Wondering one day, as I do, about the state of the Scotch whisky industry in the UK, my thoughts turned to Mr Cholmondley-Warner and his faithful companion Mr Grayson. Not because Harry Enfield’s creations represent what most people think of as typical Scotch drinkers, but because of the sketch in which they advised women to ‘know your place!’
People have been saying just that about whisky for years. Scotch has a tightly defined role: enjoyed by a certain type of person, who drinks it at a certain time of day, out of a certain type of glass. Any deviation from this norm is to be frowned upon.
Remember when we used to treat wine the same? White with fish, red with meat, and don’t dare challenge that orthodoxy. Well we did, and now look at the whole issue of food and wine matching in a far more open-minded way. Now it is whisky’s turn. So if there is a theme to this year’s Whisky Special, it is challenging preconceptions.
Preconception No 1: Whisky doesn’t go with food. Sorry, but it does. No one is suggesting that the great British public will immediately start drinking naught but Scotch with their meals, but the fact remains that in some cases, and with some foods, whisky is a better match than wine: sushi for example, in fact seafood in general – ever tried a drop of peaty whisky in a fresh oyster? It is also a far more amenable partner with cheese than wine is.
Indeed there is a real need for the whisky industry to convince the still sceptical restaurant trade about these facts and persuade them to allow whisky to come into the meal as an option with some starters and as a fantastic match with the cheese board. It isn’t just a drink to be consumed when the digestif trolley creaks around.
Preconception No 2: Whisky is Special. We need to challenge the belief that Scotch is sacrosanct. ‘Thou shalt not add water.’ ‘Thou shalt not treat it with anything other than the greatest and most serious respect.’ Sorry folks, but whisky is a drink. It has been made to be enjoyed. Yes, some of the best examples are the most complex spirits in the world, but treating the whole category in an elitist fashion does no-one any favours. That’s the great irony with Scotch in Britain: it’s either untouchable… or it’s untouched. Why can’t it simply be what the distillers and blenders want to it to be – a drink filled with great flavours, made for people to enjoy?
Preconception No 3: Malts are better than blends. They’re not. There are many blends that have greater levels of complexity than many single malts, but even to start down that route is missing the point. Malts and blends have different roles to play as drinks. We have been so obsessed with this idea that the beginner starts with blends (and the assumption that they are low quality), and ‘works up’ to malts, before moving up the age range as well, because we all know older is better, don’t we? Actually it isn’t (which is preconception No 4 by the way). Age is not a determinant of quality.
The simple fact is that blends are simply different to malts, not better, not worse, just different. When’s the best time to drink a blend? Before a meal or as a session drink in a bar. What’s the best way to drink it? Mixed. We need to catch on to what the rest of the world has long realised: blends such as Cutty Sark, Johnnie Walker Red Label and Bailie Nicol Jarvie are at their best on the rocks, with ginger ale, soda or cola. That is the occasion they have been made to fit. They’re not meant to be sipped in a snifter after dinner. Leave that to single malts like Balvenie, Highland Park or Talisker.
This doesn’t mean that malts are therefore inherently better than the blends, rather they perform a different role.
If we can manage to shift all of these preconceptions then whisky is out of its ghetto: it can be enjoyed with sushi or cheese, it should be mixed if it’s a blend, it can be enjoyed after a meal as a meditative moment. It’s not one thing, but many.
Now, read on... there are ideas aplenty.