you. They do the stuff on the menu all the time – they’re bored of it, they can do it in their sleep. Something off-menu is a challenge for them. It gives them an opportunity to be creative; to test their skills.**
This was precisely the case when I asked for an Old Fashioned. The barman couldn’t have been any more indifferent when I ordered my wife’s Icognito***, but when I ordered my drink he was clearly excited. Which whisky should he use? Which bitters? Should he throw a cherry in? What about lemon peel?
I told him to make the drink as if he were making it for himself. He went with bourbon, I was fine with that. It’s what Don would have wanted.
He waited at our table after bringing it over. He wanted to see me take that first sip, eager to make sure he’d done a good job. I smiled at him. “Very nice,” I said. He smiled back with relief and returned to the bar feeling pleased with himself.
The problem was that the drink didn’t go any further than ‘very nice’. If it’d cost £6, I would’ve been happy. But it was more like £16, so it didn’t quite hit the mark. It wasn’t the barman’s fault – I have no reason to doubt his skill and I’m sure this was an excellent Old Fashioned. The cocktail itself just isn’t particularly impressive.
It tasted like bourbon that had been padded out. Padded out cleverly, yes – it didn’t taste watered down, the whisky taste was still strong. But there was nothing more to it. There was no real depth. The bourbon flavour was there, but gone were the different layers and subtleties that I’m sure would’ve existed before the other ingredients were thrown in.
Surely a whisky-based cocktail shouldn’t leave you wishing you’d just ordered the whisky instead. I needed to be certain. I mentally added another cocktail of this ilk to The List, the Manhattan, and made it my next order.
Now to be honest, I always thought the Manhattan sounded like a superior drink. Ingredients-wise, it looked similar to the Old Fashioned, but just a bit classier; a bit more elaborate.**** Unfortunately, it was far too girly for me. The glass it’s served in is excessively effeminate. Don’t get me started on the mandatory cherry.
And then there’s its name. Gone are the days when Manhattan was synonymous with King Kong and the testing of nuclear weapons. Now it just reminds you of Sex in the City. There’s nothing more girly than that.
But I figured I’d already put one foot over the line, so why not go the whole hog? I was doing a test anyway. Science is manly isn’t it? Of course it is, it involves logic.
(I’m sorry. If it helps, I winced as I wrote it.)
So I ordered my Manhattan and it delivered everything the Old Fashioned didn’t. It had extra gears. Once my tastebuds were done with the whisky flavour, which was still nicely prominent, they had other places to travel to. A whole new dimension to explore that had been added by the vermouth.
It was a joy to drink.
The next day, the global markets fell. The US had lost its AAA credit rating and my cocktail drinking was clearly somewhat responsible. But I didn’t really care.
I had another Manhattan at the Aubrey that night. A few days later, I had a complimentary whisky-based cocktail at The Dorchester, which knocked it into a cocked hat.
The whole week made me realise it was time to set aside my prejudices. As far as this type of drink is concerned, it’s all fair game.
And I’m pretty sure I’m still a real man.
Verdict: I’ll give a solid recommendation for the Manhattan, but the Old Fashioned’s not worth going out of your way for.
NEXT UP: Goose foie gras
*After checking the ingredients, obviously, to ensure it was suitably manly. Whisky? No question – fine. Bitters? Sounds like two pints of beer – fine. Sugar? The foundation of fermentation – fine. All good.
**They also might mistake you for a connoisseur. It’s amazing how much better people will treat you if they think you share their passion and know what you’re talking about.
***The Aubrey’s version of a Mojito.
****Whisky, sweet red vermouth, bitters.