David Blackburn

The quest for the perfect malt

It was a poker night. Glenmorangie won

The quest for the perfect malt
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It was poker night. Five yuppies crammed round a table in a room at the back of a south London semi. Tumblers and water were on the table.

Conventions had developed. The host cooked the food (or so he said) and the four guests each brought a bottle of whisky. The guests rotated between four ‘stations’. One had to supply a standard blended scotch. Another had to provide a whisky from outside the United Kingdom. Another had to find an affordable malt (no more than £40). The last had to produce an ‘interesting’ malt. Ordinarily, this would be from a boutique producer; but if the nominee had had a good quarterly review then a special bottle would be brought. The blend was opened first and drunk last. The non-UK whisky was tried first, then the affordable malt, then the interesting bottle. No more than a third of each bottle could be drunk throughout the night — a golden rule.

The cards were dealt and the first three bottles hit the table: Famous Grouse, Four Roses (Bourbon) and a 15-year-old Glenfiddich. It was a fine selection. Famous Grouse with a splash of water or soda is pleasant enough. Four Roses is very moreish — sweet and spicy on the palate. Aged Glenfiddich has none of the soapy tartness of its younger versions; it has a subtle, smoky flavour and a mellow finish. All very nice in their own way.

Several hands of poker were played before the main event: the unveiling of the interesting bottle. The fourth guest was evidently doing well for himself; he produced two bottles of Glenmorangie 1975. The cards stopped.

Closer inspection showed that the bottles were different. The first was mahogany in colour. Measures were poured into fresh glasses. A pungent smell of stewed fruit and cocoa filled the room. The texture of the liquid was smooth on the tongue. The flavours glided from sweet to sharp and then back to sweet. A dash of water brought out a fruitier taste. It was quite unlike any other whisky any of them had tasted.

The second bottle was golden. ‘We should have drunk this one first,’ said the fourth guest. The host went in search of a palate cleanser. The whisky was softer on the nose than its darker brother: an aroma reminiscent of a sweet shop — a confection of toffee and butterscotch. The taste was spicier than expected: a rich dose of the exotic to bolster the homely sweetness.

The host went to the drinks cabinet in search of normal Glenmorangie, by way of comparison. There was no comparison. The standard issue was certainly good. But the foretaste lacked the richness and variety of the older bottles and the aftertaste was shorter.

Second measures were poured, then a third. More than a third of both bottles had gone before the cards resumed.