In a small cupboard at the end of my office sits a bottle of 1995 Lagavulin, distilled in a Pedro Ximénez sherry cask. Just looking at it from my desk gives me immense pleasure. I can open it and smell the cork if I need inspiration. And sometimes, after The Spectator is put to bed, I may take a sip or two. Maybe not even enough to reach the throat, just to moisten the tongue and refresh the palate. It is the most remarkable whisky I have ever owned.
I’m sure that Taki, our High Life correspondent, knows his whisky. I like to think, then, that he appreciated the bottle he somehow liberated from my office to pour into a plastic glass at The Spectator’s recent tea party. We had some of the most delicious tea in London, kindly sponsored by our friends at the Intercontinental Hotel around the corner, but our High Life columnist was in the mood for something a little stronger. He was standing next to the Low Life columnist, Jeremy Clarke, and I was chatting to them both outside, when I sniffed the Lagavulin, and knew what had gone down. Worse, Jeremy was running low and had found a Cognac bottle. I watched in horror as Low Life and High Life appeared cheerfully to mix the two.
There is no name for a Lagavulin and Hennessy cocktail: I’d suggest ‘the sacrilege’, as it defiles both drinks. But there are different approaches to booze, and I’ll admit I’m a wuss. It’s said that the true drinker of Taki’s vintage gets as much pleasure from a single man-sized swig as a faint heart like me derives from years of gazing, sniffing and sipping. Taki and Jeremy have a combined age of 128 and they know how to put it away. The last report I had about Taki that night placed him at the 5 Hertford Street nightclub at 3 a.m. I’d be lucky to keep his pace for an hour.
I seem to spend my life surprised that my reverence to single malts is not shared. I once bought a 30-year-old bottle of Talisker, the only whisky distilled on the Isle of Skye and one of only 3,000 bottles, as a gift for Donald Ross, a farmer friend of mine in the Highlands. One for his drinks cabinet, I thought. ‘Great, Fraser, let’s get in open,’ he said — and I watched with amazement as he opened it immediately and called over his neighbour. That night, we formed what he called a ‘troika’. Even more impressively, Donald was getting married the next morning.
I could (and do) get drunk on vodka, beer or wine. But it just feels wrong to neck whisky. It’s not an easy drink, and was never meant to be. It confronts you or comforts you. When it’s brought out of an evening, it usually marks the point at which the conversation really gets interesting. But to guzzle when the senses are too dulled to appreciate the character seems, to me, to be a waste. But my friends see no tension between quality and quantity.
My 1995 Lagavulin bottle was quickly recovered after Taki’s attack, and now sits in a secret drawer in my desk — not as full as it once was, but safe. I tell myself that I’m saving it from those who don’t know how to drink whisky. But I suspect I’m saving it from those who do.
Correction: This piece originally suggested that a farmer friend of mine, Donald Ross, was not keen on Glenmorangie. (His farm abuts its distillery.) After a recent visit to his farm, where I was proudly served Glenmorangie all night, it was clearly demonstrated that Donald loves Glenmorangie. Apologies to both.